July 2008

Arts & Letters

‘The Pages’ by Murray Bail

By Chris Middendorp

The Pages, Murray Bail's latest novel and his first in a decade, is an intermittently engaging satire on the conceits of philosophy and the extremes to which some people will go to gain clarity. At the heart of this convoluted tale is Wesley Antill, an improbable philosophical genius who lived on a sheep farm in New South Wales, silently cogitating in a rusting woolshed while his brother and sister managed the property around him. After Wesley's death a morose academic, Erica Hazelhurst, arrives at the family homestead to assess whether the bucolic metaphysician's unpublished writings are indeed the work of a genius.

Bail has packed a lot into this slim novel. Too much, perhaps. The book is a slippery coalescence of fictional biography, love story, Continental thought and psychoanalysis, as well as an attempt to address the vexed question of Australian identity. Bail proposes (and we've heard this before, of course) that Australians regard any serious intellectual tradition with craven suspicion: "At the very word ‘philosophy' people in Sydney run away in droves, reach for the revolver ..." This is a nation where the articulate are viewed with misgiving, for they are potentially dangerous. In this thesis and its implications, The Pages can be viewed as a fictional counterpart to Donald Horne's coruscating 1964 cultural study, The Lucky Country.

Accounts of Wesley Antill's sojourns across Britain and Europe show him growing as a man and thinker, and it's here that readers will find the emotional core of The Pages. Sometimes Antill, in these travels, seems a cross between Barry McKenzie and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Sounds a touch ridiculous? It is, but Bail mostly gets away with it. There's a lovely chapter involving Antill and a loquacious, deep-thinking postman, which leads to the observation that "ordinary people on the street were philosophers without knowing it."

On winning the Miles Franklin Award for Eucalyptus, in 1999, Murray Bail said, "It becomes more and more difficult to create something individual and distinctive, yet ... worthwhile." Perhaps the strain of attempting to do just that has led to this novel, which presents thought-provoking vignettes but ultimately struggles to bring coherence to its treatment of weighty themes.

Chris Middendorp

Cover: July 2008

July 2008

From the front page

Image of Jennifer Westacott

Big bank tax cuts

The Business Council is on a very sticky wicket

Image from ‘Atlanta’

‘Atlanta’: thrillingly subversive

Donald Glover’s uncommon blend of the everyday and the absurd makes a masterful return

Image of Peter Dutton

South African farmers: we will decide

Australia, refugees and the politics of fear

Image from ‘The Americans’

‘The Americans’, the Russians and the perils of parallels

Why sometimes it’s better to approach art on its own terms


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

The 7th Brigade & the Kaigun Rikusentai

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Trivial pursuit

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Katharine’s place

‘Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith’ by Mark E Smith (with Austin Collings)


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Pompeii

Ceridwen Dovey’s ‘In the Garden of the Fugitives’

Reality flexes at the edges of Dovey’s second novel

Still from The Death of Stalin

Armando Iannucci’s ‘The Death of Stalin’

This Soviet satire pushes comedy’s tragedy-plus-time formula to the limit

Young Fathers’ ‘Cocoa Sugar’

The Scottish group’s third album proves they don’t sound like anyone else

Installation view of Mass by Ron Mueck, 2016–17

The NGV Triennial

A new exhibition series’ first instalment delivers a heady mix of populism and politics


More in Noted

Tim Winton’s ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’

One of Australia’s most acclaimed novelists offers a painful and beautiful story of redemption

Zadie Smith’s ‘Feel Free’

In this collection of essays, Smith shines when she’s addressing the personal

‘The Only Story’ by Julian Barnes

The meticulous novelist takes on the oldest subject there is

‘Lady Bird’ directed by Greta Gerwig

The debut director goes home to make a funny, touching film about wanting to leave it


Read on

Image from ‘Atlanta’

‘Atlanta’: thrillingly subversive

Donald Glover’s uncommon blend of the everyday and the absurd makes a masterful return

Image of Peter Dutton

South African farmers: we will decide

Australia, refugees and the politics of fear

Image from ‘The Americans’

‘The Americans’, the Russians and the perils of parallels

Why sometimes it’s better to approach art on its own terms

Image of Hugh Grant in ‘Maurice’

Merchant Ivory connects gilded surfaces with emotional depth

Restraint belies profundity in ‘Maurice’, ‘Howards End’ and more


×
×