The Literature Machine revisited: spam lit, Calvino, OULIPO and conceptual literature

I posted in August last year about Spam Poetry, and used some examples from my own WordPress spam repository as the basis for some ‘found poetry’. In my previous post I offered another example of my own, ‘Update: an excavated fragment’, based on the dialogue between a computer user and the machine’s interface.

I have become aware, since that post last year, that the phenomenon of ‘spam poetry’ is quite well attested – I didn’t invent it after all, though at the time I misguidedly thought I might have done. The rest of this post will provide more context.

 

In July of this year I posted about VOLVELLES: mechanical devices that might be called early ‘paper computers’, primitive expert systems or thinking machines, usually employed for calculating or generating information or texts. These can be traced back to the ancient east, but in the west to Ramon Lull (the Ars combinatoria), and later, Leibniz, Kircher, and so on.

Swift in Gulliver’s Travels may have been satirising Leibniz in his ‘permutational machine’ at the Academy of Lagado. Centos, bibliomancy and later literary techniques like cutup and permutational poetry can also trace their origins to such ‘literary machines’.

This is the title of the book of essays by Italo Calvino, about which I also posted in July this year, with a focus on ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’. In this essay Calvino considers the difference between the ‘random text generator’ and what might be called the Literary Machine: the procedure which bypasses individual human inspiration by using ‘combinatorial play’ to generate texts through the permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions. French avant-garde groups like OULIPO have experimented with such methods for decades now, harking back to the Surrealists with their use of self-imposed constraints in the production of literary texts.

Which brings me back to my own ‘spam poems’ cited earlier. A little judicious searching online will readily take you to more detailed information on the following (Wikipedia, for example, has much more on this, with examples and links):

SPAM POETRY: here the involvement of an author in the production of literature, as Calvino speculated, has become discretionary. It works on similar principles to automatic writing (Yeats was an aficionado of this, with its mystical/supernatural overtones), which was also favoured by Freud and the Surrealists as a means of tapping spontaneously into the unconscious to produce ‘psychography’. Aleatoric writing is a related concept: writing produced on the principle of accidental or chance language choices.

A key concept in such text generation is what OULIPO called ‘clinamen’ (and a near-translation, ‘swerve’): an arcane term for the classical notion of ‘primordial anti-constraint’. Creation (of a text) is rendered possible, in an ordered, logical, rational universe, by the introduction of chance. Harry Mathews’ algorithm applied to Queneau’s cutup sonnet sequence would be an example of ‘coercing’ the potentiality of texts into existence. Language is exploited through the use of matrices, and computers make this process millions times quicker and more productive than old-style cut-and-paste.

Spam is usually created by computer programs which randomly copy extracts from internet texts (Burroughs and his predecessor, Brion Gysin, called this ‘paratext’), reassemble them and use them to try to smuggle marketing or other unsolicited messages through the filters of blogs and other websites. They try to trick the spam filters into thinking that the ‘text’ thus generated has been created by human hands, for the filters usually lack the sophistication to distinguish gibberish from texts which have semantic coherence.

In brief, I’d suggest, if you’re interested in pursuing this ‘mechanical literature’, you research similar ‘genres’:

FLARF: text produced by the anonymised and reshuffled errancies of various machine protocols (Wikipedia)

SPAM LIT: the site called UbuWeb (‘an anthology of conceptual writing’) has a wealth of useful examples, articles and links.

See also:

SPOETRY, WORD SALAD, GOOGLISM, INFORMATIONIST POETRY, THE L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E POETS (most in various ways use the detritus of the internet as a source for material for recombining or regenerating texts).

I’d have to conclude, however, that the literary results are decidedly uneven. There are occasional felicitous juxtapositions created through the use of these techniques (and I’d like to think there were some among the examples I produced myself, in which I intervened and selected from the morass of verbiage to create something rather more…orderly and, I hope, interesting). But much of it is doggerel.

Volvelles

My previous post was about Italo Calvino, and in particular his essay on the ‘literature machine’. If all writing is ‘simply a process of combination among given elements…merely the permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions’, then it should be possible for a program or machine to play with the permutations and transformations in language in a kind of ‘combinatorial play’, and thus generate new texts.

Since writing that piece I’ve come across the concept of VOLVELLES.

A good detailed scholarly account of them and their historical evolution, with illustrated examples up to Led Zeppelin’s 1970 album cover artwork, is at Archbook: Architectures of the Book, by Michelle Gravelle, Anah Mustapha, and Coralee Leroux; here’s a more concise account from Wikipedia (hyperlinks and footnotes removed):

A volvelle or wheel chart is a type of slide chart, a paper construction with rotating parts. It is considered an early example of a paper analog computer. Volvelles have been produced to accommodate organization and calculation in many diverse subjects. Early examples of volvelles are found in the pages of [books on astronomy and astrology]. They can be traced back to ‘certain Arabic treatises on humoral medicine’ and to the Persian astronomer, Abu Rayhan Biruni (c. 1000)… The most ancient example of a simple volvelle was the pentagram from Hammurabi’s day that has become the symbol of witchcraft [the Venus volvelle].

Badische LandesBibliothek, Codex St Peter perg. 92, f. 11v

Badische LandesBibliothek, Codex St Peter perg. 92, f. 11v; Lull/Llull on the left

The father of Western ‘combinatory text generation’ is often said to be the Majorcan writer-philosopher and Franciscan, Ramon Llull (c. 1232-c. 1315; his name is usually anglicised to Lull), who is said to have used Arabic astrological lore – and the related device called a zairja – in forming his Ars combinatoria. An academic account of Lull’s Art and related arcane systems is given by Janet Zweig in her paper: ‘Ars combinatoria: Mystical Systems, Procedural Art and the Computer’. She explains that Lull used letters of the alphabet as ‘symbolic notation for the Divine attributes; the letters are placed on revolving wheels and can then be mechanically combined with other data’ in order to ‘prove systematically the reality of universal Christian truths’. It is thus a ‘prototype of an expert system’ that requires ‘a user or “artista”, who can mobilize the structure to apply it to scientific questions’.

The 8vo website cites an essay on Lull’s ‘Thinking Machine’ by Borges, who featured in my last post on Calvino; he says that Lull’s terms are in need of updating, and 8vo adds:

In a sense that had already happened by the end of the 16th century: by Agrippa’s time, Lull’s combinatory art had already blended with poetic practices dating back the 4th century – centos comprised of cut and pasted fragments from poems and chance operations as with bibliomancy – and updating it to suit the latest tastes. Poetic ‘machines’ were used to piece together syllables into words, words into verse, proving that computer-generated poetry isn’t just a child of the 20th century.

On an ingenious site which is itself a kind of e-volvelle, requiring the reader to click squares on a grid to access the e-folios of text, Whitney Trettien (‘Computers, Cut-ups and Combinatory Volvelles: an Archaeology of Text-Generating Mechanisms’) has some arcane and fascinating additional data:

Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Un coup de dés Jamais N’Abolira le Hasard (1897), [can be] imagined as a metonym for his multivolume, combinatorial Book, Le Livre. A radical experiment in design and typography, Un coup de dés privileges form over content — or rather, form as content, such that blank spaces, typography and the material folds of the book, rather than semantics, generate what Mallarmé calls “prismatic subdivisions” of meaning on the page. This unusual use of the book’s architecture leaves the reader, rather than the writer, to cull and combine these scattered fragments of text through multimodal acts of association; thus the reader — Mallarmé prefers the word “operator,” etymologically linked to “work,” oeuvre, from the Latin opus — becomes an (inter)active participant in the poem’s construction. (Footnote omitted.) …Like the four hands floating around Harsdörffer’s Denckring — like manicules — like the reader’s hand spinning the discs — like the finger that points and clicks — the hand will cut up the hand that recombines. The coherent abstraction of a textual icon, dismembered from its body, reconnects through the process of an embodied hand that moves, spinning a web of combinations.

As William Burroughs wrote, cut-ups are “experimental in the sense of being something to do.”

This site has extensive and erudite sections on Permutational Poetry, like Mallarmé’s (or one could add the Fluxus artist Emmet Williams, cited by Zweig). Raymond Queneau, founder of Oulipo, as noted in my previous post, in 1961 published Cent mille milliards de poèmes; each page contained a rhymed sonnet. The separate lines of the pages could be peeled back and recombined into an almost infinite number of new poems, as the title indicates (online versions can easily be found). Members of Oulipo (and Alamo, which arose from it) used artificial constraints and generating systems to produce literary works – Zweig gives other more recent examples, such as Charles O. Hartman, who distinguishes between text generators which start with a corpus of vocabulary with no source text, and those which rearrange vocabulary from an existing text; she also cites manipulators of hypertext and the French group LAIRE and other ‘new media poets’.

From Lull's Ars magna

From Lull’s Ars magna

Leibniz’s Alphabet of Human Thoughts incorporates ‘his notion of a mathesis universalis — a method of generating, with mathematical certainty, the answer to any philosophical question’ (Trettien). In 1666, at the age of twenty, Leibniz defended his Dissertatio de Arte Combinatoria, in which he explores Ramon Llull’s ars magna, or his combinatorial art — a subject tackled by many thinkers of the period, including Johann Heinrich Alsted and Athanasius Kircher. Like Lull himself, Leibniz ‘explores the art of combination not simply as mechanical means for permuting discrete elements, but as system for logical discovery…Both poetry and philosophy become not product but process — a system, mechanized in a set of nesting paper wheels, whose very existence instantiates its combinatory possibilities (Trettien)’. In 1694 he produced the Stepped Reckoner: an early paper form of calculator.

Trettien’s section on Materiality of Letters provides a linguistic-historical perspective on the likes of Comenius, Kircher (especially his Polygraphia, 1663) up to the present day (Chomsky and co.)

From here it’s a short step to the Kabbalah, the symmetrical strings of DNA, carbon atoms, Big Bang cosmology and mathematical  Set Theory.

From the 18C on volvelles tended to be used less for mystical or universalist purposes, and more as systems for ‘symbolic logic, semantic invention or pure process and play’ (Zweig), as in musical dice games, or the ballet dancers with cards referred to by Trettien. ‘Music, with its abstract notation, lends itself directly to recombinancy’ ; John Cage in recent years produced recombined musical elements and computer-generated recombined written texts (Zweig again).

I Ching (Taopage website)

I Ching (Taopage website)

Zweig also points out that the I Ching is a divination system based on ‘a binary system and chance operations, developed in the first millennium BC.’

Zweig also cites the parody of such systematic engines in Gulliver’s Travels (pt 3, ch. 5), in which Gulliver visits the Academy at Lagado. Some 500 ‘projectors’ engage in all kinds of crackpot schemes, among which is an imaginary ‘permutational machine’ for improving ‘speculative knowledge’, whose inventor is possibly a caricature of Leibniz or Lull. The device consists of a frame holding blocks:

The Lagado Machine in the Grandville 1838 text of 'Gulliver's Travels' (from VoyagesMecaniques website)

The Lagado Machine in the Grandville 1838 text of ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (from VoyagesMecaniques website)

It was twenty feet square, placed in the middle of the room. The superfices was composed of several bits of wood, about the bigness of a die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender wires. These bits of wood were covered, on every square, with paper pasted on them; and on these papers were written all the words of their language, in their several moods, tenses, and declensions; but without any order. The professor then desired me “to observe; for he was going to set his engine at work.” The pupils, at his command, took each of them hold of an iron handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the edges of the frame; and giving them a sudden turn, the whole disposition of the words was entirely changed. He then commanded six-and-thirty of the lads, to read the several lines softly, as they appeared upon the frame; and where they found three or four words together that might make part of a sentence, they dictated to the four remaining boys, who were scribes. This work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn, the engine was so contrived, that the words shifted into new places, as the square bits of wood moved upside down.

Six hours a day the young students were employed in this labour; and the professor showed me several volumes in large folio, already collected, of broken sentences, which he intended to piece together, and out of those rich materials, to give the world a complete body of all arts and sciences; which, however, might be still improved, and much expedited, if the public would raise a fund for making and employing five hundred such frames in Lagado, and oblige the managers to contribute in common their several collections.

He assured me “that this invention had employed all his thoughts from his youth; that he had emptied the whole vocabulary into his frame, and made the strictest computation of the general proportion there is in books between the numbers of particles, nouns, and verbs, and other parts of speech.”  (From website of LiteratureProject.com)

An online Lagado Engine based on Markov models (whatever they are) can be found here; it can be used to generate new text from old, just like the one Gulliver witnessed in 1726. The 8vo website points out that the ‘random babbling’ generated by such an engine is an early example of what came to be known as the Infinite Monkey theorem: “that a half-dozen monkeys provided with typewriters would, in a few eternities, produce the works of Shakespeare” – traced by Borges in his essay “The Total Library”. This website gives a clear and informative account of volvelles and the development of ‘paper computing’, with some excellent illustrations.

Search Twitter with #volvelle and plenty more examples pop up, like this from a 1490 astronomical calendar, probably made in London:

BL MS Egerton 848, f. 22 (from BL website)
BL MS Egerton 848, f. 22 (from BL website)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, among the many early printed examples readily found online, came this image (fortuitously, just now) from Lambeth Palace Library’s twitter feed (@lambpallib; website lambethpalacelibrary.org; this is the library and record office of the Archbishops of Canterbury/Church of England Record Centre): a volvelle from an edition of Cosmographicus (Antwerp, 1529), once owned by Abp Thomas Cranmer:

Lambeth Palace Library volvelle from 'Cosmographicus'

Lambeth Palace Library volvelle from ‘Cosmographicus’

Cosmographicus Liber (Cosmographia) by Petrus Apianus was first published in 1524. Apianus (1495-1552), a mathematician, printer and instrument maker, studied cosmography and mathematics in Leipzig and Vienna. This book, a layman’s introduction to the science of the time, had little original content and was based largely on Ptolemy. Among other subjects, it describes planetary motion and terrestrial geography, techniques for celestial navigation with mathematical instruments, telling time, and measuring distances. It contains many woodcut illustrations, including moveable stacked illustration plates called volvelles, which could be manipulated to make calculations. (The History and Future of the Book website has several more splendid colour illustrations from the book, including volvelles.) A first edition at the Smithsonian Institution Library can be consulted online at Archive.org here; it too has (monochrome) illustrations, eg at col. 63.

Humans have always yearned to create a systematic engine to facilitate our access to all knowledge; George Eliot’s desiccated scholar, Casaubon, is a salutary reminder that a Key to all Mythologies is a delusion; but that doesn’t stop us striving to produce a Literature Machine. As Arthur C. Clarke’s sci-fi story has it, when Tibetan monks compute the last of the 9 billion permutations of the names of God, the universe ends.

And there I’d better stop, for the permutational possibilities of this topic are surely infinite: we’ve gone from witchcraft, mystical-arcane computing and astrology to Led Zeppelin. Sometime soon I’d like to turn to another Calvino-related topic: the French group of avant-garde writers called Oulipo.

Unless stated otherwise, all images are in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Italo Calvino and the Literature Machine

Italo Calvino: 1923-1985

In my last post I mentioned taking down from my much-reduced bookshelf space (builders at work) Italo Calvino’s collection of essays The Literature Machine (Vintage, 1997), translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh. In the first Part he writes about literature in general, especially in relation to narratology, structural(ist) linguistics/semantics/semiology, the ‘intellectual scorn’ of the Collège de Pataphysique and its offshoot of mathematical/mechanic literati the Oulipo, founded by Raymond Queneau – an avant garde group which he was invited to join when he was in Paris in 1968. His own work had veered dramatically away from the realist tradition of fiction to which he adhered in his earlier works. I hope to write in more detail about Calvino’s literary achievement in a later post.

Calvino interviewed by L. Salori for RAI, 1958

Calvino interviewed by L. Salori for RAI, 1958

He also writes here on literature and philosophy, as a projection of desire, on comedy, eroticism and fantasy, on the putative audience for whom authors write, on ‘levels of reality’ and on politics (having fought against the fascists in Italy during WWII and joined the CP, he left it in 1957 in a reaction against the Soviet invasion of Hungary the previous year, and the revelations of Stalin’s excesses).

Part Two opens with the famous essay ‘Why Read the Classics?’, in which he defines a classic as ‘a book that has never finished saying what it has to say’, which is rather more pertinent than Mark Twain’s (admittedly funnier )‘a book that everyone wants to have read, but no-one wants to read’. He ends with this fine quotation from the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran (1911-95) to illustrate his point that classics shouldn’t serve any particular ‘purpose’:

While they were preparing the hemlock, Socrates was learning a tune on the flute. ‘What good will it do you,’ they asked, ‘to know this tune before you die?’

 

(Interesting that ex-communist Calvino should cite this former admirer of Hitler – although Cioran did after the war recant his pro-fascist views). The rest of Part Two deals mostly with individual authors and texts: The Odyssey, Ovid, Candide, Balzac and the city, Stendhal, etc.

 

Labyrinth at Tintagel, Cornwall

Labyrinth at Tintagel, Cornwall

But I should like to return to the opening essay, ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’. After discussing the evolutionary development of literary critical theory, he considers the ways in which groups such as the anarcho-literary Oulipo artists (mentioned above) utilise mathematical patterns and self-imposed constraints when generating literary texts. I intend posting about this in more detail in a later piece.

The next logical step, he suggests, is to create computer programs that are capable of literary production. Not random text generators (there are plenty of these around online now) which work on the principle of ‘destructuralization of form’; what he posits is a need for ‘the production of disorder’, a program that reacts against its ‘preceding production of order’. Such programs would reject traditionalism and ‘propose new ways of writing’ – the Romantic notion of ‘inspiration’, the individual poet’s Coleridgean ‘afflatus’, the intuitive impulse arising from … where? The unconscious? Who knows. We need for the figure of the author (‘that spoilt child of ignorance’, Calvino calls him) to disappear, and to privilege that of the reader, who will know ‘that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works’.

If his reader, he continues, is suspicious of his motives in consigning the inspirational poet-author to the bin, he’d respond that all writing is ‘simply a process of combination among given elements’. If it’s ‘merely the permutation of a restricted number of elements and functions’ isn’t this too restrictive? Literature constantly tries ‘to say something it cannot say, something it does not know, and that no one could ever know’. Such statements have never been arranged with the words in that particular order before. So the struggle of literature is ‘a struggle to escape from the confines of language’- the ‘call and attraction of what is not in the dictionary’.

Lit Machine coverThis takes us into the territory of myth and ritual, and taboos, the ‘ban on mentioning something’ – certain names or prohibitions. Literature constantly pushes against these boundaries of what can’t be said, ‘to an invention that is a reinvention of words and stories that have been banished from the individual or collective memory’.

Literature redeems these forbidden territories, giving voice to what’s remained unexpressed in ‘the social or individual unconscious…The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts’. The Surrealists found a means of using word and image association to find an opposing rationale to intellectual logic.

This leads Calvino to an exploration of Ernst Kris’s development of Freud’s study of word-play as a ‘possible aesthetics of psychoanalysis’. Puns and  jokes derive from playing with permutations and transformations in language, from ‘combinatorial play’. By way of such combinatorial mechanisms a new combination is arrived at with ‘an unexpected meaning or unforeseen effect which the conscious mind would not have arrived at deliberately’. This is ‘an unconscious meaning, or at least the premonition of an unconscious meaning’. This shock of novel meaning ‘occurs only if the writing machine is surrounded by the hidden ghosts of the individual and society’; the outcome should be ‘a terrible revelation: a myth’, to be recited in secret, and stumbled upon only by ‘playing around with narrative functions’.

Borges (left) with fellow Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato in 1975

Borges (left) with fellow Argentine writer Ernesto Sabato in 1975

From here it’s a short step to the labyrinthine narratives that Borges inherited from ancient sources, such as the Chinese-box narrative-within-a-narrative. Such literature does not enlighten the reader: we are disorientated by it, our world is defamiliarised. By experiencing bewilderment we are able to liberate ourselves from it. A labyrinth is designed to be entered into with a view to becoming lost. By reconstructing its plan we destroy it. Literature thereby becomes a means of demonstrating that ‘the world is essentially impenetrable, that any communication is impossible.’ The labyrinth becomes ‘a facsimile of the world and of society’ (Enzenberger).

The combinatorial mathematical game acts as ‘a challenge to understand the world or as a dissuasion from understanding it’. The reader’s role is therefore decisive: ‘It is up to the reader to see to it that literature exerts its critical force, and this can occur independently of the author’s intentions’. Elsewhere, I suppose, this is what is known as the Intentionalist Fallacy.

There is a manic elegance in this surreal or labyrinthine logic. It’s found in so much of the fiction of the later 20C, from Kafka to Beckett, Borges to the stories of Barthelme and Coover, and ultimately in Pynchon and, perhaps, DeLillo.

In a later post I shall examine more closely this notion of mechanical constraints as a mechanism for aiding (by constraining) the author in generating texts; after all, what could be more artificially limiting than composing a traditional Shakespearean sonnet, with its strict metre, rhyme scheme and stanzaic pattern? On the other hand, is omitting from your novel all words containing the letter ‘e’ a particularly sound idea? All literary texts involve some element of willed omission and selection…

Endnote: The New York Times started a column in 2011 called ‘The Mechanic Muse’, which focuses on issues related to those raised by Calvino and Oulipo; the inaugural essay in the series by Kathryn Schulz (24.06.11) profiled the ‘distant reading’ project (a deliberate reversal of Leavisite ‘close reading’ discussed in my previous post) of Franco Moretti at his Stanford Literary Lab. Link here.)

(Images in the public domain via WikiCommons)

Gerald Murnane, ‘Inland’: interior wanderings

 

Cover of the edition reviewed here; from the Faber and Faber website.

Cover of the edition reviewed here; from the Faber and Faber website.

Dalkey Archive Press reissued Gerald Murnane’s novel Inland in 2012.  It was first published in 1988.  The edition I just finished reading is the Faber paperback published in 1990.

Murnane was born in Coburg, Melbourne in 1939, and has rarely left his home state in Australia.  He briefly trained for the Catholic priesthood, and idiosyncratic, Irish-tainted Australian Catholicism – its doctrine, rituals, calendar and trappings – features centrally in this novel.   Although he relinquished his faith,  acts of penance for and feelings of guilt about sexuality are a central theme in his fiction.  His other preoccupations, he’s said, are topographical: ‘landscapes and geography, looking at things from a distance, desiring objects of love from far off’.

I didn’t initially find it a particularly gripping read.  Interesting, occasionally deeply moving and beautiful, but it’s very slow-burning.  Nothing much happens; it’s another of the metafictional, plotless, loosely structured novels that I seem to gravitate towards at the moment.  (I had to read Salinger straight after finishing Inland for a fix of more traditional narrative fiction.)

There’s a telling, enigmatic line of Paul Eluard’s in the novel: ‘There is another world but it is in this one’.  Timorous about travelling in the geographical, outer, ‘real’ world, Murnane turns inwards, to the existential hinterland of a narrator who is never named (‘I have kept my own name well away from these pages’, he says), and his thoughts, feelings and experiences, though meticulously recorded, are not, he insists, autobiographical.  Nevertheless, what he produced in this novel is closer to fictionalised autobiographical essay than to the genre of novel.  This is an existential mapping of the emotional and artistic associations that spring to the mind of his narrator when he contemplates images recollected in tranquillity.

Photo of Murnane from the blog of Jim Murdoch

Photo of Murnane from the blog of Jim Murdoch

The first section of the novel consists of 44 pages narrated by a Hungarian landowner, writing from his manor-house in a village he prefers not to name, ‘near the town of Kunmadaras, in Szolnok County’ on the grasslands of ‘the great Alfold’.  He says he’s writing in ‘heavy-hearted Magyar’ (this section sometimes reads like a parody of Hungarian authors like Marai), and the ‘heaviness’ he feels pressing on him comes from ‘all the words I have still not written.  And the heaviness pressing on me is what first urged me to write’.  This patterned repetition of key phrases and clauses with its almost incantatory rhythms is his modus operandi throughout the novel.  It often soars beautifully, but the looping reflexivity takes some getting used to:

I will try for your sake, reader, to distinguish between what I see and what I remember and what I dream of myself seeing or remembering.

He explains that he writes for his editor, a former lover possibly, who was born between the rivers Sio and Sarviz in the plains of Transdanubia, called the Puszta in Hungarian. She has gone to Tripp County, South Dakota, on the Great Plain of America, to a town called Ideal, ‘a little east of Dog Ear Creek’ (if these names are real they’re wonderfully evoked) and home of the Calvin O. Dahlberg Institute of Prairie Studies.  Her name, he says, is Anne Kristaly, and she is married to Gunnar T. Gunnarsen.  They are scientists at this Institute; she is the director of the Bureau for the Exchange of Data on Grasslands and Prairies.

Prairie, Victoria (near Bendigo).  Wikimedia Commons

Prairie, Victoria (near Bendigo). Wikimedia Commons

She has ambitions to become editor of its journal, appropriately called ‘Hinterland’.  He goes on to say, in typically gnomic deadpan prose, that he has never met this man OR his wife, ‘my editor and translator’.  He dreams of her in this institute with a name that echoes that of one of Murnane’s main influences, another writer of metafictions, Italo Calvino.  He thinks of writing pages about his own grasslands for her, but imagines her jealous husband intercepting his parcel of papers and telling her he’s dead.  This would appear to be an image of what Murnane is doing while writing Inland: pages that will be read by readers maybe during Murnane’s life but also after his death:

The man is the only person inside the circle of the horizon.  He stares across the veldt or the steppes or the pampas and prepares to think of himself as quite alone.  But he cannot think of himself and the grass around his knees and the clouds over his head and nothing more.  He thinks of himself talking or writing to a young woman…He thinks of himself telling the young woman that he thinks of her telling him she thinks of a man such as himself whenever she sits at her desk and thinks of the grasslands of the world.

When the narrator says he’s died and become a ghost, the novel’s central theme is revealed.

Abruptly on page 45 a new narrator takes over.  This one also lives between two rivers: the Hopkins and Russells Creek, but he relates memories (or are these dreams, too?) of himself aged twelve living in Bendigo and other places in poor suburbs of Melbourne.

I am not sorry for you, reader, if you think of me as deceiving you.  I can hardly forget the trick that you played on me.  You allowed me to believe for a long time that I was writing to a young woman I called my editor.  Safe in the depths of your glass-walled Institute, you even had me addressing you as reader and friend.  Now you still read and I still write but neither of us will trust the other.

Dream, memory, trust.

Trust me or not, reader (he goes on), but whatever I write about myself having done, I will always write about places…I will match landscape with landscape.

He sees himself standing in his grandmother’s white stone house, where he used to spend his childhood summers.  There aged twelve he learned that:

no thing in the world is one thing; that each thing in the world is two things at least, and probably many more than two things.  I learned to find a queer pleasure in staring at a thing and dreaming of how many things it might be.

This becomes a refrain through the rest of the novel: ‘Each place is more than one place’…’It becomes harder and harder to write about things dreamed of by the young man I had dreamed of becoming’…’You may well suspect me of having changed the names of streams only to confuse you…But if I do not write what I am about to write, reader, these pages will be endless’.

The long second part of the novel deals with the narrator’s love for a ‘girl from Bendigo Street’.  He calls her his girlfriend.  It’s a poignant love-letter to her; it’s a reflection on the lost opportunity (in this sense it puts me in mind of Le Grand Meaulnes) and what J.M. Coetzee perceptively calls an elusive act of atonement.  This part of the novel is more ambitious and engaging than the first, as it loops, repeats and teases.  As he dreams and remembers his childhood days between the ‘Moonee Ponds and the Merri’, cycles of the Catholic calendar, naive tinkering with religious terminology (he merges ‘Paraclete’ with ‘parakeet’ in his mind), verses from the bible and the image of the fig tree turning green recur like hallucinations.  ‘Each person is more than one person’.

When the words I quoted earlier from Eluard appear on page101, they spark off another incantation:

The other world, in other words, is a place that can only be seen or dreamed of by those people known to us as narrators of books or characters within books.  If you or I, reader, happen to glimpse part of that world drifting past, as it were, it is because we have seen or dreamed of ourselves seeing for a moment as a narrator or a character in a book sees or dreams of seeing.

I’d recommend this novel to anyone interested in modern, non-traditional fiction.  It’s

Marcel Proust (Wikimedia Commons)

Marcel Proust (Wikimedia Commons)

difficult not to find the enigmatic passages such as those I’ve quoted here mysteriously compelling.  Like the novels of Murnane’s heroes – Proust, Calvino, Emily Bronte, Hardy – Murnane deals with the concepts of loss, memory and resurrection.  As I finish this piece I’m inclined to suggest that it needs reading more than once.  It lingers in my memory like a fugue, and I feel that my initial muted response was perhaps a consequence of not tuning in to the strange music of Inland first time round.  Near the novel’s end the narrator tells of his first hearing of a piece of classical music:

Near the end of that music I heard a pause.  The solemn themes of the music paused for a moment.  Just before the clouds of music had drifted overall the sky and just before the four winds whistled and the last struggle began, I heard the pause of the summer that seemed nigh.

These ‘solemn themes’, he says, are not, ‘by now’, themes but ‘men and women, and when they pause for the last time they look over their shoulders.’  He returns to the frequently invoked biblical image of the resurrection of Christ represented as the fig tree turning from grey to green:

For an absurd moment within that moment, the listener or the reader dares to suppose that this after all is the last theme: this and not the other is the end; the green has outlasted the grey; the grey has been covered over at last by the green.

Cover of the Dalkey Archive Press edition of 'Inland' (from their website)

Cover of the Dalkey Archive Press edition of ‘Inland’ (from their website)

The novel ends in a graveyard where he ponders mutability, mortality and what might have been.  The closing words, fittingly, are taken from the ending of Wuthering Heights.  I’ve come to realise, as I re-read the final pages of Inland, that it is an extraordinary work of high seriousness and profound beauty.  One just has to learn to read it as a meditation on the relationship between reading, writing and existing in world of duality:

Today while I write on this last page, I am still thinking of the young woman.  Today, however, I am sure the young woman is still alive.  I am sure the young woman is still alive while I am dead.  Today I am dead but the young woman remains alive in order to go on reading what I would never write.