In the Room with Gerald Murnane
You academic types sure know how to make a simple thing complicated.
Gerald Murnane, Goroke, December 2017
At a recent and highly irregular literary conference, a silver-haired professor explained that he had come to acquire his reputation by making of books ‘what others had made of religion.’ The conference at which the silver-haired professor made this utterance was unusual for a number of reasons – the most obvious being that it was taking place at a small golf club in rural Victoria, and that Gerald Murnane was working the bar. Adding to the strangeness of Murnane’s presence, within the boxed confines of the club’s bar, was the fact that the author’s work was the central subject of the event’s presentations. Each academic who stood behind the Rotary Club lectern to give their talk would have to handle the intense activity of the author, busying himself in the background with the club’s ledger, cleaning glasses, and helping the ladies in the kitchen prepare the scones and jam.
Gerald, as attendees adjusted to calling the author, attempted to ease the tension of the situation by having the convener, another professor from Sydney, read the following announcement before the event’s commencement:
Gerald Murnane wishes to inform you that he will be available to listen to some of the papers today, but he does not feel obliged to be present for all the presentations, and may come and go at varying intervals. He would like it to be known that he is licensed to serve alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, and that the bar will be open for both from 12 noon onwards, with the bar’s license permitting service until midnight. Anyone wishing to purchase an alcoholic drink will be required to sign the club’s ledger located on the bar. While there, Gerald would like to invite you to read a three thousand word palindrome that he has composed, located on the opposite side of the bar.
With the tension in the atmosphere of the room thus eased for the assembled fifty or so conference attendees (the golf club’s maximum occupancy being somewhere close to this number), a series of talks began on the many intricacies of an author whose reputation was such, that he had managed to draw at least those fifty pilgrims from every corner of the country to a town four hours’ drive from the nearest major airport.
The night before the conference I slept in a cabin outside a hotel in a town best known for its sizable rock, and ate a parmigiana larger than the plate on which it was served. At the table with me were three academics who had just arrived from Sydney and Perth, respectively. One of them, a lecturer from Sydney University who had met Murnane once before, claimed that the ecological structures beneath Murnane’s writing were largely influenced by an early religious education, despite the implied author’s assertion in the works themselves that this aspect of his mental imagery had long ago lapsed into a kind of incidental apprehension. By the end of our meals, as the bistro filled with families and the barking from the high-ceilinged bar began to grow intrusive to our chatter, we discovered that all four of us were Catholics of various degrees of practice, though we each went to our cabins without further comment on this coincidence.
Toward the end of the conference, a bearded academic with an American accent pointed out that most critical responses to Murnane’s latest (and rumoured final) publication, Border Districts, had missed the obvious connection between its opening paragraph and the opening of The Plains, the author’s most canonical work.
Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes, and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression.
This opening pledge to explain a resolution, the bearded academic with the American accent pointed out, is unmistakably a self-reference to the opening lines of The Plains, but with the essential difference that the latter begins with the narrator resolving to ‘keep (his) eyes open’, rather than guarded. The opening of Border Districts, the bearded academic argued, was in a sense a revision of The Plains, and this implied that, despite the author’s insistence that there had been no overarching intent behind the trajectory of his works, there might be an inexhaustible form of intention at work in his oeuvre, retrospectively repurposing the themes and images of the earlier publications.
Well before hearing this complex analysis, I had decided my own presence at the conference was an error of judgment. For one thing, I’d taken the place of an academic who’d dropped out late in the proceedings, and had subsequently supplied my name as an interested party. The academic who’d dropped out was aware of several books by Murnane stacked in a pile by my bedside, but what the academic did not know was that the earmarks and annotations in the books she had observed rarely progressed all the way from cover to cover. Efficiency is not my forte as a reader – I am cursed with the inability to finish the books wherein I find the greatest pleasure. The writing I most enjoy tends to get me so exercised by its effects that I am soon deep in a fugue state of mind, a kind of dissociative wandering from which I am required to return before I can come back to the page which started me off in the first place. No sooner have I read a sentence or two of this stimulating prose, which seems to awaken some novelty of consciousness in me, than I find that I have spent the afternoon hours pacing back and forth about the house, the book which started the whole thing in motion having been long abandoned on a bench in the hallway.
In academic circles this does not count as an acceptable defence for canonical negligence, which is no small failure to be sure. Among the Styrofoam and scones, one attendee asked another the name of Murnane’s favourite racehorse, and the filly’s name rolled off her tongue in response, no hesitation. Another asked me if I’d seen ‘the church’ while driving through town.
‘What church?’ I asked.
‘Isn’t that your copy of Border Districts?’ she asked me, pointing to an uncorrected proof I’d been clutching through the afternoon. ‘The one in the book,’ she said, somewhat unnecessarily.
There’s nothing superior about a critic who does not know their material, and there’s no excuse for professional readers whose memories for fiction are faulty, but I’d hoped my usual need to plaster over lapses in attention would be less laborious in the company of readers who’d come together to celebrate the work of a writer whose implied author freely admits a failure to ‘follow plots and comprehend the motives of characters’ in the novels he’d read, a trait he once again asserts in the early pages of Border Districts, and one which endeared the author to me for all eternity when I first came across it in Barley Patch, where the narrator justifies his own haphazard textual memory by explaining that ‘a person who claims to remember having read one or another book is seldom able to quote from memory even one sentence from the text. What the person probably remembers is part of the experience of having read the book: part of what happened in his or her mind during the hours while the book was being read.’ For the narrator of Murnane’s latest work, the ‘image-world’ of his ‘inner seeing’ during the act of reading is ‘often only slightly connected with the text in front of my eyes; anyone privy to my seeming-sights might have supposed I was reading some barely recognisable variant of the text, a sort of apocrypha of the published work.’ Doubly so, Murnane’s narrator explains, when it comes to the texts and books that intend to explain the inner workings of ‘the mind’ through ego, id and archetype. To these ‘drab’ attempts to understand the mental plane, Murnane’s narrator responds that he suspects his own mental territories must surely be ‘paradise by comparison.’
When the bearded academic with the American accent asked my thoughts on the work from which I’ve quoted above, I could only respond that Murnane’s writing seemed to me an extension of lapsed religious liturgy – though it was hard to explain what I meant by that.
On the drive home from the conference, I passed through a flurry of migrating butterflies erupting from the yellow grasses by the roadside. While their white bodies burst against the windscreen like puffs of chalk I realised that I could not give even a partial account of the ecstatic sense of Murnane’s writing, as it seems to me, without beginning somewhere else altogether.
Many months ago, before I had the good sense to scrub myself clean of all social media, I came upon a post by an apprentice writer who was already well-known in local literary circles. Like all digital media the post was a complex arrangement of coloured pixels populated by a root logic of zeros and ones. I admit to knowing almost nothing about this esoteric relationship of numbers and colours, or the process by which they are transmitted over networks of copper or fibre optics – in this instance, the divisions of the zeros and ones and their transmission over the vast networks of cables and ethereal waves assembled on the small screen of my smartphone, in the form of thin black letters grouped into words, which were themselves ordered by an unseen intelligence abiding, from a distance, by the rules of our universal language, as dictated by the English strain of its external expression. These English words were transposed within a space beneath a square indicating the so-called ‘profile’ area of meaning on the electronic page, within which was displayed an image of a digital photograph of the apprentice writer’s face. The transmitted display of this photograph-image appeared to have been captured outside, originally, in the golden light of a warm afternoon, and the qualities of the subject’s beauty were evident even within the limitations of the square at the uppermost corner of the borders of my little screen. She appeared to be caught in a moment of joy – her mouth open and her bronze skin bathed in the gold-rust glow of the afternoon’s fall.
The square in which her image was contained was arranged next to a rectangular border of apposite meaning, itself an arrangement in relation to a series of similarly boxed arenas of formal order, all of them containing their own transmissions of words and images through the electric alchemy of esoteric zeros and ones. In the rectangle adjacent to the image of the apprentice writer’s face, indicating a kind of authorship over any nearby properties, the following observation was transmitted in tiny black letters within the rectangular confines displayed on the square of my little screen: ‘Writers obsess with writers, and thereby forego an ever more interesting world.’ Beneath this transmission, according, as I surmised, to a three-digit number displayed inside a box within the rectangle containing the words quoted above, were several hundred similar rectangles, all currently invisible, containing what promised to be transmissions of messages sent in response to the first message. These rectangles of response were not visible on my little screen because the logic of the system was designed for maximum usability, and so in order to make these ancillary message rectangles appear, I would be required to touch with my fingertip, a small arrangement of zeros and ones depicting an arrow lodged beneath the three-digit number displayed in the corner of the rectangle containing the original remark, at which, the arenas of meaning displayed on my little screen would rearrange their complex borders so that several screen-lengths containing transmissions of similar rectangles in a dialogical proximity to each other would instantaneously appear underneath the original rectangle, with transmissions of faces in boxes beside the replies in keeping with the formal authorial indices with which the first message was likewise appropriated.
For reasons which I could not at the time of encountering this transmission explain, reading the message about ‘writers obsessed with writers’, in a rectangular display bordered beside a box containing an image of an apprentice writer caught in the fine golden light of an afternoon experiencing a moment of apparently unselfconscious joy displayed on the digital slate of my little screen, caused in me a kind of psychic distress, an intense eruption of angst. Many months since having encountered this transmission, I now suspect I know what it was that caused such a strong emotional reaction to what might, to the next person, seem no more than an innocent observation on the condition of writing and writers in relation to the wider world. It is not easy, however, to translate my suspicion about my reaction, except that the internal upheaval I experienced on reading the transmission about writers’ obsessions and the world at large is one related to a deep internal circuitry in me associated with the concept of blasphemy – an encounter with something ontologically profane despite its intent – though I would not have been able to conceive of it as such at the time.
Even now, after many months of reflection, I am not sure how to articulate the relationship between blasphemy and the idea of literature without providing another earlier experience of the sort of dissonant dread which I now consider the result of encountering what I then understood to be unholy profanity. In a bookshop in Newtown, seven years since I’d left the inner-city to live in the outer suburbs, I stepped into a bright, orderly shop called ‘Better Read Than Dead’ to see what books were being promoted by the staff who worked there. I had visited this clean, narrow shop with its calm, blue-green storefront many times before during the years when I lived in the inner-west. Always I entered the store with the same intention: to learn the opinions of the store’s staff on the particular books they were at that time promoting, and to check those opinions with my own response to the first few lines of those books. Learning the opinions of the store’s staff on the books being promoted involved no direct human intercourse, something which would have rendered me mute with depths of anxiety – it was, rather, a simple matter of reading the handwritten reviews that the staff members had signed and placed beneath the books on the promotional shelf. On the same shelf, above the books the staff had read and reviewed were the books that had sold well that week, with numbered squares on top of the shelves indicating which books had sold the best, with the number (1) indicating the biggest seller of the week’s big sellers, and the number (10) being the lowest of the week’s best sellers. On the occasion I entered this bookshop, many years after having left the inner city for the outer suburbs, I picked from these shelves a book containing a compendium of short stories written by students enrolled in the University of Technology Sydney’s creative writing department. The collection was titled The UTS Writers Anthology. I cannot now remember whether this book was located on the bestseller shelf, or whether I was opening it to compare my own reaction to its contents to an account written and lodged beneath the book by the store’s staff.
In the opening pages of the book I found an introduction by a writer who was at the time very popular, and who had recently won several awards for her latest work, though, as I’m sitting in the outer suburbs writing this account, I cannot recall either her name or the name of her award-winning collection. At the end of her introduction, most of which I have forgotten, the following remark was printed on the rough recycled paper of the anthology: ‘Reading fiction is perhaps one of the few remaining secular paths to transcendence—that elusive state in which the distance between self and universe shrinks, long symbolised in literature and philosophy by a blue flower.’
Reading these words some years after I left the inner city for the outer suburbs, where I am now writing this account, I can recall a vague sense of the sickening looseness I experienced, in the distance between myself and the rough recycled page on that particular afternoon in the narrow neatness of the bookshop; a kind of motion-sickness in the still confines before the borders of the neat, blue shelves. Such was the intensity of the feeling that it seemed I had to reach a long way to put the book back in its place. I felt as though I might lose my footing in the reach. It is by no means obvious to me now, reflecting on the words from which this reaction was provoked, where precisely, in those thin lines printed upon the rough page, the source of that disorienting shock might be located, but I recall that I felt, vaguely, at the time, that the author of those words about the blue flower had taken some mental image of a sacred doorway between one world and another, and had pressed it between the pages of her introduction, so that some impression of its diffused essence had lifted from the materiality of the page and wounded my sense of reality, stranded as I was, momentarily, between the world of the page and the real.
Sitting in my old house on the hill in the western suburbs, in the heat of a twenty-first-century summer, with the rotating fan shaking the wilted leaves of the pot plants by the back door, I cannot recall how I dealt with my encounter with the words about the blue flower, written in the collection I have mentioned discovering in the narrow confines of the Newtown bookshop many years ago. When I run through the many clipped reels of memories linked to the mental image of the narrow store and the words on the page and the cyan shelves, in search of lost time, all my attempts to follow the reader I once was, as he retreats from the book he has placed back upon the shelf, begin to unravel. I see him, thinner and fuller of hair, as he passes beyond the glass doors of the store, and the mental projection of what that afternoon might have looked like, leaps up and turns the memory to fiction, a scene assembled from cinematic clichés, of a slow rising-away from the busy pedestrian parade of Newtown’s streets, the parapets of shops built beyond living memory, and the reader who I once was, lost in the bright crowd forever passing along King Street, into the train station and the cafés, the hotels and bazaars.
Far easier, less fictional to recall, is my own reaction to the more recent encounter with the social media message I began this odd divergence by addressing: I came upon this transmission as I was sitting on the couch in the lounge-room, and as the distress provoked by the post about ‘writers obsessing about writers’ flooded my being, I leapt from the couch, tossed the offending phone into the cushions, and fled to the bedroom, where I sought sanctuary behind the always-closed blinds, to consider the ‘ever more interesting world’ the young author had described. I hazarded a peek between the blinds of my dark little room, and took the time to examine the unlettered streets of my mountain town atop the outskirts of our city – in which, both city and room – I had spent the majority of my life, excepting some brief and foolish sojourns in the east.
Through the blinds the street was satisfactorily uninteresting. Directly outside the window a curved strip of road ran sharply across the top of our molehill suburb. For many years the curve of the road meant that it was customary for me to wake in the night to a sound not unlike an explosion just outside my window, to pull open the blinds in half-wakefulness and observe cars overturned in a wreck of broken wire fences and savaged tree trunks, the halos of headlights pointing directly into the windows of our house, the wheels still slowly spinning in the darkness as someone crawled out of the twisted door onto sheets of broken glass, their limping figure disappearing into the night while the neighbours turned on their porch lights and waited in their pyjamas and singlets for the police and tow-trucks to come and clear the air with their blue and red lights and their searching torches.
The street I observed through the blinds after reading the comment from the young writer on social media contained no such drama. It was a mild afternoon in September, and I observed only a few features of that familiar territory: the hood of a white Hyundai parked on the lawn coroneted with jacaranda blooms, thick oleander stems lurching in the breeze with their knotted brown heads out of flower, and beyond them the sepulchral grey and brown concrete slabs of homes that inner-city critics would call McMansions, with spiked-steel gates and fences around their borders like barbican defences extending to the edge of the curb. Passing through this suburban scenery was an ancient man on a motorised chair, rolling down the sloped curve of the road at what seemed to me a demented abandonment to speed, the little red flag on the back of his vehicle fluttering atop the bending antenna, his long red socks high on his corrugated calves.
Having observed nothing in particular of interest through the window, apart from the old man on his motorised chair, I felt reconciled to the impression that there was something mistaken about the claim I had read from the young author, that the world outside words, the so-called real world, was perpetually increasing in its degree of interestingness. The absence of interesting elements outside permitted me to give a nervous shrug to no one, and to turn my attention to the stunted walls of books that I had stacked about the room. I looked at the covers and assorted shapes of the novels and collections assembled and stacked into strange totems about the room, that I had been unwilling to see when I entered, as though to look at them with troubling associations in my mind before checking on the outside world, would introduce an uncomfortable impurity into their materials, which it might later be difficult or impossible for me to expunge.
The piles of books are like the stones placed at the points of a septagram star, warding evil from the borders of my bed. In the dust of childhood, in the room where I slept in the bunk beneath my younger brother, watching the springs of his mattress tick and clink as he moved fitfully in the night, I lay awake in an insomniac’s decade-long pervigllium, retreating from sleep to escape the night-terror paralysis that plagued bed times, fretful always of my mother’s teaching that a stray devil crept about the house in the dark, and could strangle us in our sleep were we to lose our wits.
Sleeplessness was my defence against this in-between world of sleep and terror, inhabited as it was by the threat of opportunistic demons. As any hyper-insomniac can attest, the upper limits of long-time exhaustion are also peopled by diabolical figures – shadow men most common of all, appearing in the deprived vision at the periphery of sight in those who reject rest. Otherworldly phenomena also accrue in weeks without sleep – walls slant and rotate, lights begin to gesticulate, stars seen from the window seem to move at the will of mental command, sounds increase their sharpness among other oddities of misapprehended experience. The strangest of all was the sense that would impress itself upon me at the height of all exhaustion, a feeling of great emotional presence accompanied by the sensation that what was uniting all things, in some unspeakable dreadfulness, was a structure of immense proportions balanced delicately upon the most fragile spindles, like a great castle seen from the sky, thick at its towers and thin along its walls, suspended sideways in an infinitude of empty space. The feeling this image provoked ran simultaneously through my fingers and throat and wrung such heavy tears from me as to leave me sobbing in the sheets.
When Kafka writes, ‘It is not alertness but self-oblivion that is the precondition to writing’, I suspect I understand what he means. When I first began to read, which is itself a kind of writing, it was to escape the immense wasteland of sleeplessness. There were no smart-phones or tablet devices to numb the disorientations of the mind then, and so I turned to the forgiveness of my stepfather’s book collection. Fantasy, for the most part, made up the supply – each novel more alike than the last: an elf, a dwarf, and a man with a sword and a romance subplot. One series, whose name I have long since forgotten, followed a band of wizard-folk who waged a guerrilla war to save their lands from an evil sorcerer. For the most part, they camped out in the forest and cooked skinned rabbits over an open fire, and made stews in pots with salted meats, while the bearded old wizard argued with his witch-wife, their bickering inevitably ending with the wizard sighing and saying ‘Yes dear’ while the companions smirked knowing smiles. For a child of a broken home, who had no reason to disbelieve the scripture teachers who said that we would not see our parents in heaven if they failed to uphold the sanctity of marriage, these fictional marital disputes were a torturous distraction.
On these endless nights with the strange square device of the paperback pressed into the pillow, body bent over it like some ascetic yogi frozen in meditative prayer, I traced the thin shapes of the letters on the page and felt the images of the novel’s story running through my mind like a film, while I edited these images into a secondary story, on the fly; one in which I inserted myself into the narrative and changed its destiny. At the campsites, with the rabbits roasting on their ad hoc spits, I’d enter from the dark of the woods, a powerful wizard myself, and admonish the magical married couple for their petty bickering, ‘The world is at war!’ I’d screech at them both with a booming voice, eyes glowering with a great wizard’s obvious potency, ‘Can’t you see your real enemy is out there – not here between each other!’
When the writer of this series of novels, the title of which I have long ago forgotten, eventually revealed that he had co-written the books with his wife, adding her name to the cover of all subsequent releases, I felt an enormous sense of betrayal. All this time, the marital tensions of these magical characters had been a surrogate for the supposedly real relationship of the author and his wife. It had all been a fake, a meaningless device! To discover such cheap self-insertions passed off as genuine fantasy disgusted this young reader, and I turned my back forever on the kind of fiction that Murnane calls ‘film-script fiction’, that vein of fiction that is solely aimed at creating in the mind of its readers a certain series of imaginary scenes. It was a sin, I decided, to bear false witness, even in a world of pure imagination.
All of this, these unimportant eccentricities of an early readership, I would never have allowed myself to remember were it not for the work of Gerald Murnane and the permission that his acclaim grants to all that he has deemed to record in his volumes.
When the narrator of Munane’s Barley Patch recalls a mystery novel called Brat Farrar that he read as a child, the images of its green paddocks and part of a homestead shaded by trees, he recalls that he likewise felt ‘as though I moved among the characters.’ Though he could not, as I had done in my own interjections into the world of fantasy, alter the events of the novels he read, he was ‘free to take advantage of the seeming gaps in the narrative.’ The ‘unreported whole days, months, years even’, which are conventionally skipped in any given novel, were open territory for Murnane’s narrator to occupy at will with a version of himself, free to ‘observe and admire’ the landscapes those fictions offered.
The narrator of Border Districts, as the bearded academic with the American accent would likely have noticed in his reading of the book, expands on this image of a narrator reading a version of himself into the novels he encounters – this time with the narrator not remembering the experience directly, but rather imagining a man who is remembering himself as young reader. The portrait supplied by the narrator is of a man who recalls that, from an early age, he began to experience the snatches of fiction he glimpsed in the many novels his parents left by their bedside, as parts of a never-ending book made up from apparently disparate fictions. The books his parents borrowed from the local shopping centre library were all connected to the one imaginative space, ‘a far-reaching landscape of pale-green meadows interspersed with patches of dark-green woodland’.
Each meadow was bordered with flowering hedgerows. In each woodland were paths leading past banks overgrown by wildflowers with appealing names. Here and there in the landscape were large houses of two and more storeys and with numerous chimneys. Each house was surrounded by a spacious formal garden at the far end of which was a park with an ornamental lake. Each large house was occupied for the time being not only by several of the latest generations of the family that had owned the house for several centuries but also by a sort of floating population of youngish men and women who were distant relatives of the owners of the house or who had been recommended to the owners by some or another friend of a distant relative in a city that might have been named London and was no more than a conjectured smoky blur far away past the furthest of the pale-green meadows.
Despite the various and differing populations of this ever-present landscape, the man the narrator of Border Districts imagines to be remembering his youthful reading can recall only two: ‘a young male character and a young female character.’ Anyone else has been forgotten.
These ‘reports’ of a narrator who imagines a man who remembers dimensions of fiction are themselves not fictions – the narrator of Border Districts insists that we are reading an account of ‘seemingly fictional matters’ rather than a formal fiction per se. The narrator assures his readers of this in the context of failing to remember a quote from Proust ‘purporting to explain why the bond between reader and fictional character is closer than any bond between flesh-and-blood persons.’ Unable to uncover the quotation from his files, the narrator offers us his own explanation: ‘sometimes, while reading a work of fiction, I seem to have knowledge of what it would be to have knowledge of the essence of some or another personality.’
Murnane’s narrator seems in the above passages of Border Districts to argue for a profound truthfulness in fiction, but also places the narration itself outside fiction’s confines, and so it is somewhat unclear if the truthfulness of fiction through a series of ‘seeming knowledge’ is also claimed by Murnane’s own work.
The conference in the golf club in rural Victoria ended with an address from Gerald Murnane titled ‘The Still-Breathing Author’, in which he described himself as a ‘technical writer’. Although Murnane is a pedantic grammarian, it is not clear to me in what sense his work is ‘technical’, and the author’s own explanation of this label, ‘I mean by this that my work as a writer is to search for the sentences that will most accurately describe the mental imagery that is my only available subject-matter’, seems perversely idiosyncratic. Whether or not the reader believes the narrator of Border Districts, that his work is about ‘seemingly fictional matters’, there is no doubt that the ideal of an essential truth is central to an understanding of the author’s work. As evidence for this, there is the author’s own assertion that it was Jack Kerouac who gave him the technical capacity to move from a reader of grand internal landscapes to an author of such spaces. Here is Murnane, in an essay from Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, describing his first encounter with On the Road:
The book was like a blow to the head that wipes out all memory of the recent past. For six months after I first read it I could hardly remember the person I had been beforehand.
For six months I believed I had all the space I needed. My own personal space, a fit setting for whatever I wanted to do, was all around me wherever I looked…my space coincided at last with the place that was called the real world. But the world was much wider than most people suspected. I saw this because I saw as the author of On the Road saw. Other people saw the same streets of the same Melbourne that had always surrounded them. I saw the surfaces of those streets cracking open and broad avenues rising to view. Other people saw the same maps of Australia or America. I saw the coloured pages swelling like flower buds and new, blank maps unfolding like petals.
Is it mere coincidence that it was Kerouac, the most Catholic of Great American Writers, whose ecstatic landscapes opened the imaginative plains to Murnane? Kerouac himself suffered deeply from an authorial uncertainty until he deigned that his duty toward writing was to tell, directly, the truth as he lived it. It was some conception of the Truth that drove Kerouac to write his novel about ‘Two Catholic buddies in search of God’ in On the Road, a work on his experiences traversing America in the forties. It is the characteristically ornate aesthetic of Catholicism that permeates the work of both these great writers, an aesthetic that is in essence an attempt to express the experience of an infinite, divine creativity present in the material world. Both Murnane and Kerouac attempt in their works to distil the unfathomable depths of finite matter through an ecstasy of revelation and praise.
In its logic this aesthetic is compatible with the pantheist conception of the world that Murnane aligned himself with in his talk at the end of the conference in the golf club in rural Victoria. Where Kerouac was ecstatically open to the passionate embrace of everything and everyone, the great ‘IT’ of a Dionysian Christ – punctuated by depths of confessional sorrow and suffering – Murnane’s passionate witnessing is, as Border Districts begins by attesting, performed with saint-like constraint. While On the Road ends with a climactic bacchanalian orgy in a Mexican bordello, the jukebox playing so loud that the walls shake and the actors are drenched in sweat, the crescendos of Border Districts, by contrast, are purer, peripheral discoveries of surprising interconnectedness. In one of the most intensely focused accumulations in the book, Murnane manages to connect a marble, an eye, a book cover and a kaleidoscope with a ray of light – pinning these elements together with such gathered emotional intensity that its sudden culmination in a series of names of colours verges on an imagistic symphony. The minute dimensions of these ordinary objects are explored with such tenacious and elemental prose that the relational meaning they bring together, pierced by a ray of light, is a clear expression of an interconnected and complex transcendental plane. The narrator who witnesses this act of relational meaning is the curator of the guarded eye, the mystic who can gather the heralding of apparently meaningless parts into an infinite whole.
This climax into the purity of colours, ‘Crimson lake, burnt umber, ultramarine…deep cadmium, geranium lake, imperial purple, parchment…’, is immediately followed by a counterpoint transition in the narrative, into a long discussion of the link between patterns of colour and the specificity of particular moods. Certain shades of red, forgotten, represent, so the narrator of Border Districts tells us, a loss of whole associations in memory and experience. It is in this passage too that we learn that our narrator has long understood maturity as something to do with conforming to boundaries, however arbitrary. He tells us how, as a child, he had sought to impress his elders by conceiving of certain parts of his immediate environment as categorically out of bounds. Soon the narrative breaks again, and we are told the narrator has just returned to his writing having spent some time in the city. The journey from the city to the border town is itself a temptation of associations – the narrator, failing to guard his eye, is caught up in an immense digression of connectedness: images related to landscape are dislocated by street signs, and these ensnare him in an unsolicited chain of thoughts, leading to the recitation of the names and heraldry of racing families and their various geographical connections structured in a manner reminiscent of certain biblical genealogical lists. It is only another return, to the calm purity of colour, which is able to interrupt this propagation of uninvited associations: the narrative flow of these thoughts is soothed by the narrator’s admiration for ‘any person who could rely on a single colour or shade to represent him and his family.’ It is this simplicity and purity which holds the narrator in thrall:
I knew something of heraldry. I had studied in colour plates in books numerous images of coats-of-arms. But none of these complex patterns had affected me as did the assertion by some or another so-called aristocrat that he needed no chevron or fess nor any quarterings of gules or vert or argent; that he challenged any inquirer into the nuances and subtleties of his character or his preferences or his history to read those matters from a jacket and a pair of sleeves and a cap of defiant simplicity.
In part the pleasure this purity gives to the narrator is the thought that he might himself one day ‘light upon one or another shade or hue that would declare to the world as much I cared to declare of my own invisible attributes.’
It is this principled pleasure in purity and simplicity which divides the Catholic Kerouac from the ‘technical’ Murnane. Kerouac – who drank himself to death at the age of 47, whose final work was perhaps the longest suicide note ever published, who could not live the life he affirmed in his work – believed he found God on his travels. Murnane, by contrast, when asked at the conference by the silver-haired professor how it was that he had poured so much imagery into the plains and yet they remained largely empty, explained his conception of his inner imaginary in terms not unlike these: ‘Within a house on the plains, there is a man downstairs in a large room reading a book that is part of a long series of books. A woman is there too, and she is reading the same series, but she is reading so intently that she has not noticed the man’s arrival.’
‘How’s that for an answer?’ Murnane says to the professor.
For Murnane, it seems enough to be in the same room, even unnoticed, by some ideal other, let alone to see the face of God.
At the conference, a young biographer discussed the pleasures of being given access to Murnane’s famous archives, and in a recent essay, this same young biographer wondered how it could be that his subject had garnered so little acknowledgement from the literary establishment in the form of awards and titles. Was there, the young biographer suggested, some conspiracy of refusal behind the neglect Murnane had suffered through his career? I suspect that the truth is that there is something essential to the work itself that repels the threat of acknowledgement from any award or honour. When some or another guru called Kerouac ‘The Christ from Duluoz’, the author called it blasphemy, and it was in this moment that the title for the beat writer’s final, fatal novel The Vanity of Dulouz was born.
The conference, with its pilgrims and their words of praise, was the culmination of a writerly life lived in faith. Border Districts, beginning with a resolution to keep faith, ends in strict observance of this tenet. The narrator, explaining a distaste for the poet Shelley as ‘fatuous and affected’, explains that he nonetheless ‘foresaw, soon after I begun to write this report, that I would be compelled to include in it a certain two lines from some or another poem by Shelley: lines that I had once found merely decorative and without meaning but have remembered for more than fifty years in spite of myself.’ Murnane’s narrator supplies the lines, a poet quoting another, as Kerouac insisted Christ became on the cross, when he quoted a Psalm of David ‘like a poet remembering it by heart.’
The sun set over the flat sandy greens of the golf course as Murnane’s lower lip quivered and he thanked the speakers for their words, and spoke of the spirit that had kept him writing when he thought nothing on earth could compel him to continue. There was a strange change in the air, and the author admitted to feeling it too: ‘I didn’t expect you to win me over today…and basically you have.’ With that he retreated to the confines of the bar, to a round of applause, and for an hour or so, sold drinks and signed books. I stepped into the queue for a Carlton Draught with a copy of A Million Windows, and overheard a critic with a shaved head say, ‘I wonder if we will one day understand what we have here, in this man.’