Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town?
With the publication of two new books, Gerald Murnane might finally find an American audience.
Goroke, Victoria, a former stagecoach stop in southeastern Australia, pop. 200, is not the sort of place you would expect to host a daylong academic symposium. About five hours from Melbourne by car, the town has the feel of an evacuation nearly complete. Empty storefronts line the main street; the local pub closed two years ago. Drive a few minutes outside Goroke, and the only signs of life arrive at dusk, when the kangaroos emerge from the brush to stare down passers-by from the edge of the road. But last December, about 40 scholars, critics, editors and general readers made the journey for a series of lectures on the work of Gerald Murnane. The author, who has lived in Goroke for the last decade, prefers not to travel, and he had suggested the scholars convene at the local golf club, where he plays a weekly game and also regularly tends bar.
A strong case could be made for Murnane, who recently turned 79, as the greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of. Even in his home country, he remains a cult figure; in 1999, when he won the Patrick White Award for underrecognized Australian writers, all his books were out of print. Yet his work has been praised by J.M. Coetzee and Shirley Hazzard, as well as young American writers like Ben Lerner and Joshua Cohen. Teju Cole has described Murnane as “a genius” and a “worthy heir to Beckett.” Last year, Ladbrokes placed his odds at winning the Nobel Prize for Literature at 50 to 1 — better than Cormac McCarthy, Salman Rushdie and Elena Ferrante.
Murnane’s books are strange and wonderful and nearly impossible to describe in a sentence or two. After his third novel, “The Plains,” a fable-like story reminiscent of Italo Calvino published in 1982, Murnane largely turned away from what might be called conventional narrative pleasures. Dispensing almost entirely with plot and character, his later works are essayistic meditations on his own past, a personal mythology as attuned to the epic ordinariness of lost time as Proust, except with Murnane it’s horse races, a boyhood marble collection, Catholic sexual hang-ups and life as a househusband in the suburban Melbourne of the 1970s.
Murnane has not made the selling of himself an easy task. Even by the standards of the solitary writer, his eccentricities are manifest. He has never flown on an airplane; in fact, he has barely traveled outside of Victoria. In a 2001 speech that has become legend among Murnanophiles, he informed an audience at the University of Newcastle of his longstanding belief that “a person reveals at least as much when he reports what he cannot do or has never done.” He went on:
I become confused, or even distressed, whenever I find myself among streets or roads that are not arranged in a rectangular grid. ... I have watched few films during my lifetime and hardly any in recent years. ... I cannot recall having gone voluntarily into any art gallery or museum or building said to be of historic interest. I have never worn sunglasses. I have never learned to swim. I have never voluntarily immersed myself in any sea or stream. ... I have never touched any button or switch or working part of any computer or fax machine or mobile telephone. I have never learned to operate any sort of camera. ... In 1979 I taught myself to type using the index finger of my right hand alone. Since then, I have composed all my fiction and other writing using the finger just mentioned and one or another of my three manual typewriters.
Murnane is a trim, compact man with a fierce face; in photographs, especially, he exhibits a strong disinclination to smiling, favoring the hard stare. At the Goroke Golf Club, a V.F.W.-style hall with cinder-block walls and vinyl floral-print tablecloths, he positioned himself behind the bar and flipped through a newspaper, half-listening to presentations with titles like “Intention and Retrospective Revision in Gerald Murnane’s ‘Border Districts.’ ” Later, he claimed not to have followed much of the discussions. Mostly, he remembered thinking, Oh, so that’s what it looks like to you. During breaks, he signed books, occasionally complaining about the covers, and sold beer and soft drinks to the academics.
When I mentioned Murnane’s bartending to his old friend Imre Saluszinksy, a journalist in Sydney, he paused, then said: “Yeah, look, it’s bizarre. Somebody’s going to come to this godforsaken dry golf course and order a beer from a person who could be the winner of the next Nobel Prize for Literature?”
Then again, for Murnane, who once expressed regret at not having simply allowed “discerning editors to publish all my pieces of writing as essays,” the author is always present in the text, and so for the enterprising scholar, there’s arguably legitimate hermeneutic value in buying a Carlton from the subject of your dissertation. Murnane’s life, his fiction and the landscape he inhabits — the beauty and isolation of the Victorian interior, calm seas of yellow grassland that conjure schoolbook images of the veld — are so inextricably entwined that to visit him in Goroke feels at once like a field trip and a close reading.
A few weeks after my own journey to Goroke had been arranged, but before I had left for Australia, I heard from a publicist at Murnane’s American publishing house: Could I send Gerald a text message? (After Murnane moved to Goroke, his sons insisted he violate one of the other longstanding strictures laid out in the Newcastle speech and purchase a cellular telephone.) Murnane was concerned because he hadn’t received word from me. I’d assumed, incorrectly, that he wouldn’t want to be bothered by a journalist unless necessary. But five minutes after I sent him a quick introductory note, I received a long reply. It began: “Very pleased to hear from you. I promise you abundant material. I have a reputation in some quarters as an aloof recluse but that’s only because I refuse to go to writers’ festivals and talk the fake-intellectual [expletive] that most writers talk. I’m wholly different and original and also affable and friendly when I’m with genuine unpretentious folk such as the old guys I play golf with every week.” After dispatching some scheduling questions, he ended the message, “Once again, I promise you an interview unlike any you’ve done before.”
In one of my favorite Murnane stories, “Precious Bane,” published in 1985, the narrator, an aspiring writer who worries about becoming an alcoholic, browses unhappily in a used bookstore. He carries around a list of authors in a notebook labeled “1900-1940 ... Unjustly Neglected” and worries about his own legacy — a bit prematurely, as he hasn’t published anything yet. Then, because it’s Murnane, the plot, such as it is, turns inward, as the protagonist pictures a scene far in the future: the year 2020. (The story is set in 1980.) In his mind, he sees a man standing before a wall of bookshelves, gazing at the spine of the last remaining copy of a novel composed 40 years earlier. The man has read the book, but he’s struggling to remember a single detail from the text, anything, a line, an image. (This is a favorite exercise of the real-life Murnane.) An odd five-page digression follows, in which the narrator imagines the human brain as a Carthusian monastery, with monks in charge of preserving memories. Eventually, he returns to the imagined future reader, who has failed to recall anything from what is, of course, the narrator’s book: “The man fills his glass again and goes on sipping some costly poison of the twenty-first century. He does not understand the importance of his forgetfulness, but I understand it. I know that no one now remembers anything of my writing.”
Happily, though we’re only two years shy of his imagined dystopia, the Goroke symposium took place in the context of a belated surge of interest in Murnane’s work. Here in the United States, Murnane’s publishing history was spotty to nonexistent until Dalkey Archive, a small literary press, released his novel “Barley Patch” in 2011. This month, Farrar, Straus and Giroux will publish “Stream System,” Murnane’s collected short fiction, and a new novel, “Border Districts.”
The trickiness of categorizing Murnane’s work goes some way toward explaining why he’s not a household name, even among households with lots of books. Is he an outsider artist or a postmodern master? Both? Neither? As much as Murnane reveres Proust, his own elaborate memory palaces remain a genre unto themselves. On a sentence level, Murnane adheres to a militant grammatical precision and engages in repetition that verges on the incantatory (and that privileges the noun over the pronoun). It’s a hypnotic style, dryly funny, or at least aware of the ways in which its fussiness might be amusing. In 1990, The London Review of Books published a cranky letter from Murnane that read, in full: “Dear Editors, Frank Kermode quotes what he calls a very long sentence from Thomas Pynchon (LRB, 8 Feb, 90). The passage quoted is not a sentence. The passage consists of a sentence of 66 words followed by a comma and then a sequence of clauses and phrases that is neither a part of the sentence preceding it nor a sentence in itself.”
Murnane once described himself as a “technical writer” — meaning, he explained, that in his depictions of “the mental imagery that is my only available subject-matter,” he strove for the rigor and precision of a white paper. (He often refers to his stories as reports.) I’d say he’s more like a detective, pacing in front of a gigantic evidence board. A typical Murnane work of fiction unfolds like a procedural, often spinning out from a single, half-remembered image, something as simple as a jockey’s racing colors, as glimpsed on a youthful outing to the track in Bendigo, a city in Victoria. Other memories will follow — anecdotes, personal asides, funny or sad little stories within the story — and it can all seem digressive, until the methodical obsessiveness of Murnane’s self-interrogation becomes clear. He’s searching the furthest reaches of his memory for clues, hidden meanings, details that might have slipped away. The digressions turn out to be leads. And in the end, there’s no writing-workshop epiphany, but rather that thrilling moment when the circles and arrows linking up the photographs thumbtacked to the squad-room wall form a previously unseen web of connection.
For newcomers, the wide-ranging “Stream System” is the place to begin. Some of the stories assume more recognizable forms — for instance, the entire history of Australian colonialism becomes a concise, Borgesian parable about desire in “Land Deal.” Most of the other pieces feature self-conscious narrators who compulsively draw readerly attention to the text (“Boy Blue” begins “A few weeks ago, the person writing this story read aloud to a gathering of persons another story that he had written”) and could be read as fragmented, expressionistic memoirs in miniature. In “Velvet Waters,” the subject is failed romance; in one of the story’s funnier episodes, the shy, Murnane-like narrator tries to impress a love interest by telling her about a weekend trip to an art movie — unfortunately, it’s Ingmar Bergman’s “The Virgin Spring,” and he ends up going into great detail about the rape sequence. “Cotters Come No More” is a tribute to a complicated relationship with a favorite bachelor uncle who, in a lovely bit of imagery at the opening of the story, traps a fly under a glass, tosses it into a spider web “and then stands with his hands on his hips, observing.” Later, the teenage narrator recalls walks with his uncle on the family land, where
the chief event of the afternoon might have been his sitting down beside me on a hilltop, taking out of his trousers pocket the folded form-guide from The Age, pointing to a certain name among the fields of horses, and then fiddling with his wireless until I was just able to hear, above the crackle of static and the buzzing of insects in the grass, the call of a race more than a hundred miles away with the horse that my uncle had brought to my notice in the thick of the finish.
In a long appreciation in his recent collection of essays, Coetzee praised Murnane’s “chiseled sentences,” placing him among of the last generation of Australian writers to come to maturity when the country “was still a cultural colony of England, repressed, puritanical and suspicious of foreigners.” Murnane’s Australianness comes through most clearly in “The Plains” — considered his masterpiece by many — which follows an artist seeking patronage from wealthy landowners in a mysterious frontier town, hoping to film the unfilmable secrets of the titular landscape. The world Murnane describes is a dream-country, where battles are waged between rival schools of artists (the Horizonites and the Haremen) and coastal condescension is flipped on its head as the vast, unloved interior becomes a place of rich and bedeviling obscurity, where landowners in their baronial estates “pity the poor coast-dwellers staring all day from their cheerless beaches at the worst of all deserts” and express bafflement with “their awe at a mere absence of land.”
When I spoke to Saluszinksy, a former professor of English who published a monograph on Murnane with Oxford University Press in 1993, he brought up the story “Precious Bane,” which is also included in “Stream System,” pointing out that the title is a phrase used by Milton to describe money, something “we need to get the things we want.” Saluszinksy went on, “I think for Gerald writing is a kind of precious bane. It’s a burden and a nuisance, almost a duty, having to explore the connections between the images in his mind. And he keeps telling us that he has done his duty, that this is it. But of course, to use, if you’ll forgive me, Derridean language, there’s always a supplement. There’s always an appendix. There’s always something left unsaid.”
My first day in Goroke, Murnane instructed me to pick him up at the local Men’s Shed, housed in a former bank. For the non-Australian reader, a quick explanation: A men’s shed is a communal workshop where members do things like repair shelves or bicycles, part of a national public-health initiative aimed at curbing depression among retired men. Murnane possesses few useful skills for a men’s shed, but the week after he moved to Goroke, the owner of the local service station invited him to join. He looks after the kitchen, cleans the toilet and serves as treasurer.
Murnane had been watching the street from behind the muslin storefront curtain, and he marched outside to greet me. He wore a plaid shirt tucked into light khaki trousers and had the loose, ruddy skin of an avid golfer of a certain age. A successful treatment for prostate cancer had left him unable to sleep without interruption, but he appeared sharp and full of vim.
“Your body adapts, like a soldier in the trenches,” Murnane said matter-of-factly. The shed wasn’t technically open, but Murnane led me past dusty workbenches scattered with tools into a modest lounge, where he put on a kettle and opened a jar of instant coffee. His health, he said, had been improving, and he felt “full of optimism,” and not just about his recovery. “My publishing history’s just so checkered with sudden reversals, ups and downs, confusions, wrong turnings, and at the end of my life, virtually, it seems like things are starting to work out,” he said.
Then he pulled out an envelope, on which he’d written a series of preliminary questions to ask me. They included “Are you at all interested in golf?” “Are you at all interested in horse racing?” and “What do you propose to do for lunch?” My answers (no, sort of, your call) seemed to satisfy him. “You might feel like you’re being overorganized, but this is how I do things,” Murnane said, leaning back in a chair. On a bulletin board behind him, someone had tacked up a photograph of a man at a pub drinking from a glass of beer the size of a trash barrel. The caption read, “I’m Only Going Out for One.”
Murnane moved to Goroke in 2009, after the death of his wife of 43 years, Catherine. Their eldest son, Giles, whom Murnane repeatedly described as a hermit, had come to Goroke years earlier, having chosen the town off the map for its cheap housing. Murnane had always been attracted to the country, and the first time he visited Giles, driving past the town graveyard, he had a premonition, “calmly and wordlessly,” he later wrote, “as one understands things in dreams”: That’s where my ashes will lie.
“I think you can probably see that I’m sane, but I say and believe things that insane people believe,” Murnane told me. “I don’t believe in a personal God, but I believe in the survival of the soul. And I get intimations and feelings.” Catherine had no desire to move from their home in the Melbourne suburbs, but when her doctor informed her that she had terminal lung cancer, she turned to Murnane and said, “Now you can go and live in Goroke.” Less than a year later, she was buried in the town’s cemetery. “And I came up here to live with my hermit son,” Murnane said. “Scholarly people who admire my books find it somewhat incongruous that I should live in a place like this. But I don’t mix very much with writers. We have very little to talk about. I find most of them pretentious. So it seems to me the most natural thing in the world that I should live here at this period in my life.”
Murnane and his son live on a residential street a few blocks away from the Men’s Shed. An unpaved alley lined with corrugated-tin fencing led to the back entrance. The place had a ramshackle quality. A corrugated-tin barn stood beside five squat reservoirs used to capture rainwater — the town’s water is not potable — and a lonely clothesline tree leaned crookedly in a cement courtyard surrounded by an uneven stone wall. Murnane lived in a studio behind the main house. Both buildings were constructed from unlined blocks of white sandstone quarried nearby, giving Murnane’s quarters, especially, a bunkerlike feel.
It’s difficult to overstate the lack of shared qualities between Murnane’s room and any recognized notion of a living area. There were nods in the latter direction: the kitchen sink and minifridge; the tiny bathroom; a wooden schoolboy’s desk, facing a blank wall in the corner, where Murnane writes. But the bulk of the room had been filled with Murnane’s archives: more than a dozen filing cabinets, lining three walls and containing thousands of pages of journals, letters, lecture notes and ephemera from every stage of his life. A separate row of metal storage lockers bisected the center of the room, adding to the jarring overall motif, a blend of fanatical organization and claustrophobia, as if a squatter had taken over a secluded wing of a research library. There was no bed. Murnane keeps a folding cot in his shower stall. A threadbare sleeping pad, meant for a tent, was stored atop the storage lockers along with some blankets.
Murnane began keeping the archives more than 50 years ago, both for posterity and to satisfy his own meticulous sense of order, and he has left strict instructions regarding their contents, which are not to be made public until after his own death and the death of his surviving siblings. (He has one brother, a Catholic priest, and a sister; another brother, who was born with an intellectual disability and was repeatedly hospitalized, died in 1985.) Nonetheless, Murnane opened the cabinets to give me a sense of their contents. His so-called Chronological Archive is stuffed with hanging files covering each period of his life and featuring headings like “I rebuff a wealthy widow,” “I fall out with an arrogant student of mine,” “Two women bother me,” “I decide that most books are crap,” “Hoaxes! How I love them!” and “Peter Carey exposed at last.” He also has multiple drafts of his 13 books; letters addressed, as in a time capsule, to a future Murnane scholar, whom he imagines as a young woman, and whom he addresses in the letters as “Fc,” for “future creature”; a notebook of 20,000 words titled “My Shame File”; a 40,000-word report on miraculous or unexplained events in his life; and a 75,000-word account of his dealings with everyone he has ever courted romantically or considered courting.
“There’s your seat,” he said, gesturing to a camping chair unfolded at the foot of his desk. It sat comically low to the ground. I settled in, the lockers containing every detail of Murnane’s mind rising on either side of me like canyon walls, and Murnane pulled out a list of agenda items he wished to discuss.
The list had been organized, I soon realized, in such a way that we would move in a counterclockwise direction around the room, stopping at various points to discuss objects of particular significance. One of the first items he pointed out, a poster covered with the racing colors of every jockey who had won the Melbourne Cup from its inception in 1861 until 2008, turned out to be part of his daily routine of memory exercises, which he compared to the offices, or hourly prayers, performed by Catholic priests.
Turning away from the poster and clutching his hands behind his back, he told me to pick a year. I offered 1970. “Nineteen-seventy,” Murnane said. “That horse was Baghdad Note. Emerald green, with white-striped sleeve and cap.” Mondays, he said, he recited the entire list in order. Tuesdays he went backward. Other days involved skipping around the poster in ways I didn’t quite follow. After that, he did the same with the 50 states of America and then recited passages in Hungarian, a language he’d learned at 56. He showed me a set of flashcards. The English side of the one I picked up read, “He was caught up in the enthusiasm.”
Murnane had started talking the moment I picked him up at the Men’s Shed, and he didn’t stop, with few exceptions, for the next 12 hours, until I left for my hotel, a room above a pub in nearby Natimuk. He spoke rapidly, in a futile effort to keep pace with the speed of his own thoughts, constantly interrupting himself with muttered asides — a quote from the symbolist playwright Alfred Jarry, a self-deprecating story about his haplessness with women, a gripe about a Publishers Weekly review from the mid-1980s. He accepted my own interruptions of his monologues with good humor and often delight at the prospect of a new digression. When he excused himself to use the toilet, he closed the bathroom door and raised his voice.
Even though their accents are nothing alike, something about the way Murnane spoke reminded me of Michael Caine, or at least of the East London gangsters Caine once played. His voice, clipped and nasal, had a bantam toughness, and his sentences (in life, not literature) make regular detours from formidable erudition into the slangy and profane. He described a cheapskate he knows as “mean with money, the [expletive],” a reputedly promiscuous girl of his youth as “a rough sort of tart.” He took special pleasure in revisiting old grudges, but could also be casually impolitic. On Raymond Carver: “I met him. He came to Australia once. The second word he said to me was [expletive]. I thought, You’re too dumb to have written what you wrote.”
We came to a map of Victoria. Murnane estimates that his family moved a dozen times before his 20th birthday, always in and around greater Melbourne and often in flight from gambling debts incurred at racing meets by his father, Reginald, described to me by a friend of Gerald’s as “a wastrel.” Murnane pointed out Murnane Bay, a notch on Victoria’s southern coast said to be named after his grandfather, a prosperous dairy farmer: “Nasty old [expletive] of a bloke. Tom. No one liked him. Well, my father worshiped him, for some reason. I hated the guy.” Despite all his time spent there as a boy, Murnane never learned to swim. “The water gets in my eyes, I panic, that’s why I don’t have showers,” he said. (He washes himself, he explained, standing at the sink.) “That’s where I learned to hate the sea,” he went on, “and to look inland toward the plains.”
At 18, Murnane entered a seminary. He lasted only three months and lost his faith by his early 20s; the lure, more than God, had been the idealized notion of a monastic writing life. He’d been reading Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk, and envied such an ordered existence, so pure in its devotion. As a teenager, he dreamed of becoming a poet, in part because he assumed writers of prose possessed an understanding of human behavior, which he believed he lacked. “I don’t know what anyone is thinking,” Murnane told me. “People are a mystery to me.” He spent 13 years as a public servant, teaching in primary schools and working as an editor in a government office, and he married Catherine, who also worked as a teacher, in 1966, when he was 27. They settled in an unfashionable northern suburb, where she supported his decision to quit his day job and take care of their three sons, snatching free moments to work on his fiction and supplementing the family income with the occasional grant.
By the time he published “The Plains,” Murnane had begun teaching creative writing at the Australian equivalent of a community college, but despite the novel’s critical success, he maintained an ambivalent distance from the literary scene. He still did most of his writing at an ironing board set up in his kitchen, because his family’s home was so crowded for space.
The novelist Helen Garner told me in an email that she first met Murnane at a literary festival in Adelaide in 1986. She won an award, and after the presentation, Murnane quietly introduced himself and asked, somewhat agitated, if he could put a question to her: Had she received word of her award in advance? Yes, Garner replied. “His face darkened, and he turned away muttering,” Garner recalled. “I didn’t know where to put myself, thinking he was unable to conceal his anger at not having won the prize. But he pulled himself together and explained that he had never before traveled outside his home state of Victoria, that he hated traveling and never wanted to go anywhere — against all his principles and natural inclinations he had come all this way to Adelaide (I think by train) ONLY because he’d thought his book (which I think must have been “Landscape With Landscape”) had a very good chance of winning the prize. ... His explanation was so sincere, and his distress at having been betrayed into acting against his inner self so genuine, that I felt very warmly toward him, and have done ever since, in my very distant acquaintance with him.”
As we circumnavigated his room, Murnane sipped from a plastic bottle containing a suspiciously cloudy beverage. It turned out to be water mixed with vinegar. (His doctor had instructed him to drink more water, but he didn’t like the taste.) Around 4:30, as he does every day, Murnane switched to beer, a slightly sour, high-alcohol-content pale ale he brewed himself, originally to save money, though now he’d grown partial to it. His golfing partner, the daughter of a friend from the Men’s Shed, had invited us over for dinner. Before we left, Murnane settled into his desk chair and rubbed his eyes, his unruly eyebrows squirming above his fingers.
“Even though I’ve lived what some people would call a sheltered life,” Murnane said, “I love how — I don’t know if it’s a misquote or what, but Kafka is once supposed to have said, ‘If you stay in your room, the world will come to you and writhe on the floor in front of you.’ I came here to Goroke intending to stay in this room. And the world is writhing in front of me.” Editors, scholars, journalists, Murnane said, “they all come up here to see how I live.”
Well, but not just that, I thought, looking around. A visit to Murnane’s room made me think of the one-way intimacy that occurs between reader and writer — that feeling, after finishing a poem or novel, of having temporarily inhabited a consciousness not your own. Only here, I had the rare opportunity to experience that sensation in a physical space. (As in his “chiseled” paragraphs, in Murnane’s archive everything has its place: While showing me the chronological files, Murane pointed at a cabinet drawer and said, “My wife dies over here.”) Stepping into the hermetic confines of Murnane’s world so perfectly mirrored his fictional project that it felt like stepping into the pages of one of his books.
Murnane’s golfing partner, Tammy Williams, lives with her two children in a cozy, art-filled home about five minutes away. (To be clear, everything in Goroke is five minutes away.) Pulling up a chair at the kitchen table, Murnane nodded in my direction and said: “He tasted the home brew. Didn’t make any comment. But he got it down. He didn’t spit it out.”
Williams, looking appalled, quickly poured me a glass of wine.
“Did you see the way he lives?” Williams asked, as she began to arrange a buffet. Murnane appeared delighted by the teasing. Williams shook her head and said, “I told Gerald once, ‘You might be a famous writer, but you’re a crap golfer.’ ”
During my time in Goroke, I never met Murnane’s son Giles. Murnane said he slept during the day and mostly ventured out at night to pick up snacks or fast food in Horsham, a city about 45 minutes away. Despite the “hermit” cracks, he spoke tenderly, and in protective terms, of Giles; ailing or troubled children appear in several of his stories, including, most powerfully, in the opening story in “Stream System,” “When the Mice Failed to Arrive,” in which the protagonist, a primary-school teacher turned househusband, struggles to explain suffering to a son hospitalized with asthma. Catherine also dealt with serious illnesses throughout her life, often leaving Gerald to care for the children.
“Gerald had a hard time in the city,” Chris Gregory, a friend and former student, told me in an email. “He isn’t the sort of person to tell you his problems, and I’m not the sort to ask about them, but it’s clearly been hard, working in semi-obscurity, kicking against the pricks, dealing with a sometimes-difficult family life, his wife’s painful death.” Ivor Indyk, Murnane’s longtime Australian publisher, believes the recursive mode of his fiction, its circularity and baroque structure, was a way for him to deal with “hot material — hot for him, because it’s emotionally charged,” Indyk told me. “There are events in his past that he’s still coming to terms with.”
On my last day in Goroke, Murnane and I visited Catherine’s grave. The simple marker read:
Murnane, Catherine MaryB. Albury, NSW 31-5-1937D. Heidelberg, Vic 19-2-2009
He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped off the top of the stone. It was the last day of January, summer in Australia, and the shorn barley and wheat fields we’d driven past had seemed to pixelate in the bright afternoon sunlight.
Ever one for spatial precision, Murnane pointed to the spot on the ground where Catherine’s ashes had been interred, forming a small, boxlike shape with his hands. “And I’ll be buried where you’re standing,” he said.
I took a step back.
Murnane had other things he wanted to show me: the golf club, a lake on the outskirts of town. Back at the Men’s Shed, he introduced me to some of the other members, Rob, Taffy, Rossco, former truck drivers, farmers, mechanics: “Now, this man says he likes a lot about Australia, but he has found a few faults with Australian men,” Murnane said, gesturing to me. “He thinks they swear too much, they tell too many dirty jokes and they drink too much. So I said, ‘Don’t worry, Mark, I’ll take you to a place where none of that happens.’ ” The guys chuckled, and Murnane waggled a finger at them: “So you [expletive] [expletive] better not make a liar of me!”
Murnane, who has said “Border Districts” will be his final novel, did not look like someone who missed his old life. In fact, he had recused himself from the literary scene once before. Back in Melbourne, as his books after “The Plains” became more experimental and inward-looking, he felt like an increasingly marginal figure — so much so that, in 1991, he decided to quit. Over the next decade, Murnane published only a single story collection, “Emerald Blue,” comprising mostly older material; the final sentence of the final story, “The Interior of Gaaldine,” reads, “The text ends at this point.” (“Emerald Blue” sold 600 copies, affirming his decision.) For extra cash, he took a job bundling newspapers and magazines in the early hours of the morning. He returned to writing only in 2001, after Indyk, the publisher of an independent literary press, offered to give him a home.
What exactly did Murnane get up to during his lost decade? It turns out he left a clue in “The Interior of Gaaldine.” The first half is a comic telling of a drunken journey by boat to Tasmania for a literary tour, made under duress by a writer who hates to travel. The story takes a turn into the supernatural after the protagonist’s arrival in Hobart, where, after he passes out in his hotel room, a ghostly messenger delivers a briefcase. It contains thousands of pages of writing — not, as the protagonist fears, an unpublished manuscript, but details of a complex horse-racing game devised by its owner, who has spent decades playing the game alone in his room. The protagonist wonders if “the author of the pages wanted to meet me in order to persuade me to write a different sort of fiction in the future.”
Though Murnane never became a problem gambler like his father, one of his most cherished childhood memories involves a horse-racing game he played with a set of colored marbles. (To this day, he keeps the marbles in a jar in his room, where they occupy a place of pride just behind his writing desk.) And the strangest thing about “The Interior of Gaaldine” is that not only the obviously autobiographical first half of the story, but the entire thing, basically, minus the ghost and the briefcase, is true. Murnane, working in secret beginning in 1985, developed a wildly more intricate version of his boyhood racing game, which is how he spent most of his retirement, and how he fills many of his evenings in Goroke.
He calls the project his Antipodean Archive. Inside its cabinet’s drawers, there were maps of the two fictional countries where the races take place (including timetables for the major train networks), detailed sketches of racecourses and notebooks filled with the names and racing colors of the 1,500 full-time trainers, illustrated with head shots cut from newspapers and Murnane’s own childlike drawings of the racing silks. An index listed every horse to have raced in the Antipodes, and there were handwritten, single-spaced results of the hundreds of races, as in a racing form. His method of determining race outcomes, too complex to get into here, involves, of course, books: A randomly chosen sentence generates points for a particular horse based on the number of vowels and consonants, combined with a banked system of points Murnane can award to favorites.
As we flipped through the folders, I thought of the great Robert Coover novel “The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.,” about a recluse who invents a proto-fantasy-baseball game with players who become more real to him than any live human, and also about the work of outsider artists like Henry Darger, the reclusive Chicago janitor who secretly crafted his own elaborate, obsessive mythology illustrated with hundreds of paintings and collages. As Murnane explained the world he had created, he sounded as if he were speaking of a real place: “Now in New Arcady, which is the smaller island, there are only 12 racecourses. They have races about five days a week up in the North.” At one point, Murnane closed his eyes, clenched his hands into fists and broke into song. It was the New Eden national anthem, which he’d written and composed himself.
Oceans foaming, mariners roaming, never a home in perilous seas. ...
The lyrics “are not my best shot,” Murnane acknowledged. “They’re meant to sound like something people would compose in 1880.”
For years, he kept his project under wraps, even from his wife. “It’s an embarrassing thing for an old man, or a middle-aged man at the time, that he plays kids’ games,” Murnane said. “But they’re not kids’ games.” To help me better understand, he showed me a letter he’d written to “Fc,” his future creature. It read, in part: “All the fiction I ever wrote or read was a preparation for this, my true life’s work. In book after book of mine, I wrote about the contents of my mind, setting all my images on paper so that I could have done with them; could sweep them out of sight and leave my mind free for the infinite imagery of the Antipodes.” His reports from the interior, from his own interior, had always skirted around the edges of a central image winking at the far reaches of his consciousness, a pair of his dream jockeys crossing a finish line. How could he ignore them?
Next year, to coincide with his 80th birthday, Murnane will publish a book of poetry and outtakes from a previous novel. But other than the poems, composed in Goroke over the last few years, Murnane says he has retired once again. “If I woke up tomorrow morning feeling a tremendous pressure to write, I would write,” Murnane told me. “But I probably won’t. I almost certainly won’t.” Instead, he spends his evenings recording the results of imaginary races for his archive. Surely it must contain a germ of a narrative, an editor once insisted. “But, of course, several, no, thousands of narratives are embodied in the Archive,” Murnane wrote to “Fc.” “There are at least as many narratives as there are horses and jockeys and trainers and owners.”
I no longer felt as if I’d stepped into a story by Murnane, but rather one by Borges: a story about a brilliant writer who discovers that the purest form of writing is, in the end, to write nothing at all.
Gingerly, I prodded Murnane. All his books had been so deeply personal, but also something any reader could enter into. But with the Antipodean Archive, Murnane had created countries where only he could travel. Did he harbor any second thoughts about diverting so much of his creativity into such a private pursuit?
Murnane smiled. He could see another connection forming. From one of his cabinets, he retrieved a typewritten manuscript page from his poetry collection. Read it, he instructed. That’s where we’d stop.
The poem, after explaining the archive over many lines, “the perfect summation/of my lifelong belief in the sport of horse-racing/as a better source of inspiration/than opera, theater, film, you name it,” ended like this:
Reader, if you’re urged
to learn more about this imagined world,
outlive me and my siblings and visit the library
where my archives end up. You’ll find there a filing
cabinet full of the sort of detail
that I wanted to include in this poem but failed.
You’ll read thousands of pages, though you’ll never see,
unfortunately, what they revealed to me.
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