Near where I was raised, there is an island that was used as a training ground for amphibious campaigns during the Second World War. By the time I was born, the island had long since been claimed by the state parks service. It was only through public-education initiatives that I learned its full history—from its place in the geography and politics of indigenous peoples, to its use as farmland in the nineteenth century and its later wartime function, up to present-day conservation efforts focused on its modest but remarkable flora, fauna, and marine ecosystems. When I was growing up, my family would visit the island weekly, sometimes daily, for the usual summer recreation. The other children of this little community and I would roam the island’s thick woods, splashing through marshes and jumping down sand dunes. Together with the simple fun of childhood play, there was the added thrill of an overgrown airstrip, the frame of a Jeep rusted and contorted by time and the elements, a fence post older than the trees that surrounded it. From a certain vantage, I could observe the stack of sea, sand, trees, and sky, following the colors up toward the sun, where they disappeared and seeing clearly meant seeing nothing at all. It seemed to me that in this particular place, made special both by the stories people told about it and by forces beyond anyone’s control, time itself behaved differently, coiling back rather than leading forward.
The Australian writer Gerald Murnane has long held that time is an illusion, and that our experience is made up not of moments, but of the succession of places we’ve inhabited, each of which remains long after we’ve left it. His belief in this “secret dominance of place,” as he (or, rather, one of his unnamed narrators) once called it, has led him to an aesthetic vision at once beguilingly strange and familiar. His prose, though clean and approachable, bears the mystical aura of one who has not only seen things others have not, but has also seen common things in a way no one else has.
This revelatory aspect of Murnane’s “fictions” (he prefers this term to “novels” or “stories”) is not one of blinding light and sudden comprehension, but of journeys through increasingly well-lit landscapes. His real subject is fiction itself, which in his estimation allows access to places one can reach by no other means. The territory he writes about expands inward toward a mysterious center rather than outward. A paragraph will often double back to qualify or fill in a preceding observation: “Having written the previous paragraph, I now remember…” In Murnane’s hands these interpolations and revisions do not feel intrusive. Rather, they are part of an excavation disclosing ever-deeper layers of self-knowledge, reports from an interiority so particular it begins to seem universal.
Now, it would seem, no more reports will reach us—not, at least, while the reporter is still alive. With Last Letter to a Reader, Murnane has officially concluded his career as a writer for publication. It’s unclear what to make of this. Quitting writing, at least for publication, is a crucial part of the strange story of Murnane’s legendary career. Beginning with Tamarisk Row (1974), which is being reissued with Last Letter, Murnane published a series of novels written in an increasingly distinctive and self-possessed style, including his 1982 masterpiece, The Plains. His life has been as eccentric as his work. He has lived the whole of his eighty-two years in the state of Victoria, rarely leaving the greater Melbourne area until his 2009 move to the small border town of Goroke (population 299), where he occasionally tends bar at the local “men’s shed.” He is obsessed with horse racing and has an encyclopedic knowledge of the subject. He has never been on an airplane or worn sunglasses. Or so he says.
When Emerald Blue (1995) sold only six hundred copies, Murnane stopped publishing new work for a decade, returning in 2005 with the essay collection Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs. It was not until 2009 that he published another novel, Barley Patch. Since then he has published more novels, essays, and a memoir of extraordinary quality. In 2018 the New York Times Magazine ran a profile of Murnane with the title: “Is the Next Nobel Laureate in Literature Tending Bar in a Dusty Australian Town?” The answer turned out to be no, but the point stands: Murnane has secured an international reputation with all his eccentricities and preoccupations intact. No better moment, then, to hang it all up. In the very brief foreword to Last Letter to a Reader, Murnane writes:
Nearly six years ago, when I had written the last of my poems for the collection Green Shadows and Other Poems, I felt sure that I could write nothing more for publication. I went on writing, of course, but only for my archives.
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