This appears to be a first edition hardback. I have no idea where I got it, the price on the flyleaf says $3.00, so presumably second hand. It might be Lisa’s (she reviewed it in 2009), I’m very remiss at recording where I get books. It’s printed on a lovely thick creamy stock and the pages have been folded and bound without being guillotined. The Pages (2008) was Bail’s next novel after the famous and MF Award winning Eucalyptus (1998) so perhaps Big Things were Expected.
Wikipedia says Bail was born in 1941 in Adelaide, lives in Sydney, and has written 5 novels of which The Pages was the fourth.
Bail’s writing style seems thoughtful, seems to convey thought as it floats along. I can’t generalize too much because it is too long since I read Eucalyptus, but from memory they feel the same. The Pages is the story of a self-taught philosopher, one of three adult, unmarried children who have inherited a sheep station in mid-western NSW. Bail mentions Goolgowi and Merriwagga, which would have them on the Hay plains, black soil country, so flat that the horizon is a perfect semi circle, and not too far from the Murrumbidgee (map).
In fact, I’m “there” right now, making a start on Joseph Furphy’s Such is Life. To the extent that Bail describes the property it feels like country a bit closer to Sydney, on the gentle western slopes of the Great Divide. But you know what a purist I am, and I know what purists you’re not.
The plot, I think there’s a plot, is that Erica, a university philosopher is invited out to the property to study the unpublished writings of Wesley Antill, who has been travelling and studying while his sister and brother, Lindsey and Roger, run the station. Wesley has come home, taken over the old unused shearing shed as his workspace, and has died.
Erica makes the long drive, 600 or 700 km, with her therapist friend Sophie for company. The homestead, and there are many like it still, out in what was once incredibly prosperous merino country, is the usual single story, wide verandahs all round, cavernous central passage, 10 bedrooms, enormous kitchen etc. So there’s plenty of room and they settle in for an indefinite stay.
All these five are late-thirtyish, unattached-ish. Sophie is a type, asking all the standard feely feely questions, in a messy relationship with a married guy, not knowing when to pull back. I think she and Lindsey are there just to bulk out the cast a bit, they don’t contribute much. I am uneasy with the omniscient (male) author being Erica but she is mostly just a device for discussing Wesley. Roger is the strong silent type, almost to the point of parody, and provides a minor love interest for Erica and Sophie to compete over. Wesley is there on and off throughout. We start a new chapter and there we are ‘in’ Wesley, a few years earlier.
Here, Wesley is finding his feet in Kings Cross (Sydney) –
Street people spotted Wesley as a yokel, not only for his red ears and premature crow’s feet, and the tan boots – only missing item being the hat – but also his wide-open gaze of one who had never before seen at close quarters eye-sliding men and women, jittery, and yet matter-of-fact types, flaunting themselves to make a quid – and the wear and tear it takes out on the eye, mouth, skin and sympathies in general.
He gets a room, meets a neighbour sunbathing on the roof, and despite his general yokelness is soon sleeping with her, and even after he leaves Australia, they maintain a relationship. He is also the toy boy of one of his mother’s friends, his mother refusing to live out in the bush and instead maintaining an apartment in an inner-city hotel.
To his sister he wrote, ‘My neighbour next door is like you. I’m trying to work out why exactly. (When I know I’ll let you know.) Is about your size. Don’t screw your nose up! Name is Rosie. She tells me there’s no problem attending lectures at the university. All I do is tag along as if I’m a student too, which of course I am.
I expected Bail to use this work as an excuse to philosophise, which he doesn’t, though there is a good deal on the process of philosophising. Even when Erica finally gets round to Wesley’s papers – spread out on the shearing shed floor and not a mouse poo in sight – they prove to be largely autobiographical.
Wesley moves on to London and then Europe, so that Bail can provide descriptions of place from memory probably, casually accumulating mistresses along the way. Toward the end, one leaves him, he organizes for Rosie to join him, it doesn’t go well and he returns to Australia, to the station on the edge of the outback.
Yes, I enjoyed reading it, it flows nicely, the subsidiary characters are often interesting and we get to know Wesley and to a lesser extent, Erica. Sometimes good writing is worth reading just for its own sake and this is one of those times.
Murray Bail, The Pages, Text Publishing, Melbourne, 2008. 199pp.