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.


  1. Hi Jen. Very pleased to read this post on Murnane alone. Ever since your last one, I've been thinking about questions regarding "imagination" you raised through him. In fact a bit obsessively, I have, through poets who have long interested me, especially Mallarme. "Paint, not the object, but the effect it produces." A hint is raised in reading. You're not aware it's a hint yet until the hint is made explicit. And then the "music" is made with the connection made. When reading Proust I often had that kind of a reaction, "Wait, did that just happen?" Ordinarily that would be called a plot twist, but in Proust and Murnane, it has already happened. Watching your link to the Glenn Gould piece, I thought, "No false notes", that works for me.

    I had so many questions from the previous post, but I believe you've answered them all now, especially with what might be particularly local or Australian with Murnane. One that still remains though is, do you feel his representations of women are old-fashioned? I was listening to his ABC Radio interview, and my sense was, like with "plot" and "character" it's all implicit to the work anyway. Am I wrong?

    Thanks for another great post.

  2. Hi Stephen,

    Very interesting observations about the experience of reading (I really should read some Mallarmé...). I think that this perspective is often overlooked in discussions about literature, except for certain banalities re the reader 'wanting more' or 'keeping them guessing' - as if reading were some passive collusion in a cynical game.

    About Murnane's representations of women - or of any character - I would say they are very remote to his interests. In a sense, all of his characters are old fashioned, including his narrators - or at least not at all susceptible to fashions of any kind. This is primarily because what Murnane finds fascinating is what is happening in in the paddocks, as he puts it somewhere, of his mind - especially those glimpses just beyond its limits. It's as if he starts from where he finds himself and then carefully progresses - rejecting and refining - taking responsibility, as so few of us ever do, for each of his thoughts.

    By the way, I'm curious about what you mean by something being implicit to a work.

    Thank you too for your incisive comments.

  3. Jen,

    I couldn't agree with you more with your "keep them guessing" comments. Why anyone would want to be led around by the nose, only to justify the emotional slavery with a "well at least it's entertaining to me" is beyond me. By the way, that's what led me to your blog, your comments elsewhere in a comment thread about how piling cliche upon cliche in tired, conventional forms is not really a worthwhile way pursuing the questions literature raises.

    Something being implicit to a work. Well that's the big question, isn't it. I like to think of it more like THE work, the implicit in literature that keeps those over the centuries intimately connected (which is what Sebald was doing with his prose, I feel, weaving those threads over historical time into a style all his own, mainly so that the continuities can be made. To me he's a poet first, a historian second, and a novelist much further down the line). Like you point out here with Murnane, the implicit is all there in the paddocks.

    The reason why I asked about Murnane's representation of women appearing "old-fashioned" is related to this. For instance, what's implicit to Emily Dickinson's poetry feels extraordinarily powerful to me. She was misunderstood during her lifetime and hardly published at all. After her death she was read and considered an eccentric and a spinster. About fifty years after her death there were debates about whether to leave the hyphens in her poetry or not. After the 1960s the hippies were starting to recognize there was something radical at work in her poetry. Critics and poets today whose political instincts are clearly liberal - an instinct which requires anyone holding them to be unrelentingly explicit with their art (such as with Jonathan Franzen, for example, who has followed suit) - continue to have trouble reading her, mainly because the implicit in her work continues to defy them. Elaine Showalter has recently written a book about the history of women's literature, implied in her massive effort is there IS such a thing as "women's literature". But as many women writers such as Susan Sontag have always been arguing, look to the implicit; there's a lot more to the human spirit in us than mere gender politics.

    Tying these threads up, a good sign there's something terribly cynical at work in a fiction writer is their discomfort talking about their craft, for fear of giving the game away. What's immediately remarkable to me about Murnane is his comfort talking about matters of craft. It sounds like he's giving his secrets away, but only a supremely confident artist wouldn't fear the explicit. And to me that's a form of faith. Mainly because he recognizes the implicit in history, has found a form to express it, and so has left the rest up to fate knowing he's done the best he could. I don't see how this wouldn't inspire the complete admiration of any one of us.

    Mallarme is simply awe-inspiring. One of his great translators Rosemary Lloyd, apparently, has returned to Australia after a career in Mallarme and Baudelaire scholarship. I'm thinking about writing to her but I wouldn't even know where to begin!

    Sorry for the long response, but these are enormous questions...

  4. Hi Stephen,

    I think I now have a sense of what you mean with the implicit.It sounds like you're dealing with the main issues here - what makes one piece of fiction enduring and another entirely forgettable - enormous issues.

    Yes, I agree: the writings of Emily Dickinson - and Virginia Woolf too - have often been undervalued because of too much emphasis being placed on peripheral aspects of what they are doing. So many critics (and writers too) rely on idées reçus (ie received, unexamined opinions), as Flaubert would call them, and I've noticed that these received opinions can come from both sides of the usual political divide. The difficulty is to get some authentic sense of existence or of a text without this intrusive emotional fug.

    Re Rosemary Lloyd - I see from a short Google search that she initially went to the University of Adelaide (2008), but it's not clear where she is now. You could perhaps try contacting her through her publisher - that's what I would do, I think.