Friday, February 21, 2014

Reports on intimate human experience

In Summertime, part three of J. M. Coetzee's fictionalised memoir Scenes from Provincial Life, when a one time lover reflects on Coetzee the protagonist's limitations as a sensual, relational being, something Murnanian suggests itself:

But the fact is, John wasn't made for love, wasn't constructed that way -- wasn't constructed to fit into or be fitted into. Like a sphere. Like a glass ball.... Which may not come as a surprise to you. You probably think it holds true for artists in general, male artists: that they aren't built for what I am calling love; that they can't or won't give themselves fully for the simple reason that there is a secret essence of themselves they need to preserve for the sake of their art....Consider. Here we have a man who, in the most intimate of human relations, cannot connect, or can connect only briefly, intermittently. Yet how did he make a living? He made a living writing reports, expert reports, on intimate human experience. Because that is what novels are about -- isn't it? -- intimate experience. Novels as opposed to poetry or painting. Doesn't that strike you as odd?

Any reader familiar with Gerald Murnane's work will immediately recognise this notion of 'reports, expert reports, on human experience' and the understated intensity of the relationship between the very precision of these 'reports' and the restrained human interactions that float out from behind the words. Already in Boyhood, there is something about the narrative that reminds us of Murnane's writing about childhood: something about the spare analysis of the protagonist's obsession with the letter R, which is one of the reasons for his choosing to be Roman Catholic at a new school and preferring the Russians to the Americans during the Cold War -- something in the patiently described network of thoughts and impressions that keep the young 'he' from feeling himself to be 'normal'.

In his article on Murnane for the New York Review of Books in December 2012 Coetzee might be writing about his own later fictional works, including this fictional memoir, where, between the text and the often bleak world it traverses, words are assembled with what he might call 'elegiac' but also seemingly unfeeling care:

There will be readers who will dismiss Murnane’s dual-world system as idle theory-spinning, and perhaps go on to say that it shows he is all intellect and no heart. Murnane indirectly reflects on this criticism when, in Barley Patch, he tells the story of his last visit to a beloved uncle dying of cancer—the same uncle who had cut ties with him when he decided to become a writer. The two spend their last hour together in a typically male Australian way: avoiding sentiment, discussing horses. After that Murnane leaves the hospital room, finds a private place, and weeps.

His uncle was right, Murnane reflects afterward: there was no need for him to waste his life writing. Why then did he do it? The answer: without writing he “would never be able to suggest to another person what I truly felt towards him or her.” That is to say, only by telling a story of a man who appears to have no feelings but privately weeps, addressing the story, elegiacally, to one who can no longer hear it, is he able to reveal his love.

Murnane’s writing, from Inland onward, reflects continually on this difficult personal fate. On the one hand, being a writer has set him apart from human society; on the other hand, it is only through writing that he can hope to become human. The elegiac tone that surfaces in his later work comes from the realization that he is what he is, that in his life there will be no second chance, that only in the “other” world can he make up for what he has lost.
Unlike Murnane, however, whose protagonists thrum to the surface of the page, entranced by the way the images of themselves in the writing generate a whole quietly dazzling play of image relations, and take their consolation in these relations, Coetzee uses words to span the terrible void -- the void which, as we realise, only opens up because the very writing that we are reading, as it is implied, depends on a prioritisation of words ('personal projects') over intimate relationships, as becomes clear at the end of this final, 'undated fragment' in Summertime:

He is going to have to abandon some of his personal projects and be a nurse. Alternatively, if he will not be a nurse, he must announce to his father: I cannot face the prospect of ministering to you day and night. I am going to abandon you. Goodbye. One or the other: there is no third way.

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