It took me a while to read Murray Bail‘s latest novel The voyage. I started it before we went overseas but didn’t quite finish it, and decided not to carry it with me. So, 8 weeks later, I picked it up and found it surprisingly easy to continue. I say surprising because it is a rather astonishing novel – in style, structure, and also, I think, theme. Like other works of Bail’s, particularly Eucalyptus, it manages to feel old and new at the same time, which is rather the point, since it shifts back and forth between the Old World (Europe) and the New (Australia), between high society Vienna and a cargo ship returning to Australia with piano inventor Delage and escapee from the Old World, Elisabeth von Schalla, on board.
It’s a short book, just 200 pages, but it’s by no means simple. Short books, I’ve found, often demand the most of their readers. Anyhow, Bail, you may remember, gave the opening keynote address at the National Library of Australia’s Writing the Australian Landscape conference. It was a provocative talk, but I won’t reiterate what I’ve said before. Instead I want to refer to his plea for writers to take stylistic and intellectual risks. This is what Bail has done here. There’s a Patrick White-like intensity, but the style is all Bail.
First though, as usual, a few words about the plot. The story concerns 46-year-old piano-inventor Frank Delage coming to Europe – specifically Vienna – to sell his new Delage piano. It’s a cheeky thing to do, this, but he gives it a go with a certain naiveté perhaps that comes with being from the New World. He meets the Schalla family, first the mother Amelia von Schalla and then the husband, Konrad, and their 36-year-old daughter Elisabeth. There are two main plot tensions – will he sell his piano, and what will happen between him and the two “landlocked women”. The piano plot is resolved clearly (though not necessarily neatly) while the relationship plot is not so clean, even though early in the novel we know that Elisabeth is on the boat with him going to Australia.
Now to the risky business. This is a novel with no chapters, and it mostly comprises long paragraphs that last several pages. These are somewhat unusual, though not particularly risky. The chronology alternates between Delage’s time in Vienna and his voyage home on the ship, with occasional flashbacks to Australia. This sort of narrative structure isn’t unusual these days either. But, what is unusual, what is risky, is how he alternates his chronology. It is done organically, fluidly, mid-paragraph and even – sometimes – mid-sentence. For example, the following sentence starts in the present, on the ship, with the subject being two of the passengers, and then shifts back to Amalia in Vienna. The next sentence returns to the ship, but now with Elisabeth:
Now the sisters faced the sun, closing their eyes, allowing the warmth to soften their thoughts, the older, forsaken one undoing the top buttons of her blouse to extend the tan, after first rubbing cream into her feet and throat, the buttons on Amalia’s, pleated, high-collar blouse he found to be imitation buttons, decoration only, on her back well-hidden by the Italian pleating, which gave the impression of vertical stripes was a tiny zipper of unexpected elegance. For Elisabeth, it was too hot on the small deck, she went back to the cabin, favouring an Austrian complexion over acquiring a tan … (p. 142)
Bail, it seems, loves the comma! It looks tricky to read: if you try to analyse a sentence or paragraph, it defeats you, the syntax is odd. And yet, it flows seamlessly from place to place, character to character, idea to idea. It is artful, carefully composed, but reads naturally, surprisingly so.
The important question, however, is how does this style relate to the theme? And here I’d like to return to Bail’s address. He spoke of Australians not being sure of who we are. We have a thin layer of history, he said, by contrast with the Old World and its long, albeit often grim history. “What is bad for a country can be good for art”, he proposed. Oh dear, I’m not sure we want to generate a few revolutions or civil wars for ourselves just to give artists something to chew on! He also said that “I hadn’t quite realised my novels are centred around journeys … My people are instinctively hot-footing it out of here, turning away from the apparent barrenness.” Bail senses a continuing discomfort about the New World’s “place”, which is articulated by Delage: “It goes without saying that they [the Viennese] would stick their noses up in the air at an intruder, a concert grand made in a hopeless backward place, Australia”.
And so, in The voyage, we have a dialogue between Old and New, which is mirrored in the style. Bail sees a tension between respecting the old and encouraging or supporting the new, between certainty and uncertainty, between world-weariness and naivete. I was initially surprised. Surely we have resolved our identity crisis; surely Old World-New World discussions are old hat. But he has a point. The Old World does, whether it’s justified or not, seem sure of itself in a way that we aren’t – “the old buildings, industrial, older than anything in Sydney or at least different, carved stonework above the windows and doors, left him feeling out of place”. It’s natural to feel out-of-place in a different culture, but there’s something else going on here too – and it’s regarding the fact that we Australians often feel lesser, and apologise even, for the fact that we, as exemplified by our buildings, are new. You hear it all the time – the awe and admiration – from Australians travelling overseas. And yet, our land is older, and indigenous Australian culture is probably the oldest continuous culture in the world. No wonder indigenous writers like Jeanine Leane get a little fired up!
Anyhow, Bail explores this tension through Delage’s attempts to sell his New World piano to the Old World, and his triangular relationship with the von Schalla mother and daughter. What happens to his piano – who buys it, how it is used – provides a biting comment on both New World and Old World pretensions. How the relationships develop is more nuanced and less resolved, leaving the way open for growth and change. Because, of course, the novel is not simply about Old World meets New World. It is about New in a much broader sense. It’s about “being open to the new”, in all fields of endeavour, whether this be piano manufacture, writing, the arts in general, or even the self. Indeed, at the book’s conclusion, Delage, who had earlier felt “without edges”, senses that he has “become a slightly different person”.
For all this seriousness, though, The voyage is a quietly funny, satirical book. Bail delights in skewering self-importance and pomposity in critics, avant-garde artists, architects, and business men, to name a few of his targets. Women generally fare better. Viennese Amalia says she enjoys “the discomfort of the unexpected” and Elisabeth demonstrates that she does by joining Delage on his cargo ship.
I’ve laboured over this review as you can probably tell. I’ve rambled, and may not have made much sense. It’s a slippery novel that can be tackled from many angles and it doesn’t resolve all its tensions. This is good. I enjoyed the novel, but I suggest you ignore my review and read the book yourself. I’d love to know what you think.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) has also reviewed the book, and enjoyed its inventiveness.
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012