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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Voyage

Murray Bail

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Voyage

Title: The Voyage
Author: Murray Bail
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012
Length: 155 pages
Availability: The Voyage - US
The Voyage - UK
The Voyage - Canada
La traversée - France
Die Reise - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

B+ : solid little novel (and Thomas Bernhard-homage)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Age . 22/9/2012 Andrew Riemer
The Australian . 22/9/2012 Stella Clarke
The Guardian . 21/2/2014 James Smart
Irish Times A+ 2/2/2013 Eileen Battersby
The Monthly . 10/2012 John Banville
The NY Times Book Rev. . 30/3/2014 James McNamara
Sydney Morning Herald A+ 22/9/2012 Peter Craven
TLS . 28/3/2014 Milly Burton

  Review Consensus:

  Some find the style a bit challenging, but several are very, very impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "This narrative is laid out in an oblique, one could even say wayward, manner. (...) Insouciance might be the best way of describing how Bail's long paragraphs slither between Delage's adventures in Vienna and the weeks spent aboard the Romance, the cargo ship making its slow way to the antipodes. (...) This novel is not the sum of its preoccupations but an essentially abstract work of art: an invention in the sense that Bach and his contemporaries used the term for some of their compositions." - Andrew Riemer, The Age

  • "The Voyage exhibits a measure of narrative inertia, but its pleasures are a matter of contemplative latitude. (...) The Voyage is oblique, idiosyncratic and original. To read it is to breathe the rarefied air of an artistic consciousness, nostalgic for literary modernism. (...) This is a novel that demands your full attention, discoursing in an unbuttoned, Joycean fashion, approaching a sort of textual jouissance. Drift off, and you will be all at sea." - Stella Clarke, The Australian

  • "Oddly dated and often disorientating, it's a beautifully observed contemplation of life, as a strange dance that holds humanity at an intimate distance." - James Smart, The Guardian

  • "This intelligent and shockingly funny novel shifts and shimmers as restlessly as the various seas being crossed. (...) This is an astonishing, defiant little book. Though concise in scale, it is vastly thought-provoking, with some inspired nods to the great Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard’s final novel, Woodcutters. (...) If ever a novel could be said to exceed the sum of its many sensations, this masterful concoction engages, excites and perturbs with singular virtuosity." - Eileen Battersby, Irish Times

  • "The prose seems to lollop along, progressing by fits and starts. The method lies mainly in the punctuation, which is so idiosyncratic that the author might have done little more than sprinkle his pages almost at random with commas and the odd full stop. The result is curiously exciting: one reads in a permanent faint fever, on tenterhooks, never knowing quite where a sentence or a paragraph may veer off to." - John Banville, The Monthly

  • "Murray Bail is one of Australia’s best living writers, and The Voyage is his finest book to date -- a rich, sparkling novel that reinvigorates literary modernism and shows a master at work. (...) Bail’s novel has the polish and ring of literature that will have lasting appeal. An immensely satisfying book, one that rewards slow and careful reading, it confirms his status as a writer of the highest caliber." - James McNamara, The New York Times Book Review

  • "One of the weird things about The Voyage -- and one key to its very distinct power of enchantment -- is that we know the basic storyline from the outset. (...) The Voyage is a beautiful book, sumptuously executed for all the apparent slenderness of its narrative line. And Bail, who is so artful in the face of his complete inability to write a conventional narrative, does create suspense over what the music critic will say about how the piano sounds in the light of the reverberation of history. (...) It is also very much a fictional excursion in the territory of Thomas Bernhard (.....) We won't see a finer piece of fiction in the longest while." - Peter Craven, Sydney Morning Herald

  • "The Voyage is a thoughtful, witty novel with moments of farcical humour, underpinned by undulating prose." - Milly Burton, 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:

       The Voyage begins with the passage back, forty-six year-old Frank Delage returning to his native Australia aboard the Romance, after having traveled through Europe, where he had tried to interest people in the innovative new piano he has designed and manufactures. The narrative itself circles back over his trip -- specifically his time in Austria -- in an overlapping loop describing his experiences as he (physically) distances himself from them and closes in on home -- culminating then in one final, severing jolt after his voyage is completed.
       Delage returns to Australia without the sample-piano he had brought along with him -- but he does bring back Elisabeth, daughter of a wealthy family he got to know in Vienna, who joins him on his voyage. The ship itself is not a passenger-liner; rather, it only has a few cabins and five other passengers, including a Dutch bookseller, Zoellner, along for the ride.
       The music capital Vienna was Delage's final stop and hope, but even there he found it difficult to show off his work. He did, however, get to know the influential von Schalla family, who took him under their wing. Here bachelor Delage finds himself somewhat torn between mother Amalia and daughter Elisabeth; while readers know from early on that Elisabeth is the one who joins him, the relationships are not that clear-cut. Indeed:

Whenever Delage looked at Elisabeth, he thought of her mother, which was something he should try to stop.
       Though apparently a successful businessman, Delage is clearly adrift in Vienna (as also he then is, more literally, on the ship home), out of his element. He builds and sells pianos but in fact isn't particularly musical. His nicotine-brown piano also stands out among the stately black grands:
It was like his cousins from the sticks the year they'd gate-crashed a family wedding in Sydney, wearing loud neckties.
       The contrast between Austria, hidebound in tradition yet deeply steeped in culture, and a more modern-oriented but unstoried Australia repeatedly comes to the fore. Delage hears even the locals complain of the: "spiritual and artistic exhaustion" of Vienna, and Europe -- but when Amalia asks him what Australia has given the world Delage is at a loss:
"No composers, painters, novelists ?" Amalia encouraged. "Not that I'm aware of," Delage shaking his head. Von Schalla went on eating the fish. "Our contribution," Delage still frowning, "has been in small areas, such as being relaxed, swimming in the sea -- we grow strong teeth."
       It's hard not to see The Voyage also as a lament on the failure of Australian art istelf. In not allowing Delage to even name a single artist worthy of the world stage, Bail seems to be despairing of Australian culture's consequence. But Bail also clearly couches The Voyage as an homage to Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard, a passionate critic of his homeland yet someone also entirely devoted to it.
       So, for example, Amalia von Schalla turns out to be related to the Wittgensteins, and there's a nod to Bernhard's favorite Viennese haunt, the Café Bräunerhof, described by a music critic Delage meets in best Bernhardian fashion as the place:
where, he said, the most irritable men in Vienna sat and read their newspapers, the world after all consisted of hundreds of constantly shifting irritations, which was why the Bräunerhof had become his second home, the world was composed of nothing but irritations, he touched Delage's elbow, we can only do our best, it was a comfort to be surrounded at the Café Bräunerhof by others who either openly expressed their irritation at the world around them, or allowed unspoken irritation to develop in their faces, irritation being a sign of intelligence, there nevertheless was always a quiet corner, they could have their coffees and pastries, while he asked for more details of the deadly insects, reptiles and fish of Australia.
       The music critic gives a lecture that Delage attends, too, in which he complains about Austria that:
Hemmed in on all sides our writers are crazed, become vitriolic, repetitious, misanthropic, anti-state, catch alight. We all have our heroes who have committed suicide. Here every artistic endeavour shifts forward, then gets caught up in the circles.
       Bail consciously also has his novel go in circles, looping round and round. And he has the Dutchman, Zoellner, defend repetition to Delage, too:
The repetitions we experience in ordinary life are so natural they ought to flow into literature, into novels most of all. The great Russians knew. It became their style. It is noticeable today when writers read out aloud from their works, and something is missing. Repetitions are part of our existence. The waves -- never stop. It is all very obvious. But repetitions are the first thing publishers today want to strike out.
       Bail's own writing here avoids being too faithfully Bernhardian -- The Voyage is an homage to the Austrian author, not an imitation of his work -- but when Delage has returned to Australia, Bail does offer a rant that sounds like it was copied straight from Bernhard, with only the country and language changed:
Australian newspapers are among the worst in the world, certainly the worst in the English-speaking world, Australian journalists practise a violent simplicity which has been successfully exported to the rest of the English-speaking world, others who are called broadsheet or quality journalists, said to be the level-headed ones, are hardly better with their embarrassing self-importance, making pronouncements concerning the world with the self-assurance of the airport taxi driver
       Delage does not know much about music (or, it seems, culture in general), but Bail does present him as a writer of sorts:
     Frank Delage carried around a notebook for jotting down things he had read or heard, the way some people pick up cigarette butts, they could end up being useful one day, not only maxims, although most of them were, unusual phrases, descriptions too, he liked the sound of single words.
       The subtle dig at words and writing -- here compared to collecting cigarette butts, of all things ! -- suggests again Bail's despairing of art -- even as, like Bernhard, he embraces it completely, still choosing the novel-form.
       Delage remains in many ways a passive figure. Though he is, basically, a salesman, he finds it hard to act in that capacity. Instead, he goes with the flow, swept up by the von Schalla women and others he encounters. The world, as he finds it, seems to have overwhelmed him -- in large part, Bail seems to suggest, because he is between worlds (literally so on the long ocean voyage), unsettled by the deeply rooted stability of Austrian culture and the much looser Australian world (where, predictably, his personal roots are also limited: he has a sister but no family of his own).
       Delage is, however, in his own small way, a revolutionary: his piano is a groundbreaking invention. Tellingly, however, Bail only allows him to have limited success with it in Europe: far from establishing a new path, Delage is worn down and ultimately more or less defeated. He does manage to sell the one piano he had brought with him, but even that -- in Bail's beautiful conclusion -- leads to a very different sort of success than he had envisioned.
       Bail is no revolutionary: he does not want to smash the novel, and his disruptiveness remains like that of Bernhard entirely within the form (and homeland). It makes for an idiosyncratic work of fiction here -- though one of undeniable charm, ultimately as winning as Bernhard's sly smile.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 February 2013

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The Voyage: Reviews: Murray Bail: Other books by Murray Bail under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Australian literature at the complete 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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© 2013-2021 the complete review

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