Why Read Patrick White ?

“The Hanging Garden” by Patrick White (1981, 2012) – 215 pages

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“Of the major twentieth-century writers in English, Patrick White stands with the best, partly because he refused to repeat himself and partly because he refuses to tell you everything, so that when you read him there is a sense of discovery, a sense that here, in your hands, is an experience that will somehow enlarge your perception of the mysteries inherent even in the most ordinary life, an encounter that gives you insight into good and evil and how they shape our individual journeys from birth to death. Reading such work engenders a kind of rapture; it is what I feel when I read James Joyce’s short stories and certain parts of Ulysses or the novels and stories of Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Elizabeth Bowen, and William Trevor. Or when I see a Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter or Eugene O’Neill play.” –  Roberta Silman, ‘The Arts Fuse’

“He (Patrick White) slashes through euphemism and distraction to reach a linguistic plane on which he can say what things actually are, in an idiom at once poetic and acute.” – David Rice, ‘Flowers in the Desert, Patrick White at 100’.

When I started reading “The Hanging Garden”, I soon realized I was out of practice reading Patrick White.  Twenty years ago I devoured Patrick White’s fiction reading nearly all of his work including his many masterpieces over a period of a few years.  After that I went back to reading writers who were less perceptive, less visceral, less instinctive, less allegorical.

Patrick White is not a difficult writer once the reader gets into the rhythm of his prose,   Perhaps the most challenging feature of his writing is the constantly shifting point of view.  Thus during a dialogue he will go back and forth to and from the vantage point of each participant.  Also the various angles might not be as direct or obvious as one usually finds in novels.

So it took some pages of “The Hanging Garden” for me to adapt back to White’s style.

The two main characters of “The Hanging Garden” are two twelve year-olds, a boy and a girl.   They are two refugees – reffoes – from different families sent to Australia in the early 1940s to escape World War II.  Gilbert saw his mother and more importantly his best friend die in German bombings of England.  Eirene’s father was a Communist in Greece killed by the Germans before the war began.  Both have been brought to safe haven Australia to the home of Mrs. Bulpit.  Much of the early part of the novel deals with the interaction of Gilbert and Eirene.  White tells it slant, perhaps the surest method to deal with childhood.    This is the best depiction of the peculiarity of childhood in any of White’s novels.

The first one hundred pages of “The Hanging Garden” make up a strong start with the intensity we expect from a Patrick White novel.  The rest of the novel is more diffuse as the two children are separated and go their own ways.  This is only a fragment of a novel, the first part of an intended three part novel.

7f073dbf079afa39fb484e68d1b34a46For a reader who has not read Patrick White before, I don’t believe “The Hanging Garden” is the place to begin even if it is a short read.  My own approach to all authors is to select the book I believe is the author’s strongest novel or collection first.  Why settle for second best?   In Patrick White’s case, there are so many masterpieces: “Voss”, “Riders of the Chariot”, “The Vivisector”, “The Tree of Man”, and so on.  If you want a shorter complete novel, read “The Solid Mandala”.  If you are going to go to the trouble of getting on the wavelength of Patrick White, you might as well read a complete novel.  “The Hanging Garden” is best left for us few Patrick White obsessives.

Once you are on Patrick White’s wavelength, what a ride it is.

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10 responses to this post.

  1. Oh good for you Tony … I’ve had this on my shelves for about a year now but haven’t managed to get to it … I really must. I think you’re right about The solid mandala. It’s a good place to start I think.

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    • Hi WhisperingGums,
      I just came across your fine article on Patrick White’s centenary while googling him. I suppose Voss is his most acclaimed masterpiece but at least eight of his other novels qualify.

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      • Thanks Tony … while I think many see Voss as the masterpiece I think most also find it hard to be categorical because of the quality of his output. I recently read his first novel – Happy Valley – so am keen to get to his last!

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        • Hi WhisperringGums,
          “Happy Valley is one of the few I missed, but I’ve heard it is excellent. That may be my next Patrick White.

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          • It’s good, I think – and particularly so for a first book. He seems to have appeared on the scene as a fully fledged novelist with his themes and concerns already formed. That’s not to say that he doesn’t develop or that this may not be a little, perhaps, less subtle but, to use an Americanism (I think), it’s pretty line-ball.

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  2. I’ve got this on my TBR too. I save up my remaining unread PWs, rationing myself to one per year. I don’t think I’m emotionally ready yet to turn the last page and face up to never having another new one left to read. Riders in the Chariot is my choice for later on this year, maybe during next school holidays…
    Have you read his first novel Happy Valley? I think that would be a good one for the uninitiated to start with…distinctively PW, but not too difficult.

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    • Hi Lisa,
      ‘Riders in the Chariot’ is a good choice, one of PW’s great ones. I haven’t read ‘The Happy Valley’ yet perhaps thinking it might be juvenalia, but I’ve heard so many good things about it it will probably be my next. The only Patrick White that I’ve been disappointed with of all his novels is ”Memoirs of Many In One’ which did not work for me when I read it.
      I also love his short stories especially ‘The Burnt Ones’.

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