Murray Bail Biography
Nationality: Australian. Born: Adelaide, South Australia, 1941. Education: Norwood Technical High School, Adelaide. Career: Lived in India, 1968-70, and in England and Europe, 1970-74. Member of the Council, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1976-81. Awards: The Age Book of the Year award, 1980; National Book Council award, 1980; Victorian Premier's award, 1988.
Homesickness. Melbourne, Macmillan, 1980; London, Faber, 1986;New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1999.
Holden's Performance. London, Faber, 1987.
Eucalyptus. New York, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998.
Contemporary Portraits and Other Stories. St. Lucia, University ofQueensland Press, 1975; as The Drover's Wife, London, Faber, 1986.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Healing," in New Yorker, 16 April 1979.
"Home Ownership," In Winter's Tales 27, edited by Edward Leeson. London, Macmillan, 1981; New York, St. Martin's Press, 1982.
Ian Fairweather. Sydney, Bay, 1981.
Longhand: A Writer's Notebook. Fitzroy, Victoria, McPhee Gribble, 1989.
Editor, The Faber Book of Contemporary Australian Short Stories. London, Faber, 1988.
Editor, Fairweather. Queensland, Australia, Art and Australia Books, 1994.
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Murray Bail is, with Peter Carey and Frank Moorhouse, one of the chief innovators in the tradition of the Australian short story and is especially associated with its revival in the early and mid-1970s. Since then he has established a reputation as one of Australia's most original and distinctive novelists. Bail's first book was a collection of short stories titled Contemporary Portraits and Other Stories. The first of many tricks is that there no story called "Contemporary Portraits." The collection was later republished as The Drover's Wife and Other Stories. Bail's interest in the relationship between language and reality is present in all the stories and especially "Zoellner's Definition." "The Drover's Wife" is a rewriting of Henry Lawson's classic story. Bail's version is a monologue by the deserted husband, based on a famous painting by Russell Drysdale. The story "Portrait of Electricity" contains the seeds of Bail's first novel, Homesickness. A great man is defined in terms of the various examples and pieces of evidence of his existence contained in a museum devoted to him, beginning with an ashtray and culminating in an example of his excrement. The stories display the strange mixture of surrealist fantasy and broad satire of Australian mores that characterizes all of Bail's work.
The motif of the museum is taken up in Homesickness, a funny, inventive, highly intelligent novel. Bail's obsession is with mythologizing what he sees as so far an unmythologized and therefore unpossessed country. A group of travelers from Australia set out to tour the world. As they do so they shift about and continually form new groups, new liaisons. At the same time they visit a series of museums, each of which seems a kind of paradigm of the culture it represents. The museum in Quito, Ecuador, for instance, is a Museum of Handicrafts. Many of the artifacts are British anachronisms, symbolic of the occupation of the country in the nineteenth century. In New York they see a reenacted mugging. In London there is a Museum of Lost and Found Objects. There are many internal and self-referential jokes, witty aphorisms, characters with figurative names. There is a little African boy whose name is Oxford University Press and who, asked what he wants to be when he grows up, says "A tourist." Throughout all the wit and ingenuity Bail's concerns emerge with striking consistency. His interest in nationality is only part of his larger interest in identity, which is also central to the novel's motifs of tourism, museums, homesickness ("They could hear Sasha being homesick in the basin") and national differences: at one stage the party go into a series of cliches about national identity that lasts for three pages. And in turn concern with identity merges into concern with language and the relationship between language and experience.
Holden's Performance is again an attempt to mythologize Australia. As the controlling metaphor for the previous novel had been Australians circling the world looking for themselves and their home, so in this it is Australia's national car and icon, General Motors' Holden; the title refers to both "Australia's own car," as it used to be advertised, and the protagonist, Holden Shadbolt, who is made a deliberately representative figure. The novel covers his career from his birth in 1932 to the mid-1960s when he departs for the United States. The motif of the car is carried skillfully through to the final pages of the novel, which are a summary of the character of Holden and by implication of the national identity: "Ability to idle all day. Slight overheating," etc.
Bail makes it clear in all sorts of ways that in documenting the career of Holden he is also documenting the history of Australia from the 1930s, and even earlier, to the mid-1960s and the end of the reign of the Prime Minister, R. G. Menzies, whom he calls in the novel R. G. Amen. At one point in the novel we are told of Hoadley, the ambassador to Egypt, that "More than most ambassadors it seems he had this obsession for building bridges—between men and city, city and country, words and action, the imagination and fact." The same is true of the author. The preoccupation with language is evident to the point where Bail says that there is a "solidarity of words and objects," and this is one thing he tries to show. Holden literally eats words—newsprint: "What did Holden's early growth consist of? Words, words: a flawed gray-and-white view of the world." His health suffers as a result of the many errors in the newspapers he digests.
Bail's most recent novel, Eucalyptus, won him a number of literary awards. It opens with a discussion of the desertorum or Hooked Mallee, one of several hundred species of Eucalyptus, Australia's national tree. But almost immediately this turns into parodic speculations on the national character: "And anyway the very word, desert-or-um, harks back to a stale version of the national landscape and from there is a more or less straight line onto the national character, all those linings of the soul and the larynx, which have their origins in the bush, so it is said, the poetic virtues (can you believe it?) of being belted about by droughts, bushfires, smelly sheep and so on; and let's not forget the isolation, the exhausted shapeless women, the crude language, the always wide horizon, and the flies." All this—the preoccupation with myths of the Australian character, the self-referentiality, the investing of physical objects with figurative qualities—is familiar in Bail's work. What is surprising is that beneath all its game-playing and cerebrality, Eucalyptus is an unexpectedly human and even tender novel.
This account of a farmer who offers the hand of his spectacularly beautiful daughter to the man who can correctly name each of the five hundred species of eucalyptus tree he has planted on his property is a love story, a fairy tale and also, to a certain extent, a detective story in which the author plants clues as carefully as his protagonist plants his beloved trees. The husband and suitor of the beautiful Ellen are both good men in their own ways but their masculinity is bound up, in an Australian way, with emotional inhibition. In contrast, the femininity of the "speckled" Ellen is constantly stressed and she is associated with water, with softness and flexibility, with nature. As the fable of the storytelling stranger who finally wins her suggests, she is the young woman held captive by an ogre, thinking constantly of ways to escape. That she eventually does so is suggested in the closing paragraph of this wonderful novel.
Bail's intense interest in the visual arts led to his writing a biography of the Australian painter Ian Fairweather. He is also the author of Longhand: a Writer's Notebook, which offers fascinating insights into his own artistic practice.
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