A Million Windows by Gerald Murnane. Giramondo. $19.99, 220 pp.
“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. These apertures, of dissimilar shape and size, hang so, all together, over the human scene that we might have expected of them a greater sameness of report than we find. They are but windows at the best, mere holes in a dead wall, disconnected, perched aloft; they are not hinged doors opening straight upon life. But they have this mark of their own that at each of them stands a figure with a pair of eyes, or at least with a field-glass, which forms, again and again, for observation, a unique instrument, insuring to the person making use of it an impression distinct from every other.”
—Henry James, Preface to the New York Edition of The Portrait of a Lady
Australian writer Gerald Murnane’s new work of fiction takes its title—and its epigraph—from the above quotation by Henry James, a presence who figures spectrally throughout Murnane’s own text. As James’s words suggest, the house of fiction wherein a writer creates is a voyeuristic space, but also one that is markedly insulated from contact with the outside world: in this house, the writer occupies the position Lucy Snowe famously advocates in Charlotte Brontë’s Villette (1853): “Unobserved I could observe.” The house of fiction is also poised dangerously between the real and imaginary worlds; and—as James observes—singular “pair[s] of eyes” can take from any of the million or more views “impression[s] distinct from every other.” This means the writer must balance the visual, real world and the textual, imaginary one. As Murnane phrases it: “I am capable only of seeing and feeling, although I can see and feel, of course, in both the visible and the invisible worlds.”
Indeed, Murnane turns his writing process itself into a conscious metafictional theme in all his work. He creates fictions in which narrators both are and are not Murnane; in which scenes, images, and “personages” (which Murnane prefers to “characters”) recur in different or even uncannily similar guises. His creations cause the category “fiction” itself to fall under scrutiny, and to contain things much more vast than “fiction” traditionally does, as is clear from his questioning of and rooting in English-language fictional canon on which I will comment below. Further, in A Million Windows Murnane underscores his wish that a text live on after the last page, still present and experienced—whether in memory, recollection, or re-reading—beyond the text: “He found it impossible to accept that the last page of a book of fiction was any sort of boundary or limit.” And, adding to and further complicating this concept of what fiction is and what it can do, Murnane envisions fiction as a space where both writer and reader exist in a harmonious, if ambiguous, relation to one another. This active participation on the part of what Murnane calls “the ideal reader” is one that places trust in the first-person voice: the reader is as authoritative a figure as the author
in the mental space surrounding fictional texts, which space is to be thought of as reaching endlessly backwards, so to speak, from the first paragraph of each text, endlessly forward, so to speak, from the final paragraph, and endlessly sideways, so to speak, from every intervening paragraph.
Because there are no divisions between writer and reader in the sort of fiction Murnane endeavors to create, there is no hierarchical relationship between the two—no estrangement of any kind. This is actually a critique he levels at Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler . . . (1979), which “dazzled” Murnane “at first . . . [but] if I think of the book nowadays I think of its author as someone for whom writer and reader are opposed to one another as the players on either side of a chessboard are opposed.” Instead, Murnane hopes that “even the undiscerning reader of this fiction of mine should have understood by now that I, the narrator, would dread to feel that we were separated even by these sentences.” And in spite of any “seeming-distances,” textual or otherwise, Murnane still hopes that these relationships—those in both the invisible and the visible worlds on which he remarks above—always retain “a lasting trust” about them: “The narrator of this present work of fiction is one who strives to keep between his actual self and his seeming self and his seeming reader such seeming-distances as will maintain between all three personages a lasting trust.”
Oddly enough, though, there are rather distinct divisions within the house of fiction itself, an almost physical space Murnane’s “I” occupies throughout the thirty-four unnumbered meditations collected in A Million Windows. While James’s house of fiction is a rhetorical strategy to consider the point-of-view of the writer, Murnane has reconceptualized this house so that it is both physical and psychical: a place that is both inhabited, and yet also one that haunts the writer when he or she is not at work, a place that magnetically draws him or her back—to his or her vocation, to his or her specific corridors, even. Indeed, not only do writers occupy a voyeuristic yet insular position with regard to the world outside the house of fiction; they are also effectively cut off from contact with writers of fiction that differs from their own sort: “There are corridors, I have heard, where residents are accorded respect in proportion to the tens of thousands of copies of their books sold or the number of their books adapted for film or even the number of literary prizes awarded them.”
Murnane does not comment extensively on this structural aspect of the house of fiction, apart from a passing jab at romantic fiction writers, an assault he even places in parentheses to indicate how unimportant such fiction is to him, how it falls outside the scope of what he calls “true fiction”: “(Somewhere in this building is a colony of writers of this sort of fiction, although none of us has sought to learn where.)” For the most part, his own “colony” considers James “the Master, as some of us choose to call him” (this collective “us” and Murnane’s fascination with James throughout A Million Windows place him within this camp). His camp embraces complex writing, style, and the fictive revisiting of previous themes and images (“Some of us in this topmost storey [of the house of fiction] have been, or are still, entangled in such matters as cannot be reported in simple sentences”), and they eschew dialogue in fiction, which Murnane likens to “a filmscript or a playscript” and thus not within the purview of “true fiction”:
We who have found our way to this outpost [of the house of fiction], as it might be called—we not only consider dialogue, as it is called, the crudest of the many devices used by those writers of fiction whose chief aim is to have their readers believe they are not reading a work of fiction, but we ourselves have it as our chief aim that our readers should be continually mindful that what they are reading is nothing else but fiction.
Interestingly, Murnane invokes the fiction of British novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett as an example of fiction that makes use of the “crudest . . . device” of dialogue; indeed, unlike most of James’s work—work that Murnane and his fellow captives in the “outpost” of the house of fiction admire so much, using the Master’s passages as writing exercises and also “parlour game[s], on evenings when our writing has tired us”—Compton-Burnett’s novels such as A House and Its Head (1935) and Manservant and Maidservant (1947) use dialogue as the primary device throughout. (Murnane comments: “I read one of her works of fiction, which consisted, sure enough, of dialogue and little else. Not surprisingly, I have forgotten almost everything that I experienced while I read the work.”) For Murnane, dialogue-heavy fiction is obviously a far cry from the philosophical, psychological, and meditative fiction of a writer like James. (One can’t help but wonder what Murnane would make of James’s 1899 novel, The Awkward Age, to which he never refers. This novel is written almost entirely in dialogue and, as in Compton-Burnett’s novels, generally lacks speech tags. It stands alone in James’s oeuvre, and to this day many critics are divided as to its import to the rest of his work, some choosing to view it as a flawed fiction written as an attempt to fuse the genre of the novel with that of the theatre after the Master’s failed attempts at playwriting in 1890s London.)
Though one writes from within the house of fiction, one is not tethered to this location when scouting out germs for pieces of fiction, what James himself would call données. However, despite the ostensible mobility outside the house of fiction, there is still a sense of being always magnetically pulled back within: one’s job as a writer recalls one back to one’s room within this “two or, perhaps, three storey” house, back to one’s desk, and back to the perennially blank page. Murnane writes:
I seemed truly a captive of the artifice and of whoever had designed it, even though I could look away at any time from the petty labyrinth and outwards towards the far-reaching countryside or upwards towards this massive building and its numerous windows.
Although the writer can spy “the far-reaching countryside” outside the “numerous windows,” he remains “a captive of the artifice.” Because of this, even though fiction writing takes place within the house (this “petty labyrinth”), fiction is inescapably everywhere; likewise, the writer, although writing in the house of fiction, is still writing when he is outside of it, even in moments when he is not thinking of writing whatsoever. Murnane reasons:
I feel confident that the discerning reader about to begin a work of fiction expects the personage seemingly responsible for the existence of the text to be seemingly approachable by way of the text or seemingly revealed through the text and to seem to have written the text in order to impart what could never have been imparted by any other means than the writing of a fictional text.
Quizzically, then, the writer is just as lost within the “labyrinth” as the reader, attempting to locate meaning through the writing of a text; it is the act of writing itself, less than the act of finishing a piece (since, for Murnane, fiction is never completed). And this act tends to be more for the sake of what it can reveal to the author in “the invisible space between the fictional and the actual” than for the one reading it.
So, just what is “true fiction” according to Murnane, and why should A Million Windows be read as fiction? Crucial to his definition of “true fiction” is Murnane’s consideration of “a true work of art” as “in no way depend[ent] for its justification on its seeming connections with the place that many call the real world and I call the visible world.” Murnane makes a distinction between “the visible and the invisible worlds”: as a writer, it is part of his task to transmute the material he locates in the invisible world into the world of the reader. However, because fiction is omnipresent and exists both inside and outside of the text, it is also a world in which the boundary lines between the visible and the invisible remain hazy and poorly delineated, echoing Murnane’s “dread” that “we [should be] separated even by these sentences.” As Murnane observes of the writer’s task, it is one concerned with “how the so-called actual and the so-called possible—what he did and what he only dreamed of doing—come finally to be indistinguishable in the sort of text that we call true fiction.”
“True fiction” implicates the reader, engaging him or her throughout, and, while there is a kind of trusting relationship between writer and reader, Murnane is quick to maintain: “I shall repeat the simple fact that I am the narrator of this work and not the author.” Here, he is clarifying his relationship to the text. By preferring to be termed “the narrator” rather than “the author,” Murnane shares some of the responsibility with the text’s readers, a responsibility that would be rendered more hierarchical (and thus at odds with his desire to write across such “seeming-distances”) if the writer is “the author”—removing a promising agency from the reader with whom Murnane’s “I” always aims to engage.
Murnane writes very different sorts of novels than many of those with whom he finds himself together in such his “colony” in the house of fiction. In A Million Windows, as elsewhere, his refers to Victorian authors and texts: notably Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847) (“the book that I admire most among books of fiction in the English language,” as he notes in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs (2005)), and several considerable discussions of Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy. In many ways, A Million Windows is Murnane’s attempt to figure out where his own work fits in relationship to these canonical idols.
Writers in Murnane’s outpost in the house of fiction use James’s work as exercises in how to maintain a presence in one’s fiction. Unlike more conventional novelists who privilege plot and dialogue, James chooses to let the writing take him where it will, to begin with his germ or donnée but to stop his ears in company before hearing the end of a tale he might take as inspiration for a piece of fiction:
I read once that the writer of fiction Henry James got much enjoyment from hearing from fellow-guests at dinner-parties anecdotes that he later made use of in his fiction. James, however, as soon as he had decided that something he was hearing would later be of use to him, begged his informant not to go further; not to reveal the outcome of what was being recounted. At a certain point, James had seemingly got all the ingredients he needed for a work of fiction and preferred to devise his own outcome rather than merely report the actual.
As Murnane puts it, “the task of fictional narration is no mere drudgery prescribed in advance”; it is, instead, a continuous process of discovery.
By contrast, Dickens was known to make voluminous notes on his characters before and during composition: he “was supposed to have laboured for days over detailed charts illustrating the sequences of fictional events in some or another work, as yet unwritten, together with the names of the characters, so to call them, who were to take part in the events and the sites where the events were to take place.”
While Murnane and his “outpost” adhere to James’s camp with regard to fiction writing as discovery, there still remains a fascination with Victorian authors who worked within genre and plot conventions: “many of us felt a certain admiration for Charles Dickens, even though none of us would care to do what he is supposed to have done.” Indeed, Murnane’s flagging of Emily Brontë, Dickens, and Hardy is telling, too, because, while outwardly adherent to Victorian fictional norms, each played with the boundary between the Murnanian “visible” and “invisible.” They, in fact paved the way for figures like James. (And although Murnane views fiction writing as a process of discovery, in the Jamesian mode, he also admits that like Dickens he also creates blueprints of sorts, even if he doesn’t always stick to them to the letter: “When I first drew up the plan of this work of fiction, I intended this, the nineteenth of the thirty-four sections, to comprise an argument in favour of reliable narrators as against unreliable or absent narrators. … [However, t]he notes that I made at the time are so brief that I cannot now recall the details of my intended argument.”)
While a writer like Dickens expends a great deal of thought on characters, their relationships, and their development, there are still instances in his fiction—Bleak House (1853) is perhaps the finest example—where Dickens toys with point-of-view and shifting, unstable narrative voices. In Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë also does this through the use of nested narratives, wherein the speaker is always removed from the “truth” he or she is relating to a narrator who is, in the present tense, relaying this information to the reader of the text. Hardy also takes an impressionistic rather than an objective role as narrator, stating famously of his last novel Jude the Obscure (1895) that he was attempting “to give shape and coherence to a series of seemings, or personal impressions.” It is no wonder, then, that Murnane marks these seminal authors as figures presaging the modernist, psychological, and repetitious exploits found in the work of James. Murnane goes even farther: from his window, characters function only as “personages,” and “fiction exists mostly to enable” some repetitive, haunting image “to flit from place to place in mind after mind as though many a fictional text is a mere bridge or stairway raised for their convenience of travel.”
Murnane here quotes from James’s preface to the New York Edition (1907-09) of The Golden Bowl (1904):
I have already betrayed, as an accepted habit, and even to extravagance commented on, my preference for dealing with my subject-matter, for “seeing my story,” through the opportunity and the sensibility of some more or less detached, some not strictly involved, though thoroughly interested and intelligent, witness or reporter, some person who contributes to the case mainly a certain amount of criticism and interpretation of it.
This passage is one over which Murnane and his fellow writers mull in obvious delight, for it proves that one’s fictional “subject-matter” is only discovered through the act of writing; this method of “seeing” his or her story only as it is in progress allows for an invested interest and intelligence to be manifest in the narrative voice, “some person” who, in spite of distances, is still present and locatable in and through the text by the implicit “criticism and interpretation” that text affords. Murnane locates in James’s prose a
number of passages in which the seeming third-person narrator reveals, by even as little as a word or a phrase, that he is, in fact, a first-person narrator, or, to use the terms of the passage quoted above, that behind the throughout interested witness or reporter stands always a sort of ghostly narrator such as is found often in James’s works but seldom elsewhere.
Like many of the Victorian authors he references, Murnane addresses his reader directly: “Reader, we are all of us, whether writers or readers, surely obliged to imagine the past, although I, who dislike the word ‘imagine,’ would prefer to use such an expression as ‘speculate about.’ ” To be sure, for Murnane, fiction writing is about imagining and reimagining the past ad infinitum, returning to images that have reverberatory power over him. Each fiction is an attempt to further fathom the depths of meanings, recurring personages, familiar yet dissimilar scenes that thread their way intertextually through all his work. The writer must trust himself and the process:
Despite his having, in the beginning, a few mental images and intimations, the author, by going on with his writing, declares his confidence in these sparse signs and in the many-faceted whole that surely has them at its visible junctures.
Because Murnane himself, the “I” in the text, is always present, and because “an ideal reader” is also always present, each fiction—A Million Windows perhaps most symphonically of all his work to date—is a tenuous performance between “the narrator” (who is emphatically not “the author”) and “the reader.” James is an ideal author to invoke to discuss not only the writer’s place within the house of fiction, but also because of the writer’s inevitable presence in any work of fiction he or she creates. Although Murnane makes a distinction between being “the narrator” of his text and being “the author,” he makes himself aware to the reader by the presence of the first-person voice. And while this “I” can become a “him”—e.g., in one section, Murnane discusses two colleagues in a creative writing program and their varying approaches to fiction writing, one of whom can only be himself, despite his use of the pronoun “he”—it is still a presence to be reckoned with by any reader approaching his work. Similarly, Murnane’s quotation from James’s preface to the New York Edition of The Golden Bowl—and the way this passage remains for him “the most astonishing account of fictional narration that I have read or expect ever to read”—indicates that “true fiction” for Murnane implicates both the reader as well as the writer.
James’s choice to assemble the New York Edition of his writing in the first place—in order to collect in one authoritative edition his pieces as he wished to see them enter the canon, many of which were reworked for this purpose—mirrors what Murnane is suggesting throughout A Million Windows: a writer is always revisiting his or her work, always rewriting the same scenes from different vantage points (from different windows, given how many the house of fiction contains). The point is to try and uncover something afresh from a fiction that is still alive, even though it was “completed” many years ago. James’s prefaces to the New York Edition have been well studied, and, as Murnane and his writer “colony” attest in the house of fiction, these prefaces contain some of the most profound wisdom on writing, the writing life, and the role of the writer.
In the prefaces, James refers back to his younger writer self, revisiting the same textual ground with older, wiser eyes. Murnane’s fascination is with how James was able to get so close to his characters and yet remain just as distant. Despite the many instances of the “I” in James’s work, for example, in many of his novels it feels like is is the characters—and not James himself—who are doing the narration. (James only made extended use of the first-person in one novel-length work: the much maligned (though, in my view, sheer brilliant) novel The Sacred Fount (1901).)
Murnane is as relentless as the James of the prefaces in his own textual revisitations: not only do images recur across his fictional work, but so do personages, and this persistence “is why we return continually to this towering monstrosity” that is the house of fiction. In A Million Windows, Murnane remarks on a particular recurring image of a dead Hungarian woman from “a book of non-fiction”—“a young woman, hardly more than a girl, who had leaped into a well”—and he is so haunted by this image that he
set out to write a work of fiction in order not only to explain to himself why the image of a certain young woman, hardly more than a girl, was constantly in his mind but also to learn, if it were possible, what he seemed required to learn whenever the image seemed, as it often seemed, to importune him.
He is able to locate a counterpart to this image of the dead Hungarian woman in the “visible world” at a conference in the shape of “a member of the English Department at a university campus in a provincial city of his [here, the depersonalized narrator’s] own state.” Though he is wary to label this a “coincidence,” what ensues between the writer and this woman (the visible incarnation of his invisible image) is a love affair that, because of its genesis and iterative rooting in fiction, might be read as fiction itself. Indeed, Murnane recalls writing this woman a letter, which he also considers a work of fiction in with own right:
The author of the letter that might be called a work of fiction avoids using the word “coincidence.” He claims that a person who writes fiction of meaning or who reads such fiction with discernment is able to recognise that the details of what we call our lives go sometimes to form patterns of meaning not unlike those to be found in our preferred sort of fiction [i.e., “true fiction”].
As readers of Murnane will recognize from these passages, he is here offering us the donnée for his book Inland (1988). (Likewise, throughout A Million Windows Murnane also makes heavy reference to his second novel, A Lifetime on Clouds .) Much as James does in the prefaces, Murnane reaches back into the past to the relentless images and personages with whom his fictive life has been populated, never feeling he has reached complete signification: with time, our memories of things change; with fiction, our relation to texts also changes. For a reader like Murnane, who catalogs in A Million Windows—as he does elsewhere—his memories of fictional texts read as far back as sixty years ago, it is clear that for him these fictions have never ended: while he has no longer dipped into many of the works’ pages in all that time, he has all the same been pondering, rereading, and recircling the works in his mind since fiction has no teleological end. It comes as no surprise, then, given the task of the writer in the house of fiction as laid out by Murnane in A Million Windows, that fiction writing is composed of the same methods. Hence the many intertextual overlaps in Murnane’s work, the repeated images, the myriad “dark-haired female ghost[s]-above-the-pages.”
And with this knowledge of Inland’s genesis, I myself, as a reader, was able to ponder, reread, and recircle that text without picking it back up off the shelves. As I wrote here in The Quarterly Conversation back in September 2012, Inland failed to captivate me in the same way that most of Murnane’s other work had; now, though, through reading backward with Murnane’s donnée in mind, I can see how insular a text Inland truly is poised between private epistle and public fiction. Because, following Murnane’s view of fiction, I have not stopped reading Inland despite not having opened the book once after September 2012; as such, my unconscious rereading of Inland was supplemented by Murnane’s remarks found here in A Million Windows. Not only has this added to my appreciation of Murnane’s technique, but it has now allowed me to reenter a text with which I grappled and struggled. I now have a decidedly new vantage point, a different set of windows from which to fathom Inland’s relation to Murnane’s oeuvre as a whole.
To return to Murnane’s careful delineation of the term “fiction,” I might pose the question: Is this review fiction? And I would have to reply in the affirmative because “I” am present; due to this, my own text is haunted by a subjective presence, an ostensible author and a narrator who makes his presence known from time to time in a kind of Jamesian fashion. As a reviewer of Murnane’s work, I am always a reader of his fiction, even when I am not reading it; as a writer writing on Murnane’s work, I am always present even when I seem not to be, captive in the same house of fiction, that “petty labyrinth” that is the setting for our ever enriching, albeit “invisible,” encounters.
In “the invisible space between the fictional and the actual,” Murnane and I have crossed paths yet again, and it will certainly not be the last time: as readers and writers, we are destined to repeat endlessly our circumnavigations around the house of fiction, where there is always a new vantage point from which to surmise the landscape beyond, always a new route from which to embark again (and again) in this fiction that is our visible and our invisible lives alike.
K. Thomas Kahn is a writer based in New York City whose criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Music & Literature, Numéro Cinq, Bookslut and other venues. He is a contributing editor for 3:AM Magazine, and can be found on Twitter @proustitute.
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