marcel barang

The Eye of the Storm

In English, Reading matters on 16/12/2009 at 7:20 pm



Anglo-Australian Patrick White (1912-1990) had a reputation as a demanding writer, a hard-to-read stylist, and this I can confirm after reading The Eye of the Storm, which came out in 1973, the year he received the Nobel Prize for literature.

It’s one of the best-known of his dozen novels, though perhaps not his best (no consensus but the majority of votes seems to go to Voss, 1957).

I was about to write that this is the first book of his I’ve read, but checking my book shelves, I find I own A Fringe of Leaves (1976), which I must have read ages ago but have no memory of, like so many other not-quite-there novels.

Going through The Eye took me almost a month of pre-sleep trudges in the wee hours, at once caught up in a corny, almost preposterous plot – a rich, forever dying, nearly blind bitch of a belle surrounded by nurses and her solicitor in the splendour of some Australian mansion and assaulted by memories and her two long-forsaken expat children: an over-the-hill knighted actor and a dismissed French princess, no less, who both want to put the old hag out to pasture and who will improbably copulate right when said hag keels over – and irritated by a prose that can be brilliant in its daring – somewhat in the manner of Faulkner – and thoroughly trying when it falls into streams of consciousness that never flow: raspy altogether is the man’s style.

Try this for size:

As light as unlikely probably as painful as a shark’s egg the old not body rather the flimsy soul is whirled around sometimes spat out anus-upward (souls have an anus they are never allowed to forget it) never separated from the brown the sometimes tinted spawn of snapshots the withered navel string still stuck to what it aspires to yes at last to be if the past the dream life will allow.

This kind of verbal rash crops up every ten pages or so, understandable perhaps as ranting of a failing mind (which is actually very sharp, even though perpetually shunting between dream and wake) but also infecting the rest of the cast in turn, half a dozen characters too lavishly and inconsequently rounded out to my taste, although others have praised White’s characterisation. I think he is trying too hard, a la Virginia Woolf, to motivate secondary actors that have only sidekick status (in more ways than one) in what is after all a long agony where nothing much happens that could or should, the meat of the story is in the past, and what takes place in actual time sidetracks your expectations.

True, the description of the storm that long ago failed to destroy the indestructible lioness now lying on her dying bed is well worth its place in any anthology.

True again, the matriarch as well as her son and daughter stand out and are memorable, perhaps, in the case of the latter two, because of their very improbability.

And true yet again, Patrick White’s concerns are high-brow – life, death, greed, family scrambles, the limits of creation, the surpassing of the self, the palinodes of common life – but he drowns them in petty concerns and their blank dispensation to all: a leaner novel might have struck a bigger blow.


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