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Published February 2002Become a subscriber
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 me speculating about the methods used by the writer in the putting together of the text, or about the feeling 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 become 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 of 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 arrived 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.
I cannot understand how the values of the currencies of different nations can change in relation to one another – much less how anyone can profit from this phenomenon. I can talk glibly as though I do understand these and many other such matters, but in truth I do not.
I have no sense of smell and only a rudimentary sense of taste. When I hear or read of a thing as possessing a smell or an aroma, I feel no sense of deprivation but imagine at once a barely visible emanation from the thing: a mist or a cloud of droplets, always distinctively coloured: delicate colours for aromas said to be faint or subtle, and rich colours for strong smells.
I tend to think of words as written things rather than spoken things. While I speak, I often visualise my words as being written somewhere at the same time.
I am often able to remember the appearance on the page of a passage that has interested me. If I try to learn by heart any poetry or prose, I do so by visualising the printed page and reading it in my mind. When, in 1995, I began to learn the Hungarian language, I used both textbooks and cassettes and I conversed with native speakers. Even so, I always see written in the air, as it were, the words of my conversations nowadays in Hungarian; and whenever I recite from memory the Hungarian poems that I know, I always see the poems printed on the pages that I learned them from.
I have been told that when I mention some person or thing out of sight I often point in the direction in which I suppose the person or thing to be while I speak. I seem to do this just as readily for persons or things on the other side of the world as for persons or things in an adjoining room. I have often been observed pointing towards the presumed dwelling-place or site of some person or event from the past.
I have never owned a television set.
I have watched few films during my lifetime and hardly any in recent years. Throughout my life, I have had much trouble in following the story lines of films and making the necessary connections between the rapidly changing images. I have watched no more than a half-dozen live theatrical performances during my lifetime and none during the past twenty-five years. I recall little of what I watched. I have never watched an opera.
On almost every occasion when I have watched a film or a theatrical performance, I have been made to feel embarrassed and uncomfortable by the exaggerated facial expressions, the excessive gestures, and the frank speech of the characters, and I have been relieved afterwards to resume my life among persons who seem to use facial expressions and gestures and speech as much as I use them: in order to conceal true thoughts and feelings.
I cannot recall having gone voluntarily into any art gallery or museum or building said to be of historic interest.
I have never worn sunglasses.
I have never learned to swim. I have never voluntarily immersed myself in any sea or stream. I have sometimes stared at running water in small rivers or in creeks inland, but I have never felt any urge to contemplate any part of any sea. I was told only five years ago by my mother that I was taken to the seaside for the first time at the age of six months, that I began to scream as soon as I saw and heard the sea, and that I went on screaming until I was taken out of sight and hearing of it.
I have been described by my wife and by several friends as the most organised person they have ever known, and I admit to a love of order and of devising systems for storing and retrieving things. My library is meticulously ordered, as are the many filing cabinets full of my letters and journals and manuscripts and typescripts and private papers. I have sometimes thought of the whole enterprise of my fiction-writing as an effort to bring to light an underlying order – a vast pattern of connected images – beneath everything that I am able to call to mind.
And yet I seem to have a fear of the systems devised by other people, or if not a fear, then an unwillingness to engage with those systems or to try to understand them. I have never touched any button or switch or working part of any computer of fax machine or mobile telephone. I have never learned how to operate any sort of camera. (I am able, however, to operate several kinds of photocopier, and I do so often.) In 1979 I taught myself to type using the index finger of my right hand alone. Since then, I have composed all my fiction and other writing using the finger just mentioned and one or another of my three manual typewriters.
I have a rough understanding of the Dewey Decimal System, but I have never learned how to use a library catalogue. Until about 1980, I sometimes went into one or another library and looked along the shelves labelled, so I recall, from 800 to 899 and sometimes took from those shelves one or another book and looked into it. In about the year 1980, electronic devices began to be common in libraries. As from about the year 1980, I have sometimes gone into one or another library to attend a book launch or a similar function but never to look for any book or other item or to try to use any catalogue or similar aid or to approach any employee for advice. The years when I have followed this policy include thirteen years when I was a lecturer in one or another institute of tertiary education and three years when I was a senior lecturer in a university.
I studied English One, English Two, and English Three in successive years as part of my course for the degree of Bachelor of Arts in the University of Melbourne. (I followed this course from 1965 to the end of 1968 when I was aged from twenty-six to twenty-nine years.) I came close to failing several of my examinations and essays during my three years as an English student, but in several other examinations and essays in English I earned high marks. All through those years, I had the utmost difficulty in understanding what exactly I was supposed to do as a student of English and what exactly I was supposed to report of my doings in my examinations and essays. At the same time, I suspected that the teaching staff in the Department of English had equal difficulty in understanding what they were supposed to be doing when they lectured or conducted tutorials or marked essays or examination papers.
I have read hurriedly Terry Eagleton’s book Literary Theory: An Introduction, Blackwell 1983. I have read much less hurriedly Wayne C. Booth’s book The Rhetoric of Fiction, University of Chicago Press. (I have read both the 1961 edition and the revised 1983 edition.) I do not recall having read any other book on literary theory or related subjects.
I was pleased to find in Wayne C. Booth’s book a persuasive theoretical account of several matters that I had felt convinced of for many years but had been unable to articulate. I am thinking in particular of the extraordinary chart in the Afterword to the second edition. (I have always liked charts and diagrams and graphs; I have sometimes tried to use such means to clarify for myself matters rarely quantified or charted.) Booth’s chart has two long columns. In one column are listed the variety of authors and in the other column the variety of readers that may be said to exist while a work of fiction is being written or read. Most of the authors exist in the minds of readers, and most of the readers in the minds of authors. The first of the variety of authors in the chart is called by Booth the Flesh-and-Blood Author or, elsewhere, the Breathing Author. This worthy is described as ‘immeasurably complex and largely unknown, even to those who are most intimate’.
I hardly need to add that Booth compiled his chart from a consideration only of the acts of reading and writing. His chart would have been vastly more complicated if he had tried to take account of our situation today: of a breathing author’s meeting in person with some of his varieties of reader. (The chart includes a so-called career-reader, which term might apply to some of you. Check Booth for yourselves.)
I tried to use charts and diagrams to help me plan most of my book-length pieces of fiction, but as I went on writing I was always obliged to abandon the planned format. I was uneasy whenever I first found that I could not make my fiction conform to the shape that I had planned for it, and sometimes afraid that what I was writing might be aimless or shapeless. Long before I finished each book, however, I was reassured that it was a unified whole. I even believed that I might have been able to represent the finished book by a complicated chart or diagram, although I never tried to do so. I still sometimes think of one or another of my pieces of fiction – whether book-length or short – as being not page after page of text but a many-coloured array of interconnected images. Some of these images are as simple as the green stone surrounded by the bluish haze in ‘Emerald Blue’, while others are as complex as the race for the Gold Cup in Tamarisk Row. When I think of my fiction in this way, I am somewhat of a mind with the narrator of ‘In Far Fields’, who saw his fiction as resembling a map of a country district in which the small towns were images and the roads connecting the towns were feelings. I am also not unlike the young man in the early pages of The Plains who won over the great landowners by using coloured pencils and graph paper to illustrate the history of culture on the plains.
I acknowledge that my liking for charts and diagrams may be a primitive, even a childish habit of thought. In my understanding of history, or time past, for example, I rely on the simple diagram that I found nearly fifty years ago in a secondary-school history textbook: the time line. I cannot think of the history of this planet in any other way than as having taken place on a seemingly endless series of oblong cross sections of earth and sea, each a hundred years long, so to speak. Each oblong ends abruptly at the end of the century that it denotes. The following oblong begins far away to the left (as I see it) of this point, the oblongs or centuries being parallel to one another in the darkness of no-space and no-time. If I think of the life of Marcel Proust, for example, I have no trouble in seeing the writer and all his surroundings come to an end on the last day of 1900 and then reappear far way at the very beginning of the twentieth century. The narrator of ‘First Love’ might have seen exactly thus.
During the sixteen years from 1980 to the end of 1995, I was a full-time teacher of fiction-writing. I taught always in the same tertiary institution, but the place had three different names and three different modes of administration during those sixteen years. In its third guise, the place was known as Deakin University and the mode of administration was such that I retired early, at the age of fifty-five, thereby reducing my income by five-sixths, rather than endure another year in the place.
For as long as I was a teacher of fiction-writing, I looked out for and collected statements made by writers and others on the vast subject of how fiction might be written or understood. I did not collect only statements that I myself could agree with. I collected a range of statements so that I could usually offer my students not only my own views on fiction-writing but also an opposing view. While preparing for this seminar, I decided not to look through my collection of writerly statements but to cite the two or three that are still often in my mind more than five years after I last stood in front of a class. I have chosen two.
I offer the first statement without any comment. I found about twenty years ago in a book review in the New York Times the statement by the poet Robert Bly that the writer should learn to trust his obsessions.
I found perhaps even longer ago in the Introduction to Great Short Works of Herman Melville, published by Harper and Row in their Perennial Classics Series in 1969, the following statement by a man otherwise unknown to me, Warner Berthoff. ‘A story well told, so that it has the power to enter permanently into the imagination…always tells us two things. It says “here is what happened” and it will say further “this is what it is like to have knowledge of such happenings…and to undertake the task of opening such knowledge to others”.’ I found this statement when I had already written much of the fiction of mine that has been published. I do not say that the statement by Warner Berthoff, whoever he is or was, taught me anything I had not previously known. However, that statement had been for me ever since I found it my preferred means of explaining why much of my fiction is as it is; why the narrator of much of my fiction looms, as it were, larger than any character in the fiction. Berthoff’s statement also happens to explain in a few words many of the arguments of Wayne C. Booth.
I can put this point another way. For most of my time as a writer of fiction, I have wanted not to have my reader take my writing as an account of a world whose existence the reader and I might agree on. I can put this point still another way. The aim of most of my fiction is not that the reader should sympathise with any character or share the feelings of any character, much less believe in the reality of any character. No, the aim of most of my fiction is that the reader should believe in the reality of the narrator of the fiction.
I often told my students that a writer of my sort of fiction is a technical writer. The task of this sort of writer is to report in the plainest language the images that most claim his attention from among the images in his mind and then to arrange his sentences and paragraphs (and, if applicable, his chapters) so as to suggest the connections between those images. This may seem to a gathering of scholars a niggardly account of how I came to write books of fiction that provide you with such a field of enquiry. For me to say that I wrote what I wrote simply by describing some of the contents of my mind – is this too easy a way out for me?
Perhaps I should do for you people here today what I often did for my classes in Introductory Fiction Writing. I used to tell each of those classes, in about my fifth session with them and a few weeks before their first fiction assignment was due, that a person paid to teach others a skill ought to be able to exercise that skill in front of the others and to give a full and clear account of the exercising. Then I used to do in front of the class something that few teachers of fiction-writing can have done in a classroom. Sometimes by writing key words on the whiteboard, and sometimes by miming with my hand in the air the writing of sentences that I spoke at the same time aloud, I tried to show my students how I would have begun an as-yet-unwritten piece of short fiction.
I used to crib just a bit in my demonstrations of fiction-writing, but I explained to my students that I was cribbing and why. Most of my pieces of short fiction have begun with a single image: sometimes a simple image, sometimes a detailed image. The image would have appeared to me many a time before I understood that it would later be the source of a piece of fiction. The image would have bothered me, perhaps, or pleaded with me, or simply stared at me for days or even months before I noted its details and filed my note in my file for such notes. My cribbing in front of my classes consisted in my beginning my demonstration with an image the details of which had previously been filed in the file just mentioned. I could never have begun to write a piece of fiction at my own desk, let alone in the sometimes uneasy atmosphere of a writing class, unless I was working with an image that I could trust.
If I were to try in front of you people today to write in the air the beginnings of a piece of short fiction, I would begin by reporting in a sentence or two certain details from the image that I recalled this morning when I was trying to recall images the details of which I have noted during recent years in the file mentioned earlier. I would report details that might seem banal or trivial to you people, although I would assure you of my confidence that those details were full of meaning for me. Why else, I would ask you rhetorically, would the image and all its details have stayed in my mind for year after year when so many other images had disappeared? In short, I would write in the air between you and myself one or two sentences reporting that a hen crouched on the ground in an unkempt front garden of a house of red bricks on a certain afternoon of the fifth decade of the twentieth century when the sky was filled with close-packed and fast-moving grey and black clouds and when the same wind that drove the clouds across the sky ruffled tufts of feathers on the crouching hen.
I would report much more of this single image. I would report that a male child who happened to notice the hen from the rear seat of a motor car while it drove out of the unkempt garden and who wondered why the hen was crouching when it might have been foraging noticed in an instant before the car turned out of the garden and northwards towards a place called Kinglake, where he had never yet been and about which he had often speculated, that the wind had ruffled in the same instant not only the hackles of the hen, which were of a rich, copper-orange colour, but a few of the under-feathers, which were of a glossy black colour, and that the ruffling of the under-feathers had caused to be exposed to the wind the head of a chicken, only a few days old and of a pale, creamy colour.
I would then pause in my reporting and would assure you that I was not, most emphatically not, writing a sort of autobiography while I was reporting the details of the hen and the ruffled feathers, even though I myself happened to have lived in a house of red bricks during a few years of the decade mentioned earlier and even though my father happened to have won so much money on Dark Felt in the Melbourne Cup of 1943 that he bought a huge brown Nash sedan and took his wife and children for Sunday drives for several months until he had to sell the Nash sedan to settle his latest debts with his bookmakers. If I were writing a sort of autobiography, I would say to you good people, I would be reporting the sort of detail just mentioned. I would be reporting my memories of the summer of 1943–44, when my father took me and my two brothers and my mother for a drive every Sunday. I would be reporting conversations, shaping anecdotes, trying to suggest motives…
I would go on with my reporting of details of images. I would report that the noise of the car caused the hen to rise to its feet, enabling the male child in the back seat to notice that the cream-coloured chicken was the only chicken of the black hen with the copper-orange hackles and causing the child to wonder why his father, who owned the hen and the chicken and many other hens and chickens and roosters, had not dashed the head of the chicken against a post as he had dashed the heads of a number of other chickens in the past when he had not wanted to have the mothers of the chickens looking after only one or two or even of a handful of chickens when she might have rejoined the flock of hens that laid eggs daily.
I would report a few details of a few more images. In the meanwhile I would remind you that my noting the details of image after image was not at all what is sometimes called free association. I would point out that my looking at the details of the image of the hen with the ruffled feathers brought to my mind a succession of images that I took no interest in: images of, for example, the garden where the hen sat in the wind or of the house nearby. I would explain that I usually discovered each of the images that I needed for a piece of fiction while I stared in my mind at the details of a previously discovered image and looked out for the detail that winked at me. Soon after I had noticed the winking of the detail of the copper-orange hackles of the hen, for example, I had seen in my mind for the first time, so I believed, an image of an illustration in a book for children in which illustration a number of infant children were either dead or asleep or beneath the surface of a stream the water of which had been coloured an orange-gold colour by the artist.
I would have been aware, as soon as I had used the word winking in my report of my means of discovering images, that one at least of you, my listeners, would have wanted me to explain further what exactly I saw when an image winked at me. And I would have been prepared to explain, when one of you questioned me after I had finished talking to you, that a detail of an image does not wink in quite the way a human being winks to another. The detail of an image, being almost always something other than a human face, has no eye with which to wink, and must signal to me by a sort of flickering or fluttering or nodding or trembling. Even so, I choose deliberately the word winking to describe this primitive signal to me from some patch of colour or some shape in my mind. I so choose, because my seeing the signal never fails to make me feel reassured and encouraged as many a person must feel after being winked at by another person. And I choose the word winking in this context because a wink from one person to another often signals that the two persons share a secret knowledge, so to speak, and I often feel, after some detail in my own mind has winked at me, that I have been shown proof that the farthest parts of my own mind are friendly towards me; that whatever may be hidden in those far parts of my mind is willing to reveal itself to me; that all is well in what passes with me for the world.
If I had tried to write in the air in front of you the beginnings of a piece of fiction, I might have gone on to report that the detail of the water in the stream where the children were asleep or dead would have caused me to see in my mind, and to prepare to write about, an image of a man lying just below the surface of a greenish wave as it broke about twenty metres from a beach in the southwest of Victoria a few years after the day when the wind ruffled the feathers of the hen with the one chicken. The man just mentioned was neither dead nor asleep but demonstrating to his children, who were standing in shallow water near the beach, that the human body is of its nature buoyant and that water need not be feared. And at about this point in my demonstration of my beginning a piece of fiction, I would have understood (and would have told you at once of my so understanding) that the title of the piece of fiction would probably be ‘King-in-the-Lake’. And if I had thought that the matter was not evident to you, I would have ended my demonstration by telling you that I have always considered titles important and have looked for the title of each of my pieces of fiction among the words relating to the most important of the images that gave rise to the piece.
I read a little, many years ago, of the writings of C.G. Jung and Sigmund Freud but soon lost interest. I found the notion of an unconscious mind required of me the same sort of belief that I had formerly, as a church-going young person, been expected to place in angels and demons and the like. And no theoretical account of the personality has ever seemed to me as convincing as the demonstrations offered in fiction of even average quality of the infinite variability of humankind. In this, as in so many other matters, I have preferred to ponder particular instances rather than to consider general assumptions.
I should add here that I have never been able to understand, much less believe in, any theory of the evolution of species. Such notions as that primitive organisms are capable of promoting their own interests, let alone the interests of their descendants – such notions seem to me even more far-fetched than anything in the Book of Genesis.
I have never felt much interest in systems of mythology and have found tedious at best those works of literature the meaning of which derives from some personage or story or theme or motif in Greek or any other mythology. However, at some time around my fortieth year I began to understand that some of my own writing derived some of its meaning from details in a body of beliefs that might be called my own mythology or cosmology. If asked to defend this rather pompous-sounding claim, I might have to quote from or refer to some of my writings that are still unpublished and will remain so during my lifetime.
I believe I may be unable to think abstract thoughts. I studied Philosophy One at the University of Melbourne in 1966, when I was aged twenty-seven, but after I had handed in my first written exercise I was taken aside by my tutor and told that I did not seem to understand what philosophy itself was.
I have come to believe since that my tutor was right. Even so, I managed to obtain second-class honours in Philosophy One by being able to recall during examinations particular paragraphs from textbooks and particular comments from lecturers and tutors; to write summaries of what I remembered; and to write also a few comments that I imagined a person such as myself might have written during a philosophy examination if that person had understood what philosophy itself was.
Later in my university course, I enrolled under a misapprehension in a certain unit and found myself studying in translation the works of the renowned Arab philosophers of the Middle Ages. I passed this unit by the same means that I had used to pass Philosophy One, but with the important difference that I discovered in the works of a philosopher whose name I have long since forgotten a statement that I not only seemed to understand but from which I drew a sort of inspiration as a writer of fiction. The statement was to the effect that everything exists in a state of potentiality; that is to say, anything can be said to have a possible existence.
I am not unaware that my cherished fragment of philosophy may well have come originally from Greek philosophy or may be a commonplace of that philosophy. Many things that I cherish have found their way to me by winding, circuitous roots.
A thing exists for me if I can see it in my mind, and a thing has meaning for me if I can see it in my mind as being connected to some other thing or things in my mind.
In my view, the place we commonly call the real world is surrounded by a vast and possibly infinite landscape which is invisible to these eyes (points to eyes) but which I am able to apprehend by other means. The more I tell you about this landscape, the more inclined you might be to call it my mind. I myself often call it my mind for the sake of convenience. For me, however, it is not just my mind but the only mind.
Apart from what lies right now within the narrow range of these two eyes (points again to eyes), everything that I am aware of or have ever been aware of is somewhere in the far-reaching landscape of (my) mind. Of course, I acknowledge the existence of other minds, but such is my view of things that I can only see those minds and their contents as being located where all other imagined or remembered or desired entities are located – in the landscape of landscapes; in the place of places; in my mind.
One piece of fiction always gives me a special satisfaction whenever I look back on it: ‘A Quieter Place than Clun’ in Landscape With Landscape. The narrator of that piece struggles for many years to have some of his writing published and, at the same time, to conceive of some coloured image or diagram that will fill a gap or void that he imagines within himself. He achieves only limited success in each enterprise. At the age of thirty-four, he has a story published in a small magazine; and he is somewhat content, as years pass, to think of road-maps of Victoria or diagrams of Melbourne streets as emblems of his essential self. At the end of the piece of fiction, the character finds himself again confused; large areas of his mental landscape have been called into question; but if I know him, he will be able at last to correct his image of himself, perhaps in somewhat the way that a family might have introduced quarterings into its coat-of-arms during the course of its history.
My feeling of satisfaction when I look at ‘A Quieter Place’ is wholly selfish. It may seem to you an unworthy sort of satisfaction; a perverted sort of satisfaction. I confess that I feel satisfied with my having achieved what the isolated and rather ineffectual character of my fiction had not achieved: I have achieved it by having had published the body of fiction of which ‘A Quieter Place’ is a part and by being sometimes able to see all that fiction as defining me in the way that the narrator of ‘A Quieter Place’ wanted to see himself defined. Yes, I sometimes have the experience of seeing my fiction as an emblem of myself or an heraldic device representing myself or even as a large part of myself. And I derive much satisfaction from so seeing.
But what exactly do I see? I have sat just now for several minutes trying to answer that question. Sometimes while I sat, I seemed to be trying to see an image of every image in my writing – a fantastic chandelier of images: a gigantic three-dimensional mandala, or a ten-thousand-sided hologram of coloured scenery. But I could not hold this sort of image in my mind long enough to admire it. In the end, there occurred to me an emblematic scene, by which I mean a scene that might have been reported nowhere in my fiction but a scene that stands for the essence of that fiction.
A man sits in a book-lined room in a house of many rooms. The window-blinds in the room are drawn, but the light at their edges tells me that the day outside is hot and bright. The silence in the room tells me that the house is surrounded by a wide and grassy and mostly level landscape. In the book-lined room, the sitting man sometimes reads and sometimes writes. What he mostly reads about or writes about is, perhaps, a woman or, perhaps, another wide and grassy and mostly level landscape further off from his own.
I have sometimes asked myself the idle and fatuous questions what should I have done differently? or, what would I do differently, given a second chance? Of all the idle and fatuous answers that have occurred to me, the only answer that might interest you people is my declaring sometimes that I should have written all my fiction with no regard for the conventional terms novel or short story or novella but should have allowed each piece of my fiction to find its way to its natural end.
I started out wanting to be a poet. I thought as a boy that the purpose of writing was to move people; to cause persons to feel more deeply. For most of my youth, the writing that moved me was poetry. I was often moved deeply by poetry. Among the first works of prose fiction that moved me deeply were Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, and it is by no means a coincidence that I first read these books, and several other books by Thomas Hardy, during the year when I began to think of writing prose fiction.
I had another reason for wanting to be a poet. I believed for long that a writer of prose fiction had to have a deep understanding of other people and – more alarming still for me – had to be able to imagine or create believable characters. As someone who had been isolated during childhood and adolescence, who was preoccupied with his own moods and daydreams, and who was consistently baffled by the behaviour of other people, I thought I was qualified only to be a poet.
However, I found poetry extremely hard to write for as long as I tried to write in rhymed, or even unrhymed, metrical lines. I found it somewhat easier to write what I believed was free verse, but I thought it was cheating to call such writing poetry. I began to write prose believing that I could express more freely in prose than in poetry what I wanted to express. However, I believed for several years that my prose would have more meaning if I allowed myself not to observe the conventions of English grammar. At about the time when I was writing the first drafts of the first pages of Tamarisk Row, I came to understand that I could never conceive of a network of meaning too complex to be expressed in a series of grammatical sentences. All of my published prose consists of grammatical sentences, although the second-last section of Tamarisk Row consists of four grammatical sentences interwoven. One of my greatest pleasures as a writer of prose fiction has been to discover continually the endlessly varying shapes that a sentence may take. I tried to teach my students to love the sentence. I sometimes suppose that the existence of the sentence bears witness to our need to make connections between things. I still sometimes think of trying again what I tried and failed to do as a young writer: to write a work of fiction consisting of one single grammatical sentence containing at least several thousand words.
I have not read widely during my lifetime. You might be shocked if I were to name for you some of the so-called great works of literature that I have never read. I have tended to read several times those books that appealed to me rather than to read widely.
At my age, I need not ask myself which books I would take to a desert island. All I need do is to ask myself which books I would like to read yet again during the years left to me. I list them in alphabetical order according to authors’ names: the various collections of short fiction by Jorge Luis Borges; Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë; several collections of short fiction by Italo Calvino, together with The Castle of Crossed Destinies by the same author; Independent People and World Light, by Halldor Laxness; Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust.
I offer two supplementary lists. The first is for Australian literature: The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, by Henry Handel Richardson; the Langton novels, by Martin Boyd.
The second supplementary list is for Hungarian literature; Puszták Népe and Konok Kikelet, both by Gyula Illyés.
I encourage you to think of each of my seven published books as a report of some or another part of the contents of what I call my mind. And yet it seems to me, at the age of sixty-two, that the half-million words and more of my published books together reveal not a great deal about the interests and concerns of the person I believe myself to be.
About ten years ago, while I was trying to write what would have become a huge book of fiction with the title O, Dem Golden Slippers, I found myself unwilling to go on with my writing. I have still not fully understood what it was that stopped me from going on with that book and caused me to write little fiction for the next few years. I will try, however, to explain what I can explain.
My drawing back from O, Dem Golden Slippers had something to do with my being a husband and a father of adult children. If I had been, as Marcel Proust was, neither a husband nor a father, or if I had been, as D.H. Lawrence was, a husband but not a father, I might not have drawn back. For thirty years past, I had written fiction without caring how many readers might be so careless or so foolish as to suppose that the narrator or the chief character of any piece of my fiction closely resembled the breathing author; but in 1991, in the fifty-third year of my life, I drew back. I drew back partly because what I was about to write might have seemed to certain readers to have revealed more than was seemly for a man of my years, a husband and a father, to have revealed. But I drew back for another reason: quite a different reason. In writing certain passages of O, Dem Golden Slippers, I had discovered certain images and certain connections between images such as seemed to reveal to me that my thirty years of writing fiction had been nothing less than a search for just that sort of discovery. I have tried to describe this discovery to several persons by writing that I seemed to have crossed, at last, the country of fiction and to have discovered on its farther side a country no less inviting. I will be hardly less evasive today, but will assert something that should provoke you to think about the purpose of fiction.
I always took seriously the writing of fiction. I told my students that no one should write fiction unless he or she absolutely had to write it; unless he or she could not contemplate a life without the writing of fiction. During all the years while I wrote fiction, I assumed that I would always write fiction, but I believe now that I was driven to write fiction only so that I could make the discovery mentioned in the previous paragraph. My first thoughts after I had made the discovery were to the effect that I had somehow failed as a writer of fiction; that I had stopped short of writing the sort of fiction that might have enlarged my reputation enormously or made of my collected works a magnificent edifice. My later thoughts were to the effect that what had happened ought to have been expected. I had undertaken the writing of my books of fiction exactly as another sort of person may have undertaken a serious study of some difficult matter. My writing was not an attempt to produce something called ‘literature’ but an attempt to discover meaning. Why should I feel surprise or disappointment if the result of my writing seven books of fiction was my discovery of something of much meaning to myself and my deciding that the writing of fiction was no longer of much importance to me?
I have been somewhat evasive as to details in the previous paragraphs. However, I have written detailed reports for scholars of the future, if there be any such. I have stored these reports in what I like to call my archives. In those archives are copies of all my letters of the past thirty years; a journal that I kept on and off from 1958 until about 1980; numerous drafts of all my published works of fiction and of several unpublished works; notes for many works of fiction that I have not yet tried to write; and many notes from myself to an imagined scholar of the future, explaining candidly some or another matter of possible interest.
All of my archives, which at present fill about nineteen drawers of steel filing cabinets, will become the property of my sons after my death and will, I hope, end up in a library in, I hope, Australia. For several years now, I have been annotating my papers so as to make clear any passages that might not be clear to a reader of the future. When my annotating is completed, my collected papers will comprise a remarkably detailed documentation of my life and my thinking. However, so candid is this documentation that my papers will not be available to the curious or the scholarly reader until several persons apart from myself have died.
I have been an eager reader of writers’ biographies for many years and have noted often the problems faced by biographers when letters or other papers are lost or scattered or censored or are less than honest. I believe my collection of papers will one day supply anyone interested with a body of material as bulky, as detailed, and as candid as any that I have read about.
It occurred to me this afternoon, Sunday 8 July 2001, that I have not changed much during the last fifty years. I was at my desk when this thought occurred to me. I was not obliged to be at my desk. I had actually found myself with a free hour, something that seldom happens with me. But I had chosen, almost unthinkingly, to go to my desk and to find something that I could do with pen and paper: annotating some page from my archives, perhaps, or translating a stanza from my collection of Hungarian poetry, or checking the records that I keep of the two hundred racehorses that I bet on.
Before I began any of these tasks, I sat back and turned my attention loose, so to speak.
My desk is a small student’s desk. It stands in a corner of my room, facing a blank wall. (I prefer to leave a wall blank rather than to decorate it in any way.) Just to my left are thick curtains concealing a window. (I prefer to keep the curtains and blinds closed whenever I am indoors.) Just to my right is the nearest of the six grey or white filing cabinets that stand around my room. While I was looking at one or another of the blank walls or the grey or white filing cabinets, I thought of myself nearly fifty years ago, in the early 1950s.
If I had found myself with a free hour of a Sunday afternoon in those days, I would have chosen to spend it alone, with a pen and paper handy. I seem always to have hoped to learn more by waiting behind drawn blinds, by daydreaming, by jotting things down on paper than by going about the world or even by reading.
Because today is Sunday, I soon thought of one large difference between myself in the 1950s and myself today.
It would be hard to overemphasise the influence on me of my upbringing as a Roman Catholic in the 1940s and 1950s. I was one month short of my twentieth birthday when I chose not to believe any longer, but before then I had been an unquestioning and sometimes a devout Catholic. This means that from the earliest days that I can recall until my young adulthood, I saw the visible world as being surrounded by an invisible world consisting of four distinct zones, namely heaven, hell, purgatory and limbo, and peopled by countless angels, demons, souls of dead human beings, and a God consisting of three subjoined divine persons. More than this, I lived during all those years never doubting that a goodly number of the invisible beings just mentioned were watching my every movement and aware of my every thought. Some of the beings were very much concerned for my welfare, by which I understood that they wanted me to join them in their eternal happiness after I had died. Others of the beings were reproachful on account of my seldom remembering to pray for their souls; these were my dead relatives and forebears. Still others of the beings were malevolent towards me and would have felt a perverse satisfaction if they could have ensured that I would spend eternity in hell with them after I had died. These, of course, were the devils who arranged, among their many other machinations, that I should often find in newspapers or magazines pictures of young women in tight bathing costumes or low-cut evening dresses.
More than forty years ago I ceased to be a believing Catholic, but I have never been able to think of the visible world, the so-called real world, the place where I sit writing these notes – I have never been able to think that this is the only world. I might go further and say that the notion of this being the only world seems to me hardly less preposterous than the notions imparted to me as a child by my Catholic parents and teachers and ministers of religion. I might go further still and report that I feel confident that a part of me will survive the death of my body and will find itself after that event in a world presently invisible to these eyes (points yet again to eyes). I might go even further yet and say that I have lighted on what I consider sound evidence for these beliefs of mine. But to go further would probably embarrass all of us. It seems to me that a writer of fiction might disturb a group of scholars less by confessing to some unsavoury sexual proclivity than by announcing his belief in an afterlife and claiming to have seen evidence for his belief.
Anyone reading through my archives after my death will find detailed notes on the matters alluded to somewhat coyly just now, but no one should expect to receive after my death any message from the Other Side. One life as a writer will have been enough.
Someone has written that all art aspires to the condition of music. My experience is that all art, including all music, aspires to the condition of horse-racing.
Only two forms of art have ever affected me deeply: literature and music. Whenever a passage of literature or of music has affected me deeply, I have been compelled to pause in my reading or in my listening and to try to observe the details of the last hundred metres or so of one or another race contested by one or another field of horses that has suddenly appeared on the home straight of one or another racecourse in my mind.
I have sometimes glimpsed details of the many-coloured jackets of the riders of the horses, and there has sometimes come into my mind the name of one or another of the horses, but more than these few items I have never learned. I have thought more than a few times during the past few years that a task at least as worthy as the writing of a further work or works of fiction would be for me to try to draw the outlines of some of the racecourses just mentioned or the details of the many-coloured jackets; to try to list the names of the horses and of their trainers, jockeys, owners; to record details of the races as Clement Killeaton was reported to have recorded details of races in Tamarisk Row, my first published work of fiction, or as the nameless Tasmanian was reported to have done in ‘The Interior of Gaaldine’, which is the last piece in the last book of mine to have been published as of now.
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.