Academic journal article Antipodes

A History of Books

Academic journal article Antipodes

A History of Books

Article excerpt

FICTION The image-life of some or another image-person Gerald Murnane. A History of Books. Artarmon: Giramondo, 2012. 205 pp. $16. 95. ISBN 9781920882853

A History of Books is not a continuous account of the books that have mattered to Murnane, a textual analogue to a book such as Alberto Fuguet's The Movies of My Life. As always, Murnane does not speak in the first person but always in the third. In addition, the narrative (Murnane elsewhere in the book suggests "summary of the significance of' is as good a phrase as "narrative") is not continuous in time. It hops between ages, swerving from youth to middle age to later life in a non-linear if perhaps not totally random manner.

The material contained in A History of Books centers about the long title novella. "A History of Books" is concerned with an ensemble of acts of reading, which the reader might be tempted to posit as a unity, but which the narrative continuously resists. The book also contains three other stories: "Last Letter to A Niece," written from a viewpoint of a persona very unlike Murnane (the narrator has never married or had children, whereas Murnane, as he has frequently commented, is the father of three sons) and concerning the conditions of reading and writing; "The Boy's name Was David," a meditation on two disparate spheres, horse-racing and the teaching of fiction, which Murnane manages to ingeniously yoke together; and "As if It Were a Letter," a story evoking scenes from a Catholic upbringing in the Australia of the 1950s, which deserves especial note as it was the publication of this story by the noted Australian editor Ivor Indyk in HEAT in 2001 that launched the most recent phase in Murnane's writing career, breaking a silence of some years.

"A History of Books" refers to two different sets of books: the books these characters have read, and the books they have wanted to write but could not. The former constitute a sort of enigma. If one does not know the works one must puzzle out their identities, since Murnane does not mention any referred-to works by name. At the very back of the book, the publisher has provided the names of the authors alluded to (though not the works). But as a pure guessing-game, the reader should refrain from consulting this list until the very end. Henry Handel Richardson and Christopher Brennan, two major Australian writers cited throughout AHOB, may not be household names outside of their native land, but in this book Murnane pairs them in a most intriguing way. Richardson (female despite the name) was based in Melbourne, was a writer of realistic, scrupulously observed novels about coming of age in colonial Australian and in Europe as an expatriate. Brennan was based in Sydney and was a visionary Symbolist who corresponded with Mallarmé and was one of Australia's foremost literary academics yet was also, according to the narrator, a "notorious drunkard" (as seen also in Brennan's recent portrayal in Brian Castro's bravura novella Street To Street). Brennan and Richardson are surface opposites. But Murnane's narrative reveals them as strangely complementary. These paired influences symbolize contrasts that are resonant throughout Murnane's oeuvre and of which he carefully informs his readers: Australia and Europe, the real and the visionary, the Victoria where he has spent most of his life and the New South Wales where he lived for a few months as a young man while training for the priesthood. These motifs are continually present in Murnane's fiction. Here they are braided into the tally of the narrators and the books they have read.

The Brennan-Mallarmé linkage bridges the European avant-garde and an Australian tradition of innovation that Murnane, in his dry, ruminative way, continues. The link also holds implications for a second meaning of "books" in the title when we consider that Mallarmé believed all his visible poems were but shards of an unwritten book; likewise, Murnane's narrator refers repeatedly to books he has begun but never finished. …

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