Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Silence and Sound in the Sentences of Gerald Murnane's A Million Windows

Academic journal article Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature : JASAL

Silence and Sound in the Sentences of Gerald Murnane's A Million Windows

Article excerpt

In his 1986 essay 'Why I write what I write', Gerald Murnane underlines the importance of sound to his writing, and in particular the sound of sentences. He affirms that sentences have a sound shape that fits the contours of the thought that inhabits them, and further, that when the right sound shape is found it also involves the voice that is proper to the work, which, for Murnane, is the author's own authentic voice. He brings a number of writers and thinkers to his aid in fleshing out this idea: Hugh Kenner who spoke of the 'shape of meaning', Robert Frost, who spoke of 'the sound of sense' that is strung on a sentence, Robert Louis Stevenson who spoke of how sentences begin as knots that then clear and resolve themselves. Turning to rhythm he cites Herbert Read who states that rhythm aligns itself not with words but thought, with a proper sounding sentence fitting the contour of the thought. He then cites Virginia Woolf who also speaks of rhythm emerging as a 'sight, an emotion [that] creates this wave in the mind' which writing captures, again by linking words that fit the form of a thought to an existing sound form (Murnane, Lilacs 26-28).

Like Woolf, Murnane finds a relation between images and feelings and the sounds that house them, and also like Woolf, he composes this relation as a way of somehow coming to terms with these images and feelings. He states:

My sentences arise out of images and feelings that haunt me - not always painfully; sometimes quite pleasantly. These images and feelings haunt me until I find the sentences to bring them into this world. (Murnane, Lilacs 28).

Murnane's most recent novel, A Million Windows, might be read as a meditation on the relation between sound and silence.

Murnane's work in general has received a deal of critical attention, and this has extended in recent times to a consideration of the philosophical implications of his work (see Murphy, West) and his place in the national and transnational space of Australian fiction, given the small but growing international interest in his works (Coetzee , Genoni). So too, while it has only recently been published a number of extended reviews have been dedicated to A Million Windows and aspects of its compelling complexity both in Australia (Stinton) and internationally (see Kahn, Wood). Yet, anxiety still exists within the field of Australian literature as to Murnane's status. I contend this novel clarifies how and why the Murnane's later work is important and adds new depth to early work. That is, this novel challenges the reading offered by Gelder and Salzman, which considers the later works to be impoverished in comparison to The Plains (131-132). Their claim that the later work (which, given the limits of their time frame does not include Murnane's works after Emerald Blue) 'depicts women as rather old-fashioned Muses, empty vessels waiting to be filled by male desire; or his sense of landscape as somehow virginal' (132) is refuted by the substance of A Million Windows, as I hope to set out here.

At the heart of the novel, though only revealed at the end, is a secret that has long been held in silence in the narrator's family and only recently revealed to him. Indeed, it seems a major revelation, one that has not appeared before in his fiction, which is unusual for a writer like Murnane, who constantly returns to the same themes and ideas. While the idea of sound is linked to topics concerned with the nature of fiction and the kind of fictional narration preferred by the narrator of the novel, the idea of silence is paired with the reiterated motif of the nervous breakdown. One breaks down into silence or because of silence. One addresses, resolves, or stops the breakdown by finding the right sentences. Tying these opposites together are images and feelings related to meaning. These feelings in turn are not found so much in the actual entities encountered in life, in the realm of the visible or actual, but through the manner in which these entities are made to appear in the realm of the invisible or fictional: a realm of perfectly contoured sounds carrying thoughts that do justice to the feelings of understanding that are conveyed in the images. …

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