the hanging garden 20-02-2012

i've just finished reading a proof of patrick white's novel, which he left unfinished at his death (due, it seems, to old age, fatigue, the demands on his time created by the recent publication of his autobiography, flaws in the glass, and by the relatively smaller effort of a play he had been asked to write). backstory: thirty years ago, white was the first contemporary, living, modernist novelist whom i read, loved and wolfed down in great quantities. i hadn't gone back to him for a long, long time so i was worried that he might have changed for the worse in my absence, as both thomas pynchon and armistead maupin seemed to have done when i returned to them after a similar gap. he hadn't. the novel contains all the things i once loved about his writing. it's unfinished in the sense that it is (or so we assume) the first of the intended three parts of the novel, so it reads like a novella with an inconclusive ending, but i don't think most of white's readers are / were greatly driven by a desire to know what happens next. he's simply not that kind of writer. he is all about about language and style and vision and sensuality. thankfully, he seems to have carefully edited the text as it stands (he also, rather frighteningly, seems to have produced an exceptionally polished first draft), leaving only a couple of notes to himself and a handful of passages an editor might want to question (part of the fun of this kind of unfinished novel, is that you can play the editor). 

the book is the story of eirene / irene / reenie, a half-greek 'reffo', desposited in australia during the second world war by her mother who leaves her first with her temporary marzipan-fleshed guardian, mrs bulpit, then with her chain-smoking, gin-drinking aunt. substantial parts of it are wonderful, written with that drunken hallucinatory quality i'd always loved in his novels, where points of view and times and places, internal and external landscapes, slide effortlessly into one another and the reader is never quite sure what is happening. indeed i'd forgotten how much he owes to virginia woolf, not least in the way that the literal world keeps blazing up into something brigher and truer and stranger. being patrick white, he also has a queasy fascination with flesh and bodliy fluids, sweat, semen, spit, of which you don't get a great deal in woolf (though there is a diary entry in which she likens letter-writing to having a crap, in that one thinks one has finished 'then another coil comes out'; an image which has, unfortunately, been seared permanently into my memory).

in short, if you've read patrick white, you can read this without being disppointed, if you don't know white's work, read some, then read this. afterwards, like me, you'll start to wonder why on earth he's slipped off the anglo-american lierary radar (post-colonial snobbery is, of course, partly to blame).

the hanging garden is going to be published in april by that fine imprint, jonathan cape. no cover yet, so you'll have to settle for a picture of white himself. don't let it put you off...