The Solid Mandala
The Evening of the Holiday
A True Story
There is a critic in London who thinks that Patrick White is, without any argument, the finest novelist now writing in English. When I heard this judgment I couldn’t believe it; certainly his imposing but eccentric talents have always seemed to me to stop somewhere short of greatness, except perhaps in Voss. Nevertheless, the fact that such claims are now being made for White is at least an indication of the way in which his reputation has been creeping up; his compatriots in Australia, as it happens, seem to have the largest doubts about his stature; one of them, the poet and critic, A. D. Hope, dismissed The Tree of Man as “pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge,” which may show the vigor of antipodean critical language, but is surely unjust: The Tree of Man is a very boring book but not quite that bad. Mr. Hope does have a point, though, about the pretentiousness, which is an obvious failing in White’s fiction: The wonderfully rich and intricate structure of his last novel, Riders in the Chariot, was (for me, at least) harmed by the willful imposition of the chariot symbol.
WHITE HAS WAITED five years before producing another novel, and The Solid Mandala shows all the signs of a slow, careful maturation. Reviewing a collection of his short stories in 1964 I suggested that White’s fascination with the oddities of life in the township of Sarsparilla, evident both in his stories and in parts of Riders in the Chariot, ought to provoke him to write an outstanding social comedy of Australian life. The Solid Mandala isn’t a comedy, but it is at least a tragi-comedy, suffused with an almost Shakespearean humanity. It tells the story of twin brothers, Waldo and Arthur Brown, who live together in Sarsparilla from childhood to senility, and who, although twins, are sharply contrasted types. Waldo is sharp, alert, domineering, and consciously an intellectual:
Waldo by then was working at Sydney Municipal Library, and had decided on his type. He was the neat, the conscientious type, tie knotted rather small, the expanding armbands restraining the sleeves of his poplin shirt (white).
Waldo has literary aspirations and spends many years working on a novel called Tiresias a Youngish Man, which is never published. Both brothers remain unmarried, and Waldo sees one of his principal tasks as keeping a watchful, indeed fussy, eye on Arthur, whom everyone has regarded from his birth as slightly simple-minded, and who spends his life working as a clerk in a local grocery store.
In fact, Arthur has a full and sensitive inner life, with many poetic intuitions; despite his social naivety, which often scandalizes Waldo, he is a warm and likeable personality. And is not, in fact, all that simple-minded; in secret he is a voracious reader, although Waldo strongly disapproves when he finds out about this. One of the most poignant scenes in the book is when Waldo, acting in his official capacity, ejects Arthur from the public…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.