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a morose academic, Erica Hazelhurst, arrives at the family homestead to assess whether the bucolic metaphysician's unpublished writings are indeed the work of a genius.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

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