A month or so ago, during an extended period of poor air quality which had everyone cooped up at home all day, I took my daughters off to the local library in the evening to get them out of the house. I wasn’t intending to borrow anything (I have *plenty* of books to be getting on with), but as I was browsing the shelves, I noticed a work I’d been interested in for quite a while, and… well, you know how the story ends. No surprises here, then, except for one small detail – this book isn’t a translation. Today we’re staying in Victoria, albeit close to the border…
Border Districts, shortlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, is supposedly Australian writer Gerald Murnane’s last work of fiction. The novel takes the form of the musings of an elderly writer who has come to live out his final years in a ‘border district’, a small town in the far east of the state in which he was born (and has never left). The writer’s first sentence sets the scene for the rest of the book:
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.
p.1 (Giramondo Publishing, 2017)
That’s all well and good, and a nice way to start the story, but if you’re expecting an immediate explanation of the expression, I’m sorry to say that you’ll be disappointed. Murnane isn’t a writer who likes to rush things, and it’ll be a long time before we learn just how to guard our eyes, and what we should be guarding them against.
What follows is a lengthy, at times circular, monologue, in which the writer notes down his thoughts, and then, after a brief period of contmeplation, the thoughts about those thoughts. Living in a small house in a small town, far from the ‘capital city’ of his birth, with no technology surrounding him more advanced than a battered old radio that now struggles to pick up the station he is accustomed to listen to, the writer looks back at his life, reflecting on things that happened to him, and those that merely happened in his mind. And when I say ‘looks back’, well, those aren’t words I chose lightly.
Border Districts is only my second Murnane book, but it has a rather familiar feel. The Plains was a delightful, confusing work, but it was a more traditional novel, with a main character, a plot of sorts (of sorts…) and gradual forward motion pulling the reader gently through the work. Border Districts, by contrast, while full of the same sense of assured calm, evoking the slow-moving pace of country life, is a very different work, less a story than a collection of feelings and sensations in which the writer unhurriedly organises the thoughts he has on certain topics and objects, both from his past and those he stumbles upon in his new home.
But what exactly is he writing? Well, let’s allow him to explain his approach and what his text consists of:
Why have I included in this report the tedious matter of the preceding paragraphs? One answer may be that I have learned to trust the promptings of my mind, which urges me sometimes to study in all seriousness matters that another person might dismiss as unworthy, trivial, childish. (p.19)
You’ll have noticed the word ‘report’ here, and it’s one that occurs frequently throughout the book. The writer takes his task seriously, to the extent of frequently returning to recent paragraphs and questioning what he wrote there, or further explaining his ideas. This idea of a report is further supported by the amount of time the writer devotes to his pages, and the detail in which he considers and evaluates their content.
Yet if there’s to be a report, you’d expect there to be a subject, and amongst the calm, extended sentences, several do eventually unfold. The main focus of the book, in parts, at least, appears to be light, and the way it, well, illuminates objects. In the first pages, the writer describes his fascination with the six small windows of the tiny church in the street where he now resides, noticing the differing effects of light at different times, and from various angles, and this is just the start of his fascination with the effect of light (a theme also evident in The Plains, both in the description of the sunlight over the plains and the way it penetrates the windows of the house the protagonist eventually ends up living in). The same object seen at different times in a different light can affect the viewer’s memory of the object, and the writer is constantly noticing these different effects, initially attempting to simply commit an image to memory in passing, later taking snapshots and analysing them closely.
As you’d expect, memory is another frequent preoccupation, and there’s a definite Proustian influence in this description of the ability of light to evoke memories. One lovely take on this is the writer’s obsession not just with colours, but also the memories they evoke, best explained when he discusses a luxury he has allowed himself, namely the purchase as an adult of a set of coloured pencils:
None of the pencils has ever been used in the way that most pencils are used, but I have sometimes used the many-striped collection in order to confirm my suspicion as a child that each of what I called my long-lost moods might be recollected and, perhaps, preserved if only I could look again at the precise shade or hue that had become connected with the mood – that had absorbed, as it were, or had been permeated with, one or more of the indefinable qualities that constitute what is called a mood or a state of feeling. (pp.67/8)
A madeleine by any other name…
It’s not just colours, though, that the writer is obsessed with, as another thread running through Border Districts is the idea of images. Our friend at one point describes himself as ‘a student of mental imagery‘, and over the course of his life he has amassed a whole catalogue of pictures in his mind which are used as examples of types, allowing him to ‘see’ the same face or image whenever he reads or hears a word. Examples of this include an ‘image-woman’, an ‘image-garden’ and an ‘image house’, detailed pictures that instantly spring to mind when required. Of course, the writer isn’t someone to simply take these images for granted, and throughout his report, he attempts to force himself to examine the origins of these images, trying to explain to himself, and his readers where the ur-image came from, and who, or what, it initially represented.
The choice of a report as the structure for the text lends the novel a mock academic feel, but this feeling is subtly undercut by a deliberate tendency towards the general over the specific:
The same small church was also the setting, many years ago, for the mental events that originated while I was reading one of a collection of short stories from a book that I long ago disposed of. I have forgotten the title of the book and I remember nothing of what was in my mind while I read the book except for a few mental scenes, so to call them. (p.15)
Details are often brushed aside in this manner with an ‘of little relevance‘ or ‘I no longer recall‘, and the many locations mentioned in Border Districts are devoid of names, with the text repeatedly mentioning ‘the capital city, ‘this state’, ‘a provincial city’ or ‘an inner eastern suburb’. Of course, this has the effect of teasing the reader to work out the code, substituting, or attempting to substitute, the actual place names for their descriptors, and I suspect most local readers will be mentally pencilling in the names, or picking up a Melways road atlas to check where the action is taking place. In a way, then, this vagueness has the counter-productive effect of taking the reader away from the text, which is surely not what the writer intended. Then again…
This vagueness isn’t confined to place names, either, with a similar approach taken when discussing literature. The writer’s memories of his childhood reading are fascinating, especially the intriguing concept of all his reading being part of one, never-ending book, populated by his stock images of characters and houses, and his focus is often far more on his memories of the reading experience, including how he felt, where he was, and what the light was like, rather than on what he actually read. Again, the lack of details will fascinate the reader. The writer mentions a German-language author, with a family name starting with a letter near the end of the alphabet, one who spent his final years in a mental institute (Robert Walser?); he spends several pages discussing the setting of a trilogy of novels by a Hungarian writer, a cycle exploring the end of an era against the backdrop both of the capital and the Transylvanian mountains (surely Miklós Bánffy’s wonderful Transylvanian Trilogy?). Yes, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that the writer is playing with us somewhat here.
And this is where we circle back to the start, with the writer’s warning to himself to ‘guard his eyes’, an expression hinting that details can distract us from what we really want to, or should, experience. On his occasional lengthy drives back to the capital city, the writer wants to wallow in memories and images, but instead finds himself distracted by the words on road signs, the names of local towns, the outlines of distant hills. The final pages of the book return to the phrase, finally explaining its origin. As it turns out, it derives from some words he found during his school days, on a priest’s warning to himself, written on a holy card in a prayer-book. The real meaning seems to be to avoid temptation and avert your eyes lest you be led astray. Alas, the world (and Murnane’s writing) is full of such distractions, making this an arduous, if not impossible, task.
Border Districts is a wonderful book and certainly justifies the frequent discussion of Murnane as a potential Nobel winner. His writing is beautiful, with an idiosyncratic, slightly old-fashioned style; the sentences are frequently long and complex without seeming so, and the experience for the reader, despite the need to tease out the writer’s ideas, is fairly effortless, and always enjoyable. If you’re looking for some (tongue-in-cheek) comparisons, how about Thomas Bernhard without the anger-management issues, Jung Young Moon without the sense of ridicule, W.G. Sebald without the need for exact details, or a desire to leave the house much. I suspect that will tell you whether this is a writer for you.
Well, I’ve finally come to the end of what is, even for me, a rather lengthy review, and yet I don’t feel I’ve done more than scratched the surface of what Border Districts is about. I haven’t really mentioned the writer’s thoughts on religion and his (lack of) faith, a major theme I’ll leave other reviewers to cover, and the significance of the title, with its suggestion of the importance of the border region in which the writer finds himself, is similarly rather neglected. Perhaps more disturbingly, my review doesn’t even contain a single mention of horse-racing, which (as all of Murnane’s regular readers will know) is a terrible omission when discussing his work. In short, it’s a wonderful book, with many secrets to be uncovered, and one I’m sure I’ll be revisiting in the future (well, once I’ve read some of his other work, that is). Before I finish, though, I’ll just leave you with one final thought. Perhaps it’s apt, given the writer’s focus on experience and memory, to think ahead to that inevitable reread. You see, I do wonder, having read Murnane’s thoughts on the matter, just what, if anything, I’ll remember about the book in a few years’ time. But that’s a story for another day…