MacLehose Press, 2014
In consequence, the surprises in such fictions reside in their swiveling, blurry-edged vision. In the middle of long paragraphs, The Voyage wings from the deck of The Romance to Mozart's quarters in Austria, its line of flight an impulse of Delage's memory or the natural trajectory of Elisabeth's glancing backward—and its shift in setting unmarked.
Often, in fact, on shifting from one incident to another, Bail begins the new scene with a phrase that, read as a figure of speech, could easily belong to the very circumstances that his narrative has just veered away from. Take Delage's recollection of Elisabeth aiding him, in a Viennese warehouse, to show his piano off; the memory tilts more than it ends, almost blindfolding the reader whom it spirits back to the cargo ship's rail:
At this point, Elisabeth slid alongside Delage on the stool, as if she were slipping into bed, he said to her later, removing his hand from the keyboard, and began to play softly [ … ] all of which, although hardly to concert standard, allowed the critic to close his eyes, listen carefully. The way the wind changed: constantly, rapidly, it was indicated by the waves. At a glance the officers could measure the wind to a scale.
The change in the wind: it seems at first a metaphor (almost a cliché) for the Austrian critic's altered manner, and maybe it is. But it is also, undeniably, a meteorological reality onboard a ship bound for Australia. Call it, therefore—this phrase, "the way the wind changed"—a smudge at the edge of either scene. And note that the officers blur the boundaries of music and weather further by "measur[ing] the wind to a scale."
Such blurred frontiers between past and present, between there and here, turn up everywhere in The Voyage. Thus, Bail, like Woolf, makes a quiet argument about memory—that it is liquid. Granted, it varies in viscosity: sometimes more willing than water, sometimes decanting slow as glass. In the end, though, all memory is liquid, and its truths, each with its own pigment (sometimes dilute, sometimes distilled), blend in this fiction to stunning effect.
However, Bail's latest novel goes further than that. It argues, still quietly and artfully if fiercely, that human consciousness, from memory on up (or down) is, in the end, no less a sea than the one The Romance bobs on. This sea, of course, has as many tributaries as there are stories, and all of them tinted. Tainted, too. So no thimbleful of its ocean is simple. On the contrary, beauty and sadness and wisdom and falsehood swarm us, always, in shallows and in undertows, and they are always familiar and always strange.
The Voyage is a thimbleful of this sea, albeit a fictional thimbleful. As for its tributaries, Delage's narrative is rain saved in a splintery barrel, and Elisabeth's is ladled from brooks' snow-melt and nobles' fountains, while the story spilled by a Dutchman, another passenger on The Romance, is puddle-colored.
And Murray Bail? He is, of course, the artist who wets his paintbrush in that tiny metal cup, then renders the imperfections of memory and perception and judgment in perfect watercolor.
Jane Zwart teaches writing and literature at Calvin College.
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