It was quite possibly the recent Australian bushfires that subconsciously put Patrick White’s extraordinary fiction back onto my reading list. Those terrifyingly vivid tongues of fire and crisped lives were images I’d already encountered in his writing. Whatever the cause, from the half dozen or so of White’s novels that I had wolfed down back in the days before computers had risked turning my brain to mush, this time I reached first for his The Tree of Man which I have just finished.
White’s novels are not easy reads. The Nobel Laureate’s fictional plots may be uncomplicated, but their meaning develops through an inexorable accumulation of detail, and in the intersection of their characters’ lives. White is the omniscient narrator, and his hand steers his fictional characters through their unfolding lives, in detail that is both tragic and mundanely quotidian alike. You may well need stamina sufficient for the five hundred pages of The Tree of Man, but you will be rewarded with consummate penmanship and breath-taking fiction.
Stan Parker sets out to cut back his own small part of the Australian bush. By slow turns, he brings a wife, Amy, to join him there; they raise cows and chickens and, eventually, two children. Their hollow in the harsh landscape becomes Parker’s, then Durilgai, meaning “fruitful”; other people claim their smallholdings and plots nearby. The land is visited by floods, bushfires and a drought, strengthening communal bonds each time; Stan enlists and when he returns from the Great War he has a medal and a piece of shrapnel that he keeps in a box for the family. He “knew the contours of the landscape more intimately than he did the faces of men, particularly his children”. He struggles with words but gains steady respect “for being a good-natured cove”. He is someone other people turn to for advice or a strong pair of hands. The suburbs of Sydney encroach. The Parkers buy a motorcar, but nothing special. Their children grow up and leave home. As the trajectory of the couple’s lives descends to their old age, the well-maintained and tidy Durilgai homestead becomes weed-entangled and overgrown. Hopes and expectations rise and fall. Cross-currents of life hide undercurrents of disappointment. These sometimes faltering and unsteady lives are illuminated with the prospect of revelations, sometimes “in flashes” but never as miracles.
On the face of it this is an unprepossessing tableau on which to base a novel, but White backlights it with fire and lightning and invests it with an immensity that cannot easily be “unseen” once the silver bromide of our imaginations have been exposed to it.
The surface dazzle of Patrick White’s prose
White’s difficult novels are reliably leavened by some scintillating writing. Even at the text’s surface the decorative flourishes are rarely absent. Swallows fly with “the scythes of their wings mowing the light” and there is a “parrot-coloured morning”. White’s characters are firmly rooted in the Australian landscape, their creator’s fine eye for natural detail never disappointing.
It is in the depiction of his characters in The Tree of Man where White’s art as a novelist finds its purest expression. There are major, set piece encounters in which individuals discover - and fail to discover - aspects of life’s significance that they had been hoping to find. There are also quicker, more circumstantial jabs of insight that are proffered. Of Mrs O’Dowd, who is not exactly a friend to Amy Parker, but certainly a neighbour, whose “place had evolved out of a series of impulses”, we are told that “life possessed her untidily”. As neighbours who are joined by accident not by choice, the two women are described as rocking “in the perilous boat of friendship”. The Parkers’ daughter, Thelma - Thellie, having climbed her way out of the rural entrapment in which her parents remain, marrying the solicitor for whom she once worked as secretary, lives in an “age of nougat and magazines. She had suffered from spots for a few months, but treated them by correspondence”. White thus avows that he is on the side of the stolid Stan Parker, against the materialistic sophistication of the encroaching suburbs. His daughter’s sophisticated friend, Mrs Fisher, taking tea incongruously at Parkers’, “opened her eyes quickly, so that they flashed out into the room, and she began to turn on her pivot, and to radiate generally, like some imperious searchlight”.
White also illuminates his characters with that entertaining staple of the zeugmatic pair. Mrs O’Dowd, opening her door to Amy Parker, is seen “manipulating her moist gums, so that the words would pass, and the stubborn door, so that her friend Mrs Parker might squeeze inside”. Amy’s honest authenticity shows in her not believing “in what she had not made, whether cake or habits”. Her son Ray, more than awkward, certainly venal and cruel, was “struggling with a sense of injustice and the cake in his throat” when visiting his sister to blag money from her. Stan, their father, in the same suburban room, found that “words and wallpaper were getting the better of him”. These all illuminate the social awkwardness that can arise at the interface of different social milieus. The torch of Austen or Wilde is loftily carried here into the Australian bush. I think of Patrick White’s style as being very mannerly; it is also one that gets in close to his subjects to deliver rapier cuts of cruelty.
The Tree of Man’s verbal sophistication has at its centre, in Stan Parker, someone who is profoundly uncomfortable with words. We see this early in the novel when the newly-established couple of Stan and Amy are put upon by a travelling bible-seller, whom they entertain for supper. Stuck for words, Stan’s introspection is alluded to: “he had in him great words of love and beauty, below the surface, if they could be found”. Later, in the scene above where Stan visits his daughter and finds the words and wallpaper problematic, he unspokenly acknowledges to himself that “silence perhaps had taught him more about the usages of speech than the practice of it”. That this clumsy-worded and thoroughly good man, in his element with his cows and workshop, is brought to life by a quintessential wordsmith is part of the delight of The Tree of Man. Other characters in the book may be dealt with cruelly - some with justification - but White invests in Stan Parker an elemental force wholly in keeping with the vastness of the Australian bush. And if there are depths beneath the still surface of his uneducated mind - and there are - “who is a neighbour to inquire beyond the mechanics of the face into the states of the soul?” White asks.
Marking the passage of time in The Tree of Man
The plot of The Tree of Man unfolds with a steady and inexorable force. Against the harsh backdrop of the unforgiving Australian landscape, its protagonists are given a life force which they variously improve or dissipate. The story is told episodically, but there is also a vein of symbolism that White enrichingly beds into the novel. Witness how Stan and Amy Parker’s putting down roots in the Australian bush at Durilgai is marked by their planting a white musk rose. (Apparently, contemporaneous with his writing of the The Tree of Man, White did the same at his Dogwoods home in the Sydney suburb of Castle Hill, using a pale pink Cécile Brunner climbing rose, according to his biographer, David Marr.) White plays with the meaning that the members of the Parker family might take from this. For Stan Parker:
It had never really occurred to him, in the deep centre of conviction, that she [Amy] might not like this place. It would never occur to him that what must be, might not. The rose that they would plant was already taking root outside the window of the plain house, its full flowers falling to the floor, scenting the room with its scent of crushed tobacco. (The Tree of Man, p. 24)
With its “full flowers falling to the floor”, the rose’s premature flourishing in Stan’s imagination hints at a coming divergence in their lives between expectation and reality. This bridal rose, symbol of purity, innocence - even constancy, marks the entrance to their home with a double meaning that reverberates throughout the novel. For Amy Parker, the rose prospers, “a great sheaf of bridal roses”, as she breast feeds their second child, Thelma. “They were big papery roses of crushed country brides.” Taking tea with the never-distant Mrs O’Dowd soon after, Amy’s mind intuits some form of identity with the rose, “twining” as White has it:
If Amy Parker continued to sit, it was because the rose is rooted, and impervious. The big milky roses nodded on the window frame. She was firmly rooted in the past, as old roses are. This was her salvation in the face of words, as she sat, and stirred, and drowsed, but could not move beyond her fate, even if her neighbour waited. She had grown up full and milky out of the past, even her little girl must wait for roses, while nodding and stirring her mind twined again, twining through the moonlight night on which it had half-spoken, half-dreaming the rose. (The Tree of Man, p. 120)
At this stage in their lives, the rose which they pass daily is still offering the Parkers promise for the future. Later in the novel, though still flowering, its canes are seen as “congested” as their grown-up, wayward son Ray cocks his leg over the window sill coming through them “in a shower of papery petals”. For him, other than the rose being an obstruction to his boorishness, it is of no significance. Thelma, the daughter, escapee from bush to suburb, writes home to say that she would like to “wake up in the morning and see the roses, that white rose”, yet by the time she and her starchy husband visit Durilgai, they are welcomed by her parents “beside the old rosebush, which was flinging little drops of water into their faces, and pricking their flesh, and tearing at their awkward clothes”. What had once stood as a bridal flower for one marriage has become either an obstacle or an irritant for both generations of the family.
Eventually Amy sees the “old rose, that must go” as “too possessive and too old” and in a final, illuminating twist just before her husband’s death at the very end of the book, she finds in the weeds where the old rose had been one of the wedding presents that they thought had been stolen from them years before. No matter how cherished a token of love may be, this seems to say, it may hide another, even if it is neglected.
This symbolism of the rose bush at Durilgai and what it might mean to the different members of the Parker family is but one example of the way in which Patrick White invests significance in The Tree of Man. It functions as a waymark to the individuals in the family, marking the passage of the years in an otherwise featureless landscape. The symbolism is oblique rather than explicit, offering a function beyond the decorative, offering to those who wish to see it both glimpses of fruitful promise and intimations of decay.
Epiphanies denied in The Tree of Man
There is God in The Tree of Man, or more correctly there are intimations of a god. White’s characters hear this mentioned when there are births, marriages and deaths, but precision is lacking. There are supplicants whose conformity is social, showing more in their Sunday attire than in their souls, and there are the persuadable whose search remains fruitless. Nature’s capricious cruelty may be grounds for seeking, but the desired encounter too often proves elusive.
Stan’s father “was the blacksmith, and had looked into the fire … once from the bottom of a ditch, on his way home, after rum, he had even spoken to God, and caught at the wing of a protesting angel, before passing out”. “The God of Parker, the father, the boy saw, was essentially a fiery God, a gusty God, who appeared between belches.” Grown into a man with his own place in the landscape, Stan is cast as “ant-man” and his wife, Amy, as “ant-woman” against the immensity of the uncontrollable skies. After heavy rain, Stan “could not interpret the lightning that had written on their lives” and “their fallibility had not yet been revealed, except by flashes”. These could perhaps be “dismissed as dreams”, he concluded. The couple’s growing affection for each other offered respite from the daily grind, as “there was then, in the end, sleep, and work, and a warm belief in some presence”. This appears to attain more substance in “moments of true knowledge that came to him, animating his mind and limbs with conviction, telling him of the presence of God, lighting his wife’s face when he had forgotten its features”, but the path to any greater enlightenment is interrupted by the breaking out of war.
Life’s travails batter the novel’s central couple with other interruptions deflecting from what may otherwise have been a goal. Their son Ray, veering far from their parents’ modest expectations for him, forces Stan to take time out from rural Durilgai to go to Sydney where:
Although he had acquired the habit of saying simple prayers, and did sincerely believe in God, he was not yet sufficiently confident in himself to believe in the efficacy of the one or the extent of the other. His simplicity had not yet received that final clarity and strength which can acknowledge the immensity of belief. (The Tree of Man, p. 282)
But on this occasion, Stan the father was unable to track down his son Ray in the labyrinthine suburbs of Sydney. He is told Ray has gone “up north”, but no further details are forthcoming. Several pages later Stan picked up a newspaper “because he no longer expected to learn more, except by the blinding force of some illumination … while keeping himself in reserve for something of greater importance that would occur”. This is balanced by Amy, with her own unresolved desires, reflecting that “She had expected something to happen, some act of miraculous revelation, and because this had not occurred, or anyway had gone unrecognised, she was becoming aggravated”.
Towards the end of the novel, the fashionable, enigmatic Madeleine is brought back into the orbit of the Parkers. Amy had earlier encountered her only obliquely as a beautiful, horse-riding young woman who periodically stayed at the nearby Glastonbury, a newly-built home of a prosperous butcher whose son Tom was rumoured to be about to take Madeleine as his wife. At the time, Amy saw in Madeleine something she might have desired but could never attain. When a bush fire subsequently swept the territory and Glastonbury was threatened, Stan was the one who risked all, at his wife’s behest, to plunge into the burning house to rescue Madeleine. It is a scene of great power that might have come from a Hardy novel whose characters are seemingly driven by fates beyond their control. Stan had been the rescuer “who had not experienced exaltation by fire” whilst Madeleine, scorched and hairless, became “a burned thing, retching on all fours in the ash and the grass … exorcised”.
Their descent of Glastonbury’s burning staircase in that scene is pivotal, elevating Stan as rescuer whilst dashing the glamorous Madeleine. In an ironic twist in keeping with White’s genius, it is Stan’s daughter Thelma, on her own ascent in Sydney’s social circles, who years later comes to befriend the husbandless Madeleine, and who brings her to see her ageing parents at Durilgai. Introduced to Amy as Mrs Fisher, Madeleine’s identity as the beauty whom her husband Stan had rescued all those years ago at first remains obscured. Stan, occupied in a lower yard burning rubbish (note the further irony), reappears only as Thelma and Madeleine Fisher make to say their goodbyes. There is incidental chatter that floats above swirling emotional currents. Much mention is made of smoke, fire and flames but Stan isn’t allowed to know Madeleine’s identity, while she looks at him, now old, but knowingly “because his orange skin had a glow of quiet fire”. As the two younger women prepare to drive off, Madeleine realised that “lives can only touch, they do not join. Even on the fiery staircase, they lie along each other fitfully,” she added, which seems to encapsulate much of The Tree of Man’s fictional arc. People are kept apart from each other, their yearnings rarely realised, their longed-for epiphanies come tantalisingly into view but fail to resolve. Though one should perhaps resist taking any character’s words as exemplifying the very heart of one of the novel’s broader themes, it seems perfectly valid just there. “Lives can only touch, they do not join” could have stood as an epigram for The Tree of Man.
Indeed, the most likely resolution in The Tree of Man is that which may only ever happen out of view after Stan Parker has died and the book has ended. The novel’s final page plays with the prospect that the clumsily-worded Stan leaves behind a grandson who may be the one in the family most likely to develop true eloquence. He wants to “write a poem of life, of all life”. A poem mounts in him as he walks between Durilgai’s “scribbled trees”, disbelieving in death, and “only in passing through a dark hall, in which it is an old overcoat that puts its empty arms around him”. Stan’s heir seems capable of attaining something that had forever been denied to Stan himself. And so the wheel of time turns in the immensities of the Australian bush.
In giving you a flavour of what you may enjoy in Patrick White’s The Tree of Man I’ve reined in my enthusiasm to mine some of the best seams of the book’s literary strata, throwing them out as spoilers. Chapter 17, for example, centred on Amy Parker, is laden with marital and extra-marital cross-currents that roil Amy and leave the reader astonished at White’s ability to theatricalise small events in such a tiny rural community. Butterfly wings flapping in one household shake the foundations of another. Indeed, rest assured that I have applied much restraint in discussing the pivotal scene, mentioned above, where Stan Parker rescues the burning Madeleine in Chapter 12. Read it for yourself and discover White’s ability to layer physical drama with a lyrical psychology.
The Tree of Man as your best introduction to the novels of Patrick White
If you are new to Patrick White’s fiction, The Tree of Man is arguably an excellent place for you to start. I have read his Riders in the Chariot (1961), The Solid Mandala (1966), The Vivisector (1970), The Eye of the Storm (1973) and A Fringe of Leaves (1976). All are fine and memorable novels. I have a handful of his other volumes and am about to break open Voss (1957) which he wrote as the ink was drying on The Tree of Man. If I re-read any more, I shall take them in the order in which Patrick White wrote them. There is insight to be gained through that approach.
David Marr’s authoritative biography of Patrick White as well as some of White’s own autobiographical writing illuminate what happens in The Tree of Man. There is value in appreciating that White’s birth to established Australian parents, followed by his being sent away to school in England, with an interlude as a jackaroo in New South Wales before going up to Cambridge, encouraged him to think of himself as something of an exile. That would be compounded by his war service as an intelligence officer for the RAF, serving in the Middle East, so that his delayed return to Australia came at the age of 36. As he put it himself, in writing about The Tree of Man a few years after its publication:
Because the void I had to fill was so immense, I wanted to try to suggest in this book every possible aspect of life, through the lives of an ordinary man and a woman. But at the same time I wanted to discover the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mystery and the poetry which alone could make bearable the lives of such people, and incidentally, my own life since my return. (The Prodigal Son, 1958, in Patrick White Speaks p.15)
Considering himself to be a foreigner - both as a child and student in England, then as a returning prodigal son even in his native Australia - created in him a sense of alienation. There can be no doubt that the seed for this had been planted by virtue of his chronic and acute asthma, bouts of which must have isolated him in sanatoria and hospitals, separating him from regular circulation with any peer group. That he was an artist in Australia occasionally antithetical, in his view, to literature would become a regular bugbear. His homosexuality in a “macho” society was thus the fourth multiplier of White’s alienation. At root, White considered himself, as Marr says, to be a sufferer.
The writer’s anguish about that seems to surface in The Tree of Man. Whereas White typically took a year to write most of his novels, “The Tree of Man took me four years. I rewrite endlessly, sentence by sentence; it’s more like oxywelding than writing,” he added (in In The Making, in Patrick White Speaks, p.21). Marr accounts for it differently: “The Tree of Man absorbed him for two and a half years from the moment he returned to the abandoned script” (Patrick White: A Life, p.285). Marr’s account of White’s progress in writing The Tree of Man is fascinating, detailing the prolonged struggle of an artist seeking absolute perfection, whilst wracked with self-doubt. He made no secret of his view that the gift of writing was more burden than blessing. “The greatest technical difficulty White faced” (in depicting Stan Parker) … “was the challenge of making goodness live and breathe on the page”, wrote Marr, along with White’s own admission that “I am not a good person … but I know goodness” (Patrick White: A Life, p.289). White alluded to this technical difficulty when he said that he “couldn’t write about simple, illiterate people in a perfectly literate way” (in In The Making, in Patrick White Speaks, p.20). These tensions provoked bouts of debilitating asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia, which at their worst caused him to be hospitalised and dogged his writing of the book.
There is a curious parallel - and a coincidence - here with Samuel Beckett; make of it what you will. Beckett’s biographer James Knowlson, as mentioned in my post on his Malone Dies, relayed how difficult it was for Beckett to complete that novel and how profoundly ill it made him. Reading David Marr’s account of Patrick White working on The Tree of Man, echoes this. Marr also wrote:
Twice in those months in London White came face to face with Samuel Beckett, once as Beckett came out of a bar in Sloane Square at 11am. Neither man made a move to speak. “We flickered at each other from a distance. I don’t expect he knew who I was; he only suspected a possible predator”. (David Marr, 1958, in Patrick White: A Life p.564-5)
The year was 1976. Both men had by then been awarded their Nobel prizes for literature, Beckett in 1969 and White in 1973. It is difficult to imagine that they had anything else in common other than an almost tormenting need to achieve something in words of which only a few in each generation are capable.
(Page numbers in The Tree of Man refer to the Eyre & Spottiswoode version, 1956.)
- David Marr, Patrick White: A Life; Vintage, 1991.
- Peter Beatson, The Eye in the Mandala: Patrick White, a Vision of Man and God; Barnes & Noble Books, 1976.
- Peter Wolfe, Laden Choirs: The Fiction of Patrick White; The University Press of Kentucky, 2015.
- Brian Kiernan, Patrick White; Macmillan Press, 1980.
- Patrick White, Patrick White Speaks; Jonathan Cape, 1989.
- Patrick White: from the Nobel Prize website: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1973/white/article/, first published 29 August 2001.
- Australian Literature 101: Patrick White: Voss; YouTube, 27th January 2015.
- The late, great Patrick White (p1). A discussion with David Marr and Kerry Walker; YouTube, 2nd May 2013.
- The Life and Faith of Patrick White. Greg Clarke interviews Patrick White’s biographer David Marr; YouTube, 27th May 2012.
- Interview of Nobel laureate Patrick White; YouTube, recorded in 1973 and published on 22nd January 2010.
- Patrick White interviewed by Michael Billington; BBC World Service, 9th August 1982.
- Patrick White Omnibus tribute; BBC, 2nd October 1990.
- The Strand Archive talks to Patrick White’s biographer David Marr about his unpublished novel The Hanging Garden; BBC, 19th April 2012.
[The Tree of Man by Patrick White is available in the UK from Hive.co.uk.]