December 2021 – January 2022

Arts & Letters

Final sentence: Gerald Murnane’s ‘Last Letter to a Reader’

By Shannon Burns

© Peter Kevin Solness / Fairfax Media

The essay anthology that will be the final book from one of Australia’s most idiosyncratic authors

Last Letter to a Reader is, we are informed, the final book to be published by Gerald Murnane in his lifetime, appearing nearly half a century after the first. The essays that make up Last Letter are named after each of Murnane’s books and arranged in order of their publication. Each essay supplies useful information about the relevant book, its origins, and the author’s life, all through the filter of Murnane’s idiosyncratic beliefs about writing, reading, and the dimensions and contents of his mind. It is the best book about Murnane’s books that anyone is ever likely to write.

In “A Season on Earth”, Murnane argues that we only genuinely talk about a book when we quote its sentences. Otherwise, we are merely talking about the traces the book has left in our memory. By way of example, he offers a sentence he recalls from Moby-Dick. Murnane’s recollection of the sentence is not quite accurate, but he isn’t concerned with accuracy in this case. He writes: “And if someone should ever inform me that those are not the exact words of the text, I’ll be pleased rather than abashed – pleased that I’ve adapted a fictional text for the best of all purposes: to enrich an actual life.” Murnane’s relationship with the sentences that make up books is, more truly, a relationship with his adapted versions of those sentences and books, which have, to varying degrees, become part of his inner world.

There is an implied demand here for readers and critics to acknowledge that we, too, continually engage with something we cannot truly understand or reproduce; that when I write about Last Letter to a Reader I am referring to the distorted or adapted version of it I half-perceived then barely retained. I can no more keep in mind or accurately describe its contents than I can keep in mind or adequately describe the experiences and inner workings of another human being.

In the same essay, Murnane suggests that imitation is a far superior form of literary engagement than critical analysis. He uses the example of one of his characters behaving and dressing up as A.E. Housman, but Murnane might have also referred to the narrator in his short-fiction piece “Stone Quarry” who, as a young man, decides to wear rings on his fingers in imitation of James Joyce. The preference for imitation over analysis – for extension rather than critique or explanation – probably has something to do with the function of literary experience in Murnane’s life. He writes of being a “young primary-school teacher with no money, no car, no girl-friend, nothing published, and little hope of remedying any of these deprivations”. Murnane conjures a younger self who was exiled from the life he yearned for and rooted to the spot, a young man who was emotionally unstable and agonisingly lonely until he read the first volume of Marcel Proust’s major work and was consequently rescued from despair.

For Murnane, “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.” More conventional conceptions of what reading does or what literature concerns itself with are fanned away like bad odours: “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.” Murnane repeatedly emphasises the primacy and legitimacy of fiction as fiction, not as a stand-in or practice-run for reality or for understanding human nature.

Murnane also describes what he has in mind when he addresses his readers. “Your body,” he writes, “is the least part of you. Your body is a sign of you, perhaps: a sign marking the place where the true part of you begins. The true part of you is far too far-reaching and much too many-layered for you or me, reader, to read about or to write about.” When we read Murnane we are invited to be conscious of those unapproachable layers, coupled with the similarly vast and knotty complexities that he and his narrators associate with the acts of writing and reading. Complexity embedded in complexity; patterns forming inside other patterns; vast territories that furnish surprising meanings meeting somewhere at their half-glimpsed edges: this is an image of a writer addressing and being read by a reader, a meeting of minds that contain multitudes. It is in this dizzying context that Murnane tentatively offers a startling conception of what reading does. He sees fiction as a kind of bridge between worlds, allowing ghostly fictional personages to travel through our mental landscapes. Those fictional personages have at least as much agency as us, and they populate our minds in accordance with their own needs and inclinations. We become their vessels.

One of many other unfashionable ideas that Murnane embraces is a belief that outside forces work through him while he writes – that the guiding imagery of his fiction emerges from somewhere beyond him and becomes visible to his consciousness instead of arising from an unconscious. This is a mystical/romantic conception of artistry that coincides with his notion of an “Ideal Reader” who inspires him in a curious way. The Ideal Reader is an invisible female presence in Murnane’s life, a semi-religious figure with a family resemblance to “the angels and saints and the three persons of our deity” whose presences he felt as a devoutly Catholic child. She is kindly disposed towards him but has the highest standards.

The Ideal Reader is Murnane’s most valued critic as much as she is his inspiration. He writes: “I know what she expects of me, I know whether or not my latest sentences are worthy of her, and if not, then I must try yet again.” Murnane says that he has the Ideal Reader in mind when he begins a work of fiction, but not when he begins an essay. So when we read Murnane’s fiction we are implicitly reading a form of writing addressed to that presence, but when we read his essays – including those collected in this final book – we read something that bypasses the Ideal Reader and speaks directly to what Murnane calls “readers of good will”.

Last Letter to a Reader re-articulates several confessions or revelations that appear in Murnane’s fiction under the cover of narrating voices or fictional personages. For example, the narrator of “Last Letter to a Niece” confesses to falling in love with female characters from fiction and learning, as a child, that he “would seek in books what most others sought among living persons”. He goes on: “My reading about the personage in the book had caused me to feel more intensely than I had previously felt for any living person…” In Last Letter, Murnane initially employs the first-person plural to soften the immediacy of the same kind of confession:

A few of us … had learned as children that the things happening to us while we read a certain sort of book had more power over us than most of the things happening around us in the world where we sat and read. We had learned that some of the personages who appeared to us while we read seemed closer to us than most of the persons in the world where we sat and read. We had learned that we were apt to fall in love with those personages at least as readily as we fell in love with those persons.

In a later essay, Murnane drops the “we” and directly admits to falling in love with scores of real and fictional women throughout his life, including his own peculiar version of Emily Brontë. The belief that we retain deep feelings for personages who appear to us when we read carries tremendous weight across Murnane’s body of work but has typically remained a fictional idea. We weren’t permitted to presume, as readers, that the flesh-and-blood Murnane shares his narrators’ or implied authors’ strong feelings. Now we can.

One way of considering Last Letter might be to place it in a broader context of letters and letter writing as they appear throughout Murnane’s fiction, from “When the Mice Failed to Arrive”, “Stone Quarry” and “As It Were a Letter” to Inland, Barley Patch, A Million Windows and Border Districts. Early sections of Inland are partly presented as a letter to the narrator’s editor and translator, who lives in Ideal, South Dakota, or to a person posing as his editor and translator, from a man who resides or pretends to reside in Szolnok, Hungary, and to write in Magyar, a “heavy-hearted” language – a man who keeps to his room and is rooted to the spot. In the later parts of Inland the narrator reports that he has written a letter to a childhood friend, asking after a girl he knew and loved when he was a boy, a girl who subsequently becomes part of his inner landscape and still exists in his mind. The substance of the narrator’s search is a demonstration of his lasting feeling for that girl and his fidelity to a style of inner life that some readers might regard as childlike or obscure, but which Murnane and his narrators regard as precious and worthy of preservation and expansion.

“With this letter, our long-standing correspondence comes to an end.” So begins “Last Letter to a Niece”, another “letter” concerned with endings. This fiction features a narrator who is partly modelled on Kelemen Mikes, the Hungarian author who composed a series of letters reporting on his life of forced exile over many decades to an aunt who existed only in his mind and in the pages he composed for her. Mikes’s fictional aunt is described, in The Oxford History of Hungarian Literature (which Murnane invokes) as the “Muse of a writer immortalizing the lives of a handful of exiles, not only by what he told, but by what he suppressed about them, or replaced with seemingly irrelevant incidents, anecdotes, or digressions”. Mikes’s letters are an important source of historical information, then, about a group of Hungarian men (and one woman) who died in exile in Turkey, who were rooted to the spot and cut off from the world and their desired futures. Mikes watched all of his fellow exiles perish, then remained, for a time, as the sole survivor of a forgotten people – and as someone who lived his richest life, perhaps, in the act of composing letters to a fictional aunt.

Last Letter to a Reader can be read as an essayistic extension of Murnane’s fictional uses of letters and letter-writing, which are connected – in complex, circuitous ways – to the desire expressed in a sentence from “Last Letter to a Niece”, also quoted in the final essay of this book: “I have come to hope, dear niece, that the act of writing may be a sort of miracle as a result of which invisible entities are made aware of each other through the medium of the visible.”

One day, around a decade ago, an occasional student of mine who was nearing the end of her undergraduate degree asked for some reading recommendations. I gave her about half a dozen names, including Gerald Murnane’s, and a year or so later she began work on a PhD thesis dealing with Murnane’s fiction. Early in her postgraduate studies, the young woman wrote a handwritten letter to the author and received a typewritten reply.

More than a year later Murnane released his next work, A Million Windows, and I was invited to review it. Some weeks after my review was published I wrote to the author, asking if he would consent to be interviewed for a long profile. After the first day of our two-day interview, as we drank beer at the front bar of the Goroke pub, Murnane said that he would never have agreed to meet me if he hadn’t read my review of A Million Windows and if we hadn’t first corresponded by letter.

I was later permitted to search through Murnane’s literary archive, which contains drafts of his published and unpublished fiction and essays but only fragments of biographical information. On the back of one of the early notes that served as foundational material for what would become A Million Windows, I saw the name of the young woman who had been one of my students. I was as startled by the name as I might have been had she crawled out from one of the folders in the archives in person. I took her name to mean that Murnane’s conjectured image of my former student, which sprang from reading her letter and composing his reply, was one of the inspirations for some part of the work of fiction that had brought us together.

In Last Letter to a Reader, Murnane writes about another connection we shared, in relation to a long sentence from that same book:

Soon after the publication of A Million Windows in mid 2014, a prominent scholar and critic, while reading my book for the first time, wrote on the margin of page 46, beside the paragraph comprising the sentence mentioned, the question “Is this the best sentence I’ve ever read?” A year and more later, when the same scholar was visiting me as part of his research for some or another project of his, and after he had told me about his handwritten comment, I opened at once the appropriate drawer from among the filing-cabinets containing my Literary Archive, took out the second of the two drafts of A Million Windows, and showed him my handwritten comment in the margin beside my paragraph-sentence: “This is the finest sentence that I’ve ever composed – GM, March 2014.”

A few months ago, Murnane called me to ask exactly what I had scrawled alongside that sentence because he was writing about it for a collection of essays that began as a project destined for his archives but would now be his final published book. After the call I hoped what I have secretly hoped each time Murnane has announced that his most recent book is to be his last: that it would turn out to be the last-but-one. But the closing essay of Last Letter to a Reader is so resonant, so definitively and affectingly final, that I struggle to imagine how another book can be published in his lifetime.

The last sentences from the final essay are taken from a song Murnane composed in his “adopted language”, Magyar, and which he translates into English. The moment you read the lyrics you know they will be sung or recited aloud, perhaps in the “heavy-hearted” language that Murnane values so much, after his final sentences have truly been written. They will appear in the newspaper accounts of his death and in the final paragraphs of his biographies. Murnane has composed the music of his afterlife.

Shannon Burns

Shannon Burns is a freelance writer and critic from Adelaide.

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