‘Meaning, for me, is connection’: Merve Emre and Joseph Steinberg on Gerald Murnane
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Gerald Murnane’s meticulously self-curated 'Chronological Archive' – as distinct from his ‘Literary Archive’ and ‘Antipodean Archive’, both of which he likewise compiled – fills no fewer than ‘twenty-one of the twenty-four drawers in six steel filing cabinets’. ‘In each drawer’, his catalogue stipulates, ‘at least twenty coloured signposts draw attention to items of more than usual interest’. A list of more than a hundred of these signposts follows. None of the items identified will be available for consultation until after the death of the author and his siblings. Murnane’s decision to announce his archive’s contents seems therefore premature, at least until we notice that this choice is clearly of a piece with the grand legacy-securing undertaking that is his curation of the archive itself: the catalogue’s promise that it contains much ‘humour and literary gossip’ is tacitly underwritten by its pre-emptive publication, which for all its idiosyncrasy also functions as a more-or-less transparent bid to stoke further conversation about its author.
And how could we possibly be expected to resist? A minor masterstroke in the tradition of eccentric self-exposure, his catalogue records a cranky litany of frustrations (‘Deakin University was run by lunatics’), machinations (‘Telling white lies to the Literature Board’), hesitations (‘Should I tell Literature to get fucked?’), passions (‘Hoaxes! How I love them’), perversions (‘Faszom mértékei stb’. [My dick measurements, etc.]), ambitions (‘Peter Craven thinks I could win the Nobel Prize’), occupations (‘I’m a prophet’), preoccupations (‘Is it any wonder that I hated Deakin University?’), and sheer obsessions (‘10,000 anagrams of GERALD MURNANE’). Then there’s the naming, shaming, rumour-mongering, mudslinging: ‘Thomas Keneally – a plagiarist found out’; ‘Much about Carmel Bird, minor writer’; ‘I fall out with Peter Goldsworthy’; ‘Rodney Hall’s horrid book-launch’; ‘Gerard Windsor’s first fuck’ (revenge for Windsor’s review of Murnane’s Landscape with Landscape); ‘Why do I dislike Gillian Mears?’; ‘Judith Wright – hypocrite and liar’; ‘Peter Carey exposed at last’; ‘I rebuff Helen Garner with much force’.
Whatever reservations we might entertain about Murnane’s literary lashon hara, they shouldn’t prevent us from attending to how this most reclusive of writers carefully courts his readers. Sub-literary as it might seem, does the promise of a catty tell-all nonetheless extend the work of the novel-length reports he dubs his ‘true fiction’? What is it about his sentences that make them both exhausting and exhilarating? What should we make of his occasional prickliness toward literary scholars, who he once dubbed ‘text maniacs’ and a ‘a pack of torturers’? And why, despite this standoffishness, has reading his fiction made us both feel oddly protective of him?
Join Joseph Steinberg in conversation with Merve Emre, as we subject Murnane’s prose to an hour of affectionate torture.
Merve Emre is associate professor of English at the University of Oxford, and a contributing writer at The New Yorker. She is the author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America (2017), The Ferrante Letters (2019), and The Personality Brokers (Doubleday: New York, 2018), which was selected as one of the best books of 2018 by the New York Times, the Economist, NPR, CBC, and the Spectator, and informs the CNN/HBO Max documentary feature film Persona. She is the editor of Once and Future Feminist (2018), The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway (2021), and The Norton Modern Library Mrs. Dalloway (2021). She is finishing a book titled Post-Discipline: Literature, Professionalism, and the Crisis of the Humanities and writing a book called Love and Other Useless Pursuits. Her work has been supported by the Whiting Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Leverhulme Trust, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Quebec, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Berlin, where she was a fellow from 2021-22. In 2022, she is serving as one of the judges of the International Booker Prize.
Joseph Steinberg is a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge, where he teaches courses in modern, contemporary, and postcolonial literatures. He will submit his dissertation, titled ‘The Program Goes South: Australian Prose and the University, 1970-2020’, within the next few months. His articles, chapters and reviews are published and forthcoming in ALS, JASAL, AHR, The Cambridge Quarterly, and The Cambridge Companion to the Australian Novel.