The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction - Vol. 3

By John Clement Ball | Go to book overview

B

Bail, Murray
JOHN ATTRIDGE

Murray Bail occupies a unique place in recent Australian literature, combining self-conscious formalism with an idiosyncratic vision of Australianness. His small, highly wrought oeuvre appears as a bold attempt to redefine the fiction of national identity, eschewing the canons of realism in favor of a more cosmopolitan modernist tradition.

Born on September 22, 1941, Bail’s childhood and adolescence were spent in Adelaide, a city he has described as “the most boring place on Earth” (Hawley 44). The complacent parochialism of this postwar milieu, dominated by the conservative figure of Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies, is dissected in his novel Holden’s Performance (1987). Bail lived abroad between 1968 and 1975, sojourning in India and England and accumulating the travel experiences that would inform his first novel, Homesickness (1980). With the exception of compatriot Patrick White, Bail tends to identify less with Australian writers than with a European, avant garde literary tradition, acknowledging in particular the influence of Franz Kafka (Davidson 274). His erudite interest in art history and aesthetics is reflected in his 1981 monograph on the painter Ian Fairweather.

Bail’s writing has remained rigorously consistent in its style and preoccupations, although the facetiousness of his early fiction has given way to a more lyrical mood in the last two novels. All of his four novels deliberately engage with the idea of national character, often building their surreal conceits and quirky theories around the totems and icons of the Australian cultural imaginary. Bail’s truculent take on national clichés, along with his persistent interest in collecting and classification, were already apparent in his first book, Contemporary Portraits and Other Stories (1975). In “Huebler,” a photographer attempts an exhaustive typology of humankind, while “The Drover’s Wife”–a kind of suburban “My Last Duchess”–has a dentist narrate the back-story to Russell Drysdale’s iconic painting.

Homesickness follows the itinerary of 13 Australians on a package tour that takes them to Africa, England, Ecuador, New York, and the USSR. The peculiarities and emotional handicaps of the group emerge gradually against a backdrop of satirical, often surreal, museums and attractions, like the Collection of Pygmies, containing diminutive likenesses of Western political figures. Although episodic in structure, the novel skillfully develops the relationships that germinate among the tourists, such as the romance between a whimsical intellectual and the unhappy wife of a sadistic dentist. Bail’s sharp ear for dialogue, especially the tedium of small talk, bestows a vivid reality on these elliptically sketched characters, although some, like the lonely larrikin Garry Atlas, are more burlesque than others.

Bail apparently regrets that “a kind of applied psychology has taken over story-telling,” and largely forgoes conventional characterization in the endeavor to craft contemporary myths (1998, 24). Both the strengths and weaknesses of this approach are apparent in Holden’s Performance, an ironic national epic that lacks the readerly pleasures of identifying with characters, but which effectively fuses witty sketches of

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The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction - Vol. 3
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Editors i
  • The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Literature WWW.Literatureencyclopedia.Com ii
  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • List of Entries vii
  • Acknowledgments xiii
  • Notes on Contributors to Volume III xv
  • Introduction to Volume III 937
  • A 942
  • B 980
  • C 995
  • D 1034
  • E 1052
  • F 1066
  • G 1094
  • H 1121
  • I 1145
  • J 1154
  • K 1167
  • L 1180
  • M 1198
  • N 1252
  • O 1270
  • P 1277
  • Q 1296
  • R 1300
  • S 1325
  • T 1365
  • U 1370
  • V 1373
  • W 1378
  • Z 1398
  • Index 1400
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