Combined Reviews: A History of Books by Gerald Murnane

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history_of_books.jpg    A History of Books
Gerald Murnane

[This book has been shortlisted for the 2012 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for Fiction.]

From the publisher's page:
The major work of fiction in this collection, 'A History of Books', explores the relationship between reading and writing in twenty nine sections, each of which begins with the memory of a book that has left an image in the writer's mind. The memory of the books themselves might have faded, but the images remain in their clarity and import - scenes of discord and madness, a stern-faced man, a young woman on a swing, a glass of beer and rays of sunlight, mountain and woodland and horizon - images which together embody the anxieties and aspirations of a writing life, and its indebtedness to what has been written and read. 'A History of Books' is accompanied by three shorter works, 'As It Were a Letter', 'The Boy's Name was David' and 'Last Letter to a Niece', in which a writer searches for an ideal world, an ideal sentence, and an ideal reader.


Peter Craven in "The Sydney Morning Herald": "Gerald Murnane is a novelist with an absolute distinctiveness and distinction, who has found a unique voice without compromising with the world of storytelling and narrative expectation, with realism and colour, and the paraphernalia of readability...He is forever writing sentences about the writer who is writing sentences. He has a pedantic, seemingly monotonous style in which the barest notations of an imaginary set-up (a stick writer who writes something called fiction in skeletal form but yields such reality as there is: a grassland here, a woman there, racing, the residuals of a Catholic country upbringing) are allowed to predominate. Yet what wonders Murnane derives from his old, familiar songs and their variations...This is a grey, sad book that glows with grandeur. It is full of a sense of the loneliness of children, the loveliness of girls; and it is mighty with the power of the suggestion (as much spectral as spiritual) that it is the flicker of light and the suggestion of feeling that create the greatest of the worlds we have...Murnane is a wonderful writer."

Don Anderson in "The Australian": "In 1982 a landmark event took place in Australian letters. Norstrilia Press, a small venture associated with science fiction publishing, produced The Plains by then 43-year-old Melburnian Gerald Murnane, whose two previous books, Tamarisk Row (1974) and A Lifetime on Clouds (1976), were more recognisable as conventional novels than this new work...The Plains, while extending some of the concerns of the books that came before it, might best be regarded as a meta-novel, a prose text that appears like a novel while offering a commentary on the nature and art of the novel. It is an abstract commentary on the nature and place of landscape in Australia. It is like rural Patrick White with the people removed. It is a tour de force...Barry Oakley has suggested the only writer Murnane can be compared with is Jorge Luis Borges. Perhaps he recalls rather some amalgam of Italo Calvino and Samuel Beckett. All of Murnane's six subsequent works of fiction would repeat and extend the project of The Plains. Australian literature would never be the same again. Murnane had initiated a paradigm shift."

Will Heyward for "Readings": "A History of Books (which is published with three shorter works) is Gerald Murnane's tenth book of fiction, and its concerns are writing, reading and memory. It is divided into nine sections, each of which explores in detail the images that have been left in an unnamed narrator's by certain books. The narrator moves imperceptibly from one memory to another, from one book to another, from image to image, never making pronouncements, always suggesting, giving the reader a glimpse at something beyond the bend. The final paragraph is sublime."

Jennifer Mills for "Overland", quoted on The Wheeler Centre site: "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."

Andrew Reimer for "The Sydney Morning Herald": "Throughout his career, Murnane has sought precision and clarity of expression. All redundancies - individual characteristics or picturesque descriptions, for instance - are shunned. Even names are absent from his later work. A History of Books carries this tendency to extremes. Practically the only name that flits across this text is Clarisse, a character in Robert Musil's The Man without Qualities - though neither Musil's name nor the title of his novel is mentioned...The section of A History of Books that alludes to Musil's novel begins with these words: 'After his thirty-seventh year, a certain man would sometimes catch sight of a certain few volumes on one of his bookshelves ...' Each of the 30 sections of A History of Books begins in this manner. A certain man of a certain age - young, middle-aged or elderly - confronts a certain book by a certain writer that conjures vivid images in that reader's mind, even though those images are not connected with the contents of the book. Indeed, those readers at different stages of their lives - and it is obvious that they are all the same reader - have often forgotten all but a detail or two of the books that had once made such an impression on them...All this constitutes, I think, a curious aesthetic (and even perhaps psychological) theory. The significance of fiction does not reside in a work's characters or views of the world, but in the unrelated images it conjures up in the reader's mind."

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This page contains a single entry by Perry Middlemiss published on September 6, 2012 1:38 PM.

2012 Queensland Literary Awards was the previous entry in this blog.

2012 John Button Prize Winners is the next entry in this blog.

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