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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Pages

Murray Bail

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To purchase The Pages

Title: The Pages
Author: Murray Bail
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008
Length: 196 pages
Availability: The Pages - US
The Pages - UK
The Pages - Canada
The Pages - India

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Our Assessment:

B+ : intriguing, though has a somewhat skeletal feel to it

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Australian . 28/6/2008 Nigel Krauth
The Guardian . 23/8/2008 Hermione Lee
The Guardian . 29/8/2009 Chris Ross
Independent on Sunday . 31/8/2008 Jonathan Gibbs
Literary Review . 8/2008 Francis King
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/8/2010 Alison McCulloch
The Observer . 9/8/2009 Lettie Ransley
Sunday Times . 14/12/2008 Nick Rennison
Sydney Morning Herald . 4/7/2008 John Huxley
The Telegraph . 23/8/2008 Patrick Skene Catling
The Times . 14/8/2008 Jane Shilling

  Review Consensus:

  Quite positive, if a bit unsure what it's all about

  From the Reviews:
  • "The Pages extends the ideas of Eucalyptus. It's about men and women who fail to categorise existence satisfactorily. Actually, I like this novel better. It's mature, not as forced; it chooses a patch and works it simply, confidently. The end to The Pages makes me imagine that Bail's ongoing project may finally form a triptych: first Eucalyptus, then The Pages and soon a further one, set even deeper in the Australian interior: three works about Australia seeing and, partially, understanding itself." - Nigel Krauth, The Australian

  • "(A) curious and intriguing novel of contraries, whose central theme is the opposition between philosophy and psychology, and which is extremely wary of sentimentality and confessionalism. (...) It is hard to tell if this intellectual bildungsroman, in itself absorbing, is intended as a joke." - Hermione Lee, The Guardian

  • "A gratifyingly dry wit pervades this novel of ideas, which leaves it much less arid than its setting." - Chris Ross, The Guardian

  • "Bail's prose is as full of space and glaring, almost painful light as the landscape. He writes in hints and nudges" - Jonathan Gibbs, Independent on Sunday

  • "The Pages is, among other things, an exploration of these different ways of thinking, a kind of contest between the philosophical and the psychological." - Alison McCulloch, The New York Times Book Review

  • "With its sparse prose and piercing clarity of metaphor, this finely crafted novel possesses a quiet, certain brilliance of its own." - Lettie Ransley, The Observer

  • "For the most part, Bailís narrative remains elliptic and ambivalent. (...) The Pages makes no pretence of providing an unambiguous answer to that question or any others it raises, but it takes us on a beguiling journey while posing them." - Nick Rennison, Sunday Times

  • "Though short and sharp, it is as refreshing as its predecessors and arguably more far-reaching in its range of big ideas, probing the fitful engagement not just between men and women, brothers and sisters, Sydney and the bush, Australia and the wider world, but between thinking and doing." - John Huxley, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "The Pages is a nicely written, wonderfully entertaining novel with optional depths about the discoveries of an Australian who devotes his adult life to an introspective search for truth. Philosophy is a big, difficult subject -- there is none bigger -- that Bail depicts thoughtfully and with sympathetic humour." - Patrick Skene Catling, The Telegraph

  • "Uninterested in charming or beguiling his readers, Bail plunges headlong into an intense examination of the relationships between language, experience, identity and reality. The resulting narrative has its eccentric moments (.....) Persevere, however, and the difficult -- at times almost agonised -- narrative journey offers moments of beauty and exhilaration" - Jane Shilling, The Times

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:

       The Pages is, in outline, fairly straightforward: the recently deceased Wesley Antill's will "asks that his philosophy be published and the costs borne by his estate"; he left behind great amounts of writing, to which he had dedicated himself for many years in the remote Australian countryside, and the family wants an expert to supply an opinion on the matter. The estate contacts the Sydney university at which Erica Hazelhurst philosophizes, and she accepts the assignment. She sets out for "the backblocks of western New South Wales" together with a friend, psychoanalyst Sophie Perloff, whose relationship with a married man has just come to an end. Even once with the Antills -- surviving siblings Lindsey and Roger -- it takes a while for Erica to work her way into the left-behind philosophy; even as she does, she remains uncertain of its worth. Interspersed among the chapter are also several that follow Wesley's Werdegang -- how he became the philosopher he was (if he was one ...), from early days sitting in on lectures to his years spent in Europe before he finally returned, upon the death of his father, to Australia to dedicate him entirely to his writing -- as well as several samples of the writing itself; the last chapter consists entirely of pithy philosophical sayings and observations and aperçus, à la Wittgenstein, Cioran, etc. Erica -- like Wesley's grand philosophy, and other matters touched upon -- do not reach any conclusion.
       Throughout The Pages Bail muses on the possibility of philosophy itself -- and, if not its impossibility, at least its extreme unlikelihood in Australia. Sending his two urban women who devote themselves to matters of the mind into the most distant hinterland, and contrasting the lives of characters such as the (would-be) entirely cerebral Wesley, and his hands-on and practical brother Roger, Bail tries to get at the Australian soul.
       Australia is present as unreceptive to philosophy or philosophical thinking: even a cosmopolitan center such as Sydney "never bothered itself with philosophical questions" -- indeed:

     At the very word "philosophy" people in Sydney run away in droves, reach for the revolver; they look down at their shoes, they smile indulgently; they go blank.
       One substitute ?
     Psychology, and its vine-like off-shoot, pyschoanalysis.
     In Sydney it's hard to bump into anyone who isn't in analysis, or has been, or is about to be.
       Erica and Sophia also have their issues and baggage that they bring with them, and both constantly seem preoccupied. Both in conversation as well as in (in)action, they often seem to be elsewhere with their minds; predictably, Erica at one point wanders off and gets lost in the inhospitable and unrecognizable outback. Dialogue, without its usual give and take, is rarely constructive -- and matters get more tangled when Sophie discovers the other thing that connects the two women (something that really makes you wonder what Erica was thinking in bringing her along). Their disciplines don't prove particularly helpful: minds runs into matter and can't quite come to grips with it.
       Naturally, it comes to a point where Sophie points out:
     "Oh, who cares ? And anyway what has wonderful 'philosophy' done for you ?"
       Erica, of course, can throw back:
     "And what has psychoanalysis, therapy and all the rest of it done for your life ? Has it made you a better person ?"
       Psychoanalysis is seen as all chatter and words -- and, yes: "More and more Sydney has come to resemble a word-factory the way it produces extra, spoken words" -- but philosophy is, of course all (and many) words too -- witness Wesley's seemingly endless written record. Philosophy demands a solitary life, yet even Wesley's withdrawal leaves him far from alone -- and, indeed, his solitude out here in the countryside hardly differs much from that of his brother. Erica is single, but also clearly drawn to company; she has a lover, and she even felt the desire to take along Sophie for this trip (a rather odd choice, as it turns out).
       As to Wesley's philosophy, its worth remains unclear. Much of his writing that is presented here is biographical, as are most of the details that are filled in: the attempt to become a philosopher (by looking like one, acting like one -- Wesley even considers changing his name to one more appropriate for a philosopher), rather than the philosophy of one. As Roger warns Erica:
     "If you're not careful, you could end up sitting here for the next twenty years trying to work him out. How would that be ?"
       How indeed, she surely wonders. Bail, too recognizes that truths can be dug for (and found) endlessly, and instead of presenting as much as he might he offers in The Pages a novel that is little more than skeletal: a robust enough frame, but with little meat to it, leaving much for the reader to flesh out. It works quite well, for the most part, a novel cut nearly to the bone, but one might wish for there to be a bit more to it. Interestingly, it is less Wesley's philosophy one is more curious about -- its fragmentary and ambiguous character work just fine -- than his life, from the household he grew up in (where one still dressed up for dinner) to his years of wandering (only bits of which are described).
       An appealing read with many well-perceived observations -- physical and metaphysical -- though leaving perhaps a few too many questions far too open.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 July 2010

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The Pages: 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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