Australian writer Gerald Murnane is being mentioned in despatches as a contender for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Of course, many are called and few are chosen and it seems that each year the winner is somewhat of a surprise. Nonetheless, Gerald Murnane certainly has a singular voice, as evidenced by the transcript below of a conversation we had in February, 2008. As you can see (and as my husband says) I’m not the kind of person who can ignore an elephant in the room, as evidenced by some of my questions. Gerald Murnane gallantly lasted with me till the end of our interview and said his goodbyes, telling me he’d be back in ten years. I’m no longer on the other side of the microphone, so I can’t keep our date.
Ramona Koval: Gerald Murnane’s first novel Tamarisk Row was published in 1974 and introduced us to a child’s imagined world centred on horse racing. At almost 69 (69 next week) Gerald Murnane has just received $50,000, an Australia Council Writers Emeritus Award which recognises the achievements of writers over the age of 65 who have made an outstanding contribution to Australian literature and who have created an acclaimed body of work. Previous recipients include Dorothy Hewett, Judith Wright McKinney and Bruce Dawe.
This year the awards have been made to Christopher Koch and Gerald Murnane, and in announcing the awards the chair of the Australia Council’s literature board Imre Salusinszky said that these two authors had ‘changed the face the Australian writing through the breadth of their respective imaginations. Each of their works are characterised by a uniquely Australian perspective on the world’. In 1999 Gerald Murnane was also awarded the Patrick White Literary Award, and recently received the 2007 NSW Premier’s Special Literary Award. And Gerald Murnane joins me in the studio. Welcome, Gerald, and congratulations.
Gerald Murnane: Thank you, Ramona.
Ramona Koval: What does winning awards like this mean to you?
Gerald Murnane: This award particularly pleases me because from a selfish point of view it doesn’t have any strings attached. I’m not required to do any writing as a result of it or to fill out a report in a year’s time and say ‘look what I did with your money’, it’s simply a reward. I’ve done all the work, seemingly, beforehand and now I enjoy the reward. But there’s a bit more to it than that. To use racing analogy, I’ve run an awful lot of placings in many a major literary award, I’ve been short listed, and I’ve sat by the telephone…not desperately but hopefully, and the telephone didn’t ring and somebody else won the prize. And now, and, as you mentioned, in the last decade, three significant awards have come my way. What did St Paul say? The race isn’t to the swiftest. I’m a stayer. It turns out I’m a stayer after all.
Ramona Koval: If you were a jockey, what colours would you be wearing?
Gerald Murnane: If you look at another thing that has happened to me recently and that is that my very first novel, book of fiction, Tamarisk Row, has been reissued…
Ramona Koval: I have it here.
Gerald Murnane: You have it there. The publisher is Giramondo Press, the distributor is Tower Books, that ends the plug. I’m going over to Adelaide, only the second time in 20 years, to launch the book in Writers’ Week. And the first thing that’s apparent about the book is that it’s covered with strangely amateurish drawings of jockey colours.
Ramona Koval: A naïve artist I would have said.
Gerald Murnane: Naïve artistry. And the other strange thing is that when the publisher, Ivor Indyk, said, ‘Don’t you want your name put in the acknowledgements as the person who drew those colours?’ for some reason I said no, I didn’t think it mattered, but when we reprint the book, as we hope to do…they only do small print runs nowadays, he said he’ll put my name in the acknowledgments, but the simple fact is I drew those colours. Some people burst into song or express their needs or anxieties in musical ways, others maybe kick the dog or find all kinds of unusual ways to express themselves, but from a very early age when a certain mood came over me I used to get out a box of coloured pencils and draw a set of racing colours.
Ramona Koval: Are these originals from that early age? How old were you?
Gerald Murnane: They’re originals. I never dated them, I could have been any age from 10 to 15. It was mostly an adolescent thing but I have kept them.
Ramona Koval: Green seems to be a favourite.
Gerald Murnane: That was only on that occasion. You see, what would happen, I’d go through a pale green and black stage, then I’d dispense with that or tire of it, then I’d have a lilac and black stage or any sort of…I think I’ve been through the whole spectrum backwards and forwards.
Ramona Koval: But you chose these ones for the cover, there must be a reason.
Gerald Murnane: Not really. It’s the strange…can you see the man standing on his head…
Ramona Koval: I can.
Gerald Murnane: He’s not a man and he’s not standing on his head, but it’s a set of jockey colours upside-down, and it was more just the novel layout of the sets of colours rather than the colours themselves. We had about six to choose from. I’m very taken by it. I’ve only just got used to seeing it on the cover and I keep taking it out and looking at it from time to time.
Ramona Koval: I think it’s charming.
Gerald Murnane: And I’m only sorry that I didn’t put my name to them but that will be rectified in due course.
Ramona Koval: There’s been other rectifications on this book.
Gerald Murnane: It was my first book of fiction. I went to Heinemann Australia…the editor was someone who became famous for other reasons later, namely Hilary McPhee. In her memoirs a few years back she revealed that that was the first book of fiction she’d edited but I didn’t know that at the time. I certainly knew it was the first book of fiction of mine that was being published, and I felt in no way in a strong bargaining position. She to me was the embodiment of experience and all the weight of authority that came with the publisher, and when she said to me ‘you’ll have to do this and you’ll have to do that’, I did this and I did that. One of the things she asked me to do was to reverse the order of the last two sections of the book, which I did, but now I’ve had my way and reversed them back again. Some of her suggestions were quite helpful but I’ve always been unhappy about that one.
Ramona Koval: So have you been harbouring this all along? When you looked at your novel all these years, did you kind of kick yourself and think it’s not the way you really wanted it to be? Was there a slight cloud over it?
Gerald Murnane: We made a documentary film, Words and Silk, in 1989, and the film even ended with me reading the last words of the section that should have been last. So it didn’t pain me over the years, but I thought that if ever I got the opportunity I would do it. Lo and behold, a year ago Ivor Indyk announced that they would reissue the book and I leapt on the opportunity.
Ramona Koval: Did you have any resistance from him?
Gerald Murnane: Ivor is the ideal…well, from my point of view he’s the ideal publisher. I don’t make demands of him but he defers to me. It’s a very strange thing for me to feel. I’ve deferred to publishers all my life mainly and now the reverse is happening.
Ramona Koval: And what do you think that’s due to,? Is it to your age, to your experience?
Gerald Murnane: I think I can say that it’s what I’ve achieved. It’s taken me a long time to achieve it and a gradual thing. It’s been a gradual process, but I’ve stacked all the editions of my books, there’s been quite a few here and in a few other countries, and I sometimes look at them just to feel that I haven’t wasted my time these last 30 years. I think Ivor thinks the same way.
Ramona Koval: You said that you were not a fashionable writer a couple of weeks ago when you were being interviewed.
Gerald Murnane: I call myself a marginal writer. I don’t mean this as a disparagement of other writers at all, but I’ll just say it in relation to myself; I am not the sort of writer who writes about the things that were yesterday’s newspaper headlines. The things I write about tend to be more private matters. Again, the word ‘marginal’ comes to mind, but in a strange way my concerns have lasted for…as the reissue of that book proves, my concerns are still of interest to people, whereas had I written about yesterday’s newspaper headlines I might have been old hat and passé by now.
Ramona Koval: I think some of your novels have been out of print. The Plains I think was the only one that has been in print until this publication of Tamarisk Row, this 2008 publication.
Gerald Murnane: They go out of print. The Plains is still in print, published by Text. It was published by Text just after I won the Patrick White Award. The Plains is in print in Swedish and so is…it has a funny title in Swedish…
Ramona Koval: What is it?
Gerald Murnane: Slatterna, I can’t work out…anyway Slatterna is in print in Sweden. So is Inland I think, and this year Velvet Waters will come out in Sweden. So somewhere on the planet Earth there’s a book of mine in print, but they’re not thick on the ground.
Ramona Koval: What do you reckon about the Swedes? What’s their interest, because you are writing usually about a little patch of the planet which is not Sweden and it’s not even in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s very much in Victoria.
Gerald Murnane: It’s an example of how the interest and enthusiasm of a small group of people can spread and can cause other people to open their eyes and look with fresh gaze at things. What I’m talking about is this, that soon after the publication of Inland in England, it had an English edition, a man named Harald Fawkner who was a professor at the University of Stockholm chanced upon Inland, he was fluent in English and Swedish and probably other languages, and he thought it was one of the most inspiring books he’d ever read. He introduced that book to his course of students, a couple of people wrote PhDs on it, interest spread, and I put it all down to just the enthusiasm of one person. I have no idea why it’s Sweden and not some other country.
Ramona Koval: And have you had much response from Swedes? Do you get letters?
Gerald Murnane: I have three or four people in Sweden who are my constant correspondents, they keep me abreast with what’s happening, they also send me the reviews. It’s interesting to see that according to some of the reviewers…how do I put it?…if you seemingly fired a question at reviewer X or reviewer Y, ‘Who are the major writers at present in Australia?’ According to them, because they look at Australia with a different set of eyes from, say, someone in Australia, I seem to be in their opinion one of Australia’s major writers, a claim that I’d never make for myself.
Ramona Koval: That’s wonderful!
Gerald Murnane: That’s their view of the matter, and someone lese can have another view.
Ramona Koval: You mention these drawings that you’ve done for the new reissued cover of Tamarisk Row from Giramondo Classic Reprints, so you have collected your stuff that you have generated all these years? Do you have everything?
Gerald Murnane: I’ve got seven four-drawer filing cabinets full of stuff at home, and it’s even got coloured tabs sticking up from the most interesting parts.
Ramona Koval: What are the most interesting parts?
Gerald Murnane: The most interesting parts are long letters. I’m a great letter writer and have been for many years, and I tend to let myself go in letters, and the solemn elderly person that is sitting across the desk from you now is not the sort of person that would appear through some of my…especially my earlier letters, and of course they won’t be published or able to be read until long after I’m dead and a few other people are dead too. That’s one of the most interesting things about me, I think, nowadays is this huge collection of…not just letters but a sort of diary-like account. I don’t keep a diary but if something interesting happens I sit down and type up a page about it. And anybody who writes to me is destined for immortality because what they send me goes into the archives. So drop me a note please.
Ramona Koval: So you’ve made a copy of all the letters you’ve sent other people?
Gerald Murnane: From the time when photocopying became available. But several of my early correspondents back in the 60s were good enough to keep my letters, and I’ve got back from them…by wheedling and pleading over the years I’ve got back a goodly number of things that I wrote in the 60s. We moved around so much when I was a kid that very little survives of my juvenilia, but I rectified that to a point by sitting down a couple of years ago and writing 70,000 words of autobiographical recollections from the late 40s right through.
Ramona Koval: So this is faux juvenilia?
Gerald Murnane: Yes, recording…the wonderful thing about keeping the sort of things I keep is that it corrects your false memories, it sets you right about dates, it reminds you about people that you’d almost forgotten that you’d even spoke to, there’s a whole host of benefits from keeping this stuff. It outweighs the problem of where to keep it, you’ve got to have a room to yourself. But yes, it was faux…I wrote it down because if I didn’t write it soon I would have forgotten what we ate as kids, what it felt like to be strapped by the brothers at school, the simple things, the furniture in the house, that sort of thing.
Ramona Koval: Do you reread those things? My question is really about when you look back at the young person that you were, do you recognise strands that have held you all along?
Gerald Murnane: The jockey colours would be one example. One thing that I did keep, fortunately, although it’s not a very early thing…when I was 17 and just finishing school I imagined that I’d be a poet, and I’ve got a page in my funny teenage handwriting from 1956 and I’ve put ‘Poetic Topics’ as the heading, and all down the page in tiny handwriting I’ve listed about 25 of what I thought were the topics that would keep me going for the rest of my life writing poetry. The trouble is that some of them were just names or cryptic titles, words that would make little sense to others, and so I sat down one day, again in the last few years when I wasn’t writing much fiction, and I got a 10,000-word document explaining for some future scholar, if there is any, what this 16 or 17 year old boy was preoccupied with. Really it’s just a summary of what I’ve written in the last 50 years, the same things, particularly landscapes and geography, looking at things from a distance, desiring objects of love from far off. That’s not all, there’s much more than that, but those same three or four things, and the horse racing, and they were already with me at the age of 17.
Ramona Koval: Desiring the object of love from far off?
Gerald Murnane: I didn’t put that very well, did I.
Ramona Koval: Did that mean that you only would love things if they were far enough away from you to see from the distance, and if they came close you didn’t love them anymore?
Gerald Murnane: My wife and I have been pretty close the last 40 years, we still put up with each other! But what I mean is that from an early age I tended to prefer to keep my distance from the world. I think that’s a nice enough way to put it. I haven’t, of course, I have a wife and children and good friends over the years, but I think the essential self does keep his distance, even now, from the world, the self that put together all those seven drawers full of writing of black words on white paper.
Ramona Koval: I’m kind of tempted to say…there are people now who write about such feelings of being a little bit separate from the world and making lists and making lots of categories and would say that that’s a slightly autistic way to be in the world.
Gerald Murnane: I may be that way. You asked me a question like this once before, and the moment it came out of your mouth I bristled, I thought ‘I’m getting out of here’, but you asked it in a much more friendly way today…
Ramona Koval: Maybe I’ve aged too.
Gerald Murnane: No, no, I’ll give you the same answer that I gave you five years ago; if you were to reveal as much about yourself as I’ve revealed about myself, in an indirect way, my fiction is not autobiographical, it might be very well possible for people to see fault lines and peculiar knots of qualities in your own personality…
Ramona Koval: I’m sure they do, and I don’t think I need to do any writing about it, I think they can hear it every day.
Gerald Murnane: Marcel Proust put it…he didn’t perhaps have this sort of discussion in mind, but he used the ‘moi profond’, the ‘deep self’. Marcel Proust would have been…if I’d ever had to meet him I would have found the experience most unappealing. He seems to me, according to everything I’ve read of him, to be a most un-likable fellow. But the narrator of the fiction that he wrote is a person that I feel drawn to and I feel most attracted to, so that a version of Proust created the fiction which was a version and not necessarily the whole person. So there’s perhaps an autistic version of me that does my writing, but I think I can…I’m communicating well enough with you.
Ramona Koval: You are doing very well. In an interview in 2005 it seemed that you were planning to give up writing, that there would be one more book of stories with the title story Barley Patch and that would be your last piece of writing. You reportedly told journalist Susan Wyndham of The Sydney Morning Herald, ‘It will be my last book. I don’t say that with any sadness or solemnity. I’ve used up everything off the workshop floor.’ Have you written that book?
Gerald Murnane: It’s a very good thing that you’ve asked me that. I sat down to write a piece of 20,000 words called Barley Patch which would make up a book, together with a few other shorter pieces that I’d never had published in a book. That was three years ago, and just a week or two back I finished a 70,000 or 80,000-word book called Barley Patch. In other words, it grew, to my great surprise and delight. It took a long time to finish and it is still being edited. So I wrote a whole book instead of a piece of short fiction, and that means I’ve probably still got another book of short pieces waiting.
I have given up writing a few times, not telling very many people. As I said to Susan, not with any sense of sadness or solemnity, I just stopped for a while because I didn’t have anything more to write about, and I’m not a person who…I would never sit down and just write for the sake of writing. I only write when I feel driven to it. The other factor that comes in here is my discovering or meeting up with the Giramondo publishing company five years ago and the encouragement that I get from Ivor Indyk and the publishers, and almost the sense of certainty that if I write something up to my usual standard it’s going to be published as I want it to be. That’s a very great encouragement.
Ramona Koval: On Friday’s program we were talking about the difficult decision Vladimir Nabokov’s son Dmitri has to make about whether to fulfil his father’s dying request and burn an unfinished manuscript. What are your thoughts about that?
Gerald Murnane: I think that a person’s wishes ought to be respected. On the other hand I think it’s a vain and unreasonable thing for an author to leave something around with the instruction that it should be burnt. He should have burnt it himself. That might have been impossible, he might have been struck by a heart attack or something, but if I had anything that I didn’t want kept I would go home and destroy it now.
Ramona Koval: Have you?
Gerald Murnane: No. There are things that I would be very embarrassed if my sons or other people read large parts of what I’ve left, but too bad.
Ramona Koval: Hard to be embarrassed when you’re dead.
Gerald Murnane: When you haven’t got a cheek to blush with it’s not a problem.
Ramona Koval: Finally, is it true that you’ve got a file of miracles?
Gerald Murnane: Who told you that? Was that Susan Wyndham? When I feel a little bit diffident about…I’ve got a kind of code which is in the Hungarian language. The word for ‘miracles’ in Hungarian is ‘csodak’, so I call it the csodak file. They’re not so much miracles, they’re events…Carl Jung said there are things in life that we call coincidences but there are too many of them to be all coincidences. Things have happened to me, mostly good things, which when I look at them collectively it seems almost impossible that they could all have been coincidences. So without any argument for a life after death or the existence of a divine providence, without any argument as to why these things happen, I simply listed them. I think there’s about 20,000 words written about them, just things I see, chains of consequences that seems almost as if…even better, even more sensibly and providentially arranged than I could have arranged myself.
Ramona Koval: Gerald Murnane, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you. Gerald Murnane, one of the recipients of this year’s Australia Council Writers Emeritus awards. And Gerald, you’ll be at the Adelaide Writers’ Festival. And the reprint of Tamarisk Row, published by Giramondo Classic Reprints, is going to be officially launched at the festival. Thanks for coming in, and I’m glad you stayed for the duration.
Gerald Murnane: Thanks Ramona. I’ll be back in ten years.