Gerald Murnane’s Exquisite Failures

I hope to have some new posts up soon. In the meantime, here’s an essay I wrote about Australian author Gerald Murnane. It appeared in Music & Literature No. 3 many years ago, but never made it online. Thanks for reading!

Gerald Murnane’s Exquisite Failures

I saw nothing absurd in what I was doing—sitting at the heart of the scene I had dreamed of fifteen years before and yet dreaming further of another scene that would lead me at last into the real world. I had the pleasant suspicion that I was about to complete a neat pattern I had often admired as a subject of fiction. I might have been about to demonstrate that at the heart of every scene assumed to be real was at least one character imagining further scenes that would be closer still to reality. —Gerald Murnane

Gerald Murnane’s Landscape with Landscape comprises six interlinked narratives that echo one another, evoking a sort of chorus or book of possible lives about an anonymous, would-be writer.

The collection’s title is one we might expect to find on a gallery wall beside a symbolic realist painting. It might spur us to imagine a layered representation of a panoramic scene, complete in one sense yet with any given image partially concealing several others. Murnane’s choice to title this book as if it were a landscape painting is no gimmick: its six narrators are writers in the suburbs of Melbourne who are all obsessed with an abstract notion they call “landscape”—a metonym for a certain purpose in their lives, a far-off yet “peculiarly real” place inside each writer—and who have a common desire to hold such a place in their minds. Protecting the meaning of this private landscape and its purity as an idea secretly alive within them, in order to capture some or another part of it in their fiction, is the narrators’ shared tragicomic vocation.

With each successive story, the narrators’ collective vision of landscape grows more complex, gaining another enigmatic dimension. At the same time, the importance of each man’s story is partially negated as the projected power of the central metaphor overwhelms their individual narratives. Reading the stories tests our negative capability, sending our attention down parallel and criss-crossing avenues, and creates the sensation that throughout the book and beyond it lies at least one other unique layer. Together with the interstitial nature of the landscape metaphor, which obliges us to look beyond hints of autobiographical detail, we are asked to question the nature and value of narrative.

That Murnane can convey remarkable depth using unadorned language and only a few metafictional devices is one of the great joys of his singular approach to creating fiction. Many authors lend their texts a layered feeling, but none other than Murnane make ambiguity surge up from the page with such purpose.

Murnane repeatedly provokes our awareness of the evolving layers and depth of the collection by using metafiction to bind the six narrators’ lives together: near the end of each story the writers all mention the title of a story they have written, and that same story appears next in the collection. Yet none of these narrators is the author of the novel. They are, rather, creations of one another, each a sort of dream contrived by the pen of the writer of the preceding story. Murnane closes the loop when his last narrator, of “Landscape with Artist,” states that he has written, “Landscape with Freckled Woman,” the first story in the book.

Threaded between the links of this structure are various theories the narrators offer about memory and their existence, positing “history as a kind of landscape” and “time as a kind of space.” The autoreferential effect of these metafictional devices (fiction is their personal history, based on an evolving definition of landscape) brings on vertigo at times, as if Murnane has pointed a video camera at a TV and projected an infinite image of the narrative on the screen. This parallels the concept South African author Ivan Vladislavic employed in The Loss Library, his linked fiction and essay collection. Vladislavic writes, “I see the pieces folding out of one another like a leporello, or leading from one to another like stepping stones, or facing one another like bookends.” With Murnane, the figurative power of the metaphor seems to push the collection’s meaning out into the third dimension, much as the accordion-like pages expand out from a leporello-bound book.

Murnane achieves this effect through simple language that reflects the narrators’ desire for clarity. There is a lure in their tone, a promise in the prose that a single, logical mind guides their rationale as artists and husbands. The men in these stories struggle with a sense that they are meant to author a monumental saga about landscape, or at the very least to maintain belief in an idea greater than themselves. Yet they also offer intimate details about their lives in an open, confessional way that makes them strangely affable. They are shy yet proud. They crave sex but fear their appetite for it. Much of their dialogue with others is reported as internal narrative, often as conversations the men only imagine having with women and artists they wish to impress. Their vulnerability, along with the disciplined language, counterbalances the abstract weight of the landscape rhetoric to reinforce the novel’s verisimilitude. The men seem earnestly united in a struggle, the pain of which we enjoy from a distance, while we marvel at the romantic pleasure they gain from their landscape ideal. It is as if their ambition to give true expression to this abstract notion through fiction meets and parallels our desire to experience something real through the book. Ultimately, both are doomed to fail in an exquisite, nearly ecstatic manner.

As the writers describe their growth from adventurous boys into proud, contemplative family men, we see an evolution in their theories about where this hidden landscape might exist. In their youth, the writers had tried to abstain from the real world and remain lost in “pleasant confusion,” conceiving of landscape as an ethereal destination (“a place beyond the crudely imagined dreamlands of the average man,” “a distant homeland awaiting me,” “my sacred country,” “the far-reaching vistas and the intricate topography continually before my eyes”). However, as older writers they encounter the conflict between being a writer of landscape and convincing other people that their visions are worthwhile. Now landscape represents a space nearer their bodies (“a whole continent was spread out inside me,” “a vast and foreign land behind my face,” “a huge projection of some intricate pattern behind my eyes, and it would be my life’s work to explore those dark spaces”). Although the men know they must reach their readers, their most crucial flaw is their lack of self-confidence, which inhibits their maturity as artists and pushes them inward, toward narcissism bordering on megalomania.

Their singular focus is to write well enough to attract at least one woman who will be impressed by their theories, particularly those of landscape. Yet time and again, even after they pursue a young woman, marry, and have children, the destination of a cherished landscape proves elusive, estranging them from others and drawing them into depression. Says one of the narrators, “I seemed to be writing my way towards a woman I would never see because every page I filled with words only added to the distance between her and myself.”

Believing that a true artist must be a tortured loner, they suffer for their vanity. To no avail they pore over the books of Jack Kerouac, Thomas Hardy, A. E. Housman, Thomas Merton, Carl Jung, and others. They leave parties to vomit and masturbate behind bushes. Mildly empowered by their anguish, when they later understand that the limits of their creative talents prevent them from rendering their precious landscape accurately, their desires have changed as well; they have come to enjoy being observed as they fail to achieve their ideal. Their suffering at once pleases them and blinds them to its inherent danger.

In a scene from “A Quieter Place than Clun,” the narrator reminisces about a night of youthful artistic suffering. He drinks whisky, listens to a recording of Jean Sibelius, and then pages through the art section of Time, where he happens across a caption below a painting: “Ralph Borge, with meticulous realism, shows human folly, isolation, and decay.” Rather than change his habits to avoid despair, in blissful paranoia he drinks more and shuns his friends, taking pride in the belief that he is a noble exemplar of a transcendent sort of failure.

The narrators’ stubbornness is at times endearing, and at other times harrowing; the crazed narrator of “The Battle of Acosta Nu,” for instance, continues to deny the dangers of his obsession even after his neglect indirectly causes the death of his young son. The tragedy is a comment on human existence, where artistic suffering has sublimated into mad, nationalistic fervor. The narrator is so enamored of his otherness that he sees the death of his child as a necessary sacrifice to achieve full awareness of who he is and what “landscape” represents. As a type, in this world, the male artist at the head of a household is most dangerous when he pities himself. Having abandoned hope of connecting with his family, he revels in the image of the self grappling with chaos in order to justify intellectual hubris and moral insanity.

Indeed, through these narrators’ experiences, Murnane addresses the dangers of suffering needlessly and of not finding one other person who can relate to a dream. We see the narrators grow to be more aware that their humanity both sustains their sense of landscape and places it out of reach. This sense of impossibility frustrates their ability to accept the nature of the landscape ideal; for us, this gives it great power as a metaphor.  Beyond its cathartic aspect, yielding pleasure as we sympathize with the men’s fates (as an object lesson), the metaphor has quietly become an all-encompassing, self-reflexive comment about the limits of fiction and its devices. The sense that this unsettling motion is occurring wedges directly into the space of our reading experience because the stories focus on the hunger for a literal representation of place that lives in the minds of the narrators, who come to believe that landscape exists most purely and accurately as a concept in the mind of fictional characters. Their failure to discover a satisfying method to capture landscape in their fiction points to the limits of fiction, as well as, perhaps, the boundaries of reading as an imaginative act. These characters’ deepening search for steady belief in this otherworldly plane mirrors what we tacitly acknowledge as readers of fiction: finding truth in what we know to be false should be a fantasy beyond our reach.

But it is not. At least, it does not feel as such when we read. The desire for pleasure from fiction makes such vague intimations of truth feel more real than they should. This sensation gains a singular force within the landscape space Murnane creates inside us as we read, through the figurative power of the narrators’ collective desire to express the unknowable through fiction. Murnane mentions this space indirectly at the end of the first story:

At some time in my imagined future I would have wanted to see my landscape as a private place marked off from all others: a place that distinguished me as surely as a pattern of freckles could distinguish a woman.
There was such a place, although I did not recognise it for some years afterwards. By then it seemed less a landscape than the ending of the only fiction I could write. It was the space between myself and the nearest woman or man who seemed real to me.

This final sentence becomes the space between reader and text, which may also be the narrator’s sense of emptiness at the limits of himself as both creation and creator. For him, there may be nothing else. However, we feel upon reading these lines that our act of comprehension contradicts his sense of disappointment and failure. Coupled to this, the first-person narration, which leads us to wonder if the narrators’ despondency is Murnane’s (it is not, of course), heightens the tension of the stories’ plot and charges the text with mystery about the kind of person who could devote himself to such maddening, abstract thought. The fuse of this idea, once lit at the end of the first story, winds through the act of reading the rest of the book. As readers, our conception of the space that comprises these layers yields the sense that we, akin to one of the narrators’ fictional characters (a person unknown to him, living beyond the realm of his vision), have become a central element in the success and life of the fiction. We may search for the real and expect a degree of verisimilitude when reading novels. Murnane satisfies this innate desire before subverting our expectations with deliberate purpose. The six narrators’ failures elicit our sympathy, but the metafictional device linking each story reminds us that the characters are not only fictional, but fictions derived from fiction, copies of a character obsessed with fiction and seeking obsessive readers.

If writers and readers connect through literature, Murnane seems keen to test the limits of this connection and show how vague and imperfect are the creations we admire in fiction. We are, however, permitted the satisfaction that eludes his narrators: we can escape the prison of the abstract anytime we like and return to the real world, where we are left to question why we seek what is not truly alive on any page or canvas.

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Many thanks to Taylor Davis-Van Atta at Music & Literature for the editorial support at the time this piece was prepared for publication in the magazine.

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