I found reading the latest book by Gerald Murnane even more challenging than usual, and yet it was impossible to abandon it. In A Million Windows he once again dissects the meaning and process of writing fiction, dredging from memory the books he has read or written; the girls he has imagined (or maybe met); the dreamy landscapes of what might be outer-suburban Melbourne; and the thoughts and dictates of the personage in this work of fiction, who seems like a first-person narrator and may perhaps be a bit like the author (but is most certainly not a character). But it is not easy reading.
For a start, there is an implied expectation that the reader will be familiar with all of the author’s previous books. Well, when Murnane draws on his own previous published works of fiction, the allusions may seem like old friends if you have read those books. But if one title or another (in my case, Barley Patch) still rests unread on the TBR, you too may be occasionally flummoxed (in my case, by an allusion to Torfrida) – unless you cheat like I did and consult Google.
But I do not believe that Gerald Murnane writes to be deliberately obscure. And while (certainly in this book) he expects a lot of his readers, nor do I think that he wishes his readership to be an exclusive scholarly clique. To the contrary, he goes out of his way to explain himself and the conceptual framework that underlies his fiction and I think that he would be well pleased to find readers such as myself muddling through, as best they can. I suspect that some of what seem like provocations to the reader in A Million Windows are intended as a spur to arouse stubborn persistence…
My previous experiences reading Murnane meant that I was not expecting to understand everything on the page. With his demanding fiction, it’s a case of read on, and pieces will (mostly) fall into place. But still, it is disconcerting to learn that reading what Murnane calls ‘considered narration’ entitles me to nothing more than to suppose that the narrator of the paragraphs was alive at the time when they were written and felt urged to report certain matters. (p.15) Later on, the narrator/the voice of this work reminds us that he is under no obligation to do anything other than report what’s in the mind of the person of the narrator of the fiction (p.159) and that to be deserving to be called the implied reader we must be worthy of the trust placed in us by the writer of ‘true fiction’. (p. 185)
Early on, this narrator refers to ‘undiscerning readers’, and how they may misinterpret what lies within these pages. Discerning readers are reassured that falsehoods included in his paragraph about ‘a Swede’s film’ (i.e. Ingmar Bergman’s) were
… allowed into the text for the sake of the undiscerning reader, who might have found tedious a strictly accurate account of what is reported there. (p. 5)
The undiscerning readers being patronised here, you see, expect more in the way of narrative conventions. They are inclined to imagine images of actual-seeming persons, whereas a discerning reader knows that they have no existence in the world. Undiscerning readers may expect to like, or at least identify with the characters. This, apparently is a grievous error for
a true work of art in no way depends for its justification on its seeming connections with the place that many call the real world and I call the visible world. (p.4)
This warning comes in the context of prose that swirls around and seems to play games with the reader, and I suspect that I am not the only reader who will be reminded of Italo Calvino. Alas, making this connection this puts me straight into the company of undiscerning readers, where I did not want to be. I like Murnane, I’ve liked everything I’ve read of his fiction even when I didn’t fully comprehend it. I was quite discomfited by being placed in this clearly undesirable camp!
What’s more, this somewhat confronting label has the effect of creating an awkward tension between the narrator/voice of this fiction and the reader. It felt mildly confrontational. I expect that this sense of being judged will make most readers try, as I did, not to disappoint, but despite my efforts, yes, there were times when this personage blithely corrected my wayward interpretations with what seemed like very little tact. If like me you had thought yourself a reasonably discerning reader, you may well find A Million Windows rather chastening.
It was especially discomfiting to write, as I did in my reading journal, that I must be en garde as in a chess game where a better player than me is placing his pieces in a series of moves behind which lies a strategy I have yet to discern only to turn the page and find Murnane describing Calvino
as someone for whom writer and reader are opposed to one another as the players on either side of a chessboard are opposed. Even the undiscerning reader of this fiction of mine should have understood by now that I, the narrator, would dread to feel that we were separated even by these sentences. (p.33)
So. You have been warned. I am an undiscerning reader and probably ought not share my undiscerning thoughts about A Million Windows. But I’m going to anyway because I was fascinated by it and despite the rather bossy narrator telling me how not to read the book, I liked reading it so much, I read it twice. Perhaps on cue, I had become stubbornly determined to engage with it.
I was amused by the narrator’s adventures with ‘narratology’. There was a time when he thought that writing fiction was a craft that he should strive to improve. Long before the days of buying books online he came across a book ‘reviewed respectfully’ in the TLS and, thinking he was obliged to be aware of the sorts of fiction being published in distant countries, he ordered it from overseas. It was by a respected German scholar (who? who was it??) and was full of charts and diagrams to do with narrative styles, which alas made him inclined to scoff because it put him in mind of some or another inscrutable calendar or sky-map from a civilisation long since vanished. Indeed, preferring the work of an American professor, he forgot all about this diagram until writing this book, and at first had thought he might refer to it to
startle the undiscerning reader who believes that a work of fiction contains little more than reports of so-called characters, of what these characters do and say and think, and of the scenery, so to call it, in the background. (p. 51)
But on reflection, he (the narrator) considered the other writers of fiction in the house of two or, perhaps, three storeys where much of the action, so to call it, of this work of fiction takes place. They (i.e. not you or I, but rather the fictional personages of this book) may find their own work susceptible to the sort of analysis that had given rise to the diagram. Now, I don’t know about anyone else, I find this idea of baiting the undiscerning reader just a tad provocative – and even more so to lump the fictional personages of this book in with them!
Punctuated by an assortment of narratives about persons who have featured in Murnane’s previous works of fiction, the narrator goes on to pontificate about plot, character, setting and so on, and will neatly invert any ideas the (undiscerning) reader might yet have clung on to about these aspects of fiction. You can’t have any of those when you read Murnane. The Murnane reading experience is not like that. The compensation is that it is intellectually daring, enjoyably exasperating, and occasionally droll.
(You also have to get used to very long, somewhat pedantic sentences with multiple clauses. One that I noticed on page 47 is 27 lines long).
Although I had read A History of Books I was still intrigued to see how confined
Murnane’s the narrator’s reading interests seem to be. The voice is that of one of the most interesting and exciting contemporary authors, considered to be Australia’s next most likely Nobel winner, and yet he eschews all kinds of contemporary writing because he doesn’t trust the narrative techniques. The book will be cast aside, for example, if it features dialogue because it’s purporting to be a film script. He is especially scornful about stream of consciousness as a technique, calling it ‘posturing’ in the case of Mario Vargas Llosa. He likes Thomas Hardy, for example, because the narrator seems like someone older and wiser, telling you what to make of it – what to conclude, or what to feel. And Dickens can be admired because he can direct the actions of his fictional personages (i.e. there can be a plot!) but writers of what he calls ‘true fiction’ lack something needed to do that:
On the rare occasions when we discuss authors such as Charles Dickens, we seem to agree that we lack for something that writers of fiction seemed formerly to possess. And yet, if we have lost something, so to speak, we have also gained something. We may be unable to exercise control over our fictional personages the sort of control that Dickens and others exercised over their characters, but we are able to turn that same lack of control to our advantage and to learn from our own subject-matter, so to call it, in somewhat the same way that our readers are presumed to learn from our writing. (p.128)
As you could tell from the Sensational Snippet that I posted last weekend, Murnane’s House of Fiction with its million windows (a metaphor derived from Henry James) comprises many different wings, for writers of different genres. There is a wing where residents are accorded respect in proportion to the tens of thousands of copies of their books sold or the number of their books adapted for film or even the number of literary prizes awarded them, and while there is some contact between the poets and the exclusive (but necessarily small) wing where the narrator creates his ‘true fiction’, the reader does not need to be told that the narrator eschews contact with these best-selling prize winners and the writers of romance!
Murnane’s preoccupation with girls surfaces often in A Million Windows. (There is a kind of narrative thread that runs through the book, but I hesitate to call it a story). I was rather charmed by the narrator’s surprise that girls don’t understand his oblique behaviour. In adolescence he strikes up an awkward acquaintance with a girl on the train, but she offends him by asking an idle question about how he refers to cinema: movies, pictures or films? Somehow she should have known that he could not sustain a relationship with a girl who cares about cinema. Indeed, he feels a mild resentment that to get to know girls there has to be the burden of ‘going out’ with them – he would much rather withdraw and write. Without any word or overt sign from him, this girl should have understood that her interest in cinema was the reason why he abandoned conversation with her after that. He was puzzled and hurt when he saw in a ‘Dear Dorothy’ letter in a newspaper that seemed to apply to this incident and to judge him harshly for it. And he remains utterly convinced that she still thinks of him, as he thinks of her decades later.
I enjoyed this interview with Giromondo’s publisher Ivor Indyk, but I think it’s probably best savoured after reading the book, whereas an audio interview at ABC RN with Michael Cathcart is a useful introduction or companion as you read.
For much more erudite thoughts than mine about A Million Windows, see Peter Craven in the SMH, Emmett Stinson at the Sydney Review, and, if you’re really keen, K. Thomas Kahn’s at The Quarterly Conversation. And while I don’t usually care for the anonymous reviews at The Saturday Paper, I refer you to this one because I was a little relieved to find that I was not alone in thinking some of Murnane’s positions somewhat combative. Still, I can’t help but find the book exhilarating to read, and I find the stated writing ambition compelling. What he wants to do is to call into being a narrator more knowledgeable and trustworthy than a personage such as myself, the narrator of this book. He wants it to be a unique and inimitable entity impossible to define or to classify but also a mere detail in an intricate scheme or design (p. 68)
This ambition is based on a desire for trust between writer and reader, and even though I feel I have failed to meet Murnane’s exacting standards, I hope I have conveyed some of my delight in tackling this book.
Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: A Million Windows
Publisher: Giramondo, 2014
Source: Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing