Gerald Murnane. Landscape with Landscape. Artarmon, NSW: Giramondo Publishing, 2016.
Landscape with Memory
It could have been in Goroke or Seymour when I sat with a friend in a field. We were speaking of authors and what it means to write of the “Australian” landscape as a type of vision of the world. This was not literature in the Tom Roberts or Frederick McCubbin mode of apprehension, but something different, something less impressionistic and more precise, something less painterly. When we spoke we spoke of an author who went by the name of “Gerald Murnane” and I told my friend what I knew then. I said that for the duration of my undergraduate degree I had a correspondence with him as far as I know. He was very generous and I used to write letters to him with questions about writing and how to be a writer, and he would write back with suggestions and anecdotes. For the most part, we wrote to each other about literature but it also coincided with his wife’s cancer and her eventual death. As much as we wrote about literature we were also writing about life itself.
So much critique of Murnane focuses on his life rather than his work, highlighting somehow that he is an eccentric figure, a curious man who nevertheless writes good books. I met Murnane in person many years later at the Victorian Premiers Literary Awards when he was there to collect a prize for his memoir Something for the Pain and I was there with the Small Press Network. That evening I introduced myself and we spoke about how we had stopped writing to each other, but the main part of our conversation was concerned with horse racing because of my partner’s family connection. Murnane, it must be said, did not come across as eccentric but rather a normal bloke who just wanted to have a beer and a chat amidst a red wine drinking latte set. The idea of Murnane as odd has surely come about because of his work, not because of anything he himself is. So what are we to make of his work? And what are we to make of it when we read it now, re-contextualised through the aging process?
Landscape With Landscape was first published in 1985 and in this updated edition, Murnane comments on how it was “brutally treated” in its early days and also states that he has “never engaged in public or private with any reviewer and I’m not about to do so now”. Unfortunately though, Murnane and I had an epistolary relationship that bifurcates Landscape With Landscape in these two treatments (1985 and 2016) so he can never say never again. Reading this work for me was like returning to something I used to hold dear and in that way it was a curious experience, like writing a book about a book about a film that is never made, or like an author who writes about authors who are doppelgangers of themselves in some way. It was a memory of my own time filtering through what is a memorial to an Australia that might have been anachronistic in its own time.
The reader will note now that the book is a book of 6 chapters, each being short stories. They discuss life in the suburbs, city and country of a place that resembles “Australia” (and one story that is oriented around Paraguay), and one could project concerns about gender, status and art though they are most decidedly concerned with language. They are observational, attentively so and from a decentred first person perspective, but one is also struck by the racial unconsciousness that exists here – characters are never identified in such a way that one could assume they were anything other than hegemonic. This fits with the poetry Murnane sent to me after we re-connected at the Premiers Awards, including a poem that was Jindyworobak at best. When I wrote back and said I had some reservations about the representations of Aboriginal culture, I never heard from him again. He is a symptom of an earlier Australia, one that is earlier even than his own time. This is landscape with landscape, not landscape with Wiradjuri, Koori, Yolgnu.
When I heard Gerald speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival, his interlocutor was embarrassingly in awe of him, positively stupefied by the stature of the man. And yet, writers are simply writers, minor celebrities at the best of times no matter who they are. The audience was composed of serious young white men, the kind of university students who read continental philosophy and pontificate. That is Murnane’s bloc, who he appeals to, or rather, they seemed like the reader I once was, the reader who thinks they get him at some important and critical level as they sit in the field to speak of literature in the here and now. And yet, away from the metropolitan centre that Melbourne attempts to imitate, Murnane resonates with those who can take pleasure in the abstract delights of language itself rather than divine clarity, message and meaning alone. In that way, he has concordance with “difficult” poetry (something he abhors, preferring tightly structured rhyming lyric that is conservative) rather than prose, and that is the vein in which I have read Landscape with Landscape this time around. The pleasure with Landscape with Landscape is with the attention to the sentence as if that were the line, but not the word. There are ideas here but it is not conceptual, and the tropes of self-referentiality suggest a world albeit not of an ironic persuasion. It is earnest and suggestive while also being signposted and palpable.
It is less that Murnane is exemplary, though he certainly is, which has been fairly remarked upon. Rather, it is that, for this reader, Murnane connects to a world of poetry, and which distinguishes his work structurally and thoughtfully from say Hannah Kent, Tim Winton, Kate Grenville. That is what makes him “literary” if not philosophical, and that might be why he remains so vital to Australian culture in a post-pastoral world. And yet one cannot help but discern a politics that is neither “correct” nor ecological in the sense of being connected and holistic. That should simply be more reason to read, and critique, him more closely still
Robert Wood grew up in suburban Perth. He has published work in Southerly, Cordite, Jacket2 and other journals. At present he lives at Redgate in Wardandi country and is working on a series of essays.