The book seemed out of place amongst the tumble of easy-reads falling out of the over-flowing footpath library.
There, amongst the thrillers and romances and biographies and cookbooks and self-help guides was a slim volume of 90 pages: Green Shadows and Other Poems by Gerald Murnane. (Giramondo Publishing, 2019)
Murnane is regarded by some as one of the world’s finest writers. To quote The New York Times from the back of Green Shadows: ‘A strong case could be made for Murnane as…the greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of.’
And the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘No living Australian writer, not even Les Murray, has higher claims to permanence or a richer sense of distinction.’
And Nobel Prize winner J.M Coetzee: ‘The emotional conviction… is so intense, the sombre lyricism so moving, the intelligence behind the chiselled sentences so undeniable, that we suspend all disbelief.’
I tried to understand, or thought I understood, Murnane’s early novels (Tamarisk Row, A Lifetime on Clouds, The Plains) but the labyrinthine sentences and paragraphs got the better of me. The references to horse-racing initially reflected my father’s upbringing (his father was a horse trainer, his grandfather was a horse-breaker) but the more I read the more I realised I was out of my depth, lost in paddocks where the grass grows too high. Murnane’s novels, seemingly based on ideas within ideas within ideas did not, for me, have enough narrative impetus. I missed the point, I guess.
I wanted to be up for the intellectual challenge. I wanted to like the books, partly because Murnane, 40 years ago, briefly took me under his wing. I was a student of his short-story writing class at university. He was a mentor, in his distant way, and after I completed the degree he said he was hoping to find room for me on staff as a tutor. It was not to be, though. Funding or time-tabling or bureaucracy or curriculum priorities.
And I found, after a few more years, that writing short fiction (or any fiction) was not my forte.
Still, I would see Murnane’s books in libraries and bookshops. See reviews. A documentary. Articles about Nobel Prize nominations. And I’d wish I had the rigour to revisit those first novels, and the dozen that have followed.
And then, at a footpath library around the corner I come across Green Shadows. And I feel like I’m on the same page, rather than adrift in a sea of metaphysics. I feel like I’m with Murnane for much of the time. I’m with him when he’s in Gippsland, or Goroke, or the Mornington Peninsula, or the Bordertown races or, especially, his beloved Western District, a mindful place if ever there was. His memories of schoolgirls, his Catholic upbringing, his imagined worlds come to life.
I’m not lost and confounded by the page-long sentences of his novels. The constraints of short poems make things clearer.
There is some literary mischief, for sure. Murnane pours so much scorn on eminent writers (the poem ‘Crap-books’ is not kind to Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Saul Bellow, Scott Fitzgerald…) that I wonder what on earth he would make of the books Green Shadows was keeping company before I found it.
He also praises some of his favourite writers: Lesbia Harford, Williams Carlos Williams, Thomas Hardy and John Clare.
Murnane is 80-odd now, so time is running short for the Nobel Prize.
A mundane activity – walking to the milkbar past the footpath library – led me to a rekindling of interest in the words of a former teacher. Will I now come out of the green shadows and try Velvet Water, Barley Patch, A Million Windows, A History of Books?
Can I walk the extra miles, through the fields and the paddocks and the plains, through the landscapes of Gerald Murnane?