Review | Monday 24 September 2012
Murray Bail is a storyteller. Perhaps not one in the conventional sense, but rather more like a narrator of fables and folktales cleverly fused together, a strange mixture of surrealism and satire. He is idiosyncratic, an acquired taste, yet there is always something subtle and quietly thought-provoking in Bail’s work.
The Voyage follows the journey of Frank Delage, a piano manufacturer from Sydney, as he returns home on a ship from Vienna. Earlier, in that city that epitomises music, he’d presented the Delage concert grand, a piano he believed would impress the Viennese maestros with its technical precision and improvements upon the older makes of Europe.
But he soon discovered that his piano was all wrong for Vienna, and it wasn’t until a chance encounter with Amalia von Schalla that new possibilities and connections began to surface – including an opportunity to show his instrument to an avant-garde composer. Now, as he travels home, in the company of Amalia’s daughter, Elisabeth, a more complex story begins to emerge.
As often appears in Bail’s work, there are questions over the artistic and cultural shortcomings of his homeland. Bail is a novelist who constantly reflects Australia against the rest of the world, in particular Europe. His characters attempt to find themselves in foreign places and to define their identity in relation to their nationality, all while traversing unknown countries.
The Voyage effortlessly sails between Sydney and Vienna, between Delage’s contemplation and experiences. It is a slight novel – a mere 194 pages – yet it exhibits a flood of imagination, an attentive, clever use of language, and a touch of wry humour, all woven into the lives of its enigmatic characters. Perhaps some of Bail’s finest work yet.
Nicole Mansour is the Assistant Manager of Readings St Kilda.