‘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.

‘Landscape with Freckled Woman’ by Gerald Murnane

It’s up for debate whether this is a short story at all, just as it’s up for debate whether any of Murnane’s individual works constitute separate entities or are instead components of one gigantic ongoing work of literature. This is the first part of Murnane’s book Landscape with Landscape, which I’m currently reading. I’ve tried to explain Murnane’s writing to recommend it, and every time I find myself at a loss to describe what he does. I could say this is a story about a man sitting on a committee and imagining conversations with the other members after the meeting has finished, which makes it sound supremely dull. And, of course, this does no justice at all to the way in which Murnane quietly and carefully makes and unmakes time, conjuring possible scenarios built on the bones of others, none of them collapsing even though at every second you expect them to do so. There is a moment in this story where the narrator imagines a woman to whom he imagines speaking reading the hypothetical thing that he will write about his speaking to her, and her reaching the exact same line that the reader has reached at that moment; I felt dizzy, pitched over by the audacity of it, as if I were viewing the page from a great height.

First published in Landscape With Landscape, Norstrilia Press, 1985/Penguin, 1987; the book was republished by Giramondo Press, 2016

‘Boy Blue’ by Gerald Murnane

A few years ago Murnane had a moment, after being tipped for the Nobel in a splashy New York Times profile, and being a sucker for that kind of fuss, I bought loads of his stuff and got in deep. I don’t think he’d mind me saying it’s very hard work. And if you like that game, the whole Beckett-Bernhard-Knausgaard obsessive lone male routine, then he’ll be your cup of tea. I do, and he is. But a lot of it leaves you flailing and gasping for a drop of liquid on your tongue to leaven the punishment. 
This one is an exception. It uses the relentless monotony of the style and voice to push towards an extraordinary moment of emotional release, one that also illuminates something essential and unexpectedly moving at the root of Murnane’s very weird style. (Pro tip: this story works much better if you read it aloud to yourself. I do, more often than I should admit, and I’m available for the audiobook, if anyone’s interested. In fact, it’s my very dear ambition to learn the whole thing off by heart as a party piece, and I’m not even joking; though if that backfires, you might well find me huddled in the corner of the pub in twenty years, giggling to myself and muttering “The chief character of the story was a man who was referred to throughout the story as the chief character of the story.” I suppose there are worse ways to go.)

First published in the journal World Literature Today, Summer 1993 and available via JSTOR here. Collected in Collected Short Fiction, And Other Stories, 2020

‘When the Mice Failed to Arrive’ by Gerald Murnane

I once heard Ben Lerner say that an interesting thing about parenthood was a sort of mise en abyme aspect to observing your child. You were observing them, but you were also observing your own parents looking down at you at that age, and observing yourself at that age looking up at your parents, this time with an adult’s consciousness. Many of the best short stories allow us similarly multiple glimpses: because stories are often wilier than longer prose when it comes to evading the drudgery of chronology, they can put us in several places at once. Here, a father watches a storm break as he waits for his asthmatic son to arrive home from school. But the loving father is also a young boy himself, years earlier, terrified both of lightning and his mother’s death. He is also the obsessive young teacher, concealing things from his pupils, and the teenage boy discovering his capacity for cruelty. These leaps through life, together with echoing phrases and images, accumulate into an at times dark exploration of sexuality and an era-spanning sense of melancholy.

Collected in Collected Short Fiction, And Other Stories, 2020, and available to read online at And Other Stories

‘Land Deal’ by Gerald Murnane

Like a number of people, I’ve only recently been introduced to the work of Gerald Murnane through the efforts of And Other Stories. ‘Land Deal’ is almost Borgesian (there are shades of ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’) but again, there is something else, something original in this tale of dreamers dreaming of dreamers.

‘Land Deal’, is collectively narrated by a group of Indigenous Australians who are offered material goods and tools by strangers in exchange for land. They are familiar with the ostensibly alien items because they have dreamed of them, but have long distinguished between the possible (dreams) and the actual (reality). That the possible is being offered to them sets up the hypothesis that they are in fact dreaming. The vagueness of the men’s actions and motives, the perfection of their tools, confirms their hunch.

But the matter is considered further and the narrators come to see that it is in fact the men who are dreaming of them. In the dream in which they are the subject, the narrators come to be cognisant of their dream status, and through this cognisance see both constraint and liberty. The men’s aim – possession of the land – is final proof. Dreams are absurd; the division and ownership of the land similarly so.

The land deal is thus approved, for it can only have consequences in the possible dream world, and not the actual real one, although there remains disagreement between the narrators as to how to perceive events. Some still hope that they will wake to find the possible become the actual, but others…

…insisted that for as long as we handled such things we could be no more than characters in the vast dream that had settled over us—the dream that would never end until a race of men in a land unknown to us learned how much of their history was a dream that must one day end.

From Collected Short Fiction, And Other Stories, 2020

‘The White Cattle of Uppington’ by Gerald Murnane

If you have never read any of Gerald Murnane’s writing before, the opening lines of ‘The White Cattle of Uppington’ will give you an idea of what it is like:

The following is a list of descriptions of some of the details of some of the images in some of the sequences of images that the chief character of this piece of fiction foresaw as appearing in his mind whenever during a certain year in the late 1970s he foresaw himself as preparing to write a certain piece of fiction. Each description is followed by a passage explaining some of the details of some of the images.

And so the story proceeds, with Murnane describing and analysing a young man reading Ulysses on a commuter train into Melbourne in the late-1950s; the same young man masturbating in a bedroom; the same person, slightly older, trying to inveigle himself with a rural artistic community, and later taking creative writing classes. The prose, like all of Murnane’s prose, is methodical, plain in the sense of vocabulary although sometimes baroque in terms of sentence structure, and completely unlike anything else I’ve ever read. Beckett is the closest comparison to be made, because of that shared ability to transform straightforward explanation into something bewilderingly complex, like the description of the sucking stones that runs to nearly 1500 words in Molloy.

I have only begun reading Murnane in the last couple of years; in fact I only read this story after I had almost finished compiling this anthology. But as far as I can tell from my limited knowledge, Murnane’s project is all of a piece: his novels, short fiction, memoir (I don’t think he writes poems) are all part of a larger investigation into the makeup of memory: why do we remember what we remember, and in the way we remember it? Elsewhere in the collected short fiction, in a story called ‘In Far Fields’, he describes telling a creative writing student that “I had studied my mind for many years and had found in it nothing but images and feelings…a diagram of my mind would resemble a vast and intricate map with images for its small towns and with feelings for the roads through the grassy countryside between the towns”. On and on his methodical description goes, as he attempts to understand why his mind should work like this, and what it means that it does.

I find Murnane’s approach completely addictive. I can understand why some find it chilly at best, if not utterly infuriating, but when I pick up his books I find them very difficult to put down again, whether he is spending four pages recounting everything he can remember from several decades spent reading the TLS, or returning once again to a recurring and haunting vision of grasslands spreading all around him to the horizon. These grasslands are both his Victorian home turf and, to return to ground we covered with Ballard, an inner landscape that says something about the nature of his mind. And on top of this we as readers bring our own associations: “I see what it makes me see”, as Pepita says, although Murnane’s style is largely about getting us as readers to see exactly what he sees. He is also someone who buys into interconnectivity. “If you write about something for long enough”, he said in a 2013 interview, “you’ll find that it is connected to something else”. As a statement that is banal. As a lifelong artistic method, it seems profound.

Murnane almost certainly won’t find any answers to the questions he’s asking, but as Donald Barthelme noted, “the task is not so much to solve problems as to propose questions”. I think Murnane really does want an answer, but like Ned, the protagonist of the last story in this anthology, he’s going to have to do without.

From Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane, Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2018