The Voyage by Murray Bail
Murray Bail is best known for Eucalyptus, which won the Miles Franklin Award, Australia's premier award for fiction and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize in 1999, but he has a long and distinguished career in both fiction and non-fiction. The Voyage is his fifth novel.
Frank Delage is a small-time Sydney manufacturer, who has invented a new striking mechanism for the piano which produces palpably better sound quality. He has travelled to Vienna to try to sell the concept in the very heart of the music world - coals to Newcastle springs to mind - and now he is on his way back to Australia. He is reflecting on his trip, which he can't regard as anything but a qualified failure. He could just about allow himself to be pleased about having sold one piano, had he not learned what the buyer had in mind for the hapless instrument. With the benefit of hindsight, trying to take on the Viennese music establishment was probably a mistake.
On the other hand, he is returning with Elisabeth, the daughter of a member of Viennese high society, Amalia von Schalla, who took Delage under her wing after they met by chance. And it seems he has learned a great deal about himself along the way.
Bail's first novel, Homesickness (1980), had to do with the distance, both physical and cultural, between Australia and Europe, and The Voyage takes up this preoccupation once again. Delage is something of a novelty for the Viennese, who find both him and his piano baffling and, you suspect, faintly amusing.
Meanwhile, he is struggling to find points of reference in Vienna: the most straightforward person he meets is a music critic who tells him bluntly that the sound his piano produces is too pure: it will brutally expose the foibles of musicians, and will therefore never find favour.
Australia is connected historically with England in very many ways, but separation has estranged them; the long, slow homeward voyage by container ship is a graphic demonstration of the distance, just as the woman he is bringing home is a parallel enigma for Delage to the whole, mystifying experience. It's hard to tell how things are going to work out for him with either.
Bail is an idiosyncratic and experimental writer. The Voyage is not an easy read, as it blurs timeframes not only from one sentence to the next but even within sentences; one of the long strings of clauses divided by commas that pass for sentences may begin by discussing events in Vienna and finish with happenings on the container ship.
If Bail intended to disorientate the reader in space and time, he has succeeded brilliantly. It's tricky to get a handle on Frank Delage's character - just as tricky, you sense, as Delage himself finds it to get a handle on Elisabeth's, or on her mother's. After all, both women do behave very strangely indeed.
The Voyage is a wry, thoughtful piece of work, highly original and a little alienating. It won't have the broad appeal of Eucalyptus, but it will deepen the respect of Bail's admirers.
John McCrystal is a Wellington writer.