February 2018

Noted

‘Border Districts’ by Gerald Murnane

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.

In This Issue

Please, go on

When you’re a doctor, nothing is ever Too Much Information

Image of Peter Dutton

Dutton’s dark victory

The minister, Pezzullo and the demise of Immigration

The fabulous tale of Nelly Yoa

The Sudanese community leader and sports star’s improbable rise

Image of VR Zone Shinjuku, Japan

Virtual reality: from Giotto to VRporn

The unexpected history of a radical technology


Online exclusives

Image of Joseph Engel and Sara Montpetit in Falcon Lake, directed by Charlotte Le Bon. Photo by Fred Gervais, courtesy of MK2 and Metafilms

Cannes Film Festival 2022 highlights: part one

Mia Hansen-Løve’s ‘One Fine Morning’, Charlotte Le Bon’s ‘Falcon Lake’ and Dmytro Sukholytkyy-Sobchuk’s ‘Pamfir’ were bright spots in an otherwise underwhelming line-up

Image of a man updating a board showing a tally of votes during independent candidate Zoe Daniel’s reception for the 2022 federal election. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Images

The art of the teal

Amid the long decline of the major parties, have independents finally solved the problem of lopsided campaign financing laws?

Image of Monique Ryan and family on election night

The end of Liberal reign in Kooyong

At the Auburn Hotel on election night, hope coalesces around Monique Ryan

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history