‘The Voyage’ by Murray Bail – My Favorite Novel of the Year (so far)

‘The Voyage’ by Murray Bail (2012) – 166 pages

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I previously read and enjoyed ‘Eucalyptus’, but nothing prepared me for ‘The Voyage’.  This novel is so out there and unique yet down-to-earth, it is almost beyond my powers to describe it.  There is no question in my mind now that Murray Bail is one of the very finest writers in the English language.

First the plot such as it is.  The plot is straightforward, about the only aspect of this novel that is.  Piano designer-manufacturer Frank Delage travels by ship from Sydney, Australia to Vienna, Austria in the hopes of selling some of his self-designed ‘necessary breakthrough’ Delage pianos there.  He brings one of his pianos with him.  In Vienna he meets the von Schalla family, patrons of the arts. The wife Amalia takes a special (erotic?) interest in Delage and lines up contacts for him.  Later the 35-year old daughter Elizabeth is strongly attracted to him also, and she joins him in his cabin for the six week voyage on a container ship, the Romance, back to Australia.

Most of the novel takes place on the ship back as Delage dallies with Elizabeth and reflects on his time in Vienna.  Vienna is one of the most cultured cities in the world, and taking a piano to Vienna is somewhat similar to hauling a load of coal to Newcastle.  Vienna is the land of pianos, chandeliers and Old World charm.  Except for the severe wrong turn Austria made before and during World War II, it could have been one of the most honored countries in the world.

Some reviewers have pointed out that with its Vienna connection, ‘The Voyage’  can be considered homage to the great Austrian novelist Thomas Bernhard.   The novel even has a scene in the Café Braunerhof, one of Bernhard’s favorite restaurants, where ‘the most irritable men of Vienna sat and read their newspapers’.

Murray Bail is an Australian novelist, but like Bernhard he expresses his displeasures with his own country.   The opinion expressed of the Sydney Opera House is that it ‘had the worst acoustics of any opera house in the world’, and Australian newspapers ‘are among the worst in the world, certainly the worst in the English-speaking world.’    I suppose anyone who has had the misfortune of watching Fox News here in the states has a good idea how terrible the newspapers of Australia must be.

Frank Delage is a humorous Australian character, an optimist like Candide.  There are no specific jokes in the novel but the entire situation puts a smile on your face and keeps it there.  There is a great deal of subtlety that went into the writing.  I suppose some points are being made with our Australian taking on the Old World culture, but you really can’t tell which side Bail is on.

Only he could have written this novel.  It is delectably stubbornly original and idiosyncratic.  Here Bail has discarded all the simplistic so-called rules for good fiction.  There is no beginning, no middle, no end.   The sentences are frequently long, and the paragraphs go on for pages and pages.   There are no chapters.  The reader must be wary of sudden confusing but endearing shifts of scene.  There is no attempt to separate dialogue from description. The novel just sails merrily on its way, surprising and delighting us with each bend and turn in the story.

Many novels are louder and splashier than this one, but ‘The Voyage’ has the unmistakable quality of great literature which will last and last.  I expect people will still be reading ‘The Voyage’ a hundred years from now.

‘Elegy Owed’, a Collection of Poems by Bob Hicok

‘Elegy Owed’, a Collection of Poems by Bob Hicok  (2013) – 106 pages

It is so rare when I find a poet whose poems I really like so that when I do, I want to shout about it from the rooftop.  Today I am here on the top of the roof shouting the name of Bob Hicok and his offbeat collection of poems, ‘Elegy Owed’.

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Let’s start with some lines from the poem ‘Goodbye, topspin’.

 But nostalgia:

go to hell.

 

Not going to do that.

 

Not going to be a lamprey on the side of the past, sucking for dear life,

           Since I have had

and am having a dear life.

 The above lines show at least two qualities of the poetry of Bob Hicok.  First, there is a toughness here.  Second, the poet frequently ties in animals and plants and other facets of nature to make his points.

Many of the poems in ‘Elegy Owed’ concern death.  I am almost tempted to say that ‘Elegy Owed’ is a collection of playful poems about death, but that would not be exactly right.  The collection certainly takes death seriously, but the poet has a dexterity with words that makes even this most grim of subjects engaging. The poem ‘Coming to Life’ is about a very young boy’s early encounter with death.  His aunt has died.  This may or may not be a big deal for the boy.  However for his crying mother this is her sister and very well could have been her best friend.  As they pass the coffin, the boy’s mother kisses her sister on both cheeks and says something in her ear.  Then the mother takes the boy’s hand and puts it on her dead sister’s face.  Much later, the grown-up boy remembers this.

It was just that, in the silence of her skin, all possibilities had been taken away. 

  I don’t want to leave you with the impression this is all gloom and doom.  Even in the face of bad things like death and rape, life goes on.  That is where the toughness comes in.  There are many lines here that are just for fun.  Take these from ‘You Name This One’.

Or when

 I realized ‘she loves me, she loves me not’

 explains why daisies avoid us

 as often as they can, I say ‘Run, simple flower,

 away from my need to know

 anything at all, everything

 would be better’.

  There are many more examples I could have quoted.  I am not sure the above cover picture does this collection justice, although apparently it is trying to inject some humor into the elegy motif.

At least I didn’t fall off the roof this time.

 

‘In the Cage’, A Memorable Novella by Henry James

‘In the Cage’ by Henry James (1898) – 138 pages

 

mzi.ajcmgzft.340x340-75The novellas of Henry James are a good way into his fiction, and ‘In the Cage’, written in 1898 which is quite late in his career, serves as a gateway to his later major works.  The story here is more rooted and down-to-earth than in other of his work and is thus more approachable.

A nameless young woman works in a separate area of a grocery store, in the cage, preparing telegrams for customers. She is not really that young, perhaps about 25 years old.  She is engaged to Mr. Mudge, the grocery store manager.  Mr. Mudge is a man on the rise hoping to manage five grocery stores in the near future.  However our young woman is hopelessly bored with his scrupulous attention to all the mundane everyday details of running grocery stores.

So what does fascinate our young telegraph operator?  That would be her job or at least certain aspects of her job.  The people who send telegrams are the social elite of the town to arrange their hotels and travel plans.  Even though the lowly telegraph operators are supposed to feign disinterest in the subject matter of these telegrams, they can not help but find out intriguing and salacious details of their customers’ lives.   For example the married Lady Bradeen arranges assignations with the dashing young man Captain Everard.  They each often come separately in to the telegraph office to arrange the times and the places for their secret trysts.  The telegraph girl looks on in wonder at the illicit doings of these rich people.

 “What twisted the knife in her vitals was the way the profligate rich scattered about them, in extravagant chatter over their extravagant pleasures and sins, an amount of money that would have held the stricken household of her frightened childhood, her poor pinched mother and tormented father and lost brother and starved sister, together for a lifetime.”

Our young telegraph operator takes a personal interest in making sure all the details are correct in the telegrams which these two lovers send. She is captivated by their social lives and romance.

Captain Everard is not upper class himself.  One day our telegraph operator meets him on the street as she is going home from work.  They sit together on a bench and share some moments holding hands.

I will not reveal any more of the plot.

I’ve read a fair amount of the fiction of Henry James, and found ‘In the Cage’ refreshing in that it did not seem so precious or convoluted as some of his other work.  It is a straightforward story of a young working class woman being very practical in arranging her own future yet enamored of a style of life that is beyond her reach.

I must say that the four major characters in ‘In the Cage’, Mr. Mudge and Lady Bradeen and Captain Everard  and most of all the telegraph woman, are presented in dramatic and sympathetic fashion, and this short novel is a joy to read.

 

‘Three Brothers’ by Peter Ackroyd

Three Brothers’ by Peter Ackroyd  (2014) – 246 pages

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The growing up of three brothers may not be an earth-shattering subject for a novel, but it could have been a fascinating account of how three sons raised in similar circumstances could turn out so unalike.  I began this novel hoping this actually was the story of three brothers growing up in London.

I grew up in a family in which the only children were us three sons.  From an outsider’s point of view, we three brothers may bear a family resemblance and thus seem quite similar.  However from the inside of our family looking out, it is obvious that we three brothers are quite different from each other, millions of miles apart in personality, attitude, and our very being.

The three brothers in ‘Three Brothers’ also grow up totally dissimilar from each other.  The oldest, Harry, marries into money and finds success on Fleet Street in London as a journalist.  The middle son, Daniel, is gay, doesn’t marry, and becomes a noted literary academic.  The youngest, Sam, is a ne’er-do-well who can’t hold a steady job, but has a special quality that makes him likeable.

The novel starts out strong delineating these different traits of the three brothers.  We also learn some of the family back story.  Their father wanted to be a writer but ultimately settled as a nightwatchman.  Their mother suddenly walked out on the family while the boys were still in grade school.  The beginning of the novel built up my expectations that this would be an involving story of how three very different brothers live in London and interact.

However, about a third of the way through any attempt at character study is forsaken, and the novel becomes mired in this labyrinthine contrived plot involving news magnates, professors, crooked landlords, and prostitutes. Apparently the only way to bring these three brothers back together into this plot is by the sheerest chance.   When coincidence is used as a plot device, the readers know they are in trouble, and coincidence is used all over the place in this novel.   Perhaps the point Ackroyd is trying to make is that for natives, London is a small town and its inhabitants run into each by accident all the time.  I don’t believe that for a moment.

Since Ackroyd evidently gave up on this novel being any kind of character study, all we are left with is this unsatisfying complicated plot that really has nothing substantial to do with the three brothers.  Without a specific subject, the novel is supposed to have a grand subject like the city of London.    However I’ve been to London, and London deserves much more than this cobbled story.

 

“Marry Me” by Dan Rhodes

“Marry Me” by Dan Rhodes  (2013) –  174 pages

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The men in ‘Marry Me’ by Dan Rhodes tend to have star-dazed love-struck attitudes toward marriage such as “I can’t believe I’m going to marry the girl of my dreams.”  However the women are more realistic, saying “It’s a legal procedure.  Let’s just get through it with the minimum of fuss.”

‘Marry Me’ is a fun little book of 79 very short stories, each about as long as this post, on love and marriage.  Each of these stories will put a smile on your face especially if you’ve gone through the marriage process yourself. The book is deadpan, wry, and cynical. It is an extremely quick read and a most enjoyable way to pass a couple hours.

‘The Spinning Heart’ by Donal Ryan – The New Dark Ages in Ireland

‘The Spinning Heart’ by Donal Ryan  (2012) – 156 pages

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In times of extreme economic downturn, the lives and attitudes of the people regress to an earlier more brutal stage.  Witness the severe George W. Bush recession in the United States and the subsequent rise of the Tea Party.  Some aspiring dictators have even deliberately destroyed their countries’ economies in order to make their people more subservient and to ensure there are plenty of unemployed young men available for military service.

The evidence in ‘The Spinning Heart’ indicates that with their economic downturn, the lives of the people of Ireland have returned to the Dark Ages, not only economically but also socially.  It starts with the workmen discovering that their foreman, Pokey Burke, has absconded with all their pension and Social Security money and also leaving them without a job.  They were taken for fools, and they react violently.

 “Auld Mickey Briars lamped Timmy Hanrahan twice across both sides of his innocent head before we subdued him.”

I doubt if there is a Pokey Burke in every small town in Ireland who stole all the people’s money.  There are larger economic forces, more sinister villains, at work at a national or global level.  It is just easier to blame all the problems on one of your own.

‘The Spinning Heart’ is divided into twenty-one chapters, each told by a different person from a village in western Ireland.  We get the same story from numerous different angles.  There are so many points of view that the story is not entirely coherent; the novel is more like a chorus, an Irish chorus, of voices.

Life goes on even without a job.  Some of the young guys are headed off to Australia, some to England.  Some of them stay, their heads filled with bitterness and resentment.  Their talk turns to girls, and who is ‘tapping’ who.  There is little talk of birth control here, and the only mention is when a  young woman stops using it without telling her boyfriend.  Usually the men here don’t care.  Generally the women in this novel are happy to have his baby even if their man is long gone.  I did not say this novel is realistic; supposedly these are the old Irish ways.  It gives the villagers something to gossip about.

‘The Spinning Heart’ is quite mean-spirited about everyone except its hero, Bobby Mahon.  This may be just because of the whole chorus of voices who are only repeating gossip and hear-say.  It also may be the result of the downshift in people’s lives caused by the bad times; the need to blame someone.  There is a lot of lashing out here.

I suppose ‘The Spinning Heart’ may be an accurate picture of village life in western Ireland today.  It is not a pretty picture.

 

‘Byzantium’ by Ben Stroud

‘Byzantium’, stories by Ben Stroud (2013) – 206 pages

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When our thoughts turn to historical fiction, we usually think of long epic novels which evoke a particular time and place in history.  However several of the stories in ‘Byzantium’ show us that historical fiction can also be in the short story form.

Did you know that the Emperor Constantine I moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to Byzantium in 330 AD and renamed the city Constantinople?  In 1923 the city was again renamed to its modern name Istanbul.  It must have been an incredible move to take the entire government of the empire from Rome to what is now Turkey.

The ten stories in ‘Byzantium’ have the depth and density of a novel yet also contain the individualized point of view of a short story.  The stories range from ancient Roman times to modern times, from ancient Byzantium to east Texas.  Even though the settings for the stories are wide ranging, they get down to the specifics of individuals and the relationships between them. We get inside the head of the main character in each story.

The stories are outdoor and action-oriented.   They are not drawing room comedies.  If I sense a weakness in the author, it is in dialogue.  Don’t look for witty repartee here.  Stroud is no Oscar Wilde; the dialogue is more suited for stone tablets rather than for the stage.

However the stories are extremely well presented and are evidence of a vivid imagination.  Ben Stroud does an excellent job of framing each story to fully capture its significance for the readers.

A particular favorite of mine is ‘At Boquillas’ which takes place along the shallow Rio Grande border between Mexico and the United States.  A modern-day young husband and wife confront their marital difficulties.    Getting out of a failed marriage may be as easy and as momentous as walking across the shallow water into Mexico.

‘Byzantium’ is a strong collection of offbeat and vastly different stories.

 

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