Gerald Murnane's moment

In American media, a lot has been written in the last year about the Australian novelist Gerald Murnane. He just published what he claims is his final book, Last Letter to a Reader, which has set off many new attempts to introduce and assess his work.

I wanted to see what he was about, so I found a copy of his A Million Windows (2014).

Some underrecognized writers attract the interest of writers, and others the critics. I haven’t seen as much about what, say, novelists think about Murnane, but he has definitely attracted the interest of critics. Here is Merve Emre’s description of him in The New Yorker:

The act of contemplation is rendered in a compact and highly finished style that distinguishes Murnane both from his predecessor Proust and from his contemporaries W. G. Sebald, J. M. Coetzee, Jon Fosse, and Rachel Cusk. Murnane has described himself as a technical writer, and his outspoken and fastidious devotion to grammar steers a great deal of the thinking his narrators perform. This thinking is usually about the nature or the essence of fiction’s relation to life, and it often begins with verbs of supposition. “I, who dislike the word imagine, would prefer to use such an expression as speculate about,” reports the narrator of “A Million Windows.” “Speculate,” “suppose,” “presume,” and “seem”—as in “I seem to recall”—all shift narrative into the subjunctive mood, in which ambitions, conjectures, and longings reign.

The mood is enhanced by the sudden appearance of the perfect continuous conditional tense, which considers not what was, or what had been, but what would have been, or might have been, in certain secluded corners of the narrator’s mind. And, in these corners, one also finds a series of smaller, but no less essential, repetitions that hint at how far fiction may range from fact: the avoidance of proper names when referring to historical figures or locations, or the application of adjectives like “certain” or “so-called,” or adverbs like “probably” or “surely.” The effect is a paradoxical sense of both particularity and indeterminacy, exposure and concealment.

This passage gives an overview of his style, and a good sense of the high regard he receives in most reviews. But there’s a more plain effect it had on me that I didn’t see noted. What I read was unbelievably tedious and repetitive, like the intake document for a clinical asessment of an obsessive disorder. Take this near the beginning of A Million Windows:

If this paragraph were part of an autobiography or of a conventional work of fiction, then I might well report at this point that I saw at least once, and far across the extensive plains mentioned, a sight that I surmised was a reflection of the light from the declining sun in one or more upper windows of a house of at least two storeys. I might even go on to report that my reading, twenty years later, a certain autobiographical passage in which distant windows are likened to spots of golden oil was in some way connected with my reporting, in the next-to-last paragraph of my first published work of fiction, that the chief character of that work, while travelling with his parents across the extensive plains mentioned, is enabled to see in mind certain details that he has previously been unable so to see. This present work being neither autobiography nor fiction of the same order as the work that I began to write, in the present tense, in the mid-1960s, I need report here only the detail first mentioned in the seventh paragraph of this present work. I need report here only that the window first mentioned in the first paragraph of this present work of fiction might have seemed, at the moment when it was first mentioned, as a distant window might have seemed on an extensive plain to a narrator of an autobiography or to a chief character of a work of fiction – might have seemed like a spot of golden oil, even though I myself have never seen any window with such an appearance.

Context does little to lend more sense to this, because the surrounding text is more variation on the same, a very literal recycling. What comes up over and over are the curiously specific references (“the detail first mentioned in seventh paragraph of this present work…”), flat images (“the declining sun in one or more upper windows of a house of at least two storeys”), and opaque metaphors (“like a spot of golden oil”). I don’t think I have ever encountered a piece of writing that was so loaded up with intratextual links, but which offered so little satisfaction to the reader who follows the chain of association. Murnane’s writing is like a series of stray paths into a lightly mapped wood, trails which disappear into brush after a minute or two, sending you back to the previous junction, only to branch out again.

I do not see most readers lasting more than five minutes of this. And so my second reaction to Murnane is a sense of appreciation that such a difficult, sometimes unreadable writer could survive over a career. These remarks are only an attempt to register an impression of the text. I’m in that small group of readers who grows more intrigued with difficult writing–perhaps gives texts that are difficult too much credit. But I wonder what would happen today to an artist like Murnane, a writer who starts out with an insistence on being so strange and uncooperative.

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