White, Patrick (Vol. 3)
White, Patrick 1912–
White, a British-born Australian novelist, short story writer, and playwright, was the 1973 Nobel Laureate in Literature.
Even in his relative failures, such as Voss, [Patrick White] seems to me an unmistakably major writer who commands a scope, power and sheer technical skill which put even our more ambitious novelists in the shade…. In theory [Riders in the Chariot], like some great, leisurely Russian masterpiece, takes in the whole of his society; it swings its beam right across Australia, shedding a brief light on everyone from double-barrelled aristocrats to factory-hands. But it is a narrow beam, which penetrates deeply and disperses little. Manners for White are not so much expressive of life as a caricature of it, a complicated, almost farcical excrescence….
When White plays tricks of style … he is using his wit not to pin a scene down but to evaporate it into fantasy. The images fuse sharply into each other, as in a dream. And the Australia he so lovingly plots begins to seem a country of the mind.
He has, in fact, reversed the novelist's traditional procedure: in his work it is manners and social behaviour which are dream-like; reality is all inward. He seems to see his artistic function as a matter of penetrating the hard shell of social habit until he exposes that peculiar vibration which makes each person what he is. He would draw, in short, a firm line between life and society. Society swarms around us—in most of its manifestations rather distasteful: all plastic, chrome and banging machinery—while significant life runs on in isolation below this turbulent surface, like the green, unnoticed river which flows beside Rosetree's Brighta Bicycle Lamps factory at Barranugli. Which, according to Patrick White, is where the crucifixion took place….
White is a myth-writer not a symbolist. In this, he is in the same camp as Sidney Nolan: both are artists of extreme technical sophistication, both have devoted themselves to the creation of coherent but expanding imaginative worlds, and both are obsessed by the vast, hard emptiness of the Australian subcontinent. Given this unyielding background, there seem to be only two ways of doing creative work: the artist either sticks doggedly to the facts as he knows them, and so remains provincial, like Howells in nineteenth-century America; or, like Melville, he populates the country for himself by absorbing it into his imagination and re-creating myths for it…. White, in his turn, has re-created Adam and Eve in The Tree of Man, Odysseus in Voss and now, in Riders in the Chariot, Christ….
Patrick White may have tried to evoke, in his latest novel, the whole of Australian society and have succeeded in projecting only a multiple image of his own isolation, but it is an image of great beauty.
A. Alvarez, "Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot" (originally published in The New Statesman, 1961), in his Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955–1967 (copyright © 1968 by A. Alvarez; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 218-23.
The Eye of the Storm is without doubt worth its place in a glittering line. It is a novel, like the author himself, surely (we cannot make about White's work those calm, formal distinctions which Eliot favoured between man and theme, artist and suffering), preoccupied with death. This grim and no doubt inescapable infatuation is animated by an incessant, probing inquisitiveness….
White, who has shown himself elsewhere, in Riders in the Chariot and The Solid Mandala in particular, as deeply disturbed by the cruelty of communities with their inveterate bias in favour of the average, appears in this novel as appalled by the savagery of individual selfishness….
As well as the powerful treatment of the central theme, death as the point of life, an exploration of 'ce pays si lointain et inconnu', there are other, expected Whitean qualities. There is, for example, the unerring pinning of quivering lesser characters, from a euphoniously named French aristocrat to an Australian dike called Snow Tunks. There is the sad, sour wit which brings decisively to heel Australian airs and British graces. There is the strange empathic sense for physical objects and vegetable life. There is a gift for luminous generalisation. On the other side there is—though less frequently than before—the syntax bowled disconcertingly off the wrong foot, and there are passages which are too worked, too thick, too opaque. But these things might be found, at least separately, in other writers. What makes Patrick White unique in the contemporary novel in English is his power to discover and present in the grubbiness of life, in the wretchedness of senility in this novel, the depths and distances which Wordsworth found in the life of childhood. How reviving it is, at a time when not only the death of the novel but that of literature is daily signalled, to find an unquestionably major figure proceeding with total confidence and undiminished power.
William Walsh, "Mortal Coils," in New Statesman, September 7, 1973, p. 320.
White's mingled fascination and contempt at social rottenness is a stronger driving force in [The Eye of the Storm] than his limited and often clumsy attempts to embody something more decent….
In his sketches of subsidiary characters Mr. White seeks to divine the rare worth of people who are not subject to the mean vulgarity he exposes at such length. Lottie Lippmann, the Jewish refugee housekeeper, Sister de Santis, the Macrorys, the silent group of Brumby Island foresters—these are clearly the characters in whom he has some confidence.
However, it is with just these people that the reader feels least confidence in the author's ability, to the point where the name of Charles Morgan began insinuating itself into my mind. Like White, Morgan was a writer for whom praise was loudest outside his own country, a master of 'construction', but not daring enough for the real job of exploration, of understanding the banal as well as the exotic, the ignorant as well as those in the know.
Timothy O'Keeffe, "Rottenness," in The Listener, September 27, 1973, p. 427.
Buttressed by both the Nobel award and White's other work, [The Eye of the Storm] makes Australia a region of the mind, giving it the concreteness great art has always conferred on its subjects. White's Australia now enjoys the same immortality as Joyce's Dublin or Lawrence's Midlands. And since language penetrates human life, determining what and how people think, the speech of White's characters conveys to readers everywhere both the substance and meaning of Australian culture.
These characters form the mainspring of White's art. "To me characters are most important. The plot I do not worry about," he recently told The Listener, BBC's weekly magazine. The Eye of the Storm bears this out. Lacking dramatic drive, it is chiefly a novel of character and place. Time slides backward instead of forward. Though this technique chokes story movement, it delves to the core of obsession and sleepless nights. White's characters have private histories and personalities, not just peculiarities; something is always going on inside them….
[The] Australia White shows us is not the spacious, open-air prairie. He draws the vastness of Australia tightly around him, setting his action mainly in a sickroom, where life is as subtle, in-turning and feline as in the Parisian salons of Proust…. The Eye of the Storm hums with subtext—the difference between what people say and what they mean. The issue that brings two characters together often fades behind the intensity generated by the encounter. Though the characters speak, they also criticize both their words and unspoken thoughts. Bitten back from the threshold of speech, their obsessions lodge in the heart, where they fester and vex.
White's style suits both these unreleased tensions and the low degree of completion in the characters' undertakings….
If White, by ignoring plot, refuses to shape experience to the pattern of literature, his marvelous prose is sometimes too literary. Everything hangs transfixed in the amber of his highly wrought style. A man doesn't take another slice of mutton because he likes the taste or because he's hungry. Instead, this happens: "Cocking his head, lowering his eyelids, his lashes so thick they looked as though they were gummed together, or fringed with flies, he agreed delicately to accept another help of mutton." Neither the mutton nor the man, a minor character, deserves this stylistic flourish. Style that serves itself becomes decadence.
But there is nothing decadent in White's love for ordinary experience. The Eye of the Storm is no mandarin novel. Its working class characters impart a crude vigor and decency that count more than subtleties. The gales of laughter crashing over the book's surface show White's humanity.
Peter Wolfe, "Patrick Who? From Where?," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by Harrison-Blaine of New Jersey, Inc.), January 5 & 12, 1974, pp. 17-18.
Imputing "inspiration" to novelists is as dangerous as discoursing on Nature with farmers: but each of White's novels has been blessed and quickened with a center of narrative power—a large meaning in which the author seeks to create our belief. Without at least some measure of this mysterious ignition, which is utterly distinct from "content," the most diligently wrought book remains stationary and merely professional. White has always been able to command it in abundance: his novels, plays and stories are irradiations from related central themes in which the author participates no less intensely than his characters. All have on them the bloom of a boundless humanity.
"The Eye of the Storm" is on the large scale of White's production of the past 25 years: "The Aunt's Story," the splendid "Voss," "The Tree of Man," "Riders in the Chariot," "The Solid Mandala" and "The Vivisector." The matter in hand here is no less than existence: our brief incarnation in a human experience, our efforts to make a coherence of, or retreat from, the improbable combinations of flesh, feeling, vanity, virtue and reason laid upon us like preposterous puzzles….
Waste …, the squandering and perversion of qualities and capacities for whose exercise we are allowed so little time, has always preoccupied White, who exposes its pathos and irresolution without reducing its repugnance….
Echoing the Book of Revelation, W. H. Auden decreed that novelists must "among the Just/Be just, among the Filthy filthy too." Patrick White extends this obligation to its larger dimension, discovering degrees of filth and justice in each existence, becoming his divergent characters with impassioned veracity rather than adapting them to his purpose. It is impossible that so ambitious a concept would be without any flaw of execution; but White's magnanimity, his logic, his poetry are not incompatible with the spirits he invokes by name—Shakespeare, Stendhal, Redon. Splinterings of James, of Joyce, of other writers male and female, make part of his own "greater splintering." White's rich, distinctive language, now stately, now mercurial, always borne on the civilizing tide of irony, makes this big book as generous as it is demanding: every passage merits attention and gives satisfaction. In a creation intricate with the nerves and tissue of consciousness, women are predominant, rendered with a rigorous, luminous truth….
The claim, continually made in American literary circles, that "here is where it's all happening" can cause the foreigner something of the surprise felt on learning that the World Series is a tournament in which no other nation participates. (Is there not, in any case, something parochial about the very insistence itself? As Jacques Barzun has said, self-assurance cannot be "shown.") Unless art is to be regarded as a competition, one can only wish "it" to be happening as extensively as possible. All Patrick White's books … have had the minimum of attention in this land whose own fiction is increasingly oppressed by ethnocentricity of reference, range, content and criticisms. White's reputation in the United States has been created in the most durable form: almost exclusively between himself and readers. (He has thus largely been spared "interpretation"—though this percussion is soon to break on him, and with what clashing of symbols. Perhaps the reprieve has merely assisted him to speak out queer and clear.)
Shirley Hazzard, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 6, 1974, pp. 1, 12, 14.
In awarding Australian Novelist Patrick White the 1973 Nobel Prize, the jury observed that he had "introduced a new continent to literature."
However true that may be, it is not too harsh to say that White might have received less critical veneration if he came from Wales or Idaho. Still, for 30 years he has quietly written long, uncompromising and cerebral novels. Voss (1957), a study of a German exploring the Australian interior frontier, shimmered with metaphysical mirages. With desert-dry irony, The Solid Mandala (1966) considered the lives of twin brothers, respectively a librarian and a simpleton, and praised feeling at the expense of intellect. Three years ago, in The Vivisector, he produced an ambitious account of an artist who coldly rejects life whenever it impinges upon his work….
In granting White the prize the Nobel committee no doubt recognized that over the years he has attracted a small but dedicated following of readers who accept his dour outlook and who are absorbed by the ramifications of his cutting-keen artistic conscience. In choosing him in the year of The Eye of the Storm, his ninth novel, the panel also showed a sentiment in favor of the "old-fashioned" novel—that is, a carefully crafted fictional edifice with a full complement of realistic detail and psychological probing. His newest book certainly has all that, but it is a pallid creation that often makes the reader wish—respectfully but vehemently—that the storm would blow every bit of it away….
The Eye of the Storm is conscientious about characterization, to the point of repetition. But stylistically it is self-indulgent. For example, White is very good at describing people performing homely tasks alone, but he does it so often that such sequences seem like extracts from a copy book. There is meticulous attention to scene setting, but action almost always happens offstage. Patrick White is king of his created world, but at the price of keeping it without spontaneity.
Martha Duffy, "Villains of Refinement," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1974 by Time Inc.), January 14, 1974, p. 67.
[White's] finest writing … gives a chosen individual a mythic quality. Stan and Amy Parker, the central figures in The Tree of Man, are almost Mr. Everyman and wife; the explorer Voss, who gives his name to a novel, is conducting a symbolic as well as a literal exploration of the Australian interior; and the hero of The Vivisector, his last book, is both an actual artist and an archetype of "the artist" in Australia.
When this double level of intention works, as it does in the three books I have mentioned, White is a major modern writer. The Eye of the Storm, an impressive and absorbing novel, is stronger on the literal than the mythical level….
It is a kind of "Volpone" situation, with vultures gathering round the cooling body, but White doesn't play it that way. Having created Elizabeth Hunter as a monster of acquisitiveness and her children as total egoists, he then shows them to us as human beings…. The desire to show what White has called in another connection "the mystery and poetry which could alone make bearable the lives of such people" doesn't altogether work. I was never convinced that Mrs. Hunter and her children were anything but monsters.
But on the other, literal level the book has many rewards. White has the sharpest of eyes and pens: for Elizabeth Hunter, who, after going to bed with a pompous politician named Athol Shreve, sees him as typical of Australians, "men in bars, a confraternity of Athol Shreves, inflating their self-importance with beer"; for Dorothy, who feels at her most French in Australia, where she sees "the older men like mattresses from which the hair was bursting out" and the women looking "as though they expected to die in hats"; for Basil, always acting even when making love. On this plane of the actual, of things seen and tested and touched and tartly commented on, The Eye of the Storm gives pleasure all the time.
Julian Symons, in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), January 20, 1974, p. 3.
Patrick White, the Australian writer who recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature, may well be unique. Almost invariably, Australians with literary ambitions, like Christina Stead, have emigrated to England at an early age and never looked back. White, one of the very few novelists from down under who have been read outside their remote country, not only retained a distinct Australian sensibility in his work while abroad, but made the difficult choice to return home "to the stimulus of time remembered" after having lived in England and on the Continent for nearly two decades….
Although the Swedish Academy in making the Nobel award emphasized White's "epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature," the Australian particularity of his fiction is by no means its only claim to distinction. He is very much a modern writer rather than a regional realist, and throughout his work he has displayed a characteristically 20th-century obsession with human loneliness and alienation, and with the tragic perversions of personality. The Aunt's Story, a beautiful novel written when White was still living in Europe, is a tender albeit unrelenting portrait of human isolation….
With his next two novels, White reached back into the Australian past for the dreams and images of a raw new world. As though needing to prove that he was not slavishly dependent on the sophisticated culture of Europe, White concentrated, in The Tree of Man, on an inarticulate pioneer family—tracing its archetypal fortunes from a solitary man making his primitive clearing in the wilderness to the slow flowering of an entire community. If at times White strains to define the mythic universality of his commonplace farmers, the simplicity and precision with which he chronicles man's relation to the land are unquestionably impressive.
Voss, White's best-known work, is far more difficult and challenging. Based on the actual attempt of the German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt to cross the unmapped desolation of the Australian interior in the mid-19th century, Voss is only in its externals an account of that doomed expedition. More significantly, it is a tale of an individual possessed, a destructive Nietzschean Übermensch who arrogantly seeks to impose his will on a hostile and obdurate nature, and in the process is destroyed by his inhuman delusions of God-like power. White describes the suffering and terror of the trek with great authority, but his talent is most fully revealed in the portrait of the explorer himself—an obsessed, tormented visionary seeking out "death by torture in the country of the mind."
None of the works that followed Voss has equaled that brilliant achievement (though they all demonstrate in some way the novelist's awesome intellectual courage and versatility). In his most agonizedly ambitious book, Riders in the Chariot, White swells and complicates the Biblical-mystic symbolism of his narrative to preposterous excess. The ironic echoes of Jewish and Christian myths, of Ezekiel and the Passion of Christ in a present-day suburb of Sydney, are laboriously inflated and overcharged; the prose, too, becomes unmanageably turgid and pompous…. The book creaks and groans at every point with a cumbersome burden of allusion and "significance" that White totally fails to justify, becoming finally a sterile exercise in self-indulgent ingenuity.
Curiously, something quite the opposite goes wrong with The Eye of the Storm. Beyond its narrow circle of inaction and mainly repellent characters there are no reverberations of meaning, insight or perception. The tiny emotions of tiny, arid hearts have rarely been examined by a novelist to so little purpose, or at such great length….
Not even the finest writers can avoid an occasional colossal mistake, and the fact remains that Patrick White is a novelist of admirable substance and diversity. Moreover, he has given a powerful new meaning to the idea of an Australian sensibility, that uneasy product of divided cultural and historical loyalties. A cocky and disdainful arrogance toward England masks the provincial sense of dependent inferiority in White's homeland. The bitter memories of Australia's beginnings have made for a stubbornly complacent pride in its achievement. As the critic Barry Argyle has written, "Australia, unlike America, was never the promised land to its early settlers … but rather a chastening land, a purgatory." Patrick White, confronted with "the Great Australian emptiness," has wrought a strange and somber poetic truth out of his country's isolation, and thus bequeathed a distant region to the modern world.
Pearl K. Bell, "A Voice from Down Under," in New Leader, January 21, 1974, pp. 16-7.
The Eye of the Storm, as much as the circumstances surrounding it, is nothing if not intimidating. It is a lengthy novel (608 pages) in which the sentences seem to have been so complexly and exquisitely formulated that each can serve as its own bejeweled dead end, and in which, over long passages, nothing much else decipherable seems to be happening—the kind of book one nods to, intending admiration but often betraying drowsiness. Part of the problem is catching on to it. It is a novel of nuances—that's what's happening—and the rest is situation (the title should help: the "eye" of a storm is its still center)….
The novel is … a portrait, or series of portraits, of relationships, in many ways Bergmanesque (including some of the muddiness), always intelligent, sometimes psychologically very sharp indeed, often ironic. These relationships do not change or develop much; rather, they are ever so delicately and minutely unveiled. Goaded by White's irony, the unveilings constitute the "action" of the novel. It is all quite rich, as befits a Nobel laureate's latest. But for me, anyway, there is a sense—which I also felt with the one previous White novel I have read, Riders in the Chariot (1961)—of an awful lot of frosting for a little piece of cake.
Eliot Fremont-Smith, "Nobel Effort," in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and Eliot Fremont-Smith), January 21, 1974, p. 58.
It takes a lot of time and determination to get into this mammoth novel ["The Eye of the Storm"], and nearly as much of both to come out on the other side, but the swimming in the middle is exhilarating: choppy water and a sharp salt spray, despite the sea-stench of decomposing flesh. Like most contemporary writers, Patrick White … stares at the human condition with a pathologist's eye. What pox, what gangrene have we here? What rot will be extruded from this pustule?
Like many of his colleagues, White offers a bleak diagnosis: we suffer because we are alone. Even when most intimately involved with someone else—caressing a healthy body in one bed, or washing an invalid in another—we are withered, corrupted by our separateness. We impose the condition upon ourselves through defects of vision and character; in White's universe there are no survivors. And this is why "The Eye of the Storm," with its witty and perceptive readings of the human thermometer, is a good novel, and why, lacking an alternative to so much attrition of the spirit, it is not a great one….
Good Lord, his book is long—and fascinating. Few authors now care to launch an enterprise on such a grand and complex scale, determinedly old-fashioned, yet with fragments of past dialogue fused into the narrative of present action. It is a didactic, marvelous, self-indulgent, brilliant and exasperating novel, a book that is both rough and precise, witty and yet lacking grace. I wish you the joy of wrestling with it; it is worth the time and commitment it requires.
Peter S. Prescott, "Woman in a Cyclone," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1974; reprinted by permission), January 21, 1974, pp. 93-4.
One can luxuriate, as one can with so few novelists now writing, in [White's] large, grandly conceived fictions, in his delicious wit, in his elegant ironies, in his lucid, perfectly wrought sentences. His characters exist in a tangle of life and a complexity of motive and purpose that reveals a dazzling command of craft. And his books are all informed by the kind of humane but hard-nosed vision that Nobel juries (justly) admire. However, most people are going to lay his new book, "The Eye of the Storm," aside—I'll guess roughly—after 50 pages.
It's a difficult and demanding book, not in the way Pynchon's are, say, or those of the early 20th century masters were before the explicators explicated. We have had trouble reading them because they are complex conceptions that appear fragmentary, out of joint. "The Eye of the Storm" is, at least on the surface, a big, old-fashioned, realistic hunk of book. (You'll find, of course, dreaming and stream of consciousness in it; and time in it does not tick tock one, two, three, four: White has mastered contemporary techniques.) People are not going to founder on the book's intellectual demands but on its emotional and responsive ones. They are going to care for nobody in it enough to want to read through 608 nearly arid, nearly compassionless pages.
Mr. White has a deep-seeing but cold eye. How well he exposes his characters' weaknesses, their self-destructiveness, their moral bankruptcy. One is "a thriving hive of self-pity," another a monster of vanity, another promiscuous, another a saint—but small-souled. How energetically they gnaw at one another, and at themselves. They're all fascinating, but they call forth so little feeling. We laugh at them. Their cruel games and displays are funny—White has a large, mordant sense of humor; but, like Elizabeth Hunter, the book's dramatic center (from one point of view she is the eye of the storm), he sees too much of the time through and not into the people he makes….
The storm's eye is the book's center, and it's a powerful image. When she was in her early 70s, Mrs. Hunter was left alone on an island in the path of a typhoon. She survived the storm's battering—because of her cleverness and her enormous will to live—and she experienced, while the eye passed over the island, a transforming, mystical moment: She walked down the beach and into the wreckage, "no longer a body, least of all a woman: the myth of her womanhood had been exploded by the storm. She was instead a being, or more likely a flaw at the center of this jewel of light: the jewel itself, blinding and tremulous at the same time, existed flaw and all, only by grace; for the storm was still visibly spinning and boiling at a distance, in columns of cloud, its walls hung with vaporous balconies, continually shifted and distorted."
Newton Koltz, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; © 1974 by The Village Voice, Inc.), February 7, 1974, p. 23.
Few have the talent for a monastic vocation; perhaps twice that number are equipped to read properly The Eye of the Storm…. It's a novel you can't put down: but not for the jacket blurb reasons. Eye seems to have changed modes, moved on, while you slept. Its subtle yet dynamic flow requires sustained attention, sustained enthusiasm. Lift the needle once or twice and your Bach fugue has lost its integrity. But a 600-page fugue is possibly more monstrous than beautiful. It's as easy to be irked or bloody bored by Patrick White as it is to be astonished by him. If you cooperate, magnificence can be tedious, or tedium magnificent. White is, without conditional clause, brilliant. And exasperating….
White, I suspect, limits his attack to the superfamiliar, as Henry Moore limited so much of his sculpture to reclining women, because events subtract from intensity, from subjective penetration. There are horizontal and vertical novels. Let plot represent the east-west coordinates of your fictional graph, then Eye sets an equation that will form steep parabolas along the north-south axis: characterization in depth. It is one way of writing a novel. Frankly, not my favorite, but valid. White has mastered it….
Style in The Eye of the Storm is an instrument of faith. It adds sanction, as style in the King James version seems to provide a unique, auxiliary grace. White can be marvelous at page level: metaphor, rhythm, perception. His writing is dense; you hold your breath from capital letter to period….
Problem is: one can seldom distinguish White's third person omniscient from his several first persons. And I'm not pleased by his obsessive use of the drowsy mind: "Whatever else parents, parents are given to whether you like it the one her bones crumbling the other a rifle in his mouth…." Its small virtues do not compensate me for the inconvenience of an impenetrable syntax. Ultimately the hero of this novel is not Elizabeth Hunter, but Patrick White himself: as Milton himself must surely be the hero of Paradise Lost. If style is credible—with its idiosyncratic, intense description of inner states—then Elizabeth Hunter and the acolytes who serve her body will also be credible.
And they are certainly credible. Yet White's success is as much the product of good reading as it is of good writing. With normal distractions I functioned at 60 per cent capacity. The average reader will be fortunate to tack on another 10 per cent. Vicissitudes of human concentration, the rich complexity of his style, limit Patrick White's effectiveness and his audience.
D. Keith Mano, "Exasperating Brilliance," in National Review (150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), February 15, 1974, pp. 214-15.
[White's] new work [The Eye of the Storm] is skillfully written and imposingly literary, and it will do little to diminish his reputation. Yet it is far less effective as a novel—a revealing interaction of situation and character—than as an oddly private expression of disgust and black amusement at the wretched behavior of the human animal….
The peculiar impression arises that the author is teasing his characters cruelly with the constant references to Lear. White understands perfectly well, the reader feels, that the parallel does not fit and that to introduce it is to indulge in a kind of savage mockery. The reasons for this savagery, however, never become apparent to the reader, and it is this inaccessibility that is the novel's ruling deficiency.
Every character, major and minor, weak and strong, is warped and doomed. All relationships are disastrous, dishonest, or simply futile. All prospects are vile. Sex is a ghastly joke. Love is a catalyst for neurosis. Men are barely sentient slabs of meat, and women are invariably victims who deserve their misery. If two characters have lunch at the seashore, the corpse of a Labrador retriever washes up at that precise spot on two thousand miles of coastline to drive them away.
It won't do merely to say that Elizabeth Hunter, the ancient heroine, has caused all the trouble by alienating her husband, crippling her children, and otherwise terrorizing all the women and seducing all the men within reach. She would have done all these things and more if the position of women in her provincial society had not been so totally that of decorative house plants. Her intricate and unrepentant character gives the novel its considerable strength. But it is the author, not his splendidly malignant main character, who is responsible for that dead Labrador.
Nor will it do to pass the novel off as the blackest of comedies—although it is brilliantly that—when Elizabeth Hunter finally leaves the world she holds in such contempt, she does so, appropriately, while sitting on a commode. The novel's major fault remains: the narrative and its people are blown about by a storm whose vectors the reader is not allowed to understand. After 608 pages, White's great gloom remains private and uncommunicated.
John Skow, in Harper's (copyright © 1974 by Harper's Magazine; reprinted from the March, 1974 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of the author), March, 1974, p. 92.