Was the ‘air guitar’ already a thing in 1892, when twenty-year-old French novelist Marcel Proust was photographed kneeling at the feet of Jeanne Pouquet, strumming the tuneless strings of a tennis racket? Almost certainly not, but it was precisely this unlikely image that came to mind when I heard about Words in Order, a recent album by the acclaimed Australian author Gerald Murnane.
Murnane counts Proust among his chief literary influences, along with Emily Brontë and the Hungarian writer Gyula Illyés, sharing the French author’s obsession with long, circuitous sentences. The result is not easily digestible fiction, but neither is it difficult for difficulties sake. “In art alone are we able to emerge from ourselves,” writes Proust in the gripping final volume of Remembrance of Things Past, “to know what another person sees of a universe which is not the same as our own and which, without art, the landscapes remain as unknown to us as those that may exist on the moon.” The high stakes of this ars poetica summarises what readers have come to expect from Murnane: over the course of thirteen books, since the publication of Tamarisk Row in 1974, the author has slowly unveiled a private landscape of complexity, exquisiteness and sincerity.
Which brings us to Words in Order, a thirty-minute recording of Murnane reading with musical accompaniment, recorded at his local, the Goroke Hotel, in the Wimmera region of Victoria. According to Murnane’s newly registered Bandcamp page, the project was instigated by Chris Gregory, a musician, friend and former creative writing student who Murnane taught at Deakin University. (Gregory’s name is buried discretely in the liner notes of the album’s physical release, a striking bifold, with the cover photograph of the Goroke & District Memorial Hall, the canary coloured building set against a brilliant, clear blue sky.)
The inevitably, and comedy, of death links the seven otherwise incongruous recordings on the vinyl B-side of Words in Order. On only one track, ‘The Ballad RTM’, does Murnane read an original piece of writing; the others are covers, assembled from a variety of sources: three poems by Thomas Hardy, one by the Hungarian poet and novelist Kosztolányi Dezső, and one each taken from lyrics by Devo and Killdozer.
Murnane reads Hardy’s well-known ‘In the Cemetery’ over a sparse, forlorn composition, played by Gregory on the electric organ. This matches the gallows humour of the poem, written in response to a job Hardy held as a fledgling architect in the mid-1860s, overseeing the excavation of several hundred graves at St Pancras Old Church, the coffins relocated to make way for a central London train terminus. Through a description of weeping mothers at a loss to locate the ‘final’ resting place of deceased children (“as well to cry over a new-laid drain / as anything else, to ease your pain”), the poem offers a cynical vision of modernity’s wrecking ball, collapsing indiscriminately the sacred with the profane.
It’s a similar sense of incongruity—a cemetery abuts a railway line—which makes Words in Order such a curious and unique listening experience. Murnane’s voice sounds as his readers might expect: lively yet deliberative. Gregory’s music, by contrast, offers multiple, very different registers: at turns loose and experimental, then impishly kitsch, his choice of Devo lyrics hinting as much at temperament as sonic inspiration. ‘A Plea to Those Who Survive Me’ sounds somewhere between Nine Inch Nails and Children of Bodom, Gregory’s homage to a Swedish backpacker in a Metallica t-shirt who haunted the recording sessions, pouring drinks at the Goroke Hotel to fund his Australian holiday. ‘The Ballad of RTM’, a poem dedicated to Reginald Murnane, the author’s father, is read over a country instrumental, not quite the driving boom-chicka-boom of Johnny Cash, but perhaps the version you sing late at night in a karaoke booth.
When I met Gregory for lunch, he explained how he was interested in “debased genres… country and death metal”, which, despite their fans’ dedication, exist beyond the pale of acceptable mainstream and (importantly) highbrow or academic taste. He likes the idea of Murnane’s readers and reviewers (and here, perhaps, the fantasy includes me) buying Words in Order out of cultural obligation to an author of stature and, as such, surreptitiously smuggling into our homes sounds that might otherwise be left at the doorstep.
“Culture happens at the margins,” he said to me, referring not only to Words in Order, but to Murnane’s precarious, outsider status within the Australian literary field for much of his career, a position that has changed of late, partly due to international recognition of his work: J.M. Coetzee, Teju Cole and Ben Lerner are among his high-profile admirers. Referring to ‘The Ballad of RTM’ as the “album’s single”, Gregory explained that the recordings were pitched at a very different audience: “I could hear it played on rural ABC radio… or maybe someone at the Goroke Hotel who isn’t a reader might be impressed when Gerald tells them about his album.”
“I was stuck with him for twenty-one years, 38 percent of his life,” we hear in ‘The Ballad of RTM’. The story of a father is, of course, always also a story of the child: “During that time, he had eighteen addresses, eleven jobs, and twice that many schemes for extra income.” Murnane’s was a modest, often difficult upbringing, most fully portrayed in his early novels, Tamarisk Row and A Lifetime on Clouds, both of which were written at an ironing board by a writer without the space to accommodate a more permanent desk. ‘The Ballad of RTM’ is, inevitably, a less satisfying telling of this story, in part because the music undercuts the lyric’s emotional impact. Indeed, the most touching moment happens after the music falls silent, leaving us alone with the author’s voice: “I would have said Reg was killed by the weight of his debts, most still unpaid when we buried his remains near the mouth of the Hopkins in Warrnambool with all the other Murnanes.”
This is not to suggest that Gregory is an inattentive or unsympathetic collaborator. ‘Do Good, Dog-God! Do, O God!’, the album’s first song, a fifteen-and-a-half-minute marathon, features a musical score quite literally derived from the author. Gregory first used a substitution cipher to find musical notes equivalent to all 26 letters of the alphabet:
Then developed a melodic sequence based upon the letters of the author’s name:
The result is beautiful, reminding me of minimal dance music and, intermittently, of Philip Glass—though more homespun and stranger than we hear in Glass’ own collaborations with, say, Allen Ginsberg or David Byrne. Gregory’s melody moves at different tempos and is accompanied by a chorus of galahs and other native birds, “to maintain musical interest,” as he puts it on the album’s back cover.
Murnane contributes a reading of a 1,600 palindrome, an astounding achievement in mirrored writing, inspired by Will Thomas’ 4,694 word ‘A Gassy Obese Boy’s Saga,’ printed in a 2005 issue of Pataphysics Magazine. Here is a short sample taken from the middle of ‘Do Good, Dog-God! Do, O God!’ where the letters begin to double back, the centre marked by parentheses:
No rotten rose. We nab hot paste past a cold log. Now snub wets. We’d fill up dew.
I saw red. No wrong is sex. Add on e(v)en odd axes. Sign, or wonder was I wed. Pull if dew stew-buns won gold.
Lo! Cats! A pet’s apt. Oh, ban ewes or nett or on […]
The prose isn’t easily recognisable as Murnane’s, at least not as we’re used to him in the published novels (though some parts—“was tool aglow at eleven! It was vivid lilac!”—amusingly resonate with the author’s more familiar imaginary). As Gregory explained, Murnane’s intention was never to publish the palindrome, but instead to challenge himself and impress a few friends who he sent it to in the mail. Listening to the recording, we may miss Murnane’s immaculately formed sentences, but we also hear the author at his most free, playfully ludicrous and, as Gregory was quick to point out, funny. To recuperate a piece of writing not feasible in traditional print (what Murnane elsewhere calls “the fish-heads and potato-peels of fiction”) fits Gregory’s general ethos, his interest in culture that happens at the margins.
It is friendship between the collaborators that shines through most strongly in these recordings. In the album’s final song, a reading of Killdozer’s ‘Knuckles the Dog’, both break out laughing, Murnane almost unable to finish reading the very silly lyrics: “You’re the best dog of all the other dogs by far / Knuckles the dog won’t hunt, he respects all forms of life.”
I ask Gregory if capturing something of Murnane’s social self is part of the project’s purpose, a corrective to the popular image of the author as serious, austere and solitary. “Certainly, I wanted to disrupt this vision of Gerald,” he replied. Critics tend to simplify artists in order to comprehend their art, ignoring what does not fit standard narratives, a process Gregory likens to “flensing”, a term for stripping skin or fat from an animal carcass. With an academic monograph and biography both scheduled to be published this year, and ongoing talk of the Murnane’s Nobel Prize chances, Gregory sees an acceleration in attempts to render him one thing: coherent and canonical. Should he ever win the Nobel, the two have a further collaboration planned: a recording of Murnane’s wait on hold to Centrelink, declaring the prize money as windfall income.
Gerald Murnane – Words in Order
Released by Culture Sack in June 2018
Brendan Casey is a writer and PhD student living in Melbourne.