Monday, February 27, 2012

join the mess round her mouth

Patrick White often gives his characters food and he often lets them fart. Both ends of the alimentary canal are allowed to have their say, and I even wonder if he found himself doing it, for the first time, because he wanted to be fair: imagine that one end of the relevant tube made its appearance in a story he was writing, and by its presence it invoked, like magic, the other end. After that he couldn't leave that other end out. It was pressing to get into existence, so he let it through. Elizabeth Hunter in his Eye of the Storm, is provided with a pineapple, and she drops, too, stony pellets into a commode. "Naus-e-ating!" says Elizabeth's daughter Dorothy when her brother Basil gives her a meat pie. "She could feel the tears hurtling hot down her cheek to join the mess round her mouth." White's characters are often disgusted by their food, or the author will be disgusted for them, they're left grubby, and eating is dirty and babyish. "Basil has swallowed his last mouthful. He was wiping fingers on his breast-pocket foulard." Basil fouls his foulard* and gravy runs from the pie down his chin, he speaks and "sprays the windscreen with several fragments of gristle."

Dorothy loathes the meat pie, and not the pie on its own, but herself in the act of eating: "her unwillingness and contempt turned to loathing; worse on discovering something loathsome in herself: she was filled with a guilty voluptuousness as though biting into her own flesh." A person has to open a mouth in order to eat, and Dorothy would rather not open herself for anything; her way of coping with awkward moments is to open her handbag and look inside seriously for nothing in particular, then snap it closed. Sometimes I read her like this: The world has tried to open me up? I take my revenge with this bag. I open it, I look inside. I make a little mimicry of the world's assault on me. Revenge in miniature. I'll be the prosecutor here. (There are other ways to look at the bag. I won't go into them.) But she can't live without "biting into her own flesh." She has to eat.

She is sensitive and hysterical, and so is her author. His prose is screwed so tightly to a point, and the implications he draws are so large and supernatural (Elizabeth Hunter opening her eyes slightly in my last post and her nurse perceiving, all of a sudden, beauty, death, a pure spirit world, and a goddess), he describes incomprehensible eternity pressed into small physical events, like big feet in small shoes, repeated events -- and eating and the eviction of morsels and gases, what's that but the epitome of compulsory repeated events? Here is pressure and sadism carried out in a routine way: the dismemberment, torture, and crushing of food.

In life he liked to cook, he liked to eat with friends, and ate a meal with Christina Stead on more than one occasion. Stead's character Sam Pollit forcing chewed banana between his lips into the mouth of his daughter has a mirror image in literature, and that mirror image appears in Patrick White, during the early chapters of The Vivisector, as Hurtle Duffield's mother pushes soft chocolates from her mouth into the mouth of her son.

There is food-warfare in White and food-warfare in Stead, and they are two different styles of warfare. Food in White is personal and invasive, the characters smear themselves, they betray themselves with food (we see Basil's thoughts about the pie and he looks like a poseur), they become dirty with food, the food attacks anything ethereal in them, the act of being in the world is plain and grubby, this grubbiness is a reminder that they exist. The nightmare of this book is the opposite of a sleeping nightmare, that dissolving and slippery evanescence: the nightmare in Storm is to be helplessly embodied, awake and trapped in flesh, to be Samuel Beckett's Unnamable, a consciousness revolving on top of a tower of carcass.

But Stead's people are not sensitive to that kind of anxiety, they like to know that they exist, in fact they don't want anyone else to forget it, and so they talk and talk (one in Cotters' England talks another character to death), or they make displays of money, the warfare they wage is directed outward, at the social human world which they desire on general principle to overwhelm (as did their creator, proud of the fact that House of All Nations was eight hundred pages long), and food is part of that warfare, an exterior battle, character against character. Henny Pollit's fight against her husband takes many forms and one of them is this: she insists on butter for her table and meat instead of beans. But the most spectacular example of food-warfare comes in the middle of House, when one couple stuffs another couple with so much food that the husband of the other couple nearly faints. His wife discreetly puts a single peach on his plate. The other couple fight back -- they pile him high with fruit and cream. "Some strange feminine instinct prompted Mme Haller to feed that great mountain of flesh till his eyes popped." This is a hostile generosity, this hospitality is greed reversed; greed is an idea that Stead pursues through this book -- the idea of overfeeding. A man in The People With the Dogs decides to play a prank on a women, so he puts up a sign, inviting strangers into the house for all-you-can-eat steaks and potato, cooked by this women. A mob of passers-by arrives demanding food. The women as a group are taken off-guard. They feel compelled to cook.

[to be continued.]

* I don't think White uses this word anywhere else in the book, which makes the placement here seem deliberate, the foul in foulard brought out by the foul scene around it -- the spraying gristle, the hot liquid running down Dorothy's face -- here is the precise naming of a clothing item in partnership with floppy gross sloppery; accuracy mating with a sewer, which is a common kind of sadism in White's language.

You can look in David Marr's Patrick White, a Life for stories about the man's cooking.


  1. Oh dear, I was in Melbourne and my emails etc were playing up and then I got back and haven't got back into my routine. I hope you've missed me!

    I'll try to catch up on other posts ... but I do like your comparison here between White and Stead. I am currently immersed (a bit - can you be immersed a bit? I think you can. It means I'm not submerged, but just a little in ...) in White doing some volunteer work for the NLA. I'll probably reveal more later but as a result of this I've been coming across little snippets about White's dining adventures, at his place and at other places. Not sure if he betrayed himself with food but he certainly did over food it seems!

  2. Immersed a bit is possible I think -- just a toe -- or a nose in the water -- or up to the knee -- He thought about food a lot, is what it looks like. In fact I'm surprised it hadn't really struck me before, how much he does with food in his books, and how he goes at it roughly the same way every time -- from memory -- he doesn't give the character a banquet, he gives them a single item, or a single type of food -- a pineapple, or a meat pie, or a box of chocolates -- and then winds up the emotions to an excruciating pitch over this one small thing.

  3. And I suspect you could map that idea of Stead's approach versus White's approach over most areas of their novels. Here's a thesis: White's characters are areas of self-restrained blindness -- agonised interiors; -- Stead's characters are areas of blindness being punched and buffeted by outer forces, and punching and buffeting back. White's characters suffer too, and they punch back too, but they're more monofocused, she's in stereo.

  4. I'll have to remember this when I get to read stead. Certainly I can see your point re White, at least in terms of agonised interiors. It must, in fact, have been agonising being White let alone any of his characters!

  5. He seems to have reacted with a sort of strong and helpless disgust (which was also fascination and chuckles) to the idea of being in a body, which, extended across a lifetime, would certainly be agonising: there's a lot of agonising places you can get away from but your body's not one of them, unless you go the obvious route, which is suicide.

    I'm thinking of his memoir here, not only the fiction. If there's one idea that runs through Flaws in the Glass then I think it's this: "We're trapped in this low place, and it's ridiculous."