February 2018

Noted
by Helen Elliott

‘Border Districts’ by Gerald Murnane
Writing that rewards patience

A man arrives to live in a country town “just short of the border” with a resolve to “guard my eyes”. To explain how he came by the expression “guard my eyes”, he begins a narrative of the past, of himself as a boy, then a youth. At the end of the book the origin of the expression is clarified. And the reader is stilled, humming with a new alertness.

Gerald Murnane is Australia’s most distinguished unread writer. His writing, clean and sure, gleams like a stately river moving towards its estuary; it’s unread because, like that river, he meanders and coils back into himself so severely that following it can be a test of patience. But patience is a virtue that is rewarded.

This is Murnane’s 13th book and its subject is the same as that of the other 12: a variation on what it is like to be this man, fastidiously conscious of his ongoing experience. His references are the lodestones of his private mythology: horseracing, racing colours, the grasslands, the colour of a woman’s hair, the way the light refracts through coloured glass, books he once thought interesting. He is always deliberate, never histrionic; the descriptive words “mild” and “pale” often occur.

This narrator, steadfast in his determination to write only what can be explained in the language he knows, is unnamed. He suggests this is a work of imaginative fiction, but the facts of Murnane’s life coincide with those of the narrator’s. These facts encourage reveries about a parallel existence, fanciful conjectures of what his life might have been in another time, in another house, or perhaps if he were a woman. His mind teems with half-glimpsed but retained images that fasten time in an eternity that is happening now.

This method of capturing experience, life itself, allows him to move in it as if it were space. He mentions another writer in another continent at another time as “a man with translucent panes for eyes”. The same might apply to Murnane, although he sees things obliquely, following the shimmer at the corner of vision rather than the straightforward image. If he applies a layered archaeological sensibility and order to these regulated glimpses, meaning might emerge.

Christianity, the tradition that gives him his cultural steel, although he has long rejected it as a belief, has always had devotional books: often objects of considerable physical beauty, offering a practical guide to daily life and engendering connection to the divine. Border Districts (Giramondo; $24.95) is a devotional manuscript in which the intention is not the divine but a recuperation, even a restoration, of self. It is thrilling. Nothing happens, everything happens. By imprinting every external thing with something from the internal and putting it into words, Murnane brings one inner life, with caution and care, into the world. An exchange occurs and, mysteriously, one usually impatient reader’s life is refreshed.

Helen Elliott
Helen Elliott is a literary journalist and writer.

February 2018

In This Issue

Decoding the dual-citizenship crisis

Australia’s founders would be shocked at today’s interpretation of the Constitution

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Alexis Wright’s ‘Tracker’

A raw account of Aboriginal politics through the stories of ‘Tracker’ Tilmouth

Take the cake

One baker’s verdict on the marriage survey result

Still from Sweet Country

Warwick Thornton’s ‘Sweet Country’

The Indigenous Australian filmmaker redefines the Western


Read on

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Remembering Peter Temple

The acclaimed Australian crime writer had a deep appreciation for the folly of things

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‘Exquisite Corpse’: reinventing a parlour game in immersive VR

BADFAITH Collective build a Surrealist body at the Melbourne International Film Festival

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Peter Dutton’s leadership ambitions

A reminder of why the minister’s recent dog-whistling should be of concern

Image from ‘Sharp Objects’

‘Sharp Objects’ blurs the edges

The cruel complexities of women’s lives propel this Amy Adams-led thriller


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