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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Border Districts

Gerald Murnane

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To purchase Border Districts

Title: Border Districts
Author: Gerald Murnane
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017
Length: 132 pages
Availability: Border Districts - US
Border Districts - UK
Border Districts - Canada
Grenzbezirke - Deutschland
  • A Fiction

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Our Assessment:

A- : engagingly odd, and beautifully crafted

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 18/11/2017 Peter Craven
Australian Book Rev. . 12/2017 Beejay Silcox
Financial Times . 8/2/2019 Melissa Harrison
The Guardian . 23/1/2019 Jon Day
Harper's . 4/2018 Lidija Haas
The Monthly . 2/2018 Helen Elliott
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 10/1/2019 Angela Schader
New Statesman . 30/1/2019 Chris Power
The NY Times . 18/6/2018 Benjamin H. Ogden
The Spectator . 2/2/2019 Daniel Swift
Sunday Times . 20/1/2019 Claire Lowdon
Sydney Morning Herald . 25/1/2018 Louis Klee
TLS . 22/8/2018 Adrian Nathan West
Wall St. Journal . 13/4/2018 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post . 28/3/2018 Jamie Fisher

  Review Consensus:

  Strange -- but impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "His new book, Border Districts, is weird in the way everything he has published is weird. It possesses the peculiar quality of being intimately familiar and unidentifiable. (...) Border Districts is a bit like a Wordsworthian epic in quasi-lyrical mode that has been translated from the Hungarian and reconfigured as an old codgerís attempt to find his fragments in his ruins and to adjust to his obsessions a language of maniacal precision and blindness. (...) This is a book that refuses to name names, and its elaborate winding stair will preserve the wonder of a sensibility at the edge of solipsism. (...) You will not find a more intimate or more lame or more deeply wrought piece of fiction anywhere in the world." - Peter Craven, The Australian

  • "Border Districts is a quieter, gentler book than its forebears, weighted, but not haunted, by Murnaneís Catholic upbringing and its echoes. Itís also a synesthetic book, heady with colour" - Beejay Silcox, Australian Book Review

  • "Full of ponderous phrases such as “as it were” and “so to speak”, and metatextual references like “After I had written the phrase essence of personages just now . . . ”, it’s a meanderingly precise, lugubriously comic and at times transcendent rendering of the workings of thought." - Melissa Harrison, Financial Times

  • "He is a bit like Beckettís Krapp, or Borgesís Funes, but actually it sounds as if the bones of the story are pretty autobiographical (.....) (A) stripped down example of late-style Murnane" - Jon Day, The Guardian

  • "His account of distraction, the mindís constant wanderings while reading and writing, creates a mise en abyme in which we read and think about him ruminating on his reading and thinking about reading and thinking until the book rather gloriously threatens to swallow itself whole." - Lidija Haas, Harper's

  • "Border Districts is a devotional manuscript in which the intention is not the divine but a recuperation, even a restoration, of self. It is thrilling. Nothing happens, everything happens." - Helen Elliott, The Monthly

  • "Was hält einen denn fest an diesem Buch, aus dem nur Stille dringt, dessen Sprache sich durch Wiederholungen und Präzisierungen mancherorts fast in sich selbst verfängt ? Zum einen sind es die Dimensionen, die sich aus dieser Stille entfalten -- die Reduktion der reinen Oberfläche zugunsten von Tiefen- und Höhensondierungen. Vor allem aber tritt man, wie schon in Die Ebenen, in eine wie von innen her leuchtende Bildwelt ein, die das neue Buch nun zu seinem eigentlichen Kernthema erhebt." - Angela Schader, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "As its title suggests, Border Districts belongs on this mapís fringes, and as such isnít for beginners. The interconnection between Murnaneís works can make reading him an addictive experience, because the more you read, the more puzzle pieces you acquire. Border Districts can stand alone, but it benefits from some knowledge of the body of work it is, apparently, concluding." - Chris Power, New Statesman

  • "Murnaneís fascination is now in what appears at the edge of his vision: the border separating what is glimpsed at the very brink of sight and what is just on the far side of seeing." - Benjamin H. Ogden, The New York Times

  • "Border Districts reads less like a novel than a meditation. (...) Border Districts is dazzling for its austerity, its cruel purity." - Daniel Swift, The Spectator

  • "Border Districts is a strange and demanding experience, but to give over to its demands, to its way of making the familiar strange, is to open oneself to the delicate power of its rhythms, the haunting depth of its images, and the irrefutable craftsmanship in every sentence." - Louis Klee, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "External reality does not impede here on the mental -- instead, the two are parallel or complementary realms defined by different conditions of access: the one reachable by foot or car, the other by pondering the properties of light and what might be called speculative recollection." - Adrian Nathan West, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Border Districts, with more room to expand, feels less formally oppressive while still holding the authorís signature moments of crystalline detail and uncanny observation. (...) The sequences are inscrutable and resistant to interpretation." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "This is writing peppered with phrases of a purposeful stiltedness. The result is tedious -- but fascinating. (...) In the absence of plot, Border Districts is bound together by intersected themes of light and faith." - Jamie Fisher, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Though called 'A Fiction' -- emphatically, on the cover, even, for the American edition -- the first-person narrative of Border Districts is certainly easily (mis)taken for a memoir or personal essay. Indeed, the claim in the text itself is that: "I am not writing a work of fiction but a report of seemingly fictional matters", and that this is: "a report of actual events only". This ambiguity -- and stoking it in this way -- is certainly part of Murnane's game.
       In old age, the narrator, like Murnane, has moved away from the local capital to: "this township just short of the border". This being Australia, the border is, in fact, merely a state border; indeed, the narrator acknowledges that: "I have never travelled more than a day's journey by road or rail from my birthplace". It is not, however, a chronicle of secluded retirement, the withdrawn writer at his desk. In fact, though he acknowledges (parenthetically): "Few persons of my place and time can have travelled less often and less far than I", it is a work full of journeying, both in memory and physically, as he repeatedly describes venturing back to the capital, as well as smaller, closer forays.
       The narrator explains:

     I moved to this district near the border so that I could spend most of my time alone and so that I could live according to several rules that I had long wanted to live by.
       Shedding family -- the kids are grown, on their own -- he has also, shockingly, sold off most of his library. For one, because the "mere cottage" he has moved to is too small to house more than a few hundred -- but:
I had sold the books also in order to keep faith with myself. For some years past, I had claimed that whatever deserved to be remembered from my experiences as a reader of book was, in fact, safely remembered. I had claimed also the converse of this: whatever I had forgotten from my experience as a reader of books had not deserved to be remembered. By selling my books, I was declaring that I had gotten from them whatever I had needed from them.
       To some extent, Border Districts is a memory-book, as the narrator focuses on recollection -- on this left-over, from books, and experience. Numerous books -- interestingly, writers' lives more often, or at least more specifically, than fiction -- are mentioned; often, it is experience surrounding the reading, rather than the writing itself that is recalled.
       Looking back to childhood, the distance is so great that he speaks of his younger self in the third person -- and amusingly suggests the blur of the reading of those days, the books like one never-ending one, and:
Likewise, the many fictional characters that he had read about he seemed to remember as two only: a young male character and a young female character.
       Tellingly, however, for all the purported vagueness, Murnane closes this volume with a verbatim quote, two lines from Shelley's 'Adonaïs' (or, as he puts it: "from some or another poem by Shelley"), which he's: "remembered for more than fifty years in spite of myself" .....
       Border Districts is a word-story, with the author very conscious of -- and reminding the reader of -- its writing, but the focus is very much on memory, and there also specifically the visual, rather than the verbal. He mentions in the opening paragraph the idea of wanting to: "guard my eyes", and it's something he returns to repeatedly. He does not want to be overwhelmed by visual stimuli, he wants to remain focused, to carefully limit and dose what he perceives -- describing, for example, doing so even while driving home (yet again from the capital city ...).
       The "image-world" -- in his mind's eye, as well as real -- seems to have always been dominant. So also he admits:
I failed as a writer of fiction because I was constantly engaged not with the seeming subject-matter of the text but with the doings of personages who appeared to me while I tried to read and with the scenery that appeared around them. My image-world was often only slightly connected with the text in front of my eyes
       Texts are often pivotal in his life -- he reports abruptly losing his (religious) faith at age twenty, "while I was reading one or another of the novels of Thomas Hardy" -- or still remembered vividly (if always also somewhat indistinctly): some passage from Proust copied out three decades earlier; a volume of by an author whose name he can't seem to remember but which he can visualize clearly (surely Robert Walser) from similarly long ago; a recently-read Hungarian trilogy (surely Miklós Bánffy's) whose imagery leads him back to a memory of his late teens and first girlfriend.
       There is also the purely visual -- including much description and explanation about glass marbles and stained glass windows. There's a fascination with color and light -- and a first "luxury" purchase he made when he could afford to spend a bit more money: a fancy set of one hundred twenty colored pencils, which he still has, never used "in the way that most pencils are used" but which he arranges beside one another, playing simply with color.
       There are many references to the writing of the text itself, the author's own engagement with it -- right down to the occasional questioning: "Why have I included in this report the tedious matter of the preceding paragraphs ?" Certainly, the observations about the writing, about the nature of what is being written (fiction or report ?), about the interruptions in the writing and the new experiences brought to it, constantly bring the memory-text into the present, a reminder of the vantage point from which he is writing -- the 'border districts' and the present -- that he never wants to lose sight of.
       It is a fascinating, circuitous memory-trip and reflection on life and writing, on observation and recollection. For all its seemingly meandering progression, it's also carefully, artfully structured, including in its repetitions -- and in what is left unsaid, only hinted at and suggested. So also the novel's closing words, the quote from Shelley:
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity.
       Disappointingly, the American edition ends the quote with a period. In the actual poem, of course, there's a comma, as the sentence continues -- with the words: "Until Death tramples it to fragments", another echo appropriate to this work of literary and visual refraction. (The poem, Shelley's 'Adonaïs', was of course: 'An Elegy on the Death of John Keats'.)
       No doubt, Border Districts is odd and oddly unsettling reflective fiction. Murnane's story-telling is both casual (or at least casual-seeming) and intense; it's surprisingly often funny, too. Murnane's writing is carefully, thoughtfully worded, his deliberations seemingly open, even as there's obviously much more hidden care and attention behind it: for all its seeming openness, there's also a sense of how guarded Murnane remains, the range of what he shares closely circumscribed.
       Border Districts isn't a text for those seeking stories with more obvious, simpler, neater arcs, but anyone interested in what one can still do with/in writing should find it quite fascinating. And Murnane fans will certainly not be disappointed.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 March 2018

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Border Districts: Reviews: Gerald Murnane: Other books by Gerald Murnane under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Australian author Gerald Murnane was born in 1939.

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© 2018-2023 the complete review

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