I’m having fun reading this year’s Miles Franklin shortlist, and I’m revising my opinion about a few authors as well. I really enjoyed The Pages!
It’s a story of epiphanies, woven around characters who discover the truth about themselves in unexpected places. A couple of city women set off for the bush: one to take on an odd project: assessing the work of a rather bizarre bush philosopher who’s died and left a Will requiring the Estate to publish his writing; the other woman tagging along because she’s getting over another failed relationship with yet another married man.
BEWARE: spoilers below
The bush philosopher is Wesley Antill. His siblings Lindsay and Roger indulged Wesley’s idiosyncracies so that he could spend his life travelling the world, and return to write philosophy in the woolshed. They’re salt-of-the-earth country souls, and the chaos of Wesley’s pages is beyond them to sort out.
Erica is the academic: she’s a minor philosopher. She’s sensible, restrained and thoughtful; she wears flat shoes and does the driving. (She’s probably got a pudding-basin haircut though Bail doesn’t say so). It’s just as well that Erica drives : Sophie, her rather daft friend, paints her nails on the dashboard and talks incessantly. (I suspect she has frivolous curls). She’s a psychologist but she’s not very self-aware. No, more than that, she’s tiresome. Both these women are incongruous in the bush. En route to the backblocks, they stop for a thermos and a sandwich – and fail to notice that they have a flat tyre and have parked underneath a widowmaker.
Bail is superb at this type of cunning imagery. Wesley rides on harbour ferries, ‘cream and green ones looking like nineteen fifties kitchen cabinets’ (p51). Shopkeepers on Darlinghurst Road in Sydney have ‘ tired expressions as they cut pizzas into bleeding triangles which drooped over plates, day and night, like Dali watches (p44); a butcher ‘sold basic cuts and Australian sausages, unaware of the shifting demographics (p45). A widowed friend of Wesley’s shrugs away regret: ‘In broad daylight at any given moment there was always somewhere a head-on collision taking place, especially on the road to Cooma. There were too many solid trees in Australia. Far better to lean forward, which she did, allowing him to glimpse the softness of her neglected breasts’ (p49). The Pages is full of arresting images like this…
Having painted Erica as the bookish, articulate, competent academic, detached from the land and a real city woman, Bail then shows the bush weaving its magic on her: she learns to listen carefully to Roger’s incoherence (p90); and she allows herself to ‘blend into gullies’ (p88) when out driving around the farm with him. Her first response to the realities of farm life had been to attack Roger because he didn’t care about a sheep drowning, and she accused him of being inured to suffering (p91). Later, she reflects on her outburst, thinking that her sharp observations ‘protrude like rocks in a landscape’. She becomes acutely conscious of her intellect, and realises she should not use it to score points because Roger will suffer if she does (p92).
I like the parallels and inversions: Wesley has to travel the world to find himself and come to the conclusion that ‘the further one goes, the less one knows’ (p184). His ‘Delphic utterance’ tells him that he’s been wasting his time seeking the truth in Europe and it’s ‘an indulgence, an example of evasion’ (p184). He had not wanted to be derivative: all the great philosophical thinking had been done in Europe, and he had wanted to develop a new philosophy for Australia. His lonely quest for silence, simplicity, and the wisdom of the common man (the London postman, the violin-maker) had all been in search of the one original idea – but it had also been to find love, even if he didn’t know it himself. After countless meaningless couplings with women all over Europe, he had just decided to invite his Sydney girlfriend to join him when he has his grand revelation: ‘without moving a centimetre one can know the whole world’ (p183-4). He wants to go home to work on this, but has to wait for Rosie instead.
When she arrives he discovers for the first time how to enjoy himself because he’s made his decision, and because Rosie is with him. Love makes it possible for Europe to work its magic. The tragedy is that less than five weeks after her arrival – at the moment when she tells him that she had had to abort his baby because she didn’t know where he was (p190) – she slides the car on the ice and dies in the accident. She had thought that they had ‘all the time in the world’ (p188) but at the cathartic moment, their time together ends.
For Erica, it’s the inverse, and yet the same. She needed to travel, to leave the city, to find her heart. She hears Roger’s simple ‘philosophy of the hand’ (p192) and doesn’t know how to react because intellectually it has no philosophical basis; it’s just a miscellany. Yet this man, now sharing his banal thoughts when he was formerly so reticent and staccato in his speech, is holding her hand, and this thaws her ‘remote and masculine side’ (p193). It is love that enables her to see the landscape properly for the first time.
The question whether Wesley’s work is worth publishing remains tentative. Chapter 29 is a collection of aphorisms; I can’t judge whether they’re philosophically significant or not. Earlier in the book Bail has written that Australians don’t ‘do’ philosophy, it is alien to us, we are a nation of practical doers not given to reflection. Roger exemplifies this: he works alone on the land and seems not to think at all, merely to be. When he finally comes up with his ‘theory of the hand’ it is meaningless, just a collection of trite observations. Not only that, he does not travel; he has simply waited for love to come to him where he was. The Pages tells us nothing about him really: we learn nothing about his education, his mates, his trips to town. He is like a blank slate, and the prospect of the highly intelligent Erica ‘belonging’ with him in that emptiness is bizarre.
Does Sophie change? She is angry when she finds out that Erica has been sleeping with her father, almost as if she thinks this is incestuous. (The Sisterhood gone too far?) After a series of tempestuous calls on her mobile (to which she seems welded) she flounces off to Sydney to sort things out with her lover. She has failed to succumb to the lure of the landscape altogether and left it to go back and make the same mistakes. Not only that, she takes Erica’s car, leaving her marooned on the property with Lindsey and Roger. Erica doesn’t seem to mind this at all, an odd abrogation of independence on her part, it seems to me…
The Pages reveals Bail to have a sense of humour, something I had not noticed in Eucalyptus. The woolshed as a philosopher’s den is such a splendid debunking of the European ‘sacred sites’ that tourists troop to: staid, dark, wood-panelled studies with sober desks and imposing bookshelves. Wesley’s shed is dappled with strong Aussie sunlight, it’s infused with shreds of wool and his papers are scattered about on the floor. There are no neat notebooks: the pages aren’t even in order - there seems to be no beginning, middle or end. An empty tomato sauce bottle signifies him as a man of appetite with unsophisticated tastes. One can just imagine him tucking into Lindsey’s sausages and eggs, fork in one hand and pencil in the other!
When Sophie spills her coffee over what are thought to be the crucial pages (handwritten in ink or pencil, no computers here!) the work is ruined. Such a banal act – spilt coffee during a silly argument – testament to the vulnerability of ideas, which can be lost just as easily through a hasty moment as were the lacunae in ancient texts lost over many years. It’s not clear whether Bail thinks this really matters: Erica isn’t really very angry about this loss. She settles down anyway to read what’s left, though she’s disappointed to find that most of it is really just Wesley’s ‘travel diary’. ( I found some of this as unsatisfying to read as Erica did, was that the author’s intention?)
This is a complex book with a lot to think about, and I’m glad I read it, but I disagree entirely that one can stay still and yet grow and learn. The bush is painted as a kind of romantic idyll, a place where people become truly themselves, just by being there, in a kind of social vacuum. Yet Lindsey – good, kind, perceptive Lindsey – is at the end of the novel still alone, spending her life in the service of others. She radiates calm, but she is a fantasy: an old-fashioned mother-figure ministering to a pastoralist and a would-be philosopher, cooking and home-making in an arid world – for there are no children and the Estate has no one to whom it can be bequeathed.
I believe that people can pause for thought, find silence or love, anywhere. Australia is full of tree-huggers who have discovered that country life is not the romantic idyll they believed it to be!
PS 24.12.10 I’ve just found this very thought-provoking review by Delia Falconer: it sets The Pages in the context of Bail’s earlier work especially Eucalyptus and also of Australian modernism.
Author: Murray Bail
Title: The Pages
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2008
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Readings.