The novels of Australian Murray Bail, the author of 1998’s award-garnering Eucalyptus, have tended to focus on issues of national identity — a preoccupation familiar, of course, to readers of the past several decades of Canadian literature (that is, virtually all of it). In the endless flouting of comparisons between Australia and Canada (our populations, politics, and relative youth as nations), we can apparently also count a deep collective insecurity about our self-image.
At the core of Bail’s beautifully written fourth novel is a query: why is it that a country like Australia has never produced a philosopher of any repute? Could it be, speculates the omniscient narrator, because it lacks the cold climate or the “general mood of darkness and obscurity” that has produced some of the world’s great thinkers? Or is it simply due to the fact that by the time a city like Sydney was “standing on its own two feet . . . The important philosophical questions had more or less been settled”? By way of answer, the narrator posits a theory: any would-be philosophers have taken refuge in the “adjacent field” of psychoanalysis. For Sydneysiders, apparently, forays into analysis are as expected and inevitable as learning to brush one’s teeth.
Erica Hazelhurst, a philosophy professor, has been chosen by her department to travel to the country’s interior to appraise the work of Wesley Anthill, an avowed but unknown philosopher who ended up living a life of quiet obscurity on his family’s sheep farm. Now deceased, Antill has requested that his work be posthumously published with the proceeds of his estate. But the question nags his survivors: does his work have any value? Is Antill the wellspring to Australia’s philosophical drought?
Flattered and intrigued by the offer — will she be the discoverer of Australia’s Kierkegaard? — Erica sets off for an indefinite stay at the farm, bringing along her friend Sophie, a psychoanalyst, whose spirits she hopes to buoy. Sophie’s professional competence is unestablished, but she is hopeless at applying her expertise to her own life: a perpetual shambles brought on by a clingy dependency to (usually married) men.
At the Antill farm, the two women meet Wesley’s helpful but aloof sister, Lindsey, and his brother, Roger, a laconic, inward man whose focus is squarely on his work in the unforgiving landscape. Given Wesley’s siblings’ difference in temperament, Erica and Sophie admire their belief in their brother’s genius, as well as their gracious enabling of his work, which he carried out, hermit-like, in a small tin shed on the property.
But against the blank, barren backdrop of the outback, and amidst the often strange formality of the Antills, small personal dramas play themselves out. Sophie, obsessing about her latest ex-lover, almost goes off the rails when Erica reveals that she has been having a relationship with Sophie’s father. During their confrontation, coffee is spilled on Wesley’s manuscripts, and Erica fears that some of them may be unsalvageable. More unexpectedly, both women find themselves attracted to the phlegmatic Roger, whose inscrutability only heightens his appeal.
Interspersed throughout the story are flashbacks to Wesley’s youth, affairs and wanderings through Europe as he seeks to establish his philosophical credentials. Questions linger regarding Wesley’s intentions: is he driven by intellectual curiosity or mere vanity? Despite having led a mostly solitary life, it is known that he sought to have his surname changed to something “more appropriate” to his calling.
Murray Bail is one of the few male authors who writes effortlessly and convincingly from a female perspective. His prose is at once original, nuanced and intuitive, its effortless fluidity allowing him frequent changes in voice and style without falling prey to eclecticism. Part of the delight here is the idiosyncratic quality of his observations. Wesley, for example, finds that “As he developed ideas and opinions people were attracted to him. He became more and more himself, less and less like everybody else.”
Bail’s imagery is always subtly tailored to his character. Looking at Erica, Roger the farmer notes that “With her head unnaturally bowed he could without being sprung take his time noticing her neck, vulnerable in its trusting curve and suggestion of hair which parted the way wind can leave a furrow in grass.”
Bail cannot be called prolific: he has averaged only one novel about every decade, but what he lacks in quantity he certainly compensates for in quality. This is a writer whose work is as strange and original as the upside-down country he comes from. Australia may never produce a philosopher of any repute (and really, why bother now?), but at least it will always have Murray Bail.