Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A confluence of themes

Sometimes I notice a confluence of themes in the several books that I'm reading and referring to, or at least a seeming confluence.

In his most recent book, The Barley Patch, Gerald Murnane writes:

For many years I wrote, as I thought, instinctively. I certainly did not write with ease: I laboured over every sentence and sometimes rewrote one or another passage many times. However, what might be called my subject-matter came readily to me and offered itself to be written about. What I call the contents of my mind seemed to me more than enough for a lifetime of writing. Never, while I wrote, did I feel a need for whatever it was that might have been mine if only had had possessed an imagination.

echoing Proust who, in Time Regained, includes the following in parentheses:

It may be that, for the creation of a work of literature, imagination and sensibility are interchangeable qualities and that the latter may with no great harm be substituted for the former, just as in people whose stomach is incapable of digesting this function is relegated to the intestine. A man born with sensibility but without imagination might, in spite of this deficiency, be able to write admirable novels. For the suffering inflicted upon him by other people, his own efforts to ward it off, the long conflict between his unhappiness and another person's cruelty, all this, interpreted by the intellect, might furnish the material for a book not merely as beautiful as one that was imagined, invented, but also in as great a degree exterior to the day-dreams that the author would have had if he had been left to his own devices and happy, and as astonishing to himself, therefore, and as accidental as a fortuitous caprice of the imagination.

and Christina Stead, in a letter she wrote to Thistle Harris in 1942, that was recently quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald:

I am opposed to inventing in life. Life is so strange, and we know it so little, that nothing is needed in that direction: we need only study: but real invention is needed in placing and rearranging, and re-creating. 

and Thomas Bernhard, on beginning to write, in Gathering Evidence: a memoir:

What is important? What is significant? I believed that I must save everything from oblivion by transferring it from my brain onto these slips of paper, of which in the end there were hundreds, for I did not trust my brain. I had lost faith in my brain -- I had lost faith in everything, hence even in my brain.


  1. Hi Jen. What a fascinating post. The "confluence of themes in the several books" you've been reading, I've been thinking a lot about this same process myself. As far as painters go, I've never found myself categorizing "favorites" like I had once felt compelled to do with writers (wearing them like so many old rock concert t-shirts to collect, I suppose). It has always been themes for me with painters, which I think I've finally come around to seeing with writers. Don't you think that's what Sebald was doing, corralling his themes, which he learned how to do from Proust? It seems to me neither of them wrote to get to the finish line but to radically cut across time sideways.

    Or like this from Deleuze on Bergson, "Take a lump of sugar: It has a spatial configuration. But if we approach it from that angle, all we will ever grasp are differences in degree between that sugar and any other thing. But it also has duration, a rhythm of duration, a way of being in time that is at least partially revealed in the process of its dissolving, and that shows how this sugar differs in kind not only from other things, but first and foremost from itself."

    That seems to me to define Proust and Sebald perfectly.

    I think each one of these writers you posted here are being a bit coy, though, don't you think? They knew what they were doing, but they're human, after all. Vital things escape us. There's no shame in that, I say.

  2. Hi Stephen,

    I've never thought about Proust's influence on Sebald, but it's certainly something to think about. Proust always seems to have a greater ironic structure behind his deceptively unhurried passages, whereas Sebald's prose (as he liked to call it) seems to be driven by a kind of numbed, breathless fascination.

    Yes, I agree - neither seems to have written to get to the finish line. As far as I understand, Proust had the end - even the whole arc of his book, right near the beginning. It simply opened out as he wrote (the war helped him in this - a forced delay).

    All of these writers, perhaps, are coy - is it because they are describing something so very intimate to their practice, and also unfashionable? After all it is not really the done thing to admit to not having or being interested in the role of imagination in the writing process. The first thing I ever read by Murnane - a short piece called 'The Breathing Author' in HEAT 3 New Series (an Australian literary magazine) - is well worth tracking down if it can be found chez vous. This is a writer who in fact lives as he writes, with a scrupulous, even pedantic, and often self mocking honesty.

  3. Jen, I discovered Murnane's "The Breathing Author" and read it. Damn, it's remarkable! A few initial impressions are that it's so unusually honest, for a fiction writer, at times it feels like he's playing some sort of Borges game on us. What's especially remarkable is how straightforward he's reporting on the facts of his biography. You don't receive, for instance, that suppressed hysteria that bulges into irony or self-deprecation so often found in British humor. He says it himself here, that being coy is an affinity to truth, but not a kind that you can really place your hands around. It drives those mad who can't hear a more straightforward expression, but what a lie directness of speech is. Love his riff on the exaggerated gesturing you find on national TV. As if the only thing in life to really convey to one another is our sincerity. Hilarious.

    Somehow I thought Sebald spoke about Proust in "Campo Santo" but it's not there. Proust's "deceptively unhurried passages." Sebald's "kind of numbed, breathless fascination." Both are beautifully put. I would never have thought "breathless" with Sebald, with the languid sentence structures, and such. But a sense of awe, that's what we ultimately receive from him. "Breathless". That's so apt.

    The other remarkable thing about "The Breathing Author" is that Murnane is doing what few writers would ever be willing to do, admit that what they've been doing for years has been a fraud. David Shields in his "Reality Hunger" turned this same discovery into a manifesto (a typically American response to those times we discover the wool's been pulled over our eyes), whereas Murnane's response was to turn the discovery into a fresh fiction.

    Have you come across Elo Viiding's "Foreign Women" in Aleksandar Hemon's "Best European Fiction 2010" yet? I'd be interested to hear what you think of it. If you have the time, you can find it in "Google Book", p. 76. She's writing along these same lines, namely how to turn the poetic imagination into narrative prose.

    One last thing... love how you used "pedantic" in the last line as a term of praise.

  4. I'm impressed both that you were able to find that Murnane article, and to have read it so soon. Was it on the net? He's an unusual writer - definitely one of a kind. Surprisingly, perhaps, he has a strong following in Sweden of all places. At least a couple of times he's been a serious contender for the Nobel prize in Literature (including this year, I gather), even though hardly anybody knows of his existence here, let alone in any other anglophone country. His uncompromising vision -- without a shred of sentimentality -- is quietly inspiring; if he can keep writing and existing then there is hope.

    I'm not sure that I've ever read Sebald on Proust - but every now and then I make my way again through all the Sebalds on our shelves, so I'll look out for it.

    And have just tracked down the Elo Viiding story and look forward to reading it...

  5. Hi JAAC, I came across this blog via Steve Mitchelmore's Twitter account and stayed to read about two of my favourite writers - Josipovici and Murnane - both of whom I see on few blogs but always stay to read about when I do see them since, even if what is written or quoted is not new to me, I am interested simply in seeing how these two writers have mattered to the reader.

    I looked for 'The Breathing Author' after reading of it here and found it at:

    I have read only 'Barley Patch' by Murnane so far - read it twice in the space of two months. It was completely unlike anything I had read. I found refreshing - no, inspiring - the sense it gives off of just not doing (in writing) what one does not want to do. Entirely doing away with deadwood.

  6. Hi Anirudh,

    Thank you for your comment. Yes, they are each of them fascinating writers: Josipovici and Murnane. I have the latest Murnane and look forward to reading it -- and no doubt blogging about it -- soon. When Murnane taught creative writing, I gather, he was a fierce, uncompromising teacher who didn't believe that writing could be taught, and yet I admire his uncompromising stance in his writing. Thank you for the link to those letters. I look forward to reading through them.