October 2022

Essays

The ideal reader

By Gerald Murnane
Lesbia Harford's grave in Kew Cemetery, Melbourne

Lesbia Harford's grave in Kew Cemetery, Melbourne. Photo by Eric Timewell

A reflection on poetry, on inspiration and on an imagined audience

Nearly 30 years have passed since I took my last class as a teacher of fiction-writing at tertiary level. I was employed as such a teacher for 16 years, and during that time I presided over more than 2000 classes. (I’m trying to avoid reporting that I actually taught fiction-writing. I certainly helped many people to write better fiction, but I doubt whether I taught anyone who had never attempted fiction how to write the stuff that we call by that name.)

During class discussions, I spent much time in suggesting improvements to pieces submitted for assessment – turning non-sentences into sentences; changing the order of the phrases or clauses in a sentence; or removing needless words – but sometimes, during a private conference with an outstanding student-writer, I would pose questions that I myself could not readily answer: what are we actually doing when we’re writing what we call fiction, and for what purpose are we doing it?

Some of my own books had been published by then, but I still pondered these questions. My books had been accepted as fiction, but I was uneasy. I had never quite put behind me the simple-minded dictum of my schooldays: fiction reports the words, thoughts and deeds of imaginary persons who resemble actual persons, thereby expanding our knowledge of human nature. (Not only my teachers and the authors of my school textbooks seemed to believe this. Generations of reviewers and commentators seem never to have questioned it.) In my teens, when I first dreamed of writing for publication, I considered myself utterly unqualified to attempt fiction, so ignorant was I of human nature. I seemed qualified to attempt only the sort of poetry in which a solitary or outcast figure tries to resolve some or another pressing concern. Yet there was I, three or four decades later, a senior lecturer in fiction-writing with a sound working knowledge of his craft, so it seemed, but still in search of a theoretical understanding of it.

On a certain afternoon in the early 1990s, a certain outstanding student and I were discussing the questions mentioned in the second paragraph above. (I’ve long since forgotten her surname but I still recall a few passages from her fiction, or, rather, I still recall my reaction to those passages.) We had been discussing certain claims made by writers in The Paris Review interviews: claims such as that every work of fiction is concerned with the mystery of a personality, and that we read and write fiction in order to overcome our fundamental inability to understand one another. At one point, my collocutor asserted that she refused to give up hope and that she wrote her fiction for the one reader who might understand why it had been written.

From the very beginning of my career, so to call it, I’ve felt compelled, when planning a new work of fiction, to consider again my motives and my purposes, and while I’ve never expected to explain once and for all such complex matters, I’ve come to rely on that statement by my student of long ago. During the past few decades, I’ve first acknowledged and then, more recently, named her whose sympathetic acceptance of my books was my chief hope while I was planning and writing them. I call her my Ideal Reader. My being a male requires her to be a female, but I try to avoid speculating as to her appearance or her character or, if she has already been born, her whereabouts. I prefer her to be defined only by her insights into the personage responsible for my writing and, following from those insights, her commensurate sympathy. (I learnt as a child, and I’ve had it confirmed repeatedly since, that the reading and the writing of fiction are processes far more complex than most readers and writers seem to acknowledge, and my knowing what I know of those processes obliged me to write personage rather than person in the previous sentence.)

I had no need to call into existence any sort of ideal reader until I began to think of myself as a writer. So far as I can recall, I was reading fiction and poetry for about 10 years before I first tried to write either. This being so, my speculations about an ideal author must have been well under way before I first felt the need for an ideal reader.

My ideal author, so I hoped, would have written a work of fiction or even a single poem that would reveal to me the sort of person I should strive to become, the sort of landscape I should strive to inhabit, and the sort of female person who should accompany me thither. These were the hopes of a mere child, of course, but they serve as evidence for my lifelong reliance on fictional texts to teach me what another sort of man might have sought to learn from actuality, as some would call it.

When, in my fourth decade, I became myself a published author of fiction, I felt still in need of an ideal author, but he was now an older, wiser colleague rather than a father or uncle. He was a male, of course. Only a male, so I believed, could be the hero and exemplar and teacher that I needed. Only a male author, so I believed, could have had to struggle, as I seemed always obliged to struggle, before he was able to complete a publishable work and could have been driven, while he struggled, to envisage a sympathetic but demanding female reader. In the years when I was still hesitant and unpublished, my search for an ideal author seemed sometimes so urgent that I would read the biography of some or another candidate when I might have been better occupied working on my own sentences and paragraphs. Not surprisingly, I never discovered my long-sought mentor, and after the publication of my first few books a version of him survived only as a personage in my private mythology while a version of myself seemed to have become for a few readers a personage of worth.

I may have given up long ago my search for an exemplary personage to be found on the far side of some or another text, but my need for the other sort of personage became only more urgent with time and her presence was never to be doubted. Merely to conceive of a fictional project was to call her into existence, however remote and shadowy, and many of the decisions that I had to make while I brought the project into being were resolved by my deciding what might and what might not be worthy of her approval.

From my early teens until my mid-thirties, I wrote perhaps a hundred poems. Three were actually published in obscure organs; perhaps a dozen were sent to respected literary periodicals and later returned to me unwanted; all have rested for nearly 50 years in a drawer labelled POETRY in my so-called Literary Archive. During that time, of course, I became known as an author of prose fiction, and l wondered not infrequently why I had seemingly succeeded in one sort of writing but had seemingly failed in another sort. Occasionally, I looked at some of the poems, hoping to resolve my uncertainty, but I could not begin to assess them as an editor or a publisher might have done, and my experience as a published writer had taught me that those worthies arrived at most of their decisions after having sniffed what I called the winds of fashion.

Never mind the date on the calendar – I knew the day only as Cox Plate Day, the Saturday between Caulfield Cup Day and Victoria Derby Day. On Cox Plate Day in 2014 I was leafing through the literary pages of The Australian, hoping that no review would seem worth reading and that I could spend the rest of my morning coffee break with the Herald Sun form guide. I have no need to rely on my memory of that notable morning. I retrieved just now from my Chronological Archive the review that I read of Collected Poems, by Lesbia Harford, and the comment that I wrote soon afterwards. I wrote:

Soon after I had read the attached item in today’s Australian and had fallen in love with Lesbia Harford, I sent a note to my bookseller, asking him to get me a copy of the book under review. Soon afterwards, again, I wrote a poem that can be found in the drawer labelled POETRY in the Literary Archive. Soon afterwards, again, I made notes for another poem and resolved to finish at least four lines of poetry every day in future.

I doubt whether I kept to that last resolution, but six months later I had written the final drafts of almost every one of the poems in my collection, Green Shadows and Other Poems, which was published in 2019. Forty and more years before, I had struggled for evening after evening to produce a few barely satisfying lines, but in the summer of my 75th year I heard line after fluent line arranging itself whenever I was alone. More than once, I stopped by the roadside in some vast, empty landscape in western Victoria, where I live, and scribbled on the notepad kept in my glovebox the lines or the whole stanza that had come to me almost unbidden during the previous 10 minutes.

What had happened to me? My preferred answer is to declare that I had discovered at last not only the two ideal personages that I had glimpsed for decades past but the one personage who embodied them both.

Pat wasn’t Pat last night at all.
He was the rain, —
The Spring, —
Young Dionysus white and warm, —
Lilac and everything.

I had been reading the review with mild interest until I came to these five lines: an islet of poetry in an expanse of white blankness among paragraphs of undistinguished prose. What I noted at first was that the five lines were, in fact, poetry. For much of my life, I had privately refused to accept as poetry most of what my contemporaries called by that name. For my own satisfaction, I had sometimes transcribed a piece by someone praised as a poet and had been confirmed in my suspicion that the writing was no more than a body of faulty, jarring prose arranged in lines of arbitrary length with inaccurate or inadequate punctuation marks. For much of my life, my need for poetry was satisfied by earlier, traditional works or, after I had learnt Hungarian in middle age, by the wealth of lyric poetry in that melodious language, with its abundant rhymes and alliterative possibilities.

The impact on me of the whole of the brief poem was instant and powerful. What I’m writing now is my analysis of the causes of that impact. I was surely aware of what I would call the quiet rhymes and the muted half-rhyme. Even more to my liking would have been the pattern of stresses: four in the first line followed by two, one, four and three in the remaining lines. Now, this pattern can surely not be called regular, and yet I found it fully satisfying in the way that a traditional stanza is satisfying or a folk song arrives at its fore-ordained ending. And when I tried to account for this, I remembered Gerard Manley Hopkins.

I was introduced to Hopkins’ poetry in 1955 by the only competent teacher from my schooldays, and so began my lifelong interest in the workings of rhythm – not just in poetry but also in prose and even in what Robert Frost called the sound of sense, meaning one’s interpretation of a conversation heard from a distance as mere sounds. (My preferred example is the gradual crescendo and the subsequent sudden falling-away of the call of a horserace from a distant radio on many a Saturday afternoon in my childhood.) I used the word “satisfying” in the previous paragraph, but I might have used a stronger word. A rhythm such as that in the quoted poem compels me often to recite the lines aloud more than once for the pleasure to be got from my sense of the rightness of the whole.

The rhythm was not even the half of it. However satisfying might be the sound of a word or its positioning in a pattern of stresses, its denotation matters far more to me and, surely, to any thoughtful reader. But, as I reported earlier, reading poetry or fiction is for me a hugely complicated process. Since my early childhood, I’ve sought to get from the reading and the writing of poetry and fiction more than I’ve expected to get from any other experience, and my lifelong search has made me very much alert to connotations.

The word “lilac” leapt at me when I first read it. I saw in mind immediately a certain shade or colour. Next, I saw a certain flower, smallish and arranged in a cluster. What I did not experience was a memory of any sort of odour. This was because I was born without a sense of smell. I’ve never smelled a lilac or any other flower or anything else said to have an odour. I should add that I’ve never regarded this as any sort of deprivation. Shut out of the world of smells and odours, I seem to have developed an unusually keen awareness of colours and their countless variations. I can recall, for example, the precise shade of the clusters of blooms that appeared every October on the tall shrub under which I built my first pretend racecourse nearly 80 years ago, which shrub was an uncommon variety of lilac, and the sight of that or any other shade of lilac, or of any printed mention of the lilac plant, gives rise unfailingly to a wealth of valued associations. So it was with the word “lilac” in Harford’s poem on the sunny October morning of Cox Plate Day eight years ago. But the appearance close by of the word “white” set in motion such a process as I’ve often experienced but have written about only in fictional contexts.

One of the central landscapes of my private mythology might be called, for convenience, the Western District of Victoria. My landscape only faintly resembles an actual district of that name, although the resemblance was rather more apparent a century ago. One of the several means by which I discovered my landscape was my poring over, as a child, the pocket-sized race books that my father sometimes brought home from places such as Penshurst, Casterton or Hamilton. I learnt from one of those booklets, about 70 years ago, that an aged gelding named Parentive was owned and trained by a man named A.S. Gartner of Hamilton, whose racing colours comprised a jacket of white and lilac hoops with white sleeves and a white cap. Within hours of my having learnt this information – or, perhaps, within minutes – there had entered, once and for all, into my mythology a host of imagery to do with a man of enviable wealth, of acute discernment, and of reserved demeanour, and to do with the far-reaching and mostly level grassy landscape surrounding the clumps of English trees that concealed for much of the year his family home. (I was for some time unable to find inspiration in the name of the racehorse that carried Mr Gartner’s eloquent colours, but only until I was able to infer that the seemingly meaningless name had been derived from the name of the gelding’s sire, Parenthesis. This was enough to allow me to feel about my new-found cluster of imagery a confidence that the whole of it was somehow marginal, or bracketed off, as it were, from the world as it was usually understood.)

If any reader of this piece of writing finds it strange as a recommendation for a selection of poetry, I assure that reader that I intend the piece to be the warmest possible recommendation. The poetry or the prose fiction that I most esteem is that which reaches the same part of me that has driven me for most of my life to write my own sort of writing. A biographer of Marcel Proust praised him for having conveyed to his readers the scent of invisible yet enduring lilacs. Such was my mood while I was reading again recently the best of Harford’s poems that I dared to suppose that Mr A.S. Gartner may have put the lilac into his unforgettable racing colours after he had read, on afternoon after tranquil afternoon in his upper-storey library with its windows shaded by English trees, the biography just mentioned, or even the far-reaching masterpiece of Proust himself.

Gerald Murnane

Gerald Murnane was born in 1939. His most recent book is Last Letter to a Reader.

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