SLOW JOURNEY HOME
MURRAY Bail’s new novel The Voyage concerns a journey by ship from Europe to Australia. Going the other way was once the more romantic pursuit for Australians, at least when sea travel was an option and cattle-class flights hadn’t shrunk the world to the size of a cow pat.
However, Frank Delage, a middle-aged, single and tenaciously idealistic piano manufacturer from Sydney, is returning from a failed trip to Vienna, where he’d hoped to take the music world by storm. Instead he suffers cultural vertigo and unfamiliar pangs concerning his own ‘‘ ordinariness’’.
Bail has raided autobiographical jottings: the clue is in the name of Delage’s chosen vessel, the Romance, which Peter Conrad noted in the 2004 Boyer lecture, Tales of Two Hemispheres, was the container ship Bail selected for his journey back to Australia in the 1970s, after a period living in Europe.
‘‘ There was nothing romantic about it,’’ Conrad observed. Rather, ‘‘ the journey was an exercise in boredom, an apprenticeship to inertia’’.
Boredom, however, can have its imaginative benefits. Bail has made an unusual story out of being stalled between two hemispheres. The Voyage exhibits a measure of narrative inertia, but its pleasures are a matter of contemplative latitude. This novel smuggles in similar concerns to Conrad’s, not least that of the artist moving between Old and New worlds.
Delage has taken a pioneering instrument with him to Vienna; now he sails home, weighed down, as the ship meanders southward, by a cargo of perplexing recollections of his visit among Viennese high society.
Delage joins Bail’s curious pantheon of eccentric Australian males. Back in 1981, with his acclaimed monograph on ascetic artist Ian Fairweather, Bail revealed his affinity for quirky, solitary, creative types. In 1998, he invigorated critics with his arresting fable, Eucalyptus, about a reclusive middle-aged man called Holland who buys land and fashions a vast and beautiful plantation, a masterpiece, nurturing an encyclopedic collection of gum trees. Ten years later Wesley Antill, in The Pages, retreats to a woolshed to invent a groundbreaking work of philosophy. Now we have Frank Delage and his hopeful, uncompromising, genius.
Delage departs Sydney confident of the impact his piano will make on the uninspired and moribund state of instrument making in hidebound Europe. He leaves Vienna with a humiliating awareness of how originality, in the context of a vast and haughty past, can be not only unwelcome but impossible.
Australian creativity is at stake here; though he is a piano maker, Delage is subject to the anxieties that have dogged antipodean artists, condemned by the tyranny of distance to be exiled from the main game. His exquisite piano is fashioned in the blond wood of Australian trees, which marks it out startlingly from the ranks of dark and venerable instruments, the By Murray Bail Text Publishing, 199pp, $29.99 Steinways and Bechsteins, that grace the salons of Vienna. It fails, however, to start a revolution.
Delage’s piano is politely cut down to size by his punctilious Viennese host, Konrad von Schalla, who suggests that a kookaburra should be embossed on the piano, rather than the inventor’s name, reducing it to a peculiar species: ‘‘ product of Australia’’.
Vienna is ‘‘ the worst possible place to introduce an improvement’’. No one pays serious attention to Delage’s pitch. Nothing he offers forms part of their ancient, ongoing conversation about art, which carries the authority of tradition, and its critically sophisticated trashing.
There are consolations, however, in the form of von Schalla’s wife and daughter. These sensuous, privileged but rather bored women appreciate Delage’s Down Under novelty, and the frisson of virility he injects into a jaded cultural scene. Ultimately, and without really trying, Delage secures an option on the wife and scores von Schalla’s daughter on his extended ride home; revenge is sweet.
Delage’s odyssey, with his perfect piano, is heroic and ironic. Ultimately, he ‘‘ catastrophically’’ misses the point of art entirely, or of art as understood in Europe. The power of traditional art to move lies perversely in degrees of imperfection, reflecting the human condition.
The Voyage is oblique, idiosyncratic and original. To read it is to breathe the rarefied air of an artistic consciousness, nostalgic for literary modernism. Bail deploys the structural integrity of the journey, such as the single day in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway and James Joyce’s Ulysses, to allow the disordered encroachment of the past on the present, and to permit a slippery, subjective treatment of time. This is a novel that demands your full attention, discoursing in an unbuttoned, Joycean fashion, approaching a sort of textual jouissance. Drift off, and you will be all at sea.
We are now less attuned to slow art than to the unhurried attractions of travel by ship, but this is no deterrent for Bail. As Delage’s Viennese debacle slowly coalesces, comments and observations float in — on critics, novels, newspapers, for example — that read like authorial interjections. They threaten to burst the fragile bubble of fictive illusion, as if the interior chatter (or notes-to-self) behind the author’s work, usually edited out, is here left in. Like constant asides in conversation, this can be distracting; however, the whole story is, in a way, an aside, like all recuperative internal commentaries, which murmur on as our lives forge ahead.
The Voyage is unconventional, the syntax often taxing, the narrative churning, blending details of shipboard and salon life, with the incremental shifts of an enterprising Aussie’s bewildered ‘‘ foray against the ramparts of old Europe’’. Like watching white water to stern, it has a mesmeric effect, best approached meditatively, as on a long voyage home.