Saturday, September 04, 2010

He travels in his head

‘I had at least thirteen addresses as a child,’ Gerald Murnane said during his talk at the writers festival yesterday, ‘and there is a joke. Whenever my father announced the next move, the chooks would lay down on their backs with their feet stuck up in the air ready for us to tie them together for slaughter.’

With these words I could tell GM was in his element, but when I first arrived and sat opposite him in the front row, I remembered how often he has told me in letters that he feels inordinately nervous on such occasions. This time, he wrote it would be easier. This time another Australian writer and friend, Antoni Jach, was to interview GM in Studio 1 as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. This time GM need not prepare a speech. He could instead rely on the questions and conversation to propel him forward.

GM and I have been writing to one another for the past five years. Snail mail. GM refuses to use a computer. I am one of his many correspondents, but I like to think I am one of the most reliable. He has told me as much in a letter. When GM’s wife was dying of cancer two years ago and he nursed her over a long period before her death, many of his usual correspondents fell off, except for three of us. The two others were men.

GM is one of my literary heroes and he holds a special place in my heart. It stands to reason that I want to hold a special place in his, but GM is a man of limited affections, at least as far as I can tell.

It is hard to separate the man out from his central narrator, the various main characters who appear in all his books – a single man generally, and one who leads an austere and isolated life, but who at the same time draws wealth, nourishment and comfort from the internal workings of his mind. He travels in his head.

GM and I share things in common, which may well be part of our mutual attraction, though he once wrote to me in the early days that he thought I was a ‘nutter’. The first letter I wrote to him must have given this impression. I had just finished reading GM’s series of essays, Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs and I resonated with the way he structures his sentences and his rhythm. I tried therefore to imitate GM's writing in my first letter, which I addressed to 'the man of the perfect sentence'. It was awful and I cringe now to think of it.

As is my most dreadful habit ,I have confused the narrator of GM’s book with the person of GM, but it matters not. During discussion time yesterday I asked GM a question, not a question more a comment. GM responded before I had even been able to form it into a question but I was relieved. I often have the urge to ask a question at events such as writer’s festivals but can never find ways to ask succinct questions. Usually my mind is in a tumult of ideas brought on by the presentation and I blurt out some words or other and feel like a complete fool. I felt worse than a fool yesterday but GM rescued me.

He talked about the ways in which religion has offered a framework for his writing from the perspective of its practices rather than its beliefs. Then he told the audience that he and I were correspondents and that we rarely saw one another. This is perhaps the closest we have ever been, he said, but in writing to one another we say more than we would ever say in real life.

I almost blushed.

I often view our letters as sort of love letters, though neither he nor I have any such desire. I suspect we are neither of us each others type, despite that which we have in common.

It is the business of writing to one another that creates this illusion of love. We write our innermost secrets. GM and I have come to an agreement that we need not bother with the usual niceties of letter writing, with the insistence that the one writing the letter acknowledge everything the other has said in the previous letter.

No, we write to each other as we wish. A letter’s content might be triggered by thoughts from the previous letter or it might deal with events of the time or the past. We write selfishly. We write to each other as though we are writing in our journal or diary, as though we are writing to ourselves.

GM could be a priest the way he speaks, a deep convinced and certain voice. He had his audience spell bound in the black space of Studio 1, with the spotlight directed onto him and his interviewer. I could feel the surge of bodies behind me, hear the swish of in held breaths as GM embarked upon a new idea. And I could hear the approving titters of laughter break into guffaws when he made some irreverent remark about himself, or the literary hierarchy.

You might say GM has a cult following. In the end, as we were about to offer a final applause that went on for several minutes, an applause that proved he had an appreciative audience, GM said,
‘It’s a bit like at election time, we’ve had a lot of that lately.’ Laughter from the audience. ‘I’m humbled.’ More laughter. ‘And I mean it.’

The lights went on. I said goodbye. I had work to do. GM told me he would not write long letters for the next little while as he is trying to get another book finished by Christmas time, his History of Books. At age seventy-one, perhaps he feels time is running out.

When I first started to blog I wrote my posts as a series of letters addressed to my fellow bloggers. I dropped the salutation a long time ago but I still think of blogging as letter writing to an unknown recipient. My blog audience feels to me as one breathing, pulsating person who reads with an open but critical mind, whose presence I am occasionally caught up in and at other times manage to forgot.

I write my blog post as if I am conversing with a close fried or lover, fearful of too much intimacy, but even more fearful of none at all.

I detect something similar when I read other people’s blogs. Whenever I read a blog for the first time, especially one in which the writer is heartfelt and intimate with her or his audience, I feel a frisson of guilt, as if I have intruded where I am not yet welcome. I feel the need to introduce myself then as if I am knocking on the door of my fellow blogger’s house and asking for admittance.

Once acknowledged, I no longer feel the need to defer. I can write directly as one included within the inner sanctum. Occasionally, although I am made welcome into someone’s blog, I never quite feel that I am welcome there.

I used to feel this more keenly in the early days when I was unfamiliar with the form. These days I feel it less, but it is still there, particularly when it comes to the popular people’s blogs.

It is as if a blog reaches celebrity status and the blogger has moved out of the zone of ordinary friendship and risen to a level that makes him or her unreachable.

You know how it is? How can I matter to someone who has such a following, who has so many friends? How can I possibly matter to such a popular person?

All this is illusory, I know. But the blogosphere lends itself to such fantasies, perhaps not as acutely as my letters to GM do.

He is a real person after all and we write our letters to one another only. Though I also know that GM keeps all his correspondence in several filing cabinets that constitute his archives and that after he dies the contents of these filing cabinets will go to some library somewhere. The monetary proceeds from the archives will go to his children and their children, but the literary legacy will be available for the public.

GM talks in his letters to me about some young woman who might come along in fifty plus years to research his archives. He names her Future Creature.

I long to be Future Creature but my future will be in the ground with GM. Future Creature is young, attractive and intelligent. Future Creature, if she is so inclined, will have a field day reading through all of GM’s correspondence, and all his unpublished autobiographical writings. She will have access to all his secrets.

Sometimes when I write my letters to GM I include some of my own secrets in the knowledge that Future Creature might also wonder about this ‘nutter’ who takes her time to write these odd, obscenely personal letters to a man of letters, GM, several times nominated for the Nobel Prize for Literature, a bright shining star in the Australian literary firmament, but whose light seems only to be noticed further a field in places like Sweden and now France. GM never goes to these places himself, except in his imagination, but at least their inhabitants can recognise the wondrous writings of a fellow traveller.


PurestGreen said...

Oh how I love this post. So honest and beautiful. Deeply intrigued by Future Creature.

Elizabeth said...

This post is both deeply mysterious and powerfully familiar, and I can't put my finger on where it leans. You manage to create an intimacy in your writing, and I don't know just how you do it. It's seductive --

R.H. said...

I've never heard of him.

vazambam (Vassilis Zambaras) said...

Thank you for introducing me to GM; it's good to see that these letters stand for a very humane and creative human being rather than an inhuman conglomerate of automobile manufacturers.

Kath Lockett said...

Elisabeth, the way you write and share your thought processses and conclusions is awe-inspiring.

Blogs are personal letters of sorts; confessionals to no-one and everyone and despite the print media's bleating about society become depersonalised or techno-obsessed, I've found the complete opposite in the blogosphere.

None of my writing opportunites or unusual career turns would have happened without the humble blog. I wouldn't have 'met' you, for starters!

Dave King said...

So much there. Too much for a quick reaction. Beautifully written , but I need to come again. Marvellous.

steven said...

elisabeth - thankyou for this post so filled with unpacking - relational unpacking. the most intriguing aspect of it for me is the piece dealing with the intimacy of shared understanding that takes place in your letters that "in writing to one another we say more than we would ever say in real life". how intriguing that "face-to'face" constitutes real life as compared with letters! in moving on to your discussion of blogging and the sorts of intimacy encountered (or not) there, the same feature arises there. i do believe that the quality and nature of the writing that occurs in the very popular blogs necessarily changes. whether that comes from within the writer or is compelled upon the writer by the audience - well that's a question i'd need to ponder. steven

Zuzana said...

Beautiful post about a friendship through correspondence.
There is so much that can be revealed in the written word, that the spoken word never can touch. A written word offers a certain kind of intimacy, that is on an intellectual level, rather than physical.
This story reminded me of the movie "84 Charing Cross Road", starring Anthony Hopkins; if you have not seen it, you should - I think you would enjoy it.;)
Have a lovely weekend,

Niamh B said...

I'm determined to check him out now. Thanks for such an interesting introduction. And I loved reading your thoughts about blogging. It is really hard to know sometimes what level to be at when you're writing. Blogs have really become an enriching way to learn about the world for me, and also just a nice way to connect.

Ms. Moon said...

Wow. This post covered so much ground which I have gone over too.
First off- some of us are Persistent Communicators. We find each other and a lifetime of communication becomes a necessary part of both lives.
You and GM obviously have THAT!
And yes, I know what you mean when a blog reaches celebrity status. There seems to be no need to add my "two cents" to the pouring out of comments. But I know that each and every comment I get is read, cherished, and usually answered which makes it all more of a communicative effort AND a community which is what, in my heart, I want.
Thank-you for this good and thoughtful post.

Jim Murdoch said...

You should amend you final paragraph by the way. It should read, “…in places like Sweden and now France, oh, and there’s one bloke in Scotland who’s quite keen on him too.” My next planned project is a review of Barley Patch and, if I can find the time, an essay highlighting some of the points made in the documentary you sent me. My daughter bought me a copy of Tamarisk Row which she presented with the comment, “Rather you than me, Dad.” I have to say the spaces between the lines could be a bit wider but it’ll get read although probably not in time for the essay. I’ve already read Barley Patch once and so it should be such hard going this time only this time I’ll be writing with a pad next to me.

I am a little jealous that you have had an opportunity to get to know Murnane as you have. All my heroes are dead. They all died when I was too young to hold up my end of the conversation or at least to have a decent stab at it. I was pleased when I came across the video clip of Beckett talking. I’m not one of these people who’s more interested in the author than their books but it was nice to see him in a human context; I’m easily pleased.

As regards your blogs I always read them as if I’m the only person you’re talking to but that’s what we do with any piece of writing, make it our own. I’m thinking just now: I bet she gets a lot less comments on this post. Half of ‘em won’t even know who Murnane is. So I feel a little superior. I have a book signed by him, even if he did get the city wrong, something which I think would amuse rather than embarrass him.

Can you imagine though how long it would take for Future Creature to work her way through all those cabinets? Even though I wish you a long life I doubt you have the time left. I do hope she at least gets round to publishing a biography so that we can work out which bits of his books are true autobiography and where after that he lets his imagination - I use the term loosly - stray.

Taradharma said...

lovely post. How I would like to read GM's writings. A grand correspondence you to have. You have indeed found an intimate friend in him, and he in you.

Too bad so many friends dropped off as his wife was happens often, sadly. People don't know what to say and they let fear overtake them -- just at the time when their friends need them most.

Eryl said...

I love that GM replied to your letter even though he thought you were a 'nutter', and that you wrote back and so did he until you had an established epistolary relationship.

In my eyes you are one of the celebrity bloggers with all the comments you receive, though I never feel at all unwelcome here.

Great post, you are a bit of a nutter, I think, though for me 'nutter' is short for someone too interesting and complex to explain. Maybe that's what GM saw too.

Kittie Howard said...

A friendship shared through correspondence...beautiful! Did you read The Gurernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society? Shafer tells a marvelous story thru letters. I think you could, too.

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

This is such a wonderful post, Elisabeth: the touching and tender glimpse it gives us of this beautiful epistolary relationship. I especially appreciate how you liken letter writing to blogging... the devout and uninhibited attention to the ear of a caring and cared for friend, the element of thinking out loud. Few blogs achieve this as well as you do.

I hope you are relatively pain-free and recovering from the horrible mishap with the car.

Mike McLaren said...

I don't mind writing a personal blog, and I don't mind reading a personal blog. It's why I read yours. The ones that seem personal seem more like "real" writing.