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Gerald Murnane Biography

fiction victoria melbourne landscape

Nationality: Australian. Born: Melbourne, Victoria, in 1939. Education: The University of Melbourne, B.A. 1969. Career: Currently lecturer in creative writing, Victoria College, Melbourne.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Tamarisk Row. Melbourne, Heinemann, 1974.

A Lifetime on Clouds. Melbourne, Heinemann, 1976.

The Plains. Carlton, Victoria, Norstrilia Press, 1982; London, Penguin, 1984; New York, Braziller, 1985.

Landscape with Landscape. Carlton, Victoria, Norstrilia Press, 1985.

Inland. Richmond, Victoria, Heinemann, 1988; London, Faber, 1989.

Emerald Blue. Ringwood, Victoria, McPhee Gribble, 1995.

Short Stories

Velvet Waters. Ringwood, Victoria, McPhee Gribble, 1990.

Other

Editor, with Jenny Lee and Phillip Mead, Temperament of Generations: Fifty Years of Writing in Meanjin. Carlton, Victoria, Meanjin, 1990.

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Critical Studies:

Gerald Murnane edited by John Hanrahan, Footscrag, Victoria, Footscrag Foundation for Australian Studies, 1987; Gerald Murnane by Imre Salusinszky, Melbourne and Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1993.

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Gerald Murnane began as a writer of confessedly autobiographical fiction of a talented but fairly conventional kind, but developed eventually into a writer who has been variously classified as postmodernist or fabulist and who has been described hyperbolically by at least one Australian critic as "the most original writer this country has produced." Tamarisk Row, for instance, is a comparatively familiar story of growing up Catholic in the Australian countryside. Clement Killeaton lives in the town of Bassett. His father is a compulsive gambler and the family live in perpetual poverty. The boy inherits his father's love of gambling but converts it into an activity of the imagination. Already, though, there are signs of the direction which Murnane's fiction will eventually lead—in the constant references to maps and calendars, in the boy's substitution for the dull reality of numbers and figures images of his own devising and in the beginnings of the hypnotic absorption in his own imaginative processes.

Murnane's second novel A Lifetime on Clouds remains more or less in the realm of realism. It suffers, despite the witty treatment of its material from the fact that the material is very familiar, in Australia at least—the tormented nature of adolescent sexuality for Catholic-educated youths. More specifically it concerns masturbation and, Portnoy's Complaint not withstanding, there has probably never been any other novel which examines, explores, concerns itself with the subject so relentlessly and in such detail. What elements of fantasy are present are employed crudely, for example with the protagonist driving in Florida with Jayne, Marilyn, and Susan—whose identities can easily be guessed.

With The Plains, however, Murnane more or less abandons realism altogether to move in the direction of something best described by his own term of fable. None of the characters is named; there are hardly any references to specific places, though the city of Melbourne is mentioned with abhorrence; there are no personal relationships, little or no action and scarcely any dialogue except for one long series of lateral monologues which occasionally intersect as the plainsmen converse. The plains work on the level of myth or metaphor but the problem is to decide what they are a metaphor of. The plains, the novel seems to be saying, are the "real" Australia to which residents of Outer Australia or the coast flee in relief. Landscape with Landscape, the second of three successive works to have titles concerning landscape, confirms the movement towards a kind of metarealism, a fiction preoccupied with a kind of infinite regression, not the representation of reality but the exploration of modes of representing reality, through modes of exploring those modes … etc. As the narrator of the fourth of the book's six sections puts it, "I decided to include the poem below in this story when I understood that the young man who wrote it was not myself but a character in a work of fiction and that as soon as I began to write about him I became an author of fiction. (Since the previous sentence is part of a work of fiction a certain young man and the man he might have become are doubly difficult to image anywhere but in fiction. [The sentence just ended is also part of a work of fiction as is this sentence]." The concern is not merely with experience as such but with the possibility of representing experience, the substitution of language for experience, the ways in which fiction and reality merge and become conflated. The self-consciousness and the preoccupation with writing itself—the inner landscape at the expense of the outer one—come out in the long parentheses, in the intertextual references and in the narrator/writer defining himself as writer. "Now he seemed almost defined by the long shapely sentences in the pages on his desk … "

Inland is constructed of some dozen or so unmarked sections, linked only by the probable presence of an identical yet nevertheless anonymous narrator, which become shorter and shorter and closer to home in scope. The opening words of the novel are: "I am writing in the library of a manor-house in a village I prefer not to name, near the town of Kunmadaras, in Szolnok County." The narrator addresses and engages with the reader constantly, quickly establishing a self-conscious mode with his long, meditative, elaborate sentences; he mentions in particular his editor, Anne Kristaly Gunnarsen, who lives "in the land of America, in the state of South Dakota, in Tripp County, in the town of Ideal": America is yet another of Murnane's mythical landscapes. The landscape of Szolnok County seems to merge into that of South Dakota and then in turn to that of "Melbourne county." The autobiographical references as well as allusions to Murnane's earlier work become more frequent. There are the same key motifs: maps and atlases, calendars, colours, references to suburbs. The constant allusions to Proust are both appropriate and justified. One of the many books that the novel refers to or quotes points to Proust's achievement in making France real for people who have never been there. Murnane is much concerned with the boundaries—or blurring of boundaries—of the real and the imagined and with the role of literature in mediating between them.

Velvet Waters is a collection of his shorter fiction dating back to 1972, and as one would expect is closely related to and refers back to his earlier writing. "Stream System" in fact is taken from an earlier version of The Plains but the stories in general deal with the same material and themes as the novels. Murnane's prose, in its almost ritualistically repetitive cadences and stylised simplicities, can seem like a strange combination of Proust and Calvino while the story "Precious Bane" is Borgesian in its preoccupation with a self-contained world of writing. Murnane can descend almost into self-parody at times, as in "Finger Webb" with its deliberately reiterated cadences ('The man in this story… The man in this story …') but some of the stories are among the most moving that he has ever written. "When the Mice Failed to Arrive," for instance, cuts between past and present to offer a delicate portrait of the relationship between the narrator and his father, and the former's realisation of his failure with the students he loves, while "Stream System" becomes a poignantly retrospective act of self-understanding as the narrator recognises his failure to love his retarded brother.

Laurie Clancy

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