Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 7, 2012

The Voyage, by Murray Bail


I really enjoyed Murray Bail’s last book,  The Pages,  which was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award in 2008 (see my review) so I was looking forward to this one too.

The first thing I noticed was that it was published in hardback, a rare honour accorded only to established writers these days.   Not only that, but the dust jacket is designed by W.H. Chong whose cover designs have deservedly earned him a reputation as a prominent artist in the Australian book-world.  The artwork is a stylish representation of the grand piano which features in the novel as an emblem of modernity v conservatism in Europe…

If you’re fond of piano, you may have heard of recent Australian innovations in its design.   The Overs Piano used computer technology to modernise the piano action which had not changed in over 200 years, and supporters of this piano include the concert pianist Gerard Willems, music educator and composer Richard Gill and the jazz pianist Paul Grabowsky amongst many others.   Then there is the Stuart & Sons piano also designed in Australia which extends the number of keys and has an extra pedal.  This innovative piano was used for an ABC recording of the complete set of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas by Gerard Willems in 1998-9.  (The Spouse bought me this recording as a present, it is brilliant!)  But as you can quickly infer from these piano designers respective websites, marketing a new design is no easy task, even when the piano has won awards as the Overs piano has, or has high-profile endorsement as the Stuart & Sons does.  At recent concert performances The Spouse and I have attended at the Melbourne Recital Centre, the pianos were always Steinways…

Frank Delage, the central character whose thoughts readers share in The Voyage, is the inventor of a new piano, and the novel traces his return journey from his efforts to sell it in Europe.  He’s not a very good businessman, and even less successful in marketing, and he has made only one rather dubious sale.  Vienna is too conservative to be interested in a new design, and only a fool, he is told, would have tried to market his bold new design there, in a place so mired in musical history.  He has, however, after a long time alone, captured the heart of Elisabeth, the daughter of a prominent Viennese patron of the arts, so perhaps it has not been an entirely wasted trip…

However, it would be a mistake to approach this book as a conventional novel about the disappointments of a middle-aged man.  When I posted a Sensational Snippet from The Voyage last week  I commented on how the rhythm of at least one sentence seemed like a waltz, and others in the long, discursive paragraphs are like the rhythm of waves lapping against the sides of the ship, or rolling across the vast ocean.  Since the advent of economy airfares in the jet age, there are now not many of us who have travelled the world by ship to recognise that constant rolling motion lasting for weeks not days, a rhythm which takes over the body and makes it hard to adjust when back on dry land.  This is the rhythm of this book, constant waves of thought and feeling until the last uncompromising jolt at the end.

In an interesting passage on page 134 of this slim but demanding book, Bail comments on the state of the contemporary novel.  It’s not inventive any more, he says, not novel.  It is ‘more and more an author’s reaction to nearby events, a display of true feeling’.  This made me stop to take an appraising look at Bail’s novel itself: is it a display of feeling, or is it inventive?  Can it be both? I do not know if I have read enough of contemporary literature to say that writing a novel in the rhythm of a traditional Viennese waltz in counterpoint with the rolling motion of a ship is novel but it is certainly novel to me…

But that’s not all.  The book is demanding because shifts in time and place occur, backwards and forwards, in Vienna and Australia and on the ship, all within the same paragraph, among paragraphs that fill four, five and more pages without a break.

I think that the key (sorry about the pun) to understanding how this novel works comes on page 120:

Later, when Elisabeth asked what they were talking about back there, Delage shook his head.  For some time he had been trying to see the world a step removed from musical terms, in thoughts and conversations he had caught himself bringing everything back to the Delage piano, or the scarcity of skilled labour, or the music business in general, mentioning the advantages of his piano at every opportunity.

This explains why the long paragraphs rock about in the past and the present, so that adjacent sentences drift into Frank’s disappointments in Vienna, the insistent voice of his bossy sister and his adventures with Elisabeth and her mother.  The reader is inside the mind of a man who has been obsessed by his piano for so long that his default mode of thinking is about the piano.  In his present, he is on a choppy voyage towards reconciling himself to failure, his hopes and ambitions borne away by the tide of an indifferent Europe.  All he can think about is his piano and his efforts to persuade others to appreciate his life’s work.  This is on his mind all the time – all the time -  and when it’s occasionally swamped by the demands of reality into the present, it soon resurfaces to take over again.  And Bail’s cunning prose works in the same way.

Along the way, there are delicious observations about all kinds of aspects of contemporary life.  Bail is astringent about Vienna, the first European city to which I  travelled as an adult.  While I found much to like about it as a tourist (Beethoven’s grave! Mozart’s piano!  the Belvedere! the Kunsthistorisches Museum!) I soon found myself wondering about the city’s attitude to modernity – could an architect do anything contemporary in the Graben district where our hotel was?  Even as we bought tickets for a Strauss concert from a Mozart lookalike lurking outside the Schönbrunn Palace, I wondered about opportunities for other kinds of music. Was there any jazz or rock or music from other cultures?  The neat conservatism of all we saw had the effect of making me appreciate my own city’s cheerful approach to experimentation in all kinds of ways …

In Bail’s novel Vienna is  utterly indifferent to innovation in musical instruments and hostile to contemporary music, but he also pokes fun at Hildebrand, the avant-garde composer who doesn’t use the artifice of musical instruments but ‘natural sounds’ to which he ‘adds’ silence.  (But Hildebrand has the last laugh, about which I shall say nothing except that it caused a sharp intake of breath when I read it).  The music critic doesn’t like piano and deliciously, doesn’t have a name.  In The Voyage it is the Schalla women who are interested in new ideas, decorating their rooms in clean sharp modern styles while Schalla the businessman plasters his walls with 19th century erotica.  But is it just coincidence that their name sounds like the English word ‘shallow’ pronounced with Australian vowels?

For more erudite reviews than mine, see Peter Craven at the SMH and Stella Clarke at The Australian.  Avoid Andrew Reimer’s one at The Age unless you don’t care about spoilers.

Author: Murray Bail
Title: The Voyage
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2012
ISBN: 9781921922961
Source: Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Availability:
Fishpond: The Voyage
Or direct from Text Publishing:


Responses

  1. oh hope we get this I love the sound of it lisa sounds like he has a real love of vienna ,agree the cover is stunning as well ,all the best stu

  2. […] (ANZLitLovers) has also reviewed the book, and enjoyed its […]

  3. […] misled, it’s a brilliant book and exquisitely clever as all Murray Bail’s books are.  Read my review to see what I […]

  4. Lisa, I see you got to ‘The Voyage’ almost a year and a half before I did. Of course Murray Bail is Australian, so you were in a good position. It was just released apparently worldwide last month. I found it absolutely amazing; it puts a smile on your face and keeps it there. My review will appear on Sunday.

    • That’s wonderful, Tony, I am so glad it is receiving attention internationally. I can’t wait to see your review!


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