Writers’ block and I are intimately acquainted. We are as awkward with each other as former lovers who have inadvertently moved into the same street.
I read The Hanging Garden with no intention of writing about it. I know next to nothing about Patrick White – and I have so many books patiently waiting next to my keyboard to be reviewed.
But I was trying to write about another novel, and the words simply wouldn’t work. The sentences stuttered and stumbled onto the screen. All I could think about was The Hanging Garden. Rather than work against my strange case of writers’ block, I’ve decided to work with it instead.
(Or at least I’d like to think of this as a conscious decision. In actual fact, I had very little choice).
So – here’s yet another brief, distracted piece in the place of a proper review. After this, writer’s block or no writer’s block, I’ll be returning to my regular Book to the Future schedule. I’ve just finalised my reading list for the Sixties, and I’m really excited about the books I’m about to read.
But first – because I can’t seem to write anything else – my thoughts on White’s The Hanging Garden.
The Hanging Garden
by Patrick White // written in 1981, published in 2012
I’m hesitant to write about The Hanging Garden with good reason: it’s my first Patrick White novel. I have nothing to which I can compare this incomplete, posthumous work; no notion of what a Patrick White novel is or should be like. I have only The Hanging Garden as my point of reference on White’s career.
Is it disrespectful for a wannabe critic to approach one of Australia’s most revered authors from possibly the least-sensible perspective? Perhaps. And yet – this book remains lingering in my mind, unshakable. Writing about The Hanging Garden might be the only way for me to get this novel out of my head.
The story behind the publication of The Hanging Garden is perhaps worthy of a book of its own. White commenced writing The Hanging Garden in 1981, but put the manuscript aside to work on other, more pressing projects. When White passed away in 1990, the manuscript, thought to be the first part of what would have eventually become a three-part novel, was found amongst White’s papers. Although White had intended for the manuscript to be destroyed, because he stopped short of burning the document himself, his literary executor made the decision for the novel to be published. As you open this book and begin to read, perhaps you’ll feel it – the slight sense of transgression.
The Hanging Garden might be unfinished, but it’s far from unpolished. For what is essentially a first draft, presented with minimal editing, White’s writing is startlingly clean. Within the space of only a few pages, you’ll find you’ve completely forgotten that The Hanging Garden is incomplete; you’ll stop trying to second-guess White’s “intentions” and you’ll be completely immersed in the novel’s gentle intensity.
The Hanging Garden invites the reader into an overgrown garden on a precipice overlooking Sydney Harbour. At the height of the Second World War, two children have been plucked from the other side of the world and summoned to the safety of the garden – Eirene, from Greece and Gilbert from London. Eirene’s father, a Communist, has been executed in a Greek prison, while Gilbert’s mother was killed by a bomb in the Blitz. Abandoned by their remaining parents to the care of a preoccupied guardian, the two refugee children are left to run as wild as the garden itself.
Initially, Gil and Eirene are suspicious of each other. Without belongings of their own, each is eager to claim the garden for themselves. However, it’s not the children who own the garden, but the garden that possesses them.
As the two children grow older, circumstances force them to leave the peace of the garden and enter the world separately, as young adults. But as Gil and Eirene head off to their new lives, the time they spent together in the garden of their childhood will continue to haunt them.
As this is my first experience of Patrick White’s writing, I had no clues as to what to expect from The Hanging Garden. The surprise was pleasant. Time after time, the perfectly articulated, understated force of White’s prose gave me reason to pause as I read. It’s thick, lush…delightfully odd. There’s a particularly stunning moment when Eirene and Gilbert meet for the first time – Gilbert has climbed a tree, and Eirene observes from the ground:
“Then she was looking up into the heart of the black tree, her face held flat like an empty place and his boy’s face slanted above her from looking down empty-eyed into her other emptiness. There was no question of how they might fill the silence. The moment before it might have smashed to smithereens below, or dissolved in a stream of spittle from the tree into her mouth, instead the voice floated from out of the house light and girlish as nobody had heard, ‘Come away, Irene–Gilbert! Children? Something lovely for your tea…'” (p. 25)
There was no question of how they might fill the silence – that perfect sentence beautifully captures the complicated intensity of the moment in the space of just a few short words.
White’s narrative focuses on Eirene. His description of her appearance, though sparing, is more than enough for the reader to form a clear image of her – her long, black plaited hair and her dark skin.
White goes further than merely portraying Eirene as an outsider. “It is you who are the black,” White says on page 97, lapsing briefly into the second person. Eirene is a contradiction in terms: White calls her “black”, yet makes a point of setting her apart as Greek. She is native and foreign at the same time.
On her first day of school, Eirene’s teachers aren’t impressed by the fact that she can speak four languages and has read Racine, Goethe and “a little” Shakespeare. They begin to laugh at her –
“When they compose themselves, Mr Harbord says, ‘I hope we can put it back in you – some of the Australian character, I mean.'” (p. 93)
White doesn’t seem to have a particularly high opinion of “the Australian character”. The majority of the novel’s Australian characters are drawn with savage strokes – Eirene’s Aunt Ally, and the quivering blackhead that sits on her chest like a brooch. Viva Jenkins – Eirene’s young classmate – with her pale skin and faint black moustache. Mrs Bulpit, the children’s guardian, and her needle-like teeth.
White parodies the Australian accent; the way Eirene’s classmates say “yair” instead of yes and the word drawings becomes “droorings”. Even Eirene’s own name is mangled, turning into Ireen, Reen or Reenie. Desperate to cling to her Greek identity, Eirene tries as much as she can to extricate herself from “the Australian character”.
Gil, however, has no qualms about becoming more Australian. Eager to conform, he plays football and begins to speak in the same stilted accent as the other boys. But alone in Eirene’s company, Gil drops his pretense. Gil is perhaps the closest thing Eirene has to an ally – but even then, he is found lacking.
White describes Eirene almost like a young priestess, with her belief in the pneuma: the Greek word she can’t (or won’t) define for Gil when he asks her. It’s this concept; the soul, the pneuma, that sits at the absolute heart of The Hanging Garden. The airy, transcendental pneuma lies in stark contrast to the earthiness, the physicality of the novel’s other characters, with their hideous, quivering blemishes and pointed teeth.
The air and the earth is a dichotomy that’s consolidated in the Hanging Garden of the novel’s title – a thing of earth lingering in the air; a meeting point of the two opposing forces.
I found White’s The Hanging Garden an absolutely fascinating piece of work. But the question remains: is it a fitting final act for the career of one of Australia’s greatest writers?
Of course, this is a question I can’t even begin to answer.
In the wake of The Hanging Garden, I’m left intrigued. Already, I’m wondering which Patrick White novel I’ll read next. Though this might be a strange, unconventional introduction to White’s writing, I’m very glad we met the way we did. I have the distinct impression that Patrick White and I are going to get along just fine…