Monday musings on Australian literature: Writers’ notebooks

If you’ve attended writers festivals, you are sure to have heard writers talk of using notebooks to jot down ideas on the run, to record conversations overheard on public transport, cafes, etc, to capture the thoughts of the writers they read, and so on. These notebooks are not works of art in themselves, but part of a writer’s toolbox for creating their art – except, of course, writers being writers can turn anything into art, if they set their minds to it.

Some time ago, an article appeared in The Guardian on writers’ notebooks. It starts by discussing:

the way notebooks seem to offer access to hidden origins, and to the creative processes by which works we value come into being. Notebooks record early versions and impulses, and though sometimes the writer has an eye to posterity, the privacy of self-communing allows things that can’t be shared with others to be said, within what Coleridge, one of the great notebook-keepers, called in 1808 a “Dear Book! Sole Confidant of a breaking Heart”. For Virginia Woolf, her notebook helped to “discover real things beneath the show”; flashes of perception, phrases, half-formed and potential ideas …

The article was written by American Professor Philip Horne, who commissioned ten authors to write new stories based on “germs” left behind by Henry James in his notebooks. That book has been published, Tales from a master’s notebook: Stories Henry James never wrote. (Anyone read it?) Apparently, Horne is also editing an edition of James’ notebooks.

I’ve digressed a little – into American writers, and third-party-edited notebooks – when I really want to focus on Australian writers. But, sorry, I’m going to digress again, this time to staff writer, Dustin Illingworth:

Few literary artifacts remain as consistently enigmatic as the author’s journal. … The very names we employ—the aforementioned “journal,” the stuffy “diary,” the tepid “notebook”—are failures of imagination, if not outright misreadings. Staid synopses and ossified lives these are not. Rather, what we find within their pages are wild, shapeless, violent things; elegant confessions and intricate codes; portraits of anguish; topographies of mind. Prayers, experiments, lists, rivalries, and rages are all at home here, interbred, inextricable from one another. A piece of petty gossip sits astride a transcendent realization. A proclamation of self-loathing becomes a paean to literary art. News of publication shares the page with the most banal errands imaginable.

Perfect, including his reference to nomenclature – journal, diary, notebook. Writing courses specifically recommend keeping a “writers notebook”, but writers themselves – if they do it at all – keep diaries, journals, notebooks, even loose pieces of paper like backs of envelopes. Many of these eventually find their way into libraries and archives.

Here, though, my focus is those that are published – by the writers themselves, not posthumously by academics or other editors. These works are clearly part of a writer’s oeuvre – and I’m calling them “notebooks”. They tend to be highly edited and somewhat different from traditional diaries, which, of course, can also be carefully edited. But, these “notebooks” have minimal diary framework, in terms of day-by-day dear-diary accounting.

Selected Aussie writers’ notebooks

I don’t know how many writers have published the sort of “notebooks” I’m talking about, but I have three on my shelves, to get the discussion going.

The first one, chronologically in terms of publication, is the most unusual, Beverley Farmer’s A body of water (1990). I’ve had it on my TBR since it came out. How embarrassing. Luckily for you, though, Lisa has reviewed it, so do go there if you are interested. Meanwhile, I’ll just make a few comments. I bought it because I loved Farmer’s writing, and looking at it again – as I have many times over the years – I feel the urge to dive in, but, no, on with this post.

Farmer’s book takes place over a year from February 1987 to the next February. The thirteen journal chapters are named for the month, but what makes this notebook a little different is that interspersed between the months are five short stories. The content of the journal chapters, however, is very much as described in the quotes above. There are references to her life (particularly her relationship angst), to books she is reading, to her own writing, to her environment. I am, cheekily, going to quote from Lisa’s review, because – well, you’ll see why later:

Farmer reads Alice Munro, and makes notes about the structure of her stories; she goes to the Spoleto Festival (forerunner of the Melbourne Festival) and brings home the books of A.S. Byatt from which to learn.  She wishes she had the insouciance of Olga Masters, she admires the ‘spirals within spirals’ in V.S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival (p192) and she reads and re-reads cherished authors, to ‘rebuild and restore’ (p169) finding a ‘fearful symmetry and sureness of touch’ in Jessica Anderson’s Tirra Lirra by the River (p219).

My second book is actually called a notebook – Notebooks 1970-2003 (2005) – and it’s by Murray Bail. I bought it because I like Bail and was intrigued by this notebook form, but I haven’t read it yet, either. It has just two parts: London June 1970-November 1974 and Sydney September 1988-November 2003.

It is more spare than Farmer’s and Garner’s books, but that in itself provides insight into him, as well as its content sharing what he’s observing, reading, thinking about. Here’s something quite random:

Strolling from one picture to another in art galleries, even commercial ones, I am assailed by literary ideas which beg to be resolved.

Book cover

And finally, the book – or books – that inspired this post, Helen Garner’s first two volumes of her diaries, Yellow notebook: Diaries Volume I 1978–1986 (my review) and One day I’ll remember this: Diaries Volume II 1987–1995. Interestingly, the first one is called “notebook” and “diaries” while the second one is just “diaries”. I am including them here because the content, though arranged by year, looks like a collection of snippets, rather than a traditional diary.

In my review of volume 1, I focused on Garner’s writing about other writers, such as Elizabeth Jolley. In volume 2, she mentions other writers again, of course. One of these is – yes – Alice Munro, whom Lisa says Farmer also mentions. Here’s Garner:

Alice Munro is deceptively naturalistic. All that present tense, detail of clothes, household matters, then two or three pages in there’s a gear change and everything gets deeper and more wildly resonant. She doesn’t answer the questions she makes you ask. She wants you to walk away anxious.

Anyone who knows Garner and/or Bail will know that they were married (1992-2000) during the periods covered by their “notebooks”, and Bail certainly appears in Garner’s. But, more on that when I review it.

Why read these notebooks?

For me it’s because although, fundamentally, the text is the thing, I do think that understanding something about the writer can enhance what we get out of our reading.

Garner’s notebooks are a perfect example, because she writes much about what she thinks it worth writing about and what sort of writing she strives for. She wants, for example, to understand “what people do to each other”, and she writes of striving to let “the language tell the story”, and of “trying to trim adjectives without losing the sensuous detail they afford”. Of V/Bail, she admires “the bright freshness of his writing, its muscle, its dazzling turns. Carved free of cliché. Scrubbed till it hurts.”

There are many reasons for reading these notebooks, but another big one is discovering what our favourite writers read and what they think about what they are reading, as Lisa shares from Farmer. Here is Bail, being his spare self:

Emerson’s ‘Self reliance’: line by line, blow by blow.

I remained seated and immediately read through it again.

There is also just the joy of reading their writing. These notebooks are full of insights and descriptions that make you stop, but if I start sharing them, I’ll never stop. Instead, I’ll end with Farmer from near the beginning of her book. She’s writing about her “new phase of writing”:

This new writing: I want it to be an interweaving of visual images–more open, loose and rich, and free of angst. And if I keep a notebook this time …

Have you read any writer’s notebooks?

Murray Bail, Arthur Boyd, Art and Landscape

Last year, I attended the National Library of Australia’s two-day seminar, Writing the Australian Landscape, and wrote three posts about it, here, here and again here! In the first post, I wrote about Murray Bail’s somewhat provocative keynote speech. What I didn’t mention in my post was Bail’s reference to Arthur Boyd’s painting, titled “Interior with Black Rabbit” (which you can see at the National Gallery of Australia: BOYD, Arthur | Interior with black rabbit.)

I was reminded of this reference when I visited the Gallery’s Arthur Boyd: Agony and Ecstasy exhibition prior to the Griffyn Ensemble Concert because, on the label for this artwork was a quote from Murray Bail, which I recognised as being from his address at the seminar. I’d like to share it with you now. Bail introduced the painting, which he showed on a screen (presumably with copyright approval), by telling us that its subject is “the difficulty of being an artist in this new, largely empty place, Australia”. He then described the painting, thus (and this is the quote on the National Gallery’s label):

It shows the dilemma of the painter. It could just as well be the dilemma of the novelist in Australia, or the poet, or somebody composing a piece of music. Perhaps above all the dilemma faced by the painter and the novelist.

The painter is wearing a European ruff representing some sort of distant sensibility. Outside is the Australian landscape – glaring, pitiless, empty, uncultivated. That’s here. That is us. Landscape is always viewed through culture. And here culture is represented by chicken wire. Utilitarian, crude, provisional. And in the darkened room the artist is on his knees, trying to capture something of this, via the rabbit – and the rabbit is an animal that is always out of reach.

This view of the landscape is, of course, the view of a “distant sensibility”. I don’t imagine that the traditional owners of the landscape see it as “glaring, pitiless, empty”. One of the concerns in the audience that day was Bail’s Euro-centric focus. That was fair enough, in a way – he is, after all, like most of us were in that audience, descended from distant sensibilities – but some greater recognition of indigenous sensibilities would have been appropriate. Putting this aside, however, Bail is right about one thing, which is that landscape “is always viewed through culture”. This is particularly evident in Australia, where responses to landscape can vary immensely depending on your origin – indigenous, “settler” or settler ancestry, or recent immigrant. Certainly, landscape is a powerful – and complicated – force in both Bail’s and Boyd’s work.

Hmm ... what about Literature? (Boyd Label at NGA)

Hmm … what about Literature? (Boyd Label at NGA)

So, how does it play out in their work? For Bail, there is still clearly a tension between his (our) European heritage and this place we are in. Indeed, in the talk I attended he said that

I hadn’t quite realised my novels are centred around journeys, all of them….. My people are instinctively hot-footing it out of here, turning away from the apparent barrenness.

He’s right … at least there are elements of this, surprisingly so at times, in the three novels of his I’ve read, Eucalyptus (less so), The pages and The voyage.

I’m not sure how much Bail himself hotfooted it out of here, but Boyd sure did. He lived in London from 1960 to 1971. On his return, he bought a place, Bundanon, in the Shoalhaven region (only a couple of hours from where I live). The Wikipedia article on Boyd suggests that at first he found the landscape “rugged and wild” but that he gradually “befriended the formidable landscape”. In fact, he befriended it so much that, as I wrote in my Griffyn Ensemble post, he donated the property to the Australian people. In Zara Stanhope’s Arthur Boyd: An active witness (Bundanon Trust, 2013) he is quoted:

I want it to be accessible to any Australian whose life can be enriched by the beauty, the history, the landscape, the environment and by the energy and stimulation from social interaction with Australian creative artists.

In the book, Stanhope says that Boyd wrote in a handwritten letter that he want the property to be used as “a base for research by practitioners in music, drama, literature, visual arts and science”. Phew … that answers my question in the caption above! Stanhope also discusses briefly in the book Boyd’s engagement in the natural world, saying that:

From being a compositional vehicle and a carrier of emotions, the landscape came to offer multiple meanings.

Those meanings include spiritual or abstract ones dealing with our relationship with or connections to the environment, metaphorical ones to do with our attitude to the natural world (including his series on animal research), and practical ones about preserving the environment. Boyd did also paint a series – the Bride paintings – expressing his concerns about conditions of indigenous people and the need for reconciliation, but these were earlier in his career after a visit to outback/central Australia.

I have no conclusion to all this – but just wanted to share some thoughts I’ve been having, connections I’ve been making. It just reminds me that in Australia at least, we can’t divorce ourselves from considerations of landscape, no matter what Bail said in his talk. Not only is it a presence that demands notice, but it defines our relationships – indigenous-nonindigenous, east-west, national-international, inland-coast, mainland-island – which in turn define our culture, who we are, how we see ourselves. No wonder we keep talking about it, writing about it, painting it, composing about it …

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)

Murray Bail, The voyage (Review)

Murray Bail, The voyage, book cover

Courtesy: Text Publishing

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.

Murray Bail
The voyage
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 978192192261

Delicious descriptions from Down under: Murray Bail on composers’ houses

Beethoven's birth house

Beethoven’s birth house

During our recent trip to Europe we managed to follow the trails of a few composers*. We saw statues of JS Bach, CPE Bach, Felix Mendelssohn and Ludwig van Beethoven. We visited Eisenach, where Bach was born and saw the church where he was baptised. We visited Leipzig, where he worked for 27 years and saw the church where he wrote most of his best-known compositions. We visited the house in Weimar where Franz Liszt was based for the last 20 or so years of his life, and the house in Bonn where Beethoven was born. In a previous European trip we visited the house in Salzburg where Mozart was born. We’ve enjoyed this aspect of our tourism, the way it helps put these composers into some sort of geographic and historical perspective.

Given this, and my current interest in the meaning and value of travel, I was therefore rather tickled to read, just this morning, Murray Bail‘s comment in The voyage on composers’ houses:

… the idea of turning composers’ houses into holy houses with perfect wallpaper, bare desk and polished floorboards is more a display of falsity than history, although it hardly deters the visitors who go into every room, wanting to add layers to their general knowledge, mouths open in wonder, in Mozart’s case, amazing how a family with so many children could fit in such a space, how Mozart managed to work with his family around him, making the usual family racket, or the curator’s immaculate recreation of Beethoven’s rooms, not a speck of dust to be seen, though everyone knows he lived in disorder or squalor.

Oh dear, he does have a point!

Franz Liszt's bed

Franz Liszt’s actual bed

Indeed, in our experience, some (many, in fact) of these homes no longer have the composer’s furniture but have been furnished in period style. The curators don’t always even know what sort of furniture the famous inhabitant had, unless there are letters or some sort of contemporary inventory to tell them. In Liszt’s case though, his perspicacious supporter/ruler, Grand Duke Carl Alexander ordered within days of his death that the house be preserved because he knew fans would want to pay homage:

Since […] it can be assumed that Liszt’s innumerable friends and admirers […] will pay homage to the memory of the departed by visiting the rooms which he lived in, the Grand Duke strictly commands that nothing may be changed of the furniture and decorations, that is to the furnishings in the broadest sense, in the rooms in which Liszt lived.  (from the audioguide)

The furniture there really was Liszt’s. Does that make a difference? Do we feel more reverence or awe because we know the great man (or woman) sat on that chair? Is our experience somehow less, if we know the furniture isn’t original? I guess it depends on the tourist.

How does a composer’s house turned into a museum differ from a “straight” museum. Does displaying objects – authentic and/or “only” contemporaneous – in the composer’s own space add value to our experience? Is it better than seeing these objects in an all-purpose museum space, perhaps alongside those of other composers or people of the same time? What sort of experience or knowledge are we seeking? What, to take this to its logical conclusion, is the role of museums? These are the questions I’ve been pondering, in a heightened manner I must admit, since reading Michelle de Kretser‘s Questions of travel (my review).

Bail has discussed museums and tourists in other works – in his novel Homesickness, and in a story that I plan to read soon. Watch this space! Meanwhile, do you have thoughts on the topic? Do you like to visit writers’ homes for example? Why?

* Not to mention writers, and other famous or infamous people, of course.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Five fascinating fictional fathers

This week’s Monday musings has a personal, sentimental, genesis. Last Friday, my 91-year-old father underwent his third major abdominal surgery in 6 years. It’s a big ask for an older body but he’s hanging in there. My parents, not surprisingly I suppose, were instrumental in my becoming a reader. My mother introduced me to Jane Austen. My father would let me bring my “28 books” (why I thought there were 28 is lost in my childhood haze) to him in bed in the morning so he could read them aloud to me. It was also he who introduced me, through reading aloud again, to Banjo Paterson‘s ballads. I have a lot to thank my parents for – and my being a reader is one of them.

All this got me to thinking of fathers in literature, and particularly Australian literature. There are a lot of men – yes, really! – in Australian fiction, but how often, I wondered, is their role as fathers a feature of the writing? As it turns out, it’s more common than I thought, but I’ll just share five here.

Elizabeth Jolley‘s My father’s moon (1989)

My father’s moon is the first book in Jolley’s semi-autobiographical trilogy and, while it is really about Vera and her challenge to find a place in the adult world, the support provided by her father is critical in her life … and Jolley writes of it beautifully:

He always told me when I had to leave for school, every term when I wept because I did not want to leave, he told me that if I looked at the moon, wherever I was, I was seeing the same moon that he was looking at, ‘And because of this’, he said, ‘you must know that I am not very far away. You must never feel lonely,’ he said. He said the moon would never be extinguished. Sometimes, he said, it was not possible to see the moon, but it was always there. He said he liked to think of it as his.

Murray Bail‘s Eucalyptus (1998)

Eucalyptus is one of my favourite books. The writing is gorgeous and it explores fatherhood from a surprising angle – for a modern novel. It is in fact a rather traditional fairy story, with a modern twist. The father in Eucalyptus sets a task for his daughter’s wooers – they must be able to identify every eucalypt tree on the property in order to win her hand, but this modern father finds that managing his daughter’s future is not quite as easy as he thought. She might in fact want a say in it.

Joan London‘s The good parents (2008)

Joan London targets, among other things, the whole issue of parenthood by exploring three generations or so of parents and children. The central family is Jacob and Toni, with their two children, and Jacob is given reasonable “airplay” in his own right as he contemplates his missing daughter and his role as her parent, and along the way his relationship with his mother, Arlene. He wonders, as many parents do at some stage, whether the choices he made for his and his family’s life were the best ones for his children.

Steve Toltz‘s A fraction of the whole (2008)

The father-son relationship is the central idea of Steve Toltz’s big, loose, baggy monster of a novel as it explores Jasper’s rather typical desire to not be his father, the free-thinking-out-there Martin. After a rather wild ride in which Jasper learns many important things, he realises that he will never be his father, that he is the sum of more than one part.

David Malouf‘s Ransom (2010)

And then there’s Ransom, Malouf’s reimagining of Priam’s approach to Achilles to retrieve the body of his son Hector in order to give him a proper burial. The book has larger themes – about daring to dream, about humility, about the power of compassion, to name a couple – but at the heart of it is the love of a father for his son. Without that, there would be no book and we would have missed another beautiful read from Malouf.

This is a pretty quick introduction to some views on fathers in recent Australian literature, because my time right now is otherwise engaged – but I’d love to hear if you have favourite literary fathers. Who are they, and why do you like them?

Murray Bail, The pages

The pages, Paperback cover (Image: Courtesy Text Publishing)

The pages, Paperback cover (Image: Courtesy Text Publishing)

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?

Murray Bail
The pages
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2008
199 pp.
ISBN: 9781921351464

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.