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The Camera Obscura of Gerald Murnane

By Dan Shurley.

Gerald Murnane, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs (And Other Stories, 2020)

Marcel Duchamp famously announced he was quitting art to devote himself to playing chess, and then spent the last 20 years of his life working in secret to create Étant donnés, a diorama-like installation featuring a sculpture of a corpse-like nude woman lying supine, legs splayed open, on a ragged bed of sticks and leaves, with distant trees and a glittering waterfall in the background. The faintly illuminated enclosure, which can only be viewed through peepholes, was installed in Philadelphia in 1969, a year after Duchamp’s death, in accordance with his last wishes. I saw Étant donnés on a school field trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art sometime between the years 1996 and 1998, when I was still young enough that any depiction of a naked woman in an institutional setting would have been memorable. But now, looking at images of the piece on the museum’s website, I’m unable to recall what I felt on that day some twenty years ago when I stood before the ancient wooden door and peered through the peepholes—one for the left eye, one for the right eye—into the dimly lit landscape. My memories are seldom stirred by images. The full title of Duchamp’s final work is Étant donnés: 1° la chute d’eau, 2° le gaz d’éclairage… and translates into English as: Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas… For all his visual and plastic acuity, Duchamp was fundamentally a system-builder.

The Australian horse-racing enthusiast and writer Gerald Murnane has been threatening to quit writing fiction for as many years as Duchamp worked in secret on Étant donnés. In “Secret Writing,” an essay from the collection Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, originally published in 2005 in Australia and now re-issued by UK-based And Other Stories, the writer pines for the time long past when he wrote in secret, a condition he had hoped would persist even after he published his first novel, Tamarisk Row, in 1974. In “The Breathing Author” he presents an inventory of his limitations and eccentricities (“I have never worn sunglasses”), as he grapples with questions of purpose and belief, concluding that his time might be better spent elaborating and analyzing his fantasy world of racehorses. The pieces in this collection are peppered with Murnane’s sly, self-deprecating wit, but he is dead serious when he states: “Someone has written that all art aspires to the condition of music. My experience is that all art, including all music, aspires to the condition of horse-racing.”

“On the Road to Bendigo: Kerouac’s Australian Life” offers an early example of the system-building instincts and obsessive habits of mind that have come to define Murnane’s writing. As a child he made racehorses of his marbles, a solitary game that the young Jack Kerouac also happened to invent for himself, but the boys’ playing styles couldn’t contrast more. Where the young Murnane allowed his races to unfold slowly and systematically, as a passive spectator, Kerouac placed himself at the center of the action, his races “hectic and brief.” Eventually Murnane graduated to notating his imaginary races on paper in exhaustive detail, much like the character in “The Interior of Gaaldine” who invents a racecourse called New Arcadia. That story, not included in the present collection but alluded to at the end of “The Breathing Author,” is billed as a “true account of certain events recalled on the evening when I decided to write no more fiction.” (The American publisher FSG included it in Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane, published in 2018.)

Murnane admits he hasn’t changed much in the last fifty years. He still busies himself with solitary pursuits involving pen and paper, cataloging the “contents of [his] mind,” issuing reports on said contents in the form of fictions or essays, and filing away those writings he deems so esoteric as to brand him as a mystic, or so candid as to be damaging to his relationships, to be published long after his death. And despite the occasional pronouncement that he’s finished with fiction, or that he “should have left it to discerning editors to publish all my pieces of writing as essays,” Murnane has published four more novels since these essays first appeared.

Murnane is able to continue writing and publishing fiction because the writing itself continually negotiates its terms in increasingly complex layers of digressive self-exploration. The inspiration for this kind of essayistic writing is not Montaigne, who declared “I myself am the subject of my book”—though the rhyming of Murnane with Montaigne would likely be of interest to the writer for whom names carry kabbalistic significance—but Proust, with echoes of postmodernists Calvino and Borges, and metaphysical support from Alfred Jarry. (Cervantes’ Don Quixote, however, “is to be dropped into a well.”) Murnane’s marking of the passage of time by his reading and rereading of Proust is the ostensible subject of  the titular essay “Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs”, in which the writer recalls choking down an oily tin of sardines in a cheap one-room apartment while reading Swann’s Way for the first time. This humble way of situating the text immunizes it from much of the pretentiousness that Anglophone readers might associate with Proust. (As I was reading this essay, I remembered having read a sizeable chunk of Proust’s Within a Budding Grove in a free health clinic awaiting treatment for scabies.) In Murnane’s reading Swann is a “drawler,” a member of the golf club where the writer had worked as a caddy and assistant barman. In the provincial Victoria of Murnane’s early adulthood, some of the members of this club affected English airs and spoke in world-weary drawls. The drawler Murnane sees when he thinks of Swann, however, is redeemed by his being the owner of a racehorse. Murnane’s madeleine moment is triggered by the sound of a fly buzzing his ear (he lacks a sense of smell), summoning childhood memories of tiger-lilies and the joyful anticipation of an outing to, you guessed it, a racecourse. The lingering influence of his working class father’s contempt for the upper classes gives the piece an injection of humorous invective:

Sometimes while I read the early pages of Swann’s Way in 1961…I took a strong dislike to the pampered boy who had been the narrator as a child. I saw myself dragging him out of the arms of his mother and away from his aunts and his grandmother and then thrusting him into the backyard of the tumbledown farmworkers’ cottage where my family lived after we had left Bendigo, putting an axe into his hand, pointing out to him one of the heaps of timber that I had split into kindling wood for the kitchen stove, and then hearing the namby-pamby bleating for his mama.

Murnane had a fraught relationship with his father. Improbably, in the world of this essay the writing of Proust acts as an intermediary or conduit between son and deceased father. We learn that his father died just before Murnane began reading À la recherche du temps perdu, the tome that would serve as a source of constant inspiration for the next sixty years; which event was more significant to Murnane is not clear. In the piece’s stirring coda, the name of a racehorse pronounced aloud catalyzes a chain reaction of images: his father carving his name in a cliffside; the sea overtaking that gesture at permanence; his father’s simple dream of owning a cattle ranch; the writer’s beatific vision of Marcel’s Combray—all converge on the same place in the writer’s inner landscape, which is the setting of all of his work. Reading between the lines, we see a son who kept his deepest feelings hidden from his father, demonstrating his love for the man in the only language he knows.

Murnane’s most compelling writing orbits around what he fails to express in life, what he cannot bring himself to say, what he has repressed. Even the faintest whiff (or glimpse, as it were) of sexuality carries a vestigial sense of shame and sinfulness for the writer. While some of his tenderest work concerns the men in his life (see also “Stream System”), some of his most unsettling work is rooted in his fear of ridicule by women, and his deeply ingrained aversion to direct expressions of sexuality, a hangover from his pious Catholic upbringing. Without this buried disquiet, Murnane’s serene ekphrasis of the contents of his mind might be insufferably  tedious. In the quintessential Murnane story the narrator’s game of presenting blurred, half-remembered images that hint at a deeper subtext before gradually bringing them into focus, culminates in the narrator discovering something about himself that could only have been revealed by those images, further clarifying and strengthening the connections between the images in his image system. When it works, as it does the title piece and a few others, the result can be transcendent, the reader’s patience and sustained focus is rewarded.

Too much navel-gazing obscures the two essays that involve one of Murnane’s most enduring and generative obsessions. One cold night on the Hungarian puszta (grasslands), a young serf woman went out barefoot. She was raped by a man in the employ of the local landlord and drowned herself in a well. Murnane encountered this tragedy on the page, through Gyula Illyés’ memoir Birds of the Puszta. Both “Pure Ice” and “Birds of the Puszta” rely too much on the writer’s self-referential shorthand. Readers who have not read Inland, a work of fiction that includes passages from Illyés’ account of his discovering the woman’s body, may not find the condensed version very compelling. Withholding significant details from images or refraining from naming something until the naming is sure to resonate on many levels is essential to Murnane’s art. In “Pure Ice” he can only bring himself to allude to the rape. Rather than holding up a light to the events of that cold winter night on the puszta, as he does so poignantly in Inland, he reifies the stigmatization and silence inflicted by the squeamish on the victims of rape. As a result of this reticence, this brief essay derived from a talk is poorer in images than the others. What is at stake for the writer also remains obscure. Why is he so compelled by a tragedy he only read about? These sentences from “Birds of the Puszta,” the longer essay, demonstrate the perils of Murnane’s self-absorption:

Two details from People of the Puszta stayed with me afterwards until I was driven to turn them into a book of fiction. The two were an account of the drowning of a young woman in a well and the author’s penetrating as a man the libraries and drawing rooms of the same manor houses that had seemed awesome fastnesses when he had been the son of oppressed farm labourers.

Juxtaposed with the tragic fate of the woman who drowned herself in a well after a man raped her, the word “penetrating” is jarring and tone-deaf. To his credit, Murnane’s recognition of the limitations imposed by his Victorian inhibitions, coupled with his impossible yearning for communion with the young woman who drowned in a well years before the writer’s birth, are revelations that the narrator of Inland would seem to arrive at for himself, albeit indirectly. Returning to the present collection, “The Angel’s Son: Why I Learned Hungarian Late in Life” proves a more robust exploration of the spiritual and psychogeographical underpinnings of the writer’s connection to Hungary, and ends on a note of sweet mutual appreciation between the eccentric Australian writer and his neighbor and Hungarian tutor, an ordinary man named Joe Kulcsar.

Much of Murnane’s recent writing is essentially epistolary or exegetic in nature: letters to “beings from another world” or letters to us flesh-and-blood readers explaining his belief in that invisible world and what he sees there. The two are not mutually exclusive; the invisible world is the writer’s mind, and that private country is comprised of images. By asking us to believe in the reality of his narrators, Murnane’s professed goal, we are really being asked to believe in the abiding power of his images. Despite its occasional navel-gazing, Lilacs provides many such worthy images, as well as a suitable introduction to Murnane’s singular method of rendering the invisible visible, both to himself and to his readers.

While reading this essay collection and preparing to write this review, my awareness of the way the images in my own mind are associated became heightened. References to the young Hungarian woman who drowned in a well brought to mind the corpse-like woman lying supine in a field of ragged sticks and leaves from Marcel Duchamp’s final work of art. Discerning readers, however, will have surmised that I left out one detail of Étant donnés. I noted the distant trees and the glittering waterfall in the background of the faintly-lit enclosure, but failed to mention how the room is illuminated. The corpse-like woman is not lying completely supine. Her left arm is raised and she is holding up a gas lamp. The dark enclosure with the two small holes bored into the ancient wooden door is a camera obscura. The image it must surely project has yet to be made visible.


Dan Shurley‘s criticism has appeared or is forthcoming in Bomb, Asymptote, Collagist, and elsewhere around the web. He is the author of the chapbook Collective Regeneration and Universal Love (Nomadic Press). He currently lives in Gainesville, Florida.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, March 4th, 2020.