1973, 609 p.
After finishing reading the dissatisfying The Book of Rachael, I felt like reading something astringent and masterful. The pre-publicity for Fred Schepisi film was gearing up, so I thought I’d have a quick read of the book before seeing the film. What was I thinking? There’s no such thing as a ‘quick read’ of a Patrick White: he’s magisterial, allusive, dense and uncompromising. But, after overcoming my aversion to him after being subjected to Voss as assigned HSC reading (what were they thinking?), I now consider him to be challenging, but well worthwhile.
Nonetheless, it is just as well that I saw a blurb summarizing the plot of the upcoming film because even on p.195 I hadn’t quite realized what the book was about. You could say that it took some little time to get going. I don’t know whether the nutshell synopsis of the film helped to focus my attention, or whether the book itself tightened at that point, but from about p. 200 on, I found it compelling in a grubby, voyeuristic way.
When I was a child, one of my favourite stories was Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen. I think that, like Kay in the fairytale, Patrick White has a splinter of glass in his eye too, and it lacerates everything it sees. His characters are often flawed, ugly and marred by their physicality; there is the whine of weakness or the throb of madness about them, and their mannerisms are coarse and grotesque. And yet White also stretches out for beauty and transcendence as well, in the midst of an ugly and petty world. The same clearness of eye that strips his characters naked also washes clean our view of the natural world. Here’s the tropical rainforest, that will soon be lashed by the cyclone in the title:
Now [the island] hushed the strangers it was initiating. At some stage of the journey the trees were so densely massed, the columns so moss-upholstered or lichen-encrusted, the vines suspended from them so intricately rigged, the light barely slithered down, and then a dark watery green, though in rare gaps where the sassafras had been thinned out, and once where a giant blackbutt had crashed, the intruders might have been reminded of actual light if this had not flittered, again like moss, but dry, crumbled, white to golden. (p. 375 Virago edition)
The emotional stillness of the book- the eye of the storm- is the dessicated,manipulative matriarch, Elizabeth Hunter. She surrounds herself with nun-like nurses who cater to her petulant, fretful demands as everyone waits for her to die. Circling her, sweeping in from their European lives are her two children, the celebrated actor Sir Basil who has probably seen the best days of his career, and her brittle daughter, Dorothy, the Princess de Lascabanes, whose marriage into minor European nobility had failed. Despite their platitudes, they despise their mother for her beauty, her promiscuity, her self-centredness and her casual, but deliberate, cruelty. Her children are both failures in their different ways, and in need of money. They decide to curtail the expenses of their mother’s home-based nursing care by placing her into a home in order to access the income from the sale of her home and effects.
And that’s all there really is to the plot itself, although it’s a story that has been told many times before as the frequent allusions in King Lear attest. In many ways, the whole scenario is a staged performance, and the characters themselves are conscious of the theatricality of the situation- indeed, the narrative breaks into scripted dialogue in places. At times I really wasn’t sure what was happening, or whether what I thought had happened actually did. There are whole paragraphs of images tumbling one on top of the other as a rush of disjointed memories floods Elizabeth’s mind, and events on which the whole book turns seem to occur in that half-world between sleeping and waking. White’s narrative style continually unsettles your confidence in yourself as a reader.
I’ll be interested to see the film, because given the fairly slight plot line, I wonder how the nuances and complexities of the interior world of the characters will be portrayed. White himself barges into carnival and parody at times with his crudely named nurses Sister Manhood and Sister Badgery, and the exaggerated grossness of his characters’ behaviour is probably better left imagined than depicted on the screen. Still, if anyone can carry this off, it would have to be the cast assembled for this film version- so watch this space.
Snap! Lisa at ANZLit Lovers has just read the book before seeing the film too (and I strongly suspect she’ll see it before I do)- her review is carefully-referenced and well worth reading.
My rating: 9/10
Reason read: to read it before seeing the film
Book sourced from: my own bookshelves! Purchased second-hand from the now defunct Printed Treasures bookshop in Macleod.