Wednesday, October 3, 2012

It happens this way sometimes...

... you reach out for a book on your shelf that you've never read but have been meaning to for some time. What has put you off? You love reading Patrick White. Perhaps it is the oldness and the unattractive nature of a book bought at a book sale years ago for one dollar. It has actual dirt on the cover, and things have been nibbling at the edges. Well, a lot of old books end this way and old age is seldom pretty. And many books by Patrick White are only to be found in this condition - my copy of Riders in the Chariot fell apart as I read. Or was I put off this book by the cover drawing by Sidney Nolan, of an old bush shack and water tank and bare tree, which makes you think that this book The Tree of Man  is sparse and dull and dry.

It isn't. It is wonderful, full of life and people and surprises. And brilliant language.

It made me think that no one writes like this now. What I mean is that the 20th century experiment called Modernism has petered out without leaving much effect on any writers that followed apart from perhaps John Banville. I could probably think of more, but the coffee hasn't kicked in. No, even Banville doesn't quite use language with that hallucinatory effect.

Why take LSD is what I think, when you have White, and James Joyce? (Not that I've resorted to this since my early 20s in the 1970s - but at least I know what I mean by hallucinatory).

Random par from Tree of Man (1956):

Then she went back to the house; from which she had swept most of the dust blown there by the droughty winds, and which was now clean but fragile. Her circulation was not very good this morning, her bones were brittle, and she walked about nervously amongst the bright furniture. She longed for some event of immense importance to fill the house's emptiness, but it was most improbable that it would. Glittering, dusty light spilled from the mirrors. That was all.
And other modernists:

Random bit from Kerouac, On the Road (The original Scroll) (around 1951):

He wanted to test something in himself and he wanted to see what Louanne was like with another man. We were sitting on Ross Bar on Eighth Avenue when he proposed the idea; we'd spent an hour walking Times Square looking for Hunkey.

From James Joyce, Ulysses (1922):

Smells of men. His gorge rose. Spaton sawdust, sweetish warmish cigarette smoke, reek of plug, spilt beer, men's beery piss, the stale of ferment.

From Gertrude Stein, How to Write(1931):

Thank you very much. What is the difference between a verb and their altering it.

From V Woolf, To The Lighthouse (1927):

As usual, Lily thought. There was always something that had to be done at that precise moment, something that Mrs Ramsay had decided for reasons of her own to do instantly.

None of that rests my case (which is?). I only know that when I read the scene in the bar from Ulysses that I was there, and it was the language that did it.  It was the same with The Tree of Man. I don't  think that many writers care for language any more. But isn't that what literature is about? Not so much what you say as the way that you say it.

White was continuing the work begun by Joyce and Woolf, by not simply recording experience, but allowing the reader to come close to what that lived experience felt like. I've been away with White for most of the week.

 On other matters, Patrick White was rather gorgeous in his youth (or middle age, as these pictures are from) - which seems young to me.

I always like a man with a cat ...

While in this 1939 portrait by Roy de Maistre he looks positively dishy.

All these rather different images than the ones we often see of White as a grumpy old man.

Anyway, I think I'll go off now and write something other than this. 


  1. I haven't read any Patrick White but you have convinced me that I must. I was gifted a lovely secondhand copy of Voss recently so I shall start there.

    At the moment, though, I'm reading Jaclyn Moriarty's A Corner of White and she so obviously delights in language and words. It's simple and wonderfully crafted, as well as silly and joyful and sad.

    I thought of you:

    "Jack poured himself some more tea. Everything on the table was white: cake plate, teacups, salt and pepper shakers. The teapot itself, also white, had a sort of attitude about it: tall and fancy, its handle like a hand on a hip, spout curving up and over like a wave, like it was dead keen to get in your cup."

  2. That new book by JM sounds delightful Kate, which I will put on my list ...

    But I'm not saying that writers these days don't enjoy language or are not wonderfully adept at it, and inventive, just that they don't use language in a way that no one has used it before. But I'm being unfair, as the writers I gave egs of were all geniuses (well,perhaps not Stein, though at least she thought she was), which to my mind means an original innovator of extraordinary ability.

    I do hope you enjoy Voss. That was the book I tried to read in my teens, and failed. But have read it since. Or try 'Riders in the Chariot', and 'The Tree of man'. You really have to flow with White. It's poetry.

    1. Do you think it's possible to use language in a new way? That there will be someone - or many writers - who could be as original and inventive as these geniuses were? Or have we exhausted it? I hope not.

  3. I hope not too, Kate. But what I'm thinking is that it's not just the language, it's a way of looking at the world, and the language is an integral part of expressing that.