Interview: Merve Emre

Murnane’s Signposts

Gerald Murnane’s meticulously self-curated ‘Chronological Archive’ – as distinct from his ‘Literary Archive’ and ‘Antipodean Archive’, both of which he likewise compiled – fills no fewer than ‘twenty-one of the twenty-four drawers in six steel filing cabinets’. ‘In each drawer’, his catalogue stipulates, ‘at least twenty coloured signposts draw attention to items of more than usual interest’. A list of more than a hundred of these signposts follows. None of the items identified will be available for consultation until after the death of the author and his siblings. Murnane’s decision to announce his archive’s contents seems therefore premature, at least until one notices that this choice is clearly of a piece with the grand legacy-securing undertaking that is his curation of the archive itself: the catalogue’s promise that it contains much ‘humour and literary gossip’ is tacitly underwritten by its pre-emptive publication, which for all its idiosyncrasy functions primarily as an invitation to further discussion of its author.

And how could his readers possibly be expected to resist? I couldn’t, so I invited Merve Emre, an associate professor at Oxford and contributing writer at The New Yorker, to have a conversation about Murnane’s fiction as part of public series hosted by the Australian National University’s new Centre for Australian Literary Cultures. We spoke in June; since then, she has published a widely read appreciation of his work. Given Murnane’s fondness for games, and Merve’s research into the world’s most popular personality test, I thought it would be apt to begin with a game of our own: in advance of the conversation, we each independently selected three signposts from Murnane’s list of his archive’s contents that we felt shed an interesting light on the authorial personage behind his fiction. We began our conversation by reflecting on the challenges of choosing, before sharing our choices.

Merve Emre (ME): I experienced a strong feeling of cognitive dissonance as I was doing this exercise, because all these signposts seem to me extraordinarily aggressive in a way that I do not find Murnane’s writing to be. That was quite an interesting experience, of reading the list and feeling the tonal shift between his fictional prose and his archival labels. I’m interested to hear whether you felt the same way, and whether your choices map the feeling I’m describing.

Joseph Steinberg (JS): I think that there’s a great deal of truth to that. One of the claims that I would make about this list is that it’s an interesting counterpoint to the fiction, in that both are aspiring to a kind of truth-status – Murnane famously calls his reports works of ‘true fiction’, and I’m sure we’ll come to that later on – but I think that ‘truth’ here is something closer to scandalous gossip, with a little bit of backstabbing thrown into the mix.

ME: As well as a kind of high and presumably unfiltered emotion. I thought for a moment that I might just choose all the signposts with exclamation marks: ‘Hoaxes! How I love them!’; ‘I give up writing fiction – again!’ The appearance of these em-dashes, as well as the exclamation marks and question marks, seem to me quite striking when compared to the strict grammatical apparatus of the rest of his prose. But now I’m talking about the rules of the game rather than playing the game, so I think we should actually play the game. You start!

JS: My first choice is the first one in the list: ‘I fall out with Barry Oakley’. I was quite tempted just to pick three signposts that mention other writers, because the practice of name-dropping is one of the things that really fascinates me about this list. But I went with this one, in part because it has a sequel later on: ‘Oakley and I go at it again’. Yet the primary reason that I picked it is because it’s just such a fascinating starting point of departure for our discussion. This first fallout with Barry Oakley happened because they had, let’s say, differing opinions of Murnane’s novel Inland – Oakley wasn’t a huge fan – but the second fallout seems to have happened over this list. Murnane had sent around this list of his archive’s contents to several libraries and a few of his close friends, which I know because Oakley writes about it in his memoir Mug Shots. Let me read you what Oakley has to say about this list:

In his accompanying letter, Gerald said he’d welcome any comments. So I told him the material was both extraordinary and somewhat disturbing. To me the archives revealed, I summarise, a solipsistic belief that the self is the only reality, a self so documented that there’s a sense of seeing himself endlessly repeated in mirror after mirror. Gerald was outraged: the other recipients, librarians, had nothing but praise. With Gerald, if you weren’t an admirer you were an enemy, and now I was one.

That first item, once you are aware of their relationship’s rocky history, might start to look a bit like a warning. Reader, beware; this one-time admirer is now an enemy. Will you become my enemy too? Now I wouldn’t describe myself as an enemy of Murnane: far from it, I’d be much better described as an admirer. But I’m not just an admirer, either. I do have reservations about some of his work. So I thought that drawing that out of the first item on his list might be a useful provocation for our discussion.

ME: But do you think that Oakley’s take is a ‘good reading’ of the list? To my mind, this is also an intensely funny list. And I think one of the things it does show us is that Murnane is an incredibly humorous writer, which can get overlooked when the emphasis falls on the solipsism or the radical idealism of his fiction. But this to me the list is a comic genre, and there’s something amusing about the repeated insistence on the proper names of other people. Naming, and in particular the proper names of other people, is an act he fixates on quite intensely in his prose. But here it’s presented so unabashedly, and without any qualifications.  I’m curious as to whether you think that Oakley’s reading of the list is a fair one.

JS: I think you’re right – it’s not. The list is not solipsistic; it’s actually highly sociable. It might be a kind of ‘bad’ sociality, in that it’s often argumentative and combative, or in its feuds and spats and bouts of vitriol, but it’s also an important reminder that Murnane is not a purely provincial writer, that he hasn’t always been sequestered away in Goroke by himself. This list reminds us that he is well connected with other figures in the Australian literary landscape. In that sense, placing this falling-out at the top of the list is an interesting assertion too. It reminds us that Oakley’s account of the archive as a hall of mirrors is a misreading, because it ignores the connections and conflicts Murnane himself has so fastidiously documented.

ME: I like what you said about it being a kind of bad sociality. My choice was close to the end of the list. It is: ‘Should I tell Literature to get fucked?’ I love this for a couple of reasons. It does seem to be an earnest question, as opposed to a foregone conclusion: ‘should I, in fact, tell Literature to get fucked?’ But it raises many questions beyond the one it asks, including: what would it mean for literature to get fucked? Would it mean no longer writing, as he has regularly claimed he will do? And what do we mean by literature with a capital L here? Is the literature that gets fucked an idea of literature as an exercise in imaginative meaning-making? Is it the kind of sociality of the literary field that we see here, including these other writers, many of whom he is telling to get fucked? Does it include literary critics, whom he indicates his hatred for elsewhere on the list? Or is it something about injecting a new energy—“Get fucked” is such an energetic demand—into the moribund relationship between what we call literature and what we call life? I think that for Murnane, that’s the disjunction he’s working so intensely at unravelling and at putting back together. Does telling literature to get fucked mean you are articulating a new understanding of what literature is and what it can do vis-à-vis its apparent opposite, which might be something like ‘life’?

JS: That was a very tempting contender for me, too. It’s deeply, caustically, abrasively funny. I’d be tempted to say it’s very Australian? But I mean that quite specifically –what I mean is that there’s something about the playful anti-intellectualism of that signpost that reminds us of Murnane’s career on Australian university campuses, as one of the first novelists to teach creative writing at the tertiary level. Telling ‘Literature’ to get fucked might seem like a not-so-subtle message to his colleagues across the hall – or future academic readers like us, for that matter.

ME: But there’s a wonderful self-parody, too. So very near to ‘Should I tell Literature to get fucked?’ is ‘My precious glass marbles’, which I read at least somewhat parodically, as the utterance of a writer who knows that he comes back to the same objects – the objects that wink at him – with a kind of totemic reverence. You can almost imagine this being spoken in a Smeagol-like voice: my precious, my precious glass marbles.

JS: Then there’s that cliché about losing one’s marbles, which I’m sure he’s playing with as well…

ME: Right, right.

JS: My next choice comes directly after yours.  It is: ‘Peter Carey exposed at last’. I’m fascinated, for somewhat similar reasons, by this signpost, because we can’t know precisely what Murnane is going to do to expose Carey. It’s just a charge. It’s an act of position-taking. It seems to me a statement that’s quite consistent with, or at least, it occupies a similar set of generic terms to, the  other charges in this list. So when he calls Judith Wright a ‘hypocrite and liar’ or when he accuses Thomas Keneally of being a ‘plagiarist’, he’s taking up a similar rhetorical position to the one he occupies in this sentence. And that, I would say, is the position of the truth-teller. In exposing people as liars, in showing up alleged plagiarists, what he’s doing is he’s bringing the truth to light. So in one sense it doesn’t actually matter what he ends up charging Carey with – it’s more about this dialectic that sets up other writers as liars in opposition to Murnane the truth-teller. And that’s what would lead me to align this aspect of the list with his other prose works. It seems to me to push toward that same aspiration to radical, obstinate candour. And to be clear, although there’s perhaps a pettiness to it here, I think this insistent forthrightness is also the thing that drives his work and makes it so remarkable – that is, an absolute commitment to the truth is one of the things that makes his writing unusually worthy of our attention. 

ME: The way you began with Oakley, then proceeded to Carey, and used the list to create a narrative of sociality whereby Murnane stands both at the centre and outside as that truth-teller, made me think of other narrative arcs that we could draw through the list. In fact, the list seems to set up certain narrative arcs of its own. For instance: ‘I take a great risk’; ‘I risked, but won’. Or ‘I rebuff a wealthy widow’, which is followed by ‘The rich widow’s revenge’. And then the next question is, ‘Am I an ignoramus?’ Is that part of that narrative arc, or does it start something separate? Is it completely distinct from what comes before and after? And that made me think of how, particularly in his later period, from Barley Patch onward, so many of the books do seem to be separate from but also continuations of one another. They can stand on their own; they can be autonomous objects. But they also exist within a larger system that maps out his thought. In that way, it seems to me that the list is offering a microcosm of the way that the universe of his work, of his writing, operates. 

JS: I think you’re right to identify a kind of local grafting in the list that’s more broadly symptomatic of a conceptual and thematic grafting that recurs throughout the work. Even in the case of something like Border Districts: in Last Letter to a Reader, he explains he understood it as a way of writing back to or rewriting The Plains. It seems like that kind of grafting, recursive impulse is  essential to his most recent work. 

ME: That’s what Last Letter to a Reader is all about: taking small things from the earlier works, then stretching them out into their own little essays or fictions. It foregrounds that part-whole logic in such a way that it invites you to return to and reread the earlier novels as part of one large system.

JS: There is something of the exegesis, of insistent and deliberate reflection on one’s own creative work, to those essays. Which is perhaps a reflection of some of Murnane’s institutional contexts, as well. One other small sequence, which I particularly love: ‘I’m a vengeful bastard’; ‘I’m a prophet!’; ‘I take a funny turn’. Can we come to your second choice, Merve?

ME: Yes! My second choice is ‘If I were a coward, I would burn this file.’ I think that this builds off what you were saying about Murnane as a truth-teller, but it also raises the spectre of shame, and the role that shame, particularly childhood shame, sexual shame, plays in much of his writing. The title indicates that what is in the file could potentially be so self-exposing, could render its writer so vulnerable, that it is an act of bravery simply to put it in the archive as opposed to burning it. But of course, what’s interesting too is that the self-exposure that takes place in prose is never as straightforward as what we think of as mere confessional writing. What I love about Murnane, and one of the reasons that I’ve been rereading Proust’s novels alongside Murnane’s, is that he has a very intuitive grasp of both the vulnerability and the protectiveness that’s offered by splitting the self into author, narrator, and personage. This is the trinity that saturates his work. Like the holy trinity, the three figures of author, narrator, and personage are both one and not one. They can hide behind one another, but they can also expose one another to the judgments or aspersions of readers. I think that ‘If I were a coward, I would burn this file’, in its foregrounding of the subjunctive and the personal pronoun, gets at all those dynamics of self-splitting, of exposure, of vulnerability, and activates at least in me that readerly desire to protect the trinity. 

JS: Yes!  We should add is that not only is the file labelled, it has specifically been selected for inclusion in his incomplete list of signposts. So there’s a sense in which he’s actively drawing the attention of his future archive-diver or ideal reader to that file. And that, too, is a simultaneous gesture of self-protection and self-exposure.

ME: That’s a great point. I agree. What’s your third? And then, I’m warning you, I’m going to cheat on my last one. 

JS: My third is quite closely related, literally, to the question of self-exposure. At the top of the second page, we have a bit of untranslated Hungarian: ‘Faszom mertekei stb.’ [My dick measurements, etc.] This is a  particularly literal instance of self-exposure, in part because of its sheer puerility,  plus  the risk of potentially embarrassing over-sharing that it epitomizes. But also it’s a gesture of concealment, a way of hiding in Hungarian, and thereby limiting the reader’s access to that information. It looks like a reduction to the point of absurdity of the aspirations of his fictions, which never quite teeter into that realm of sheer exhibitionism. I’d say the closest we get is something like the section of Landscape with Landscape titled ‘Charlie Alcock’s Cock’, which is likewise interested in characters exposing their genitals.

ME: I actually get stuck on the et cetera, the ‘stb’. That, for whatever reason, is what I can’t get over in the signpost. What does one learn about a person from their dick measurements, really? What kind of knowledge could possibly be gained there, when all you have access to is a number uncorrelated to skill? Once you realise that, what becomes curious, what motivates the desire to learn more, is that et cetera. Because that et cetera could indicate anything. The dick measurement is the bait that lures you into that folder. But you could open that folder, and it could be forty pages of the same number and then a brilliant manuscript behind it!

JS: Hah! There’s something to be said for the term we might translate as ‘measurements’ or ‘dimensions’, as well. It’s such a meticulous, fastidious term, a word so typical of his prose. It’s as if, to really get the full measure of Gerald Murnane, we need to know this detail too. And then, of course, there’s the possibility that it’s a hoax as well!

ME: ‘Hoaxes! I love them!’

JS: Who knows what that file contains – it could be anything!

ME: Hah! As I said, I’m going to cheat on my third one. After the list of signposts, there’s a further list of items that mentions ‘a detailed account of a mental game devised by Gerald Murnane in the 1990s in order to indulge his various sexual fantasies’, as well as ‘detailed written reports (comprising more than 170,000 words) of numerous playings of the mental game’. We were talking, before this interview, about Murnane’s gender politics. At the risk of being scolded, I confess that I have no problem at all with the way he writes about women in his books. I find that he is so insistent on the fictiveness of the universe that he has created, that any kind of sexual game, any expression of desire or longing, narrated from within the world of his prose seems to me to exist in a domain that has only a tangential relationship to the properly political world that we inhabit; the world in which gender is lived out in everyday, embodied ways. I realise that that is probably a controversial claim. But then there is something in the description of his mental game, and in the sheer proportion of words dedicated to chronicling it, that puts pressure on the claim that I’ve just made. What does it mean to play this game, to indulge in these sexual fantasies, and to write more than 170,000 words about it? It becomes a litmus test for understanding or trying to explain how it is that one thinks about the relationships between males and females across much of his writing. And it links back to the peculiar dialectic between self-exposure and self-protection, between prurience and puerility, that we both see running through his work. 

JS: And also measurement! Measurement comes up again: he wants to quantify, to tell us exactly how many words he has devoted to each subject. There’s a similar moment at the beginning of his essay ‘The Typescript Ends Here’, where he reflects briefly on how many words of student short stories he has read during his time at what is now Deakin University. He estimates three hundred to four hundred stories per year. Over sixteen years, at two thousand words an essay, we’re looking at a total of some ten million words of student material that he has digested over the course of his career. That’s another way of measuring Murnane. And then what are we to make of the description of his assessment process that he gives in his story, ‘The Boy’s Name Was David’? If he really was reading, in the punitive editorial manner he describes, each of the ten million words of sixteen years’ worth of short stories, then this suggests much about the rigour and discipline underpinning his own process of composition.

ME: It also tells us something about the way he conceives of scale. And about scaling up from these very small units, not just of sentences, really, but of clauses. The clause is the most important unit in Murnane’s prose and what is interesting is how he scales up from these distinctive, often repeated, clauses and grammatical units, to paragraphs and entire essays, in which the paragraphs are often in an amazing dialogue with one another. What it reminds me of more than anything else is something like the Suzuki Method, where one begins with these very small sections of notation, masters those sections, and then builds them up into increasingly complicated pieces. One of my favourite novelists, Helen DeWitt, has a wonderful meditation in her book The Last Samurai on what it means to teach language the way that Suzuki teaches music. One of the things you get is not just an extraordinary and enchanted technicity when it comes to the construction of sentences and the play of grammar, but also something that Murnane says is extremely important to him in one of the essays in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs, which is rhythm. You have a sense for what the rhythm of a sentence is, or a paragraph is, or an entire piece or composition is, with this method. One of the things you see in this list, ranging from the item that I’ve just given to the dick measurements, is the preoccupation with scale and its relationship to rhythm. 

JS: I wonder if we might think about the feelings Murnane’s fiction elicits from us, through their rhythm, but also through this question of scale. You once wrote to me that you found Murnane’s sentences both exhausting and exhilarating, a description which really resonated with me.Murnane uses the word ‘exhilarating’ – or rather exhilaration – exactly once in his collected short stories, in ‘The Boy’s Name Was David’. He uses it to describe the narrating personage’s response to the titular sentence. ‘The boy’s name was David’: that, for Murnane’s narrator, is an exhilarating sentence. Do you find that an exhilarating sentence? And if not, where else would you locate exhilaration in Murnane’s writing?

ME: Well, I think we can’t understand why that sentence is exhilarating without comparing it to the first sentence in ‘The Boy’s Name Was David’: ‘The man’s name was whatever it was.’ There are two things that we could observe here. The first goes back to what I was saying earlier about Murnane’s fascination with proper names. When we think about how people have theorised proper names, we usually think about two things. First, that a proper name is intended to pick out a specific object, and second, that a proper name can belong to many different kinds of objects. The stability of a proper name never emerges from a one-to-one relationship between the name and what is being named, but rather from a whole field of linguistic signification. I’m just riffing on Derrida here – this is straight-up the deconstructionist argument about the function of proper names, and how the essential ambiguity or indeterminacy of the proper name gets at something about the ambiguity or indeterminacy of naming in general. I think that Murnane is totally aware of that, which is why oftentimes when there is a proper name introduced in his prose, it’s always qualified by a self-reflexive move: ‘If we could call him that’, or, ‘the character, whatever their name is,’ or ‘As they were called’. There’s always attention being drawn to the fact that naming is an essentially indeterminate, fictional practice that we engage in on a regular basis. That’s where the prose gains some of its exhilaration. For one to believe that a name calls out a particular person requires an extraordinary leap of faith. It’s a leap of faith that language asks us to make all the time. 

The second thing I might say, is that when you and I talked about naming before you said, parenthetically, that ‘The boy’s name was David’ was not in your opinion as exhilarating a sentence as ‘Call me Ishmael’ or ‘My name is Ruth’. What all three of those names share is a strong biblical resonance. We think of David as the shepherd; David as the slayer of Goliath; David as the penitent man. To pull together some of the threads of what we’ve been talking about, the name David gives us the image of the lone outsider, the radical truth-teller, coming up against the vast apparatus that is literature, and telling it to get fucked. This is a kind of David and Goliath story. I think that part of the exhilaration of that comes from the whole chain of significations that the name David points us toward, the same way that Ishmael points us toward the wanderer, or that Ruth points us toward the faithful caretaker of a matriarchal line. 

Maybe a third thing: to start that story with the line, ‘The man’s name was whatever it was’, is to make visible that naming is a kind of game, and a game that’s played within fiction. But it is also to assert oneself as the author-narrator, as being above that game, as being the rule-breaker but also the maker of a new set of rules about what it is possible to name and not to name in fiction, or in an essay, or in any work of literature. That’s another way of telling literature to get fucked. It is to say: I know the name-game you play, and I’m not participating in it. When I do deign to participate in it, it will be in such a way that you will recognise the full force behind what I’m doing, and you will recognize why it is a kind of act of faith, why it is a moment of transcendence.

JS: My question for you, then, can only be: is Murnane’s first sentence in that story more exhilarating than the title?

ME: I don’t think you can separate them from each other! They each gain their charge from the other. I think the difference between them and something like ‘Call me Ishmael’ is that Melville is deploying an imperative. His opening sentences it doesn’t suggest that the character’s name, or the projected person behind it, is actually named Ishmael. It reveals, then, the whole fiction behind naming in the first place. The imperative gets at that in a slightly different way to the tension between Murnane’s two sentences. 

JS: I guess what I’m hinting at is a departure between the way Murnane’s narrating personage reads that first sentence, and the way we’re both reading it. I agree with you: I’m quite entranced by the relationship between that first sentence and the title. I’m not sure, though, that I share Murnane’s grammarian faith that the sentence is the unit that yields the most meaning in proportion to its extent. I’m more in your camp, the camp of the clause, in that I believe it’s the relation between sentences and the interrelation between their constituent parts that really does work for him.

ME: My favourite piece of his writing is A History of Books. Part of the reason is that the logic of how sentences work with each other is so beautifully foregrounded in the first paragraph. As I was re-reading it this morning and thinking about the technicity of grammar, and of how the technicity of grammar might rise to the level of something transcendent or enchanted, and as I was thinking about rhythm too, I noticed that what he does so beautifully is alternate between these densely hypotactic sentences, where we have these various nested clauses that are redefining characters or terms that have been introduced earlier on in the sentence, with these very straightforward simple sentences. That, to me, is the rhythm of a Murnane paragraph. Oscillating between the densely hypotactical and the simple, to create a long-short-long-short rhythm. At least that’s how I hear his paragraphs and sentences. 

JS: I agree that prose rhythm is enormously important to Murnane’s writing. I wonder if we might conclude by coming back to the question of protectiveness, an orientation toward Murnane’s work we both share. Could you talk a little about that, Merve?

ME: Recently, I was talking to a friend of mine who is also a huge admirer of Murnane. He told me that his friends, who teach in US Master of Fine Arts Programs have a kind of allergy or antipathy to Murnane because they felt like he was big in the US MFA Program scene for a while, and they would regularly see imitations of his prose. He then told me about the time a friend of his started imitating Murnane orally. And he said it was brutal to listen to, not because it was bad but because it was so good, so precise. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to imitate him – I tried it a little, just to understand the grammatical arrangement of his sentences and how they orchestrate the split into author, narrator, and personage. And I realised, as I was doing that, how extraordinarily exposed one feels when one splits the self like that. I think that’s where my sense of protectiveness comes from. To externalise yourself, to transform yourself into an object of your own writing, can leave you feeling profoundly raw. When I read him, I feel that rawness, but I also feel that rawness being transmitted to us through techniques that are at once incredibly crude and incredibly refined. And I think that this is where the ease of the parody and of the cruelty of the impulse to parody comes from: that you could simply do what he does. It would be not all that difficult to reproduce it. But in reproducing it, you would lose something of the earnest commitment that guides him to it, and that infuses the material with the fineness of his sensibility. In the face of that impulse to parody, to desecrate, to leave all of that rawness exposed, my sense of a kind of ferocious protectiveness gets activated. I just can’t think of many other writers I feel that way toward.