Friday, July 12, 2013

Within the narrow range of these two eyes

Some years ago, when J. M. Coetzee's book Slow Man first came out, I took a Murrays coach down to Canberra for the day -- I only intended to stay the day, such was my dedication, I liked to think -- just to listen to Coetzee speak at the National Library. No one had warned me. I had no idea that the talk I was travelling over seven hours in one day to listen to would never materialise: that Coetzee would only read from his new book Slow Man (which I had finished reading on the coach down) and would say not a single word more than that. Actually, this is not true because, not long after I resigned myself to this long day's journey with little more than a small white-haired man reciting in the darkened lecture hall heart of it something that I had already read for myself, I got to hear him speak five unexpected words to me.

I had joined the book signing queue in the library foyer. An attendant, having announced that Coetzee would only be signing one book for each person, then walked down the queue asking for and writing our names on yellow post it notes that he attached to the front of our books. When at last I got to the front of the queue I was struck by how quickly Coetzee was able to take in the spelling of my name -- he hardly looked at it -- before writing his dedication in my book (admittedly my name is very short). But then, as I stepped aside, my turn now over, I saw a copy of his book of essays, Stranger Shores, in the Library bookshop window and went in to buy it. I then did the unthinkable by rejoining the queue. This time, when I made it to his desk, Coetzee again hardly looked at my name, but he fixed me with his pale unmoving narrowed eyes and said, 'This is your second time,' before writing, all the same, a second time, in a second book for me.

Anthony Uhlmann's essay, 'Signs for the Soul' in Sydney Review of Books on Coetzee and Murnane -- principally Coetzee on Murnane -- cannot help therefore but evoke two pairs of unmoving narrowed eyes for me: Coetzee's by the glass walls of the National Library foyer and those that, Murnanesque (that is, in my mind), hold an entire world steady, as a plate of glass pressed horizontally to their surface (famously he has never worn sunglasses, and photographs always show him with eyes and mouth narrowed against the persistent weather of outer Melbourne). Breaking the spell, though, I reach for my copy of HEAT where I find the ordinary but Murnane-written words in 'The Breathing Author':

Apart from what lies right now within the narrow range of these two eyes (points again to eyes), everything that I am aware of or have ever been aware of is somewhere in the far-reaching landscape of (my) mind. Of course, I acknowledge the existence of other minds, but such is my view of things that I can only see those minds and their contents as being located where all other imagined or remembered or desired entities are located -- in the landscape of landscapes; in the place of places; in my mind.

Uhlmann rather beautifully sets the two authors facing each other:

While all writers necessarily make use of both methods in generating a sense of the meaningful in their works, there are different degrees of emphasis, so that readers might notice one kind first and skate over the importance of the other kind in particular writers. In terms of emphasis, Coetzee seems to be a writer who values the external: his works enter into a dialogue with what is outside, though what is outside his works are not only real world problems, but other works, other books. Foe (1986), for example, refers to Robinson Crusoe (1719) and The Master of Petersburg refers to Dostoevsky’s Demons (1872). In terms of emphasis, Murnane seems to be a writer obsessed with the internal: the networks of images he creates – his marbles, his plains, his horse races with their silks and patterns of movement – recur not only within individual works, but throughout all of his works, creating a field of meaning that seems somehow self-contained. Yet, in fact, Coetzee depends as much on internal resonance, just as Murnane depends as much on external resonance, to create meaning.

Coetzee can enter into a dialogue with Murnane in a way that Murnane, who claims he no longer reads new fiction, cannot with Coetzee. And when Coetzee refers to other writers in his books, he never really refers to them, even when he names them. Rather, he offers deliberately distorted images of them – so that his character Foe is not Daniel Defoe but an idea of the writer, and his Dostoevsky is not the historical author but an idea of the writer. Yet perhaps this deliberate distortion is a kind of dialogue: a doubleness that enables meaning to emerge. Coetzee shows us how people communicate even, and perhaps especially, when they fail to understand one another.

Or is it that Coetzee’s principle figure is that of the writer (the one who sits in a room and sends out messages to the world from the self), while Murnane’s is that of the reader (the one who sits in a room and takes the world inside the self). Yet both are others of the self, and the figure that makes the writer other for Coetzee is the reader. The figure that makes the reader other for Murnane is the writer.

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