“My own books are taken more seriously in Sweden.”
(Gerald Murnane, 2006)
I HAVE BROUGHT two Gerald Murnane first edition books: Tamarisk Row, his first novel, published in Melbourne in 1974 by Heinemann, and Velvet Waters, his sixth book, a collection of short stories published by McPhee Gribble in 1990. The following will tell how I got into Murnane (see biographical note at end of article).
On the first day of the Spring 2007 semester of my creative writing class we had to pick a week where we would lead a discussion based on the weekly readings. Due to other commitments I picked week twelve. Before then I had never heard of Gerald Murnane.
Week seven approached and I realised that I hadn‘t yet read the pieces I was to present on. So I poured myself a glass of wine, turned on the reading lamp and started to read Stream System in my head.¹ I had failed to take any notice of the note that said: “This piece was written to be read aloud to . . .” Halfway down the second page I was confused. I stood up and stretched, it was going to be a long night. I sat back down and picked up the reader again. Puss, my ginger and white cat, jumped up and curled into a Ball next to me, looking up expectantly. I have been known to read to the cat and I had no idea he liked it. I have read him Harry Potter in the past and various class readings. Today I looked down at him and said: “Mate, I have to read this for class. Wanna listen?” I‘m fairly sure if he could vocalise he would have said: “Yes, but only if you scratch my head as you read.”
I started afresh, reading aloud as suggested by the notation and wetting my palate with a sip of red at every break point along the way. After 30 minutes, I read the last paragraph:
When I look at those prints I seem sometimes to be looking at a place all of pale blue and sometimes to be looking at a place all of dark blue and sometimes to be looking at a place all of yellow-brown. But sometimes I seem to be looking from an impossible vantage-point at dark-blue water and, on the far side of the dark-blue water, the endless yellow-brown grasslands and the endless pale-blue sky of America.
I was confused and fully in hate. I hated it. I wanted to throw my reader across the room and stamp my feet. I felt like I had just lost 30 minutes of my life that I would never get back. I drained my glass, then refilled it, knowing that I had to understand this piece if I stood any chance of presenting it in class in a few short weeks. I started reading it again. After the second reading I still hated it. I didn‘t like the repetition. It went against everything I had ever been taught about creative writing. I hated the lack of emotion, smell or texture. The voice was matter of fact, flat.
The next day I decided to try and understand the writer of the words that irritated me so much. I went onto the Internet and downloaded article after article, book reviews, news stories and essays he had written. I had pages of background to sift through, to try to make some sense of who I was dealing with. I started with the book reviews. His books, all eight of them, have received a variety of criticism. He was an editor of a ninth book, The Temperament of Generations.² Some of the criticism has been damning:
What tends to be left out of these works is the world. (Peter Pierce, The Sydney Morning Herald, 16.4.1988, in a review of Inland)
Murnane has elevated tedium to a high level of refinement. The style of these eleven pieces is somewhere between that of a legal document and a primitive epic. (AP Riemer, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1.12.1990, in a review of Velvet Waters).
Murnane‘s purity of vision and style can polarise readers, and on the face of it Emerald Blue will do little to help the unconverted. (Andrew Rutherford, The Sunday Age, 16.7.1995)
And some has been full of praise:
If the reader is able to bear with the demanding prose and the eccentric patterns of syntax, the results can be extraordinarily powerful (David Tracey, The Age, 8.7.1995, in a review of Emerald Blue).
The collection forms a wonderfully illuminating companion to the fiction with its unique and startling view of Australia and its scrupulously exact, hypnotic prose (Katherine England, The Advertiser, 24.12.2005, in a review of Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs).
Author’s collection of Gerald Murnane (photo: Frances Carleton)
So, I had discovered that I wasn‘t the only one who didn‘t like his writing style. I was relieved – I thought I had read it wrong. I also had a few articles that he had written. They had the same structure as Stream System, maybe a little less circular, but still monotonous and flat in tone. One in particular, A Detrimental Education (The Age 30.6.07), told the story of his Catholic upbringing during the fifties and the influence his teachers had on his life. At the end of it I wondered if his education during his school years was responsible for his lack of interest in doing things in later life. In The Breathing Author he admits to never having worn sunglasses, learnt the Dewey Decimal System, owned a television nor flown in an aeroplane (he feels he would be insulting the earth to fly above it).³ He has travelled little and his only overseas ventured was to Tasmania! Has this limited exposure to life and outside influences reduced his ability to connect with his audience? At first I believed it did, but after reading more of his works I realised his imagination did the work for him.
During my search for more information I came across the details of a film called Words and Silk. After I had dug a little deeper I found that the film maker was a man called Philip Tyndall and the full title of the celluloid example was Words and Silk – the real and imaginary world of Gerald Murnane. It was made in 1990 and its release coincided with the publication of Velvet Waters. I tracked down a copy to the UTS (University of Technology) Sydney library. To watch the film however, I had to also track down a VHS player. The next two lunchtimes I spent in the media centre at work. It had a video player and I had sandwiches and coffee. Coffee was required as the man speaks in the same manner that he writes: flat, unsmiling and dull. No, sorry, he does smile once, but I think it‘s an accident. Even when talking about horseracing, which is quite clearly a passion, there is no inflection in his voice; no well . . . passion!
I tried to imagine what it would have been like growing up with him as the figurehead, as his three sons had done. Could they tell when he was angry with them? What about when he was happy, did he ever smile? If he did I should think it was cause for celebration. Did they sneak out to friends‘ houses to watch telly?
When he talks about his writing in the second half of the film, he is seated in a chair looking square at the camera. He is wearing dark grey slacks and a white shirt with the collar undone. He has this to say:
Usually I get an hour a day for my writing. And in that hour I write seven or eight finished sentences. Seven or eight finished sentences equals about a hundred finished words. A hundred finished words a day equals thirty six thousand words a year, which is enough for anyone to write.
A little later he adds:
The basic unit of my writing is the sentence. I write first one sentence, then another sentence. I write sentence after sentence. And after I‘ve written each sentence I read that sentence aloud. I read it aloud and listen to decide whether the sound of the sentence is the sound of my own voice.
I remembered at this point being told by lecturer Brenda Glover at the start of semester: “Oh, that‘s a hard one, he writes in a circular fashion.” At the time I had no idea what she was talking about, but now I was beginning to see. Despite his style being extremely annoying to me I was fascinated by him and the way he wrote. His writing had ceased to cause hate to flow from me, although I have to confess I still hadn‘t quite moved away from dislike. I could see what he was doing, or at least I thought I could.
He puts an idea out there; for instance in Stream System he starts with the idea of two lakes on a map looking like two heart shapes. From that he builds that image with things he either pulls from memory or imagines he has seen and builds them into a story by layers. Each of those layers overlap, just ever so slightly, so as to move on to the next topic before coming back to the beginning. The layer by layer repetition builds up from the images in his head onto the page, drawing you into his world. It‘s not always a comfortable place to be, but if you give it a go, it works.
After seeing him speak, and reading many of his pieces of fiction (his words, he never calls them short stories) I see that over the years the only thing that has really changed about his style is his sentence structure. His sentences are much shorter now. In Tamarisk Row his sentences were on average 42 words long, in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs (written 30 years later) they average out at 30 words long. Yet his repetitive style of writing remains the same. At one point in the late 1980s he attempted to write a whole book in one sentence. After writing about 10,000 words he got lost in his own words and gave up.
After several weeks of reading his works and little else, I have come to appreciate his style of writing. I won‘t be attempting it (again), but I can understand how you can love or hate his work. I have gone from hating it to loving it and collecting it, and I‘m just fine with that. Since my first reading of Murnane 18 months ago I have collected seven first editions of his work. They are:
. William Heinemann Melbourne, 1974
A Lifetime of Clouds
. William Heinemann Melbourne, 1976
. The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne, 1982
Landscape With Landscape
. Norstrilia Press, Melbourne, 1985
Inland. William Heinemann, Melbourne, 1988
. McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1990
Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs
. Giramondo Publishing
Company, Sydney, 2005.
I am just missing
Emerald Blue (McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1995).
According to Wikipedia Gerald Murnane was born on 25.2.39 in Coburg, Victoria. He matriculated in 1956 (De La Salle College, Malvern); in 1957 briefly trained for the Catholic priesthood but did primary teaching 1960-68 and also taught at the Victoria Racing Club‘s Apprentice Jockey School. Gained BA (University of Melbourne) in 1969 and worked until 1973 with the Victorian Education Department. From 1980 he taught creative writing. He married in 1966 and has three sons.
. Stream System is a story from Velvet Waters.
. The Temperament of Generations – Fifty Years of Writing in Meanjin, Eds Jenny Lee, Philip Mead and Gerald Murnane, MUP, Melbourne, 1990.
. The Breathing Author appears in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs.