Border Districts (2017) is a meditation on remembering by an imaginary author clearly representing Murnane himself who has moved from the capital city where he grew up to a little town which he has long imagined, out on the western plains of the state in which he has always lived, so that one of the meanings of ‘border districts’ is this area of his home state which borders an adjacent state.
It is possible that Murnane intends at least partly an homage to Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Times Lost (1871-1922) which he mentions and which I haven’t read. He repeatedly brings up as memories not things he has seen but memories of the images retained from seeing these things and further, memories of images, scenes, transactions he in his childhood and youth imagined.
This work is a fiction, but a fiction which the fictional protagonist insists is factual, an accurate account of his real memories of both real and imagined landscapes and events. I am reminded that in the only other of his works that I have read, Landscape with Landscape (review), Murnane describes his personal ‘landscape’ as “the space between myself and the nearest woman or man who seemed real to me”. Here, 30 years later, ‘real’ has almost disappeared, leaving only a landscape of retained images of past realities and past imaginings, both equally valid, imperfectly recalled.
For a geography minded reader like me the book is interesting not least for its complete absence of place names. So, the fictional author grew up in the outer suburbs of the capital city (Melbourne) of a state in the southern part of the country, lived as a child for a while in a provincial city (Bendigo), and now lives in a little country town out on the plains of the Western District, which he moved to because he had imagined it.
(Whenever I recall, here in this quiet district near the border, my mostly aimless activity during my fifty and more years in the capital city, I begin to envy the sort of man who might have been paid a modest wage during most of his adult life in return for feeding and watering and grooming and exercising a half-dozen thoroughbred horses in a certain few sheds and paddocks behind a plantation of cypresses on the far side of an assortment of outbuildings in the vicinity of an immense garden surrounding a sprawling homestead out of sight of the nearest road, which would have appeared as one of the faintly coloured least of roads if ever I had seen it on some or another map of some or another of the mostly level grassy landscapes that seem often to lie in some or another far western district of my mind.)
He mentions a number of times a “place-name I have never been able to find in any gazeteer of the British Isles” a place name which he notices on his rare long journeys across the largely treeless plain to the capital city, and which I think is a name I too have seen and indeed look out for along the Melbourne-Adelaide highway, Ercildoun, a ‘Mt’ (prominent hill) north of Trawalla, and with an ‘e’ one of the large (tens of thousands of acres) grazing properties into which Victoria was first divided, and also, though he does not say, a fine old bank building in Footscray. “I learned from my reading that the place name is a much earlier version of the present-day name of a small town in the border district of Scotland”.
If Border Districts has a theme it is stained glass, or to be more accurate, the fictional author’s memory of the quality of light filtered through stained glass, the description of which he constantly refines. The book begins with the fictional author visiting a small church in the town in which he now lives, belonging “to one of the Protestant denominations I pitied as a schoolboy for the drabness of their services”, and which have windows with stained glass representations of leaves and stems and petals.
He remembers (Catholic) churches he attended as a boy and as a trainee priest and their representations in stained glass of Jesus, of Mary, and of the ‘Sacrament’. And an older house in the capital city in which he sometimes stays has stained glass in some of the windows which he photographs to study more closely at home.
This older house which I mentioned in the previous paragraph (which is a phrase Murnane, or his fictional author, use a lot) is the family home of a friend from his schooldays where the friend grew up, after his mother’s death, in the care of his father and his father’s maiden cousin whom he, the friend, calls Aunt. And the fictional author imagines for the Aunt a life in which she marries the man who wrote to her before his death at Gallipoli, a life in which the man comes home home from the War and lives the life mentioned in an earlier paragraph, as a groom on one of the great Western District estates, and they late in life have a daughter and that daughter is of an age with the fictional author and they become friends.
There is much more: coloured glass marbles; a kaliedoscope which works by rotating a marble at the end of a short tube; school Readers (which Victorians of a certain age will remember) which both he and the Aunt’s imaginary daughter read right through at the beginning of the school year and then must suffer through the remainder of the year readings out loud by their less progressed classmates; race meetings followed mostly on the radio and the owners who have the old estates in Western Victoria and their racing colours; an interview on the radio with a women author who catches his attention when she states that she has imagined a house which is situated in that part of the adjacent state nearest the home of the fictional author, and that she will locate and buy this house, which she is certain exists, and turn it into a retreat for authors of fiction, but not for poets or biographers. The fictional author writes to this woman author but she does not reply.
Murnane’s concerns are the border between mind and brain, the border between object and perception, the border which separates the past and our memory of the past. But ‘border’ also denotes a place away from the centre, a place on the outer –
As a young man, I was often driven to search … not only for writers but for painters sculptors and composers of music who lived in isolation from their kind, far from the putative centres of culture. Even in my youth, I seem to have been seeking evidence that the mind is a place best viewed from the borderlands.
Border Districts is one of those works, and probably one of those few great works, where the writing is more important than the subject matter. Where we are carried along, bemused, in a great writer’s train of thought.
Gerald Murnane, Border Districts, Giramondo, Melbourne, 2017