Daniel Swift

Daydreams in the outback

There are now calls to award the Nobel Prize for Literature to a man who has spent the last 40 years in obscurity in the outback

Gerald Murnane is the kind of writer literary critics adore. His novels have little in the way of plot or even character, and it is hard to tell the narrator from the writer, so that all his stories might be essays; his sentences are weirdly flat but interrupted occasionally by wild visions. Try this, for example:

There in a room with enormous windows a man with a polka-dotted bow tie broadcasts radio programmes to listeners all over the plains of northern Victoria, telling them about America where people are still celebrating the end of the war.

Where are we? Who can see the bow tie on the radio announcer, and did the war end recently or long ago? At the risk of a little racial profiling, this all sounds so odd that it has to be Australia, and Murnane himself is a perfect Australian type. The profiles and publicity materials accompanying his books describe a kind of outback Eliza Doolittle, a man who has spent the past 40 years writing to limited acclaim, but now those novels have been rediscovered and are being republished in America and the UK. It’s a romantic story, about unlikely literary success, and Murnane plays his part perfectly. He lives in the remote village of Goroke, in the north-west of Victoria, while the New York Times calls for him to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Murnane’s subjects are obsession, frustration and, like Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, the feeling of a mind alive in thinking and sensation. He also really likes marbles. In his first novel, Tamarisk Row — published in Australia in 1974 but only now in the UK — a boy called Clement Killeaton scrapes a circular track into the dust in the alley behind his house.

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