Inattentions of Reading

This essay first appeared in Meanjin, Autumn 2019, in a slightly different form.

Whatever else it is, reading is surely one of the central activities and interests of literature.  Literature itself, though, is hardly a central activity or interest in contemporary culture.  So it seems odd that readers of Gerald Murnane who are also critics or reviewers like to point to the author’s eccentricities: he has never worn sunglasses, for example; he’s reclusive, never flown on a plane, and doesn’t like to travel; he never watches films, doesn’t like the sea, and, among other things, he’s obsessed with horse racing, keeping colour-coded files on races, horses and jockeys which can be recalled or retrieved at will, and so on.  But, we might want to ask, isn’t literature itself (of which Murnane may be an Australian exemplar) already an eccentric activity or interest?  Certainly a passionate interest in and a devotion to literature today isn’t as eccentric as it gets, but nevertheless it’s unconventional and slightly strange. 

Image: Morganna Magee, for The New York Times.

Labelling Murnane an ‘eccentric’ merely helps to reconventionalise all the other so-called literary fiction that isn’t like that, reassuring writers and readers in the belief (and commercial prospect) that they are central to some ongoing project, and that they won’t be pushed to the outer ‘eccentric’ rim.  Murnane may or may not be as central as ever, but he’s certainly distinctive.  And no doubt his books can work in very idiosyncratic ways (if only for the idiosyncratic reader).  To read them is perhaps to feel a powerful inducement to write about the experience, an experience that just has to be accounted for and cannot be let to pass, as if to read Murnane is, for some, to be roused not only into more words but also into new words, and that these just have to be set down in writing.   His books, in short, can evoke profound responses in a reader. 

One account of such an experience of reading Murnane is an essay by Luke Carman in the Sydney Review of Books (‘In the Room with Gerald Murnane,’ 24/04/2018).  For Carman, Murnane is a writer who can inspire passionate reading, and his essay seems to suggest (if only in its method and style) that to read Murnane is to be inspired to read in one’s own way (unconventionally, idiosyncratically).  ‘Efficiency is not my forte as a reader,’ he writes.

I am cursed with the inability to finish the books wherein I find the greatest pleasure. The writing I most enjoy tends to get me so exercised by its effects that I am soon deep in a fugue state of mind, a kind of dissociative wandering from which I am required to return before I can come back to the page which started me off in the first place.  No sooner have I read a sentence or two of this stimulating prose, which seems to awaken some novelty of consciousness in me, than I find that I have spent the afternoon hours pacing back and forth about the house, the book which started the whole thing in motion having been long abandoned on a bench in the hallway.

Carman here reveals what extraordinary possibilities there can be in the relationship between reader and text.  When he reads the books he loves (which include Murnane’s) he becomes intensely preoccupied by thought (‘so exercised’).  Inspired by the sentences he reads, language, ideas and images rush in and take him over, leave him disassociated from himself, as though a book can conjure up other selves (even seemingly new selves — ‘some novelty of consciousness’) and throw identity into doubt or have it flee.  In Border Districts, Murnane writes: ‘sometimes, while reading a work of fiction, I seem to have knowledge of what it would be to have knowledge of the essence of some or another personality.’  Perhaps Carman’s ‘novelty of consciousness’ is Murnane’s ‘essence of some or another personality.’  Moreover, when Carman writes of an ‘inability to finish the books wherein I find the greatest pleasure’ we could say that this is a way of forestalling that pleasure in order to, paradoxically, keep it alive as a future possibility, postponing it to a later date (the book is unfinished and perhaps one day will be returned to).  But this admission by Carman of course also suggests that the pleasure is in fact too overwhelming.  It is indeed curious that he sees this as a curse and is a little hard on himself (perhaps to make a point or for stylistic effect).  Of course, you would have to allow for his being ironic here, that his reading experience is a curse or affliction only in the sense of it being strongly impressionistic and, as he posits in the essay, when pitted against ‘efficient’ readers, those readers who could construe in academic circles what he calls ‘an acceptable defence,’ as though academics hold all the cards when it comes to reading and supposedly knowing what reading is and what it can do (and of course the idea of efficiency also suggests a productivity measurable to monetised outcomes).  What we therefore need, Carman seems to suggest, is not only evocative reading that is peculiarly individualist but also idiosyncratic accounts of it, rather than (or as well as) ‘acceptable defences’ and ‘efficient’ readings that merely gather information and leave little room for curiosity and perhaps even less room for risk.

Murnane has stated that when reading novels, he sometimes fails to ‘follow plots and comprehend the motives of characters’.  In Barley Patch he writes:

a person who claims to remember having read one or another book is seldom able to  quote from memory even one sentence from the text.  What the person probably   remembers is part of the experience of having read the book: part of what happened in his or her mind during the hours while the book was being read.

Image: Still from ‘Words and Silk: the imaginary and real worlds of Gerald Murnane.’ Director, Philip Tyndall.

If memory is memory of desire — as psychoanalysis would put it — then what is remembered here is desire, and one of the marvellous things about reading is that it can make you think not only of the words on the page before your eyes but by association many other things about yourself and the world as well.  In its associative power, reading could be if not equivalent then at least analogous to dreaming, powerfully activating primary processes of the unconscious mind; and as with dreaming we may have trouble recalling what has happened, left only with glimpsed images and the hauntings of voices, which are also the creative movements of the mind.  And there is an interesting aside to all this, that in trying to create a piece of writing, sitting at the desk and staring at the page, trying to think of the words for what comes next, you get up and leave off, and as soon as you do this — go out of the house and do something different — the words come to you but you’re now in no position to write them down, so you remember them (which could attest to writing’s primordial function of documenting what needs to be remembered).

In his essay Carman mentions — again, rather self-critically — his own forgetfulness when reading.  ‘There’s no excuse,’ he writes, ‘for professional readers whose memories are faulty.’  This is not a point about poor memory but about experience.  In other words, not to remember what you have read is to focus on the experience the activity of reading has created for you — the effects, the evocativeness of reading — and not on the recall of information.  Here Carman aligns himself more with Murnane and with readerly ‘inefficiencies’ than with so-called academic readers. 

There is, moreover, another point to be made here about reading and forgetful inefficiencies.  Carman argues that Murnane’s writing is ‘an extension of lapsed religious liturgy.’  To be lapsed is of course to no longer follow the rules and practices of a religion.  But a lapse is a brief or temporary failure of concentration and memory, even of judgement, and so if as Carman says Murnane’s writing is a form of lapsed worship, to read it is therefore to undertake an experience of spiritual inattention, which remembers the ecstatic and the revelatory and forgets, as Murnane would say, the unremarkable, or what isn’t evocative and moving.

There are many accounts of writing in our culture — how to do it, why to do it, what is happening when you’re doing it, who is doing it, who isn’t doing it, who should and shouldn’t be doing it, who is and isn’t winning the prizes, and so on, as if this is a culture of writing.  But rarely are there strong accounts of the reading experience.  One reason for this is that reading might be a more idiosyncratic activity than writing, and thus more difficult to account for (and the academic or so-called ‘efficient’ method would therefore become the easy way out).  Carman, it would seem, wants to keep something alive, a form of reading that needs to seek its fit (or match) in a powerful account of it (and his essay certainly has a kind of free-floating, digressive strength and energy about it; it’s also quite intricate, as in full of tricks and perplexities).  It’s as though a book is a force of nature, and what reading therefore stirs up are desires whose powerful excess needs expression through writing, as if writing is the only way to attend to this experience, a way not only of rereading the text (experience regained) but also of redescribing that which the text has elicited from within (language regained) — redescribing and not describing because, as one might assume, this experience (as Carman has documented it) has happened before, has perhaps even been sought out again and again (reading is thus the seeking out).  It’s as though to forget the words of the book you have been reading and enjoying (at least for Carman and Murnane) is to remember words of your own that are about, or have been inspired by, that book; that to forget is to make available something else of yourself — and of language, as selves are of course composed in language — that the book has brought into being, which is to continue the pleasure and associative power of reading in another way, in a writer’s way.  Writing is therefore describing and redescribing the varieties of our reading experiences.

And so when Carman describes the journey taken by the narrator of Border Districts from the city to the border town as ‘a temptation of associations’ and being ‘caught up in an immense digression of connectedness,’ this sounds very much like an apt description of the form his essay takes in response to reading Murnane.  These associations and digressions are the connections that arise out of evocative reading.  At the end of his essay Carman quotes a critic who says about Murnane: ‘I wonder if we will one day understand what we have here, in this man.’  Carman leaves the question (if it is a question) unanswered.  But there’s really no need (as the critic seems to imply) to be mysterious or overly precious about it.  What we have is a variety of reading experiences, whether efficient or inefficient or both together or something else entirely.  Perhaps, though, for Murnane’s work to survive what it needs is inspiring redescriptions by writers who keep trying to account for their powerful reading experiences.  Indeed, Murnane’s works may be the kind of writing that needs creative reading, needs a spiritual inattention.  Carman attempts this, and a reader of his essay may well think it fortunate that he’s the kind of writer who is also an inefficient reader.

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