The Plains by Gerald Murnane
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2000 (first pub. 1982) ISBN 9781876485443
For many years in the latter part of the Twentieth Century, both critics and readers were in search of 'The great Australian novel'. Many youngsters were convinced that they were the person to deliver it to the awaiting public. The book in question was no doubt often conceived as an all-encompassing epic, along the lines of Capricornia, but with more literary merit.
While that search was going on, it could just be that a reclusive Melbourne academic may have, in a little over 100 pages, delivered one of the greatest pieces of prose written in this country. The Plains can lay claim to being the great Australian novel, and Gerald Murnane, along with Randolph Stow, as the great Australian writer.
So what is this work, with so much greatness thrust upon it by critics and which bewitches each new generation that encounters it? It is an evocation of an Australia that is, that could be, and that has never been: a mythologising of the divide between city and country, coast and interior, intellect and banality.
Murnane has imagined an Australian civilization that has never existed; a flight of fancy where the scions of the great pastoral families patronise all the arts, while at the same time being totally insular within the society they have created. The image of the plains are all-important to these people, and yet what the plains are or represent cannot be fathomed.
Murnane's protagonist, a filmmaker, travels to the plains to be patronised by one of these families, and the first section of the book is a description of some of the (invented) philosophical and religious history of the plains. It becomes clear in this section that the plains are different for each person who perceives them, and thus there can be no coherent view of what they might be. It also becomes clear that - and this is developed throughout the book - the plains are a metaphor for our souls: both vast and all-encompassing, and microscopically small and detailed.
The second part of the book, wherein our filmmaker is ensconced in one of the great houses, is an exercise in humility, as he realises that the task he has taken on - to express the spirit of the plains in film - is impossible, and that the further he delves into his subject the farther he gets from ever expressing it as a form of art in any way. For such a short work, The Plains asks some deep personal questions, about what we believe and why, and how we know when we know something.
There is quite a bit of humour in the book: Murnane has fun turning the more sybaritic and ignorant traditions in regional Australia into activities that have deep meaning. And yet, as a person who grew up on the fringe of some of the great pastoral lands of Australia, the other-worldliness that Murnane evokes does exist out there: at times it can seem like another country, and one that sneers at and turns its back on metropolitan Australia.
Murnane's style is another factor in making The Plains a great book: both discursive and recursive, it has elements of Proust and even perhaps Beckett, with long descriptions of nothing much and sentences pregnant with meaning.
If there are any classic works of Australian literature, this is one of them - something I confirm and affirm every time I read it.
Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell