I had to build myself up to reading this Patrick White novel. I’ve read only one of his other books, ‘The Solid Mandala’ and he’s a famously daunting writer. The Eye of the Storm was published in 1973, just before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and is largely credited with the reason he was.
In The Eye of the Storm, Elizabeth Hunter is dying in her Sydney home. She’s the widow of Alfred, who allowed her to separate from him and live in her Sydney home while he stayed on the farm that is their fortune in the bush. She’s tended by three nurses working eight hour shifts around the clock, her solicitor, and a German Jew housekeeper. To her deathbed come her son Sir Basil Hunter, a stage actor who lives in London, and her daugher Dorothy Hunter, the Princesse De Lascabanes, who has married and divorced a French prince and still lives in France.
Its a story about dying and how it concentrates the mind to look back on life. Elizabeth Hunter herself is grotesque – the ‘ruin of an overindulged and beautiful youth’..’rustling with fretful spite when not bludgeoning with a brutality only old age is ingenious enough to use’.
She’s obsessed with her now long gone beauty and knows just how to manipulate those around her to achieve maximum emotional damage, ‘able to emaciate itself so completely from human emotions it became at times as redemptive as water’.
White unleashes absolutely excoriating descriptions on this dreadful old woman and her selfish children. His descriptions of her wasted body and the functions the nurses have to perform for her, her dreadful vain wigs and her withered fingers laden with her jewels are really vivid. Even poor old dead husband Alfred isn’t spared, who in Elizabeth Hunters words was ”so slow and ponderous, like rams dragging their sex through a stand of lucerne’.
Sir Basil goes through life as if he’s on a permanent stage but is sadly past his prime, ‘his breasts developing relentlessly inside the fur bra’. He has returned to get some money out of his mother so he can stage a play and rehabilitate his career. Plain Dorothy is easier to like, because of her absolute self-hatred, and the emotional thrashing she gets from her mother, who makes no secret of favouring Basil. She’s had a passionless marriage, her husband describing her as frigid.
But Elizabeth Hunter is wise to her children’s motives, telling Dorothy when she arrives ‘in any case you flew – to make sure you’d see me die – or to ask me for money if I didn’t. Basil too.’
The three nurses are if anything the more interesting, and certainly more likeable, characters. There’s practical and dull Sister Badgery, and Sister De Santis, devoted to her job and with no life, who can’t imagine loving someone, and relieves herself with ‘the discipline of drudgery’. And Sister Manhood, resisting the path of ‘childbirth and endless domestic slavery’ that she’s set for, along with Mrs Lippman, the housekeeper a German Jew.
There’s some superb scenes between the nurses and the two money-grubbing children and also an extended section where Dorothy and Basil visit ‘Kudjeri’, their old country home. Patrick White’s insights into the reasons people behave as they do pierces like a skewer and that’s what makes this so entertaining, if you can get past the excessively unlikeable main characters. The streams of consciousness he slips into with each character at various times I found hard to cope with and found myself skipping over them. But that said, his prose isn’t as impenetrable as I remembered, or perhaps its just that I’m and older and better reader now. Its almost as if he uses words as weapons against his characters. Its an amazing skill.
If you enjoy deep explorations of character, this is a great book. Now I want to see the movie to see how they have handled it.