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a morose academic, Erica Hazelhurst, arrives at the family homestead to assess whether the bucolic metaphysician's unpublished writings are indeed the work of a genius.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.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

In This Issue

An oddity from the start

Convicts and national character

Lovely bones

Making sense of the Flores find

In the dark?

The same dirty old energy

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

The 7th Brigade & the Kaigun Rikusentai


More in Arts & Letters

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

U2 performing in the Las Vegas Sphere

Where the feats have no name: ‘U2:UV’ at Sphere

It’s no surprise it took U2 to launch post-stadium rock via a spectacular immersive show within the technical marvel of Las Vegas’s newest venue


More in Noted

Cover of Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement: On Being Critical’

Lauren Oyler’s ‘No Judgement’

The American author and critic’s essay collection moves from her gripes with contemporary cultural criticism to personal reflection

Cover of Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

Sheila Heti’s ‘Alphabetical Diaries’

The Canadian writer’s presentation of sentence-long entries from her diaries, organised alphabetically, delivers a playful and unpredictable self-examination

Still from ‘Boy Swallows Universe’

‘Boy Swallows Universe’

The magical realism in Netflix’s adaptation of Trent Dalton’s bestselling novel derails its tender portrayal of family drama in 1980s Brisbane’s suburban fringe

Cover of ‘Kids Run the Show’

Delphine de Vigan’s ‘Kids Run the Show’

The French author’s fragmentary novel employs the horror genre to explore anxieties about intimacy, celebrity and our infatuation with life on screens


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality