The Eye of the Storm
by Patrick White
Viking, 608 pp., $8.95
An old Australian woman of eighty-six, inventive, malignant, capriciously generous, all but blind, lies in her bed. If Walter Pater’s words are true—”To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life”—then Elizabeth Hunter, at the brink of death, evinces more of life’s success than do any of the people who come to her bedside. Her gemlike flame is fed by her actual gems (both she and the novel itself make much play with her jewelry and her teasing largesse), and it glitters too in her eyes: “Again there was that moment of splintered sapphires, before the lids, dropping like scales, extinguished it.”
Mrs. Hunter’s deathbed vitality threatens to extinguish the lives of those who are her dependents: her nurses (Sister de Santis, busty and religious; Sister Manhood, crisp and desirous), her cook, her solicitor, and—the importantly awaited guests from Europe—her son and her daughter. The son is Sir Basil Hunter, an actor fruity and fleshy, the incarnation of the higher wheedling; the daughter is Dorothy, Princesse de Lascabanes, frigidly separated from her husband, and the incarnation—if that is the word—of the fear of the flesh.
The son and the daughter want their mother’s money; they half-want her to die, since under her their genius—or lack of it—is rebuked, but they would settle for her going into a geriatric home; would settle for that partly because they suspect that their proposing it, let alone her doing it, will probably kill her. It does; or rather, she exerts her will for the last momentous time and bitterly obliges them by dying. But her obliging is likely to enthrall them as much in death as in life; obliging is obligation, she has some unignorable nobility of mind, and in more ways than one noblesse oblige.
The plot of Patrick White’s new novel, The Eye of the Storm, then, patently has its affinities with an Angus Wilson short story. And that is part of the trouble, or at any rate part of the question. Is Patrick White—Nobelist novelist—a giant or a gigantist? Does he have the amplitude of mind, the variety of solicitude, the range of scrutiny, that demand more than 600 pages for their true telling?
The works of literature that do have such amplitude are continually invoked throughout The Eye of the Storm: King Lear and La Chartreuse de Parme. King Lear is mentioned or alluded to dozens of times; first, because of the parallel between Lear’s division of his kingdom, so that he—likewise in his eighties—may “unburdened crawl towards death,” and Mrs. Hunter’s last acts of predatory generosity; and second, because Sir Basil is thinking of once more tackling the role of Lear.
Yet, although the reader is aware that it is as much the unlikenesses between the modern happenings and the masterpiece of ancientness as the likenesses that Mr. White is insisting upon, the …