When Gerald Murnane came into the ABC’s Southbank centre for an interview and portrait session recently, he regaled photographer Zan Wimberley with a rendition of the Hungarian national anthem (he learned Hungarian late in life). He sang with gusto and a big grin. He certainly has a lot to be happy about.
Since his first novel Tamarisk Row came out in 1974, Murnane has been known as a writers’ writer — which is shorthand for saying the author’s work is highly regarded in literary circles, but not broadly read by the public.
As the author of 16 books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, Murnane is also known for not winning the Miles Franklin, arguably Australia’s most prestigious literary prize.
However in 2018 several things happened that seemed to signal a shift: his 2017 novel Border Districts was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin, won the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Best Fiction, and got a US release via Farrar, Straus and Giroux (alongside a collection of his short stories).
Then the New York Times touted Gerald Murnane as the next Nobel laureate for literature, describing him as “the greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of”. (The 2018 prize was subsequently cancelled, due to a sex scandal.)
This particular type of praise is not new for Murnane — he says that for the last 10 years he’s been nominated as a candidate for the Nobel; it does provide satisfaction, however.
“The satisfaction comes just from being considered an Australian candidate, never mind the vague possibility that I might actually win it.”
Certainly, the attention of international reporters has propelled him beyond his coterie of readers.
In 2019, Murnane has two books being published: his four-part novel A Season on Earth (written more than 40 years ago, but never published in full), and a collection of poetry titled Green Shadows.
Ironically, perhaps, he has also announced that he will no longer be writing for publication — only for himself.
Finding big success in a small place
The resurgence of Murnane’s career seems to have coincided with his move to the tiny town of Goroke, in western Victoria.
He moved there from Melbourne in 2009, after the death of his wife of 43 years, to live with one of his sons.
Since being in Goroke, he’s had eight books published. In 2017 an academic conference was held in his honour, at the local golf club.
Murnane finds it hard to explain the attraction of Goroke but says “my interest in the place is partly explained by the fact that it fulfils the geometry of my life”.
“I don’t expect anyone to understand.”
Living in Goroke does seem to be an uncanny fulfillment of his literary preoccupation with landscape (most clearly seen in his lauded 1982 novel The Plains, which mythologises the people of the flat lands).
A novel’s true ending finally revealed
Murnane turned 80 in February, and he was given a heartwarming birthday celebration by the “citizens of Goroke” (again, at the golf club).
The publication of A Season on Earth the same month was the “icing on the cake” for the writer, as he’s waited 43 years to see the book published in its complete state.
It was first published in 1976 as A Lifetime on Clouds (through William Heinemann), but only the first half of the manuscript was published, as his editor at the time felt it was too long to publish in full.
Murnane was not happy with this decision, nor with how it was described as a comic romp.
“Now that the four parts are published it looks anything but a comic romp,” he says.
A Season on Earth is about Adrian Sherd, whom the reader meets as a teenager going to a Catholic school in 1950s Melbourne.
Reading the first part of the book, it’s easy to see why it was considered bawdy — it opens with Sherd’s fantasies about an orgy with Hollywood starlets.
The second half, which wasn’t published at the time, is about Sherd’s time in a seminary, and concludes with him leaving to embrace the philosophies of poets.
Murnane did try to shorten the book without changing the four-part structure, but in the end he had to admit he was wasting his time.
“The experience of running around in circles trying to cope with the publisher’s demands — and other problems at the time — slowed me down by a couple of years.”
His next book (The Plains) didn’t come out for another six years.
“That’s a long time without anything happening,” Murnane concedes.
With the publication of A Season on Earth, the book is now as Murnane had imagined it, and he says it will satisfy “some puzzlement that people felt about A Lifetime on Clouds.”
“People have often said to me ‘A Lifetime on Clouds doesn’t seem quite the same as some of your other works, not quite so substantial.’ My answer to that would have been ‘No, because it’s half a book — and now the whole book can be understood and comprehended.'”
He says, “Michael Heyward’s (director of Text Publishing) decision to publish was a great for relief to me”.
Still writing — but only for himself
Murnane says that Border Districts is his final novel.
“When I did write it, I felt there was nothing more to write about,” he says.
“For me it had the quality of someone’s last fictional statement.”
This doesn’t mean the author has stopped writing completely, however.
“I’m always writing,” he says, explaining that it provides relief for the “unbearable build-up of imagery and feeling” that he experiences.
The author has also taken up playing the fiddle, after letting it slide for a few years, and he plays golf.
Between these activities, he says, “I’m just about able to express all that I feel needs to be expressed”.
And then there are his archives. Since writing his first novel, Murnane has meticulously documented his life and writing in filing cabinets which are now held in his Goroke home.
He says he is now writing just for his archives, which includes a 20,000-word autobiography that he doesn’t want published in his lifetime.
“One day I will probably be remembered for the contents of my archives, even when I’m forgotten as the author of some of my books,” says Murnane.
“There’s a lot in those archives that will change people’s view of things. I’ll just say, there’s a few surprises.”
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