Saturday, 15 April 2017

The Plains by Gerald Murnane       {Reviewed by THOMAS}
Gerald Murnane writes some of the best sentences in English of any living writer, and his fiction is always pushing at the edges of our knowledge about what fiction is capable of, how fiction relates to actuality, and, in Murnane’s conceptual universe, how fiction relates to a reality which lies somewhere beyond the shared horizon upon which fiction may trace some shared features: “Everything in sight is a landmark of something beyond it.” This is the earliest of Murnane’s books that I have read (it was first published in 1982 and has now been reissued as a pleasing hardback), and it contains many of the themes developed in his later fiction (Inland, Barley Patch, A Million Windows, A History of Books (see my reviews for most of these)). The Plains concerns a filmmaker who arrives in the inland plains of western Victoria, a kind of ‘inner Australia’, contrasted in almost every way with the less authentic Outer Australia of those who live facing the coast. “Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances. My journey to the plains was much less arduous than I afterwards described it. And I cannot even say that at a certain hour I knew I had left Australia. But I recall clearly a succession of days when the flat land around me seemed more and more a place that only I could interpret.” In the first part, which is largely spent waiting for admission to an inner room in a hotel where the wealthy patrons of the plains hear petitioners and occasionally grant patronage to artists and the like, the narrator tells us of the various practices, customs, factions and histories of the plains-dwellers. Because the plains-dwellers are entirely inward-looking, there is no particular that unites them, other than their diametric opposition to the culture and practices of Outer Australia. Their chief characteristics are almost entirely intrinsic (for example, concerning religious sects on the plains: “Men who had watched the sectaries, and even spied on them in their most private moments, had seen nothing that any irreligious plainsman might not have done - and thought ordinary or even trivial.”), with little extrinsic manifestation aside from an obscure system of heraldry. Much of the social anthropology of the plains is ironic and often very funny, although, for Murnane, irony and epiphany are seldom clearly demarcated. Two main parties underlie much of the interactions of the plains-dwellers: the Horizonists, who look towards further plains lying beyond the horizon, and the Haresmen, for whom the world is more deeply revealed in the examination of a contained area of familiar land. This, and indeed pretty much all of the book, can be seen as a commentary of the possibilities and limitations and purposes of the writing of fiction. “Exploration is much more than naming or describing. An explorer’s task is to postulate the existence of a land beyond the known land. Whether or not he finds that land and brings back news of it is unimportant. He may choose to lose himself in it forever and add one more to the sum of unexplored lands.” The narrator eventually gains admission to the patrons, who have been drinking in the inner bar, and, following a wonderful set of discourse between the landowners, the filmmaker pitches his project. Most of the landowners immediately leave the room (it is clear that the proposed film is quite impossible) except for one, who immediately grants the filmmaker tenure for life (probably because of the impossibility of what he proposes to achieve). The second part takes place largely in the library of the great estate ten years later, and describes the practices of that estate and gives further insights into the culture of the plains (which can be seen as a gentle assault upon, or dissolution of, the mores of Outer Australia (those parts of the country that are inauthentic from being too close to other lands)). A lot of the humour (apart from several aphorisms seemingly ready to be displayed on calendars on the walls of the waiting rooms of dentists of the plains: “Our joys and pleasures are only a compromise between our wants and our circumstances.”), as well as many thought-provoking observations on the beliefs and practices of the plains-dwellers, arises from what may be termed Murnane’s philosophy of fiction: “They give all their attention to the possibility itself and esteem it according to its amplitude and to the length of time for which it survives just beyond the reach of the haphazard disposition of sights and sounds which is called, in careless speech, actuality, and which has been considered to represent the extinction of all possibility.” This sounds noble enough, but its immediate logical extension is somehow an assault on sanity as we ordinarily conceive of it: “The woman might have considered the chief advantage of so many years spent among unlooked-for plains, with a man who had still not explained himself, to be that it had once allowed her to postulate the existence of a woman whose future included even the unlikely prospect of half a lifetime spent among unlooked-for plains with a man who would never explain himself.” In the third part, ten years later again, the filmmaker, still researching, is further than ever from making his film, ever more isolated, even within the rooms and galleries of the great estate to which he is attached, posing with his film camera to his eye for a photograph which will provide 'evidence' for people of the future of what could hardly be further from the truth. Although he films nothing it is not incorrect to think of him as a filmmaker as it is specifically filmmaking that he is not doing as opposed to all the many other things he is also not doing.

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