Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Patrick White, John McGahern

September 2010: I bought The Aunt’s Story (1948), by Patrick White, while I was wandering round the streets of Adelaide's CBD, just in case I happened to finish The Secret Agent while I was in some potentially bookshop-forsaken town such as Lightning Ridge. The Aunt's Story started well; by that I mean there was little sign of his trademark "hard-won bilge" (Christina Stead's assessment of White, her fan). Theodora is a skinny, yellow girl with too many ideas - this being a phase in Australia's development where, according to novelists, people who displayed any signs of thinking were disapproved of. "Your father is a one for books, sighed Gertie Stepper, as the flour crept up her arms and her face grew red from squeezing so much dough. The tone of Gertie Stepper's voice made it something sad and incurable, almost as if it were an illness, what Father did with books."

It's a portrait of the life of a non-conforming woman; Theodora's life is horribly confined and narrow; nature, or the countryside, is the only place she can be herself, striding around with her girl-sized rifle on shooting expeditions with her sympathetic (-ish) father. Theodora scares off the occasional man who crosses her path; her more man-alluring sister marries the neighbour's son, whose interest was initially in the unsettling Theodora. Theodora ends up an 'old maid' - an aunt as opposed to a mother.

An old acquaintance of Theodora's father arrives at their farm; he's down on his luck and is hoping for a meal. The young sisters, Theodora and Fanny, chat to him:

"What do you do?' she [Theodora] asked.

"I look for gold."


"Because," he said, "it is as good a way of passing your life as any other."

A few pages later, after he has been given, begrudgingly, a feed...

"And we shall come," cried Fanny. "We'll walk at least as far as the bridge. So that you can tell us things."

But the man had stopped talking. He looked at his boots as he walked, and sucked the beef out of his teeth. Till Fanny had to shake his arm.

"Tell us something," cried Fanny. "Why don't you speak?" she said. "Soon we shall have gone."

But inside the man's silence, Theodora could feel his closeness. The sleeve of his coat touched her cheek. The sleeve of his coat smelt of dust, and mutton fat, and sweat, but it stroked her, and she bit her tongue.

"Yes," said the man, "it's as good a way as any of passing your life. So long as it passes. Put it in a house and it stops, it stands still. That's why some take to the mountains, and the others say they're crazy."

This was my favourite quote of the novel, just because it is one of those clues into the self-mystery of why I have so many indoor hobbies, as though I'm a prisoner finding ways to occupy myself during my sentence, and why when I'm out walking, to it-doesn't-matter-where, I feel as though, a last, I'm not waiting for anything.

Aunt Theo is yellow. White finds many different ways of reminding us that she's yellow and scrawny. She also has a black moustache. Here is an example of how what is generally considered repulsive - physical traits that most writers would point out only in their villains - White finds fascinating and therefore beautiful:

"Is Aunt Theo happy?" asked Lou.

"Why ever not?"

"Aunt Theo hasn't any children," said Lou.

"Aunt Theo," said George, "has a moustache. I felt it. It was soft."

"I forbid you to speak like that!" said Fanny.

Sometimes she smacked her children for the truth.

"You must respect your aunt," she said.

Respect became something written in a book for children to learn, just as Theodora Goodman became the Respected Aunt. She could make a dancer with a handkerchief. She could tell about Meroƫ. And, falling asleep, they raised their hands, but respectfully, to touch the moustache that was black and soft, and warm and kind as dogs.

Part One is worth reading. Part Two degenerates into hard-won bilge. I have dog-eared a few pages, but when I reread them, I think, "I must have dog-eared this page because the writing is so awful." Here's an example (it will be almost as obscure here without its context, as it is with its context):

Ohhh the long night rolled but studded with islands. Then the door-knob stood in the pale morning. Still for a moment. But you knew it was not for long. It would happen soon. Now.

The morning light saw the drawers fly out of the chest. Its tongues lolled. The whole cardboard house rejected reason. Then there was a running. They were calling on the stairs, Yanni the Moustache, and his daughter Science.

"Come," they called. "Run. It is the will of God. The earth is going to split open and swallow the houses of the poor."

Ohhh, that's right, there was a little earthquake. That's what he's talking about. In Part Two, Theodora goes to France and stays in a hotel. She seems to have developed the ability to commune directly with her fellow hotel-guests' souls: though in reality they may only be exchanging pleasantries, in alternate-reality Theodor takes on the identity of someone from their past and together, they relive old memories. I dragged myself through the rest of the book. Then I bitched about it at a Tavs dinner, and Deirdre said that The Aunt's Story was many people's favourite White novel. Her defence of it was valid: that it tells its story in such a wild and free way (yes, I'd agree), and breaks away from conventions of story-telling, that it makes the reader think, "When it comes to story-telling, anything's possible!" In my opinion, his experiment was a failure. But "Bravo!" for trying!

Also, what is his obsession - I'm sure there's some pointed point to it, but bugger me if I figured it out - with names that feature an umlaut? Meroƫ is the only one I can remember, but there were at least two others.

September 2010: Errol recommended I read John McGahern's novel That They May Face The Rising Sun, a title he could never remember: "Sally, what's the name of that novel Ross called 'The novel where nothing happens'?" I went up to Cowra, and had forgotten to go next door and borrow the book from Errol...I looked in Ross's shelves for something to read and foundThat They May...Sun. I've since lent it to Deirdre, so (phew!) can't transcribe my favourite passages. The novel takes place over a year, following a couple who lead a quiet life in a small rural Irish community. There is something very big about this quiet, uneventful novel. When I finished it, I thought, "This is a novel about grief!" But didn't really know how to support my thesis. The other day, I thought, "John McGahern was reviewing the happiest year of his life: taking out the memories, bringing them into the light, and handling them with great care, because you only get one go at memories, and after that, they are memories of memories." There are vivid, detailed, frequent descriptions of the landscape, and the changes that occur to it over the seasons; the changes - modernisation, death - that occur to the people and community around our married pair are also carefully documented. There was one sentence I dog-eared, and the gist of it was that one day, our hero would look back on this time and consider himself to have been happy then. But the happiness he describes isn't skipping through beflowered meadows hand-in-hand with his wife. It's a good book. I could think it over for hours. But my curry is cooking on the stove and I'm sick of sitting. So John McGahern gets short shrift tonight.