The dilemma facing the writer of fiction is how to fix on a mode of language by which to represent the world of commonplace experience. This may seem obvious; however, problems attach to the task that are not readily resolvable – words are angular but the world is round, and squaring that circle is tormentingly difficult, if not impossible. Every tyro is familiar with the sickening sense of dizziness that assails him when the chasm of the blank page yawns between his airy conceptions and the plain words in which he must strive to couch them. The bad news for the youngsters is that while the nausea may abate with time and experience, it is never to be cured entirely. There are a million ways, a million million ways, of writing even a first sentence.
The difficulty, as Murray Bail has it in his marvellous 1998 novel Eucalyptus, is that of “reproducing the randomness of true harmony, demonstrated so casually in nature”. It is typical of this playfully sly novelist to link the words ‘randomness’ and ‘harmony’ in the same clause. Bail is prone to, in Louis MacNeice’s splendid phrase, “the drunkenness of things being various”. We northerners, when we were children, used to delight in imagining that the term ‘antipodean’ meant folk in Australia must be standing on their heads; Murray Bail does not take so radical a position, but certainly, as EM Forster said of Cavafy, he does stand at an angle to the world.
In his new novel, The Voyage (Text; $29.99), Bail adopts what must be a unique style of discourse. He says of his protagonist that “when Delage spoke it came out in a series of abrupt rushes, almost careless in his deployment of words”. This is the effect that the novel strives for, however artfully composed it may be. The prose seems to lollop along, progressing by fits and starts. The method lies mainly in the punctuation, which is so idiosyncratic that the author might have done little more than sprinkle his pages almost at random with commas and the odd full stop. The result is curiously exciting: one reads in a permanent faint fever, on tenterhooks, never knowing quite where a sentence or a paragraph may veer off to. Here is a typical passage. Delage, an Australian engineer and inventor who has been visiting Europe, is considering the character of one of his fellow passengers on the eponymous voyage from Europe back to Sydney:
An Englishman who responded modestly and honestly to the solidarity of things, taking one step at a time, waiting before crossing the village street, a sequence which had produced strength in British engineering, medicine, law, science, the cataloguing of libraries, the design of umbrellas, as well as a pedantic tone in its literature, and art unable to shake an unhealthy obsession with the naked figure.
And this, mark you, occurs in the middle of a nine-page paragraph. Yet for all these stylistic tortuosities the authorial voice throughout is light, even at times self-mockingly whimsical, and there is much low, hapless laughter. Conceive, if you can, of a cross between Jacques Tati and the narrator of Beckett’s The Unnamable.
The time sequence is intricate yet seamless – disconcertingly so. The shipboard narrative – which, although written in the past tense, we take to represent Delage’s present – keeps shifting, sometimes in mid-clause, back to the actual past. This takes a little getting used to, but a surprisingly little. At every turn, of action or of phrase, we encounter sudden slides, precipitous glissandos, abrupt rubato passages; or perhaps, instead of musical figures, we should speak of the game of snakes and ladders: one moment we have clambered up to here and the next, with an abrupt bump, we are back there again. For instance, the book and the voyage are well under way before we discover that Delage is not travelling alone.
“Have you noticed,” she said on the third or fourth day, “the motion of the ship draws words out of us. Words that I, for one, would not normally say?” He was conscious of the linen sleeve on the rail, almost touching his.
That sleeve and the shapely arm inside it, we discover, belong to Elisabeth von Schalla, daughter of an immensely rich Viennese businessman and his impossibly fashionable wife, Amalia Marie. How Delage persuaded Elisabeth to accompany him back home to Sydney, if she needed persuading, we are not told. Indeed, did we not know that it is Elisabeth who is sailing with him we would assume, as the story progresses, that her mother would turn out to be the more likely shipboard companion.
You begin to see why the use of the word ‘intricate’ above is justified.
Frank Delage – “forty-six, still with plenty of dark hair” – has invented a new and revolutionary kind of piano, one that he claims provides an entirely crisper, cleaner sound than the blurry Bechsteins and Bösendorfers that the Old World is used to: “It was a remarkable product, his, in every way an example of New World ingenuity.” Displaying great courage, or blind foolhardiness, Delage had decided that if his piano were to gain credence and sell successfully he would have to storm the capital of music itself, Vienna, although “you would think by now every family in Vienna had its piano or music stand, not to mention the alabaster bust of Beethoven on the mantelpiece”. Unsurprisingly, to us if not to him, he meets with scant success.
Doubtless this has something to do with the fact that he comes “literally from the bottom of the earth”. He ponders the fact that “away from home, Australians like to be chatty, not that anyone anywhere thinks or cares about what they say”.
In Vienna, in particular, to just about everything he said, these exceptionally neat, implacable figures with almost unworldly tanned faces, from skiing recently in the Alps no doubt, almost clashing with their silver hair, remained smiling, while some even, the women, kept their blue eyes on him and began laughing.
One of the women who “kept their blue eyes on him” but does not laugh is Amalia von Schalla. Delage enters a shop to buy a kitschy plate with a design of piano keys around the edge as a gift for his sister in Brisbane – whom, by the way, we never meet but who is frequently quoted, her obiter dicta making of her a sort of comical chorus-at-a-distance – and there finds “a woman in a cream coat splayed at the hips and glossy cream high heels [...] talking to the owner”. When Delage leaves she follows him into the street. They exchange a few remarks, and presently she is taking him in her chauffeur-driven limousine to the cafe of the Sacher Hotel, where she will flirt with him in her cool, offhand and faintly sardonic fashion. Delage wonders what there is about him that could possibly interest her. “‘Oh, I have a free day,’” she says.
Subsequently, however, he conducts Amalia to a warehouse to view his invention. “Crowded out to one side by the regimented black of the European concert grands, the Delage was revealed as nicotine-brown, the colour of a bantam rooster,” and as he looks at it, here in the heart of old Vienna, he thinks of “his cousins from the sticks the year they’d gate-crashed a family wedding in Sydney, wearing loud neckties”. This develops into a wonderfully bizarre scene in which Delage puts the piano through its paces by playing honky-tonk on it, after which, almost absent-mindedly, he “drew her to him [...] and took a freedom he didn’t understand but allowed anyway, her cheek, to her breast, which waited for him, its soft warmth filling his hand”.
In an ordinary novel, by an ordinary novelist, there would inevitably follow a complicated pas de deux that would in turn turn into a pas de trois involving Amalia’s daughter, and then a pas de quatre when Amalia’s husband, Konrad von Schalla, an immaculately got‐up, faintly menacing little fellow, “short, blue-eyed”, enters upon the scene. With Bail, however, the inevitable rarely follows. The promise of an affair with Amalia is unfulfilled, due it would seem to a pervasive Mitteleuropäisch ennui rather than unwillingness on her or Delage’s part. Instead, Delage is set loose to pick his diffident and comically rueful way among the baffling mores of the Viennese Bürgertum. There are sightseeing trips with Elisabeth – when she takes him to see Mozart’s apartment he is surprised to learn that she has never visited it before; later he will discover that she does not care for music, having had a surfeit of it – and dinners at the von Schallas’ – “the ponderous footman put the tip of his tongue out each time he poured the wine” – during one of which Delage is called upon to save Konrad’s life by applying the Heimlich manoeuvre.
Thanks to Delage’s connection with Amalia, he is welcomed into the city’s most fashionable salons. He attends receptions and musical evenings – “The cellist had the human-shaped instrument between her legs, giving birth to difficult music” – and meets a famous avant-garde composer, Paul Hildebrand, who regales him with his subversive aesthetic:
All art, he said, including the playing of pianos, was imperfect. He went on to say, quite loudly on the footpath, the power of art did not come from perfection, but in the demonstrated effort – he emphasised “effort” – of creation. As listeners, we actually want an imperfect result. It is human, and therefore closer to human understanding.
And all the while, as Delage on shipboard ruminates on his strange Viennese adventure, with Australia drawing ever nearer, Elisabeth is there, lovely, languid and amused, with her absent-minded sighs that so delight Delage, and her predilection for strolling naked about his cabin, ditto. Here at sea, but equally in the Viennese scenes, there is an uncannily lifelike sense of everything being disconnected and adrift – of being, indeed, all at sea, though not unhappily, and even not without purpose. What will happen when the ill-assorted pair of lovers make landfall? The word is apt, for when they dock at Sydney, Delage “slipped on the last step of the gangway where there was a gap to the wharf, [and] fell head-first onto the concrete”. The world has a way of bringing even a native son down to earth.
Yet Frank, unsuccessful salesman that he has proved to be, prone to pratfalls and sorely used by Europe – the composer Hildebrand finds a use for the Delage piano, but what a use it is – has his triumphs, all the same. Elisabeth, like Ellen Holland in Eucalyptus, is a magical princess, a Persephone who willingly accompanies her captor to the underworld, where we have no reason to doubt the couple will live happily ever after. Not for nothing is the ship they travel on called the Romance. Frank in his turn disdains the Old World that disdained him and his New World invention: thinking of all the instruments destroyed in European wars he envisions “a piano left smouldering – talk about an image of old Europe”.
The third-person narrator in Eucalyptus determines that “strenuous efforts will be made to avoid the rusty traps set by ideas of a National Landscape, which is of course an interior landscape, fitted out with blue sky and the obligatory tremendous gum tree,” etc., etc., yet at the close of The Voyage there is a muted though palpable sense of the simple satisfaction of homecoming. And is it entirely fanciful to see in Delage himself a put-upon yet ever resilient figuration of a country and a continent at the “bottom of the earth”?
Frank Delage had an alert, shining quality, never downcast, there was always hope; it was what people found appealing in him.
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