‘The White Cattle of Uppington’ by Gerald Murnane

If you have never read any of Gerald Murnane’s writing before, the opening lines of ‘The White Cattle of Uppington’ will give you an idea of what it is like:

The following is a list of descriptions of some of the details of some of the images in some of the sequences of images that the chief character of this piece of fiction foresaw as appearing in his mind whenever during a certain year in the late 1970s he foresaw himself as preparing to write a certain piece of fiction. Each description is followed by a passage explaining some of the details of some of the images.

And so the story proceeds, with Murnane describing and analysing a young man reading Ulysses on a commuter train into Melbourne in the late-1950s; the same young man masturbating in a bedroom; the same person, slightly older, trying to inveigle himself with a rural artistic community, and later taking creative writing classes. The prose, like all of Murnane’s prose, is methodical, plain in the sense of vocabulary although sometimes baroque in terms of sentence structure, and completely unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Beckett is the closest comparison to be made, because of that shared ability to transform straightforward explanation into something bewilderingly complex, like the description of the sucking stones that runs to nearly 1500 words in Molloy.

I have only begun reading Murnane in the last couple of years; in fact I only read this story after I had almost finished compiling this anthology. But as far as I can tell from my limited knowledge, Murnane’s project is all of a piece: his novels, short fiction, memoir (I don’t think he writes poems) are all part of a larger investigation into the makeup of memory: why do we remember what we remember, and in the way we remember it? Elsewhere in the collected short fiction, in a story called ‘In Far Fields’, he describes telling a creative writing student that “I had studied my mind for many years and had found in it nothing but images and feelings…a diagram of my mind would resemble a vast and intricate map with images for its small towns and with feelings for the roads through the grassy countryside between the towns”. On and on his methodical description goes, as he attempts to understand why his mind should work like this, and what it means that it does.

I find Murnane’s approach completely addictive. I can understand why some find it chilly at best, if not utterly infuriating, but when I pick up his books I find them very difficult to put down again, whether he is spending four pages recounting everything he can remember from several decades spent reading the TLS, or returning once again to a recurring and haunting vision of grasslands spreading all around him to the horizon. These grasslands are both his Victorian home turf and, to return to ground we covered with Ballard, an inner landscape that says something about the nature of his mind. And on top of this we as readers bring our own associations: “I see what it makes me see”, as Pepita says, although Murnane’s style is largely about getting us as readers to see exactly what he sees. He is also someone who buys into interconnectivity. “If you write about something for long enough”, he said in a 2013 interview, “you’ll find that it is connected to something else”. As a statement that is banal. As a lifelong artistic method, it seems profound.

Murnane almost certainly won’t find any answers to the questions he’s asking, but as Donald Barthelme noted, “the task is not so much to solve problems as to propose questions”. I think Murnane really does want an answer, but like Ned, the protagonist of the last story in this anthology, he’s going to have to do without.

From Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2018

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