by Emmett Stinson
Melbourne University Publishing
Published August 2023
On Peter Carey
by Sarah Krasnostein
In the second chapter of his study of Gerald Murnane, Emmett Stinson recounts a telling exchange with the author during his research process: ‘Murnane politely interrogated my own motives for writing this book, asking “What do you think you’re doing when you’re writing criticism? What do you think you’re doing when you’re writing a critical account of an author?”’ Turning from his authorial subject to his own readers, like a Shakespearean character seeking to plant the seeds of dramatic irony, Stinson states (is it a reply?), ‘From [Murnane’s] perspective, literary criticism on his writing seems irrelevant, because he already knows what he is doing’. While it is an open question whether writers know exactly what they are doing when they write or whether they find this out as they go (a question Socrates famously puzzles over in Plato’s dialogues Ion and Phaedrus), there is something else at stake in Murnane’s question: the nature of Stinson’s desire. It is not only a matter of knowing what you think you are doing; it is also a question as to why one might want to do that in the first place.
Alongside Stinson’s monograph on Murnane, I was also asked to look at another recent book, Sarah Krasnostein’s On Peter Carey, part of the Black Inc. ‘Writers on Writers’ series. The first is an example of scholarly literary criticism, an academic monograph promising to offer new knowledge related to the work of an important author; the second offers a creative meditation on the nature of writing practice as understood by one novelist encountering the work of another. There is a recognised fault-line here. Literary scholarship and literary practice often seem very different things. Yet reading the books side by side brings to light how questions of desire are as important for someone who writes critically as they are for someone who writes creatively.
As I write, I’m finishing a co-authored book with Moira Gatens on Spinoza and literature. For Spinoza there are three primary affects: joy, sadness, and desire. Joy and sadness are predominantly our responses to things that happen to and affect us for good or ill. When we are affected in a negative way by something, we feel a sadness that corresponds to a recognition our power is decreasing; when we are affected positively by something, we feel joy which corresponds to a recognition our power is increasing. Desire, however, circles around our sense of who it is that we might be or become. Spinoza identifies desire with our innate impulse to continue to exist (conatus), but our desires are also expressed through our dispositions. Through the verb dispone (to manage, order, arrange) and the noun dispositio (disposition, arrangement), Spinoza articulates how our bodies are composed in such a way as to align our desires with those things we have a natural capacity for and our dispositions with particular tendencies.
Yet our disposition, in turn, is often altered by things that happen to us (affects which we experience as emotions), that determine how we respond to specific sets of circumstances. If we are angry or hurt, and conscious of that hurt, we will react with anger; if we are open and empathetic, we will respond with kindness. Following this logic (for Spinoza, emotions follow a logic of cause and effect), we might be distorted and closed down by prejudice, being left unable to understand, say, the feelings of a different person or peoples, or we might be open to developing new insights and empathetically engaging with others. Such dispositions can, and do, change as we experience different things, but we might also become fixated. This happens when we are affected by addictions, for example: the drug addict is obsessed with finding the next fix to the point of being unable to think of anything else. We can equally become fixated on hatred or a desire for vengeance, say. For Spinoza, it is essential to avoid this, to remain open to understanding new things. In the Ethics, he states that an ‘affect is only evil, or harmful, insofar as it prevents the mind from being able to think’. Engaging with art (as well as nature), he contends, is among the best ways of keeping our dispositions pliable and active rather than rigid and reactive.
Why does someone write a book about a writer? What is it that they desire? A simple first response might be: to see things from the point of view of other people, to understand the world from different perspectives and relate these different perspectives to our own lives. As Marcel Proust famously claimed, the work of art should be a magnifying glass we can turn on ourselves.
There is a biographical fit to having Krasnostein write on Carey: he is an Australian who has lived for over two decades in the United States, while she is a writer born in the United States who has now lived for many years in Australia. She sees in Carey someone who is driven by a desire to understand his own sense of self by interrogating aspects of national identity. She tells us about the correspondence Carey identifies between his personal wound, the thing which, in part, has deeply affected him and left him with a desire to write, and the historical wound he sees in the national psyche. While she takes Carey at his word, her skill as a writer brings the shape of this correspondence into view throughout her book.
In particular, Krasnostein restages for us the various impulses that led to the composition of The True History of Kelly Gang, showing how they intersect with a desire to link one’s own imagination and experience to an idea of Australia. The suggestion is that Carey’s desire to understand what it might mean to belong in a given place (Australia) stems from a feeling of abandonment or rootlessness, which he subconsciously connects to being taken from his family home to attend boarding school as a child. What isn’t explicitly addressed in this book (though Carey addresses it in his most recent novel) is the originary wound of colonisation itself that on the one hand carried with it the far more traumatic wresting of First Nations peoples from their ancestral lands and, on the other, brought the British Crown, its laws and socio-economic imperatives, a squatter class, convicts, and then migrants to a foreign land. So while Carey’s displacement occurs within a vastly more privileged context (he was sent to Geelong Grammar, one of the country’s most exclusive boys’ schools), what emerges and persists is a desire to recover a sense of belonging in the country in which he was born.
Krasnostein notes how Carey becomes aware of the recurring figure of the orphan in his books, something that helps explain his interest in the works of Charles Dickens. The orphans in both Dickens and Carey carry a desire to belong and overcome feelings of rejection. Yet there is also a desire to answer injustice as if what is at stake is not just being abandoned, but being left in the care of those in authority who have no empathy, refuse to acknowledge certain claims to belonging, and define those judged not fully to belong in subordinate terms. The Ned Kelly myth offers one instance of this correspondence between an acute dispositional awareness of injustice and the coldness of a power requiring subordination. While not an orphan as such, Kelly is, one could say, orphaned by the state, because of his refusal to live on land defined by the authorities as ‘property of the Crown’ and defined by him as free. Spurned and harassed, Kelly resists the representation of the place they offer, forging his own representation on an anvil, and interposing it between their idea and his, until his legs are shot out from underneath him.
Various iterations of the Kelly myth are at the centre of Krasnostein’s book, with Carey being juxtaposed with Sydney Nolan who completed a famous series of Kelly paintings. Of equal concern in the book is the process by which Krasnostein makes her own identity in this country. She tells us that she came to Carey’s work belatedly, leaving The True History of the Kelly Gang unread on her shelf for years. Yet once she picked it up, she was drawn in by the voice that Carey ventriloquises (with the utmost precision based on his intimate knowledge of Kelly’s Jerilderie letter) – a voice that captures a disposition that stands for more than just one individual. Kelly’s pride and his insistence on forging a sense of belonging that includes an idea of Australia that might accommodate justice are seen not only to be representative of Carey, but also to speak for many who feel the nation has the potential to embody justice by allowing everyone in it to belong. So, there is a quest to imagine this potentially just place. But overlaying this there is of course another desire: that of the reader of literature. Krasnostein desires to understand how Carey’s book gives her these feelings.
While not working within the genre of academic literary scholarship, with its focus on uncovering archival and contextual evidence for supporting interpretations, Krasnostein nonetheless describes the processes of research. Scholars commonly go on ‘pilgrimages’ to the places writers inhabited, particularly if these are not places with which they are already familiar. This might seem a kind of tourism, but it is essential for attempting to position oneself in relation to a work, to situate oneself more closely to the contexts from which it emerged. Yet unless those scholars are writing biography, they usually don’t describe this background research that silently deepens their levels of engagement with the text.
Drawing this work of intimacy to the surface, Krasnostein takes us to the New York where Carey wrote his book, reimagining him at a Met exhibition of Sydney Nolan’s Kelly series with his American friends. She imagines the Australian pubs he frequented as a young would-be writer with Kelly’s Jerilderie letter copied out by hand and kept on his person. She finds the letter analogous to the sash presented to the young Ned Kelly by the wealthy family of a boy he saved from drowning – this curiously prized object was worn under his armour and stained with blood during his final siege. Despite the talismanic proximity of both objects to the body, the point of the analogy is left incomplete: Did Kelly above all wish for approval? What might this say of Carey? Krasnostein walks the streets of Carey’s childhood home in Bacchus Marsh, before taking us with her to the State Library of Victoria, which now owns a copy of Kelly’s Jerilderie letter and Carey’s drafts of The True History, along with other vestiges of the Kelly story, such as his armour – noting the irony whereby it was the patronage of the judge who sentenced Kelly to death, Sir Redmond Barry, that helped build the library.
What stays with the reader is the dramatisation of this process of seeking – of trying to feel how the written expression that gives voice to a particular disposition might have come to be. Krasnostein writes suggestively rather than offering direct arguments, although at one point she connects the many associations she has gathered together to ideas drawn from Carl Jung’s essay on ‘Individuation’, and Joseph Campbell’s Myths to Live By. According to Jung, ‘One cannot individuate as long as one is playing a role to oneself’, and the process of finding what Campbell calls ‘one’s own centre’, which enables a sense of control, is painful and seemingly endless, like peeling away the skins of an onion to find the core. No doubt thinking of the same lecture by Jung, Samuel Beckett called this notion ‘The Ideal Core of the Onion’ in an unpublished fragment – though for Beckett the core was something one could never find, so that one might wake up each morning a different self, just as Moran or Malone do on more than one occasion in Molloy and Malone Dies. Krasnostein does not seem this pessimistic: she is persuasive in her sense that Carey has adequately represented a desire to achieve an identity, and further that this might only be found indirectly through the suggestiveness of works of art. She quotes David Williamson to this effect, in a letter he wrote to Carey in response to The True History of the Kelly Gang, ‘Telling the story from his viewpoint in his voice made his whole world available to us and we UNDERSTAND, in the very best sense’.
Literary scholarship, too, is shot through with desires, but the desires differ. An academic literary scholar needs to be more forensic; a scholarly thesis needs to be brought to the surface. The ‘author’ needs to be either put to the side or considered as part of a process that leads to the work, rather than being considered the seat of the process. This approach at times seems alienating to both general readers and authors themselves, and can lead to more or less open hostility between scholarly approaches to writing and practice-led approaches, both within and without the academy.
Emmett Stinson’s Murnane has strong insight into not just the complexities of the work of Gerald Murnane, but also the problematic of what it is that writing about writing should or can do. In some ways, Murnane is an anti-Carey. While Carey once struggled to get published, he has since met with success after success and astonishing critical and public acclaim. He has won the Booker Prize twice and, on moving to the world capital of literary publishing in English that is New York, has been gladly accepted by major American figures such as John Updike, Edmund White, and Paul Auster. Murnane’s success has been late, even belated. Yet despite not travelling or living close to other writers, Murnane is also now celebrated by a niche within the American literary scene, a situation which, as Stinson argues, allows him entry into the sphere of ‘world literature’. Drawing on Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters, Stinson explains this as follows: ‘National writers are those who “embody a national or popular definition of literature”, while international writers are those “who uphold an autonomous definition of literature”, and “draw upon this transnational repertoire of literary techniques in order to escape being imprisoned in a national tradition”’. Murnane has, however, never been as popular with general readers as Carey. There is a strangeness about his work that alienates those who are not drawn to writing that is formally challenging, and it is likely for this reason that the mainstreams of literary publishing and literary reception have passed Murnane by for so long.
Stinson is aware of what has been a clear neglect of Murnane’s work and deals with this at the beginning of his book. The introduction seems almost apologetic, reciting reasons to be sceptical about Murnane and his approach to writing, and listing objections made against him by other critics and scholars. Here Stinson also carefully sets out the limits of his own approach, explaining that he is seeking to account for, and offer readings of, the late works of Murnane rather than pretending to give an overview of his entire oeuvre: it is meant as a partial contribution, then, rather than a definitive account. After this cautious start, he finds his voice and pairs some of the most interesting challenges posed by Murnane’s writing to each of the late fictional works: Barley Patch and the problem of why Murnane must write, the absent author in A History of Books, the implied author in A Million Windows, and the completion or drawing together of an oeuvre in Border Districts. He then connects these readings through Adorno’s concept of ‘late style’. In contrast to the introduction, this conclusion sees Stinson himself stepping forward, more confidently explaining the effect of Murnane’s prose on a reader (or a particular reader, namely, Stinson), and offering clear defences against the scepticism of other readers who have sought to exclude or discount Murnane’s works.
It is worth setting out some of these defences here, as I think they help explain Stinson’s careful approach. Throughout Stinson is interested in genre. In the conclusion, he reinforces his argument that Murnane is writing a kind of fictional autobiography (the imprecision involved in the categorisation is important and is made to do a good amount of work). The implications of this are intriguing and require further unpacking, and they operate in a suggestive, rather than fully defined, manner in Stinson’s work. While the category remains a little elusive, it enables him to disarm many of the critical responses which concentrate on what Murnane does not do: he does not write rounded ‘characters’ other than those personages seemingly most closely related to ‘Murnane’; he does not concentrate on telling a story; he does not represent female characters, or characters with dispositions or backgrounds different from the main personage, very convincingly. But as Stinson explains, ‘Murnane’s artistic project seeks to represent, in great detail, his specific perspective on the world, rather than to represent a diversity of voices or imagined perspectives.’ This restates a point made very clearly by Murnane himself in his essay ‘The Still Breathing Author’, presented at the Goroke Murnane conference and first published in the Sydney Review of Books: ‘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.’ What is essential is the voice of the narrator rather than the narrative in the manner of more popular fiction.
Murnane’s desires, then, differ from those of Carey. Carey might be said, at least in his Kelly book, to be making use of a mythologised story to trace the fault-lines of the building of an identity for non-Indigenous Australians (First Nations Australians already have cultures and sacred stories that powerfully affirm and renew their place in Country). For his part, Murnane was formed in Australia by institutions such as the Catholic Church, the culture of horseracing, the social contexts of regional Victoria, and the landscapes and images of the Australian country. He was also formed by his own curiosity as a reader and his sense of himself as a reliable narrator looking for a discerning readership. As such he examines the image-landscape of his own mind, finding or making meaningful points of connection between images that arise within it. If Carey’s is a project that makes us consider questions of identity, Murnane (paradoxically, since he is focussed almost exclusively on his own self) makes us think not about identity, but about a sense of meaning that grounds the self. He equates this with the coming-into-being of connections, or the resonance of ‘images’ (not just those of sight, but also sound and touch, though not taste, since Murnane tells us he has no sense of smell) that are composed by (or within) the works he produces. His emphasis is metaphysical, rather than physical.
Since this sustained interest in the metaphysical is uncommon in more popular forms of fiction, Stinson does not address it directly, but nevertheless considers themes that allow us to glimpse some of what is at stake. He offers insights and provocations not only to those who are sceptical about Murnane’s works, but also to those who are already enamoured of it. In particular, he develops four ideas, one in each of the chapters dedicated to individual works, that are of importance to future study of Murnane’s works.
In the chapter on Barley Patch, Stinson considers the idea of the ‘paraliterary’, a concept he draws from the Turkish-American critic Merve Emre. The paraliterary refers to the experience of the non-expert reader, indeed, an anti-scholarly reader who ignores the concepts developed by professional schools of literary criticism and instead embraces a naïve approach to the reading process – one that, for example, might conflate the author with the narrator, or think about characters as if they were real people with lives outside the confines of the book in which they appear, and is either ignorant or contemptuous of academic rules for reading and analysis. The reference is full of irony: Emre is herself the author of a recent long New Yorker profile on Murnane and his work, yet she does not relate him to her own concept, even while ventriloquising Murnane’s style in a glowing assessment of his work. In an argument that is provocative and insightful, Stinson, however, explicitly aligns Murnane himself with this paraliterary tendency. Murnane has expressed distrust of certain kinds of academic approaches to literature and has written of his own interest in fictional characters (or ‘personages’ as Murnane calls them), whom he has often imagined inhabiting a fictive space in which they have a separate and ongoing existence. Emre notices this, too, though she chooses to explain Murnane’s attachment to personages through Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of the chronotope.
The paraliterary tendency Stinson identifies in Murnane brings to light a series of compounding paradoxes that surround the author’s pronouncements and his work. Despite his dismissive or sceptical attitude towards the discipline of literary studies, he has engaged deeply with the work of literary scholars, such as Wayne C. Booth (and his idea of the implied author) and Frances Yates (on the art of memory). So too, his own work is held in highest esteem by ‘literary’ rather than ‘paraliterary’ readers. Rather than exhausting the implications of this paradox Stinson is the first to point us to it.
This is by no means the only significant insight Stinson offers. In the chapter on A History of Books, he demonstrates with impressive subtlety how even the most meditative of Murnane’s works draws in elements of autobiography. Stinson links the images and motifs relating to conflict between couples, repeated throughout the narrator’s recitation of his memories of reading, to a moment of crisis within Murnane’s own life and to the context for the writing of A History of Books, a moment of profound personal loss in the passing of his wife.
The chapter on A Million Windows meditates on Murnane’s interest in and development of theoretical categories he finds in the work of Booth. The ‘implied author’ and the ‘reliable’ or ‘unreliable’ narrator are well known critical terms that derive from Booth’s major work The Rhetoric of Fiction. Yet Murnane develops his own readings of these categories:
The reader should think of me as a personage as being in some respects less than an actual person and in other respects more so. At the very least, I am a voice: the voice behind the text… or, rather, the implied author, by which I mean the personage of whom nothing is known except what can be inferred from this text, making them his own.
Citing this passage, Stinson points out how this differs from Booth’s original concept. Whereas Booth’s implied author is merely immanent to the text as someone of whom readers implicitly form an idea as they read, Murnane’s implied author is actually represented in the text as a personage. This personage is metatextual, drawing our attention to the frame of the work, something we normally overlook. However, it doesn’t have the kind of arch self-referential quality we sometimes associate with post-modern fiction. Rather, it seems to be at once a fictional or creative move (the invention of a character) and an immediate claim about the nature of all works of fiction. This in turn allows Stinson to explain further elements of the paradox of the paraliterary:
The implied author, for Murnane, is a fictional creation who seems to be real, but is actually a purely textual entity. From this perspective, Murnane’s own ‘gullible’ and paraliterary interests in fictional characters are no strange obsessions, but the logical product of these fictional representations of the author that all novels generate.
There is much more to be unpacked here. Yet Stinson focuses our attention on key elements of what is at stake in Murnane’s engagement with the work of Booth.
One of the boldest of Stinson’s provocations comes in his chapter on Border Districts, a version of which was presented by Stinson at the Goroke conference I organised in 2017 in Goroke, ‘Gerald Murnane: Another World in this One’. As Stinson recalls, Murnane – and how could this not seem pointed to anyone presenting a paper with the author present – stood and left the room as he read his paper. In this chapter Stinson identifies what he calls ‘retrospective intention’ as central to Murnane’s work. The chapter builds on the striking similarities between the first sentence of The Plains and the first sentence of Border Districts, which both repeats and modifies the former in telling ways, to argue that Murnane is reordering and reinterpreting his own works as he continues to write, retrospectively creating the effect of a strongly interconnected oeuvre. Murnane’s most celebrated work, The Plains begins, ‘Twenty years ago, when I first arrived on the plains, I kept my eyes open.’ Here’s the beginning of Border Districts, Murnane’s final novel: ‘Two months ago, when I first arrived in this township just short of the border, I resolved to guard my eyes…’ Moving from a reading of the distinctions between the different kinds of seeing required in each novel, Stinson’s argument that ‘Border Districts changes the meaning of The Plains proleptically […] intentionally altering our perceptions of his past oeuvre’ has already provoked debate and dissent. If Murnane did not have full control over the early forms of his texts (with publishers cutting large sections before publishing The Plains and A Lifetime on Clouds), how can we insist on any idea of an overarching oeuvre carefully designed by the author? Might not the intertextual reference to his earlier text be interpreted differently? That rather than suggesting continuity or coherence it might draw our attention to changing perspectives across the works? Stinson’s claim constitutes what I want to call a provocation because it brings with it so many problems, so much that might occupy other critics in building counter-claims. To my mind this is a valuable contribution whether or not one accepts Stinson’s argument. It provides one way to come to terms with the strange sensation one is given by the repetition in the opening sections of the two novels.
One might argue that a critic can do no more than this: require others to think in new ways about works they had always understood in different terms. Judged by this benchmark both Murnane and On Peter Carey succeed, shedding further light on the questions of readerly and writerly desire. If writers desire to represent something about the nature of being (the importance of myth to national identity in Carey, or the nature of the constructions of meaning that constitute a sense of self in Murnane), then critics desire to understand these processes, to reflect back on the questions the works ask them about themselves. In reading critics, one encounters two sets of desires. Yet where does this leave us, as second-order readers?
Here we can return to Proust: if we have not yet read the works they describe, we can use them to help us understand why they might be worth reading, and to which parts of our souls they might help apply a magnifying glass. If we have read those works, they allow us the opportunity to either change our minds about them or examine the contents of our own minds more fully.
- Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, Second Edition, Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1983.
- Merve Emre, ‘The Reclusive Giant of Australian Letters’, July 25, 2022, The New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/08/01/the-reclusive-giant-of-australian-letters
- Gerald Murnane, ‘The Still-Breathing Author’, The Sydney Review of Books, https://sydneyreviewofbooks.com/essay/the-still-breathing-author-gerald-murnane/
- Gerald Murnane, The Still-Breathing Author, in Gerald Murnane: Another World in This One, edited by Anthony Uhlmann, Sydney: University of Sydney Press, 2020.
- Spinoza, Benedict de, Ethics, translated by Edwin Curley, London: Penguin Classics, 2005.