He loves horse races, not planes

Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs
By Gerald Murnane
193 pp. And Other Stories. £12.

I’ve heard various sources cite the Australian writer Gerald Murnane as the best English-language author people have never heard of. I myself heard of him only recently, and while he may very well be the best little known English language author, it’s hard to say with confidence based solely on this collection of essays. 

I’ve only read a handful of essay collections in my life, most of those by the late, great Christopher Hitchens. I should read more of them though, as an author’s thoughts on the world and current events often, but not always, provide great insight into the kind of fiction they write. 

The essays in “Invisible Yet Enduring Lilacs” are somewhat like that tin of sardines that features on the cover, at least for me. Because while I enjoy sardines once in a while, I’m never left fully satisfied by them. While writing this I recall the tinny, somewhat copper taste left in my mouth after eating them straight from the tin, a taste tinged with regret. They’re enjoyable but barely constitute a meal.

The problem with this particular collection of essays is that so many of them come off as slightly redundant. So many of the same themes are mentioned again and again and again that eventually your eyes just sort of gloss over the umpteenth likening of the final lap of a horse race to the reading of poetry or the writing of fiction. 

Yes, Murnane is very fond of horse racing, and the majority of the essays in here have him talking about horse races and relating it to his reading or writing. Likewise, we learn early on that Murnane writes with an image in mind, a fish pond, say, and if he’s capable of envisioning the full setting of the fish pond, the landscape that lays behind it, he knows he’ll be able to finish whatever book he happens to be working on at the time that he’s attached that image to.

Similarly, grass. Murnane goes on in certain of these essays about grass, about how the grass in his native Australia might differ from the grass one would find in Hungary, for example. Far too many lines are given to ruminating about these things. I can only imagine that were I in the audience when Murnane was reading one of these out (more than a couple of the included essays are actually speeches for some event or other), I would have fallen fast asleep.

But there are some very good essays here as well. “Why I write what I write” and “Secret writing” are fascinating insights into Murnane’s process as a writer, and I found they gave me some insight into my own writing. 

Likewise, “The transcript stops here: or, who does the consultant consult?” and “The breathing author” are interesting glimpses into how Murnane assesses the writing of others. 

The problem is that the essays I liked the best tended to be the shortest. Just a few pages long. The essays I found the most laborious, the most repetitive, were 20 or 30 pages long. “Stream System” I could have easily done without, while the title essay, “Invisible yet enduring lilacs”, provided an interesting look at Proust but was far too much about the minute details of Murnane’s own life.

Murnane drops interesting facts about himself throughout these essays. For example, that he’s never been on a plane before, that he’s never left Australia, or even ventured more than 1,500 kilometers in any one direction from his home there. He easily loses track of the plot lines in films, and he has never heard an opera. 

I wish he would have written more about some of these things. Why, for example, is he so adamant about not getting on a plane? Are there environmental reasons behind that, a fear of flight, or just a lack of desire to travel beyond his own country? 

Ultimately, this collection is a somewhat tepid endorsement of Murnane’s novels. I’m still curious to read his fiction, but I’m also afraid that they’re nothing more than thousands of pages full of the minute details of grass and horse races.

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