One evening nearly 40 years ago the world’s press descended on Patrick White in Sydney: they rampaged outside his house, pounded its doors, shouted through windows, camped on the lawn. The reason for this hullabaloo was that White had beaten Saul Bellow in the race for the Nobel Prize for Literature of 1973. Yet in contrast to Bellow, there is scant recognition of White’s name nowadays. His books are seldom read. There is no bodyguard of loyal emulators, as Bellow has with Martin Amis.
The publication — in the year of White’s centenary — of an austerely precise slice of his literary remains provides a moment to recall and appraise him. White had patrician Australian parents who sent him for an expensive education in England. Like Proust, he was debilitated by asthma, and was a man of disproportionate enthusiasms and hates. He began trying to write novels while working as a jackaroo in Australia. He spent the war years as an air force intelligence officer in the Middle East: Manoly Lascaris, a Greek whom he met in Alexandria in 1941, remained his lover and companion until White’s death.
They settled together in Australia in 1948. There White wrote novels — boldly ambitious, inventive, sensual, eloquent — which for years were decried in Australia as wild, unmannerly and over-rhetorical. He took stylistic risks, celebrated the harsh beauties of Australia with a painter’s eye or Wordsworth’s joy, had an unfashionable sense of awe and mystery. Certainly The Aunt’s Story, The Tree of Man and Voss are as rash and ebullient as Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King and Herzog.
Personally White was irritable and vituperative: every close friendship ended in scorching conflagration. His spiteful bestseller Flaws in the Glass must rank as the most inadvertently self-diminishing memoir since Somerset Maugham’s. It was while he was awaiting publication of this ugly book in 1981 that he started to write The Hanging Garden. He had written 45,000 words — the first third of the novel — when the storm aroused by his published memoirs diverted him.
The Hanging Garden shows White’s prose at its least baroque. The surviving fragment makes a coherent and polished read, shrewd and tender about its two protagonists, although soiled by rancorous, unforgiving disgust at the failed humanity of the minor characters.
It tells the story of two children sent as war refugees to Australia. Eirene Sklavos, the daughter of a murdered Greek communist partisan, and Gilbert Horsfall, a motherless English boy whose father has sent him away from the Blitz, are both taken in by Essie Bulpit, a burping, tipsy publican’s widow. They come to trust one another, are separated by Mrs Bulpit’s death, but will have intertwined destinies in the postwar world.
‘If I am anything as a writer, it is through my homosexuality, which has given me additional insights, and through a very strong vein of vulgarity,’ White had written shortly before starting The Hanging Garden. There are clues that if the book had been continued, Gilbert, a blue-eyed, golden-haired boy with hidden sensibility, would have discovered himself to be what he calls ‘a poofter’. He conforms to the expectations of mindless schoolfellows called Bruce and Kevin, but as Eirene alone detects, he is too observant and secretively funny to be one of them. The refugee children first find their affinity in an outburst of uncontrollable laughter at a joke that no one else can see.
One can guess at White’s plans for the later sections. ‘Sexuality refreshes and strengthens through its ambivalence … even in Australia — and defines a nation’s temperament,’ he had recently declared in the most significant section of Flaws in the Glass. ‘The little that is subtle in the Australian character comes from the masculine principle in its women, the feminine in its men. Hence the reason Australian women generally appear stronger than their men.’ Eirene and Gilbert were deftly positioned to illustrate this theme in the later sections that were never written.
This intriguing fragment contains arresting images — Mrs Bulpit as a lump of marzipan, the slippery soap and linoleum stench in her scullery. It will interest the little clan of White’s dedicated admirers. Readers who want to explore the difficult, uneven terrain of White’s novels should, however, begin with the masterpieces of his mid-career, The Vivisector and The Eye of the Storm. These are thunderingly powerful, full of emotional depth and grandeur, epigrammatic and ironic, with brilliant scrutiny of human character and motives. Their intermittent bursts of livid misanthropy come like an asthmatic’s rasping spasms.