Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2012

A History of Books (2012), by Gerald Murnane

If you have not read him, you should do so. He is a staggering original…’

So says Peter Craven in his review at The Age/SMH. The judges for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award concurred, and have shortlisted A History of Books for the 2012 prize.  This makes the task of choosing a winner doubly difficult because the shortlist is a strong one this year, and while in my opinion Murnane’s book is the stand-out contender, it raises the contemporary question of ‘accessibility’.  A book which defies conventional ideas about what fiction can be is pitched against five other  novels which – while equally worthwhile reading – are written in more conventional form and are certainly less demanding.  It was obvious at last year’s award ceremony that there was a clear agenda of jazzing up the awards and giving them a higher profile, which implies ‘accessibility’.   Even if that were not so, it’s been a very long time since a challenging, non-conventional book has won a major prize in Australia…

I wonder if that would change if Murnane won the Nobel Prize for Literature.  I’m not the only one who thinks he is a strong contender.  (You can read my thoughts about that here.)

The first thing I should say in discussing A History of Books is that I should have read Barley Patch (2009) first.  I bought that as soon as it came out, but I’ve been saving it because there aren’t many books by this author and I wanted to stretch them out.  So, although I’m told that A History of Books is a continuation of the ‘exploration of the relationship between writing and reading which [Murnane] undertook in Barley Patch’  I’m reading this book as many readers will, without having read its predecessor.  A History of Books was the only one of the Premier’s Prize shortlist that I hadn’t read, and I wanted to read it before the prize is announced on October 16th.

My first impression when I started reading this book (NB I’m not calling it a novel, though novel it certainly is) was that Murnane lost no time in deflating any ideas I might have had about being well-read.  I knew before I began that this meditation on books and reading involved some authors that I’d read: James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Joseph Conrad, Herman Hesse, Elias Canetti and John Steinbeck, so I was expecting to identify allusions to their work.  But the very first book he alludes to is one of the Latin magic-realists, and although I’ve read a couple of them, I, like Murnane, hadn’t liked them much (though for entirely different reasons).  Even so, it’s a kind of torture not knowing which one he means, but I know I’ll never finish reading the book if I Google around trying to identify the subject of this passage:

None of the disputes between the man and the woman had been resolved when he and she became a male and a female jaguar, or it may have been a male and a female hummingbird or a male and a female lizard. (p3)

Is this image from one of the books I’d read?  Or has Murnane referenced some obscure author that I’ve never heard of?

There is might be an answer to this, but readers should discover that for themselves.

Murnane can be a playful author, and it was only a few pages later that I found that the narrator (who might be Murnane himself, or might not be) has the same problem of not being able to remember what he’s read.  (Or so he says). His wife has facilitated a two-year sabbatical so that he can write the work of fiction he has longed to write.  A year has gone by, and although he’s been a dutiful house-husband-and-father while she’s been at work, he’s spent most of his year reading, seeking ‘the secret known only to writers of fiction‘ and discarding his few futile attempts to write something original. Pondering a book by a Greek-born author (one that was written  in French ten years before he was born by an author better-known for his surrealist paintings) all the narrator can remember is an image.  Not a word of the text.  (Not like the Melbourne drummer Alan Browne, who can and does quote great slabs of Proust during his performances).

If it can be said what Murnane’s preoccupation in this book might be, he is interested in the way he remembers visual images from his lifetime of reading.  Not text, not words.  And in discussing this, to differentiate the real from the image, he prefaces his image people, places and events with the word ‘image’ thus:

Noticeable in the image-room were a glass-fronted image-bookcase and an image-table where a famous image-man, aged perhaps sixty years and more, sat writing.  The remembering man could remember, at the age of sixty and more years, hardly any of the words of the report of the interview mentioned but he remembered still a statement to the effect that all the fiction written by the famous writer was part of his effort to rediscover the faraway world of his Jansenist, provincial childhood. (p74)

I had a chuckle over this teasing allusion …

I felt absurdly pleased with myself when I immediately recognised two scraps from James Joyce’s Ulysses! (It’s from Circe, when Bantam Lyons expects Bloom to prophesy the winner of the St Leger.  (Lyons had interpreted an earlier comment from Bloom as a tip for a horse called Throwaway, and it won).  It was easy to recognise this allusion because Murnane meant us to: this chapter mimics a play-script, and of course Murnane would remember this bit of text from Ulysses, because it’s about one of his major preoccupations, horse-racing).

I was enchanted by a strange little snippet about the gods in heaven which reminded me of the playful way John Banville depicted his gods in The Infinities.  Murnane’s gods are jocular beings, with no pretensions:

The reader may have expected to read that the divine personages spent their days in vast galleries contemplating magnificent paintings and sculpture, in concert halls listening to sublime music, or in libraries reading profound literature.  In the heaven described here, no art galleries or concert halls or libraries existed.  No one painted or sculpted or composed music or wrote literature because no one was urged to find so-called meaning behind so-called appearances.  Where the everyday was the ultimate, there was nothing to do but play.  (p111)

They do have a library, though it’s full of ‘dry reading indeed‘ and it’s when they’re in the library that the gods hear knocking.  They go on doing what they do: going to the races, riding to hounds, watching sport, and playing board or card games.  The knocking continues, so the gods amuse themselves by taking bets – not about the identity of the knocker, but about the knocker’s ‘field of endeavour‘.   They bet on whether he is a founder of religion, a composer of music, or an artist.  Hardly anybody bets that it’s a writer. Eventually when all the bets are settled, one of the gods goes down to the door to find out, but leaves ‘the famous French author of a long work of fiction‘ on the doorstep…

The first book actually mentioned by name is Das Glasperlenspiel. I did Google that, because although I don’t speak German, I was pretty sure that it had something to do with marbles: the game the narrator describes as being on the dust-jacket of this book is very like the game played by Clement Killeaton in Tamarisk Row.  (The boy pretends his marbles are horses in a race).  Das Glasperlenspiel is one by Herman Hesse that I haven’t read, it’s called The Glass Bead Game but the synopsis in Wikipedia tells me the game is played by

… an austere order of intellectuals with a twofold mission: to run boarding schools for boys, and to nurture and play the Glass Bead Game, whose exact nature remains elusive and whose devotees occupy a special school within Castalia known as Waldzell. The rules of the game are only alluded to, and are so sophisticated that they are not easy to imagine. Playing the game well requires years of hard study of music, mathematics, and cultural history. Essentially the game is an abstract synthesis of all arts and sciences. It proceeds by players making deep connections between seemingly unrelated topics.

Fascinating, eh?  I ordered this book from Fishpond straight away. (A couple of books I already have on my TBR have also scuttled up the pile).

While this is fun, I know that playing literary trivial pursuit is not the point of this fiction.    Murnane wants his readers to recognise some of the books he’s alluding to, and he creates deliberate confusion with others.  You can Google the slab of John Crane’s poetry but you don’t have to do this (or to be familiar with his poetry) to notice that the adjacent stanzas by Christopher Brennan are in a completely different style – even though the juxtaposition might lure a reader into thinking that they too are by Crane.  I think this is done deliberately to remind readers that (like everyone else) Murnane has an original mind and that the bits and pieces in his memory of images are bound to be different to anyone else’s.  It becomes a case of read the book, go-with-the-flow and never mind which author or book he might be meditating on.  Leave that to Murnane’s biographers…

After a while, the book becomes mesmerizing.  The reader is gently drawn into pondering the ideas of the narrator and thence into other literary excursions: I found myself trawling my memories of books, discovering that I too tended to have images of these books rather than memories of the text.  Now I wonder, does everyone do the same?

And it just so happens that I only recently mentioned an image that I had remembered incorrectly when referencing a book by Kafka.  I wonder if, in a lifetime of reading and re-reading, Murnane’s visual memory has played tricks on him too?

I’ve only finished the first part of this book, the part entitled  A History of Books.  There are also three shorter pieces called ‘As It Were a Letter’, ‘The Boy’s Name was David‘ and ‘Last Letter to a Niece‘.  The blurb tells me that these pieces are about the writer’s search for an ideal world, an ideal sentence, and an ideal reader.  I’m a bit nervous about reading this last one because I expect to fall well short!

This is a delicious book which deserves re-reading.  After I’ve read Barley Patch

Jennifer Mills (author of Gone which I reviewed a while ago) reviewed it for the Wheeler Centre’s website.

Update 20/10/14 Don’t miss Jim’s excellent review at The Truth about Lies.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: A History of Books
Publisher: Giramondo 2012
ISBN: 9781920882853
Source: Review copy courtesy of Giramondo


Fishpond: A History of Books
Or direct from Giramondo: A History of Books


  1. This is a book I’ve been wanting to read but I might have to wait until I’m back in Australia. I don’t think there’s been any word of it being published in the US, although Dalkey might pick it up.

    On the question about images: I don’t know if I have images, but I do know that I have something that is not words — I have impressions, I think, or I could borrow from Walter Benjamin and say that I have auras — a passage in a book leaves a residual aura in me, and when I think I am remembering the passage I am remembering in fact the aura, which is not a word and not a picture but a product of both.


    • Hello Deane, lovely to hear from you!
      Yes, I like ‘impressions’ – it fits better with what I think is in my head. There’s been a lot of work done on different kinds of intelligence, and I’m (surprise, surprise) more of a words person than a visual person.


  2. This book sounds amazing! This is the second thing I’ve read in the last few months that makes me think I absolutely have to read Murnane (the first being an essay in Kill Your Darlings), but I’m glad to have the tip about reading Barley Patch first.

    Have you seen the Gaurdian piece about the Booker judge discussing ‘readability’ – very interesting and in line with what you discuss here about the prize thing.


    • I was at a launch tonight and Paddy O’Reilly talked about how doing anything a bit different was risky for an author but that (I hope I’m not misquoting her) if the book works at a technical level (the sentence etc) the author can bring readers along. I think Murnane does that.


  3. Sounds a bit like Enrique Vila-Matas’ work (e.g. ‘Dublinesque’) in its meta-fictional aspects (and in referencing numerous works which may or may not be real!). Definitely one to try :)


    • That’s on my TBR, Tony. It was probably your review that sent me off to buy it!


    • I’ve read Murnane — though not this Murnane — and I’ve read Vila-Matas — though I don’t remember if I’ve tried that Vila-Matas or not — and my own impression, is that Murnane has a cooler tone than Vila-Matas; he’s a little closer to Coetzee.


      • I haven’t read any Vila-Matas at all, and I haven’t read enough of Coetzee’s more recent books to compare them, Deane. I’ve been working my way through his backlist and have some catching up to do.


  4. […] that will guide his life and his writing.  Reading it made me want to re-read Murnane’s History of Books to which I failed to do justice.  I suspect that I could happily spend a year just re-reading my […]


  5. […] I don’t imagine that there are any Australian academics who read this litblog, but if there were, I’m sure they would agree that Gerald Murnane deserves inclusion.  I’ve read two of his books, Inland and The Plains.  (See my thoughts here.) I have The Barley Patch waiting patiently on the TBR and I am saving it for when I have some uninterrupted lazy days in summer when I can lose myself in the swirling confusion of his claustrophobic landscapes.  I am so grateful to Sydney University Press for sending me a review copy of his work that enabled me to discover this amazing author! (Update 2012: see now my reviews of Tamarisk Row and A History of Books). […]


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