On track with Gerald Murnane

Gerald Murnane.

Gerald Murnane in the big smoke.

By Rhonda Dredge

“Landscape with Landscape”, a book of short stories published in 1985, has a special place in the career of Victorian author Gerald Murnane.

The book was savaged by a critic at the The Bulletin and it flopped.  A hardback could be purchased some time after for $6.50.

Now, first edition hardbacks of Murnane’s early books are being advertised on the internet for around $1000. The new prices were posted this year when the author was tipped to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

The mercurial career of Gerald Murnane dominated the discussion generated by a rare public appearance in Melbourne in late September, at the Wheeler Centre.

“I had to travel for five hours to get here,” quipped the 79-year-old, who lives in the country town of Goroke with his son.

Murnane told the CBD News that his recent rise in popularity could partially be a result of the cultural cringe.  When the Americans discovered him a few years back, local readers who had rejected him began to take more notice.

“There are new people who praise me,” he said. “I don’t resent it.”

A recent convert is Denis Paphitis, creative advisor for Aesop. “You should read the article in the Paris Review,” he said.

The Americans have turned Murnane into a cult hero. The New York Times sent a reporter to cover a Murnane conference held this year in Goroke, ostensibly because the writer does not like to travel.

Local fans have been more subdued. A Tasmania reader said it was the first time he had met another Murnane reader.

Why has this relatively modest author, with a passion for golf and horse racing, become such a celebrity? 200 people turned up at The Wheeler Centre, with a waiting list of non-ticket-holders huddled at the door.

Murnane has published 14 books over 40 years. He has been present in the literary scene, always with a few supporters, but never really enough. When he won the Patrick White prize in 1998 his books were out of print.

Murnane’s comeback is one of those stories that taps into the way perceptions of Australia have changed from the inside over the past decade.

Earlier on, many readers found his style labored, inward-looking, slightly paranoid and self-effacing. In other words, his was the kind of voice we were trying to forget.

Now that voice is endearing. It seems to conjure up what we have lost. He is truthful, dark, self-deprecating and has brilliant timing. In Freckled Woman Landscape, a story set in 1960 but written two decades later, the narrator takes a kindergarten teacher to the movies after lusting after her for many introspective hours. The name of the movie is The Idiot: Part 1.

Fans can quote from his books. In The Battle of Acosta Nu, an allegorical story that hinges on the creation of an Australian diaspora in Paraguay, the narrator virtually sacrifices his son to his overriding sense of displacement.

“On of my sons in 1977 was seriously ill,” says Murnane. “In the Childrens’ Hospital his heart stopped beating. I supposed his heart would not beat again. On Christmas day 1966 I read a book about the Australians in Paraguay. It had almost as powerful an effect. I combined the two in one fiction. When you’re struck down by tragedy you feel separated out.”

At the heart of Murnane’s work is an intense engagement with the writing process, which might have put readers off in the past but is now an attraction. He makes a distinction between what he calls film script fiction and true fiction, which he practiced for his first novel Tamarisk Row.

“True fiction is not a report on the truth but more a report on the contents of a mind. I was able to track down and follow the chains of images and impulses of feeling that I call my mind. After years of doing that it doesn’t seem strange to me.”

Not as easy to explain is the implosion of the Nobel Prize literary committee this year due to allegations of sexual misconduct by a member of the committee and the cancellation of the award just when Murnane’s star was on the rise.

Luckily, the author has a complete alternative reality stored in a filing cabinet in Goroke called the Antipodes, which is a code name for an imaginary racing world invented when he was a kid.

There is still plenty of material left in this vivid imagination. He is from a pre-television generation that invented its own games. He remembers the colours the horses were wearing on his first visit to the track.

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