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 library on the grounds that he is making a disturbance. Mr. White’s presentation of Arthur is less sure than that of Waldo; there are elements of familiar pretentiousness in the stress on Arthur’s mystical apprehensions, and his attachment to a collection of glass marbles, which he calls his “solid mandalas.” There is, in fact, something rather ectoplasmic and unfocused about him. All the same, Arthur remains convincing, and Mr. White happily avoids being too schematic in his contrast between the intellectual Waldo and the intuitive Arthur. The following extract may give some idea of the remarkable blend of the comic and the painful that gives this novel so much distinction:
The year the Poulters came to live down Terminus Road, Mother had gone into hospital in Barranugli for the operation Waldo would not talk about.
“What operation?” he hedged, and decided almost at once: “It’s something that isn’t mentioned, do you hear?”
So Arthur had to tell Mrs. Poulter. “Our mother has lost one of her breasts.”
“That need not be so serious,” said Mrs. Poulter, herself a serious and kindly woman.
“But a breast!” he said, wrinkling up.
He could not help looking at their neighbor, so full and firm.
“I expect women are pretty attached to their breasts,” he said.
Mrs. Poulter looked the other way. She began to tell about her sick turkey.
The end of the novel, when the two lonely old men are living out their days in the decaying family house, is startling and horrible, but handled with sufficient control and tact to exclude the willfully sensational. The secret is, I think, that Mr. White loves his creations, which is something different from entirely approving of them, and the reader is correspondingly encouraged to enter into this love. The focus of The Solid Mandala, concentrated so unflinchingly on the two brothers, is at times oppressively narrow, and I would have liked more of the lesser characters like Mrs. Dun and Mrs. Poulter. But this fine novel does represent a real and exciting development in White’s art, however unsure we may still feel about his stature.
LOVE IS NOT an attitude very manifest in the work of the clever young English novelist, John Fowles; his attitude to his creations is sometimes frankly sadistic, as in the nauseating blow-by-blow description of the death from pneumonia of the girl captive in his first novel, The Collector. His new book, The Magus, which is much longer and more elaborate, is about the psychological torture to which a rather caddish young Englishman is subjected when he goes to teach in a boys’ school on the Greek island of Phraxos. Living in a sumptuous villa on the other side of the island is a strange figure called Conchis, elderly but very well-preserved, who looks like Picasso, and about whom Nicholas Urfe, the hero, has already heard sinister rumors. Once Nicholas is in Conchis’s clutches, very strange things start happening to him.
The Magus is written with all the inventiveness and stylistic brilliance that characterized The Collector; it also has the same underlying meretriciousness. I won’t attempt to summarize or recapitulate the plot, since there is far too much of it: The Magus is like a colossal bouillabaisse, combining black magic, occultism, psychological brainwashing techniques, Mediterranean travelogues, forgery, flagellation, Nazi atrocities (described in loving detail), voyeurism, hypnotism, battle scenes, fin de siècle naughtiness, and venereal disease: There is something for everyone here. As the story develops the mystification gets more and more involved; Mr. Fowles likes tormenting the reader as well as his characters, and so we dutifully fall into the traps he sets for us. But when the novel draws towards its conclusion mystery turns inevitably into nonsense. The Magus has many striking qualities: The sheer pressure of the narrative makes it hard to stop reading, some of Mr. Fowles’s descriptive passages are magnificently written—such as the account of climbing Mount Parnassus—and the whole novel is pervaded by a lively if pretentious mind. He is nothing if not original. But bringing the story to a credible conclusion was evidently beyond him: At the end the elaborate, glittering structure collapses into anti-climax and absurdity. What was it all for, one wonders. Unless, indeed, this very dissatisfaction is deliberate, the final product of the author’s sadistic animus.
THE EVENING OF THE HOLIDAY is short, elegant and very good, though one mightn’t think so from an outline of the plot, which is of a wearily familiar kind: An English or American woman on holiday in Italy meets, falls in love with and has a brief, life-enhancing affair with a middle-aged but still fascinating Italian. When we read what Miss Hazzard has actually made of this unpromising material we are usefully reminded that the right treatment can perform miracles. In fact, her story is subtler than my crude abstration indicates. Sophie, the heroine, is half Italian and half English (she lives in England), and this heredity gives her sufficient sense of the Italian character to be, initially, fairly impervious to the charms of Tancredi, an unhappily married architect (a character who has comic as well as histrionic possibilities). Above all, Miss Hazzard has the advantage of a beautifully precise, ironic and yet evocative style, which places her characters without ever disowning them:
How can a telephone bell, even when it rings, miraculously, from a distance of one hundred kilometers, compete with the tolling of a colossal ceremonial bell that has been rung at measured intervals, for momentous occasions, during the last eight centuries? The telephone, a device of wires and plastic, cannot hope to sound other than ephemeral, bleating into the bronze face of history. And this being the case, why should such a negligible sound have excited a greater response than the inexorable voice proclaiming from the campanile? For Sophie even closed the shutters, hastily, to muffle the tolling of the bell before she crossed the room; even pressed her hand to her exposed ear, to shut out the voice of authority as she picked up the receiver and spoke.
THE JACKET of A True Story provides strangely little information about its author: “Stephen Hudson” was the pseudonym of Sydney Schiff, who died in 1944 at the age of seventy-five, and who was a fairly prominent ornament of English and Continental literary circles in the 1920s. He was a friend of Max Beerbohm—whose drawing of Hudson forms a frontispiece to this edition—and his marriage to Ada Leverson’s sister gave him other links with the Nineties. At the same time, he was a friend of the cultural avant garde: He was a patron to Wyndham Lewis, and in 1921 he gave a dinner party in Paris at which occurred the only meeting—by all accounts, very uncomfortable—between Proust and Joyce. Apart from his translation of the final volume of A la recherche du temps perdu, Hudson’s own literary productions have sunk without trace, though in the 1920s his novels were thought well of: In Edwin Muir’s critical book, Transition (1926), Hudson is given a respectful chapter, along with such brighter luminaries of the age as Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot, Huxley, and Virginia Woolf.
A True Story is a compendium comprising four linked novels about the life, from childhood to middle age, of Richard Kurt, the only son of a prosperous Anglo-Austrian family. The four novels are arranged to follow Richard’s life chronologically, though this was not, in fact, the order of composition. The last part of A True Story appeared in 1919, and the other volumes came out between 1921 and 1937; on the face of it, Hudson’s art as a novelist matured perceptibly with the passing of the years. Certainly the sections about Richard’s school days and young manhood are by far the best. The early chapters owe a conscious debt to Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist—“What I like best is when papa takes me to see Mr. Max in a hansom not in the perambulator with Sissy walking I don’t see why she should walk and hold papa’s hand”—and they give a beautifully rich rendering of Richard’s childhood in Victorian London, in an atmosphere of dense opulence and paternal oppressiveness. Equally good are the chapters about his years in America, where he works for his uncle, a railway tycoon: Hudson provides a wonderful picture of life in New York, and in a small mid-west town, in the hectic Eighties (this part of the book was not written until 1937). When in America, Richard—an almost unnaturally naive and passive youth—is trapped into marriage by a beautiful but unpleasant Southern girl, who has been looking out for a rich husband: In showing the innocent European ensnared by a corrupt American, Hudson makes an interesting reversal of James’s habitual treatment of the international theme (and, for that matter, the America Richard discovers is precisely that which James’s expatriates were fleeing). The last part of the book (and the first written) is much less interesting and has many longeurs: In middle age, Richard leads a frustrated, idle life in a villa on Lake Como, surrounded by a shadowy, unrealized set of rich Americans and Europeans who recall Eliot’s “De Bailhache, Fresca, Mr. Cammell.” A love affair with a strange, boyish Italian girl (an instance, perhaps, of the Albertine Strategem?) comes to nothing much. A True Story may not be the forgotten masterpiece of English fiction that the publishers claim it to be; but it is still important enough for its reprinting to be welcome.
March 17, 1966