Type
Review
Category
Long read

His mother was a milliner. She also did flowers for the church.

Murray Bail’s He. seems to enclose most of a life and much of the world. The size of this small book (164 pages) is disproportionate to its affect of astonishment – at least for this fan.

The willingness to expose personal vulnerability is a newness for the writer, known not to like the confessional first-person pronoun: hence the assiduous use of the third-person. Intuitive/inquisitive readers of his novels, such as Holden’s Performance and The Voyage, probably sensed a partial basis in autobiography – which is now (almost shockingly) revealed. Not that Bail states anything at all about the genesis of his fiction – though he does talk about ‘being a ‘writer’’, for example, as a peculiarity, ‘behaving differently to everybody else’, sitting ‘at a table writing every morning and weekend.’ The genesis of his fiction is in his childhood and travel particle-memories. The journals Longhand and Notebooks did some of this work, but logged more anonymously amid travel quips.

Like those two journal publications, He. flows … although that’s perhaps too big a word, while trickle and meander are too small. For the ecology of He. is of startling, time-and-place contrasted moments of length, type and style: single sentences versus several paragraphs; thoughts, observations, quotes, or over-hearings; caustic, loving, humorous or melancholic, and grammatically/syntactically straightforward or striking. Overall, though, He. does work from the past towards the present, from childhood to aging.

 

The fiction

In He., Bail describes his post-war childhood: the existence of ’War Disposal’ stores, the relative ease of buying a plane, ‘a Wirraway or Arvo Anson.’ As a young boy, Bail had ‘bought a .303.’ Holden, the protagonist of Holden’s Performance, suspecting an instance of domestic violence, raises a .303 against McBee, a returned solider who has taken up residence in the family home after the death of the father. Bail and Holden ride their bikes in the Adelaide hills. And there are cars: ‘Morris Oxford, Wolseley, Austin, Humber’, and ‘[i]t was front-page news the day the new Holden was revealed.’

Bail decimates the hot, flat, colourless, linear plains of Adelaide in both Holden’s Performance (‘the stain of non-colour … was desolation’ (39)) and He. (‘Agriculture entered the city’). In He., ‘children with polio lay horizontally on frames to straighten their bodies.’ In Holden’s Performance, Bail uses Harriet Chandler – Holden’s romance interest – for her polio-stricken, crooked body to represent something much more interesting that the straight lines of Holden’s telegraph pole-ness.  

On to The Pages. ‘The lives of the philosophers had become almost as worth considering as their philosophies …. He wanted to ‘think thoughts’.’ In The Pages, Wesley Antill is the wannabe philosopher:

Without fail [the main western philosophers’] stories were strangely interesting …

Those deep thinkers … had a lasting effect on Antill.

In The Voyage, Frank Delage travels from Sydney to Vienna on a container ship. Bail spent six years abroad (1968–1974), travelling ‘long voyages in container ships’ (He.). He sent a letter to Rodney Hall in which he stated ‘How could I return to Australia if the mediocre Libs are in?’ Although Helen Garner, his second wife, notes in the second volume of her diaries, that he invalidated a vote by scrawling across it a protest against compulsory voting. In He., however, he does give a heart-wrenching summary of the Whitlam Labor government:

After many years of being denied power … it was as if the speed of pent-up reforms – … recognising China, getting rid of university fees … divorce made easier – … accelerated … carelessness … the purchase of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles held up as the epitome of extravagance … At least the economic sophistication of the Hawke-Keating years was a relief.

Also striking is this summary of America about which he wondered:

why the world continued to gaze across … a country where ordinary social services and laws taken for granted anywhere else were anything but satisfactory, a shambles of individualism … inflicting difficulties on its citizens, while … continuing to intervene in the governing of other countries.

Frank Delage is in Europe to spruik his all-Australian grand piano, while Bail says late in He. that now ‘[m]usic occupied his spare time more than looking at pictures. He no longer read art books cover to cover.’ This is an unusual switch for a man who was once a trustee of the National Gallery of Australia, to which he made a gift of Joseph Beuys, Noiseless blackboard eraser; wrote a magnificent book on Ian Fairweather; and has Fairweather and Colin McCahon paintings in his apartment.

Like The Voyage, He. slips seamlessly across time and place. A reader might work to see some associative imagery as the engine behind this slippage. Here are these two spaced, but associative, observations/memories following each other:

Three young women in short skirts walking in a row laughing, near midnight, Kings Cross.

 

Elephants moving close by through the bush, without making a sound. Zimbabwe.

Or this, where signs of age couple with shortcomings of youth:

It was becoming a tired face, certainly marked by events which would not have happened to someone young.

        The little house with red bricks the colour of lamb chops. Can see the house, not the street.

Bail has two brothers – and a sister, which makes his masterly short story ‘The Seduction of My Sister’ recognisable as a semi-autofiction. Bail admits in He. to ‘becoming careless’, and there’s significant anxiety about his general state of ‘emotional distance’ which ‘had hardened him unnecessarily. Finally, he understood it to be a form of cheap protection.’

To be fair, though, other writers have stated that they are part of but outside events in order to observe, remember, and record. That they need, as Garner puts it in True stories, a ‘fiercely over-developed observing eye … to stare coolly’; or again, in The Feel of Steel, to be ‘voracious monsters, ravening beasts who roam the world seeking whom and what they may devour.’

In the Bail family’s garage was ‘a pile of boomerangs from when their father worked on the cattle station.’ Bail throws one over the home roof, the boy from across the road crouching, waiting. ‘It was a small excitement … to take the mind off the silence of the street.’ In ‘Seduction’, the unnamed narrator let go of anything he could lay his hands on, including, in the fabulist conclusion to the story, his sister, sent flying over the roof to the neighbouring boy:

Nothing ever meant much to me. Even today I am casual about possessions. With people too I come and go. In this I resemble my casual father, who in the end disappointed.

 

On vulnerability

Bail showed Garner a photo of his father, of whom she writes in her second volume of diaries: ‘his face … hard, clamped, full of some terrible inward-turned power – like someone who could have died … of bottled-up emotion.’ Bail says of himself on the first page of He.: ‘Aged twelve he already has a certain earnestness, the solemnity, trying to comprehend what is incomprehensible.’ In photographic portraits, Bail is usually closed-lipped, unsmiling.

However, Bail’s scarifying dissection of the Anglo-Saxon Australian male is relentless across all his novels. While they can be seen as lovable, bumbling, unconsciously comedic scallywags, ultimately, they’re impeachable. Garner said in her diaries that reading Bail feels like being in the 1950s – but someone has to chronicle them. This is pretty much the generation of my beloved father, Frank Costello, among the last of the larrikins.

Bail is known to be a high and fear-inspiring modernist – a ‘severe modernist’ is Garner’s description quoted in Bernadette Brennan’s book on her. Garner reports in her diaries, again, that Bail says of his own Longhand authorial voice: ‘severe, pompous, humourless.’

‘Clobbering me,’ Shirley Hazzard wrote to Bail in 1982, of the way he delivers recommended reading to her. (In the same letter she complained about ‘the obsessive flogging of vomit in Australian writing’ to which Bail responded in Notebooks: ‘S’s prissy aversion to vomit’ is ‘an overbearing provincialism.’)

His apparently negative response to an early draft of American visual artist and poet Madeline Gins’s work ‘had a jolt effect’ on her; she asks that the draft be burnt for she had no ‘ego or imagination left to be seared.’

When Garner notes in her diaries that a girl in the supermarket looked like Dolly Parton, Bail responds: ‘Like who? … Who’s Dolly Pardon?’

In his excellent The Experimental Fiction of Murray Bail, Michael Ackland refers to Bail’s ‘daunting credo’ as ‘adversarial, iconoclastic.’ Book reviewer Michael Upchurch characterises Bail’s style as, among other attributes, ‘prickly.’ But Garner has revealing things to say of Bail’s style in her second volume of diaries: while ‘tough and surprising’, it also has a ‘warmth’, ‘almost … a tenderness.’ Nicholas Jose describes Bail’s process as ‘working his … material to a high finish, with humour and pathos.’

The title of this review has not a great deal to do with the book, and everything to do with the reviewer and her mis-read/felt connection to the writer of the book under review. My mother was a milliner. Here’s Bail: ‘His mother had been a milliner … She also did flowers for the church.’ My mother also did flowers for the church! And I’ve been a kind-of-scholar of Bail over decades.

The passage about his milliner-mother is one of the several softening-of-the-heart/making-of-vulnerability moments in He.:

From a shelf in the wardrobe she took down a folder of watercolours and handed them to him one at a time. ‘I did these.’ They were of flowers … She spoke as if sorry to have stopped painting, or seeing again a future she may have missed.

These remarks often teeter on the edge of vulnerability. They could be seen as satiric, but surely the word caustic is too much: when his mother saw that another woman had done the church flowers, she ‘replaced them with her own.’ Bail tries hard to be human. Here he is on sex:

Not a specific occasion remains of the mysterious extreme pleasure … Always retained though is what had been allowed by the women: given on trust, spreading to gratitude … And their gentle, washed-over expression afterwards.

The following is not from Bail, but Garner quoting him again in her diaries: ‘The first time I got into bed with a girl … I was staggered by the softness. I was absolutely staggered. … The astounding softness of their mouths and skin.’

Brennan writes that the Garner-Bail relationship ‘was intellectually enriching,’ and that Bail created ‘a quiet world of thinking and reading which she enjoyed … and from which she learned … With Bail, her horizons were greatly expanded. Friends talk about their obvious joy in each other.’ Bail notes that ‘[s]he was lovely in different ways and wonderfully alert.’ Garner records in her diaries a friend saying to her: ‘I hear you talking and laughing in bed for hours.’ But a reading of Garner’s second diary volume shows a strained relationship. Both Bail and Garner can be scathing of each other. Bail refers to Garner’s musical influence on him as ‘an infectious disease.’ He disliked very much the ‘therapeutic culture’ in which Garner participated. The women ‘were fierce in defence of their therapist but not of their father.’

(Oddly enough, though, He. reveals that Bail was almost as much troubled by his father as Garner was by hers.)

‘Being married to a writer and living together in an apartment became demanding, each one busily guarding their individuality and … not wanting to be diminished.’ They worked differently, ‘held different views of literature.’ In her diaries, Garner notes that Bail admitted to never cleaning a lavatory!

There is a noteworthy amount of curious repetition in He. from the Notebooks. For example, the George Forman encounter (‘‘Ev-nun, friend!’ An exceptionally large soft right hand …’ – He. ‘‘Even-ing, friend.’ A puffy soft hand’ – Notebooks), the woman working in a flower shop in Nice selling flowers to Matisse, a body falling from a high rise to the pavement, people in boots and pullovers speaking about wood-burning stoves, the married man who called his wife Bunny and his mistress Rabbit, and more. What to make of this but the obsessions and repetitive rhythms of memory?

With the author of He. at eighty years of age, death and the traces of existence are, for a while, housed temporarily, fleetingly in memory – in the ‘eggshell of the skull … fated for extinction’ as Beverley Farmer once put it – and are bookended in the opening and closing passages. What is ‘no longer alive’, what does ‘no longer exist. Even in memory they have become insubstantial, barely recognisable,’ ‘blurry’.

I was wondering if anything was going to be left to tell in a biography of Garner or Bail. For the former, much is told by Kerryn Goldsworthy, Brennan, and Garner’s own diaries and her creative work. He. has revealed much in Bail’s life and fiction, and there are his notebooks and Ackland’s book. (There is also Bail’s archive in the National Library of Australia and other people’s archives containing his letters.) But Bail, putting off any wannabe biographer, wrote to Patrick White’s biographer David Marr that ‘[t]he important figure attracts the quality biographer.’ As I argued elsewhere, ‘surely this … is a … warning to a phantasm, a spectral biographer-yet-to-be.’

Bail wrote in the Notebooks that the biographer is ‘a handbag snatcher who doesn’t even run away.’ Bail is figure in my head, a fiction of who he is, all these sources inflating narratives of him to become a dirigible, an astronaut, a Major Tom or Rocket Man ‘on a timeless flight.’ An observation I made last year about Garner’s diaries could equally apply to He.:

A reader probably goes to the diary-as-archive for empirical data. But such archival material bleeds the borders of genre; it is alive with becoming fiction. It shimmers, driven by a reader’s mounting affect and ballooning desire.

There is something of the unsurprisingly nostalgic – or rather, not exactly, but the oddity of how any culture moves in He., from men wearing hats, to not eating out, to olive oil only coming from the chemist, to present-day baseball caps, sneakers, and mobile phones. There is also something terribly sad about this book, melancholic – the pathos that Jose names.

The Work of Mourning is that arresting title from Jacques Derrida. Perhaps He. is Bail’s Work of Mourning. And I think, therefore, one must soften one’s heart to read it, letting it break open, at the same time as laughing or being aghast. C’est la vie! That is the reality riding underneath a person’s quest to try ‘to comprehend what is incomprehensible.’ At around ten years younger than Bail, I’m already deep in the Elysian Fields, River Styx or Hades itself, having death at the forefront of my consciousness.

It’s unfortunate this thing: death. Or is it? Murray Bail’s books will live on, as did his beloved Stendhal’s. (Though it’s not Stendhal whom I can read, nor Yourcenar, nor Laxness, but, rather, Torgny Lindgren and Ismail Kadare (recommended reading by Bail)).

Raise your glasses, then, to the seeding that writing does: a movement of the heart and intellect that is inexpressible, given the absurd incomprehensibility of life. Except that in death, we return to the earth to deposit the stardust of our birthing – and encourage the life of another.

It was Hazzard who addressed Bail once in a letter as Abu Ben; while also a rhetorical joke, it is still a title of gravitas, recognising leadership, insisting on an honouring.

 

References

Ackland, M (2012) The Experimental Fiction of Murray Bail. Cambria, New York.
Bail, M (1987) Holden’s Performance. Penguin, Melbourne.
— (1989) Longhand: A Writer’s Notebooks. McPhee Gribble, Melbourne.
— (1998) ‘The Seduction of My Sister’, ‘The Drover’s Wife’ and Other Stories, Text, Melbourne, pp 1–24.
— (2005) Notebooks. Harvill, London.
— (2008) Fairweather. Murdoch Books, Sydney.
— (2008) The Pages. Text, Melbourne.
— (2012) The Voyage. Text, Melbourne.
— (nd) Letter to David Marr. Box 32, Folder 37. Papers of David Marr, 1920s-1996 [bulk 1979–1996] [manuscript] 1920. National Library of Australia, Canberra.
— (nd) 15 November Letter to Rodney Hall, Box 1 Folder 6, Papers of Rodney Hall 1954-1999 [manuscript], National Library of Australia, Canberra.
Brennan, B (2017) A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work, Text, Melbourne
Costello, M (2017) ‘Abu Ben Bail: A Creative Writer Reads Murray Bail’s Archived Correspondence’, Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, Special Issue: Letters, 50: 3, September, pp 91–105.
— (2020) ‘Diaries: Empirical Evidence and Desire’ TEXT No. 1 April 2020.
Derrida, J (2001) The Work of Mourning. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Farmer, B (2005) ‘Mouths of Gold’, The Bone House. Giramondo, Sydney, pp 1–73.
Garner, H (1996) ‘On Turning Fifty’, True stories. Text, Melbourne.
— (2001) ‘Woman in a Green Mantle’, The Feel of Steel, Picador, Sydney, 35–46.
— (2020) One Day I’ll Remember This: Diaries 1987-1995. Text, Melbourne.
Gins, M (1989) 30 January Letter to Murray Bail. Box 4, Folder 4. Papers of Murray Bail, 1950–2001 [manuscript]. 1950. National Library of Australia, Canberra.
Goldsworthy, K (1996) Helen Garner, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Hazzard, S (1978) 10 December. Letter to Murray Bail. 1978. Box 4, Folder 7. Papers of Murray Bail, 1950–2001 [manuscript]. 1950. National Library of Australia, Canberra.
—. (1982) 6 September. Letter to Murray Bail. Box 4, Folder 6. Papers of Murray Bail, 1950–2001 [manuscript]. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1950. Print.
John, E and Taupin, B (1972) ‘Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time)’, Honky Chateau.
Jose, N (2016) 3 February. ‘In the Swash Zone: Harriet Chandler by Moya Costello’, Sydney Review of Books.
Upchurch, M (1998) 4 October. ‘Enchanted Forest: An Australian Novel Ties the Fate of a Young Woman to Eucalyptus Trees.’ New York Times Book Review, p 6

 

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Moya Costello is a writer, and lecturer in Writing in the School of Arts and Social Sciences, Southern Cross University. She has published two collections of short prose (Kites in Jakarta (Sea Cruise Books) and Small Ecstasies (University of Queensland Press)), and two novellas (The Office as a Boat: A Chronicle (Brandl & Schlesinger) and Harriet Chandler (Short Odds Publications)), and work in scholarly and literary journals and anthologies.

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Comments

  1. As ever, a wonderfully rich engagement with Bail’s work, Moya. Thank you for this homage to the seductions of style.

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