By Gerald MurnaneFiction Giramondo
A History of Books
A History of Books is Gerald Murnane’s tenth work of fiction – and, like the author himself, it’s impossible to classify (even ‘fiction’ is questionable), utterly unique and undeniably brilliant.
Murnane is one of those authors who is much-awarded, acclaimed by his peers, but not exactly a household name outside literary circles. This book shows why all these things are so; it’s intensely literary and perceptive, a meditation on writing itself.
A History of Books consists of four works; the first is the novella of the title. Divided into 29 sections, each begins with the memory of a book that has left an imprint on the writer’s brain – a writer who may or may not be Murnane himself. None of the works are alluded to by name, though some of them will be recognisable to the reader well-versed in literary fiction.
Reviewing the book in the Australian, Don Anderson wrote, ‘Murnane’s fiction has always been concerned not with representation but with interpretation … His oeuvre consists of a set of variations on a radically limited number of obsessive concerns.’
A History of Books will be an absolute pleasure for Murnane’s many admirers, rewarding them with the depth of insight, rich engagement with literature and superb writing that he is known for.
In the novella that is the centrepiece of A History of Books, Gerald Murnane fashions a work of striking originality from his memory of a lifetime’s reading. It is a triumphant act of appropriation, in which the author moves through a sequence of fragmented images retained from his encounters with the work of other writers and, in doing so, creates his own, utterly distinct imaginative world. Though it affects to be an autobiographical work, its layered recollections are in fact a brilliant exercise in literary idealism, an evocative depiction of the mind’s shaping powers of association. Written in Murnane’s precise, clear, carefully modulated prose and leavened by his characteristically understated humour, the beautifully crafted fictions in A History of Books are the expressions of a truly unique sensibility.
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There’s a theory that all writing is performance. A text is a performance which is generated by an author but takes place in the reader’s imagination: the writer uses the tools of language to generate specific thoughts and feelings in the mind of a reader, where language leaps a gap of imprecision and is translated into images. Secondly, writing is apparently contingent on a credible performance of being a writer: attaching oneself to a particular identity and all of its activities, such as drinking, being socially awkward, and reading a lot of books (Margaret Atwood called success at this performance ‘getting into the magic anthill’).
If this return to first principles sounds like an archaeological way to review a book, then it is because Gerald Murnane’s A History of Books is not a work of fiction in the ordinary sense of the word, but a sort of meta-fiction, a catalogue of books from the decayed library of memory.
The novella takes place in 29 sections, in each of which a reader/writer recalls scenes and fragments from books he has read, prompting memories of those books (if the reader has read them), curiosity about images (where the reader doesn’t recognise the ur-texts), and intense scrutiny of the process and significance of reading.
A History engages systematically with both kinds of writing as performance. The writer character wants to collect books and be near them. The writer’s successful enactment of writerly qualities is held up against a failure to actually write – at one point he even shows his wife a fake text. Murnane makes us constantly conscious of the text as a fake, too, populated as it is with ‘image-mountains’, an ‘image-childhood’ and ‘image-women’.
The dominant culture demands transparency in fiction, the author’s withdrawal for the sake of a satisfying illusion. Most writing resists being too demanding, offers us a cleansed style that pretends to be stylelessness. Another kind of writing asks more of the reader than the passive acceptance of a world. It offers visible ambiguities, visible method. It shows the strings and rigging of the theatre.
There is room in the world for both kinds of books, and much dissatisfaction to be found in either. Murnane’s near-obsessive precision with language has multiple effects, one of which is tiredness, as the conceit becomes so laboured as to be ridiculous. ‘The man who is the subject of this passage of fiction often found himself living in his mind the image-life of some or another image-person who had taken his interest in some or another work of fiction that he was reading’ is a representative sample. You can’t help feeling he is having a go at you.
But such irritants are soon eclipsed by wonder. This book is held together by a sustained elegiac tone, a sort of wistfulness I’d probably call Proustian, if I’d read Proust (a side-effect of reading Murnane is feeling inadequate to the task). Along with the strings of process, Murnane exposes the raw nerves of loneliness, faltering relationships, and finally, a sense that writing and reading are more significant than the world, that books offer an excess in the face of the world’s insufficiency. This is literature as opiate, a library as a lotus island of longing. At the same time the writer as performer is held against an attempt at authenticity: what really makes a book take up residence in the mind is what Murnane calls ‘the feel of things’.
The three other stories in this volume offer variations on the theme of reading and writing, culminating in the strange and moving ‘Letter to a Niece’, an eremetic fancy where books matter more than people and where comparisons to Borges seem most apt.
It’s tempting to call him experimental, but Murnane’s game – his insoluble, neurotic puzzle – is not so much provocation as style. He really is one of a kind. In some ways A History of Books is like all good books, in that it expands the mind in ways the reader does not expect. But it is also a book like no other. Murnane’s singular vision will irrevocably change the way you read.
Jennifer Mills blogs regularly for Overland and at her own blog, Walking and Falling. She is the author of two novels, The Diamond Anchor and Gone, and most recently, the short-story collection The Rest is Weight.
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