Tag Archives: Gerald Murnane

End of year lists

The Emerging Artist and I are in Victoria for the New Year, but we’re squeezing in (or should that be squeezing out?) our end-of-year lists.

Best Movies:

We allowed ourselves to pick five each. The Emerging Artist went first, and then I chose five that weren’t on her list. The last one I picked was Juliet, Naked – and it got in on the grounds that there was no comedy on the combined list. There probably should have been more.

Theatre:

It’s hard to single out best theatre for this year. Belvoir Street had a good year, beginning with My Name is Jimi and ending with The Dance of Death, with treasures in between. And we spent six weeks in London, where we managed to go to some excellent theatre. We get to name one each from London and Sydney for the year. We both chose Matthew Lopez’ The Inheritance Part 2 at the Old Vic in London (we were exhausted on the evening we’d booked for Part 1, but Part 2 was stunning as a stand-alone event). It’s about Gay men in the age of AIDS. We booked because Vanessa Redgrave was in it, but though she was terrific she was by no means the main attraction.

Back home, the EA chose debbie tucker green’s one-hander, random, directed by Leticia Cáceres, with a bravura performance by Zahra Newman. I chose Calamity Jane, directed by Richard Carroll, which was great fun – Virginia Gay’s raucous, swaggering gaucheness made Doris Day’s Jane look like a maiden aunt.

Books:

Rather than a list of our Best Books, I’ve decided to follow a meme that originated at the vlog memento mori and came to me by way of Lisa at ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.

1) What’s the longest book I read this year and the book that took me the longest to finish?

Emerging Artist: Victoria: The Queen by Julia Baird (Random House 2016) was both. It was a Christmas present, whose size meant it was awkward to read in bed, so I was reluctant to take it on, and then the detail, though fascinating, needed breaks to digest. It turned out to be an excellent complement to the British TV series, which we watched soon after I finished reading the book, and a welcome gift after all.

Me: The longest book was probably Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction (Giramondo 2018).

The one that took longest was either Jennifer Maiden’s Selected Poems 1967–2018 (Quemar Press 2018) or Judith Beveridge’s Sun Music: New and Selected Poems (Giramondo 2018): they both include decades of work by fine poets, and I enjoyed them both immensely.

2) What book did I read in 2018 that was outside of my comfort zone?

EA: Deep Time Dreaming by Billy Griffiths (Black Inc 2018) is a fascinating book about palaeontology and archaeology in Australia in relation to actual Aboriginal people, but there’s a lot of technical scientific writing that is not my favourite recreational fare.

Me: Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction again. I had gleaned something of his characteristic style some time ago and completely failed to grasp how wonderful it is. I wouldn’t have opened the book if it hadn’t been picked for the Book Group. Reading it was a joy-filled revelation.

3) How many books did I re-read in 2018?

EA: None.

Me: Just one, Jane Austen’s Emma. I loved it all over again.

5) What book did I read for the first time in 2018 that I look forward to re-reading in the future?

EA: Change the question to, ‘What writer did I read in 2018 that I look forward to re-reading?’ My answer is Geoff Dyer. I first read him years ago, and rediscovered him this year when I found The Colour of Memory on our bookshelves. I’ve just bought Out of Sheer Rage, his book about himself and D H Lawrence.

Me: There are so many, but I’ll pick David Malouf’s An Open Book (UQP 2018). I will dip into so many of the books of poetry I read this year, but I think this is the one I’m most likely to reread in its entirety. That and Jennifer Maiden’s Appalachian Fall (Quemar 2017) 

6) What’s my favourite short story or novella that I read in 2018?

EA avoids short stories and didn’t read any novellas.

Me: Given that Gerald Murnane is in a class of his own, I’ll name Suneeta Peres da Costa, Saudade (Giramondo 2018), which is a coming of age story set in the context of the Angolan war of liberation. (I was astonished to hear Ms Peres da Costa say at a reading that she has never been to Angola, as the place comes alive in this short book.)

7) Mass appeal: which book would I recommend to a wide variety of readers?

EA: Free Food for Millionaires (Head of Zeus 2018) by Min Jin Lee, author of Pachinko: it’s hard to think who wouldn’t love it.

Me: I know many people these days think of poetry as an esoteric art to be avoided by everyone except poets and cryptographers. All the same, I recommend Eileen Chong’s Rainforest (Pitt Street Poetry 2018) to anyone interested in being alive and human.

8) Specialised appeal: which book did I like but would be hesitant to recommend to just anyone?

EA: I loved Elisabeth Åsbrink, 1947: When Now Begins, translated into English by Fiona Graham (2016, translation 2017). If you are interested in history, then the way this interweaves so many themes as they manifested in 1947 will fascinate you and illuminate our times.

Me: I’m rarely confident that books I’ve enjoyed will appeal to ‘just anyone’, so I’ve got lots to choose from, but bypassing all the titles I’ve mentioned so far, I nominate China Miéville, The Scar (Del Rey Books 2002), which, to quote my blog post about it, ‘includes, not necessarily in order of importance, vampir (sic) bureaucrats, cactus people, probability mining (I won’t try to explain), fabulously bloody sea battles, a sweetly tragic love story (not of the romantic variety), a vast crack in the universe, and a charming account of the process of learning to read.’

And that’s it for 2018. Have a great New Year, reader!

The Book Group and Gerald Murnane’s Collected Short Fiction

Gerald Murnane, Collected Short Fiction (Giramondo 2018)

murnane.jpg

Before the meeting:
Gerald Murnane has been described as ‘Australia’s most distinguished unread writer’. His most recent novel, Border Districts, is shortlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Prize. He is the author of seven other novels, two books of essays and a memoir as well as the 20 short fictions in this book, which have previously been gathered in three collections: Velvet Waters (1990), Emerald Blue (1995) and A History of Books (2012).

My introduction to Murnane was ‘The Breathing Author’, an essay published in Heat 3 (New Series) in 2002, in which he portrays himself in such a negative way (‘I cannot recall having gone voluntarily into any art gallery or museum or building said to be of historic interest’) that I felt absolutely no desire to read more.

So when the Designated Book Chooser chose Murnane’s  Collected Short Fiction for our August meeting, I was less than thrilled.

And now I’m grateful to the Book Group for once again taking me places I wouldn’t otherwise have gone. The book may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I was enthralled – I loved it.

It’s hard to say why I loved it. These fictions (every time you see that word here, I have first typed ‘stories’, and then deleted it and replaced it with ‘fictions’) have no named characters (unless you count the uncle of the main character in the third last story who is given the name Nunkie), they generally have very little action, and it’s sometimes hard to see how they even hold together. They feature an obsessive repetition of words and phrases and constantly draw attention to themselves as something being written. If the word ‘introspection’ didn’t exist it would have to be invented to describe them.

What do they have? Well, the narrator of one of the stories, ‘In Far Fields’, who is described in the story itself as its implied author (that is, I think, he is implied to be Gerald Murnane), describes to a hypothetical student his own approach to creating fictions. He begins by writing a sentence, which is ‘a report of a detail of an image in [his] mind’, an image that ‘was connected by strong feeling to other images in [his] mind’. He then proceeds to write a sentence that is a report of a detail of another image that was connected by feelings to the first image. And then a third image, and so on. This chain of images forms the basis of the story. It becomes complicated after that, but it’s worth quoting a little from near the end of his talk to the hypothetical student:

Before she left my office, I would tell her, as a last piece of advice, that she need not have learned the meaning of every image reported in a piece of fiction before she had finished writing the final draft. Nearly every piece of my fiction, I would tell her, included a report of an image whose connections I did not discover until long after the piece had been finished. Sometimes these connections had not appeared until I was writing a later piece of fiction, and then I would understand that the image in the earlier piece of fiction was connected with an image in the later piece.

I think it’s this sense that the (implied) author is always exploring something that involves deep and not yet understood emotion, not knowing where the writing is taking him, that kept me pretty much spellbound on almost every page of this book. The prose is generally dry, methodical, self-referential, but the analogy that come to my mind is of an archaeological dig in a temple of Aphrodite: meticulous brushing, digging, scraping around objects that speak for themselves of great unruly passion.

One effect of this approach is that no distinction is made in the text between memory and fantasy. Most of the fictions feel autobiographical, but that isn’t the point: the reader is invited/expected to respond to the images and the fiction that connects them without knowing or caring if they come from Murnane’s actual life. Many of the images that the fictions ‘report’ are scenes from rural Victoria, and I expect that readers from that part of the world would feel an extra connection with the writing. Another whole swathe of images relate to the Catholic childhoods and adolescences of the unnamed main characters, and it’s probably these that led me to a deeper emotional engagement.  ‘Pink Lining’ is an example. It begins:

The image that caused me to begin writing this story is an image of a single cloud in a sky filled with heaps or layers of clouds. The single cloud and all the other clouds in the sky are coloured grey, but the single cloud is surrounded by an aureole or nimbus of pink.

It turns out that this image is on a holy card preserved from the narrator’s childhood. Adult, non-believing cynicism having been raised and brushed aside, the image leads to memories of the narrator’s favourite aunt, a pious woman, bedridden since the age of twelve, who taught him a lot about Catholic teachings. The story of the narrator’s relationship to that aunt emerges, and the fiction wanders through other parts of his life, with every now and then a tight focus on the colour of a wall, a pink holy water font, a sky ‘filled with heaps or layers of grey clouds’. Here’s perhaps the most dramatic paragraph (which reports on one of the key images of the piece):

At certain times during the years following his twenty-fifth year, the man who was first mentioned in the second paragraph of this story believed that he had never looked at or touched the naked body of any woman before his twenty-fifth year. At other times during the years just mentioned, the man believed that he had looked at the naked body above the waist of a certain woman during his fifth year. Whenever the man believed what is mentioned in the previous sentence, he believed that he had seen, after he had opened the door mentioned in the previous paragraph, the naked body above the waist of his favourite aunt as she leaned over a dish of white enamel filled with water and on that body two breasts, each with a nipple surrounded by a zone of pink. Whenever the man believed what is mentioned in the sentence before the sentence mentioned in the previous sentence, he believed that he had seen, after he had opened the door just mentioned, the naked body above the waist just mentioned and the dish filled with water just mentioned and on the body the nipples of a girl whose breasts had not yet begun to grow,

The affectless, asperger-ish quality of this is typical of Murnane’s prose. The prim but eloquent silence about what happened when the man was 25, and then the pedantically framed account of what he had seen when he was five (leaving the reader to imagine the emotional content of the experience) have a feel I recognise from my own Catholic childhood: some things simply aren’t meant to be spoken of, especially if sex or the naked human body is involved. (My mother’s response to The Female Eunuch comes to mind: ‘You don’t look over people’s shoulders when they’re brushing their teeth, so why do it with that?’) The result, though, is that moments like this or the final words of this story, which quote a line from a song ‘previously mentioned’, pack a huge punch.

Now that I have actually read this book, I am left wanting more: maybe I should start with Murnane’s first novel, Tamarisk Row. I am immensely grateful, not only to this month’s Designated Book Chooser, but also to Giramondo for my complimentary copy.

The meeting:
There were six of us. One of the absentees said on the phone, in a voice affected by a heavy cold, that he thought Murnane used a lot of words to say almost nothing. But those of us who ate the spinach pie and ice creams found a lot to talk about. In fact, we probably stayed with the book more than any other night except maybe Anna Karenina. I wouldn’t say everyone was wild about the book, and only three of us had read all 20 stories (plus one was part way through Border Districts), but we had all engaged with the writing, with Gerald Murnane’s mind (or to be more precise his way of writing about his mind).

One chap came back from a toilet break saying, ‘I’ll give him a hundred percent for slowing time down. I love dance and music that does that, and he’s done it  in writing.’ I think he meant that Murnane’s fiction moves from emotionally charged image to emotionally charged image is something that we all do, but what we do in fractions of a second, he slows down and dissects meticulously.

Someone quoted from a review that said that with Murnane’s writing, what matters is what you find yourself thinking about as you read it. That struck a chord: some of us had found ourselves reflecting on our intensely religious upbringings; others on our connection to the land where we live; others still on the complexities of early adolescent attitudes to sex.

Someone said that even when Murnane is annoying – and at least one person said he’d felt like throwing the book across the room more than once – he’s interesting. Someone said he’s cruel, leading the reader in one direction and then springing a nasty surprise. Others disagreed, reading him as not really caring how the reader responds, but following the logic of his own process. In fact, we generally felt there was a ruthless honesty in his self-exploration.

When someone gave a 30 second version of one of the stories, it produced belly laughs, which for me at least was a revelation, as I hadn’t found the story funny when I read it in its own tempo.

That is to say, I’d recommend these short fictions as an excellent choice for a book group.

NSW Premier’s Literary Awards Dinner [2007]

The Sydney Writers Festival is under way. I kicked off my personal festival yesterday with a workshop led by Patti Miller. The workshop was billed as ‘Memoir – Random Provocations’, which anyone who had read Patti’s book would have recognised as incorporating the title of her chapter on the personal essay. The rest of us signed on for what we thought was three hours looking at approaches to memoir. Heigh ho! It was an excellent three hours regardless, and probably useful. Then last night I went to a screening of Ten Canoes preceded by a conversation between Julianne Schultz and Rolf de Heer, for which the microphones were turned up far too loud for my comfort (I really must post about my tinnitus and booming ears some time). The conversation was interesting, if a little gossipy, and the film was even more wonderful the second time around.

This evening, though, was the real start of my festival. The great court of the Art Gallery of New South Wales was overrun once more by literary types, some who’ve had their likenesses on the walls, but mostly humble key-tappers and pen-wielders. I was at a table with, among others, my friend Madam Misrule, children’s literature activist Bernard Cohen, academic John Stephens, editor-writer-politician-parent Peter Coleman and a charming woman who lives in my street and is often walking her dog when I am walking mine – this was the first time we’ve exchanged names and discovered we have friends and interests in common. The meal was excellent, though I didn’t see anything that would have thrilled a vegetarian. There’s something wonderful about a conga line of waiters weaving between sculptures and tables with plates of beautifully arranged meat and what looked like a dainty caponata.

But on to the business of the evening. Geoffrey Atherden’s address and the award citations are, or soon will be, up on the Ministry for the Arts web site [links all dead in 2020]. I recently bought a microphone for my iPod, and took it for a trial run tonight, so I can give you verbatim bits of the acceptance speeches. But first, I can tell you, nerdishly perhaps, some of the differences between Geoffrey Atherden’s excellent speech as written and as spoken. He cut out about a third of it. In fact he cut out the parts where he argued his case against User Generated Content: someone, talking to me recently about the User Generated Content business model, said that mindless consumerism is being replaced by mindless producerism, and Geoffrey makes a similar argument. He also left out interesting reflections on the Free Trade Agreement, and on the argument that ‘the exciting new multi media, multi platform, new age of digital technology’ will increase the demand for good writing. Presumably these omissions were in order to save time. More interesting than the omissions was an insertion right at the end. Where the written speech, having lamented the current lack of opportunity for young writers in Australia, ends by inviting us to imagine ‘if we had an environment of artistic and cultural activity here that was so stimulating that all those talented young Australians would want to come back,’ and says, with something approaching a non sequitur:

You see, I’m only pretending to be gloomy. Deep down, I’m still hanging on to a last, thin shred of optimism.

The address as spoken ended like this:

… all those young Australians would come flooding back. I seem to remember it happened once before. I seem to remember it happened just after a federal election. Indeed, I’m only pretending to be gloomy.

Gough Whitlam, to whose election in 1972 he was of course referring, was in the room. On the tape I hear myself saying, ‘Stay gloomy, Geoffrey, stay gloomy. It’s not going to happen.’ I hope he’s a better prophet than I am. Given the company I was keeping, I was a little embarrassed when the premier later seized on Geoffrey’s remarks to be fairly crudely party political.

One other nice moment to do with the opening address. As a warm-up remark, Geoffrey said that Maggie Beare in Mother and Son was not based on his mother, and Geoff Morel’s political wheeler-dealer in Grass Roots was not based on Frank Sartor, Minister for the Arts and presenter of all but the final award. In thanking Geoffrey for his address, Frank said, in a welcome departure from his generally ill-at-ease manner, ‘You may not have known this, but Geoff Morel followed me around for two days before he started filming Grass Roots.’

I can’t offer an opinion on any of the awards, because I’ve read so few of the works on the shortlist, but I can tell you a little of what happened.

The first award, the NSW Premier’s Translation Prize and PEN Medallion, went to John Nieuwenhuizen, who has translated from Dutch and Flemish. ‘I’m actually invisible,’ he said. ‘At least that’s what a review of one of my books said, and the judges for this prize agreed. This is of course a huge compliment for a translator. But here I am.’ He also accepted the award as a validation of writing for children – many of the books he has translated have been for children, and this award counterbalances the times he has been asked when he was going to move on to ‘real’ books.

The UTS Award for New Writing was won by Tara June Winch for Swallow the Air. With lovely self deprecation, she said that she’d spent the week practising walking up and down in high heels instead of writing a speech. She made it to the dais and back without stumbling.

Gideon Haigh won the Gleebooks Prize for Critical writing for Asbestos House: the secret history of James Hardie Industries (Scribe). ‘Some books you want to write. Some books just have to be written. This was one of the latter. I couldn’t have turned it down and still considered myself a proper journalist.’

Community Relations Commission Award was won by Shaun Tan’s The Arrival (Hachette Livre Australia), a wordless graphic novel. A friend told me later that she’d nearly hit someone in the ladies’ who was mouthing off about how wrong it was to give a literary award to something that didn’t use words. Well, it’s a paradox I suppose, but it’s a marvellous book, and as Shaun said in his acceptance speech, it’s being read by people who don’t normally read graphic novels, or anything at all – older migrants, for whom the book was really written. I’d cheerfully predicted that this book would win three awards. It won two: it also won the Book of the Year Award. Ms Misrule leapt to her feet and cheered. ‘I love it when one of ours wins,’ she said, encapsulating the esprit de corps that prevails in the children’s literature mob at events like this.

The Scriptwriting Award went to Tony Ayres for the script of The Home Song Stories, a movie we haven’t seen yet. He explained that the story had started out as a memoir but turned into a film script because that’s what he knew how to do.

The Play Award was won by Tommy Murphy for Holding the Man. Impeccably dressed in suit and tie, he told of nervously reading his initial list of ideas for the play to his director: ‘This play might open on the moon. Perhaps the Grim Reaper will appear at some point. And when the character John gets sick he will become a puppet.’ He talked of the importance of collaboration. And he did a gracious thing, which you’ll understand better if you bear in mind that in the play the family of the dying John treat his lover Tim, devastatingly, as having no valid place at his bedside. Tommy, in contrast, thanked his family for teaching the seventh of eight children to embrace sharing, and said his family were represented in the hall by his boyfriend Dane. He went on with some high romance: ‘You can’t win a prize for a love story unless you love someone as deeply as I love Dane.’ He also paid tribute to Tim Conigrave, author of the memoir the play was based on: ‘Tim has taught me that writing is sharing too much. There’s no avoiding that, and I embrace it.’

The Patricia Wrightson Prize went to Narelle Oliver, a Queenslander, for Home (Omnibus), a picture book about peregrine falcons who built a nest high up in a building in Brisbane. She thanked, among many others, the falcons Freda and Frodo: ‘They are probably bedding down right now on their nest of stones upon which I did lie with my camera to capture their home a couple of years ago. I saw my city afresh, in a new and exciting way, through the eyes of falcons, and I hope to share that with children and adults in the book.’

The Ethel Turner Prize for young people’s literature was won by Ursula Dubosarsky’s The Red Shoe (Allen & Unwin). Ursula had had a dog accident in the morning, resulting in a broken wrist and her absence from the dinner. Her father, Peter Colemen, read her acceptance speech. ‘You may well ask what on earth does a six year old girl [the book’s heroine Matilda] make of something as weighty as the Petrov affair [A Soviet defection that made headlines in the 1950s]. What indeed do six year old children make of the current images of public fear – the Twin Towers, Saddam Hussein, global warming? Well, in reply, as the late Ted Hughes has observed, just remember, your first six years shape everything.’

John Tranter won the Kenneth Slessor Prize for poetry with Urban Myths: 210 Poems (UQP). He read a poem (which someone objected to as inappropriate, but I appreciated: it was ‘After Holderlin’, and John’s brief explanatory notes were illuminating). He then contributed to the political theme of the evening by thanking ‘the working men and women of New South Wales who elected this generous government and whose tax dollars went to make up this wonderful cheque’.

The Douglas Stewart Prize for non-fiction was won by Robert Hughes’s Things I Didn’t Know: a Memoir (Random House Australia). Bob wasn’t there but his acceptance speech was read by his publisher. His first remark – ‘The last time I won any sort of prize in Australia was a dismaying number of years ago: I won it for building a control line model aeroplane and flying it in Centennial Park’ – enraged one of my dinner companions: ‘That man is incapable of telling the truth. Everything he says is a lie.’ Be that as it may, the acceptance speech went on to a gracious tribute to Douglas Stewart, his nature poetry and his verse drama, in particular The Fire on the Snow, ‘much of which I still find I know by heart’.

Probably the most prestigious prize apart from book of the year, the Christina Stead Prize for fiction, went to Peter Carey for Theft: A Love Story (Random House Australia), another New Yorker, whose speech was read by the same publisher. After some nicely-turned complaints about a back injury and dental problems, this speech too paid tribute to the person who gave the prize its name. Christina Stead spent 46 years away from Australia; Peter Carey has been away for 16:

I can now understand Christina Stead as one part of that endless stream of Australian travellers most of whom come back in a year or two – most, but not all. Hundreds and thousands of us have become waylaid, up some foreign creek, some foreign road among people who cannot imagine who we are, or that our dreams each night are of Australian landscapes with those smooth, lovely trunks and the vast khaki canopy tossing in the wind showing the silver undersides of its fragrant leaves. I probably don’t need to say this to anyone who has read my work … but I am not only pleased that Theft has been read with pleasure and intelligence by its first true readers, people who do not need a footnote to know what a Blue Heeler is; but also deeply moved that it is the Christina Stead award I am receiving. The award this year is for Theft, but every year it makes us honour a brave artist who swam against the current, worked away from home for 46 years, and bequeathed us novels that are among the greatest works of Australian literature.

Special Award winner was Gerald Murnane. On the tape, when Frank Sartor mispronounces the name of the journal and enduring feature of Australia’s literary landscape Meanjin as ‘Minnajin’, it sounds as if the whole assembly murmurs in amazed disapproval. Frank hesitates, then realises that whatever he’s done wrong can’t be mended and ploughs on. Mr Murnane gave a curmudgeonly speech about receiving the award late in his career.

Shaun Tan was called back to the podium, this time to shake hands with the Premier, Morris Iemma (who seems to be winning people over, to the extent that I heard him referred to as Morris Yummy). One of the great things about the Book of the Year prize is that the recipient doesn’t necessarily know about it in advance, so we get some unprepared remarks. After muttering that there must have been a mistake and thanking the people he’d forgotten in his first trip up front, Shaun talked about his long campaign to have picture books recognised as being for adults as well as children: ‘Part of my success with this book may have been children getting their parents to read it. I’ve got this huge support base among children.’ He thanked independent booksellers for supporting the book, ‘and seeing its inability to be categorised as a blessing rather than a curse’.

And it was all over bar the tart, the chocolates and the schmoozing.

Crotchety note added later: The Sydney Morning Herald‘s report, headlined ‘Big Names Take Book Awards’, doesn’t even mention the Book of the Year or the Special Award, possibly because the sub-editor didn’t deem Shaun Tan or Gerard Murnane to be Big Enough Names, or because the money is the story, and the combined monetary value of Shaun’s two prizes amounts to $17 000 and Gerard raked in a measly $5000, whereas the Big Names each won $20 000. But then John Tranter and Ursula Dubosarsky each got a guernsey – perhaps as token poet and children’s writer, or to flesh out the subtext of resentment of expatriates by indicating that, unlike the judges, the Herald knows about non-expatriate talent. It’s a mystery.