Last Letter to a Reader
by Gerald Murnane
Published November 2021
As the title of Gerald Murnane’s final work makes clear, this book is not one that should be opened by a reader new to his work, one who might be looking for an introduction. Such a reader would be better served by going to any of the earlier works. The reader addressed instead seems to be one who has read Murnane before, as he says, with ‘good will’. To put this more clearly: this is a work that involves Murnane looking back, as a reader, and with his various conceptions of readers who have already engaged with or informed his work, on what has been written, rather than a book that introduces his works to a new reader.
This book, while acting as a coda to Murnane’s oeuvre as a whole, which he suggests, like that of Jack Kerouac, might form part of a great single work, also ends a series of late writings that include essays in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs (2005), works of fiction in Barley Patch (2009), A History of Books (2012), A Million Windows (2014), Border Districts (2017), a memoir in Something for the Pain (2015), and a collection of poetry in Green Shadows and Other Poems (2019). Indeed, the essays of the second half of the book differ stylistically from the essays that consider the first half of Murnane’s career, the period that began with Tamarisk Row (1974) and ended with Emerald Blue (1995), after which a hiatus of ten years followed when Murnane felt no need to write fiction, essays, memoirs or poems and instead worked on his famous archives. In general terms the stylistic difference is determined by a shift of emphasis, as the reader who writes the essays related to the works of the first half of Murnane’s career comes to these works in some ignorance, having left them largely unread for many years, and as Murnane contends, wholly unread in their published forms. In contrast the later works seem still sufficiently fresh in the author’s mind that he offers addendums to them rather than attempting to reimagine himself into the space in which they were written.
Murnane is a meticulous writer, indeed, he is surely one of the most meticulous writers currently working. The sound of a sentence and its various resonances are as important to him as any purely semantic sense he might be attempting to convey, and on many occasions he underlines how the textures and sounds of the writing, and the shape of the given work as a whole, are as important to the patterns that lead to or reveal meaning as the sets of images that force themselves upon him and are then related to one another in the writing process. That is, the connection of figures of speech and figures of thought is not just a matter of technique, for Murnane; rather, it is meaning itself. This is something he has stated on a number of occasions both in works of fiction and in essays, and he states it again here in his essay on Barley Patch:
A thing has meaning for me if it seems connected with another thing, and a work of fiction acquires meaning from the connectedness of its subject-matter.
The title of a work, too, functions as a node of meaning, and every word has its purpose. ‘Last’ affirms, as Murnane has said before, before recanting, that this work is his final work, and as such seeks to offer a kind of postscript to them. ‘Letter’ demarcates a genre which, while bearing similarities to Murnane’s definition of an ‘essay’ or collection of essays, has specific qualities for Murnane. One of these qualities is that letters are addressed, deliberately and carefully, to someone in particular, or rather, in Murnane’s terms, to some personage who must be at least partly imagined or projected by the writer, if not wholly imagined. ‘Reader’ here is a term that is constantly sketched and redefined throughout, or rather, we are shown different sides of the complex concept of what a reader might be throughout. For example ,the Ideal Reader (a largely spiritual entity) in certain cases, and the reader of good will (actual readers who are imagined by the author, and may indeed imagine themselves, to be carefully following the devious turns of the image-mind Murnane’s works convey) in other cases. Yet, as is most clear in the first part of this book, the ‘reader’ refers to Murnane himself (the breathing author), and Murnane himself (the implied author) as a reader both of the works of ‘Gerald Murnane’ and other writers of fiction, like Marcel Proust, or of literary essays, like Wayne C. Booth.
Murnane has told us before, in essays like ‘The Breathing Author’ and ‘The Still-Breathing Author’ and in works of fiction like Border Districts that his ‘true fiction’ involves a meditation on or a mapping of his own mind. If his particular kind of writing is unusual, here he clarifies, or perhaps even redraws points of difference, or genres, within his own works. Emmett Stinson argues convincingly that Murnane tends to recast the meaning of his earlier works in works subsequent to them. It might not be that this recasting is contradictory here however; rather, it might be the case that he is seeing the works in a different light now precisely because he is considering them from the point of view of reading when in an earlier work he was considering them from a different perspective. Whereas in earlier works he had indicated that all of his writing might be considered to be essays (see ‘The Still-Breathing Author’), here he distinguishes his works of fiction from essays, and memoir. These generic distinctions depend, precisely, on the idea of the reader he holds in his mind as he writes:
While I prepared for the fiction, I felt what I’ve usually felt at such times: I felt obliged to compose something worthy of the attention of the personage I know only as my Ideal Reader. While I prepared for the essay, my conjectured readership was to my liking: a select band of those that I call readers of good will.
Throughout this book Murnane refers to the American critic Wayne C. Booth and his major work, The Rhetoric of Fiction, from which he adapts a number of terms, and a number of critics, including Stinson, Samantha Trayhurn, Ivor Indyk and Jack Jeweller have published on or are working on Murnane’s relations to Booth’s ideas. Two of these are crucial: firstly, there is the ideal reader, defined as, following the philosopher Hume, one who is sufficiently stripped of their own emotional and intellectual baggage to approach any work without prejudice. Booth does not linger long on this idea as he suggests that such a reader, ‘could never possibly exist’. Secondly, there is the implied author, a concept that is much more important to Booth, and relates to a reader’s perception of an author’s individuality. He states:
To some novelists it has seemed, indeed, that they were discovering or creating themselves as they wrote. As Jessamyn West says, it is sometimes “only by writing the story that the novelist can discover […] its writer, the official scribe, so to speak, for that narrative.” Whether we call this implied author an “official scribe,” or adopt the term recently revived by Kathleen Tillotson – the author’s “second self” – it is clear that the picture the reader gets of this presence is one of the author’s most important effects.
While these terms are alluded to in earlier works, in Last Letter to a Reader Murnane develops a more explicit understanding of them, one that diverges from Booth in important ways. The ‘ideal reader’ who is dismissed as a being a fiction by Booth becomes essential to Murnane, precisely because she (and Murnane affirms it is a she) inhabits an idealised realm that is only accessible through fiction. Further, throughout his works Murnane has obliquely associated this reader with a girl or woman with dark hair who appears in Inland, A Million Windows, Border Districts and elsewhere as a personage who observes or reads the main personage or inspires the implied author, and who is at once at the centre and margins of the works: the girl who falls into a well in Hungary in Inland, the girl on the bus in Border Districts, the female writer from a neighbouring state in Border Districts, the researcher of grasslands in Inland, the mother and the cousins in A Million Windows and so on. This reader is shown to be an angelic entity; that is, one who exists only in an ideal realm. In his essay on A History of Books Murnane recalls reading a passage to his wife thinking that his wife understood in listening quietly that the passage was being read aloud to an ‘invisible readership’, and ‘that I was writing for a personage such as she and I had dealt with often as devout children, when we seemed to be continually in the presence of angels and saints and the three persons of our deity’. This is Murnane’s Ideal Reader, now afforded capital letters, some kind of spiritual entity who, Murnane states, supervises ‘most of [his] own writing’:
I think of her as being mostly in a far corner of the room where I’m writing, or even in an adjoining room, visible through one or more doors or archways. She seldom looks in my direction, but she is well aware of me. She has a distinctive appearance but she resembles no person that I’ve actually met.
Yet the essay on Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs shows she also serves to distinguish Murnane’s genres: the Ideal Reader only ever demands that Murnane writes fiction, watching this process so closely that he needs to craft these fictional works with utter precision in order to generate some meaning for her sake and the sake of other readers and himself. As such she is distinguished from ‘the reader of good will’, who stands for a group of actual existing readers rather than a spiritual entity, and this is the reader Murnane seeks to address when he is explaining himself to them through his essays. Further, whomsoever is imagined to be reading directly affects the mode of writing that emerges. The fiction overseen by the Ideal Reader is most engaged in attempting to create an effect of meaning, a feeling of elation or exhilaration. Yet this feeling or effect of meaning, while urged upon him in the writing of fiction by the Ideal Reader, is also directed to other sets of readers: ‘breathing’ readers and the ‘breathing author’ himself who might profit from the meaningful thing that has been created: ‘I write not only for others but for my own spiritual well-being’. Less is said about the effects generated when Murnane imagines himself to be writing an essay other than that when he does this the Ideal Reader is ‘far from [his] thoughts’.
One more thing needs to be noticed about Murnane’s imagined readers before I turn to how the reader and the writer are related. In the essay on his ‘memoir of the turf’, Something for the Pain, Murnane recounts a number of encounters with actual named readers. A legendary figure in horse racing circles, Les Carlyon, reviews this book and Murnane discusses this at length, along with a meeting with a reader from Grafton and the day they spent together at the races. This reader and others send him letters and indeed the motif of the letter received and the understandings and misunderstandings possible through such correspondence recurs throughout the work. Yet this chapter is full of letters from real readers and here such readers seem to be the intended audience for the memoir. The memoir also differs materially from works of fiction or essays or poems, because it does not include within it, for Murnane, a narrator or implied author; rather, Gerald Murnane tries to speak simply and clearly as himself to such interlocutors as find a common bond with him in his passion for horse racing. That is, the readers it addresses are in no way abstracted; rather they are ‘breathing’. Because of this he writes shorter, more direct sentences that are not so dependent on the sound and shape of the sentence to create meaning.
Some of these terms need to be clarified further. Murnane writes: ‘A Million Windows illustrates clearly a distinction made by Wayne C. Booth but not always easy to discern: the distinction between a certain sort of first-person narrator and the implied author’. Booth further develops a distinction between the implied author and the ‘flesh and blood’ or ‘breathing’ author and implied and breathing readers. These distinctions are important to Murnane who has his own categories of the breathing author, the narrator, and the implied author. I would argue that what Murnane adds to this set of categories in the book under review is a deeper idea of how these authors are also readers.
We see this illustrated impressively in Murnane’s essay on Inland which demonstrates with dazzling insight (insight that only fully occurs to the breathing author himself as he writes this essay on Inland) how the whole book emerges from a profound experience Murnane, as a breathing reader, felt when he read a single paragraph within the book People of the Puszta by the Hungarian author Gyula Illyés. This paragraph, with its image of an abused girl throwing herself into a well to escape a persecutor, drove Murnane to learn Hungarian. Having begun to read in this language he found a single word within this single paragraph whose resonances and connections struck him with a profound feeling of meaningfulness. This in turn resulted in the creation of Inland, and the feeling, image, and sense of meaning would go on to haunt all his subsequent works. Throughout he writes of the experience of reading passages from Marcel Proust in the same way. Proust’s image of le moi profond (the deep self) is something that inhabits both the one who writes and the one who reads.
Yet it is not only in this powerful example that the act of reading informs or changes the act of writing. The breathing author, the implied author, and the narrator, are all affected by the breathing and implied reader they also are:
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.
It goes still further: at times the writer and reader merge. Murnane alerts us to this in his essay on A History of Books, pointing us to its final sentence which I will quote in full here:
If the man could not have written the work that he had wanted to write, then he would have been satisfied to write a work of fiction for which the only apt ending would have been a report to the effect on the man of his having read, thirty years before, that the chief character in a certain work of fiction had seemed to pass from sight in a place where the white seemed to meet, or even to merge, with the sky, the visible with the invisible, the writer even with the reader, and whatever had been written with whatever had been read.
Last Letter to a Reader begins this association of reading and writing with the premise that it will involve the writer becoming a reader of his own works. At first Murnane’s intention is to read them all through and report back. Indeed, something of the experience of coming to one’s old works as a reader, who also recalls the images thoughts and rhythms that shaped these works as they emerged, is there in the first essays on Tamarisk Row, A Season on Earth (his second novel which was only published in full in 2019 having originally appeared in abridged form as A Lifetime On Clouds in 1976), and The Plains. Yet Murnane tells us that as the process of writing Last Letter to A Reader continued the writer took the place of the reader, since new images or ideas occurred to that writer as he read so that the ‘urge to put into words my latest insight was stronger than the urge to experience again the earlier, and so I would write rather than read’.
The final essay of the book, which is concerned with Last Letter to a Reader itself, ends with a discussion of two short stories that are appended to A History of Books: ‘The Boy’s Name was David ‘and ‘Last Letter to a Niece’. Last Letter to a Reader, of course, echoes the title of latter, and the letter to the niece involves a confession of sorts, wherein the writer confesses to living most intensely through reading and feeling most intensely when lost among the personages of works of fiction. This essay further explicitly informs us that both the letter writer and the niece in ‘Last Letter to a Niece’ are fictional characters: as it were an implied author directly addressing an implied reader. The other story, ‘The Boy’s Name was David’, concerns methods adopted by a teacher of creative writing at a university (Murnane himself worked for many years as a teacher of this kind). The teacher finds he can only remember very little of the fiction his students have produced which he has graded in line with a method that subtracts marks from a work every time a reader is forced to pause, say by an error of rhythm or image or theme or grammar. Yet one, more or less perfect sentence remains in his memory, which is that which gives the story its title. Murnane is deeply pleased by his re-reading of the sentences he wrote in praise of this short sentence, which he finds exhilarating:
The boy’s name was David. […] There was never a boy named David, the writer of the fiction might as well have written, but if you, the Reader, and I, the writer, can agree that there might have been a boy so named, then I undertake to tell you what you could never otherwise have learned about any boy of any name.
Neither the narrator, the implied author nor the breathing author seem aware that in producing this passage they are revising and improving a passage they have read from the second paragraph of Wayne C. Booth’s The Rhetoric of Fiction, which begins:
“There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, one that feared God, and eschewed evil.” With one stroke the unknown author has given us a kind of information never obtained about real people, even about our most intimate friends.
The major difference between Booth’s idea and Murnane’s passage is that while the former conveys an idea, the latter builds resonance and feeling, and it does this by giving a shape or form to the feeling of the reader and the feeling of the writer, who are imagined whispering together as if in conspiracy, making together another world, one that resembles this one except that in this other world every rift is loaded with the ore of meaning. That is, while one is a powerful essay, which seeks the assent of those Booth calls ‘discerning readers’ and here Murnane calls ‘readers of good will’, the other has become fiction, conjured by an Ideal Reader who attends beside it, in the far corner of the room.
My thanks here to Jack Jeweller with whom I’ve been discussing Booth and Murnane, and who is working on the relationship between Murnane and Booth.
Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction, Second Edition, Chicago UP, 1983.
Ivor Indyk, ‘What Kind of Literary History is A History of Books?’, in Gerald Murnane: Another World in This One, edited by Anthony Uhlmann, Sydney University Press, 2020, pp. 37-44.
Gerald Murnane, Last Letter to a Reader, Giramondo, 2021.
Gerald Murnane, A History of Books, Giramondo, 2012.
Gerald Murnane, ‘The Still-Breathing Author’, in Gerald Murnane: Another World in This One, edited by Anthony Uhlmann, Sydney University Press, 2020, pp. 165-180.
Emmett Stinson, ‘Retrospective Intention: The Implied Author and the Coherence of the Oeuvre in Border Districts and The Plains’, in Gerald Murnane: Another World in This One, edited by Anthony Uhlmann, Sydney University Press, 2020, pp. 45-62.
Samantha Trayhurn, ‘“Images and Feelings in a Sort of Eternity”: Gerald Murnane’s Ideal Female Reader’, in Gerald Murnane: Another World in This One, edited by Anthony Uhlmann, Sydney University Press, 2020, pp. 37-44.