Last week, I discovered the Australian author Gerald Murnane (@GeraldMurnane). Born in 1939 in Coburg, Victoria–a suburb of Melbourne–he taught primary school in the 1960s and after 1980, creative writing at tertiary institutions. He made his debut in 1974 with a semi-autobiographical work titled Tamarisk Row. Some of his subsequent books are The Plains (1982), Inland (1988) and Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs (2005). April 2018 will see the launch of Stream System, a collection of short stories. The major themes explored by the author are memory, image, landscape and the relation between fiction and non-fiction.
I’ve been going through Murnane’s A Million Windows (2014). It is a demanding, genre-defying book that is marketed as “a gorgeous (if unsettling) investigation into the glories and pitfalls of storytelling.” The title is derived from a quote by Henry James (1843-1916) that goes like this: “The house of fiction has . . . not one window, but a million.” Murnane asks: “Who, exactly, are that house’s residents, and what do they see from their respective rooms?”
I saw the book essentially as a conversation between two worlds: the invisible and the visible. The invisible world is the one inhabited by fictional personages, the visible by the creators of those fictional personages. Where do these two worlds intersect? How do the spatial and temporal realities of one spill over into the other? These are some of the issues explored. The book is too complex and I won’t attempt a thorough review here. I would just share three observations put forward by the author that I found very stimulating:
One – the narrative of a true work of fiction extends infinitely, goes beyond where it started and finished and what it covered:
…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 [something like an infinite extension sideways in opposite directions].
Two – the narrator who is present in the place that he or she happens to be writing about:
Soon afterwards again, the same author might seem to step noticeably backwards from all of the characters and, far from seeming to loiter furtively, with bowed head and downcast eyes, in range of the sighs and murmurings of this or that character, might seem to fling back his head and to look far outwards and upwards while he reports to the reader not only the broad outlines of the far-reaching fictional landscapes surrounding the cramped cottage-garden or the tiny parlour where he had learned, not long before, the secrets of those characters, but the fold upon fold of field and forest surrounding garden and parlour and even the sight of distant villages and towns that he, the far-seeing author, but none of his characters might have been aware of…
The sort of author who practises this narratory nimbleness might seem sometimes, even to the discerning reader and, more importantly, even to himself or herself, the nimble narrator, to be present in the place that he or she happens to be writing about rather than in the place where he or she sits writing.
Three – poetry is to prose what whisky is to beer:
We happen to have among us one who freely admits to being a failed poet, although he reminds us often that he had taken up and had later abandoned poetry before the decades when the renegades were most prolific. As a very young man, so he once told us, he had believed in metaphor as some persons believe in religious creeds or political manifestos. He had even hoped to get from the contemplation of metaphor what some so-called mystics are said to get from their contemplation of the divine or the ultimate. Unlike the renegades, our failed poet is by no means evasive when asked why he turned from poetry to prose, but when he sets out to explain his apostacy or conversion he uses an odd-seeming comparison. He likens poetry to whisky or gin and prose to beer, which is his only drink.
He says the amount of alcohol in a given volume of beer constitutes a sort of perfect proportion or golden mean whereas whisky and other spirits are akin to poisons, with a potency out of all proportion to their volume. Poets, he says, are distillers while we writers of prose are brewers, and he strives while he writes to turn out sentence after sentence the meaning of which will keep his reader in a heightened state of awareness for hour after hour whereas the poet that he had once wanted to be might have had his reader fall forward, before long, to the table, seeing double after a surfeit of metaphors.
This very acute and intoxicating alcoholic analogy reminded me of the “poetry is to prose what gardening is to agriculture” comparison that Stanford professor Robert Pogue Harrison explores in his wonderful study Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition (2008) that I reviewed in October 2016. Check that one out too, if you haven’t already!