From Delphic Intimations: Dialogues with Australian Writers and Critics, ed. Pradeep Trikha. 2007: Sarup & Sons, New Delhi.
I have preserved Australian spelling and style.
“The Breathing Author” — Gerald Murnane
This essay is the edited version of a talk given at the final session of the Gerald Murnane Research Seminar, held at the University of Newcastle on 20-21 September 2001.
I cannot conceive of myself reading a text and being unmindful that the object before my eyes is a product of human effort.
Much of my engagement with a text consists of my speculating about the methods used by the writer in the putting together of the text, or about the feelings and beliefs that drove the writer to write the text, or even about the life story of the writer.
What I am about to tell you today is the sort of detail that I would have been eager to know if it had been my fate to be a person who was drawn to read these books (points to the stack of his books near by) rather than the person who was drawn to write them.
I have for long believed that a person reveals at least as much when he reports what he cannot do or has never done as when he reports what he has done or wants to do.
I have never been in an aeroplane.
I have been as far north from my birthplace as Murwillumbah in New South Wales and as far south as Kettering in Tasmania; as far east as Bemm River in Victoria and as far west as Streaky Bay in South Australia. The distance between Murwillumbah in the north and Kettering in the south is about 1500 km. It so happens that the distance between Streaky Bay in the west and Orbost in the east is about the same. Until I calculated these distances a few days ago, I was quite unaware that my travels had been confined to an area comprising almost a square, but my learning this was no surprise to me.
I became confused, or even distressed, whenever I find myself among streets or roads that are not arranged in a rectangular grid or are so arranged but not so that the streets or roads run approximately north-south and east-west. Whenever I find myself in such a place, I feel compelled to withdraw from social intercourse and all activities other than what I call finding my bearings. These I try to find by reference to the sun or to roads or streets the alignments of which are known to me. I know I have found my bearings when I can visualise myself and my surroundings as details of a map that includes the northern suburbs of Melbourne and such prominent east-west or north-south thoroughfares of those suburbs as Bell Street or Sydney Road.
My trying to find my bearings takes much mental effort, and I fail more often than I succeed. I often believe I have succeeded but later refer to maps and find that my visualised map was wrong. When I discover this, I feel compelled to attempt a complicated exercise that I have probably never succeeded at. I am compelled first to recall the scene where I tried to find my bearings, then to recall the visualised map that proved to be wrong, and last to try to correct my remembered self, as it were: to relive the earlier experience but with the difference that I get my correct bearings. I sometimes feel this compulsion many years after the original event. While writing these notes, for example, I was compelled to recall the evening in November 1956 when I visited for the first time the suburb or Brighton, on Port Phillip Bay. It was my last day of secondary school, and my class had to meet at the home of the school captain and later to take a train into Melbourne to see a film. I arrived in Brighton by bus, in the company of boys who knew their way around that quarter of Melbourne. Later, when our class arrived on foot at Brighton Beach railway station, I stood with them on the platform where they had gathered, but I was convinced that we were waiting for the train from Melbourne. After the train had arrive and we had boarded, I remained convinced for some time that we were travelling away from Melbourne, and my peace of mind was continually disturbed during the rest of the evening by my wondering how I had so utterly lost my bearings at the railway station. Just now, as I said, I was compelled to relive that experience of more than forty years ago, but I failed yet again to understand how the map of Melbourne in my mind had been stood on its head.
I cannot understand the workings of the International Date Line.
Great interview with John Turturro at the AV Club today—it’s part of their Random Roles feature, where an actor (usually a character actor) discusses his or her films. Here’s Turturro talking about some of the films he’s made with the Coen brothers—
JT: I’ve known [the Coens] a long time. I’ve known them from the mid-’80s, because I’m friends with Fran [McDormand]. That’s how I know them. I’ve worked with them on four movies, and they were my executive producers for and really helped me edit Romance And Cigarettes. They’re really good friends—and so is someone like Spike [Lee]. It’s a pleasure in this business when you work with someone more than once. It’s nice, because everybody knows each other.
The Coens are like a mom-and-pop operation. They write it, they edit it, they do the whole thing. They’re involved in everything. It’s very low stress, working with them. There’s almost no stress. If I could make a movie with them every couple of years I would, just because of the pleasure of it.
AVC: How did you finally come to work with them on Miller’s Crossing?
JT: They’d seen me do a lot of plays, and so they said they were going to write a part for me. Then they wrote two parts for me in a row! [Laughs.] Those are big things. When someone writes something for you, you really want to return the favor. So I put a lot of work into it, and tried to give them a little surprise back. Actually I’m going to be directing these three one-act plays on Broadway soon, and Ethan is one of the writers. Woody Allen is one and Elaine May is one and Ethan is one. So I’m working with him again. This is, I guess, the sixth time we’ve worked together.
AVC: The big “look into your heart” scene in the woods. How many takes was that?
JT: I don’t remember how many takes. I just know it was 13 degrees, that’s all. It was really cold. You know, it was a long time ago. It was a hard scene. Sometimes you think about movies, and you say, “Well, I want to try to do something that’s not exactly in a movie.” If you’ve ever been in a very dangerous situation, you know that people will do all kinds of things to keep themselves alive. It was very well-written, but you want to imagine what it’s really like to be in that kind of situation. It depends on what you’re willing to do, and in real life you would do a lot of different things. I tried to capture a little bit of that. I had a couple close encounters throughout my life before that, and you store that stuff in the back of your mind. It’s how you do it, but it’s what they choose and how they put it together too. But that was my goal when I did that, was to do something that was almost a little difficult to watch, because people aren’t trying to be heroic at those moments.
AVC: When you first came across that scene in the screenplay, was it obvious to you that it would be so central and important to the movie? They even used it for the poster.
JT: I guess maybe, but not completely. I kind of knew it was important, and they kept telling me it was. But you don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself, because then it’s like going to bed with somebody the first time or something. You’re like, “Oh God, I got to be great.” [Laughs.] You just don’t want to put too much pressure on yourself. I just thought about it in the context of the story, that’s it. Because you can overthink something, too. It all felt really good when they did it, but it was hard to do.
Barton Fink (1991)—“Barton Fink”
AVC: Since the Coens were writing Barton Fink while they were still struggling through Miller’s Crossing, were you guys discussing that during the shoot?
JT: No. They said at the end—the guy, [executive producer] Ben Barenholtz, said there was this other movie. The way he talked, it sounded like Bart And Fink. I thought it was Bart And Fink. I was like, Bart And Fink? I don’t know about that.” And I didn’t completely get it when I first read it. Their scripts you have to read a bunch of times. And now I guess people can read them easier—someof their scripts—because they know their sensibility. But their sensibility can be quite different, depending on the movie that they’re linked to.
AVC: Did you really go to secretarial school just to study typing for Barton Fink?
JT: Yeah, I did. It was in Brooklyn Heights. It was with electric typewriters; they didn’t have computers. But then I had to use the old manual typewriter, which I loved. They get stuck, but I really love the sound of it, and the whole visceral experience. I wrote a lot of things on that typewriter during the shoot, a lot of ideas for other things.
AVC: Didn’t you write Romance And Cigarettes on it?
JT: I wrote the title of it and some ideas. A couple of scenes. But then I kind of sat on it. I put it in this box for 10 years. So yeah, it was “A Film by Barton Fink.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Your character talks a lot about creating “a new living theater of, about, and for the common man,” which is relevant to the sort of stories you seem to tell in a lot of your own work. But in the film, it seems like that whole idea is being mocked as pretentious.
JT: [Laughs.] Yeah. Well, there’s guys who are outside of that and who talk about it, and there are guys who are inside of it. I did Mac right after that, which was really, for me, inside. And Fink is more from the outside. Plenty of writers have taken those stances—especially in the ’30s, because people came out of immigration, and there was a lot of Socialism. People were really liberal. There were anarchists. There was a Communist Party in this country. There was also a Nazi party that people don’t really talk about. So there were a lot of these things going on, and you kind of have to go back years to understand this thing. It was in the Group Theatre, and people like Arthur Miller obviously had that in his plays. Sometimes it could become a little bit pretentious, and other times not. But everything’s connected in different ways.
AVC: My favorite scene—honestly, maybe my favorite scene in a movie ever—is just a simple dialogue between you and Tony Shalhoub.
JT: Which one?
AVC: “Throw it hard.”
JT: “Throw it hard, Fink!” [Laughs.] Yeah, there were some great actors in that movie, and I got to work with all of them. It was just a treat. There was just wonderful writing in it too. Even though it was a strange movie and stuff like that, when I see the movie now, I really appreciate it. I’m like, “Wow, that was really good.” When I first saw it, it’s hard, because you’re in it. But it’s a good movie, so thank you. It’s a really well-crafted film. It was a treat to make that film, and to work with every one of those actors. Judy Davis is just fabulous.
We continue to raid Raymond Carver’s 1983 Paris Review interview–
Did you ever feel that alcohol was in any way an inspiration? I’m thinking of your poem “Vodka,” published in Esquire.
My God, no! I hope I’ve made that clear. Cheever remarked that he could always recognize “an alcoholic line” in a writer’s work. I’m not exactly sure what he meant by this but I think I know. When we were teaching in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the fall semester of 1973, he and I did nothing but drink. I mean we met our classes, in a manner of speaking. But the entire time we were there—we were living in this hotel they have on campus, the Iowa House—I don’t think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters. We made trips to a liquor store twice a week in my car.
To stock up?
Yes, stock up. But the store didn’t open until 10:00 a.m. Once we planned an early morning run, a ten o’clock run, and we were going to meet in the lobby of the hotel. I came down early to get some cigarettes and John was pacing up and down in the lobby. He was wearing loafers, but he didn’t have any socks on. Anyway, we headed out a little early. By the time we got to the liquor store the clerk was just unlocking the front door. On this particular morning, John got out of the car before I could get it properly parked. By the time I got inside the store he was already at the checkout stand with a half gallon of Scotch. He lived on the fourth floor of the hotel and I lived on the second. Our rooms were identical, right down to the same reproduction of the same painting hanging on the wall. But when we drank together, we always drank in his room. He said he was afraid to come down to drink on the second floor. He said there was always a chance of him getting mugged in the hallway! But you know, of course, that fortunately, not too long after Cheever left Iowa City, he went to a treatment center and got sober and stayed sober until he died.
The world of addiction treatment is full of stories of addicts who managed to stay sober using support from other former addicts as they went about the rehabilitation process.
At the end of Paul Auster’s new novel Sunset Park, the narrative inhabits the mind of young protagonist Miles Heller. Riding in the back of a cab through Brooklyn, Miles’s thoughts glide through a slippery tangle of ideas. In a long sentence that runs on for almost two pages, Miles’s consciousness shifts from his own physical pain to a character in the movie The Best Years of Our Lives, a soldier named Homer who returns home with hooks for hands. This thought blends into a riff on the poet Homer, which in turn leads Miles, long estranged from his family, to figure himself a Telemachus now reunited with his father. And yet the homecoming cannot be; thoughts of Homer slip into thoughts about homelessness, his own homelessness, his friends’ homelessness, not metaphorical but literal. He then thinks about the homeless and displaced people across the country (Sunset Park is set square in the middle of the recent Great Recession), causing his mind to move back to the beginning of the novel, when he worked “trashing out” foreclosed homes in South Florida. The idea of “home” transmutes finally to “hope” as the cab crosses the Brooklyn Bridge–yet the idea (and the novel) is suspended in a strange, sad limbo.
I begin my review with Auster’s final sentence because it delineates many of Sunset Park’s themes, settings, and motifs. At its core–if such a novel can be said to have a core–Sunset Park asks its readers what “home” might mean. Is home a geographic location, a center that resonates with personal and cultural significance? Is home a place with a person you love? Can home be in your head? Is home where your family is? And, even more problematic, what exactly constitutes a family?
The founding trauma of the book, which is to say Miles’s founding trauma, is a radically ambiguous moment of violence: as a teenager, in a heated fight with his step-brother on a country road, Miles pushes the boy. At the same moment, a car flies down the road and kills him. Did Miles mean to kill his brother? At the moment of his anger, how could he not psychologically, if only temporarily, wish for the young man’s death? Did he know the car was coming? Miles cannot deal with the trauma and soon drops out of college and drops out of life. Unlike the biblical Cain, Miles’s exile is self-imposed. He breaks contact with his parents and thus breaks a family that was already twice broken; first, in his parents’ divorce and his mother’s move across the country to California; and second, in the death of his step-brother. Miles relegates himself to hard and unrewarding manual labor, wandering aimlessly around the country. It’s only after he meets a young girl named Pilar that he is able to reconstitute the idea of a family–of a self who can be in a family.
Pilar is a high school student. She is a minor. Auster does little to justify the social acceptability of Miles’s love for (and sodomy of) Pilar; instead, he repeatedly invokes the idea that other characters see the “truth” of the love by simply watching the pair. This is easily the book’s greatest weakness. Auster wants to communicate the idea that in loving Pilar, Miles is able to love a young version of himself–and thus forgive his young self (significantly, Pilar is the same age that Miles was when he pushed his step-brother)–yet the essential predatory narcissism of this “love” remains largely unremarked upon. Even Pilar’s caretaker, her oldest sister, is amenable to the romance–that is, until Miles refuses to keep bringing her high-end items that he recovers from the foreclosed homes he’s “trashing out.” Miles is again exiled, this time from his makeshift home with Pilar. He returns for the first time in seven years to New York City to stay in a squatter’s house with three other twentysomethings.
There’s a kind of silly Bohemian romanticism to the squat in Sunset Park. The project is helmed by would-be avant-jazzman, Bing Nathan, a notorious ranter who improbably subsists on funds he obtains from running his store, the Hospital for Broken Things, where he repairs typewriters and other antique artifacts. Bing thinks his friend Miles will be a perfect fit in the house–and he’s right: the other squatters love him. There’s Ellen, a skittish realtor (!) who aspires to become a pornographic painter, and Alice, an ABD trying to finish her doctoral thesis (on The Best Years of Our Lives, of course). Both women fall for Miles in different ways, although Auster’s writing never once shows why this might be.
Bing has other reasons for getting Miles back to NYC–he wants to reunite the Heller family. He’s been secretly communicating with Miles’s father Morris for years. Morris, who runs his own literary publishing house, is easily the most achieved character in Sunset Park, or at least its most realistic. Although the plot gets bogged down with his own marital difficulties (and other sundry tragedies that echo the “loss of children” theme), Morris’s narrative is the most focused and convincing section of the novel. His sad tone moves beyond melancholy but halts at bitterness, even as he reflects upon the myriad regrets of his life and the fearful future that yawns ahead (things are going badly with his wife; the publishing industry is in peril). Although Miles’s mother Mary-Lee figures less in the novel, she is also a more convincing and sympathetic character than the young people who squat in Sunset Park. Like Morris, she’s reflective, distanced enough from the young self who abandoned her only son, yet analytical enough to comprehend its traumatic effect. Mary-Lee and Morris, with their regrets and fears and hopes are far more aesthetically concrete and satisfying than the novel’s twentysomethings, who at times seem like caricatures or puppets or placeholders.
In Auster’s hands, the Sunset Park gang reflects an unrealistic idealization of youthful and artistic resistance to a predatory capitalist culture. Still, they provide him occasion for some of Sunset Park’s finest riffs, whether he’s ventriloquizing Bing (rage, rage against the lies of the man) or exploring Ellen’s enchanting perversions. Alice’s thesis on The Best Years of Our Lives (a film that somehow everyone in the book has not just seen but seen repeatedly and even analyzed) gives Auster ample material to explore how different generations face trauma, whether it’s the alienation experienced by WWII soldiers returning to a world that seems to have left them behind, or the crises of young people trying find homes in an America tottering on financial collapse.
With its ironic title, The Best Years pairs nicely with the other narrative that informs Sunset Park, Samuel Beckett’s play Happy Days--a play that Mary-Lee just happens to be performing on Broadway at the time of Miles’s return. Auster–through his erudite characters–riffs frequently and wisely on both the film and the play, and these are some of the finer moments of Sunset Park; one almost wishes that Auster would have abandoned the conceit of a novel completely and just write some kind of essay with his material. Sunset Park repeats the themes of alienation, loneliness, separation, and stasis that we find in Happy Days and The Best Years, yet it veers closer to the film’s melodrama than Beckett’s absurdity. Perhaps this is a fault of form: overloaded with characters, Sunset Park sags at times, asking its reader to care about yet another over-educated, privileged New Yorker whose artistic ambitions have stalled out. A concession to Beckett’s minimalism would have done wonders, and perhaps deflated some of Sunset Park’s murky self-seriousness.
The highlight of the novel is Auster’s syntax. His keen sentences, often unfurling for pages at a time, move from concrete to abstract, to present to past to future, to inside and outside, with a precision and skill that is admirable to say the least. Sure, he hits the occasional clunker–some of the book’s early dialog in Florida is particularly painful, as is a moment late in the book when Morris refers to his wife and friend as “the walking wounded,” a cliché that neither Morris or Auster should let slip–but there’s a smoothness of vision that unites the book from sentence to sentence.
Still, syntax is not content, and Sunset Park left me wanting something–more? Something different? I’m not sure what that something is, which is a precarious criticism at best. Auster’s vision of stasis, of limbo, of the impossibility of a real homecoming runs deeply contrary to the traditions and conventions of Western story-telling: in short, we are trained to desire and look for resolution. Auster’s observations–a continuation of Happy Days and The Best Years, in this sense–are precisely the right kind of psychological dissatisfaction we must experience for this novel to be “true” in an artistic sense. However, the aesthetic dissatisfaction I experienced at the end of the book seems of a separate nature. Chalk it up to too many characters and subplots, perhaps. In any case, Sunset Park made me think and made me feel, which is really the job of art–even if those thoughts and feelings are often negative and unpleasant. Perhaps it’s my own critical failing, but in the end I wanted a light to lead me out of the Auster’s limbo.
Sunset Park is new in hardback this month from Henry Holt.
So we ran this post of famous authors’ typewriters the other day but we somehow forgot William Burroughs’s typewriter, which is really damn silly ’cause his name is right there on it–
I posted this photograph of Ernest Hemingway yesterday in a series of photos of authors’ typewriters–
It seems to me that this photo expresses a minimum of five kinds of awesomeness upon which I must remark. Now, before you gripe about Hemingway being an author more famous at this point for his image than his actual work, get over it. In fact, I’ve already been there and gotten over it. On to the awesomeness–
1. The sky. Look at that sky. And those mountains. (Or are they just hills? I’m from Florida. They look like mountains). Let the sky stand for context. It’s 1939 and Hemingway is writing For Whom the Bell Tolls in Sun Valley, Idaho. How could he write under that sky? How could he not write?
2. That mustache. The authority therein. Handsome but grim. Fierce but refined. I want my own mustache like that.
3. The vest. Oh my god, that vest. The fringe. You can almost smell it. Like he’s a boy, playing cowboys and Indians.
4. The glass. Hemingway, I think, is not drinking water here. I think he is drinking something else. It could be anything (not water), but I think he’s drinking scotch. I’m going to pretend he’s drinking bourbon, but I don’t think it’s bourbon.
5. That expression. If Hemingway is merely posing for a photographer (entirely plausible, highly likely in fact), the pose is nevertheless at the same time utterly real. Is he scrutinizing the words? Squinting in the sun? Is it the booze that has puckered his eyes thusly? That brow, only slightly furrowed (only brows furrow); the arch of his hair, slick but not oily, thrusting back with a calm energy. The slight slouch. The mouth, a bit open; commenting perhaps, or exhaling (no, not exhaling), or maybe perched for another sip.
I love this photo.