No country for young men: Border Districts by Gerald Murnane

The reflective, circular “report” that occupies the narrator of Gerald Murnane’s latest, and if he can be believed, last, novel is presented as an account “of actual events and no sort of work of fiction.” This clarification, coming in the midst of an extended extrapolation of possible impossibilities, anticipates the skeptic:

As I understand the matter, a writer of fiction reports events that he or she considers imaginary. The reader of fiction considers, or pretends to consider, the events actual. This piece of writing is a report of actual events only, even though many of the reported events may seem to an undiscerning reader fictional.

Of course, in Murnane’s mental terrain the line between fiction and events actually experienced is a slippery one, but Border Districts reads like a meditation on a lifetime of traversing imaginary landscapes as a reader and writer famously adverse to physically travelling beyond the confines of his home state of Victoria, refracted through a playfully multi-toned meta-fictional prism. This is a novel about perception and memory, and the degree to which we can ever hope to grasp the contents of our own minds. More critically it’s about the way our experiences and our experiences of our experiences are inflated or telescoped with the passage of time.

The narrator of Border Districts has relocated from a capitol city to a small town near the state border, echoing a similar move made by Murnane a number of years ago. He has not entirely shunned the city, he makes several return trips to visit friends and family, but his stated goal in moving to this remote place is to spend his last years focusing on the images, emotions and words that have stayed with him over time, “guarding” his eyes, as he puts it, so that “I might be more alert to what appears at the edges of my range of vision.” Anticipating the essential, fragmentary quality of this mental inventory he embarks on a meticulous effort, paragraph by paragraph, to trace the connections from one recollection or set of recollections to another.

The result is a digressive internalized odyssey. Perspective shifts from first to third person for a time as the book-hungry boy approaches the remembering man. Uncertain boundaries exist between recalled events and the fiction writer (and reader)’s inclination to wander off on paths not taken, to imagine what might have been, sketch out potential storylines, flesh out characters that could have existed, and step out from the shadows of possible unlived trajectories to anticipate a meeting of minds on the open plains of a mental landscape. Idiosyncratic sideways cognitive processing is acknowledged, examined, and entertained. But the challenge with exploring the way our minds work is that we can never clear the workspace, step back from the stage. We are always in our own way.

There are a number of key motifs or pivot points to which the narrator returns as he attempts to maintain order and control of his own report. Lines of thought that keep circling back and merging. Readers familiar with Murnane will recognize the elements of the rural Australian landscape, the fondness for horse-racing, and a certain literary cynicism. Houses with return verandas hold a peculiar affection. But the key image that recurs is one of coloured glass—from the windows of the unassuming church in his adopted hometown, to observations about stained glass, to a treasured marble collection—and the difficulty of accurately perceiving the shade and details therein. Just like our memories, in our mental images, appearances are mutable. Light is the key because:

. . . a coloured pane better reveals itself to a viewer on its darker side, so to call it; that the colours and designs in glass windows are truly apparent only to an observer shut off from what most of us would consider true light—the light best able to do away with mystery and uncertainty. The paradox, if such it is, can be otherwise expressed: anyone observing the true appearance of a coloured window is unable, for the time being, to observe through the window any more than a falsification of the so-called everyday world.

Yet knowing this limitation does not diminish the narrator’s natural inclination to want to penetrate the opaque surface of the window, to truly see the nature of the glass itself. He even attempts to capture, on film, the coloured windows of a friend’s house. When he retrieves the processed images and brings them home, he realizes that the image-panes are less colourful than they were when he photographed them. Was this a function of his modest photographic skills or further evidence of the unreliability of memory? Perhaps. But the explanation he chooses to endorse, is that the qualities he perceives as lacking are not inherent to the glass, but rather unique to himself:

. . . what I missed when I looked at the photographic prints was the meaning that I had previously read into the glass. And if I could give credence to such an eccentric theory, then I might go further and assert that I saw in the glass part of the private spectrum that my eyes diffused from my own light as it travelled outwards: a refraction of my own essence, perhaps.

As he makes his way through a range of remembered images, experiences, and feelings, obscured with the patina of time, he is interested in what details he does recall. What he has forgotten, if it does not resurface on its own by association, is of no regard. He is keenly aware of his age and fascinated by the memories that have persisted, with a measure of intensity, for thirty, forty, sixty years. The narrator’s associations and meanderings are unique to him, but they reflect our own idiosyncratic mind loops—those layered networks of connections constructed through exposure to art, literature, landscape, life experience—which increase in depth but become more firmly attached to our specific pivot points or mental signposts, as we get older.

I have come to this book midway through my sixth decade (as frightening as that sounds), younger than Murnane and his alter-ego, but close enough. I come to it as a writer interested in capturing his perceived experience, rather than biographical detail, and inclined to believe that we only have the ability to know what we think we know, a through-the-coloured-glass perspective at best. Border Districts is an older writer’s reverie. It dips back to childhood and adolescence, marriage and parenthood, and spins off into realm of possible lives unlived. There is something to greet a reader at any point in life, but I wonder what my twenty-eight-year-old self might have found. What I do know is that this novel entertains the kind of questions about memory—about the feelings, colours, and images that linger ever “on the edges of my range of vision”—that occupy me more and more with each passing year.

 Border Districts by Gerald Murnane is published by Giramondo Publishing in Australia. It is now available in North America through Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Consumed by the landscape: The Plains by Gerald Murnane

There is a certain futility in setting out to write a review of Gerald Murnane’s classic novel, The Plains. Like the world in which it is set, it eludes concise description, or, rather, any attempt to contain it fails to capture its rare and strange beauty.  An otherness is apparent from the earliest pages. The narrator’s account of his arrival in the vast, open lands of the central region of Australia is measured, performative. He is a filmmaker who originally traveled to the plains to gather research for a project titled The Interior. Looking back, twenty years on, he recalls his first evening in the town he has chosen as a base:

Late that night I stood at a third-storey window of the largest hotel in the town. I looked past the regular pattern of streetlights towards the dark country beyond. A breeze came in warm gusts from the north. I leaned into the surges of air that rose up from the nearest miles of grassland. I composed my face to register a variety of powerful emotions. And I whispered words that might have serve a character in a film at the moment when he realised he had found where he belonged.

He has come prepared with a stack of folders bulging with notes relating to the script he is working on, confident that “no one has seen the view of the plains that I am soon to disclose.”

The landscape—definitive and incomprehensible—shapes the singular society that has evolved there. But this is an allegorical, alternative Australia. Wealth is tied to the ownership of land, longstanding and rooted in the history of exploration. But it is maintained through a currency of ideas. Every “cultivated plainsman” has an ever expanding library to accommodate the growing disciplines of thought and speculation that occupy this idiosyncratically intellectual world.

Our protagonist takes time to listen to other plainsmen and build an understanding of the history, trends, and competing concepts of the plains and their relation to the coastal areas (or “Outer Australia”) that have come and gone. It is a complex mythology. His goal is to secure the patronage of a landowner who will support his work on his film project. He succeeds, or so it seems, but the cost, if in fact that is how he ultimately would see it, is extracted gradually and steadily over time.

The prose is intoxicating. Words seem to emerge out of the shimmering stillness. The narrator’s simple account carries a sense of foreboding that continually builds and dissipates. He describes a society obsessed with its own arcane introspection, so inward looking that the direct light is a distraction, where experience of the world is mediated, filtered, and reduced to minute, intricate exploration of the smallest details isolated and abstracted from the whole. Relation to the land is one of primacy of the ideal over the real. The landscape of the plains defines the thinking, aesthetics, and values of the inhabitants—shapes their arts and sciences—but the plainsmen themselves rarely travel and never speak of life as a journey. They are, rather, more concerned with time and memory disassociated from physical experience:

Of course, the literature of the plains abounds in accounts of childhood. Whole volumes have expounded in profuse detail the topography of countries or continents as they were descried under faltering sunlight in the only hour when they were said to exist—some fortunate interval between almost identical days before they were engulfed by events too trivial even to be remembered. And one of the disciplines that most nearly resembles what is called philosophy in far parts of Australia is known to have originated in the comparative study of scenes recalled by one observer alone and accounts of those same scenes by the same observer after he had acquired the skill to attempt a fitting description of them.

Murnane is a difficult, but compulsively readable, writer. He falls quite comfortably into the company of Kafka, Calvino, and Borges, but with his own distinctive (and essentially Australian) quality. He is also slyly funny. At one point, after his would-be filmmaker has been on the plains for over a decade, still no further advanced on his plans for his project but continuing to fill file after file with notes and research, there is the intimation of a potential attraction between him and his patron’s wife. The latter comes to the library to read, day after day, sitting near the shelves where the philosophical tomes dealing the question of Time are kept. As an energy seems to develop between them, unspoken in this silent space, the narrator contemplates the possible ways he might let his feelings be known—write a book she might read, write a book and catalogue but not shelve it, and so on. In the meantime, more texts about Time continue to arrive, filling up the space between them. Ultimately, his intentions proceed no further:

I may take pleasure occasionally in the sight of her so close to the crowded shelves that the pallor of her face is momentarily tinted by a fair multiple glow from the more hectic of the jacketed volumes around her. But I myself prefer not to be seen in the places given over to Time, no matter how nearly I might seem to approach the plainsman’s view of all that might have happened to me. I have a fear, perhaps unreasonable, of finding myself beguiled by images of what almost came to pass. Unlike a true plainsman, I do not care to inspect to closely those other lives lived by men who might have been myself.

If you have lived in the plains, as I have, this novel will have a special resonance. You will recognize the ineffable qualities of space and light (although for those of us in the northern hemisphere, there are southern peculiarities—warm winds don’t come from the north here). What it means is another matter. It is a tribute to the book’s shifting opaque character, that you sense you cannot quite observe it in the right light. But this is an intelligent, provocative, fascinating work. For an Australian reader there are likely themes others might not notice and yet it does not matter. This is a book that has to be experienced to be appreciated and, I would argue, best met without preconceptions.

Nothing will quite prepare you anyway.