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.