Another World in this One: Encountering Gerald Murnane in Goroke

Murnane at his writing desk (from a 2012 profile in The Australian)

Goroke (pop. 623) is a town in the Wimmera region of Western Victoria, close to the South Australian border. It has been home to the writer Gerald Murnane since 2009. He is the secretary and bar manager of the Goroke Golf Club.

Murnane is not someone to provoke instant name recognition amongst most people, even readers of literary fiction, yet he is one of Australia’s greatest writers, a serious contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Since his first novel, Tamarisk Row (1974), he has published another twelve books. He has said that Border Districts, published this year, is his last book, but there are some other publications slated for the next few years.

I first read Murnane’s 1982 novel The Plains maybe a decade ago. It was a revelation, one of the few books that I’ve read that redefined my understanding of fiction and what it was possible to achieve with it. I raved about it to anyone who would listen. Since then I’ve explored his work in greater depth and while there are some of his works that I am yet to read, I can confidently assert that he is one of my favourite writers.

The opening lines of The Plains are remarkable:

Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.

Murnane’s search for meaning in the world and in the landscape of his mind is something that he has explored in the fascinating body of work that he has developed over the years. His voice is utterly unique.

It was with some excitement, therefore, that I discovered there was going to be a conference on Murnane’s work this year. Unlike your usual academic conference, this one was being held in Murnane’s home town, in the apparently rather prosaic location of the Goroke Golf Club. The conference was part of a larger ARC-funded project called Other Worlds: Forms of World Literature, a joint project between Western Sydney University and The University of Adelaide.

Now Goroke is a four and a half hour drive from Melbourne, so this wouldn’t be an easy undertaking, but I figured I had to give it a whirl, and luckily my colleague and friend Sam was also a fan and interested in going, so we decided to make a road trip of it and share the driving. We set out on Wednesday afternoon and navigated our way past the Giant Koala in Dadswell’s Bridge to the regional centre of Horsham, where we would stay the night.

The (helpfully labelled) Giant Koala — so tourists don’t think this is the regular size of koalas

We stayed at the Royal Hotel in Horsham, which was very nice and would no doubt be the place where Prince Harry and Meghan Markle would stay if they were ever in Horsham and fancied a chicken parma and a game of pool.

The Horsham accommodation of choice for the royal family (presumably).

Sam, by the way, turns out to be a gun pool player. Or maybe it was the fact that I was drinking beer and he wasn’t. Or maybe it’s just that I’m really bad at pool. At any rate, we called it quits after about four games, none of which I won, and went for a stroll down the rather quiet streets of Horsham.

Be wary when playing pool against this man.

The next morning, we set out for the Goroke Golf Club, another fifty minutes drive from Horsham, through the plains of the Wimmera and past the scenic Mount Arapiles. This was definitely the place that Murnane was writing about in Border Districts:

During the hours while I drove from the capital city to this township and back again, I tried to observe as much as possible of my surroundings. I hoped that my constantly glancing at the countryside, especially the long views available from hilltops and plateaus, would enable me later to arrange in my mind an approximation of a topographical map of the terrain between the city where I had lived for nearly sixty years and the township where I intended to spend the last years of my life. (76–77)

When we arrived at the golf club we were a little apprehensive, but we were greeted with tea and biscuits and mingled a little with the small crowd, who all turned out to be very friendly and approachable, several of the speakers taking the time to come over and introduce themselves. There would have only been about 25 people there all up, including the eight presenters, which is understandable given the remoteness of Goroke from major centres. I did recognise among the ‘crowd’ the writer Alexis Wright, who is part of the larger Other Worlds project, and the publisher at Text, Michael Heyward, who publishes some of Murnane’s work.

Goroke Golf Club, with one of the, er, ‘greens’

The event got underway with a bit of an introduction from Anthony Uhlmann, Director of the Writing and Society Research Centre at Western Sydney University and one of the organisers of the event. We also had a brief word from Gerald Murnane, who said he didn’t feel obliged to stick around for the whole event, and a reporter from the local paper (“Gerald thinks I’m more important than I really am”) tried to get him to smile for a photo (she failed).

The first segment featured two papers on Murnane’s most recent novel, one by Anthony Uhlmann (‘Report on the Mind in Border Districts’) and one by Emmett Stinson called ‘Intention and Retrospective Revision in Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts’). I was impressed that the two had been able to put together academic papers on this novel that had only been out for about a month. Uhlmann commented on the way the narrator in Murnane’s novel seeks to extract meaning for himself while at the same time creating it for his readers. He extrapolated on the short quote from Shelley’s poem ‘Adonais’ which closes the novel:

Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity

Uhlmann observed that the narrator gathers together the fragments of coloured glass that are his memories and is in some sense the opposite of Shelley in this respect. I also was struck by his observation that the picture of the mind in Murnane’s work resonates with the Stoics (a particular interest of mine over the past few years) and the image of a signet ring imprinting into wax as well as with Spinoza and the cognitive scientist Antonio Damasio.

Emmett Stinson, from the University of Newcastle, took a very different approach to Uhlmann, observing that most of Murnane’s ‘post-break’ works refer back to his earlier works in different ways. He saw this as a kind of self-reflexivity, revising the earlier work. He said that he wanted to make the ‘obviously stupid’ claim that there was a larger coherence to Murnane’s body of work. The stupidity lies in the fact that Murnane had little control over the published form of his earlier work, much of which was mutilated from his original conceptions. But Stinson saw Murnane’s oeuvre as an authorial attempt to give coherence to contingency, retrospectively making the incoherent coherent. He gave examples of a number of the correspondences between Border Districts and the earlier works, including the echoes in the opening sentences:

Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances. (The Plains)
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 this odd expression. (Border Districts)

In the later book the narrator is still looking for meaning behind appearances but by a different method, looking out the sides of his eyes instead of directly.

After a morning tea of scones and cakes, chats with more of the presenters and a look at a couple of items that Murnane had provided, it was time for the next group of presentations. I was excited to learn that the next presenter, Shannon Burns, is writing a literary biography of Murnane, to be published by Text in a couple of years. His fascinating talk, ‘Truth, Fiction and “True Fiction”: Approaching a Biography of Gerald Murnane,’ looked at the fluid boundary between fiction and life in Murnane’s work. He mentioned that academic critics usually caution against conflating the apparently autobiographical elements in Murnane’s novels with the life of the author, while non-academic critics usually read the novels as being obviously autobiographical. He observed that Murnane often uses lists, maps and other cues to arrive at a satisfying pattern before embarking on a work. He also suggested that a biography of Murnane, such as the one he is writing, needs to take into account his imagined life as well, as this is so important to him.

Suzie Gibson, in her talk titled ‘What Lies Between,’ concentrated on The Plains, observing that plains imply egalitarianism and a lack of hierarchies. Australian cities are located on the coast and look outward to Europe and the Americas instead of inward, to the plains. She suggested that one of the messages of the novel is that physical travel does not lead to wisdom but internal (mental) travel does.

The third speaker in this section was writer Luke Carman. A very entertaining speaker, he started with an anecdote about his publisher (not named in the talk, but he was referring to Ivor Indyk at Giramondo, who was in the room) trying to encourage him to read Gerald Murnane and not getting around to it for years but then having his mind blown. He returned to his publisher saying this guy writes just like me, only to be told, no, you’re nothing like Murnane. Carman’s speech was a much more personal response to Murnane’s work and a very welcome addition to the program.

The lunch break meant more time to mingle and chat with the speakers and attendees, including getting Murnane himself to serve me a beer from behind the bar(!). I asked him about a radio interview with him that we’d heard the day before, where he referred to critics not having the confidence in their own opinions, and he named the critics he’d been referring to, giving some more background on the poor reception of some of his earlier works. I also mentioned that I’d written a brief capsule review of A History of Books, but that it was a very favourable one… I also chatted with Ivor Indyk about the overseas publication of Murnane’s work, saying I knew a number of people online (via The Fictional Woods) who lived in Europe and the United States who were besotted with him as a writer. Indyk said that he had just found a UK publisher for Murnane and was perplexed that a publisher like Faber had recently agreed to publish Shaun Prescott’s The Town (which I recently read and enjoyed) but had always turned down Murnane, who was clearly in another league from Prescott.

Indyk himself was the next speaker, with his talk entitled, ‘What Kind of Literary History is A History of Books?’ He described A History of Books as a dematerialisation of books, as they become just traces of thought or memory rather than physical objects. He discussed Murnane’s avoidance of direct speech in his work, which he said Murnane calls ‘junk mail.’ He suggested that the structural complexity of Murnane’s work encloses an intense emotional charge that isn’t always recognised and talked about the nodal points in A History of Books: the square, the hot afternoon, the blue hills, and the intricate working of motifs.

The other speaker in this section was Brigid Rooney from the University of Sydney, whose talk was titled ‘Stream System, Salient Image and Feeling: Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch.’ She cited Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and talked about Murnane as a ‘textual poacher.’

It was time for afternoon tea (and another beer from Murnane). I managed to get a photo with him as well, after he signed my books for me (I restricted myself to four: two of my favoutite older ones (The Plains and Inland) and two recent ones (A Million Windows and Border Districts)). Thanks to Sam for the photo!

That’s as close as Murnane gets to smiling.

We got to talking about book covers and Murnane expressed the opinion that the Giramondo designer was excellent when it came to the internal layout and design of the books but a complete incompetent when it comes to book covers. He said he even gave up when it came to Barley Patch and Indyk just stuck a stock photo of barley on it:

Stock feed or stock photo?

He was also disaparaging of what he came up with for the new novel, Border Districts, describing it as looking like ‘an omelette’ when he’d suggested something with coloured glass (I told him that when I’d bought a copy at Readings the bookseller had actually praised the cover as being very striking):

A tasty looking omelette

He said the cover for Border Districts by his new US publisher, MacMillan, was the best one he’d ever had (I managed to bring it up on my phone despite the dodgy reception in Goroke):

Murnane’s favourite ever book cover: that’s definitely coloured glass and not an omelette.

Sam got his books signed as well and Murnane commented on the rarity of Emerald Blue, which he said was pulped by the publisher rather than remaindered, meaning it’s comparatively difficult to come by (I actually managed to pick up a cheap second hand copy a few weeks later).

Finally it was time to hear from the man himself in an address he titled ‘The Still Breathing Author.’ He started off by saying that he hadn’t intended to stick around for all the talks and had meant to go home for a nap, but he’d actually found them very interesting and hadn’t disagreed with what he’d heard said about his work. He mentioned that friends in Goroke had asked him what this bunch of academics were going to say for an entire day about his work and he responded that academics were very good at making simple things sound complicated. He also observed that Something For the Pain, his memoir about horse racing, was the only book of his that the locals were interested in reading.

Here are some scattered observations of other things he talked about.

Murnane says he has given up writing for publication, although there are some already-written books which are still to come out. These include a book of poetry, Green Shadows and Other Poems, to be published by Giramondo in 2018, and a four part work of fiction called A Season on Earth, which will be published by Text. Murnane’s second novel, A Lifetime on Clouds (which is published as a Text Classic) was one of the four parts of this longer work, which will now see the light of day in its entirety.

Murnane said that he gave a similar address in Newcastle in 2001, when he had also decided he would no longer write for publication, something that Ivor Indyk convinced him (thankfully for us) to go back on, but this time he really had stopped, which he feels untroubled by. He quoted Thomas Hardy: ‘I have been delivered of my books.’

Murnane said he has never done any research when writing a work of fiction and doesn’t care if his memories match up with the facts or not. He trusts his own recollections to have a sort of power.

He mentioned lessons he’d learned from other writers, including Proust (‘learn to read’) and Alfred Jarry: ‘A poet must have a very poor opinion of his own mind if he has to tell it what to pay attention to.’

Murnane said he doesn’t have any belief in the unconscious mind and suggested that he hasn’t approached the boundaries of his vast mind. His mind is a landscape yet to be adequately mapped.

He draws diagrams of his work and showed an example of his spatial approach, but said that such diagrams were only for short fiction and couldn’t encompass a whole novel. He said the central image of a work usually comes first but is sometimes missing when he does diagrams. Meaning for Murnane is connection.

He mentioned that he’d had treatment for prostate cancer earlier in the year and had planned to use the time to read all of his own books but couldn’t bring himself to do it, observing that he feels a sense of weariness at the prospect of reading his own work.

He started using a mobile phone recently, which his sister finds so amusing that she takes photos of him using it (‘like a dog reading a book’).

The Plains is the only title in his works to contain the definite article and it’s something that he has an intense dislike of in titles. The original title of The Plains was Landscape with Darkness and Mirage and it was part of a longer work called The Only Adam (I don’t believe there are any plans to publish this).

He would call himself a ‘technical writer’ and rejects labels like postmodernism for his work. He said he writes ‘true fiction’ which he describes as a true account of the contents of his mind, not necessarily of events in the world.

He had an instinctive fear of going to university, mainly because he hated the idea that he’d have to use other people’s language to talk about reading and writing.

He hasn’t watched a film or a play for 40 years and is also opposed to reading what he calls ‘theatrical fiction’ where the narrator is not evident. In any case, when he moved to Goroke he left most of his books in Melbourne and only has his books in Hungarian, his racing books and the work of three poets who he rereads: Thomas Hardy, John Clare and the Australian poet Lesbia Harford.

He described his own fiction as ‘considered narration’ and said his memory is ‘phenomenal but erratic.’ He also described himself as an erratic reader.

In terms of his beliefs he said he has no religious beliefs but sometimes describes himself as an animist or a pantheist or a follower of Richard Jefferies on census forms. He was very adamant that he is not a materialist and described the works of Darwin (!) and Freud as baseless speculation.

He said, ‘Every one of my books had to be written.’ His subject matter always sought him out. He said he once conceived of a book called Thirst that would have been derivative of Hamsun’s Hunger but the compulsion left him. He also said, ‘Don’t think I wrote my books because I was in any way wise. I was utterly ignorant and did not understand my own experience.’

His wife thought when he was writing his first novel, Tamarisk Row, that it would be a nice hobby to stop him drinking so much.

He finished with a reading of his poem ‘Green Shadows’ and said he wrote the 45 poems in the collection in 12 months.

That just left us with the long drive back to Melbourne that evening. The whole event was an incredible experience and thanks to everyone involved with making it happen, not least Gerald Murnane himself. And huge thanks to Sam for accompanying me on the trip: it wouldn’t have been the same without you!

The Murnane signature.