I hope to have some new posts up soon. In the meantime, here’s an essay I wrote about Australian author Gerald Murnane. It appeared in Music & Literature No. 3 many years ago, but never made it online. Thanks for reading!
Gerald Murnane’s Exquisite Failures
I saw nothing absurd in what I was doing—sitting at the heart of the scene I had dreamed of fifteen years before and yet dreaming further of another scene that would lead me at last into the real world. I had the pleasant suspicion that I was about to complete a neat pattern I had often admired as a subject of fiction. I might have been about to demonstrate that at the heart of every scene assumed to be real was at least one character imagining further scenes that would be closer still to reality. —Gerald Murnane
Gerald Murnane’s Landscape with Landscape comprises six interlinked narratives that echo one another, evoking a sort of chorus or book of possible lives about an anonymous, would-be writer.
The collection’s title is one we might expect to find on a gallery wall beside a symbolic realist painting. It might spur us to imagine a layered representation of a panoramic scene, complete in one sense yet with any given image partially concealing several others. Murnane’s choice to title this book as if it were a landscape painting is no gimmick: its six narrators are writers in the suburbs of Melbourne who are all obsessed with an abstract notion they call “landscape”—a metonym for a certain purpose in their lives, a far-off yet “peculiarly real” place inside each writer—and who have a common desire to hold such a place in their minds. Protecting the meaning of this private landscape and its purity as an idea secretly alive within them, in order to capture some or another part of it in their fiction, is the narrators’ shared tragicomic vocation.
Or, A Reckoning With Sentimental Habits by Way of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet
There once was a man who wrote about the things that other people wrote. Oh, how he loved to celebrate his writers. He wanted them to succeed. He wanted them to be heroic in their work and in life. Something about their success made him feel hopeful about the world and himself.
What motivations shape a critic’s decisions to write about the books they defend and those they dismiss? And what are the ethical or moral dimensions of those decisions? Beyond mere conflicts of interest, what lines do they draw for themselves in their work? Are there personal forces or experiences that affect their preferences about what to read and review?
In this ongoing series of interviews with critics, one of the central questions will be, “What is a critic’s role?” It’s a broad question, open-ended, but one which can be used, if the critic chooses, to address the personal side to their lives as critics, and perhaps how they see their work affecting society and culture.
For the third post in this series, I’m very pleased to present an interview with Miriam Markowitz. Our conversation took place over email in recent months.
Miriam Markowitz is the deputy literary editor of The Nation and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She was previously an editor of Harper’s Magazine and Viet Nam News in Hanoi. Her essay “Here Comes Everybody” examines some of the root causes of gender imbalance in magazine and book publishing. You can read more of her writing here and follow her @mirimarkow.
Of note: Markowitz will appear May 27 at the Center for Fiction on a panel, sponsored by the National Book Critics Circle, set to discuss “Race, Gender, and Book Reviews,” moderated by Walton Muyumba.
Photo by Sean Hemmerle
Before we discuss your work at Harper’s and The Nation, I’d like to ask about the early years of your career. Were there specific experiences that drew you toward a life in letters, as they say? What convinced you that this was the kind of work you wanted to pursue when you were first starting out?