It could be claimed (and I am about to) that Gerald Murnane’s 1982 novel The Plains has the most compelling opening in Australian fiction:
Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open. I looked for anything in the landscape that seemed to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.
My journey to the plains was much less arduous than I afterwards described it. And I cannot even say that at a certain hour I knew I had left Australia. But I recall clearly a succession of days when the flat land around me seemed more and more a place that only I could interpret.
Readers familiar with Murnane will immediately recognise and respond to the familiar cadence of those immaculately crafted sentences. Some might also find in them a resonance with the elegiac and lyrical tone of the oft-quoted opening to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, with its yearning evocation of the narrator’s “younger and more vulnerable years”.
Comparisons between the two novels do not end there – both are effectively no more than novellas, with The Plains weighing in at a mere 126 pages in its original edition; and both take us into the mansions of a fabled and gilded aristocracy. In the case of Gatsby, this is offshore into the nouveau riche enclaves of jazz era Long Island; in The Plains the movement is in the other direction: inland, into the sitting-rooms, libraries and corridors of the great houses of the established old-money pastoral families who dominate the plains.
Murnane’s readers will also recognise in those few spare opening words a microcosm of the emotional resonance that the writer has brought to Australian fiction for four decades – a solipsistic and neo-romantic yearning for a moment of revelation, of epiphany, whereby everything will be explained.
As Murnane wrote in another novel, “One of the first things I discovered about the world was that I seemed shut out of the best part of it”, and his fiction has been a relentless quest to reveal that “best part”.
This quest is frequently represented by Murnane as the illusion created by flat landscapes, by plains, with the promise forever on the horizon, seemingly within reach but inevitably retreating as the viewer approaches. Fulfilment is forever deferred, but the quest remains as obsessive as Jay Gatsby’s doomed pursuit of Daisy Buchanan.
Understandably, a potential reader of The Plains will ask, “OK, but what’s it about?” There is no simple answer to that question, other than noting the narrator is an unnamed filmmaker attempting to film the plains in a way that will reconcile the opposing worldviews of two cliques of plainsmen who use their wealth to support an elaborate system of patronage whereby artists are employed to interpret or represent the meaning of their jealously guarded and endlessly elusive landscape.
And if that summary isn’t sufficient to make it clear, it should be stressed that The Plains is a fable, or an allegory, or a parable – almost anything but the “dun-coloured realism” that has so often been the result when Australians have contemplated flat land. Instead the narrative is consumed by the filmmaker’s extended rumination – a quasi-philosophical disquisition on the nature of landscape, time, place, creation, heraldry, patronage, libraries, unattainable women and deferred speech, in which he attempts to reconcile the contours of his own image-laden imagination with the immense physical landscape of the plains.
Certainly The Plains is a notoriously difficult novel to pin down, given that it resembles little else in Australian fiction other than other novels by Murnane, but it is not a difficult novel to read. For although it is largely devoid of plot, and proceeds for the most part without dialogue, action, or – in the conventional sense – characters, it is also provocative, intensely engaging, endlessly quotable, funny, and immensely readable.
It possesses the particular genius of provoking the reader into questioning their own perception of the world; of querying the “reality” outside our own consciousness, our own way of knowing, and of the time and place that we glibly accept and casually share with others.
I am not sure that when expressed like that its seems like a particularly wondrous or even desirable thing, but when you feel it emerging from the page before you, provoked by no more than the craft of arranging words, then you can be sure you are in the presence of rare fiction.
The Plains may not even be the finest of Murnane’s novels – a choice between it or Landscape with Landscape or Emerald Blue or A History of Books is one I hope I am not required to make – but it is the book that provides the most intense representation of its creator’s extraordinary imaginative landscape.
And maybe it is that observation that comes closest to answering the question of what the novel, and so much of Murnane’s writing, is “about” – testing the capacity of fiction to provide as pure a representation as possible of its author’s perception of his world.
Which also takes us back to those opening sentences, and another question they might raise for the would-be-reader. If the narrator has indeed “left Australia”, then where is he?
The answer in the novel’s own terms is “inner Australia”, a place that is both interior to, but somehow separate from, “outer Australia”. Inner Australia can be read simply as being mimetic of the narrator’s interiority, but I believe that it is not quite so straightforward.
The reader is instructed by the narrator that “all talk of a nation presupposed the existence of certain influential but rarely seen landscapes”, and that “the boundaries of true nations were fixed in the souls of men”. The Plains invites, even requires, the reader to re-imagine “Australia”, “nation”, “land” and “home”, concepts that float at the edge of a narrative at the centre of which lies the ache of exile and displacement.
The question to ask is not so much whether the novel set in Australia but rather “what is Australia?”, or even “where is Australia?”. At the time of the novel’s publication, amid the pious certainties leading up to the Bicentenary, such questions might have seemed spurious; in 2014, when border protection, foreign ownership and geo-political realignment are part of daily conversation, they seem both sound and serious.
The Plains shares with The Great Gatsby not only one of the most engaging openings in their respective literatures, but also an equally evocative finale. The full stretch of Fitzgerald’s elegy is expressed in the closing resignation, that “we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”.
In Murnane’s book, the filmmaker’s contemplation of his 20 years on the plains and his unmade film finds him still pushing against the current, but confronted – as always – by his incapacity to express anything beyond the grip of his own obsessions.
I lifted my own camera to my face and stood with my eye pressed against the lens and my finger poised as if to expose to the film in its dark chamber the darkness that was the only visible sign of whatever I saw beyond myself.
The final unanswerable question, is whether that sentence should be read as an expression of failure or success? Either way, it is something to be reckoned with.
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