Patterns of Meaning
Last Letter to a Reader by Gerald Murnane. And Other Stories, 144 pages.
It is the middle of 2020, and the writer Gerald Murnane is sitting at a desk in the West Victorian town of Goroke to read his own books, and to write about them. Murnane is the author of fifteen books of fiction, essays, poetry, and memoir. Almost every one of them centers on a solitary figure who reads and thinks and walks and, sometimes, writes, whether in Melbourne or Hungary, in the present or the past.
This might seem a limited source of inspiration, but then limits are Murnane’s thing. In a famous speech from 2001, he claimed never to have learned to swim, worn sunglasses, gone willingly into an art gallery, or touched any working piece of any computer, fax machine, or cell phone (he has since been made to buy a phone). Murnane has never left Australia, rarely left Victoria, and never flown on airplane. He has typed almost every one of his books on a manual typewriter with a single finger. And yet from these circumstances, somehow, has come one of the most beguiling oeuvres in modern literature.
Murnane was born in early 1939 in a suburb of Melbourne. His father moved the family frequently throughout Murnane’s childhood, a series of ruptures that are recorded again and again throughout his work. He published his first novels in his mid-thirties, and found, for a period, a kind of success with 1982’s The Plains, a curious, fable-like travelogue set in a fictional nation. On multiple occasions, he has declared that he would publish no more books, and on multiple occasions, he has published again.
Last Letter to a Reader represents the most recent of these finales. When Murnane decided to reread and write about his published books, it was with the intention of slotting them into what he calls his Chronological Archive, a series of filing cabinets containing all of the private writing that Murnane has composed throughout his life. Only on his publisher’s suggestion did he fashion that writing into a book. The result is a collection of fifteen essays, one for each of his books, with a concluding piece on Last Letter itself.
On its own, Last Letter is squarely for existing fans of Murnane’s work. It is filled with descriptions of his writing process, insights he has gleaned from other authors, his favorite sentences and his grammatical rules. Yet, read in concert with his other works, it is full of unexpected insights about the origins of his various books and stories. It demystifies Murnane the man and helps us to better understand how he sees himself as a writer. And it’s a fittingly reflexive cap for a career spent exploring the limits of narrative and self-presentation.
The writing of Murnane’s first novel, Tamarisk Row, appears to have been a frustrating and prolonged experience, one recapitulated frequently in his writing. Again and again, his narrators struggle over unfinished projects and implacable manuscripts, and his early books in particular orbit characters in search of the right mode of expression. The Plains is narrated by a filmmaker who has traveled deep into the interior of an unnamed continent to observe the culture of its inhabitants. But after many years among the Plainsmen, he has only drafts and outlines to show for it. Raising a camera to his own eye, he decides to record the only accurate impression of the outer world, which is to say the impression left by that world upon his mind.
In his own telling, that struggle for the right words characterizes Murnane’s entire career. He writes toward a central image in his mind’s eye, and through the writing, discovers unseen dimensions in the space surrounding it. He seeks what he calls a “pattern of meaning,” the series of connections that arise between seemingly disparate subjects and enrich the whole in the process. “A thing has meaning for me,” he writes in Last Letter, in an essay on the novel Barley Patch, “if it seems connected with another thing, and a work of fiction acquires meaning from the connectedness of its subject-matter.” These connections are intuitive; the writer rarely knows why he has been drawn to any particular detail, only that some unseen thing compels him. His works read as successions of thoughts and images which give way, one after the other, until the reader has been carried somewhere completely unexpected.
Murnane refers to himself as a technical writer of “true fiction,” one who seeks to provide “no less than an accurate report of some of the contents of his mind.” Yet this is literature, not neuroscience, and Murnane’s theory of consciousness is totally sui generis, built up during a lifetime of self-observation. Throughout Last Letter, he describes his mind as a place, “a vast and variegated landscape” that extends near-infinitely in every direction. Murnane’s published writing can be considered a map of this landscape, an atlas whose landmarks are emotions, memories, colors, and images associated with a series of men very much like himself.
Throughout his career, he has seemed both irritated and amused by the claim that his writing represents a kind of autobiography. Certainly, his characters tend to live in the places that Murnane lived during the years when he lived there. When Murnane moved to Goroke after the death of his wife, so did the narrator of Border Districts. The children in his work tend to share a Catholic faith that the adults lose (like Murnane did); they read many of the same books, have the same sexual hang-ups, and almost all of them struggle to write or to justify their desire to do so. But it is only in his memoir Something for the Pain that Murnane seems at all interested in the events of his life, and even then, only as they relate to his passion for horse racing. In the rest of his work, he is writing about life as it appears in his mind, a form of fictionalizing which should make any comparison with the life of the “flesh-and-blood author” irrelevant. Life becomes interesting only once it enters his mind; and what goes on in that interior landscape, he believes, is the only worthy subject for literature.
If I were to come up with my own visual metaphor for Murnane’s work, I would compare it to an interior by the Dutch painter Pieter de Hooch, in which the outside world is only implied by the sunlight through the window and the pipes on the table. A viewer’s eye is drawn by the paintings on the walls and the parquet flooring and the doors that open one after another to frame a receding prospect into the depths of the house. So little is shown and so much suggested. And yet I always return, peering into the shadows, peeking through the doorframes, as if, with enough concentration, another door might open up, and a deeper chamber will be revealed.
Murnane shows that this is in fact possible, at least in literature. He writes of wishing that certain works might continue on forever, and of realizing that, in fact, they do—deep within his mind. Literature read and remembered provides the architecture for the major portion of Murnane’s late work. A History of Books is structured as a series of recollections of those books which left a mysterious impression upon Murnane. By the time of Border Districts, Murnane had sold almost his entire library, and he had no choice but to draw connections out from his memories alone.
He has written thousands of pages about his books, but comparatively few about wife and children, which speaks to the plain significance that literature has held in Murnane’s life. In the way that his Catholic faith once offered the possibility of a life beyond this one, literature has allowed him to experience more of the world than could ever have been possible from within the limits of his singular self. The narrator of Murnane’s Inland quotes André Maurois’s claim that Proust’s work retains its power by enabling its readers, across the chasm of years, to experience the scent of those “invisible yet enduring lilacs” which have long since drifted into the past. Yet this narrator, like Murnane himself, was born without a sense of smell, and it is through Proust’s description that he experiences the scent of lilacs for the first time.
Murnane is engaged in something beyond experience and remembrance of the already read: in his books, there are often intimations of unread and even unwritten writing. In the story “The Boy’s Name Was David,” the unnamed protagonist thinks about his time as a tutor of fiction writing and tries to recall the best sentences submitted by his students. He envisions this contest as a horse race, with various sentences taking and losing the lead as they pass through his mind. Yet just when the race seems decided, another challenger enters: a woman from Tasmania who’d thought about entering the class but gave up writing altogether. The protagonist knows nothing of the meaning or the sound of the woman’s unwritten sentence, only the rhythm of the sentence-that-might-have-been as it relates the life-that-might-have-been-lived, which he gleans from the few details that he recalls of the woman on the single occasion when they met. Because the sentence remains unwritten, it cannot be discounted in the race; it exists as felt potential within the mind of the man.
And what lives in the mind is as real for Murnane as anything else. Last Letter is sprinkled with allusions to an endlessly rich interior life that Murnane is in no rush to explain. He refers to a private mythology that unfolds in a terrain beyond the reach of his fiction, populated by “personages” (as distinct from “persons”—he is very precise) drawn from the fiction of others. In fact, as he writes, “I’ve always read fiction in order to provide appropriate scenery and personages for the unfolding of my mythology.” He compares his landscape with Gondal, the vast imagined world shared by the Brontë sisters, and he ascribes to its inhabitants a rich existence seemingly independent of his own. He did not invent it—he uncovered it.
When Murnane was a child, he made for himself a horse racing game out of marbles and paper tracks. As an adult man, he incorporated a far more elaborate version of this game into the center of his fantasy life, much like the protagonist of “The Boy’s Name Was David.” Since the 1980s, Murnane has run thousands and thousands of races on imagined courses in the lands of New Arcadia and New Eden, and he has stored their results, along with maps, population numbers, train schedules, racing colors, biographies of horses and jockeys and owners, and much, much else, in what he calls his Antipodean Archive. He first introduced this archive to readers in the short story “The Interior of Gaaldine.” Race outcomes are partially determined by choosing a passage at random from a work of literature. Various horses are assigned various values according to the length and complexity of the chosen passage’s sentences. In the process, literature is transformed into something beyond story and character and far beyond meaning.
For Murnane, all of the action takes place somewhere deep within the interior; even his best fiction is only a border district. In his Last Letter essay on Something for the Pain, he writes of attending a “race-meeting” with a fan of the memoir. When they are commenting on the day’s results, Murnane shares a story of his own about a trainer from a place called Merlynston. Once he has related it in full, he remembers that the man exists only in his archive and races only in his mind. But Murnane insists that this imagined world is both real, and, in some way he cannot grasp, beyond his own control. His fantasy life proceeds according to its own volition, as if another consciousness were active in some remote inland region of his own. “Many of the sequences of events on the racecourses of the Antipodes,” he writes, “seem largely the result of human planning. Trying to account for this brings on a pleasant dizziness.”
Murnane keeps a file in his Chronological Archive labeled Miracles, in which he records inexplicable events from throughout his life according to a definition of his own devising. In Last Letter, he describes how an experience from his childhood in the 1940s managed to survive in his mind and to transform over the decades into The Plains. This development occurred without his knowing; in fact, it is only as Murnane writes the essay that the origins of his most successful book come at last into view. “It seems,” he writes, “no less than miraculous.”
Let me add another miracle to the file. To read the works of Gerald Murnane is to feel a nearly inexpressible sensation of expansion, as if one has breached the page and stepped into a vast and near-limitless landscape which neither writer nor reader can ever hope to map fully. From one man’s small life, we experience infinity. There is always another paddock, a further horizon, and we have only begun to approach the border.