Harvill Secker, $34.95 hb, 306 pp
These writer’s scribblings, handsomely reproduced, cover two distinct periods in Murray Bail’s life: London from 1970 to 1974; and Sydney from 1988 to 2003. The notebooks from the London period, which represent roughly two-thirds of this book, were previously published as Longhand: A Writer’s Notebook (1989). While readers may find some interest in comparing the formative and the mature writer, the older Bail’s reflections on ageing and death represent the most consistently penetrating writing in Notebooks.
For all its cleverness and flashes of mordant wit, Notebooks meanders. True, Bail offers perceptive snapshots of both landscapes and people, such as this: ‘Outside the station a man playing the accordion with a photograph propped at his feet of himself as a young man in a crouching stance, EX-MIDDLEWEIGHT BOXER.’ True, he quotes the famous and powerful to good effect: ‘Mitterand, asked what quality is most required in a leader: “Indifference”.’ But not all of Bail’s comments and asides are gem-like. And I did not always want to be privy to his self-analysis.
None of this reflects negatively on Murray Bail as a writer. By definition, these pages are unformed, private and discursive, and the overall impact of the book cannot be measured against Bail’s fine body of published fiction. Indeed, some fans of Bail will appreciate seeing his themes and preoccupations ‘in the raw’. Other readers will be attracted to Notebooks precisely because it offers a glimpse (no more) of the genesis of creativity as well as a glimpse (no more) of the ways that novelists straddle, then cross, the line between observation and speculation. While I question whether the opportunity to view Bail’s writerly scaffolding adds to the experience of reading Eucalyptus (1998) or Holden’s Performance (1987), individual readers may react differently and more positively to Notebooks.