A New Kind of Space

I cannot recall having believed, even as a child, that the purpose of reading fiction was to learn about the place commonly called the real world. I seem to have sensed from the first that to read fiction was to make available for myself a new kind of space. In that space, a version of myself was free to move among places and personages the distinguishing features of which were the feelings they caused to arise in me rather than their seeming appearance, much less their possible resemblance to places or persons in the world where I sat reading. I seemed to have sensed also from an early age that some experiences as a reader would change me more as a person than would many an event in the world where I sat and read.

Gerald Murnane
From the introduction to Tamarisk Row

How I Became a Nun by César Aira

There may be hyperbole around the fiction of César Aira, or perhaps How I Became a Nun didn’t stand a chance of meeting my high expectations. Aira is sometimes mentioned alongside writers like Dyer, Berger, Krasznahorkai, Murnane and Coetzee as writing vital, forward-looking fiction. How I Became a Nun is darkly funny and surreal, and quite evidently an accomplished work of fiction, but it didn’t knock me sideways.

The story begins, “My story, the story of “how I became a nun,” began very early in life; I had just turned six.” Aira places “how I became a nun” in quotation marks in that sentence, in direct allusion to the title of his novel. Thereafter there is no further mention of nuns. The narrator, who dies before the end of the novel, narrates her death, is named as César Aira, though for most of the novel portrayed as a six-year old girl. I say ‘most’ as on at least two instances she is referred to as a boy.

The autobiographical narrator uses the children in the class to build elaborate stories, and thus obliquely narrates her/his fictional beginning.

As I had no dolls,I had to make do with make-believe children. And as I didn’t have any already made up, I used real ones, reimagining them as I pleased. They were my classmates, the only children I knew, and they were ideal for my purposes, because I had no idea of their lives outside school. For me they were absolute schoolchildren. To make the game more fun, I gave them twisted, difficult, baroque personalities.

The ending is absurdly brilliant. Aira is a writer I shall be returning to, but I’d appreciate any suggestions of what Aira books to read. My edition advertises An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.

A New Love

I have a new love. She is called Melbourne, listed in fifth position on Monocle’s Livable Cities Index and in first place on Economist’s World’s Most Livable Cities.

It is no wonder as the city is rewarding on so many levels: breathtaking postmodern architecture (the outstanding Melbourne Museum as a single example, time-dissolving indy bookshops (my favourite was The Paperback Bookshop), a city centre beach, consistently thrilling bars and restaurants, the annual Melbourne Cup which takes over the city every spring. It is a culturally rich, friendly, exciting city.

Naturally I bought some books while in the city, choosing three Gerald Murnane books, so difficult to find on this side of the globe.

I am anticipating and planning my next trip to Melbourne next year, perhaps with a detour to Tasmania, for the trekking and Pinot Noir.

Pure Literature

Biblioklept’s excellent post ‘Why I Abandoned Chad Harbach’s Over-Hyped Novel The Art of Fielding After Only 100 Pages’  is worth your time, as are the comments that follow about the nature of ‘literary fiction.’

One commenter adds, “Also, have you heard of the distinction made in Japanese between literary fiction and ‘pure literature?'” I haven’t but it sounds suspiciously like the old high/middlebrow debate, interesting in an abstract way but endlessly open to debate and reinterpretation. When I have some time I will follow up the sources of the argument .

Biblioklept kicked off a list of ‘strong/strange’ literature, based on a Bloom argument that, ‘it is the strangeness and originality of a work that confers its literary power.’ This position makes sense to me, as does Biblioklept’s ‘short list of relatively contemporary books (past thirty or fifty years) that I think will challenge readers who want more from their novels than a retread of the old-fashioned and well behaved.’

Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, Renata Adler’s Speedboat, David Foster Wallace’s novels and short stories, Cormac McCarthy’s novels (especially Blood Meridian and Suttree), Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker or Kleinzheit, Barry Hannah’s Airships and Ray, anything by W.G. Sebald, William T. Vollmann’s The Rifles or Butterfly Stories, Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask, Lars Iyers’s Spurious, PK Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, Gordon Lish’s short stories, Denis Johnson’s Angels, Thomas Pynchon’s V, Don DeLillo’s Underworld or White Noise.

To which I added, over coffee and cornflakes (a dozen others occur to me now):

Most of Geoff Dyer’s work (especially Out of Sheer Rage: In the Shadow of D.H.Lawrence), Peter Handke’s Across, Thomas Bernhard’s Correction, Tejo Cole’s Open City, J. M. Coetzee’s novels, Lydia Davis’s novels and short stories, Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch and Vyacheslav Pyetsukh’s The New Moscow Philosophy.


Words Beyond Borders offered the following suggestions: The Dictionary Of Khazars by Milorad Pavic and Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Wizard of the Crow. Saramago and Murakami works would also make my list. Thank you for the two titles, both new to me, and I would endorse Saramago and Murakami.

I don’t wish to poach any suggestions from Bibilioklept, so I have closed this post for further comments. If you have any additions to Biblioklept’s list, please head over to add them here.

Gerald Murnane’s Barley Patch

What do I recall of reading Remembrance of Things Past? Many years later, I remember characters, scenes, moods, but I am unable to quote a sentence. I recall that, in Combray, and in the salon of Duchesse de Guermantes, a non-Proustian observer silently stood. He was a “ghostly fictional character” insinuated into Proust’s fiction by this reader.

In the Barley Patch, Gerald Murnane uniquely explores memory and fiction, the images that endure during and after reading fiction, and the existence of fictional characters when they are not being described. His work itself is a fiction. I suspect Barley Patch is impossible to completely comprehend without a grounding in his previous fiction, perhaps not even with that history. I did not use the term ‘uniquely’ lightly. I’ve read nothing quite like Barley Patch, possibly it is brilliant.

Acquiring Barley Patch in Europe takes a little effort. This post at Being in Lieu induced me to read Murnane’s latest book. Jen writes, “There is a kind of music, or at least very recognisable rhythm, in the writing of Gerald Murnane,” and finds echoes of Proust. His meticulous scrutiny into the nature of memory, what it is to remember and what we mean when we ‘remember’ fiction impels me to question whether I remembered fiction in this way before reading Murnane.

The writing is precise to the point of pedantry. Though occasionally irksome, Murnane’s precision has the benefit of slowing one’s reading. It is that sort of book that you place on your lap from time to time, stare into the middle distance, and ponder.

The most precise statement (in comments) that I have encountered about Gerald Murnane’s writing is, “All books by Gerald Murnane, if you can find them, are fascinating. Obscure and fascinating. One feels as though the grit in one’s reading eye has been thoroughly cleaned out with…something.” It is a description that sums up my reading of Barley Patch very well.