Wayne Macauley on
Gerald Murnane’s Most Memorable Book
Considering "Cultural Cringe" and the Issue of Literary Influence
It’s a slim book, and you could easily miss it. But keep in mind that a slim book can sometimes hold the kinds of riches a big book never could. I first read Gerald Murnane’s The Plains in 1985—I was a young man then—and much later, in 2012, I wrote the introduction to the Text Classics re-issue of it. Murnane is an Australian writer now in his eighties who, having spent most of his adult life in the Melbourne suburb of Macleod moved in 2009 to Goroke, a small town in Victoria’s Wimmera region. Over his long career he has published novels, short fiction and essays but for many of his followers and fans The Plains remains his most memorable work. First published in 1982, this little book has attained an almost mythical status in the Australian literary landscape—and around Murnane himself has rightly gathered a good deal of writerly mystery.
The plot of The Plains, to call it that, is simple. An unnamed narrator arrives in a remote country town familiar to most Australians in outline but in other ways completely strange. He lodges in the hotel on the main street and begins to make submissions to a group of wealthy landowners (the plainsmen) in the hope of finding a patron. He is seeking support for a filmscript in-progress called, with deadpan irony, The Interior. The patron he eventually secures puts him up in a grand house out on the plains where not just the patron’s vast library but his wife and daughter, too, offer all kinds of temptations and distractions.
Although The Plains has of late garnered some good international attention, it was not always the case. Even in Australia it has remained a relatively marginal work. On its first US publication in 1985 a review in Publishers Weekly called it “as static and unchanging as the vistas it reflects upon.” According to Murnane’s publisher’s agent at the time—and to a fair degree in the opinion of Gerald himself—this review did the book no favours and, quote, “killed” its chances there. It was not until its republication in the US in 2003, and again in 2017, with this time good reviews and ‘name’ authors in support, that The Plains managed to overcome this inauspicious beginning.
The Australian “cultural cringe,” as we call it, has been around a long time. Its basic tenet is that an Australian artist is unlikely to be valued at home until they’ve first been recognized overseas. The term came to prominence in the 1960s when a whole bunch of Australian expats from that period who had “made it over there” became in a sense the living proof of it. Everyone will have their own theories as to why it still lives among us. My own personal view—and I don’t think I’m alone—is that a post-colonial population incapable after 200 years of executing the baby-step towards calling itself a republic will likely always be glancing back over its shoulder for approval elsewhere. For those Australian artists unrecognized internationally and who by nature don’t have the mental chops to go for commercial success, it is often just a matter of facing up to your marginality/regionality and learning, however painfully, to live with it. It still seems incredible to me that a writer of Murnane’s skill and vision should remain a marginal figure, but I also know it probably couldn’t be any other way.
In Melbourne we have a prize called The Most Underrated Book Award, in recognition of a book that in the opinion of the judges has that year been unjustly neglected. I won the inaugural one, in 2012. Yes, double-edged sword and a bitter-sweet pill too, but as a marginal myself I took it as an honor and accepted it with all due deference. Another Australia-wide award set up by Patrick White from his 1973 Nobel Prize winnings recognizes a writer who “has been highly creative over a long period but has not necessarily received adequate recognition.” Gerald won that one in 1999. (Unjust neglect is a recurrent feature on the margins of the Australian literary scene.) There’s no doubt that since 1999 Murnane’s work has received greater attention, but the reality is that in Australia even a writer in his eighties with a strong and extensive publishing history who has himself been touted as a genuine Nobel chance can easily fall on the wrong side of marginal, with all the inadequate recognition that goes with it.The Australian “cultural cringe,” as we call it, has been around a long time. Its basic tenet is that an Australian artist is unlikely to be valued at home until they’ve first been recognized overseas.
The Plains is generally thought of a serious literary work, which it is, of course, but on re-reading it this time with a few more wise years under my belt it strikes me again how humorous it is too. Because if there is a theme that transcends the book’s eccentric regionality—”I cannot even say that at a certain hour I knew I had left Australia”—it is that old one about the struggling artist with a not very commercial-sounding idea trying to convince the world of its value. In that sense, it is a story as old as art itself.
The narrator arrives on the plains with a single thing in mind: to find a patron who will fund his film which, although still at the ideas stage, will ultimately celebrate the plains and the plainsmen’s culture in all its glorious detail, even down to “the textures of grassblades in obscure hollows.” It’s a good pitch and, when in the second half of the book he gets his wish and settles into his patron’s mansion on a salary “a reasonable amount over and above the expenses incurred” it is as if he’s been transported into some delicious writer’s heaven.
Given that we don’t have a great tradition in Australia of private arts patronage, you can sort of see where this is going. As for the support that does exist, I am yet to meet an artist who enjoys, to put it crudely, begging crumbs from the government table. To understand the language, gestures and belief systems of your potential patron, private or public, will always be a prerequisite to gaining their support, no matter how demeaning that process might be. This, for me, is the subtle satire resting in the “obscure hollows” of The Plains; a fictional working through, if you like, in its own deadpan way, of that ancient and continuing misunderstanding between the artist and their milieu.
I remember in my early twenties writing a work of short fiction—bad, never published—called “I Will Not Write Like Kafka.” Its protagonist was a child-adult, like the one in Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke which I also read around that time, who sits in a classroom and in a very Kafkaesque scene gets punished (double irony) by the teacher for copying FK’s style. It was good to get it out of my system. Because the issue of influence is complex and something all writers eventually have to navigate, sifting and winnowing the arrangements of words from authors they’ve loved until they get to the kernel of it: my own views and experiences, relayed in my own words in my own arrangement in the way only I can.
I first read the opening pages of The Plains in my late twenties and it was a shock. Not the shock of the new, per se—I had already read a similar opening in The Castle and would in time read similar openings in Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo and Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe too—but more the shock of knowing that those sentences were written by someone a short bus ride away and, what’s more, that these were the kinds of lines I had been trying to write myself.The Plains is generally thought of a serious literary work, which it is, of course, but on re-reading it this time with a few more wise years under my belt it strikes me again how humorous it is too.
What do I mean by that? The kinds of lines. Writing that takes the outsider’s view, I suppose, that doesn’t accept surface appearances but believes there’s something else going on. By that time I had read Walser, Kafka and others—writers who had done their time on the margins but who, I noted, were still getting published in editions widely available enough for me to be reading them even down here. Then suddenly, into this, along comes a book written by someone who lives nearby, speaks with the same accent and drinks the same beer, pushing their prose to the very edges of possibility.
Gerald has a number of times quoted a line attributed to both W.B. Yeats and Paul Éluard: “There is another world, but it is in this one.” Not a realist viewpoint, that is, but not the easy catch-all surrealist either. Not a world over or above but a world already here, in the real—the world we are normally too busy or too self-regarding or too short-sighted to see. Milan Kundera, remarking on Kafka, said: “The more attentively, fixedly, one observes a reality, the better one sees that it does not correspond to people’s idea of it.” There is much in The Plains that feels familiar (for Australians at least): the ubiquitous pub with the wide-veranda in the main street of the country town, the shady cool inside, the cold beer on tap, the vistas of grasslands and low scrub and those big, isolated homesteads with their suddenly green and exotic-looking gardens. But then the eye looks in, looks harder and, with what Kundera called “that long avid gaze,” the familiar is transformed into something else.
It’s interesting to look back now at that quote from the 1985 review of the first US edition of The Plains, about it being “static and unchanging.” And I guess it’s true that in the traditional narrative sense the story elements mentioned above are pretty simple—even simplistic. So why does it so effectively draw me in and pull me along and take me with it? Why, for me, does it not feel “static” but wildly dynamic and alive?
In his 1986 essay, Why I Write What I Write, Murnane talks about that basic unit of writing, the sentence. “I write sentences,” he says. “I write one sentence, then another sentence. I write sentence after sentence.” He then talks about how these sentences become “linked.” “Often if I write one sentence”—he goes on—”to put into a form of words a certain image or feeling, I find as soon as I’ve written the sentence that a new throng of images and feelings have gathered to form a pattern where I had not known a pattern existed.” I hardly think there would be a writer anywhere who wouldn’t agree that somewhere in this description of words being written to capture a certain image or feeling is the true description of what we do.
But what about the dynamic, the pull? What makes what might otherwise be a static set of descriptions of things engage us as readers and bring us from the beginning through the middle to the end? In an 1853 letter to Louise Colet, Gustave Flaubert said: Moi je soutiens que les idées sont des faits. A literal translation would be: I maintain that images are facts. (Which is a pretty interesting idea in itself.) In Francis Steegmuller’s version he turns that last bit into ideas are action. Lydia Davis in her introduction to her translation of Madame Bovary has it as images are action (my emphasis).Then suddenly, into this, along comes a book written by someone who lives nearby, speaks with the same accent and drinks the same beer, pushing their prose to the very edges of possibility.
As a novelist I am often thinking about ideas of narrative flow or narrative energy or whatever we want to call it. I want my work to feel like it’s going somewhere—though not that somewhere we normally expect to arrive at in a commercially-driven novel where lots of busy activity brings us eventually to a point where the past is reconciled or the mission is accomplished or the lovers are entwined. I want a different going, a different somewhere.
When I was thinking about this recently the idea came to me that the flow or energy of my ideal story or novel would feel something like a traceur doing parkour or Buster Keaton in a chase. A course to navigate, a sense of smooth and inexorable forward motion through it and a series of swift and subtle changes in direction and dynamic along the way. When assessing the vital narrative energy of Voltaire’s Candide, Italo Calvino spoke of “the sheer pace of the thing” and, true, it would be hard to think of another book that moves so rapidly through its one thing after another. At first glance, any comparison between The Plains and Candide might seem far-fetched but then, in another way, I think, Murnane’s sentences do create what Calvino called “velocity,” one thing after another, the subtle sweep and glide and alteration of movement and so on. In that essay mentioned earlier where he talks about sentences, he quotes Virginia Woolf from one of her letters where she talks about how sight or emotion (image or feeling) “creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.” That too. The rush or trail or chain or network of images as you pursue one and then another rising in your head.
My limited French doesn’t allow me to make a call either way on that Flaubert translation but I personally prefer Davis’s: images are action. The movement of sights or images or pictures from one to another, creating not just the appearance of but in reality for the reader a genuine sense of forward momentum is a hallmark of many of my favorite writers. Writers, we might say, who made their reputations by seeming static but who were actually performing its opposite.
This work is part of a series produced in collaboration with the Melbourne UNESCO City of Literature Office, where Australian authors explore and dissect a book that has had an impact on their life.