Tag Archives: Patrick White

Esme the critic

My mother, Esme, left school at 14 or 15 in the mid 1920s. She married my father when she was 19 and lived on a sugar-cane farm outside Innisfail in North Queensland for the next five decades. As her five children went off to boarding school and then spread out over Queensland and beyond, she wrote letters to each of us, weekly to start with and then less frequently but still with a shaming regularity. Mostly she kept us informed on one another’s doings and home-front developments. Occasionally she would comment on literary matters.

Here are some of her passing comments on the literary scene, which I find interesting in all sorts of ways:

17 December 1971: I’ve just finished reading Thomas Keneally’s The Fear & enjoyed it more than any book I’ve read for ages. So nice & clean & sort of old-fashioned.

7 March 1972: I’ve just read [Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s] Cancer Ward. It’s really absorbing but very frightening really. I’m sorry I’ve finished it really. … You’ll be pleased to hear A was reading [Germaine Greer’s] The Female Eunuch. I have to own that I burnt my copy. M & N said, ‘At least you could have passed it on to us.’ Perhaps I should have saved their money as curiosity will get the better of them I’m sure.

25 July 1972: I am reading a book of yours that MA found in her box. I’m not liking it as much as The Fear. It is [Thomas Keneally’s] Bring Larks & Heroes.

28 November 1972: Thank you so much for remembering my Birthday. I’m sure I’ll enjoy the books. I’ve started [the first book I worked on in my editing job with Currency Press, David Williamson’s] The Removalists. It’s nice & easy to read. [Later in the same letter:] Having read The Removalists I’m glad it was a gift from you Jon because from you it is meant as a shocker. [It wasn’t.] From anyone else I would have a sneaky feeling that he/she might imagine I liked that sort of talk. If he’d made it a story of police brutality without the four letter words I feel sure it would have been just as big a success or even bigger.  Anyhow now I’ve started the [Gerald] Durrell one [probably Catch Me a Colobus] & it is really my pick. I’ll be able to lend it around.

25 December 1972: It was only today I learned that it was you who gave [my nieces and nephews Maurice Sendak’s] Where the wild things are. I had made a note of it to buy for [another grandchild]. It is the most read & the most cherished book in their house & yet it looks ghastly really.

24 February 1973: Of course I have not burnt The Removalists, Jon. As a matter of fact I have a waiting list of about a dozen women, as ignorant as myself, wanting to learn all about life!! seeing that M & N & E & V think that I have no ears to hear with. ‘Surely you’ve heard such talk,’ even in the street. Well I haven’t. Actually I think [youngest daughter] Liza knows more than I do but I certainly don’t feel underprivileged because of my ignorance.

28 March 1973: We have watched some of Certain Women on your recommendation Jon. I missed the name of the writer last night (not being in the habit of reading all those names, though I do notice that the writer, who should be the most important, is never so). It was the ‘model’ girl & I think it could have been Keneally as he is sort of old fashioned. I thought the Williamson one was the most – real is the word I suppose. He certainly understands today’s youth, don’t you think?

8 April 1973: Our Repertory Group put on [Richard Beynon’s ] The Shifting Heart last week. Roslyn Watt played the Italian mother & she was perfect. Seniors must have to study it this year because the night Dad & I went there was a bus load from Tully & the night E & V went there were 2 bus loads from Cairns.

9 July 1973: Last week there was a play on TV, The Cherry Orchard Chekhov [an MTC production with Frank Thring, Googie Withers, Irene Inescort] & knowing how interested [oldest son] Michael is in plays (He was in a Chekhov once) & feeling it would give me some culture, we watched it right up to the end of the first act then turned the TV off. It was played to packed houses in Melbourne for ages so the ad said. I wonder if you watched it & don’t say you enjoyed it. To me it could have been Innisfail repertory doing it for the first time. Dad stayed home from Poker to see it too which made it worse.

1 August 1973: I see [Peter Bogdanovich’s] What’s Up Doc advertised at the pictures somewhere in Sydney. Do go & see it if you can. [I did.] It’s really a scream, Makes you laugh till it really hurts – just absolutely stupid but I’m sure you couldn’t help enjoying it.

23rd October 1973 (after a visit to Sydney): I managed to get a Sat Aust(ralian) with Katharine Brisbane [my boss at the time] write up of the play [probably Rex Cramphorn’s cutting-edge production The Marsh King’s Daughter, which she mentions in a later letter] & I agree with her and the more I think back on it the more I like it really. Then today I found Jock Veitch’s write up which is downright lousy – even saying he couldn’t hear. I feel like writing & telling him to go again & wear his glasses & take along his hearing aid.

4 February 1974: Poor Mr Solzhenitsyn is having a rough time. Have you read Cancer Ward, Jon? [I had.] It is the best I’ve read. It seems queer but I think Patrick White writes much like him, so simply. I’ve read only one of his, The Tree of Man, & really enjoyed it.

March 1974: Innisfail had Godspell during the week,  packed the Shire Hall. We didn’t go, we left it to the young. The [Marist] Bros all went & raved on about it – more an experience than a show etc. They took 45 boys along so deserved a free ticket.

31 July 1974 (reporting on a time in Brisbane): We went to see [my cousin G’s] production Fetch Me a Figleaf. There were 10 of us … G sat with us so we had to say all the right things. It was rather naughty but really entertaining all about gods & goddesses on Mt Olympus.

13 October 1974: Well! we were trapped into a bit of culture last night. If we’d been at home we’d have turned it off but we were babysitting so left it on & were really sorry it had to end. It was The Misanthrope, Moliere’s play. The man who did the translation [not named on IMDB] must be a marvel & all the players were lovely. It says ABC production but I can’t believe it was. It was too good.

7 March 1975: Have you seen a book Watership Down? It’s about rabbits, all about rabbits. I’ve just read it & loved it. [I still haven’t read it.]

22 June 1975: We’re all reading The Towering Inferno, actually it’s called The Tower. Dad’s on it at the moment and doesn’t even answer when spoken to. It’s really suspenseful.

Late September 1975, from Launceston: We went to see [Roman Polanski’s] Chinatown & thought it pretty ordinary. Being overheated didn’t help. I’d put on woollen sox & extra cardigan & shed everything except the sox as the theatre was heated.

And that – when she was 61 and I was 28 – is where I stopped carefully hoarding her letters.

Southerly 72/1

Elizabeth McMahon and David Brooks (editors), Southerly Vol 72 No 1 2012: Mid-century Women Writers

20121018-203833.jpgSpring is here – ‘a box where sweets compacted lie’ as George Herbert called it, in a phrase that could apply just as well to this issue of Southerly. (Or to put it prosaically, this post is an annotated list.)

There’s a new Jennifer Maiden poem, ‘George Jeffreys 13: George Jeffreys woke up in Beijing’. This series of poems has had to find a new focus now that George W Bush is no longer reliably on the television obsessing about Iraq as he was for the first poems. George and his kind of girlfriend Clare seem to be travelling the world, waking up in one troubled locale after another, having adventures involving guns, fires and pirate ships as well as discussing politics, morality, philosophy etc. It’s not a verse novel, or even a discontinuous narrative really, but it is never uninteresting. In this poem George and Clare meet with a recently released Chinese dissident in the Forbidden City where they are joined by Confucius and the Duke of Zhou.

There’s Fiona Morrison’s excellent essay, ‘Leaving the Party: Dorothy Hewett, literary politics and the long 1960s’. Like many Communists, Hewett stayed in the Party after the 1956 invasion of Hungary despite serious misgivings, then left when the tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in 1968. In effect this essay traces the movement of her mind between those two events as revealed in her writing. Strikingly though, it doesn’t refer to either Hungary or Czechoslovakia, restricting itself to literary matters. Some of the essay’s specialist scholarly language took my fancy, and revived my love of double dactyls:

Higamun hogamun,
Fíona Morrison,
writing in Southerly,
gathers no moss:

says that our Dorothy
ex-Marxist-Leninist
wrote a sustained tropo-
logics of loss.

There’s Karen Lamb’s ‘“Yrs Patrick”: Thea Astley’s brush with timely advice on “the rackety career of novel writing”’, an inside look at the relationship between Astley and other writers, with a focus on a particularly unsparing letter from Patrick White. I once heard Astley quote a dollop of writerly advice she had received from White: ‘If you’re going to write about a shit, Thea, you have to make him a really big shit.’ This article is fascinating but doesn’t include anything quite that colourful. Karen Lamb is writing a biography of Astley. Reading her account of Astley’s approach to friendship, I wondered if biographers don’t run the risk of coming to dislike their subjects through knowing too much:

Karen Lamb
surely doesn’t mean to slam
Thea Astley
but she makes her seem ghastly.

I’ll refrain from doggerel for the rest of this post.

There’s the other piece I turned to the day the journal arrived in the mail, David Musgrave’s review of Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray’s Australian Poetry Since 1788. In a measured and judicious manner, Musgrave joins the line of anthologists, poets and publishers who give this anthology the thumbs down. (Incidentally, I note that neither David Brooks, Southerly‘s co-editor, nor Kate Lilley, its poetry editor, got a guernsey in the anthology, but that didn’t stop them from including an elegant narrative poem by Gray elsewhere in this issue.)

Of the theme essays on mid-century women writers other than the two I’ve already mentioned, Helen O’Reilly’s ‘“Dazzling” Dark – Lantana Lane (1959)’ and Susan Sheridan’s ‘“Cranford at Moreton Bay”: Jessica Anderson’s The Commandant‘ persuaded me to add the books they discuss to my To Be Read pile. I skimmed the essays on Christina Stead, Eve Langley and Elizabeth Harrower, and a second one on Jessica Anderson, which are intended for specialist readers. I mean no irony when I say I was grateful to read this near the start of an essay: ‘In her well-known formulation of performativity, Judith Butler argues that repetition of a discourse actually produces the phenomena that it seeks to control.’ Such sentences serve as warnings: what follows is intended not just for readers who can understand the warning sentence, but readers to whom its contents are familiar.

Off theme, there’s Ed Scheer’s ‘“Non-places for non-people”: Social sculpture in Minto’, an account of a performance art event, Big Pinko, in which two artists painted a house pink. It sounds like an interesting project, but I found article a little disturbing in the way it talked about the people of Minto. Perhaps the Judith Butler formulation is relevant: the phrase ‘non-places for non-people’ is meant to encapsulate a criticism of the dysfunctional environment in this outer western suburb, but as it is repeated in this essay it comes to read like a dismissal of the people who live there. The essay has a lot in it that’s beautiful and evocative, but in this respect it makes me appreciate all over again Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s at Westside’s labours to foster writers in Western Sydney.

This issue has abundant rich poetry. I love B. R. Dionysius’ ‘Ghouls’, a set of five sonnets about the Brisbane floods.

The white festiva shunted like a tinny, half-tonne maggot into
O’Hanlon Street’s winter bulb cul-de-sac. The Bremer’s brown
Muzzle investigated the bottom stairs of a corner house, sniffing
For the scent of past flood levels left by more malicious beasts.

Of the other poems, I particular liked ‘Rose Bay Airport, 1944’ and ‘Standing Soldiers’ by Margaret Bradstock (both after Russell Drysdale wartime paintings), ‘Holiday snap’ by Andrew Taylor, ‘Hardware 1953’ by Geoff Page, and ‘The Roadside Bramble’ by Peter Minter.

Of the fifty pages of reviews, John Kinsella on David Brooks’s The Sons of Clovis: Ern Malley, Adoré Floupette and a secret history of Australian poetry andPam Brown on Kate Lilley’s Ladylike stood out for me, Kinsella for fascinating ruminations on the nature of literary hoaxes, and Brown for her usual generous intelligence.

The Tree of Man revisited with the Book Group

Patrick White, The Tree of Man (1955, Vintage 1994)

Before the group meeting:
My mother’s letters in the 1970s would occasionally report on her reading. She once transcribed a paragraph from Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children because it seemed to describe the noses of our family. The other day when I read the first page of the Drought chapter of The Tree of Man, I wondered if she’d thought, as I do, that this description of Stan Parker evokes aspects of my father (allowing for the fact that Dad grew sugarcane rather than running a dairy, and was never ‘broad’):

He was respected. He was inseparable from the district, he had become a place name. His herd was small, but of good quality for the herd of a man in a small way, neither rich nor ambitious, but reliable, the cans would always reach the butter factory to the minute, without fail. He went to church too, singing the straight psalms and rounder hymns, in praise of that God which obviously did exist. Stan Parker had been told for so long that he believed, of course he did believe. He sang that praise doggedly, in a voice you would have expected of him, approaching the music honestly, without embellishing it. Standing in the pew, singing. the back of his neck was by this time quite wrinkled, and the sinews were too obvious in the flesh. But he was a broad and upright man.

I’ll never know if she made that kind of connection, but she mentioned the book in passing in a comment on Cancer Ward:

It seems queer but I think Patrick White writes much like [Solzhenitsyn], so simply. I’ve read only one of his, The Tree of Man, & really enjoyed it.

Not bad, eh? She made no claim to literary sophistication, but she picked White’s affinity with the Russians. And she found his prose simple!

The prose is simple, but it’s not easy. It’s also impossible to read fast, lacking what A D Hope believed a novelist needs: ‘a plain style, a clear easy stride, a good open texture of language to carry him [sic] to the end of his path’. But it’s certainly not ‘pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge’, as Hope famously described it. It does constantly pull you up and make you look at a particular word or image – or, if you don’t stop, leave you with an uneasy feeling that you’ve missed something. The point of view frequently moves around within a single short sentence, or rather within a grouping of words between consecutive full stops, since White is a great user of what are sometimes known in the editing trade as frags. Even the very first sentence, innocuous enough at first glance (‘A cart drove between the two big stringybarks and stopped’), has the reader slightly wrong-footed with its abrupt rhythm, its lack of a human, or even animal, subject, its slightly skewed use of articles (‘the cart drove between two big stringybarks’ would be more natural, but of course it would mean something quite different).

The book’s peculiarities, and its arrogance, intimidated me in first year university in 1967. But not this time. True, I came close to genuflecting at the first four chapters, which tell of the primal encounter of ‘the man’, ‘the woman’ and the bush. I wondered if I would be able to keep up with the intensity of the prose for the whole 480 pages. But once the narrative emerged into something resembling a social world, I was less enthralled. In fact I became increasingly irritated. I just don’t believe in the nastiness of most of the characters. I can’t stand the snobbishness of the narrative voice. The drunken Irish shenanigans (read domestic violence, despair, wretched poverty and, towards the end, dubious religion) of the O’Dowds fail to amuse me. The pretentions of the nouveaux riches Armstrongs are awkwardly unconvincing, as is almost everything about the younger Parkers. The book seems to assume that some people, inarticulate or otherwise, have an honest capacity for rich inner lives, while others (most?) don’t, and must settle at best for synthetic souls with occasional exalted glimpses. For all the towering strengths of the book – and they certainly aren’t limited to the first chapters – I became increasingly obsessed with calculating what fraction of the pages I had yet to read.

Perhaps the most striking disappointment is the vast, gaping silence about Aboriginal Australians. When Stan’s cart stops between the stringy barks in that first sentence, it’s definitely in terra nullius. ‘Blacks’ are mentioned twice, once when young Ray refers to their arcane knowledge of how to survive in the desert, and again in the closing pages when the missionary mentions sex with black women as a sign of his youthful depravity. The phrase ‘dream time’ occurs twice. The first time, Stan and Amy have come to an ‘uneasy dream-time’. Since that probably signifies that neither of them was fully awake in relation to the other, the Aboriginal reference may be coincidental, but in the second, near the beginning of the fourth and final part, Stan looks back on his first days at the farm as ‘the dream time’. Here the phrase does refer to a time of creation, of beginnings, and it must disturbingly invoke for any Australian reader now, and surely for some in the 1950s, this continent’s history of genocide, dispossession and cultural appropriation. Invoke without acknowledging. The Irish are despised. The working class barely exist. Aboriginal people have been erased and over-written.

Then, here’s Stan, further down the first page of the Drought chapter:

There were certain corners of his property that he could not bring himself to visit, almost as if he would have discovered something he did not wish to see. […] Once he had been looking at a crop of remarkably fine sorghum that was almost ready to bring in, when he remembered that same stretch of land after he had cleared it as a young man, and on it the white chips lying that his axe had carved out of the trees, and some trees and young saplings still standing and glistening there, waiting for the axe. So that he forgot his present crop and went away disturbed, and thinking.

In a book that makes much of ‘things that are too terrible and wonderful to speak of’ is it too much to imagine that in this moment the thing Stan does not wish to see is the silenced Aboriginal history? That the dispossession on which Stan’s settlement of the land is built is almost forcing its way into the narrative? Surely it’s not just my idiosyncrasy that those white chips of wood remind me of the bones in the red earth of a massacre site in a William Yang photograph?

There may well be hundreds of learned articles about this disturbed silence, but that’s my two bob’s worth.

After the group meeting:
Tonight we met in a pub in Paddington, rather than in someone’s home. All but one of us turned up, and almost half had read all or most of he book. We had an animated discussion. Only one of us really loved the book. One, who may not have read it, considered it to be dated imperialism. The two of us who read the Vintage edition agreed that the cover was absurdly inappropriate (a horse? northern hemisphere trees?) No one shared my unease about the absence of Aboriginal characters: the consensus seemed to be that the original inhabitants of the Parkers’ land had been dispossessed long before Stan and Amy arrived, and that my reading of the white chips passage was drawing a long bow. As someone said, what’s the point of a bow that’s not long? And I still think that the general silence enacts a kind of genocide.

Whatever, unlike Anna Karenina, The Tree of Man couldn’t hold its own against the need to discuss Other Things – the sins of the ALP and the worse sins of the Coalition, our various adventures in work and education, travel and the weather. As always it was a fun evening.

Reading while walking, episode 732

Reading a book while walking is different from walking while wearing earphones. A little moment from yesterday illustrates:

I was walking the dog home from the Orange Grove markets reading the Patrick White novel that we’ll be discussing at our next Book Group meeting.

A voice from behind me called out, ‘Is that The Tree of Man?’ It was Dancer1, one of the men from the Group, behind the wheel of his car emerging from the side street I’d just crossed. ‘Where are you up to? The flood or the fire?’

‘Finished the flood,’ I called back. ‘Still waiting for the fire.’

‘I’m loving it.’

‘Me too. I was completely bowled over by the first four chapters.’

‘Yes, I kept saying to my wife, “Listen to this bit!”‘

Go on, have a conversation like that with someone listening to their iPod.

—–
1This inaugurates a policy of giving the chaps from the Book Group noms de blog.

Not the Blue Mountains

Mark Tredinnick, The Blue Plateau: a landscape memoir (UQP 2009)

4541 As well as being a poet and writer of personal essays, Mark Tredinnick teaches writing in both creative and business contexts (not that I think business is never creative, but you know what I mean). I went to one of his Sydney Community College courses a couple of years ago, and not only got a boost for my writing but also was introduced to contemporary nature writing – Mark had us read passages from some of the great American practitioners, did a non-pushy but in my case successful sales job on The Land’s Wild Music, his book about them, and talked about his own longterm project, a memoir about the Blue Mountains. At the Sydney Writers Festival this year, beside stacks of his Little Red Writing Book and  Little Green Writing Book, there was the memoir, The Blue Plateau, in print at last.

You don’t have to scratch far in non-Aboriginal Australian literature before you come across the idea, usually accompanied by an element of yearning, that people live in close mutuality with the land they inhabit. It could hardly have been otherwise – the first settlers were discovering a new nature. Barron Field had fun describing a kangaroo

Nature, in her wisdom’s play,
on Creation’s holiday

and it probably makes sense to read a lot of Henry Lawson’s stories as exploring the deep interconnection of humans and environment – as in the oddly bathetic final sentence of ‘The Bush Undertaker‘:

And the sun sank again on the grand Australian bush – the nurse and tutor of eccentric minds, the home of the weird, and of much that is different from things in other lands.

Not to mention Judith Wright and all those poets who wrote about the landscape of the mind (‘South of my days’ circle, part of my blood’s country,/rises that tableland’ etc).

Mark Tredinnick is consciously part of a different tradition. Just as Patrick White decades ago revolted against ‘the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism’ which he saw as dominating Australian literature, looking instead to European models, Mark T looks to North American models. I know this, not because I’ve read any of them, and not just from the enthusiasm of The Land’s Wild Music, but from references embedded in the text – explicitly to Barry Lopez, in a nod and a wink to James Galvin, and perhaps by a mention of bell peppers where someone writing in an Australian tradition might have said capsicums or red peppers. The book offers a wealth of stories, mainly of three families – two who lived in the region for generations, transformed it in big and small ways by their labour, and were transformed by it; one who came as an immigrant and found home there. Actually make that four families, the fourth being the author, his partner and children: their stay in a place up on the ridge by Katoomba, and Mark’s attempt to belong there, is a central narrative thread. Many of the stories are classic bush yarns – miraculous escapes from bushfires, lives lost from flood and rockfalls. That is to say, they have the subject matter of classic bush yarns: they are told in elevated, mellifluous language, rich with simile and, especially, personification, a very far cry from the tightlipped, sardonic discourse we have come to think of as typically Australian. I wouldn’t want to give the impression that the book is a tapestry of yarns in the manner of Joseph Furphy’s Such Is Life, though in more high-falutin language. True, like Furphy’s fabulous book, it lacks a straightforward linear structure. But it is a very different beast: self-described as something that has been eroded, leaving only fragments of its whole, it is indeed fragmentary, to be read, I think, almost like a book of poetry. Some of the “poems” are ten pages or more long. The narrative of Les and May Maxwell stretches through the whole book like a backbone. There are many outcrops of observation, reflection or anecdote that are barely a paragraph long.

(A newspaper review on the weekend lamented the absence of Indigenous people, except ‘obliquely’. And it’s true that no Indigenous person appears as a character. But one of the distinctive features of The Blue Plateau is the way the Gundingurra people are a constant, though abstract, presence. Perhaps this is a book that’s easy to skip. And that’s every reader’s right, but one that, when exercised, makes it hard to be an accurate reviewer.)

Improbably, the opening paragraph reminded me of Terry Pratchett’s descriptive writing. I thought at first that to mention this would be to make fun of Mark Tredinnick’s elevated style. But that ain’t necessarily so. On reflection, I think it’s fair to say that my favourite fantasy writer manages to slip brilliantly lyrical writing past our defences by taking the mickey, Mark’s lyricism is full frontal, dares us to laugh, and restores the mickey to readers who are timid about lyricism in their prose. Here are a couple of excerpts from The Blue Plateau and bits of Terry Pratchett. See if you can tell which is which.

It’s early September, the driest month of the year, and the valley is rolling over into summer. The sun has been out all day, and now what’s left of it has fallen into the valley and is lying there on the yellow grasses like whisky in a glass.

The sun rose slowly, as if it wasn’t sure it was worth all the effort.

[The] soft yellow light of dawn flowed over the sleeping landscape like the caress of a gentle lover or, as some would have it, like golden syrup. It paused to fill up valleys. It piled up against mountain ranges. When it reached [placename here], it built up in heaps until it finally crashed in great lazy tsunami as silent as velvet, across the dark landscape beyond.

The valley is a woman who likes  a bath, and she likes to smoke while she lies there. She breathes down the sky, and she lets it travel through her body, and she holds it a long time, and then she breathes it out again, heavy with desire and complaint.

[From August 2004] Vale Thea Astley

In tonight’s news, running a very poor third to Ian Thorpe’s brilliance in Greece and John Howard’s increasingly transparent duplicity (‘I won’t take a polygraph test because if people can’t tell I’m truthful by looking at me they’re not going to believe me just because a machine says I’m telling the truth’), we were told that Thea Astley died today.

I met her and heard her speak when I was an impressionable 21 year old. The one thing I remember well was an anecdote about Patrick White that she told with great pleasure, to an audience of young Marist Brothers, for the most part earnest seekers after knowledge and virtue. White had read her novel The Well Dressed Explorer, perhaps in manuscript, or at least very soon after publication, and commented: ‘Thea, if you’re going to write about a shit, make sure it’s a very big shit.’