Turning the World on its Ear

Review of Murray Bail, The Voyage

New York Times, March 28, 2014

Murray Bail is one of Australia’s best living writers, and “The Voyage” is his finest book to date — a rich, sparkling novel that reinvigorates literary modernism and shows a master at work.

The novel’s central character, Frank Delage, a piano manufacturer from Sydney with an “engineer’s mentality” and “carpenter’s hands,” is in Vienna to market his new version of the instrument. Rebuilt along the principles of “logic and mechanical efficiency,” Delage’s piano offers a different tone, “cleaner, sharper” than the muddy-sounding pianos of the Old World. In this “music saturated” city of “creaking floorboards and . . . fragile furniture,” where “they knew their Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms,” he meets Amalia von Schalla, an aristocrat, salonnière and patron of the arts. “Once a beauty, now handsome, a raised-chin beauty,” she’s older than Frank, but there’s an immediate attraction between them. She invites him to a soiree where he meets her blond daughter, Elisabeth, who offers a whispered translation of a critic’s remarks. As she leans close to his ear, he can “feel her mouth smiling.” “I am to look after you,” she explains. “You are not to be out of my sight. . . . You can call me Elisabeth, if you want.”

With increasing desperation, Frank tries to make the sales his small factory needs to stay solvent. But as he finds himself drawn into the von Schallas’ world, with all its ancient glitter, his trip becomes less about the piano and more about the von Schalla women and their genteel competition for his attentions.

Ultimately disappointed in business, unsure about love, he returns to Sydney with Elisabeth on the cargo ship Romance. There she stands “facing the breeze, an advertisement for expensive sunglasses,” watching the wake “dissolving into trails of lace.” She walks naked in the cabin, lies across Frank’s lap. “Sunlight came through the porthole: a white egg shape lit up on the brown floor, enough for Elisabeth to reach down, very languid, to show her hand illuminated.” Frank thinks about Amalia, “what she would be doing back in Vienna,” and what he has achieved.

This is one way to describe “The Voyage,” teasing the plot threads carefully from the book and laying them out in lines. In truth, the novel is more complex. Adopting a modernist narrative structure, Bail moves among Frank’s present on the Romance, his life in Sydney, his memories of Vienna’s crisp streets and golden drawing rooms, and then, pages later, back to the departing thought, back to Frank, standing on the “colossal” ship that “reared out of the green water” as it “leaked streams.”

Bail changes voice too. Frank’s consciousness is the main focus, but the thoughts of Amalia, Elisabeth, Amalia’s husband and the Romance’s few passengers pervade the narrative. Shifts in voice and time and place can occur within a single narrative breath. Vast paragraphs often last for many pages; there are no chapters, just as there is no separation of dialogue from description.

To pull this off without tempting the reader to heave the book across the room takes a world-class writer. And Murray Bail is just that. His exquisite prose draws us through temporal and geographic movements, leading the eye on and on, trancelike, with no white space to distract or form a natural pause.

The core achievement of this structure is to capture a sense of the digressive nature of human thought and memory. A sight, a scent, can summon a scene from years past and transport us, for an instant, to another time or place, lead us to ponder our lives, perhaps life in general, and then we blink, look up and return to the present. The design of “The Voyage” reflects just this sort of process.

Bail tells the story the way the characters might actually have experienced and remembered it. In doing so, he makes an argument against the dominance of “beginning, middle, end” narration and for the (perhaps superior) realism that can be achieved through nontraditional means.

Throughout his career, Bail has resisted the conventions of realist literary fiction. In earlier works like “The Drover’s Wife” and “Homesickness,” this leads to a stark experience for the reader. Surreal and heavily symbolic, these books put their experimental qualities in the foreground: Ideas are pursued at the (conscious) expense of lyricism, narrative arc and psychologically realistic characters.

But since the publication of the transitional novel “Holden’s Performance” in 1987, Bail’s writing has become increasingly reader-friendly. In his 1998 novel, “Eucalyptus,” a reclusive grazier promises his beautiful daughter to the man who can name every species of eucalyptus tree on his property. This Australian fairy tale won the 1999 Miles Franklin Award, Australia’s premier literary prize, and that year’s Commonwealth Writers’ Prize. “The Pages,” published a decade later, recounts a professor’s journey to read the work of a recently deceased farmyard philosopher, a trip that causes her to reflect not only on the capacity of philosophy to comment meaningfully on life but on her own emotional and romantic sacrifices in the pursuit of pure thought. These later works remain experimental in form — each tries on a different narrative approach — but the presence of storytelling staples softens the reader’s experience and widens the potential audience. Intricate yet elegant, “The Voyage” continues this trend of accessibility.

Bail’s novel has the polish and ring of literature that will have lasting appeal. An immensely satisfying book, one that rewards slow and careful reading, it confirms his status as a writer of the highest caliber.

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