Reviewed by Moira McAlister September 2020
Gerald Murnane is a name that I have come across occasionally in my reading of reviews and commentaries on Australian literature, but I have never actually read anything he has written, so this is a first.
Border Districts is Murnane’s latest work and some say, his final and perhaps, autobiographical. Born in Melbourne in 1939 and educated by the de la Salle Brothers, he studied for Priesthood in the late fifties, but left and began teaching in primary schools and in later life, universities. He married in 1966 and has three sons. His wife died in 2009 and Murnane retired to Goroke, west of Horsham, on the S.A. -Victorian border, hence the name Border Districts.
But this book is not about place. It seems that this book is typical of Murnane’s work- introspective stream of consciousness focusing on how the mind works, referring to his thoughts constantly. The phrase ‘while I was writing the preceding paragraph’ is invariably followed by ‘I thought, I was reminded of, I imagined’ and then continues to describe the new thought that had entered his head. This leads to a reading ride that is at once smooth and bumpy. Smooth in that if the reader lets go and allows Murnane to control the flow, going from one thought to another like a river, it can be a pleasant, jolt-less experience- seeing where the thought leads- the reader is definitely a passenger.
If, on the other hand, the reader is keen to interact with the text- to question, to make predictions and connections- then the bumpiness comes. Perhaps readers need a warning before they start. Then again, I learnt this in one reading, as obviously thousands of other readers did too, for he is very well regarded in the Australian (and increasingly International) literary scene. His style, I guess, is unique and so in picking up a Murnane to read, the reader puts aside any expectations of ‘fiction’ they hold and allows Murnane to lead.
And this is the real point of my review. It seems to me that this work defies generally held views on what makes good fiction. The story or plot is non-existent, the characters are flat, repressed, unnamed (the girl who was nearly a woman, the man who was once a boy), there is little in the way of setting in either time or place, no descriptions of any note, no use of language to admire. In fact, I’m sure it could be argued that this is not fiction at all, but rather an essay or monologue or dissertation. But obviously the publishers disagree for they have labelled it fiction.
Throughout Border Districts are recurring images, especially the image of coloured glass –from the beginning in the church windows to the final two lines from the poet, Shelley. Another is the ‘return veranda’ where he (the protagonist or perhaps the author) read with his youngest aunt, another is ‘guard my eyes’ which came from a holy card in his teacher’s Missal. Repressed, yes and maybe even, as the author of a New York Times review suggested ‘verging on creepy’.
Add to this mix the fact that Murnane has never left the state of Victoria. His eighty-one years have been lived within a 500km boundary and it was only ten years ago that he left Melbourne. Up until then, his entire life had been lived within that city.
This seems to me to add to the monastic style of his writing. Not that I dislike that – I think that there are enough people interacting in our world and we need to hear from people who volunteer to withdraw and live on the fringes of society, who don’t need the trappings of materialism and who are able to describe an ‘inner’ life.
But those hermits of ancient or modern times generally contribute something substantial to society. Usually their introspection has a spiritual, academic or mathematical basis and their insights can be valuable to the majority who are caught up in the hurly-burly.
I’m not sure that Murnane is in this group. He is not writing from any defined stand-point, he has no message to assist an ailing world. He simply records what he is thinking and what that thought reminded him of. Perhaps it could be called literary introspection, but I would ask, what’s the point? I would like to have a chat with a fan -someone who really appreciates him, so I would welcome responses from readers.