Reviewed in the United States on December 26, 2016
This was my first time reading Murnane. I found The Plains a challenge – not dissimilar to my experience on reading J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus. But these are grown up writers and I’m happy to be challenged by grown up writers. Indeed, part of the reason that I read is to be questioned and to engage with that questioning. Life seems too short to do otherwise. And it helps keep me honest somehow.
To find a way into The Plains, I read more broadly on Murnane and his approach to writing. I share some of that here on the chance that others might find it of some value in their exploration of The Plains or of Murnane’s writing more generally. If you’d prefer a shorter review, you might cut to the last two paragraphs.
First up, it is of some comfort to find that readers vastly more versed than me in literature have had strongly divergent views of Murnane’s writing. You will have company, whether your judgement of Murnane is negative or positive. On the debit side:
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. (A. P. Riemer, The Sydney Morning Herald, 1.12.1990, in a review of Velvet Waters).
And on the credit side:
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).
(The above examples are taken from [...].... accessed 2/10/2016.)
“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.”
This opening sentence of The Plains carries a wry, benefit of hindsight, tone. The reader does not anticipate that subsequent events will endorse “looking for some elaborate meaning behind appearances” as the smartest approach that the narrator’s younger self could have taken.
Looking back twenty years on from that journey, the narrator remembers travelling for a succession of days and seeing a lot of “utterly unpromising country... level and bare and daunting”. No mode of transport is evident. The period in which the book is set is indeterminate. Space and time are different here. The absence of specificity contributes to an outside-time, mythical feel.
He reaches a large town “on a certain afternoon”. A large town on a plain. Is it stretching possibilities too far to hear echoes of the five cities on the plain in the Book of Genesis and/or two of those cities as referenced in the English title (“The Cities of the Plains” at the time of the publication of The Plains) of the fourth volume of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time? When musing on what books he might take to a desert island, Murnane has nominated Proust’s as among the handful of books that are most significant to him. Proust’s work could be described as an enquiry into the play that takes place between the multiple selves with which we inhabit life, an exploration of the endlessly shifting sense of who each of us is across those multiple selves. Is this part of the landscape of The Plains? Among other things, at various times our narrator does privately rehearse stances and expressions that he imagines might appropriately represent himself, or even represent a film character playing himself. And the purpose of his journey? It turns out that he is intent on making a film that will reveal the plains (that which is plain?) to the world.
“Late that [first] night I stood at a third-storey window...”. In an interview with Peter Mares for The Book Show, on Radio National in Australia, Murnane recalls, as a child on the annual across country road trip to his grandparents, looking with wonder and longing at two storey houses – an ultimate aspiration always beyond reach. In this context, a third-storey window suggests some ultimate viewing point (point of view?). Could any window be higher, see further?
He unpacks his suitcases. “Now my desk was stacked high with folders of note-paper and boxes of cards and an assortment of books with numbered tickets between their pages.” Our earnest traveller has done some homework.
On top of the high stack is a ledger labelled:
MASTER KEY TO CATALOGUE OF BACKGROUND NOTES AND INSPIRATIONAL MATERIAL.
From this he pulls out an already bulky folder labelled Occasional Thoughts – Not Yet in Catalogue.
While I know nothing about film making, it does not seem impossible to imagine that a collection of “Background notes and inspirational material” could exist as part of a particular film maker’s craft. However, the narrator’s focus is a few steps removed from this. It is not actually such background notes and inspirational material. It is not even the catalogue of those notes and material. It is not even the master key to that catalogue of those notes and material. It is “occasional thoughts - not yet in catalogue”. It seems safe to assume that the actual film making is not about to begin any time soon.
Our narrator eventually gets to propose his film project to the landowners of the plains, seeking their support, explaining to them that:
The hero of my own film saw, at the furthest limits of his awareness, unexplored plains. And when he looked for what he was surest of in himself, there was little more definite than plains. The film was the story of this man’s search for the one land that might have lain beyond or within all that he had ever seen. I might call it—without pretentiousness, I hoped—the Eternal Plain.
It will be a film about the big picture then. Actually, the very biggest picture of them all.
Not incidentally, the traveller also explains that the end of the film would depend on “a female character who must appear an authentic young woman of the plains.” In The Plains women are remarkable firstly for their absence and secondly for just how deeply they fascinate the traveller. It is not happenstance that it will be one of these remote and enchanting beings who will mediate the ultimate disclosure of the Eternal Plain.
In 2001, almost 20 years after the publication of The Plains, in a talk titled “The Breathing Author”, Murnane provided a considered and intimate account of his thinking, both as a person and as a writer (a reasonably accurate transcription of this talk is at [...]... but a more accurate version is published in Murnane's non-fiction collection, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs):
…I found about twenty years ago in a book review in the New York Times the statement by the poet Robert Bly that the writer should learn to trust his obsessions.
... The aim of most of my fiction is not that the reader should sympathise with any character or share the feelings of any character, much less believe in the reality of any character. No, the aim of most of my fiction is that the reader should believe in the reality of the narrator of the fiction.
…A thing exists for me if I can see it in my mind, and a thing has meaning for me if I can see it in my mind as being connected to some other things in my mind.
In my view, the place we commonly call the real world is surrounded by a vast and possibly infinite landscape which is invisible to these eyes (points to eyes) but which I am able to apprehend by other means. The more I tell you about this landscape, the more inclined you might be to call it my mind. I myself often call it my mind for the sake of convenience. For me, however, it is not just my mind but the only mind.
Apart from what lies right now within the narrow range of these two eyes (points again to eyes), everything that I am aware of or have ever been aware of is somewhere in the far-reaching landscape of (my) mind. Of course, I acknowledge the existence of other minds, but such is my view of things that I can only see those minds and their contents as being located where all other imagined or remembered or desired entities are located — in the landscape of landscapes; in the place of places; in my mind.
He takes the title of his talk from The Rhetoric of Fiction by Wayne C. Booth, a book that Murnane describes reading carefully and more than once (in contrast to the more cursory treatment that he thought due to Terry Eagleton’s book, Literary Theory: An Introduction). A key element of Booth’s book is the distinction between the real-life person of the author (the breathing author) and the persona (the implied author) from which that breathing author writes a given piece of fiction. Given the importance that Murnane places on this distinction, I’m particularly wary of reading too glibly into The Plains aspects of the breathing Gerald Murnane. And yet, Murnane’s 2001 talk nevertheless suggests that the breathing author is well represented in the implied author of The Plains. Exploring some of those possibilities did seem to allow me further into this book. Some examples follow.
In The Breathing Author, Murnane has this to say about films:
I have watched few films during my lifetime and hardly any in recent years. Throughout my life, I have had much trouble in following the story lines of films and making the necessary connections between the rapidly changing images. I have watched no more than a half-dozen live theatrical performances during my lifetime and none during the past twenty-five years. I recall little of what I watched. I have never watched an opera.
On almost every occasion when I have watched a film or a theatrical performance, I have been made to feel embarrassed and uncomfortable by the exaggerated facial expressions, the excessive gestures, and the frank speech of the characters, I have been relieved afterwards to resume my life among persons who seem to use facial expressions and gestures and speech as much as I use them: in order to conceal true thoughts and feelings.
Using speech and expression (appearance) to hide who we are (truth)? Any one for Proust? And here, in The Plains, we have the narrator’s younger self setting out to portray the hero’s search for the Eternal Plain, via the very medium that Murnane finds impenetrably confusing and disconnected with reality. A droll humour? Even a droll humour directed at Murnane’s younger search for meaning? In the year in which The Plains was published, Murnane turned 43. Twenty years earlier, he had fairly recently walked away from what had been a reasonably committed Catholicism.
The Plains provides relatively few descriptions of the appearance of things. When it does, “featureless” is the predominant theme. Unusually, the clothes of the landowners are described. “They all wore the dress of the cultivated, leisured class on the plains—plain grey trousers, rigidly creased, and spotless white shirt with matching tie-clip and armbands.” In the 1990 documentary, Words and Silk – the real and imaginary world of Gerald Murnane, Murnane is dressed in plain grey trousers and a white shirt ([...]....). Other press photos show him in similar dress.
Sunlight repeatedly dazzles on the plains. In the world in which we live, the laws of physics have it that light is that which makes visible that which we see. However, on the plains, sunlight is that which blinds and blinds (of the lowered variety) are that which enable sight. Of such blinds, the breathing Murnane has this to say:
I prefer to keep the curtains and blinds closed whenever I am indoors... I seem always to have hoped to learn more by waiting behind drawn blinds, by daydreaming, by jotting things down on paper than by going about the world or even by reading. (The Breathing Author)
On the plains, each landowner delights in “filling drawers and chests and filing cabinets with every document, even the briefest scribbled note, that hinted at the vast unseen zone where he spent most of his days and nights.” And Murnane?
My library is meticulously ordered, as are the many filing cabinets full of my letters and journals and manuscripts and typescripts and private papers. I have sometimes thought of the whole enterprise of my fiction-writing as an effort to bring to light an underlying order — a vast pattern of connected images — beneath everything that I am able to call to mind. (The Breathing Author)
In 2001, these filing cabinets numbered 19 (The Breathing Author).
Elsewhere in the same talk, he describes a scene that stands for the essence of his fiction.
Yes, I sometimes have the experience of seeing my fiction as an emblem of myself or a heraldic device representing myself or even as a large part of myself. And I derive much satisfaction from so seeing.
But what exactly do I see? I have sat just now for several minutes trying to answer that question... In the end, there occurred to me an emblematic scene, by which I mean a scene that might have been reported nowhere in my fiction but a scene that stands for the essence of that fiction.
A man sits in a book-lined room in a house of many rooms. The window-blinds in the room are drawn, but the light at their edges tells me that the day outside is hot and bright. The silence in the room tells me that the house is surrounded by a wide and grassy and mostly level landscape. In the book-lined room, the sitting man sometimes reads and sometimes writes. What he mostly reads about or writes about is, perhaps, a woman or, perhaps, another wide or grassy and mostly level landscape further off from his own. (The Breathing Author)
This emblematic scene could almost have been lifted directly from The Plains. The traveller spends considerable time in exactly such a room, with exactly such a sensibility.
At another point in The Breathing Author, Murnane says “I believe I may be unable to think abstract thoughts.” He elaborates on this by describing the absolute failure of his attempt, aged 27, to study philosophy. “I was taken aside by my tutor and told that I did not seem to understand what philosophy itself was. I have come to believe since that my tutor was right.” J. M. Coetzee, reviewing two more recent books from Murnane, suggests that, as a writer, Murnane is a radical idealist ([...]... accessed 12/11/16). I take this to mean that, for Murnane the writer, the mind is the fundamental reality. In The Breathing Author, Murnane himself states this. It seems to me though, that Murnane’s worldview goes beyond radical idealism and sometimes ventures into the domain of solipsism. Perhaps, more exactly, an epistemological solipsism. He appears to be almost uninterested in knowledge that arises outside his mind, particularly that which might challenge the contents of his own mind. He made a decision in his late 40s, early 50s (that is, in the late 1980s, early 1990s) to only read those books that he could readily appreciate, to stop struggling with books that were well regarded but which he found difficult ([...]... ). He would not do what I’m doing, for instance, in attempting to gain an appreciation for his writing. He also rejects systems of thought that are not his own systems (The Breathing Author). This begins to sound a little “spectrumy”, as at least one interviewer has put to him ([...]... ). And perhaps there is something of that – thoughtful writers tending as they do to be social isolates.
And where does it leave me, my reading of and enquiry into The Plains? I think of the plains as a metaphor of Murnane's mind – a metaphor that he uses not to be artistic or creative but because that is the only way in which he can understand or approach his mind. He writes what he sees there – wide, featureless landscapes, sprinkled with unknowably remote objects of desire. It is a land that is imbued with both the unremarkable and that of ultimate significance. Those two qualities – unremarkable and significant – are frequently portrayed as mutually exclusive or, at least, contrasted. In The Plains, the ultimate significance is exactly the unremarkable ordinariness (the plain-ness) seen rightly.
In writing his seeing, Murnane invites you sincerely and thoughtfully into his mind. As the guest, you are accompanied by a quiet self-deprecatory humour. In my view, such an invitation has intrinsic value. I want to honour its integrity and courage. I want to engage with it on those same terms. I want to give it its due. It stays with me on some level and I return to it from time to time, enquiring into my memory of an image, or feeling the words, or tracking a recurring theme. However, in the end, having done that, there remains a ‘but’. I think that there are measures of value other than the intrinsic. When I read the interior of an other, yes, part of my appreciation is simply for a different way of seeing and thinking. Ultimately though, I want something more than difference alone. I want a depth or richness or insight that touches my heart or shifts my understanding. For me, The Plains did not quite do enough of either. Too much of life was left out. The experience remained a touch like the world it watercolours – hazy, dry and inhospitably remote.