Reviewed: Eucalyptus, by Murray Bail, Text Publishing, 1998.
Is it every (thinking) man’s fantasy to woo the beautiful girl from the father with the trick and the telling of stories? I don’t know. It is not something I have imagined. But Murray Bail imagines this, or something like it, in Eucalyptus, his new novel, which is not about art, feminine beauty, landscape and language as the cover blurb says. This novel is about men, what men are and how they are, and it is also about how men see woman. Perhaps it is even about masculinity; the thoughts and fears and preoccupations and smells of men; cigarettes, whisky, soil and sweat; the sounds of their voices, their fears and longings; their knowledges—science, collecting, experience, boasts, their regard for each other, their intimacy, I don’t know.
Ellen, the putative female character of Eucalyptus, lives with her father, and so we have a novel about fathers and daughters, fear and longing, protection and rebellion, control and freedom, lust and ignorance. When Ellen, late in the book, takes to her bed with an illness inexplicable to the men—the father, the doctor, the suitor—I had a moment of recognition, I almost cried with relief. Only women cry in this book, natural little rabbits that they are when they are not being bleached blonde harridans at their Double Bay hairdresser (he is mannered camp of course). It’s that easy.
Eucalyptus is easy, and it is expected that I will find it easy to say these sorts of things about this very considered and knowing and clever and poetic novel, studded with references and puns and quips and jibes. Just when you think if you read another pun you’ll scream, Eucalyptus confides in the reader: ‘Really, puns are invariably a nuisance—and of no consequence. They’re seen as a way to shift to one side of the true essence of things, an evasion which doesn’t get anyone anywhere:
Hooray you cry, just in time; as this writing is almost always in time, and as none of the characters actually go anywhere, the pun is the perfect vehicle for them.
For various reasons—that it’s a great road novel is one—I have had cause to reread Lolita recently, so I recognise the hat tipped to Nabokov in the luscious prose of sexual longing and act (always denied of course, as it should be): ‘Encircling her waist he gently pulled her onto his lap, where she became smothered in his years, his whiskers and tobacco, the fairly firm straightforwardness which showed in the smallness of his movements. “There’s a good girl …” he kept stroking her hair.’ I love that ‘fairly firm straightforwardness’.
When Ellen takes to her bed and longs for her lost lover, she obsessively reruns the movie of their moments together. This is perfectly done, as is the helplessness of the vertical, the upright, the still standing men. So, after all, there is some power in her dreadful passivity, the intransigence of it. If I just stay here, she swoons, it will not happen; or, if I stay here long enough, forever, something will happen. And it does.
Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, the Beast and Rumpelstiltskin, even a spot of Scheherazade: the young man tells stories staying the moment of surrender—his, hers, the father’s, the suitor’s—giving the novelist the freedom to write on, ranging over the land, the terrain of men. And yes, there’s art and feminine beauty, and there’s quite a lot about the business of writing: the importance of restraint when using the colloquial; blowing kisses of direct address to the reader; notes on the paragraph, the Australian novel; and this, the perfect statement on the problem of dreams in fiction:
Descriptions of dreams have a dubious place in storytelling. For these are dreams that have been imagined—‘dreamed up’, to be slotted in. A story can be made up. How can a dream be made up? By not rising of its own free will from the unconscious it sets a note of falsity, merely illustrating something ‘dream-like’, which maybe why dream descriptions within stories seem curiously meaningless … turn the page …
Let me be serious for a moment (although Eucalyptus does not really call for seriousness. ‘Read and enjoy,’ it says, ‘delight in this sentence, this story, see where I have been careful and careless, superb and silly, yes I know, no novel is perfect, but some are charming and horrifying at the same time.’) A father decides his daughter will marry the one who names every one of the several hundred eucalypts he has planted. This is the story, a simple frame to explore the father, the lone stranger come to town, the planter of trees and then Ellen: ‘She was his daughter. He could do anything he liked with her.’ To explore the national landscape, the trees, and always men, the exclusive life of men, and their view of women; literally, the way they look at Ellen: ‘in the pale combination of flesh and water, which can be taken to the lips or penetrated by the hand, three dark areas beckoned.’
That the book falters on women all the time is part of the point, but its view of men, who are equally types, is equally although less obsessively absurd: ‘It was odd how two men repeatedly put down blocks of matter and left it at that. In tone and steadiness they were tarpaulined trucks with heavy loads, now and then changing down a gear …’
And: ‘They were talking about snakes, sizes of, where seen, how almost stepped on, etc. Snake stories vary only in length from man to man.’ Of course.
Eucalyptus floats close to its own sceptical parameters, as it must when snakes join the story, as they must in this Australian novel (not) about the bush. When Ellen observes ‘These two were now searching around inside their trousers …’ you almost smile with the banality, the inevitability, the unresisted cliché of it all.
Then on the next page there are things that satisfy: ‘A large part of an architect’s genius is in the winning of the argument.’
I am sure Murray Bail would dislike the term ‘postmodernism’ applied to his novel, and indeed the p-m elements that apply here are common to much modernist work, so perhaps this is an old-fashioned/modern novel of types—the mad father, the passive girl languishing around in the water waiting for her prince, the dreadful old bore of a suitor and, now, the handsome young stranger with his stories of girls and their fathers.
It is the stories that matter here, and the sentences. Some are fine: ‘Piano, violins and humidity: infinite melancholy’. Others are frippery: ‘As for the green blouse she normally wore only on special occasions it somehow added impatience to her speckled beauty’.
One of the stories tums around a red-gum seed spilled on the ground in Italy and taking root there when everyone knows that river red gums need flood water to germinate their seeds. Eucalyptus banishes realism, which for me is always a relief. The pleasure of the text is in your interaction with it—yes, no, stop, too much, oh really, please, all right, nice, OK, OK, I like that, thanks, Uh?
Meaning, that slippery, sensuous, clamorous thing that in writing (as much as any art) depends on rhythm and sound, in fiction can also be a visual thing, the words on the page, and in this book the writing gives up everything for the eye and the ear; you could open this book at any page and start reading and experience pleasure, narrative, engagement and crankiness.
And it’s harmless enough. So what if this book looks at women as little objects for the male gaze; we do not want the homogeneous and we do want to know, again and again, that that is what they think. At least it knows it’s doing it, and looks at the blokes with a sort of banality that might be worse.
Anecdotal evidence: Rosa would read it differently. She’s twenty, favours Dickens, Armistead Maupin and Irvine Welsh, but she would recognise the figure of the father as a metaphor of her own father, who thinks no man is good enough for his daughters and who, in his vast and specialised knowledge, can talk the leg off an iron pot. But who is, she would also point out with some glee, kept well in line by her youngest sister; they live together, a father and daughter relationship where beauty and intelligence and emotion are present but where passivity, feminine or masculine, is not.
I think about this, these girls who manage their lives, their fathers, their lovers, their friends, and for whom reading is an everyday event—books, reading, movies, the beach, the hairdresser, everything—and I wonder at the resilience of the masculine myths.
Which brings me to the ending of the novel, which has been criticised by some for being happy. It had to be a happy ending. Ellen had to do something, that is what happens. Young women do not lie around waiting for their fathers to deal them their life, or worse, kill them (metaphorically or literally). She could not die of consumption, not yet, she had barely written a word, and so she must go towards love, passion, at least towards the lust she has been languishing in for most of the 250-odd pages. And while I don’t want to introduce a realist note here, it is what young women do, what women do, what men, for that matter, do. They go towards love and life, they fly, escape, save themselves. It’s not as if the last line of the book is ‘they lived happily ever after’.
Eucalyptus is a rewriting of the landscape, national and literary. The play of the stories and the listing and description of the eucalypts across the page is lightly done and dense in its effects; readers will see the place differently, perhaps, but not too differently. It is a pity Bail did not go to the edges of men and lay a few ghost gums across the track.