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

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