Review of “Inland” by Gerald Murnane – Exploring the Boundaries of Imagination
Gerald Murnane’s books are being reissued and attracting new readers to his unique and unconventional writing style. Despite being in his 80s, his stories are still considered avant-garde and can be compared to the works of Nabokov, Calvino, and Borges in the postmodernism movement. Unlike other popular writers, Murnane prefers to stay close to his hometown of Goroke in Victoria and is not interested in traveling the world for fame. However, like those esteemed authors and some modernists before them, he is a visionary who creates imaginary worlds. His writing blurs the lines between memories and imagination, making it a challenging read for some.
In 1988, Murnane wrote Inland, his last novel before taking a mysterious break from writing. For readers familiar with his other published works, such as Tamarisk Row (1974) and Border Districts (2017), Inland serves as a crucial missing piece. Unlike his other books, Inland challenges the traditional conventions of realism by blurring the boundaries of setting and sense of place. Murnane is known for his meticulous use of prose, often using sentences to convey memories of images. By connecting these image-sentences, we are able to piece together not just a physical place, but also the landscapes of a solitary mind.
Similar to The Plains (1982), a book that sets apart the continental interior from the coastal edge of a different location known as “Australia,” we are once again focusing on the inner aspects. The narrator of Inland informs us that he is composing in “heavy-hearted” Magyar from the library of a manor house in the Hungarian steppes to an editor and translator in South Dakota. His intended reader edits a journal named Hinterland, created by an organization dedicated to the examination of prairies. Therefore, she must have translated these words into English. Throughout the novel, we are attuned to matters of transmission and reception, and constantly reminded that writing also entails reading. A few years after writing Inland, Murnane took the effort to learn Hungarian: this dedication to a non-Indo-European language in Europe suggests a mentality drawn to the concept of a solitary language.
The narrator, however, confesses to intentionally deceiving the reader. The initial visions of the Great Hungarian Plain and the midwest prairie are gradually replaced by memories of a childhood spent moving around Melbourne and its surrounding areas. The narrator rejects the “foolish sea,” which is deemed more fitting for poets rather than novelists. Living inland is like living in a dreamland: these flatlands merge together so that the various versions of the narrator, as a man and as a boy, will eventually blend into one grassy landscape. Murnane has stated that something only exists for him if he can envision it in his mind – this is why JM Coetzee has described him as a radical idealist.
The “I” speaks with strong emotional impact as that of the man who reminisces about his 12-year-old self and his feelings for the girl he left behind. He finally shares these pages with his first reader. Inland is a heartfelt message that gazes outward, inward, and backward to “that other world which is in this one” (as expressed by Paul Éluard). When the narrator uses the phrase “I saw”, it is not limited to simply observing an object or recalling an image; it also encompasses remembering himself recalling or seeing himself seeing. In Greek, the word for seeing is idein. Murnane continuously thinks and sees in idealities: things that only exist as products of the imagination.
This is a crucial element of his writing, as he deeply considers the books he reads – their words, pages, spines, and the images they evoke. Some of these pages are from Wuthering Heights, where the character Cathy holds onto Lockwood in his dream, mirroring the older man’s grip on memories of the “girl-woman” across the window. Murnane greatly admires Proust, who believed that the transcendent recapturing of time, or at least the illusion of it, is the understanding of something that is “real without being actual, ideal without being abstract.” It is typical of Murnane to scour a map to locate a real town in South Dakota called Ideal. This is just one example of many place names that hold significance in a personal – and some may say, self-centered – network of symbols.
In his book “Inland”, the author references André Maurois’s biography of Proust, where the last lines praise writing that enables the reader to experience the intoxicating scent of lilacs through the falling rain. Like Proust, Murnane’s dreams are shaped by his days spent reading and writing. The feeling of longing is balanced by the possibility of achieving an ideal form of art that immortalizes the beloved while erasing the self. In “Inland”, the narrator goes as far as to state, “she is alive, I am dead.”