Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Book review: Border Districts, Gerald Murnane (2017)

In this careful and contemplative book the author from time to time refers to what he calls “idea-images” but that I would refer to as “cognitive artefacts”. These are things such as feelings elicited by certain distant memories, such as the text on the pages of a book, or by meetings with different people in the distant past. Murnane also makes much of chromesthesia – the correspondence between different colours and different feelings – as he tries to explain how his mind works.

The title of the book refers to the places that demarcate things, especially in this tome the glass that separates the inside from the outside, or vice versa. There is a constant looping back to the matter of glass in the book as the author tries time and time again to bring the reader into contact with the mysterious world within his own mind. It is as though he were reciting passages from a liturgy designed to bring the spectator into closer contact with God.

But the title also refers to the physical location within which the author is writing, a place near the border between South Australian and Victoria, near the state border. At various times in the book Murnane has this habit of referring to the physical location where things happened, and these apparently casual mentions are in fact redolent with memories for him as he writes.

The book starts, to illustrate the way that glass functions in it, with a scene where the narrator walks past the stained-glass window of a small church, and this sets off a thousand correspondences between things leading back to the Reformation in the 16th century when men in England would go around to churches and out of religious enthusiasm break their stained-glass windows. Such memories in Murnane’s world are as present today as they were on the day after they occurred. There are also memories of Queen Elizabeth I evoked when the author talks about marbles he collected as a small boy, and which he still has in his home. I seem to recall the word “ice maiden” appearing time and time again as these points of mythological exceptionalism are vivified in the narrative. Under Murnane’s ministrations fables spring to vivid life.

He sets up the superstructure for a kind of “species memory” that can be triggered by ideas and even colours belonging to certain things in the real world. He hesitates to call the book a “novel” and on several occasions just refers to it as a “report”. Clearly, it is mean to be non-fiction. But it reads like a novel. There is the attention to minute detail, focus on the shifting boundaries between the material and the immaterial, and the drama that we have come to learn are the particular province of literary fiction.

The other author this book reminded me of is Kenzaburo Oe, the Japanese Nobel-laureate, whose autobiographical novels also tend to be highly self-referential. Oe has the same habit of including insights in his narratives that were evoked originally by books on his bookshelf. Murnane brings into play even the photograph of the author on the back dust-jacket of a biography of English novelist George Gissing. In particular, in this case it is the eyeball of the face that receives most prominence in Murnane’s imagination as he is looking at the book, the eyeball transmogrifying into a marble that brings to mind his own collection of the objects.

This is a small masterpiece, and the Swedes have done Australia a good deed by bringing Murnane to our attention. I bought the book last night on the Kindle after watching the ABC’s ‘7.30’ program’s segment on the author and agree now that he deserves the Nobel, although the news is that they won’t be awarding the literature prize this year due to some sexual assault allegations that are still being worked out.

It also strikes me that two of the authors of consequence in Australia are now Catholics. The other of course being Les Murray, the poet, whose slightly inaccessible and verbally-complex poems are not to everyone’s liking.

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