If I had to summate Australian writer Gerald Murnane’s new work of fiction, A History of Books, I’d give the reader this sentence written by the man himself: “The young man wanted to demonstrate to any visitor that he, the young man, preferred to the visible world a space enclosed by words denoting a world more real by far.” For Murnane, these themes – the images within books, the memory of books and the writing of books – have become a preoccupation, and in A History of Books he explores these subjects with an unfaltering single-mindedness.
The book is divided into four sections. The feature novella ‘A History of Books,’ in which an unnamed narrator recounts 29 images from books he remembers; ‘As It Were a Letter’ in which the narrator searches for an idealised world; ‘The Boy’s Name was David’ (my favourite) which takes the reader on a first-person account of an imaginary race of perfect sentences that conjure lasting images; and finally ‘Last Letter to a Niece,’ as the writer assumed to have been the unnamed narrator hopes for a “wildly unexpected outcome” from his writing.
On the surface, A History of Books is a simple account of a particular writer’s anxieties and aspirations, perhaps Murnane’s own. But the words dig deep into its themes and make this work a significant achievement – one I imagine could be Murnane’s last, as the overall feeling resembles a dénouement to his entire body of work.
Murnane has published nine books since the release of Tamarisk Row in 1974, five of which this reviewer is familiar with. Reading each of these and researching the others, it becomes obvious Murnane has been formulating and building on his ideas with each new work. Reading A History of Books, one can expect Murnane’s signature blend of complex networks of sentences and paragraphs woven together around a metafictional thread.
When Inland was released in 1988, some said that he wrote with ‘sombre lyricism’ and ‘chiselled sentences.’ In A History of Books, Murnane takes his style to another level. A History of Books finds Murnane in confident voice, and those ‘chiselled sentences’ are so perfect that they’re almost like individual works of fiction. Murnane’s lyrical sentences reflect aspects of the previous ones, and foreshadow aspects of the one to follow. He then places these sentences within paragraphs that work in the same way; but Murnane doesn’t stop there, as the four sections of A History of Books also speak to each other.
A History of Books, however, is not without problems.The pacing is patchy, and occasionally it moves too swiftly. Other than this, A History of Books is a perfect book for a budding writer or passionate lover of intense and moving prose. In the final pages, Murnane writes, “I remain hopeful that something will come of this writing.” This simple enough sentence carries a deeply rooted anxiety all writers can relate to.