An old man ruminates on landscapes and houses, authors and religion, colored glass and memory in this drifting quasi-fiction.
The unnamed narrator, age 72, has recently moved from a city to live alone in a “quiet township” near an unspecified border in an unnamed country. In the opening pages, he recalls his school days and the religious brothers who taught him. The colored glass in a church window sparks memories of a book that describes men during the Commonwealth period in the 17th century smashing the stained-glass windows of churches in England. A partial picture of the narrator emerges with references to teaching, marriage, children, relatives, and childhood horse-racing interests. But there’s little ongoing narrative, just vignettes scattered among musings on visual perception and recollections of houses, books, and colored glass. The preoccupations with how one has seen the world and with memory suit an older man and a writer; the prose, with its precision, repetition, and verbal footnotes, smacks of an academic lecturer. Despite the subtitle, the narrator insists he is “not writing a work of fiction” but recording a “sequence of images,” or “a chain of thoughts.” The chain in one 12-page stretch includes a Proust allusion, a book jacket’s author photo, childhood marbles, a kaleidoscope bought in Virginia, the colored glass in kaleidoscopes, 120 colored pencils, and marbles on a carpet which the narrator moves in the hope that a chance arrangement “would restore to me some previously irretrievable mood.” In search of lost marbles? No, the narrator is utterly rational. The sui generis Australian writer Murnane (The Plains, 2017, etc.) is at least eccentric. He seems to be showing how a writer’s mind works when he is writing and when he is riffling through or riffing on vision, insight, and memories.
A fascinating, provocative, sometimes frustrating read; the stylistic tics may grow tiresome but Murnane’s intriguing ideas and oblique angles rarely do.