Books

Murray Bail
He.

There are certain books, the publication of which it would be an understatement to call anything less than an event. He. is one.

It is Murray Bail’s first work in almost a decade. It’s being marketed as his last.

Reading it, I was reminded of Hamlet’s words to Ophelia: “We will have no more marriages.” Part of what makes Hamlet’s invocation so shocking is the sense that, from the outset, before the play has even begun, everything – the players, the stage, the meaning of it all – is already finished. Hamlet lives the end of his days, the end of all our marriages, as if it were all he and Ophelia had ever known.

He. is animated by a similar sense of dissolution. Entropy drives the narrative; recurrent intimations of forgetting everyone and everything.

The “he” of the title may in fact be “I”. But Bail, of course, distrusts the “I”. Perhaps it’s a case of preferring the more mythical properties with which “he” – distanced by discretion, the fig leaf of the third person – might imbue a life. As Bail writes of his narratorial surrogate, awakened to the atavistic power of myth by a 1988 performance of Wagner’s clamorous Meistersinger in Sydney: “At intervals and without warning a feeling of perplexity: he could only just accept being alive.”

That year I, too, had to accept it – this whole business of being alive. While Wagnerian events took place in Sydney – “Germany’s gift to Australia for its bicentenary” – I was preparing to be born. Murray Bail, as editor, was readying The Faber Book of Contemporary Australian Short Stories, having released his second novel, Holden’s Performance, the previous year.

Now, it’s a mug’s game to imagine oneself and one’s birth connected, Saleem Sinai-style, with world events. Nonetheless, when I read Holden as a young boy, some 14 years after its publication, I felt as if I were encountering one. Devouring the Faber anthology afterwards proved even headier – never had I felt so galvanised by local literature. Peter Carey’s “Do You Love Me?” especially: as a kid, his fabulism, his settler-colonial fantasias, were strangely entrancing. Although now I realise how similar the cadence and rhythms of Frank Moorhouse’s “Libido and Life Lessons” – not to mention Helen Garner’s “The Life of Art” – are to those of Bail’s He.

Admittedly, Bail’s introduction to the anthology, like his politics generally – or, more accurately, their non-existence – was an embarrassment; his inability to so much as register First Nations story both myopic and faintly ridiculous. There is a nice aside about this country honouring its writers by placing them, à la Henry Lawson, on bank notes – today we might add the example of David Unaipon, among others – but its fairly pre-Mabo view of Australian literature is, viewed generously, a flaw in keeping with much of the era’s secondhand homilies, its over-eagerly received wisdom.

For all the autofictional properties of He., Bail’s perplexity, his life-acceptance, does not come easy. Certainly there are Lerner–Knausgaard-esque references to current events – describing Covid-stricken Sydney, August 2020, Bail writes of “a great emptiness in broad daylight as if everyone had already died”. Yet He. is more Robert Musil than Rachel Cusk; more Joseph Roth than Philip. Bail has remarked, both in person and elsewhere – see, in particular, 2008’s The Pages – that it is hard, “though not impossible” for the “applied psychology” of first-person narrative to enter the realms of myth.

The narrative – and this perhaps is no surprise, given the publication of work such as the Notebooks – is fragmentary. Yet Bail’s writing remains nimble in a way that cannot help but inspire envy. The first line opens on a startled-by-the-flashbulb “And”, coming to us in media res, aligned to the exact centre of the page – time’s arrow darting forward, seeking the centre of things. And time tends to winnow, too, the length of work the older writer is able to produce; Anton Chekhov once remarked that as he aged, everything he read seemed “not short enough”.

Our narrator is both aloof in a Joycean Portrait-type way and obscurely present: “He liked to think it was all happening around him, and he was to one side.” He is by turns mystified and disturbed by women, though they afford some sardonically affectionate observation: “His first wife took secateurs and twisted and cut [their wedding] ring off her finger.” One passage compares Sydney’s endless subdivisions and modernity-renovations to “the dismantling of marriages”.

Like his creator, Bail’s authorial alter ego recoils from the expectations of life as a contemporary writer – speaking in public, responding to festival invitations, requests to “write about subjects of which he had little knowledge”. He is a Jamesian reflector, always fussing at the meaning of what is being narrated, much as we might wonder at the meaning of our own lives when we inspect and hold them up to the light.

He. is concerned with inwardness, the sudden interventions of the world into consciousness: how interrupted our lives are, particularly as we apprehend them in childhood – and second childhood, when the golden apples of the sun have fallen. Everything is palely illumined, shot through with a clear, first-light-of-dawn glow, “the honey-coloured light coming in through the holland blind”.

The effect is comparable to an Andrei Tarkovsky film, all intersplice and oneiric montage. It might also be profitably compared to Federico Fellini’s Roma or Amarcord – a reminiscence on the life of the artist, and of the country at large.

David Hume once said: “It is difficult for a man to speak long of himself without vanity; therefore, I shall be short.” The resulting autobiography, My Own Life, ran just under five pages.

He., for all its concision, need say nothing more. It is full of uncanny energy, gracefully panoramic. Like life, it may be short; yet, of all the books I have read this year, it’s perhaps the most wondrous, the most inordinately beautiful.

Declan Fry

Text Publishing, 176pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 13, 2021 as "Murray Bail, He.".

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Reviewer: Declan Fry