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.
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