ANTONI JACH: Welcome to the Melbourne Writers' Festival. We respectfully acknowledge we're meeting on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri people, belonging to the Kulin Nation and we pay respect to their elders, and all of the elders in Victoria. Now, it gives me very great pleasure to introduce a friend of mine, Gerald Murnane, to you. Some of you might know Gerald-some of you might have been taught by Gerald. Anyone taught by Gerald? Yes, thank you. I had Gerald speak to my students at RMIT in 1987 and, Gerald may or may not remember this, but he gave a wonderful lecture on his published books and he picked up one after another, and he went through the books, told us a bit about the plot and told us much more about the themes, and that was fabulous. Gerald's latest book is Barley Patch, Giramondo the [Australian] publisher-my publishers as well-the amazing Ivor Indyk is the publisher-Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs was the previous one, wasn't it?
GERALD MURNANE: Yes, and there was also a first-a reissue of Tamarisk Row, which is not a new book, but Giramondo published that recently, about two years ago.
AJ: And Text has republished The Plains, right?
GM: The Plains is in print with Text, yes.1 And while we're on that subject, there's a French edition. We've been trying to interest the French through agents and publishers working-I think every publisher in France by now, during the last twenty years, would have seen at some time, and rejected The Plains, but just recently thanks to the exertions of Michael Heywood and Penny Hueston at Text, a French Plains is coming out2 and I only heard from Michael five minutes ago that it's coming out next February.
AJ: It's great work, Michael, wherever you are. Thank you very much, that's terrific. As a way of introducing-this might sound a little bit like bragging, but there is a reason. [Holds up book to show to Murname and the audience.] After the Celebration: Australian Fiction 1989 to 20073-have you seen this, Gerald?
GM: No, I know about it, yeah. I keep away from books like that.
AJ: Well, I'm going to bring some of that up today, so well see what your reaction is. You'll get your chance to talk back. Urn, [reading] "Gerald Murnane might be contrasted with another Australian Postmodern novelist, Antoni Jach"-that's myself, I'm Antoni Jach, hi-so there's a bit of serendipity in terms of the two of us being here together. And Gerald's fiction was certainly influential on my fiction, back in the '80s, and The Plains in particular was very important to me, because it showed me that there was an Australian writer who was actually writing in a modernist style. And, I was someone who loved Marcel Proust and still love Marcel Proust, and I could see something Proustian in Gerald's work that I really admired. Gerald, could you tell us a bit about Proust?
GM: Well, I'll tell you first that I don't like talking about-using in my speech or talks-words such as postmodern because-and you might laugh at this and think I'm striking a pose-but I do not quite understand what the expression "postmodern" means, and I don't see it as any of my business to understand it, and I welcome people using it about me and I feel that it must be something that I should be proud of, and so I am a little bit proud but without fully understanding it.
My way of writing is not to sit down and try to fulfil somebody's expectations-to say, "Now I've written a realistic novel, it's about time I tried a postmodern novel." My way of writing starts with just a small image or collection of images, and it expands in all directions from that. And of course I've been influenced-unconsciously perhaps-by Marcel Proust. And strange to say, one of the things that first got me going and into my stride with Tamarisk Row which took eight years to finish from the time I started it-was a book which I don't think that I'd be at all impressed by now if I read it again, called 7he Tin Drum by Giinter Grass. It came out in 1962, when I was trying to be a poet and drafting a few scribbled versions of what became Tamarisk Row years later. And something about the crazy passages in the 7he Tin Drum liberated me from being just another Australian writer who wrote about characters and plots and all. It was a feeling that if they can do it in Europe, 1 can do it here. Anyone can do it. And that's-I've gone off the subject a bit but it won't be the last time I'll do that today.
And Proust, I don't just worship or respect him as a writer, but as a thinker. My kind of thinker. He thought in images. He didn't think in philosophical terms. And I can't think-I almost failed Philosophy 1 at Melbourne University. I only passed it by pretending I was a philosopher. When I was doing the exam, I thought-if I understood what philosophy was about, how would I answer this question? So I got through. So that's not my way of thinking. But the imagery in Proust says it all. I've managed to read Proust twice. I don't know if I've got time to read him a third time yet.
AJ: Yeah, and it's the intense interiority, the absence of action-1 presume these are two of the qualities that-
GM: There's a passage in Barley Patch-I was looking at it on the train coming in this morning. A passage in which the narrator of Barley Patch directly refers to Marcel Proust's work-and to a passage in the first part of the work, in which place names are listed-place names along the coast of Normandy. And for each name, the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past describes visual imagery. And the visual imagery arises from the vowels in the names. The final e acute vowel in one particular name-I wish I could quote them from memory-to him had a colour, or a texture, or an architectural feature associated ... So, Proust was of such a sensitive or alert frame of mind, that he could read a name on a map, and see a coloured landscape or a coloured building, or just pure colour. And I envy him that kind of skill. And I perhaps have it to a small extent.
AJ: Following up from that, what do names like Glass Land and New Arcadia do for you?
GM: Well, Glass Land takes me to the-it's in Barley Patch of course, but a better question would be, What was 1 thinking about?
AJ: Gerald, what were you thinking about?
GM: What was I thinking about when I used those words in Barley Patch? Ah, now this is something that you'd be interested to hear-most of you, anyway. Some of my books have grown out of other books. I didn't intend, for quite a while, to write. And I want to have a rest from writing this year and next year. But I've started working on a book which I think has actually grown out of my interest in stained glass or coloured glass. I don't work with stained glass-I just look at it and think about it. And the Glass Land in there wasn't just a reference to the Glass Land that the Brontës described in their . . . Not their published works but that strange-they had a secret sort of land or series of lands called Gondal. One of them was called Gondal. And they had all these little handwritten accounts of the goings on in this mysterious imaginary country. The girls did it and so did that poor-what was his name?-Branwell, the drunken brother. So the Brontës had this fantasy world, and one of the big cities in it was called Glass Land.
So my Glass Land-I've always been inspired by the Brontës and their shameless, shameless dedication to nonexistent things; to the reality of imagi- nary places. And Barley Patch, whether you've read it or not or understood it or not, Barley Patch is full of references to things existing on the other side of works of art. And imaginary places. And Gondal lies on the other side of Wuthering Heights, which is one of my favourite books. So, Glass Lands, there's all these multiple references. But it also-I love the sound of the word "glass" itself. And it's lead me-my love of that sound and what it connotes-has lead me to start the book that I'm writing now. What was the other reference?
AJ: New Arcadia, but just while we're on Glass Land, it connects to grassland which is one of your big themes, isn't it.
GM: You get that-it's just the fortuitousness of the English language that provides that, but if you're a writer like me you fasten onto connections like that.
AJ: So what does New Arcadia do for you?
GM: New Arcadia, ah, is, ah, you'll have to wait till twenty years after I'm dead to find out. I have, um, I was hoping I'd get the excuse to mention this: I have, in my little work room, I think... I counted them before I left too... it's thirtytwo or forty... one or the other. I think there are forty filing cabinet drawers, but only thirty-two of them are full at present. So I've still got eight drawers left to fill. And what are they filled with? Well for those, probably most of you don't know, I started keeping all my letters, all my autobiographical writings and they are very-I've written far far more autobiographical writing-well, as much autobiographical writing as-it could fill three or four books. All unpublished, never to be published, and to go to some library. My executors of my estate will decide where after I'm dead. And twenty years later, after certain other people have died, hopefully the stuff in my filing cabinets will be available for reading and then the mystery of what New Arcadia is will be revealed. But if you read Barley Patch with alertness you'll probably get a very strong hint. And also if you go back to the book Emerald Blue, one of my-a book I always feel a bit sorry for, that it didn't get the, ah-came out at a time when I wasn't the flavour of the month, I hadn't written anything for five or six-I hadn't had anything published for five or six years-and there's a story in Emerald Blue, or a piece of fiction, called "The Interior of Gaaldine," and uh, if you read that and then read Barley Patch carefully you get an idea of what New Arcadia refers to.
AJ: Yeah, and O, Dem Golden Slippers?
GM: O, Dem Golden Slippers was the title of the big book that I didn't ever finish. In fact, in the filing cabinet drawers that-the archives, as I call them, are three. There's the personal archive-or the chronological archive-which fills about twenty filing cabinet drawers. Unfortunately I haven't got anything from my childhood. We moved-I lived at about thirteen different addresses in the first thirteen years, and we just couldn't keep stuff. Dad would say, "We're moving again," and we used to tell this old joke: the chooks, on hearing those words, used to lie on their backs and put their feet up so we could tie their legs together. And Dad would-we used old boxes called tea chests. They apparently were used for-tea merchants used to buy the tea from China and Ceylon, in these big tea chests with zinc lining, and Dad had a collection of them. They were our packing cases, and always one was for our toys. And we had a few toys and treasures as we called them and-I wrote little plays and stories at the age of eight or nine, but none of them survived. But back to the archives. My first writings in the archives date from 1956, just as I was leaving school. I wanted to be a-well, a part-time poet. I didn't ever think that it was possible to live from poetry. But I was going to be a part time poet, and I wrote down fifty topics that interested me. These would be the things I'd write poetry about for the rest of my life. And that's my first bit of writing that relates to anything published. And my writing from there on, as I say, fills all these filing cabinet drawers. What was the question again?
AJ: I think it was New Arcadia, wasn't it?
GM: No no, we've passed on from New Arcadia.
FROM AUDIENCE: O, Dem Golden Slippers
GM & AJ: O, Dem Golden Slippers
GM: Be alert, Antoni.
AJ: I've got my next question in my head, so ...
GM: O, Dem Golden Slippers is in-uh, what remains of it, is in the unfinished ... I'm talking now about another of my archives: the Literary Archive, which has twelve drawers. There's Tamarisk Row, A Lifetime on Clouds, eleven-uh, up to the one I'm writing now, is number eleven. And there's another drawer, full of unfinished and uncompleted things. And O, Dem Golden Slippers was a novel I started-or a long work of fiction I started in about '88 or '89, when Inland had been published, and I just couldn't finish it. It went out like a, an estuary or a-it branched out in all directions. Parts of it were published in that wonderful magazine Scripsi that disappeared some years back. And, uh, I gave up-and in fact, after giving up on O, Dem Golden Slippers, I gave up on writing. I never-I've never been-I've never felt it my duty or obligation or in my best interest to just keep writing. If I don't want to write, I stop writing. If I've got nothing to write about I stop. And, uh, so I stopped for several years after O, Dem Golden Slippers. But again, for those who know Barley Patch, that book, in a way, grew out of O, Dem Golden Slippers and I thought, well, if I was answering a question like that-why did I stop writing O, Dem Golden Slippers? What should I have done to make it a better book, whatever- there's a whole lot of references to my unfinished book in there. So I'm a messy sort of writer who gets it right in the end, almost by the wrong route or an accidental way round.
AJ: "Circling and circling," Gelder and Salzman say in their book. You're a writer who circles and circles.
GM: Well that's okay, yeah.
AJ: This writer, Jean-François Vernay. [Holding up book.] A book published in France last year, it's The Panorama of the Australian Novel-1831 to 20093
GM: He's a very tall man-did you ever meet him?
AJ: Yes I did. It's coming out in a couple of weeks, in translation. And JeanFrançois was very disturbed for you to be publishing fiction when he's written in this book that you will not write any more fiction. So he was most disturbed. He says he'll fix it in the next edition, but he was really, sort of, quite overwrought.
GM: In other words, with all due respect to the gentleman, he thinks it's a writer's duty to write-the reason we're writing is so he can write clever books about us.
AJ: Yep, absolutely.
GM: So we'd better do the right thing by him.
AJ: Now, on page 179 of Barley Patch you say, "What remains to be reported about my having decided to write no more fiction." Now, what would you like to say about that?
GM: Page 1 ... ?
AJ: Page 179. "What remains to be reported."
GM: Well, that's-
AJ: In italics.
GM: No, that's, that's . .. You've got me a bit confused. That's, if you read it in context, is simply saying what's left to put into this book.
GM: Um. Well, it leads me to say that even when I was writing Barley Patch I thought this would probably be the last thing I write. Because I couldn't think of anything else that I wanted to write about. And I only write, as 1 said before, when I feel impelled, or driven, or-uh, not driven for the sake of my readers, but driven for my own sake, my own natural curiosity. What might come of this if I start writing about it? So, well, I can't directly answer your question because it only relates to the-you'd have to read the rest of the book to answer it.
But, the, urn, of course there was a significant personal event that took place in February 2009, which was the death of my wife after a long illness with cancer. And I'd started just before she, we found she had cancer and I'd started a novella, about thirty thousand words, called A History of Books. It's fiction, but that's its title. And when I finished that, six months after she'd died, things had calmed down, I sat down and finished and thought that's it, again, nothing more to write about. But I've since started another one, a shorter piece. So you just don't know. I think, perhaps, in the next book, I'll delete any references to stopping writing ... Put at the end, To Be Continued.
Transcribed by Hayley Jach, and with thanks to Steve Grimwade, Director of the Melbourne Writers Festival