Sunday, 10 February 2013

'Eucalyptus', by Murray Bail

Eucalyptus, the book which won Murray Bail the 1999 Miles Franklin Award and Commonwealth Writers Prize, is one of the Athenaeum Book Club selections for 2013. The basic ‘plot’ of this book, as described to me when I collected my copy from the library desk, did not spark my interest: a father decides that any suitor seeking the hand of his only daughter, Ellen, must correctly name all the eucalyptus trees on the father’s land.

Nor did the book itself grab my undivided attention when I began to read - it lulled me off to sleep for four or five nights in row. Losing track of the characters and the story line proved easy, but my enjoyment of Bail's imagery and use of language did not flag:

Silver light slanted into the motionless trunks, as if coming from narrow windows. The cathedral has taken its cue from the forest. The vaulted roof soaring to the heavens, pillars in smooth imitation of trees, even the obligatory echo, are calculated to make a person feel small, and so trigger feelings of obscure wonder. In cathedral and forest, making even a scraping noise would trample soft feelings. For this reason, Ellen unconsciously continued on tiptoe.

Not a bad way to describe walking through the Australian bush (p 100).

Of course, as I read further, I marvelled that an author would think of eucalypts as a premise for such a highly original novel, blending fiction and non-fiction. I loved the mentions of eucalypts in far-flung corners of the globe, and the drawing of various clever analogies, but the randomness of the story-telling in the book tried my patience.

Afterwards I looked for the online commentary on this book - analysis, reviews – and found these more interesting, in a way, than the book itself. Ah - why hadn’t I seen instantly that it was a fairy story, a deliberately Australian fairy story, requiring the reader to suspend belief? Now I understood my incredulity that a female covered in small brown-black moles and described as speckled could be so irresistible to men; and that two men standing side-by-side and pissing against the trunk of any eucalypt less than 10 years old could somehow miss seeing Ellen standing on the other side of that same slender tree trunk.

This magical tree was E. maidenii, Ellen’s favourite tree, the one with the nail where she later hung her wet dress. My brain snapped to attention with the word maidenii – was Bail about to introduce the reader to Joseph Henry Maiden, Sydney’s famous botanist? Sadly, no. Maiden wasn’t mentioned and his magnum opus A Critical Revision of the Genus Eucalyptus, published in eight volumes from 1903 to 1933 and still used as a basic text, received absolutely no credit for its massive contribution to Bail’s text and story-line. (Maiden was following in the footsteps of another famous botanist, Ferdinand von Mueller, who published Eucalyptographia in 1883.) Neither botanist was mentioned in an SMH article on 5 Feb 2005 taking Bail to task for almost verbatim 'lifts’ of text (one describing E. maidenii) from an out-of-print book, Eucalypts Vols One & Two by Stan Kelly, George Chippendale and Robert Johnston, published in 1969 and 1978. I haven't checked the nominated 'lifts' against the Maiden or Mueller versions of the text, but I wouldn't be surprised to find that the exact matches come from these earlier books.

Bail’s focus on E. merrickiae (p 95) while he completely ignored E. flocktoniae offended me too. Miss Mary Merrick was a librarian at the Royal Botanic Garden in Sydney, where her colleague Miss Margaret Flockton (the subject of my next book) was Maiden’s famous scientific botanical artist. Maiden claimed that Margaret was practically his joint author, but Bail’s only indication that she even existed came with his passing acknowledgement of ‘a few watercolour artists’.

So these are my personal criticisms of a book entitled Eucalyptus, but what other reviewers disliked, I quite enjoyed – especially the analogy on pp 32-4 between a paragraph and a paddock.

Now that I better understand the book, and its unusual love story, I realise I should have paid more attention by reading it more slowly, savouring it in solid blocks of time. Margaret Flockton would have loved its focus on her beloved eucalypts and the central role played by E. Maidenii. I think I’ll re-read it.