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An interview with Gerald Murname.

ANTONI JACH: Welcome to the Melbourne Writers' Festival. We respectfully acknowledge we're meeting on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people, belonging to the Kulin Nation and we pay respect to their elders, and all of the elders in Victoria. Now, it gives me very great pleasure to introduce a friend of mine, Gerald Murnane, to you. Some of you might know Gerald--some of you might have been taught by Gerald. Anyone taught by Gerald? Yes, thank you. I had Gerald speak to my students at RMIT in 1987 and, Gerald may or may not remember this, but he gave a wonderful lecture on his published books and he picked up one after another, and he went through the books, told us a bit about the plot and told us much more about the themes, and that was fabulous. Gerald's latest book is Barley Patch, Giramondo the [Australian] publisher--my publishers as well--the amazing Ivor Indyk is the publisher--Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs was the previous one, wasn't it?

GERALD MURNANE: Yes, and there was also a first--a reissue of Tamarisk Row, which is not a new book, but Giramondo published that recently, about two years ago.

AJ: And Text has republished The Plains, right?

GM: The Plains is in print with Text, yes. (1) And while we're on that subject, there's a French edition. We've been trying to interest the French through agents and publishers working--I think every publisher in France by now, during the last twenty years, would have seen at some time, and rejected The Plains, but just recently thanks to the exertions of Michael Heywood and Penny Hueston at Text, a French Plains is coming out (2) and I only heard from Michael five minutes ago that it's coming out next February.

AJ: It's great work, Michael, wherever you are. Thank you very much, that's terrific. As a way of introducing--this might sound a little bit like bragging, but there is a reason. [Holds up book to show to Murname and the audience.] After the Celebration: Australian Fiction 1989 to 2007 (3)--have you seen this, Gerald?

GM: No, I know about it, yeah. I keep away from books like that.

AJ: Well, I'm going to bring some of that up today, so we'll see what your reaction is. You'll get your chance to talk back. Um, [reading] "Gerald Murnane might be contrasted with another Australian Postmodern novelist, Antoni Jach"--that's myself, I'm Antoni Jach, hi--so there's a bit of serendipity in terms of the two of us being here together. And Gerald's fiction was certainly influential on my fiction, back in the '80s, and The Plains in particular was very important to me, because it showed me that there was an Australian writer who was actually writing in a modernist style. And, I was someone who loved Marcel Proust and still love Marcel Proust, and I could see something Proustian in Gerald's work that I really admired. Gerald, could you tell us a bit about Proust?

GM: Well, I'll tell you first that I don't like talking about--using in my speech or talks--words such as postmodern because--and you might laugh at this and think I'm striking a pose--but I do not quite understand what the expression "postmodern" means, and I don't see it as any of my business to understand it, and I welcome people using it about me and I feel that it must be something that I should be proud of, and so I am a little bit proud but without fully understanding it.

My way of writing is not to sit down and try to fulfil somebody's expectations--to say, "Now I've written a realistic novel, it's about time I tried a postmodern novel." My way of writing starts with just a small image or collection of images, and it expands in all directions from that. And of course I've been influenced--unconsciously perhaps--by Marcel Proust. And strange to say, one of the things that first got me going and into my stride with Tamarisk Row which took eight years to finish from the time I started it--was a book which I don't think that I'd be at all impressed by now if I read it again, called The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. It came out in 1962, when I was trying to be a poet and drafting a few scribbled versions of what became Tamarisk Row years later. And something about the crazy passages in the The Tin Drum liberated me from being just another Australian writer who wrote about characters and plots and all. It was a feeling that if they can do it in Europe, I can do it here. Anyone can do it. And that's--I've gone off the subject a bit but it won't be the last time I'll do that today.

And Proust, I don't just worship or respect him as a writer, but as a thinker. My kind of thinker. He thought in images. He didn't think in philosophical terms. And I can't think--I almost failed Philosophy 1 at Melbourne University. I only passed it by pretending I was a philosopher. When I was doing the exam, I thought--if I understood what philosophy was about, how would I answer this question? So I got through. So that's not my way of thinking. But the imagery in Proust says it all. I've managed to read Proust twice. I don't know if I've got time to read him a third time yet.

AJ: Yeah, and it's the intense interiority, the absence of action--I presume these are two of the qualities that--

GM: There's a passage in Barley Patch--I was looking at it on the train coming in this morning. A passage in which the narrator of Barley Patch directly refers to Marcel Proust's work--and to a passage in the first part of the work, in which place names are listed--place names along the coast of Normandy. And for each name, the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past describes visual imagery. And the visual imagery arises from the vowels in the names. The final e acute vowel in one particular name--I wish I could quote them from memory--to him had a colour, or a texture, or an architectural feature associated ... So, Proust was of such a sensitive or alert frame of mind, that he could read a name on a map, and see a coloured landscape or a coloured building, or just pure colour. And I envy him that kind of skill. And I perhaps have it to a small extent.

AJ: Following up from that, what do names like Glass Land and New Arcadia do for you?

GM: Well, Glass Land takes me to the--it's in Barley Patch of course, but a better question would be, What was I thinking about?

AJ: Gerald, what were you thinking about?

GM: What was I thinking about when I used those words in Barley Patch? Ah, now this is something that you'd be interested to hear--most of you, anyway. Some of my books have grown out of other books. I didn't intend, for quite a while, to write. And I want to have a rest from writing this year and next year. But I've started working on a book which I think has actually grown out of my interest in stained glass or coloured glass. I don't work with stained glass--I just look at it and think about it. And the Glass Land in there wasn't just a reference to the Glass Land that the Brontes described in their ... Not their published works but that strange--they had a secret sort of land or series of lands called Gondal. One of them was called Gondal. And they had all these little handwritten accounts of the goings on in this mysterious imaginary country. The girls did it and so did that poor--what was his name?--Branwell, the drunken brother. So the Brontes had this fantasy world, and one of the big cities in it was called Glass Land.

So my Glass Land--I've always been inspired by the Brontes and their shameless, shameless dedication to nonexistent things; to the reality of imaginary places. And Barley Patch, whether you've read it or not or understood it or not, Barley Patch is full of references to things existing on the other side of works of art. And imaginary places. And Gondal lies on the other side of Wuthering Heights, which is one of my favourite books. So, Glass Lands, there's all these multiple references. But it also--I love the sound of the word "glass" itself. And it's lead me--my love of that sound and what it connotes--has lead me to start the book that I'm writing now. What was the other reference?

AJ: New Arcadia, but just while we're on Glass Land, it connects to grassland which is one of your big themes, isn't it.

GM: You get that--it's just the fortuitousness of the English language that provides that, but if you're a writer like me you fasten onto connections like that.

AJ: So what does New Arcadia do for you?

GM: New Arcadia, ah, is, ah, you'll have to wait till twenty years after I'm dead to find out. I have, um, I was hoping I'd get the excuse to mention this: I have, in my little work room, I think ... I counted them before I left too ... it's thirty-two or forty ... one or the other. I think there are forty filing cabinet drawers, but only thirty-two of them are full at present. So I've still got eight drawers left to fill. And what are they filled with? Well for those, probably most of you don't know, I started keeping all my letters, all my autobiographical writings and they are very--I've written far far more autobiographical writing--well, as much autobiographical writing as--it could fill three or four books. All unpublished, never to be published, and to go to some library. My executors of my estate will decide where after I'm dead. And twenty years later, after certain other people have died, hopefully the stuff in my filing cabinets will be available for reading and then the mystery of what New Arcadia is will be revealed. But if you read Barley Patch with alertness you'll probably get a very strong hint. And also if you go back to the book Emerald Blue, one of my--a book I always feel a bit sorry for, that it didn't get the, ah--came out at a time when I wasn't the flavour of the month, I hadn't written anything for five or six--I hadn't had anything published for five or six years--and there's a story in Emerald Blue, or a piece of fiction, called "The Interior of Gaaldine," and uh, if you read that and then read Barley Patch carefully you get an idea of what New Arcadia refers to.

AJ: Yeah, and O, Dem Golden Slippers?

GM: O, Dem Golden Slippers was the title of the big book that I didn't ever finish. In fact, in the filing cabinet drawers that--the archives, as I call them, are three. There's the personal archive--or the chronological archive--which fills about twenty filing cabinet drawers. Unfortunately I haven't got anything from my childhood. We moved--I lived at about thirteen different addresses in the first thirteen years, and we just couldn't keep stuff. Dad would say, "We're moving again," and we used to tell this old joke: the chooks, on hearing those words, used to lie on their backs and put their feet up so we could tie their legs together. And Dad would--we used old boxes called tea chests. They apparently were used for--tea merchants used to buy the tea from China and Ceylon, in these big tea chests with zinc lining, and Dad had a collection of them. They were our packing cases, and always one was for our toys. And we had a few toys and treasures as we called them and--I wrote little plays and stories at the age of eight or nine, but none of them survived. But back to the archives. My first writings in the archives date from 1956, just as I was leaving school. I wanted to be a--well, a part-time poet. I didn't ever think that it was possible to live from poetry. But I was going to be a part time poet, and I wrote down fifty topics that interested me. These would be the things I'd write poetry about for the rest of my life. And that's my first bit of writing that relates to anything published. And my writing from there on, as I say, fills all these filing cabinet drawers. What was the question again?

AJ: I think it was New Arcadia, wasn't it?

GM: No no, we've passed on from New Arcadia.

FROM AUDIENCE: O, Dent Golden Slippers

GM & AJ: O, Dem Golden Slippers

GM: Be alert, Antoni.

AJ: I've got my next question in my head, so ...

GM: O, Dem Golden Slippers is in--uh, what remains of it, is in the unfinished ... I'm talking now about another of my archives: the Literary Archive, which has twelve drawers. There's Tamarisk Row, A Lifetime on Clouds, eleven--uh, up to the one I'm writing now, is number eleven. And there's another drawer, full of unfinished and uncompleted things. And O, Dem Golden Slippers was a novel I started--or a long work of fiction I started in about '88 or '89, when Inland had been published, and I just couldn't finish it. It went out like a, an estuary or a--it branched out in all directions. Parts of it were published in that wonderful magazine Scripsi that disappeared some years back. And, uh, I gave up--and in fact, after giving up on O, Dem Golden Slippers, I gave up on writing. I never--I've never been--I've never felt it my duty or obligation or in my best interest to just keep writing. If I don't want to write, I stop writing. If I've got nothing to write about I stop. And, uh, so I stopped for several years after O, Dem Golden Slippers. But again, for those who know Barley Patch, that book, in a way, grew out of O, Dem Golden Slippers and I thought, well, if I was answering a question like that--why did I stop writing O, Dem Golden Slippers? What should I have done to make it a better book, whatever--there's a whole lot of references to my unfinished book in there. So I'm a messy sort of writer who gets it right in the end, almost by the wrong route or an accidental way round.

AJ: "Circling and circling," Gelder and Salzman say in their book. You're a writer who circles and circles.

GM: Well that's okay, yeah.

AJ: This writer, Jean-Francois Vernay. [Holding up book.] A book published in France last year, it's The Panorama of the Australian Novel--1831 to 2009. (4)

GM: He's a very tall man--did you ever meet him?

AJ: Yes I did. It's coming out in a couple of weeks, in translation. And Jean-Francois was very disturbed for you to be publishing fiction when he's written in this book that you will not write any more fiction. So he was most disturbed. He says he'll fix it in the next edition, but he was really, sort of, quite overwrought.

GM: In other words, with all due respect to the gentleman, he thinks it's a writer's duty to write--the reason we're writing is so he can write clever books about us.

AJ: Yep, absolutely.

GM: So we'd better do the right thing by him.

AJ: Now, on page 179 of Barley Patch you say, "What remains to be reported about my having decided to write no more fiction." Now, what would you like to say about that?

GM: Page 1 ...?

AJ: Page 179. "What remains to be reported."

GM: Well, that's--

AJ: In italics.

GM: No, that's, that's ... You've got me a bit confused. That's, if you read it in context, is simply saying what's left to put into this book.

AJ: Yep.

GM: Um. Well, it leads me to say that even when I was writing Barley Patch I thought this would probably be the last thing I write. Because I couldn't think of anything else that I wanted to write about. And I only write, as I said before, when I feel impelled, or driven, or--uh, not driven for the sake of my readers, but driven for my own sake, my own natural curiosity. What might come of this if I start writing about it? So, well, I can't directly answer your question because it only relates to the--you'd have to read the rest of the book to answer it.

But, the, um, of course there was a significant personal event that took place in February 2009, which was the death of my wife after a long illness with cancer. And I'd started just before she, we found she had cancer and I'd started a novella, about thirty thousand words, called A History of Books. It's fiction, but that's its title. And when I finished that, six months after she'd died, things had calmed down, I sat down and finished and thought that's it, again, nothing more to write about. But I've since started another one, a shorter piece. So you just don't know. I think, perhaps, in the next book, I'll delete any references to stopping writing ... Put at the end, To BE CONTINUED.

AJ: Now, Gerald, what would you say to the person who says, mistakenly, that this is not a work of fiction; it's a memoir. What would your response be?

GM: Well, it happened. And it happened in connection with the Adelaide Festival, last year. Ivor Indyk, the publisher--the man behind the Giramondo Publishing Company--rang me to say that the book Barley Patch, which had been entered in the fiction category for the Adelaide Festival, which is worth thirty thousand dollars and prestigious, and--none of my books have ever won a major prize in Australia. I've been awarded the Patrick White Award, I've won an Emeritus Fellowship, but no single book of mine has ever won a Premier's literary award, the Miles Franklin--in fact, I've never even been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin. But I thought, this is it, this'll be the book that will win. Not that, I mean, I don't lie awake at night thirsting for these things but if the opportunity was there, naturally I could look forward to it. So I thought, well, Barley Patch is in with a chance in the Adelaide Festival. But why he rang me was to say that they didn't think it was fiction. That it really shouldn't be in the fiction category. And then, I'll answer that in a moment. But what happened as a good result of that: the judges, to square off with him perhaps--I don't even know who they were, so I, I'm not making any judgement about them--but they recommended that the book be entered in the In ... there's a category called "Innovatory Writing." You only get ten thousand dollars but that's better than a poke in the eye with a burnt stick, as they used to say. And it won the award. And I had the opportunity--I don't know whether the judges were in the audience, they probably were--but when I--I like making very short speeches at these sorts of things. And I got up at the festival at February this year, out in the tent there, and I said, well, I thought of many things when my first book was published. I thought, now I'm a writer and I've got ... I never thought, among all the fanciful and hopeful thoughts that I had, never did I think that forty or fifty years later I'd be standing up at a thing called the Adelaide Festival, and accepting a prize as an innovator, at the age of seventy-one. Or whatever I was. And this--it stung me a bit to be thought, well, you know, it's, uh, I really think that any writer has the right to claim that a work is a work of fiction if it's published as a work of fiction. And for somebody to turn around and say, "That doesn't seem like fiction to me," well, my answer simply is that it is fiction.

And you ask me, well, how much autobiography is in that? Well, I don't know. There are--there are statements that I would--that came directly from the self that's sitting here in front of you, and there are statements in there that I couldn't possibly make, unless I were alone in a room in a writing sort of mood, and, that, um, if you challenged me with some of the statements I'd say, "No, I don't really believe that. That's not part of my personality" Because you must know, any of you who've tried writing, that it's--you become a different person for the time being. You draw on parts of yourself that you'd never expose or ... It's not telling secrets. I'm not saying that they're shameful things. But there are parts of you that you don't even know about yourself, until you sit down and start writing. And that's why some people suppose--and especially since it starts out with the first-person narrator being a writer. They suppose it can't be fiction; it's autobiography.

Anyway, I got ten thousand dollars and a prize out of it. But it did sting me to think that--and not only that, if that were my first book, well then, fair enough, they might say, well he's a new bloke, we don't know anything about him, he writes this strange sort of writing which may not be fiction. But that was my ninth book and I must, I mean, they surely give me credit for knowing by now what's fiction and what's not. Anyway, what else is--I couldn't think of anything else to call it.

AJ: Yeah. Uh, Alain Robbe-Grillet's got a book which he dubs "fictional autobiography." It's called The Mirror Which Returns. (5) And that notion of fictional autobiography is interesting in itself.

GM: Ah, I think I've said enough on the subject, but I ... So, there's an old joke that somebody told me about a guy in a university. The lecturer for ... Somebody had to give a lecture on a high-powered critical subject, and he was sick or he couldn't--he called the other guy and said, you go ahead and do it for me. And the other guy said, "I can't lecture on that subject, they'll ask me all these questions." The lecturer said, "You'll satisfy any questioner if you use in your answer the words 'in a sense.' So if somebody says, 'Do you think this is--?' 'In a sense, yes'" So, if you ask me, Antoni, if somebody says, "Is that fiction or autobiography?" I say, "In a sense, yes."

AJ: Well, following up from that, I want you to go back to your days lecturing in creative writing. I want to know how many writers are in the audience? Hands up, please.

GM: What do you mean by "writers"?

AJ: How many writers? Writers published or unpublished. You consider yourselves as writers. Thank you.

GM: I wouldn't have dared to ask that question. It's none of my business. So I didn't put him up to that.

AJ: No. But Gerald, what I want you to do is give advice to writers. Now, what's your advice? What do they have to do?

GM: Well, that's easy. Well you just, you don't give up your day job. And I'm serious. I managed to write part-time, except for three years, back in the 1970s, I got three successive one-year grants from the Australia Council. They weren't in fact--they didn't help me all that much. I managed to write one book over the three years. But filling out the forms and trying to finish within a year what you said you'd finish so that you could apply for the next year's grant, it was a big strain actually, and I was almost relieved when the third time around they didn't give me one. And for many, many years I had no contact with the Australia Council. Except, of course, they generously subsidised the publisher of the books.

But I always managed to write in my spare time. And sometimes there was precious little of it. Uh, and I feel that the strain--and I'm only speaking for myself, but you asked for advice ... The strain--and I used to say this to the students--the strain of writing to make money would have been so much that I would never have completed half of what I did. And besides that, you're free--or freer--if you're supporting yourself by some other job, even a part-time job--you're freer to write what you think you have to write. And you don't have this dreadful task of trying to guess what publishers are looking for. Or even harder still, what readers are looking for. So, I mean, you might have expected me to say something like, you know, write nice long paragraphs or write short paragraphs, but my most heartfelt answer to that is that you treat yourself as a part-time writer who is free to follow their own path.

And that, going back to the task of, the question "What are editors looking for?" I forget where I read it--it was in an American handbook for writers. Editors say, often, what they're looking for. But quite often, what they're looking for--they don't know what they're looking for until they see it. In other words you, if you're going to be successful, you might be successful by showing an editor--or a literary agent, and then an editor--what they never expected to see, but what they recognise as meritorious and worth publishing. So it's a stupid and futile thing to look at last year's bestseller and say, "Ah, that's it!" and then try and write your version. Or to read in the Saturday Age or the Saturday Australian some statement by a publisher that crime fiction is all the go this year or you can write a literary masterpiece with a crime fiction framework, and then you say, "Well, now I know what to do." No, you don't. You follow your own path. You follow your own impulses, your own creativity, for want of a better word. And then, if it's any good, it'll get published.

The story of my getting published was a near thing. The first book I finished was far too long. It was Tamarisk Row multiplied by about one and three quarters. And I showed it to a man who won't speak to me anymore. We fell out rather badly, then we patched it up again and later we fell out again. So this is the last time, because we're a bit too old to be patching up a third time. So his name was Barry Oakley. He was a novelist in the '60s and 70s. A literary editor of The Australian for a while and, uh, a good friend of mine in my young days. He's older than I am, about eight years older. And he'd been published. And so, he was the only person I knew in Australia, personally, who'd been published. And I dared to show him, well, asked him to read bits of Tamarisk Row. I couldn't ask him to read the whole thing. He read, oh seventy or eighty pages, and he found a lot of it not to his liking, but a lot of it he found excellent.

And he just mentioned this to Hilary McPhee who was just starting out as an editor of--she was looking for Australian fiction for Heinemann Australia. And this is going back forty years, to 1970 or '72. And Oakley just mentioned to her that there was a book by a man called Gerald Murnane, Tamarisk Row, that was worth looking at. Didn't say it was worth publishing. And she liked it, and she told me I'd have to cut it down, which I did. And when I sat in her office for the first time, and I only found out years later that this was almost the first book she'd edited, and I thought she was a wise, experienced editor, and we were both pretty nervous with each other, I guess. I sat in that room, and I happened to notice, in the corner, a pile, and I don't exaggerate, a pile so high, as high as the chair I'm sitting in, and it covered an area of about, from me to the front row, and it was all parcels, and it was a terrible thing to think that all these parcels were the unsolicited manuscripts and typescripts of people wanting their first novels published.

You see, the rumour gets around quickly, if there's a publisher looking for Australian fiction, and suddenly a tidal wave of unpublished manuscripts descended. And I thought, if Barry Oakley hadn't mentioned me to Hilary McPhee, Tamarisk Row would be lying underneath that three-foot high pile and would probably be lying there another fifteen years.

So, that was how--well, I mean, I'm only guessing, but I always think it was a lucky day and a near thing that Hilary read that. And after that, well, it wasn't hard after that. And by the way, I'm wandering but this is all, I suppose, interesting--I've been to four or five publishers, I've never made money for any of them, didn't lose much money, but they couldn't make me into a commercial success. And, uh, five, ten years ago, Ivor Indyk pressed me for, almost drove me to get that collection together for Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs. Most of it had been published in magazines but not in book form. And I know now what I thought I knew, but didn't really know properly, when I was a teacher: the encouragement and the stimulus a person can get from knowing that they're likely to be published, as opposed to writing something and just hoping and having your fingers crossed, or getting rejections and continual rejections. Because knowing that Ivor was very interested in my work was a wonderful encouragement--I'm sure you know this, those who've been published ... It's a wonderful thing to think you're almost certain to be published. So thanks to Ivor Indyk. I always make an acknowledgement of him. I tease him sometimes--when I launched Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs he was covering his face and flinching because I made this joke about every time I used to give a talk or a speech, he'd ask me, "Can I have that for publication? Could you type me up a version of that for pub--" He was always pressing me and, "Could you go home and find something like that that you want published?" And suddenly I realised that he was really interested in everything I wrote.

AJ: Yeah, and was he forthright in terms of the editing? Say with Barley Patch. Did he tell you what to do, or did he give you a lot of free rein?

GM: Well, again if I--we had--it's silly to say that's somethings funny, but not to be able to quote it and give you an example. But some of the funniest things I've written have been exchanges on the margins of my galley proofs with Ivor. Ivor saying, "Isn't this a bit over the top?" And, ah, "What--" No, I can't think of examples, but I showed it to another person and she said, "They're some of the funniest things I've seen." He tried to--all in good fun--he tried to tell me I'd gone a little too far in one direction, and well, there is one passage. It's not really a good example. There's a page, um, I suppose you might almost call it a sort of sexual fantasy, where the narrator confesses to seeing images of image-aunts and image-cousins on image-beaches with their image-buttocks partly exposed by their image-bathing shorts. And Ivor said, "You don't need to write like that about images." And I said, "You just wait," I said, "till you read my next book." I said, "You'll have your image-this or image-that up to here."

AJ: That's right.

GM: I was referring to A History of Books, that I've mentioned before--and it's going to make some people just seethe, I suppose--but it's--the, the expression image-this or image-that, the whole thing rests on the foundation that everything in the text is an image of something. So, I warned him. But that's only a slight example. But, he's--and I put him right on a point of grammar.

AJ: Did you?

GM: Yes, I did. He didn't know that the verb--it's four lines from that poem "The Fairies." (6) "They have kept her ever since, watching till she wake, on a bed of flag leaves, the deep beneath the lake." That's roughly it. Now, and the narrator of the text then goes on to say, "But the verbs in this stanza are in the present tense." Now the verb is--there's really only one verb the others are participles--the verb is "have kept," and Ivor wrote on the copy, he said, "But they're not, they're in the past tense." And I said, "Ivor, grammar lesson number one." And he, well, unless he was half asleep, "have kept" is the present perfect. It describes an action or reports an action completed in the present and having begun in the past. He didn't seem to know that, so again twenty years from now someone will realise that I knew more about English grammar than the publisher of the Giramondo Press.

AJ: That's amazing, probably nobody else has picked up Ivor for grammar.

GM: You're not here, are you, Ivor?

AJ: No, he's not. We share something in common. We both have a love of National Geographic from the 1940s to the 1950s. Now, could you tell the audience, please, where does your love of those images come from? What do those images do for you? How do they spark your imagination?

GM: Well, not quite the way perhaps you think, but it's the old story I suppose-and this is something that's always interested me, and many of you--most of you would have had similar, or conducted similar little investigations in your own lives. Why is it, or ... Am I so interested in X or Y for no other reason than that I was exposed to it an early age? Now, the one thing that comes to me, apart from National Geographic, is horse racing. Had my father not been a gambler, had he not brought the racing papers home, had he not trained a horse in the back yard for a few years in Bendigo, would I have been as interested in racing? I actually, there's a good answer to that. My brother had been exposed to exactly the same interests and he wouldn't cross the road to watch the Melbourne Cup if it was free across the road from his house, so the two of us were similarly exposed and only I took up on horse racing.

Going in to the National Geographics ... Dad used to bring us home--Dad was a minor public servant and he used to bring us home--a school library would be throwing out some magazines or some old books and he would, Dad would visit, in the course of his duties he would visit the schools to inspect the rolls for attendance, the defaulters, people who were truants, who didn't go to school. And he got friendly with the teachers and he'd bring home, he brought, sometimes a collection of glass marbles, which is important to me. My first marbles were confiscated from poor little kids in Bendigo, fiddling with them under the desk. The teacher'd take them off them and at the end of the year, she'd find these marbles and give them to my dad, tell him, "I'm not really entitled to own them, but I do." Well, National Geographic. He brought home a couple of National Geographies in about 1944, '45, and that was the start of my interest in foreign countries.

AJ: Yep.

GM: Hungary, Finland, Malta, all these, and in particular America. I think in all, in about four different books I've mentioned West Virginia, because many of you would know that I don't travel--I travel within Victoria, but not outside Australia, anywhere much beyond Victoria--so I've never been to America, never will. But when I think of America I always think of West Virginia, because it was the first part of America I read about. And in West Virginia, and in the article on West Virginia there is a picture of a woman, and I think it's mentioned in about three books. She was just pictured--one of those women like the ones in your pictures. And you can get on to your aspect in a minute. She's got all these glass marbles coming out of a machine, made for industrial purposes or to sell to kids for toys. And it just fascinated me. I didn't, and I thought--I was five years old--I didn't know where marbles came from. They come from West Virginia. They're made in the mountains of West Virginia. And I, I still, trust to those funny little changes of thought that occupied me as a kid. My first interest in Hungary grew out of some pictures of--a picture that was mentioned in one of my books, I've forgotten which--might have been Inland. A great big stuffed dummy, made of hay and cloth, a kind of mock bridegroom. It's a wedding in Transylvania, a Hungarian part of Romania. And I just stared at that. I still don't know fully why it fascinated me. But here was this wedding feast going on, these peasants standing 'round in their Sunday best, for the wedding, and this great big dangling dummy figure, hanging above them, they'd drawn two poplar trees together.

But back to your question. Um, would I have--well, I wouldn't, the answer is no--but I don't know to what extent my first interest in National Geographics was just because dad put them in front of me. I certainly wouldn't have ... there'd be fifty pages missing from my fiction. And then why he's brought that up is he's got something--hold it up, Antoni. Now I'm doing the interviewing.

AJ: Yep. [Holding up a book.]

GM: Antoni fascinated me years ago with a collection. You explain it.

AJ: It's a collection of images from National Geographic. Unfortunately the images are falling out of the book now, but it's called In Search of Lost Time, which is the Proust thing. And you take the images away from the text, and they look very, very strange. But, Gerald, maybe I'll give that to you, and if you could maybe just flick through for a little bit. But they are uncanny, aren't they, the images.

GM: Well the thing--ah, I'm not in the right mood to, sitting up in front of an audience, to react as I did, but when Antoni first showed me, what we noticed was the strange cheesecake images of women, and--not all of them--and then men in suits, the woman was always in--not all--but the woman was quite often lightly clad, and the man is in a suit.

AJ: There was an ominousness.

GM: Yes.

AJ: The woman was holding pineapples and the man was in a suit.

GM: Yes, and--that was, of course--I'd prefer to rely on my impression. I haven't seen this since--what was that year? '80 ...

AJ: Yeah, '88, or '87.

GM: I've never forgotten it. That he--I mean, it's not my National Geographic. I sort of shuddered a bit when I saw this. My National Geographic was just a kind of fairy-tale world over the seas, of places where I'd never been. But this was a sinister world where a kind of, um, a sinister world where people pose--and of course, he's taken all the captions away, you don't know what they're doing. You get quite alarmed by the time you get to the--you want to know what the end of the plot is.

AJ: It's the Freudian uncanny. It's the return of something we sense. And because there's no verbal text around it, it's allowed to play on our imagination. Visual images coming into our preverbal imagination.

Now Gerald, you won the Melbourne Prize. Let's give Gerald a round of applause for winning the Melbourne Prize. You're tipped every year to win the Nobel Prize.

GM: Well, I get nominated. I mean, and this brings up the question--it's a bit of a--I shouldn't, you know, sitting in front of an audience, sort of complain about anything much. I've got nothing much to complain about. But if you said, "Go for your life, I give you permission to complain about something," it's that: the difference between the reception of my books in Australia, which--it's okay, I don't lie awake at night worrying about it. But it startled me when the Swedes discovered me. When I say the Swedes it was one man. He's a retired professor. He's not even a Swede--he's half Norwegian--his name is Harold Fawkner. He's half Norwegian and half Scot. But he lived most of his adult life in Sweden. And he was standing in a bookshop, in about 1986, and Inland was very unsuccessfully published in England. A Faber edition. The only good thing about it--the edition there had one of the best covers ever designed for one of my books, a hardcover Inland.

And he picked this book up, and he read it, and he wrote--he sat there and wrote a hundred pages, a kind of essay, a dense ... I couldn't get through it--a dense critique of Inland, which he said was one of the most remarkable texts he'd ever read. And I'm not talking about some crank. I'm talking about a senior academic and a master's and PhD in literature in Sweden. And he started a single-handed campaign to get me published in Sweden. We've written a lot of long letters ... I used to do what I did to Ivor in the margins of the galley proofs. I got sick of him writing sometimes, and used to be almost sort of, you know, have these sort of playful arguments with him, and try to bring him back to earth. Because it made me uneasy, because there's all this great weight attached to a book, which I knew was an important and good book, but it just, it was almost unnerving to be praised so much by such a man. So I'd say, Look, I only put that because of this or that. I tried to just calm him down a bit. Anyway, Inland was published, not very successfully, in Sweden, because it was a smaller literary publisher. But later on, a major publisher picked up--what did they do before Velvet Waters?-- just lately, Barley Patch has come out in a Swedish edition, but there was another one--oh, The Plains. So The Plains and Velvet Waters have been published in Swedish, and they get reviews--I have to rely on Swedish translations, English translations. One of the major newspapers, a leading critic, described Gerald Murnane--probably thought I was about thirty or forty--as one of the most interesting writers in World Fiction at the moment. Now, no one in Australia has ever said that, that I can recall. I'm sure I would recall it if they'd said it.

And what I think is this, that you can't help it but in Australia--and it could be any country--we've got a kind of, a pecking order. We know that these writers are up the top--I'm somewhere up there, I'm okay, but I'm not at the top. But the Swedes--this man, the Swedish academic community--they just, they don't know the pecking order in Australia. They just know this writer or that writer. And so they're not bound--they just react to the book itself.

And I find that really cheering. And a bit irritating, that it doesn't always happen, because of course, I know what writers are like. John Powers, my poor late colleague, he used to say, "Gerald," he'd warn me about the students. "They will never let you off. They will be greedy for your comments. Eager and greedy." And John always used to predict that he'd be lying on his deathbed in a hospital, and the nurse would find out that he was a teacher of creative writing, and say "Would you read this, and tell me where I should get it published?"

But anyway, John died suddenly of a heart attack, so he was spared that. But back to the pecking order, and the--a couple of years ago, a couple of Swedish academics nominated me for the Nobel Prize. And they do it every year. And what comes out of it, who knows? And I don't even think about it. But again, I doubt whether anyone in Australia--Peter Craven perhaps, if he were given the opportunity, would nominate me--but my place is, sort of, not up there, but sort of, up over that way, sort of north, northeast of the pecking order. And that's okay, as I said three times. But it just startles me sometimes when I think, now, the Americans ... Three times--twice, The Plains has been published in America. No interest in it. I remember noticing in their Publishers Weekly. "This is not a work of fiction, it's a work of philosophy." And, you know, that's not bad for a guy who couldn't do philosophy, to write a work of philosophy ... How did that start? About talking about the Swedes?

AJ: Yeah, it did. It was actually a preamble into another question. We didn't quite get to the other question. But, in your Melbourne Prize speech, you were talking about your love of Melbourne. You'd lived in so many different parts of Melbourne. But there's a rumour now that you've left Melbourne. So what would you like to say to that?

GM: Well, not permanently. Not necessarily permanently. I lived in Melbourne from--I was born in Brunswick, or Coburg, and I lived in Melbourne--we went away to Bendigo, Warrnambool--came back in 1950. End of '49. So I lived in Melbourne for sixty years without living anywhere else. And virtually forty years of it in the one suburb, in the northeast. Then after my wife died--and I wasn't, I mean, we were trying to prepare for it, it wasn't some sort of desperate, you know, emotionally fraught decision, I thought ... One of my sons has a house in a remote country district in the far west, and I'm living there on a trial basis. And another one of my sons is minding my house in Melbourne. So I haven't necessarily severed my connections with Melbourne, but I'm liking it so much where I am over near the South Australian border that I'll probably stay there for the rest of my life.

So yes, I've--but my wife and I used to visit this remote place. It's over in the Horsham district. And we used to visit it, look after it. My son left it to us as a holiday house. And it's a strange thing, living in a small community. And they know I'm a writer--I didn't want them to know--I didn't care if they knew, but I wasn't going to tell them. And there's a funny story. I took a teacher from the school. There's a big school, one to twelve, a hundred and twenty kids, they come in buses all around. And I took a teacher from the school into my little work-and sleeping-room, little apartment as I call it, and all the filing cabinets were around and I said, "These filing cabinets, in each drawer is one of my books." And the name of the local football team there is called Border Districts. And that's the title--I loved the words--they just suited the title of the book. My book has nothing to do with football, or even much with that district. But I just wanted the title Border Districts. And he, I know he didn't believe me. I said, "Stephen, well it's not about this town or the football team," and he just walked out. And now, at the golf club, which I've joined, they say to me, "Look, don't put me in your book about our town." So I've got--they really are wary of me in a respectful sense.

AJ: Ah, we're going to throw to questions very soon. I've got one or two more questions, so think of your questions, please. Ah, Gerald, in all your books, they're about yearnings, longings, fantasies, memories, daydreams.

GM: Do you know something? Well, you know, he's right. But do you know something else that only occurred to me a few years ago? And I only state this. I don't offer any explanation or any reason for it. I sit in front of you as, not so much the--well, I'm the author, I don't deny that--but I always say I'm the public face of Gerald Murnane. The person talking to you now. I'm not--I don't feel as if I really wrote those books. If I were sitting alone on a quiet afternoon, I'd get back to feeling the way I was when I wrote the books. But I say to you, that I've had a happy life--I hope it lasts a bit longer yet--but I don't want to be found dead, slumped over a typewriter, my old typewriter. I'd sooner be found out on the golf course or somewhere. So I don't go on writing forever. But I have very little to complain about. I've mentioned a few small complaints. So I'm not one of those bleeding hearts or racked, tortured individuals who can't see what the world, why we exist and why people suffer and there's very little of that in my books. There's more humour, really. And some people have found the humour in between the lines.

However, it's a funny thing that almost every one of my works of fiction, whether it's long or short or whatever, the last section usually describes a male narrator, or character, alone. And reflecting. Not distraught. Not wracked--well, in Inland, he claims to have wept over a grave. But the grave, the person in the grave, he didn't even know, he only knew the name, there was no one he knew. So that's something to think about. And that's, I don't, I speculate about ... But the essentialness of a lot of my fiction is solitariness. So even though I'm the most gregarious of people, the person who writes those books seems to be solitary. And his reflections are mainly on, not so much solitude itself, but a solitary view of the world. And what would it be like, this person is saying, what would it be like if I weren't so alone, or if I weren't so solitary? AJ: Yeah. And your landscape is a mental landscape.

GM: Yes, yes. I'm not a good observer. There's a wonderful statement that I've carried with me for years since I've first read it when I was teaching, about a French writer called Alfred Jarry. He was a surrealist and he wrote a series of plays that I've never read. One of the pioneers of surrealism, and he died of alcoholism and he only lived to be about thirty. He was a cyclist in the days when cycling became popular in the early twentieth century. And he used to ride around the landscape around Paris, with his head down over the handlebars, and somebody rebuked him and said, "You're a writer and a poet, you should be looking round you. Observing the scenery." And he said, the answer he said, "One must have a very poor opinion of one's subconscious if one tells it what to take notice of"

And that explains me. I've never directly looked at anything intently. Things just--something will put its hand up and alert me and wave to me if it wants to be noticed. My landscapes are not, I don't know the names. I think I know the lemon-scented gum, the only gum tree I know, 'cos I planted one in the back yard. But I don't describe landscapes with any knowledge of them. They're just scenes in the mind. I think it might be getting on for question time.

AJ: I have, but, ah, that's just in case the audience doesn't have questions. We've got permission to go five minutes over, which is very generous, which is terrific, instead of being kicked directly out on the hour. So we've got fifteen more minutes with Gerald. Who's got a question? Yes, there's one there.

FROM AUDIENCE: You've mentioned that you had a list, when you were a boy, of fifty subjects. Can you tell us some of the things that were on that list?

GM: Well, just before I do. During the years when I wasn't writing fiction, I, as I said, wrote a lot of autobiographical writing. And one of the things I wrote was about thirty thousand words expanding and explaining, because most of them are just names of places, for example a street. Simple things. Trying to recapture, just code names for moods or--see, I believed, I was only seventeen for heaven's sake--I believed that poetry ... I don't see much distinction between what I was trying to write when I thought I was going to be a poet, and what I ended up writing, so I'll just say writing, meaning any sort of creative writing. I thought that it was the duty of the writer to convey to other people things--as I almost said before--things that one normally didn't convey in social intercourse. So, if I were walking to my parish church at the age of sixteen one cold morning, and where is it, it's in The History of Books, I drew on this memory. And I saw that the sky, a bit of pink cloud in the sky, it's early morning, and the first sign of the warm days of spring. Some--just an ordinary mood of hopefulness or optimism might have come over me. But I thought, that's the sort of thing I must write about. Never did, but wanted to. So the entry would simply just be, you know, Clayton Church, September '55. It wouldn't mean anything to you. But it was a code word for that kind of ... Once I walked past a--in the same area, that's why I'm thinking of it now--I saw two little kids playing. And it almost--it still remains a strangely painful thing. They weren't poor or underprivileged as we'd say now. They were just two little kids, but their clothes were--obviously battling people, paying off a little three-bedroom weatherboard in 1950. And the kids had a look of extreme joy on their faces. A boy and a girl, a brother and sister. They were just playing horsey. One was being the horse and one was being the ... And I couldn't believe, I just felt a strange kind of compassion for them. So I just wrote down, two children playing or something like that, and I've never forgotten it. And so you wouldn't get any enlightenment if you were to look through those notes. You would need me to explain, as I have explained. You'll last the twenty years that you'll have to wait. You're young enough to last. You'll be able to read these things one day.

AJ: And a question up here.

FROM AUDIENCE: Gerald, you mentioned that you moved and so moved into a new environment. Do you find that that's impacted on your writing at all?

GM: No, no the room ... I've always liked to write in a particular, just a nice, quiet room with the blinds down, and the place I'm living in is made of Mount Gambier stone, and the high windows you can't see sitting at the desk, I can't see through the windows, which suits me very well. I've got books and cupboards around. But I don't write about my surroundings. There's always this time lag. I don't think I'll live long enough to write anything about my wife's illness and death. I've written it all in diaries and things.

But just about, well, my son fell seriously ill in 1977. And it was five years before I fictionalised that experience, in something that's a sadly neglected piece of fiction. This piece is in Landscape with Landscape. It's called "The Battle of Acosta Nu." Everything's almost, the medical details of that are exactly as they were in real life, so to call it, except that in real life the son is revived after his heart stopped beating, but in the story he doesn't, he's not revived. But I mention that because, the time lag was five years. If as you speculate I've been affected or my feelings have been greatly altered by the move, it won't find its way into writing for another four or five years. It's just the way the processes work. AJ: Gerald, do you feel connected with the great Australian nineteenth-century tradition of Henry Lawson, Barbara Baynton?

GM: No. No, no, I feel as the plainsmen feel, that they don't really belong in Australia. I love this country--I mean, I say that, but I always feel proud on election days when I see the "how to vote" people talking to each other, instead of, you know, killing each other or shooting at each other. I take little interest in politics or grand social themes and things. That's for other people to worry about. I couldn't think of ever living anywhere else. But my idea of Australia is a place where you can pull the blinds down and nobody bothers you. You can go and do your writing or your reading, and that's my Australia. Not a country of shearers--I mean, in the hotel where I drink two nights a week, there's shearers and farmers and things all around. But I don't think they're necessarily any more interesting than any other sort of Australian.

AJ: Thank you. Question here.

FROM AUDIENCE: Gerald, I was thinking about what you were saying about your racing interest. And when you were saying that I was thinking about you were saying your brother grew up in the same environment, and he's not interested in racing. Well, he became a priest, is that right?

GM: Yes, he's a priest in New Zealand.

FROM AUDIENCE: I was just thinking about the religious ... There's a certain sort of connection between order and disorder, if that makes any sense ... And I was thinking, the racing stuff seems to be about a sort of order and religion seems to be about a certain order too, and yet you're also playing around the edges of disorder, if that makes sense.

GM: It's an awful lot to comment on. It's all mostly, what you say makes excellent sense. I'll just throw in a new sort of, use it as an excuse to make another comment. What I'm writing at present, people--it's funny, I've been to many and many over the years, many and many a gathering like this, and I used to joke, a bit cynically I suppose, they always want to know how much of your fictions autobiography. That's why I devise that saying "in a sense, yes, in a sense, no." And the other thing is "what are you writing now"? And no one's asked that question, but I've mentioned it. And the thing that I'm writing now is almost like a meditation. It begins with the narrator catching sight of a little coloured glass window in a Methodist--an old, it's called, Wesleyan Jubilee Church in the little town where I'm living. And my writing deals with coloured glass, religious belief or lack of religious belief. What I'm saying is the subject of religion, or the sorts of things that people who are religious believe in, has never left me. What do you believe? I'm a sort of a non-materialist atheist. You look up Richard Jefferies. Who's ever heard of Richard Jefferies? One of the greatest neglected writers of all time. I'm reading him again now. Richard Jefferies's beliefs would be mine at the moment. He described himself as a sort of a non-materialist atheist. And the other writer, just while I'm thinking of it--I came prepared--I'm reading a lot of nineteenth-century stuff at the moment. I'll get back to that in a minute. And George Borrow. Who's heard of George Borrow? Another wonderful writer. Sadly neglected, I've read the--and I'll probably read them once more, Lavengro and Romany Rye, before I die.

But the religious thing. I can't think without that framework. It stays with me. That was Elizabeth who asked that question. Lis and I are correspondents. We've hardly ever met, I think, this is about the nearest we've ever been to each other. So we write to each other, and we put a lot of things into the writing that we probably wouldn't talk about if we met. But that religious thing, I'm glad you brought it up. And the matter of what's--it's in Barley Patch, too--what does a person think of when they think of God? Do they see a colour? Or, there's a character in Barley Patch who says, "God is an oblong blur." And there was an Anglican minister who once was asked--it was a factual thing, I read it in a book--"What do you think of when you visualise God?" And he said, "An oblong blur." And that absolutely fascinates me. What takes place in people's minds. So I'm still interested in all that sort of stuff. And my brother took the more conventional way of living his beliefs out.

AJ: Five minutes only to go, and it looks like ... All right, up the back first, and then there's a gentleman here.

FROM AUDIENCE: Just a quick question to Gerald about--you mention in the start of Barley Patch twenty books that you might be able to recall. I think you recall eleven or twelve, didn't go on to explain the rest, that might have had an effect on you. And you have a memory of those, or the narrator at least mentions these ...

GM: I'm glad you changed, that's okay.

FROM AUDIENCE: And, uh, obviously the preamble to that is sort of, almost sort of knocking the literary worlds expectations of being able to rattle off the greatest books of the century. Of these sorts of feelings, or images, or colours as you were mentioning, that you do remember from particular books yourself, which book would stand out most for you personally? You mentioned the nineteenth-century stuff that you're into now ...

GM: Probably, partly because of its size, it would be Remembrance of Things Past. But I wouldn't like to nominate one book. I mean, the book that's mentioned over and over in Inland, the Hungarian book that I read first in English, People of the Puszta, that caused me to write a whole book as a sort of tribute to it. I just, I wont nominate anything but Proust, perhaps, but I will tell you that, I share with the narrator very much, this sort of almost, it's not, wouldn't be too strong to say dismay. And I did, when I was writing that--what's your name, the questioner?


GM: Craig. When I was writing, and I did write Barley Patch, even though I'm not the narrator of it. When I was writing that passage I went for a little walk around the bookshelves--I was writing it where I lived then, in Macleod--and I was amazed, and as I said, almost dismayed, at how little I did remember of books--so-called great books--and in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs there's an essay called "Some Books are to be Dropped into Wells," in which the narrator says that he read the whole of Cervantes's Don Quixote and he only remembered one scene. That's an exaggeration for fictional purposes--I can remember a bit more than that--but very little. So, but I often wondered what was I doing, all those days, when I'd sat for hours and hours with books in front of me. And yet, you ask me about something like George Borrow, or Richard Jefferies, tiny little details have stayed with me for forty of fifty years. It's just this fascination, or this fascinating business, of what a human being needs from books. And what they don't need from books, in many cases. Now, there was a question here.

AJ: A last question, because we're coming to an end.

FROM AUDIENCE: Quite a few years ago, Peter Craven said that you were a minimalist writer. I think that that's true. I'm not sure what a minimalist writer is.

GM: Well, well I don't--you would understand from previous answers I don't think of myself as anything in, in those terms. But he also wrote that my--I think he used the word "philosophy"--is the sort of philosophy you get from kicking over stones. And seeing what was underneath them. And that made sense to me. I thought that I really haven't experienced a great deal in my life. I've been a father and a husband and I've seen my son die almost in my arms, and my wife die. And I've had all these things: been in love and been rejected and been accepted and all this, but I've never travelled and I've never had--I've had a limited, probably a less than average experience, and yet I've written--what is it now--eleven books. So, if that's being a minimalist, that's what I am. But it's not just having to do with very little, it's making much of very little. But that mightn't quite be what he meant, but that's the way I understood it. How about that, eh? Well finish there.

AJ: That's fantastic, and we've got fifty seconds to go. Gerald, fifty seconds. What would you like to say to this group? You'll probably never see them as a group again? So, Gerald, what are your final words for this group?

GM: Well, we've heard all this before, politicians always say it on election night, but I am humbled. I mean it.

Transcribed by Hayley Jack, and with thanks to Steve Grimwade, Director of the Melbourne Writers Festival

(1.) In the US, The Plains is available from New Issues Poetry & Prose at Western Michigan University.

(2.) Les Plaines, in Brice Matthieussent's translation, was indeed published in February 2011 by Editions P.O.L, Paris.

(3.) By Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman, published by Melbourne University Press in 2009.

(4.) Panorama du roman australien des origenes a nos jours 1831-2007 by Jean-Francois Vernay was published by Hermann Editeurs in Paris in 2009. An English translation by Marie Ramsland, titled The Great Australian Novel--A Panorama, was published by Brolga Publishing in Melbourne in 2010.

(5.) Le miroir qui revient, 1984. Published in Jo Levy's English translation as Ghosts in the Mirror (London: John Calder, 1988).

(6.) By William Allingham, 1850.
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Author:Jach, Antoni
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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