Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 13 December 2015


Obituary (4.10.86)

The drowning man is dead; you killed him.
And in my waking hours I will him stay so.

Yet he haunts my dreams
and lives on in my memories
like the reality of a scarred face.

And the world is full of broken mirrors.
Not that it matters: nothing does:
someone will resurrect him.

4 October 1986

A few poems ago I wrote about demon possession. Now I’m writing about ghosts. There are ghosts in the new book—which is finished now (“finished” being a relative term) and Carrie’s pronounced it “excellent” (which I’m hoping is not a relative term)—but they’re just a literary device. In the park, for example, Jim sees his father’s ghost:

I used to see my father's shade out of the corner of my eye. I’d never see him arrive and he disappeared as mysteriously. I’ve not seen him in many a moon.

What do we mean by “ghost”? The book contains two additional definitions to those we’re already familiar with:

A ghost in this context is an avatar for the imagination. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on!”


I dubbed a “ghost” the kind of pathetic individual who’s not all there who haunts a past he or she never truly had rather than make a life in a present they no longer recognise.

Perhaps because I was a poet before I was a novelist—and fully expect to still be a poet once I’m done with all this prose malarkey—I’m far more comfortable with sentences that are open to interpretation than someone like, for example, Orwell who is known for his clear, direct, and precise writing style. I like that we can take a familiar word like “ghost” and redefine it or perhaps I should say expand its definition.

It’s interesting that I use “broken mirrors” in the poem. I use it in the book too: “Humanity is like… How did Pound put it? A bundle of broken mirrors.” By 1986 I’d pretty much given up trying to read Pound but maybe that line had hung around in my head. Who knows? I might’ve come up with it myself. It happens.

The final two lines of the Pound’s poem ‘Near Perigord’ read:

And all the rest of her a shifting change,
A broken bundle of mirrors . . . !

Pound actually created a photography machine that used mirrors to create shattered portraits but he’s not the only one to use the expression. Borges wrote, “We are our memories are that chimerical museum of changing shapes, this heap of broken mirrors.” I remember the expression from an article on Beckett, ‘Beckett's Godot: “A bundle of broken mirrors”’ in which neither Pound nor Borges is mentioned; the author references instead Wordsworth and Hamlet.

In my book though what do I mean when I refer to Mankind as a bundle of broken mirrors? Well several times in the book I make mention to Man being made in God’s image. But we were broken. We are reflections, albeit distorted ones, of our creator. I talk a lot about God in the book—and he’s not without a few things to say himself—but, remember, it’s only a novel. The God in my book is a work of fiction. He only exists in my imagination as are all the characters in the book, avatars of the imagination. The characters in my book are all “broken”. They are imperfect and incomplete. It’s what makes them interesting. I can’t think of anything more boring than perfection and my book is certainly not that but I can live with “excellent”.


Kass said...

God, broken mirrors, resurrection, memories, meanings, ghosts. The fact that you can take all these ideas and make poetry and prose is so much more interesting than "clear and direct."

We are all somewhat broken and incomplete and find comfort in someone putting us together with stuff and images.

Jim Murdoch said...

One of the things Beckett used to do with his writing, Kass, was “envaguen” it. He’d start off with fixed details and gradually blur the edges. What he really was seeking to do was universalise his material. In early drafts of Krapp's Last Tape play was set was quite specifically in 1986 which was later amended to '1985' and then 'the nineteen-eighties' until finally all he says is that it is set in the future all of which is pretty much irrelevant to the viewer. Because here’s the thing: even when provided with details often a reader or viewer will choose to disregard them. I, for example, almost always skim over lengthy descriptions in novels. If a story takes place in a seaside town then that’s all I need to know; I’ve been in enough seaside towns to add my own details.

I’ve been reading reviews of David Bowie’s latest album today and find myself amused by the fact the journalists use expressions like “inscrutable lyrics” and “how unknowable he’s become” as if these are good things. I’m not suggesting they’re bad things. I’m just highlighting the fact that we really don’t mind meaning not being explicit. This is especially true of songs. It’s like what Steve Harley said about his song ‘Sebastian’: “It's poetry. It means what you want it to mean. ‘Sebastian’ is the conduit, the tubes through which I took myself on that journey to write the story. I can't say for sure, but I wouldn't have been far away from tripping when I wrote ‘Sebastian’. LSD, certainly, created so many incidents in your life, so many images, so much madness and mayhem, as well as great tranquillity if you were lucky. I can't define its meaning. It's like most poetry, it's a lovely word.”

I wrote so many notes to The More Things Change because I know I’ll never remember all the layers and, to be honest, I should’ve written more. I mention Jonah several times in the book but I don’t think there’s anywhere in the notes I actually join up the dots.

Kass said...

You are so many-layered and interesting. I really like learning about Beckett and his envaguening process. It reminds me of an impressionistic painting.

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