A Million Windows
by Gerald Murnane
Published June, 2014
Gerald Murnane’s A Million Windows takes both its title and epigraph from the preface of the 1908 New York edition of The Portrait of a Lady, in which Henry James states:
The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million – a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will.
Murnane’s novel materially appropriates James’s concept: the narrator resides with many other authors in one wing of an enormous mansion that he refers to as the ‘House of Fiction’, where they write, share stories, reflect on the practice of writing, and take part in elaborate rituals based on James’s own fiction. But in rendering the figurative House of Fiction as a literal setting, the novel obscures its own fraught relationship to James’s metaphor, which A Million Windows revises in subtle but important ways.
James employs his ‘House of Fiction’ metaphor to illustrate the complicated relationship between a novel’s subject matter, its literary form, and the psychological temperament of its author. What the author glimpses through the windows of the house of fiction comprises the novel’s subject, while the shape of the window itself – ‘the pierced aperture, either broad or balconied or slit-like and low-browed’ – is its ‘literary form’. But in arguing that form and content are ‘as nothing without the posted presence of the watcher’, James elevates the disposition of the author over any particular quality of the text. The work of fiction is defined by the writer’s individual consciousness: ‘Tell me what the artist is,’ James asserts, ‘and I will tell you of what he has been conscious.’ It is precisely this direct connection between authorial consciousness and fiction that A Million Windows scrutinises.
A Million Windows might appear to enact James’s metaphor. Lacking a discrete subject or plot, the novel’s various narratives, digressions and remembrances cohere through the singular voice of the narrator, who gives shape and form to these fragments of lived experience and readerly reflection. In the novel’s slow agglomeration of meaning, which coalesces around unexpected resonances between events, memories and allusions, A Million Windows’ organising principle – if, indeed, it has one – would appear to be located within the individual consciousness and experience of its author. Readers are given access to private details of the author’s life, which generates both intimacy and claustrophobia. Much of A Million Windows, like Murnane’s other fiction, operates in a seemingly confessional mode: the narrator at various points describes his problems with drinking, aspects of his troubled upbringing, several instances of ‘what was mostly called in those years a nervous breakdown’, two encounters that appear to have been extramarital affairs, and many other deeply personal and often traumatic experiences.
But A Million Windows’ first sentence undermines the relationship between author, form and content in James’s metaphor:
The single holland blind in his room was still drawn down in late afternoon, although he would have got out of his bed and would have washed and dressed at first light.
This innocuous holland blind is a barrier that, like Murnane’s House of Fiction itself, is both figurative and literal. For James, the work of art cannot be separated from the consciousness of the author (even if it is mediated by literary form and subject matter); for Murnane, the author is always remote and inaccessible, and the work of fiction is a veil, rather than a prismatic sublimation of the writerly ego. Any trace of authorial consciousness – or the ‘breathing author’, to use Murnane’s term – is no more than the attenuated glow of sunlight at the edges of a drawn curtain.
The appearance of this seemingly incidental holland blind signals that Murnane has appropriated James’s metaphor as his own. Indeed, large manor houses have been a recurrent trope throughout Murnane’s fiction, figuring prominently in almost all of his books. Murnane has even previously employed the conceit of a large manor house filled with writers in his short story ‘Stone Quarry’ from Velvet Waters (1990), which imagines the goings-on at a writers’ retreat called Waldo (a punning allusion both to the famous artists’ retreat Yaddo and to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion of self-reliance) where the writers are not allowed to speak or communicate with each other in any way. In this sense, Murnane’s appropriation of James’s House of Fiction is also a form of self-quotation. Such self-reference becomes an essential part of A Million Windows, since much of the novel constitutes more or less explicit revisions of episodes from Murnane’s earlier works.
Here Murnane’s procedure recalls Giorgio Agamben’s suggestion (which, appropriately, quotes Walter Benjamin) that the
particular power of quotations arises . . . not from their ability to transmit that past and allow the reader to relive it but, on the contrary, from their capacity to ‘make a clean sweep, to expel from the context, to destroy’.
A Million Windows always appropriates its source texts to new ends, and the novel’s use of quotation is frequently violent and coercive, rather than a simple matter of reference.
This is important because A Million Windows is a novel that is cobbled together from various references and quotations, but its allusions always move in at least two directions at once. They send the reader outside the text to works by other authors, while also recalling Murnane’s own body of work. A Million Windows’ opening section, for example, goes on to describe the author behind the holland blind writing down a ‘remembered version of a quotation’ written by a ‘male person from an earlier century’ whose name he ‘cannot recall’, which reads: ‘All our troubles arise from our being unwilling to keep to our room.’
While the quotation refers to an unnamed outside source, it also recalls the various references to solitary writers, usually seated near or close to windows, throughout Murnane’s writing. In Landscape with Landscape (1985), for example, the narrator imagines the nineteenth century Italian writer Giacomo Leopardi ‘imprisoned in his parents house’ and ‘sitting at his desk in deep shadow but in sight of a distant rectangle of white sunlight that was all he saw all day of some far-ranging view of Italian hills’. In Velvet Waters, Murnane even provides a catalogue of ‘writers whose way of life was more or less solitary’, including ‘Kafka, Emily Dickinson, Giacomo Leopardi, Edwin Arlington Robinson, Michel de Ghelderode, A. E. Housman, Thomas Merton, Gerald Basil Edwards, C. W. Killeaton’. The last author is the protagonist of Murnane’s first published novel, Tamarisk Row (1974).
External reference is also internal reference, which operates within a network of accumulated meaning across Murnane’s fiction that is arguably more significant than the provenance of the quotation. Whatever its origin, the quotation – implicitly associated with Murnane’s pantheon of solitary writers – seems to recall Proust in his cork-lined room, or Kafka’s famous dictum that
You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
And yet the actual quotation is a gloss on Blaise Pascal’s statement, written hundreds of years before any of those solitary writers were alive: ‘All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’ It is through the omission of its author that the quotation may be placed it in an entirely different context, thereby altering its significance.
A Million Windows obsessively returns to questions about the relationship between fiction and the world, between subject matter and literary form, and between readers and authors. It reflects on these matters at greater length than Murnane’s previous works, but they are hardly new considerations in his writing. In fact, this novel revises ideas first articulated in the ‘essay’ (Murnane has noted that there is no substantive difference between those works he has called either essays or fiction) from Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs (2005) entitled ‘The Breathing Author’. In both texts, Murnane argues for a concept of authorship that is deeply indebted to the literary critic and rhetorician Wayne C. Booth, who argued that the actual human who produces literary works is ‘immeasurably complex and largely unknown, even to those who are most intimate’.
Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961; revised 1983) is the unnamed book ‘almost wholly given over to a study of point-of-view in fiction’ written by ‘a professor in an American university’ that the narrator of A Million Windows claims to have read closely in the first edition and then read again ‘nearly ten years later’ in ‘the revised and expanded second edition’. For those keeping score, the other unnamed scholarly work of ‘narratology’ – which the narrator finds confusing, despite its inclusion of ‘several charts or diagrams’ that illustrate ‘the many possible kinds of fictional narration’ – is Franz K. Stanzel’s A Theory of Narrative (1984). Murnane, following Booth, contrasts the ‘breathing author’ with what is called the ‘implied author’ – a concept Murnane has employed in his fiction for several decades now to describe his narrators, who resemble, but are nonetheless ontologically and narratologically distinct from the flesh-and-blood-author called Gerald Murnane.
Much of Murnane’s fiction, at least since Landscape with Landscape (1985), has examined this gap, or fissure, between the breathing author and the implied author, creatively exploiting their non-identical similitude. This focus on authorship is accompanied by extensive reflection on the cognitive process of reading itself, most notably in Murnane’s previous work, A History of Books (2012). In considering such issues, Murnane’s fiction over the last thirty years has examined how textual meaning (if that is the right word, since the narrator of A Million Windows states that ‘What others might have called meaning he called connectedness’) is transferred from the breathing author into the fictional text by the implied author and then, ideally, into the minds of those that Murnane terms ‘discerning readers’.
His point is not to delineate a phenomenology of reading, but rather to demonstrate the almost infinite complexity of an undertaking that is rarely viewed critically. As Murnane says repeatedly across his works, he has no theory of the mind and remains deeply suspicious of systematic accounts of cognition, whether philosophical or psychological. Instead, his oblique examination of reading recalls Viktor Shklovsky’s notion of ‘estrangement’: it seeks to demonstrate the complexity and the oddity of a reading process that is more or less taken for granted.
Murnane is thus a writer whose subject matter is writing and reading, but his interests are altogether different from the various postmodern practitioners of metafiction – such as John Barth, John Fowles, Italo Calvino, B. S. Johnson and Robert Coover, – to whom he has frequently been compared. The narrator of A Million Windows explicitly denies any connection with such writing, saying ‘I can recall today no instance of my admiring some or another work of self-referential fiction, much less of my trying to write such a work.’ He goes on describe feeling ‘repelled’ by the ‘more extreme examples’ of this writing, in which narrators would ‘pause in their reporting’ as if ‘unable to decide which of several possible courses of events should follow from that point’. The narrator argues that authors of such novels incorrectly presume fictional characters are ‘of the same order’ as real people who ‘live out their lives’ and can be observed ‘in the way that the makers of film observe their characters’. The narrator instead argues that the fictional world that characters inhabit is ‘somewhere vast and vague’ that is ‘nowhere to be seen’ and thus is entirely unlike ‘the visible world’ in which readers and authors exist. For Murnane, metafiction fails because it equates two entities – the fictional and the actual – that are incomparable. ‘Any writer claiming otherwise,’ the narrator states, could never ‘be anything but a fool’.
This critique of self-referential fiction illustrates that Murnane’s own use of self-reflexivity is motivated, not by escapist aestheticism, but by more practical concerns. As the narrator of A Million Windows argues, one of the chief concerns of his writing is to ‘prevent’ readers from ‘apprehending my subject-matter in the way that a viewer . . . apprehends the subject-matter of a film’, such that fiction and reality would appear to be equated. Murnane highlights the otherness of fiction, employing what he calls ‘considered narration’ – a technique that requires a ‘strong narrator’ who, instead of hiding ‘behind his or her subject matter as the author of a filmscript’, openly selects and interprets the subject-matter of the fictional work itself. Murnane does not want to create fiction that simply simulates a possible (but non-existent) reality; rather, he desires to produce a work of ‘true fiction’ that reports ‘what no one but the narrator has seen or heard in the invisible setting where all fiction takes place’.
As the narrator of A Million Windows repeatedly reaffirms, the most important compositional principle in Murnane’s work is a genuine and thoroughgoing respect for the space of fiction as something radically different from everyday reality. It is this conviction, for example, that motivates the narrator’s critical dismissal of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) – although the book is, of course, never referred to by name – on the grounds that
each of the monologues, as I call them, was made up of the same unrelenting prose. Authors of fiction purporting to come from a medley of voices are seldom skillful enough to compose a distinctive prose for each supposed speaker.
Metafictional authors fail because they presume that fictional characters are like real people; Marquez’s work fails because it does not give adequate specificity and agency to the various voices occupying the novel, which is thereby reduced to a simple reflection of the authorial ego. Both approaches, according to Murnane’s narrator, do not sufficiently respect the alterity of the space of fiction.
On similar grounds, the narrator entirely rejects the use of dialogue as a ‘trick’ that writers of fiction should never employ. The narrator’s prohibition stems from the belief that ‘dialogue . . . readily persuades the undiscerning reader that the purpose of fiction is to provide the nearest possible equivalents of experiences obtainable in this, the visible world where books are written and read’. Dialogue threatens to flatten out the space of literature by making it conform to the rules of everyday reality, so it must be scrupulously avoided.
A Million Windows is a work of fiction, but it is also an aesthetic manifesto and a reflection on Murnane’s artistic method. And this explication of the rationale behind Murnane’s aesthetic choices necessarily affects the way that we understand his fiction. What A Million Windows clarifies is not simply that there is a method to Murnane’s madness, but rather that Murnane’s unswerving devotion to a series of compositional principles is responsible for the unique texture of his work. His fiction – while it may lack more traditional plot structures – is a product of an alternate but rigorous set of procedures, rather than simply being ‘experimental’ or speculative in a banal sense. The narrator indirectly asserts this by referring (with no small irony) to the novel’s original ‘plan’ in explicit detail:
When I first drew up the plan for this work of fiction, I intended this, the nineteenth of thirty-four sections, to comprise an argument in favour of reliable narrators as against unreliable narrators or absent narrators.
Murnane has implicitly affirmed the systematic nature of his writing elsewhere, such as when the narrator of ‘The Breathing Author’ says:
I have been described by my wife and by several friends as the most organized person they have ever known, and I admit to a love of order and of devising systems for storing and retrieving things.
Despite appearances, A Million Windows, like Murnane’s other novels, reflects this love of both system and archive, which manifests as a larger desire for a sense of order and meaning among the diverse moments of lived experience.
Although A Million Windows’ allusion to Henry James’s New York preface to Portrait of a Lady is made explicit in the novel’s title and epigraph, it is perhaps another of James’s works that exerts the most profound influence on Murnane’s novel. There are hints throughout A Million Windows that point to this other text. The most explicit occurs when the narrator expresses a wish to attain a very specific kind of aesthetic effect:
I have wanted, for almost as long as I have been a writer of fiction, to secure for myself a vantage-point from which each of the events reported in a work of fiction such as this present work, and each of the personages mentioned in the work, might seem, at one and the same time, a unique and inimitable entity impossible to define or classify but also a mere detail in an intricate scheme or design.
Murnane articulates here the desire to acquire a perspective or ‘vantage-point’ that will enable him to maintain the particularity of the various events and characters within the work of fiction, while simultaneously entirely resolving these particularities within an overarching plan or pattern. For Murnane’s narrator, this synthesis would function as something like the ideal or absolute horizon of fiction. Fiction, because it is not subject to the rules and constraints imposed by logic, provides a unique form that can bridge the insurmountable gap between the particular and the general.
While Murnane’s narrator’s idea draws on a rich vein of aesthetic ideas that can be traced back to German Romantic theories of the novel – compare Schlegel’s famous dictum that any ‘theory of the novel would have to be itself a novel’ – I experienced a sort of déjà vu in reading the above passage that I could not account for until, entirely by chance, I happened to reread Pascale Casanova’s essay ‘Literature as World’, which contains the following account of the central metaphor in Henry James’s story ‘The Figure in the Carpet’:
In his story, ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ . . . Henry James deploys the beautiful metaphor of the Persian rug. Viewed casually or too close up, this appears an indecipherable tangle of arbitrary shapes and colours; but from the right angle, the carpet will suddenly present the attentive observer with ‘the one right combination’ of ‘superb intricacy’ – an ordered set of motifs which can only be understood in relation to each other, and which only become visible when perceived in their totality, in their reciprocal dependence and mutual interaction. Only when the carpet is seen as a configuration . . . ordering the shapes and colours can its regularities, variations, repetitions be understood; both its coherence and its internal relationships. Each figure can be grasped only in terms of the position it occupies within the whole, and its interconnections with all the others.
My suspicion is that the desire articulated by Murnane’s narrator to resolve the particular and the general within his fiction is intended precisely as an oblique reference to the metaphor of the ‘Figure in the Carpet’. The link is never explicitly made (as I have already noted, Murnane is fond of withholding the names of sources), but I think there are several circumstantial details which support the notion that James’s metaphor of the Persian rug is every bit as influential for A Million Windows as the House of Fiction.
First of all, there is the striking correlation between the desire expressed by Murnane’s narrator and James’s metaphor. In both, elements which appear as a series of ‘unique and inimitable’ entities are subsequently revealed as the ‘superb intricacy’ of a larger design that can be seen to unite them when viewed from the right perspective. Given the specificity of both notions, as well as A Million Windows’ explicit debts to James, it is very difficult to believe that the correspondence with ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ here is accidental.
The unstated connection between the two works becomes clearer when one considers the subject-matter of ‘The Figure in the Carpet’. The story is narrated by a book reviewer who publishes what he considers to be an excellent analysis of the most recent work by the novelist Hugh Vereker. But when the narrator subsequently encounters him at a party, Vereker notes that the review – like all reviews of his work – has failed to perceive the
idea in my work without which I wouldn’t have given a straw for the whole job . . . It stretches . . . from book to book, and everything else, comparatively, plays over the surface of it. The order, the form, the texture of my books will perhaps some day constitute for the initiated a complete representation of it. So it’s naturally the thing for the critic to look for.
The search for this hidden ‘idea’ within Vereker’s books, which elsewhere he terms his ‘exquisite scheme’, becomes the overriding passion of several characters in the story. While two of the searchers are initiated into Vereker’s secret, both die without revealing the pattern to the narrator.
In other words, James’s story is intimately concerned with the notion of authorial intention and more specifically the way in which authorial intention might be either withheld or kept remote from readers. This idea resonates with the irresolvable gap between ‘the discerning reader’ and ‘the breathing author’ that A Million Windows obsessively explores. Again, given the novel’s repeated invocation of James, the overlap here seems to be far from coincidental. I suspect that A Million Windows refers to ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ obliquely rather than explicitly because this ‘secret’ invocation is the only way to keep faith with the effect of James’s original. In going unnamed, James’s story functions as a material absence within Murnane’s text, which is only appropriate for a story that rehearses exactly this material absence of authorial intention; ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ becomes the secret or hidden idea within A Million Windows, much like Vereker’s secret ‘exquisite pattern’ within ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ itself.
That Murnane’s novel might contain such a ‘secret’ allusion is hardly surprising. His works have often referred to various forms of secret knowledge, and the narrators of his novels frequently articulate a desire to share some unnamed secret with one or a series of different female characters. In a recent issue of the journal Music and Literature, Murnane noted that, within the many filing cabinets that (somewhat infamously) constitute his writerly archives, there exists a folder full of ‘messages written . . . to an imaginary future reader’, which is entitled Titkos Dolgok, a Hungarian phrase meaning ‘secret matters’. Not only does this testify to Murnane’s unusual desire to continue shaping his reception posthumously, it also emphasises yet again the importance of omission – especially the withholding of essential, contextualising information – as a formal and rhetorical strategy within Murnane’s writing.
The importance of such secrets is reaffirmed by the ending of A Million Windows, which – perhaps surprisingly, given the self-reflexive and discursive nature of the book – concludes with the narrator (who, let us recall, resembles but is emphatically not the same as the real Gerald Murnane) revealing the details of a traumatic familial experience. At the age of 69, the narrator discovers a deeply unsettling secret about his mother that revises everything he knew about his childhood. In what appears to be a clear example of life imitating art, the secret divulged at the climax of A Million Windows reveals the previously obscured ‘figure in the carpet’ within the narrator’s own life, which can only be perceived from the perspective offered by this revelation. In this gesture, James’s Persian rug metaphor is appropriated in the same way that the ‘House of Fiction’ metaphor was.
In A Million Windows, the ‘figure in the carpet’ – that personal obsession which motivates the author and provides the pattern that unites his seemingly disparate works of fiction – is obscured not only from the reader, but also from the novelist himself, who can uncover the thread of this pattern only through the process of writing and its slow accrual of unexpected connections: ‘If you write about something for long enough, you will find that it is connected to everything else.’
In this sense, A Million Windows does not simply call into question – as so many have done before – the possibility of excavating authorial intention from a text. It suggests, or at least seems to suggest, that authorial intention is actually created through the writing and production of the text itself. More importantly, as the novel’s revision of material from Murnane’s earlier novels suggests, intention itself may be generated retrospectively, as ideas, characters and scenes are placed in new contexts that enable them to derive entirely new meanings. If A Million Windows is, as it appears to be, a late reflection on the artist’s own method, it is also an acknowledgment of the necessarily contingent nature of that method, the products of which can never be anything but a surprise, even to their own author.