‘EVERYTHING IS GRIST TO THE HISTORIAN’S MILL’


Interest in “Ian on Sunday” of April 12, (“Everything is interesting,”) attracted not only my attention but that of SN’s editorial writer last Friday, days after I had completed this effort. Ian McDonald related how he conducted a “great clearing operation” and lyrically described the relief: “Disposing of detritus is a little like returning life to greater simplicity and more focused meaning.” But then came the vandal’s remorse. What if, in destroying what would be considered rubbish, is an act of vandalism, because “everything is grist to the historian’s mill,” citing Joel Benjamin, Guyana’s late outstanding archivist and bibliophile.

A political pamphlet, a strange poem sent by an old man, a prospectus, an invitation to a dinner party, a programme for a cultural show, might all become important. Ian relied on the example of Samuel Pepys, the English diarist who had recorded a vast collection of songs and other material of the day which remained hidden for 300 years and is now priceless. Two days later, in a letter to SN, George N. Cave expressed a similar dilemma about his own material.

The Australian novelist, Gerald Murnane, aged 80, unknown up to recently, solved the problem in a unique way. Murnane had the advantage of time by deciding early to establish his “archives.” To relieve embarrassment at his “childish” hobby and possibly to avoid domestic stress for hoarding, for many years he did not disclose to his wife the contents of his Antipodes Archive, described below.

A “savant of letters,” Murnane is deeply thoughtful and a uniquely creative writer of imagined reality. He determined early that he could not write a “novel with a plot, with characters deserving to be called credible…” Among the best known of his fourteen works are “The Plains (1982),” “A Million Windows (2014)” and “Border Districts (2017)” described as “a jewel of a farewell from one of the greatest living writers of English prose.”

Murnane was described as “a bit alien, ensconced in his eccentricity, like Don Quixote in his armour.” (The New Republic, May 4, 2018). He doesn’t watch TV or films, has never visited an art gallery, museum or historic building, has never touched a computer, or a cell phone (until his children persuaded him to get one to keep in touch because of his advancing years), cannot operate a camera and has never travelled in an aeroplane, or out of Australia, and rarely out of Victoria.

When Murnane, a published writer since 1974 (“Tamarisk Row”), was awarded the Patrick White Award in 1999 for unrecognized Australian writers, his books were all out of print. Since emerging as a top contender for the Noble Prize three years ago, after being nominated repeatedly for over a decade, interest has flourished in him, his writing and his life in the town of Goroke, population 250, at the edge of Victoria, in southeastern Australia, where he lives in a back room in his son’s house and tends bar for the weekly golf game.

Forty scholars, critics, editors and readers descended on the town a little over a year ago for a series of lectures on his work. He sat at the bar and listened politely but said nothing. He had declined to travel out of Goroke, in which he and his wife had decided to bury their ashes. After he buried his wife’s ashes when she died earlier than expected after 43 years of marriage, he moved to the town.

His one room dwelling contains a folding cot (put away during the day) a sink, a mini fridge and a shower stall. Dominating the living space are about a dozen filing cabinets, which contain his “Archives” – the Chronological Archive, Literary Archive and Antipodes Archive. What Ian McDonald and George Cave referred to as detritus, Murnane has meticulously saved, organized and stored for 50 years. Included are disposable tidbits, such as pieces of paper with Hungarian words and phrases, compiled when he was studying the Hungarian language to read a book written in Hungarian, in which he is now fluent. There are thousands of pages of journals, letters, lecture notes, drafts of his novels and other material.

His Chronological Archive has files on such subjects as “I rebuff a wealthy widow,” “I fall out with an arrogant student of mine,” “Two women bother me,” “I decide that most books are crap,” and “I am a very strange person.” There is a notebook of 20,000 words entitled “My Shame File;” a report of 40,000 words of miraculous and unexplained events in his life; and an account of 75,000 words of his dealings with everyone he has ever courted romantically or considered courting.

His Antipodes Archive contains an extensive, imaginary, universe consisting of two fictional, island countries, New Eden and New Arcady. They have detailed train schedules and in them are set vast and complex horseracing events involving 1500 horses with names, owners, trainers, jockeys, racing colours and the races in which they compete, all invented. Murnane says that he is sane but believes some of the things that insane people believe. He did not win the Nobel Prize. (Mark Binelli’s article of March 27, 2018, is acknowledged for some of this material).

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