‘The Pages’ by Murray Bail

bail

2008, 199 p.

To be honest, I’m not absolutely sure that I ‘got’ this book.  I am wary with Murray Bail- the first time I read ‘Eucalyptus’ I found it pleasant enough though underwhelming, but on a second reading wondered why I hadn’t picked up on the brilliance of its structure the first time.   Does ‘The Pages’ have another level as well?  But should you have to read a book twice in order to understand it?

In many ways ‘The Pages’  reads as if it is a complement to ‘Eucalyptus’.  Where in ‘Eucalyptus’ we had an antipodean Scheherazade weaving stories from the landscape, in ‘The Pages’ we have an antipodean Wittgenstein who travels the world and returns to immure himself in the solitude  of his  shearing shed to write his philosophy of the emotions.  In ‘Eucalyptus’ we have stories hanging like leaves, evoked by the names and appearances of eucalyptus trees ; in ‘The Pages’ we are left with sheets of paper, largely empty except for single, aphoristic thoughts.

The plot, such that it is, operates at two levels.  Erica, a competent, articulate academic philosopher, has been engaged to assess and edit for publication an archive of papers left by Wesley Anthill,  a peripatetic and largely self-taught philosopher who returned from travelling Europe to his family pastoral property, where he locked himself away to write a philosophy of the emotions.  Erica travels out to the outback homestead to examine the materials, accompanied by her psychoanalyst friend Sophie who is recovering from yet another failed relationship, this time with a married man.   While there, Erica sinks into the quiet rhythms of the pastoral lifestyle shared by Wesley’s brother Roger and sister Lindsay, who indulged  and supported their eccentric brother’s writing.  Erica comes to appreciate and love Roger’s  earthy, grounded ‘philosophy of the hand’ which is such a contrast to the laboured and hard-wrung philosophy that Wesley had grappled with, alone in his woolshed and now nothing more than sheaves of paper, expungable with the simple act of spilling a cup of coffee.

The second plot involves Wesley’s own gradual quest for knowledge, stepping tentatively from autodidactism into formal academia, then moving around Europe in the footsteps of other philosophers.  Although he fled Australia because he felt it unreceptive to philosophy, he returned there, after tragedy, to find and write his own, original philosophy.  An essentially solitary man, he seems ill-fitted to write a philsophy of the emotions.

The pacing of this book is unusual.  It unspools slowly, like a laconic country story, and when I was approaching the end of the book, I wondered how Bail was going to finish it in so few pages. It ends with a string of disconnected thoughts that just hang there.     It’s a big book: themes of philosophy, psychoanalysis, words, Europeanness, Australianness ; and yet not much happens in the book.  It’s complex but simple.

If this sounds ambivalent and contradictory, it’s probably because that’s how I found the book.  I’m not sure if it’s brilliant or banal- which is very much the way I felt about ‘Eucalyptus’.   Miles Franklin winner? Well, ‘Eucalyptus’ won the Miles Franklin a few years back- so obviously many people detected at first what I took two readings to find.  Perhaps ‘The Pages’ is like that also, but I tend to think that put up against novels with a stronger story, ‘The Pages’ will be seen as too elusive, too strange.

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