Tuesday, 18 February 2014

I think we're lost...

The Voyage by Murray Bail
Published by Text Publishing Company
Pp. 200

Murray Bail is a fan of the experimental novel. Some may call it modernism; others stream-of-consciousness; still others pretentious nonsense. The eponymous voyage is the journey taken by ship of Frank Delage on his return from Vienna to Sydney. He travels to Old Europe to seduce the musical community with his new piano, which has a radically clear sound, but he fails to generate much interest. An appallingly bad salesman or promoter, he blames others for his shortcomings even though he achieves an introduction to a modern composer through a rich and influential couple (the Schallas). He falls for the mother, Amalia, but returns to Sydney with the daughter, Elisabeth.

On the ship, Delage talks to the other passengers and hears their stories, while reminiscing about his own experiences. These stories overlap and interweave, often in the space of a sentence, as when he journeys from the boat to the von Schalla drawing room in his thoughts which are mirrored in the prose. “Wherever he looked there was another wave of different shape, different size, lengths of dissolving foam drawing the eye, the pink sofa obscenely dented with buttons he couldn't avoid, striped maroon armchairs by the fireplace...” An absence of chapters, paragraphs that extend over several pages, and constant switches in time can become wearisome.

The trip from the New World to the Old and back again proves ultimately meaningless, as his influence is superficial and his piano sinks without trace. “The ship continued pushing across the surface, a path of creamy-white in its wake, which was almost immediately erased, leaving no sign – an easy mockery of the ship’s mighty engines and propellers.” He believes he is at a disadvantage in Vienna due to his piano being “nicotine brown” in the land of tradition where all the other pianos are black. “It was like his cousins from the sticks the year they’d gate-crashed a family wedding in Sydney, wearing loud neckties.” He thinks he will, 
“paint a scene of native trees, eucalypts, on his piano which would rear up into a forest when the lid was raised (notes flitting like birds through the smooth trunks?). If not to everybody’s taste it would at least declare where it was manufactured, a graphic reminder of the differences between his piano and the antiquated, established pianos, he needed as much help as he could get, from anywhere.”
Delage imagines that the problem is with Vienna rather than his piano and he wonders frequently why he didn't try Berlin instead. He accuses Vienna of being stuffy and resistant to progress. “I don’t know what’s the matter with the people in this place. Have their imaginations come to a grinding halt? Fossilised.” It’s not that he prefers anywhere else: he is equally scathing of Perth, “which has a history of visitors setting foot on the place and immediately wanting to turn around, a reaction which continues to this day” and Sydney, where he attacks the architecture of the iconic Opera House; “an overrated piece of architecture, if ever there was, a sacred building in Sydney, in all of Australia, based on a white handkerchief, in the glare of daylight it shouts out ‘over-emphasis’, and therefore ‘provincial’, anything to catch attention, softer, more complex, thoughtful at night, and the acoustics are terrible.”

In fact, it is difficult to find anything that Delage does like in this whingeing barrage of bitterness. Everything is linked in his mind, which flits about with the attention span of a flea. “His life had been a confusion, he found it difficult to express his views, let alone hold onto them, information and adjustments came in from all directions.” He has an opinion on everything, although it is rarely a positive one. From central heating, which has caused to families to become dispersed, to diplomats – “Mediocre people like nothing better than to work in embassies. Their most accomplished skills are pouring cocktails and stamping passports” – he barely has a good word to say about anyone or anything. He even criticises smiles, which are insincere and “have no meaning”.

He dislikes cities – “There is always something wrong with a city, your only hope is to choose one with the smallest number of faults” – and the countryside equally. “The Australian countryside actively discouraged walking of any kind, except as an endurance test, the example set by the early explorers who mostly died of thirst or exhaustion, some were speared, the difficulty being the heat, also the insects, the drooping khaki trees and bushes hardly help.” The heat is harmful to his piano, “In hot countries, the weather favours drums and single-string instruments, and their repetitious melancholy, a grand piano would require tuning every other day”, although he reveals rare pleasure in the cessation of rain, “which was a precise moment he always liked. The many different kinds of grey, of black, patches of grey-black reflected, laid out on and at angles to the streets, rectangles of it tilted and glistened, glass had turned as dark as mirrors, mixed with what was rounded.”

The only conclusion to be drawn is that Bail fears he has been treated unfairly by critics, as he reserves his strongest vitriol for this profession. “Critics have an absurd sense of their own superiority... they suffer from a constant psychological condition which constantly prompts them to be critical – nothing can be done about it, a critic begins as a failure.” He evidently thinks he is an expert novelist. He (or his central character; the constant asides are inseparable from authorial intrusion) claims that modern novels display a lack of invention and are “more and more an author’s reaction to nearby events, a display of true feeling.” He tells the reader, 
“We should not be disapproving of repetition. Each day we see the same things, eyes, noses and legs, the trees and clouds, and each day we repeat the same words. And we never stop doing the same things over and over again, every day, sleeping, cleaning our teeth, shaking hands, drinking tea, sitting on a chair, which give stability to our lives. It is necessary.”
It may be necessary, but it isn't necessarily interesting. With his interconnections, he sees music as an analogy for literature – exactly what he accuses critics of doing. “All art, he said, including the playing of pianos, was imperfect... As listeners, we actually want an imperfect result. It is human, and therefore closer to human understanding. Otherwise, it is beyond understanding.” Not so. I understand this; I just don’t like it.

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