Sunday, 25 February 2007

Review: The Solid Mandala, Patrick White (1966)

Chapters one and four are like bookends. Chapter two is life according to Waldo and chapter three is life according to Arthur.

For me, a major theme is suburbia triumphans. The aggregate of the stories of Waldo and Arthur is strong authorial disapproval of the deadening effect of suburban normality. Only Arthur really fits in, but we don’t see that until chapter three. In chapter two, Waldo can be observed slowly unravelling as he attempts to stake out his own territory in a landscape devoid of poetry, and that values only the most banal of excesses. For me, the first chapter defines the boundaries with a firm hand. This is what the brothers have to deal with. This is what will determine their futures. This, I feel White is saying, is Australian life.

Mrs Poulter performs several roles. She is, first of all, a foil to the twins' abiding difference. She represents the norm. As an outsider herself, she can sympathise with them. And she provides Arthur with the kind of companionship she is unable to get from her husband, who is sketched out in the most perfunctory way by the author. She is a link with the world.

The other link is also an outsider. Dulcie also doesn't quite fit into the Australian suburban world. She, also, develops a close relationship with Arthur. Waldo's attempts to get closer are mechanical. His romantic ideas are absolutely ordinary and thus doomed to fail.

The most important relationship is, of course, that which exists between Arthur and Waldo. But it is under extreme pressure due to Waldo's sense of what is expected of him as a social being. Unlike Arthur, he is shackled to the ordinary and never manages to escape its influence. It is, in fact, Arthur who injects poetry into their lives, although Waldo is the one who is supposed to have intellectual feelings. His imagination does not allow him to realise them, however, and he is doomed to recognising what he is unable to produce himself. It is a severe sentence.

Their parents are also outsiders. Their father is one because he likes to read and he is a committed atheist. Their mother is one because she is from another country and has an opinion of her station in life that separates her from her surroundings.

The main characters struggle to fit into suburbia's tight waistcoat, and are not easy in their skins. Even Arthur, whose poetic flights charm Mrs Poulter for a while, is forced to restrain himself, especially after Waldo retires and they are forced into each other's company on a daily basis.

White is a careful wordsmith. The words are chosen with great circumspection, yet they flow together with great ease. This is a wonderful work of art.


kimbofo said...

I'm still ploughing through chapter 2 but am enjoying it. I agree with your view that the book rails against suburbia. Have you ever read 'My Brother Jack'? There's a lot of similarities here -- Waldo reminds me very much of David Meredith.

Ian G. said...

What is about the suburban fringes that Patrick White attacks? For most of the story Terminus Road is country.

It is not so much the Australian landscape that is devoid of poetry (c.f. Tree of Man and Voss) but Waldo himself. Arthur exudes the poetic.

Clearly, the Brown family and their friends are outsiders, but who are the insiders? Lost souls like Mr and Mrs Dun, Bill Poulter, Mr Crankshaw, Mr Allwright and Mrs Mutton? Johnny Haynes, the bully?

What about the gloriously ironic and euphorically happy ending where Arthur and Mrs Poulter plan to consummate their idyllic relationship in a ‘nut house’?

IuniElle said...

I will soon begin reading this book.. but do you know if there's a movie made after it? 10x!