As of this writing, if you Google “greatest living Australian writers,” Gerald Murnane isn’t even on the first page of results. But as an eccentric and little-known writer, the seeds for Murnane’s immortalization—though you might not have heard of him—are already being sewed. He has written hundreds of thousands of words, poking them out with his right pointer finger on an old typewriter; he keeps a meticulously organized archive of his work; he famously has never left Australia (“I have never traveled more than a day’s journey by road or trail from my birthplace,” the narrator of his latest novel writes); he suffers from anosmia, and is a kind of synesthete (“I consider myself a student of colors and shades and hues and tints,” his narrator writes); he breaks all the rules. He fits neatly into the category of “bizarre-minded writer,” and has the prose to back it up. And now, since the early release of his latest (and reportedly last) novel, Border Districts, half of the literary world seems to be begging the other half to give him the recognition he deserves.
Border Districts, published by Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux on April 3rd, undertakes its task as the Antipodean hermit’s last work of fiction with aspirations known only to some of the most ambitious prose farewells. All the while, Murnane’s many literary idiosyncrasies remain on full display. Since his most famous novel, The Plains (1982), Murnane has dispensed with conventional plot and now employs an almost essayistic prose. The “plot” of Border Districts focuses on an old man who has moved to the perimeters of society and is living out his last days by piecing together those fragments of his life that on which his mind lingers. His musings intertwine and recur in such a way that, by the novel’s last pages, you find yourself reading not a novel but carefully crafted display of honesty. In the “district near the border” where the narrator now lives, a nearby church’s stain glass windows serve as his Proustian tea biscuit (Murnane deeply admires Proust), exhuming the memories, impressions, and thoughts that are interwoven in the undivided 132 pages of text. In this way, Border Districts is a journey without movement, an act of nagging fidelity to “proof of something I had for long wanted to believe, namely, that my mind was the source of not only my wants and desires but the imagery that tempered them.”
Teju Cole added to a comment on Murnane’s “genius” that he is a “worthy heir to Beckett.” The narrator of Border Districts is certainly reminiscent of the titular narrator of Samuel Beckett’s Molloy. In an even less divided text (the whole book contains only two long paragraphs), Molloy—like Murnane’s border dweller—repeatedly calls attention to the fact that he is writing. His purpose, though more solemn, would not be out of place in Border Districts: “to speak of the things that are left, say […] goodbyes, finish dying.” Nor is Murnane’s narrator nostalgic. He sees things as they appear to him. As readers, those images come to us in a way that feels at once entirely spontaneous and painstakingly meted out.
Murnane is one of those writers who can rattle off sentences like this one without breaking a sweat: “Each one of us, in his dreams, had felled tall trees with blades that lodged deep in the pale pulp beneath the bark” (“Land Deal,” from the short story collection Stream System, which FSG has also recently published). His sentences, though straightforward, are spaces of unplumbed depth. They unfurl in unexpected directions, venture into uncharted territory, and wind up someplace you never knew existed.
Whereas a book like William Trevor’s forthcoming “Last Stories” will forego the pretense and ambition of a profound final plea to the world (because it was written without that aim), Murnane’s last novel sustains a quiet ambition as a “last word.” Quiet, in that it is not sentimental, not overwrought, but concerned only with nagging “peripheries” with which the narrator is obsessed. At the least, the knowledge that this is in all likelihood Murnane’s last book helps to explain that quiet boldness. Whether or not it succeeds in rousing an emotive rumination on the border of life itself, Border Districts comports toward that cliché, “my life flashed before my eyes,” in such a way as to make us feel, if subtly, the delight and anguish of scrolling through a personal history at life’s end.
The fear of leaving something left unsaid, a deep and unwavering fear, is somehow negotiated with calm in Border Districts. Mark Binelli’s piece for the Times—provocatively titled “Could the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Be Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town?”—includes the ending of one of Murnane’s poems, the manuscript of which is buried in his massive archive:
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.
The certainty with which Murnane states that “you’ll never see, / unfortunately, what they revealed to me” is at once unsettling and comforting. Unsettling, because, of course, he is right: the intentions and approximations of his language, both published and unpublished, approach completeness only in his imagination. But at the same time, just as his poem becomes despairing, the grandfatherly do-not-fear tone that underpins his statement belatedly eases our worries. Murnane is again charting the borders between people: that which is possible to share and that which isn’t.
Writing as an intensely personal experience, a futile but irresistible temptation, is something familiar to another recently retired master of prose. Philip Roth’s farewell to fiction last year could be safely called “going out on top,” but for Roth, it was something else. Reportedly, stuck to his laptop screen now is a note that reads, “Your struggle with writing is over.” For Murnane, writing figures less as a struggle, though, than a sense of careless opportunity. Whereas Roth toed the narrow line between complexity and readability from which he has now retired, Murnane’s eccentricities sometimes hinder him from toeing that line. At the same time, those are often the same eccentricities that end up becoming mythologized; as evidence, exhibiting a grouchiness that few can get away with, London Review of Books published a letter of his that reads: “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.”
Next year, Murnane will turn 80 years old, and a selection of his poems will be published alongside outtakes from Border Districts. Beyond that, there will be nothing new from Murnane until he and his siblings die and the instructions for the management of his archives are revealed. He’s retired once before, from 1991 to 2001, after his novel “Emerald Blue” sold just 600 copies. With a little known “writer’s writer” (or “a writer’s writer’s writer,” as John Ashbery famously deemed Elizabeth Bishop), there is always the question of finding a rightful audience. Before Dalkey Archive published Murnane’s novel Barley Patch in 2011, there had been little to no publication of his work in America. “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 told Mark Binelli, now that two of his books are being released by a leading American publisher. Although Murnane may be finding “the American audience he’s always deserved,” and with it a soft mist around his name on book covers, there is still time to approach him with fresh eyes. And what a delight it is to hold Murnane’s book now, before it becomes so overburdened with writerly mythology that the pleasure of making sense of it is all but lost.