Gerald Murnane, Collected Short Fiction (Giramondo 2018)
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.
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.