My love affair with Patrick White, figuratively speaking, began in my last year of high school when I studied Voss. Always partial to Aussie literature, I was, at 17 or 18, bowled over by White’s writing, passion and vision – and by his rather acerbic, though mostly compassionate, view of the way people submerge their “selves” in exterior trappings. I was consequently thrilled when Text decided to publish his first novel as part of its Text Classics series because this book, first published in 1939, was not published again in White’s lifetime. His decision, not his fans, I might add!
Why White refused its republication is a matter of some conjecture. He describes it in his autobiography, Flaws in the glass (1981), as “my first published, best forgotten novel”. Whatever the facts, being published in England and New York in 1939 probably made it easy to “lose”. All I can say is that it’s a great shame, because this is one helluva novel.
But let’s not conjecture, and get on with the book. It’s hard though to know where to start. As a newly released but first Patrick White, it’s going to be (and probably already has, but I’ve kept my eyes averted) the subject of much critical and literary analysis. How, this amateur blogger thinks, can I add to that? By, I suppose, just picking a few things that interested me.
There were several things that interested me in this novel, besides the fact that it is a good read. Perhaps I’d better explain that, the plot, first. It’s set in, yes, a town called Happy Valley, in the Snowy Mountains-Monaro region of New South Wales, just south of where I live and where Patrick White was a jackeroo for a year. If you know Patrick White, you’ll know the town’s name is ironic because White’s people are rarely happy. Life tends to be, for them, disappointing at best, sterile, depressing and/or meaningless at worst. In this book we have a large number of people and families, representing a cross-section of a typical country town: the doctor (Holliday), the teacher (Moriarty), the squatter (Furlow), the storekeepers (Quongs), the banker (Belper), the piano teacher (Alys Browne), the farm worker and “stud” (Clem Hagan), the “simpleton” (Chuffy Chambers). The novel begins and ends with the doctor, but its subject matter is the desire to escape. Many of the town’s residents don’t want to be there, and dream of ways out. Alys dreams of California, Hilda Holliday of Queensland, Sidney Furlow of anywhere-but-here, and so on. For the most part the novel chronicles the relationships between the people, explores the sources of their discontent, and teases them with future possibilities. It seems, until near the end, that nothing particularly dramatic will happen but then a shocking event occurs which precipitates decisions – some big, some small – that will change the lives of those concerned. For the better? Well, that’s a question for us readers to consider, but it’s important to recognise that for White the important decisions/shifts that have to be made are internal. Here is Alys near the end, seeing her escape dream for what it was:
I shall not hurry, she said, I shall shape time with what I have already got.
It’s a good story – and it’s clearly White. There are a lot of characters, which can be the downfall of first novels, but White handles them well. The connections are clear and he keeps them all moving along so that we readers rarely, if ever, feel lost – once we have them in our heads.
What bowled me over most about the novel though is its style. It’s big – it’s inventive, expressive, rhythmic. As I was reading it, I was reminded of DH Lawrence (and his intense sensuality) and James Joyce (and his “stream of consciousness”). Peter Craven, who wrote the introduction to Text’s edition, agrees, and adds Gertrude Stein (whom I don’t know well enough) and Virginia Woolf (whom I should have picked too!). However, despite these pretty clear influences, the novel doesn’t feel slavish. Although this is (obviously) early in his career, his mature style is already evident. I was impressed by how he moves pretty seamlessly between description, dialogue and interior monologue, by how he shifts point-of-view, even within paragraphs, and by how, almost imperceptibly at times, he changes voice from third to second to first person. It’s spirited, gutsy writing. You feel, sometimes, that’s he’s strutting his stuff, but he rarely loses us and, while he may occasionally push a little too far, it doesn’t feel like showing-off but more like a writer with ideas bubbling out of him.
Earlier in the review, I mentioned writers that I felt influenced White, but now I want to mention one that I think was influenced by him, and that’s Thea Astley. She also had a pretty acerbic view of the world, and could skewer characters for their superficiality while maintaining, unless they really didn’t deserve it, compassion for them. White and Astley also use humour, usually wry or satiric rather than belly-laugh. I loved this description of a person in a bar early in the novel:
But another was an old man, one of those static old men you see in country bars, who seem to have no significance at all, except as recipients of drinks that they pour in through the meshes of a yellowish moustache, just standing and nodding, willing to listen to a story, but never giving much in return. They are generally called Abe or Joe. Though this one was called Barney, as a matter of fact.
That made me laugh; it’s the sort of writing that made me keep reading. But it’s not all quite this benign, because Happy Valley is a town where there “never was co-operation”, where “people existed in spite of each other”, where town “stud” Clem would like to “take a lump of wood, treat her almost like a snake”.
One of the threads running through the novel concerns the limits of language to express true feeling:
Both of them wanting to say something and then it only came in words.
White, I understand, would love to have been an artist, calling himself a “painter manque”, but oh dear, what words we would have missed had he done so.
Lisa of ANZ Litlovers, also a Patrick White fan, loved the book too.
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012 (orig. published 1939)
(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)