Review: Ivor Indykon Murray Bail

The Provincial and the Princess: The Voyage by Murray Bail

Murray Bail’s two most recent novels, The Pages and The Voyage, have a repentant air about them, an acknowledgement of limitation and failure, which is all the more striking when set against the encyclopedic ambition characteristic of his earlier novels. Their principal male characters, Wesley Antill and Frank Delage, are each notable for not achieving their ambition – to make a decisive contribution to philosophy in the one instance, to challenge the musical establishment with a revolutionary piano in the other. Each returns from Europe chastened, determinedly aware of his shortcomings. More remarkably, perhaps, given the masculine orientation of Bail’s earlier works, in both The Pages and The Voyage the dominant characters are women.

Homesickness (1980), Holden’s Performance (1987), Eucalyptus (1998) – all are marked by a  desire to take on the world, to embrace it as a whole. This encyclopedic aspiration is all the stronger it seems – certainly in its curiosity and energy – for having provincial roots, not only in Australia as a distant province of the great world, but in those parts of it, like Bail’s home town of Adelaide, which may claim an even greater remoteness. In his essay on ‘The Provincialism of Small Nations’, Milan Kundera defined provincialism, conventionally enough, as ‘the inability (or the refusal) to see one’s own culture in the large context.’ But when it comes to Australian writing at least, the opposite is true: in writers like Bail, provincialism expresses itself as a determination to see the large context in one’s own culture. In The Pages (2008), Antill encounters a violin-maker from Mittenwald who has never set foot out of Germany, and only rarely out of his house, and who tells him, ‘Without moving a centimetre, one can know the whole world.’ Bail’s provincials share this desire to know the whole world from the place that they are in.

This encyclopedic drive is most evident in Homesickness, in the museums the Australian tourists visit one after another, each built around everyday objects or themes – corrugated iron, legs, marriage, hair or gravity – which offer themselves to a limitless range of applications; and in the other repositories of classification and categorisation whose potential they are made aware of along the way – dictionaries, genealogies, cemeteries, hotels. All of them tend towards exhaustion in their accumulation of objects, taxonomies, perspectives, histories. In some of these compendia, like the Museum of Found Objects, the potentially endless listing of things that people have left behind is further augmented by the possibility that any one of those things might in turn evoke all the elements in the category to which it belongs. Others – complex objects like the Statue of Liberty – are presented as huge compilations of their constituent parts. Each object a world, each museum a collection of worlds, the world itself a vast museum. One is overwhelmed by the drive outward, from the detail to the larger whole, by the scale of the demonstration, the curiosity that fuels it, and the virtuosity of the author.

This encyclopedic display is so relentless it doesn’t really allow for a plot, as such, and it dwarfs the characters, who quickly become a collection too: of gestures, interests, sentiments and memories. In Holden’s Performance, perhaps in response to this imbalance, Bail brings his characters into the foreground, only to have them embody the same encyclopedism, the same urge to comprehensive knowledge, that they had experienced in the museums of Homesickness.

Significantly, though universal in its range, this urge seems confined to men. Holden Shadbolt, whose education the novel traces, is surrounded by encyclopedic father-figures. One, a proof-reader by trade, is a voracious consumer of newspapers, absorbing in one sitting, ‘the daily history and shifting minutiae of Adelaide, and the rest of Australia, and the world beyond.’ Another divines significance in the rubbish left in the gutters of Adelaide and on the South Australian coast, ‘not simply information of one city, but the entire world and its contents, the contemporary history of man.’ A third runs a theatre in the Sydney seaside suburb of Manly, appropriately called the Epic, since it shows newsreel glimpses of the on-going epic of world history, gathering events from distant lands and offering its audience the assurance, ‘Right now, each one of us is performing in many different epics at once.’ A fourth tutelary figure is dedicated to exhausting the category of seducible women, rather in the manner of Don Giovanni. And all the while the novel is peppered with opinions and theories that seem to emanate from the author himself, and which work in the same way. They move outwards from the detail, connecting fishing rods, deckchairs, shoe-styles, elongated limousines, sidecar motorcycles and central heating to the larger movements of history and the differences between nations.

In Holden’s Performance, the characters are so weighed down by their epic burdens, for all the comedy that plays about them, that they seem more like allegorical figures, embodiments of obsession. For this reason they threaten to take on monstrous proportions, as does Holden himself, running and running with a robotic single-mindedness, in pursuit of a larger view that always evades him. The plot, meanwhile, staggers along in a dogged fashion, as it must, since the catalogue form appropriate to encyclopedism, and the allegorising and theorising which invests details with a larger significance, all pull against any tendency the plot might have to develop its own logic. The elements in a catalogue may point to hundreds of stories, but the catalogue itself is the antithesis of a story. Bail admitted to this anxiety in an early discussion with Jim Davidson, about the urge to classify and the presence of lists in his work: ‘There is a danger in just reeling stuff off; it doesn’t achieve anything at all.’ The philosopher Antill admits to a similar anxiety in The Pages: ‘the accumulation of facts doesn’t always add up to much.’

As if to address this issue, in Eucalyptus Bail brings the act of story-telling to the fore, and in doing so appears to release it from the encyclopedic urge by creating an opposition between the act of classification on the one hand and the telling of stories on the other. Bail had presented this opposition between the empirical mind and the story-telling imagination before. In Holden’s Performance, in contrast to Holden’s other tutelary ‘fathers’, the mercurial scrap-dealer Frank McBee transforms objects rather than classifying them, plays fast with the facts in his fanciful stories, and, just to make the point, specialises in metaphorical expressions. Like the storyteller in Eucalyptus, he is persuasive, elusive, seductive, impossible to pin down.

In Eucalyptus, a wealthy landowner plants every known species of gum tree on his property and promises the hand of his daughter in marriage to the first suitor who can name them all. That’s about as familiar a story as you can get, and that may be its appeal – it pulls a whole category of such stories in its train. The property offers what Bail himself calls ‘an encyclopaedic landscape’, planted as it is with a category of tree so varied, so widely distributed and adaptable to so many uses, that it would seem to be beyond the capacity of anyone to name them all. The landowner Holland is at one with the father-figures of Holden’s Performance, with ‘his instinct for completeness, classification, order; his way of encompassing to all corners a given subject or situation, and the enjoyment of the absorption it brought.’ Cave, the suitor most likely to succeed, is cast in the same mould. He is a provincial from Adelaide like Holden, and just as relentless as Holden in his methodical naming of the hundreds of varieties of gum tree.

The competition pits Cave, with his encyclopedic knowledge of the eucalypt, against an elusive and nameless suitor who proceeds not by naming the trees, as Cave does, but by using them as the starting points for stories designed to woo the daughter while satisfying the conditions of the father. The stories are often factitious, wayward, incomplete or tangential. They are provoked by the botanical or common names of the trees, or their associations, or other contiguities in the story-telling situation – particularly the theme of fathers and daughters, and competing suitors. The stories are so wilful, so determined to avoid classification, they often read like parodies. They delay, they break off, they have disappointing or overblown endings, or they don’t end at all. The main point appears to be the opportunity they offer for the play of imagination, as opposed to classification. The stories don’t identify the trees; they elaborate on them. Moreover, they appeal to another – the listener – and thus to intimacy and feeling, in contrast to the ambition to embrace the world which, in Bail’s work, keeps the feelings under control and extends the power of the individual.

But the opposition doesn’t really hold, at least as far as ambition is concerned. Bail is well aware of the allure of the fairy tale, of its persistence over time and across cultures. It offers a world of possibilities, which is precisely what the unnamed suitor takes advantage of, regaling his princess with as many stories as there are eucalypts, and more. He seems as intent on exhausting the different possibilities of story-telling as Cave is in enumerating the different kinds of eucalypt. There is not a lot to choose between them finally. The ambition of both is huge, and their dedication to their encyclopedic tasks leaves the object of their suit – the girl, Ellen – with nothing to do in the end but lie in bed. Eucalyptus was a best-seller – it seduced its readers. But it left its heroine high and dry.

It is a remarkable thing then, that in the two novels following Eucalyptus, it is the women who appear the stronger party. In The Pages and The Voyage, the men are measured by women, or by their responses to them. The traces of ambition are still there – nothing could be more typical of the provincial’s desire to make an impression on the big world than Frank Delage’s ‘foray against the ramparts of old Europe’ in the quest to sell his revolutionary piano. But the emphasis has shifted quite decisively. Delage is a failure from the start. He doesn’t know whom to contact, how to present himself, where to go. At the first opportunity, he falls for the wealthy Amalia von Schalla, and then a little later on, for her daughter Elisabeth as well. He sabotages the opportunities they bring him. His dealings with them are fraught with awkwardness and uncertainty. Delage repeatedly professes his inability to understand the situations he is in, but he goes along with them anyway. He is constantly reminded of his awkwardness, not only by his actions, but by the memory of his actions, particularly in relation to Amalia von Schalla’s breast. He doesn’t know how or why, but suddenly his hand reaches out to fondle it. Later, he goes for it again, deliberately now, but the time isn’t right, and he earns a slap for his trouble. Finally, when the breast is offered, he doesn’t know what to do: ‘he had almost reached out to her but he had not, had but not enough. He should have, he had begun to, but had not.’

In his review of The Voyage, John Banville thinks of Delage as a cross between Jacques Tati and the narrator of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable. The comparison with Beckett’s ‘you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on’ is a bit too much of a compliment to Delage’s dedication to his task, but the Tati is right. The novel reads like a series of pratfalls and recoveries, the most compelling coming at the end, just as Delage thinks he is safely back in Sydney, when he slips on the last step of the ship’s gangway and pitches head first into the concrete of the wharf. ‘I don’t know what went wrong there,’ he says as he gets to his feet, as if this was the first time he had been at odds with the world. The piano he left in Vienna has by then suffered an ignominious end. The voyage celebrated in the novel’s title is not the voyage out, the quest for recognition in Vienna, but the long indolent return to Australia on a container ship called Romance, marked by sensual delay in the cabin with Elisabeth von Schalla and long contemplative stretches at the rail with his mate the Dutchman, gazing across the ocean, the quest well and truly abandoned.

The Voyage has the air of farce about it, though Bail is not one for the belly laugh. The comedy, and the pathos, is squirrelled away in gestures and situations, and in emblematic moments like those to do with Amalia von Schalla’s breast. The treatment of failure in The Pages, on the other hand, is serious and often tetchy in tone, perhaps because it touches on something closer to Bail’s own ambition as a novelist of ideas. Its central figure is a philosopher from a landed family, not a second-rate salesman with a big idea about pianos from the undistinguished Sydney suburb of Artarmon. The novel makes a strong claim for philosophy, both explicitly, in the author’s running commentary on the superiority of philosophy over psychoanalysis, and in its pursuit of Wesley Antill’s quest to be recognised as a philosopher. Bail’s habit of packing his novels with opinions and allegories on all manner of subjects, delivered from an avowedly provincial standpoint, makes it easy to think of him as a bush philosopher in the mould of Antill, so one imagines a strong investment in the subject.

Yet, like Delage in The Voyage, Antill seems to be most committed to his task of philosophical enlightenment when he is retreating from it. We are offered this pronouncement early on in the book:

For a philosophy to be possible today it would have to begin afresh – ‘begin with nothing’. Go back to the beginning where there was no thinking, no philosophy, and from there begin again. Otherwise what was the point?

Antill is a dedicated empiricist – the beginning point is observation, experience – and he has a positivist’s dedication to turning what he sees into propositions. But he never really proceeds beyond this starting point, ‘the beginning from where a beginning of an explanation can begin to be constructed’. Instead he wanders, through relationships as well as through life, jotting down his observations as he goes, much as Bail has done in his notebooks and Delage does, in a more modest manner, in The Voyage. The climax – one hesitates to call it a climax because Bail studiously avoids emotional climaxes, shifting the focus abruptly to contain the emotion, or offering something banal or kitschy in its place – the experience, then, that puts a stop to Antill’s wandering and turns his hair white overnight, comes with the return of the mistress he had abandoned when he left Australia for Europe. She had been pregnant at the time, with his child, and felt compelled to have an abortion. She tells him this while they are driving on an icy road beside a river in the German countryside. ‘If I’d managed to get you, what would you have done?’ she throws at him. ‘There’s a philosophical question for you! What do your philosophers say about that one?’

Just then, the car goes into an uncontrollable slide, rolls over into the river, and she drowns. So her question goes unanswered. As if the issue of his responsibility to another were too difficult to confront, the philosopher arrives instead at a series of reflections on his own limitations, as a thinker, and as a man:

It would be better if I reviewed my life as a series of incidents, of sobering alterations … Make note of the acts of oafish ignorance, the examples of blindness … 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.

This chastened retrospective assessment is new in Bail’s work, and though the self-regard is chilling – there’s a hint of measurement, and maybe even self-congratulation, in the idea that experience leads to ‘sobering alterations’ – the acceptance of limitation is moving, especially if you read into the taming of Antill’s ambition the taming of Bail’s own encyclopedic ambitions as a novelist (‘Proper due can be given to my curiosity in general’) and the fact that Antill’s philosophy is to reside finally in a fragmentary series of notes, just as his author’s does in the notebooks that hold the beginnings of his stories and novels – and now the end, it would seem, since that is how The Pages ends, in a scatter of notes.

Curiously, given Antill’s acceptance of limitation, two of his notes refer to the primacy of ambition: ‘Modesty is a species of ambition’ and ‘Ambition is the source of all emotions. Many of the emotions are related to the past.’ Bail’s irony is so undemonstrative, you can’t be sure if it is operating here or not. It seems ridiculous to assert that ambition is central to the existence of the individual when Antill’s experiences deny it; but on balance, the alternative is the more likely interpretation, and the sentiments are to be taken seriously as a reassertion of the primacy of ambition in the face of its denial.

Bail, like Antill, has always found emotion a difficult subject to deal with – his Notebooks are full of injunctions about keeping the emotions in check – so one can see why they can’t be given primacy. But ambition, in its turn, seems to depend for Bail on something even more basic: the idea of individuality. Another note at the end of The Pages reads: ‘The impossibility of being true, of being good, of not inflicting harm, or altering another person – while at the same time retaining and reinforcing individuality.’ This in turn echoes a note in Bail’s Notebooks: ‘How to be a good person, while at the same time preserving – and increasing – one’s individuality. The problem of any artist, especially ordinary ones.’ The common – and surprising – element in both notes is the assertion that individuality is not only to be retained when confronted by the claims of others, but reinforced or increased.

What then is this individuality that is so bound up in its own increase it must not be compromised by the claims of another? Given the attack on psychoanalysis in The Pages, one would hardly expect it to be located in the self. Antill’s empirical philosophy locates it in the power of observation, and in the experiences which follow from the individual’s capacity for observation. Bail’s novels bear this out, not only in the wandering urge that characterises all of them – ‘There is no doubt being in a foreign country rejuvenates the powers of observation and sense of wonder,’ he declares in Homesickness – but more especially, as we have seen, in the way the observed object or scene prompts the discovery of resonances in the observer, allowing connections to be made which expand outwards to encompass the world.

There is a good example of how this power works in Bail’s observation on the official black limousines that Holden Shadbolt must run beside in Canberra. They proceed at a funereal pace, they look like hearses, and ‘like hearses they were driven by motionless men in discrete uniforms’:

Everybody also knew the glass and the body panels were proofed against bullets, and so a monarch, president or PM slowly passing appeared to be giving a mobile demonstration of their transcendence over death, for there they were sitting up in a hearse and waving, their faces simplified by fame, ‘See I’m alive, and I’m moving. I’m existing through all time.’ For the same reason the pale autocrat is given flowers and instinctively favours dark clothing. Up front the police on polished motorbikes cleared a path into the future.

From a limousine to eternity in one seamless movement – impressive! There is another telling example in the postman whom Antill accompanies on his rounds in London – he is in a sense Bail’s ideal philosopher, since he combines observation of the things around him with the delivery of words. The postman’s observations take the form of aphorisms – like Antill’s and Bail’s own – and what he sees in a particular object is a whole world of such objects and their associations. Hence a broken dining chair abandoned on the footpath recalls the different chairs he has owned, and those he remembers sitting on but hasn’t owned, their sounds, their upholstery, the other people who have sat on them, and so on. In this way, observation leads naturally to the category and the catalogue, and as the perspective expands, to a state of wonder and exaltation in the observer. ‘I like to think that in realising something for the first time we come close to ecstasy,’ North declares in Homesickness, ‘that should be the essence of observations.’

Since the object that opens the perspective is often humble or small – a cigarette butt or a rock-cake will do it – and the perspective can be huge – encompassing a whole city in the case of the cigarette butt, and going all the way back to the nomadic age with the rock–cake – so the power of observation may well be thought of as aspiring towards the sublime, since the sublime achieves its effects precisely by pitting the very small against the infinitely large. Wonder is the attitude which best conveys the sense of exaltation. It features throughout Bail’s work: in stories like ‘Paradise’ and ‘Cul de Sac’; in the tourists’ response to the museums in Homesickness; in Holden Shadbolt’s mystical sense of being overwhelmed by knowledge; in the endless invention of stories in Eucalyptus; and in Antill’s simple acknowledgment of the power of observation in one of his cryptic notes: ‘To Be There and To Wonder.’ The reference is probably to a work of art by Helen Maudsley: To See and Wonder at. To Be There and to Wonder (2004). Maudsley’s work features fragmentary views of buildings, words, landscapes, emblems and geometrical solids caught in perspectives which point to a larger but unrealisable order of things in a manner similar to Bail’s.

Precisely because this order cannot be fully grasped, the encyclopedic ambition is accompanied in Bail’s work by a recognition that it is a kind of folly, because the world will always exceed it. The discrepancy between the small and the large, which gives rise to wonder, is also a source of comedy, and the two can easily go hand in hand. Bail is essentially a comic novelist, which means that, though he recognises that encyclopedism can have dangerous consequences – obsession, obedience, oppression, self-absorption, madness, megalomania – he generally focuses on its more benign exponents, mocking their habits with an affectionate irony.

Holland, whose obsession with eucalypts controls the destiny of his daughter, could be seen as an ogre, as could the principal suitor Cave; Bail shows them to be caring and gentle. Vern Hartnett’s determination to gain a wider knowledge of the world by eating newspapers for breakfast is one example of an obsession treated humorously; Screech’s play on the pretensions implicit in Epic, the title of his newsreel theatre in Manly (‘Every Prick is Cuntstruck’) is another. Often the entry point chosen for the encyclopedic contemplation of the world is odd or eccentric: legs, the letter Q and Freddy Russell’s nose in Homesickness; vomit in the shape of Australia in Holden’s Performance; smiles and sunglasses in The Voyage.

There is quite a degree of repetition across the whole of Bail’s oeuvre. Opinions about the inferiority of photography and the imperfection of art, about central heating and the breakup of the family, about the differences between men and women, that have started out in the author’s notebooks, reappear in each novel as if they were freshly minted there. You wonder how a writer so committed to demonstrating the range of his observations, could at the same time be so dependent on such a small repertoire of ideas – unless, of course, like his obsessive eccentrics, he too is the subject of irony and parody, to be seen simultaneously, in the expression of his individuality, as both a philosopher and a fool. If you conceive of individuality in these comic terms, as both a grand and foolish thing, then there is really nothing to check its ambition – all charges against it are disarmed in advance.

If the storyteller in Eucalyptus is, in some sense, a stand-in for the author, then the contradictory elements which compose the individuality of the artist (even the ordinary artist) become even more pronounced. Bail sees the storyteller as working in a similar way to the commercial traveller who persuades ladies in country towns and on farms to buy his wares. He knows when to advance his cause and when to withdraw, when to be suggestive and when to be modest, when to be assertive and when to be shy. The storyteller in Eucalyptus manages to be both intimate and distant, ubiquitous and absent. Though he appears as an innocent purveyor of wonders, he is in fact knowing, artful, flirtatious, seductive – and deceitful too, for the reason he does so well in identifying the eucalypts and can therefore carry off the girl, is that he was the one who made the labels for them in the first place.

If the story-telling author can be likened to a commercial traveller, to a salesman – a comparison Bail has made often enough – then Frank Delage in The Voyage, who is a salesman, can also be thought of as a stand-in for the author. The fact that Delage is right out there in front of his readers, exposed in his confusion and clumsiness, makes The Voyage a more compelling work than The Pages, where the philosopher is allowed to remain an elusive but authoritative figure, known only through the fragments he leaves behind, and the testimony of his sibylline guardians.

But for all his openness, Delage the piano salesman has his tricks and evasions. It wouldn’t be right to see him as simply clumsy, or unknowingly foolish. His awkwardness is strategic. He may tell you he is down but he always bounces back. One of the remarkable things about him is his resilience, his ‘innocent energy’ and ‘affected casualness’, a combination so appealing it allows him to pursue the seduction of mother and daughter at the same time, just as another salesman called Frank – Frank McBee – had done in Holden’s Performance, though he conducted his seductions consecutively.

Like Antill, Delage is troubled by a sense of deceit and betrayal in his dealings with women, in this case Amalia von Schalla.  Like Antill, he feels that the recognition of his betrayal really serves to make him more complex as an individual, ‘an altered person’, ‘a modified person’. Both novels may have a repentant air, but that doesn’t mean they are repentant – just when you think so, the lead character or his author hits you over the head with an opinion or a riposte. In The Pages, the delivery of the opinion is so strident it makes the novel seem like a kind of pay-back. In The Voyage, Delage is particularly adept at turning his confessions of inadequacy into powerful diatribes, against Vienna in particular, in a manner which emulates, though it doesn’t quite reach, the intensity of Thomas Bernhard’s tirades against the city and its inhabitants.

In fact, if you combine the two figures, the salesman Delage and the author Bail, you have a composite figure which displays both ‘affected casualness’ and virtuosity at the same time, for Bail’s handling of his fugue-like narrative, propelled forward by its returns, is as skilful as his hero is awkward. Peter Craven keeps reminding us that Bail lacks technical virtuosity, but there is no sign of this here. The manner in which The Voyage is told is in some ways a homage to Thomas Bernhard, so close is it to the style of the master in its rhythms and reprises; in other ways it is a parody, since it is a provincial copy after all – less indignant, more rueful, in a lower key than the original. Bail’s style here is remarkable for its flow across time and its repetitions, as if it were parading all at once its failure to go forward, its obsessive self-consciousness, its own virtuosity, and innocently, the musical qualities appropriate to a novel about a piano.

This must be what it means to preserve and increase individuality in the face of failure and moral recrimination, to be ‘altered’ and ‘modified’. One becomes a more complex being, capable of embracing the very shortcomings of which one has been accused, and displaying them as if they were strengths. No accusation could be strong enough to throw you off your balance for long, given that power of absorption. But there remains an obstacle, the irreducible other to Bail’s masculine encyclopedism. What to do with women, since it is from them that the accusations come?

There is an episode in Holden’s Performance when Vern Hartnett introduces young Holden to the female anatomy:

You know quite well what you and I have between our legs. Something solid. But here you’ll notice there’s nothing, at least nothing on the surface. This makes women … difficult to understand. You never know exactly where you stand with them.

All of Bail’s encyclopedic figures are men; no women share what seems to be the masculine ambition to know the world. Since this knowledge is construed in masculine terms, women always appear like alien beings, fundamentally different from men in their nature and behaviour. The most emblematic, and the most questionable representation of this difference, is the crippled Harriet Chandler in Holden’s Performance. She is said to be all curves and arches and crescents, in contrast to Holden’s straight lines. She is also a collagist, composing newsreel posters from cut-ups for the Epic theatre – mixing and merging, not differentiating and categorising, the way men do. Women are characterised by their softness (hence the importance of the female breast in Bail’s work) and their gentleness; they are – or should be – kind, attentive and sympathetic. Their primary orientation is towards others, unlike the men, whose primary orientation is towards the world. Emotion is felt as a feminine quality, ‘an intense spreading softness’, ‘a sudden overflowing fullness and a rapidly reaching depth of concern’. Erica, in The Pages, is the woman who comes closest to having a ‘philosophical’ and therefore masculine perspective. ‘Can a woman be strong and clear without turning hard?’ Bail has her ask herself. ‘Hardness – not something we want to think about in a woman.’

But what if we turn this question around and ask, can a man surrender himself to softness – and the ‘enveloping sense of blurriness’ which it brings – without losing the outlines of his individuality? The Pages is full of concern about the nature of femininity, as if Bail had been stung by criticism of his treatment of Ellen in Eucalyptus and was determined to show what he knew about women. Both The Pages and The Voyage display a close attention to women’s gestures and dress, and particularly, to their manner of talking. Both also feature older men in relationships with younger women, as if this were an ideal which combines knowledge and softness without compromising either.

Talking is a big issue in The Voyage, and this seems puzzling at first. Talking – or rather, conversation – is presented by Bail as an activity in which women excel. The earlier novels and the Notebooks treat talk with suspicion, preferring the traditional masculine virtues of understatement and the laconic: silence suggests thought and experience, listening makes you an interesting person, talking only serves to give you away. The commercial traveller and the storyteller make their trade by talking – but then they spend most of their time trafficking with women. They succeed with women too, which is an important point in favour of talk: it is one of the feminine skills that men might profit from knowing about. Delage’s sister tells him that ‘his mind ran too much along a man’s lines, that he’d be a more interesting person, he’d have more friends, if he included in his thinking a woman’s way of thinking.’ This includes conversation ‘and the layers of affinity it produces’. Conversation is condensed or coloured to hold the listener. It requires attentiveness, tolerance, a shifting of interest to the personal and the intimate; it creates a flow between the speaker and the listener. This talk of flow, affinity, and above all interest in the other, marks out the activity of conversation as essentially feminine in character.

To large extent The Voyage is made up of conversations, between Frank and the von Schallas, Frank and his fellow-passengers, and in his flowing manner between the author and his reader. The conversations take place in confined spaces: the café, the drawing room or the dining room, the cabin or the small deck. This is in marked contrast to the vistas which characterise Bail’s previous novels. There is a museum in The Voyage, a reminder of the encyclopedic impulse: the warehouse full of pianos in which Delage’s antipodean model sits shyly under wraps in amongst the ranks of shiny black European concert grands. In earlier works, the placing of a single element within a larger category gave a sense of power, exaltation. Delage is not exalted by the perspective opened up in the warehouse of pianos, since contemplation of those that have come before and those he is in competition with can only intimidate, add to his sense of failure. So instead of the movement outward to the world and beyond, in The Voyage you have this movement across the world in confined spaces, in conversation with women, and with a man like the Dutchman, who yearns to recover the woman who has left him.

I’m not sure if I believe this rapprochement with the feminine in The Voyage, for two reasons. The first is that the two women with whom Delage engages intimately in the novel are characterised by their distance. The mother, though attentive, is aloof; the daughter is indifferent in her sensuality. This suggests that they are phantasms, the creations of a masculine fantasy. The fluidity of Bail’s narrative allows Delage to dine with Madame von Schalla at the Hotel Bristol in Vienna while caressing the breasts of the naked mademoiselle in his cabin on the Romance. Whichever way you look at it, this is a man who is having his cake and eating it.

The second reason is this. Right at the end as Delage, with the young woman’s help, dusts himself off after his fall with the wonderfully arch line, ‘I don’t know what went wrong there’, Bail has him ‘sensing he had become a slightly different person, now standing on firm ground, though still holding her shoulder.’ Here is the cunning bounce-back, the cheeky assertion that wrong-doing, failure – and now dependency – alters and enhances individuality. The climax is so artfully contrived, that it gives the whole novel the air of a shaggy dog story (all of that story-telling just to put Delage back on his feet again), a cock and bull story (which it certainly is), or to speak truly, a fairy tale about a princess and a p—.


John Banville, ‘Bringing it Home,’ The Monthly (October 2012).
Peter Craven, ‘Triumph of strange over style,’ The Age (5 June 2008).
Peter Craven, ‘Between worlds,’ The Age (22 September 2012).
Jim Davidson, Interview with Murray Bail, Meanjin, 41.2 (1982) 264-276.
Milan Kundera, ‘The Provinicialism of Small Nations,’ The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts (Faber, 2007).
Helen Maudsley,To See and Wonder at. To be There and to Wonder (2004).