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.

Imagination

Gerald Murnane’s A Million Windows shares space with Blood and Bone
on the recent releases shelf in Melbourne’s Paperback Bookstore.

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A well-known writer of fiction in this country, once, as part of a discussion about one of his books, which could fairly be called a work of historical fiction, said or, perhaps, wrote words to the effect that he insisted on his right to imagine the past. I have often wondered at his statement. If I assume that he was not making the preposterous claim that he was somehow better qualified than other living persons to suppose what one or another person thought or felt, say, a hundred years ago, then what was he claiming? Perhaps his emphasis was on the word imagining, as though he had other means at his disposal for discovering what this or that person felt a hundred years ago but chose to use his imagination. And yet, what other means could he or anyone possibly call on for such a task?

Reader, we are all of us, whether writers or readers, surely obliged to imagine the past, although I, who dislike the word imagine, would prefer to use such an expression as speculate about.

Gerald Murnane, A Million Windows

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…what occurs between the two is a stunning powerplay that exposes the limits of the human imagination. Inhabiting the speculative peripheries of the historical record, Blood and Bone is an uncompromising exploration of Australia’s dark history and its legacy today.

from the jacket copy of Blood and Bone

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During the years it took Scrymgeour to assemble the Whangie, he found a place for his dependants in basic lodgings in Rockhampton. My understanding is that, in his absence, the woman spent the weeks leading up to their relocation in what was diplomatically described to me as a nervous state. I can only speculate on how her nervousness might have shown itself. I do know that she kept a robust library which she was largely forced to sell off in advance of leaving the coast for the Whangie. I imagine she confined herself to her bedroom, kept herself behind closed doors, and spent a large portion of each day immersed in her beloved words. How else to divert her thoughts from the torment of her life in this place and the dissolution of the family who might have at least made it bearable? On those rare occasions when she emerged, I imagine, she carried a book in her hand and sat in a chair by a window but soon forgot about reading as she daydreamed gazing over the lively city outside. Could her son have been walking those streets just then, trying to find his way back to her and back to the home she kept in good order in the hope of his return? She rarely spoke aloud, I imagine, and I’m sure that when she did, during her last days in the city, her words took the form of platitudes intended to bury her daughter’s anxieties under promises so idyllic that no one could possibly take them as truth. Father, mother, and daughter, she said, would all enjoy their new lives out west. They would wake each morning beside a river at the foot of a mighty mountain. The girl would be given her very own room in a house on a beautiful farm, and there they would all live simply and without worries in plenty of fresh air and sunshine.

It must have taken them about ten days to reach the Auchtermuchty Bend, or perhaps a little longer with a few days’ rest in Emerald. Mother and daughter saddled together on a single mount. Scrymgeour scouted their route up ahead, a rider in the distance, all but dragging them through a land that grew more bleak, more austere, more forbidding with every lilt of the horse. I see the animals twitch their ears and swish their tails as the swarms of flies intensify, and I hear leather satchels full of water slapping hard against their sides. They loosen their hold on the bit as they plod further into the desert, and I notice the reins, once firm, now begin to slacken. I don’t think I’m able to comprehend the tedium of the westward journey. Uncountable hours of intolerable heat, the endless muttering of flies, and the warm breath of the inland wind. The groan of saddles, the clink of bridles, the monotonous thud of hooves newly shod. I can sketch the conditions of the ordeal but words alone are, I think, too weak to evoke the experience of it. To stop and dwell on its enormity, to attempt to internalise those conditions, is to reach out to grasp a horizon that recedes with every step towards it. And how to then convey the despair that surely descended upon mother and daughter when they reached their destination and for the first time saw the Whangie? Day after day through the desert only to arrive at that lopsided shack, a speck on the limitless landscape, shrunken beneath the Auchtermuchty Escarpment. No sense of grandeur or ceremony. No sense of comfort and no sense of relief. A couple of months, at most, before the Christmas of 1888, and this after owning the property for twenty years and postponing migration because the difficulty of raising their youngest child so far from the coastal cities would have made the woman’s life torture whenever her husband was droving stock. Not that she would bear it for long even when he stayed home with her. From the moment of their arrival, she had perhaps six weeks left to live. I can’t help but wonder if she felt, then and there, the first pangs of the compulsion to escape from this place which, in time, metastasised into a compulsion to end her life.

Daniel Davis Wood, Blood and Bone

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

End-of-Year Pleasures and One Disappointment

The recent flurry of ‘best of’ lists that appear without fail at this time of year has reminded me of many of the wonderful books I read in 2013 and alerted me to others I hope to turn to in 2014. Equally, though, it has made me aware of just how many of the best things I read this year appeared not in book form but in a handful of recent literary publications, most of them online, which have helped to prepare fertile ground for the flourishing of longform criticism with a focus on literary aesthetics. Continue reading

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.”