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.
Like the eye of a storm the Hunter house is deceptively peaceful and fundamentally malevolent. It is peopled by the grotesque, and selfishness permeates the building. Mrs Hunter, a mother who makes your nylons ‘turn to lisle*’ is a horrible old woman, still holding court over her subjects:
- the three nurses – Sister de Santis, Sister Manhood and Sister Badgery – who must minister to her physical needs but have their eye on the main chance;
- the family solicitor, Mr Wyburd, compromised by his past indiscretion and a wife with a different view of ‘ethical conditioning’;
- Lotte Lippman, the housekeeper, who fled Hitler for another kind of oppression, this time self-imposed by survivor guilt; and
- Elizabeth’s awful children, Sir Basil Hunter and the Princess Dorothy de Lascabanes – drawn home from their shallow lives overseas to manipulate their mother into a nursing home, so that their inheritance can’t be frittered away. They must put aside their competing jealousies because they are both financially embarrassed and need to get their hands on some money.
White’s writing is full of arresting juxtapositions of the physical and metaphysical which force the reader to take notice. Basil Hunter has survived his first encounter with the malice of his mother, alarmed Mr Wybird with hints of his plans to curtail expenses, and interrogated the housekeeper while the rain pours down outside. The house, he realises, has become a shrine to his mother’s will, a ‘sanctuary the acolytes had created around the object of their apparent devotions’ and ‘there was even a hint of incense, if only from cypresses rubbed up the wrong way by the storm withdrawing from the garden. (p151)
Sister de Santis ‘the eternal novice’ takes the religious theme further. She compensates the cleaner ‘for some of the injustices done to her’ through ‘acts of charity’ which are ‘sly attempts to lighten her own darkness through a discipline of drudgery.’ On her knees she scrubs out the kitchen until her knees hurt and ‘the glory had gone out of penance’. (p207) Reading this, I find myself wondering how they will portray it in the film just made. Won’t this ‘moment of immanence’ just look like aching knees? All films are reductive to some extent because they cannot depict the life of the mind as a novel does, but it would be a travesty to turn this rich, complex novel into a simplistic story about greedy children after their mother’s money. Of the critics who review the film, how many will have read any of White’s novels, much less this one, in order to know if this has been achieved? (It’s long, 608 pages). But as this interesting article by Garry Maddox shows, White himself was a keen film buff and always wanted to have his novels made into films, so I shall go to see it in due course…
I hope they include the hilarious dinner party scene. (White’s writing is often wickedly funny). The arrival of a Princess – albeit only an Australian one by marriage – has been duly noted in the social pages and so Dorothy’s old pal, Cherry Cheeseman gets up a dinner party. As usual Dorothy is late, and by the time she arrives the cook is threatening to walk out and the other guests are well-and-truly pickled on brandy. Dorothy is seated next to a (never named) ‘Australian Writer’ with a ‘Dickens hairdo’, who discerns that she has never heard of him despite his swag of awards. With a ‘literary smile’ he dismisses her confession that she’s reading The Charterhouse of Parma for the seventh time because she’s not an adventurous reader, and turns to his dimwitted neighbour to explain how he’s ‘adapting the Gothic novel to local conditions’ . (p92)
After dinner Dorothy is waylaid by the wife of a ‘detergent knight’. This naïve old lady, in a lather of gratitude that the Princess has graced Sydney with her presence, embarrasses Dorothy with her accusations of kindness. She is sure that ‘it must be a great joy’ to her mother to have her home – when all the while Dorothy has taken on board Cherry’s revelation that not only did she put her mother into the Thorogood Home – but that the old lady had conveniently died three weeks later.
When unable to bear her own hypocrisy any longer Dorothy goes searching for Cherry to make her farewells, she finds her hostess ‘lying on the bathroom tiles, crumbs of plaster in her hair’ because when she ‘fell’ the curtains came with her. But just before Cherry passes out she asks, ‘each word flickering inside a fume of brandy’ why Dorothy hates her mother. As she flees, the Australian Writer makes a most ungallant offer if she will only ‘turn him on’, but she escapes his rugby tackle and runs out into the night.
(Actually there’s a motif of falls throughout the book. Basil and Dorothy – and some of the others as well – are forever bumping themselves on things, and they slip over on front paths and stone floors, causing bruises and limps. Basil even falls out of a tree. I think these falls may be biblical: falls from grace? Stumbling on the pilgrim’s path? I’d have to dig out Paradise Lost, a Pilgrim’s Progress or the old King James to be sure. As for the other motif, people constantly spilling things on themselves and staining their clothes, um, I’m perplexed. They are a remarkably grubby lot. The stain of original sin? The damned spot that won’t come out?? But that was Macbeth.)
On Brumby Island the children gleefully allude to a massacre which took place after a shipwreck in the early days of white settlement. ‘The blacks killed the men and made the woman their slave’ they say (p378) and there’s still a smell of dead bodies under the house. But the malice on Brumby Island comes not only from (wo)man but also from nature. The actual storm, a cyclone, will be fun for the special effects technicians, but I have no idea how the film will portray that it is the existential moment in Elizabeth Hunter’s life. No spoilers, but she is alone when it happens so they can’t even use dialogue to help out. (Her hosts, the Warmings, do not seem to have warmed to her). (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun).
Oh, and talking of Lawson’s notion that there is spirituality in the ‘most mundane and disgusting facts of human physicality and ordinariness’ there is a droll scene involving sunburn and calamine lotion…
The references to Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma kept me mystified. (I haven’t read it yet, alas, though it lurks on Mount TBR). Dorothy, sleeping uncomfortably at ‘Kudjeri’ has bad dreams, (as well she might). She was indignant to discover that her mother had left behind her father’s library when she sold the property – and even more upset to find his copy of The Charterhouse of Parma still there because it was his favourite book too. After a tense and embarrassing meal with the new owners, the Macrorys, she has fallen asleep re-reading it. (For the eighth time, if what she told the Australian Writer was true).
Now she dreams herself as Gina Sanseverina, who marries absent money so that she can enjoy an affair with Count Mosca. According to the summary on Wikipedia, Gina plots and schemes and possibly even murders to achieve her own ends and to support her nephew Fabrizio (who at one time is imprisoned in a tower). Ok, so Dorothy is a schemer, yes, and she’s not happy about her mother having a bronze statue of her father Alfred Hunter erected on the outskirts of the town (p472) but what on earth does White mean when he writes that
Love which has been imprisoned a lifetime in this tower which is also incidentally a body can only be the purest noblest occurring with a delicacy Stendhal cannot realise till Fabrizio breaks open the bronze and there is the knuckle with this one ugly scab oh Basil, Bas Ber Bazzurl tu es le seul à me comprendre**. (p484)
I’m also puzzled by the scene where Basil goes on a nostalgia trip in the shed, puts on an old iron boot and then can’t get it off. What’s that all about? (Maybe a helpful reader can enlighten me?)
You may not like this book if ‘like every good Australian…[you]…believe only in the now which you can see and touch’ (p443). It’s full of odd juxtapositions and enigmatic symbolism, but I’m not too fussed if it doesn’t make sense on a first reading. The Eye of the Storm is a superb rendering of the ebb and flow of power and dependency, and the hatred and love within families. The indignities of ageing were never so mercilessly depicted, nor the havoc wreaked by a demanding old woman still determined to grasp love while ever withholding it. This is no affectionate portrait of Mother and Son; this is Patrick White exorcising a ghost. ( I must read David Marr’s biography, Patrick White: A life!)
See also The Eye of the Storm at Why Bother with Patrick White? Hopefully the film will draw more readers to this fascinating book!
Update 20 Sep 2011
Janine at The Resident Judge of Port Phillip wanted to read it before seeing the film too. Check out her review too!
© Lisa Hill
Author: Patrick White
Title: The Eye of the Storm
Publisher: Jonathan Cape, London, 1973 (the year White won the Nobel Prize)
ISBN: 0224009028 (First Edition)
Source: Personal library.
Australian buyers can download the eBook of The Eye of the Storm (Epub) at Fishpond, but the print version (The Eye of the Storm) seems to be out of stock, probably due to interest coming from the film.
If you’re quick you can pick up a first edition at Brotherhood Books!
* For those not at girls’ schools in the sixties, ‘lisle’ was the horrible dense, colourless and distinctly unsexy material from which school stockings were made.
** tu es le seul à me comprendre= you are the only one to understand me.