By exploring the consciousness of a narrator—which, as I say, is depicted as a landscape and its human families, a consciousness which he calls the invisible world or the mind, not limited to the individual perspective of an octogenarian Australian—novelist Gerald Murnane discovers that reality is much larger than the one described by the disenchanted materialism of contemporary culture.
I’ve just finished After London; or, Wild England by Richard Jefferies, published in 1885. The story follows the protagonist, almost the only significant human character, Felix Aquila. The jacket copy declares that this book “pioneered the post-apocalyptic genre of science-fiction,” and cites a critic calling it the most beautiful Victorian novel. The story is indeed post-apocalyptic. But the correct term for this fiction is romance.
A quarter of a century before Milton finished Paradise Lost, the young poet began listing topics for his future masterpiece. Ardent devotees who imagine the poet foreordained to create a great religious epic might be surprised to learn that his list of more than a hundred ideas contained thirty-three from British history. His leading idea, at the time, was an Arthurian epic.
The work of certain authors—Ivan Illich, Edward Abbey, Noam Chomsky, and Gore Vidal come to mind—alternately fascinates and frustrates me. Their idiosyncratic takes on urgent enormities like war, the fate of the earth, and the future of humanity occasionally veer from well-crafted arguments and illuminating narratives to what are, in my opinion at least, tiresome rants and dubious anecdotes. Yet they are spot-on far more often than otherwise, which is more than I can claim for my writing.
I felt a shock the other day, seeing notice of him in The Guardian: “The road well travelled: 100 years of Jack Kerouac.” Why a shock? I think the shock has to do with the way Kerouac always surprises me, by which I mean emerges suddenly out of my own indifference or forgetfulness and then opens up everywhere in my imagination once he presents himself.
It was the disaster in Ukraine that moved me to pull Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie from my shelf. Not having read it since graduate school days decades ago, I recalled nothing about it except its gloom. But that was enough to make it an appropriate companion for current events. Not that Sister Carrie is about war. But it is about violence: the violence with which society oppresses and even destroys individuals. The novel’s dominant color is dark.
Lewis the Apologist has never interested me.… Lewis the Storyteller is another matter. His Space Trilogy is excellent and haunting. I would sooner re-read Perelandra than its model, Paradise Lost. The final book of the trilogy, That Hideous Strength, only seems more prescient as we slouch further toward a posthuman future. It is also one of the most unique and ambitious modern contributions to the Arthurian tradition.
A common feature of these two highly recommended books is their representation of religious faith in a medium – the novel – that has of late had little good to say about religion. Perhaps they point toward something analogous to the Bechdel Test, in which characters who happen to be religious are presented unironically as full, if flawed, persons who act upon and talk about their convictions without collapsing into the stereotyped roles of hypocrite, fanatic, or repressive killjoy.
I think one of my favorite publications of 2021 was Isabel Fargo Cole’s translation of nineteenth-century Austrian author Adalbert Stifter’s collection of short fiction, Motley Stones. These stories fit into a collection of books I’ve been assembling for over fifteen years, writing I call hypethral.… Hypethral writing finds the natural world iconic or sacramental.
What is a literary life? What makes a written work a literary landmark—or something lasting in any way at all? I once thought I knew the answers to these things, but now am not so sure. For that matter, I’m not even sure I know what literature itself is anymore.
It turns out that people — dead novelists included — are complicated. That’s a lesson most of us are doomed to learn more than once. I know I’m capable of holding opinions and convictions others no doubt find contradictory, even offensive. I recognize the same in others, including writers who try to be, as Henry James wrote in The Art of Fiction, one “upon whom nothing is lost.”
I talk with sister Amy every Sunday. So while I was reading Mary Lawson’s novels, that’s naturally what we talked about. One time Amy said: “Her novels are about the trouble we make for ourselves when we don’t talk about things.” I see this especially in two of the novels.
In recent years Dante’s Comedy has been important to my thinking about high fantasy. That phrase, as far as I’m aware, appears for the first time in Western literature in the middle of the Purgatorio and at the very end of the Paradiso. L’alta fantasia. It was a turning point in the history of the idea of fantasy, because now fantasy could be high—that is, heaven-sent, theophany.
Agnon’s Days of Awe is not fiction, though it is a pastiche of different kinds of narrative in the manner of the Talmud. What is it, then? Despite having read Agnon’s Days of Awe around Rosh Hashanah every year for the past five years, it’s hard for me to say. It’s like a machzor, the prayerbook for the High Holy Days, if a prayer book were an anthology of…fiction.
I’m writing this as the national media in the United States are already well into rolling out their retrospective “packages” to mark the twentieth anniversary of September 11. Maybe I’m just listening to and reading the wrong things, but in all these retrospectives, I have only seen the cogitations of journalists and pundits and academics—and precious little exploration of 9/11’s effect on fiction.
I’m intensely interested in the complexities of ordinary crime, like in the stories of Kevin Hardcastle: a world without mastermind Dr. Evils and I-can-solve-anything Sherlocks. But a world where those with power do exploit the weak for their own protection or benefit. I’ve seen that reality, from domestic abuse that’s touched people I care about to misogyny, racism, and sexism in the workplace.
What makes just the right novel be just the right thing for my bedtime reading? Well, it has to be engaging, but not gripping. (Gripping would make me too stimulated to sleep.) No violence (physical or psychological) allowed. And while any novel takes me out of myself, which is exactly what bedtime calls for, the world it takes me into must be one of an underlying peace.
As George Saunders so persuasively reminds us, in his engaging book about storytelling, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, a story is a way for a writer and a reader to think and imagine together.… “We imagine a story as a room-sized black box,” says Saunders. “The writer’s goal is to have the reader go into that box in one state of mind and come out in another. What happens in there has to be thrilling and non-trivial.”
I’ve been thinking about joy in writing. I believe I know by now what it feels like for the writer to be working joyfully. Can you detect it in someone else’s writing? I think so, and I think I know the first time I saw it on the page, and knew that that was what I saw.
Contrary to popular misconception, White’s essay “Once More to the Lake” doesn’t recount a nostalgic journey back to a vanished world, to a sacred place cherished in one’s memory. White’s revisit to “old haunts” actually comes closer to a nightmare, as he experiences throughout the week a series of disconcerting and uncanny sensations resulting from the initial illusion that the passage of time has somehow dissolved.