Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Writing under the influence

The young Patrick White apparently admitted that 'he was very much under the influence of Gertrude'; also that he had been 'drunk with the technique of writing' and said that he 'had gone up that cul de sac the stream of consciousness' when he wrote his first novel Happy Valley at the age of 26.

Well, so have we all been much under the influence of Gertrude or perhaps I should only speak for myself. I was so much under the influence of Gertrude while writing About a Girl that, seeing the error of my ways, I rewrote those parts, telling my publisher about the first draft, 'Ignore that; I was under the influence of Gertrude'.

Stein is very influential. To read her makes you think that all other writing is  dull and predictable. You automatically begin writing like Stein - it's infectious. I think the best thing about Gertrude is that she makes writing look like an adventure. Words only mean what you want them to mean and sentences are emotional or is that paragraphs.

"Think of a sentence not however or with a mound but just as pointed and polite and shortly." (Stein: How To Write)

Happy Valley has recently been republished by Text Publishing for the first time since 1939. White never allowed it to be reissued in his lifetime, perhaps because he thought it a juvenile and inferior work, or perhaps because he feared prosecution by the Chinese family he used as a basis for the Quongs of Happy Valley.

It's a novel of small town life. Nearly everyone wants to get out of there. With such a large cast of characters it's inevitable that some will be more appealing than others. I love the piano teacher, 27 year old Alys Browne, who lives alone:

She read too. She had started some of the Russians, Anna Karenina, and Turgeniev, but Tennyson sounded funny now, she could not read him any more. She liked to sit down at tea, and take off her shoes, and read a chapter of Anna Karenina, though sometimes she found it a bit of an effort and lapsed to the Windsor Magazine. Tolstoi was interesting though. She had spilt some tea on the seventy-second page. It gave the book a comfortable, intimate appearance, and she liked it better after that, as if she had always had it with her and had read it several times.
White, Happy Valley, page 46

This is White under the influence of no one but his own brilliant self. There is a chapter in a schoolroom where White has gone up the cul de sac and we get the consciousness of many of the people in the room - it would be heavy-going if the whole of the book was like that, but a schoolroom is the perfect place to explore that technique - all those consciousnesses wanting to be other than where they are - all that lack of focus and wandering thoughts. The very essence of schoolroom.

Happy Valley is said to be set around Adaminaby, in the desperately cold-in-winter and hot-in-summer country to the south of Canberra. I drove through it once and stopped at a park (there is a large concrete trout there: a tourist drawcard?). We saw not one soul in the place, apart from a golden labrador who seemed very interested in our sandwiches. I gave him a raw egg as we departed, cracking it onto the ground, and he lapped it up.

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