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Invisible yet Enduring Lilacs

Train overshoots Platform Three at Macleod Railway Station

To enter into the written world of Gerald Murnane is to see and hear methodical, tested sentences that take us into unpredictable places. Methodical but managed sentences, tested but spontaneous sentences that emulate the logic and illogic of the moving mind. Methodical and unrepetitious, for they act like lines of poetry, mood and meaning changing even when the same words are used.

These essays, fugitive or eremitical take your pick, have appeared over the past twenty years. (Gerald Murnane, Invisible yet enduring lilacs, Giramondo, $24.95, 225 p, 1-920882-09-X) They further accentuate the reader’s reliance on the imagination of Gerald Murnane. “I imagined that the house itself had been shipped many years before from Britain,” he writes. Most writers assume that their imagination is solidly before us in the work, but for Murnane his images are as essential and sensible as any reality he is constructing. Images are a first premise.

In the foreground is Murnane the writer, Murnane as a person in the act of writing, Murnane thinking about writing, writing down what he thinks while writing. Some of us will be familiar with his first person singular, its gambits and explorations. These essays share this trait to the point of intimacy. They provide insight into processes by which this personality has come to write such fiction. As he says, “I began to see that I was already well qualified to write about a young man who looked for strangeness beyond what seemed ordinary.” It is a described world that some find only idiosyncratic, but for others is entrancing, mobile, and particular.

Central concerns come into relief. One is the irretrievable past, to be salvaged in those fickle devices, words. Be it about Murnane’s father, a girl living in Hungary years ago, or even his own former selves, writing is bound with inexpressible loss. No wonder his favourite novelist is Marcel Proust. Try to trace the meaning of his intricate prose and invisible conjunctions and we find the trick of memory, the construction of a poetically effective entity, the connections between loss and discovery. Self is decisive. A favourite quote is from Rilke: “a world floating like an island in the ocean of the self.” His inner life of images leads to “a place in mind where I see together things that I might have expected to lie for ever apart.” This place, grasslands in an imagined America or Victorian Western District, is a merging of memories into what could be called sacred scenes in his life, that produce visions of peace. His replacement Catholicism shows its face. In the title essay, for example, grief, conflict and challenge are reconciled as Murnane draws together images of his father’s death with his first reading of ‘Combray’.

We find how vital Murnane’s family life is to the novels. This book is a primer for the real work of reading Murnane and is pleasurable at that level whether or not we are Murnane buffs. Relatives are referred to regularly in the context of formative experiences. This biographical information deepens our insight into the emotions that are their real themes: birth, courtship, paternity, death. Outward concerns circle around the divulging of a secret, shown in extremis in the death of Murnane’s younger brother in ‘Stream System’.

A unique gift can be blessing and hindrance. Murnane’s trust in his own voice and style gives us some superlative writings. At the same time, our involvement depends greatly on our following this very singular and authoritative voice wherever it goes. Our pleasure, our attention, and our patience are founded in our trust in the voice.

Likewise, his strong card, the use of the image, can also be a limitation. “What I call true fiction is fiction written by men and women not to tell the stories of their lives but to describe the images in their minds.” This is a penetrating, viable thesis about the sources of creativity, but it can quickly become doctrine and cannot fully explain the diversity of fiction. Also, though a useful guide into Murnane, who uses images as the pre-eminent form to achieve a special vision, this is true for Murnane precisely because it is his own artistic discovery, the genesis of his particular art.

What are these ‘grasslands’ that rise up between him and the place he thinks of? Is everything over there beyond reach? Is a childhood lived in Bendigo and Warrnambool likely to evoke such personal isolation? Are the ‘grasslands’ a protective zone between him and the world outside? The ‘grasslands’ of Murnane’s imagination are a plain and fertile place where both he and his readers may begin to explore the activities of inner imagination. Such a venture is worth our effort and these essays, evocative, entertaining and deeply felt, are a perfect introduction to places we arrive at as if for the first time.

Written in Macleod, December 2005


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