Late Modernity

Australian Women Writers Gen 3 Week, Part II, 17-23 Jan. 2021

I have in my ‘possession’ an essay entitled The Solid Mandala and Patrick White’s Late Modernity by Nicholas Birns. I say in my possession when in fact it has been residing under an icon on my screen for some months and I forget how it got there. Downloaded from a letter from Professor Brother-in-Law maybe. Birns I’m pretty sure is a US academic and editor or past editor of the literary journal Antipodes. The essay itself is an extended discussion of the definition of ‘Late Modernity’ which is of some relevance to our upcoming AWW Gen 3 Week, Part II.

Late modernity as understood in this piece is composed of two key aspects. One is the dominance of the innovative, labyrinthine Modernist aesthetics developed in the previous generation – the generation born in the late nineteenth century, that of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and, most important for White’s text, T.S. Eliot – and inherited by the second-generation modernists, writers like White who were born in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The other is the political predominance of welfare state models and a strong public sector that provided significant employment. These two aspects are contrasted with the era of neoliberalism of the postmodern era (roughly 1970 and after) …

You’ll remember of course I have defined Gen 3 as the period from the end of WWI to the end of the 1950s. Now, it is very easy to argue that the 1950s in Australia extended well into the 1960s, and certainly that was true of my own white, rural, middle class, teenage years. But I am sticking with 1960 as the changeover from Gen 3 to Gen 4 because The Beatles; southern European immigration; the anti-Vietnam War movement; the Pill; Women’s Lib; and because it seems to fit with a changing of the guard from the mostly women writers of the inter-War years to a new generation around Thea Astley, Thomas Keneally, Helen Garner and David Ireland say.

These issues of periodisation indeed present many pitfalls. When dealing with the near past, people of different generations have different perspectives upon not only the nature of the near past but its degree of proximity; the very idea of a near past implies some people still living for which that past is still a part of active memory …

Ain’t that the truth! I am very passionate about my lived experience of ‘the sixties’ – which occurred I must say mostly in the early seventies.

Much as I deplore the end of the ‘welfare state’, I struggle to see its relevance to the literature of Gen 3. Indeed much of the writing in the Social Realism stream is to do with the failure of the state to provide the underclass with meaningful welfare (or employment), and to the largely middle class modernist stream it is irrelevant. An example of the former might be Say No to Death and the latter, Waterway. However, Birns argues that

… Waldo Brown and his brother Arthur, the co-protagonists of The Solid Mandala, are people who, in the late modern paradigm, however tormented and limited their lives are in individual terms, are provided a firm social foundation by their polity, and that this is an important factor in comprehending the novel and their place in it.

Waldo is I think employed by the Library, with a sense of security only a distant memory today. I am not going to argue with him (Birns) and indeed was more engaged by how he differentiated between this period and its successor, contrasting the conservatism and security underlying Late Modernism with the following generation of Regan/Thatcherism and globalism now generally contained in the catch-all “neo-liberalism”, and the cultural commodification of post-modernism. Subjects for another day! And how we are going define the end of Gen 4 I have no idea.

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Nicholas Birns, The Solid Mandala and Patrick White’s Late Modernity, Transnational Literature Vol. 4 no. 1, November 2011.
http://fhrc.flinders.edu.au/transnational/home.html


AWW Gen 3 Week, Part II. I will start putting up reviews in the next day or so. Quite a number of you are planning to contribute, not all on the same day I hope, and I am quietly confident that with the two I have ready, I will be able to put up a review/guest review/repost each day for the week. Off the top of my head we will have Kylie Tennant, Christina Stead, Marjorie Barnard, Eve Langley, KS Prichard, Ernestine Hill, Elizabeth Harrower. Bloggers I haven’t spoken to can drop me a line here. And there will be a summary after the end of the Week with links to everyone’s reviews. I’m back at work as of yesterday, through to about 25 Jan, so hopefully I’ll be able to use Invasion Day to do my write-up.

Since AWW Gen 3 Week last year (here) I have put up the following posts (Woolf and Sackville-West are of course English but their works are central to the modernist project).

Katharine Susannah Prichard, The Pioneers (1915) (wadh)
Daisy Bates (theaustralianlegend)
Daisy Bates, The Passing of the Aborigines (1938) (wadh)
Miles Franklin, Bring the Monkey (1933) (wadh)
Marjorie Barnard, Miles Franklin (1967) (wadh)
Dymphna Cusack, Jungfrau (1936) (wadh)
Dymphna Cusack, Say No to Death (1951) (wadh)
Melbourne and Sydney (theaustralianlegend)

Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out (1915) (wadh)
Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent (1931) (wadh)

Sue (Whispering Gums) has three posts scheduled under the Bill Curates banner over the next week or so. If you miss them there’ll be links in the end-of-week summary.

There is a GAN, revisited

Voss

I mentioned recently that I had seen Jonathan Franzen named as the Great American Author, on a 2011 Time cover I think, and that has led me to revisit the subject of the Great Australian Novel. There is a GAN was one of my earliest posts, and on re-reading I find there is not much I wish to change, at least not in what I say, but two books I have read since then (April 2015) cry out to be included. So my top 10 Great Australian Novels are now –

Voss (1957), Patrick White

Such is Life (1903), Joseph Furphy

The Swan Book (2013), Alexis Wright (review)

Benang (1999), Kim Scott (review)

The Pea Pickers (1943), Eve Langley (review)

The Man Who Loved Children (1940), Christina Stead

The Timeless Land (1941), Eleanor Dark

The Fortunes of Richard Mahoney (1930), Henry Handel Richardson

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner (1971), David Ireland (review)

An Australian Girl (1890), Catherine Martin (review)

The books I had to make room for were The Swan Book and Benang. Everything Alexis Wright writes is soaringly original, invested with poetry, love of language and Indigenous culture. That is true too of Benang though some of Scott’s other works are more prosaic.

And I’ve included too Eve Langley who in 2015 languished in the long list, not so much for The Pea Pickers, which I love, but for her whole body of work, 4,200 pages, largely unpublished, but samples of which Lucy Frost (ed.) used to produce Wilde Eve.

Dropped out were My Brilliant Career/My Career Goes Bung by Miles Franklin, who when young was an original, inventive, exuberant but still thoughtful writer; Loaded by Chris Tsialkos who I think is only a middle ranking author in middle age when I thought he might be much more; and The River Ophelia by Justine Ettler, a work which I still rank very highly but which perhaps is insufficiently mainstream to be one of the ‘greats’.

Voss clings to top spot. White, I get the feeling, is being treated as less and less relevant, but he was a giant of Modernism, in Australia and in the world. Each of his works on its own has substance and his body of work more so. He teaches us how to write and how to write about Australia. Coincidentally, the Voss cover comes from a SMH article Australia Day 2015: Jason Steger picks his top 10 (here).

Furphy is White’s opposite, a working man, a man of the bush, an autodidact, the author of a single work. And yet what a work! Its fiery, mad prose anticipates James Joyce by a quarter of a century.

Stead, like White has a significant body of substantial work. I’ve named The Man Who Loved Children, though my favourite is the thoroughly American Letty Fox: Her Luck (and I still have a couple of big ones left to read). Looking back at the list I see that I have largely avoided romances – just An Australian Girl at no. 10 – is that prejudice do you think? Perhaps I should have named For Love Alone.

That question applies too to Henry Handel Richardson. The Fortunes trilogy is certainly a fine work and made Richardson’s reputation but Maurice Guest is probably more thoughtful and better written.

The question for Dark is, Is The Timeless Land trilogy a great work or ‘merely’ an important one? It is such a landmark in our acknowledgement of the prior rights of Indigenous people in Australia that it is hard to judge its qualities as literature. But Dark’s qualities as a writer and early modernist were made apparent (to me) when I reviewed Waterway last year.

The Unknown Industrial Prisoner is another work important for being a landmark. Urban, industrial, postmodern, it marked a step up from pre-War social realism.

Which brings us to one of my favourites, An Australian Girl, a very C19th romance with lots of German and moral philosophy in an Australian setting.

And still I haven’t found room for Thea Astley or Elizabeth Jolley, or as Steger reminds me, Elizabeth Harrower, nor for Peter Carey whose Oscar and Lucinda at least, deserved consideration, nor for another Steger choice Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of his Natural Life.

I look around my shelves, as I often do, and realise that just as I left out Langley last time, this time I have left out (again!) Gerald Murnane. The post can stay as it is but if I were to pick one of his works it would be Border Districts, an intensely thoughtful work about memory, but again, I haven’t read them all.

The question I have in my mind though, is who among our young, and even not so young writers might challenge for inclusion on this list. Or a different/related question, after The Swan Book what is the best novel so far of the C21st? I’m inclined to say Heather Rose’s The Museum of Modern Love. Or is it, like The River Ophelia, too narrowly focussed to be a ‘great’. And do I even read enough new releases to be able to offer an opinion. Probably not!

The Cockatoos, Patrick White

Text Publishing — The Cockatoos: Text Classics, book by ...

Patrick White (1912-1990) is an unlikely candidate for the title of Australia’s best writer. Born into a firmly upper class life, he lived as a child in Sydney and on his family’s properties in the Hunter Valley (NSW), he and his sister were brought up by a nanny, and at age 12 he was sent to boarding school in England. He left school early and jackarooed for a couple of years on an uncle’s 28 square mile station in the Snowy Mountains (similar country to and maybe 100 kms SE of Miles Franklin’s families’ properties) before returning to England to study French and German Literature at Cambridge.

When his father died in 1937 White was independently wealthy, living and writing in London and for a while in the US. His first novel, Happy Valley, which he had commenced while jackarooing, was published in 1939. He enlisted in the RAF at the outbreak of WWII and served as an intelligence officer in Egypt, Palestine and Greece during which time he met Manoly Lascaris, a Greek army officer, who became his life partner.

White lived with Lascaris for six years in Cairo before, in 1948, bringing him to live in Australia where they had a hobby farm at Castle Hill on the outskirts of Sydney. Their life as ‘farmers’ formed the background for one of White’s most admired novels (not by me!), his fourth, and the first written in Australia, The Tree of Man (1955). To be clear, Patrick White lived as an Englishman, rather than an Australian, until he was 36.

His fifth and greatest novel, Voss (1957) draws on the life (and death) of the explorer Ludwig Leichardt and also on White’s own time in the outback at another family property near Walgett, NSW. White wrote 13 novels all up and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. The Cockatoos, his second collection of short stories was published in 1974.

I always knew I should read White and attempted, unsuccessfully, The Aunt’s Story (1948) while I was at uni. Some time later I read and enjoyed Voss, and also the David Marr biography, and I read, and wrote about, The Aunt’s Story and The Twyborn Affair (1979) during my (very) mature age M.Litt. I have vague memories of starting others – I own A Fringe of Leaves (1976) and Memoirs of Many in One (1986) and I thought I owned the memoir Flaws in the Glass (1981) but maybe not.

I look up ‘Cockatoos’ in Marr. “So dry were the early months of 1973 that flocks of sulphur-crested cockatoos flew in from the bush to plunder city gardens”. White is correcting proofs of The Eye of the Storm and putting together some stories written over the previous six years. “The latest story is called “The Cockatoos”, [White wrote], and that would be the title of the collection.” He submitted the stories in July and moved on to A Fringe of Leaves which had been lying ten years in a drawer waiting for Mrs Fraser “to recover from the mauling of librettists and composers” (see also: Finding Eliza, Larissa Behrendt).

Here are the stories and their lengths in pages:
A Woman’s Hand 104
The Full Belly 30
The Night the Prowler 58
Five-Twenty 34
Sicilian Vespers 86
The Cockatoos 59
so you can see why the collection is subtitled ‘Shorter novels and stories’.

Gail Jones in her 10 page introductory essay begins at the same place as I have, Marr’s “So dry were the early months of 1973 …”. She describes White’s work as “the singular project of someone for whom art offered questions, not answers, and an anguishing search for resolution in the irresolute business of being.” After waxing lyrical about The Tree of Man, she writes:

So what of The Cockatoos? Wonderfully broad in setting – the stories take place in Sicily, Greece, Egypt and Australia – they are also typical of White’s fiction in their combination of social comedy, inner quest and revelations of deep wounding. All engage modernist effects and concern melancholy and suffering.

I have read, struggled through, these stories. White’s work has layer on layer of meaning and intertextuality. They are mostly about older couples making do together, and White expresses his usual disgust with women’s bodies and with middle class Australians with deliberately ridiculous names like the Fazackerleys (A Woman’s Hand). The Full Belly is a short re-imagining of Greek life under German occupation, a period White was familiar with from his life with Manoly and the years he spent living in the Greek community in Egypt. The Night the Prowler Jones says strikes a false note. A couple attempt to come to terms with their daughter being raped, the daughter attempts to come to terms with being raped by becoming a sexual predator. This was made into a movie which I haven’t seen.

Let’s look at the final story, The Cockatoos. It’s a story of neighbours, people, middle aged couples mostly, living in the same suburban street, knowing each others’ names but hardly neighbourly. Mr Goodenough wears shorts at the weekend, showing his varicose veins. He and Mrs Goodenough have an only child, Tim, almost nine, who avoids other children, wanders streets and parks on his own. White makes fun of himself:

It bothered the father: what if the boy turned out a nut? or worse, a poof – or artist?

Mrs Davoren and her husband Mick, an Irish airman during the war, live amicably enough in the same house but avoid meeting, communicate through notes. Miss Le Cornu lives alone in the house left her by her parents. Mrs Davoren and Miss Le Cornu both cook tea for Mick who puts on his hat and walks up the street to eat his overcooked steak and bed Miss Le Cornu before wandering home again while Mrs Davoren scrapes the teas she cooks into the bin.

Cockatoos settle on the Davoren’s lawn, are offered food and water until they briefly accept a better offer from Miss Le Cornu. The Davorens bump into each other in a dark corner and briefly reconcile. Figgis, the neighbour everyone dislikes, brings his shotgun into the street, fires at the birds. Mick Davoren wrestles him for the gun, is shot, dies in the arms of Mrs Davoren and Miss Le Cornu, who afterwards sometimes speak. Tim spends a night in the park and beats a crippled cockatoo to death with a branch.

All very Patrick White. I’m sure it all means something.

 

Patrick White, The Cockatoos, first pub. 1973, this ed. Text Classics, 2019, Introduction by Gail Jones