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Gerald Murnane: A Million Windows

This book carries on from where Barley Patch left off. In other words, it is a novel about writing a novel. This does not mean that it tells the story of a novelist writing a novel but, rather, the narrator of the book describes how the novel is being written, what inspired it and the relationship between reader and author. He makes it quite clear that it is the narrator, not the author talking in this book. For the sake of the undiscerning reader, I shall repeat the simple fact that I am the narrator of this work and not the author. Indeed, one of his many topics is the nature of the narrator and he discusses that in some detail. The idea of the god-like narrator, for example, which used to be the practice in the past – he specifically refers to Thomas Hardy – is something he does not seem to like. He criticises Hardy for giving too much details of what his characters thought and felt. Indeed, this leads on to the idea of not just the reader identifying with one of the characters but the author also doing so. For example, Hardy states, in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Tess’s sense of a certain ludicrousness in her errand was now so strong that, notwithstanding her awe of him, and her general discomfort at being here… Murnane is shocked by the here, as it implies that Hardy is with her, when he should have used there to show the distance between author and character. I wonder if other critics have noticed this.

Murnane seems to damn film, at least as it regards its influence on fiction writing. Much faulty fiction seems to derive from its author’s having been overly influenced by films. One of its sins is the withholding of essential information, though he admits that this device did not start with the invention of cinema. However, Murnane no longer watches films – it is many years since he did so – and is almost apologetic at having done so. He mentions his love of an unnamed Swedish director, presumably Bergman from the brief description, but that is all very much part of his youthful weakness. Indeed, this withholding of information, something he damns film directors for, is something he is guilty of both with Bergman’s name but also with reference to an unnamed Australian writer, whose descriptions he admired. The discerning reader (his term, not mine) will have guessed, from the information he does give, that the the writer is Hal Porter. Presumably those who did not work that out are undiscerning. All of this makes me wonder if this form of literary snobbery – dividing your readers into the discerning and undiscerning – is common among authors. Do they write only for the discerning reader, as Murnane seems to do, or don’t they care, as long as the reader buys the books?

He is very damning of guides to help writers become writers, though he seems to have read many himself. I can hardly believe that anything so foolish was once delivered as advice to intending writers, he states when one of these books recommends that authors should prepare the reader for a flashback or time-shift. He is particularly critical as he thinks the author may have been influenced by the cinema, with those devices such as calendars flipping back. They have no place in Murnane’s fiction. Other things that have no place in Murnane’s fiction and reading include first person narrators who are the opposite sex from the author and any piece of fiction if I suspect the author of believing that fiction is mere artifice and that the reader of fiction has no more urgent need than to be diverted or teased.

As a child he used to be so immersed in a book that he could not accept that the characters had no life beyond the book. Indeed, he felt very much that they should and would occasionally try to write about them himself, beyond the book he had read. (He is very careful to describe this child not in the first person but as a certain male personage though he gives us enough information that we can identify it as the author or, at least, the narrator of his earlier books.) For him, the personages who had first appeared while he was reading some or another fictional text were no less alive after the text itself had come to an end than while he had pored over it. This leads on to his attachment to or even fear of religion till into his adulthood. He mentions his unmarried uncle and aunt, whom we met in A Lifetime on Clouds. They were very religious and convinced that any romantic relationship with the opposite sex was positively harmful to religion. As we know from A Lifetime on Clouds, romantic attachment to the opposite sex was important to him and is, of course, very important to many novel writers, both as people and as novelists.

Point of view is very important to novelists and he discourses a lot on this topic. He is highly critical of self-referential fiction, which we now tend to call metafiction. He was initially dazzled by Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller) but now I think of its author 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. He goes on to say I can recall today no instance of my admiring some or another work of self-referential fiction, much less of my trying to write such a work. This is a pity, as there are some interesting works of metafiction but chacun à son goût. He goes on to explain why this work is not self-referential, just in case we thought it was. He sums it up: All that I can do is to state here what seems to me self-evident: while the writer and the reader, together with the words that they write or read, may be seen to exist in this, the visible world, what they are pleased or driven to write about or to read about – their subject-matter – is nowhere to be seen: those seeming persons and seeming events and the seeming scenery behind them are present to one writer alone or one reader alone in the cramped foreground of somewhere vast and vague; and while I would never presume to understand the laws or principles operating in either of the two places – the visible or the invisible – I could never doubt that those in the one differ greatly from those in the other and could never consider any writer claiming otherwise to be anything but a fool. I am not sure if I entirely agree but I would have to give it a lot more thought.

Other writers come in for criticism. Though not named, he clearly does not like García Márquez and particularly resents having ordered a copy from England at great expense. Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum) fares no better. He read it then but would not read it now. In his discussion of character, Dickens also comes in for some criticism. Murnane is clearly on the side of those authors who feel that characters take on a life of their own, outside the control of their creators. (Given that several of his characters are autobiographical, this seems to me to be just one more conceit on his part.) He finds it amazing that Dickens plotted out, apparently in some detail, what his characters did, said and thought. Henry James, however, is one of the few authors he is prepared to praise. Oh dear, haven’t we moved on since James?

Other more modern narrative features come in for criticism. He does not like unreliable or absent narrators, though interestingly enough, he seems to have lost his notes on this point and cannot make it fully. Now, that is unreliable. He does say: When I begin to recall the dreary effect on me of even the brief passages that I have sometimes read in certain texts before deciding to read no further, then I feel confident that the discerning reader about to begin a work of fiction expects the personage seemingly responsible for the existence of the text to be seemingly approachable by way of the text or seemingly revealed through the text and to seem to have written the text in order to impart what could never have been imparted by any other means than the writing of a fictional text.

His technique, which only evolves (at least to me) towards the latter part of the book is to have a house in which there are various writers, all of whom, it is soon apparent, are him. There is the poet, the young writer, the experienced writer, the teacher and so on. This is at first confusing but soon becomes straightforward. After all, suspension of belief is the key to reading a novel. One of these characters, the teacher, decides to take all the works submitted by his students to which he had awarded a high distinction and determine what, if anything, they had in common. We get a fairly exhaustive analysis but the conclusion is that the vast majority are about family relationships and not romantic ones and of those, nearly all are about vertical (e.g. parent-child) rather than horizontal (e..g between siblings) relationships. Neither he nor I draw any significant conclusions from this.

Taking all this at face value – and, if it is tongue-in- cheek, I have been too naive to notice – I must say the general thesis seems to be that authors have one way and one way only of seeing what fiction is and cannot tolerate others. While obviously there are readers who only read, e.g. science fiction or conventional fiction, I am not sure this is a good idea for someone teaching writing, as Murnane does or even, necessarily, for a writer. While I certainly have my tastes and prejudices, I hope I am broader-minded than Murnane and/or his narrator. I did learn a lot from this work, as I did from his previous one – Barley Patch – which takes a similar approach, particularly how he is influenced by images from life and literature. However, I certainly do not agree with much of what he says but a stimulating challenge to one’s perceptions is always worthwhile and I can recommend this book for that reason.

Publishing history

First published 2014 by Giramondo