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Delicious descriptions: Gerald Murnane’s landscape and imagination

February 19, 2016

A couple of years ago I reviewed Gerald Murnane’s The plains. I found it a mesmerising book, but a challenging one to fully get my head around, to grasp and hang onto what I’d grasped. Then a couple of days ago, I reviewed his memoir, Something for the pain: A memoir of the turf. It was quite a revelation – and among those revelations were some ideas that seemed to flesh out The plains, though he doesn’t specifically address those ideas to the novel in his memoir.

The main revelation relates to his feelings about landscape. Murnane hates the sea and doesn’t much like mountains either. What he loves are plains. In chapter 6 he refers to his “lifelong dislike of travel”, initially developed when he was still a boy. He also, as a boy

settled on what would be my ideal landscapes for the rest of my life: the green and mostly level countryside of south-western Victoria.

Mount Grapples

Mount Arapiles, Western Victoria (released on Wikipedia to Public Domain, without conditions)

Plains, in other words. In chapter 15, he talks about a horse owner P.S. Grimwade. (An aside. In this, as elsewhere in the book, he focuses on what he “imagines” Grimwade to be like, stating that he suspects he wanted “to keep in mind the ideal man rather than have in sight the actual man”! “Perhaps”, he writes, “I wanted to think of him as someone for whom racing was better imagined than experienced – someone such as myself”.) Anyhow, he goes on:

I would have envisaged P.S. Grimwade as owning an extensive property in what I consider the centre of the universe, in the quadrilateral bounded by Ballarat, Ararat, Hamilton, and Camperdown in the Western District of Victoria, which is a landscape of plains and low hills and vast skies. I’ve never felt comfortable when surrounded by steep hills, and I’ve always tried to keep away from mountains.

In fact, Grimwade, he discovered, lived in a different part of Victoria, one he’d never visited – but, it’s telling I think that he places this horse owner, who fascinates him, in a place comfortable to him. He writes that he’s entitled to his imagination about Grimwade:

In the unlikely event that this book should be read by some or another descendant of a man named P.S. Grimwade, and that the descendant should wish to tell me that my account of the man is untrue, inaccurate, preposterous, whatever, I urge that descendant not to waste energy, time, or ink on the matter. Nothing will keep me from revering my saint as he was revealed to me.

Are you getting the picture of this memoir? It’s the imagination that’s important …

Then we get to chapter 22, “Sir Flash and the Borderers”, the chapter that gave me a big ah-so moment. Early in the chapter, he writes again of his ideal landscape:

… the ocean itself repelled me, and I’ve kept well away from it all of my adult life. During my brief holidays on my grandfather’s farm in the 1940s, I was more interested in another sort of ocean. Whenever I stood on a tall cliff above some or other bay, I got inspiration not from the blue-green Southern Ocean reaching away towards the South Pole but from the yellow-brown ocean of land reading towards places I had seen only from a distance, if at all: the plains of the Western District to the north and the north-east of Warrnambool or, away to the north-west, a mostly level landscape …

This discussion introduces a story about a group of horse-owners and horse races in what he calls the Border District. It’s here that I was reminded of The plains, because of the way he imbues the Border Country – and the Borderers who live there – with a sense of “otherness”. These people and their horses came from a real part of Australia, obviously, but it’s a part that was unknown to him when he came across them, so he unfolded a map and “set not only my eyes but my imagination also roaming”. He gives it and its people the aforementioned names, and he awards the people – imagines, in other words – certain characteristics, including “the usual amount of shrewdness and sagacity attributed to people living far from the capital cities”. I won’t tell you all that he ascribes to them – it makes for wonderful reading – but here’s the final bit that brought The plains to my mind:

I would not have my Borderers thought of as wholly devoted to gain, however. They numbered among them many a man who wore his hair bunched above his ears and on his neck and who stood out on a racetrack on account of his elegant dress and proud bearing. Such a man owned a vast cattle or sheep property and lived in a mansion with a veranda on three sides and groves of deciduous trees all around. His mansion included a library and a study. The walls of the study were covered with photographs of the finishes of races won by his own horses. The walls of the library were covered, of course, with books …

This imagination, this creation of a place that seems both in and separate from the Australia we know, a place populated with people who have dreams and an artistic sensibility, is very reminiscent to me of The plains. Rightly or wrongly – but I hope the former – I now feel I understand Murnane a little more, his aspirations, how his imagination works and the absolutely fundamental role it plays in his life.

Many years later, Murnane moved to live in this very landscape – in Goroke where I believe he lives now – and discovered the people aren’t quite as he imagined. But that’s another story.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2016 8:55 pm

    I’ve been reading a lot of reviews of this memoir but I don’t really feel tempted to read it. And as for his ideal rectangle of green plains, the Western District is nor for me, too wet and too many English trees. Interestingly, Goroke is a bit north of the Western District and drier, sheep/wheat country.

    • February 19, 2016 10:05 pm

      Have you read Murnane Bill? I think if you’ve read him, this is well worth reading, but if you haven’t then I’d say read his books first. I don’t know that area well – have been through some of it a couple of times, but it’s a region I’d like to know a little better. I think by the time he’s talking about living in the region, he’s referring more broadly to the border area rather than the Western district particularly.

      It’s an intriguing landscape to love, and particularly to fall in some with as a boy. He must love the openness.

      • February 19, 2016 10:37 pm

        I know, I should read him. I think I have Tamarisk Row on my shelves so I might start there. I disliked living in the Western District as a boy and would never describe it as ‘open’. From your point of view, similar country to Bowral, say.

        • February 19, 2016 11:20 pm

          That’s probably a good place to start – I plan to read it too one day.

          Bowral? His description doesn’t sound much like Bowral to me? Bowral is too close to mountains? It’s called the southern highlands which seems quite different to what I think he’s describing. I need to get out there again. Hubby has a cousin in the Warrnambool area whom we haven’t visited since about 1979! (Though we have seen HER since then – just now in situ)

  2. February 20, 2016 2:10 am

    Is this the author who writes about horse racing?

    • February 20, 2016 6:48 am

      Hmm, Guy, yes, he’s the author who loves horse racing, and whose first novel in particular dealt with horse racing …

      • February 20, 2016 10:04 am

        I thought so.. don’t really approve of horse racing.

        • February 20, 2016 11:06 am

          Not a fan either Guy – but I’m always interested in other people’s obsessions.

  3. February 20, 2016 5:54 am

    What attracts him to the plains so much? And how can one hate mountains? Having grown up in a valley surrounded by hills and mountains I sometimes miss them very much living as I do now in a plains state. I have come to love the plains but sometimes I miss the way the mountains break up the sky and create reference points for distance as well as something for clouds to stick to. It is no surprise the people aren’t quite as he imagined. He seems to have a rather romantic sensibility that idealizes just a bit 🙂

    • February 20, 2016 6:57 am

      That’s a good description I think, Stefanie, a romantic sensibility.

      I’m not sure that he clarifies why he likes the plains so much. I’m like you re mountains. But I’m wondering whether mountains make him feel hemmed, bounded, while plains feel unfettered? This book is not one of those self-analysis books in which a writer delves into why s/he is who s/he is, but more about how he experiences the world which is very much through his imagination.

  4. February 20, 2016 7:17 am

    These are the kind of books I intend to read, for I was born and brought up in a busy city, and barely had access to all things green, and nature in particular. I can’t complain about the ocean though. Perhaps, that’s the only share I get. So, I am always in awe of people, who were born and brought up in picturesque places.

    Thank you for writing about this. I will add this to my list. 🙂

    • February 20, 2016 7:45 am

      That’s interesting Deepika … I have lived in cities, but wasn’t born in one. I live in one now and have for a long time, but it’s known as “the bush capital” – and I live across the road from a ridge with trees and walking paths.

      My daughter has moved to Melbourne and lives in an inner suburb where there’s little green. She has realised how much she needs some green. On the other hand, we once had a visitor from Hong Kong. We took her to a nature park with wide open spaces and it made her feel fearful. She was more comfortable being surrounded by buildings and people. I have never forgotten that reaction!

  5. February 21, 2016 10:23 am

    I echo Guy’s sentiments on this one. In recent years, I’ve learnt enough about horse racing in the Western District, in particular jumps racing, to he thoroughly opposed to it. And although I believe Murnane is a genuine eccentric, I wonder if there isn’t a certain pig-headedness to his antipathies (to the sea, to mountains) as well?

    • February 21, 2016 4:02 pm

      Is jumps racing still allowed there Dorothy? I thought it had been pretty much banned in Australia – but I must say I haven’t researched it. As for general horse racing, which I dot follow, there was a fascinating discussion of whipping and its lack of efficacy in an exhibition about horses at the NMA a year or so ago.

      As for Murnane, I couldn’t answer that! All I can say is that he’s a mysterious and hard to grasp character – a bit like his books. I mean, even his love of horse racing is, in one sense, a little hard to grasp, from what he says about it. It seems more imaginative and intellectual than “real”, if that makes sense. I see he’s going to be at Writers Week and this year’s Adelaide Festival. Would love to hear him there.

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