RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT BY PATRICK WHITE

It seems to me that the most glorious things are also often the most ridiculous, that there is something almost embarrassing about such flappable, insignificant creatures as ourselves striving for the profound, trying to touch, to commune with, to channel, the transcendent, the truly spiritual [which is, by the way, not the same as Godly]. Recently I was in Barcelona, and one of the things I most wanted to do there was to see the Sagrada Familia, the still incomplete church designed and undertaken by the architect Antoni Gaudi.

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If you have never been inside it, I hope the above picture gives you some idea of what an incredible, mind-boggling, thing it is. Apparently, the interior is meant to resemble a forest, with the pillars/columns acting as tree-trunks, etc. Despite the overly zealous staff and naff TV screens, and despite it being a church and having myself no religious feeling at all, I found being inside the Sagrada Familia a powerful experience. That Gaudi died without ever seeing the building completed goes to show what folly it was to attempt it; and, sure, from a purely functional, rational, economic perspective the church is ridiculous; in fact, it looks kind of ridiculous too, if you try and judge it objectively, because it’s all over the place; and, yet, it’s the most beautiful building I have ever seen in my life; it is one of the most beautiful things I have seen, period. I love the folly; I love the daring, the ambition, the striving.

It is for these same reasons that I love the work of Patrick White. The Australian is a footnote these days, a writer who is so seldom read or written about. And I totally understand why that is the case. For some people, White’s novels are, like Gaudi’s church, always going to be just too much. White was, and I write this with a straight face, while simultaneously cringing, a mystic, his books are visionary, and that is not what you want in your life all that often. I was reading today [for the umpteenth time] the perfect first thirty or so pages of The Tree of Man and I came across this line:

‘…and there in the hollow afternoon swallows flew, the scythes of their wings mowing the light.’

And I genuinely had to catch my breath. How beautiful is that? How important, even? Is it just me? And it’s not as though there is only this one great mind-buggering image in the novel, there are thousands of them, rushing at you with great speed like you’ve walked head first into a cloud of flying ants. It is just too much. White wrung poetry out of the everyday, out of our world, with frightening regularity. And, sometimes, you might even want to laugh at what White wrote; his intensity, his exalted concerns, the strange beauty of his prose: it can seem silly when you consider that before picking up the book you were picking your toenails.

Riders in the Chariot is nearly seven hundred pages long; at some point in that journey you’ll probably yearn for something normal. Try and stick with it though. In the right mood and circumstances it is, like the Sagrada, a sublime experience. In fact, the Sagrada Familia is how I imagine Xanadu, the lavish, but crumbling, house in which the first part of the novel is set. The house is owned by Mary Hare, an eccentric spinster, who appears to be almost cosmically in love and in sympathy with nature. The relationship between man and nature is something that White was clearly preoccupied with, it playing a major role in his two other great novels, his masterpiece Voss and the aforementioned The Tree of Man. Indeed, it was when describing the natural world that White himself, who was, generally speaking, a caustic writer, displayed a genuine love and warmth; one never feels as though he quite saw humanity in the same way. Yet, having said that, the four characters who dominate this novel are by some distance the author’s most likeable and sympathetic. I wrote before that White was a mystic, and it is almost as though he saw himself in Mary Hare, Ruth Godbold, Himmelfarb and Dabbo, who are all, in some way, subject to visions.

All four of the book’s major stories are engaging and often lovely, but Hare’s narrative is particularly strong and beautiful. It focuses both on the present and her childhood past, where we are introduced to the mad father who built Xanadu. In the present Hare has engaged a housekeeper, the inappropriately named Mrs Jolley, and this relationship is a source of both comedy and tension. The two women couldn’t be any more opposed in terms of personality and interests; they are the archetypal odd couple; indeed, they [often hilariously] terrify each other. It would have been easy for the author to mishandle the animal-like Mary Hare, for her to become twee and irritating, but she never does; she is touching and fragile. Mrs Jolley is also a wonderful [albeit loathsome] creation.

The world’s small-minded, pompous, busy-bodies were frequently the target of White’s greatest ire; the opening of The Solid Mandala, for example, is dripping with disdain:

“Yairs,” said Mrs Dun. Then, because never let it be hinted that she did not make her contribution, she added: “Yairs.”

And there is this, my favourite line in the book under review here, about Mrs Jolley and her friend, the even more monstrous Mrs Flack [who is, in this Passion Play, perhaps the devil]:

‘…as they continued sitting, the two women would drench the room in the moth-colours of their one mind.’

And this, describing Mrs Flack’s encounter with the telephone!:

‘Because the telephone is the darkest most sepulchral oracle of all, Mrs Flack would stalk around the instrument for quite a while before she was persuaded to accept the summons. Although a considerable pythoness herself, it might have been that she felt the need for invocation before encounter with superior powers.’

Seriously, White could write like a motherfucker.

Of course, these close-minded women are, at least in part, used to contrast the spiritually or emotionally rich Mary, Himmelfarb etc; they are, in a way, classic villains, as they are there to judge and plot against and oppose and attempt to bring down the good guys; they are, indeed, almost Shakespearean or Dickensian in proportions, by which I mean there is very little in the way of subtle characterisation. They are both huge personalities, and obviously bad. There is no way that one could read Riders in the Chariot and be in any doubt as to how one ought to feel about Flack and Jolley: they are objects of hate and ridicule. It’s worth noting that although his work is, in many ways, obscure and ambiguous, White’s morals were anything but. Therefore, like Dickens, he could be accused of moral preachiness; yet, for me, this would only be a problem if I didn’t completely agree with his targets [I certainly do].

As you can tell, from what I have written so far, there is a lot going on in the book; but it isn’t nearly as daunting or as hard to follow as I have perhaps made it seem in this review. It is long and weighty, yes, but it is also strangely light and frothy at times, certainly very funny. The structure of the book also makes it easy to read, in that it, initially at least, is not particularly sophisticated. Mary Hare is the one who appears to tie together the main players: she finds Himmelfarb in her garden one day; Ruth Godbold is her friend; Jolley is her housekeeper, etc. Due to these tenuous connections Riders in the Chariot reads, at first, like a series of novellas with a framing narrative. However, the more the book progresses the more the relationships between the characters develop, become more satisfying, and as a result the structure seems less rigid. For example, I particularly liked the chance meeting between Ruth Godbold and Alf Dubbo, who come together in a brothel, with Alf’s presence there only explained some 100 pages later.

Each of these novellas or stories are singular and yet certain themes, symbols and ideas are present in them all. The four principle characters are very different in personality, but are united by their experiences; all four are outsiders, are down-trodden or have been in some way rejected by, or have dropped out of, conventional society. If I have any criticism to make of the work it is that once or twice White overstretched himself, particularly in relation to Himmelfarb, who is a holocaust survivor. Not only is his story at times generic, but it features one or two scenes that caused me genuine consternation. The first concerns a snotty, supercilious woman, with whom Himmelfarb travels to the camp. Once there, she is stripped and shaved and sent into the chamber. Himmbelfarb remains outside and as the door of the gas-chamber bursts open to reveal the grotesque, naked woman, he calls out to her something like they can take our skin but never take our name! And, well, that made me very uncomfortable. It would have made me laugh if it wasn’t dealing with something so horrific, because it sounds like a line from a cheesy Hollywood movie. In fact, doesn’t Gibson say something similar in Braveheart? And it’s a shame because, generally speaking, White deals with this material, which was obviously outside of his own personal experience, sensitively.

The other problem I had with the book is the mock-crucifixion towards the end. Could that really happen? Does it matter? I don’t know. But I know it felt as though he had gone too far. Furthermore, I did not buy that a bunch of adults, who had previously shown no psychopathic tendencies, would, in the middle of the day, take part in, or stand around and watch, a man being strung up and literally crucified. I don’t, either, buy White’s justification that it could happen as long as everyone believed it was a joke. But, as I said, does it matter? Does it have to be believable? The crucifixion is clearly symbolic; the scene is about betrayal, outsiderism, guilt, passivity, etc, rather than the possible or probable actions of certain people in certain kinds of conditions or circumstances. However, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t heavy-handed. It is, although that struck me as less of a problem one or two days after I finished the book. Again, perhaps we come back to the relationship between the sublime and the ridiculous; White was striving for, was dealing with serious, heavy stuff here, and, I guess, it’s not always easy to control this kind of material, to keep a firm grip on it. In essence, Riders in a Chariot is a fable; a big, beautiful, crazy, surreal, poetic, sublime and, yes, occasionally ridiculous one.

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