Thursday, April 7, 2011

Australian Nobel Prize Candidates: Gerald Murnane

As every bit of coverage of Gerald Murnane's chances for the Nobel have noted, Murnane, as a horse-racing fan of meticulous attentiveness and depth, knows all about odds, and when, in 2006 and again last year the British sports betting firm Ladbrokes  had him at fairly short odds as a Nobel winner, he knew both that he was in the running and that anything can happen after the morning line has been set.

Murnane, as a candidate, is the anti-Malouf. Whereas Malouf has won international prizes seen as prerequisites or at least qualifiers for winning the Nobel, Murnane, though he has racked up an impressive set of Australian prizes--including the Melbourne Prize and the Patrick White Award--has never figured in any prize award or speculation in the larger English-speaking world. Why then is he in the conversation? He is a writer of striking originality and vision, yet many such are never the objects of speculation. Unlike Carey and Malouf, he has never been a bestseller, not even in Australia. It would be a gutty, courageous, outside-the-box choice for the Prize, a reward for originality, not fame or good will.

Murnane has considerable support within the Swedish academy. Not necessarily the Swedish Academy with a capital A, but the Swedish academy with a small a,  meaning Swedish professors of English. Professors Harald Fawkner and Karin Hansson, and the influential translator Lars Ahlström, are all huge boosters of Murnane's work and have written about it with passion and profundity--Ahlström edited a special Murnane issue, published in 2002, of ARTES, the journal of the Swedish Academy. I was invited over to Sweden in the late 90s specifically to speak on Murnane's work to an audience of academics, journalists, and publishers who were all riveted, not necessarily by my talk, but by Murnane's work. Inland (for which I wrote an introduction to the new Sydney edition) was translated into Swedish a few years back, Velvet Waters translated in 2009 (and extensively reviewed in Swedish newspapers) and  Barley Patch is coming out in Sweden, France, and the US (from the influential Dalkey Archive)  this year. So the Academy members must know the name by now. Murnane is moving out of the backstretch in the World Republic of Letters stakes, and despite the frequent inaccuracy of the Ladbrokes odds, they have at least mentioned the eventual winner over the past few years, so however chancy the projections they still must have heard something for Murnane to be mentioned so prominently. Like Carey and Malouf, Murnane has a recent novel, Barley Patch, which is as good and as characteristic as anything he has written. His essays, collected in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, are considered by some his best work--he was represented in the Macquarie Anthology of Australian Literature with an essay--and have helped humanize the literary public's image of this supremely introspective and private writer.

What's to prevent Murnane from winning? All past English-speaking winners have been better-known within the English-speaking world than Murnane, even when we remember somebody like Faulkner was a surprise choice in his day;  I can't tell if there was an equivalent situation in any other language (Kertesz?) but it is a leap to make from winning prizes only in Australia to the Nobel. Murnane is so impressive a writer and has garnered such prominent worldwide support among thinkers and intellectuals he could just do it, but this is a factor that lengthens the odds.

Also, Murnane is not really the kind of writer who traditionally wins the Nobel, in that he is self-reflexive and writes about the status of fiction as fiction. His stories and novels do have moment of social concern--"Land Deal"'s treatment of the Aboriginal issue,  the prominence of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 in Murnane's work--but they are more a subset of a cognitive compassion and a home-grown cosmopolitanism than a mission deliberately undertaken like Malouf's. Self-reflexive writers--Borges, Nabokov, Proust, Calvino--have tended to be shut out of the Nobel action. True, Proust died young (though he would have had to live until 80 to win I think) and Calvino might well had won it had he lived a few years. Borges's perceived right-wing politics cost him some support as perhaps did Nabokov's sexual emphases in Lolita and presumed Soviet opposition to him (in other words, if you are going to pick someone the Soviets despise, pick the morally worthy Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, not the 'irresponsible' Nabokov.) All these factors do not apply to Murnane, and times do change, people become more tolerant and open. But still, the lack of self-reflexive Nobel winners is a factor against him. it could be turned around in his favor were the Academy to realize that this was probably their last chance to honor this sort of writer, as in subsequent generations self-reflexivity ceased to be an aspect of originality and became an ironic inheritance of a jaded and commercialized  literary scene. This turn might be a bit subtle in this context. But it is the truth.

Look for Murnane's work to have increasing presence on the world literary scene, and to have a surprisingly reaonable chance for the Prize. Murnane's prominence in the Nobel conversation as a serious contender has brought new attention to his body of work, one of the truly singular and inimitable achievements of our time.


  1. I just began to read the bound galleys of Dalkey Archive's Barley Patch...that simple first chapter heading Must I Write...I knew his work from The Plsins that was the only book of his beyond a rare Penguin import of his ever available..but as I read on...I can only hope that... Dalkey Archive published my first two books one as long ago as along with New directions is about only real publisher left inUS which can be said to publish real literature...

  2. So glad you liked Barley Patch, Jeremy and Dalkey have done a wonderful job with it and I think it will make a move. I think many years ago I bought Going to Patchogue, or maybe it was another work, directly from you. I will send Murnane your e-mail, he may well know your fiction, the Petkov book wd. interest him perhaps....

    Impressed you found The Plains BTW.

  3. Hi Nicholas,
    I'm a PhD student in Adelaide, Australia; my thesis is on Murnane. I hadn't heard of this journal ARTES and the special you say was edited by Ahlström. I can't seem to find the journal at although its listed in the Libraries Australia website, it is not held anywhere here. Would you have a copy I could look at at all?
    And perhaps with the new publication, A History of Books, which is wonderful, a crystalisation of his work in Barley Patch, rumours of prizes may begin again...

  4. Kelli I have the journal though it will require some searching. If you give me your mailing address (email it to me, my e-mailis widely available on the web) I can get it to you within the next few weeks, The odd thing is neither I nor, I suspect, the conference organizers knew the proceedings would be translated into Swedish (done competently by Lars Ahlström), as previous issues of ARTES we had seen had been in ENglish.

    A HISTORY OF BOOKS is superb and will no doubt keep him in the forefront of the prize conversation! And the relationship to BARLEY PATCH is a fascinating one, rarely have tow successive books been so palpably intertwined as these two..,.

  5. Murnane is one of the greatest living writers. He should certainly be given the Nobel. As an Australian, I can tell you, Carey, Tim Winton, all the rest ... they don't rate. There are three truly great Australian writers, strangely enough, almost entirely unknown overseas ... Brian Castro, Patrick Holland, and Gerald Murnane, whose 'Inland' is perhaps the greatest Australian novel of all time.