I’ve just read a book by Patrick White, considered by many to be one of the 20th century’s greatest writers and by me a difficult but rewarding one. It’s called The Eye of the Storm, written in 1973, about what we endure to find wisdom, and I both loved it and was at first disappointed by it. White had written eight previous novels and was then being considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was 61. He won the prize, and later, in 2011, a film was made of the book. This introduced him to a wider audience, though they thus received a nursery idea of his work (as they do of Jane Austen through similar media). ‘Adaptations’ are a curse, because people go no further, from picture book video to the complexities of language.
I too admire White. I realise he is a writer you explore rather than read laterally. You don’t really start at the first word and go on till the last one, absorbing the plot. His prose is too good for that. You reread passages, stop to marvel or laugh, think a satiric barb through, argue with a negative conclusion. Read as though the book were, say, Shakespeare’s King Lear. Or Joyce’s Ulysses. White writes narrative dramas rather than what we call novels. But I was driven to write this piece because I thought White had misconstructed his story. Having said that, I need to outline that story for those who haven’t read the book.
The ‘eye of the storm’ refers to the still area at the centre of a cyclone (or who knows, a nuclear blast). There has been turbulence and destruction, and more to come, but now and here all is quiet, and one can reflect on the experience. The central character in The Eye of the Storm is Elizabeth Hunter, an outback heiress who marries a wealthy man she does not love and over the years bears him two children. She literally at one point of the story experiences the eye of a storm while staying on Brumby Island off the Queensland coast. Now she is an elderly invalid at Moreton Drive in Sydney’s Kensington district on her deathbed, attended around the clock by three nurses, with a housekeeper and cleaning lady, all supervised by her friend and solicitor Arnold Wyburd (names play a part in White’s depictions: a Sister Manhood, the Queensland couple the Warmings, Elizabeth’s daughter’s friend Cherry Cheeseman and others).
Elizabeth is ageing, senile at times, decrepit. She is not ill but elderly, in her late 80s. Time has lost its meaning for her, and she flashes in and out of the past involuntarily, as we all do without revealing it so obviously as Elizabeth. She has been supremely beautiful, magnetic, imperious, selfish and self centred, manipulative, and now she hasn’t changed a bit. She holds court in her sickbed, manipulating the weaknesses of Sisters Badgery, De Santis and Manhood, her son Basil and daughter Dorothy, housekeeper Lotte Lippmann, solicitor Arnold, and doctor Gidley. Elizabeth’s children have flown in from Europe and now propose to dispose of their mother in a nursing home so they can lay their needy hands immediately on their inheritance. I noted how White can describe female bodies without prejudice, but without desire and illusion, which gives his female portraits a clinical feel at times at least. Males are described more fastidiously, often in terms of their stains, odours and secretions.
The past is an important part of the story, and we access it through a stream of consciousness style that conveys Elizabeth’s waning intelligence, much as Faulkner did in The Sound and the Fury. Through this technique White magnificently conveys Elizabeth’s realisation of how much she loved her husband Alfred, even when she was betraying him. Love, for White, is an emotion like hate, selfishness, desire, resentment, and we experience them all in a confusing mix as Elizabeth does in her imperfect grip on reality.
White draws an insistent analogy with Shakespeare’s King Lear. Lear in that play bequeathes his kingdom to his three daughters, then two of them, not realising he is also bequeathing dissension, hostility, contempt and many other things he discovers as the play progresses. He has, already, passed on his ambiguous, discordant, human nature. He sows the wind and reaps the whirlwind, and the reality he uncovers drives him mad. A little bit too much reality ends in madness White seems to say. Or cynicism, for those who want to look aside. White is the kind of writer who in describing a dinner, would include a description of the contents of the garbage container in the kitchen, and the digestive reactions of the guests as they eat. And why not? It’s all part of the process.
The children Basil and Dorothy are sketched in in the early part of the story. Basil is a knighted stage actor with the facade for a distinguished career without real substance, and a cleft in his lower lip (like Larry Olivier: a typical spiky comment). Dorothy is a congested virgin married unhappily to a minor French noble, and is now the Princess de Lascabanes (a name to conjure with). They are both too old for fear, too young for compassion. Both are depicted with considerable and vindictive humour, as are the farmers of the Australian outback in the second half of the book. But for more than half its length the book, like its characters, revolves obsessively around Elizabeth Hunter, her beauty, arrogance, and manipulation.
My dissatisfaction with the book’s structure arises from the virtual disappearance of the main character Elizabeth Hunter in the second half. White is more concerned to show (up) the children in the second half of the book, and does so in his depiction of their visit to the old home Kudjeri where they grew up. Elizabeth is introduced briefly in the book’s second half only to die (on the commode, her earthly throne). It’s not perhaps White’s fault, but I found the character Elizabeth a fascinating one, and Basil and Dorothy both pompous bores and obvious targets. The book thus seemed off centre to me in how it was constructed.
When I had reached the end, impressive despite the matter it contained for the overwhelming awareness of a process going blindly forward for no discernible reason and of which the characters and the reader were a captive part, I thought to question if Elizabeth Hunter had been the centre of the book after all. The eye of the storm was her awareness that she loved her husband, and that love was a complex, sometimes terrifying and mysterious emotion, but the storm, perhaps, is that of human emotions themselves, desires, obsessions, plans, needs, the confused mess we all try to sort out and in so doing live our lives. And this invariably continues, in the book, in the next generation. Dorothy revolves around the treacherous centre of a French noble husband who despises her; Basil round the manipulative writer Mitty Jacka who will exploit him. The eye of their storm is simply fear and disillusionment. And we too are involved: the readers and critics who circle the eye of Patrick White in search of some certainty, some arcane knowledge, we don’t really know what.
I had to ask, could this writer be seeing more of life than I was comfortable with while reading his book? Perhaps another Shakespeare play is relevant, Macbeth. Into the recipe for Macbeth’s success goes all kind of witch like ingredients, eye of newt, toe of frog, “double, double, toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble”. Does wizard White throw a similar mixture together in this book, actor’s stance, remembered yabbies in the mud, involuntary seductions of the mind, grasping unscrupulous need of others, eye of storm?
I thought the secret might be discernible in minor characters. Snow Tunks, the cousin from Queensland the voluptuous Flora Manhood at first relies on till she discovers her drowning in alcoholic lesbian despair, one prop finding the other unreliable; or Mitty Jacka, who Basil meets on a London bus and who tries to write him into a play or performance at least which will strip all theatrical conventions aside and reveal the actor’s life as it is (and which White’s book does). Perhaps the masochistic Lotte Lippmann who has lost everything, destroyed by the Nazis, yet finds at least one more persecutor in Elizabeth. In fact, one can dig deep in this book. Not necessarily finding a character who is central to the story as I had first sought, more a situation that is central to a predicament, and the realisation we all share it.
I should add that this is by no means all of Patrick White, not even in this book. I have also read the ‘historical’ books, Voss, and A Fringe of Leaves, concerning the journey of Leichhardt, and in the second book the tragic tale of Eliza Fraser, whose story is also alluded to in The Eye of the Storm (A Fringe of Leaves was to be White’s next book, published 1976, about how we hide our nakedness). Anyone reading these two expecting ‘historical fiction’ will find history blown into a mushroom cloud of components that will bring dismay for all those who like to be comforted by the past. But they exhibit a mystical streak that brings Parsifal to mind. I found them exhilarating.
So my advice is: read Patrick White by all means. Enjoy The Eye of the Storm. Enjoy the mix of styles and deconstruction we now call ‘post-modernism’ if we want to be snooty. But see it for a book of wisdom, not what we call a novel. Read it when you’re not in a hurry to finish it. That way you can enjoy the comic asides, the exquisite phrases, the deflation of pretence. And learn the lesson: for everything you gain, there’s something you lose. You will never know for sure which is the greater, the gain or the loss. All you can do is take shelter from the storm.
©2015 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.