He. Murray Bail. Text Publishing, $27.99.
Sensing failure, Murray Bail pulled his first novel apart and put it in the rubbish bin, but a London garbage strike meant for weeks the pages fluttered around him on the street: words he couldn't shake off.
Bail's new book is full of memories, stories told and half told, recollections that flutter and reconnect. It is a considered accumulation of a lifetime's observations and experiences. He., published in March by Text, deliberately avoids the constraints and fallibilities of autobiography or memoir. This is something, while true, that is quite different.
"I was going to ask you, do you think it's fiction?" Bail says to me on the phone from his home in Sydney. It's a rare interview, the first given to a newspaper in more than a decade.
No, I say. It's definitely not fiction.
"The novelist in me and, as I say, I'm essentially a novelist - I did use bits of timing and placement of things to form an overall narrative," Bail says. "It ends up reading like a story, doesn't it?"
The story begins in Adelaide, where thoughts on weighty matters "seemed to be obscured by the asphalt, the footpaths, the houses, traffic, powerlines and family nearby". He. begins with a photograph being taken of he - the unnamed figure of the book, a representation of Bail - at the age of 12. In a handful of pages, images from a lifetime of travel and experience splay out - a 1948 department store fire, the Suez Canal, Paris, the Mississippi River in flood, milkbars. There are the funny feelings, misgivings and life markers that show a changing culture and country. The introduction of the Pill is as profound as the rise of smartphone. People have private conversations on the bus now. The empty streets of 1950s Adelaide feel like the streets of Sydney shut down by coronavirus. Many of these are moments from a disappearing Australia.
At the end of the first section, a statement: "I began writing out of dissatisfaction."
It all began because for some reason, probably my age, I was just thinking how, you know, people are figures that move around on the earth. I'm an individual just amongst them, and how am I different?Murray Bail
Bail, who still calls himself a modernist, was born in Adelaide in 1941. His first story was published in Meanjin in 1966, part of a new wave of Australian short story writing. A novel, Homesickness, appeared in 1980. Since then, Bail's writing career has been punctuated by long pauses; he has published five novels in four decades. Eucalyptus - the book Bail calls his "albatross" - was published in 1998. Is contemporary fairy tale the right description for it? A father on a large property in NSW says the man who can correctly name all the eucalypts on the farm can have his beautiful daughter's hand in marriage. Bail calls it the oldest story in the world. It won the Miles Franklin and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, confirming Bail's place as one of Australia's most important writers.
Bail tells me it's usually best if writers don't give too much away. He generally avoids the "public stuff"; interviews are uncommon. He's given hints, though - perhaps by mistake. Volumes of notebook entries were published in 1989 and 2005, covering the periods Bail spent living and working in India and London, and time in Sydney. He never intended them to be published.
"I just jotted stuff down. It was never - I never thought - I never wanted them to be read by others, these notes. And I forget how they - I think it was a bit of a mistake to publish them actually. Most of what a writer does is best to be mysterious, I think. Otherwise it looks a bit straight lined, a bit corny sometimes," he says.
Perhaps this is an aversion to the type detailed analysis which Bail suggests offers very little.
Bail tells me someone once sent him a thesis they had written about his work, which he found mostly impenetrable. "I could understand about 10 per cent of it. It was in English, but because it was so arcane and every other word was Foucault or Barthes, so really I couldn't get through it," he says.
Academics are not getting into the heart of the book, Bail says. "It's slightly impersonal and often pointless." They're reading along in parallel, never actually interacting with the book at hand.
"It's sort of a haven or a readers' safety thing. It's not real reading, for my money anyway. It can be a close reading, it often is - I think they're missing the point a bit. They might as well analyse a telephone directory," he says.
If academics ignore the suggestion and pick He. over the White Pages, there are plenty of intriguing connections between Bail's earlier work and this extended piece of non-fiction.
The eucalypts that popped up all over the world are there, the curious museum experiences that formed into Homesickness, a novel about Australian package tourists finding themselves and each other among the oddest of exhibits.
But He. did not have a plan, like a novel would be planned.
"I mean, look, I was sitting at my desk, allowing memories to, you know, [come in a] haphazard way, as all memories - just allow them to throw things up," Bail says. He wrote the first draft by hand in pencil.
"And yes, there were a few things that I recalled from the Notebooks, and I'd check them. But then I missed a few, I couldn't find them. And I forget now whether I wanted to write it slightly differently in He. or just throw the whole short thing back in."
Bail, who tells me he has never re-read his books because he would get miserable or cranky, says he wouldn't be surprised if unintentional patterns emerged.
"Someone once, reviewing Patrick White, said virtually every single novel said there was a description of teeth, someone's teeth; it denotes a personality in some way. And I thought, well, all right, there's nothing wrong with that. I'm sure there'd be - you know, some of these writers who've written huge numbers of work, like novels, like Balzac, there's bound to be repetitions here and there," he says.
That's the nature of memories. Themes repeat in lives, even when those lives don't have trajectories devised by authors. There's a big gap between memory and autobiography, too. Autobiography is polished and preened, positioned as an objective account. But is it a flawed exercise from the beginning? Bail writes in He.: "Apparently no memory is exact. And when written down the imperfection expands."
"Anyone writing non-fiction knows whether they're writing a novel or not," Bail says. "And novel writing is much harder, generally speaking, than writing non-fiction. The novels I've written were much more difficult than writing He. But yes, well, in this case the publisher - I was insistent on saying it's not autobiography or not memoir.
"But as soon as you say that, your preferred description begins to sound pretentious. But I was - look, it all began because for some reason, probably my age, I was just thinking how, you know, people are figures that move around on the earth. I'm an individual just amongst them, and how am I different? What has affected me more than - differently to anyone else? What places and circumstances, people, you know?
"I thought I'd mark it down and sort of go with it to work out, to see what happens. That's what I did. ... So I made it clear to the publisher it was more abstract - or more impersonal than autobiography or memoir. It's really - it's more an illustration of memory, or a memoir of time. But that doesn't sound very good, but that's really what it is."
A novelist, of course, exists in the world, stimulated and shaped by it. It's a different task to a memoirist or a keeper of notebooks. A bit later, I ask Bail whether the ultimate sign of experience for a novelist is whether they can create characters who aren't drawn from life.
"Well in my opinion, yes. Others would say, what rubbish. Part of what I would say is that there are very few novels anywhere that are sort of substantial written by under 30, someone under 30. Maybe even under 35," he says.
"But around about then all the good ones start, and you could go further and worse by saying, well, not many great novels have been written over 50 or 60. I mean, the brain, after all, does get a bit worn out, doesn't it? There are plenty of poets under 30, mathematicians of course, composers. But very few novels have been written - you know, top class novels."
He. is very different from a novel, a far more personal book - and the reaction could be personal. Bail and I speak the day before He. is published. He says he's more concerned about the reception to the book than to his novels, where you can dismiss people who dislike them because not everyone likes every book. This one, even in the remote third-person, is still about me, Bail says.
"I just feel that if there's any criticism, let alone an attack, it'll affect me directly. Having said that, as long as it's not - doesn't come across as vain or pretentious, that's the best," Bail says.
"And it's the best I could have done anyway."
Perhaps the question at the heart of He. is who can be the author of their own story? What do we really know of ourselves? Bail does not try to be the author of his; he is marking down his memories, creating a piece of literature instead. He. becomes a different kind of revealing self portrait. Divulging secrets and dropping names isn't the only way to uncover something of ourselves.