27 Jun 2008

Modesty prevails

"IT'S AN awful era in a sense because it's the age of narcissism. It's probably worse than global warming," says Murray Bail, leaning over his macchiato with theatrical gloom. "It must have something to do with the flood through every part of society of popular culture, of film, photography, television and performance. All this 'look at me' stuff. People don't read as much, they can't write; you get film stars giving their views on everything. It's quite serious but nothing can be done about it. As soon as you complain you look like an antique."

Bail is the antithesis of narcissism. He once walked off the stage during a session at Adelaide Writers' Week. ("I wouldn't do that now; I've got better manners. I wouldn't be there in the first place.") He recently installed an answering machine at his Potts Point apartment but it has no message, so the caller hears a long, disconcerting silence and a beep.

If he could avoid this interview he would but, having agreed, he creeps across Macleay Street, a mixture of urban dude and downcast Eeyore in a grey suit, black suede shoes and sunglasses. Curled into a booth in a French bistro, he will talk for the next five hours. He is, once started, an erudite and amusing companion, a droll storyteller and an attentive gossip.

His slim yet intricate new novel, The Pages, is in part an argument against narcissism. It is ostensibly the story of Wesley Antill, an enigmatic philosopher who has died leaving his work-in-progress in a shed on his family's property in western NSW. Hoping to discover his genius, his brother and sister invite Erica, an academic philosopher, to assess the scattered papers. For company Erica brings Sophie, a psychoanalyst at the end of an affair with a married man. Two women in their 40s, they represent different ways of viewing life and making both a success and a mess of it.

This is Bail's first novel since Eucalyptus, which came out 10 years ago in more than 20 countries, sold more than 100,000 copies in Australia, was a New York Times notable book and won the Miles Franklin Award, the ASAL Gold Medal for Literature and the Commonwealth Writers Prize. It almost became a film starring Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman (and there are hints it could be revived, without Kidman, if Baz Luhrmann's Australia proves popular).

Eucalyptus had universal appeal, Bail says, because of its mythological, Shakespearean premise: a grazier who challenges the suitors of his 19-year-old daughter to name every gumtree on his property and the young man who conjures a tale from each one. The new novel is less obviously myth-based but still uses archetypal characters. "It's very dangerous to disobey archetypes in art; it's so deep-structured in us," Bail says.

Read More......