Most of what we read tends to be restricted to what’s topical. Review pages, bookshop displays, literary prizes, festival programs and reading-group lists all usually focus our attention on the Latest Thing.
It can be salutary to resist this tendency by returning occasionally to durable books from the past. So from time to time I post on this blog a few thoughts about some memorable literary work first encountered years ago that may have more lasting value than anything currently featured in the literary marketplace. I’ve previously written in that spirit about Kate Grenville’s comic masterpiece The Idea of Perfection and about early fiction by Peter Carey.
This time I’m revisiting The Aunt’s Story by Patrick White, one of the first Australian novels I came across (when I hadn’t yet migrated to this country). Published in 1948, a quarter of a century before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, it’s a novel that retains a capacity to startle me. I admire all of White’s fiction and regard him as Australia’s greatest writer. It’s odd that he isn’t as widely read today as he still deserves to be, especially as he has had such a palpable influence on some of the best compatriot writers (e.g. Shirley Hazzard, David Malouf, Kate Grenville, Michelle de Kretser). White was brilliantly successful in his determination to prove, as he once put it, ‘that the Australian novel is not necessarily the dreary dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism.’ None of his works shows this with more verve than The Aunt’s Story.
At the novel’s centre is the character of Theodora Goodman, a middle-aged single woman. The narrative structure follows her erratic journey through the 1930s from rural New South Wales to middle America by way of a disintegrating Europe. To most of those who encounter her she appears strange and awkward. But as we see her world through her eyes, her gradual move into a kind of lucid madness is compassionately rendered. The novel’s richly textured language, full of nuances and disjunctions and arresting images, is a vehicle for conveying how Theo perceives what is happening around her and within her.
To a large extent this is a story about the limits and possibilities of storytelling. At the beginning, Theo sees herself as typical of ‘people who do not have many stories to tell,’ and several passages refer to storytelling in similarly negative terms: ‘There is nothing to tell’… ‘There is very little to tell.’ Seldom in the first or last of the novel’s three Parts do characters tell stories to each other. When they do, it’s usually just idle chatter. They show no confidence in being able to span ‘the distances that separate,’ either with tales of mundane personal experience or with grand modernist narratives of social progress. Theo is often described as ‘waiting.’ She is suspended between those two kinds of stories, the trivial and the portentous.
Part 1 (Meroë) includes glimpses of Theodora’s childhood, shaped by her extraordinary capacity for empathy – yet also by her experiences of painful exclusion. It ends with her feeling that ‘there is no lifeline to other lives’ – and therefore no worthwhile storyline. She is mistaken about this. Parts 2 and 3 move towards her discovery that our lives may become more bearable if understood as story-shaped.
The first paragraph of Part 2 (Jardin Exotique) repeats that Theo (now staying in a small French hotel filled with displaced eccentrics, the flotsam of cultural upheaval) is ‘waiting,’ just as Europe is ‘waiting for the crash’ – of markets, of tradition, of modernity. She feels directionless, ‘waiting to be told.’ Her travels in Part 2 take her through a wasteland of failed master-narratives:
Holding back the sun with her hands as she stepped out, she hoped that the garden would be the goal of a journey. There had been many goals, all of them deceptive. In Paris the metal hats just failed to tinkle. The great soprano in Dresden sang up her soul for love into a wooden cup. In England the beige women, stalking through the rain with long feet and dogs, had the monstrous eye of sewing machines. Throughout the gothic shell of Europe, in which there had never been such a buying and selling, of semi-precious aspirations, bulls’ blood, and stuffed doves, the stones arches cracked, the aching wilderness, in which the ghosts of Homer and St Paul and Tolstoy waited for the crash.
In fantasy, she begins to project herself imaginatively into the lives of her fellow-lodgers – Sokolnikov, Mrs Rapallo, Katina Pavlou and others. The borderlines between individuals, and between fact and fiction, blur in her mind.
Part 3 (Holstius) takes her through the rural American mid-west, which turns into a surreal landscape. In a deserted shack she communes with a mysterious figure called Holstius, who seems to be a comforting figment of her own invention.
In the peace that Holstius spread throughout her body and the speckled shade of surrounding trees, there was no end to the lives of Theodora Goodman. These met and parted, met and parted, movingly. They entered into each other, so that the impulse for music in Katina Pavlou’s hands, and the steamy exasperation of Sokolnikov, and Mrs Rapallo’s baroque and narcotised despair were the same and understandable. And in the same way that the created lives of Theodora Goodman were interchangeable, the lives into which she had entered, making them momently dependent for love or hate, owing her this portion of their fluctuating personalities, […] these were the lives of Theodora Goodman, these too.
At the Hôtel de Midi, Mrs Rapallo had urged Theo to relax with ‘a book where things happen.’ The Aunt’s Story isn’t that kind of book: instead of a chain of external events it provides inward-turning images and imaginary interrelationships.
My battered copy of this wonderful novel testifies to many readings, and I’ll continue to revisit it, discovering and rediscovering further details to cherish. I’ve written at length about The Aunt’s Story in one of the chapters of my book Narrative Exchanges, but I still feel I’ve hardly scratched its surface. No doubt it will continue to release new meanings each time I go back into its dreamlike world.