Murray Bail’s fiction has often been interpreted in light of its explicit rejection of a prevailing tradition of Australian realism that someone once described as ‘dun-coloured’. This rejection has manifested itself in his willingness to appropriate some of Australian literature’s hoariest tropes – the harsh beauty of the landscape, the issue of national identity, the inherited cultural anxieties of the New World – and subject them to the ironising pressures of fictional constructs that wear their conceptualisation on their sleeve. The result is fiction that occupies the shifting ground between the formal rigours of modernism and the reflexive playfulness and generic self-consciousness associated with postmodernism. Bail’s later novels, in particular, beginning with his best-known book, Eucalyptus (1998), are concise, concentrated affairs that organise themselves around the kinds of overt structuring oppositions whose apparent simplicity seems to invite allegorical readings.
The mechanical quality of the scenarios in Eucalyptus, with its contrived fairy tale narrative, and its successor The Pages (2008), whose two principal characters are offered as personifications of the conflicting assumptions of philosophy and psychology, is a reflection of the underlying concern in Bail’s work with the tension between the rational, dispassionate, collating side of human intelligence and those less tangible areas of experience that lead us into the slippery realms of aesthetic appreciation, creativity, expression, and seduction. Indeed, one of the ways in which his fiction might be understood is as an extended meditation on Coleridge’s distinction between Fancy and Imagination, in which his hapless countrymen (emphasis on men) are commonly depicted as being in thrall to the former and sadly deficient in the latter.
In a sense, Bail’s writing does not simply satirise this tendency; it also knowingly embraces it. His novels are themselves accumulations of detached observations arranged with fastidious care and tight logic. They tell tales of seduction in dispassionate prose. They are offered in a spirit of wry humour that has, over the years, become somewhat parched. This is not only their defining paradox; there are times when Bail’s ironic appropriations combine with the cool precision of his fictional intelligence in such a way that they can come to seem like a self-defeating form of aesthetic constraint. Vanquishing dun-coloured realism is all well and good, but if the alternative is dun-coloured postmodern fabulism, the victory would seem to have something of a pyrrhic quality.
Like its predecessors, The Voyage is notable for the sturdy construction of its overarching narrative and the rich minutiae of its many astute individual observations. Its premise is straightforward. Its protagonist, Frank Delage, is an Australian manufacturer who has invented a new kind of piano whose innovative mechanics allow for a clarity of tone superior to traditional models. He travels to Vienna, the heart of European musical culture, a city that has at different times been home to such great composers as Mozart and Schoenberg, in the hope of generating interest in his invention. There he encounters the wealthy and influential society matron Amalia von Schalla, who takes an interest in Delage and his piano. Through Amalia, he is introduced to Vienna’s cultural élite, but fails to make much of an impression. The novel is framed by his slow return journey to Australia on a container ship, accompanied by Amalia’s daughter, Elizabeth, during which he reflects on his experiences in Vienna. The eponymous voyage thus completes a circle: it is simultaneously a tale of departure and homecoming.
The Voyage shows Bail to be a writer still willing to experiment with form. Though many of the novel’s themes can be traced back to his earlier fiction, its style is in some respects unlike that of his previous work. Bail has developed a clean, fluent prose that, like Thomas Bernhard’s or José Saramago’s, largely dispenses with paragraph breaks. His fastidiously shaped sentences fall into an insistent rhythm, often using grammatical slippages to capture the unfurling of Delage’s thoughts: ‘In Vienna he had to keep reminding himself, do not get into the technicalities, people are not interested, even if he was interested, it’s too difficult, and anyway not the point, all a person had to do was sit down and listen to his piano being played, notice the different tone, cleaner, there was one under wraps in Vienna, transported from Sydney at enormous expense for the very purpose.’
Even more striking is the novel’s use of sudden temporal dislocations. The narrative frequently jumps without warning from shipboard scenes to scenes in Vienna and back again. The effect is not necessarily to give the impression of a stream of consciousness or interior monologue – though the novel is organised around Delage’s impressions – but to create something like an objectified view of the mind’s associative (and sometimes dissociative) workings. Within the stolid overarching narrative structure of the voyage itself, the governing logic becomes one of evocation, such that the novel proceeds, not by showing one event leading to another, but by allowing one idea or memory to call forth another, independently of chronology. The novel’s hard outer shell has a liquid centre.
Bail is not a psychologically inclined writer as such, even though he does seek to convey something of Delage’s emotional confusion about the very odd and rather unlikely triangular relationship that he develops with Amalia and Elizabeth. The Voyage retains an element of dispassionate objectivity, even at its most intimate moments. Yet in its own way it is also a novel that is preoccupied with expression. Delage is the latest in a line of Australian men in Bail’s fiction who are laconic to the point of being tongue-tied; he believes there is something wrong with people who feel compelled to talk all the time. The opposition between speech and observant silence becomes thematically significant. The Voyage, in its depiction of Delage’s burgeoning affair with Elizabeth, pays particular attention to the unspoken communications contained in looks and gestures.
Though Delage is not a talker, he is, despite himself, drawn to people who are. The Voyage contains little in the way of drama; its dynamic is primarily verbal and intellectual, emerging from the intersection of the various ideas Delage encounters throughout his voyage. Many of the novel’s minor characters – Delage’s sister back in Australia, a disgruntled Viennese music critic, Elizabeth’s father, a fellow passenger whom Delage thinks of as the ‘Dutchman’ but who is, in fact, Zoellner (a recurring figure in Bail’s fiction) – do not function as ‘characters’ in the rounded sense of the word. They appear in order to deliver pronouncements, which Delage absorbs and sometimes records in his notebook. At times one feels as if the encompassing narrative exists solely as a convenient excuse to knit together the novel’s disparate collection of observations, which range from quirky or amusing reflections to solemn generalisations – observations that are not at all dissimilar to those Bail has published, shorn of context, in Longhand: A Writer’s Notebook (1989) and Notebooks, 1970–2003 (2005).
In his introduction to Bail’s recently reissued first novel Homesickness (1980), Peter Conrad remarks that travel ‘alienates Bail’s people from themselves’. This is true of Delage, though alienation is perhaps too strong a word. His experience of Viennese society serves to make him conscious of his status as an outsider and attunes him to the subtle social differences he encounters. In its broadest sense, the novel’s premise evokes the perennial dilemma of the post-colonial artist, who feels compelled to supplicate himself before the Old World’s centres of cultural authority, which continue to regard him with indifference. But its deeper interest is to be found in the subtle undermining of its own conceits. The ship on which Delage sails home with Elizabeth is named, with an obviousness that implies irony, Romance (and it is a freighter: about as unromantic a vessel as one could imagine).It is implied that Delage’s belief that Vienna is a hub of cultural influence is out of date, that his mission was misguided and doomed to failure from the start. He is merely a technician, not an artist, but the avant-garde composer, Paul Hildebrand, who eventually makes use of Delage’s piano, does not treat it at all respectfully, revealing himself in the process to be the obverse of Delage’s technical intelligence, not its validation, but its negation. The artistic affirmation Delage seeks proves to be a chimera.
This is, in a sense, the novel’s dilemma. Bail has never been a prolific writer. The Voyage is only his fifth novel in more than thirty years. It is written with the kind of intricate precision that one would expect from a writer who measures the weight of every word. It is – objectively, dispassionately, technically – a fine achievement. Whether it lives as a work of art – subjectively, passionately, expressively – I am far less certain.