Of Patrick White, the man, I know little save by deduction. The Mitchell Library catalogue is biographically silent and Who’s Who in Australia has nothing to say. A few details of his life will be found in Morris Miller’s and F.T. Macartney’s new edition of Australian Literature. He now lives at Castle Hill, near Sydney, after an absence of many years abroad. There are, however, five books from his pen, beginning with The Ploughman and Other Poems, written overseas between 1932 and 1934, and culminating in the life-sized novel, The Tree of Man.
Consideration of his work, which is remarkably homogeneous over the twenty-years span of his writing life, falls naturally into two parts: 1) the content and technique of his books, and 2) their underlying philosophy.
The Ploughman is a volume of the kind usually referred to as ‘slender’ and the poems are such as many young men write and the fortunate minority publish. To say that they are without promise would be unfair; to say that they are adequate within their field would be unkind but true. They are presentable in a conventional way. They comprise a few unconvincing love songs and a number of ‘thoughts upon’ various: subjects, all in a minor key.
It is possible, perhaps, to trace in some of the poems the influence, though not the majesty and the scholarship, of Christopher Brennan.
They held out their hands to me
That I might take them in mine,
But our fingers were cold in touching. I was a stranger, and it seemed
That I stood on the edge of the world: The wind of the universe blew on my face, Coldly out of the mouths of the stars;
And I held my arms to my breast
To shield it in its loneliness,
To shelter it from the pitiless dawn
That swam in the sea of space.
Wind upon snow; bracken that bows its head With weight of years engendered over night;
The sun that’s fevered by the frost to’ red,
Yet cold as virgin candlelight. — ‘Lament in Winter’
It is there and it is not there, a tenuous echo. The climate is one of sorrow and disillusion:
I walked in the garden ‘of the sky And gathered stars
Even as mortal flowers
They faded in their time;
But I was left
With a greater desolation in my heart.
Melancholy is accepted with a half-sensuous willingness:
But now the sun, in risen might,
Has burned pain deeper in my soul,
And ecstacy is come. to me
When I sought mere delight.
Or in the lines ‘He Looked for Love,’ when out of bitterness and despair
. . . strangely at his side rose Hope, unsought, To tremble dove-like in his open hands.
The style of the poems is, considering the intricacy of his later prose, remarkably simple both in theme and execution. It is lyrical and pleasing and its depths are no more than the depths of a young man’s world-sorrow.
The importance of The Ploughman and Other Poems is retrospective and its chief interest lies in its being the first published work of a man who was to display great ability in another field of literature. The poems state many of the premises of the novels.
Four years after, in the fatal year 1939, White’s first novel Happy Valley was published in England. It rose, like Artemis, complete from the troubled waters and it bears few of the marks of a first novel, its occasional angularity being a persistent feature of White’s work. It is the most closely patterned, the most efficient of his books.
Ironically, Happy Valley is the name of a village in the southern snow country of New South Wales; small, remote, isolated:
In Happy Valley the people existed in spite of each other . . . the country slept, inwardly intent on some secret war of passion or trying to separate the threads of old passions spent. This made the town seem very ephemeral. In summer when the slopes were a scurfy .yellow and the body of the earth was very hot, lying there stretched out, the town with its cottages of red and brown weatherboard, reminded you of an ugly scab somewhere on the body of the earth. It was so ephemeral. Some day it would drop off, leaving a pink clean place underneath.
Australian literature offers many pictures of country towns: Norman Lindsay’s Rabelaisian Redheap, where all is sordid in a lusty, cheerful way; Kylie Tennant’s Tiburon, warm and full under its rough surface; Vance Palmer’s delicately articulated reconstructions in Daybreak and The Passage; Leonard Mann’s emotional, staccato Mountain Flat.
Happy Valley is more ingrowing than any of them, at once more secret and more diagrammatic. It is a place seen from a distance, dwindled and interpenetrated by a highly personal viewpoint. It is curiously inorganic, shown in semi-petrified strata. There are the inhabitants, of whom the Everitts are the prototypes. There are the necessary intruders, the Belpers at the bank, the Moriartys at the school, the doctor and, though of earlier date, the Quongs, who brought enterprise to the town by which all profited, but who were never accepted. Beyond this close circle are the squatters, the Furlows, accepted but not belonging, as unlike the squires of England as they could be.
Into this tightly-drawn, static pattern are thrust two strangers—the new doctor, Oliver Halliday, and Furlow’s new overseer, Clem Hagen. From the impact springs the narrative; and once begun by the accident of propinquity, it moves on to its resolution through the logic of character. The love of the frustrated doctor for Alys Browne, one of the inhabitants who does not run true to type, and the affair between Vic Moriarty and Clem Hagen, born of boredom, end on the same day—the day that Ernest Moriarty, maddened by his own impotence, kills his wife just after her lover has left her, and himself dies upon the road of a heart seizure. It is his body in their path that turns back the escaping lovers, Oliver and Alys. Halliday realizes that he is a doctor and a husband and can never be anything else. The field is possessed by the strong and the insensitive. While Alys loses both her chance of happiness and her money, through the irresponsible advice of the banker, Halliday must remain forever in the trap of his own nature; but Hagen is saved from possible implication in the murder by the sullen nineteen-year-old Sidney Furlow, who claims him as her lover and arranges what is virtually a shot-gun marriage. Only the ruthless survive. The story is ugly and pathetic. In its genre it belongs to the tough-and-tender school, but it has little to do with Hemingway or any other exponent. It is handled with sensitiveness rather than delicacy. The treatment is full of paradox. It is uneven, as though it reacted against itself in sudden turns and contradictions. The story itself is lucid; but it is in its handling that the writer appears at war with himself, as though he must redress tenderness with violence, and subtlety with starkness. He can delineate a mood, as when the young soldier, Oliver Halliday, listens to Bach in a church near the Luxembourg Gardens:
The music came rushing out of the loft, unfurling banners of sound. You could touch it. You could feel it. You could feel a stillness and a music all at once. You were at once floating and stationary, in time, all time and space, without barrier, passing with a fresher knowledge of the tangible to a point where this dissolved, became the spiritual.
There is nothing so calculated to make you feel forgotten as somebody else’s leather chair in a fireless room.
Or the portrait of ‘Margaret Quong, who learned so early that life would hold little for her because of her mixed blood.
The book is sensitive and then suddenly it is brutal; a stone is flung among, the quivering, exposed nerves:
I repeat there is not much crime [in Happy Valley]. Only the publican before the man they had at the moment once set fire to his wife and, on another occasion, a drover from the Murray side ran amok and crucified a road man on a dead tree. Old Harry Grogan found the body. It was like a scare-crow, he said, only it didn’t scare. There was crows all over the place, sitting there and dipping their beaks into the buttonholes.
The action of the novel is slow; it inches along until it reaches its crisis and then it is suddenly bold and stark. It builds up quietly, the sensitive pen explores delicately but pitilessly the nerves of the characters, their hidden thoughts, their frustrations, their blind and painful inarticulateness. There is understanding but it is difficult to know if there is sympathy. The people are manipulated, but the reality is beyond their small lives in the whole.
The prose is fluid, sometimes arresting. Patrick White may be discursive; he introduces irrelevancies but always with a purpose—a pinch of this, a pinch of that, a dash of purple to throw up the colours. It is not the traditional Australian discursiveness, like a yarn told at the campfire. White is an artist who knows how to use his material and is sometimes too skilful for verisimilitude. He uses various styles to achieve his ends. Sometimes it is the stream-of-consciousness, admixing thought and speech, sometimes the trick of the broken sentence:
There was a hard efficiency in the doctor’s face, like the face of someone who does things well facing someone who. She turned over a page.
Sometimes he employs a Joycean idiom in which characters flow together in sleep:
Slabbed in sleep their legs apart licked a stamp or went up the hill on the curve of the moon played Schumann it was chalk chalk in his bones or heartburn as he tossed the ticket took a train Rodney Rodney there on the map is Queensland yellow for Sun and she stretched out her arm that clove white a slice, of the darkness she put up her face with pins drawn back into a roll and then crackled the arpeggio you could always tack down the hem and write and write and write to blot out another purpose if you write.
At moments it is almost in the vein of Gertrude Stein:
The wind is wind is water wind or water white in pockets of the eyes was once a sheep before time froze the plover call alew aloo atingle is the wire that white voice across the plain on thistle thorn the wind pricks face the licked fire the wind flame tossing out distance on a reel.
The prose never becomes incomprehensible. In their context the passages quoted are fully intelligible as they pick up familiar threads and re-weave them in a strange pattern. White uses devices only to highlight his meaning; he does not allow them to become monotonous.
He uses pattern in a similar manner. There are several recurring incidents and symbols that are never repeated too often: Oliver at sixteen reading poetry to Hilda in the Botanic Gardens; the music in the French church; Margaret’s shell; Mrs. Everitt’s dead geranium . . . These are like recurring themes in music and serve the same purpose.
THE LIVING AND THE DEAD
The second novel, The Living and the Dead, issued by a different publishing house in 1941, is in the same mould as Happy Valley; a little more intricate, a little less real in its setting. It is the only one of Patrick White’s novels set in England and this may be the root of its unreality. Well as he may know England, he still moves more freely in the country of his youth. Of Australia he writes from within, though as an expatriate, seeing it always in the changing terms of memory. He brings to the English scene a different sort of awareness—which emanates from the book and can be felt but not pinned down. The descriptions are like colour prints:
The fog shifted on the miles they walked, and spilt open like a paper bag, spilling a powdered field, a hillside with an oast house, the little feathery branches of a Japanese orchard. But near the sea the land continued sour, the salt marshes with a crust of ice that lifted sometimes round the roots of reeds, a lid of silver opened on the black mud. They came to a house, a thin, pale house, like the last slice of a house left standing in a field. The house was called Mon Repos. There was a Hovis sign and a plaster pixie in the parlour window.
The structure of the book is in the shape of a loop. Its end is its beginning. It begins on a note of departure and despair, just as Happy Valley began with a still birth; it ends where it began with Elyot Standish getting on a bus, going he knew not where. The story is mainly concerned with three people, Catherine Standish, her son Elyot and her daughter Eden. The two women are the dominants. Catherine, nee Goose, begins diffidently, gains a false assurance from which she gradually slides to complete moral collapse. Eden begins as a determined and spirited child, grows to disillusioned womanhood and recaptures certainty in sacrifice. Elyot remains throughout a sort of emotional sounding board. He feels, he observes, he does not act:
His work had evolved out of his innate diffidence, the withdrawing from a window at dusk, saying: I must do something, but what? Out of this bewilderment he had taken refuge behind what people told him was a scholarly mind. He hung on gratefully, after a month or two of uncertainty, to remarks made by tutors at Cambridge and the more wishful and hence more helpful remarks of his mother. So that he became before long, forgetting the process, a raker of dust, a rattler of bones.
In other words, he wrote scholarly books about obscure people. He could afford to as he had a private income.
His desiccated affair with Muriel Raphael came silently to its end on a flippant remark; the glamour his mother had cast over him crumbled into irritation; his relationship with his sister remained like a hard green apple. He resisted his pity for the love-sodden Connie Tiarks.
The word ‘lumpy’ followed Connie about like a classical epithet. She was as depressed and humble as Muriel was hard and brittle. Even her hat betrayed her:
It was a kind of beige tam o’shanter hat with an apologetic drooping bow, put there it seemed by accident, the whole undeniably found in a sale. Connie’s hat made him shudder. It was such an outspoken comment on her own life.
Elyot was much oppressed by his womenfolk—his mother with her meretricious glitter; his sister with her dark, closed fortitude; Muriel who was incapable of giving; Connie who wanted to give too much. It was a four-way stretch.
It is an unhappy book; all the characters are lost or frustrated or decadent so that it is difficult to know who are the living and who the dead. There is a nightmare light over the scene:
There were threads from the so many threads of the mystery you had to accept and in the streets at night, with the interweaving of passionless faces, the passage of solid buses, the downward falling of a steady Neon rain, it was easy enough to accept. The whole business was either a mystery, or else meaningless, and of the two, the meaningless is the more difficult to take.
Practically all London was dead:
. . . under a spring sky the chimneys pointed at an illusion of their own solidity and greatness, gardeners pressed the earth round the roots of flowers, as if you could transform with so many heads of bloom what was a sour sick earth. Beyond the park were streets of houses. He preferred these to the decorated corpse, rather the closed, unseeing eyes of houses. There was a smell of cooking, of cabbage, of midday activity in the close streets. A huddle of identical houses. Like their tenants these chose the uniform in which to ignore discrepancy. The women ladling cabbage in their kitchens were almost interchangeable, behind the skin the identical wishes, the pale hopes, the thin desires spoke from the closed eyes of houses.
The book is drenched in the pathetic fallacy. It is an inside-out book. Every object—a plant, a glass box, a salt marsh, a bus—becomes a symbol of an inner life. The characters look out of windows and see their own desolation. The weather is never good.
Catherine Standish was in any case dead; she was a fake of a fake of a fake. Elyot was dead, though for him there was a gleam of hope:
He still failed to grasp, but beyond the nothing and the death there was some suggestion of growth. He waited for this in a state of expectation. He waited for something that would happen to him, and would happen in time, there was no going to meet it.
Adelaide and Gerald were dead of their snobbery. Muriel Raphael was dead because she had chosen death in preference to Jewry. Julia Fallon was dead of her suppressed and denied motherhood. Wally Collins was dead because he was barely human; an appetite and very little else. Connie was dead because she could not find her way into life.
Only Eden and Joe Barnett (for Eden gave her love beneath her, as her mother married above herself), are left alive and they doubtfully:
… [Joe] believed in rightness, … [Eden] said, giving him this, she had given it to him with her own voice, he believed in the living as opposed to the dead. This was also what made him ache sometimes in the pit of the stomach. He read the newspapers and felt sick. The certainty of your own life, the day to day in Crick’s workshop, the Saturdays with Eden, were no guarantee against the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach. This became the sad, sick, stinking world. He was responsible in a way. But, his hands were helpless, could not cope.
He stroked her throat. She could feel a kind of absent tenderness in the hand. He could feel her softer skin, that was like a lapse of conscience. I love Eden, he said, but what can this do for the world, the sick, stinking world that sits in the stomach like a conscience? He was helpless. He was always helpless, unless it was something he could do with his hands. He could love with his hands, he could shape things out of wood, but the wind slipped through his fingers, the dark disturbing wind of distant forces and ideas, the things you sensed and could not deal with. You sat and stared at your hands, that could give no answer but their own emptiness.
Joe eventually solved his difficulties by going to the Spanish War and there was killed. Eden accepted this with fortitude:
Walking over dead grass she talked about right and wrong, glibly, as abstract concepts. But this was the expression of rightness, the southward face, the beginning in an end, rather than the end in a beginning. If you could accept the personal end. She had to, had to cultivate acceptance. There is no Eden Standish, just as there is no Joe Barnett, you said. There is more than this, there is the stock of positive acts and convictions that two people infuse into the dying body of the world, their more than blood.
Eden followed him to Spain:
The arch enemies were the stultifying, the living dead. The living chose to oppose these, either in Eden’s way, by the protest of self-destruction, or by what, by what if not an intenser form of living.
Insofar as the book is resolved, the Spanish War is its solution. It is the cause outside the individual and none the worse for being a lost one.
The Living and the Dead is a book of its times. It was written between 1939 and June 1940, published in 1941. It came into a troubled world and bears its imprint. There is a flavour of Sitwell’s Before the Bombardment about it, and at moments White writes as Henry Moore paints; or so it seems to me:
Sleep met him halfway, or the allegory of waking, it was the Greco she had seen, the centurion in Spain, he was walking in the field which was where he lost, beyond the white cocoon, when others asked a priest or went to Spain, there were many roads out of the field of sleep, the difficulty was to choose, there were many roads the feet took without faces, these were directionless, he was walking in a white sleep, there were the priests as white as aspirin, there was the saxophonist talking to the old ladies, the old clown, and the sleeping figures, your own, lay in the white cocoon, it was a personal Spain, it was a destruction of the superfluous, either the priest or the glass box, it could not write, write too fast, it could not write the papers black from white, this was sweat, the necessity, if I do not do this you said, if not the singing priest the no more love, the wilted brown nipples that were bitter on the mouth, and losing the face, it was the face of Joe, they had lopped the tree, it lay in blood, you could not touch because the eyes, your eyes, became the mirror that moved too clearly to, that saw too clearly right down to the heart, and the blood moving in a cone of glass, it was the clearness that revolted, that you didn’t want to see, you put up a hand to hide your own bones and a transparent, fruitless egg.
Despite the general drear there are more flashes of humour in The Living and the Dead than in Happy Valley. The picture of Mrs. McCarthy, for instance: ‘Her hand was a plump hot water bottle. She was a series of’ hot water bottles in plush. Tonight she was enjoying the luxury of neuralgia and the sympathy that nobody gave’. Or: ‘When it suits us, Mrs. Standish tapped. When it suits us to martyrise ourselves in draughty halls. Then we go to bed with a cold, and feel we’ve contributed something towards a cause’. Or, the light touch: ‘The two languid female voices soaped at space some where on a crossed line.’
In general the style is more lucid and conventional in The Living and the Dead than in Happy Valley, the pattern more fugitive, the individual characters more symbolic, dwarfed by a masked battery of abstracts.
THE AUNT’S STORY
The Aunt’s Story shows a retreat from the abstract and a return to the individual theme. Where Happy Valley was the picture of a community and The Living and the Dead an intensive study of three people under the shadow of the looming war years, The Aunt’s Story is an even more intensive delineation of the secret life of one woman, Theodora Goodman. Like Happy Valley, the novel begins with death, the death of old Mrs. Goodman; an event, desirable in itself, but which frees Theodora from the quasi-normal life forced on her by circumstances and sets her feet upon the path that only ends in the lunatic asylum of an obscure American town.
The book is in three parts: 1 ) Theodora’s childhood and youth at Merge, the family property, where the seeds of mortal frustration are sown; 2) the Jardin Exotique of the Hotel du Midi where Theodora’s frustration finds a strange blooming amid people who are nearer to the figments of a disordered imagination than to flesh and blood; and 3) ‘Holstius,’ the consummation of a dream in insanity.
The story has its own painful logic, the prose is richer than in the earlier books, the imagery more striking and ingenious. This is the most imaginative and bizarre of Patrick White’s novels. It has impetus and unity and is constructed with great skill. There is a terrible, warped logic about it.
Theodora was the unloved child who made contact only with her father, and he died. She found him dead in his library and she buried her face on his knees, just as she afterwards did on the knees of Holstius, the last creation of her unhappy imagination. When she had communed with her dead father:
She walked out through the passages, through the sleep of other people. She was thin as grey light, as if she had just died. She would not wake the others. It was still too terrible to tell, too private an experience. As if she were to go into the room and say:. “Mother I am dead, I am dead, Merge has crumbled.” So she went outside where the grey light was as thin as water and Merge had, in fact, dissolved. Cocks were crowing the legend of the day but only the legend. Merge was grey water, grey ash. Then Theodora Goodman cried.
She grew up to be plain and awkward and with a black moustache. She lost her first love to her pretty sister. She became nothing but an aunt, ‘ugly as a stone, awkwardness in her empty hands’. To be an aunt was her only contact with reality.
The landscape of Meroe fitted her like a skin:
The hills were burnt yellow. Thin yellow scurf lay on the black skin of the hills, which had worn into black pock marks where the eruptions had taken place. And now the trees were more than ever like white bones. Out of all this exhaustion formed the clear, expectant weather of autumn, smelling of chrysanthemums and first frost.
Later, when she has changed her skies, the Hotel du Midi became an externalization of her changed mood:
In the Hotel du Midi the night slowly solidified. From the brown lounge Theodora listened to the doors closing, which was a quite definite closing, on other lives. She was left to her own devices, like a mouse in a piano picking the bones of a gavotte. Under the once-pink shade the light still burned, that somebody had forgotten, and the beads were still there to tell. On such occasions the soul will have faded a good deal. It jumps beneath its attempted composure. This was apparent to Theodora. She heard the exhausted springs of arm chairs. She saw the ash trays, which had brimmed almost over, with ash, and the exasperated gnawings of pale nails.
The sharp spikes and fleshy leaves of the Jardin Exotique are at once exotic and erotic. In the garden she finds for a time a make-believe resting place. It is Theodora’s clumsy and ineffectual attempt to attain a full life, a story book life. The reader is never sure if the other guests at the hotel have existence outside Theodora’s feverish imagination: General Alyosha Sergei Sokolonikov, who talks like a Russian novel and who spent his mornings with his young love, Varvara, and his afternoons with Ludmilla, his sister who is also his conscience and with whom he identifies Theodora; Mrs. Rapallo with her illusions of grandeur and her daughter the Principessa who is as illusory as Varvara and Ludmilla; the Demoiselles Bloch who count their possessions every night before they sleep; the curious lovers, Wetherby and Lieselote, (‘Love is undoubtedly an acrostic [thought Theodora] and that is why I have failed’) ; the young girl Katina Pavlou, who is Theodora as she might have been; and all the rest. In her nightmare Theodora is always practical and full of commonsense, enjoying the illusion of sanity, the heroine of a mad world.
But it cannot last. The nautilus shell, which is the grail of that strange world, is destroyed; the hotel is burned down and Theodora is forced onward in her journey toward nothingness. She had taken the first steps long before when she was a child:
. . . things floated out of reach. She put out her hand, they bobbed and were gone. She listened to the voices that murmured the other side of the wall. Or she followed the Syrian at darkness, and the Syrian’s brown silence did not break, the sky just failed to flow through.
Now she must leave another world. She goes to America, where ‘the desperate hum of telephone wires that tell of mortgages and pie, and phosphates and love, and movie contracts and indigestion and real estate and loneliness’ is more alien to her than the Jardin Exotique:
In the bland corn song, in the theme of days, Theodora Goodman was a discord. Those mouths which attempted her black note rejected it wryly. They glossed over something that had strayed out of some other piece, of slow fire.
She makes a last attempt to assume normality. Living in a derelict house, she embraces her last illusion, Holstius, who is in part her father, in part the Man who was given Dinner (the rejected), in part Moraitis, the musician who had opened but not filled her heart. Holstius tells her what she already knows:
You cannot reconcile joy and sorrow, or flesh and marble, or illusion and reality, or life and death. For this reason, Theodora Goodman, you must accept. And you have already found that one constantly deludes the other into taking fresh shapes, so that there is sometimes little to choose between the reality of illusion or the illusion of reality. Each of your several lives is evidence of this.
As long ago Theodora had destroyed the little hawk, whose beauty had enchanted her, because to destroy it was pain, so now she tears up her travel tickets, and soon gives up her name, the last link with home and her identity:
But now her name was torn out by the roots, just as she had torn the tickets, rail and steamship, on the mountain road. This way, perhaps, she came a little closer to humility, to anonymity, to pureness of being.
The Aunt’s Story is an allegory of pain, a shifting image of frustration. It is executed with great artistry and it is surprising that it is not more moving. It is bound together by a labyrinth of recurring images—the Syrian, the shot bird, the Man who was given Dinner, the nautilus shell and others but this is always done so inconspicuously that the effect is achieved without hammering on the reader’s attention.
THE TREE OF MAN
The three earlier books, complete in themselves, are a prelude to the fourth, the very large novel, The Tree of Man, published in the United States in 1955 and just available in Australia. It is more massive than its 500 pages, for its theme is man, man almost at his simplest, living a life with the minimum of external event. The title comes from A. E. Housman’s The Shropshire Lad:
There, like the wind through woods in riot.
Through him the gale of life blew high;
The tree of man was never quiet:
Then ’twas the Roman, now ’tis I.
The gale, it plies the saplings double,
It blows so hard, ’twill soon be gone:
Today the Roman and his trouble
Are ashes under Uricon.
The lines express the book’s simplicity and universality. If The Aunt’s Story was florid in treatment and overstuffed psychologically, The Tree of Man is at the other pole: it tells with infinite quietness the story of ordinary people. It is as stark, but perhaps more subtle than, Knut Hamsun’s Nobel Prize book The Growth of the Soil. In Stan Parker there is the same fortitude and integrity as in Isaac, and beneath him is the earth. The story begins in his young manhood when he takes up a selection, not far from Sydney; a pioneer in a small way, marries a wife as inarticulate as himself and founds a family. Neighbours spring up about them. Stan fights in the first World War and comes home again. The Parkers attain a modest prosperity. Their son and daughter are lost to them, one in a life of petty crime, the other in a good but desiccated marriage. The encroaching city draws them into its suburbs, the farm is subdivided and Stan and Amy are alone in their old cottage half lost in Amy’s triumphing garden, with one cow and a few rows of cabbages; and after all why had they planted the cabbages when there was no market for them any longer? Here Stan died in the moment of illumination for which he had blindly sought all his life, and his grandson accepts the same blind search as though he picked up the torch from the old man’s calloused, lifeless hand.
In The Tree of Man Patrick White turns away from the strange, the curious, the accidental, the pressure of abstract ideas, to the elementals, and delving deeply into them he uncovers the whole of life. It is done with great patience, insight and art, and it is deeply moving. It cannot be said that The Tree of Man is better written or more skilfully constructed than Happy Valley, but it is more deeply felt, more warmly human. Virtuosity remains, as in the spectacular description of the fire at ‘Glastonbury,’ but it has passed over into the blood. The vanity of writing has passed away, which is a phrase every writer will understand.
Structurally The Tree of Man is discursive. It tells again the story of a community, it follows the natural patterns of life both in the community and in the characters, from youth to age, to extinction.
The book begins with a tabula rasa:
A cart drove between the two, big stringybarks and stopped. These were the dominant trees in that part of the bush, rising above the involved scrub with the simplicity of true grandeur. So the, cart stopped, grazing the hairy side of a tree, and the horse, shaggy and stolid as the tree, sighed and took root.
The man who sat in the cart got down. He rubbed his hands together, because already it was cold, a curdle of cold cloud in a pale sky, and copper in the west. On the air you could smell the frost. As the man rubbed his hands, the friction of cold skin intensified the coldness of the air and the solitude of that place. Birds looked from twigs, and the eyes of animals were drawn to what was happening. The man lifting a bundle from a cart. A dog lifting his leg on an anthill. The lip drooping on the sweaty horse.
Then the man took an axe and struck at the side of a hairy tree, more to hear the sound than for any other reason. And the sound was cold and loud. The man struck the tree, and struck, till several white chips had fallen. He looked at the scar in the side of the tree. The silence was immense. It was the first time anything like this had happened in that part of the bush.
The Parkers were the first settlers. By the time Amy was a matron, ‘a comparatively young and robust woman, of some experience’:
… the bush had opened up. There was a man tilling the chocolate soil in between his orange trees. Outside a grey shack an old man sat beside his hollyhock. Children spilled from the doors of bursting cottages. Washing blew. It was gay on this morning, as Amy Parker had not seen it along the two miles to O’Dowds’. Bright birds fell from the sky, and ascended. Voices could be heard where once the sound of the axe barely cut the silence, and your heart beat quicker for its company.
At last Durilgai becomes a suburb:
During the last few years a number of other homes had been built down the road at Durilgai in which Parkers had always lived. There were the original few weatherboard homes, of which the landscape had taken possession, and which had been squeezed back from the road, it seemed, by other developments. The wooden homes stood, each in its smother of trees, like oases in a desert of progress. They were in process of being forgotten, of falling down, and would eventually be swept up with the bones of those who had lingered in them, and who were of no importance anyway, either no-hopers or old . . . The brick homes were in possession all right. Deep purple, clinker blue, ox blood, and public lavatory.
Only on Parker’s diminished property the trees make a last stand:
In the end there are the trees. These still stand in the gully behind the house, on a piece of poor land that nobody wants to use. There is the ugly mass of scrub, full of whips and open secrets. But there are the trees, quite a number . of them that have survived the axe, smooth ones, a sculpture of trees. On still mornings after frost these stand streaming with light and moisture, the white, and the ashen and some the colour of flesh.
This is the background and the human lives follow the same curve—beginning, middle, end, resurrection. ‘So that, in the end, there was no end.’
There is the most deep rooted, painfully angular triangle of the family, father, mother, children. Each is bound to the other in love or hatred or exasperation. It is something that cannot be undone and cannot be expressed. The children left the home inevitably. First the son:
For he had gone, slipping from her as easily and naturally as the seed from the pod, to become lost in the long grass. If she suffered a great spasm at the moment of realization, with lesser ones recurring over many days, it was more perhaps for her vanity, though she did remember, the little stubbly-headed boy in short trousers, and the baby gorging itself with placid confidence on her breast. So she cried at times, mostly at dusk, standing at a window, when shapes have grown tender, and she herself was disintegrating, and sucked onward, the years streaming behind her like skirts in the wind, or hair. It was frightening then. Her face abandoned the mealiness of personal sorrow and became a brooding skull, or essential face.
Then the daughter, Thelma, left for the business college:
The father did not struggle, because the situation was being taken out of his hands. For a long time, though, the mother put up a show of authority and advice, till it was time to bow her head, under the large dark hat. Then the children do take over, she was forced to admit. She received on her mouth’ with gratitude, even humility, the last kiss, wondering if it signified love; she would have liked ‘to believe this.
Stan and Amy are both entrapped in inarticulateness. They cannot express their feelings, but their feelings are nonetheless intense. They fumble for the meaning of life; they thirst, in their parched, inadequate lives for the moments of ecstacy and illumination. Amy looks for them in her children but they are not there; then in her grandson, but the relationship is. broken and transitory. She seeks fulfilment in infidelity, but that is worthless for her, and she knows it. She has her amulets, the silver nutmeg grater, which was a wedding present and something of mystical value though they never found a use for it, and in the white rose bush she planted outside her window. She touched another world when she saw the girl, Madeleine, ride by in her green habit on her black horse. She had her friend Mrs. O’Dowd, but that was only through the necessity of neighbourliness; and her gossip, Mrs. Gage, the postmistress, whose husband, to the scandal and later enrichment of his wife, painted pictures. These pictures touched Amy’s core and gave her one of the few, brief, fleeting experiences of release:
Then she would go inside her house, rather a secret woman, into the brown house, inseparable from the garden, from the landscape in which it was. She would have liked to love. It was terrible to think she had never loved her son as a man. Sometimes her hands would wrestle together. They were supple, rather plump hands, broad, and not yet dry. But wrestling like this together, they were papery and dried up. Then she would force herself into some deliberate activity, or speak tenderly to her good husband, offering him things to eat and seeing to his clothes. She loved her husband. Even ‘after the drudgery of love she could still love him. But sometimes she lay on her side and said, I have not loved him enough, not yet, he has not seen the evidence of love. It would have been simpler if she had been able to turn and point to the man their son, but she could not.
Stan, equally inarticulate, set his heart upon his strength with axe and crowbar and on the pattern of his work:
In the beginning, as a young man, when he was clearing his land, he had hewn at trees with no exact plan in his head, but got them down, even at the expense of his hands, though these in time became hard, and there were boulders to be moved, that he strained against with his horse, till the soft bellies of man and horse grew hard and stony too, and the stone of will prevailed over rock . . . He was also an improvisor of honest objects in wood and iron, which, if crude in design, had survived to that day. His only guide in all of this had been his simplicity.
Simplicity was not enough. He took the blows of his wife’s infidelity and his son’s guilt and his simplicity was no shield. His strength failed him as he grew old. He looked for what he had never found in religion but the lips that took the sacrament were cold and dry. He had suffered his Gethsemane ignobly in a pub:
After this he began to go outside, many coats and yellow, thin overcoats opening willingly for him to pass, until he was out, or his legs had carried him there. He was tittuping. He was opening and closing. He got round the corner to some side street, of which he could not read the name, while trying; it seemed so necessary to locate a degradation. And old banana skins. There was a paper sky, quite flat, and white, and Godless. He spat at the absent God then, mumbling till it ran down his chin.
Then at last, strangely, he found God in his own spittle after he had reached the final disillusionment. ‘All things of importance are withheld or past.’
All the characters are fully drawn; there is room in such a book. There is room for humour and irony. Mrs. O’Dowd is the comic relief right down to her Rabelasian death, but never a figure of fun. Even Thelma is pathetic and real in her gentility, even Ray has his validity. The neighbours, by old acquaintance, become your neighbours. They are human beings but also part of a pattern, just as Madeleine returns to complete Amy’s disillusionment and Stan, in his darkest hour, meets again the Greek who once worked on the farm and who had had a special quality for them all.
The onomatopoetic scenery streams behind the characters. Brown is now the predominant colour on Patrick White’s palette, as the white of snow was in Happy Valley, grey in The Living and the Dead, and mauve and amethyst in The Aunt’s Story.
The balance of event is individual. Major events are often passed over in a few lines while some detail is persued to its ultimate source. Irrelevant incidents are used as tuning forks:
Stan Parker drove in his high, ridiculous car along those roads. Most of the flesh had left his face. He drove past Halloran’s Corner and the turn off to Moberley. People who did not know what had happened were continuing to live their lives. An old woman in a big hat was cutting dahlias, convinced that this momentarily was the activity of mankind. She looked up, shading her eyes to see, but her sun had yellow petals. And Stan Parker drove on. Two children near Bangalay were looking at something in a tin, from which soon they would begin to tear the wings. Under their cold gaze the universe had shrunk to the size and shape of a doomed beetle.
The prose has the same cut-on-the-cross quality. Its effect is cumulative. It is chameleon. It has moments of flatness, that are intentional; short, stabbing sentences; long sentences slowly unwound; metaphors taken for granted and sharp emotional pictures:
She did not express her disgust with more than one petal. Her camellia graces were not of the generous, blowing order, but tight and small, greenish white, and not for picking.
‘What do you mean, happy?’ he asked lumpishly. He did not like this kind of catechism. It bordered on air. It was like opening a door and finding that the floor had gone.
A night at the pictures is succinctly described. ‘Horses feet were beating on the face of boredom and the patent leather lips sucked them down.’
So much could be said about this novel that its commentary would be as long as its subject. It is woven of many threads; it has its great moments, its slow infiltrations, its images and echoes. It is a world but a world beneath the visible surface of the world. Perhaps all that should have been said about it was: ‘Go, read it.’
In twenty years Patrick White has produced one book of poetry and four novels. He has not forced his talent, nor has he let it go by default. He has written enough to declare himself.
What is the kernel of his writing? Though he has wit, the deft wit of words and the ironic and sardonic wit of situation, all his books are sombre. He writes of the frustrated and the inarticulate, of the mad and the lost ones. There is always the burden of pain.
The quotation from Mahatma Gandhi which strikes the note for Happy Valley reads:
It is impossible to do away with the law of suffering, which is one of the indispensible conditions of our being. Progress is to be measured by the amount of suffering undergone . . . The purer the suffering, the greater is the progress.
Patrick White is obsessed with pain and loneliness, the inability of human beings ever to know one another, which is the ultimate. loneliness. Amy Parker, after a lifetime of marriage, realized that ‘it was quite possible she would never succeed in opening her husband and looking inside, that he was being kept shut for other purposes’. Between Oliver Halliday and his wife there was no more than kindness and a long-dead romantic illusion. Between him and Alys Browne there was only a newer illusion borne on the wings of Schumann and it could not stand up to reality. Between Sidney Furlow and Clem Hagen there was only her domineering, unripe sensuality. Oliver Halliday was no nearer to his son than Amy and Stan to theirs. The child, Margaret Qwong, early embraced her loneliness. There was no understanding between Elyot and Eden, nor did they attain any satisfying closeness in their loves. Mrs. Goodman and Fanny were strangers to Theodora. Never in any of the books is a satisfactory and satisfying human relationship portrayed. In Patrick White’s philosophy of pain and loneliness it would seem that none were possible.
In The Tree of Man his philosophy seems to be resolved, the goal of man’s long, inarticulate seeking is glimpsed. It is the ineffable moment. It has no substance, it is of the creative spirit, it comes and it goes; but that it should come, even once in a lifetime, is a positive gain, an apotheosis. It is the troubling of the waters at Bethesda. It does not touch the loneliness for it is a personal, private and detached revelation. Each man’s life is a mystery between himself and God.
This solution is presaged in the earlier novels by the accent on music and poetry. Oliver Halliday is a poet manqué. It is music that he shares with Alys. Theodora is transported by music. In The Tree of Man the brittle Thelma is ‘drenched by the violins.’
Poetry, music, religion are the paths that the soul, imprisoned in flesh, may take, ‘the paths out of sleep.! Love is an illusion, pain a certainty but the, capacity to feel pain is the mark of the human being. And pain is its own reward.
Marjorie Barnard is a Sydney historian and literary critic. Her publications include: Macquarie’s World, Australian Outline, and a selection of short stories, Persimmon Tree. In collaboration with Flora Eldershaw: A House is Built, Green Memory, The Glasshouse, Plaque with Laurel, Tomorrow and Tomorrow (fiction); Life and Times of Captain Piper, Phillip of Australia (history); Essays in Australian Fiction; My Australia. See Meanjin, 4/54; ‘The Novels of Seaforth Mackenzie; 4/55: ‘Miles Franklin.’