‘To write but avoid becoming a “writer”. This feeling against is insistent and true,’ wrote Murray Bail in a diary in London in 1971. Usually it’s the other way round, the ambition being to become ‘a writer’ and no longer have to write. Bail’s spare output over 25 years might put him in the same category, were it not shaped by the contrary intention expressed in that early warning to himself. He has resisted the trappings of success, insisting with prickly pride on the obstacles in the way of proper literary achievement. Bail’s new novel, Eucalyptus, the first in 11 years, is the latest stage in his quest – and surprisingly suave.
Bail also insists on obstacles between the reader and the simple pleasures of fiction. He is awkward with voice, character and plot, preferring jolts and digressions to well-paced unfolding. He tends to avoid endings. He conducts a philosophical argument with imaginative literature, frustrated at the ways language fails to fit the world – and that argument is acute, particularly for a writer whose approach is so painterly. Then, of course, there is the problem of Australia. ‘We’re so cripplingly laconic,’ he says, clinging to the place in spite of its constraints. But perhaps the biggest problem remains the writer’s self that can never quite be abolished.
Bail’s early London diaries, published as Longhand: A Writer’s Notebook (1989), are a pointillist collection of beautiful, often self-regarding sentences, his own and others’. ‘Gazing in the mirror, and continuing,’ he writes – before adding: ‘sudden disgust at this.’ In Eucalyptus mirrors are banished. The father, who sets a near-impossible task for his daughter’s suitors, and the most relentless of these suitors both dislike mirrors ‘for the same reason’: they are ‘uncomfortable with the act of giving or receiving’. In one of the novel’s inset stories a Frenchman is sent into the Australian desert to photograph Aboriginals for an ethnographic museum. Years pass, but there are no photographs. The country has done something strange to him. At last the unused plates, along with a few boomerangs, come back to France, but without the photographer, who has drifted away from his project after meeting a man who ‘avoided all mirrors ... Needless to say, he could no longer be sure of what he now looked like.’ Learning from this encounter that ‘the shadows of photography [are] a form of chemical theft’, the Frenchman abandons the mirroring silver emulsion of the photographic plate. He wanders off into the back-blocks. Then one day he stubs his toe on a glittering rock that turns out to contain silver and goes on to open the mine that will make his fortune. In this parable, if you can lose yourself and let go of representation, you get lucky.
Bail’s first stories are five-finger exercises in the comic futility of trying to catalogue the world; they are conscious of the misreading that comes with representation and the painful absurdity of what is necessarily missing. First published as Contemporary Portraits and Other Stories (1975), the collection has been misleadingly retitled The Drover’s Wife and Other Stories after Bail’s appropriation of Henry Lawson’s 1892 classic. Bail approaches Lawson’s ‘The Drover’s Wife’ through Russell Drysdale’s well-known painting of the same name. In Lawson, the wife finds a strength of her own while maintaining a firm sense of connection with her absent drover husband. In Bail, the wife has run off with the drover, abandoning her suburban dentist husband, who painfully reconstructs the story from her presence in the painting on a gallery wall. ‘“Hello, missus!” I used to say, entering the kitchen. Not perfect perhaps ... but that is my way of showing affection,’ he explains drily, having missed what passed between drover, ‘a real mystery man’, and wife when the drover offered the couple a cup of tea out bush. She wanted it, he didn’t. By tracing the faultline in a marriage, and identifying the mystery moment in which a rival man wins the woman, Bail’s ‘The Drover’s Wife’ anticipates Eucalyptus.
Murray Bail was one of the bloke-ish bunch who, back in the Seventies, made over the bush carpentry, or suburban DIY, of literary Australia with cosmopolitan add-ons. An inventive, short-lived Labor Government wanted an ironic yet sincere New Nationalism to obliterate the forelock-tugging past. Bail’s stories were included in an influential anthology, The Most Beautiful Lies (1977), which took its title from Mark Twain’s observation that Australian history contained weird, wonderful, terrible departures from civilised norms. As Bail later wrote in his Introduction to The Faber Book of Contemporary Australian Short Stories (1987), local fictioneers were licensed to subvert ‘a drought time of conservatism, conformity and censorship’ by following ‘the avant-garde strategy of provocative revision ... giving realism an extra twist ... a bottom-of-the-sea strangeness, such ... as to appear almost as a nervous “surrealism”’. ‘The American Poet’s Visit’, Frank Moorhouse’s funny account of provincial literary neurosis, had appeared in book form in 1972, and Peter Carey’s ‘American Dreams’, a post-Vietnam satire, in 1974. David Foster’s first novel, The Pure Land, came out in 1975, and, deceptively to one side in the same year, stood Johnno, David Malouf’s first prose work. ‘It spread, throughout the Seventies and Eighties, this new confidence,’ Bail recalls, ‘as a kind of literary myxomatosis, reducing any remaining dun-coloured realism to a few pockets.’
‘Dun-coloured realism’ derives from Patrick White’s contemptuous description of the local literary scene as he found it on his return from Europe in 1948. White – the only antipodean to join Proust and Kafka, Michel Tournier and Thomas Bernhard on Bail’s shelf of severe masters – is the big daddy rabbit-killer; Bail and his minimalist contemporaries are something of a mopping-up operation. The anxiety here is that of being the last guest at the wake of Modernism, and so Bail is compelled to return, parodically, obsessively, to the Oedipal Australiana of dun and gum.
In his picaresque first novel, Homesickness (1980), a group of Australian package tourists visit bizarre museums as the world turns into a theme park of which they, the tourists, are the theme. The perplexity of these archetypal Australians, isolated as a group and – clumsy gropings aside – from one another as they float around the globe, reaches its height in the Corrugated Iron Museum, East Yorkshire: ‘“One thinks of these as photographs of corrugated iron sheets. In fact” – and here a slight smile appeared as [the guide] turned to look at them – “these are close-ups of Australian foreheads, taken at random ... Corrugated iron therefore matches the Australian psyche. So there you are.”’ Towards the end of the novel one of the tourists suddenly says: ‘We come from a country ... of nothing really ... there isn’t much we believe in. We have rather empty feelings. I think we even find love difficult.’ Insatiable loneliness makes inward connection impossible, leaving a nagging, resented void in its place.
One loner Murray Bail gets close to is the painter Ian Fairweather (1891-1974). His glowing 1981 monograph has contributed not a little to Fairweather’s exalted status in recent years (diminished, oddly, by the retrospective Bail himself curated in 1994). Fairweather was the son of an Indian Army doctor, dumped as a child, rather like Kipling, with aunts in England; a prisoner of the Germans in World War One; a Slade School artist who took off through China, South-East Asia and India, absorbing different traditions in a lifetime of wandering; a legendary eccentric who attempted a solo raft journey across the Timor Strait in heavy seas; and, at the end, an Australian recluse who, with housepaint on cardboard, worked at the boundaries between figuration and abstraction, Modernism and non-Western image-making, to create subtle, layered masterpieces. On Bribie Island, north of Brisbane, ‘Fairweather had set himself up off the main road,’ Bail writes, ‘a mile or two from the shops and post office. A bushfire had swallowed his tent and all of his belongings ... if he painted at night it would be with the erratic assistance of a hurricane lamp ... like Robinson Crusoe he could report that he had “managed to achieve almost complete solitude”.’ Fairweather is easy to mythologise, particularly if you envy the lifestyle. Bail peers through a connoisseur’s magnifying-glass – with a sensuous, sharp appreciation for the mysterious bindings of inner and outer, the work and the life. He concludes that ‘the sign of Fairweather’s greatness is the amount of himself which enters the work ... his paintings are essentially “written” by his own experiences ... Through his art he attempted to reach and understand some deep equilibrium of the senses ... which was withheld ... until very late in his life.’
I suspect that Bail is also imagining how it might be for himself. But his next novel, Holden’s Performance (1987), is a satirical portrait of the artist as cipher. This Holden – Shadbolt not Caulfield – shares his name with ‘Australia’s Own Car’ and shares with the author a trajectory from hometown Fifties Adelaide to good-time Sydney and power-mongering Canberra. He is ‘purely reactive’, a car salesman, bouncer and bodyguard – things are ‘done over his head’. There is one medium, however, in which he proves to be an artist after all:
The vomit had almost stopped its spread; and as they watched it rapidly settled and adjusted here and there, suddenly accelerating at the edges, a matter of viscosity, of carpet drag, until it reached the final unmistakable shape – Australia ... in the second and third waves he’d deposited more or less on the right latitude, Tasmania, the apple isle, complete with its spittle of white rivers ... It was unique, in that sense a work of art, containing its own spontaneity and moral force.
Holden is a true Down Under chunderer. Is the author technicolour-yawning too, in this straining mix of gross comedy, outlandish allegory and ambivalent nostalgia? Around this time Bail noted Keats’s advice to Shelley, which he found feathering the ‘uncomfortable nest’ of another recluse, the Sydney painter John Passmore: ‘curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist.’ The ugly face of Holden’s Performance gets in the way of a more seductive writerly presence that now unfolds, years later, in Eucalyptus.
This sweet-talking book sidesteps many hurdles by taking the clean, clear shape of a fable. We read ‘dun-coloured’ on the first page and there are more gums than you can shake a stick at, but the persistent motifs of Bail’s work have a different shine to them here, like old friends at a later stage of life. The novel is about trees, stories and courtship, in ascending order. Ellen, the desirable daughter of a property-owner in western New South Wales, must submit to her father’s will in the choice of a marriage partner. Her father’s life has been devoted to growing every known kind – hundreds – of eucalypt. Whoever can correctly name each one will get Ellen and the property. There is no mother, of course, to disrupt this scheme and Ellen goes along with it at first as a whimsical impossibility. Suitor after suitor tries and fails to name the varieties, until the kempt Mr Cave – a kindred spirit to Ellen’s father – turns up from Adelaide and systematically sets about the business. Meanwhile, Ellen discovers someone else, asleep in the trees in another corner of the property, an unnamed man with long hair, a wanderer and, unlike Mr Cave, a storyteller who entertains her with an unending stream of stories that not merely tag the trees but create another sort of life from their names: foecunda, maculata, neglecta, approximans.
Like a sylvan spirit, he is always there when Ellen needs him, responsive and tender, ‘as if he had many hands’. Yet he never quite oversteps the mark, wooing by holding back, ‘finishing the stories abruptly, at the very moment she wanted to know more’. One day he comes upon her naked by the river and decorously buttons her up again. In that moment he wins her. Eucalyptus is a version of the story of the three caskets. Like Portia, or indeed like Catherine Sloper in Washington Square, Ellen may neither choose whom she would, nor refuse whom she dislikes. In a double entrapment, she is caught between the suitor who conforms to her father’s wishes and the stranger who stirs her innermost longings.
As Mr Cave’s ‘industrial advance’ seems to seal Ellen’s fate, his rival’s secret stories quicken around her with erotic closeness. The stranger apprises Ellen of the implacability of desire by producing a funny little anecdote about a lady traveller in Port Said who was followed back to the ship by a man from the bazaar. She found the fellow in her cabin, sitting on the bunk beside her. Without saying a word, he pulled a chicken from his shirt and proceeded to stroke it hypnotically until the bird could be placed on her thigh. The lady, too, was hypnotised, overpowered by this dumbshow of seduction: ‘There and then he could have done anything to her.’ But the crew burst in, disrupting the mysterious moment before she could find out what happened next, and she never recovered.
Ellen’s father had warned her about storytelling men who ‘were constantly trying to convince’. I rather hoped that Ellen’s dream lover would turn out to be her own creation, a well of stories summoned from her own imagination. But that is not where it goes. Whose story is this irresistible mix of aphoristic arcana and wishfulness that woos the reader no less assiduously than the men in the story assail the girl? Trying to find a hidden pattern in the stories told by her sly Prince Charming, Ellen realises that most are about women, specifically daughters, women who ‘seemed to be searching or waiting for something else, something almost indefinable but extra nevertheless, such as a solution somewhere else or with someone ... women who followed the idea of hope. It seemed to be their greatest obedience.’ Only the man of words can fulfil that hope. In at last telling the story of how he has outwitted the father to win the princess, the trickster makes clear that Eucalyptus is his own love story.
Here the novel is at its most romantic, and perhaps a bit hokey.
Eucalypts may be seen as daily reminders of the sadnesses between fathers and daughters ... It may not be an exaggeration to say that the formidable instinct in men to measure, which is often mistaken for pessimism, is counter-balanced by the unfolding optimism of women, which is nothing less than life itself: their endless trump card ... at its most concentrated when [they] look up and in recognition of their natural affinity accept flowers.
Eucalypt means ‘well-covered’; apparently a reference to the bud before fertilisation, whose cover ‘in effect [puts] a lid on the reproductive organs’. The maidenly Ellen is well protected too. A happy ending is inscribed for her at a stage of not-quite-consummation that leaves out, like many a comedy, some of the things we want to know most. ‘Tall trees breed even taller stories.’
Bail’s oral storyteller is a make-believe; behind him stands a writer perplexed and inspired by the isolation of language. ‘To repeat or even convey by hand some corner of nature is forever doomed. And yet the strange power of art lies in our recognition of this attempt.’ Such a recognition makes for many felicities in this teasing and mannerly novel, where paragraphs become like paddocks, ‘supposed to fence off wandering thoughts’, and trees flower ‘in a mass of gaudy asterisks’. Yet it also renders the objects of interest mute, unable to reciprocate the attention they are given. The listener’s impulsive ‘yes, but what then?’ is nipped in the bud, especially where it concerns the woman at the heart of the story. I suppose the successful suitor never knows exactly what he has won.