April 2012

Arts & Letters

'The Hanging Garden' by Patrick White

By Michelle de Kretser

The publication of an unfinished draft is the writer’s version of that nightmare in which you find yourself naked in the street. Writers donate manuscripts to libraries, of course, but there is usually a finished work to offset those drafts. Also, the toilers in archives are generally steel-nerved academics accustomed to stripping finery from the great. But commercial publication is addressed to the common reader, and I, for one, am ambivalent about seeing my gods in tatty underwear. What can come of it, apart from the dubious frisson of having a perv?

The Hanging Garden is the first third of a tripartite novel Patrick White never completed. David Marr’s informative afterword explains why: illness, age and the demands of public life all played a part. Published now to mark White’s centenary, the truncated narrative explores the world of two children nearing adolescence. Eirene has come to Sydney from Greece, where her communist father was murdered in prison; Gilbert has left London to escape the Blitz that killed his mother. In a ramshackle house on Neutral Bay, and particularly in its lush, neglected garden, these two refugees from World War II form a fragile bond.

Two decades after White’s death, it’s extraordinary and moving to read new work by him; slightly spooky, too, like hearing a dead friend’s voice. Late work raises apparitions and echoes, and White is manifest in this book – especially in the first half, where greatness marks every page. Characteristic themes appear: displacement, the fraught sphere of childhood, the sensual world. A cairngorm passing between the children calls up all the symbolic jewels that dazzle and oppress in White’s fiction. The barbed wit flashes, too. Mr Harbord, one of White’s ordinary Australian monsters, cautions Eirene against shining at school: “We don’t encourage that sort of thing.”

When the children are parted and must leave their hanging garden by the harbour, the emotional intensity of their story fades. Scenes are sketched rapidly; the sense of draft, barely perceptible earlier on, comes close to the surface. Most tellingly, the grand pavane of White’s style slows and slackens. In these pages, our dominion over the dead seems brutal – surely White would never have allowed the publication of this fragmented work.

Yet the coldblooded living gain. I read The Hanging Garden straight after The Sense of an Ending, a novel of comparable length. Julian Barnes’ Man Booker hit is perfectly smooth, rapidly consumed, easily digested – it is, in other words, a blancmange. Its shortcomings notwithstanding, The Hanging Garden returns fiction to greatness. Reading it brings exhilaration, tinged with dismay at our diminished expectations of the literary novel. White’s last book is hardly the summit of his fiction, but it feels like a gift.

Michelle de Kretser
Michelle de Kretser is the author of The Rose Grower, The Hamilton Case and The Lost Dog, which won the NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

'The Hanging Garden' by Patrick White 
(afterword by David Marr), Knopf Australia; $29.95
Cover: April 2012

April 2012

From the front page

Choose it or lose it

Australia has a last chance to avert climate catastrophe

Untitled (Pollo Frito), 1982, by Jean-Michel Basquiat

Stopped in the street: ‘Keith Haring | Jean-Michel Basquiat: Crossing Lines’

Early death meant the work of these renowned artists never fully emerged from ’80s New York subcultures

Image from ‘The Doctor’

The Doctor’s dilemma

Director Robert Icke on rewriting the classic Austrian play to explore contemporary moral conundrums

Image of Fire Fight Australia

The fraught politics of Fire Fight Australia

The imperatives of commercial media mean that the bushfire crisis is unlikely to be a tipping point for denialism


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Gough Whitlam & Enoch Powell

Malcolm Turnbull, Sydney, March 2012. © Julia Kingma

One morning with Malcolm Turnbull

On life in politics

'Life in Movement' by Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde 
(directors),
in national release, 12 April

'Life in Movement' by Bryan Mason and Sophie Hyde

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

All Frocked Up

Grace Kelly’s Gowns in Bendigo


More in Noted

Image of L’Arlésienne [detail], by Pablo Picasso

‘Matisse & Picasso’: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Hanging works by the two masters together highlights their artistic rivalry and mutual influence

Image of A Couple of Things Before the End, by Sean O'Beirne

‘A Couple of Things Before the End’ by Sean O’Beirne

The Australian author’s debut story collection confidently converts the linguistic detritus of our era into something of lasting value

Utagawa Yoshimori, The Tongue-cut Sparrow [detail]

‘Japan supernatural’

The Art Gallery of NSW’s examination of Japan’s centuries-long artistic traditions depicting the spirit world and the macabre

Cover of ‘The Topeka School’

‘The Topeka School’ by Ben Lerner

The American author’s latest novel canvasses the seething hate speech of the burgeoning alt-right and white-boy rap battles in the Midwest


Read on

Image from ‘The Doctor’

The Doctor’s dilemma

Director Robert Icke on rewriting the classic Austrian play to explore contemporary moral conundrums

Image of Fire Fight Australia

The fraught politics of Fire Fight Australia

The imperatives of commercial media mean that the bushfire crisis is unlikely to be a tipping point for denialism

Image from ‘Requiem’

Celebrating beauty’s passing: ‘Requiem’

Italian director Romeo Castellucci on his radical reimagining of Mozart’s classic

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

A gap too far

Despite fine words in response to the latest Closing the Gap report, the PM insists that politicians know best when it comes to the question of recognition


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