Saturday, 2 December 2017

Border Districts by Gerald Murnane   {Reviewed by THOMAS}
“I am not writing a work of fiction but a report of seemingly fictional matters,” writes Gerald Murnane in this, his declared final work of what we would probably, for convenience at least, call fiction. An elderly writer, who probably no-one would object to our thinking of as Murnane, having moved to a small town inland close to the border of the Australian state he had never in his previous life left, postpones an intended trip over the border after having glanced in passing at the stained glass window of a small church and been struck by a string of associated mental images. “A glance or a sideways look often reveals more than a direct gaze.” Murnane reveals his discipline as a writer: he “guards his eyes,” not looking directly, noticing things at the edges of his vision that seem almost to be “signalling or winking”, and then recording whatever occurs to him after noticing this signalling or winking. This recording is objective and exacting, even if the mental states upon which it is applied are what people other than Murnane would generally term highly subjective. “The image in the mind is itself real, whether or not it may be said to denote some other class of entity.” For Murnane what he calls the image-world is the absolute, and the everyday world and writing and reading and music are merely modes of access to this image-world, which is itself shared by a world beyond it to which we have no access. In this book, Murnane has reduced the palette further than ever before (it is not for nothing that he invokes Robert Walser, who reduced the content of his writing to the extent that he squeezed himself out of the world common to others), dealing with the most subtle of impressions, with what he terms “the life and death of mental states”, the persistence and evanescence of images in the mind. When reading a book, for instance, Murnane is interested not in the text, but in whatever occurs to him when reading it. “My image-world was often only slightly connected with the text in front of my eyes. I decided long ago to take no further interest in the theoretical and to study only the actual, which was for me the seeming-scenery behind everything I did or thought or read.” Although he insists that he possesses no imagination, the topographies of Murnane’s image-world may have strata of associative occurrence that take them further from shared actuality than any imaginative effort, even though “this is a report of actual events and no sort of work of fiction. As I understand the matter, a writer of fiction reports events that he or she considers imaginary. The reader of fiction considers, or pretends to consider, the events actual. This piece of writing is a report of actual events only, even though many of the reported events may seem to an undiscerning reader fictional.” Murnane’s incredibly precise, deliciously pedantic recording of mental states and associations and memories, loneliness and longing (not identified by him as such) make him the closest thing yet to an Australian Proust, and he undoubtedly writes some of the most perfect sentences of any living writer in English. The key to reading his work, perhaps, is to “guard your eyes”, noticing things at the edges of the text that seem almost to be “signalling or winking”, and then following your response to this signalling or winking. At times, we begin to suspect that an identification of Murnane with the narrator of this book, and therefore the positioning of its entire contents, may be a little less straightforward than we had first suspected (despite what I said upon opening this review). The narrator is an image-Murnane in the mind of Murnane the writer, and as such has access to experiences that the writer-Murnane does not. If he were to type up his report, writes the narrator at the end of this report, and take it to the elderly woman writer whom he believes has moved into a farmhouse just over the border from where he now lives and with whom he wishes to make contact, he would add some further information (which he then proceeds to outline) but, he tells us, his “reluctance to make any sort of show of [his] interests or motives” means that this report will in any case never be read by anyone.

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