Happy Valley

It was a Saturday afternoon, a student at university, and I called into Watkins, the esoteric bookshop in Cecil Court, and found a copy of 'Temenos: A Review Devoted to the Arts of the Imagination 2'. One of its four, and principal, founding editors was the poet and Blake scholar, Kathleen Raine, whose work I knew and admired, I bought it and brought it back to my room in the Hall of Residence where I lived.

The first essay I read - I recall even now - was by the French poet and ex-Jesuit priest, Jean Mambrino, entitled, 'Dining with Isaiah: On the early novels of Patrick White' (shown above). It was to lead to a lifelong love of White's work, beginning with my reading of 'Riders in the Chariot', his extraordinary novel of four marginalised mystics against the backdrop of their individual histories and how those stories collide in a post-war, distant, suburb of Sydney. It remains the most penetrating exploration of the nature of evil and the possibilities of redemption that I know.

One of the novels, referenced in Mambrino's essay, was difficult to access during White's life, because White had suppressed its republication: his pre-War novel, Happy Valley. Death knows no such scruples and in 2012 it was reissued by Jonathan Cape. I am reading it now with fascinated recognition of how it is so utterly White and yet utterly White in the making.

There are many of his key themes - most especially the distance between true expression and words - but not yet clothed aright, in ways recognisable.

One shift is in the texture and the visuality of the prose. I often thought that White would have preferred to be a painter - he was a friend and distinguished patron of artists - and one of his best novels, 'The Vivisector' is woven around an artist's life. The painterly layers of envisioned sight that is a hallmark of his later novels is here more or less absent. Here he is following the 'streams of consciousness' of his characters rather than the embodied realities of his characters' every move and gesture and you find yourself reading White yet not being slowed into the steady, encompassed seeing of his mature work. It is fascinating.

I can see why he chose to suppress it not because it is not good but because it is not him. He is not simply a set of themes but a way of saying, a certain kind of performance in which there is no idea separable from things. He is an iconographic novelist, not a symbolic one, nor a realist.

Every stroke must contribute to a wholeness of seeing. I was reminded of a painter with whom White, I think, shares much in common - Edward Burra - who explores, through different images, the marginal bearers of truthfulness, the meetings and miss-meetings of life, the edges where violence dwells and landscapes that speak - and their mutual hostility to 'interpretation' - what carries meaning is the gesture, the texture not the reflected packaging of words.


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