Landscape, Memory: On Gerald Murnane’s Inland

Review / January 2024
Landscape, Memory: On Gerald Murnane’s Inland
by Bailey Trela

When I was a child—say seven or eight—and I thought of God, an image of Miss Clavel, the nun in charge of the boarding school in Ludwig Bemelmans' Madeline books, would appear in my mind. I remember realizing this in the backseat of our family car during a long road trip; it was shocking, in its way, and curiously exciting. I knew that Miss Clavel wasn’t God, but I also understood that the very fact I thought of her when I thought of God told me something about the nature of God as I then understood it. I’d been introduced to the mind’s tendency to speak, even to itself, in symbols. Another discovery came closely on this one’s heels. Following, I presume, the sequence God to Sunday to weekend to week, I realized that when I thought of the days of the week, an image of seven manila folders appeared in my mind.

Apparently, this was an epochal event in the history of my consciousness, and seems to have blocked out any other memories of that day. I don’t remember where we were going, and I can’t confidently say whether or not my brother was in the car, or whether it was simply my mother and me. Regardless, I’m reminded of it whenever I pick up a book by Gerald Murnane, whose interests—better to call them obsessions—dovetail nicely with what I experienced that day in the back of our family car. The strange alembic of the psyche, with its many turnings and transmutative properties; the porous boundary between memory and ideality; the fine-grained investigations of the color of thought—all of these, in varying ratios, define the Murnanian text.

Inland, Murnane’s longest experimental fiction, is no different. A work of stringent, if loose, autoanalysis, the book is also (and maybe consequently) an omnium-gatherum, attempting to draw its often arbitrary-seeming scenes and references together into a sympathetic web that suggests something of the aleatory nature of thought itself. To be fair, it isn’t always successful in this. The first fifty pages, for instance, are given over to a half-hearted framing narrative that Murnane, despite plenty of strenuous detail-grubbing, never really manages to breathe life into. The narrator of this section is a nameless Hungarian writer and landowner drafting an article for Hinterland, a journal published by the Calvin O. Dahlberg Institute of Prairie Studies, located near the town of Ideal, in the county of Tripp, South Dakota. The writer’s editor and translator is Anne Kristaly Gunnersen, who works alongside her husband, Gunnar T. Gunnarsen, at the institute. We’re given to understand that at one time the writer was in love with Anne Kristlay Gunnersen. Gunnar T. Gunnarsen may be jealous of this fact, and may be working to frustrate communications between Anne and the writer.

It’s all sort of funny—for a while, at least. The most important contribution of this section to the work as a whole is its evocation of the dream-prairie, a sort of image-canvas on which the book’s characters project various spatial fantasies, working through their rarefied and relatively amorphous emotional and mental states. (It’s worth noting that so-called “mental grasslands” are a constant in Murnane’s fiction.) Murnane’s interest in physical space and his narrators’ ardent topophilia would seem to have something to do with the fact there’s little order to be found in the welter of mental images that makes up the Murnanian self. By diffusing themselves into landscapes, his protagonists are able to cast a semblance of order onto the constellatory images that occupy their thoughts.

Murnane’s landscapes, however, aren’t the carefully layered confections—a canvas by Poussin, for instance—that we tend to think of when we hear the term. The featureless plains of the Outback, Murnane’s most frequent spatial referent, are possessed of a pure, unadorned reality. At the same time, by virtue of their essential flensedness, they retain something fey and ethereal. Philosophical depictions of the native landscape are nothing rare in Australian fiction, though the use to which Murnane puts these idealized spaces often feels unique. The typical Australian landscape, defined by its sere extensity, isn’t so much a furnace of dilatation in which the self is perilously volatilized—as it is, for instance, in Patrick White’s 1957 expeditionary novel Voss—as a prepped canvas where infolding can occur. This burrowing into and subsequent expansion of the visual field—q.v. the staggered operation of seeing, where pure optical perception gives way to mental reconstruction, itself always and already an augmentation (what’s seen causing more to be seen)—is a characteristic gesture in Murnane’s work. The plainsmen whose culture the narrator of The Plains is attempting to document, for instance, discover while examining their habitat that the space that “had at first seemed utterly flat and featureless eventually disclosed countless subtle variations of landscape and an abundance of furtive wildlife.”

This sense of secrets within secrets, of nested realities telescoping into one another, each transparency giving onto a fresh opacity, is intensely mystical—in fact, it very nearly models a cabbalistic conception of ultimate truth. As J.M. Coetzee has observed, one consequence of Murnane’s upbringing, which revolved around an Irish-Australian Catholic education, has been “an abiding belief in another world,” though this belief, he stresses, is “philosophical rather than religious in nature.” A relevant quote by the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard, “There is another world, but it is in this one,” wends its ways through Inland. I imagine Murnane got it from his compatriot White, who employed the quote as an epigraph to his 1966 novel The Solid Mandala, itself a book that doggedly pursues the intersections of the banal and the visionary.

At its gestural core, Murnane’s is a fiction of involution. Manors and other labyrinthine properties, like the “many-roomed house” where the Hungarian landowner in Inland resides, are recurrent motifs, recalling Borges’s cellular, self-repeating library. Even the fabric of his prose has an inly drift. Inland makes use of familiar rhetorical and syntactical gambits, from a tendency to palinodial expression, to an emphasis on recursive self-awareness and correction that points up the mise-en-abîme of the act of writing, and Murnane’s preference, tense-wise, for dwelling in the past perfect just a beat too long. All of which adds up to a prose style marked for its cadastral precision. A crucial antinomy in Murnane’s writing is that between the general mysticism of his relation to images and the logicality of the language in which these images must be pursued—consequently, his fictions can often read like a seminar co-taught by J.L. Austin and Meister Eckhart. His investigations are loose, fluid, held together by the severe grammaticality of his prose. Or as Coetzee has noted, “while there is a Murnanian topography of the mind, there is no Murnanian theory of the mind worth speaking of.”

Another way of phrasing this is to observe that the Murnanian universe is a closed one—a universe, that is, of monades sans portes ni fenêtres. The mind is a cloistered thing, unable to reach beyond itself. There is a natural pathos to this state of affairs. To the extent that we can speak of a philosophical edifice supporting Murnane’s writing, a central tenet of it might be that because every ideal is capable of existing in the mind, it can, in a sense, be said to exist in the world as well. The melancholy at the heart of so much of his fiction might be said to derive from the fact that this isn’t, really, true—that when we argue like this we’re merely indulging in a game of logic. Our mental world and the external world never quite meet; our inscape does not become landscape. The best these phenomena can do is merge, briefly, overflowing their epistemic bounds and causing perception itself to incandesce.

Intimacy with the world, of the sort possessed naturally by children, is a dream to be pursued unto the last. As the narrator of The Plains observes, “the literature of the plains abounds in accounts of childhood.” Just why this is seems to have something to do with the porousness and associativeness of the child’s mind, and the befuddling nature of distance, of sheer unarticulated space. “Anyone surrounded from childhood by an abundance of level land must dream alternately of exploring two landscapes—one continually visible but never accessible and the other always invisible even though one crossed and recrossed it daily.” The child is a natural mystic, tuned to interior worlds; his images are still nascent, fluid, coming into being.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the bulk of Inland is concerned with a brief stretch of time in the childhood of the book’s second narrator, a Murnanian ectype who takes over from the Hungarian landowner. During this formative period, the narrator is twelve years old and infatuated with a classmate, referred to simply as “the girl from Bendigo Street.” They are close friends, their companionship verging on something more intensely intimate, an almost soul-level bond—until, that is, the narrator’s family moves away. They never meet again. For almost two-hundred pages, the narrator turns over their brief acquaintance in his mind as if the experience were a gem, inspecting each facet, its manner of catching and refracting the light of memory.

Save, perhaps, for a few several-page runs in Border Districts, the last fifty or so pages of Inland are, to my mind, the most moving Murnane has ever written. There’s something about watching all of the great effort—the endless mental delving, the strenuous reticulations of his prose—come to nothing, or almost nothing. If, as Murnane seems always to be suggesting, a person is little more than an image-history, then we are all entombed within ourselves, overdetermined by mental concepts that we can hardly be said to have had a hand in creating. Fortunately, our mental images can shift, and as we understand the ways in which they shift, we begin to understand ourselves. No wonder that the typical Murnane protagonist is, as the narrator of Border Districts describes himself, “a student of mental imagery,” a psychic pilgrim obsessed with what he calls “the life and death of mental entities.”

When I think of God an image of Miss Clavel no longer appears in my mind. I’m not sure what I see—perhaps a white orb of indeterminate size, emitting a penumbra of soft light. I don’t mean to claim that this a particularly interesting place to have ended up, image-wise; only to point out that to discern how one became the other could, were I so inclined, be the work of a lifetime. For Murnane, that’s precisely what it’s been.

Image Credits:
Image 1: Clarice Beckett, Solitude, 1932, Oil on Board, 17 x 22.5 cm. Image source: