I was hoping, as I began reading Patrick White’s The Eye of the Storm, that there would be heaps of erudite reviews out there in cyberspace, to help me make sense of it so that I didn’t write anything really inane here. Alas, no, hardly anybody has tackled it so at this stage I am free to interpret it any way I like and few but experts skulking in academia will be any the wiser. I expect I’ve missed heaps. Patrick White’s books are like that, and that’s what makes them so good. Each time I re-read one, especially if in the interim I’ve stumbled on some other work of literature that’s he’s referenced, I enjoy it more because I notice new things…
The Complete Review found The Eye of the Storm ‘impressive’ and recommends it for readers with ‘staying power’. Anderson Brown in Puerto Rico had a go at it, intrigued by the exotic idea of a Nobel Prize winning author being ‘an Australian, no less’. But apart from noting that White’s ‘terrain is the nature of consciousness’ approached in a ‘painterly’ way, he doesn’t have a lot to say in his review. Martha Duffy at Time thought it ‘pallid and self-indulgent’ and wished that ‘that the storm would blow every bit of it away’. (She was a journalist who started in fashion magazines and a royal watcher, so make of her vehemence what you will).
It is Alan Lawson, at the ABC website about White who makes the connection between King Lear and this novel. (Though the book is littered with references to Lear, so it’s not exactly revelatory. Unless you don’t know King Lear. Best to read a quick summary at Wikipedia if you don’t.)
Elsewhere on the ABC site he more usefully says
To categorise bluntly for a moment, White’s spirituality has been read by critics in two apparently opposed ways. It is possible, on the one hand, to see him as a writer concerned to find a way of transcending the dross (the Dreck as Hurtle Duffield in The Vivisector calls it), the corruption, and perhaps above all, the “ordinariness” of this world and its physical, material manifestations. Critics who read White in this way look to the eponymous Riders in the Chariot as symbolising the success of those who would rise above the mundane world. On the other hand, White’s fiction can be seen as embodying a belief in immanence, the notion that spirituality is to be found in the here and now, even (or perhaps especially) in the most mundane and disgusting facts of human physicality and ordinariness. Stan Parker’s vision of God in a gob of spittle at the end of The Tree of Man is one classic statement of this position. ( Alan Lawson, Why Bother With Patrick White? )
I think this is a very useful way to read White’s novels, keeping an eye on how he plays with the ordinary and the extraordinary; and with the physical and metaphysical. He did this in Voss, (see my review); with The Twyborn Affair (see here) and with The Solid Mandala (see here) where you can also see White’s exploration of other juxtapositions that Lawson identifies: the personal and public.
I think the metaphor of ‘the eye of the storm’ is brilliant, and it works in more ways than one because the destructiveness of a storm can also remove decay and bring opportunities for renewal in its aftermath. The novel was published in 1973 when the world was in turmoil: from the fallout of the Swinging Sixties; from the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, from challenges to authority and conservatism including civil rights movements and feminism; from superpower rivalries expressed in the Space Race and the Cold War; and from the Middle-East conflict and postcolonial instability. But the novel, like Elizabeth Hunter’s home, is untouched by these events swirling around its merciless eye. Apart from an allusion to God trampling the Vietnamese because those with power always exert it, I noticed no references to contemporary events at all. It could almost be a domestic novel – a story about two mendacious children after their mother’s money – except that White’s novels never are never that simple.
The fading opulence of the Hunter residence is no safe haven. At the literal level, characters remember again and again that two people have broken their legs on the treacherous front path. Surely this is an allusion to the Sons of Clovis, tortured by their mother Bathilde for their disloyalty? But the thorny roses which grow in that front garden also reminded me of the rose which wreaks such terror in Beauty and the Beast and its themes of sacrifice, love and power. According to Wikipedia, roses on the door of a room in ancient Rome signified a place where confidential matters were discussed and the rose is also a reference to the term ‘sub rosa’ (under the rose) which means to keep a secret. It is the emblem of silence and in this novel it alludes to a private pact that the siblings need to make. The rose is also the symbol of the Virgin Mary – and it is the eternal virgin Sister de Santis who, at the end of the book, picks a single rose to take to her new ‘case’, another eternal virgin: a teenage girl with paralysed legs.