‘The Plains’ by Gerald Murnane (Review)

I’ve been meaning to read more Australian literature for a while now, but my focus on fiction in translation has got in the way of that a little.  Actually, that’s a slight understatement – in the first eight months of the year, I didn’t manage to review a single Australian book…

However, with a trip to the Melbourne Writers Festival on the agenda, it was time to crack open one of the many books languishing on my shelves.  Gerald Murnane is a writer I’ve been wanting to try for some time, and (as I mentioned in my festival review) he’s certainly an entertaining speaker.  Let’s see what I think about his writing 😉

*****
The Plains, one of the first titles in the Text Classics series, is a short novel written back in 1982.  It follows a man who ventures into inland Australia to explore ‘the plains’, an undefined area away from the noise of the east-coast cities.  His reason for visiting the interior is to work on a film, a piece which will capture the splendour of the wide-open expanses, and after a short period of adjustment, he meets a group of local landowners, whose patronage is vital if he is to be able to work on his project.

Things are very different on the plains, though, and time passes differently to how it moves in ‘Outer Australia’.  As the days pass, we suspect that there is very little chance of the film ever being finished, the man’s lengthy stay reaching epic proportions.  Still, the longer he works on his project, the more he realises that the plains are worth studying – even if he’ll never be able to understand them completely.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is pretty much the whole plot of The Plains – if you’re the kind of reader who likes things to, you know, happen in a novel, then I’d advise you to cut your losses here and go and find something else to do.  This is a work which moves at its own pace, a novel which, while it might be interested in may things, has little time for a reader who isn’t prepared to settle down and forget the call of the outside world for a while.

The physical setting of the novel is the key to understanding it, and the filmmaker lays it out for us right at the start:

“Unchecked by hills or mountains, the sunlight in summer occupied the whole extent of the land from dawn till sunset.  And in winter the winds and showers sweeping across the great open spaces barely faltered at the few stands of timber meant as shelter for men or animals.  I knew that there were great plains of the world that lay for months under snow, but I was pleased that my own district was not one of them.  I much preferred to see all year the true configuration of the earth itself and not the false hillocks and hollows of some other element.  In any case, I thought of snow (which I had never seen) as too much a part of European and American culture to be appropriate to my own region.”
pp.6/7 (Text Classics, 2012)

At times, the novel takes care in its description of the outside environment, the lengthy, unhurried passages contributing to the leisurely pace of the novel.

However, the detailed description is actually at odds with the vague nature of the location of the plains.  We know that we are in the interior, but where exactly the filmmaker has ended up is fairly unimportant.  One thing we do know is that the plainsmen have a great suspicion for anything which comes from the coast – or “Outer Australia”…

The filmmaker learns of the two great art groups of the region, rivals who debate the nature of the beauty of the plains.  However, when a third group attempts to spread its own views, the Horizonites & Haremen unite to drive out this ‘foreign’ concept:

“They discredited it finally on the simple grounds that it was derived from ideas current in Outer Australia.  The plainsmen were not always opposed to borrowings and importations, but in the matter of culture they had come to scorn the seeming barbarisms of their neighbours in the coastal cities and damp ranges.  And when the more acute plainsmen had convinced the public that this latest group were drawing on a jumble of the worst kinds of foreign notions, the members of the despised group chose to cross the Great Dividing Range rather than endue the enmity of all thinking plainsmen.” (pp.33/4)

This idea of hostility to the big cities and ‘Inner Australia’ as a true nation might seem far-fetched, but it really is a different world away from the East Coast (Western Australia, for example, the large state on the other coast of the continent, often sees itself as a very different entity to the rest of the country…).

Putting aside the disputes with Outer Australia, though, life passes slowly on the plains, frustratingly so for anyone hoping to get things done.  The filmmaker’s wait for an audience with the landowners takes much of the first part of the novel, and his days in the landowner’s private library (mostly spent gazing out at a restricted view of the plains) pretty much fills up the rest of the book.  In fact, the more you think about The Plains, with its nameless characters, the futility of the main character’s quest, with a film never to be finished, the more other writers’ work comes to mind.

The quiet, ever-changing library, and the odd sense of time passing and yet standing still, definitely has shades of Borges, albeit a much more relaxed Borges, but the sheer futility of much of what happens reminds me unmistakably of Kafka.  We mustn’t forget that this is Australia, though.  While Kafka’s protagonists race around, shouting, blustering, hoping to force their way into seeing the right people, Murnane’s creation is very much a man of his people.  He’s happy to take his time – his appointment is in a pub, not a cramped office – and while he’s waiting he may as well have a beer or five, as do his interviewers when he finally gets to join them…

The Plains is a beautiful, understated piece of writing, a relatively short book, but one which leaves the reader with a lot to think about.  Quite apart from deciding which of the rival camps to side with on the question of the beauty of the plains (does it lie in the vast, endless horizon or the microscopic detail of ears of wheat?), we are asked to contemplate the idea that possibilities are more important than achievements.  You see, when things are achieved, the other possibilities disappear (which again hints that the man’s film is highly unlikely to be completed…).

The people of the plains go in for their own form of philosophy, one which looks for the meaning of life in a focus on very subjective truths:

“What might not follow, they ask themselves, if there should be nothing more substantial in all our experience than those discoveries that seem too slight to signify anything apart from their own brief occurrence?  How might a man reorder his conduct if he could be assured that the worth of a perception, a memory, a supposition, was enhanced rather than diminished by its being inexplicable to others?  And what could a man not accomplish, freed from any obligation to search for so-called truths apart from those demonstrated by his search for a truth peculiar to him?” (pp.110/1)

Which is probably a good place to note that any attempt to decipher Murnane’s work is probably doomed to failure.  As he said in his talk at the Melbourne Writers Festival, nobody could ever come close to understanding what he wants to say through his work and what his novels mean to him…

Still, despite being indecipherable (and virtually plotless), The Plains is a great read, a soothing piece of writing which leaves you vaguely glimpsing a concealed philosophy, but unable to quite discern its contours – and yet you’re not really that bothered (this is Australia, after all…).  I’m definitely keen to read more of Murnane’s work, especially his first book, Tamarisk Row, and his latest, A Million Windows, as they were the ones discussed most in his talk.  Outwardly, Murnane and his novels are very Australian, but there’s definitely something else waiting to be discovered at the core of his work – if you’re just patient enough to wait for it to reveal itself…

Oh, while you’re waiting, why not get yourself a cold one? 😉

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11 thoughts on “‘The Plains’ by Gerald Murnane (Review)

  1. The Plains is the Murnane novel that I need to revisit at some point in the near future. When I first read the book I could not escape the feeling that relevant stuff was lost on me as someone who has never been to Australia… Check out the Murnane issue of Music&Literature, it is worth your money.

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  2. Birne – It's a *very* Australian book, that's true 🙂 I'm tempted to try M & L (and not just this one), but it is extremely pricey from here – Americans really don't like to post things to Australia, judging by the prices they charge for postage…

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  3. Great review, Tony. I think there’s a lot to unpick in the novel. In some ways it’s a kind of satire and taking the mickey out of the “coastal dwellers” who think they have a monopoly on art and culture and that interior Australia is just empty space. I like the way he plays with the ideas of snobbery and class. And how there’s an unspoken kind of hierarchy within the arts… with writing at the top!

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    1. Kim – There’s a lot to like here, and it’s only because of my focus on literature in translation that I haven’t read more of Murnane’s work. Having been involved (in a small way…) with the Melbourne Writers Festival last year, I can tell you that East Coast cosmopolitanism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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