Outback quest for insight
Painterly landscape is the foil for a search for intangible truth, writes Nigel Krauth
URRAY Bail’s wry and quirky oeuvre has always been about seeing. In novels, short stories and commentary on the visual arts, he plays continually with vision — the ability to perceive — as an individual aptitude and as a defining national characteristic. Cultural blindness, the inability to see ourselves and others, has humoured and energised him.
The Pages , Bail’s first novel in 10 years ( after Eucalyptus ), focuses on realms beyond the visual: philosophy and psychoanalysis. When the philosophy department at a stuffy Sydney university hears that unpublished philosopher Wesley Antill ( scion of a wealthy pastoralist family out west) has left in his will an endowment for the publication of his lifetime work, lecturer Erica Hazelhurst is sent to assess his collected manuscripts.
To accompany her on the 700km trip across the Blue Mountains and past West Wyalong ( even farther west than the setting for Eucalyptus), stolid Erica invites her flighty psychoanalyst friend Sophie Perloff.
Two city women, single, career secure, relationship vulnerable, roughly middle- aged, overly analytical and brittle, they attract and repulse each other, and everyone else they contact, in alarming and amusing ways.
In the stark landscape of the isolated sheep station, the women are welcomed by the dead philosopher’s brother and sister, and shown the old iron woolshed where Wesley spent years producing his work. There are piles of handwritten manuscripts on the desk, on shelves, strewn across the floor and pegged to a string line. Wesley was diligent but not organised.
As he did with Eucalyptus , Bail demonstrates his ability to write with a luminous, elemental aura surrounding everything.
‘‘ Sudden rain — hit the metal car — glittering sunlight, rain again’’ reads more like haiku than a sentence in a novel. And ‘‘ vertical lines on his forehead and running down from his eyes traced the nation’s crows, creekbeds, the salt plain, and tightened his mouth’’ gives an Albert Tucker face to a farmer seen by the roadside. It feels as if the novel is set in a painting. In the country,
The Pages By Murray Bail Text Publishing, 214pp, $ 34.95
M‘‘ two small dams were laid out in the shapes of artists’ palettes’’.
In the city, ‘‘ the liquid glitter squeezed between her red- brick building and the next, and the horizontal orange of a container ship’’.
Words and visuals blend into each other.
Erica begins the task of finding a structure for Wesley’s mess of words. Knowing that philosophy is ultimately words about the everyday, yet ‘‘ nothing less than a description of the impossible’’, she also sees that in the outback words fall like seeds on barren ground.
Out here — more than in the city — she could see how everything already existed without description.’’ The outback is a readymade philosophy, or maybe can never become one. She hasn’t been working long when an agitated Sophie enters the shed and spills coffee over the key pages, eradicating the pencil and pen- written contents. The research territory is now in chaos.
To reveal why this disaster occurs is tantamount to giving away the ending to Eucalyptus . Suffice it to say that the shocking plot moment in The Pages involves sex, a father and daughter, and a man’s life work, and leads to a parting.
There are other strands in the novel. Wesley’s trajectory as would- be philosopher is traced: how he left Australia in the early ’ 80s and spent two decades travelling, talking, watching, thinking and making love to compliant women. Avoiding the European centres, he preferred to do his research with philosophers he met along the way: a postman in London, a bookseller in Amsterdam, a picture framer and a violin- maker on a train in Germany.
Eventually he realises there is no point in travelling the world in search of a philosophy; it’s himself he must travel through.
As a reader familiar with Bail’s work, I was constantly apprehensive about confronting a tricky ending to this novel. It comes eventually in the form of Wesley’s jottings: a selection of philosophical notes.
These fragments are presented as the sumtotal of the philosopher’s disjointed lifetime of thinking. Or maybe they are a tracing of the land itself speaking hesitantly. Equally they may be simply the outcome of Sophie’s erratic coffeespill. Who knows? The novel ends by remaining a work in progress.
The Pages extends the ideas of Eucalyptus . It’s about men and women who fail to categorise existence satisfactorily. Actually, I like this novel better. It’s mature, not as forced; it chooses a patch and works it simply, confidently.
The end to The Pages makes me imagine that Bail’s ongoing project may finally form a triptych: first Eucalyptus , then The Pages and soon a further one, set even deeper in the Australian interior: three works about Australia seeing and, partially, understanding itself.
Nigel Krauth is a Queensland- based writer.