The Hanging Garden
By Patrick White
Random House Australia,
$29.95, pp 240
It is tempting to consider The Hanging Garden alongside other posthumous novels, most recently David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King (2011). But in many respects, the latter’s publication is only cashing in on Wallace’s contemporary success: a reissue of the novel, with supplementary scenes, is already in the works. Contrary to this, Patrick White has so fallen out of favour with the reading public that The Hanging Garden is possibly better considered as the product of a gift economy rather than a market economy. And a much appreciated gift it is, too.
A second posthumous novel worth contrasting with The Hanging Garden is by another Nobel Prize winner: Albert Camus’ The First Man (1995, published in France as Le premier homme in 1994). While Camus died before completing his manuscript, White abandoned the manuscript of The Hanging Garden nine years before his death in 1990. Camus left numerous notes and outlines for where his novel was headed, while White left nothing of the sort.
So although The Hanging Garden is certainly incomplete, its publication is not accompanied by an aura of loss or wondering what could have been. There is something more definite and less open-ended about its unfinished state. White intentionally abandoned his work, whereas works like The First Man were orphaned.
David Foster Wallace is different again. His own unfinished work carries within it a sense of contrivance. He intentionally — by committing suicide — orphaned his work, while arranging the manuscript and his notes to be easily found, as if desirous of posthumous publication, and all the commentary that surrounds it. There is no such contrivance in either Camus or White, where stylistic uncertainty, characteristic of all unfinished drafts, is matched by a guttural surety of intention.
But there is one speculative point of comparison between White and Wallace, and that has to do with referencing popular culture in their respective manuscripts. For White, the point of reference to popular culture is Australia in 1981, when The Hanging Garden was written. Of course, it may only be a coincidence that the name of the family that owns the eponymous garden, where much of the action of White’s novel happens, is the same as the family in the television show Kingswood Country, which first aired the year before White started working on his novel.
But there are many comparisons to be made with what the elder members of the Bullpitt family in both the television show and in the novel (spelled ‘Bulpit’) represent about an Australian society that dealt poorly with change, which clung to old values that White challenged in all of his novels, including The Hanging Garden, with regards to immigration and Australian attitudes to race.
‘Today people can hardly bring themselves to read a story let alone a novel,’ White wrote in a letter soon after abandoning the manuscript. ‘They have been rotted by television.’ That year Kingswood Country won a Logie for Best Comedy Series.
In The Hanging Garden, this challenge to an old, closed Australia is created by the presence of two children, a boy and a girl, brought to Australia in the early 1940s, to escape the war in Europe. Eirene Sklavos comes from Greece. She is the daughter of an Australian and an executed Greek communist. Gilbert Horsfall comes from England, where his mother died in the Blitz. Together they move through adolescence in what is for them a foreign land in uncertain times.
In White’s hands, however, and seen through the eyes of these children, Australia in the 1940s becomes, for the reader, an equally foreign land. It is this repositioning of the reader that allows White to put Australian society into perspective, and to question it.
But this questioning of Australian society is not an end in itself. It is a necessary means by which White can delineate, as he often does in his novels, the vagaries of the self. The true protagonist of the novel, in this respect, is the young girl, Eirene Sklavos.
It is no coincidence that this character, at the centre of a novel set in wartime, is named ‘Eirene’, the Greek goddess of peace. She begins, and ends, out of kilter with her surroundings.
This process begins in the opening pages, when Mrs Sklavos introduces Eirene to Mrs Bulpit: ‘For a moment Mamma’s voice made Eirene feel foreign, when she had never thought of herself as being anything at all.’
The novel ends with the people around her thinking that she had finally started to see herself ‘as an Australian’. But: ‘I don’t know what I am. I don’t want anyone to — take me up. I only want to be left alone — to be myself — when I find out what that is.’
In between, this loss of ‘her sense of inviolability’ is charted through the variations on her Greek name, when spoken in an Australian dialect: Irene, Ireen, Reenie.
‘Eirene’ is dead. I am Irene Ireen Reenie anything this Australian landscape dictates their voices expect. Not altogether. Little bits of ‘Eirene’ are still flapping torn and bloody where they have been grounded into the broken concrete strewn along the sea wall amongst the gulls’ scribble little spurts of knowledge will always intrude on what others are babbling about…
This process is also depicted in the various narrative points of view adopted. The novel begins in the third person, but then, as Eirene deepens in complexity, so too does the narrative voice. It shifts from third-person to first-person, but also into second-person, where the ‘you’ spoken to is not, as is usually the case, the reader, but is rather in this instance the narrator speaking directly to Eirene.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that the narrator here is White himself. The clue as to this formless narrator is given in the novel in the figure of the pneuma, repeatedly brought up in discussion between Eirene and Gilbert. It remains indefinable throughout the novel. ‘It’s the sort of thing you can’t talk about.’ ‘I can’t tell you — not in English.’
Eirene’s aunt once described it to her: ‘the spirit will guide you — the pneuma.’ More literally, it means ‘wind’ or ‘breath’, that which moves between things, but which holds them together, which gives them life. It is the perfect image for a fictional narrative, which gives form, but which has no substance itself.
‘All of it meant that you were being formed, that any part of Eirene Sklavos which survived, must exist only in the secret poetic world of dream and memory.’
Given that this complexity, already on display in this short fragment of a much larger unfinished novel, both drives the narrative forward and unfolds itself exponentially, it is no wonder that White abandoned it where he did. The pneuma cannot be contained, cannot be brought to an end. What is most compelling about The Hanging Garden’s unfinished state is that, unlike many of White’s other novels, it is a work that is still breathing. So it is not a thing to be read, but to be inhaled.
Matthew Lamb is the editor of The Review of Australian Fiction.