Wednesday, December 29, 2010

To their 'logical conclusion'

As soon as I finished reading The Lover, by Marguerite Duras (translated by Barbara Bray), I began it again. This was not out of any conscious intention to read it a second time, it just happened naturally, out of itself, out of the way of reading that the book had set going. And so, it was from the remarkable, evanescent brutality of the writing itself, rather than the easily sensationalised, easily exoticised, bare facts of the story, that I emerged for a minute, before deciding to resubmerge:

The story of my life doesn't exist. Does not exist. There's never any centre to it. No path, no line. There are great spaces where you pretend that there used to be someone, but it's not true, there was no one. The story of one small part of my youth I've already written, more or less -- I mean, enough to give a glimpse of it. Of this part, I mean, the part about the crossing of the river. What I'm doing now is both different and the same. Before, I spoke of clear periods, those on which the light fell. Now I'm talking about the hidden stretches of that same youth, of certain facts, feelings, events that I buried. I started to write in surroundings that drove me to reticence. Writing, for those people, was still something moral. Nowadays it often seems writing is nothing at all. Sometimes I realize that if writing isn't, all things, all contraries confounded, a quest for vanity and void, it's nothing. That if it's not, each time, all things confounded into one through some inexpressible essence, then writing is nothing but advertisement. But usually I have no opinion, I can see that all options are open now, that there seem to be no more barriers, that writing seems at a loss for somewhere to hide, to be written, to be read. That its basic unseemliness is no longer accepted. But at that point I stop thinking about it.

Again: is it only through propinquity that Duras gets compared to Bernhard, but this time I recognised the same moment of realisation, where the narrator becomes aware of an unswerving, even ruthless power to determine:

Nothing escaped my notice -- or, at any rate, nothing essential. I decided how much streptomycin I needed,  not the doctors, though I let them continue in the belief that  it was they who made the decisions, because otherwise my calculations would not have worked out. I let my tormentors go on thinking that they decided what was to be done, whereas from now on it was I who decided. (Gathering Evidence)

Suddenly, all at once, she knows, knows that he doesn't understand her, that he never will, that he lacks the power to understand such perverseness.  And that he can never move fast enough to catch her. It's up to her to know. And she does. Because of his ignorance she suddenly knows: she was attracted to him already on the ferry. She was attracted to him. It depended on her alone. (The Lover)

And for all their complete difference -- the one driving in through the mind and at the mercy of the body, the other through the body and, perhaps, at the mercy of the mind -- this sentence from Duras, which could have been Berhard's:

How I managed to follow my ideas to their 'logical conclusion'.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

If only unconsciously

There is no useful reason to compare Thomas Bernhard with Umberto Eco apart from the contingency of bedside book piles but, coming almost simultaneously to the end of Bernhard's Gathering Evidence and Eco's Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, I see for the first time how stark is the difference between them -- how writing means survival for the one just as it is the product of a leisured and highly erudite mind for the other -- and how in fact the relative position of their books on my bookshelves shows that I must have already evaluated these same thoughts, if only unconsciously, at least once before.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Some or another glimpse in his mind

There is a kind of music, or at least very recognisable rhythm, in the writing of Gerald Murnane. It is also clear that there is nothing at all obviously musical in this writing that seems to proceed word by word in the most measured, matter-of-fact way possible – so careful to insert itself into a manila cross-referenced folder in one of the numerous steel filing cabinets which, as we learn from his fiction, line the upper storey rooms of his mind – and where a blind has been pulled over a view of extensive level grasslands the better to report (a word Murnane uses often) images that come to this mind about 'a country on the far side of fiction’, as he puts it in his latest book of fiction, Barley Patch.

In fact, regarding the only reference to music in Barley Patch that I could find (not counting the muffled sounds of radio race broadcasts heard through a closed door), only a certain sort interests the narrator:

The sound was what he called scratchy and many of the words were inaudible, but he heard enough to be able to feel what he hoped to feel whenever he listened to a piece of music: to feel as though a person unknown to him in a desirable place far away from him desired to be in a place still further away.

If there is something Proustian about this focus on imagery triggered by sensations that have, often as not, trivial or even superficially unpleasant origins, this, too, is hardly superficial. Murnane has often referred to Proust in his writings. Elsewhere, while still early in my reading of this work, I remarked on a passage in Murnane's writing, which recalled a passage from Proust’s Time Regained. Nearly halfway into Barley Patch I found this connection was not only made explicit but forms an astonishing, even magical, momentary breach – where the text, until now seemingly fascinated with its own often comic pedantry in a room or similarly defined space, evades us in a moment as if through a rent in the wall, and then is seen far off running somewhere else:

The reader should not suppose that I fail to recognise the workings of the imagination in other writers of fiction because I search out too eagerly and read too hastily passages referring to young female persons. I tried to recall just now the occasion when I read for the first time the passage of fiction that has affected me more than any other passage that I have read during sixty year of reading fiction. I seemed to recall that I was walking across a courtyard on my way towards the front door of a mansion. I had been invited to an afternoon party that was then taking place in the mansion. A motor-car just then arriving in the courtyard passed close by me, causing me to step suddenly backwards. My stepping thus caused me to find myself standing with one foot on each of two uneven paving-stones. What happened afterwards is reported in the relevant passage in the last volume of the work of fiction the English title of which is Remembrance of Things Past.

The rhythm of Murnane’s writing has very little to do with the rhythm of Proust’s. In fact, in my own mind – to borrow this image from Murnane – I see these two writers and their fictional worlds, as with their geographical locations (southern Australia and northern France), just about as far apart as it is possible to be on this earth: Murnane, sitting on a serviceable chair in a bare, dry room surrounded by level paddocks of grass, cataloguing his images and sentences with meticulous care; Proust more feverish, writing in long, often attenuated bursts among a clutter of objects now tattered and moist with handling, and as far from the pollen-filled grasslands as he can be. And yet, if Remembrance of Things Past could be summarised as how a narrator came to write a long, extraordinary book of fiction with sensibility rather than imagination, Barley Patch could be summarised as how a narrator came to write a relatively short and deceptively modest book of fiction, which refers to others of his books of fiction, with sensibility rather than imagination and despite his determination never to write fiction again.

Initially, when I was trying to define the musical aspects of Gerald Murnane’s writing, I thought of Glenn Gould's performances of J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations and so I searched for the kind of measured performance, careful and sensitive, that I remembered hearing once. It was only as I was watching one of these performances that I realised how very little there is that could be called musical in the texture of Murnane’s writing – how in fact it seems to work deliberately against such a reading – and yet I was taken by an aspect of Glenn Gould's performance that I had forgotten about: that Gould always performed while seated on what looked like a very ordinary and therefore low set chair instead of the usual piano stool – and how this brought him very close to the keyboard and the work of his fingers and, together with the apparently unselfconscious, even childish or child-like movements of his eyebrows and mouth as he played, he seemed neither to be particularly concerned nor even aware of anything that was not happening inside of his mind; the kind of childish or child-like concentration, perhaps, that enables the beginnings of the marvel of the work of art – the very beginnings of which the narrator 'reports' in Barley Patch, as a residue of an abandoned work of fiction that the narrator is describing inside what he has warned us elsewhere, is yet another work of fiction:

At such times, he would seem to have made only a toy-landscape, a place more suitable for recalling certain days in his childhood than for enabling him to see further across his mind than he had yet seen. But then he would foresee himself fitting a brownish holland blind to the dormer window and then drawing the blind against the sunlight and then, perhaps, stepping back into a corner of the room and looking at the lines of pegs through half-closed eyes and even through a pair of binoculars held back-to-front to his eyes; and then some or another glimpse in his mind of something not previously seen in his mind would persuade him to go on.

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.

Tightens the mechanism

The blurb on the back of the Vintage edition of Thomas Bernhard's Gathering Evidence: a memoir, has it that the young Bernhard 'ran away from home', when it was from the grammar school that he ran, running 'in the opposite direction', doing 'an about-turn in the Reichenhaller Strasse' to an apprenticeship in the Scherzhauserfeld Project. Nearly the whole of the third volume, The Cellar: An Escape, traces and retraces this about-turn in the Reichenhaller Strasse, the escape itself a circling and an entrenchment, the wind up movement that tightens the mechanism and so energises the release.

The blurb also claims that the book 'recalls the novels of Dickens'. If this is the case I can only imagine it as a mad kind of Dickens, where Pip forever goes over his first fateful journey to and from Miss Havisham's and much is made of the contradictions in his emotions, his perceptions of others and the ironies of the journey; where Joe, at the end of the volume, calls out to him that 'Nothing matters' before easing his stomach over his workman's trousers and getting back to leaning on his pneumatic drill.