Record of the mind's eye

Australian Gerald Murnane's writing induces images in the reader's own mind

NEW YORK • Born in 1939, Gerald Murnane is an Australian author of 14 books of memoir and fiction, each of which is wonderfully unusual in that it takes as its focus the mental images he sees while he writes, the scenery surrounding those images and the way one mental image will lead to another and then another.

His books, apart from his early novel The Plains, aren't about anything in the way that most fiction is about events and action among characters.

Rather, the few thousand pages that he has produced since his 1975 debut, Tamarisk Row, are a record of what he has seen when he tried to look at the place that is his own mind and the effort of a lifetime that it has been for him to explore the inner reaches of this place through writing about it.

Though the focus of his work has been the clear witnessing of what is before his mind's eye, the part of his field of vision that has held his interest has changed with time.

One can see this by comparing the opening of his 1982 work, The Plains, with that of his latest, Border Districts, which follows the observations of a narrator - a version of Murnane - who has moved to a town at the border of Victoria in later life.

"Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains," begins The Plains, "I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances."

Looking here is farsighted; emphasis is on the distant, wide-open plains of Australia. Murnane's visible world was a far-off veil pleading to be pulled away to reveal higher orders of meaning.

In contrast, Border Districts begins, "Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes, and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression."

His fascination is now in what appears at the edge of his vision - the border separating what is glimpsed at the very brink of sight and what is just on the far side of seeing.

This turn reflects his learning "to study in all seriousness matters that another person might dismiss as unworthy, trivial, childish".

The images that have always attracted him remain the focus of Border Districts: horse-racing (both he and his father were devoted to the sport, as gamblers and fans); prismatic objects like marbles and stained glass; Roman Catholic ritual and iconography (he considered joining the priesthood before losing his faith as a young man); the landscape of the Victoria region of Australia where he has lived all his life.

Border Districts, like other examples of his late work, is particularly interested in the reason certain images have remained in his mind while others have disappeared or been drained of colour. Why, he wonders, does the mind winnow some and spare others?

Reading Murnane, one cares less about what is happening in the story and more about what one is thinking about as one reads.

The effect of his writing is to induce images in the reader's own mind and to hold the reader inside a world in which the reader is at every turn encouraged to turn his or her attention to those fast flicking images.


•Border Districts is available at $33.37 at Books Kinokuniya

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2018, with the headline 'Record of the mind's eye'. Print Edition | Subscribe