Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 12, 2009

The Solid Mandala, by Patrick White #BookReview

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a fan of Patrick White – so this morning (just before I left for work) I was delighted to hear a promo for the Radio National Book Show featuring The Solid Mandala (1966) by Patrick White.  I took a quick look at the transcript on my lunch break and it looked like a terrific discussion, so I dug out my reading journal notes about this book when I got home, and am pleased to find that some aspects which puzzled me when I read it, have been clarified by the RN discussion.


I seem to have read The Solid Mandala because it was on the ABC First Tuesday Book Club back in 2007 but I don’t remember watching the TV program, and having now looked at their transcript I don’t seem to have missed anything much.  It appears to have been an inane chat between two camps comprising the I-loved-it faction (Jacki Weaver & Jennifer Byrne) versus the I-hated-it opposition (Marieke Hardy and Craig Reucassel).  There was next to nothing about the book itself.  The Radio National Book Show transcript shows a much more intelligent response to the book, probably because it’s not pandering to a dumbed-down audience wanting cheap laughs.  (Yes, I am profoundly disappointed by the First Tuesday Book Club, and although it’s improved a lot since the early days, especially when Jason Steiger is a guest, I don’t  understand why the ABC can’t take books as seriously as it takes film on The Movie Show.  But I digress).


It’s interesting to read my journal notes from back in 2007.  I don’t pretend to know much about modernism now, but I knew even less back then.  I seem to have focussed mainly on trying to work out plot details and a bit about character, but have obviously missed much of the symbolism and other characteristics of modernism.   I think I need to read it again.  I would like to read it again!

There are other reviews about The Solid Mandala (and Kimbofo’s is particularly good) , but for what it’s worth, here are my ramblings from 2007…beware, there are spoilers below, but really, the book is not about plot.

The Solid Mandala is the story of twins Waldo and Arthur Brown, told partly through the perspective of Waldo, (who seems a lot like White himself), and partly through Arthur’s point of view.  Their contrasting narratives illuminate their difficult relationship, as for example, when Waldo describes his painful attempts to negotiate friendships with girls  – hampered by the embarrassment of having a twin who’s a bit simple.

Arthur is a big shambling fellow, given to dribbling, making inane remarks, and getting over-excited.  Waldo fancies himself as an intellectual, and wants to write.  He reveals this ambition to Dulcie Feinstein, only child of a middle-class Jewish family, but has no clear idea of what he might do.  HIs father is hopeful that an influential friend might engineer a job for Waldo at the library.  Arthur drives a delivery van.

There are disorientating time shifts in the narrative, which begins in the twins’ old age with the reunion of the boys, Dulcie and her husband.  Waldo is outraged to find that they had named their baby after Arthur.  In his youth, it mattered a great deal to Waldo that Dulcie should know nothing about Arthur, going to tea at her house in a lather of anxiety lest she discover his existence.  He was then devastated to discover that she had known about Arthur all along because he delivered parcels to her house, and had invited him to the same tea party.  In a chaos of conflicting emotions about this unwelcome discovery, he was relieved to see that Dulcie was appalled by Arthur’s imbecile behaviour, distressed to see this reaction to his brother, yet pleased to find she was sincere.  (p109)  This characteristic interest in sincerity recurs in other White novels I’ve read, especially in The Fringe of Leaves and Vivisector.  White hated hypocrisy in all its forms.

It’s hard to tell just when this book is set, but I suspect that the boys are teenagers in 1932.  This is when Mr Brown reads Teach Yourself Norwegian on the train to work but Mrs Munro’s chauffeur is more used to horses.  (Mrs Munro, derisively portrayed as ‘new money’ by White, is the wealthy widow of a flour manufacturer). There is a dustiness about the streets they walk on, suggesting that paved roads have not reached this part of Sydney.  A few dates help: Waldo is 17 when war breaks out, and in 1920 when the Poulters arrive in Terminus Rd, Dad was retired but had not yet died (p141). His friend from the Sydney Municipal Library died in the war, and he worries that Dulcie in Europe might be killed by a zeppelin.

It also isn’t clear whether Waldo the would-be intellectual is a reader. Dulcie is: she’s read The Mill on the Floss, and Waldo makes a disconcerting reference to Maggie Tulliver being a passionate girl – but it’s his father who’s ‘the reader in the house’ and rejoices in buying second-hand books about obscure things.  He reads The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table, and Thus Spake Zarathrusta on the train.  Whether Waldo reads these books too isn’t said.

He’s at the age when parents are an embarrassment when his father dies.  It is Waldo who finds him, but he leaves it to Arthur to make the announcement.  He doesn’t seem much distressed, and is embarrassed by the fuss.  In these scenes Arthur seems more authentic and it is the juxtaposition of these two selves that seems very revealing of White himself.  I really must make a start on that biography by David Marr! (PS 2009, I still haven’t read it *blush*)

Part 1 (Waldo’s story) is much easier to follow than Part 2, written from Arthur’s point of view about the same events, but seen through the fog of his intellectual disability.  Some of it mystified me.

Arthur tells us about a couple of events that Waldo knew nothing about.  He seems to have had some sort of relationship when Mrs Poulter, a childless woman, herself somewhat simple and married to Bill who has changed after the war and become rather taciturn.  The scene where Arthur dances to the four corners of his mandala (the pattern inside his marble) might be sexual activity, or perhaps it’s just that Bill and Waldo think it is – they both forbid Mrs P and Arthur to go for walks together because of their suspicions.   Arthur understands the mandala of the title as a ‘totality’ while Waldo does not.  I found this part obscure and couldn’t see what White was getting at.  (PS 2009, I do need to read it again!)

Waldo’s death isn’t clear to me either.  He might simply have died, or maybe Arthur killed him – but if so, why?  What is the significance of the dogs (Runt and Scruffy) attacking the body and eating it so that they have to be shot when the police finally arrive to take Arthur away?


Update: as well as a thoughtful review, there is also a very elegant explanation and discussion of the significance of Waldo’s death at Writer on Writer – scroll down to see comments by Gladys.


There used to be a Patrick White Yahoo group which seems to be defunct now.  I think it existed primarily in a vain attempt to save Patrick White’s house as part of our literary heritage, not as a reading group.    That’s a pity, because there is so much to enjoy in any of White’s books but because they are modernist, it helps to read them with other enthusiasts.  It’s also a pity that our only Nobel prize winning writer is neglected so shamefully.  I’ve posted from my soap box about this before….


  1. Let me know when you decide to try it, Jenny, and I’ll re-read it at the same time. Or maybe we could nominate it for a classic read in next year’s schedule?

  2. I also heard this excellent program on The Bookshow. I have been a little hesitant of White and his writing after my experience with The Tree Of Man which we read several years ago with ANZLit. However I am now most intrigued by The Solid Mandala and will put this on my list of books to watch out for.

  3. […] Australian literary classics Posted on August 13, 2009 by whisperinggums Lisa at ANZ LitLovers referred yesterday to ABC Radio National’s The Book Show program on Patrick White’s The […]

  4. Thanks for the link to my review.

    I really loved this book when I read it. I keep meaning to read more of his stuff and I just never get around to it. Shameful.

  5. Oh, never be ashamed of not having had time to read a particular book, Kim! There are so many treasures out there, and there is never enough time to read them all.

  6. What Kim said. And thanks to you both, I am going to be a first-time Patrick White reader. I will come back and actually read your post, Lisa, once I have read the book (to avoid the spoilers you helpfully flag).

  7. I mean, about meaning to read stuff and never getting around to them. But Patrick White is now in queue.

  8. Good! We may yet have a blog-led resurgence of interest in PW *grin*

  9. Having recently read the major White novels, Lisa, ‘The Tree of Man’ defeated me and ‘Vivisector’ is too grim, but I adore the rest. The endings are so spectacular, and ‘Riders in the Chariot’ is there with the very best. I warm inside as I remember how ‘Voss’, ‘The Eye of the Storm’ and ‘The Twyborn Affair’ ended.

    As for pouring ‘scorn on a certain kind of woman’, Mrs Edna Dun from ‘The Solid Mandala’ cops the worst.

  10. Hello Gladys, thanks for joining in the conversation. It’s always a pleasure to meet another PW enthusiast:)
    Yes, I agree about Mrs D, but then there’s also those awful, awful women in A Fringe Of Leaves. I wonder if, since women have always been the major market for novels, the women of PW’s period didn’t like the portraits he painted of him, and so rejected his books? Perhaps it takes the distancing of time to read these scornful portraits without identifying with them?

  11. Yes, true, I didn’t mean to suggest that White only derided women; I like Amy Parker in The Tree of Man as well. It’s just that those excoriating portraits are so wickedly memorable!

  12. Patrick White has his share of thoroughly positive women. The heroically alienated Theodora Goodman in “The Aunt’s Story”; the inspired Laura Trevalyan in “Voss”; Mary Hare and, above all, Ruth Godbold in “Riders in the Chariot”; Mrs Poulter in “The Solid Mandala”; the German cook in “The Eye of the Storm”; and the courageous Ellen Roxburgh and in “A Fringe of Leaves”.

    Does Patrick White have as many positive men?

  13. In “The Tree of man” Stan Parker, for the most part, withstands life’s disappointments. With integrity only scratched, Stan survives flood and fire like Ellen Roxburgh, Mordecai Himmelfarb and Eddie Twyborn of later novels.

    Am I wrong that Patrick White’s portrait of Amy Parker is less than kind?

    • I don’t think you’re wrong, Gladys – White is much too complex for anyone (and especially not an amateur like me) to be sure about anything in his novels LOL. I think White patronises both of them to some extent, but I felt that there is a stoicism and solidity about her that is admirable. Lisa

  14. Hi Lisa, thanks for dropping by my site. I also felt that I missed some of the significance of the possibility that Waldo was murdered, and of the two dogs eating the body. I’d also have to agree with some of the other comments – White seems to direct some of his most scathing criticism at women, and can be a bit mean-spirited in general. I also wrote an overview of him at:
    I just read the First Tuesday Book club transcript. I didn’t mind it actually, although I find myself agreeing with the opinion of the oldies, as opposed to the writers who are closer to my generation.

  15. Do you know Anakatony of Tony’s Book World? Since he has suggested on my site that Patrick White is a better writer than Dickens was, I thought I had better investigate.

    Between you and Gabriel I am now thoroughly convinced of Patrick White’s worth, but am not, at this point, prepared to comment on his ability relative to that of Dickens!

  16. Hi Sarah, I think it’s a bit daft of Tony to suggest that one is ‘better’ than the other. They were writing in entirely different periods of time, about different themes, in different styles and with different purposes. Dickens is more accessible for a less experienced reader, and White is more engaging from an intellectual POV. I love them both and would never want to choose between them.

  17. Yes, I admit comparing Charles Dickens to Patrick White is like comparing apples to oranges. Comparing Dickens to White is a bit like comparing Dan Brown to George Eliot.

  18. Oh Tony, *chuckle* you are naughty! I bet you haven’t read Dan Brown anyway – it’s not on your list of Disappointing, Annoying, Unmemorable Novels – I’ve checked!
    My mother couldn’t stand Dickens, but my grandmother sent us (from England) an entire set, beautifully bound, and so as a teenager I worked my way through them all – except for The Pickwick Papers which had somehow gone missing from the set. (I suspect my uncle, living with her in London at the time LOL). At university it was Dickens that I chose for my major study so I read them all again three times that year, and found them as fresh as ever.
    Would I find them as satisfying now that I have read most of Patrick White’s novels? No, probably not. This is also true of mushrooms once you’ve eaten truffles, but mushrooms can and should still be enjoyed, and Mr D deserves a place in every readers classics shelf!

  19. Lisa, that is a very elegant defense of Dickens, makes even me want to read him again. To the charge of trying to stir up a little controversy, I plead guilty as charged.

  20. I’m so glad you did, Tony, or I might not otherwise have discovered your most interesting blog:)

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