The current issue of The Paris Review features an excerpt from Gerald Murnane’s novel Border Districts. It opens with a remarkable sentence:
Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression.
What makes this sentence remarkable may not be immediately apparent. It touches on many of Murnane’s main preoccupations: seeing, the peculiar specificities of language, the outer reaches of a landscape. But the phrase “to guard my eyes” also reminded me of a peculiar moment I’d shared with the author when I interviewed him in 2012.
Murnane, now seventy-seven and the author of twelve books, is, in the eyes of some people in his home country of Australia as well as in certain other corners of the world, regarded as one of the most original and brilliant writers at work today. I met him at his home in Goroke, a very small town in the Wimmera region of Victoria, about five hours from Melbourne. He’d decided that the best place for us to talk would be his car. For a little over an hour, we drove through and around Goroke, me in the passenger seat and Gerald at the wheel. The interview went well—it appeared in Issue 2 of Higher Arc magazine, with an abridged version later in Music and Literature—but the moment I’m thinking of occurred after I’d switched off the recorder, as we were walking back toward Gerald’s house.
We stopped near a church off to the right, not far from the road, and soon it became clear that he could not turn to look at it—could not allow himself to see the church, at least not more than peripherally. The image of him resolutely keeping his eyes on the road is still strong in my memory. He said something about the church, or the image of a stained-glass window in the church, how it was featured in something he was writing, or had finished writing—I can’t remember exactly—and we kept walking.
I don’t think I asked Gerald what he meant, whether he had once looked at the church and so had in his memory a particular image, which he wanted to keep, and which, in the colors of his mind’s eye, was no doubt sharper, richer, than the actual stained-glass window of the real church he may have once seen. Or whether he had decided to write about an invented church, about which he had perhaps had a vivid dream, and had therefore decided not to look at this particular church in case it interfere with his imagination. His imagined church needed to remain more real than any actual church off the road to our right. Many writers are reluctant to discuss their present work; he’s the only one I’ve met who declines even to see something related to it.
I doubt that anyone who’s spent much time with Murnane’s work would be surprised by my story, or by the idea that he might write about “guarding his eyes.” Language for Murnane seems to be a visual preoccupation. When I interviewed him, he spoke about how “the ultimate discovery would be to see everything,” and about how when he composes a sentence, he tends “to write it in the air with my eyes. So that I can see it written in the air as I’m speaking it.” He added: “Everything that exists is there to be seen.”
Though he’s been published internationally, Murnane has never achieved anything resembling fame: none of his books has yet become a best seller, or won a big international prize. Still, his readers talk about his books in reverent tones, carrying his work along by word of mouth. The aura of that work has to do with the stories that circulate about Murnane himself, too: that he’s never been in an airplane; has never worn sunglasses; hasn’t watched a movie for decades; can recall by memory the names of thousands of racehorses, along with their individual colors; keeps meticulous files documenting every detail of his life; and so on. Some of these are true. I saw the filing cabinets when I visited him: they were even more extensive than I’d heard. In a recent essay on long sentences, Murnane seems to make reference to the fact he has given up watching films.
But other stories are less verifiable—symptomatic of the fact that Murnane’s work is so unlike anyone else’s that readers sometimes turn to his life to try to understand it. His fiction focuses intensely on the workings of memory and consciousness. As he explained it in our interview, “I see us poised, metaphorically speaking, with one foot in the invisible world, and one foot in the visible world. And writing expands my knowledge of the invisible.”
In 1995, apparently feeling neglected by publishers and too exhausted to go on, Murnane gave up writing altogether—a turn described at length in a fascinating recent profile by Shannon Burns. He was concerned that he might be revealing too much of his life. But in 2009, he published Barley Patch, his first new novel in fifteen years. Since then he’s published A History of Books (2012) and A Million Windows (2014), two more novels, as well as Something for the Pain (2015), a memoir of his lifelong obsession with horse racing. This second act, by all accounts, will be finished with Border Districts, which Murnane intends as his final work of fiction.
Murnane’s work has always been a world in which what we see never exists in isolation, so that its reality is only fully understood in relation to what the writing tells us we cannot see. Only through reading and writing, he suggests, do we ever inch our way toward something that might resemble understanding. “If you look at something long enough,” he told me, “it turns into something else. If you write about something for long enough, you’ll find that it is connected to something else.”
Will Heyward is a book editor in New York City. He has written for The White Review, Music and Literature, BOMB Magazine, Vice, Stonecutter, The Australian, and other publications.