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Murnane and his precursors

Lecturer: Brendan Casey

Originally Taught: Summer School 2022

Description: The Australian novelist Gerald Murnane has published eleven books of fiction, two collections of essays and a book of poems. Certain adjectives show up again and again in the critical reception of his work: his fiction has been called difficult, hermetic, affectless, and even solipsistic. This course aims to shed Murnane’s rebarbative reputation by examining his work within the context of five key literary forebears: Emily Brontë, Marcel Proust, Gyula Illyés, Henry James and Charles Kingsley. These are authors that Murnane cares deeply about, and they provide valuable inroads to his unique and complex thought. Literary theorists of intertextuality and influence, such as Gärard Genette, Harold Bloom and Jed Rasula, will provide a necessary background for our reading. However, the main objective of the course is to extract from Murnane’s literary precursors a solid understanding of his own philosophy of fiction.

The courses title comes from Jorge Luis Borges’ short essay ‘Kafka and his Precursors’, in which the Argentinian writer states: ‘The fact is that each writer creates his precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.’ Following Borges’ lead, an aim of this course is to come to new understandings of each of Murnane’s five precursors, by reading them reflexively (and ahistorically) through him. By the end of this course we will understand Murnane’s robust vision of collegiality in literary history, in which he is formed by his forebears, but equally and more mysteriously, they in turn are equally formed his subtle and idiosyncratic readings (or, as the case may be, misreadings) of them.

Preparatory reading: Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Kafka and His Precursors’ (1951)

1: Juvenilia as late style: As the story goes, the gift of a set of toy soldiers from her father in 1826 stimulated Emily Brontë and her siblings to make ‘plays’ about her new toys. The juvenilia paracosms (fictional worlds) she invented remained a persistent part of her writing up until her death in 1848. In this first lecture, Brontë’s invented realms of Gondal and Gaaldine will be examined with reference to Murnane’s own paracosms, New Arcadia and New Eden.

Core readings:

  • Gerald Murnane, ‘The Interior of Gaaldine’ (1995)
  • Emily Brontë selections from the Gondal poems

Supplementary reading:

  • Gerald Murnane, ‘Birds of the Puszta’ (1988)

2: Miracles and le moi profond: Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu provided Murnane with his most enduring model for a philosophy of fiction. However, Murnane’s interpretation of Proust is idiosyncratic, and it breaks with prevailing understandings of the French novelist. This lecture will focus on Murnane’s adopted distinction between le moi profond and le moi social that underpin his ontologies of fiction and the real world.

Core reading:

Gerald Murnane, ‘Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs’ (2005)

Selections from Marcel Proust, Swann's Way (1913), Le Temps retrouvé (Time Regained, 1927)

3: The woman in the well: Part social ethnography, part literary essay, Gyula Illyés’ Puszták népe (People of the Puszta) describes the landless farmworkers of Transdanubian countryside in West Hungary. In the 1990s, at the age of 56, Murnane taught himself Hungarian so as to be able to read Illyés in his native language. This lecture will discuss the recurrent image—poached from Illyés—of a young woman drowning in a well. The sexual and gendered politics of Murnane’s writing will also be explored this week.

Core reading:

  • Gerald Murnane, ‘The Angel’s Son: Why I Learned Hungarian in Late in Life’ (2003)
  • Selections from Gyula Illyés, Puszták népe (1936)

Supplementary readings:

  • Gerald Murnane, Inland, (1988)
  • Janos Zoltan, Secret Matters (2015, documentary)

4: Retrospective illumination: In a letter to his publisher from July 1905, Henry James wrote of his desire to ‘furnish’ the New York Editions of his collected works with an authoritative explanation of his fiction and the history of its production. In the resulting ‘prefaces’, James acts as historian and scholar of his own work, surveying, evaluating and interpreting the texts ‘in a way hitherto rather withheld of them, and for which they have long and patiently waited.’ In this lecture, I argue that James’ Prefaces provide a model for thinking about the Murnane’s spiraling, self-referential fiction.

Core reading:

  • Gerald Murnane, A Million Windows (2014)
  • Henry James, New York Preface for Portrait of a Lady (1908)

Supplementary readings:

  • Further selections from Henry James’ New York Prefaces

5: Late style as lifework: This concluding lecture returns us to Murnane’s interest in ‘lifelong juvenilia’ through an examination of Charles Kingsley’s children’s fiction and Murnane’s hugely significant, though seldom discussed, short story ‘Last Letter to a Niece’.

Core reading:

  • Gerald Murnane, ‘Last Letter to a Niece’ (2001)
  • Charles Kingsley, selections from The Water-Babies, A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby (1863) & Hereward the Wake (1866)

Supplementary readings:

  • Gerald Murnane, ‘A History of Books’ (2012)

Bio: Brendan Casey a PhD researcher at the University of Melbourne and Cordite Scholarly Editor. Recent essays and criticism by him have been published in Meanjin, JASAL, Cordite, Dušan and Voitre Marek: Surrealists at sea (Art Gallery of South Australia), The Cambridge Companion to the Australian Novel (forthcoming) and elsewhere.