Gerald Murnane’s Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs

It seems from the essays in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs that Gerald Murnane is a writer that writes for his own pleasure and necessity. Murnane describes himself as a technical writer who is compelled to find words to explore the contours of his thoughts, a phrase he finds in Herbert Read’s English Prose Style, explaining that it “is a magical phrase for me. It has helped me in times of trouble in the way that phrases from the Bible or from Karl Marx probably help other people.”

My reading is obsessive by nature, often sending me into what is now a frequent pattern of reading a writer until exhausting all available work, reading some secondary material and, in some cases, reading the books that they acknowledge as influences. An earlier version of my reading self read Barley Patch nine years ago and, though I recall appreciating Murnane’s evident pleasure at playing with language, the book failed to trigger the sort of obsession I’ve experienced with Virginia Woolf, Dante, J. M. Coetzee, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Denton Welch, Christa Wolf, or Clarice Lispector. Triggering such an obsession required, firstly, for me to be the reader I am today, and secondly the essays in Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs.

What I find in Murnane’s essays is not just a writer that inspires a reader to reflect on existential questions, part of why I read what I read, but also a writer that opens blissful landscapes where I find colossal, quiet spaces. Murnane describes his own discovery of such spaces in discovering Jack Kerouac’s On The Road: “The book was like a blow to the head that wipes out all memory of the recent past. For six months after I first read it I could hardly remember the person I had been beforehand. For six months I believed I had all the space I needed.” It is from experiences like this that my love of literature comes, why I discover ecstatic spaces from human beings that I am never likely to meet, but considers companions in navigating this often ghastly world around me.



14 thoughts on “Gerald Murnane’s Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs

  1. “… companions in navigating this often ghastly world around me” — precisely, Anthony! Thank you for sharing!

  2. Very much recommend A Million Windows as next Murnane novel to try. I like Barley Patch; A Million Windows changed the way I’ve read every novel since. Barley Patch was greater rereading after Windows (strongly recommend Inland and the latest and supposedly last Border Districts too)

    • A Million Windows is on its way from Giramondo. For the time being I’ve been able to get hold of Tamarisk Row and intend to read all the novels chronologically. But I will take your suggestion and jump to A Million Windows when it arrives. Thanks for commenting.

  3. Sometimes it has to be the right author at the right time, I find. I’ve gone back to someone who didn’t fire my imagination first time round later on and their work has had quite a different effect. I’ve heard lots about Murnane and since I’m drawn to non fiction right now, this might be a good entry point for me.

  4. What an interesting post! I like to read multiple books by an author I love though I tend to do it over time rather than all at once. I’ve read all of Edith Wharton’s novels (I once loved her though I don’t feel as enamored of her anymore). The authors I’d like to read more of–and much of whose work I’ve already read are Henry James (a controversial choice, I know!), Thomas Mann, George Eliot, and Hermann Broch. And I’d like to explore Patrick White, Nabokov, and Mathias Enard.

    And this is such a great sentiment: “I discover ecstatic spaces from human beings that I am never likely to meet, but considers companions in navigating this often ghastly world around me.” That is perfectly phrased! It’s very much how I often feel.

  5. I read a single Jon Fosse book years ago, but this time around I am reading through all the available books, and starting with his essays was great because it is opening up so many possibilities in my reading of the fiction. Will look for this Murnane collection before diving into his fiction as well.

    • Fosse’s collection of essays, When an Angel Goes Through the Stage, is extraordinary and I’ve amassed what I think is all his translated work to read through chronologically. Murnane’s essays are I think even more useful to understand his project, which he conceived as one vast work.

  6. I’ve read most of Murnane, although not this collection, and I see the pair “pleasure and necessity” in your first sentence a little differently. The “pleasure” would be in the solution of what he perceives as problems, and the “necessity” would be the compulsion to solve those problems by constructing written structures. I see him now as largely autistic, by which I mean driven by compulsions that sometimes result in objects we can take as publicly oriented literature. (See the essays in his filing systems, and his imaginary horse races…,)

    • You may be right. I haven’t read his enough of his work. What I see from the little I’ve read (these essays, Barley Patch and most of Tamarisk Row) seems something a little rarer: the perspective of a child, that unencumbered clarity that Picasso often talked about but failed to attain. An erudite and articulate child of course, but also with a child’s attention to everything. Once lost it cannot be regained in the way that Picasso (and Stein) sought, but if that dimension is never lost, one might perhaps retain a perspective like Murnane’s?

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