Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. I have not previously appreciated his work (that could be a consequence of immaturity or just the context of my exposure to him and my general dislike of Australian literature). However, these three pieces are magnificent. They are complexly woven, extremely taut and quite disturbing. Each piece taps in to an aspect of existence and makes it resonate in a sublime fashion.
The first piece I have already reviewed elsewhere, so I will leave this review for the other two pieces. The second piece is entitled ‘Dancing with Both Feet on the Ground’. It opens with an elderly person literally laying down sticks and dancing. The setting is in disarray; the dishwasher no longer works and the protagonist’s robe is milk splattered. Yet there is a sense of vigor in the midst of this: “I am dancing again, almost without knowing it, in collusion with the radio. I am dancing, but variously, with both feet on the ground.”
While the protagonist is trying to lose himself in the slipping, sliding, stamping of the dance, he is, somewhat ironically, also trying to maintain some connection to reality, planting his feet firmly in the ground. “I like to think I an breaking new ground advancing into a future with my rooted feet and what some would call senility.” The careful balance between these two states – reality and senility – are superbly navigated by White in all three of his pieces in this collection.
Here the narrator switches between past and present so fluidly that the reader is, at times, left wondering about the thread of the narrative. “Was it last night or tonight” asks the protagonist … Night still or morning … White is clearly exploring “the un-reason of the past and even more the now”. It seems that this is the message that runs through these three pieces.
The bulk of this piece is set in the past where the narrator explores a majestic dance at a winter hotel. The interplay between characters is loosely described and filtered through the eyes of a much younger protagonist. There is a sense of wonder and delight in this recollection and White revels in the sway and motion of the dance in this other time, other place — “dancers step over the body. The current sweeps the rout on, onn,awayee ..” Ironically and perhaps endearingly, the piece ends with our narrator having fallen on the kitchen floor, unsure of the time of day – “Is it now or then?” The final realisation is magnificent: “I must raise myself in the precipice edges of stove and bench. Life doesn’t end on the kitchen floor while there is the will to dance.”
The final piece in this series is, for me, the most touching. Entitled ‘The Age of a Wart”, it explores the apparent friendship between two unlikely sorts. While the tale spans decades and oceans, it is actually exploring the vague borders between reality and unreality, between the tangible and the imagined. By the story’s end, the protagonist is unsure if his friend exists if whether he is simply a figment of his disturbed imagination. The insanity that comes from this blurring of lines is all consuming and the protagonist is condemned to what we assume is a psychiatric institution.
What remains for readers is this image of the durability of the wart which is no longer visible but still exists beneath the surface. I haven’t quite decided whether White has an overriding theme in this series of pieces … I think that it is the type of writing that one has to mull and muse over.