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