From Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane
The following is a typical opening sentence from a typical story by Australian writer Gerald Murnane: “A few weeks ago, the person writing this story read aloud to a gathering of persons another story that he had written.” Here’s another: “The following is a list of descriptions of some of the details of some of the images in some of the sequences of images that the chief character of this piece of fiction foresaw as appearing in his mind whenever during a certain year in the late 1970s he foresaw himself as preparing to write a certain piece of fiction.” These two sentences – the first from “Blue Boy” and the second from “The White Cattle of Uppington,” both contained in the compendium Stream System – provide a good idea of the slipperiness inherent in Murnane’s writing, as well as the author’s preferred subject, which is the construction of fiction itself. These two openings share in common a refusal to specify their central figure by name; indeed, both stories refer to their “chief character” – a quintessential Murnane descriptor. They snake backward and forward in time and move from an initial subject to a different subject – “another story” – without bothering to qualify or contextualize either. The nesting-doll structure in the sequence “some of the details of some of the images in some of the sequences of images” is at once telescopic and contingent: we are offered “some” of these details and images, but by no means all. Which is, of course, what a writer does in choosing what is relevant to a piece of fiction and omitting the rest.
Now 82 years old, Murnane has frequently been tipped as Australia’s leading contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature, a status that doesn’t explain his relative lack of recognition outside his home country. Writing in The New York Times Magazine in 2018, Mark Binelli identifies one possible stumbling block:
The trickiness of categorizing Murnane’s work goes some way toward explaining why he’s not a household name, even among households with lots of books. Is he an outsider artist or a postmodern master? Both? Neither? As much as Murnane reveres Proust, his own elaborate memory palaces remain a genre unto themselves. On a sentence level, Murnane adheres to a militant grammatical precision and engages in repetition that verges on the incantatory (and that privileges the noun over the pronoun). It’s a hypnotic style, dryly funny, or at least aware of the ways in which its fussiness might be amusing.
Murnane’s texts teach their reader to stifle routine narrative urges, to search harder and more exactingly along the paths of imagination. As David Musgrave notes, Murnane, though on the one hand richly creative, also asks of his readers a “renunciation of imagination,” even as Murnane is incontestably, in Musgrave’s words, “Australia’s most innovative writer of fiction.”
“Precious Bane” resides on the more accessible end of the scale where Murnane is concerned, though it does contain innovative aspects that recall the modernism of Borges and the postmodernism of Calvino. Without doubt, the first sentence appears, especially in the context of the pair of sentences above, perfectly straightforward: “I first thought of this story on a day of drizzling rain in a secondhand bookshop in Prahran.” The “I” in this sentence is concrete and identifiable, at least when compared to the “chief character” of the earlier examples, and we are presented with a recognizable situation: a writer alighting on the germ of a story during a rainy day in a secondhand bookstore. The figure in question bears superficial resemblance to the author – not least in the setting of Prahran, a suburb of Melbourne where Murnane has lived all his life – though the usual caveats about refraining from drawing a one-to-one correlation between a fictional character and his creator apply.
The narrator of the story is as desultory as the weather and feels an affinity with the proprietor of the secondhand bookstore, who “had a greyness that made me think of alcohol.” This is a subject the would-be writer is well familiar with, believing that he is himself “on the way … to becoming an alcoholic.” The narrator spends his weekends “sipping” away until Sunday afternoon, when he “finally stopped and tried to sober up and to begin the four pages of fiction [he] was supposed to finish each weekend.” Yet week after week, his books go unwritten as he spends his time drinking and staring forlornly at the bookshelves in his home library. At the bookstore, he carries with him a notebook labelled “1900–1940 … Unjustly Neglected”: “The forty years covered by the notebook were not only the first forty years of the century. Written ‘1940–1900,’ they were the first forty years from the year of my birth to a time that I thought of as the Age of Books.”
Here we have a typical Murnane manoeuvre, reversing the trajectory of time, running forward and backward from 1900 through 1940 and then forward again from the latter year, that of the writer’s birth. Later in the story, the writer will imagine a reader in the year 2020, a “man who had failed at what he most wanted to do,” who is also “the last person on the planet who still owned a copy of a certain book that had been composed on grey Sunday afternoons forty years before.” The “certain book” is of course the writer’s imagined work (he imagines the reader as someone “vaguely like” himself), and the reader will be able to recall “a certain something about the book.”
The repetition of grey here is significant. The colour is a leitmotif in the story, first appearing in reference to the alcoholic shop steward’s skin, then used to describe the dreary Sunday afternoons, the grey plastic bags in which the narrator keeps back issues of Geographic Magazine, “a grey afternoon in the year 2020,” and the grey of silicon chips that power the computers the narrator assumes will truly and finally put the Age of Books to death. (This is to say nothing of the implied greyness in graveyards and the brain’s grey matter, each of which has a place in the story.) The greyness of silicon chips is central: “I thought of silicon as grey, the grey of granite when it was wet from rain under a grey sky. And I thought of a circuit as a grid of gold tracks in the grey.”
The gold tracks here call to mind the narrator’s image of the human brain as a series of cells in a Carthusian monastery, where the monks spend their days illuminating manuscripts they think of “as an enormous pattern of rainbow pages of capital letters spiralling inwards and long laneways of words like the streets of other monasteries inviting him to dream about their cells of books and manuscripts.” The conception of the human brain as a Borgesian monastery with lanes and streets finds a correlation in the computer circuit that “would have a pattern hardly different from the paths of a monastery.” In the imagery of the circuit, grey and gold combine to create a version of what Binelli refers to as a Proustian memory palace: “I could see only thin trails of gold across the grey, but I suppose the gold came from close-set treeetops on either side of the long avenues of the circuit. The weather over the circuits would have been an endless calm autumn afternoon, the best weather for remembering.”
Remembering is key for the narrator, who imagines his future work as neglected as the books he includes in his notebook. (The story’s title refers to a mostly forgotten novel by Mary Webb that the author finds in the secondhand bookstore clad in “a faded yellow cloth cover.”) He imagines any book of his own bound with a gold spine that would “stand out among the greys and greens and dark-blues of all the almost-forgotten books.”
No writer should write for posterity. A writer deals with the world as it is; posterity will take care of itself. The melancholy narrator of “Precious Bane” comes to an eventual acceptance of human mortality and transience in the epiphany that finally allows him to begin writing at the end of the story. “I believed that my writing itself, my account of the monastery, would rest safely forever in some unimaginable room of books under gold foliage in a city of circuits. That monastery, I wrote, was only a monastery in a story, but the story was safe and so, therefore, was the monastery and everything in it.”