Patrick White

Book Review – The Hanging Garden by Patrick White

Following in the tradition of great artists like Jimi Hendrix, Patrick White didn’t allow his passing to cramp his productive output. To the joy of his fans, his final work-in-progress, The Hanging Garden is now in print. While unfinished it allows readers the opportunity to explore the creative mind of one of the Twentieth Century’s most original authors.

As White never finished the book the publisher included a blurb at the beginning that read:

The Hanging Garden has been transcribed from Patrick White’s handwritten manuscript and, in the absence of a living author to consult, not edited.

With that noted, I found the writing much more polished than expected. It did include White’s trademark unusual point of view switches. His novels always challenge and keep me alert. This one was no different. The only time I had a sense of reading a draft version of a novel occurred when an author’s note appeared in the text.

The classroom is rocking by now with the swell of the sea. Hidden in the mangroves blacks are waiting to spear the landing parties of explorers. [Find out about these mangroves.] (Page 96)

I’ve read a number of White’s other books. Going into The Hanging Garden, expected to read some clever usage of language. It didn’t disappoint.

She would rather not be faced with things, even those she knows about. (Page 112)

Mrs. Bulpit was a pale woman except where the mouth had been painted over. Her forearms, hands, and face could have been molded from natural marzipan. (Page 3)

In any case, he was not emotional, unless in those secret compartments where he never allowed anyone to enter. (Page 13)

And my personal favorite:

I shall not write this poem. Memory is safer than invisible ink, that all the school knows about, playing at spies, exchanging coded messages. (Page 115)

In terms of the story, it did leave me wanting more. Part of that stemmed from White only completing a third of the novel. It’s a shame because I enjoyed the premise. The narrative centered on the lives of two children uprooted due to the Second World War. It definitely stimulated by interest to discover how their lives progressed into adulthood.

I always enjoy reading incomplete works by writers I admire. It makes me feel less ashamed of all the stories and novels I still haven’t finished. With that understood, since The Hanging Garden only represented a portion of the final work, the overall story is incomplete. As always with this author, the writing can be very difficult to comprehend. For that reason I can only recommend to hard-core Patrick White fans.

Book Review – Happy Valley by Patrick White

Reading Patrick White reminded me of the old Foster’s marketing campaign on “How to Speak Australian”. In one add a rugby player put a band aid on his head. He ran out to the field as an Australian voice over said, “Helmet.” The next screen showed a can of Foster’s getting slammed on a table. A voice over with an Australian accent said, “Beer. Foster’s: It’s Australian for beer.” Reading his works makes me feel like the name “Patrick White” is Australian for “Novelist.”

Mr. White held the distinction of being the Land Down Under’s sole Nobel Laureate in Literature; receiving the award in 1973. His novels presented a unique approach to writing that made his works extremely challenging (to be charitable) and perplexing (to be realistic). While still trying to wrap my mind around complex works such as The Vivisector and The Eye of the Storm, I discovered his first novel still extant. Wanting to see if some of White’s unusual approach to writing germinated in that effort, I checked it out. To my both my delight and consternation, many of the elements of his later work appeared in his 1937 debut, Happy Valley.

I struggled with this book. As I wrote above, White’s work has a reputation for difficulty. The overall premise challenged me. Nine characters, most of them major, appeared in his narrative. He depicted two unhappy marriages with the other persons playing supporting roles. After battling through Happy Valley, I have a better understanding as to why we refer to players in a novel as “characters.”

In addition, White pioneered an original approach to point of view. He wrote in third person POV. He’d center on one character and then would transition into the second person point of view. For readers scratching their heads, here’s an example.

Going home, Alys Browne felt calm and detached. She trod on a frozen puddle and heard it crack. I wanted to escape, she said, this, after all, is California, its true significance. Understanding, you felt no pain in your body, that ice did not touch, in your mind that was a fortress against pain, and Happy Valley, and because of this you lived. (Location 4862)

This section presented a unique challenge. It had the White POV transition combined with a character speaking about herself in the first person. This writing style made Ulysses seem like a light read. I didn’t commit a typo when I left out the quotation marks, either. The author chose not to include any in the text. Passages such as this provide a good example why many readers experience difficulty with this author’s work.

While understanding Happy Valley vexed me, I did find it a worthwhile read. White presented a number of exceptional lyrical flourishes that justified the effort. I liked the following poetic expression: “Words beat on the border of her mind, but did not penetrate.” (Location 1321)

In another line that I enjoyed the author exhibited outstanding imagery: “You could see the surf whiten the shore through the darkness.” (Location 1342)

I found the following one of the best chapter endings I’ve ever read.

So on, so on, with the diversity of detail and the pathetically compulsory unity of purpose that informs a town asleep. Smoke mounts faintly skywards from the chimney-pots. Dream is broken, turns, sighs. She said, she said, the wind. The cat walking on the water-butt touches with her cold pad a star, claiming it as her own, like Happy Valley extinguished by the darkness, achieving a momentary significance. (Location 1639)

After reading the above paragraph I could mentally see a book being slammed down. A voice over with an Australian accent said, “Novel.”

I appreciated reading Happy Valley even though the complexity of the plot and writing style confused me. At times my head felt like I’d just thrown back a few pints of Foster’s. With all that out of the way, I do plan on reading this book again. Now that I understand what I’m in for and have a background, I’d like to go through it once again. This time I’ll focus on mining it for the story. The way I see it, if I get flustered and the attempt drives me to drink, I’ll know just what to pick-up.