June 8, 2014

‘Voyage’ is oddly compelling story about odd man

“The Voyage” by Murray Bail (MacLehose Press, 166 pages, $22.95)

“The Voyage” by Murray Bail (MacLehose Press, 166 pages, $22.95)

“The Voyage” is an odd little novel, about an odd little man on an odd little mission. And its story is oddly compelling, in a quiet, slowly building way.

The story takes place on the slow boat from Europe to Australia, a cargo ship with few passengers. Frank Delage, who has invented a new kind of piano, went to Vienna with hopes of making a splash with his creation, and is now on the voyage home. But we soon see he’s not alone: he left his piano in Vienna, but is accompanied back to Sydney by a beautiful, cultured, 10-years-younger (this fact is mentioned several times) Viennese woman.

Delage isn’t a salesman or a showman; he’s an engineer and a craftsman, and has a meticulous, curious, yet blend-into-the-background sort of personality. He describes himself as “someone without edges … after a certain distance he tended to fade.” So it is with interest that we wait to find out how Elisabeth von Schalla, daughter of one of the most prominent socialites in Vienna, wound up on the ship with him.

Bail’s writing in “The Voyage” is very stream-of-consciousness, shifting between Vienna and the ship, sometimes within a single sentence, which is sometimes jarring and sometimes feels more like the rocking of a ship, back and forth, back and forth. He doesn’t appear overly fond of periods or even paragraphs – some paragraphs go on for pages, even including dialogue. Delage is treated with quite a bit of depth, but most of the other characters – Elisabeth, her parents, the other passengers on the ship – we see from a single angle, maybe two.

But Bail’s writing has an intimacy to its distance: We are both inside the characters and looking at them from outside, and the details of what happened are parceled out steadily enough that we remain curious not only about the recent events in Vienna, but about what will happen with Delage and Elisabeth.

“The Voyage” is a short book, but it’s not a “quick read.” Its structure demands attention and its pace is far more slow-burn than page-turner. But it invites thought, on human nature and happiness, on the state of music, on the clash of old and new.

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