Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 2, 2020

The Tree of Man, by Patrick White, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1973

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, cross-posting my reviews from Read the Nobels, and retrieving some from my journals.

To see my progress with completing the Read the Nobels Challenge, see here.

The Tree of Man, by Patrick White, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1973

I am more comfortable about sharing my 2006 journal notes about Patrick White’s The Tree of Man than I have been for some of my other more mediocre ‘reviews from the archive’.  I had read PW’s novel before, but these are my thoughts from when I re-read it for discussion in a book group to which I belonged.

It is not, of course, a scholarly review, nor one with any particular insights.  But it makes me want to read the book again.  FWIW here it is…


8th January, 2006

The Tree of Man is a very rich work, deceptively simple in plot, and mysteriously dense in language.  I read it first years ago when I was at Teachers’ College, where it mystified us all.  I don’t remember now, how much of it I then understood, but I did retain over the years, a sense of the simple heroism of Amy and Stan Parker.  What has also stayed with me is a sense of the Australian bush — its vast spaces, its silence, its timelessness.

Re-reading it, thirty years later [i.e. in 2006], there are new resonances.  I begin to understand White’s theme of the tension between permanence and transience as they play out in the Parkers’ lives. I begin to understand how both of them are never sure if they love one another but have a long marriage based on affection and habit.

BEWARE: SPOILERS (though anybody reading PW for the plot is going to be disappointed).

There are many sterile relationships in the novel.  Thelma Parker marries the solicitor Mr Fosdyke, for reasons of status.  She has no children, only asthma, and as she discovers at the club to which she belongs, she is never really accepted despite her efforts with elocution and the purchase of a ‘crocodile bag’. Madeline Fisher’s family ignore her after Madeline’s death because she cannot ever be rich enough.  White is merciless in his depiction of this wasted tragic life, preoccupied with society and appearances and achieving nothing at all, not even attendance at the Government House dinner because her father’s funeral is held that day.

The imperatives of sex are comprehensible now too, as they were not 30 years ago.  The one-ness of young lust and love becomes transformed into a separateness.  Amy has an adulterous but brief relationship with a travelling salesman; in her old age she thinks she would have liked to have had many more.  But Stan’s only shame comes from the night he found out about this relationship, went down to the city and got drunk and nearly strangled an old hobo woman in his rage.  In my twenties, I simply did not even notice the tragedy of this event in their marriage.  I forgot about it and read on, absorbing the betrayal as part of things.  Just as Stan seemed to, but did not.  He remembered it on his deathbed.

The final scenes are more confusing than ever.  I know that there are religious aspects to White’s writing, and I have an inkling that he’s drawing on Revelations but I’m not sure how*.  Mrs O’Dowd’s death, for example, is almost comic, with hordes of people from the district there, and almost no room for her husband near the bed.  Yet they send for Amy, who has neglected her friend out of inertia, and amongst all the hubbub, and the strange two-page story that is told by the nameless Man from Deniliquin, it is she who announces the death even as the doctor, awash with self-importance, prepares some belated pain relief.  He has been out delivering a baby — inverting the words of the Book of Common Prayer in the midst of death we are in life.  Amy has been holding her friend’s hand, and felt it grow cold, but in an echo of Stan’s long ago inability to tell about the dead man upside-down in the tree in the flood, Amy could not say anything until she had to. And then she gets up and goes away, leaving the carnival crowd to lay out Mrs O’Dowd and mutter about how Amy Parker had always been stuck-up and had no reason to be.

White seems to be saying, however, that the Parkers were private people, bewildered by their own emotions and yet reconciled to events in life that may have crushed others.  Ray’s death, shot in a bar-room brawl, seemed almost inevitable to them.  They were reconciled to his wastrel ways, suspecting no good of him but ignorant of the details of his life of crime.  (Not exactly petty crime either; he’d done time in prison). Amy loved her little grandson Ray, and had a good relationship with Edith, the unfortunate daughter of a Methodist minister who’d hoped to reform him.  But she refused even to acknowledge the grandchild Ray had with Lola, his ‘fancy woman’.  An unexpected hardness in Amy, or so it seemed to me.

When Stan found out about Ray’s death from the newspaper, he didn’t tell Amy, but ‘hoped to put it off for a bit.’  It was Mrs O’Dowd who came to commiserate and found herself having to tell Amy about it, while Stan was down in the city discovering that he had another grandchild, also called Ray.  (Rays of sunshine? Light of someone’s life?) This Ray, however, rejected Stan’s overtures, just as Amy had refused to know him. Another parallel, that both these two know important things that impact on the other, yet say nothing about it.

In our era, where marriages founder daily because of failures of communication, Amy and Stan’s long marriage is a marvel.  Their world shrinks as the land around them is subdivided but the rose Amy planted survives, and she even finds the long-lost silver nutmeg grater that she’d thought was stolen.  Permanence and impermanence entwined.

* I still haven’t read Revelations.

I finished reading the book and journalled it on the 8th of January, 2006.


As readers will know from my previous ‘review from the archive’ I am reading David Marr’s Patrick White, a Life.  He has a lot to say about The Tree of Man — its gestation; its reception at home and abroad; and how various scenes and characters derive from PW’s own life and experiences, but I’ll save that for another day.


Credits:

  • The Tree of Man by Patrick White, Penguin Modern Classics 1961, 1976 reprint, ISBN 0140016570

Responses

  1. Yes, ‘The Tree of Life’ is one of the great novels by Patrick White. My literary guide Martin Seymour-Smith (He died about 30 years ago, but he is still my literary guide) says Patrick White is worthy to be ranked with Thomas Mann as a novelist. High praise indeed.

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    • It’s interesting that White’s US publisher saw its merits immediately, while the UK and *sigh* Australia took longer to recognise its important.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I studied this for the HSC in the 1970s and it remains my favourite Patrick White – I’ve driven past the area where he lived at Castle Hill so many times and I remember when it was all countryside & I used to go horse riding there. His novels are stunning aren’t they? And Mann’s biography is a wonderful read. I’m so glad to see Patrick White being promoted Lisa!

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    • He was, and remains, IMO, one of the most exciting writers on the planet.
      As a matter of curiosity, was that English, or English Lit? I’d love to know if PW is on the secondary curriculum these days…

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      • Back then I can’t remember what we were called – we were the highest ranked English class at my high school and had the English Master for our final two years into the HSC. We were a very competitive group of girls, in pretty fierce competition with each other!
        From a teacher’s point of view it must have been a dream class!

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        • I reckon you would have been!
          I did my HSC at University High evening classes, and we were a dream class too, because everyone was so highly motivated. It was a bit of a disappointment to go to uni afterwards and be in tutorials where so many hadn’t read the book and contributed nothing to discussion. Most of them dropped out, of course, and ensuing years were better, but what a waste of a university place it was for those first years.

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  3. This is a book I reckon I could read again – but I think one could read most Patrick White again, because you find new resonances every time you read great writers, don’t you.

    I wish I remembered my last reading of Tree of man well enough to make a comment on this, but I can’t.

    BTW I haven’t read Revelations either.

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    • The thing about PW, for me, is not so much what I remember about the story, because I can’t always remember the names of the characters or how they relate to each other… it’s more about the *feeling* of the book. This book about two stoic people is, for me, incredibly emotional. All those subterranean feelings…

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      • Agree Lisa. I think I wrote recently – on my blog or commenting on some other – that it’s the feeling of a book that is usually what I remember and what determines my long term response so it. I rarely remember the plot, particularly how a book ends!

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        • Except for JA, of course… you could probably rewrite P&P from memory by now…

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      • What is it about White’s writing? Here’s Stan as a young man setting up camp & rolling a cigarette:

        “The dog whistled through his pointed nose. In the light of the fire his muzzle glistened. As he watched for an end to this interminable act.
        Still there it was, with the smoke coming out.
        The man got up. He dusted his hands. He began to take down the tucker box.
        How the dog trembled then”.

        Anyone else would write this in longer sentences. I remember stopping at this paragraph early on when I was reading it again last year. It’s the bit about the dog trembling that gets me – it’s perfect.

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        • Yes, and that’s the thing… I’m a quick reader, a really quick reader, but PW makes me stop, just as you did. He makes me re-read those words so that I see the scene in all its detail. Every word is just perfect.
          I had a good chuckle reading the Marr bio where he tells about hapless publishers wanting to edit PW, to rein in his punctuation and get rid of sentences that look unfinished!

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          • That prose makes you focus very closely on what is happening. And you’re right, he makes you slow down and pay attention. I can imagine the editors protesting!! (chuckle)

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  4. Interesting that the topic of the feeling of a book has come up. For that is how it is mostly for me and though have read so little of this great writer I get that. Heard him speak at Domain in the mid eighties when there was much more anti nuclear action than today. He was fabulous. Special memory. Christina Stead did not like his writing. Wow.

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    • How terrific that you heard him speak Fay!
      i guess his writing style is very different to Christina Stead.

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    • Gosh, what a wonderful memory to have:)
      I’ve got to the part in the Marr bio where he was becoming politically active. He was, as a young man, naïve. He made little sense of the Spanish Civil War, and he saw things in pre-war Germany and didn’t join the dots. His war was a desk job in Intelligence in the Middle East (though it’s amazing they took him at all, considering his asthma, how he didn’t die of it we’ll never know.)
      What got him out on the blocks was a bit of NIMBY-ism when there was development in the offing around his house, but Vietnam and the anti-nuclear issue galvanised him. Marr doesn’t say so, or hasn’t said it up to where I am in the bio, but I wonder if he was influenced by the way Whitlam and the It’s Time campaign made it acceptable for cultural icons to speak out about politics…
      (Not that he ever considered himself a cultural icon!!)

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  5. He stood there and had hundreds of thousands that day in his hand. And he was obviously not in good health. What a brave and unique man. It was always a pleasant feeling walking through Centennial Park knowing he lived nearby. Yes I think he would have been outraged at the dismissal and he held on to his grudges for evermore it seems so he would have loathed those behind that shameful event.

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    • Oooh, yes, it’s astonishing reading about the friendships he abandoned, over really trivial things in some cases. There was a woman who’d been a real source of info for Riders in the Chariot, and when she wouldn’t try a salad that he’d made, he told her off for ‘never trying anything new’ and that was the end of the friendship! Imagine!!

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    • How wonderful to have been there Fay!

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      • I’ve just been reading about that scene in David Marr’s bio!

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  6. I have yet to read Patrick White. Any suggestions where to start?

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    • I really like The Aunt’s Story, and it’s one of the shorter ones so it would give you an indication of his style — but really, as you can tell from all the ones I’ve reviewed here so far, I’d recommend anything!

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      • Tx. I think I have that one. I watched the film version of Eye of the Storm and didn’t care for it. My impression was that it was missing something that the book probably had.

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        • I thought it was a good film, but no film could ever convey the power of his words and the brilliance of his explorations of character. Apparently he used to act out his characters at the typewriter… and he says that all of them are partly him.

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    • Tree of Man!!

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  7. I enjoyed a lot this book. Here are some of my thoughts, written 7 years ago!: https://wordsandpeace.com/2013/04/22/book-review-the-tree-of-man/

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    • Thanks for this… it’s so interesting to go back and look at how we interpreted books in previous years, I think… it shows how we grow as readers.

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  8. […] The Tree of Man, by Patrick White, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1973 […]

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  9. I read “The Tree of Man” when I was about 15, around 1964. I am rereading my old 1965 Penguin Modern Classic paperback. Either White was an eccentric reader, or there are some (probably many!) non-standard spellings that seem to me to be proof-reading errors. And some occasions when the words are not only ungrammatical, they seem also to be proof-reading slips. For example, in the last lines of Part 1, Chapter 2, the word “maggin” should be “maggin’”, with a dropped-g in the participle. (The word “mag” is archaic Australian slang that means “chatter” or “gossip”.)
    And the word “reachin” should be “retchin’”, because Mrs Fibbens is pregnant and suffering so-called morning sickness (it is nighttime when she complains of “reachin”).
    Having read only the first two chapters, I don’t know whether to be annoyed by slip-shod editing. Or accept White’s eccentric spelling. Or look for a revised and corrected edition.
    I wonder if anyone can advise me, please?

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    • I’ll have a look at my edition and see what I see…

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    • Ok, reading from my edition which is the Penguin Modern Classics edition 1961, probably the same as yours but the 1976 reprint…
      The line reads : Stop maggin. An come inside.
      I am no expert, but by rights, as you say, there should be an apostrophe to represent the dropped ‘g’, but there should also be an apostrophe to designate the missing ‘d’ from ‘and’. So I think this is intentional, and I think ‘reachin’ is intended to be her misuse of the word ‘retching’, much as we see in episodes of Kath and Kim.

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  10. Hello, again, Lisa. I have now finished reading “The Tree of Man”, begun back in October.
    It was interesting to read one of your comments, drawing on the Marr biography, about White’s editors arguing with him over his sentences and stylistic eccentricity. I would have argued, too.
    “The Tree of Man” is a book that, towards the end, sent me scrambling back to much earlier pages to review the first appearance, for example, of the silver nutmeg grater, and its loss, when it is found again shortly before Stan dies. Not many writers demand that kind of retrospection from readers: the narrative is usually relentlessly forward. (Elizabeth Goudge, the Twentieth century English author, also requires readers to look back to earlier material to consolidate the retrospective connections.)
    White’s occasional mention of Amy’s sexuality was interesting, at a time when contraception was controversial, and often furtive. It is clear that she enjoys sex. Her spontaneous sex in middle-age, repeated several times, with the married travelling salesman seems extremely unlikely, as does her reflection in old age that she would have enjoyed having more sex with strangers.
    One thing struck me regarding the progression of time. We are not told people’s ages, so a chronological time-line is a matter of guesswork. But we have the Great War, fairly early in the novel, by which time Stan and Amy are married and have children. Stan enlists fairly soon after the war breaks out in August 1914. He eventually gets to the Western Front. But after he returns, there is no clear mention of the Great Depression. Nor is there any mention of the Second World War. And then Stan dies, clearly an old man, worn out physically.
    Suppose Stan is 40 years old in 1914. (If he had been much older, he would almost certainly have been rejected by the Army, although some middle-aged men lied about their age and enlisted.)
    Then, in 1939, when World War II begins, Stan would be twenty-five years older — sixty-five.
    Dying as a man who has lived to a considerable old age, I imagine Stan died older, probably substantially older, than sixty-five. But there is no mention of WW II.
    If he died an old man before WW II began, he would surely have been too old to enlist in 1914.
    Can you please shed any light on this?
    I put it down to carelessness on White’s part, and wonder if any of his editors noticed the question of Stan’s age?
    Thanks,
    John

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    • Oh my, I’m sorry, John, but my reading of this book is too long ago for me to unravel a query such as this, and I don’t remember anything about its chronology in David Marr’s bio, or whether he was sometimes careless. But new readers of The Tree of Man visit this post from time to time and perhaps one of them may be able to help out.

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