Gerald Murnane – Last Letter To A Reader

The Australian writer, Gerald Murnane is famous for being described by The New York Times as ‘the greatest living English-language writer most people have never heard of.’  That was in 2018, the year he was almost awarded the Nobel Prize, except, due to scandals within the organisation, the prize was not awarded that year. 

He is the author of ten novels, three books of short stories, essays, a book of poetry and a memoir. His first novels, Tamarisk Row, and A Lifetime in Clouds, appear to be semi-autobiographical accounts of his childhood, although Murnane would probably dispute that. Last Letter to a Reader is a slender book of essays, in which Murnane states

A few weeks ago, on one of the first days of spring in my eighty-second year, I began a project that seemed likely to provide a neat rounding-off to my career as a published writer.

Having, he says, never read any of his books in its published form, his project was to read all of those books and as he says, ‘confront …(the book)…as though for the first time.’ We come to this book, then looking for the author’s definitive views on the totality of his published work.

Knowing the work of Gerald Murnane, I wasn’t really expecting this to happen. He is well known for changing his mind. On several occasions he has announced he has written his last word, and then a few years later several more books appear. What I was hoping for was some insight into his process as a writer, and some uniquely Murnanian observations on his writing. And that is what we have here.

I should say that Murnane has several favourite phrases that he uses a great deal. One is, ‘a mostly level plain, ‘ and the other, ‘some or another.’ In these essays he also speaks of his love for the long sentence, and its suitability for

someone such as myself, who delights in discovering connections between things that seemed previously unconnected and in using compound sentences to arrange for the contemplation of connections-between-connections, so to call them…

He then speaks of his novel A Million Windows and says he wrote in the margin beside what he calls ‘a paragraph sentence,’ ‘This is the finest sentence I’ve ever composed – GM March 2014’.

Here it is,

If, in the further reaches of some or another remote corridor in an immense house of two or, perhaps, three storeys, and behind some or another door that remains mostly closed but in sight of a window overlooking some or another tract of far-reaching landscape of mostly level grassy countryside with low hills or a line of trees in the distance, a certain man at his desk, on some or another day of sunshine with scattered clouds, were to spurn the predictable words and phrases of the many writers of fiction who have reported of this or that male character that he once fell in love with this or that female character, and if that same man, after striving as neither I, the author of this sentence, nor even the most discerning reader of the sentence, have or has striven nor will ever strive, in late afternoon, and at about the time when the rays of the declining sun might have caused the pane in the window of his room to seem to a traveller on a distant road like a spot of golden oil, had found in his heart, or wherever such things are to be found, the words best fitted to suggest what he seemed to have felt long before, on a certain hot afternoon, in a distant inland  city, and whether he had simply kept those words in  mind or whether he had actually written them, either as notes for a work of fiction that he might one day write or as part of an actual work of fiction, then I do not doubt that the words would have been to the effect that a certain boy, a mere child, while he watched unobserved a certain girl, a mere child, whose name he did not know and who had almost certainly never had sight of him, wished for the means to inform her that he was worthy of trust.

In these essays Murnane reflects upon the sources of his imagery; a solitary game of marbles on an Axminster carpet, a garden with the dark red of begonias amidst green leaves, the bright lights of a passenger steamer on the ocean at twilight, creating an ‘oblong glow.’ The haunting images observed by a lonely boy from his very first days. He has a name for it now, ‘The detail that winks,’ and in his use of it he has learnt from Proust.,

There is much more to know about Gerald Murnane; his love of the Hungarian language, his passion for his own game of racing, his violin music, his golf, and here he provides a glimpse into the life of a completely unique individual. The solitary writer at his desk in a humble room, creating lives with his words.

11 thoughts on “Gerald Murnane – Last Letter To A Reader

  1. Not an author I was aware of, though I’m intrigued now: I did however recognise myself as one who “delights in discovering connections between things that seemed previously unconnected,” but though I’m partial to long sentences — and a great user of dashes, brackets, colons and semicolons — I could never match the prolixity of the quoted sentence in which, at one stage, I nearly lost the will the live along with the thread of what he was trying to say.

    1. It is rather convoluted and seems to have many uneccessary filler words. He professes to consider it one of his greatest achievements, but he can not be considered a reliable narrator.

  2. I’m afraid I lose the thought in the sentence when it goes on like that. Mozart used too many notes, Murnane uses too many words.

  3. How does Murane’s style compare to that of Javier Marias? I couldn’t help but think of the latter’s long looping sentences as I was reading that passage you’ve quoted in your piece…

  4. With a productive writer, it’s hard to know the best entry point to his/her work and I wasn’t sure I’d be up for a novel, so a few years ago I acquired a collection of Murnane’s short fiction. Of course, it remains unread, although several of the stories look pretty good. Your post has inspired me — if the energy last, maybe this will be the weekend I finally get around to reading “Land Deal,” which sounds quite intriguing.

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