Gerald Murnane, “The Plains”, and the Australian landscape

Gerald Murnane is a widely travelled writer who rarely leaves Victoria, and who has never travelled in an aeroplane. His short novel, The Plains, first published in 1982, describes the Australian landscape in a haunting and mesmerizing way. Murnane’s novel has described the indescribable about the land, which slowly unravels to reveal his deep and grounded understanding of the nature of the Australian landscape.

The Plains opens with an unnamed narrator telling us about his journey to the plains. He tells us that he stopped when he thought that he had come far enough, after noticing distinct styles of dress and speech, noticeably different from what is, in the novel, called Outer Australia—civilisation around the coast. He also tells us that he is always on the lookout for “anything in the landscape ... [seeming] to hint at some elaborate meaning behind appearances.” (Murnane, p.1).

The narrator is a film maker, who is looking to capture the meaning, the essence of the plains on film, in a way that doesn’t leave anything out and pleases the plainsmen. He soon finds a patron in one of the wealthy land-owners and continues to work on his copious notes and endless research.

The film maker tries for year after year to work out how he can best capture the plains, how he can best show the subtleties of understanding that the plainsmen and himself share. He ponders which lens to use, and which angle to shoot from. But he can’t nut it out. Always something isn’t quite right; there is always something missing that he can’t quite put his finger on.

He’s missing the completeness of the nature of the plains, and he knows that. But he doesn’t know how to pin down the nature of the plains. He might work some it out, and pin that down, but there is always something just out reach. The film maker speculates, but can’t capture the encompassing completeness.

“You can never get to the end of a bit of country you love.”

—Les Murray

The film maker can’t get to the end of the plains, no one can. Yet he would have to if he wanted to make his film. The plains extend off into the distance unending and ever compelling; driving some forward and keeping others in their place—on their plain. The plains can’t be captured and explained because the plainsmen and the film maker will never get to the end of them, they stretch forever forwards as a hazy, captivating mirage. They are deeply grounded—absolutely in love—in their own plain.

Gerald Murnane imagines his Australian landscapes. He has never been to see them, but his writing reveals them as though he had set up shop and was describing the view in front of him. Murnane doesn’t need to travel, because he does it in his mind. It is a deep understanding of country and a burning desire to express it that drives writers to write. The landscape has a profound effect on writers, and this is especially profound in Australia—vast, open, isolating.

Murnane is grounded in Australia and his country expands beyond the physical experiences most of us are limited to.

The Plains has a large, flowing streak of isolation. The plainsmen are isolated, and they thrive on it. Their country is isolating, it is what marks them as different from Outer Australia. That’s what they cling to, it’s their livelihood, it’s who they are.

Gerald Murnane, at home in country Victoria, is isolated too. Australia, but its nature is isolating. The very fact that Murnane hasn’t seen most of this country proves it.

There’s something we all share, all of us who are grounded in Australia, but we can’t share it, we don’t know how. By saying it can’t be explained, Murnane manages to unearth it in each reader’s mind.

“Not only my years of reading but my long conversations with plainsmen ... assure me that people here conceive of a lifetime as one sort of plain.”

The Plains, p. 114, Gerald Murnane.

The “metaphors” of The Plains isn’t only applied to the interior of Australia, not just the whole country—but the whole of life’s existence. The Plains shows how culture is difficult to map, customs are hard to catalogue, and the nature and its effect on the landscape in which we live can’t be measured. It shows us that while expression of these things is difficult, understanding is not and it is often universal amongst those grounded in it. It also shows us that the landscape of our mind and the physical landscape are one.

“I told them a story almost devoid of events or achievements. Outsiders would have made little of it, but the plainsmen understood.”

The Plains, p. 11, Gerald Murnane

Gerald Murnane’s life is devoid of events or achievements when it comes to travel, and many, like the Outsiders mentioned above, would make nothing of a life spent stationary. They would question, with half interest, why Murnane chooses to stay at home when he could see the world and travel.

The reason is that he doesn’t have to. He is there, and he travels with his writing—those grounded and those who have an understanding of deep country will understand. Others may not.

The Plains speak on two different levels—the level of landscape and the level of the mind and existence. The mind and the land become one; what one thinks of the land is their land, that’s the intertwined connection between the two.

The Plains’ film maker fails to make his film, conceding that he will never expose celluloid to light in a controlled darkened box. Yet he is content, pleased almost. The film maker is completely taken by the nature of the plains, and is wholly in love with them. He knows that he won’t ever get to the end of them and that his film will never be made because it isn’t possible to. His greatest achievement, it seems, might also be his biggest failure. He fails to make a film, but he understands country.

Murnane’s landscapes are realistic and dense—their complexity makes them vivid. Within them you can see your own landscape, landscapes not yet thought of and landscapes that are themselves metaphors. It makes The Plains concisely broad, and every word is reaffirmed as being a part of a complex masterpiece.

Murnane, G., 2012, The Plains, Text Publishing Company, Melbourne.

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