‘The Pages’ by Murray Bail (2008) – 196 pages
Two women in their 40s – Erica and Sophie – are on a mission from Sydney to a family sheep farm in the interior of Australia in order to appraise the work of a philosopher who lived there and recently died. Still living on the sheep farm are the philosopher’s brother and sister. The philosopher did his work in an old shearing shed on the farm, and his papers are still in there to be read and evaluated. Actually Erica will be doing all the work; Sophie, a psychoanalyst who is escaping Sydney after another of her disastrous romances fell through, is along for the ride accompanying her friend. Erica is disciplined and systematic in her work; Sophie is sexy and passionate and unruly.
“They were city women. Comfortably seated and warm, they were hoping to experience the unexpected, an event or a person, preferably person, to enter and alter their lives. There is a certain optimism behind all travel.”
This is the setup for the needless-to-say unusual plot of ‘The Pages’ by Murray Bail. Over the years I have come to appreciate Australian novelist Murray Bail and his atypical stories. I like the fiction that I read to be original, intelligent, and as rich and strange as all the complications that arise in this life. The novels of Murray Bail meet all these requirements for me.
I would much rather read a writer who is too subtle and profound for me rather than one who is not subtle or profound enough. With Murray Bail, a subtle and profound writer to the extreme, I feel like I am extending my horizons beyond the limits that they were before. Enigmatic, elusive, ambiguous… These are words to describe Bail’s fiction.
What exactly do philosophers do? They write lines like these:
“There is nothing ordinary about anything.”
“The process of disturbing the mind is the mind.”
“The desire to love is stronger than the desire to be loved.”
Bail ends his novel with five pages of these exceedingly wise or incredibly foolish lines written by the philosopher. I am not at all sure that Bail isn’t showing that the life work of this so-called philosopher is a failure. That is the kind of curve ball Bail throws us, that this philosopher’s work might be a self-deluding joke. I am not sure.
Perhaps the best phrase I have seen to describe Murray Bail’s fiction is “oddly compelling”. As far as I am concerned, you can throw all your simple straightforward single-minded stories out the window. I would much rather be reading Murray Bail’s unreliable engaging narratives.