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.Read More »

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?Read More »

Gerald Murnane’s Show-and-Tell

Over at The Apiary, an artistic-archival project “specialising in films made about and in collaboration with musicians, theatre-makers, dancers and visual artists,” Marden Dean ventures into the fabled workspace of Gerald Murnane. Murnane has often spoken about his workspace, a bare office populated by dozens of filing cabinets in which he stores and catalogues every last note he has ever written on any subject whatsoever over the last forty or fifty years, but to my knowledge Dean is the first person ever to be allowed to enter and film Murnane’s little world. Some of the resultant images match up with Murnane’s own descriptions of his workspace, such as the typewriters atop the filing cabinets and the horse racing colours on the wall, but others took me by surprise. I always expected that Murnane organised all of his various notes in some sort of logical order, perhaps biographically or chronologically in accordance with whatever larger project he was working on at the time he wrote them. Not so. While he concedes that most of his notes are organised biographically, others are gathered together under more intriguing categories such as “IF I WERE A COWARD, I WOULD BURN THIS,” “WHAT I BELIEVE ABOVE ALL,” and “ENTER, WITH FLOURISH, H. FAWKNER.”

The Literature of Cities

For a while after I moved to Melbourne, I would sometimes notice the wilderness intruding on the cityscape and immediately I’d feel an urge to preserve the sight in a photograph. A gargantuan gumtree might strangle a street corner, or a palm might spring up between two sets of train tracks, or a pine might peek over a fence at the dead end of a laneway, and in each instance I’d find myself impelled to take a picture. I didn’t set out with camera in hand to hunt down these sorts of sights. I went about my business as usual and looked up every so often to find them in my way, a dash of green against steel and glass, as if waiting there for someone to spy them through the ruckus of human activity that otherwise left them occluded. I’d pull out my cellphone and snap a photo and then I’d set off again. I didn’t know where it came from, this impulse to preserve what I saw; I only knew that on some level I felt an affection for the urban green.

When I saw the green sneaking back into spaces from which it had been expunged, a part of me wanted to cheer it on and even to see it triumph. I enjoyed the thought of watching it slowly reclaim a city whose urgent cosmopolitanism, undisturbed by the wilderness, struck me then and strikes me now as complacent and somehow presumptuous. More than any other city I’ve ever known, Melbourne is exceedingly pampered — the unruliness of the natural world has been arrested and landscaped into submission — and yet in my bones I feel a resistance to such a pampered aesthetic and a reflexive attraction to almost anything that disrupts it. Only recently, however, did I begin to see the source of what I feel towards the city when the Christmas and New Year period gave me some time to read two long meditations on life in Australia’s capital cities.Read More »

The Imagination Jumps In

Lieutenant William Dawes is one of [Sydney’s] first, and most likeable, dreamers. … Street grids and measurements were Dawes’s day job, the stars and Eora language his night-work. Almost as soon as he landed, he began to build an observatory near where the southern stanchions of the Harbour Bridge now stand. … Dawes spent as much time as possible camped out, making his observations, to the point that colonist Elizabeth Macarthur described him famously and, one think, fondly as, ‘so much engaged with the stars that to mortal eyes he is not always visible.’ In this rare verbal portrait, Dawes appears as a dreamy, gentle man. … Certainly Dawes’s curiosity, or a quality of kindly stillness, must have allowed him to form a relationship of trust, the exact nature of which remains uncertain, with the teenage Patyegarang. In fact, a large number of Eora companions appear to have shared the bluff with Dawes; he names sixteen in his notebooks.

These ‘language notebooks,’ which are now regarded as among the most precious of our colonial records, remained virtually unknown until they were discovered at the University of London in 1972. The softness of night can be felt everywhere inside them. Like the stars, the Eora words Dawes recorded are fragments now of something grander, as suggestive and ungraspable as the far-off ice-light of other planets. From Patyegarang, Dawes learned the words meaning ‘snot’ and ‘hiccough’ and ‘the point of a spear’; but also more intriguingly intimate constructions such as ‘to warm one’s hand by the fire and then to squeeze gently the fingers of another person,’ ‘we shall sleep separate,’ and ‘to extinguish a candle.’ Many other words — ‘to embrace, to hug’ and ‘when will you be sick again’ — seem to wear a night-time mantle. It is impossible to guess, beyond the fellowship that radiates from these pages, what dreams the Eora held for the transmission of their words to Dawes as they watched the stars together. …

But Dawes’s notebooks are not dry grammars. Instead, as the academic Ross Gibson has noted, they became something more visionary, soon drifting away from Dawes’s table of nouns and verb declensions to record more complicated transactions. At one point in the notebooks, Patyegarang, or Patye as Dawes sometimes calls her, tells him that the Cammeraigal are fearful ‘because of the guns.’ At another, praising his ability to speak, she tells him he has a ‘good mouth.’ Other vignettes offer tantalising glimpses of lost moments: ‘My friend, he sings about you’; ‘My friend, let us (two) go and bathe’; ‘I am very angry’; ‘Take hold of my hand and help me up.’

Recently it has become possible to pull up Dawes’s notebooks on the internet, and track through the tidy, browning pages in order, an activity which has all the drama of a gripping poem, as the imagination jumps in to fill the gaps. What is the story behind the phrase, ‘Thou pinchedst’? Or ‘You beat her while she was alseep’? One has to imagine, too, how close to the city’s geological heart, to the raw edges of its harbour, Dawes must have felt as he watched the milky spread of stars above him, or watched the morning mist hang above the water. Like so many of the city’s visionaries who would follow, he opened himself up to this landscape, let it pour in; but, unlike so many others, he does not appear to have suffered any derangement, perhaps because he let it call to him in its own language. Scroll to the last page of his third notebook and you will find a kind of poem, each word on a separate line, which perfectly captures the future city’s mix of the grossly material and the stellar: ‘the Penis, hair, Scrotum, Testicles, Moon.’

Delia Falconer

Lisa Lang’s Utopian Man

In her historical novel Utopian Man… Australian author Lisa Lang… seems to propose a certain savage truth about the march of history: that, at bottom, it is the simple unfolding of entropy. With this in mind, she approaches historical fiction aware that narrative cohesion is destined, or doomed, to be upset by the sloppiness of the unvarnished historical record. Rather than attempting to overcome the entropy of history, Lang entertains it. She offers a novel whose acceptance of the chaotic events seems designed to frustrate readers who expect an orderly narrative in the vein of Byatt, Mantel, and their cohort. Ostensibly setting out to shape the life of a man into an entertaining and accessible story, Lang abandons that enterprise and begins to shine a light on its inevitable shortcomings. The result is a minor triumph: not without its share of failures, but a captivating, challenging, and rewarding work of fiction that succeeds despite the weaknesses of its final pages.

My review of Lisa Lang’s Utopian Man is online at The Critical Flame.