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Signs for the Soul


In December 2012, J.M. Coetzee published an article on Gerald Murnane in the New York Review of Books. Coetzee has long written for the NYRB and many of these essays have been collected and republished in Stranger Shores: Literary Essays, 1986-1999 (2001) and Inner Workings: Literary Essays, 2000-2005 (2007). This republication in itself demonstrates that the essays are not only occasional pieces, but contain insights of sufficient importance to Coetzee to justify their preservation. Their relevance to Coetzee’s fiction is apparent: his review of Joseph Frank’s biography of Fyodor Dostoevsky, for example, appeared soon after he published a novel concerned with Dostoevsky, The Master of Petersburg (1994).

The reading Coetzee offers of Gerald Murnane is interesting in a number of ways: it not only tells us things that Coetzee sees in Murnane, it tells us that Coetzee considers Murnane’s work to be important, and worthy of wider attention. It also tells us that Coetzee sees things in Murnane that concern him, in every sense of the word concern. It is possible to go further, but not without risk. It is possible to claim that Coetzee’s essay offers a kind of preface to a dialogue that is played out as one debate among others, but one of the most important, in Coetzee’s most recent novel, The Childhood of Jesus (2013).

Murnane is a well-known figure in the academic discipline of Australian literature and is considered by a small but committed group of readers, both nationally and internationally, to be among the most important novelists currently writing in English. But wider recognition, even in Australia, has proved elusive. In 2006, he was in contention for the Nobel Prize, with the international betting house Ladbrokes quoting him at 33-1. Yet it is telling that the highest awards he has received in Australia are special awards – the Patrick White Literary Award and the NSW Premier’s Special Prize – that are intended as recompense for authors who have been unfairly overlooked.

Murnane’s case is interesting, however, because it is by no means closed. Though he went into a kind of retirement at the beginning of the 1990s, he has since re-emerged, both with major new publications – Barley Patch (2009), A History of Books (2012) and a new novel due next year – and the reissuing, here and overseas, of his earlier works Tamarisk Row (1974), The Plains (1982) and Inland (1988), with A Lifetime on Clouds (1976) forthcoming. Meanwhile, there are reports that his reputation has begun to build among the literary elites of the United States, and no doubt Coetzee’s essay has helped this process along. In short, he suddenly seems to be a writer whose importance is beginning to emerge rather than continuing to recede.

In his review of Murnane, Coetzee examines passages from Barley Patch in which the narrative voice contemplates the nature of fiction and the nature of the self. The self, Murnane’s narrator states, is made up of a ‘network of images’. Coetzee concludes:

The activity of writing, then, is not to be distinguished from the activity of self-exploration. It consists in contemplating the sea of internal images, discerning connections, and setting these out in grammatical sentences (“I could never conceive of a network of meaning too complex to be expressed in a series of grammatical sentences,” says Murnane, whose views on grammar are firm, even pedantic). Whether the connections between images lie implicit in the images themselves or are created by an active, shaping intelligence; where the energy (“feelings”) comes from that discerns such connections; whether that energy is always to be trusted—these are questions that do not interest him, or at least are not addressed in a body of writing that is rarely averse to reflecting on itself.

In other words, while there is a Murnanian topography of the mind, there is no Murnanian theory of the mind worth speaking of. If there is some central, originary, shaping force behind the fictions of the mind, it can barely be called a force: its essence seems to be a watchful passivity.

As a writer, Murnane is thus a radical idealist.

This passage underlines a feeling of unease, which seems to be paired with a feeling of admiration, and further indicates an interesting point of difference: a philosophical difference about the nature of the writer and the nature of the reader; a philosophical difference about the kinds of meaning that might be generated through works of fiction.

The problem of idealism is at the heart of these differences. ‘Idealism’ is a problem that also concerned Coetzee in a talk he delivered recently at the second China Australia Literary Forum in Beijing, where he shared the stage with the Chinese Nobel laureate Mo Yan. Here Coetzee discussed the history of the Nobel Prize for literature itself, which stipulates, following the will of Alfred Nobel, that the award should be given, not to the best writer per se, but to the writer who produces ‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’. The question of the ideal, and what this might mean, and how, on the one hand, this might adequately face what might, in contrast, be called the real, and how, on the other hand, the real as we understand or experience it might exist at all without ideas or the ideal, are inter-related questions that seem to be pressing, for Coetzee.

The nature of the inter-relation between the ideal and the real provides, even setting Murnane aside, one of the most important themes of The Childhood of Jesus. We find ourselves in the midst of a world that is, in some sense, washed clean of the memory – though in the case of the central character, Simón, not all of the images – of our own imperfect and passion-filled world. It is, or offers, in an often repeated phrase, a ‘new life’. This might be some sort of afterlife; it might be the logical manifestation of Leibniz’s ‘best of all possible worlds’; but there is something here that Simón finds empty.

While it is not entirely clear, the emptiness might stem from the feeling of promise itself, a promise that could only be an idea. This idea might be that the ideal, which is universal, inhabits the material of the personal and fills it with meaning:

And why is he continually asking himself questions instead of just living, like everyone else? Is it all part of a far too tardy transition from the old and comfortable (the personal) to the new and unsettling (the universal)? Is the round of self-interrogation nothing but a phase in the growth of each new arrival … If so, how much longer before he will emerge as a new, perfected man?

But does the ideal give meaning to life, or is it the other way around? Simón informs us that ‘Ideas cannot be washed out of us, not even by time. Ideas are everywhere. The universe is instinct without them.’ Simón is also certain – at least, when he is forced to explain the world to David, the boy he is compelled to look after – that we are more than just earth, more than simple matter: ‘What are we like if we are not like poo? We are like ideas. Ideas never die.’ Yet, following James Joyce, who has Stephen Dedalus make a similar point in Ulysses (1922), Simón also claims that the mother is more meaningful to the child than the father, because the child owes its substance to the mother, while the father merely provides ‘the idea’. His own urges are physical in nature, but as the philosopher stevedore Eugenio explains to him, such urges are not directed towards a particular woman but ‘the womanly ideal’. Who, then, is obsessed with the ideal? At first, we might think that the world Simón and David find themselves in is a world of universal ideals. But Elena, who belongs in this new world, chides Simón for failing to live in the present, for failing to correspond with the real.

The emptiness Simón feels stems not so much from either the real or the ideal, but from the fact that they correspond too neatly in this new world. For Simón, the sense that things have meaning is generated, paradoxically, by the failure of the ideal and the real to correspond. What seems lacking to him, both in Elena’s views and this new life more generally, is a sense of doubleness:

Elena is an intelligent woman but she does not see any doubleness in the world, any difference between the way things seem and the way they are.

The relation between the ideal and the real is complex, then, but what seems clear is that meaning, or the feeling that we have when we do not feel that things are empty, is generated by this fraught and unstable exchange of differences between what seems to be and what is. Here Coetzee has reimagined a theme that is classical, a favourite theme of Shakespeare’s: there is something essential in this tension, something essential to literature, because literature is formed through the act of drawing unstable signs into relation.

What, then, of the dialogue with Murnane? My argument is based around two broad premises. Firstly, ‘meaning’ does not pre-inhabit works of fiction; it has to be created or constructed. Secondly, there are two main ways in which writers construct or create a sense of the meaningful in their works, both of which involve repetition and resonance, echoing, mirroring one sign with another. The first method involves correspondences between the book and something outside the book, which might be ‘the real’ (recognisable worlds that have been fictionalised), or might be other books or other imagined worlds. The second method involves the book building internal networks and references – to ideas, images, words, characters, and so on – that occur once in the work and are then varied through repetition. Through this repetition themes or images emerge that invite interpretation.

While all writers necessarily make use of both methods in generating a sense of the meaningful in their works, there are different degrees of emphasis, so that readers might notice one kind first and skate over the importance of the other kind in particular writers. In terms of emphasis, Coetzee seems to be a writer who values the external: his works enter into a dialogue with what is outside, though what is outside his works are not only real world problems, but other works, other books. Foe (1986), for example, refers to Robinson Crusoe (1719) and The Master of Petersburg refers to Dostoevsky’s Demons (1872). In terms of emphasis, Murnane seems to be a writer obsessed with the internal: the networks of images he creates – his marbles, his plains, his horse races with their silks and patterns of movement – recur not only within individual works, but throughout all of his works, creating a field of meaning that seems somehow self-contained. Yet, in fact, Coetzee depends as much on internal resonance, just as Murnane depends as much on external resonance, to create meaning.

Coetzee can enter into a dialogue with Murnane in a way that Murnane, who claims he no longer reads new fiction, cannot with Coetzee. And when Coetzee refers to other writers in his books, he never really refers to them, even when he names them. Rather, he offers deliberately distorted images of them – so that his character Foe is not Daniel Defoe but an idea of the writer, and his Dostoevsky is not the historical author but an idea of the writer. Yet perhaps this deliberate distortion is a kind of dialogue: a doubleness that enables meaning to emerge. Coetzee shows us how people communicate even, and perhaps especially, when they fail to understand one another.

Or is it that Coetzee’s principle figure is that of the writer (the one who sits in a room and sends out messages to the world from the self), while Murnane’s is that of the reader (the one who sits in a room and takes the world inside the self). Yet both are others of the self, and the figure that makes the writer other for Coetzee is the reader. The figure that makes the reader other for Murnane is the writer.

Coetzee’s dialogue with Murnane is signalled ambiguously in The Childhood of Jesus. The boy at the centre of the novel, whom we necessarily relate to Jesus, is called David. Jesus, of course, claimed to be a descendant of King David and ‘David’ is undoubtedly also a reference to Coetzee’s brother, David Keith Coetzee, who died in 2010, and indeed the novel is dedicated to ‘DKC’. The idea of the brother is something that recurs throughout the novel: David wishes he had two brothers and that he was the youngest. In the New Testament, Jesus is said to have four older brothers, one of whom is called Simon, though the Catholic Church, dedicated to the idea of Mary as a virgin, rejects this and asserts that these ‘brothers’ were either cousins or the sons of Joseph from a previous marriage. In the novel, David’s mother (if she is in fact his mother) is called Inés – the Spanish version of Agnes, one of the Catholic Church’s more prominent virgin saints – and in learning this Simón, or the narrator, reflects: ‘Inés! So that is the name! And in the name is the essence!’

The confusion – if it can be called that, because it is clearly deliberate – allows these references to point in several directions at once. It is an example of Coetzee’s method of deliberate dissonance or distortion. Furthermore, in Coetzee’s novel we are told that David is not the boy’s real name. Elena discusses this with Simón:

She pauses. ‘You keep referring to David as “the boy.” Why don’t you use his name?’

‘David is the name they gave him at the camp. He doesn’t like it, he says it is not his true name.’

Yet there is also a story by Murnane, appended to A History of Books, called ‘The Boy’s Name was David’. Here Murnane writes:

The boy’s name was David. The man, whatever his name was, had known, as soon as he had read that sentence, that the boy’s name had not been David. At the same time, the man had not been fool enough to suppose that the name of the boy had been the same as the name of the author of the fiction, whatever his name had been. The man had understood that the man who had written the sentence understood that to write such a sentence was to lay claim to a level of truth that no historian and no biographer could ever lay claim to. There was never a boy named David, the writer of the fiction might as well have written, but if you, the Reader; and I, the Writer, can agree that there might have been such a boy so named, then I undertake to tell you what you could never otherwise have learned about any boy of any name.

This is not the only clue that some reference to Murnane’s work might be being made. In Inland, Murnane tells us that Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs takes its title from the last paragraph of André Maurois’ biography of Marcel Proust. Murnane’s narrator underlines that his own interest in external references only involves passages or images from texts that have made a forceful impression on him, leaving behind a residue in words or images. Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs includes the essay ‘Some Books Are To Be Dropped Into Wells, Others Into Fish Ponds’, an essay that begins with an extended reflection on his memory of reading Don Quixote. Considering a theme he develops at greater length in A History of Books, Murnane reflects on what, exactly, he retains from his reading of this book, and is surprised that he can remember almost nothing. He can only remember a passage read out by a university lecturer that involves the image of someone being struck in the face by wind-borne vomit. Murnane then cautions readers of the essay who might have a fuller knowledge of the book and might wish to correct him on this point by, for example, refuting the existence of any such passage in Don Quixote. To this potential objection Murnane replies: ‘I am not writing about Don Quixote but about my memory of the books on my shelves.’

Don Quixote is the book David both does not read and uses to learn to read in The Childhood of Jesus. The version of Don Quixote he has read to him by Simón is written not by Cervantes, but by a ‘man named Benengeli’: the fictional Moorish author to whom Cervantes attributed the work. The small boy David quickly claims that he can read the book himself, but Simón is scandalised by this claim, which involves asserting one’s own images and imaginings (which might in no way in fact be related to the book itself) over what appears in the book:

‘No, you can’t. You can look at the page and move your lips and make up stories in your head, but that is not reading. For real reading you have to submit to what is written on the page. You have to give up your own fantasies.’

The boy replies that he can read and ‘quotes’ a passage, which is not from Don Quixote, but begins ‘There was a man of double deed…’, spookily citing an anonymous nonsense poem and crying that ‘It’s not your book, it’s my book!’

Simón lectures him in response:

‘On the contrary, it’s señor Benengeli’s book that he gave to the world, therefore it belongs to all of us—to all of us in one sense, and to the library in another sense, but not to you alone in any sense. And stop tearing at the pages. Why are you handling the book so roughly?’

‘Because. Because if I don’t hurry a hole will open.’

‘Open up where?’

‘Between the pages.’

‘That’s nonsense. There is no such thing as a hole between the pages.’

‘There is a hole. It’s inside the page. You don’t see it because you don’t see anything.’

In a passage from Inland that Coetzee cites in his review, Murnane’s narrator reflects on a quote from Paul Eluard, a poet he claims to know nothing about and to have never read: ‘There is another world but it is in this one.’ Murnane’s narrator tells us the quotation appears at the front of a book by Patrick White, which Coetzee identifies as The Solid Mandala (1966). The narrator conjectures, purely by the light of his affirmed ignorance, about where the quote might have originally appeared, showing how the contexts that surround it might change it, but equally claiming the authority of his own ignorance to allow understandings to emerge that will open up this other world inside the pages:

The other world … is a place that can only be seen or dreamed of by those people known to us as narrators of books or characters within books … until Paul Eluard comes into my room I have only a copy of his written words. He wrote his words and at the instant of his writing them the words entered the world of narrators and characters and landscapes.

The hole that opens up seems, for Murnane’s narrator, to be one that also opens between the reader and the writer. The reader and the writer who are, in effect, the same person, or ideas of the ‘same’ person, or mirror reflections of the person that calls himself Murnane when he writes – as indeed he does when he sits in some nondescript suburb, surrounded by houses rather than plains, somewhere in the outskirts of Melbourne. Even when he does not name himself, he conflates the selves he describes and, in order to keep track, it is almost necessary to file all the selves within both brackets and inverted commas under the word ‘Murnane’.

In Inland, the narrator-writer (‘Murnane1’) imagines his ideal reader (‘Murnane2’) reading a passage he, the narrator-writer, has just written about a young girl, who is the obsessive image at the heart of Inland. Then the narrator-writer (‘Murnane1’) imagines another writer in ‘a room very different from my room’. This second writer (‘Murnane3’), whom (‘Murnane1’) now imagines as having ‘written all the pages around me’, now moves to write a final paragraph, while the ideal reader (‘Murnane2’) is also about to read a final paragraph written by (‘Murnane1’). The paragraphs will be identical, except that whereas (‘Murnane2’) will read that the girl lives in ‘Bassett Street’, (‘Murnane3’) will write that the girl lives in ‘Bendigo Street’. Bassett is the name of the fictional town in which Gerald Murnane’s first novel, Tamarisk Row, is set. This novel in turn is reputed to involve the fictional development of autobiographical themes related to the author’s actual childhood in the actual Victorian city of Bendigo.

It is apparent, then, how holes can open up within pages, at least the kinds of pages that Murnane writes. What also becomes apparent is how these pages are concerned with the ideal, which is understood to involve the relation between seemingly ‘identical’ but actually incommensurable elements: the imagined world and the real world of the one who both imagines and is, but who, in imagining, is no longer what he was. He is no longer forced to exist, but becomes something that persists. That is, these pages are concerned with how the ideal is capable of creating meaning.

By ‘meaning’ here I mean a feeling that things are meaningful, that they ‘have meaning’, as the term ‘meaning’ must always remain undefined in itself, since it only exists as a relation that someone feels or senses. Murnane offers his own, similar, definition in Barley Patch:

The sound in his mind of one or another name would often seem to denote not a mere painted toy and not even an actual straining, staring racehorse but a knot of what he might have called compressed mental imagery or, using the word in a sense particularly his own, meaning.

Yet he also defines it as a kind of latency: a compressed power waiting to be brought forth by a reader or a writer, who might be different aspects of one’s self:

The movement of the specks caused the chief character to think of energy held in check or of meaning waiting to be expressed.

This meaning is lacking in the real world, because that world fades and dissolves from memory, but it might be found in imagined worlds, which have the potential, at least, to persist.

Murnane develops these themes in many of his works, but they are to the fore in his recent works Barley Patch and A History of Books. The reader of A History of Books wants books to leave him with images that will persist, that will outlive the books themselves. His mind, as Coetzee notes in his review, is comprised of a network of images. The images are drawn from everything he has experienced, but he has long realised that some images persist, some images resonate with what might be called his essence: coloured marbles, the various colours of the silks of horses in imagined horse races that carry the weight of all human joy and suffering, plains that extend to the horizon, and so on.

In Barley Patch, the narrator refers to a book that influenced his ideas: The Art of Memory by Frances A. Yates (1966). Murnane’s narrator is most impressed by passages that describe how one might remember by creating, through imagination, a house. The house is filled with rooms and the rooms with objects. Each of these objects in turn might be linked, deliberately, in the mind of the one who wishes to remember, with things that are to be remembered. The practitioner of this art of memory might then recover, at any time, the object to be remembered, by walking through the house in his imagination and going to the place where the remembered object has been left.

The structure here is the structure of allegory: a sign A (‘the vehicle’ or the imagined object) is paired with a sign B (‘the tenor’ or the object to be remembered). The imagined house, then, is capable of preserving or carrying within it another world, which resembles this one. There is a strange effect, however, as ‘this one’ is now doubly removed from what we usually call ‘the real’. It is seen only in the inverted reflection of the imagination.

There is a central image of a house in Barley Patch. The house was once a Seminary of the kind the chief character once occupied as a Catholic seminarian. He had gone to the Seminary in order to find a room that looked out over plains with trees in the distance, where he had hoped he might reflect and write. He would have reflected in order to find meaning. To find meaning, one reflects, one contemplates the self in this world and another: a sign A is brought into relation with a sign B. He would have written to find meaning – the world that is written giving shape and sense to the world as it is experienced.

Yet the chief character could not remain in the Seminary, having failed to find there a capacity to reflect; having failed to find there a capacity to write; having failed, in short, to create meaning in that space. He instead moves back to the city and moves among a group of friends who are centred about a particular friend who has developed a hatred for the Catholic Church. This friend devises a game in which the group imagine purchasing an abandoned Catholic Seminary, somewhere in rural Australia. They imagine themselves moving to this Seminary and converting it into a ‘black’ Seminary, where black Masses are performed and various orgies are played out within the black Chapel.

Long after he has moved away from these friends and they have forgotten their game, the chief character continues to imagine the black Seminary. As the game recedes, the image remains of the chief character in his room, in the house, which has now become a house of memory. The goal is still the same: to create meaning. Yet, insofar as meaning is found, it is found by the imagined man, in the imagined house, who creates knots of relations, filed in filing cabinets but compressed into images that persist. The imagined man sits at the window of a house of two storeys contemplating the view of plains with trees in the distance, which is also an image of the self.

In Inland, the narrator claims that ‘a page of a book is not a window but a mirror’. While this might have the structure of solipsism it becomes more, entering into a spiritual tradition that does not contemplate a meaning that pre-exists as an external fact, but as something that is created through the fact of contemplation itself — the fact of the self that reflects the self and does not exactly correspond. That is, the self that is read does not correspond with the self that is written, and the hole that opens up is profound. It is as difficult to see the bottom of this hole as it is to see to the bottom of a deep well, or a cloudy fish pond.

Placing Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus in dialogue with the work of Gerald Murnane shows how they, while very different, also seem, with their echoing relations of the ideal and the real, to offer distorted reflections of each other. Both writers’ books are meaningful because they create signs that double each other by not exactly matching. Their works hold out signs for the soul towards readers, which are necessary because if a soul were to emerge it could only emerge between signs: there is no sign that is the soul.


China Australia Literary Forum
J.M. Coetzee, ‘The Quest for the Girl from Bendigo Street,’ The New York Review of Books (20 December 2012).
J.M. Coetzee, The Childhood of Jesus (Text, 2013).
Paul Genoni, ‘The Global Reception of Post-national Literary Fiction: The Case of Gerald Murnane,’ JASAL (2009).
Gerald Murnane, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs (Giramondo, 2005).
Gerald Murnane, Tamarisk Row (Giramondo, 2008).
Gerald Murnane, Barley Patch (Giramondo, 2009).
Gerald Murnane, The Plains (Text Classics, 2012)
Gerald Murnane, A History of Books (Giramondo, 2012).
Gerald Murnane, Inland (Giramondo, 2012).

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