Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 10, 2019

Collected Short Fiction, by Gerald Murnane


Collected Short Fiction offers an entrée to Gerald Murnane’s fiction for the newbie.  I’ve been reading his books for years now, and am a confirmed enthusiast only too delighted by his more recent prominence both here in Australia and overseas.  But I’m no closer to ‘understanding’ Murnane, only more comfortable with the effect his writing has on me.

(This is what I wrote in a comment on my post about The Plains, back in 2009 when I was reading Inland:

I keep going backwards and forwards and re-reading…and then spinning off with thoughts and ideas of my own that seem to be couched in his kind of circular sentences, as if he has colonised my mind. It is a bizarre experience to read something like this, floundering around trying to work out what’s happening even though it seems unlikely that anything is actually happening.

These days I don’t flounder, I surf along whatever wave I can catch. And yes, it’s exhilarating.)

The blurb for Collected Short Fiction has this to say:

This volume brings together Gerald Murnane’s shorter works of fiction, most of which have been out of print for the past twenty five years. They include such masterpieces as ‘When the Mice Failed to Arrive’, ‘Stream System’, ‘First Love’, ‘Emerald Blue’, and ‘The Interior of Gaaldine’, a story which holds the key to the long break in Murnane’s career, and points the way towards his later works, from Barley Patch to Border Districts. Much is made of Murnane’s distinctive and elaborate style as a writer, but there is no one to match him in his sensitive portraits of family members – parents, uncles and aunts, and particularly children – and in his probing of situations which contain anxiety and embarrassment, shame or delight.

When the Mice Failed to Arrive’ was originally published in the Autumn 1989 edition of a periodical called ‘Sport’ and then in Velvet Waters (McPhee Gribble 1990).   The excruciating depiction of the narrator’s childhood anxiety spills into what seems to be a deeply personal account of parental failings and guilty memories from a teaching career.  And it’s true: even if you’re Gerald Murnane and perhaps not temperamentally suited to teaching, it’s a career that’s like parenthood, it’s filled with guilt about the times you failed to meet a need, or weren’t prepared, or you lost your temper, or let a child down when they needed you most.  Those times do haunt teachers who care…

Guilt also seeps into ‘Stream System’ which was first published in The Age Monthly Review 8, no 9, December 1988-January 1989:

When my brother first went to school I used to hide from him in the schoolground.  I did not want my brother to speak to me in his strange speech.  I did not want my friends to hear my brother and then ask me why he spoke strangely. During the rest of my childhood and until I left my parents’ house, I tried never to be seen with my brother,  If I could not avoid travelling on the same train with my brother I would order him to sit in a different compartment from mine.  If I could not avoid walking in the street with my brother I would order him not to look in my direction and not to speak to me.

When my brother first went to school my mother said that he was no different from any other boy but in later years my mother would admit that my brother was a little backward.

My brother died when he was forty-three years old and I was forty-six.  My brother never married.  Many people came to my brother’s funeral, but none of those people had ever been a friend to my brother.  I was certainly never a friend to my brother.  On the day before my brother died I understood for the first time that no one had ever been a friend to my brother.  (p.39)

‘Land Deal’ reveals an aspect of Murnane’s preoccupations that I haven’t recognised in his longer fiction.  It is prefaced by a quotation from John Batman about his notorious purchase of the land on which Melbourne was built, and is narrated in the first person plural.  These narrators regard the transaction as a bizarre dream:

Of course it was the wildest folly to suppose that the land, which was by definition indivisible, could be measured or parcelled out by a mere agreement among men. In any case, we had been fairly sure that the foreigners failed to see our land.  From their awkwardness and unease as they stood upon the soil, we judged that they did not recognise the support it provided or the respect it demanded.  When they moved even a short distance across it, stepping aside from places that invited passage and treading on places that were plainly not to be intruded upon, we knew that they would lose themselves before they found the real land.  (p.48)

(This piece was first published in Educational Magazine, no 3, (1980), which was issued to all government school teachers.  That means I almost certainly read it at the time, failing to see its significance.)

I learned something about James Joyce from an astonishing piece called ‘The Boy’s Name Was David’ (first published in Best Australian Short Stories, Black Inc., 2002).  A narrator who had spent some time being a teacher of fiction at a college of advanced education which became a university, first explains his intriguing way of marking student work, and then remembers being fanatical in urging his students to think of their fiction, of all fiction, as consisting of sentences.  

At least once each year, he told each class an anecdote that he had remembered from a memoir of James Joyce.  Someone had praised to Joyce a recent novel.  Joyce had asked why the novel was so impressive.  The answer came back that the style was splendid, the subject powerful.  Joyce would not listen to such talk.  If a book of prose was impressive, the actual prose should have impressed itself on the reader’s mind so that he could afterwards quote sentence after sentence. (p.450)

It will come as no surprise to readers of Murnane that there is a link to horse-racing in this story…

It’s interesting to see another review at a site Music & Literature, which offers an entirely different perspective on ‘Stream System’.  It just shows how Murnane can be many different things to different readers.  I tend to get distracted by segments that tug at the heartstrings, but the reviewer Timothy Aubry is right, there is, in these fictions:

…. a geography of thought that is recognizably Murnane’s. Over and over we encounter real and imagined landscapes, maps, horse races and racing colors, forgotten and discarded books, adolescent sexual anxieties that persist longer than they should, objects and people repeatedly referred to as those “mentioned in the previous paragraph,” images that have passed through the supposed author’s mind while writing the very text we are reading, which summon other images, which demand description, which provokes further thoughts about further images, and so forth. Things do often happen to his characters and Murnane occasionally tracks these developments chronologically, but more often his fictions splay out in atemporal fashion, becoming a web of discrete moments all connected to each other through multiple strands of association.

This is a superb collection.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: Collected Short Fiction
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2018, 20 stories, 468 pages, also available as an eBook.
ISBN: 9781925336641
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available direct from Giramondo and Fishpond: Gerald Murnane: Collected Short Fiction


Responses

  1. I have read the one Murnane, his debut novel Tamarisk Row, and was pleased to get a like from you on GR Lisa. It was such a thought provoking book that I, yesterday in fact, got his Text Classics publication of A Lifetime on Clouds as I intend to read his oeuvre in order (if I can). Looking to get this collection based on this very compelling review.

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    • Oh, *broad smile* you will be hooked, just like me!

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  2. Hello Lisa ,
    . On 7 February 2019 Gearld Murnane gave me some hope about the afterlife , he was being interviewed re this book that you mention above .

    . In referring to his mother, he mentions ” that he believes in survival after death . And he believes that his mother is aware of what he is doing in his daily life . And he looks forward to meeting his mother again , some part of him feels this way ”
    This is not religion I don’t think , this is an innate human feeling that some people sense , feel , know somehow .

    It certainly has made me smile and given me a window of hope , that perhaps there is a possibility of meeting my grandmother again .

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    • Hello Mary, how very interesting that is, and thank you for sharing it! And whether it is religion or not, I think that if hope brings solace, then that’s a fine thing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You are leading all your followers to Murnane, not least me. Libraries being organized as they are, my recent Murakami led me to also pick up A Million Windows (2014) which I will review ‘shortly’.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yay! I wonder what you will think of it:)

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  4. This is one that I was so pleased to see our public library has acquired (I looked for it a couple of months ago – spurned on either by your repeated mentions or WhisperingGums’ or both of you in echo-formation.) In any case, I’ve absorbed the idea that I need to work through his stories (and the fact that you’ve found his older stories worthwhile rereading inspires me even more), so I’ve got the collection marked on my library wishlist, for when I finish with Mavis Gallant’s stories (if not before)!

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  5. Alleluia for a forward thinking library!

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