‘Last Letter to a Niece’ by Gerald Murnane

‘Last Letter to a Niece’ is included as the final “short fiction” in Gerald Murnane’s Stream System, a collection of his short stories. But it is also published in Murnane’s Last Letter to a Reader, a collection of essays addressed to the reader, each one surveying a book he authored. The landscape is the mind of the author. Murnane maintains two archives: the Chronological Archive, which documents his life as a whole, and the Literary Archive, which is devoted to everything he has written for publication.

Adapted “from one of the seven pages about the life and the writing of Kelemen Mikes in the Oxford History of Hungarian Literature,” Murnane’s last letter crawls inside the history of another putative author in order to invent itself. To me, it is a model of the epistolary fiction form. As the uncle writes this letter, it becomes clear he has never even seen his niece—he is speaking to what he imagines of her—he is, for lack of a better term, creating her as he writes: “I am interested in the appearance and deportment of young women in this, the everyday visible world, for the good reason that the female personages in books, like all other such personages together with the places they inhabit, are quite invisible.” The speaker is selfish: the letter addressed to someone else is actually about the writer’s cannibalizing mind which digests each detail.

When the uncle tells the niece, “In your mind at this very moment are characters, costumes, interiors of houses, landscapes and skies, all of them faithful images of their counterparts in descriptive passages in books you have read and remembered,” he is speaking of himself. The writer, speaking of the power of literature in others’ lives, may always be speaking of himself, of his own power. The desire to “make a true reader” of the niece implies that such a niece would exist in order to become a character in the letter where readers watch him invent her.

Murnane’s epistolary feels closer to a dramatic soliloquy, allowing the speaker to say what the writer knows, namely, “I would seek in books what most others sought among living persons.” Brutality can be intimate; erasure can be tender; humiliation can be creative, Murnane implies. Think of me, rather, as a man who can love only the subjects of sentences in texts reporting to be other than factual,” Murnane writes. Think of me as someone who invents myself in order to draw closer to the person I have created to wander across the page.

Published in Stream System: The Collected Short Stories of Gerald Murnane, Giramondo/Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2018, and And Other Stories, 2020. Also collected in Last Letter to a Reader, Giramondo, 2021/And Other Stories, 2022.

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