The aunt in The Aunt’s Story, an early novel of Patrick White, the 1973 Nobel laureate, is Theodora Goodman. Not blessed with either the good looks or vivacious personality of her younger sister, Fanny, Theodora, sadly but unsurprisingly, is an old maid. She lives with her domineering mother, who always favoured Fanny over her, and nurses the old lady through her last illness.
Then the old Mrs Goodman dies. Theodora, finally free of the shackles, decides to travel. She travels to Europe and stays for a while in a French hotel where in all probability she begins to lose control of her mind and grasp of reality.
After spending an indeterminate period in the French hotel with characters that, if they aren’t the products of Theodora’s frenzied mind, are decidedly what the British would describe as very odd (and the rest of the world as barking mad), Theodora leaves Europe for North America where, untethered by reality, she travels aimlessly before getting off the train in the middle of nowhere. She is taken in by a hillbilly family but she wanders off again. When she is finally led away by a doctor (you hope to the nearest loony bin) the reader’s mind, like Theodora’s, is in danger of disintegrating under the twin assault of White’s viscous prose and his apparent decision to jettison not just the plot but the whole library.
The Aunt’s Story is divided in three parts. The first section, entitled Meroe, is the most accessible and, for that reason, the most interesting. White describes Theodora’s childhood and draws for the reader, an affecting character of his heroine, the intense, brooding, intelligent and profoundly individualistic Theodora, who struggles to fit into the world around her. Those around her feel uneasy by her ethereal and melancholy air. Frank Parrott, Theodora’s neighbour, is attracted to her but, rebuffed, marries Fanny instead, and ends up harbouring a mute resentment against Theodora for the rest of his life. Her mother simply can’t come to grips with her daughter’s strangeness and decides to find solace in the contented, if uninteresting and predictable, life of her younger daughter. In her adult life, after she has moved to Sidney with her mother, Theodora forms a long relationship with her solicitor, Huntly Clarkson. The acquaintances are baffled by the interest Huntley, rich and recently divorced, takes in the asexual Theodora; however, this relationship, too, does not progress beyond being platonic, neither of the parties quite having enough interest or initiative to take it to the next stage.
The life of Theodora, as the first section nears its end, is an unfulfilled one. Therefore, when she decides to leave behind her sister and brother-in-law, who treat her with a mixture of pity and distaste, and travel to Europe, you are rooting for her in the same way you root for England in yet another football world cup campaign that you know in your hearts of heart is destined to end in a failure.
And fail it does. However nothing really prepares the reader—at least it did not prepare this reader—for that which follows in the second section, entitled JardinExotique. Jardin Exotique is the garden in the French hotel where Theodora arrives during her travels in Europe. Theodora spends a lot of time in this garden and mingles with characters that include a Russian general (who insists on calling her Ludmilla, his sister who was killed in the revolution, and Theodora plays along); an English writer named Weatherby and his nihilistic German girlfriend Lieselotte; a teenage girl named Katina Pavlou; Mrs Rapallo, an American Heiress who isn’t really an heiress; and a couple of Jewish dowagers. The section is modernist in its style, with absence of an anchoring theme that might have held the narrative together. (Or it could be described as absurd.) The whole section has a dream-like, hallucinatory, quality to it, with overabundance of what could be described (using the Freudian jargon) as primary process thinking. White does not allow himself to be fettered by the constraints of time or space.
As the reader plows through pages after pages of random dialogues and disjointed descriptions of nothing in particular, a sense of unease develops in his mind. Maybe, just maybe, he thinks, it is all leading to a grand denouement; Theodora is probably— surely, must be—losing her mind; the French hotel does not exist, neither does any of the oddball characters; they are figments of Theodora’s mind which has—inexplicable and without any warning—has snapped; it is all some sort of prolonged psychic seizure, a status psycholepticus.
Frustratingly, the second section ends without any satisfactory resolution (that is modernist literature for you); instead the novel lurches into the (mercifully) brief (but, still, as puzzling) final section, Holstius (named after a wanderer who appears in this section, like, the characters in Hotel Du Midi, apropos nothing), with more of the same.
White tells the story in a language that is not excessive, with minimum of fuss. There are passages of sublime inventiveness in the novel. Equally, at times, the language is baffling. When you come across sentences such as ‘her [Theodora’s] vision tore at the air, as if it were old wool on a dead sheep’, or, ‘the air did not advance and was brittle as guitars’, try as you might you can’t really conceive of air either as old wool on a dead sheep or as a guitar (brittle or not).
The Aunt’s Story is a challenging book to read, especially from second section onwards when White seems to take leave of realism and things become complex or confusing or both (for me the two often go hand in hand). Exactly what White is trying to convey, here, is open to interpretations. Does the apparent disintegration of Theodora’s mind symbolize anything? Who knows? I decided in the end to go with the flow of White’s dream-like, stream-of-consciousness (if it was that) narrative, and try to enjoy what I could (not a lot). I have to say that as a description of evolving insanity, it is not terribly convincing. The last section doesn’t really bring it all together (despite the intriguing epigraph from Olive Schreiner with which it begins: ‘When your life is most real, to me you are mad’; and the somewhat sententious declaration from the wanderer Holstius: ‘lucidity isn’t necessarily a perpetual ailment’).
White, the only Australian to win the Nobel Prize in literature and considered a giant in his lifetime, remains a largely forgotten figure in the centenary year of his birth. (He is not the only writer, considered a great in his lifetime, to meet such a fate; Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize in literature, is hardly read these days, I think.)
The Aunt’s Story was apparently Patrick White’s personal favourite. It is the first White novel I actually managed to finish (I remember taking The Living and the Dead, another of his early novels, to read a few years ago, before giving it up). Reading The Aunt’s Story was a powerful experience in parts but was not enough, I am afraid, to call it unforgettable. Much too experimental for my taste.