Review: Shannon Burnson Murray Bail

A Tour through Memory

Inside, it was a museum like any other. The rooms strangely impersonal, exhibits arranged in cabinets against the wall, special objects located towards the centre. We crowded around the guide. He spoke in a quiet voice.

These are early lines from Murray Bail’s ‘Portrait of Electricity’, whose narrator is on a guided group tour of a ‘great man’s’ artifacts in a museum dedicated to the preservation of the material scraps and half-impressions he left behind. It is among Bail’s best early short stories, all the way up to its sublime closing line. It’s so good that Homesickness (1980) – which is, in turn, among Bail’s best novels – resembles a lengthy third-person restaging of ‘Portrait’ in museums and exhibitions across the globe, with the shifts in subject and national context producing kaleidoscopic reworkings of the same essential comedic ingredients. The underlying joke of Homesickness is that the Australian tourists never really see or experience anything quantifiable in their travels; each new encounter with foreign objects and people simulates the experiential and intellectual equivalent of chasing a mirage, and because they are hardly transformed by their heavily mediated encounters we are left wondering if anything of substance has happened at all. The shallow, dislocated tourists replicate their shallow dislocatedness everywhere – even in their home country.

The culminating exhibit in Homesickness takes place in the mausoleum containing the preserved body of Vladimir Lenin, another ‘great man’. First a Russian front man establishes the frame and foundation for the tourists’ observations. They have been chosen, he says, because they should be practiced in distinguishing truth from appearance:

You’ve been to many countries. Africa too, I’m told. Very good. It makes you feel experienced, nyet? It gives one the added perspective, a means of comparison. Naturally by now you have sorted out the … wheat from the chaff, the real from the nylon. Your eye has sharpened … Perhaps you are less naive? … But appearances, of events and things seen around, are deceptive. What can we believe any more? What is real? Appearances are not necessarily exact. The appearance of things is generally a lie. That has become a problem of life, wouldn’t you say? You were in Moscow yesterday and now today. But how can you prove it? Chuzhaya! Where is the truth, the real existence of things? Increasingly the edges are blurred.

By this stage in the novel, the process of selection, ordering, emphasis, contextualising and other interpretive devices common to museums and exhibitions, all of which have a destabilising effect on the observer’s ability to distinguish fiction from reality, has been repeatedly emphasised. The status and function of the objects on display are always questionable, and the narratives that condition their reception are at least partly a con. Even some of the tourists understand this and doubt their ability to sift truth from fiction. They object:

‘But we’ve seen too much!’ Sheila cried. ‘It’s been hard to digest. There were so many things. We are the least qualified.’

‘Sheila’s right,’ Borelli said. ‘It’s been confusing. We’re still in the dark.’

The Russians want the tourists to testify that the object on display is the real Lenin. But the real Lenin, to the Russians, ‘is both the living Idea and the Ideal, example and reminder’. The tourists can agree that it is probably Lenin’s preserved corpse, but they can’t thereby support the idea that Lenin is what their hosts claim he is, not least because the meaning of Lenin, expressed in their terms, is nonsensical – if Lenin’s corpse is real, then Lenin lives! – and if the meaning is nonsensical, then the reasons for preserving and displaying Lenin are similarly absurd.

Museums and mausoleums are always asking us to do something that we can’t do: to witness the artifact, and thereby confirm the story that is told around and about it. Instead of inviting a sceptical reception, they seduce us with the promise of knowledge and experience.

Biography has a similar function. In a sense, the narrator of He plays the role of tour guide through Murray Bail’s memories, addressing his subject’s life retrospectively while exhibiting a more intimate, but not total, knowledge of his thoughts and experiences. (I explain my decision to call He ‘autobiographical’ despite the extra-textual insistence that it ‘is not autobiography, or even memoir’ below.) He is a quiet book, employing the impersonal third-person. Unlike Lenin’s corpse, it reproduces the still-vital inner workings of a ‘great man’ of Australian letters – a self-styled heir to Patrick White and leading figure in the reaction against ‘dreary, dun-coloured realism’ (as Bail twice misquotes White) – albeit in a melancholic retrospective mood. The stronger, more resonant and vivid memories take centre stage, but there is a great deal of marginalia and obscurity as well.

There are no visible photographs in He, which is unusual for biography, but unsurprising to anyone who has read a Bail novel or two, since hostility or ambivalence to photography is a repeated refrain, which is in turn part of a broader self-referential game that is played across his fiction. He informs us that its subject’s father was a photographer, which adds significance to that game, but the connection between his father’s photography and Bail’s fictional treatment of photography remains ambiguous. Similarly, He implies that his father had a temper, was melancholic and withdrawn or ‘shy’, which prompts us to reconsider the many shy or withdrawn male characters in Bail’s fiction with this father in mind, alongside the complimentary spectacle of an author who avoids social commitments in an effort to achieve clarity (as he calls it) and feels himself grow cold as a consequence.

There are two clear options that a reader has when confronted with this paternal photographer. If we think it is a near-portrait of Murray Bail’s father, we can trace his influence on the male characters in Bail’s fiction. If the author’s father was not really a photographer, and was not withdrawn or melancholy, we can view him as a fairly typical Bail invention.

The book’s title marks a formal separation between the author, Bail, and his subject, ‘He’, who shares biographical details with Bail. On the basis of these shared details alone ‘He’ will seem, to most readers, to be a lightly sketched version of Bail, or different versions of him over time. But there are startling exceptions to the third-person narrative, like the final line of the first chapter: ‘I began writing out of dissatisfaction.’ This can be read as another marker showing that the implied author and his subject are pointedly distinct entities – one of them speaks as an ’I’ while the other is conjured as a ‘he’ – or as a moment when the curtain is pulled back and ‘he’ is explicitly acknowledged as a coded way of saying ‘I’. The first option presents an interesting problem: why would the implied author suddenly and sporadically address readers so directly if the ‘I’ is not meaningfully connected to the ‘he’ we are reading about? It would be an oddly artless intervention.

There is only one other example (that I found) in He where the first-person is not nested within a third-person context or part of a quotation. It appears in parenthesis, another kind of nesting: ‘(My father’s friends – I don’t recall any.)’ This detail matches the descriptions of a withdrawn father as described in the third-person narrative, and therefore invites our assumption that the two figures are meaningfully connected.

Ungenerous readers might suspect authorial error in both cases, an indication that parts of He were originally drafted in first-person and some dregs have slipped through the redrafting gaps, but the position of my first example, as the final, reverberating sentence of the opening chapter, makes that extremely unlikely. Instead, we have to assume that these first-person sentences knowingly puncture the third-person form. It is noteworthy, too, that both examples appear in the opening section of He, and consequently condition our reading of the rest of the book. We are primed to be conscious of a first-person presence, forever hiding somewhere under the nylon of a third-person disguise.

Even without this kind of priming, some might argue that Bail’s third-person narration is an unconvincing method of evading the ‘confessional’ first-person, as the narrator of The Pages disparagingly characterises the ‘I’:

It has become the age of the self; confessions in public all over the place, the spillage of the ‘I’, and in private, in a quietly structured manner (the therapist has replaced the priest).

We find a similar sentiment in Eucalyptus, when the narrator refers to ‘the many hundreds of stories told in the confessional first-person singular, with still more to come’ and adds: ‘A kind of applied psychology has taken over storytelling, coating it and obscuring the core.’

This genre takes on feminine dimensions in The Pages:

Beware of women who are or have been in analysis, even if only for a year or two. Surrendering themselves to a most intimate and self-revealing way of thinking aloud, of allowing layers to be lifted in order to reach and recognise the difficult Self, afterwards recognising the strange sense of well-being, of achievement even, as if cleansed, or beginning to be cleansed – lightened – can produce a quiet condescension towards anyone else who hasn’t undergone the same treatment …

The confessional ‘I’ is registered as an egotistical feminine diversion or impurity in Bail’s fiction, then. Yet the instances of first-person narration in He suggest that ‘he’ is an ‘I’ in explicit disguise, like a person wearing glasses with a fake nose and moustache.

‘I began writing out of dissatisfaction’ is just the sort of insight one might conjure through therapy, and the self-analysis in He has a strong whiff of therapeutic revelation, even when rendered in the third-person:

An emotional distance had hardened him unnecessarily. Finally he understood it to be a form of cheap protection.


he was conscious of his instability which would only become worse, losing him marriages, friends and jobs. It was as if he needed to break loyalties by inviting others (and organisations) to reject him.

The Pages begins by condemning confessional autobiographical expression and ends by proposing that it can be a legitimate source of philosophical (or masculine) reflection. He follows through on this promise while clinging to the masculine signs. Yet if ‘he’ is a mediated ‘I’, and ‘I’ is aligned with the confessional ‘she’, then the title of Bail’s book is a kind of contronym, with the feminine encrypted within an explicitly masculine pronoun. There is a confessional ‘she’ inside Bail’s contemplative or analytical ‘he’.

We can compare the narrative strategies of He with Eucalyptus, which posits an art of storytelling and seduction that leaves the hearer/reader wanting more, revealing while concealing, keeping her curious and engaged. The suitor’s mythic stories in Eucalyptus are open-ended and inexhaustible, prompting streams of eager questions from his listener. They are more like gifts than self-centring expressions or explicit seductions; he talks quietly, as if to no-one in particular, and she moves closer, to catch every quiet word. There is no sign of anxiety or neediness in the storyteller, no obvious attempt to be the centre of attention, to grasp the coveted object, which makes him the focus of romantic interest for a woman who is too used to being (mis)seen as a desirable conquest.

He relies on an altogether different dynamic. The implied readers have been seduced before the book appears. The dust jacket insists that ‘He. is not autobiography, or even memoir, but an almost anonymous portrait of a figure passing through time and circumstances’, but He is dependent on the reader’s awareness of Bail’s fiction and his place in a particular literary milieu over time. Even if we ignore those fugitive first-person self-exposures, where the implied author pokes his head up and draws attention to himself, Bail’s reputation precedes He and imbues it with resonances and a significance that it doesn’t produce on its own. If we play the game of avoiding biographical reading, He becomes a comparatively impoverished work.

One of the more self-aware characters in Homesickness reflects on the nature of time:

Was time composed of broken fragments, some lost, some occasionally coming close, before drifting into dots? Perhaps with age the fragments become widely spaced: arms and feet plunge through and grab trying to hold onto things.

This image finds its partner in He:

Large gaps remained between objects and between people, and between earth and sky. Vast gaps in memories – almost entirely gaps – as there were in the unaccountable hours, days and years of his life.

He stages the attempt to reach through gaps in time, extract the fading objects of the past, and organise them in a way that resembles the conjuration and storage of memory. Moments are connected seemingly at random in the early pages, setting the rhythm of the book; at other times, there are clear associative connections, as with the rabbit in this series:

His father never at a rabbit – the Depression years.

The piano tuner who came to the house carrying a small bag as if impersonating the local doctor.

Above the piano a framed print of Raeburn’s painting of a boy with his hand around a white rabbit.

There is no shortage of events or images that bring to mind Bail’s fiction – ‘At intervals along the Suez Canal: eucalypts’ – but the layering of memory serves a larger function than intertextual reference. In The Pages, Roger Anthill, who is another subject of the attempt to determine the substance of a man by the scraps he left behind, decides that his ‘philosophy’ would best be constructed as an autobiographical sequence:

It would be better if I reviewed my life as a series of incidents, of sobering alterations – along with the observations, speculations and corrections, snatches of what had gone on in my mind, thought-thinking, and a few notes on what I have learnt more from study than ‘life’, even if I have trouble saying exactly what I have learnt. A certain doggedness – is it necessary? Make note of the acts of oafish ignorance, the examples of blindness … how I had spent too long on a certain way of life, or following a single line of thought. (‘Tunnel vision.’) The aims we set ourselves when young are still there but more and more out of reach. There would be a list of the good deeds and the bad deeds. Proper due can be given to my curiosity in general. Each entry need not be long. A single sentence should do it. One entry per page. These could be tossed up into the air and allowed to settle in any order, for they are random parts of a single life, mine.

It does not take much squinting to see the draft image of He in these concluding sentences of The Pages. As with the transition from ‘Portrait of Electricity’ to Homesickness, the narrative point of view shifts from Anthill’s nested first person to He’s third, and while He’s fragments are more expansive than a single sentence on each page, they are mostly short and presented in large font with generous spacing. There is strong evidence of shaping and ordering in He – most obvious in its broadly linear transition from childhood to old age – but there is also an element of chaos in the construction; its disjointed form suggests incompleteness just as the third person narration accentuates indirectness.

Bail’s ideas about memory, and the kind of book we are reading, are scattered throughout:

Memories are unequal. Some don’t need searching for; they appear randomly. Others need a concentrated effort to recall.

‘Apparently no memory is exact. And when written down the imperfection expands.’

Silly things are remembered more clearly than serious ones.

Again it is the extreme event, not an ordinary happy one, that reappears as an image.

In composing He, the author is exposed to the perils of retrospective reconstruction. The instinctive emphasis on extreme events and idiosyncratic people fuses with the falsifying process of representation and the seemingly arbitrary tendency of some recollections to emerge easily, while others require intense effort or lengthy contemplation. He is, implicitly, a product of that struggle and acceptance: the struggle to extract memories that resist exposure, and submission to memory’s randomness and misleading emphases.

He is a ‘history of a single person surrounded by others’. The opening paragraph offers up a boy earnestly ‘trying to comprehend the incomprehensible’. The repetition of ‘incomprehensible’ at the end of the very next sentence sets the tone: the subject of the book struggles to understand the world and his place in it, and he always will, even when he takes up the role of author and memorialiser. This first image is drawn from photography – the boy is ‘facing the camera’, alongside his siblings, who barely feature in Bail’s book of memory. Overt speculation is unbecoming in a critic, but is it silly to wonder if the photographer-father is here as well, behind the camera, capturing this first image of the protagonist’s younger self?

The narrator then emphasises the precarious impression people make on the world, listing some of the dead people that he has known:

They no longer exist. Even in memory they have become insubstantial, barely recognisable. Having once been seen, they remain part of his life. As almost-remembered.

‘He’ is not just a single consciousness, an anonymised or fictionalised version of the writer Murray Bail; he is also a rememberer who hosts images and impressions of people and events that are not recorded elsewhere – certainly not as they are in a person’s living memory – and will disappear when the rememberer dies, or forgets. This is one of the common claims of literature concerned with memorialisation: that it maintains what is usually lost, and that this loss is always a melancholy affair, verging on injustice.

He exhibits a quiet, multidirectional sense of bewilderment – ‘The incomprehensibility of everything, of light and darkness, of water, everything invisible and felt, his sense of being alive, all impossible to explain’ – but the confusions are sharpened around the issue of women. Observations from childhood sets the tone: ‘Girls were both soppy and obscure. Boys surveyed them with confused mockery.’ That mockery is not so evident in He, but confusion remains. He even asks a version of the question Tiresias was forced to resolve: ‘He wondered whether women showed happiness more. Did they experience more happiness than men?’ This is a way of hinting that happiness has mostly evaded him – that he has witnessed it in others, but found it lacking in himself – as much as it demonstrates a limited understanding of the opposite sex.

There is a residual defensiveness across He: shortcomings are described – ‘His efforts to be individual were too deliberate and made him unpleasant’ – but they are typically a product of confusion or an artist’s dedication to his work, rather than malice or selfishness. Bail treats his younger subject with sympathetic tenderness, like a tolerant parent.

Across his novels Bail reiterates the necessary flaws of art – the way it registers effortful creative imperfection as much as technical mastery, its human scale – so we might hope for an artful semi-autobiography that is grippingly imperfect, but Bail’s technical ambitions are fairly modest this time around, especially when compared with The Voyage or Eucalyptus. Bail’s style is plain but produces occasional clunky moments, alongside pleasurable ambiguities. As an example:

Earliest memory (c. 1943): waking up in his cot in the hot bedroom facing west, the honey-coloured light coming in through the holland blind. Enough to make him begin to cry.

The likely meaning of the final sentence fragment is that the child starts to cry because he is awoken by the light, but it is also possible that recalling the event is enough to make the rememberer cry. Is it ‘his’ earliest memory, or the implied author’s?

Several sections of He are irredeemably flat. There are dull accounts of the changing shape and function of cars, the arrival of the fax machine, hi-fi systems, computers, the internet, and other social and technological transformations, and a digression dealing with growing dominance of baseball caps and runners is insipid. But these unwieldy segments serve a useful function, pointing to massive cultural and technological transformations that have taken place since the middle part of the last century – transformations that their author has had to navigate. One of the most striking features of the world that Bail grew up is the regular exposure to risk and death. ‘He’ witnesses fatal accidents as a child, and his schoolmates regularly suffer broken limbs. Irredeemable misfortune and severe physical injury are part of life’s fabric in suburban post-war Australia, even among the middle classes; for most of this century it has been an aberration, except among the least fortunate.

How does someone who grew up in such a world – who was formed by starkly different social settings than the ones that shape the contemporary reception of his work – make himself recognisable to a twenty-first-century readership? Perhaps He has partly emerged from the author’s sense that the world he comes from has all but disappeared, which means that the ability and willingness to read his fiction on its original terms is also fading. Maybe it is an effort, partly, to preserve those terms, to reinvigorate our sense of the personal, social and cultural forces that produced the author’s personality and his fiction, to thread a connection between that lost world and now. If that is one of Bail’s intentions, He mostly succeeds.

The major difference between the unnamed ‘he’ of ‘Portrait of Electricity’ and the unnamed ‘he’ of He is the former’s apparent desire to erase all traces of himself. According to the tour guide, ‘in effect he has scratched evidence of his existence on earth, materially speaking, although to us onlookers now, we can conjure up all kinds of thoughts.’ Because of this, the curators of the museum rely on indirect impressions of their subject, like the shape of a seat cushion moulded by constant use, or a mirror, which has not hosted another human reflection since he died, or telephone wires, which once carried his voice.

If the ‘great man’ of ‘Portrait’ hoped to frustrate the public’s curiosity about his life by getting rid of the evidence, he failed dismally. The more enigmatic he is, the freer people are to imagine him, which makes him a more seductive target of biographical concern for curators and consumers. It is noteworthy that whatever he is famous for is absent in this museum of faint impressions and the photographs are sold-out.

He gives us a tantalising model for Bail’s great man, in the shape of a father ‘who avoided identifying himself in captions under his photos, preferring ‘?’ written in ink, which only drew more attention …’ But what do we – readers, critics, amateur biographers – do with these connections between literary production and (seeming) biographical anecdote? What story should we fashion from them? Do we allow each impression to hover on the edge of meaningfulness, to thereby retain a pleasurable (or frustratingly incomplete) suggestiveness, to float around our understanding of Bail’s literary work and life without forcing or permitting them to resolve into clarifying patterns? Or do we risk developing a false understanding by leaping headlong into the kind of interpretive storytelling that is sometimes called ‘biographical criticism’? Generically ambiguous works like He complicate matters even further, but readers who are not required to exhibit the cautiousness of critics will make connections that we are inclined to leave suspended, and they will have some justification for doing so in this case.

Bail employs subtler kinds of indirectness and misdirection than the ‘great man’ or the father in He. Instead of erasing the evidence of his life, he shapes his story in a particular way, supplying a controlled store of information (and possible fabrication) and thereby limiting the range of impressions that readers might sanely conjure – drawing less attention to himself, perhaps, by offering up just enough.