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Murray Bail – The Pages

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Murray Bail makes me fall in love with reading again. I picked up his newest novel, The Pages, yesterday – bought it on the basis of his name and the blurb on the back.
No one writes Australia like Bail, his description of driving along Parramatta road in the first chapter alone is enough reason to read the book. The second chapter is a discussion about why Sydney has produced no great philosophers and has instead become a city of self-obsession, of psychoanalysts. It finishes like this:

It has become the age of the self; confessions in public all over the place, the spillage of the ‘I’, and in private, in a quietly structured structured manner (the therapist has replaced the priest). And who is doing this talk? Not ill, at least not seriously, the self-obsessed personalities have a concentrated, almost technical interested in the self, as if they were specimens. Interest in others tends to be perfunctory, impatient, showy. It is they who have a natural attraction to analysis, where again they can dwell solely on themselves, the problematical ‘I’, and , since this is the very source of their difficulties in the first place, there is a real danger of psychoanalysis not uncovering, but giving shape to, and confirming, a person’s self-obsession. Eight, ten years in analysis is not uncommon. In Sydney parents have been sending their own children, not yet in their teens, into psychoanalysis – ironing out the unformed mind before the unevenness of everyday life could give proportion of self-correction.
Years spent murmuring the endless circling sentence, while the analyst remains almost, though not quite, hidden.
A philosopher would not allow this; but when needed there were none.

There are allusions to Foucault’s History of Sexuality here, and indeed, the second chapter of the novel is a mini-archaeology of the Sydney-self. But Bail’s concern with Sydney, and with the long trip out to the Western Plains, alerts us to the fact that geography rather than history is the more dominant concern: the ways in which our mental geography is moulded to the contours of our physical space. As always, Bail’s dense, brushstroke-like prose is relentlessly external to his characters: we know what his people think, but only in the same way that we know what the dust smells like and how the trees stand. The confessing self is almost totally excluded.

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