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the Complete Review
the complete review - notebooks


Murray Bail

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To purchase Notebooks

Title: Notebooks
Author: Murray Bail
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: (2005)
Length: 306 pages
Availability: Notebooks - US
Notebooks - UK
Notebooks - Canada
  • 1970-2003
  • Much of this was originally published as Longhand: A Writer's Notebook (1989)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a fine grab-bag commonplace book

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 23/12/2005 Gregory Day
The Observer . 7/1/2006 Killian Fox
Sydney Morning Herald . 19/1/2006 Andrew Riemer
TLS . 3/3/2006 James Ley

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is crucial that Bail's deeper emotional life almost never brings itself to bear on the text. Any passion to be found is by implication and all emotional extremes are either to be presumed by the very existence of the notes or subdued within the detail. As a consequence, the main value of these notebooks will be for scholars of his work or his generation, although given the paucity of marginalia published by Australian writers, they could well fill a vacuum in creative-writing departments." - Gregory Day, The Age

  • "At times, the notes read like a diary, albeit an elliptical one. Names of friends get abbreviated. Minutiae overshadow major events. Entries are often gnomic, coded: hurried notes to self. Yet there is an immediacy here, a rawness that many autobiographies gloss over. Though never more than sketches, these notes coalesce to form an unexpectedly vivid picture of Murray Bail. The result is a stimulating read that will appeal to Bail's many admirers." - Killian Fox, The Observer

  • "These entries reveal a sensitivity to language, to feelings, to images, to the quirkiness of human beings that makes this a lovely book to read. It is filled with arresting things, particularly where Bail turns his gaze on himself and seems surprised by what he sees. (...) The quality of Bail's literary achievement is beyond question, despite his small oeuvre. It struck me, though, that his greatest gifts might reside in these small, aphoristic observations, that he is a consummate miniaturist." - Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "Notebooks, by contrast, appears as an apparently ingenuous catalogue of random thoughts: the material traces of the writer's life presented in the hope that they might be more illuminating than a crafted piece of writing. The implication is that the sideways glance can sometimes be more revealing than a painstaking investigation. (...) Bit if Notebooks aspires to be a form of autobiography, it is an unusually guarded work. What is overwhelmingly evident is how much it does not mention. (...) Perhaps the most interesting way to read the teasingly elliptical Notebooks is as an exploration of the idea of authenticity itself. Murray Bail is a writer bold enough to expose his thoughts; but he is also shrewd enough to avoid giving too much away." - James Ley, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Murray Bail's Notebooks: 1970-2003 in fact only loosely cover that period. The two-part work begins with notebooks: 'London June 1970 - November 1974' (with: "one, used during the first American visit, 1972, lost"), which was previously published as Longhand: A Writer's Notebook (1989); the shorter second part consists of notebooks: 'Sydney September 1988 - November 2003'. (Neither is limited to those locales, either; Bail travels widely during these periods.)
       These are not diaries (and not only because there are very few date-markers), nor even what one might expect from a writer's notebooks (except perhaps if considered as a heavily edited selection-from collection); they seem more like quite occasional commonplace books. Entries tend to be very short -- many only a line long, some just a word (("Pavement.") -- and few are narrative; observations are far more common than any form of narrative account, and what 'stories' there are are mostly pared down to a very minimum -- whereby it often seems that Bail isn't recording ideas for stories or novels but rather summing them, seeing how far he can pare them down: "Infantile. Paralysis. Story. The title produces the story".
       The notebooks are almost devoid of historical and political context, with barely a mention of current events; the 1970 London strikes, when the garbage piled up in the streets because it wasn't being collected, is among the few that crop up. There is some travel, as Bail visits quite a range of countries during this time (even with the 1972 US trip missing from the collection): Paris, Franco Spain, Morocco, the Soviet Union, Italy, West Africa, among others, and here there is a bit more awareness of the political and historical (though tending strongly towards the past and the memorial, as with mentions of museums, for example). If here too he is interested in the succinct generalization, his examples are often intriguing. So in Germany:

Conspicuous number of shops catering to philately. German attempt to rejoin the rest of the world ?
       The rare entry that specifies place and time does so because it is specific to the point being made:
Brussels 29.9.73. Naturally Magritte and Delvaux turned to surrealism.
       There's very little that is personal here either. Bail is in hospital some of the time here, but more interested in the place and people around him than his own situation (typical, the one-sentence entry: "Landscape near hospital."); it's never clear what ailments he suffered from. The rare personal-physical description has him find, still in his early thirties:
In the last twelve months my hands have begun to look like middle-aged hands, and in the mirror my face skin is coarser, the nose no longer a young man's.
       There is little about relationships -- some women figure at some points but, as is also the case with the few acquaintances that are mentioned, are referred to only by initial; there is very little give and take with others, in any form, even in the limited exchanges of conversation.
       The Notebooks are, if not a chronicle, certainly glimpses of a writer's life, including the process of becoming a writer. Bail hints at his ambitions, and some of his struggles. The Notebooks are part of the process of figuring out how to become a writer, too -- including being torn between accumulating real-life experience and living a more bookish life:
In a bus or the tube I am torn between the necessity to read and knowing that I would become 'more observant' if I looked around.
       He does 'experience' -- in the form of travel, especially, or also in the odd change of environment that comes with being in hospital -- but he is very much a word-person, drawn to the purely literary, whether on the most fundamental level ("Valetudinarium. A strain just to pronounce the wonderful word. One day I'll use it.") to observations about language now that he is abroad, from shortly after his arrival when he already complains about the uncertainty of even just how to refer to England/the U.K./etc. ("The words, words. Production of so many extra words here") to noting that:
Living in England I find I am using the semicolon more, as if all statements here are qualified.
       Specifically, he struggles:
To write but to avoid becoming a 'writer'. This feeling against is insistent and true.
       So also he refuses to chronicle or display the usual struggles-of-the-writer in the Notebooks, with barely a mention of what he is working on, or what he has completed (though sometimes tantalizing with some of his ideas: "A story consisting entirely of footnotes. Provisional.").
       Though it is not at the forefront, Bail is clearly a great reader. The Notebooks includes many quotes from a wide range of authors, and while most of the mentions of his reading are incidental (The Vivisector, in hospital), he does occasionally enthuse -- notably over Proust, a late discovery. Shusaku Arakawa also crops up repeatedly, and near the end Bail does offer a sort of summa -- standing out all the more because there's very little of this sort of thing throughout the Notebooks:
It makes no difference whether literature is European, American, British, or Australian, as long as it allows me to enter and contemplate. Prefer inventions, those that more or less reach the area of myth (the broadest sense). Kadare, Tournier, Marguerite Yourcenar etc.; Madame Bovary -- 'myth'. The Iliad. Little interest in literature -- or painting, music -- produced merely for effect. The confessional, self-analysis in the first person which is now common: it's difficult, though not impossible, for it to enter 'myth'.
       Bail keeps himself in check most of the time -- though it is something he is very much aware of: even as what is written (or at least printed) feels controlled and deliberate, he worries: "Sometimes I over-enthuse like an amateur". Even late on he reminds himself:
Be less enthusiastic; considerate and sober in praise: mature.
       The rapid succession of short, varied entries makes for an interesting and easy to dip into read, if not an entirely satisfying glimpse of the author at work (or play, etc.). There's more than surface here, but Bail refuses to allow himself to get carried away -- or at least for it to show. True, this is not merely a collection of fragments, but Bail only reveals so much of the underlying whole.
       The sheer variety, however, is what makes the Notebooks most compelling, from exhortations such as: "Learn ! Why not ?" to the stray literary observations:
Kangaroos often appear in the pages of European novels (Tournier, Lautréamont, Beckett, Nabokov etc.) even though -- or especially when -- the writers have never crossed the Equator.
       If the Notebooks are less revealing about the man and author than Bail-fans might hope, this absence of personal-specificity also makes them more appealing to a wider reading public.
       An intriguing little volume, and certainly of interest and appeal.

- M.A.Orthofer, 31 May 2020

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Reviews: Murray Bail: Other books by Murray Bail under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Australian author Murray Bail was born in Adelaide in 1941. Winner of the Australian National Book Award (for Homesickness).

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