The Voy­age

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stella Clarke Stella Clarke

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.

Mur­ray Bail

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