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 effect of the re-reiterated parallel is at once muffled and strident, partly because insisting upon it is indeed what Mr. White does. I should go further, and say that there are very few respects in which either the likenesses or the unlikenesses amount to anything at once penetrating and truly substantial. But even those who go less far may still feel that there is something perfunctorily obsessional about the novel’s always having King Lear so handily to hand. Sir Basil dislikes himself: “He was the dishonest one. And a bloody superficial Lear.” But the superficiality is not just his. A writer would have to be a great deal greater than Mr. White before he could accommodate within one paragraph both the true bare things from Lear and the sleazy stream of this modern consciousness:
So he rubbed his nose in it. Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts? Some of the lines were flung back at him like stones; others melted on his snoozing skin, I have one part in my heart that’s sorry yet for thee; or battered on his sleep, thou art the thing itself; unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal. Stick to the text reality is a mad king not an aged queen whose crown won’t come off for pulling whose not quite fresh eyes live by lucid flashes as hard as marble.
But it is La Chartreuse de Parme that matters more, partly because Mr. White presumably wasn’t presuming that he could out-Lear Lear. La Chartreuse de Parme was, it seems, the favorite book of Alfred Hunter, Elizabeth’s dead husband and the children’s father—or rather, The Charterhouse of Parma was. Dorothy, the Frenchified Australian expatriate, muses acerbly over the book:
Unfortunate that the English language should transform a great work of French literature into a mock-Italian novelette. Still, it was in this version that Father had found consolation; so Mother implied.
For Basil, it is of no matter. “I never read it—The Charterhouse of Thing.” Again, it is this book that provokes Dorothy’s host at the time—a bitter hard-working pastiche-Lawrentian figure of the kind for which Mr. White has a weakness—into needling Dorothy: “That book you’re reading—I had a go at it once…. Seemed to me a fuss about nothing.” Most importantly, it is this book that precipitates a vacuous conversation at a party between Dorothy and the Australian Writer—important, because Mr. White is very conscious of himself as the Australian Writer and he needs to frown such a figure down:
“Don’t you read?” he inquired, when he could no longer leave her unasked.
“Not adventurously,” she admitted. “I’m reading La Chartreuse de. Parme for I think probably the seventh time.”
“The who?” The Australian Writer could not have sounded more disgusted.
“The Charterhouse of Parma.” Repetition made her throat swell as though forced to confess a secret love to someone who might defile its purity simply by knowing about it.
“Oh—Stendhal” He gave her a rather literary smile; and slashed at his Dickens wings [his Dickens hairdo]; and turned to his other neighbor to explain—again a waste of intellect—how he was adapting the Gothic novel to local conditions.
Yet it is precisely Stendhal whose example and achievement seem to be so damaging not just to that scene but to most of The Eye of the Storm. For Dorothy’s conception of Stendhal as “Stendhal the laser beam,” whether it is fully shared by her creator or not, ministers to the worst propensities of the book: its easy mercilessness, its unmasking cutting beam.
Mrs. Hunter, left alone on an island that was hit by a cyclone, suffered a deep religious experience of imminent death; she saw and was seen by that eye of the storm which gives the novel its title. “Nothing mattered beyond her experiencing the eye.” But what matters to Mr. White is oddly at odds with itself. He wishes that profound possibilities should judge and rebuke the shallow hurtfulness of modern life, and yet almost all his own gift is for punishing shallow hurtfulness. When Basil describes vermouth as “only an excuse for gin,” he winces at himself: “His knowingness appalled him.” Yet the knowingness is that of his creator too, knowingly putting down the knowing, and Mr. White is trapped within the very terms that he deplores. The sharp eye which Mr. White undoubtedly has is for people flashing a sharp eye; yet the vistas do not open out, they shrivel in. “Whichever way she looked she could see no end to her dishonesty: a vista of mirrors inside a mirror.”
This has been a strain within Mr. White’s work from early days. His second novel, The Living and the Dead, published thirty-three years ago, was out to unite “those who have the capacity for living,” and “oppose them to the destroyers, to the dealers in words, to the diseased, to the most fatally diseased—the indifferent.” Yet Mr. White, even then, wrote as a dealer in words, his style mannered, acute, self-congratulatory. His style is now richer and more various, and it truly has more to congratulate itself upon—and yet it is still at its best when it is bent upon its most questionable activity, morally and artistically: despising the despisers. To keep describing a character at a party as “the detergent knight” (and to cap this with “The detergent knight at one stage was unable to contain a fart”)—this is to use language no more responsibility than do the detergent people. This is to observe, not with the eye—and ear—of the storm, but with the eye and ear of a snooping private detective. Mr. White dwindles into being merely the private eye of the storm.
T.S. Eliot once inadvertently laid himself open to the nemesis of vigilance, the accusation that vigilance can draw upon itself for its own overrating and narrow defining of vigilance, when he said of Henry James’s Roderick Hudson that James “too much identifies himself with Rowland, does not see through the solemnity he has created in that character, commits the cardinal sin of failing to ‘detect’ one of his own characters.” Not a sin, notice, or even the sin, but the cardinal sin. Yet seeing through people can become a kind of blindness, and the failure to “detect” can be a success of another kind—for instance, a principled impatience with the narrowed eyes that above all pride themselves, not on wide and deep insight, but on detection. Likewise Mr. White, though what he most deplores is easy ironic outrage, a corrosive sense that all is ridiculous and that there is nothing to respect or love, is continually betrayed by his style into mere disparagement, and demeaning, and lovelessness. “A legerdemain of technique” is at work upon Sir Basil’s very legerdemain of technique. As here:
“I expect you were busy, Mother darling, trying on hats, and patiently enduring all those fittings at the dressmakers’.” A particularly splendid movement brought him from L.C. to bedside, C., laughter glistening on the points of his teeth.
But Sir Basil is not the only one with pointed teeth (he inherited them from his creator), and the quality of the consciousness which imaginarily notices his stage directions to himself is not really superior to (though it is superior about) the quality of the consciousness which revels in acting out its own stage directions. In short, the presiding genius of The Eye of the Storm is not, as it hopes, Stendhal (a writer never predictable and often profoundly magnanimous) but a very different Frenchman. It is characteristic of the way in which this novel is trapped within its deplored knowingness that it cannot bring itself to utter his name—but he figures as the author of The Master of Santiago, and Basil recalls the author, “a cantankerous, hostile Frenchman arriving unannounced to catch you out.” The phrase does wonderfully catch Henry de Montherlant out (a writer whom I was once given the opportunity to deplore in NYR, June 5, 1969), Montherlant being a writer whose whole aim was to catch the human race out. But Mr. White catches himself out too. For the great critical statement on Stendhal is this, by T.S. Eliot:
Stendhal’s scenes, some of them, and some of his phrases, read like cutting one’s throat; they are a terrible humiliation to read, in the understanding of human feelings and human illusions of feeling that they force upon the reader.
The trouble with Mr. White, as with Montherlant, is, first, that his scenes and his phrases read like cutting someone else’s throat, not one’s own at all, and second, that his self-gratifying obsession with human illusions of feeling has become eerily independent of any understanding of human feelings. As Eliot knew, disillusionment can become as mechanically falsifying as illusionment; of The Waste Land, the most he would concede was that he “may have expressed for them their illusion of being disillusioned.” Mr. White is self-snared here. “As humanity was not what one got from Elizabeth Hunter, she should not have felt disillusioned.”
Yet the interest of the case goes far beyond the particular novel. For what it witnesses to—and the more so for Mr. White’s being now so accoladed—is a crisis of the novel. What was once the glory of the novel—its specificity, its knowledgeability, its being in possession of and putting you in possession of so much of the evidence (all of it?) on which you could judge for yourself—is at present the stunting impoverishment of the novel, since it is a permanent and well-nigh irresistible invitation to irresponsibility, to cheating, to the crucial immorality of the artist which Lawrence stigmatized as putting the thumb on the scale.
The novelist who deplores the egregious and corrosive knowingness of our times finds that he cannot resist the temptations of the falsely specific, the synthetic authenticity of the selectively invented. Poetry, just because it can traditionally establish its authenticity other than through the easy substantiation of invented detail, is able to escape this dilemma. Set the opening of Patrick White’s novel against the opening of Philip Larkin’s recent poem, “The Old Fools,” and see how much more largely persuasive the poem is, how much more genuine its respect for the strange.
The old woman’s head was barely fretting against the pillow. She could have moaned slightly.
“What is it?” asked the nurse, advancing on her out of the shadow. “Aren’t you comfortable, Mrs. Hunter?”
“Not at all. I’m lying on corks. They’re hurting me.”
The nurse smoothed the kidney-blanket, the macintosh, and stretched the sheet. She worked with an air which was not quite professional detachment, nor yet human tenderness; she was probably something of a ritualist. There was no need to switch on a lamp: a white light had begun spilling through the open window; there was a bloom of moonstones on the dark grove of furniture.
“Oh dear, will it never be morning?” Mrs. Hunter got her head as well as she could out of the steamy pillows.
“It is,” said the nurse; “can’t you—can’t you feel it?” While working around this almost chrysalis in her charge, her veil had grown transparent; on the other hand, the wings of her hair, escaping from beneath the lawn, could not have looked a more solid black.
“Yes. I can feel it. It is morning.” The old creature sighed; then the lips, the pale gums opened in the smile of a giant baby. “Which one are you?” she asked.
What do they think has happened, the old fools,
To make them like this? Do they somehow suppose
It’s more grown-up when your mouth hangs open and drools,
And you keep on pissing yourself, and can’t remember
Who called this morning? Or that, if they only chose,
They could alter things back to when they danced all night,
Or went to their wedding, or sloped arms some September?
Or do they fancy there’s really been no change,
And they’ve always behaved as if they were crippled or tight,
Or sat through days of thin con- tinuous dreaming
Watching light move? If they don’t (and they can’t), it’s strange Why aren’t they screaming?
April 4, 1974