June 10, 2014
It’s often said of Gerald Murnane that his mature period began with the publication of The Plains in 1982. What followed were four volumes filled with metafictional introspection and a sustained preoccupation with the act of writing that culminated in Emerald Blue in 1995. When Barley Patch appeared in 2009, ending a run of some fourteen years during which Murnane published no fiction at all, it swerved Murnane’s metafictional focus from the present tense to the present perfect: from the act of writing, here and now, to the fact of having written much over many years. In doing so, Barley Patch announced the arrival of Murnane’s late period, a period that continued through A History of Books in 2012 and continues now, this month, in A Million Windows. Of the three volumes that comprise this loose trilogy of self-reflective fictions, A Million Windows is the most lucidly written, the most conceptually successful, and the most emotionally invested. It is also what one reader described to me as “Murnane to the power of Murnane,” making it by far the least likely of all of Murnane’s books to appeal to readers not already familiar with him.
A Million Windows takes its title from Henry James’ declaration that “[t]he house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million,” and the image that dominates the book is “a house of two or, perhaps, three storeys” whose occupants are continually gazing out of its windows at the grasslands that surround it. Readers of Barley Patch and A History of Books will not be surprised to learn that these occupants are, once again, the “personages” and “image-persons” who Murnane’s eloquent yet formal narrator remains reluctant to identify as characters, but what is surprising here is who these people are and where they happen to come from. Although the origins of its title may lie in the work of Henry James, A Million Windows takes the image of the capacious house from an article about a Swedish film director who, “late in his career,” directed “a film set in a castle many a room of which was occupied by one or another chief character from one or another of the many films directed by the Swede in earlier years,” meaning that the occupants of the house are the chief characters and narrators of some of Murnane’s earlier publications. Most recognisable among them are the narrator of ‘Stone Quarry,’ arguably the finest of Murnane’s short fictions, as well as middle-aged or elderly versions of Clement Killeaton and Adrian Sherd — the protagonist of Murnane’s début, Tamarisk Row, published in 1974, and the protagonist of A Lifetime on Clouds, published in 1976. But while the appearances of these characters may make A Million Windows look like merely the most recent iteration of what Peter Craven calls Murnane’s “revisiting, with endless variegations and minute tonal shifts and dislocations and re-emergences of patterning, the apparent tiny variations of his obsessive compass,” Murnane incorporates them into the book in ways that have repercussions for re-readings of the books in which they first appeared.
As they congregate to debate the metaphysics of literature in much the same way that the plainsmen of The Plains collectively articulate the meaning of a barren landscape, the occupants of Murnane’s house give voice to various ways of approaching the activity of writing fiction. Their discussions invariably involve the close analysis of the most simple and most common elements of fiction — characterisation, point-of-view, dialogue, plot, theme, and so on — and they usually conclude with a consideration of the efficacy of a given element with reference to a particular work of fiction that they deem either successful or unreadable. Over time, then, they reach a sort of consensus on the essential elements of a work of fiction, the most important of which is what Murnane’s narrator calls a “narrative presence,” “the personage seemingly responsible for the existence of the text [who is also] seemingly approachable by way of the text or seemingly revealed through the text and [who] seem[s] to have written the text in order to impart what could never have been imparted by any other means than the writing of a fictional text.” Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum and the work of the Latin American magical realists are thus designated as fiction written in bad faith, “mere text[s that are] the seeming work of no recognisable personage,” whereas Henry James, the champion of the embodied first-person narrator, is held in special reverence. So while the house of fiction may have not one window but in fact a million, the discussions of the occupants of Murnane’s house of fiction bring about the closure of all but one of those windows while at the same time articulating many ways of appreciating the landscape onto which it opens.
What, then, of Murnane’s own work, especially his earlier work, when held to the standards articulated in this book? Neither Tamarisk Row nor A Lifetime on Clouds displays a “narrative presence” of the sort that the occupants of the house require in a work of fiction. A Million Windows therefore seems to be, on one level, an attempt on Murnane’s part to elucidate and justify the aesthetics of his mature work and so to find space within his body of work for the markedly different aesthetics of the two novels he published prior to entering his mature period. The suggestion that A Million Windows was written with this objective in view appears early on, when the narrator shares some remarks made by “a university lecturer in Islamic philosophy” who taught him during his time as a student nearly fifty years earlier:
He asked [his students] to call to mind a motor-car travelling on a road across a mostly level landscape. A person standing close beside the road and looking directly ahead would be aware for some time that the car has not yet reached him or her, then, for a brief time, that the car is present to his or her sight and then, for some time afterwards, that the car is no longer present, even if still audible. The lecturer then asked us to call to mind a person looking towards the road from an upper window of a building at some distance away. This person is aware of the car as being present to his or her sight during the whole time while it seems to be approaching, present to the sight of, and then travelling away from the person beside the road.
What the lecturer shared with his students is an image of hindsight in its most literal sense, hindsight of a spatial rather than a temporal nature. One result of the narrator’s inclusion of this image in A Million Windows is the implication that A Million Windows itself is looking out on its own author and watching him watch his own books fly past, over the course of several decades, while he remains unable to perceive them long beyond the moment of their writing or to see the place they might come to occupy in the broader landscape of his life. Yet the narrator assures his readers that he has no desire to “repudiate any fiction of mine the narrator of which has the viewpoint described above” — a viewpoint tantamount to third-person omniscience — “but I have wanted, for almost as long as I have been a writer of fiction, to secure for myself a vantage-point from which each of the events reported in a work of fiction such as this present work, and each of the personages mentioned in the work, might seem, at one and the same time, a unique and inimitable entity impossible to define or to classify but also a mere detail in an intricate scheme or design.”
While not exactly rewriting or revising Tamarisk Row and A Lifetime on Clouds, A Million Windows does attempt to incorporate their idiosyncrasies into the design of what has become the Murnane oeuvre, revisiting Clement Killeaton’s marble horse races and Adrian Sherd’s masturbation fantasies and then reconceptualising them as early manifestations of Murnane’s more recent metafictional interests. And while it does not shy away from the imagistic preoccupations of Barley Patch and A History of Books, it supplements their associative and recursive reminiscences with questions about the worth and value of fiction, with backward glances at bygone literary achievements and cold assessments of the likelihood of their longevity, which altogether involve its narrator subjecting himself to emotional risks that make A Million Windows more emotionally invested than either of its two predecessors. The result is an account of an author’s vexed ownership of all of the work that bears his name, a reconciliation of his early aesthetics with those of his more mature period, and a late attempt to unify, reconsider, and assess the lasting value of the fiction to which he has devoted his life — all without ever approaching these subjects directly or free of doubts and misgivings. A Million Windows is, in a sense, a retrospective manifesto written with an eye towards retroactive application: the last word on the work of a writer, written by the writer himself, so as to force readers to return to the first words he wrote and to cast a shadow over their readings of all the words that have appeared thereafter.
May 30, 2014
“Brussels is old,” Julius says as he arrives in the city and observes what he calls “a peculiar European oldness, which is manifested in stone.” During the Second World War, he recalls, Brussels was declared an open city, essentially surrendering to German invasion in order to preserve its infrastructure and architecture, and, as a result, it avoided becoming “another Dresden” so as to remain “a vision of the medieval and baroque periods, a vista interrupted only by the architectural monstrosities erected all over town by Leopold II.” Unlike the metropolitan layering of Manhattan, absent the palimpsest of newness erasing and writing over the old, Brussels’ comparative antiquity bespeaks a preservationist relationship to the past which captivates Julius and seems initially to satisfy his urge to find his place, to locate himself, within the totality of the network of relations he sees extending far throughout time.
Early after arriving in Brussels, Julius slips into a speculative way of seeing that involves imaginatively traversing both space and time to observe other people with whom he knows he shares some sort of connection. “In my mind’s eye,” he says as he stands in the heart of the city, “I began to rove into the landscape,” and so, envisioning that landscape as it existed several generations ago, he finds it steadily enlarging so as to incorporate the lives of all those who he knows were then living in it. First he imagines the fifteen-year-old version of the elderly Belgian woman he met on his flight to Europe. She is “sitting on a rampart in the Brussels sun” in 1944 and “delirious with happiness at the invaders’ retreat.” Next he imagines his old college professor, a Japanese man now on his deathbed, half a world away from the retreat that the woman witnesses. He is in internment, “unhappy” because imprisoned in “an arid room in a fenced compound in Idaho.” And then, of course, Julius imagines his own grandparents “in the middle of that day in September sixty-two years ago.” They are burdened by far more circumscribed ways of seeing than his own, going about their lives “seeing nothing of the brutal half century ahead and, better yet, hardly anything at all of all that was happening in their world, the corpse-filled cities, camps, beaches, and fields, the unspeakable worldwide disorder of that very moment.” Whereas Manhattan besieged Julius with anonymity and isolation that disconnected him from the world around him, Brussels seems to allow him both to peer into the past without having to peel away the layers of the present and to see, embedded in it, the roots of his own existence.
As time goes on, however, Julius finds that Brussels returns to him a sense of anonymity and isolation because the relational network of which he is a part obtains an incomprehensible breadth via the omnipresent ease of access to the past, the “oldness… manifested in stone” that preserves traces of everything from medievalism to modernism and, especially, colonialism. At one point, for instance, he enters a shop that houses a dozen booths from which customers are able to make cheap international phone calls and there he finds people, mostly immigrants, making calls to Colombia, Egypt, Senegal, Brazil, France, Germany, and elsewhere. “It looked like fiction,” he remarks, “that such a small group of people really could be making calls to such a wide spectrum of places,” and his incredulity grows when he finds that the man at the cash register is able to speak no less than four different languages. At another point, in an inversion of his earlier efforts to imagine people he knows in the present on a particular day in the past, he focuses on himself in the present and incrementally expands the scope of his speculative sight in order to see how the present that surrounds him clearly bears the scars of the past. “Heavy [rain]drops tapped on the window,” he says,
[and t]he weather report was right: in ever widening circles from where I stood, rain was lashing the land. It fell heavily all over the Portuguese district, on the shrine to Pessoa and on Casa Botelho. It fell on [the] phone shop, where [the multilingual attendant] had perhaps just begun his shift. It fell on the bronze head of Leopold II at his monument, on Claudel at his, on the flagstones of the Palais Royal. The rain kept coming down, in the battlefield of Waterloo at the outskirts of the city, the Lion’s Mound, the Ardennes, the implacable valleys full of young men’s bones grown old, on the preserved cities farther out west, on Ypres and the huddled white crosses dotting Flanders fields, the turbulent channel, the impossibly cold sea to the north, on Denmark, France, and Germany.
This is what Brussels gives Julius: a mode of vision, a way of seeing, that has a greater temporal extent than what he had in Manhattan but also a greater geographical extent, and that consequently leaves him still surrounded by people to whom he cannot see himself connected because the roots of their pasts lie elsewhere. He realises this near the end of his stay in Brussels when he attends a church service amidst a predominantly black congregation and notices that the “fifty or sixty” people around him are all Rwandan. “It was as though the space had suddenly become heavy with all the stories these people were carrying,” he says of his realisation:
What losses, I wondered, lay behind their laughter and flirting? Most of those there would have been teenagers during the genocide. Who, among those present, I asked myself, had killed, or witnessed killing? The quiet faces surely masked some pain I couldn’t see.
These remarks are echoed later, shortly after Julius returns to Manhattan and notices two young Hasidic Jews examining a photograph of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels on display in an art gallery. “I had no reasonable access to what being there, in that gallery, might mean for them,” he confesses. “[T]he undiluted hatred I felt for the subjects of that photo was, in the couple, transmuted into what? What was stronger than hate? … I needed to move away, immediately, needed to rest my eye elsewhere.” The results of Julius’ time in Brussels, then, are an appreciation of the impossibility of developing a godlike mode of vision — supra-spatial and trans-temporal — and the restitution of the isolation he felt before he left Manhattan. Once, perhaps, he aspired to be like the geese whose migrations he used to watch from his apartment window, looking down on the totality of the world from high above it, but now, returning to Manhattan, he finds himself closer in spirit to the hawk he encounters in Morningside Park, the hawk with the “predatory glare” that fixates on him and bores into his soul. Whether because the past has been buried and built over or because its visibility on the surface of the world gives it a breadth that thwarts all efforts to see it in its totality, Julius remains embedded firmly in the present and unable to read the past back into it despite the intense scrutiny with which he continues to observe the people around him.
Such access to the past is impossible because there is always a lag and therefore an insurmountable distance between the past and the present, and this is the lesson Julius learns just as his return flight begins its descent and he looks down on the city from the window of his plane. “[A]s we broke through the last layer of clouds and the city in its true form suddenly appeared a thousand feet below us,” he says, “I experienced… the unsettling feeling that I had had precisely this view of the city before, accompanied by the equally strong feeling that it had not been from the point of view of a plane.” He realizes that he had previously seen that view of the city in the form of a “sprawling scale model… kept at the Queens Museum of Art.” The model “had been built for the World’s Fair in 1964,” he says, “and afterward had been periodically updated to keep up with the changing topography and built environment of the city,” and he recalls being impressed by “the many fine details it represented.” Among these details were “the rivulets of roads snaking across a velvety Central Park, the boomerang of the Bronx curving up to the north, the elegant beige spire of the Empire State Building, the white tablets of the Brooklyn piers,” and, most notably, “the pair of gray blocks on the southern tip of Manhattan, each about a foot high, representing the persistence, in the model of the World Trade Center towers, which, in reality, had already been destroyed.” This collective effort to see the past in extraordinary detail in order to preserve it is here no more successful than Julius’ later effort to gaze into the night sky — into “the dark spaces between the dead, shining stars” — in search of stars that were “giving out light that hadn’t reached me yet” and were therefore perceptible “only as blank interstices.” The light they emanated long ago, he notes, “would arrive on earth eventually, long after I and my whole generation and the generation after me had slipped out of time, perhaps long after the human race itself was extinguished.” In this instance, the past, the distant past, is impossible to read into the present because it has yet to even leave a trace on it.
What all this amounts to, for Julius, is a heightened awareness of the ways in which the people around him, who appear to be just as alienated as he is, attempt to do what he knows is impossible and situate themselves in a relational network extending into the past. This awareness becomes particularly heightened when various people incorporate Julius into their own networks against his will, viewing him as some sort of circumstantial compatriot on the basis of qualities such as his literary sensibilities, his socio-economic status, his presence in a particular place at a particular time, or, most often, his skin colour. And although he comes to resent other peoples’ pretensions to ethnic solidarity — people with whom he shares “only the most tenuous of connections… based on our being young, black, male… ‘brothers’” — he also comes to see that it is this incorporation into a network, rather than his establishment of a network of his own, that restores to him the vigour, the life, that his isolation had consumed. “To be alive, it seemed to me,” he concludes, “was to be both original and reflection, and to be dead was to be split off, to be reflection alone.” Both to see and to be seen by others, others who impose their own senses of identity upon oneself, becomes, for Julius, proof of life, as distinct from the “perfection of the eye,” the development of totalising vision, that would seem to be both the province and the sign of death. “What does it mean,” he asks, facing an unexpected accusation of rape that dates back many years, “when, in someone else’s version [of my own life story], I am the villain?” It means he is alive, he is present, he has not achieved the mode of vision that would allow him to see himself in relation to all things, and there is nothing more for him to do but continue to struggle through the human experience of a broad and unfathomable world with all the limitations of his being.
April 29, 2014
What sense can one expect readers to make of the opening words of Open City? What speaker can hope to convey any meaning with words that flow out from a coordinating conjunction? “And so,” the speaker begins, “when I began to go on evening walks last fall, I found Morningside Heights an easy place from which to set out into the city.” Since nothing precedes that “And so,” the coordinating conjunction elides the cause of the speaker’s evening walks. But flip back a few pages to his aphoristic epigraph and consider how it issues a statement to which his walks may be a response. “Death,” it declares, “is a perfection of the eye.” Insofar as those words form the first full sentence of Open City, the subsequent “And so” coordinates the notion contained therein with the evening walks that the speaker discusses. “Death is a perfection of the eye,” and so, perhaps in some perverse courtship of death or otherwise in pursuit of perfection, the speaker sets out into the city each night and then, when his walks come to an end, he notices that they have afforded him an alteration of his perspective on his world. Having “fallen into the habit of watching bird migrations from my apartment,” he says,
I wonder now if [that habit and the evening walks] are connected. … I used to look out of the window like someone taking auspices, hoping to see the miracle of natural immigration. Each time I caught sight of geese swooping in formation across the sky, I wondered how our life below might look from their perspective, and imagined that, were they ever to indulge in such speculation, the high-rises might seem to them like firs massed in a grove.
The speaker’s name is Julius. He is a young Nigerian of German-Nigerian parentage who now works as an intern at a hospital in Manhattan. Given his first-person detailing of events, his perception of his surroundings is far more circumscribed than that of the knower of The Known World or the seer of Blood Meridian, and so, as he crosses and recrosses the city, he comes to hunger for a mode of perception that will make him more like them. He wants to develop a perfection of the eye that will, in a sense, allow him to obtain an omniscient view of the life he leads.
Moving each evening through bustling streets, through “crowds of shoppers and workers” and “more people, hundreds more, thousands even, than I was accustomed to seeing in the course of a day,” Julius finds himself increasingly cut off from others, cast adrift, and oppressed by the sense of isolation that accompanies the anonymity of strangers crowding together in a city despite the frenetic activity around them. “[T]he impress of these countless faces did nothing to assuage my feelings of isolation,” he says, “[and] if anything, it intensified them.” For Julius, the experience of watching countless commuters flocking into a subway station, “masses of people hurrying down into underground chambers… [as if] into movable catacombs,” is “perpetually strange” and, more importantly, a recurrent reminder of how “unimaginable” are the “many small stories people all over this city carried around with them.” The implication, then, is that Julius’ isolation, his disconnection from what surrounds him, stems from his lack of knowledge of the stories behind all things in his world, and this lack of knowledge stems, in turn, from his inability to perceive the past that would convey those stories to him. This is why he seeks is a new way of seeing, a way of seeing that supersedes the confines of the human eye. To be able to look at an object and see its past, its present, and even its possible futures at a glance, and to see as well how those aspects of it intersect with the pasts, presents, and futures of innumerable other objects, would perhaps bring Julius back into the world he inhabits and bind him inextricably to all he sees surrounding him.
His first attempts at seeing the world along these lines are failures, but not only because the fallibility of the human eye is an insurmountable limitation of the human animal. Sometimes the stories he hopes to see are obstructed by the world itself. “A woman had died in the room next to mine,” he says when his neighbour confesses to having lost his wife some months ago, “she had died on the other side of the wall I was leaning against, and I had known nothing of it.” In other instances, the stories to which he finds himself drawn only offer further distractions from the world. “The child in the Brewster painting looked out with a serene and ethereal expression from the year 1805,” he says of a work of art he pauses to admire in a museum. “I lost track of time before [such] images,” he adds, and when he finally steps back out onto the streets he does so “with the feeling of someone who had returned to the earth from a great distance.”
How can he then break free from both the obstructions of and distractions from the stories he hopes to see? If not exactly a solution, his path forward involves hunting out those worldly objects which somehow acknowledge or anticipate the events of other times rather than attempting only to capture or commemorate them. While a public memorial to police officers killed on duty formally honours past events, for instance, it also contains “a vast, blank face of polished marble.” This blankness, as Julius observes, silently and inconspicuously “await[s] those among the living who [will] die in uniform, and the not yet born, who [will] be born, grow up to be police officers, and be killed while doing that work,” running a thread from the past into the present and onwards into a future in which the present will have become a past inscribed with traces of events that have yet to occur. Moreover, after recalling the terrorist attacks that demolished the World Trade Center in September 2001, Julius notes that the collapse of the twin towers “was not the first erasure on the site.” Before the construction of the towers, he says,
there had been a bustling network of little streets traversing this part of town… [but] all of them had been obliterated in the 1960s to make way for the [World Trade Center] and all were forgotten now. Gone, too, was the old Washington Market, the active piers, the fishwives, the Christian Syrian enclave that was established here in the late 1800s.
“Lenape paths lay buried beneath the rubble,” he adds, characterising the city around him as “a palimpsest” on which records of human endeavours have been and continue to be “written, erased, rewritten.” “There had been communities here before Columbus ever set sail,” he observes, “before Verrazano anchored his ships in the narrows, or the black Portuguese slave trader Esteban Gómez sailed up the Hudson.” At one point he even makes note of an almost indistinct memorial on “the site of an African burial ground,” a burial ground that has been reduced from its original six acres to a “tiny plot” around which “human remains [a]re still routinely uncovered.” “[M]ost of the burial ground,” he points out, “[i]s now under office buildings, shops, streets, diners, pharmacies, all the endless hum of quotidian commerce and government.”
As he develops an awareness of how he is surrounded by aspects of the world that have accumulated extravagant histories and now anticipate imperceptible futures that will historicise the present, Julius gradually sees how his proximity to them leaves him enmeshed in an incomprehensibly complex network of relationships with other aspects of the world that are equally extravagant and equally anticipatory. But rather than being able to see the network in its totality, Julius glimpses no more than scattered pieces, scattered nodes to which he can connect himself in the here and now by way of direct observation but which in turn connect him to other nodes only by varying degrees of association. This distantiated connectivity, this sense of being enmeshed in such a network and yet removed from its totality, fails to satisfy Julius and spurs him into action. “Generations rushed through the eye of a needle,” he muses as he observes the world around him, “and I, one of the still legible crowd, … wanted to find the line that connected me to my own part in these stories.”
Finding that line proves more complex, and more revelatory, than Julius first anticipates. What makes him want to find it is New York City, a city defined by individual isolation in the here-and-now as well as a storied past obscured, written over, by that isolation, but what finding the line involves is, for Julius, a retracing of his heritage back to its roots in the Old World. “The name Julius linked me to another place,” he says, “and was, with my passport and my skin color, one of the intensifiers of my sense of being different, of being set apart, in Nigeria.” Although the place to which his name links him is Germany, his search for the vestiges of his European bloodline leads him to Belgium, to Brussels, where, in lieu of discovering anything new about himself or his place in the storied world, his efforts to see himself in the context of some existential totality reveal to him that the totality itself is much more extensive and amorphous than he at first assumed. As he sets out to intensify his focus on his place within a relational network extending far into the past, what he finds instead is that the increasing visibility of the past does not clarify his place in the network so much as it expands the reach of the network itself in a way that diminishes his place within it.
April 12, 2014
Of all of George Saunders’ story collections, why was this the one that received the most media coverage, the most rave reviews, the most prestigious awards, the most commendations in end-of-year retrospectives, and arguably the most readers? Saunders’ theme, as usual, is the degradation of lives lived under the boot heel of neoliberal economics. His characters are typically embroiled in the bitter yet petty disputes of local commerce and neighbourhood politics, or in the minor scandals and absurd shenanigans of workplaces designed to humiliate their employees, and in story after story these characters are compelled to ‘chin up’ — with a smile — or else incur some even more humiliating punishment. Impoverished parents lavish unaffordable luxuries upon ungrateful, arrogant children. The most vulnerable members of a society are subjected to human experimentation or turned into ornaments or fashion accessories for their social superiors. Minimum wage workers dress up in extravagant costumes and embarrass themselves in front of spectators at outlandish theme parks that seem geared towards systemic dehumanisation. Tenth and December makes room for all those sorts of stories and more, but the problem is that the same is true of Saunders’ previous story collections. Except perhaps for ‘Puppy’ and ‘Home,’ his two brief forays into something approaching conventional realism, there’s nothing in Tenth of December that Saunders hasn’t done better elsewhere. In his very best work — in the theme park stories ‘Pastoralia’ and ‘CivilWarLand in Bad Decline,’ and particularly in ‘The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil’ and ‘In Persuasion Nation’ — he not only depicts the degrading effects of neoliberal economics but eviscerates its logic, painstakingly and hilariously, by exposing its internal contradictions and satirising its pretensions to fairness and lampooning the preposterous claims of its Panglossian defenders. Here, however, the satire is in disastrously short supply, and the focus drifts amongst various snapshots of the sufferings of neoliberal economics without pulling back to explore the line of thought that would rationalise them. In other words, by Saunders’ own standards, Tenth of December plays it very safe — it is by far his most conservative book — and yet it has received more attention than any of his other titles and is repeatedly declared to be deserving of still more. Why?
January 29, 2014
I suppose it’s one of the perils of writing about the natural world that, on publication, your work ends up as ‘nature writing’ regardless of how reductive the genre label may be. Such has been the fate of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. Written in the early 1940s, locked in a drawer for twenty years, published at last in 1961, and promptly forgotten for several decades, Shepherd’s work has recently been retrieved from obscurity by Robert Macfarlane and hailed as an unjustly overlooked masterpiece of the genre he cherishes most. Yet Shepherd aims for something more, more literary, than most of what typifies the genre and even more than the best of the titles to which the genre lays claim: Roger Deakin’s Wildwood, for instance, or Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard. Far less invested in describing her perceptions of a natural environment and reporting the sensory and spiritual experiences they afford her, Shepherd’s overriding concern is the search for words of adequate force to reverse the sensory flow. To halt and peel away the sensory stimulation she receives from the natural world, and then to apprehend the meaning she imposes on the world in the process of stimulation, and so to wonder whether, by an effort of the will, it might be possible for her to sense the world in ways not circumscribed by human subjectivity: this is the task she sets herself.
“This changing of focus in the eye, moving the eye itself while looking at things that do not move, deepens one’s sense of outer reality,” she writes in the book’s early pages to explain her approach to her surroundings:
[S]tatic things may [thus] be caught in the very act of becoming. By so simple a matter, too, as altering the position of one’s head, a different kind of world may be made to appear. … From the close-by sprigs of heather to the most distant fold of the land, each detail stands erect in its own validity. In no other way have I seen of my own unaided sight that the earth is round. As I watch, it arches its back, and each layer of landscape bristles—
But here, where she might have allowed herself to be swept up in the lyricism of her own descriptive prose, she pauses to reconsider her words and goes on to revise them. “[B]ristles is a word of too much commotion for it,” she concedes. “Details are no longer part of a grouping in a picture of which I am the focal point, the focal point is everywhere. Nothing has reference to me, the looker. This is how the earth must see itself.”
The object of Shepherd’s boundless fascination is the Cairngorm Plateau in northern Scotland, a plateau long ago fragmented under the pressure of the glacial drift that shaped the heights and carved out the valleys of the spectacular Cairngorm Mountains. In The Living Mountain, treating the whole of the plateau as one enormous mountain crowned with multiple peaks, Shepherd describes some of her experiences in the Cairngorms, albeit with a tighter focus on their quotidian details than on the eventful scaling of summits. The title, however, is slightly misleading in its suggestion that the book sets out to simply catalogue the varieties of life on the plateau. A more accurate title would be Living the Mountain, since the book in fact records an attempt to delve within the mountain and live as the mountain lives, to become the mountain itself and thereby bring to expression its view of the life that thrives on and around it. “So there I lie on the plateau,” Shepherd writes at the end, “under me the central core of fire from which was thrust this grumbling grinding mass of plutonic rock, over me blue air, and between the fire of the rock and the fire of the sun, scree, soil and water, moss, grass, flower and tree, insect, bird and beast, wind, rain and snow — the total mountain.” But while all of those elements of the Cairngorms are detailed in The Living Mountain, poetically and often adoringly, the purpose of their detailing seems to be for Shepherd to attempt to do what she now says she feels she has done. “Slowly,” she declares, “I have found my way in.” She wants not simply to experience the Cairngorm Plateau, nor to recount or convey an experience of it, but, having already experienced it, to retrospectively reach towards becoming the source of experience and to do so via an articulation of an appropriately suprahuman view of this part of the world.
Page by page, chapter by chapter, Shepherd works her way through the various aspects of the Cairngorm Plateau: its creation during the glacial age, its erosion by the elements, its resultant geology and geography, its plentiful plant and animal life, its metamorphosis under human hands. In each instance, though, looking beyond the surface of these aspects of the plateau, she finds her own vision imposing upon them a meaning they otherwise lack — reading significance into them much as one reads it into the symbols forming the words of a book — and then she casts about for ways in which to purge herself of this tendency to impose, all the better to see the plateau as it is in itself, in total, and stripped of onlookers’ preconceptions. “How can I number the worlds to which the eye gives me entry?” she marvels:
the world of light, of colour, of shape, of shadow: of mathematical precision in the snowflake, the ice formation, the quartz crystal, the patterns of stamen and petal: of rhythm in the fluid curve and plunging line of the mountain faces. … [But p]erhaps the eye imposes its own rhythm on what is only a confusion: one has to look creatively to see this mass of rock as more than jag and pinnacle — as beauty. … A certain kind of consciousness interacts with the mountain-forms to create this sense of beauty. Yet the forms must be there for the eye to see. And forms of a certain distinction: mere dollops won’t do it. It is, as with all creation, matter impregnated with mind.
Occasionally, Shepherd defends and even romanticises her admiration of the natural world, naming it as very literally her raison d’être. “[T]he resultant issue is a living spirit,” she writes, “a glow in the consciousness, that perishes when the glow is dead. It is something snatched from non-being, that shadow which creeps in on us continuously and can be held off by continuous creative act. So, simply to look on anything, such as a mountain, with the love that penetrates to its essence, is to widen the domain of being in the vastness of non-being. Man has no other reason for his existence.” Ultimately, though, Shepherd finds herself drawn back to the tactility and integrity of the mountain, to its feeding of her senses, to her recurrent immersion in its surroundings, to her accretive appreciation of its quotidian being, and to the suprahuman view of the mountain that this appreciation allows her to achieve, piecemeal, over the course of a lifetime. “If I had other senses,” she writes,
there are other things I should know. It is nonsense to suppose, when I have perceived the exquisite division of running water, or a flower, that my separate senses can make, that there would be nothing more to perceive were we but endowed with other modes of perception. How could we imagine flavour, or perfume, without the senses of taste and smell? They are completely unimaginable. There must be many exciting properties of matter that we cannot know because we have no way to know them. Yet, with what we have, what wealth! I add to it each time I go to the mountain — the eye sees what it didn’t see before, or sees in a new way what it had already seen. So the ear, the other senses. It is an experience that grows; undistinguished days add their part, and now and then, unpredictable and unforgettable, come the hours when heaven and earth fall away and one sees a new creation.
Is it futile for Shepherd to attempt to articulate what she sees when she stands in awe of such moments? On occasion, it is, and as a result her articulations can contradict one another. But perhaps futility is simply the price to be paid by those who would seek to do what she does. Bending her own mode of being to better encompass that of something far beyond the human, she cannot help but bend and sometimes break the language through which she would channel this mode of being into human expression. It is, above all, this warping of both the woman and the words she uses that sets The Living Mountain apart from the bulk of that with which it has been forced to share a genre. Much nature writing, and much writing in general, is the echo of an author’s impulse to sit down and write. Some object sparks the imagination, the mind lights up with a glow, and the writing elaborates on the qualities of the vista newly illuminated. Rather than echoing that impulse, however, The Living Mountain turns towards it in order to strike at its very core. Shepherd’s imagination, sparked by the object of the Cairngorm Plateau, fixes its gaze on the spark itself to advance a conflation of subject and object, to burrow deep down inside the thing that both impels the writing and is written about, and so to investigate, rather than elaborate on, how and why it gives off the glow that lights up the imagination in the first place.