When my daughter was a baby I knitted for her a pair of woollen bootees in red, green and yellow stripes. I liked them so much I kept them safely and sentimentally for 40 years. But in the end I was defeated by moths. The bootees are now just a tragic bundle of bright, broken stitches, a cluster of airy spaces held together by scrappy twists of coloured wool. They are perhaps also a kind of description of memory, a flawed tangle of broken threads, having the power to stimulate vivid images and deep emotions that have lain cradled in mystery for years and years, clouded by the wash of daily events, day after day after day.
‘Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal.’ I have always liked the language and rhythm of those lines from St Matthew’s Gospel. Moths, rust, thieves. Perhaps I am laying up treasures in heaven, perhaps thieves are busy at work on my possessions, perhaps the roof nails are rusting—but I have, in any case, decided to declare war on moths.
The fancy scientific name for the creature more commonly known as the clothes moth is Tineola bisselliella. It’s quite difficult to spell, possibly because of the two sets of double Ls, as well as the double S. The Tineola part goes back to Medieval Latin and Middle English but the bisselliella part proved more difficult to trace. And I still don’t know what the two words really mean.
However, I did locate one academic paper online. This paper was written by R. Plarre and B. Kruger-Carstensen. It was published in September 2011, and contains some disturbing diagrams. It gives a truly horrifying deadpan account of the creature, and claims that Tineola bisselliella probably originated in central or southern Africa, and was introduced into Europe in the late eighteenth century. I have saved a copy as a PDF and will revisit it from time to time, should I need to strengthen my resolve in my war on moths.
To turn to my wardrobe—the next thing after the bootees to go was my favourite woollen multi-coloured striped scarf, which I recall buying at great expense in a tiny shop in Bridge Road, Richmond, about 30 years ago. I had worn it often, and I loved it.
In December 2017 I glimpsed a little moth fly out of the closet. I like to identify the colours of things, and I tried just now to think of what colour the moth was, but I was unable to name the colour. It was a drab mothy mixture of dusty silver and grey and brown, it was the colour of flittering evil, a tiny sliver of the air come to life. I took out all the silk, wool, fur and cotton clothes, shook them, hung them in the fresh air and dappled sunlight under the wisteria, shook them again, and then put them back each with a fresh gauze bag of herbs hanging from the hook, some with herbs in the pockets. As far as I could tell, there had been no damage.
I know there is wisdom that says to store the clothes in separate cloth or plastic bags, but the fur is the only thing that gets that treatment from me. I seem to have a horror of giant bags, plastic ones in particular. I recall a quote from Jumpers by Tom Stoppard: ‘No problem is insoluble, given a large enough plastic bag.’ I became obsessed and made more gauze bags, mixing rosemary and lavender and wormwood and cloves. The whole house was so perfumed with the mixture that people visiting me commented on it. I made more moth bags and began giving them away.
The last garment I took from under the wisteria was a cloak made from exquisite Tasmanian wool, purple, with a purple velvet lining to the hood. I had bought it in Tasmania in the late 1980s when I went to Launceston for a conference of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, known as ASAL. I remembered a photograph taken during the conference of myself, a black cat, and another Australian author. We were standing in the doorway of the cottage I rented in Evandale. I held the cat in my arms. I was wearing the purple cloak. The other author was Gerald Murnane.
Did I still have the photo? I am not a particularly diligent archivist, but this time I got lucky. In a drawer in a grey metal filing cabinet I found a file in a bright blue manila folder. It was a file I have not opened for many years. On the outside of the file I had written in biro ‘Gerald Murnane’s Tasmania’, and inside the blue covers there were more files—grey, green, buff, brown. The small colour photograph featuring the purple cloak was inside a folder marked ‘Murnane Review of Dear Writer’. And there were various typed manuscripts, most of them written by Gerald, some held together with staples, some with paperclips. The metal of staples and clips had corrupted the pages with rust. Oh, moth and rust! One manuscript of mine was the script of ‘Gerald Murnane’s Tasmania’, which was the paper I gave at the ASAL conference, concerning the references to Tasmania as a honeymoon paradise in Gerald’s novel A Lifetime on Clouds. The other things included scripts of some of Gerald’s stories that he had given to me when we shared an office at a university in the late 1980s. One was a note he wrote in praise of my 1986 novel Cherry Ripe, and another was a review he wrote of my 1988 manual for writers, Dear Writer.
This review by Gerald of Dear Writer was submitted in 1988 to a journal called Brave New Word. Memory is a flawed and fickle human faculty, and in 2017 I had no recollection whatsoever of the review. So I read the manuscript with interest, not to say astonishment, and I discovered that the first four pages of the so called review were an account of how Gerald came to be a writer, and the final two pages were where the ‘review’ of Dear Writer was located. The title of the whole essay was exactly the same as a title in Gerald’s 2005 collection of essays Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs. The title was ‘The Cursing of Ivan Veliki’. I checked in my copy of Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs and found that the first four pages of the manuscript in the Murnane File were exactly the same as the whole of the story in the published collection of essays. What was missing from the piece in the 2005 collection of essays were the final two pages of manuscript, where Gerald discussed—in warm and positive tones—the matter of Dear Writer. In this section of the manuscript piece Gerald claims that reading Dear Writer in some way directly inspired him to write the story about Ivan Veliki. His stated point was that Dear Writer was a good book on how to write fiction because it had stimulated him to write ‘The Cursing of Ivan Veliki’.
I became curious to know whether the whole of the manuscript in my Murnane File had indeed been published in Brave New Word. So I asked the State Library of Victoria to send me a PDF of the piece in the journal. Sure enough, the published ‘review’, which appeared in the journal under the heading of ‘fiction’, matched the manuscript exactly. So the original piece of writing had morphed from being ‘review’ in the manuscript, to being ‘fiction’ in the 1988 journal, to being ‘essay’ in the 2005 collection. Writers have the delightful freedom to present their work in any form—short, long, review, fiction, essay—and under any heading that seems to them to be appropriate or indeed expedient. In 2018 Gerald published his Collected Short Fiction, a gathering of 20 stories. I wondered, would this collection contain ‘The Cursing of Ivan Veliki’? Or had that story finally come to rest as an ‘essay’ in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs? As it happens, it is not in the new collection of stories.
In fact Dear Writer itself morphed in 1996 into a revised version, and then in 2013 it became Dear Writer Revisited, which is the text updated for the writing world of today. If I had remembered that Gerald wrote a review of it, I might have included some of his words on the back cover in 2013. Anyway, just for the record, I will now quote from the final two pages of the original ‘The Cursing of Ivan Veliki’. This is the text as it appeared not only in the manuscript in my file, but as it appeared in Brave New Word.
Gerald Murnane’s review of Dear Writer
This piece of writing is meant to be a book review. What I have written so far came to me when I set out to comment on some of the advice in Carmel Bird’s book: ‘Only one source is available to you for the material of your fiction. That source is your own experience, your own life, your own memory.’ This is from the first chapter.
Carmel Bird’s book is written as a series of letters from a kindly adviser named Virginia O’Day. (This name is the name of a character in Carmel Bird’s own fiction.) Virginia’s letters are addressed to a person named Writer who has sent Virginia a piece of fiction called ‘The Scream at Midnight’. Each of Virginia’s letters forms a chapter in the book. The advice in the letters is mostly excellent practical advice. The tone of the book is light.
‘Over and over again, although they have been warned, my students show their half-finished work to their husbands and wives, and then come to me in tears and rage and tell their tale of how their loved-ones rejected their creation. Dear Writer, you have been warned. “But”, you say, “my lover is different. He would never be unkind about my work.” Try him.’
The first chapter is called ‘So you wanted to be Agatha Christie’. While I read this chapter I remembered Ivan Veliki and the years when I thought I was lacking in imagination. Then I began to write this book review. A book about fiction writing must be a useful book if a person reading the first chapter feels urged to write a piece of fiction.
Some persons reading this piece of writing may be wondering why I have described just now as fiction what I described earlier as the opening paragraphs of a book review.
I beg my readers’ pardon, but I cannot help myself. Whenever I read honest writing about the writing of fiction, I get the urge to write more fiction of my own. As soon as I had read Carmel Bird’s first chapter, I wanted to write what Virginia O’Day wanted Writer to write: a piece of fiction that grew out of experience. And so, I wrote about a man somewhat like myself who read the first chapter of a book and then remembered himself having written a line of poetry from an epic poem called Ivan Veliki.
I began to write my piece of fiction by describing something that I knew had been an actual event: my composing a certain line of poetry. I could not remember where I had stood or sat or lain while I composed the line of poetry, but as soon as I began to write, an image occurred to me of a patch of grass beside Haughton Road, East Oakleigh, as I had seen it in the early 1950s.
Other images occurred to me. Some of these images I wrote about. Some of these I recognise now as images of events from my own life. The man writing these words tried in fact to write during 1962 a novel set in grasslands and then found himself writing about himself standing on a lawn behind a sandstone house that still stands today on a dairy farm that once belonged to my grandfather in south-western Victoria, but the man had never, so far as I remember, wished his grandfather dead.
Yes, Virginia, fiction does grow out of experience, and when such fiction begins to grow, the writer can hardly keep it in check.
Near the beginning of this review, I wrote that I composed a line of poetry near a patch of grass. Later I wrote that I cannot remember where the line of poetry was composed. Just now I remembered something that happened beside that patch of grass. I will end this book review by writing about the thing that happened. The thing seems part of my experience at this moment, but when I have finished writing about it I may seem to have been writing about part of a piece of fiction. The characters in that piece of fiction will be a man and his father and his grandfather, and the setting of the fiction will be paddocks of grass.
One afternoon in 1954, when my father was as old as I am now, my father and I happened to step off the same train at the station then named East Oakleigh but now named Huntingdale. He and I walked home together along Haughton Road. As we were passing one of the grassy blocks of vacant land, my father told me that he thought he would not live to be an old man as his father had been. He then told me that he expected me, after he had died, to spend many years trying to understand what kind of man he had been.
My father said these thing sternly. A few years afterwards he died.
That was the end of the ‘review’. You can find the beginning under the title ‘The Cursing of Ivan Veliki’ in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs.
I am now imagining that the moth flew out of my closet, leading me to discover Gerald’s review of Dear Writer. And when I looked at the photo taken during the ASAL conference in 1989 I remembered Gerald joked at the time that it would be a picture of ‘Author with Cat and Unknown Woman’. When I saw it recently, I was reminded that at the university where Gerald and I shared an office, there was a student who complained she couldn’t possibly learn anything from a man (Gerald) who wore so much brown clothing. Then there was another student who said she was unable to tolerate as a teacher a woman (me) who wore so many bright colours. The photograph seems to be designed to offend those two students. This is the photo.
As I considered the history of Gerald’s review of Dear Writer, it dawned on me that something like a Tineola bisselliella had been at work on ‘The Cursing of Ivan Veliki’, leaving a large chewed-out hole. Or perhaps the cursing of Ivan had subtly shifted and had become the cursing of someone or something else. Me? Dear Writer? Was I being oversensitive, was I indulging in self-obsessed fantasy? Probably. But it was such a strange, creepy feeling to discover that I and my book had been written out of the original published script, as if we had never existed, at least insofar as ‘The Cursing of Ivan Veliki’ was concerned. I was interested and amused to discover all this in my recent search through the Murnane File. And as I had recently read Gerald’s 2017 book Border Districts, my thoughts on this latest book were coloured by my moth-led discoveries. I started to write about Border Districts.
Border Districts: A report or a reflection
In this piece of writing I refer to the author of Border Districts as ‘Gerald’. I do this because to switch suddenly to the formal review style of using just the author’s surname seemed to me at this point and in this case to be a bit ridiculous. In a sense, this ‘Gerald’ I speak of is a ‘character’ that I am, perhaps inadvertently, creating as I write the report. He is probably a long way from the Gerald Murnane who lives in Goroke, near Victoria’s border with South Australia, and loves horseracing, and writes on a typewriter. He might be fiction, this Gerald of mine. I feel perhaps he is fiction. Gerald or ‘Gerald’ wrote in his 2012 work A History of Books that ‘any fictional character might be said to have acquired a factual existence as soon as the event of the character [has] been reported in a published text’. The reverse could be true. Suddenly I was reminded of Through the Looking Glass, and the fact that the Alice of that text has become a particular kind of solid reality. ‘Fact’ and ‘reality’ are tricky and dangerous words, but they will have to do. Alice is a prime example of what Gerald wrote in A History of Books. And there really was a child called Alice who was born in 1852 and died in 1934, if history is to be believed. I have now slipped into using the name ‘Gerald’ freely, in an attempt to signify the author of Border Districts.
Much of Gerald’s writing is an account of how the narrator writes, how he came to write the piece of writing the reader is reading. The prose moves with the solemnity of a half-heard melody, a mysterious air that the reader’s ear must catch. It curls round itself, expands, shrinks, unfurls. The profession of the narrator or narrators of much of Gerald’s work appears to be that of a writer, and sometimes a critic, generally a philosopher, a seeker after truth. In Gerald’s 2017 book Border Districts, which is marketed as ‘fiction’, and which the narrator keeps insisting is a ‘report’ Gerald the author has written, on behalf of the narrator: ‘Why have I included in this report the tedious matter of the preceding paragraphs?’
I, the writer of this essay, must be careful to distinguish here, at all times, between Gerald the author of the books and the anonymous narrator of Border Districts. This is not an easy task, and I expect I will make mistakes, will confuse one with the other. Many close similarities between the two may be discovered, but it is not my business here to know, to discover or to disclose them. Who is Gerald Murnane is not the issue; who is the narrator is a question that haunts the work. He appears to be on a particular kind of spiritual quest, one that takes him into his own mind. ‘The mind’, he says, ‘is a place best viewed from borderlands.’ I leave readers to unpack that statement for themselves.
The narrator is writing a report; Gerald is writing a book in which the narrator is writing a report. I meant to keep count of the number of times the word ‘report’ was used in the text to describe the nature of the text, but I gave up after about 40. There were many more. ‘I am not writing a work of fiction but a report of seemingly fictional matters,’ says the narrator. Every word here counts, as it should, and I draw the attention of readers to the use of the adverb ‘seemingly’. Much that happens here might not be what it seems. Or it might be exactly what it seems.
The book begins by placing a question in the reader’s mind. This question is, according to this reader: ‘Why did the narrator decide to “guard” his eyes?’ I read the book carefully, most carefully, but I swear the question was never answered, to the best of my knowledge and belief. Yet I do understand that the idea of the guarding of the eyes is an indicator of the fact that the narrator is engaged in a spiritual quest, and the guarding of the eyes is an early indicator of the nature of the quest. So the man has probably come to the place on the border and decided to guard his eyes because he is searching for his own meaning.
When I read of the man who decided to guard his eyes I was reminded of the beginning of Gerald’s earlier book The Plains, where the first two sentences seem to suggest the opposite of guarding one’s eyes: ‘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.’
Here is the first sentence of Border Districts, the sentence that raises the question: ‘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.’ The text goes on to tell where the expression came from, but not to explain, as far as I can tell, why the narrator made the decision to guard his eyes. There is no reason why it should ‘explain’ or even elucidate. Much later in the book the narrator says that the men in religious orders ‘guard’ their eyes for the purpose of not being beguiled by the seductive shapes of beautiful young women. However, the narrator at the time of writing doesn’t seem to have the need to do this. He does say that what started him writing the report was the sight of a stained glass window that he saw from the outside of a building. So in a sense he was beguiled by light on patterns in glass. Hold that thought until the end of the final page of the book.
This window was in the porch of a closed church in the town in which the narrator was newly arrived. He says: ‘This window is what I have always called stained glass and almost certainly comprises a representation of something—a pattern of leaves and stems and petals perhaps.’ The window, he says, ‘may well have been the cause of my setting out to write these pages’. Later he is sure it was the window that set him off. ‘I recalled yet again the occasion that prompted me to begin writing this report: the occasion when I passed for the first time the window in the porch of my neighbourhood church.’ Images of churches, the presence of churchmen, church doctrine, inhabit the landscape of the text, constantly reminding the reader that this narrative is a type of spiritual quest. Images of stained, or as the narrator frequently says ‘coloured’ glass, recur and recur throughout the book until on the last page they come up in two lines of poetry by Shelley. These images, and several recurring others such as grasslands, flowerbeds, return verandahs, fishponds, sandstone mansions, a lovely woman at a window, operate perhaps like refrains or themes in a musical piece. A symphony perhaps. They are refrains that play throughout much of the author’s work. I should say that the narrator himself is also a familiar voice, or perhaps character, across much of that work.
Something I find strangely interesting is that the names of people and places are omitted from the text except in the case of the names of poets such as Shelley or Keats or Milton, writers such as Proust or Hardy or Gissing, and names of places such as Troy, France, England, Scotland, Hungary or Transylvania. This narrator does not name, for instance, Australia, which the reader can fairly imagine is the name of the country in which the report is set, referred to only as his ‘native land’. He does not name the state he lives in, or any other state, preferring to go to some lengths to inform the reader without writing the name. ‘I had never been in the states adjoining my native state and in the suburbs of the capital cities of those states and of the capital cities of states further off still, not forgetting the island-state south of my own state.’ By ‘island-state’ he surely means Tasmania. A small irony here is that long, long ago in the 1830s the south-west of Van Diemen’s Land (later known as Tasmania) was marked on maps as ‘Transylvania’, a name the narrator has no hesitation in writing elsewhere, when it is elsewhere.
But the narrator cannot be held accountable for not knowing, or at least not disclosing any knowledge of, the old name for the south-west of Tasmania. Yet I must say that a narrator who can name France and Shelley, while not naming South Australia and a South Australian writer whose address he looked up in the phone book, in a piece of writing he describes as a report, has an odd idea of a report. But then, the narrator admits to being possibly eccentric. It may be part of the point of the exercise, to remove local people and local names, while establishing in an ordinary way the names of people, poets and places elsewhere. Why? I am not sure. The people and poets are dead. Perhaps they are named because they exist in a place that is named—Eternity—and perhaps other people, living or dead, have not earned their place in Eternity? But then why not name Australia if you can name Scotland? The narrator is forever interested in elsewhere, but doesn’t plan to go there. He prefers to imagine. In his own lifetime he generally chooses not to travel, except in his imagination. And unnamed places can, in stories, take on the characteristics of fabled lands, paradises, but the question remains as to why some classes of place (and people) have names and others do not. I imagine that Gerald himself could clarify the distinctions, but all I am considering here is the text. The narrator does not clarify the reasons for his choices any more than he explains why he thinks he must guard his eyes.
As I suggested earlier, a writer is at liberty to present the work under the name of a report, a review, a fictional story, a memoir, an autobiography—whatever takes the writer’s fancy. I have chosen to call this piece of writing of mine a ‘memoir’ because that’s what I believe it is. The moth reminded me to de-moth the closet, and the cloak led me to the Murnane File where I discovered the forgotten review of Dear Writer and I was moved to start writing a piece of memoir.
However, the section I am writing now about Border Districts could be seen as a ‘review’. I have decided to describe it as a report, or perhaps a reflection. I am not making any particular point by writing it, I am simply reporting on my reading of Border Districts, a reporting that happened as a result of my discovering the photograph taken in Evandale. I must say that I write reviews, or, as in this case, reports on books only if the books interest me. I have been interested in Gerald’s writing for many years, and I will probably continue to be interested.
Perhaps Gerald agrees with his publisher that Border Districts is fiction. There is an argument that all or most writing is fiction. There are several discernable categories of fiction, this book probably being in the one called ‘literary fiction’. I think of the category of fiction as being a kind of continuum that goes from literary at one end to mass market at the other, from Finnegans Wake to The Da Vinci Code. Just where the midpoint is on this imaginary scale, is tricky to decide. But I think that Border Districts would sit somewhere between the middle and Finnegans Wake, somewhere on the ‘literary’ side. Supposing it is fiction.
I thought about calling this whole piece of writing, this Murnane File, ‘a philosophical memoir’ because some of it borders on a kind of philosophy. But then I decided that all memoir might be philosophy. What is truth and what is fiction? That is a common and rather tedious question. I have tried to be as faithful as I can here to what I believe to be the truth. I didn’t, for instance, invent a ‘South Australian writer whose name I found in the phone book and to whom I wrote a letter’. Did the narrator invent her? Perhaps Gerald did. Or then again perhaps the woman in South Australia was real in Gerald’s life, and the phone book was real, and Gerald’s life just glides over into his narrator’s life, and out again, and in again. Out again. This is not a complaint, merely a thought or an observation.
Certain details in the narrator’s supposed life are similar to matters in Gerald’s, such as the passion for horseracing and the hoarding of glass marbles, both of which activities can be verified in what passes for the real world. Gerald was educated in Catholic schools, as was the narrator. It’s all a bit of a Mobius strip, an Escher drawing, truth and non-truth, round and round the garden and through the looking glass. Narrator and author play by their own rules. What is offered to the reader is the book, and the sources of the inspiration for the book may be lodged in reality and unreality at one and the same time, rendered with a hyper-precision that can delight and bewilder and bemuse in one quiet blow.
In this piece of memoir of mine, the striped bootees were real, the moth was real, the cloak was real. I have offered photographic evidence, which is evidence of a sort (it can be easily falsified) that demonstrates I was wearing the cloak when I stood holding a black cat beside Gerald in a place I claim was Evandale, Tasmania. You can probably find the original of the building in the picture still standing in the town. You won’t find me in any phone book, but I am easy enough to find online and in reality—or as Gerald sometimes says, ‘in what passes for reality in what is commonly called the world’—and I could take you by the hand and lead you into my closet and show you the cloak. And perhaps a moth or two. At a time like this I often recall a movie, Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Darby claims to have seen a leprechaun drink a glass of, I think, beer. The leprechaun is nowhere to be seen, but Darby cheerfully says, ‘And I’ve got the glass to prove it’ while brandishing the empty glass.
There is some discussion in Border Districts of ‘autobiography’, in sections about a book the narrator read. The book was the autobiography of a nameless man known to the narrator, a man who remains nameless in Border Districts, a man who had left the priesthood and had married and had a family. The narrator knew this man when they were colleagues in ‘an obscure department on an out-of-the-way campus of a lesser university’. It occurs to me that this description of the place of employment might well describe the place where I shared an office with Gerald. We were both teaching at Victoria College, which later became Deakin University. But I must here remind my readers that the similarities between Gerald’s life and the life of the narrator are probably irrelevant to the reading of Border Districts. They are perhaps neither here nor there—a nice old expression that seems to me to be quite apt in this instance. The autobiography the narrator read was published after the death of its author. The narrator was particularly interested to know of the other man’s religious experiences, but was disappointed, I understand, to find that these experiences were not reported in the autobiography. The brief discussion of the autobiography does, however, give some information about the profession of the narrator, whose own various roles in life are not prominent in the text. His principal roles are those of observer and thinker and writer. And that of the ‘hero’ or at least the subject of his own spiritual quest. This quest involves the intermittent and accumulating revelation of the narrator’s self constructed within the self, and more for the edification of that self than for the instruction of a reader who becomes an observer of the process. I need to point out, from time to time, that all this can, for the reader, at times be amusing to watch.
There is such a great deal of writing about writing in Border Districts that I think perhaps the book is an elaborate and eccentric exegesis for a piece of fiction that the narrator has written or plans to write for his PhD in creative writing. The writing about writing, and the motifs, and probably the narrator himself, resemble elements in much of Gerald’s fiction, Gerald’s writing. So perhaps all of his writing is the exegesis by the narrator, or a narrator, or a series of narrators, for an unwritten piece of fiction (or writing). At some points the narrator pauses to observe what is taking place in his own mind. He says he ‘decided long ago to take no further interest in the theoretical and to study instead the actual, which was for me the seeming-scenery behind everything I thought or read’. I love that expression—‘the seeming-scenery’. Seeming, seemingly—they are almost sly and shifty words that slip into the narrator’s prose and swiftly twist the meaning and the perspective. He looked often at the upper panes of glass in the church window ‘as though they might suggest something of meaning’.
Sometimes the core of a book is reflected or illustrated by the front cover. Here the cover design is simple, unsettling, dreamily apocalyptic. When I read the book I was delighted to find that the strange threatening glow that blurs up from the left lower corner of the front cover is an attempt at an image of a line from the Aeneid as recalled by the narrator from schooldays. I think the section of the book in which the narrator briefly discusses the moment where ‘the long journey of the Trojan exiles was almost at an end’ is a key moment in the text. I may be being fanciful, but here is what I think:
The narrator has perhaps always sensed himself to be an exile from a place I will call, for want of a better name, Paradise. He identifies with the Trojan exiles who ‘divined, if not saw, the first hint of their dreamed-of destination’. The narrator translates the Latin line he loves as: ‘The stars had now been put to flight, and the dawn was reddening.’ The narrator, recalling how as a schoolboy he was moved by this image, this line of poetry, now takes the words and the image and feels himself to be within reach of Paradise. The lines from Shelley with which the book ends, ‘Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass, / Stains the white radiance of Eternity’, suggest, as they complete the text, a completion also of the image of the reddening dawn experienced by the Trojans and illustrated on the cover of the book.
The narrator of Border Districts is perhaps a man in search of the bliss of eternal paradise, and most of the action of the book happens in the mind of the narrator. This is a kind of autobiography of the mind. The narrator speaks of being on a journey towards a ‘homeland-of-the-mind’. That, Reader, if you want an outline of the plot, is an outline of the plot.
One writer who is named in the text is Richard Jefferies, who in 1883 published an introspective account of his own thoughts and feelings titled The Story of My Heart. The narrator of Border Districts speaks of ‘the widespread terrain of my mind.’ Although he does not name any of the books by Richard Jefferies, since he says he read one when he was a child, it was possibly Bevis, while the one of which he read part as an adult could have been The Story of My Heart. This latter could have had some sort of bearing on the narrator’s autobiography of the mind, although the narrator never claims to have been directly influenced in his style or subject matter by any other text. Another book by Richard Jefferies that could have bearing on Gerald’s work is Round about a Great Estate, for there is a longing in Gerald’s narrators for the solid comfort of a golden sandstone mansion set in sweeping grasslands. The mock battles Richard Jefferies used to play in the countryside as a child are not dissimilar to the mock horseraces played by the child in Gerald’s novel Tamarisk Row.
The question the first sentence of Border Districts raises for readers—why has the narrator resolved to guard his eyes—does not appear, at least to this reader, to have been answered. This absence of an answer probably doesn’t matter. Throughout the text the idea of guarding the eyes gets an occasional mention, but the why of it insofar as the narrator is concerned doesn’t become clear. There are two ways, generally, that the narrator uses his eyes—one is imaginatively, to gaze out across imagined grasslands to imagined sandstone mansions and so forth, and the other is to gaze inward at his own responses to his own responses. As I have suggested, he seems to be searching for the meaning of, perhaps, life on earth, and for the interaction between this life and Eternity. There are no answers; so perhaps it is fitting that there is no apparent answer to the question about why and how he must guard his eyes. Like the priests who may not look at pretty girls for fear of giving in to lust, or even to thoughts of lust, the narrator has things that he had better not look at. For fear of? For fear of being nudged off course in his quest to put into words his understanding of where he stands on the border between the shifting coloured shapes of nameless everyday reality and the blinding white light of Eternity.
• • •
Reader, that was the end of the report, the reflection, on Border Districts. I could have continued, but I think you get the idea by now. I hope my reflections might persuade readers to explore some of the works of Gerald Murnane, and to have the experience of entering the narrator’s or the narrators’ journey or journeys into the homeland of the mind.
Just as the narrator of Border Districts was set in motion to write the report by the sight of the stained glass window, I was prompted to write this memoir by the sight of a clothes moth flittering out of my closet. And then what happened was that, as if following Gerald’s template from ‘The Cursing of Ivan Veliki’, I found myself writing a report of Border Districts within the body of my memoir. One difference in the two cases is that I didn’t set out to write a report or a review, whereas in the case of Dear Writer and Brave New Word, Gerald did set out to write a review. My piece of memoir drifted along until it needed to include a report on Gerald’s 2017 book. His account of Dear Writer was 823 words long, an ordinary length for a review. My account of Border Districts is 4063 words long, like one of those longer reviews you sometimes get in journals. And although my war on Tineola bisselliella is relentless and ongoing, I continue to be grateful to the moth for my rediscovery of the gracious words that Gerald wrote in response to reading Dear Writer, and perhaps I can delight in the fact that ‘The Cursing of Ivan Veliki’, with all its incarnations, first came into being because of something I wrote to Writer all those years ago. •
Carmel Bird writes fiction and occasional essays. She has published more than 30 books. In 2016 she won the Patrick White Literary Award. Her recent publications are Family Skeleton and The Dead Aviatrix.
Carmel Bird, Dear Writer, McPhee Gribble, 1988; and republished as Dear Writer Revisited, Spineless Wonders, 2013.
Gerald Murnane, Border Districts, Giramondo, 2017.
Gerald Murnane, Collected Short Stories, Giramondo, 2018.
Gerald Murnane, A History of Books, Giramondo, 2012.
Gerald Murnane, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, Giramondo, 2005.
Gerald Murnane, Tamarisk Row, Heinemann, 1974; new edition, Giramondo, 2008.