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Poetry is built for deftness — to imply what it leaves out and to reveal what has been left out elsewhere. (Smith’s “Declaration” and other “erasure poems” are literal examples.) Perhaps that’s why a poet can wear the national mantle more lightly than a novelist. The Australian writer Gerald Murnane, though much admired outside his country, is notorious for never having left it, and in Border Districts (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $23), he considers place and the divide between minds, between individual and collective, by traveling inward. Slender, tricksy, and absorbing, this new book announces itself “A Fiction” on the cover but, inside, protests the label at every opportunity.

The aged narrator has moved from the capital of his state to a remote border town in order to gather his thoughts. The entire action of the book consists of a mind reconnoitering its own territories according to a rigorous system of its own devising. (Though he mentions a wife and grown children, we hear almost nothing about them, or about his real-life interactions with anyone else; other people are constantly upstaged by color and light.) The object of study is what Murnane’s narrator calls “the actual,” which is not what it sounds like but rather “the seeming-scenery behind everything I did or thought or read.” Having lost his Christian faith quite suddenly in his youth while reading Thomas Hardy, just as his elders had warned would happen if he read indiscriminately (Murnane, in his unfailingly serious way, is very funny), the narrator retains a fascination with what exactly believers see in their minds while praying, and what happens to these images once belief is abandoned. One of his great and recurring disappointments is the failure of the former faithful to spill the beans on any of these crucial questions. A lapsed priest provokes special irritation when he becomes a writer and insists instead on making strained comedy out of such matters as masturbating while ordained or emptying one’s bursting bladder into a bottle of Seven Hills altar wine.

Ned Kelly, by Sidney Nolan. Courtesy private collection © Agnew’s, London/Bridgeman Images

Murnane’s narrator dedicates himself to a cracking-open not wholly unlike the one Smith offers, except he believes that only by staying still and paying close attention to the inner landscape can one learn anything worthwhile. The political problem of “innocence and privacy,” of allowing oneself to be comfortably shut off from other lives and places, does not arise. In what may be the most poignant account of mansplaining ever given from the other side, he recalls unleashing his thoughts on an early girlfriend en route to a picnic, unable to stop talking even though he was aware that he had lost her interest entirely and for good. As he blurted on, he sensed that the book he hoped to write “was less likely to be written by a man with an ideal female confidant than by the solitary man that I was soon to become.”

Much time is devoted to an experience he had decades ago of observing a patch of stained glass while alone on the veranda at a wedding reception. Citing Kafka in his customary inexact fashion (since books, while often more vivid than everyday experience, get much of their significance from the imaginative digressions they allow the reader), he writes:

Keep to your room for long enough, and the world will find its way to you and will writhe on the floor in front of you — this was my remembered version of the quotation, and I got from it on that afternoon the promise that I need only pass in my mind through some or another doorway framed by coloured panes and to wait on some or another shaded veranda in my mind until I should have sight of the finish of race after famous race in the mind of man after man in one after another mostly level district of what I would recognize, late in life, as the setting of the only mythology of value to me.

Long, liquid sentences seem apt to induce a trance even as they keep drawing the reader’s attention back to the only immediate reality, which is that we are reading Murnane’s words. His account of distraction, the mind’s 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.

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