The Purity of Potential

I make no secret of my admiration for Gerald Murnane; I’ve written about him previously on this blog here, here, and here. Now, for Splice, I’ve taken a close look at Murnane’s collected short stories, published in the United States as Stream System, and I’ve attempted to articulate something of a theory of the Murnanian mindset:

The typical protagonist of a Murnane story is a man reminiscing on his younger years, thrown back into memory by an encounter with a woman whose presence he finds enchanting. Note that he is not enchanted by her actions, and rarely by her bearing. He is enchanted specifically by her presence, by her dwelling in proximity to him, because her being there in a shared space is a wellspring for purely potential developments, potential scenarios involving the two of them, as yet untainted by grubby reality. It’s the purity of this potential that enthralls him.

Bluntly put, then, Murnane’s typical protagonist is a man who objectifies a woman. But at no stage is this man under the illusion that the woman he objectifies is available to him. On the contrary. The memories he returns to are drawn from a youth, an adolescence, and an early adulthood spent in the conservative culture of suburban and provincial Australia in the 1950s, and particularly in the repressive atmosphere of its Irish Catholic community. He is a man crippled by the war between his Catholic upbringing and his bodily impulses. Women, for him, by virtue of his cultural background, are objects that inspire carnal desires which he doesn’t know how to answer. At the same time, he is convinced that these women and the young men they spend time with do know how to answer such desires — feeling none of the misgivings or confusions that halt him in his tracks — insofar as they are unhindered by Catholic cultural norms and the limitations imposed upon what young Catholics ought to know of the world.

I’ve also followed-up on the review via Twitter, responding to a few comments by readers on Murnane’s use of parataxis and the infamous idiosyncrasies of Murnane’s life.

Feet, Teeth, Dust

He walked all night, feeling no fatigue, trembling sometimes with the thrill of being free. When it began to grow light he left the road and moved across open country. He saw no human being, though more than once he was startled by buck leaping from cover and racing away into the hills. The dry white grass waved in the wind; the sky was blue; his body was overflowing with vigour. Walking in great loops, he skirted first one farmhouse, then another. The landscape was so empty that it was not hard to believe at times that his was the first foot ever to tread a particular inch of earth or disturb a particular pebble. But every mile or two there was a fence to remind him that he was a trespasser as well as a runaway. Ducking through the fences, he could feel a craftsman’s pleasure in wire spanned so taut that it hummed when it was plucked. Nonetheless, he could not imagine himself spending his life driving stakes into the ground, erecting fences, dividing up the land. He thought of himself not as something heavy that left tracks behind it, but if anything as a speck upon the surface of an earth too deeply asleep to notice the scratch of ant-feet, the rasp of butterfly teeth, the tumbling of dust.

J.M. Coetzee
Life & Times of Michael K

Murnane’s Manifesto

Gerald Murnane, "A Million Windows"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. Continue reading

Dead, Shed Moments

Michael now took to science and would engage with any of the teachers in religious, philosophic, and logical discussions; his long years of fanciful reasoning had given him an agility in argument; he found himself in his words, the schoolmen’s world, the world of pure verbalism. In Botany, once, having drawn thirty diagrams of the stages of union of two cells of the gutterweed, Spirogyra, which is thin and long like a green hair, a kind of frenzy took hold of him. He looked through the microscope and saw that not only was the series, taken as a series of poses, like a cinematograph, infinite, but that even wit all his care and preoccupation he could not seize the important moment of change. It was not there, it seemed to him mystic. When he saw a person going downstairs and compared the last appearance of that one’s head with the empty space when he was no longer there, the change seemed to him infinitely great, even impossible, a freak that could not take place in the natural world in which he breathed. In his imagination a thing was, and then disappeared, dark remained, and in between was a space of dreams, of nonentity. He held up his mind, a cracked and yellow mirror to reflect the machinery of the world, and in that dark space the world ceased for a moment to exist.

But at these times especially, he would fall back against his seat or lean on his elbow looking out of the window at the trees, and powerful visions would pass through his head; he laboured automatically to increase and perfect these visions, to make them logical, grandiose. He believed in intellectual miracles. He suffered states which were ecstasy, although they were not joyful but rapt and inhuman. In those moments he gave out cold as a genial person gives out warmth and love. …

“I see no will or obedience in anything,” he said, “only the abrupt, spontaneous will and generation; to a certain point water is water, then it is steam or ice, there is no slow change, as I used to think, it is abrupt, and it is mystery. How blunt our senses are, how many thick veils hang between us and the world. How will we ever refine our eyes to see atoms and our ears to hear the messages of ants? … I wish to watch the ordinary movement of life and I see only a succession of dead, shed moments without interrelation: like a man walking through a hall of mirrors and seeing a thousand reflections of himself on every side, each one a shell of himself, and insubstantial. Time, tide, order, I cannot understand; I would go mad.”

Christina Stead
Seven Poor Men of Sydney

Michael Sala’s The Last Thread

Dutch is an awkward language. It sounds humorous to me even now, except when someone uses it in anger. When my stepfather cursed, I imagined dirt in his lungs, old black farming earth from the north of Holland, clotted with blood and bone. God verdomme.

Michael Sala's The Last Thread
Michael Sala’s The Last Thread

On the back cover of Michael Sala’s The Last Thread, the publisher’s blurb hails the book as “[r]eminiscent of the great autobiographical novels of J.M. Coetzee and Michael Ondaatje.” For a publisher to associate those names with a debut work is an audacious move, an attempt to make the book appealing to a very particular readership even at the risk of raising readers’ expectations to heights the book can’t reach. Thankfully, there’s more substance to this association than mere marketing gimmickry. Like Coetzee’s Scenes from Provincial Life and Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, Sala’s autobiographical novel depicts the tensions of a troubled youth in prose that oscillates between the lyrical and the stilted. Like those novels, too, The Last Thread strikes a balance between the personalisation and depersonalisation of a life story, concluding with an adult’s first-person reminiscence on his boyhood years after he has offered a third-person depiction of his younger self. But are those similarities enough to make The Last Thread worth reading? If troubled youths are a dime a dozen in the age of the misery memoir, and if Coetzee and Ondaatje have breathed new life into a tired genre with various artistic flourishes, is it enough for Sala to follow his masters’ footsteps through such well-trodden territory or does he break away from them to blaze a trail of his own? Continue reading