October 2012

Arts & Letters

The Best of Australian Literature 2012

By Geordie Williamson
Patrick White at Cambridge in the early 1930s. National Library of Australia

Let’s prick the bubble of contemporaneity for once. Two lost books by a centenarian author were published in 2012. Happy Valley is the first reissue of Patrick White’s 1939 debut, a novel that was later so effectively quashed by its creator that many of White’s partisans have rejected the work on his say-so alone.

We were wrong. Happy Valley is not a great novel but something more interesting: an apprentice work by a novelist who will go on to become great. Yes, it can be ungainly; White admitted to writing it while drunk on the technique of the modernists he was reading: Gertrude Stein, DH Lawrence and, most of all, James Joyce. However, there is a pleasure to be had in watching as White gropes his way towards a voice that belongs to him alone.

His many-stranded story of a New South Wales country town and its torpid captives may be refreshingly straightforward in narrative outline, but the tortured psychologising for which White would later be known is already present. The mud and bleached yellow grass of the Monaro high country are the dominant tones of the work. White’s biographer David Marr notes the colour. The young author’s mentor, the determinedly synaesthetic painter Roy de Maistre, assigned it the musical key of G minor: the most suitable key for tragedy and sadness, according to Mozart.

The Hanging Garden is a late, unfinished novel, set aside by White in the early 1980s and latterly rediscovered by David Marr. He and White’s executor, literary agent Barbara Mobbs, have done us all a service by seeing it into print. This is not a masterpiece either, in the sense that Riders in the Chariot or The Tree of Man are masterpieces. Rather, it is a surprisingly gentle, compassionate novella: the kind of second-order effort that shows up the intermittently alienating fierceness of White’s major works.

Its account of two young wartime evacuees boarding in an old house overlooking Sydney Harbour during World War II is not without swipes at Australia’s bourgeoisie and their ludicrous old-country fealties. Nonetheless there is a stillness and beauty at its heart, arising from the innocent, quasi-mystical love that its child protagonists share. Critics have tended to concentrate on the long fragment’s aesthetic weaknesses. They shouldn’t. Anything that revives interest in one of the twentieth century’s supreme makers of fiction is worth attending to. The two titles, with all their flaws, only lead us back to White’s inexhaustible oeuvre.

Geordie Williamson

Geordie Williamson is a writer, editor and critic.

@gamwilliamson

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

In This Issue

'Questions of Travel', Michelle de Kretser,
Allen and Unwin; $39.99

'Questions of Travel' by Michelle de Kretser

'Montebello', Robert Drewe, Hamish Hamilton; $29.99

'Montebello' by Robert Drewe

Brett Whiteley painting Francis Bacon's portrait, London, 1984. Photograph by John Edwards. Image courtesy of Art Gallery NSW.

Anecdotes

Remembering Australian painters

The Best of Australian Arts 2012


More in Arts & Letters

David Malouf, March 2015 in Sydney

An imagined life: David Malouf

Celebrating the literary great’s 90th birthday with a visit to his incongruous home of Surfers Paradise to discuss a life in letters

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

Jeffrey Wright in ‘American Fiction’

The dread of the author: ‘American Fiction’ and ‘Argylle’

Cord Jefferson’s satire about Black artists fighting white perceptions of their work runs out of ideas, while Matthew Vaughn’s spy movie parody has no ideas of its own

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Pictures of you

The award-winning author kicks off our new fiction series with a story of coming to terms with a troubled father’s obsessions


More in The Best of Australian Art 2012

The Best of Australian Arts 2012

'Hail', Amiel Courtin-Wilson, 2011. Image supplied.

The Best of Australian Film 2012

Plain tobacco packaging, Australian Government, 2012. Image supplied.

The Best of Australian Design 2012

RMIT Swanston Academic Building, Lyons Architects, 2012. Image supplied.

The Best of Australian Architecture 2012


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality