Murray Bail, The pages
It’s not surprising that someone who calls herself Whispering Gums loved Murray Bail’s previous novel, Eucalyptus, and so it was with some enthusiasm that I picked up his latest novel, The pages, a few days ago. My edition, unlike the one imaged here, is the hard cover one and, funnily enough, it looks like the bark of a tree (like, say, a eucalyptus!). That makes sense I suppose since trees are the source of paper.
It is, I have to say, a bit of an odd book – but I did like reading it nonetheless. Plot-wise, it’s pretty flimsy. Middle-aged Erica, a philosopher, goes outback with her friend, the psychologist Sophie, to stay with brother and sister graziers, Roger and Lindsey, in order to examine their late brother Wesley’s “philosophy”. This gives the novel two narrative strands – the women’s experiences as they stay with Roger and Lindsey interspersed with the told-in-flashback story of Wesley and how he came to write his philosophy. Both strands are told in third person until near the end when, as Erica starts to read some of Wesley’s writings (his “pages”), his strand switches to first person.
Occasionally inserted between these strands are funny little digressions on topics such as hospitality in relation to philosophers and psychoanalysts (Ch. 8), and psychoanalysts, philosophers and their chairs (Ch. 23). Juxtaposition may partially throw light on these but I’m not sure it does fully. Bail seems to want to say something about psychoanalysis (which Bail says is typified by the “endless sentence”) versus philosophy (“the long sentence”) but I’m not sure exactly what it is. He seems more negative about psychoanalysis, but philosophy is also found wanting.
I like the characterisation. Bail’s characters are very comprehensible as people and as types: the socially awkward but dependable Erica, the self-centred flirtatious Sophie, and the practical no-frills Lindsey, for example, are recognisable but interesting too. I also like the language, the description of the setting in particular is evocative but not overdone:
Through the window she saw a tall pale-grey eucalypt surrounded by a darker cluster of pines, elms, cedars. It pronounced a solid leave-it-or-take-it way of being. The simple strength of the tree: stand it alongside the lack of statement, on her part. For a moment – before looking away – Erica saw herself as resolute only in a few minor things.
There is humour in it too, mostly of the ironic or sly type. The solicitor, for example, is described as having “pursed lips from the many years of putting words in parentheses”. And, as you can see from that, there’s play on words, about words, and with words (and language): the sandstone “weathered and worn smooth by the never-ending revision of ideas” and the ambition of philosophers to “build a word-model of the world, an explanation, parallel to the real world.”
The book is rather elliptical (in both its literal and literary meanings). Wesley goes from country to Australian city to foreign cities and back to the country in search of a philosophy, a new way of understanding the world. During these journeys we are tantalised with “glimpses of clarity” as he tries to comprehend what might comprise his philosophy while at the same time he is confronting (seeking?) something way more human – love. In these later moments he wonders whether “the ambition to supply the answer to everything is a form of madness” and suggests that “philosophers have been unsatisfactory in the examination of emotions”. Meanwhile, Erica moves from the city to the country (a physical and metaphysical “interior”) to, she hopes, find a new philosophy in Wesley’s “pages” but what she actually finds, in the country, is love. Somewhat akin to Wesley’s questionings she comes to wonder “what possible dent could philosophy make on the fact of existence?” Contrasts and contradictions underpin the book.
Earlier, around the middle of the book, it is said of Wesley that he “was finding a gap existed between the clarity of his chosen subject, and the softer unavoidable intrusions of everyday life”. It seems to me that, by the end, he has not closed that gap OR, rather, he finds that true philosophy lies IN the gap. The final line of the novel is that “we are philosophers; we cannot help being”. I love the wordplay on the last word: “being” as in “existing”, and “being” as in “being philosophers”.
Somewhat similarly, Erica says near the end of the novel:
One of philosophy’s functions has always been to shine light into the dimly lit, the imprecise, the hopeful.
What we find reflected in Bail’s The pages, then, is “a glimmer of clarity” that, for we readers as for the characters, comes and goes with the “light”. And, isn’t that pretty much how it is in life?
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2008
Note: I’ve read a small number of reviews since reading this book, seeking a more complete understanding. These reviews are more erudite than mine and most are longer so delve a little more deeply, but none, really, offer me a better understanding. The one I like the best, because it most closely reflects my understanding of and reaction to the book, is by Hermione Lee.