Murray Bail, Portrait of electricity (Review)

A couple of weeks ago I quoted Murray Bail on compser-house-museums from his latest novel, The voyage. But this isn’t the first time Bail has expressed his attitudes towards turning the home of a famous person into a museum. It was the topic of a short story, “Portrait of electricity” which, as far as I can tell was first published in 1975. And this story, I gather, was probably the inspiration for his novel Homesickness (1980) (though I haven’t yet read that).

I was tickled by the quote because in our recent overseas trip we’d visited the house where Beethoven was born and where Liszt spent the last twenty years of his life, not to mention the residences of writers Goethe and Schiller. We enjoyed visiting these places, because each was well presented providing us with insight into the lives of their erstwhile residents. We probably would have got that from a straight museum, of course, but a museum (usually) needs a building and if it is to be a dedicated museum, why not in a building connected to the subject? The question is, what do you put in that building and how do you present it? The temptation with using a building in which the person lived is to imbue it with an additional layer of “meaning” which can result in what Bail satirises – and that is excessive (defining this is a judgement call of course) reverence, the turning of the space into a shrine.

This is where “Portrait of electricity” comes in. That the story is satirical is pretty obvious from the opening sentences:

There were three guides. One did all the talking, the others nodded in agreement.

Three guides – with only one talking? What were the rest there for? To increase the sense of import?

The visitors/tourists are given special shoes (as we were given in Weimar’s Anna Amalia Bibliotek) but

inside, it was a museum like any other. The rooms strangely impersonal, exhibits arranged in cabinets against the wall, special objects located towards the centre.

It’s hard to imagine how Bail could fashion an 18-page story out of this premise but he does, and it engages. Sometimes you squirm, but other times, fortunately, you are able to adopt Bail’s satirical stance and see how ridiculous such museums can be when taken to extremes – and, being the good satirist Bail is, he takes the fascination for all things belonging to the revered person to rather grotesque extremes. But it would spoil the story to give away here just how far he goes.

The story also satirises the people who visit such museums, including little digs at different nationalities, at gender behaviour, and different tourist types (the sceptical, the smart alec, the unimpressed, the tired, and so on). People take photographs of the chair with its flattened contour “caused by his body weight”, “women put on the expression they use when choosing wallpaper”, and all follow the guides feeling as though they are drawing “closer to him, acquiring greater knowledge”. Meanwhile, the guide conjures up the man’s life in the house, reminding them that “his body travelled through what you see before you”. No object is too small to have meaning. When one visitor asks “Is that worth preserving?” (“that” being a fingernail), there is only one possible answer, “It’s part of him”.

Bail knows his museological stuff, because he also satirising sacred principles such as that of maintaining objects in “original state”. The question behind the satire is whether there should be limits to the collection and presentation of a person’s effects. This is a serious question, one faced by archivists and museum curators every day. Bail’s story is an effective reminder that common-sense should play a role in this decision-making.

I will leave it here. The items the guide draws their attention to become more and more peculiar if not downright absurd, the reliability of the guide’s analysis of the man and the import of the evidence becomes increasingly shaky, while the visitors feel (or hope perhaps) they are drawing towards “important, intimate knowledge”. Can we ever really know a person – famous or otherwise – through a bunch of objects they owned or used? This story is a great read, whether you work in museums or visit them. It may not change your mind about visiting such museums if, like me, you enjoy them, but it will make you think about them next time you do. And in our celebrity-focused, materialist culture that would be a healthy thing.

Murray Bail
“Portrait of electricity”
Published in:
Marion Halligan and Roseanne Fitzgibbon (eds), The gift of story: Three decades of UQP short stories (1998)
and in
Murray Bail, Contemporary portraits and other stories (1975) (and various other Bail collections)

12 thoughts on “Murray Bail, Portrait of electricity (Review)

  1. Ah, I see Yvonne has ‘liked’ this post and as I was reading it, I thought of her and how as an historian she would have enjoyed it!
    I’ve got a collection of Bail stories somewhere, I must have a look and see if this one is included in it…

    • It seems to have been included in a few collections of his, Lisa, though I think some are the same collections but different names for overseas publication. I couldn’t find an online version to link to which I usually like to do when I review one-off short stories.

  2. As I read through your review, I more and more couldn’t get the memory of St Catherine of Siena’s saved-and-displayed right thumb (and head… but the thumb really gets me) out of my mind!

    • Yep, that’s the sort of thing … Is it important to understanding her? But of course saints relics are a different thing in terms of the church … They are believed to be imbued with some sort of power aren’t they? Maybe that’s really what we want from all famous people .. Not really to learn but for some of their glow to rub off on us!?

  3. Oh the saints’ relics in Italy are a hoot! I know they are powerful talismans but how creepy! Bail’s story sounds fascinating. I haven’t visited many museums lately but have seen quite few big art exhibitions. Even there I can’t stop my thoughts wandering: thinking about the artist in a studio, cold perhaps, going off for a cigarette or a chat with friends or looking for further inspiration… Or the struggle for recognition and paying the rent! I do love to think about contexts and sometimes wonder how certain artists would feel rubbing shoulders with others.. all those egos and temperaments in one gallery!

    • Oops, I thought I’d answered this. I have problems reading on iPad and then checking back here. Sometimes replying on the iPad goes skewiff so I don’t do it.

      I agree with your perspective, Catherine. I think it is partly about what you look for, what you are interested in – fawning celebrity culture or, as you say, thinking about contexts. It was interesting in Liszt’s house hearing the words of students who’d come there to his master classes. We were in the room with his furniture. You could imagine him there and you could think about the stimulation and inspiration those students must have gained.

    • Good question, Stefanie. No, I don’t think it did, really, but it made me think about it. And I certainly recognised some of the things he satirises. I seem to have read a lot lately that’s made me think more about my travel behaviour …

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