Memory matters

gerald murnaneReview by Nick Mattiske

Book | Collected Short Fiction | Gerald Murnane

Gerald Murnane is one of our finest writers and was recently shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award for his latest novel Border Districts.

But his fiction, including the recently released Collected Short Fiction, is a strange kind of fiction, reading more like nonfiction, and as such, rather than standing out from the pack of contemporary writers, he is simply in a class of his own.

Unlike most contemporary fiction he moves away from rather than towards immediacy. There is a formality and neatness about his writing. He has little desire to shock and avoids character names, referring instead to ‘the chief character in this story’, which deliberately draws attention to the writing process. There is no dialogue to speak of.

The prose flows, but there is the carefully layering of argument, a sense of carefully getting the facts straight, as might occur in a police interrogation, although he deals with subject matter that would otherwise seem mundane. Lest this sound off-putting, there is intriguing tension between form and content, as if someone articulate but reserved is letting you in on the details of their life.

He draws from his own life – from his Catholic background, teaching career and interest in horseracing. References to Melbourne’s northern suburbs, Bendigo and the Western District might resonate with Victorian readers. In this heavy use of his own biography he again blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction while alerting us to the oddness of fiction’s attempt to represent the world.

Most of all his fiction asserts the importance of memory, the sense of past events crowding at our backs and pushing us forward. As with memory, there are odd choices in Murnane’s fiction as to which particulars are left in and which are left out. But this seemingly arbitrary and sometimes pedantic choosing is part of his craft, and it reminds us of the richness and uniqueness of supposedly ordinary lives. RRP $34.95

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