Between worlds

THE VOYAGE
By Murray Bail
Text Publishing, $29.99

MURRAY Bail is one of the most remarkable writers of his generation because he is committed to doing something different with the form of the novel (as if there were no other way to do anything new by way of vision), and yet he is not, like Flaubert or the late David Foster Wallace, a writer of great technical virtuosity.

Never mind, he seems to say: we will honour the tradition of modernism and its strenuous record of experimentation with whatever homespun Australian equipment is available. And if the strenuousness shows, well, art amounts to more than the demonstration of skill.

So it does and, against whatever odds, the home-grown, artful fiction of Murray Bail, compounded of all manner of bushwhackery and end-of-the-earth Australian highbrowism, is one of the shining examples of what the novel form can achieve when it takes nothing for granted, takes as its gospel the credo of James Joyce - there is no higher in modern literature - and uses the limitations of language as the very grain of its idiom, its enduring and circumambient strategy.

The upshot is a body of fiction that shows great power of design, even if it recurrently sounds like the work of a hayseed of genius sifting through beads to find diamonds.

Bail writes books about tourists who never visit anything but the theme parks of their expectations (Homesickness) or in which people re-enact the casket myth of The Merchant of Venice by guessing the number of bloody gumtrees on daddy's property to get the girl. The latter novel - it sounds like a parodic allegory of Bail's fictional procedures - is Eucalyptus, which almost became a film with Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman. And what a glorious cartoon Australian romance that might have been, given the book's poignancy and power.

For Bail has these qualities, too, cloaked though they are and occluded to the point of parody and beyond. His previous novel, The Pages, was about a philosopher (in the unholy sense of a cursed-by-God thinker), a couple of women and the abiding bewilderments and astonishments of the human heart.

The new book, The Voyage, is about an Australian Candide figure, a maker of grand pianos who finds himself in Vienna, the city of Mozart and Mahler and Wittgenstein, attempting to flog the huge, yellow, Australian-made monster that sounds with a clarity that confounds all the muffle and murmuring of traditions, romantic and classical.

His primary port of call - for reasons never made clear, nor need to be - is a cultured Viennese family with a lushly attractive matriarch, at once come-hithering and grand, her mordant businessman husband and her daughter, whose down-to-earth sexiness and common sense nevertheless recapitulate, every so often, all that is bittersweet and gemutlich, all that is lush and implicit about mutter. Rather, the way the real world can seem the shadow of the Platonic ideas - though in this case with a goatish, sexed-up emphasis.

One of the weird things about The Voyage - and one key to its very distinct power of enchantment - is that we know the basic storyline from the outset. The Australian piano maker is befriended by the Viennese family of culture lovers, and they are interested in doing what they can for his grand piano business, but he sets about coming back to Australia on a container ship with the daughter, who runs away with him.

So the action (if that's the word) is at any given point split between what the Austro-culture vultures are saying to the Aussie, through veils of creamy ambiguity, and what's transpiring on the ship as he takes off his trousers for the benefit of the girl, or listens to the Dutchman who is dreading seeing his ex-wife again or the two sisters from Melbourne (one red and lustrous-haired and the other melancholic, like the widow of her own expectations).

There is also a kind of corridor of memory that connects the two worlds as we learn how the piano seller and the young woman came together in the shadow of the deep flirtation between antipodean man and Mittel-European woman.

The jigsaw-puzzle, collage effect of The Voyage's narrative is, in practice, ravishing. It gives the book something of the zestful improvisational confusion that creates remote links with far-off heroic efforts by Virginia Woolf or William Faulkner, though the to-ing and fro-ing of the two times has an abiding reality for all its shimmer and consistency of surface.

The Voyage is a beautiful book, sumptuously executed for all the apparent slenderness of its narrative line. And Bail, who is so artful in the face of his complete inability to write a conventional narrative, does create suspense over what the music critic will say about how the piano sounds in the light of the reverberation of history. What use to which the avant-garde composer might put the yellow horror, with its crystal sound? And, yes, whether the girl from the cultivated family will stay with the Sydney nerd.

In formal terms, The Voyage has an affinity with J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year, that dazzling bit of crypto-fiction in which the one-time South African master of drama creates three random discontinuous versions of a set of events.

It is also very much a fictional excursion in the territory of Thomas Bernhard, the greatest Austrian writer since the author of The Man without Qualities, Robert Musil.

Bernhard may have his surface of black dramatic denunciation but he was a great master of the rise and fall of repetition and musical variation and here Bail rises to meet him in this funny, sidelong representation of an encounter between the new world and the old.

The Voyage is a novel (for want of a better word) about lumbering Australia in the vicinity of dark, winding, subtle Austria, of bold, honest naivety in the vicinity of subtlety and sophistication. But it is also playing (almost like a Roland Barthes drollery) with the fact that only a syllable divides the two worlds. Two words, two worlds. And all the capacity for deception and attraction they might contain.

It is a lustrous piece of fiction, consistently surprising and illuminating, full of mirrors and illusions, but with the abiding face of real feeling and deep truth. We won't see a finer piece of fiction in the longest while.

The Voyage is published on Wednesday. Peter Craven discusses Patrick White's legacy at Readings, 309 Lygon Street, Carlton, Tuesday 6.30pm.

The story Between worlds first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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