Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Being-in-Landscape: A Heideggerian Reading of Landscape in Gerald Murnane's Inland

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Being-in-Landscape: A Heideggerian Reading of Landscape in Gerald Murnane's Inland

Article excerpt

My books are mostly about landscapes, because for me the world is mostly made up of landscapes. If you handed me a book of philosophy, I'd end up thinking of it as a book of landscapes. Gerald Murnane

I. Introduction

Landscape is an important presence throughout Murnane's writing from his first novel, Tamarisk Row (1974), to his most recent work of fiction, A Million Windows (2014). Murnane explained the centrality of landscape to his fiction in an interview, where he said: 'My books are mostly about landscapes, because for me the world is mostly made up of landscapes. If you handed me a book of philosophy, I'd end up thinking of it as a book of landscapes' (Braun-Bau, 'Conversation' 46).

Landscape is not merely a backdrop for narrative action, rather, landscape itself becomes an intrigue central to the fiction. At times landscape even aspires to the status of character, and occasionally achieves this status, as the sprawling Inner Australia does in The Plains. In spite of, or perhaps because of its central importance, landscape retains an air of mystery and inscrutability for Murnane's characters and readers alike. The aim of this essay is to penetrate this haze of ambiguity and offer an interpretation of the landscape's significance in Murnane's fiction. Particular interest will be taken in the way characters interact with landscape, and the ontological knowledge that the characters may arrive at in such interactions.

In order to uncover the significance of Murnane's fictional landscapes this essay will closely examine one book in particular, Inland. Originally published in 1988, Inland has recently been re-released by Dalkey Archive in the United States, where it garnered an essay-length review in the New York Review of Books. Given its perplexing narrative convolutions, a short summary of the novel's story is difficult. In essence, the novel revolves around an institutional repository of information on the world's grassy places - plains, prairies, grasslands et cetera - that is aptly named the Institute of Prairie Studies. The two main characters of the novel are its narrators, and both are contributors to the grand repository of grassland documentation. The first narrator has control of the story for the first sixty-odd pages before surrendering the reins to the second narrator. What makes the underlying narrative thread difficult to track is that it is never made entirely clear how the two narrators relate to each other; it remains possible that each may be a figment of the other's imagination.

Inland serves as an obvious focal point for a number of reasons. First, Inland is, in many ways, the most ambitious of Murnane's published works to date. Spanning two, or maybe three, continents the novel's architectonics allow for the mesmerising interweaving of observation, dream and memory. Murnane himself has acknowledged Inland to be the most demanding of his books, while J.M. Coetzee has called it 'the most ambitious, sustained, and powerful piece of writing he has to date brought off' (62). Second, Inland is a watershed in the terrain of Murnane's fiction. Looking back across Murnane's entire output from 1974 to 2014, it is possible to see Inland as the point at which he changed direction. Prior to Inland, Murnane's writing was initially concerned with childhood and adolescence (in Tamarisk Row and A Lifetime on Clouds) and then with landscape (in The Plains and Landscape with Landscape). Then came Inland with its masterful exploration of how landscape is inscribed in words and in memory. After Inland, landscape remained a presence in Murnane's fiction (in, for example, Emerald Blue and Velvet Waters, which appear to be written in the shadow of Inland). But landscape's importance was undoubtedly on the wane, and it increasingly became a background for explorations of the phenomenology of reading and writing (which explorations reached their apogee in the recent Barley Patch, A History of Books and A Million Windows). …

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