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

Ardern confirms gun law reforms

With the world watching, NZ’s PM shows how it’s done

Image from ‘Destroyer’

Hell hath no fury: Karyn Kusama’s ‘Destroyer’

Nicole Kidman confronts in this LA crime thriller

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany

This new novel is most striking in how it diverges from its predecessors

Illustration

Ben Quilty in bleeding colour

The Australian artist opens up on the eve of a retrospective exhibition


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

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany

This new novel is most striking in how it diverges from its predecessors

‘Zebra and Other Stories’ by Debra Adelaide

Difficult-to-grasp characters populate this new collection

The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at QAGOMA

Politics, culture and colour collide in Brisbane

Still from The Cry

ABC TV’s ‘The Cry’

This Scottish–Australian drama successfully subverts the missing-child genre


Read on

Image from ‘Destroyer’

Hell hath no fury: Karyn Kusama’s ‘Destroyer’

Nicole Kidman confronts in this LA crime thriller

Image from Hobart’s school strike for climate

The kids are alright

Climate-striking students have every right to protest

Image of Defence Minister Christopher Pyne

The Teflon Kingdom

Saudi Arabia is confident it can buy out the West, and Australia is happy to oblige

Image of Nationals leader Michael McCormack

Instability again threatens the Nationals

What can history tell us about the party’s current strife?


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