Blog about some recent reading

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It’s been pretty busy around Biblioklept World Headquarters this week. It’s the first week of my kids’ summer vacation, and they both had birthdays this week, as did I. I managed to read but not write that much—so here’s this lazy post.

I finally finished Robert Coover’s 1966 debut novel The Origin of the Brunists this morning, which I had started with a huge wave of enthusiasm way back at the end of February. The novel has one of the finest second chapters I can remember, a long description of a mine’s implosion, and the rest of the book simply never matches its intensity. Coover conjures a mining town called West Condon, and explores the fallout of the disaster and how it affects seemingly every citizen. The central conflict is between a doomsday cult (the Brunists) and the rest of the town. There are some wonderful moments, but there’s a maudlin streak to the novel that Coover’s later work would satirize. The Origin of the Brunists suffers from the strains of First Novel Syndrome—Coover overstuffs the beast, and doesn’t leaven his unwieldy monster with enough humor. It’s a shaggy read, which, like, fine—I love shaggy novels!—but shagginess should correlate with theme, and Coover’s theme is decidedly unshaggy. You could probably cull a dozen short stories from Origin and end up with a finer book. I ended up reading it out of a sense of duty to the author. Maybe the sequel, which came out a few years ago, is a better affair.

I should have a review of Ann Quin’s first novel Berg out next week, but here is a short review: Go read Berg. It’s extraordinary. It’s so extraordinary that upon finishing it I immediately needed more Quin. I’ve been reading the collection of fragments and stories The Unmapped Country slowly, interspersing them with other reads. Good stuff.

I picked up Linda Coverdale’s translation of Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Slave Old Man this Friday as I browsed my favorite bookstore as a birthday treat for myself. I read the first two chapters that afternoon. The language is extraordinary, strange, poetic, bracing. More thoughts to come.

I read Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts over the course of three mornings. I then immediately reread it, finding it even more precise and accomplished than I had realized the first time. Murnane’s “fiction” is a compelling meditation on seeing and trying to see what can’t be seen. It’s about place, memory, image, and color—the colors of marbles, of liveries, of racing flags and stained glass windows. It’s also a strange and ironic exercise in literary criticism—but ultimately, it’s about waiting for the epiphanies our stories promise us, and perhaps waiting in vain. Very highly recommended.

I had hoped to write Something Big on Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland but found myself a bit too exhausted at the end of it to muster anything. I know among Pynchon fans it has a certain cult status, but I’d rather pick up Gravity’s Rainbow or Against the Day or Mason & Dixon again than reread Vineland. The book is a shaggy mess, really, with some excellent bits that never properly cohere. (It is possible that the book doesn’t cohere on purpose—there’s a narratological implication that the entire book is simply a film treatment, or, a few characters riffing over a film treatment.) Vineland features characters from other Pynchon novels, notably the Traverse family from Against the Day, as well as folks from Gravity’s Rainbow and The Crying of Lot 49, suggesting that there is of course a Pynchonverse. The book is an indictment on the baby boomers selling out in the seventies and really the eighties, and attack on Nixonia and the rise of Reagan. The indictment could be stronger. Vineland’s also an extended attack on television, but also a love letter to The Tube. (There’s also a motif about cars and driving that I didn’t fully understand.) And there are all the usual Pynchon themes: zeros and ones, preterite and elect, visible and invisible, paranoia, paranoia, paranoia. Probably the weirdest thing about Vineland is that its “B” plot about a ninja and her partner and their strange adventures actually seems to take up way more of the book than the “A” plot (about a daughter and her estranged mother reuniting). I liked the “B” plot a lot better. I’m sure I’ll reread all of Pynchon at some point, but for now, I’d put it at the bottom of this list.

I finally found a copy of Donald Barthelme’s children’s book The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine: Or, the Hithering Thithering Djinn. My kids seem a little too old for it but I dig it, and the collage work (by Barthelme himself) is fun, if not exactly Une Semaine de Bonté.

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I actually did muster a review of Jaime Hernandez latest Love & Rockets book, Is This How you See Me? The review is at The Comics Journal.

Not pictured in the stack above (because I have it out as a digital loan from my local library) is Maria Gainza’s novel (is it a novel?) Optic Nerve, in translation by Thomas Bunstead. I’m a little over half way through, and just really digging it. It’s kinda like a life story told through paintings and art history, but it’s also very much about aesthetics and ways of seeing. It reminds me a lot of  W.G. Sebald, Roberto Bolaño Claire-Louise Bennett, Lucia Berlin, and David Markson, but also really original. Good stuff.

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I consider myself a student of colours and shades and hues and tints (From Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts)

I consider myself a student of colours and shades and hues and tints. Crimson lake, burnt umber, ultramarine … I was too clumsy as a child to paint with my moistened brush the scenery that I would have liked to bring into being. I preferred to leave untouched in their white metallic surroundings my rows of powdery rectangles of water-colours, to read aloud one after another of the tiny printed names of the coloured rectangles, and to let each colour seem to soak into each word of its name or even into each syllable of each word of each name so that I could afterwards call to mind an exact shade or hue from an image of no more than black letters on a white ground.

Deep cadmium, geranium lake, imperial purple, parchment … after the last of our children had found employment and had moved out of our home, my wife and I were able to buy for ourselves things that had previously been beyond our means. I bought my first such luxury, as I called it, in a shop selling artists’ supplies. I bought there a complete set of coloured pencils made by a famous maker of pencils in England: a hundred and twenty pencils, each stamped with gold lettering along its side and having at its end a perfectly tapered wick. The collection of pencils is behind me as I write these words. It rests near the jars of glass marbles and the kaleidoscope mentioned earlier. None of the pencils has ever been used in the way that most pencils are used, but I have sometimes used the many-striped collection in order to confirm my suspicion as a child that each of what I called my long-lost moods might be recollected and, perhaps, preserved if only I could look again at the precise shade or hue that had become connected with the mood – that had absorbed, as it were, or had been permeated with, one or more of the indefinable qualities that constitute what is called a mood or a state of feeling. During the weeks since I first wrote in the earlier pages of this report about the windows in the church of white stone, I have spent every day an increasing amount of time in moving my pencils to and fro among the hollow spaces allotted to them in their container. I seem to recall that I tried sometimes, many years ago, to move my glass marbles from place to place on the carpet near my desk with the vague hope that some or another chance arrangement of them would restore to me some previously irretrievable mood. The marbles, however, were too variously coloured, and each differed too markedly from the other. Their colours seemed to vie, to compete. Or, a single marble might suggest more than I was in search of: a whole afternoon in my childhood or a row of trees in a backyard when I had wanted back only a certain few moments when my face was brushed by a certain few leaves. Among the pencils are many differing only subtly from their neighbours. Six at least I might have called simply red if I had not learned long ago their true names. With these six, and with still others from each side of them, I often arrange one after another of many possible sequences, hoping to see in the conjectured space between some or another unlikely pair a certain tint that I have wanted for long to see.

From Gerald Murnane’s 2018 novel Border Districts.

I failed as a reader of fiction (From Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts)

Whenever I tried long ago to learn from books about the workings of minds, I was equally troubled whether I read fiction or non-fiction. In the same way that I struggled and failed to follow plots and to comprehend the motives of characters, so did I struggle to follow arguments and to understand concepts. I failed as a reader of fiction because I was constantly engaged not with the seeming subject-matter of the text but with the doings of personages who appeared to me while I tried to read and with the scenery that appeared around them. My image-world was often only slightly connected with the text in front of my eyes; anyone privy to my seeming-sights might have supposed I was reading some barely recognisable variant of the text, a sort of apocrypha of the published work. As a reader of texts intended to explain the mind, I failed because the words and phrases in front of my eyes gave rise only to the poorest sort of image. Reading about our minds or the mind, and about purported instincts or aptitudes or faculties, not to mention such phantasms as ego, id, and archetype, I supposed the endless-seeming landscapes of my own thoughts and feelings must have been a paradise by comparison with the drab sites where others located their selves or their personalities or whatever they called their mental territories. And so, I decided long ago to take no further interest in the theoretical and to study instead the actual, which was for me the seeming-scenery behind everything I did or thought or read.

From Gerald Murnane’s 2018 novel Border Districts.

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Gerald Murnane’s Border Districts (Book acquired, 20 May 2019

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I picked up a hardback copy of Gerald Murnane’s latest novel Border Districts on something of a whim today. It’s only 120 pages in hardback, and, despite Murnane’s metamodernist mode, is probably a bit more cohesive than the last few novels I’ve read (Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland, Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote, and Marlon James’s Black Leopard, Red Wolf). First two paragraphs—

Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes, and I could not think of going on with this piece of writing unless I were to explain how I came by that odd expression.

I got some of my schooling from a certain order of religious brothers, a band of men who dressed each in a black soutane with a bib of white celluloid at his throat. I learned by chance last year, and fifty years since I last saw anyone wearing such a thing, that the white bib was called a rabat and was a symbol of chastity. Among the few books that I brought here from the capital city is a large dictionary, but the word rabat is not listed in it. The word may well be French, given that the order of brothers was founded in France. In this remote district, I am even less inclined than I was in the suburbs of the capital city to seek out some or another obscure fact; here, near the border, I am even more inclined than of old to accept as well founded any supposition likely to complete a pattern in my mind and then to go on writing until I learn the meaning for me of such an image as that of the white patch which appeared just now against a black ground at the edge of my mind and will not be easily dislodged.

 

Novels by Acker, Orlovitz, and Murnane (Books acquired 1 and 6 Aug. 2018)

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I went by my favorite used bookshop to purge a bunch of books I’ll never read again and order Gerald Murane’s 1982 novel The Plains. I had finished most of Murnane’s collection Stream System, leaving only the longest story in the collection (“Velvet Waters”) unread.

I browsed the store a bit too, of course, and found a used copy of Kathy Acker’s Great Expectations, which I’ve never read. Years ago, this particular book store had almost every Acker book used and I didn’t pick any up, which I’ve regretted for awhile. So.

I also picked up Gil Orlovitz’s 1967 novel Milkbottle H, which I’d never heard of until I saw @PierreMenard tweet about it last month—

The book is 500+ pages. I found the first 10 utterly bewildering. You can read more about Milkbottle H here.

My copy of The Plains came in a few days later so my son and I went and picked it up (he got an Asterix comic). I read Part I this week and really got a strange thrill out of it. The Plains is a kind of speculative fiction with mythological touches. The slim novel reimagines an Australia the plainsmen of the interior define themselves (aesthetically, above all else) against the coastal areas of “Outer Australia.” The narrator is a (would-be) film director who wants to a make a movie called The Interior that will capture the essence of the plains (a task that is plainly impossible). The Plains is a very strange and I’m really digging it so far.

In order to be shown the sign (Gerald Murnane)

The shabbily dressed man spoke to his students at their first class as follows. The best service he could perform for them was to persuade them to give up writing fiction as soon as they had finished his course—or even before then. The writing of fiction was something that a certain sort of person had to do in order to explain himself or herself to an imagined parent or an imagined loved one or an imagined god. He himself had had two novels published more than ten years before but had had nothing published since then and had no intention of writing so much as a sentence of fiction during the remainder of his life. He had stopped writing fiction after having been shown a sign. He had had to write or to prepare to write fiction in order to be shown the sign, but having been shown the sign he no longer wished to write fiction. The shabbily dressed man then said to his class that he had probably said too much to them already and had probably confused them thoroughly. He then said that their first class was over, that their classes for the next month were cancelled, and that they should go away and write their first piece of fiction and deliver it to him three weeks later so that he could prepare photocopies for the workshop classes that would occupy him and them for the rest of the year.

From Gerald Murnane’s short story “The White Cattle of Uppington,” (1995); collected in Stream System (2018).

Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System”

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The title of this blog post is Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System, but I admit that I wanted to put the word story under a bit of suspicion—rein it in with quotation marks, call it a “story.”

See, “Stream System” isn’t really a “story” — except that it is — “Stream System” is, like, a kind of biographical excerpt, less fictionalized (Yeah but how do you know that?) than the other pieces I’ve thus far read in the 2018 collection of Gerald Murnane’s fiction (“fiction”?) Stream System.

In Stream System the story “Stream System” gets a little asterisk next to its title. The initial asterisk’s twin in the footnote informs the reader:

“‘Stream System’ was written to be be read aloud at a gathering in the Department of English at La Trobe University in 1988.”

(The original campus of La Trobe University is in Melbourne, Australia, a city I visited three times as a boy between 1987 and 1991; during this time my family lived in Papua New Guinea and New Zealand (but never Australia). The city of Melbourne, Florida is 177 miles south of where I currently live, and although I have driven past it, I have never visited it).

So “Stream System” is not a fiction but a speech, a written speech, but really a “story,” I guess—a story (sort of) about Murnane’s boyhood in the southeastern Australian state of Victoria.

In any case, in titling this blog post Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System,” I found myself wanting to put quotation marks around “story,” but realizing that those quotation marks would butt up against the quotation marks of “Stream System” (quotation marks indicating, This is the title of a short work—perfectly logical quotation marks in a shared punctuation system). And well yeah so I realized that the two sets of quotation marks did not belong to the same logical system. One set of quotation marks are so-called “scare quotes”; the other set of quotation marks are simply the basic English punctuation for indicating the title of a short work—whether the work is an essay, speech, poem, or short story. Even more importantly, putting the two sets of quotation marks together looked ugly as hell.

I started with the title for the post and seem to not have gotten past it. This has been a bad start, but I’ll keep blogging.

I’m not going to summarize “Stream System” — unpacking it would be too much, like drawing a diagram of an intricate memory map. I mean, really it’s better to just read it. I’ll just say that it condenses memory into the concrete reality of place, and makes those memories bristle with sharp, strange meaning.

I just said I’ll just say, but I’ll also just say — “Stream System” is deeply unsettling: Its repetitive tics are addictive; its compulsions compel the reader along into the speaker’s reflective labyrinth. And yet for all its coercive power, Murnane’s anamnesis is also extraordinarily discomforting. Murnane’s prose never editorializes, yet its concrete prowess, its evocation of surfaces, contours, true and real details—all of this leads the reader towards an emotional epiphany that the narrator refuses to name, directly invoke, or otherwise dramatize.

And yet so but well really “Stream System” does dramatize its epiphany, or one of its epiphanies, but in this really oblique and elliptical way that walks and talks through the story’s central trauma, walks through it in such a way that it seems like the narrator has kept going, leaving the reader a bit winded and left behind, holding a stitch in his side, saying, Hey, wait, what about this, what about this really really devastating thing you just evoked?

I realize that I titled this post Blog about a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System,” but I admit that I’m not really going to write about that devastating passage—not really. Maybe I should have titled it Blog leading up to a devastating passage from Gerald Murnane’s story “Stream System” — I mean, that’s what I should have titled this post, and I could easily go back and rewrite the title and revise this whole thing. But I won’t. Here are those four paragraphs that so very much got to me:

My brother spoke to nobody but he often looked into the face of a person and made strange sounds. My mother said that the strange sounds were my brother’s way of learning to speak and that she understood the meaning of the sounds. But no one else understood that my brother’s strange sounds had a meaning. Two years after my parents and my brother and I had left the house of red bricks my brother began to speak, but his speech sounded strange.

When my brother first went to school I used to hide from him in the schoolground. I did not want my brother to speak to me in his strange speech. I did not want my friends to hear my brother and then to ask me why he spoke strangely. During the rest of my childhood and until I left my parents’ house, I tried never to be seen with my brother. If I could not avoid travelling on the same train with my brother I would order him to sit in a different compartment from mine. If I could not avoid walking in the street with my brother I would order him not to look in my direction and not to speak to me.

When my brother first went to school my mother said that he was no different from any other boy, but in later years my mother would admit that my brother was a little backward.

My brother died when he was forty-three years old and I was forty-six. My brother never married. Many people came to my brother’s funeral, but none of those people had ever been a friend to my brother. I was certainly never a friend to my brother. On the day before my brother died I understood for the first time that no one had ever been a friend to my brother.

 

Gerald Murnane’s Stream System (Book acquired, 5 April 2018)

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Four stories into Gerald Murnane’s Stream System and digging it a lot. I’ll do some kind of post about some of the stuff in here soon. For now, here’s FS&G’s blurb:

Never before available to readers in this hemisphere, these stories―originally published from 1985 to 2012―offer an irresistible compendium of the work of one of contemporary fiction’s greatest magicians.

While the Australian master Gerald Murnane’s reputation rests largely on his longer works of fiction, his short stories stand among the most brilliant and idiosyncratic uses of the form since Borges, Beckett, and Nabokov. Brutal, comic, obscene, and crystalline, Stream System runs from the haunting “Land Deal,” which imagines the colonization of Australia and the ultimate vengeance of its indigenous people as a series of nested dreams; to “Finger Web,” which tells a quietly terrifying, fractal tale of the scars of war and the roots of misogyny; to “The Interior of Gaaldine,” which finds its anxious protagonist stranded beyond the limits of fiction itself.

No one else writes like Murnane, and there are few other authors alive still capable of changing how―and why―we read.

“Murnane has not made the selling of himself an easy task”

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This week’s New York Times Magazine offers a compelling profile of Gerald Murnane. The profile, by Mark Binelli, is an expansive and engaging look at the Australian author, whose cult will undoubtedly grow larger after this exposure. From Binelli’s piece:

Murnane’s books are strange and wonderful and nearly impossible to describe in a sentence or two. After his third novel, “The Plains,” a fable-like story reminiscent of Italo Calvino published in 1982, Murnane largely turned away from what might be called conventional narrative pleasures. Dispensing almost entirely with plot and character, his later works are essayistic meditations on his own past, a personal mythology as attuned to the epic ordinariness of lost time as Proust, except with Murnane it’s horse races, a boyhood marble collection, Catholic sexual hang-ups and life as a househusband in the suburban Melbourne of the 1970s.

Murnane has not made the selling of himself an easy task. Even by the standards of the solitary writer, his eccentricities are manifest. He has never flown on an airplane; in fact, he has barely traveled outside of Victoria. In a 2001 speech that has become legend among Murnanophiles, he informed an audience at the University of Newcastle of his longstanding belief that “a person reveals at least as much when he reports what he cannot do or has never done.”

A lovely section from later in Binelli’s essay touches on Murnane’s archives:

Murnane began keeping the archives more than 50 years ago, both for posterity and to satisfy his own meticulous sense of order, and he has left strict instructions regarding their contents, which are not to be made public until after his own death and the death of his surviving siblings. (He has one brother, a Catholic priest, and a sister; another brother, who was born with an intellectual disability and was repeatedly hospitalized, died in 1985.) Nonetheless, Murnane opened the cabinets to give me a sense of their contents. His so-called Chronological Archive is stuffed with hanging files covering each period of his life and featuring headings like “I rebuff a wealthy widow,” “I fall out with an arrogant student of mine,” “Two women bother me,” “I decide that most books are crap,” “Hoaxes! How I love them!” and “Peter Carey exposed at last.” He also has multiple drafts of his 13 books; letters addressed, as in a time capsule, to a future Murnane scholar, whom he imagines as a young woman, and whom he addresses in the letters as “Fc,” for “future creature”; a notebook of 20,000 words titled “My Shame File”; a 40,000-word report on miraculous or unexplained events in his life; and a 75,000-word account of his dealings with everyone he has ever courted romantically or considered courting.

Read the profile at The New York Times Magazine.

Mental Places: A Conversation with Gerald Murnane

Do I explain myself? | Gerald Murnane interviewed at 3:AM Magazine

At 3:AM Magazine, Tristan Foster has interviewed Gerald Murnane. The interview is wonderfully prickly: “The question arouses a mild resentfulness in me,” Murnane replies at one point, before claiming a few lines later that “My sentences are the best-shaped of any sentences written by any writer of fiction in the English language during my lifetime.” A clip:

3:AM: I hesitate to ask you about your place in Australian literature both because it’s a discussion of categories and because you have directly or indirectly credited your influences as being almost wholly outside of it: Marcel Proust and Emily Brontë and Henry James. That said, I do feel somewhat obliged – you are Australian, you have never lived anywhere else and your writing is published into this country’s book market. Is your place in Australian literature something you think about?

GM: Flemington racecourse has a straight-six track. Certain races are run there over a straight course of twelve hundred metres, or six furlongs as we once called it. Sometimes, if the field is large, a group of horses will follow the inside rail while another group follows the outer rail, perhaps thirty metres away. Each group, of course, has its own leaders and pursuers and tail-enders. Sometimes, the outside group numbers only a few while the inside group comprises most of the field. The watchers in the grandstands, near the winning-post, are often unable to tell which group is in front of the other. The watchers are almost head-on to the field, and only when the leaders reach the last few hundred metres can they, the watchers, line up the two different groups, as the expression has it. If I try to compare myself with my contemporaries, I usually see us all as a field of horses coming down the straight-six course at Flemington. Most of us are over on the rails. I’m on my own coming down the outside fence. At different times, one or another of the bunch on the rails shows out far ahead of the others. Being on my own, I can’t be compared with any nearby rival, but I seem to be going well. Do I explain myself? In thirty years from now, we may know the finishing order. By that time, my archives may have become available to the public – a whole new body of my writing to be taken account of.

Books Acquired (1.8.2015)

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I am taking a class titled 21st-Century Fiction: What Is The Contemporary? and three of the books in this photograph are part of the reading list. Absent titles are by Dan Chaon, Kathryn Davis, Ben Marcus, Blake Butler, Sheila Heti. Some others. Wanted titles: Tao Lin’s Taipei (which I am reading now, which is surprisingly good).

I don’t know anything about Dodie Bellamy beyond the fact that she is often grouped with Kathy Acker, who are both often grouped with Dennis Cooper, who are all New Narrative people. New Narrators make the author present, her body and sexuality usually the prime subject. Letters of Mina Harker is a “sequel” to Dracula, except Mina Harker is a young woman who lives in 1980s San Francisco. On conceit alone, it reminds me of Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream.

Richard Powers and Evan Dara are often grouped together, mainly because Powers blurbed his first book, The Lost Scrapbook, and that both of them write books that weave disparate discourses into their fiction. Also, there is speculation that Powers is Dara (Or Dara is Powers). Flee is, according to its publisher Aurora Books, about “in which a New England town does just that.” I’ve read the first chapter, titled “38,839,” and it reeks of Gaddis (in a good way). Disembodied voices colliding into each other, a cacophonous plot; the absurd & banal drama of everyday, throwaway conversation. An Australian book show on Triple R Radio, who have a good and very rare interview with Gerald Murnane (whose book Inland I was really, really jazzed on), also really loves Dara. I’m pretty excited to read this one.

Evan Dara and Richard Powers are often grouped together, mainly because Dara’s first book was blurbed by Richard Powers, and that both of them write books that weave disparate discourses into their fiction. Dara might be Powers (or Powers might be Dara?), but that doesn’t really matter. The Echo Maker is supposed to be one of those Big, Important American Books (as noted by the shallow, embossed seal on my used copy of the book). As I write this, I am listening to Powers read from The Echo Maker from an old Lannan Foundation talk (who also really love Gass) and I am really intrigued. I haven’t flipped through this, so I will reproduce the back copy.

On a winter night on a remote Nebraska road, twenty-seven-year-old Mark Schluter has a near-fatal car accident. His older sister, Karin, returns reluctantly to their hometown to nurse Mark back from a traumatic head injury. But when Mark emerges fro a coma, he believes that this woman–who looks, acts, and sounds just like his sister–is really an imposter. When Karin contacts the famous cognitive neurologist Gerald Weber for help, he diagnoses Mark as having Capgras syndrome. The mysterious nature of the disease, combined with the strange circumstances surrounding Mark’s accident, threaten to change all of their lives beyond recognition.

 

Can Xue (which roughly translates from Chinese, according to my mother, to “persistent & dirty snow”) is hailed by western critics to be the Chinese avant-garde heir to Kafka and Borges. Can Xue is a pen name for Deng Xiaohua. She is of my mother’s generation and her class, which means she grew up persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, which means she was sent to a “re-education camp” in the Chinese sticks and learned to farm. She taught herself English, has written criticism on Kafka and Borges. The strangeness of Kafka echoes in Xue. While the former’s strangeness arrives in the narrative with a kind of grim inevitability, the discovery of a debilitating truth lands like an obvious punchline that the reader stupidly forgets (or realizes too late, like the classic Seinfeld episode “The Comeback“), Xue’s arrives with a kind of startling innocence against the backdrop of dramatic irony. It is like watching, in Michael Haneke’s words in his great interview in The Paris Review,  a tragedy from the perspective of an idiot. The title story, “Vertical Motion,” can be read here.

“A Country On The Far Side of Fiction” — Riffing Over Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch

Claude Lorrain’s "Landscape with Samuel Anointing David."
Claude Lorrain’s “Landscape with Samuel Anointing David.”

 

In my last riff on Gerald Murnane, I wrote about his book Inland, and that he wanted to “craft a universally mutable and relational ‘I.'” And I started off with a quote. I’m going to do that now. This is a short passage from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s The Blue and Brown Notebooks.

The word “I” does not mean the same as “L.W.” even if I am L.W., nor does it mean the same as the expression “the person who is now speaking”. But that doesn’t mean: that “L.W.” and “I” mean different things. All it means is that these words are different instruments in our language.

Think of words as instruments characterized by their use, and then think of the use of a hammer, the use of a chisel, the use of a square, of a glue pot, and of the glue. (Also, all that we say here can be understood only if one understands that a great variety of games is played with the sentences of our language: Giving and obeying orders; asking questions and answering them; describing an event; telling a fictitious story; telling a joke; describing an immediate experience; making conjectures about events in the physical world; making scientific hypotheses and theories; greeting someone, etc., etc.) The mouth which says “I” or the hand which is raised to indicate that it is I who wish to speak, or I who have toothache, does not thereby point to anything. If, on the other hand, I wish to indicate the place of my pain, I point. And here again remember the difference between pointing to the painful spot without being led by the eye and on the other hand pointing to a sac on my body after looking for it. (“That’s where I was vaccinated”.)—The man who cries out with pain, or says that he has pain, doesn’t choose the mouth which says it (67-8).

 

The “I” in Barley Patch, as it is ostensibly used in the literary sense, merely implies the presence of the author. The “I” is as much of a fiction as the collection of words around it. Barley Patch is a strange, strange fiction. I’m honoring the narrator’s/implied author’s/personage’s/ghostly presence’s/reader’s/image-person’s wishes by not calling it a novel, an essay, a memoir, an autobiography. And though Barley Patch is all of these forms, often simultaneously, ultimately it is a “report,” to use the narrator’s term, of how a story becomes removed from itself. Some questions BP asks: How do I know that am I me? Am I the imagined personage of a writer in a “country on the far side of fiction?” How do I know where I am is really where I am?

 

Continue reading ““A Country On The Far Side of Fiction” — Riffing Over Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch”

An Excerpt From Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch

After the young man of the upstairs flat had first disclosed his plans for the Black Mass in the building of several storeys, it became the custom on every Friday and Saturday evening for all of the young persons gathered in the upstairs flat, including the young woman who lived there, to spend some or another part of each evening in discussing how they might spend one or another Friday or Saturday evening in the building of several storeys after the young man of the upstairs flat had bought the building and had fitted it out to his liking. The discussions at first were simple. The young man of the upstairs flat owned a copy each of several issues of the American magazine Playboy, which had recently been allowed into Australia after having been previously a prohibited import. All of the persons gathered in the upstairs flat would look at one after another illustration of a bare-breasted young woman from the magazines and would cast votes in order to decide whether or not the young woman should spend some time as a guest in the building of several storeys. The young woman of the upstairs flat was interested in dance and music and would describe some of the items that she would later choreograph, as she put it, for performance by herself and other naked young women during banquets. The chief character tried to amuse the others by reading to them parodies he had composed of prayers from the Mass. In each parody words such as God, angels, and sacrifice were replaced by words such as Lucifer, devils, and farce. However, few of the persons in the flat knew anything about Catholic doctrine and liturgy, and the parodies aroused little interest. The only means that the chief character found for amusing the others in the upstairs flat was his performing a brief mime in which he took the role of a priest first turning from the altar towards his congregation with his head bowed and his eyes closed, then seeming to notice something was amiss, and finally looking aghast. (The chief character never held back from discussing with the other persons in the upstairs flat the details of the banquets and the orgies in the building of several storeys, but he was never able to imagine himself as taking part in an orgy. Whenever the chapel of the building of several storeys appeared as an image in his mind, it was always fitted with a so-called side-chapel, a sort of alcove with a few pews to one side of the altar. If an orgy seemed about to begin, he would slip unnoticed into the front pew of the side-chapel and would there masturbate quietly while he watched the goings-on in the sanctuary.)

“The Breathing Author” by Gerald Murnane

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.

Continue reading ““The Breathing Author” by Gerald Murnane”

An Excerpt From Gerald Murnane’s “Sipping The Essence”

Even drunk on tepid beer we could not talk honestly. Our messages for one another were obliquely worded, or hidden behind childish mimes and antics. At a certain point in the evening Durkin would make a show of examining the tangle of blankets on my bed and finding evidence that a man and a woman had shared it not long before. I would point out what I claimed were signs that a young adult male had recently masturbated there, using a heap of pillows as a surrogate woman and seeing the furthest wrinkles in his blankets as the coastal hills of the Mornington Peninsula. Durkin would then tidy the bedclothes and demonstrate what I ought to do on the bed as soon as I had come to my senses and invited home one of the thousands of girls in Melbourne who were waiting every night by their telephones as anxious to meet a new man as Carolyn had been at Sorrento. Then, if I was drunk enough, I would argue that all those women must have once been to the Gold Coast of Queensland as Carolyn had been and must have learned there too much for a beginner like myself. And if I saw that he was drunk enough I would announce that my last hope was his sixteen-years-old sister. Had he guarded her honour? I would shout at him. Could he keep her from setting out towards the Gold Coast and deliver her to me instead? I would treat her honourably and do no more than read my poems to her until our wedding night and be a fine, boozy brother-in-law to him for the rest of our lives.

When his sister was mentioned he would offer to fight me, and we would grapple on the floor until our buckets of bottles were in danger. Whenever I was on top of him and had him by the throat I boasted that my strength came from my celibate way of life. But whenever he had pinned me to the floor I begged him to procure me his sister or any girl who would give me a strength like his.

Found in the collection Landscape With Landscape.

Watch Gerald Murnane Type In His Writing Room

I call this my literary archive, there are ten drawers, and each of them contains all of the material that went into the making of one or other of my books. But at the back you will find untidy hand written pages, at the front you will find a file copy of the finished book and even all the reviews and comments. … This is part of what I call my chronological archive, um, we just have happened to have opened one of nineteen drawers that we could have opened. And then, I have been a great writer of letters to people, and people write letters to me. In there must be… I couldn’t count them; there must be many thousands of letters in those cabinets. The equivalent for me of emails is the little box of envelopes up there.