Friday, 15 February 2013

Book Review - The Voyage by Murray Bail

The Voyage by Murray Bail

Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012    ISBN 9781921922961

Murray Bail is possibly best known for his book Eucalyptus, but has been around for a long time writing in a quirky modernistic style, winning some awards and gathering a following.

The Voyage is a short novel with a slim plot - Frank Delage, who has invented a new type of piano, spends a largely unsuccessful time in Vienna trying to introduce his new instrument into the musical world there, and in the course of doing so meets Amalia von Schalla, a wealthy aristocrat who tries to help him.

The book partly describes Frank's time in Vienna, and also describes his voyage home on the freighter Romance, with Amalia's daughter Elisabeth, who has run away from Vienna to be with him. The book intersperses scenes from Vienna and scenes from the ship in an apparently random manner, along with Frank's thoughts about what he's seen and done, and his history and the fate of his groundbreaking invention.

The style is unashamedly modernistic - there are no chapters, or breaks in the work at all, and the perspective shifts from Vienna, to Frank's thoughts, to the time on the ship, sometimes in mid-sentence. This produces less confusion than you might think, as we view an incident as it occurs in Vienna along with a dissection of it on the ship one after the other.

Frank seems an innocent abroad, being taken in by the Schalla family and having his way with both mother and daughter and supported by them in his venture without really knowing why: in fact he is almost always completely at a loss to understand anything that's going on in his visit and voyage. He doesn't really grasp what it is about his own personality that makes him attractive to women, although he is not slow to take advantage.

The book can be read as a comment on the Old World vs. the New, with Frank being much more of an open personality compared to the von Schalla family. There is a great set piece where a music critic berates the sclerotic state of European classical music, but later on is equally sclerotic of Delage's new piano. However this is not a book that shouts out a message - in its description of a period of time in a life, it comes to no real conclusions about anything in particular.

Bail is not the world's best stylist, so the language can be clunky at times, but in a way this adds to the book, giving the work a slapped-together feel on the surface, while never letting the reader forget how long this book would have taken to craft.

This book has not overtaken Eucalyptus as Bail's best work so far in my opinion, but it is highly readable.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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