July 19, 2022

Literature

Keeping notes

By Carmel Bird
Cartoon image of pen and paper, with handwriting
On the intricate magic of reading, remembering and making notes in the margins

In 2021, I spent many months reading more than 100 historical novels. These were entries for the ARA Historical Novel Prize. As I read the books, I kept detailed notes on each of them: quotations from the text, my comments, judgements, and jottings on book design and the profiles of writers and publishers. I noted everything that seemed to be somehow relevant to the experience I was having of reading the books. There was a system of grading that I and my fellow judges – Nicole Alexander and Roanna Gonsalves – followed as we went along, and we shared a lot of information. My copies of the books became defaced with pencil marks. We easily agreed on the winner, Jock Serong’s The Burning Island. And my notes are now kept in my filing cabinet.

In June 2022, I was sorting through the filing cabinet and I happened upon a newspaper article from 1987. It was by my friend and colleague Gerald Murnane, and was titled “The memories and imaginings of a literary judge”. The piece starts: “Recently I began a series of interesting experiments with myself as subject.” This is a fairly routine beginning for Gerald, and he goes on to explain that he had re-read some books after not having read them for many years. He realises that he had been mostly imagining the contents of the books, not really remembering. Then he goes on to write about the process of judging the 1987 Vance Palmer Prize for Fiction (now the Victorian Premier’s Prize for Fiction), won that year by Janine Burke for her novel Second Sight. When he surveys the covers of all the entries as they are laid out on his floor, he finds he remembers “hardly a word of any”. All he remembers is the “experience of having read” them. He recalls images that came to him as he’d read them the first time, but, upon second reading, he finds that the images are not often related to the contents of the books. According to Gerald, readers who cannot quote some words from books are talking about “the contents of their own minds”.

By chance, just after I had read this article, I was at dinner with some friends, one of whom said she had just re-read Jane Eyre. Several people at the table began quoting bits from the novel. These were not especially “literary” people, but it crossed my mind that perhaps Gerald is unusual in that he doesn’t recall the words of novels he reads, while insisting that it is only the words that matter.

I tend to think that a key purpose and function of reading is to pass various elements of books on to the mind of the reader. Gerald concludes that at the final judging meeting for the Vance Palmer Prize the judges were “talking not about books, but about their own memories and imaginings”. In the margin of the article by Gerald, I have written in pencil, in 1987: “What if they brought to the meeting their reading notebooks and quotations etc?” And surely they would do that? When Roanna, Nicole and I conferred, we had such documents at our fingertips. We quoted from them as we went along. It turned out that our thoughts about and recollections of The Burning Island were often quite similar. We also remembered some of the words. Of course, there are many ways to judge a competition, but ours seemed to work for us.

In the file that contained Gerald’s story about judging the Vance Palmer Prize, I found some other pieces of his writing. One of these was a photocopy he had sent me of a typed manuscript, titled “The Cursing of Ivan Veliki”, with notes in Gerald’s handwriting. It was a book review he had published in the now defunct periodical Brave New Word in December 1988. True to his philosophy outlined in the judging story, this review pays considerably more attention to the contents of Gerald’s mind and imagination than it does to the book being reviewed. Readers must get to page five of the six-and-a-half-page document before the book in question is mentioned.

“The Cursing of Ivan Veliki” was republished in Gerald’s collection of essays Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs in 2005. In that version, all mention of the book under review has been removed, and the piece stands as a personal essay about the construction of fiction, an account of how Gerald thinks and how he writes. As such it is, of course, very interesting. The missing book review had fitted into the space between the penultimate and ultimate paragraphs of the essay as it was published in 2005. That review had been one and a half pages of the original essay.

The book under review in Brave New Word was my manual for writers, Dear Writer, first published in 1988. Gerald’s review of it, all but hidden within “The Cursing of Ivan Veliki”, is extremely positive. It is, in fact, quite beautiful. He comments: “I beg my reader’s pardon, but I cannot help myself. Whenever I read honest writing about the writing of fiction, I get the urge to write more fiction of my own.” And so he does. That seems reasonable enough, but it also seems to me that the “review” sits forlornly lost in the context of the story.

I had, not surprisingly, forgotten all about Gerald’s brief appraisal of Dear Writer, a review that now lingers in the archives of Brave New Word, and in my filing cabinet. I am pleased I discovered it. I believe Gerald keeps a comprehensive archive of everything he has written. My filing cabinets are less ordered than his, but both could contain identical copies of “The Cursing of Ivan Veliki”, with the embedded review. With notes.

Carmel Bird

Carmel Bird is an author. Her memoir is Telltale.

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