Last Letter to a Reader by Gerald Murnane review – an elegiac but cantankerous swan song

The Australian literary great bows out with a collection of essays that ruminate on his experience of reading all his books in order

In 1995, Australian author Gerald Murnane published what he thought would be his final work of fiction, Emerald Blue. He quit writing for 14 years. He returned with the novel Barley Patch in 2009, and since then has had an unexpected late-career resurgence, including seven new books and the Prime Minister’s Literary award for fiction.

Murnane’s books are now published by highly respected publishers in Australia, the US and the UK, and he can count many high-profile authors among his admirers, including JM Coetzee, Ben Lerner, Teju Cole and Hari Kunzru. He has been the subject of a lengthy profile by the New York Times and a dedicated television segment on the ABC’s 7.30. By any measure, he is one of Australia’s most decorated living novelists.

Now, Murnane has published another final book, Last Letter to a Reader. The idea for the book came to Murnane during lockdown in the small Victorian town of Goroke in 2020, when he decided to read his books “in the order of their publication” and write a “report of my experience as a reader of each book”. While this might seem strange, Murnane notes that he had “previously read none of my books in its published form”. He often discusses differences between the manuscripts he wrote and the books that resulted from them. His most celebrated work, 1982’s The Plains, started as “a sort of florid descant accompanying a conventional narrative” in a much longer work, entitled The Only Adam. He also “sometimes regrets” the title The Plains, which his publishers suggested over his preferred Landscape with Darkness and Mirage. He reveals that he published a still-unknown book of poetry under a pseudonym before he began writing novels.

The essays in Last Letter are neither literary criticism nor memoir. They ruminate instead on unexpected connections between books, ideas and the specific life experiences that informed his writing. His discussion of his 1988 novel Inland turns from Murnane’s love for the sonorities of the Hungarian language (which he taught himself) to a discussion of Proust. These connections are important and meaningful for those who have read Inland, but they are hardly an explication of authorial intent.

Though Last Letter is meant to be a final book, it is often more cantankerous than elegiac. Murnane, at various points, expresses his dislike of scholarly literary criticism, book reviewers, philosophy, neuroscience, cameras, publishers, the way we talk about characters as if they were actual people, and readers’ tendency to conflate their memories of reading a book with the book itself.

While Murnane expounds upon his love for long sentences, he dislikes when they violate traditional rules of syntax. He criticises several well-known authors – including Thomas Pynchon, Hermann Broch and László Krasznahorkai – for writing the wrong kind of long sentences.

These complaints might seem curmudgeonly, but Murnane’s unusual perception of the world and refusal to take concepts at face value are what make his fiction unique. That he has managed to publish such unusual books despite the enormous commercial difficulties of doing so testifies to a persistence that is probably indistinguishable from stubbornness. But Murnane’s strong views about literature also reflect his belief that writing is a vital mode for exploring truth. He argues that his books have enabled him to see “connections” and have “revelations” about the world, which for him are “my true reward for writing fiction”. It is an incredibly sincere sentiment that seems out of step with a post-postmodern world where truth is typically seen as perspectival rather than absolute.

Victorian author Gerald Murnane.
Victorian author Gerald Murnane. ‘Murnane has long been interested in framing the way readers encounter his work’. Photograph: Ben Denham

Perhaps even more baffling for contemporary readers is the real meaning of the title, Last Letter to a Reader. The reader here is not “us”, but a figure of Murnane’s “personal mythology” – his “Ideal Reader” who “supervises most of my writing”. This Ideal Reader is a “woman” who “has a distinctive appearance but resembles no person that I have actually met” and “has never uttered so much as a syllable” but is “well-disposed to me”.

But Murnane also undercuts his idealistic notions in various ways. The title of the book references another of Murnane’s stories, Last Letter to a Niece, in which the main character says: “I began to foresee the peculiar course that my life would take in the future: I would seek in books what most others sought among living persons.” This tendency becomes unexpectedly comic when Murnane tells an unusual horse racing story to an incredulous punter before admitting that the events described occurred in a complex, imaginary horse racing game of Murnane’s devising rather than in reality.

In a typically recursive gesture, the final chapter of Last Letter to a Reader is dedicated to the book we’ve been reading. Murnane has long been interested in framing the way readers encounter his work, and has frequently discussed the contents of the “16 crowded cabinet drawers containing my Literary Archive”, which seem organised for future critics. This book will similarly be most meaningful to dedicated readers who have already made their way through his other works. Last Letter to a Reader might best be seen as Murnane’s complex and often ironic attempt to have a say about the meaning of his books before other critics inevitably do.


Contributor

Emmett Stinson

The GuardianTramp

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