A Million Windows, Gerald Murnane

A-Million-Windows-for-web-1

Aren’t we lucky that Giramondo so faithfully supports Gerald Murnane. I hope they make money on the deal. You would think a major publisher would snap up Murnane just for the prestige, but then perhaps Murnane stays with Giramondo out of loyalty. They appear from their website to have 10 of Murnane’s 17 published works of which A Million Windows (2014) is the 11th – which implies Murnane has been quite busy in his eighth decade, putting out more than one book a year, or perhaps just clearing his desk of unpublished mss.*

Wikipedia begin their Murnane entry with: Gerald Murnane (born 25 February 1939) is an Australian writer, perhaps best known for his novel The Plains (1982). The New York Times, in a big feature published on 27 March 2018, called him “the greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of”. Lisa Hill at ANZLitLovers passionately advocates for him to be the next Nobel Laureate for Literature, and I concur, he is an astonishingly original writer.

A Million Windows is a work of fiction, or so it claims, about what it is to be a creator of works of fiction. Murnane’s conceit is that there is a large building of two or three storeys on the grassy western plains of a southern state, in which authors live and work and meet in the evenings in the common rooms to discuss their work, and in the remote wings of which building there are romance writers and suchlike and maybe even readers with whom the writers of literary fiction never come into contact.

I know the Western District of Victoria (Murnane’s ‘southern state’) pretty well and there are very few buildings of three storeys, maybe some hotels, and only to my knowledge one which is out in the country and that is the old Ararat lunatic asylum, which being just off the Western Highway Murnane would drive past quite often, and it would amuse me greatly if that is the building Murnane is imagining for his writers.

Early in the book, Murnane recalls a passage in Australian writer Hal Porter’s 1963 autobiography Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony, not that he names either the author or the book:

… the author claimed to remember his having seen often as a child, while he wached from a balcony in the late afternoon, and when light from the declining sun fell at a certain angle, what he called sumless distant windows like spots of golden oil.

He, or I should say the principal character in this work of fiction who seems to be the author’s alter ego, discusses the ‘privilege’ of being familiar with the location of this part of the autobiography – “one of the least worthy varieties of fiction extant” – in that it better enabled him as a young reader to visualise what the author was writing, and mentions being as a child in the regional city “where the autobiographer, more than thirty years later, would be struck and killed while drunkenly crossing the street.”

Later in the book, while walking in the grounds of the two or three storeyed building he looks up and sees the sun reflecting in the windows like spots of golden oil, like a million spots of golden oil maybe, as “the house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million …” (Henry James).


At this point I had to go off for two or three weeks, and I find I can no longer do this wonderful book justice. I will try and refresh my memory and leave you with some notes and some quotes.


Murnane discusses his theories about writing by positing discussions between writers who are clearly versions of himself. Sometimes I agree with him, for instance that Literature (as distinct from mere story telling) arises out of the author’s lived experience; and sometimes I am left with my mouth agape.

On time …

What I was hoping to do when I began this paragraph was to explain, for myself as much as for the reader, why I cannot call to mind any detail of a certain house of two or, perhaps, three storeys (the silent corridors in the far-reaching wings, for example, or the grounds where strollers readily lose their way among hedges or thickets or ferneries, or the immense and and mostly level distances to be seen from upper windows) without the conviction that the personages frequenting the place exist not in any sort of temporal progression but in what might be called the narrative dimension, which not only extends infinitely backwards and forwards, as we might say of our own time, as we call it, but has what I perceive to be a breadth or depth, likewise immeasurable.

On reading …

[The author’s young self] found it impossible to accept that the last page of a book of fiction was any sort of boundary or limit. For him, the personages who had first appeared while he was reading some or another fictional text were no less alive after the text itself had come to an end than while he had pored over it.

For whom does he write …

… one or two of us [writers] claim hardly to think of their readers but to draw inspiration from the task itself: to keep in mind the splendid intricacy of the finished text and even to feel, as they complete page after page, that their writing expands their sense of who they are and of how much meaning can be found in a few meagre-seeming experiences.

Why A Million Windows is NOT a self-referential work …

For the sake of the undiscerning reader, I shall repeat the simple fact that I am the narrator of this work and not the author.

Make of that what you will, there is much, much more.

 

Gerald Murnane, A Million Windows, Giramondo, Sydney, 2014

see also:
The NY Times flies out to Australia, to Goroke in western Victoria to meet the next Nobel Laureate in Literature and finds him behind the bar at the local golf club (here).
My Review of Border Districts (here)
My review of Landscape with Landscape (here)
Lisa at ANZLL’s review of A Million Windows (here)


*One of Murnane’s earlier works, A Season on Earth, has just been republished, in full for the first time (ABC report) and Lisa has a copy, expect a review very soon.

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9 thoughts on “A Million Windows, Gerald Murnane

  1. LOL No pressure, then, about A Season on Earth!
    I’ve read Parts 1 & 2, but I had to take a break to get two books for my Indonesian book group out of the way. Plus, it’s hardback, which is no good for reading in bed!
    I’ll get back to it ASAP.

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    • Some pressure, I’m hanging out to say what you say. I just this minute finished reading your review of A Million Windows and am chagrined at how much I missed – about reading/writing, but also the girl on the train which I had forgotten. I enjoy Murnane’s (very) diffident love making and should have mentioned it.

      Housekeeping: I’ve picked up my parcel thankyou and replied to the SF guy. If he sends me an ebook I’ll read that next.

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      • Heavens, you mustn’t be chagrined… I think that the intended way for Murnane’s fiction to ‘work’ is that it triggers images in our own memories (as with you and the sanatorium). So all of us will respond to it in entirely different ways:)

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  2. Bill, I’m sure Gerald Murnane would be happy at both your interest , observations and perceptions and Lisa’s. He was my first writing teacher at a night school course at the now defunct Prahran College of Advanced Education in the 80s, the first course of creative writing at a tertiary level in Victoria. I still have the first short story I submitted and his kind comments but his perceptive critique I’ve never forgotten and use as a guiding rule – he asked ,”But what story do you really want to tell?” I had to leave the course because of a severe health crisis but the units completed invaluable in my writing journey.

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    • Sad that you had to withdraw, Murnane is clearly very thoughtful, if idiosyncratic about the art of writing. I wonder though how much of all that is written comes to the attention of any author. After a while it must just wash around them unregarded – though saying that, one of the only good parts of the Australian Book Review is authors’ fierce rebuttals of adverse reviews.

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      • At that time it was devastating – a year I’d like to forget. Beverley Farmer was in the class and look how well she did as an author – Gerald was a good teacher and mentor. Regarding reviews, I like David Malouf’s attitude when he finishes a story or novel – he said his job as a writer is done and readers take from it what they wish. Writers have no control over how their work is read and it is difficult if people don’t engage the way you hope but first rule in workshopping is listen to feedback, don’t defend or explain just go back to the drawing board😁 or stand by your words. That’s what’s great about bookshops and libraries something for everyone’s taste. We’re lucky to have writers like Murnane who persist and reviewers who care enough to read and share.

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  3. When I was studying in creative writing programs, the number one rule you should not break, lest you go to writer hell, is you never write about being a writer. I must say, though, the are a number of fiction books about writers that I have enjoyed. Sometimes you want to see your own life reflected on the page. Speaking of seeing yourself reflected on the page, did you ever get your hands on Two Small Birds by Dave Newman? Here is my review: http://thenextbestbookblog.blogspot.com/2014/04/melanie-reviews-two-small-birds.html

    There is a Kindle edition available.

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    • Murnane only ever writes about himself but in this case he wanted to write about the ‘rules’ of novel writing – which as Mairi above points out, he has taught. You would find a lot more meat in it than I did as most of the rules went straight over my head. I read the review you linked me to, about the poet forced by economics into truck driving. I do like to see myself in print, but strangely enough am more likely to see myself as a young Murnane, who approaches young women very tentatively and often fails to notice when they signal that they are interested.

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