Out­back quest for in­sight

Painterly land­scape is the foil for a search for in­tan­gi­ble truth, writes Nigel Krauth

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Sturt Krygs­man

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