The Still-Breathing Author
I’ve prepared and delivered this sort of address once before. That was in September 2001, at a conference similar to this in Newcastle, New South Wales. At that time, no book of mine had been published during the previous six years; nor had I written or planned during those years anything that might have gone towards any sort of book. During those six years, the time that I might otherwise have given to writing for publication I had used for adding to my archives. None of the matters mentioned in the previous two sentences was mentioned in my address to the scholars at Newcastle.
I gave a title to my Newcastle address: ‘The Breathing Author’. As soon as I had delivered the address, Ivor Indyk asked if he could publish it in his periodical, HEAT. My consenting to this was the first in a series of events that led to the publication, by Giramondo in 2005, of INVISIBLE YET ENDURING LILACS, my first book for ten years, and to my resuming my writing career, as you might say.
I’ve been told that the text of this address will be published somewhere in due course, and when I compare my situation today with my situation in Newcastle sixteen years ago, I perceive a sort of symmetry. If questioned at Newcastle, I would freely have declared that I had given up writing for publication. Without even waiting to be questioned, I declare to you today that I’ve likewise given up. After the previous conference I later went back to serious writing, but no such reversal will happen in connection with today’s event. At Newcastle, I could not rid myself of the suspicion that I was depriving my readers of one or more books that existed in potentiality, which is a favourite phrase of mine. Here in Goroke, I feel no such thing. When the last of my completed but unpublished works has been published in a few years from now, my readers will be in possession of all that I’m capable of giving them. At Newcastle in 2001, I was not comfortable. I was far from my native part of Victoria; my hotel room overlooked the ocean, which I’ve hated and avoided all my life; and I was somewhat troubled by my having left off writing for publication. Here today, in the clubhouse of my beloved Goroke Golf Club, surrounded by the splendid vistas of Goroke State Forest, I feel sublimely untroubled. I’m no longer a writer, as that word is usually understood. You might say of me, as someone said of Thomas Hardy after an interview with him when he was about my age, that I’ve been delivered of my books.
I wrote this address in the same way that I wrote most of my works of fiction – the book-length works and the shorter works. During a period of about a week six months ago, I jotted down on loose pages torn from a notebook such thoughts of mine as seemed likely topics for this address. After a week, I had eighteen such thoughts, each on a separate page. Then I did with my pages what the narrator of ‘In Far Fields’ is reported as having done with his manila folders. I strewed my pages on the floor of my room and spent an absorbing half-hour arranging the pages in what seemed like the right order. After this, I numbered the pages 1 to 18, clipped them into a bundle, and set about expanding the brief notes on the page numbered 1.
One thing I did not do at any time while I wrote – I did not engage in any sort of research. Nor have I done any sort of research while writing any of my works of fiction. To put a complex matter rather simply, whenever I’ve written a work of fiction, I’ve considered it a detailed report of certain of the contents’ of my mind at the time of my writing. I may sometimes have looked into a dictionary or an atlas or a writer’s and editor’s guide, but I’ve mostly reported only what I’ve been able to bring to mind, with no concern to know whether or not my seeming recollections, imagining, whatever, corresponded to what might be called the facts. While I was writing Barley Patch, for example, I reported memories of what had been in my mind while I was reading, more than fifty years before, the novel Brat Farrar, by Josephine Tey. While I was still working on Barley Patch, Nick Birns, of New York City, read the early sections and the references to Brat Farrar. He told me that the novel had been reissued recently and he offered to get a copy for me so that I could check against the published text the meagre details recollected by my narrator. I declined his offer. The narrator’s recollections were some of my own recollections, and I trusted them to possess a sort of power because they alone had stayed with me for more than fifty years, perhaps changing or perhaps acquiring embellishments to meet my peculiar needs – because they alone had stayed with me while numerous others had deserted me or had become lost to me. The question why I recall certain of my experiences as a reader while forgetting so many others – that question has concerned me for much of my life.
I’m interested not only in what I recall and what I forget from my reading and writing; I’m interested also in what I remember and what I forget from my own experience. I’ve kept detailed journals at different periods of my life, and the twenty-eight filing-cabinet drawers that I call my chronological archive are full of long letters and notes reporting with utter frankness what might be called my private life. And yet, I’ve never looked into that archive while I’ve been writing for publication. I trust my own mind to provide me with all I need as the occasion arises. Likewise, for many years I’ve trusted the appropriate part of me to take note from day to day of any experience deserving to be noted.
In this connection, I’ll mention three lessons that I’ve learned from other writers. During the sixteen years when I taught fiction writing at tertiary level, I felt obliged to present to my students the opinions, beliefs, theories of the widest possible variety of writers. Early in my teaching career, I read all the books in the Paris Review Interviews series and took copious notes while I read. I read also numerous published interviews with novelists, poets, and short-story writers. In my first year as a teacher, I searched through the text of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, which I had read a few years earlier, for the many passages setting out the duties and responsibilities of the fiction writer as they seemed to the narrator of the most impressive work of literature that I’ve read. In each of my years as a teacher, I must have put in front of my students as many as a hundred memorable quotations from a wide variety of writers. If I waited patiently on this cold, squally day in early spring, more than twenty years since I last stood in front of a class – if I waited patiently, I might recall perhaps a dozen of those quotations, but I’ve recalled already three that I’ve often recalled during those twenty and more years. The first is from the narrator of a work by the French writer Alfred Jarry. The passage reports the reply of a young poet to his friends after they had rebuked him for cycling through the countryside with his head down over the handlebars when he might have been looking around him for subject-matter for his poems. The reply was to the effect that a poet must have a poor opinion of his own mind if he has to tell it what to take note of.
The second passage is the simple recommendation by the American poet Robert Bly that a writer must learn to trust his obsessions. The third passage is from the narrator of A La Recherche… and he can surely be taken as coming from the author himself. It’s the simple advice to the writer that his chief task is to learn to read the book being written continually on his own heart.
While I was writing the last few paragraphs, there occurred to me a diagram that I drew on the whiteboard sometimes in class. Early in my adult life, I observed that I was incapable of abstract thinking. (I sometimes surmise that those who claim to think thus are deceiving themselves, but that’s none of my business). I think of my mind, for example, as a vast place that I have barely begun to explore and the boundaries of which I expect never to approach during my lifetime. Whenever I’ve been obliged to travel into unfamiliar territory in this, the visible world, I’ve studied maps in order to feel connected with the places where I feel comfortable. I often think of my own life as a very long dotted line with fearsomely complicated twisting and turnings on an enormous map. Many of my works of fiction have begun as diagrams. The diagram that I sometimes drew on the whiteboard was meant to show my students the way in which many of the pieces of fiction literally took shape in my mind before I began the actual writing. And the most common shape that occurred to me was a version of this.
Each polygon might represent a single image or a simple topic or theme. Of course, the number of polygons would be different for each piece of fiction. The five shown here would be the average number for a piece of short fiction of five thousand words or more. The central image would often, but certainly not always, have been the first to occur to me. Occasionally, the central polygon would have been missing to start with but discovered later, while I was actually writing the piece of fiction.
I would sometimes, during the planning of a piece of fiction, see my polygons and connecting lines as a map of some or another remote district of my mind, with the polygons suggesting townships and the lines suggesting roads or rail lines. Sometimes the diagram might seem to represent a solar system, reminding me that my mind comprised not only varieties of my favourite level landscapes but a starry firmament overspreading them. Or sometimes, in a mood to reduce things to their simplest terms, I would see a diagram as the narrator of ‘In Far Fields’ would have claimed to see it : as proving that his mind consisted only of images connected by feelings.
I mentioned above that the central polygon in the diagram is sometimes missing to start with. This reminded me to mention something that has occasionally happened to me as a reader of my own work. During the first months after I’ve completed a work of fiction, I feel drawn to read it at least once. After that, the urge soon passes, and I can’t recall having read more than isolated extracts from any of my books after their publication. My chief feeling when I handle one or another of my published works is of weariness – I don’t care to recall any of the effort that went into the writing of the work. Sometimes however, during an early reading of the finished typescript, I discover a measure of meaning that I was unaware of while I wrote. Such a discovery produces in me a surge of elation. I feel confident that my theories have been vindicated: that my mind truly is a landscape still not adequately mapped while the firmament above it contains suns or stars yet to be discovered.
As for the questions what is the meaning that I’ve claimed to have discovered, I can answer it very simply. Meaning, for me, is connection. A thing has meaning for me when it has a connection with another thing.
I have at least as many feelings as the next person, and my vanity drives me sometimes to google my name followed by the word author and to feel proud of the sheer number of reviews of my books and articles or essays about them written by persons such as yourselves. I hardly ever read the reviews or whatever for the simple reason that I find them mostly incomprehensible. This is not meant as a rebuke to the authors of the items. The fact is that I see my books from a standpoint wholly different from the reader’s standpoint. Take my book The Plains. For the common reader and the scholar alike, the words of the title denote a text of about 35,000 words. The meaning of that text may be debated, but the text itself is a fixed entity. For me, the text of the published work is sometimes far from my attention when I respond to the sound or the sight of the title The Plains. Sometimes, I don’t even think of my third published book as being called The Plains. Instead, I think of it as having the title that I first give it and defended for several months until my publishers wore me down. That title was Landscape with Darkness and Mirage. Sometimes, the title of the published work brings to my mind some of the ninety thousand words of the unpublished work of fiction The Only Adam, of which the text of The Plains was once part. Sometimes the words The Plains bring to my mind my interview with one or another of the three publishers who rejected The Only Adam. Sometimes the words The Plains bring to my mind the view of the straggling cotoneaster trees on the northern boundary of the backyard behind a certain house in the Melbourne suburb of Macleod. I wrote five of my first seven published books sitting at the kitchen bench in that house and staring often at those straggling trees. My mood while I wrote was usually a mild despair. I was many times ready to accept that what I was writing would never be published.
These memories and more make up the wealth of meaning that I attach to those two simple words The Plains. I should refer in passing to the fact that the title is the only title from among the thirteen published books of mine to include the definite article. I wish I had the time to try to explain my extreme dislike of titles beginning with the definite article. As for the complicated textual history of The Plains, one day, long after my death, some diligent scholar may put together from my copious archives the huge literary entity that is the true denotation for me of those simple words The Plains In the meanwhile, I urge you good folk to go on with your interpretations and your surmising. I’m grateful for your interest in my works. I wish, however, that some of you would hold back from some of your boldest speculations and categorisations. I’m thinking of the scholar or commentator who seems to believe that my published works comprise a sort of program: an orderly progression from one sort of writing to another. I would never deny that trends and developments can be found in my writing, but I assure you that for most of my writing life I could see no further than the book I was currently working on. Sometimes, when I had finished one or another book, I had to wait for months before the outline of my next book began to take shape on my mind.
Remember, too, that my first seven books had four different publishers and that I made significant changes to the original texts of my first three books at the insistence of the publishers. I would never claim that I was hindered during the writing of any of my books by the demands of any publisher, but when each of my books had reached the form of a finished typescript, I was already prepared to have to make changes if the publisher insisted.
One other matter has sometimes bothered me. A certain sort of scholar has labelled me as though I belonged to some sort of school of writers or some likeminded group. Two labels that come to mind are fabulist and post-modernist. Such terms have little or no meaning for me. I’ve said already that I have much trouble with abstract thinking; if challenged to choose a label for myself I’d call myself a technical writer. I mean by this that my work as a writer is to search for the sentences that will most accurately describe the mental imagery that is my only available subject-matter.
I thought of myself as a writer from the age of sixteen. I wanted to be an undistinguished primary school teacher or public servant by day and a committed writer after hours. I thought of myself at first as a poet. I even had a few poems published in obscure publications. In 1962, at the age of twenty-three, I turned reluctantly away from poetry and began which I would have called at that time a novel. It took me all of twelve years to get my first book-length work or fiction completed and published. During those years, I often found myself unable to go on with my fiction-writing and compelled instead to write page after page in my journals and notebooks about what I would now call the theory of narration. That phrase would never have occurred to me in the 1960s while I argued frantically for and against choosing fiction or live theatre or film scripts as the most effective means of bringing to light what seemed my unique subject-matter. It seems strange to me now that I could have seriously considered the claims of film or live theatre when I later lost all interest in both to the extent that I haven’t watched a film or a live play for nearly forty years. Not only have I long since turned against film and theatre, but for many years I’ve preferred not to read what I call theatrical fiction or film-script fiction, by which I mean fiction seeming not to have a narrator; fiction seemingly written in order to create for the reader the illusion that he or she is witnessing actuality. At some time in the early 1980s, which were my early forties, and almost certainly while I was writing Inland, I felt no longer reluctant to have my fiction recognised for what it truly is: an honest account by an utterly reliable narrator of what most presses on him at the time of his writing. At different times, I’ve devised terms for my sort of fiction, which makes no pretence to be anything but the reports and postulations of its author. I’ve sometimes claimed that my fiction is true fiction and at other times that my narration is considered narration. The first of these terms implies not that my fiction is autobiography but that it truly reports the contents of my mind. The second term implies that the reader can learn only what the narrator, in his wisdom, has consented to impart along with his interpretations and, perhaps, his prejudices.
The following paragraphs contain brief autobiographical notes. I’ve chosen to report a few things about myself and my life-long interest in what some might call the world of the imagination or the world of the mind but I call simply the invisible world.
A leafless branch scraped and scraped against the window. The blind was drawn, but the glow from a streetlight faintly lit the bedroom.
On the eve of his 40th birthday George Firth lay sleepless until after midnight.
Information that only a reliable N can give.
My memory might be called phenomenal but erratic. I can recall the colours carried by every winning horse at the first race-meeting I attended, which was at Mornington in 1953, but my adult sons often remind me of notable events in our family during the 1970s and 1980s – events that I cannot recall, even after having been reminded of them. Those decades, by the way, were the period of my life when I was most devoted to my writing.
My first memory is of listening to the moaning sound made by the wind in overhead wires under a sky filled with fast moving dark clouds midway through my third year. A memory from about the same time is of my staring at the striking scarlet blossoms of a certain flowering creeper. I believe my lifelong interest in sounds and colours is linked to my having been born with no sense of smell.
In my first memory of myself writing something other than a school task, I am drawing up a list of names of professional footrunners that I watched at a recent sports meeting. I am in my eighth year, and preparing to have the footrunners represented by glass marbles in a race of my own organising. The marbles will be rolled across a linoleum-covered floor and the results of the race recorded in writing.
In my fourth year, and not long before I learned to read and write, I stood sometimes concealed between a garden shrub and the brick wall of my parents’ house and talked at length to an imaginary person that I addressed as Mrs Frickey. I wish I could recall the origin of her surname. I clearly recall her appearance but I can recall no actual person that she resembled. She was kindly disposed towards me and willing to listen to me with much interest and concern. I reported to her many of my daily doings but not as though she were some imaginary playmate. She was of my mother’s generation and I tried to impress her by using what I thought was adult language.
Often in my childhood after having been impressed by some or another actual item, I would use pencil and paper and a combination of diagram and text to record the details of a replica of the item. In my eighth year, for example, I saw a row of aviaries stocked with parrots and cockatoos, and in my twelfth year I visited the Melbourne Aquarium which was then in the Carlton Gardens. After these occasions I drew intricate diagrams of rows of bird-cages and fish-tanks and I wrote lists of the creatures occupying them. I imagined that my adult-self was the owner of the pretend aviary and the pretend aquarium. But this was no simple self-aggrandising daydream. My chief pleasure while I wrote and sketched was not my imagined opulence in the future. I was much taken by the possibility that I could call into being, with only pencil and paper, a mental space that might eventually expand until I found myself confused, disorientated, lost even, among details of my own devising.
By far the most elaborate of my efforts to improve on actuality have Something for the Pain. You’ll find there a brief account of my latest attempt to create what might be called an alternative world of horse-racing. The world came into being in 1985 and continues to the present day. It began as a few pages in a manila folder and now occupies two filing-cabinet drawers. From the time of my early childhood, the vast horse-racing industries of Australia and New Zealand have fascinated me. I’ve spent countless hours indulging my passion for horse-racing. And yet, incredibly, all this was not enough. Five times since my early childhood, I’ve tried to bring into being an imaginary country or, in the case of the Antipodean Archive, two imaginary countries in which a profusion of racecourses, horses, trainers, and jockeys satisfies me as the vast industries mentioned above have seemingly failed to satisfy me. Of my five attempts, the first was, not surprisingly, the simplest. Only a year after I had learned to read and write, I recorded the names of about a dozen imaginary racehorses. I’ve always regretted that I lost or destroyed all the records of the enterprise and of the three subsequent improvements on it. And yet, remarkably I still recall a few names and a few sets of racing colours from the records that I haven’t set eyes on for fifty years and more. Fragments of my created countries have outlived in my mind whole slabs of memories of the real world, as we call it. I should add that my early attempts to document private racing networks were in every instance discontinued only because I could not find the time to maintain them.
When I ask myself what is the relevance of my horse-racing worlds to my fiction, several matters come to mind. First, in 1993, I made the decision to give up fiction writing for the time being and to use the resulting free time for adding to my Antipodean Archive. My last book was to be Emerald Blue. I needed to write only one or two more pieces of short fiction to have a collection of publishable size. The piece that I wanted to end the book was to be called ‘The Interior of Gaaldine’, which I intended to be a coded message to the reader. ‘The Interior of Gaaldine’ is a complicated piece of writing that even I, its author, cannot readily spell out, but it presents itself as an account of a man – perhaps on another level of fictionality from the narrator and the female character who interacts with him – who devotes his life to an enterprise such as my Antipodean Archive would have become if I had devoted my life to it. Without re-reading the text, I can’t recall exactly the message encoded in ‘The Interior of Gaaldine’, but I would have wanted to suggest to the reader that imaginary worlds such as the Brontes’ Gondal and Gaaldine must surely share a common boundary in the minds of their delineators with the place that might be called the landscape of fiction, by which I mean the scenery that comes to mind when the delineators are reading or writing fiction. In this connection, I used sometimes to say, by way of explaining my having given up writing for publication, that I had crossed the landscape of fiction and had emerged on its far side and had found myself fully occupied and contented there.
In this connection also, I can offer a variation statement that I’ve made in print at least once before, the statement being that whereas Richard Wagner once claimed, so I believe, that all art aspires to the condition of music, I claim that all art, including music, aspires to the condition of horse-racing. The passage of fiction that has impressed me more than any other occurs near the end of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu and reports the effect on the narrator of his having stood inadvertently on two paving stones of different heights. A passage that comes a close second, to use racing parlance, is the ending of World Light, by the Icelander Halldor Laxness. When I first read each of these passages in context, that is, after having read the whole work for which the passage was the conclusion, I felt at first what I’ll call a surge of feeling such as many a reader of the passage might have felt. What next happened to me has surely happened to a few readers of Proust or Laxness or of any other author of literature. I saw clearly in my mind what is sometimes called by racegoers a blanket finish. The term originated with some long-forgotten race-caller who used to say, when four or five or more horses were approaching the winning-post in a bunch. ‘You could throw a blanket over them all’. Tamarisk Row contains several passages explaining the effect on the narrator of a blanket finish. I discovered early in life that the ending of a work of fiction could work on me in the same way that the finish of a horse-race could work. I supposed for many years that only the reading of fiction could affect me thus, but when I was writing A History of Books, and after I had composed the last few sentences, which refer to the ending of World Light, I discovered that the act of writing could call into being an image of a blanket finish no less compelling than the images that arose from my reading.
I’ve spent much of my life pondering on the mysterious ways in which fiction has affected me – both as a reader and as a writer. No one should be surprised to learn that I’ve several times left off reading and writing fiction in order to learn more about those blanket finishes that appear during more intense periods of reading and writing – to learn the names of the horses and of their riders and the colours they carry; to learn the plans and the dimensions of the white-railed racecourse where horses and riders fight out their desperate finishes; to learn what sort of suburban scenery or level countryside can be seen from the upper decks of the grandstands overlooking those racecourses…I’ll quote here the sentence that I used as the epigraph for Barley Patch. The sentence comes from Doctor Sax, by Jack Kerouac: ‘The Turf was so complicated it went on forever.’
For much of my early life, I supposed I would never marry but would remain a bachelor and celibate. Until my late teens I was closer to a bachelor uncle of mine – the younger brother of my father – that I was to either of my parents. He was a sort of hero to me, and a version of him appears in several of my works of fiction. But he was not the only unmarried celibate among my relatives. Of my father’s eight siblings, five never married. One of my father’s paternal aunts and her husband had eight children of whom five also remained unmarried. I grew up believing bachelorhood or spinsterhood to be not unusual. The surname of my father’s unmarried cousins was Goonan, and I mention them in Something For The Pain. As a boy and a young man, I envied the three Goonan bachelors. They owned a large grazing property on the southern edge of the Western District of Victoria, which is one of the landscapes that I had in mind while I was writing The Plains. They even owned racehorses. I never saw any books in their house during my few visits, but that did not prevent me from imagining that a well stocked library occupied a room in a distant wing of their large house. In my late teens I entertained a daydream that had me ensconced in their library, sometimes reading or writing and sometimes peering out at the level grasslands of the Western District. In the daydream, I was a long-term house guest of the Goonans. My parents had sent me there after I had finally suffered the terrible nervous breakdown that had seemed to threaten me for much of my youth. My parents thought I needed only rest and quietness, but I had been inspired by the monastic atmosphere in the rambling house on the western plains and I dashed off each day in the library one after another of the poems that had been for long pent up in me. I had learned from my father’s bachelor-cousins that the single life kept a man wavering between a state of mild deprivation and one of vague hopefulness, and I had discovered in the daydream, that this way of life gave rise to heartfelt poetry.
I’ve always been an erratic reader. You would be much surprised if I listed for you some of the acclaimed works of literature that I’ve never read. You might be equally surprised if I listed for you some of the little-known works that have greatly affected me. However, I read very little nowadays. My library, which I spent much of my life putting together, is in far-away Melbourne, and I seldom do more than look at the spines of books when I visit the son of mine who cares for my collection. In my bed-sitting room in Goroke, I have space only for my small library books in the Hungarian language and my equally small horse-racing library. I read from one or another of these libraries at meal-times. Near my desk are three volumes of poetry, their authors being Thomas Hardy, John Clare, and the Australian Lesbia Harford. Sometimes in the late evening, after I’ve been drinking my home-brewed beer, I read aloud a poem or two. Most of my free time I spend adding to my Antipodean Archive or playing on my fiddle the tunes that I’ve composed as settings for the many Hungarian poems that I know by heart, or golfing.
I suspect that I’m unusual among my fellow-writers in that I have no interest in politics or social issues. I read two newspapers daily but only for the financial news and in search for what might be called gossip or scandal. I have not listened to radio or watched television for more than a half hour at any time since the early 1960s. I gave up my Catholic religious beliefs at the age of twenty but I am not a materialist. I regard the theories of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud as baseless speculation. I describe myself on the census form sometimes as an animist, sometimes as a pantheist, and sometimes as a follower of Richard Jefferies, the nineteenth century English writer. I have no belief in any sort of personal God but I am utterly confident that the invisible part of me will survive the death of the visible part.
Before television changed the reading habits of many Australians in the late 1950s, one of the thriving publications that provided what I call entertainment-fiction was the monthly Australian Journal. In the rear pages of that publication was a section for children, who were enlisted as Journal Juniors. In my tenth year, I sent several poems and short prose pieces to the editor of the Journal Juniors pages but with no success. I sent my pieces not so much for the satisfaction of being published but rather t attract the attention of a certain girl of my own age, whose name and address I forgot long ago, although I recall that she lived in Queensland. (This added to her attractiveness in my eyes –not because I had any interest in Queensland but because there was no likelihood of us meeting in the foreseeable future.) The girl’s contributions were published often and were of a standard far above the average published items. I suspect nowadays that her writing was doctored by her parents or some complicit adult, but in my tenth year she was the first version of the female who is my ideal reader. This personage has been never more than a blurred image in my mind and I have no wish for her to be otherwise. As I write these words, she may be a mere child or still unborn, but the desire to have her one day ponder my words in the hope of learning what gave rise to them – that sort of desire has sometimes kept me writing when no other motive would have done so.
I’ll make a few last sweeping statements that might explain how my books came to be written or how I think of them. Every one of my books had to be written. I was always a part-time writer with no need to earn money from my books. This left me free to write what I chose when I chose. But the word chose is misleading. I never felt as though I was choosing my subject-matter. Rather, my subject-matter, sometimes clear and compelling and sometimes vague and elusive, always sought me out: took my eye; winked at me; disturbed me; lodged itself painfully in the heart of me and gave me no rest until I had turned it into sentences.
Here’s something I wrote recently for a friend of mine. ‘Don’t think I was able to write my books because I was wise. No, I wrote my books because I was ignorant. I’ve never truly understood the meaning of my experience. I’ve never understood people, least of all females. I’ve spent much of my life speculating about the real world, as it’s usually called. My books are a partial record of my speculations’.
And yet … (almost everything I’ve written has deserved to be qualified by that phrase) and yet my books, when I stand them side by side or pile them on top of one another, seem to demand some sort of categorisation. At such times, being unable to think in abstractions and always inclined to conceive of thought as occupying space, I consider my collected works as a map of one of the outer regions of my mind, a region that I was driven to explore in search of the racecourses that provided to lie even further off.
In 1952, Brother Julian Watson was preparing fifth and more boys in Form Two at De La Salle College, in Malvern, for the Victorian Junior Scholarship. When preparing us for the question on the English paper requiring us to report our response to a previously unseen poem, Julian gave us a simple piece of advice. I took no special notice of the advice and may not even have followed it. Forty years later, when writing ‘In Far Fields’, my teacher’s words came back to me when I happened to be asking myself whether my books might be said to consist of some sort of basic matter, some literary equivalent of sub-atomic particles. Julian had told us to be sure to write in our exam answers that the poem under consideration produced in our minds vivid images and strong feelings.
Images and feelings … I’ll end by reading the title poem of a collection of my poetry that I hope to see published by Giramondo next year.
You’d think a man who’s nearly eighty,
who buried his parents and his brother,
who nursed his wife through a year of suffering
from terminal cancer, and who once had to wait
for fifteen minutes in an emergency ward
while they went on trying to restart the heart
in one of his sons (they did it at last)
you’d think such a man would be able to call
on reserves of strength or something whenever
he felt that second-hand pain or grief
that you feel for someone else in deep
trouble. You’d think so, but I’ve resolved never
again to look into GREEN SHADOWS, A Life
of John Clare, by one June Wilson,
Hodder and Stoughton, nineteen-fifty-
one. I was able to read it right
through the eighties; I couldn’t not
learn the facts about one of my saints.
But today, while I read, I recalled again
what was ahead and I couldn’t read on.
Of course, I tried the usual ploy:
I told myself that they were all dead;
that their sufferings long ago came to an end,
but I knew all along I could never avoid
the truth I’d discovered when I first
engaged with texts: the self-evident fact
of there being no reader nor subject-matter
only images and feelings in sort of eternity.
This paper was first delivered on 7 December 2017 at Another World In This One, a one-day conference devoted to the fiction of Gerald Murnane, part of the ARC-funded Other Worlds project.