Gerald Murnane: An Idiot in the Greek Sense
Last November I visited Gerald Murnane where he lives in the very small town of Goroke in western Victoria. He agreed to be interviewed for a feature article in the Australian Book Review (published in August, 2015) and over the course of two days we recorded around thirteen hours of material, ranging across elements of Murnane’s personal life and literary career. The bulk of our conversations took place in his room, at the back of his son’s house in Goroke. The hours spent there were exhaustive and businesslike, but at 4.30pm each day Murnane would open a bottle of his homebrew beer, and the conversation began to meander. When we met again later in the evening, at the local hotel where I was staying, he was more contemplative and candid. As the nights wore on he revealed some of his deeper feelings about fiction and the unusual documents he labours over and stores in his ever-expanding archives.
Geography has been one of Murnane’s passions over the years, despite his notorious reluctance to travel. In the course of one conversation at the hotel I asked about his fascination with old maps and the theory of the Portuguese discovery of Australia. ‘I find Portuguese nomenclature stirring,’ Murnane said, ‘and even pleasant sounding. More than pleasant sounding. I had this strange joke with my son Martin…. I said to Martin, who was about twelve and teased me about this, that I’d like to change my name to … what was his name? Tristão de Mendoça Puszta Murn. It was my true name, my secret totem name or my totem creatures. It was not my name among social beings. Tristão de Mendoça was supposedly, according to a book by a man called McIntyre, the first Portuguese to travel to Bass Strait. Puszta is from the Hungarian of course and I shortened the last name to Murn to repudiate my Irishness – my seeming-Irishness – and because of my preference for monosyllables.’
Murnane was in a confiding mood. When I asked about the fictional women that his narrators or chief characters claim to love in his fiction, resurrected figures like the ‘girl in the well’ from Inland, and other strange and spectral presences, he said: ‘They exist at about three removes from the room in which we’re sitting…Let’s talk about the girl in the well: she’s as real to me as… almost as real as Brenda [the hotel’s proprietor] out there. I can’t explain it any more than that. I know that she, or a girl, existed once in Szolnok County in Hungary. I’m not a mumbo jumbo man, but I know what I know, and through the means of fiction, of writing it and reading it, I’ve discovered a world that I would never have known otherwise. Actually, I knew of its existence when I was a boy in Bendigo. I knew it was out there somewhere and I only had to get in contact with it.’
Murnane is earnest when he speaks of his secret totem name and of the other world that he claims to have discovered by means of reading and writing fiction. In the course of our conversation I suggest that he is often more candid about his feelings for fictional personages than for people in the visible world, and he agrees, saying, ‘Yes that’s strange. What can I add to that? It’ll be a mystery.’ After a small, thoughtful pause he says: ‘The question will arise: did I live this imaginative life because I didn’t find my real life satisfactory? That’s a question that I can’t answer, that no one else can answer. You can’t answer these questions definitively. In some respects I was immensely satisfied by my real life, and yet, by the evidence of my writing, I wasn’t. Some people have terrible lives. I didn’t have a life like that, yet, on the evidence of my writing, my life wasn’t enough for me, and I had to have this other life. There’s no answer to these questions. It’s just a wonderful part of the mystery of being human.’
For decades Murnane has been acknowledged as one of Australia’s finest writers, and one of our strangest. This latter quality seems to have left him marginalised at times, so much so that when I first came across his work, after Tamarisk Row was reissued by Giramondo in 2007, I was flummoxed. How had I not heard of Murnane before then? Why hadn’t he already won a fistful of major awards? Why was the crowd at the launch of the re-issue so small? I’d only read a few pages of Tamarisk Row, but it seemed obvious from that brief sample that Murnane was ‘the real deal’, and the more I read the better he got.
I noticed the obvious things first: his sentences, above all else, were pristine; his tone was direct; his narrative control was stupefying; and he seemed to be writing about something that was at once totally unique to him and recognisably Australian. Over the following weeks and months Murnane’s other novels and collections of fiction – most of which were out of print and difficult to find at the time – revealed to me a local writer who could be mentioned in the same breath as literary greats (and eccentrics) like Marcel Proust, Virginia Woolf and Franz Kafka. Here was the kind of Australian writer I’d never dreamed of encountering, yet none of his books had received a major literary award.
Murnane’s idiosyncrasies are an essential part of his fiction, even if they were disguised (or misperceived by critics) throughout the 1980s and 1990s as variations of the postmodernist textual play typical of those decades. His literary sensibilities have been as difficult to classify as his public persona, and his prose has meanwhile been insistently complex and ironically playful – as when, for instance, the narrator in A Million Windows derides One Hundred Years of Solitude (‘Even the least-skilled of writers could have composed something more readable than the unvarying wordage in front of me’) while producing a flawless throw-away counter to Marquez’s lauded ‘spiral of time’. Murnane has shown that he can perform any narrative trick, but he instead prefers to interrogate and re-interrogate the images and patterns of images that haunt him. The result of this focus is an unfailingly singular and uncompromisingly original body of work. No one does what Gerald Murnane does better than Gerald Murnane.
After reviewing the local critical reception of Murnane’s fiction over the decades, and speaking with seasoned critics and writers on the subject, it’s hard to shake the feeling that Murnane’s apparent oddness has contributed to his relatively marginal status in Australian literary culture, compared with writers like Thomas Keneally, David Malouf, Helen Garner or Alex Miller. Australian critics have long praised Murnane but their appreciation is yet to translate into a major literary prize for a single work of fiction; instead, Murnane’s books have received retrospective awards, in recognition of an undervalued body of work, or marginal prizes, like the Adelaide Festival Award for Innovation for Barley Patch – in the same year that Malouf took out the more coveted Fiction Award for Ransom.
Looking back over some of the shortlists and eventual winners of the Miles Franklin and various state-based prizes for fiction over the last few decades is a sobering experience. It is perplexing that an author whose work is celebrated abroad despite the odds (miniscule international print runs and little-to-no marketing), that such an author has been so undervalued by awards judges at home. In retrospect, it seems crazy that Tamarisk Row, The Plains, Inland, Landscape with Landscape, Velvet Waters, Barley Patch and, most recently, A Million Windows – all of which have legitimate claims to be considered classics of Australian literature – have not attracted a single mainstream national or State-based prize for fiction between them, and that A Million Windows wasn’t considered worthy of this year’s Miles Franklin longlist (none of Murnane’s books have ever made the Miles Franklin shortlist).
The sheer consistency of the Miles Franklin judges’ neglect of Murnane’s fiction over the decades seems to me to speak of a larger pattern in the response to Murnane’s work outside his home state of Victoria. It makes me wonder: is it possible that Murnane simply doesn’t fit into the image that Australian literary culture has of itself? Is the Miles Franklin beyond his grasp due to something fundamental and unalterable in his personality and way of writing (the idea that you can fully separate these is absurd in Murnane’s case), or is it due to a lack of worthiness in his work, a lack that Australian awards panels are especially good at recognising?
This is a difficult, probably impossible thing to judge, but it seems to me to merit consideration, partly due to my experiences when talking with people about Murnane. Long before I thought of writing a profile of him, I’d heard several anecdotes from prominent writers and critics, and most of them presented Murnane as an oddball figure. More recent conversations with people who have known him over the years left me wondering whether Murnane’s continuing relegation to the margins of Australian literature is a reflection of how his work is perceived, how he is perceived, or a combination of both.
When I suggested to Murnane that he privileges strangeness in his fiction but also signals a wariness and disquiet about it, he said: ‘It’ll be true of me and my real-life situation anyway.’ People who have known him for an extended period of time accept that Murnane is, in some ways, an unusual man. He was close to Barry Oakley in the mid-1960s and 1970s, and in a chapter titled ‘My Strangest Friend’ from his memoir, Mug Shots, Oakley recalls that upon the publication of Tamarisk Row Murnane:
… held a dinner party in celebration. First, a photo album was passed around, containing a pictorial biography of the author. Later, the author blows a whistle, and we’re told to change places with others. When I remarked on the magnified marble on the cover of the book, he told me it was one of those referred to in the childhood chapters, and then led me into a room of filing cabinets, where he puled out a drawer, selected a file marked M, and produced the marble in question, preserved for all of those years. Then we returned to the dining room, and he blew the whistle again.
Oakley’s diary entries in Minitudes sketch a portrait of Murnane as a stay-at-home eccentric, much given to monologue. At one point Murnane confesses to Oakley, ‘I’ve become slightly stranger in some ways. I’m dressing more shabbily and find journeys away from the house more and more of a problem.’ Oakley reports that Murnane felt incapable of attending his brother’s funeral in Warrnambool ‘for fear of being stranded, broken down on the highway’.
Hilary McPhee was Murnane’s first editor. Her impression of Murnane’s strangeness evokes its amusing, social side. ‘I thought he was deeply eccentric … He’s very funny company when he drinks. He could start reciting train stations all the way to Aboka or whatever. He has extraordinary local information. He could do every train station in the state I reckon. That sort of stuff.’
Peter Craven paints a fuller picture of the man as he was during the 1980s, when Craven, Michael Heyward and Penny Hueston championed Murnane’s fiction in Scripsi: ‘When I knew him he was living in a very modest house in Macleod, which is an outer northern-suburb of Melbourne, near La Trobe University. He had all of his books, but it was a very confined sort of space. He had tall tales and true about composing on the kitchen table, and given the kind of perfectionist fiction Gerald writes, it was certainly an unusually small suburban house for a writer to be working in. He was very matey, jovial and polite, and keen on Coopers Sparkling Ale. He’d talk ’til the cows came home, with great courtesy and affability. He had a sharp sense of humour and would deliver long anecdotes.’
According to Craven, Murnane is ‘clearly his own person’ but not in a limiting way. ‘I was conscious of the fact that he wasn’t interested in polite lies about things, and I was conscious of him talking about his routines. Like anyone, I thought he was a character, but I didn’t think he was an impossible madman. I always found him funny. There was a point where he wouldn’t allow newspapers into his house, or only the sports pages… I had a sense of Gerald’s very likable eccentricity ruling the roost.’
In the early 1990s, while he was still lecturing in creative writing at Deakin University, Murnane took a job wrapping newspapers in the early hours of the morning. ‘I got a cash-in-hand job at the local newsagents,’ he explains. ‘Every morning I’d get up for three hours at half past two and wrap the papers in the machine, except when I had to come up to Goroke to visit my son or have a break, and the boss would do it.’ According to Imre Salusinszky, who enjoyed a long correspondence with Murnane, ‘He loved getting up early. He loved working with the machine. He loved the interactions with the delivery guys. I mean, now it’s weird that a major Australian writer lives in a remote place like Goroke, but it was equally strange that he would get up at early in the morning and wrap The Age while he was being nominated for the Nobel Prize. The whole thing is almost too weird to believe.’
Murnane’s strangeness is so accepted among domestic critics and literary figures that Ramona Koval felt comfortable suggesting to him that he might be ‘slightly autistic’ in two separate interviews in the 2000s. When I asked Murnane about the first interview with Koval, he said: ‘I was so shocked that I nearly walked out of the interview. But she said it with a snigger, and I thought, She isn’t really serious, she’s just trying to keep the audience interested… I looked at her, and I thought: You don’t know what you’re saying. I usually can’t remember anything about those interviews. I’m in a state of shock or tenseness. When I got home Catherine [Murnane’s wife] had been listening and she said I’d handled it well.’
In the second interview for The Book Show in 2008, Murnane confessed that his ‘essential self’ prefers to keep its distance from the world, and Koval again linked this impulse to autism.
Ramona Koval: I’m kind of tempted to say…there are people now who write about such feelings of being a little bit separate from the world and making lists and making lots of categories and would say that that’s a slightly autistic way to be in the world.
Gerald Murnane: I may be that way. You asked me a question like this once before, and the moment it came out of your mouth I bristled, I thought ‘I’m getting out of here’, but you asked it in a much more friendly way today…
Murnane then referred to Proust’s conception of a moi profond, or ‘deep self’ to explain the origin of his fiction, before adding: ‘Perhaps an autistic version of me… does my writing, but I think… I’m communicating well enough with you.’
Indeed, Murnane has always managed to communicate his idiosyncratic inner world flawlessly, bridging the distance between relatively unexciting consciousnesses (at least in my case) and his own with precise prose.
The impulse to connect Murnane’s singular fictional output and unusual habits and opinions with a psychological disorder speaks volumes. Murnane attributes it to an unconscious cultural bias: ‘When a writer walks into the studio Koval would think that he’s one of us, therefore he’ll be sexually well-adjusted, he’ll be social and go to parties, travel on aeroplanes, and he’ll love the South of France and drinking wine. When she learns that he isn’t like that and doesn’t do any of those things she thinks he’s autistic or something else.’
Murnane’s friend, Kate James, has a similar view. While she notes that Murnane ‘lives by all kinds of regimented rules that he sets for himself, about his eating and drinking and daily habits, because he seems to enjoy living in a structured way,’ James adds: ‘He’s not actually a slave to his routines. He’s happy to break them if he needs to… Gerald isn’t nearly as eccentric as people like to pretend he is. He isn’t a weirdo or an oddball; he isn’t ‘on the spectrum’. He’s responsible and hard working; he’s held down jobs and raised a family. But he gets labelled as an eccentric because he’s not the same as most Australian academics and intellectuals… He doesn’t play the games; he doesn’t care about status; he’s way too honest. Sometimes that shows up other people’s bullshit, so it’s easier for them to call him autistic than accept that he knows how a serious Australian writer is supposed to talk and behave, and he just doesn’t much care for it.’
Murnane has willingly presented himself as an eccentric at various times, but typically with heavy doses of irony and exaggeration. In the documentary Words and Silk, he says, ‘I’m an idiot in the Greek sense of that word. I’m only aware of what happens in my own backyard, in my own mind.’ In the essay ‘The Breathing Author’, Murnane presents a great catalogue of his curious habits and quirks, many of which are fairly trivial, like never wearing sunglasses or his inability to understand the workings of the International Date Line. Murnane’s larger eccentricities, however, have to do with perception and his way of being in the world, and they seem to connect directly to the content of his fiction and his engagement with other literatures.
As an example of the latter, Murnane confessed to me: ‘I’ve always had this private view of Hamlet: that one of his testicles didn’t come down when he was born. I have idiosyncratic views about these things. But they matter to me.’ Later he said, ‘I’ll never read a text by Shakespeare again let alone see it performed. I pick out strange figures like Richard Jeffries, strange minor writers that appeal to me, lonely outsiders who were on the edges of things, doing their own thing. I’m probably a bit like that myself. I always dreamed that I would read a book that would be absolutely everything that I’ve wanted, and because I didn’t find that book, I wrote it myself. I don’t mean one particular book. I mean my collected works. My collected works, now – I can say this with some pride and satisfaction – I see now that my collected works are exactly the sort of book that, when I was twenty years old, I dreamed I would find in a translation from Portuguese or by some minor Uruguayan novelist or something like that.’
In a letter to Imre Salusinszky (15 December 1986) Murnane writes, ‘I’ve spent much of my reading life among hedgerows and by-roads. The trouble is I’ve tended to shy away from certain writers just because their houses of fiction are on the main roads.’
Murnane clearly privileges idiosyncratic, foreign and marginal sensibilities, as do a good many of the narrators and personages who occupy his fiction. The narrator of The Plains recounts:
On that first afternoon I saw that what had sometimes been described as the arrogance of the plainsmen was no more than their reluctance to recognise any common ground between themselves and others. This was the very opposite (as the plainsmen themselves well knew) of the common urge among Australians of those days to emphasise whatever they seemed to share with other cultures. A plainsman would not only claim to be ignorant of the ways of other regions but willingly appear to be misinformed about them. Most irritating of all to outsiders, he would affect to be without any distinguishing culture rather than allow his land and his ways to be judged part of some larger community of contagious tastes or fashions.
Much of this holds for Murnane’s relationship to his own fiction and its critical reception. He demands to be read and understood on his own terms instead of compromising for the sake of convention or indulging what he considers to be literary fashions. This, I believe, is partly what makes his work so challenging. A writer who is a recognisable type is easily subsumed within that category, and therefore easier to understand and sympathise with, but a writer who is insistently atypical demands more of readers, because we have to move further out of ourselves, or deeper inside ourselves, in order to grasp his meaning. Murnane’s failure to win a major mainstream literary award in this country seems to me to signal a larger inability or unwillingness, on the part of sections of our literary culture, to reach beyond itself and embrace unfamiliar or awkward perspectives.
Is it at all worth pondering whether or not Murnane is ‘slightly autistic’, from a critical or biographical perspective? When he writes, ‘I have sometimes thought of the whole enterprise of my fiction-writing as an effort to bring to light an underlying order – a vast pattern of connected images – beneath everything that I am able to call to mind’, is he expressing a pathological will to orient himself in the face of random, apparently meaningless experiences? Or is he merely expressing an aesthetic preference? Is this an authentic philosophical impulse? An exaggeration? Or does it suggest some kind of neurological disorder?
Murnane writes, ‘I admit to a love of order and of devising systems for storing and retrieving things…’ His extensive archives are the most obvious example of this passion; they contain mountains of material relating both to his literary output and his personal life, sorted chronologically, with notes attached in many cases, directing readers to this or that other file in another section of the archive. Murnane is also an obsessive list maker. His publisher Ivor Indyk says, ‘When Catherine was alive they used to sit and watch The Price is Right and he would write down the prices as a record. He had a comprehensive list. His beer brewing has a similar kind of encyclopaedic intensity because the bottles are colour-coded according to brews, dates and strengths. So it’s a system. He likes to create systems. That’s part of his world-building: the desire to create outward from a detail.’
According to Salusinszky, ‘He’s obsessive. He has an aversion to water touching his body, so there is a fair bit of weirdness there, but a fair bit of normality as well. He’s quite wise. He is eccentric but of course he’s been able to make high art out of that, and there’s nothing so eccentric or obsessive or unusual that he can’t relate it back to the mainstreams of human experience, and reveal bits of ourselves back to us. One of the things that makes him unusual – and this has been more noticeable in recent years – is that Gerald has become more rigorously authentic in everything he writes and does and says. He’s more and more unwilling to bullshit or to speak or write or behave in ways that do not directly reflect what appears to be real to him, which is the contents of his own mind, and the patterns of images in his own mind, and I guess what Bertrand Russell would call knowledge by experience instead of knowledge by description… Gerald has become more and more himself over the years; he is no longer interested in responding in any way except with what he calls true fiction, to everything. That can seem like someone who isn’t interested in you and has an autistic person’s inwardness or lack of social awareness. He retreats back into the phenomenological persona to explore how what you’ve just said to him or written to him creates a new set of ripples in his own meditation.’
In my interactions with him, Murnane was uncompromising in his assessment of all things connected to literature but generous and flexible in other areas. He preferred to keep to his routines, but they were far from obtrusive; instead they seemed to make it possible for him to cram a surprising range of activities – work and play – into each day. Murnane’s extended memory is astonishing, and his capacity to make his internal life vivid to others is a wonder. In his case, the dividing line between eccentricity and pragmatism is fluid.
Perhaps ‘genius’ is an outdated concept, but Murnane’s discipline, dedication to his craft and unusual talent deserves more from us than slack psychologising, and the distinctive aspects of his fiction should be cherished instead of dismissed as ‘weird’ or ‘slightly autistic’.
Several of Murnane’s friends spoke with me when I profiled him for the Australian Book Review, largely out of eagerness to repay his and Catherine’s kindnesses over the years. (Catherine died in 2009.) Chris Gregory felt compelled to point out that, ‘Being a good writer is one thing, but being a good human being that people say nice things about is another thing as well.’ Gregory values Murnane’s human qualities over his literary achievements, as do many of the people I spoke with. But there is another side to Murnane. As Gregory explains, ‘He takes uninhibited pleasure in the misfortunes of people he doesn’t like, particularly writers and critics.’
Murnane’s personal generosity and decency extends only so far; in his view, fiction is a serious business. He demands the highest standards of writing and thinking from colleagues and critics alike, and if a book is poorly written or a review is thoughtlessly composed, it deserves to be criticised – etiquette or politeness be damned. Because of this, Murnane is not universally beloved in the Australian literary world, where his honesty or insensitivity has occasionally offended fellow writers, publishers and critics.
In a letter to Imre Salusinszky, on 3 Dec 1985, Murnane confesses: ‘I think I am at heart more cheerful than gloomy, but whenever something of mine has been published I tend to overlook the praise it receives and to dwell on the harsh or stupid things that people write about my work. Worse, I feel a childish spite towards any writer who seems to be enjoying the sort of popularity that I – monster of selfishness – believe is right.’
While lecturing in creative writing in the 1980s and early 1990s, Murnane enjoyed changing the names of characters and settings of a prize-winning work of fiction by one of Australia’s best-known writers. He would then ask his students to edit the piece. After they found numerous errors he would reveal the name of the author. His students, Murnane says, were usually surprised to learn the origin of the pages. Peter Craven recalls Murnane saying, during the 1980s, that when he visited bookshops he liked to pick out a page by one or another celebrated Australian novelist and read until he came upon a sentence that was badly written; he would then sigh in satisfaction and put the book down.
Murnane’s strong views about other writers are matched only by his certainty that his own published fiction is of the highest quality. In the same letter to Salusinszky Murnane thanks him for praising the story, ‘The Battle of Acosta Nu’, then writes:
On the night when I wrote the last line of the last draft of that story I said to myself that I had just finished the best piece of fiction that I had ever written. In the years since then, I have read the story many times, something I don’t usually do with my writing. Each time I’ve read it I’ve been filled with a strange sort of admiration, as though I were reading the work of someone else. Today I share the opinion of one of the men of Norstrilia Press [his publisher at the time]: ‘The Battle of Acosta Nu’ is one of the best pieces of short fiction ever written in Australia.
In a recent interview in 3:AM magazine Murnane waxed lyrical about the excellence of his own sentences:
You mention the craftsmanship of my writing. I wouldn’t dare give myself a ranking among my contemporaries in any field other than craftsmanship. And in that field I’d rank myself first. My sentences are the best-shaped of any sentences written by any writer of fiction in the English language during my lifetime. The previous sentence is a fair average sample of my prose.
Coupled with this sure sense of his own abilities as a writer, Murnane demonstrates a keen willingness, even within his fiction – and particularly in A Million Windows – to deride superficial and careless narration or habituated critical biases in favour of his own ‘considered’ approach (characterised by a strong narrator who avoids abstract language, overused phrasing and hostile self-reflexivity). Murnane’s narrator tells us: ‘I’ve lived long enough to see that critics are affected by fashion’ and mocks the ‘renegades’ who ‘seem to have learned long ago the advantages of evasiveness or, perhaps, of using expressions such as beautifully written or moving or powerful in order to hide their ignorance of the craft of fiction.’
Some readers or critics or judges of literary prizes might resent having their acuity or competence or literary tastes questioned within a work of fiction. Others may bristle at having their roles usurped by a writer who seeks to define the terms upon which his fiction should be judged. Perhaps this is partly why A Million Windows is yet to win an award in Australia: alongside its other qualities, the novel is a barely veiled assault on a literary culture that seems, to Murnane, to lack critical rigour.
Murnane’s fiction has always represented a challenge to conventional tastes. It unsettles readers’ worldviews and easy assumptions. To read and understand his sentences requires steady concentration and an appreciation of syntactic, conceptual and emotional nuances, and inhabiting his fiction demands a willingness to immerse oneself in an unfamiliar landscape, attuned to an alien-seeming logic. In addition, since the publication of Velvet Waters (1990) Murnane’s frustrations as a writer, and his sense of neglect, have been embedded his work. Murnane has occasionally emphasised, and in some cases sought to justify, his various fictional quirks and directly challenged more accepted literary habits. The following passage from A Million Windows – in which the narrator describes the author’s use of images in his fiction – is a good example:
He, our author, is likely to be aware of not more than a few clustered images or even one image. Sometimes, the image may be complex and may seem to yield some of its meaning almost at first sight, as, for example, an image of a castle with each room occupied by a character from some or another film; sometimes, the image may be simple and may seem to be of scant meaning as, for example, an image of a window-pane coloured gold by the afternoon sunlight. Whatever sort of image the author has in mind, he feels a certain feeling seeming to emanate from the image. The feeling is persistent, intense, and sometimes troubling, and yet, at the same time, promising. When the author first becomes aware of this feeling, he might seem to receive the same sort of wordless message that sometimes reaches him from some or another image-person or image-object in some or another dream. He seems to receive wordlessly the message: Write about me in order to discover my secret and to learn what a throng of images, as yet invisible, lie around me. (Is even the least discerning reader surprised to learn how different are our methods from those of the numerous group that we call, contemptuously, the paraphrasers of yesterday’s newspaper headlines: those who write, often with what is praised as moral indignation or incisive social commentary, about matters that none of us in this building has ever understood, let alone wanted to comment on?)
Murnane has been as forthright as a writer can be about what he strives to achieve in his fiction, and what he hopes to avoid. Here is a man who, when he was a creative writing instructor and lecturer, fashioned the most rigorous, concrete and transparent grading system he could devise, and would often spend hours evaluating each of his students’ stories. Murnane wasn’t concerned with objective merit so much as transparency: he wanted his students to know exactly what he expected from them and to understand precisely how their work was being judged. As someone with a working class background who attended a Catholic school with no library and a largely incompetent and untrained teaching staff, and as someone who felt alienated during his early years at university because the conventions of tertiary education were obscure to him, Murnane has always sought transparency and fairness. The rules of the game should be clear to everyone, and they should be scrutinised.
Those who are familiar with the workings of a prize panel at any level will know how difficult it is to build the consensus required to award a writer of unusual fiction a major literary prize (I assume ‘slightly autistic’ fiction hasn’t caught on as a descriptor of Murnane’s work), but that there could be a broad agreement to exclude Murnane from every Mile Franklin shortlist he has been eligible for, and then to exclude him from this year’s longlist – surely that kind of consensus is also difficult to build? Is it simply the case that an uncommon level of originality, alongside glimpses of his idiosyncratic inner life, disqualifies Murnane from such mainstream recognition? Maybe the judges believe that his best work is far behind him, or that he simply doesn’t sell enough books to warrant serious consideration?
Murnane’s pronouncements about fictional space and narrative time in A Million Windows are reminiscent of a deadpan Jorge Luis Borges, and his descriptions of private horse racing games and a systematised process for composing erotic fiction will bemuse many readers, but perhaps the most awkward and idiosyncratic aspect of his recent novels is their reiteration of a mystical conception of fiction. Murnane generally shies away from direct confessions of a mystical sensibility, but it is a vital part of his major fiction from Inland onwards, despite the seeming reluctance of critics to acknowledge or engage with it.
Early in A Million Windows we learn that the novel’s most cautiously introduced Murnane-like figure (“a certain male personage”) has a firm belief in the fictional afterlife:
For him, the personages who had first appeared while he was reading some or another fictional text were no less alive after the text itself had come to an end than while he had pored over it…. In the years when he would have been called an adolescent, certain personages who owed their existence to his having read certain details into certain works of fiction seemed not only closer to him than any of his family or his friends but closer even than the divine or sanctified personages that he believed to be watching his every deed and thought. Not only did the fictional personages, so to call them, seem closer than the religious, so to call them, but whereas the religious seemed ready always to judge him or to censure him, the fictional world seemed to want no more from him than that he should side with them rather than with the religious, even though his doing so would earn him not eternal salvation but the right to live with them, the fictional ones, for perhaps no more than a few days of their peculiar, immeasurable version of time.
If this is a confession it is a radically displaced one, presented through a series of narrative filters: an implied author’s narrator’s account of a fictional-personage’s childhood reading experience. We can pretend to take the authorial intention to heart and avoid fully equating the ‘certain male personage’ with Murnane, but discerning and undiscerning readers alike will privately guess that this was the flesh-and-blood author’s experience of fiction as a child, and that it is probably ongoing.
When I asked Murnane about his mystical side, he reiterated what he once said in an essay: ‘I’d be likely to offend readers more if I said that I had a belief in another world than if I said I voted for John Howard and Tony Abbott, which I didn’t, or that I’d had a conviction for some kind of sexual deviancy.’
Despite Murnane’s wariness, his latest novel gives voice to a mystical sensibility. A Million Windows reaffirms his reputation for scrupulous literary semanticism, on the one hand, but its final pages also traverse fictional and remembered landscapes, culminating – with impossible subtlety and uncanny power – in something approaching a mental stigmata. It might be tedious to claim that it is among the best books published anywhere in the last decade, but a note I made on the final page of my reviewer’s copy a year ago still seems true to me now: There is no more astonishing work of fiction than this.
Something for the Pain: A Memoir of the Turf is as idiosyncratic as anything Murnane has written to date, but it is also a radical departure from what he calls ‘true fiction’. Focussing on his lifelong passion for horse racing, the memoir features a series of straightforward personal recollections and accounts of his interest in seemingly marginal aspects of the sport. As Murnane explained to me: ‘The horse book was the easiest thing I’ve ever written. I wasn’t as fussy about semantics. I used language as though I was writing an article for a newspaper. I’m still very pleased with it but I haven’t fussed over it in the same way. It’s not hard to read. No one will stop and think, now I have to read that sentence again.’
Murnane’s mysticism comes to the fore again in one of the collection’s best stories, ‘Reward for Effort’, which is partly about a miraculous horse race. This account is drawn from a larger store of inexplicable personal experiences, all of them recorded and collected in Murnane’s Csodák (‘Miracles’) folder, which is stored in his Chronological Archive.
When I asked about that folder and his belief in an invisible world, Murnane was initially reticent. ‘It’s not our business to bother too much about whatever is waiting for us after our death,’ he said. ‘I don’t see it as our business to wonder. Our business it to mow the grass and do the dishes, to get our haircut every few weeks and talk to each other and keep institutions going. The world’s work is a lovely expression. I like to think that we should spend more time on the world’s work than on these speculations. Anything I’ve written in my Csodák folder has been written under compulsion. I’ve observed something that I can’t not record. There are about forty or fifty such episodes. I don’t like talking about them because they only make sense to me. I wouldn’t want anyone to feel that I was trying to convince them of anything, but I feel safe in saying that these recorded episodes – the miracles – have persuaded me that death isn’t the end of things, and we might even discover after death that this immense and manifold thing that we call reality was just a visible trace of a much larger, ongoing development.’
The recursiveness of Murnane’s fiction seems, therefore, to have as much to do with authorial discretion as formal prohibition or play. Murnane has preferred to reveal those parts of himself – the purer parts – only indirectly. With Something for the Pain, Murnane abandons this wary approach. Within it’s pages he addresses readers not through the prism of a highly developed and patterned fiction, but in something closer to his everyday voice. In his memoir we meet the man I spoke with in the Goroke Hotel; in his fiction we encounter a figure from another world entirely.