by Patrick White
i picked this up in a hostel donation shelf in amsterdam; it was missing both the back and front covers and the author was unknown to me. i knew nothing about it except that it was something to pass the time reading while high, as my traveling partner slowly regained her health. i think it was the best circumstances in which to read the book; its mysteries and dreamlike meanderings completely free from descriptive and contextual blurb, all explication left entirely to my own impressions. something about the sometimes languorous, sometimes precise writing style and the lingering sense of mysterious motivations barely expressed by the characters was so reminscent of the polite dutch people around me, in their city full of strangeness and charm. reading the movement of the protagonist through periods as an australian jackaroo, a brothel's madame, a soldier in world war 2 france, a transvestite... it felt at first like trying to figure out the narrative of a dream, until slowly, with no great defining moment, everything made perfect and tragic sense. it was a move from a description of a dream into the dream itself. by the end of the novel i felt as if i had looked through the author's eyes and thought the author's thoughts.
in the end, what is the meaning? well, as with all great books, there are many avenues to finding meaning and many sorts of meanings on display, many "points" that can be found and many that are being made, consciously and perhaps otherwise. identity and its potential fluidity. self-affirmation. class and social conventions. masculine & feminine archetypes. an ode to landscapes, both country and city. bourgeoisie vs. bohemia. the peace that some find in war, the war that exists during peace. lots of things. if i had to chose one of the above, i'd say the first: Identity. what is it, anyway?
now a warning: this is dense, dizzying, poetic prose. challenging. think Peake, Pynchon, Paul Scott, etc... he's quite different from those authors but they all share an occasional sort of impenetrability in the writing. well, at least superficially impenetrable - the opposite of a quick and shallow read. wonderful stuff, gorgeous and memorable prose, but not for everyone i suppose.
according to australians i met during the trip, apparently Patrick White's novels are required reading back home, but the kind that few australians ever actually get around to reading. a strange fate for the only australian nobel prize winner for literature! to be known yet unknown - so much like the protagonist of his fascinating novel.