A Million Windows, Gerald Murnane

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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has been quite busy in his eighth decade, putting out more than one book a year, or perhaps just clearing his desk of unpublished mss.*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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Today it rained

Journal: 023

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MST’s book launch. Photo by Lisa Hill

Today (Wednesday) it rained. If you’re a Sydneysider you’ll know what I mean. Though it wasn’t just Sydney, grain harvest and carting was suspended all the way across South Australia as I came over at the weekend, to Melbourne, arriving early enough to have coffee with MST and her wonderful children and then tea with Lou (teacher son) in non-rainy, post Dan-slide Victoria.

MST gave me a copy of this year’s Stella winner, Alexis Wright’s Tracker which I hadn’t intended reading, but which having started I can’t put down. A review is coming, though it may take me till the xmas hols.

I’m sure I’m not the only reader who misses Michelle’s blog since she started working at Stella. She says she has 160 books to read for next year’s prize (or some such number). Even if there’re half a dozen judges, that’s still a lot of reading. But she has undertaken to review the Billabong series, of which she has long been a fan, for AWW Gen 2 week. That’s 13-19 Jan. Michelle.

Lou had a book for me too, on an episode in Australian working class history, which has long been absent from my library, but I told him to wrap it and give it to me when he comes over for Christmas. Psyche has phoned just in the last hour to say that she has booked her flight from Darwin, Milly and I have booked time off, Gee and the grandkids won’t go on holidays till the new year, so that’s all of us, in Perth, on the actual Christmas Day, and Milly is planning a feast (my jobs are transport and grog, purchase of).

My deliveries in Melbourne were quite straightforward, though way down in Dandenong (an outer south-eastern suburb), but after that I got thoroughly Draganned. I had a pickup in the outer west, then a second in Frankston, back past Dandenong (we’re talking two 100 km round trips, in traffic), and a third in Cowra – yes that Cowra, 500 kms north in NSW. That was this morning, which means the rain had come. I’m not used to rain. And it got worse. With three quarters of a load I came on into Sydney. Unloaded it all at a depot for transport at a later date. And now I sit at the Eastern Creek truckstop. The rain still falls. I await further instructions.

Sitting around in Melbourne – there was a 24 hour break somewhere in those cross-city back and forths – I started sorting through the newspapers that populate my passenger seat. I know I said I’ve given up paper newspapers, and I have, but Milly and I bond over cryptics, so when I think of it I buy a weekend paper. The West, which has the cryptic we’re used to, or the SMH/Age which we find harder. I keep the motoring sections ‘for later’, and then there’s Owner-Driver which is free in truckstops, and in amongst all these I found the last six Australian Book Review, which subscription I will not renew but which I must have paid a couple of years ahead – and still the reviews are mostly not Australian and if they are, are mostly not fiction.

But I found a few interesting Indigenous stories. In Wright’s wonderful biography Tracker Tilmouth seems to identify various groups within his community by the matriarch, so ‘Geraldine mob’ or ‘Ursula mob’. This is not a usage I’ve run into before but it comes up again in ABR May 2018, “The Paradox of Recognition” by Richard Martin, about native title in the Ceduna area. I wrote in Crossing the Nullarbor, “… from Yalata to Ceduna, were the Wirangu whose language was subsumed by the related Kokatha, another member of the Western Desert family of languages to their north.” Ceduna’s Aunty Sue Mob are identified as Kokatha and are initially excluded from the Wirangu native title claim. The article – a review of two books – discusses how legalistic views of native title are breaking up communities.

Two other articles on Indigenous issues are Kim Mahood on archeology (April 2018). Indigenous occupation has been extended back 65,000 years and the book she reviews, Deep Time Dreaming by Billy Griffiths studies the question ‘Who owns the past?’; and Alan Atkinson on The Sydney Wars by Stephen Gapps (August 2018). “In response to invasion, various Indigenous groups on the Cumberland Plain were drawn together from time to time, apparently in innovative ways …” to fight back.

On a different subject altogether, Beejay Silcox writes ‘We are all MFAs now!’ (August 2018). Over a number of pages she argues that MFA programmes make no difference to what we read, but have merely taken the space formerly offered by cafes as forums for budding writers to meet and criticize each other’s writing. Studying in America she discovers, quelle surprise!, that American courses teach only American writing. My own opinion is that Masters degrees have taken the space formerly occupied by tech college diplomas.

 

Recent audiobooks

Mary Burton (F, USA), The Hang Man (2017) – More dead young women, their deaths described in loving detail. Do the authors get off on writing this stuff?
Blake Crouch (M, USA), Dark Matter (2016)
Andrea Camilleri (M, Ita), Angelica’s Smile (2014)
Eve Chase (F, Eng), Black Rabbit Hall (2016)
Kate Atkinson (F, Eng), When Will There be Good News (2008)

Currently reading

Dale Spender, Mothers of the Novel
Alexis Wright, Tracker (2017)

Stuff on the Internet

The NY Times flies out to Australia, to Goroke in western Victoria to meet the next Nobel Laureate in Literature (thanks to my brother in law who sent me this) and finds him behind the bar at the local golf club (here).

 

Border Districts, Gerald Murnane

Murnane Border Districts

Border Districts (2017) is a meditation on remembering by an imaginary author clearly representing Murnane himself who has moved from the capital city where he grew up to a little town which he has long imagined, out on the western plains of the state in which he has always lived, so that one of the meanings of ‘border districts’ is this area of his home state which borders an adjacent state.

It is possible that Murnane intends at least partly an homage to Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Times Lost (1871-1922) which he mentions and which I haven’t read. He repeatedly brings up as memories not things he has seen but memories of the images retained from seeing these things and further, memories of images, scenes, transactions he in his childhood and youth imagined.

This work is a fiction, but a fiction which the fictional protagonist insists is factual, an accurate account of his real memories of both real and imagined landscapes and events. I am reminded that in the only other of his works that I have read, Landscape with Landscape (review), Murnane describes his personal ‘landscape’ as “the space between myself and the nearest woman or man who seemed real to me”. Here, 30 years later, ‘real’ has almost disappeared, leaving only a landscape of retained images of past realities and past imaginings, both equally valid, imperfectly recalled.

For a geography minded reader like me the book is interesting not least for its complete absence of place names. So, the fictional author grew up in the outer suburbs of the capital city (Melbourne) of a state in the southern part of the country, lived as a child for a while in a provincial city (Bendigo), and now lives in a little country town out on the plains of the Western District, which he moved to because he had imagined it.

(Whenever I recall, here in this quiet district near the border, my mostly aimless activity during my fifty and more years in the capital city, I begin to envy the sort of man who might have been paid a modest wage during most of his adult life in return for feeding and watering and grooming and exercising a half-dozen thoroughbred horses in a certain few sheds and paddocks behind a plantation of cypresses on the far side of an assortment of outbuildings in the vicinity of an immense garden surrounding a sprawling homestead out of sight of the nearest road, which would have appeared as one of the faintly coloured least of roads if ever I had seen it on some or another map of some or another of the mostly level grassy landscapes that seem often to lie in some or another far western district of my mind.)

He mentions a number of times a “place-name I have never been able to find in any gazeteer of the British Isles” a place name which he notices on his rare long journeys across the largely treeless plain to the capital city, and which I think is a name I too have seen and indeed look out for along the Melbourne-Adelaide highway, Ercildoun, a ‘Mt’ (prominent hill) north of Trawalla, and with an ‘e’ one of the large (tens of thousands of acres) grazing properties into which Victoria was first divided, and also, though he does not say, a fine old bank building in Footscray. “I learned from my reading that the place name is a much earlier version of the present-day name of a small town in the border district of Scotland”.

If Border Districts has a theme it is stained glass, or to be more accurate, the fictional author’s memory of the quality of light filtered through stained glass, the description of which he constantly refines. The book begins with the fictional author visiting a small church in the town in which he now lives, belonging “to one of the Protestant denominations I pitied as a schoolboy for the drabness of their services”, and which have windows with stained glass representations of leaves and stems and petals.

He remembers (Catholic) churches he attended as a boy and as a trainee priest and their representations in stained glass of Jesus, of Mary, and of the ‘Sacrament’. And an older house in the capital city in which he sometimes stays has stained glass in some of the windows which he photographs to study more closely at home.

This older house which I mentioned in the previous paragraph (which is a phrase Murnane, or his fictional author, uses a lot) is the family home of a friend from his schooldays where the friend grew up, after his mother’s death, in the care of his father and his father’s maiden cousin whom he, the friend, calls Aunt. And the fictional author imagines for the Aunt a life in which she marries the man who wrote to her before his death at Gallipoli, a life in which the man comes home from the War and lives the life mentioned in an earlier paragraph, as a groom on one of the great Western District estates, and they late in life have a daughter and that daughter is of an age with the fictional author and they become friends.

There is much more: coloured glass marbles; a kaleidoscope which works by rotating a marble at the end of a short tube; school Readers (which Victorians of a certain age will remember) which both he and the Aunt’s imaginary daughter read right through at the beginning of the school year and then must suffer through the remainder of the year readings out loud by their less progressed classmates; race meetings followed mostly on the radio and the owners who have the old estates in Western Victoria and their racing colours; an interview on the radio with a woman author who catches his attention when she states that she has imagined a house which is situated in that part of the adjacent state nearest the home of the fictional author, and that she will locate and buy this house, which she is certain exists, and turn it into a retreat for authors of fiction, but not for poets or biographers. The fictional author writes to this woman author but she does not reply.

Murnane’s concerns are the border between mind and brain, the border between object and perception, the border which separates the past and our memory of the past. But ‘border’ also denotes a place away from the centre, a place on the outer –

As a young man, I was often driven to search … not only for writers but for painters sculptors and composers of music who lived in isolation from their kind, far from the putative centres of culture. Even in my youth, I seem to have been seeking evidence that the mind is a place best viewed from the borderlands.

Border Districts is one of those works, and probably one of those few great works, where the writing is more important than the subject matter. Where we are carried along, bemused, in a great writer’s train of thought.

 

Gerald Murnane, Border Districts, Giramondo, Melbourne, 2017

see also:
Lisa at ANZLL’s review of Border Districts (here)
Lisa’s other Murnane reviews (here)
My review of Murnane’s Landscape with Landscape (here)
Emma at Book Around the Corner’s “Reading Proust” page (here)

Landscape With Landscape, Gerald Murnane

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I am, or was until now, a Gerald Murnane virgin. I had read none of his works nor knew anything about him except, from the colour supplements last year, that he had retired to the Wimmera, to a small town in wheat farm country west of St Arnaud, Vic and something, something, horse racing, something (I’ll look up a link when I’m done  … here).

Now, I know a little more. Murnane is a Melburnian, half a generation older than me and, on the basis of this book, a fine, literary writer,

Gerald Murnane was born in 1939 in Melbourne, Australia. He spent part of his childhood in country districts of Victoria, returned to Melbourne in 1949 and has lived there ever since [up to 1987 anyway, when this thumbnail appeared in Landscape With Landscape].

The thematically connected stories of this book are of a young Melbourne man, sexually immature and awkward, coming of age in the late 1950s, itself a sexually immature and awkward time in suburban Australia.  The young man in this book devises scenarios in his head, plays out meetings before they take place, builds a whole imagined life around a glance or a chance sighting. I feel for him intensely. His awkwardness, the rehearsed meetings, his holding back from ‘real-life’ interaction are mine too.

The stories ostensibly concern his approaching, or not approaching, women. In some of them he meets a woman and marries her, but this woman, his wife, is rarely the point of the story, she is there, perhaps as a marker of his manhood, but playing very little part in his life, in the important part of his life, his imagination. More importantly, the stories are a writer practising his craft, effectively telling the same coming of age story six times from six different perspectives; a cycle, each story referencing the next, and the last the first; and at the same time developing and discussing the theories of his craft.

This was a time when people married young, my own parents, who married in 1950 were 23 and 18. Murnane – or the young man who is his surrogate in these stories – finds himself, positions himself, as the heavy drinking loner bachelor in the lounge rooms of his married friends, until he too has an (unnamed) wife. But his principal life – we might say the life he is reduced to rationalising as his principal life by his failure to make meaningful contact with eligible women – is in the space between himself and the Other.

At some time in my imagined future I would have wanted to see my landscape as a private place marked off from all others: a place that distinguished me as surely as a pattern of freckles could distinguish a woman.

There was such a place, although I did not recognise it for some years afterwards. By then it seemed less a landscape than the ending of the only fiction I could write. It was the space between myself and the nearest woman or man who seemed real to me. [Landscape With Freckled Woman].

He imagines an Australian landscape that has him leaning on a bar in far north Qld, drinking beer (which he is forcing himself to like), a romantic, Kerouac-ian wanderer. He tells this dream to Carolyn, a kindergarten teacher with a Morris Minor, but after four dates with lots of kissing he still hasn’t put his hand on her breast. She tells him she has been sleeping with a married man and he throws her over. His friend, Durkin starts taking her out, sleeping with her, discussing him with her, her with him. Durkin and Carolyn marry, still he remains in Melbourne, getting married himself, visiting them, drinking. Carolyn exposes her breast to him to breastfeed her third child, surely a sign. Durkin and Carolyn move north. To Grafton in northern NSW. Twenty years have passed. Carolyn leaves Durkin, moves north again, to Brisbane. Carolyn’s single, waiting for him, for them both to enter the landscape of his dreams, the far north… [Sipping the Essence]

In another story, he is a descendant of the utopian New Australia settlement in Paraguay, looking for other Australians amongst the Paraguayans, but afraid of course to approach them directly and ask; an extended metaphor for his search for like-minded people in Melbourne suburbia.

I was never sure what value to attach to what Paraguayans called the emotions. (How much, for example, of what I felt for my wife and children was truly derived from my Australianness and how much was derived from my being exposed all my life to overly demonstrative Paraguayans?)

His son, who is far more important to him than his daughter, becomes seriously ill and must be entrusted to Paraguayan doctors. During the long night watches he demonstrates to  hospital staff his seriousness, his separateness. [The Battle of Acosta Nu].

In A Quieter Place than Clun Murnane attempts and largely fails to meet women – he describes his pick-up technique as: “Sometimes I did go [to parties], and sat drinking in a corner, hoping some perceptive young woman would notice about me the faint aureole from my fiery pattern of nerves.”

The Clun of the title is from a poem by AE Housman – “‘Tis a long way further than Knighton/A quieter place than Clun” – with which he becomes obsessed, imagining that his literary landscape must be coloured the brilliant green of southern England.

But in Charlie Alcock’s Cock, it is the spaces between things, the ‘gaps’ in reality, that form his landscape. At first he thinks he’ll find another way into reality from under the lemon tree in his aunt’s Hawthorn back yard where he and his younger cousin compare cocks, while he wishes he knew more about his older girl cousins. Over half a lifetime, the cousin becomes a priest and then a marriage counsellor, while he (Murnane) gets to 30, marries a nice, young Catholic girl, has children, decides to leave.

Now I knew that those dark spaces were part of myself. They were a huge projection of some intricate pattern behind my eyes, and it would be my life’s work to explore those dark spaces and to interpret the pattern that gave rise to them. The dazzled and half-blind people of Melbourne’s suburbs would lose sight of me.

Finally, and still sabotaging himself (his fictional self, how he was in ‘real’ life of course I cannot say) with drink, he attends a party in the hills north east of Melbourne, in the house of a successful artist (painter) who has become his friend, who pairs him off with a blonde to whom he is able to declaim the latest iterations of his theory of writing, but of course with whom he fails to go home.

She … asks me to tell her more about myself. I tell her I am a writer, but one whose best work is still unpublished. I say my writing is too complex to talk about. I write fiction in order to discover the pattern of myself and my life. At first sight, a piece of my fiction might seem to describe only a few figures in a landscape; but on closer inspection it reveals extraordinary depths – another dimension perhaps. If she read my fiction closely, I tell her, she would seem to be stepping inside a painting of a landscape with one or more figures and walking back as far as the furthest painted detail and then seeing still further off other landscapes rising to view [Landscape With Artist].

Elsewhere he writes he would “devise a new form of prose fiction – neither short story nor novel -with a shape to match the pattern of my life” and that, I guess, explains why he has chosen this form for this book. And yes, I’m embarrassed; Landscape With Landscape is brilliant and I should have read it years ago.

 

Gerald Murnane, Landscape With Landscape, Penguin, Melbourne, 1987. Cover painting Contemplating the Faithful by Neil Malone

See also these posts on Murnane:
Lisa, ANZLL, the first two are stories from Landscape With Landscape (here)
Sue, Whispering Gums (here)