Few writers anywhere in the world can match the esteemed Australian for stylistic daring. At just 150 pages, The Voyage (only his fifth novel in 32 years) is a short but sumptuous feast that rewards close reading. The nonlinear narrative comes in a dense, chapterless torrent, looping constantly back on itself, brimming with allusion and oblique trickery.
Australian piano maker Frank Delage has come to Vienna, one of the old-world hearts of classical music, to peddle his latest ware, a pale brown Frankenstein’s monster ugly to the eye but beyond gorgeous in its tone, clean as ice even across a broad array of barely competent demonstrations, from barrelhouse honky tonk, to Lizst, to Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago. He impresses no one until a fortuitous encounter with Amalia von Schalla, descended from one of the high families, and who can make or break reputations with the turn of her lips or the dismissive flutter of her fingers. Suddenly, a major social door swings open.
His reaction to the prospect of success is to abandon everything and flee for home, boarding a cargo ship named the Romance, that accommodates a total of five other paying passengers. Having already flirted with Amalia, he escapes with the precocious von Schalla daughter, Elisabeth. The novel begins with the couple already on board, with much of the story already behind them, and the facts, such as they are, come to us as haphazard abstractions, building of their own almost Joycean accord.
While there is more than enough here in terms of plot and character to captivate the casual reader, The Voyage, like all of Bail’s work, seems attuned less to pure reality than to certain aesthetic truths. He is presenting bigger pictures, deeper questions about the nature of creativity, what it means to be physically and mentally alive, what shapes us and what shapes our time.
This novel is a collision between worlds perceived as old and new, and the two suggested countries are kept apart by far more than a little slipped-syllable wordplay. There is also a certain despair for art. Austria is presented as a museum, its golden age long past, while Australia seems to be a wasteland, devoid of inspiration.
“You hear the difference?” Delage asks, during his recital, inviting comparison between his pure notes and what he perceives as the lumbering, heavy-handed Steinways. “The old pianos are stuck in the old sound.”
It is a statement which might well speak for the novel too, and what it can still achieve in hands as gifted and eccentric as those of Bail himself.