Delicious descriptions: Gerald Murnane’s landscape and imagination
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.
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.