Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 31, 2021

Last Letter to a Reader, by Gerald Murnane

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading Gerald Murnane, it’s that it’s impossible for me to write the kind of review that writing of this calibre deserves.  And this is just as true of Last Letter to a Reader as it is of his enigmatic fiction.

This is the blurb:

In the first days of spring in his eighty-second year, Gerald Murnane–perhaps the greatest living writer of English prose–began a project that would round off his strange career as a novelist. He would read all of his books in turn and prepare a report on each. His original intention was to lodge the reports in two of his legendary filing cabinets: in the Chronological Archive, which documents his life as a whole, and the Literary Archive, which is devoted to everything he has written.

As the reports grew, however, they themselves took on the form of a book, a book as beguiling and hallucinatory, in its way, as the works on which they were meant to report. These miniature memoirs or stories lead the reader through the capacious territory Murnane refers to as his mind: they dwell on the circumstances that gave rise to his writing, on images and associations, on Murnane’s own theories of fiction, and then memories of a deeply personal kind. The final essay is, of course, on Last Letter to a Reader itself: it considers the elation and exhilaration that accompany the act of writing, and offers a moving finale to what must surely be Murnane’s last work, as death approaches. “Help me, dear one,” he writes, “to endure patiently my going back to my own sort of heaven.”

Last Letter to a Reader is not like Murnane’s other books.  Murnane is addressing his own legacy as a writer…

In the essay about his book Invisible but Enduring Lilacs, he explains the obligation to compose something worthwhile, something worthy of the attention of the personage that I know only as my Ideal Reader, one of a select band of those that I call readers of good will. 

Well, I like Murnane’s books, and he has my enthusiastic attention, and I have the good will. But I am not his Ideal Reader, and I approach his work well aware of my limitations.  This is partly because in his previous fiction he has been explicit about what he expects of his readers.  He is unabashed in his scorn for most reviewers and for a certain sort of reader.  In his essay about Velvet Waters, he writes:

A certain sort of reader of these paragraphs might have cause to complain that an author of my sort denies him or her what readers of fiction have traditionally sought and obtained: meetings-up with complex but credible characters ; insights into human nature.  My reply to such a complaint would be the claim that the alert reader of my fiction obtains therefrom an extraordinarily detailed knowledge of its implied narrator, the personage who created it.  The mouse behind the mesh, the grey-gold monastery/brain, and the sky of melting colours — each of these and of the host of their counterparts throughout my fiction is an item of evidence, no matter how fragmentary, of the workings of the mysterious invisible entity that we call Mind. (p.54)

What might distinguish me from that certain sort of reader is that while I do like fictional meetings-up with complex but credible characters and insights into human nature, I don’t complain about fiction that offers something else.  I often relish it.

This is what happens when Murnane reads:

The reading of a work of fiction alters — sometimes briefly but sometimes permanently — the configuration of my mental landscape and augments the number of personages who are its temporary or permanent residents.  Morality, social issues, psychological insight — such matters seem as fanciful and inconsequential to me as my talk of shapes and dissolving imagery might seem to my conjectured reader. (p.53)

Again, although I generally find commercial and genre fiction disappointing, I enjoy complex novels that explore morality, social issues, and psychological insights.  But equally, I like reading books that reconfigure my mental landscape in the way that Proust, James Joyce, Borges and Murnane do.

He also says:

…as I’ve said often in recent years, that I write fiction by reporting the contents of my mind is to explain nothing. Nor would I take what seems the easy way around the matter by declaring that my fiction is the product of something called the imagination. The word envisage is useful.  The same word is also unpretentious, and I use it sometimes from a fear of seeming in any way pretentious.  Mostly I refer simply to fictional events and fictional personages, hoping thus to prevent my fiction from being taken as a report of things that once happened in the world where I sit as I write it or even of things that may have happened there. (p.59-60)

Murnane would probably find the idea of a literary pilgrimage absurd, but next time I’m in Malvern I’m going to slow down in homage as I pass the double-fronted brick Edwardian house in what is now a fashionable precinct, where sixty years ago, Murnane lived in the rented room with gas-ring and shared bathroom at the rear.  Not long ago, he revisited the address, (which is given in the book but I’m not sharing it online) and his memory of it was vivid:

I became again the young primary-school teacher with no money, no car, no girl-friend, nothing published, and little hope of remedying any of these deprivations.  It would have seemed quite in order for me to open the wrought-iron gate and to stride down the driveway towards the place that had seemed to promise much when I first moved in but had soon lost its look of being the place where I first came into my own as a writer.  What I struggled to write in that narrow space was mostly poetry, although some of what I entered in the book that I called my journal suggests that I thought sometimes of attempting a novel, as I would have called it then.  When I wasn’t trying to write, I was reading, but little of what I read seemed of any help.  Most of it had been written on the other side of the world by people whose pedigrees and upbringing had destined them to be writers, so I thought.  I had already, if only I could have understood the matter, the material for half a dozen works of fiction.  (p.70)

Today, Murnane knows that the man bearing my name becomes a different person whenever he sits at his desk in order to write fiction.  That he is then concerned with matters different from the usual, and that the events pressing on the man-at-his-desk. so to call him, are such that their precise origin seems to him irrelevant.  What we have in this collection of essays is a glimpse into the world of the book before it becomes final shape and we can see some of the complex work done by its author.

I see that what I’ve done here is to engage with Murnane’s text as I usually do, meandering through the pages and sharing the way they impact on me.  If I consider his way of assessing the value of a book as he does in the essay titled A Million Windows, that is, to ask myself how much I recall, long afterwards, of the experience of reading the book,  I would say that his is a criteria very close to one I used to use to explain the difference between reading literature and popular fiction to my students. The comic novels of Paul Jennings are fun to read, but Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is a story to remember all your life because of the moral quandaries it explores.  It changes the way we think about things.  The experience of reading Murnane is to savour a different way of thinking about things, and it is sad to think that perhaps we have seen the last of his sublime fictions.

Author: Gerald Murnane
Title: Last Letter to a Reader
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2021
ISBN: 9781925818840, pbk., 126 pages
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo, but I also had a copy through my prose subscription.


Responses

  1. “It changes the way we think about things.” Yes, that’s exactly it about the greatest books of our lives – some are entertaining or enjoyable, but fade with time. The ones that are important mark us.

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    • And this is why we can’t bear to part with the ones that do this… they are part of our own personal enlightenment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a great idea for a book. I have to confess I haven’t heard of the author, but I love the idea of his project.

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    • Ah…. well… here’s the heads-up. Gerald Murnane is in the running for a Nobel Prize, he’s been nominated officially and is considered a contender by those who know about these things. He would be our second Australian Nobel Laureate if he gets one, I don’t count Coetzee because he got his Nobel while in S. Africa.
      Scholarly people study his work as scholarly people do, but I enjoy reading him as an ordinary reader does.

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  3. I always knew that I should read Murnane, bumping into him occasionally as I did, in the pages of the Age probably, Still, it took your impetus to get me started. I am wary of being told by authors how to read their work, but as Murnane often does that anyway within his work, and as the writing in this work about his work seems as sublime as all his other writing then I should really get myself down to the bookshop and secure myself a copy.

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    • LOL I used to be intimidated, but now I just have fun with it:)

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  4. […] Last Letter to a Reader, by Gerald Murnane […]

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  5. I’ve been making notes about each essay as I go along, but December got too hectic with work and Covid stuff, so I have not been able to concentrate properly to continue. And one thing any reader of Murnane knows, is that concentration is required!

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    • Yes, true, with him it’s more about a train of thought than a theme that a reader can grasp…
      Are you out of iso now?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes NYE was our last day. We’re now enjoying a week at the beach before back to work next week. Murnane’s essays are not beach reads 😅

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