After Murnane

A tweet put me onto a book. The book jolted my world slightly off its axis.

Avid readers are always at the mercy of the books they read. Sticking to what you know – an author, a genre – provides insulation against sudden shocks. But if you read adventurously, there are books out there lurking like benign landmines. Strike a particular book at a particular time and the consequences can be life-altering.

The tweet:

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Who’s Murnane? Never heard of him/her. A quick search. Gerald Murnane, Australian author. Perennially tipped for the Nobel Prize. How’d I never heard of him? Just last year I attended a talk about Australian literature and there wasn’t even a passing mention. I Amazon-searched The Plains.

From the blurb:

 On their vast estates, the landowning families of the plains have preserved a rich and distinctive culture. Obsessed with their own habitat and history, they hire artisans, writers and historians to record in minute detail every aspect of their lives, and the nature of their land. A young film-maker arrives on the plains, hoping to make his own contribution to the elaboration of this history. In a private library he begins to take notes for a film, and chooses the daughter of his patron for a leading role.

I downloaded it to my Kindle. I plunged in.

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It’s short, but no easy read. Everything in it is off-kilter. You often have to reread individual sentences, or entire pages, to make sense of them. The various strands of the novel are laid down loosely, and turning onto the final page (or into the final furlong, as horse-racing obsessed Murnane would probably prefer) the ultimate result was still in the balance.

 And then came the devastating, 105-word last sentence, which at a stroke tightened the loose strands into a taut whole. The immediate compulsion was to go back and start again.

 The question remained: Who’s Murnane? For a writer I’d never heard of, there’s a surprising wealth of online material. Articles in the New York Times , the New Yorker and the Paris Review. A memorable short video on YouTube, an equally fascinating documentary, and a 55-minute talk by the author at a December 2017 conference about his work held at the golf club in Goroke, the tiny settlement 230 miles northwest of Melbourne where he lives in a bedsit.

 These online resources are not mere supplements to Murnane’s work. They’re integral to it. His life and his writing are thoroughly intertwined. His obsessions (horse-racing, marbles, reading, the hinterland of Victoria, the Hungarian language, Catholicism, his personal archive) infuse his books.

 It has taken just a week for me to go from being totally oblivious of Gerald Murnane to being his latest devotee. Would he have touched a nerve at any other time of my life? I can’t be sure. My way into The Plains was aided by having recently read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. There are similarities. And as I continue my journey through Murnane’s oeuvre, an established affinity for WG Sebald and Karl Ove Knausgaard provides a degree of literary context.

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But I don’t recall any author ever having had such a profound and instantaneous effect on me. The world is irrevocably different for having read Gerald Murnane.

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