In 1995, Australian author Gerald Murnane published what he believed to be his last work of fiction, Emerald Blue. He stopped writing for 14 years. He returned with the novel Barley Patch in 2009, and since then it has seen an unexpected late-career resurgence, with seven new books and the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Fiction.
Murnane’s books are now published by well-respected publishers in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, and he can count many prominent authors among his admirers, including JM Coetzee, Ben Lerner, Teju Cole and Hari. Kunzru. It was the subject of a long profile by The New York Times and a dedicated ABC TV segment at 7:30 a.m. In all respects it is one of Australia’s most decorated living novelists.
Now Murnane has released another final book, Last Letter to a Reader. The idea for the book came to Murnane during confinement 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 the reader of each book “. Although it may sound strange, Murnane notes that he had “never read any of my books in their published form before.” He often discusses the differences between the manuscripts he wrote and the books that resulted from them. His most famous work, The Plains (1982), began as “a sort of flowery decant accompanying a conventional narrative” in a much longer work, titled The Only Adam. He also sometimes “regrets” the title Les Plaines, which his editors suggested to him rather than his favorite Landscape with Ténèbres et Mirage. He reveals that he published a still unknown book of poetry under a pseudonym before starting to write novels.
The Last Letter essays are neither literary reviews nor memoirs. Rather, they ruminate on unexpected connections between the books, ideas, and specific life experiences that informed her writing. His discussion of his 1988 novel Inland switches from Murnane’s love for the sounds of the Hungarian language (which he himself learned) to a discussion of Proust. These connections are important and meaningful to those who have read Inland, but they are hardly an explanation of the author’s intention.
While Last Letter is meant to be a final book, it is often more cantankerous than egiacal. Murnane, at various times, expresses his aversion to scholarly literary criticism, book reviews, philosophy, neuroscience, cameras, publishers, the way we talk about characters as if they were real people and the tendency of readers to confuse their memories of reading a book. with the book itself.
While Murnane explains his love for long sentences, he hates it when they violate traditional syntax rules. He criticizes several well-known authors – including Thomas Pynchon, Hermann Broch and László Krasznahorkai – for writing the wrong type of long sentences.
These complaints may seem trivial, but Murnane’s unusual world-perception and unwillingness to take concepts at face value is what makes his fiction unique. That he managed to publish such unusual books despite the enormous commercial difficulties of doing so is testament to a persistence that is probably indistinguishable from stubbornness. But Murnane’s strong opinions on literature also reflect his belief that writing is a vital mode for exploring truth. He maintains that his books have allowed him to see “connections” and to have “revelations” about the world, which are for him “my real reward for writing fiction”. It’s an incredibly sincere feeling that seems out of step with a post-postmodern world where truth is generally seen as perspective rather than absolute.
Perhaps even more confusing to contemporary readers is the true meaning of the title, Last Letter to a Reader. The reader here is not “us”, but a figure from Murnane’s “personal mythology” – his “ideal reader” who “oversees most of my writing”. This ideal reader is a “woman” who “has a distinctive appearance but is unlike anyone I have actually met” and “has never said more than a syllable” but is “well disposed towards me”.
But Murnane also undermines his idealistic notions in various ways. The title of the book refers to another of Murnane’s stories, Last Letter to a Niece, in which the main character says: among the living. This trend becomes unexpectedly comical when Murnane tells an unusual horse racing story to an incredulous bettor before admitting that the events depicted occurred in a complex and imaginary horse racing game designed by Murnane rather than in reality. .
In a typically recursive gesture, the last chapter of Last Letter to a Reader is dedicated to the book we have read. Murnane has long been interested in how readers encounter his work and has frequently discussed the contents of the “16 cluttered drawers containing my literary archives,” which seem organized for future reviewers. This book will also be more meaningful to dedicated readers who have already browsed through his other works. The Last Letter to a Reader might be best viewed as Murnane’s complex and often ironic attempt to have a say in the meaning of his books before other critics inevitably do.