Piano man's journey is a virtuoso performance
Murray Bail: original, intelligent and shockingly funny. photograph: r gosling
FICTION:The Voyage, By Murray Bail, MacLehose Press, 154pp, £12
It seems the oddest thing to even contemplate. Yet Frank Delage, an Australian and the inventor of what he believes is a revolutionary piano, decides to bring it to Europe in search of buyers. What better market to test, he feels, than that of Vienna, the world capital of music and a place already crammed with Steinways?
Despite having contacts in Berlin, he heads to Austria, where he knows no one. He is aware of the folly of his project, but he proceeds apace because Frank – middle-aged, single, not quite lost, not quite found – remains something of a dreamer, with the kind of mind that settles on facts, however random. Above all, he has his regrets, and they have apparently helped, and continue, to sustain him.
As the narrative opens, Frank, having not exactly conquered Vienna, is on his way home:
It was not so much a headlong rush from Europe, more a slow return to Sydney, instead of hopping on a plane, which would have been easier, Delage had chosen to return by ship . . . a container ship, stacked with the rectangles of various faded colours, which stopped at half a dozen ports along the way.
The plan had been for him to have some time to gather his thoughts and rest from having talked too much.
Considering the strange pattern of events, a period of solitude would have been a good plan. But plans change. Instead of returning home alone, he is accompanied by Elizabeth, the 36-year-old daughter of the one person in Vienna who had tried to help him, the enigmatic, elegantly unhappy Amalia von Schalla.
It is the handsome Amalia, with her lingering traces of youthful beauty, who fully captivates Delage. All the while, as he travels over endless tracts of water, gazing at Elizabeth’s easy nakedness in their shared cabin, his thoughts return to Vienna and Amalia, prisoner of her own freedom and the wealth accumulated by her all-knowing husband.
The Australian novelist Murray Bail, author of the beguiling outback fairy-tale romance Eucalyptus (1998), is a tremendous artist, wilful in the originality of his technique as well as in his response to time and memory.
This intelligent and shockingly funny novel shifts and shimmers as restlessly as the various seas being crossed. Frank is physically on the boat, but his multilayered thoughts are elsewhere. There is a hint of John Banville’s wonderful short novel The Newton Letter (1982) in Bail’s use of the theme of frustrated desire being assuaged by proxy with a lesser satisfaction.
The voyage unfolds, as does the story of what actually happened in Vienna. Even while engaged in conversations on board, most particularly with a Dutchman recounting his failed marriage, Delage thinks back to Vienna and his failure to respond to Amalia. The bitter-sweet tone is brilliantly countered by the wryly satiric intent that shapes most of the book, with its several attacks on literary festivals, critics, the misuse of art and the “horror of aesthetics” shared by university professors far more comfortable discussing “political situations” and “historical influences”.