My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Gerald Murnane is in vogue. Every few years, it seems, a new writer or handful of writers is coronated in the book reviews, little magazines, and literary coteries of the English-speaking world as a monarch of world literature. So far this century, we’ve had W. G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Elena Ferrante, László Krasznahorkai, and the posthumous canonization of Clarice Lispector.
Murnane would appear to be the latest to join this company. True, he writes in English and hails from an Anglophone country, but his style and allegiances, his continuity with certain strains in 20th-century experimental writing, make his fiction a kind of honorary example of literature in translation.
I haven’t looked into Pascale Casanova’s sociological study The World Republic of Letters since early in grad school, but as I recall she argues there that the two readiest paths to canonization in world literature are those blazed by Joyce/Faulkner and Kafka/Beckett—to put it rather brutally, you can be the bard of the local or the philosopher of the void.
The late 20th century, with its rise of the postcolonial novel, was the time of the Faulknerians: Gabriel García Márquez, Nadine Gordimer, Toni Morrison, José Saramago, Arundhati Roy. J. M. Coetzee was a Beckettian outlier in that context, reproved by Gordimer for his social irresponsibility.
But the 21st century so far has been a veritable age of Beckett: novels about time and the body, anhedonia and self-laceration, the limits of language, the desperation of the writer, the inevitability of sorrow and loss, history as an unrepresentable sublime of suffering. Presumably the collapse of the 20th-century utopias—the communist and liberal variants on the end of history, more or less—has provoked a chastened literary response from the world avant-garde.
Murnane, though praised for his originality, is also clearly in the Kafka/Beckett line, all mysterious landscapes and inner deliberations over truth and representation.
In his 1982 novel The Plains, re-released last year in a beautiful new hardcover from Text Publishing, a narrator from nearer the coast arrives at the titular setting, a fantastical variant of the interior of Australia, with the intention of making a film that would capture its essence.
The novel’s first sentences (praised by Paul Genoni as “the most compelling opening in Australian fiction”) sets its stately, meditative tone and announce its theme of searching apparent blankness and monotony for significance:
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.
My journey to the plains was much less arduous than I afterwards described it. And I cannot even say that at a certain hour I knew I had left Australia. But I recall clearly a succession of days when the flat land around me seemed more and more a place that only I could interpret.
Genoni oddly but persuasively goes on to compare The Plains to The Great Gatsby; while the idea is evidently to suggest that The Plains is a “national” work akin to Fitzgerald’s perennial candidate for Great American Novel, it is a counterintuitive comparison. The Great Gatsby is, whatever else it is, a heavily-plotted thriller crowded with personalities, dialogue, visual description, and often violent incident.
Murnane wants nothing more than to wean us from all such fictional trappings. His narrator is attracted to the plains precisely because their, well, plainness both invites heightened attention and provokes their habitués to sensibilities of great individuality and subtlety:
I told them a story almost devoid of events or achievements. Outsiders would have made little of it, but the plainsmen understood. It was the kind of story that appealed to their own novelists and dramatists and poets. Readers and audiences on the plains were seldom impressed by outbursts of emotion or violent conflicts or sudden calamities. They supposed that the artists who presented such things had been beguiled by the noises of crowds or the profusions of shapes and surfaces in the foreshortened landscapes of the world beyond the plains.
The landscape is a correlate or metaphor for Murnane’s ideal fiction, and the word “plain” comes in the novel to signify any rarefied and evanescent ideal.
The narrator, as he waits in a bar to seek patronage for his film from the great landowners of the plains, thinks of the history of dueling artists who once dominated the plains and whose conflict even spilled into political factionalism. One side took as its standard the “subdued yellow” of the plains themselves, while the other adopted the “blue-green” of the horizon; politically, the former wished for the plains to secede from Australia, while the latter wished for the plains to dominate Australia.
In either case, whether valuing the land or its limit, whether separatist or imperialist, the artists of the plains devoted themselves, like the 20th-century avant-garde, to an ideal blankness signifying infinity.
The narrator says as much when making his case to the landowners: “I believed that every man was called to be an explorer.” He is taken on by one of them, and the second half of the novel details his uneventful and gently comic service as resident filmmaker in a great house. Our narrator never succeeds in making a film but only in making notes for one; Murnane, who has stated his dislike for film and for fiction that apes its effects, allegorizes the demotion of film in favor of literature in the novel we are reading, the failed filmmaker’s testament.
If the minimal suspense of the novel’s first half came from wondering whether or not the narrator would succeed in persuading the landowners to patronize his film, the minimal suspense in the second half is generated by the narrator’s interest in the landowner’s wife and granddaughter.
The wife likes to read a genre of philosophy favored in the plains that “most often would perhaps be called novels in another Australia” but that “on the plains make up a well-respected branch of moral philosophy.” These works consist, as the narrator describes it, of their authors’ phenomenology of regret, inspections of their own inner experience of loss. Again, Murnane’s fiction provides an image of its own ideal.
In his essay “In Praise of the Long Sentence,” a defense of compound sentences and hypotactic prose as the ideal vehicle for a fiction of consciousness, Murnane distinguishes “film-script fiction,” which presents visual scenes to the reader, from “meditative fiction” or “true fiction,” which presents instead the reflections and sensibilities of a narrator.
The distinction does not, to my mind, hold up: fiction that presents visual scenes still expresses through them the sensibility of the author. Moreover, when Murnane says that the film-script-fiction writer “prefers, for the time being, to show me details rather than to impart information,” I have no idea what he means; are details not information? This essay shows Murnane in a “blue-green” mood, wishing to conquer Australia, or world literature, with the sensibility of the plains. I am all in favor of compound sentences, though; there we can agree.
Back to The Plains. When the narrator proposes to end his film with a shot of the landowner’s granddaughter in the landscape, we may recall the landowners’ long colloquy in the novel’s first half about how they visit brothels to enjoy suntanned prostitutes whose brown skin differentiates them from the pale women of the plains. The men sometimes find, however, that “there were always some girls who kept their last inches utterly white.”
Whiteness and idealized femininity are (do I even have to say “problematically”?) the human corollaries to the plains’ metaphysical infinitude of a various blankness. When I say that Murnane is, despite his much-praised originality, in the line of Kafka and Beckett, writing in an identifiable and, if I may, somewhat predictable genre of world literature, I am also thinking of those suggestive remarks scattered through Deleuze’s writings about the continuity between late-modernist fiction of the Kafka/Beckett variety and the quest romances of Arthurian myth, the search for the Holy Grail:
It is sometimes said that the novel reached its culminating point when it adopted an anti-hero as a character: an absurd, strange and disoriented creature who wanders about continually, deaf and blind. But this is the substance of the novel: from Beckett back to Chrétien de Troyes, from Lawrence back to Lancelot, passing through the whole history of the English and American novel. (Deleuze, “On the Superiority of Anglo-American Literature”)
While some assessments of Murnane’s newfound popularity connect his work with the autofiction trend (as attested by Ben Lerner’s introduction to and Teju Cole’s blurb on this edition), The Plains is, generically, more a fantasy than anything else. If every occurrence of the word “Australia” were replaced with the name of a fictional planet or fantastical country, the novel’s metaphysics and politics would be little altered. I was reminded at times of Kafka’s Amerika, Beckett’s Molloy, Borges’s “The South,” Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, and Aira’s Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, but I was reminded equally of Lem’s Solaris.
As for any world-lit Faulknerisms we may observe of Murnane, they come up in his life rather than his work, in his reputation as the local eccentric making extraordinary pronouncements even as he has never left his region of Australia. Shannon Burns[*] is a good guide to this aspect of Murnane’s reception and the difficulties it has created for his work’s reputation.
I personally dislike the metropolitan condescension, the patronizing indulgence, the “Isn’t he just darling?” that infects the tone of some commentary on Murnane I’ve seen. Many of his “eccentricities,” such as his preference for correct prose or his relative dislike of cinema, seem admirable enough to me, and his seeming arrogance, however tinged with self-satirizing grandiosity—
You mention the craftsmanship of my writing. I wouldn’t dare give myself a ranking among my contemporaries in any field other than craftsmanship. And in that field I’d rank myself first. My sentences are the best-shaped of any sentences written by any writer of fiction in the English language during my lifetime. The previous sentence is a fair average sample of my prose.
—is almost inarguably preferable to its inverse, the maddeningly faux-humble tweet of Millennial self-promotion: “So um guys I like wrote a thing?”
Even so, the commissars of world literature will have to pack me on to the next train to Philistia (maybe I can sit next to Ted Gioia if he’ll have me), because I am going to need many more sights and sounds and smells and scenes from my fiction than are on offer in The Plains, with its extraordinarily abstract narration. I admire, in theory, the severity and astringency of Murnane’s aesthetic, but my own preference is for a livelier landscape. What can I say? I was reared amid hills, reading Faulkner and Fitzgerald.
[*] I can’t resist noting that Burns, an Australian academic and writer, also wrote two brilliant essays I’ve enjoyed recently. One is a somewhat illicit piece called “In Defence of the Bad, White Working Class,” which contains these lines, lines I wish I could make any number of people understand:
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of a middle-class life is the extent to which it shields its beneficiaries from fundamental, brutal realities. Most lower class people of all ethnicities quickly learn that universal justice doesn’t exist, and probably never will, yet unbridled fantasies of fairness are continually thrust upon them from above. Don Quixote rides his workhorse, Rocinante, with the same blind abandon.
And he also wrote an appreciation of the late Philip Roth that doubles as a defense of amoral or even immoral fiction:
Some strains of contemporary criticism are driven to weed out the “bad seeds”, writers who are considered morally dubious, and Roth’s reputation has certainly suffered as a result of this critical turn, but I want to suggest that writers who disappoint moral or ideological expectations are as worthy of attention as those who appeal to and reinforce them. Writers are under no obligation to be role models or social engineers, and literature needn’t serve to reassure its readers or confirm their values.
I recommend both essays highly.