It's was Tony's enthusiasm and having appreciated Bail's Eucalyptus that prompted me to read this book. I wasn't surprised by its strangeness; after all, Tony described it as ambiguous, elusive, and enigmatic.
The tale begins in a conventional way: two 40-something women leave Sydney for an adventure in western New South Wales on a sheep farm. Erica teaches philosophy at a university, Sophie is a psychoanalyst. The philosopher has been asked to evaluate the writing of a recently deceased man who purportedly had written a philosophical treatise. Her friend came along as a distraction from her always messy love life.
Erica learned from the Antill family solicitor that the parents of the "philosopher" had apparently made enough money farming so that the mother could live in an apartment in Sydney. One son and the daughter (Roger and Lindsey) worked at the farm while Wesley, the philosopher, traveled for several years in Europe. After the father died Wesley returned to the farm and spent his remaining years writing, while his siblings worked the farm.
Two strands unfold simultaneously: first, the increasingly odd story of Erica and Sophie meeting the siblings Lindsay and Roger and learning a bit about the philosopher's life. The other is Wesley's time in Europe that begins oddly and continues on that path. Sometimes Wesley narrates and sometimes it's told in the third person. He travels first to London.
The first hotel was almost next door to the British Library. After a restless night he stopped out and noticed he had been trying to sleep in the shadow of hundreds of tons of paper, millions, more like trillions, of printed, never resting words. Those desperate descriptions, classifications, explanations and rhyming couplets under one roof. It was not what he wanted just then. Another hotel in W2 he left after experiencing their nylon sheets. Smell of gas in another.
Meanwhile back at the farm, for several days Erica is unable to enter the woolshed where Wesley did his writing and where all his papers were. Sophie asks the probing (if useless) questions of her profession, "What are you feeling?" and has fraught interactions with Erica. Shortly after Erica finally enters the woodshed, Sophie arrives to make an angry accusation and spills her mug of coffee on many pages of philosophy, making them unreadable.
There are plenty of pages left and the siblings are not perturbed by this development. Erica has a growing connection to the siblings as she comments that it will take a very long time to read the remaining pages and make an evaluation. Bail ends with several pages of the short statements. A few examples:
We end up becoming.
The puzzle can never change: "How do I relate to the world and to that which I call my life?" Except it needs to be generalized.
Of course the philosopher can only despise photography. It is the enemy of philosophy, of what cannot be seen.
We are philosophers; we cannot help being.
I repeat Tony's description: ambiguous, elusive, and enigmatic. Wesley doesn't seem too close to being able to create a coherent philosophy, Erica doesn't seem too inclined to determine this, and Sophie seems awfully mercurial to be an analyst. Charlotte remains in the dark.
Murray Bail, The Pages, Other Press (New York), originally Text Publishing in Australia, 2008, 196 pages. Available from the UVa library and from Amazon.