Wednesday, August 3, 2011

How he was adapting the Gothic novel to local conditions

It was more than half my life ago that I first read Patrick White's The Eye of the Storm. White was still, then, living at 20 Martin Road opposite Centennial Park. One of my university lecturers claimed to live just a few doors away from him and had once brought him one of her supposedly legendary and very Canadian lemon meringue pies. I can imagine that White, whose books testify to his fascination with the humblest of culinary products -- baked custard, chops, mutton fat and cabbage -- might have scraped off the fluff and given it to his dogs (Manoly probably wouldn't have liked it), just to see if the lemon part underneath wobbled.

I have reread White since then. Perhaps two years ago I reread what I liked to think of as my favourite White, The Solid Mandala, but having discovered, after seeing Judy Davis in Benedict Andrews's version of Chekhov's The Seagull at the Belvoir, that she was soon to appear alongside Geoffrey Rush and Charlotte Rampling in a screen adaptation of The Eye of the Storm that was already in post-production -- I realised it was imperative to reread the book before the film filled over the detail, and now, like my father who will always say the concert he has just heard is the best concert he has ever been to, I'm in danger of revising my favourite White.

The texture of White's writing is unmistakable. Among hedgings of modals, transitive verbs without objects, third conditionals and lopped off clauses -- 'She should have disliked; instead he had not shed his admiration, first for his client's wife, then for the widow' --'if his head was still his to use, it wouldn't be for long' --'There on the staircase everyone was stuck as usual the night that Athol Shreve.'  (p. 26, 294, 90) -- the vivid plasticity of his images is often startling:

Before returning home, she had taken a brief holiday in Suffolk: the frosted roads, the hedgerows with their beads of scarlet bryony on withered umbilical cords, her own solitariness (when hadn't it been? though never a colder, harder one) shocked any smugness out of her. (p. 167; all quotations are from my 1982 reprint of the 1973 Penguin edition)

This last sentence is actually from the very chapter of this book, chapter 3, which was sent by the Australian newspaper in 2006 as a supposed first chapter to twelve publishers and three literary agents as a hoax. Not only, as the Australian probably predicted, was the material rejected by all who bothered to reply, none of the editors or agents recognised White's characteristic writing style notwithstanding the obvious anagram of his name (Wraith Picket) and the near identical title (The Eye of the Cyclone). Since The Eye of the Storm was published in 1973, the same year that White became the first (and still only) Australian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, the fact that they failed to recognise the work that is emblematic of this achievement, let alone acknowledge its worth, is sobering indeed.

Despite his seeming irrelevance to the contemporary literary publishing scene in Australia, a simplified version of one aspect of White's writing has lived on in Australian popular films and television shows of the last twenty years. When White writes about seemingly ordinary, uneducated Australian characters, he uses dialogue and free indirect discourse to present easily hurt, self-absorbed, naive men and women whose compulsion to make awkward, heart-felt declarations is only partially realised in their acts or their speech. These characters pick their way through unheroic, even thoroughly disappointing settings, which are nonetheless animated by a curious will of their own: 

Outside 'Miami Flats' the street was looking extra livid: the fluorescence had not yet been switched off to accommodate the light of morning. She walked briskly, but suspicious, as though expecting to skid on something: one of the empty milk bottles left to roll in the gritty shallows. Crossing the Parade she avoided glancing to the right because of the PHARMACY sign, and soon afterwards arrived at 26 Gladys Street, where Mrs Vidler was scrubbing the step.

She looked up: a large brown-skinned woman with suds to halfway up her arms. 'Vid and I might worry about you, love, if we thought there was any cause for it.'

'For all you know, I could have been prostituting myself at the Cross.' Flora Manhood was that exasperated she added for good measure, 'A Negro.'

Viddie laughed for the joke. 'Mr Pardoe called and left a message.'

'What message?' She could hardly bear it.

'Vid put it in yer room.'

Flora went in, and there was the envelope, exactly in the centre of the Vidlers' cleanly table.

She wouldn't open it at once, but did sooner than she intended because what was the use?

Dear Flo,
You can only misunderstand me. I honestly love you. COL ( p. 182 - 183)
Here, and in other scenes such as the Warrawee dinner, the Watson's Bay lunch and the evening at Snow's in 'Miami Flats', it is not difficult to recognise the origins of the so-called 'quirky' or 'off-beat' Australian comic films of the 'nineties, such as Muriel's Wedding and Strictly Ballroom, as well as the eponymous Kath and Kim duo of the long-running television series -- whose names, I am yet to be convinced otherwise, could only be a direct reference to the photographic images of Prowse's estranged wife and daughter -- 'These 'ull make yer laugh!' -- in White's much later novel, The Twyborn Affair. The Eye of the Storm abounds in characters with exaggerated features and accents, such as Athol Shreve 'the turncoat politician and tame social bull' (p. 92) and the afternoon nurse Flora's overweight, albino cousin Snow with her unzipped trousers and her girlfriend Alix, 'a clotted-creamy woman, with the necklaces of Venus, and black hair built up high' (p. 176):

'And now there's my friend Alix. Alix was sold on the idea from the start. She'll be home any moment.' Snow looked at her wrist. 'She's a sales-lady -- at Parker's in the lonjeray.' (p. 175)

Empurpled, obese, drunken characters collapse in gutters, flail through broken rickety chairs and shake the plaster from the ceilings of their own bathrooms. I lost count of the farts. White must have been describing his own literary approach when Dorothy, the daughter of the dying, matriarch Elizabeth Hunter -- mother, mummy, with all its suggestive opulence and dessication -- overhears at a North Shore dinner party an 'Australian Writer' describe to his neighbour 'how he was adapting the Gothic novel to local conditions.' (p. 282)

What is different or extra to the Kath and Kim take on this 'Gothic' approach is the clarity of White's observations, the dark to very dark tones of his irony, the almost Proustian analysis of motives and associations, and the subtlety of his literary resonances and references, which include Shakespeare, Joyce and even Winnie the Pooh -- '"We shall be late if we don't make a move." Late for what, she could not have told...' (p. 418) -- as well as Stendhal, whose impossibly admirable, incestuously driven heroine, 'the Sanseverina' in The Charterhouse of Parma, haunts 'Bill' Hunter and, later, his daughter Dorothy.

And in addition to all this, there is an extraordinary feel for Sydney as a place: for the still palpable sleaze of the red brick flats behind Anzac Parade, the industrial grey of Botany, the scruffy edges of Centennial Park, the heavy azalea-fringed mansions of Warrawee; this achievement reminding me of the evocations of the city in Christina Stead's For Love Alone and Seven Poor Men of Sydney, a writer whose significance White celebrated when she became the first recipient of the Patrick White Award, which he set up with his Nobel prize winnings for those Australian writers who have received inadequate recognition for their contribution to Australian literature.

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