Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The Tree of Man

Patrick White

For me, this is one of the most beautiful opening pages in all literature, a cathedral chiselled out of language by a master craftsman.

A cart drove between the two big stringybarks and stopped. These were the dominant trees in that part of the bush, rising above the involved scrub with the simplicity of true grandeur. So the cart stopped, grazing the hairy side of a tree, and the horse, shaggy and stolid as the tree, sighed and took root.

The man who sat in the cart got down. He rubbed his hands together, because already it was cold, a curdle of cold cloud in a pale sky, and copper in the west. On the air you could smell the frost. As the man rubbed his hands, the friction of cold skin intensified the coldness of the air and the solitude of that place. Birds looked from twigs, and the eyes of animals were drawn to what was happening. The man lifting a bundle from a cart. A dog lifting his leg on an anthill. The lip drooping on the sweaty horse.

Then the man took an axe and struck at the side of a hairy tree, more to hear the sound than for any other reason. And the sound was cold and loud. The man struck at the tree, and struck, till several white chips had fallen. He looked at the scar in the side of the tree. The silence was immense. It was the first time anything like this had happened in that part of the bush.

More quickly then, as if deliberately breaking with a dream, he took the harness from the horse, leaving a black pattern of sweat. He hobbled the strong fetlocks of the cobby little horse and stuck the nosebag on his bald face. The man made a lean-to with bags and a few saplings. He built a fire. He sighed at last, because the lighting of his small fire had kindled in him the first warmth of content. Of being somewhere. That particular part of the bush had been made his by the entwining fire. It licked at and swallowed the loneliness.

By this time also the red dog had come and sat at the fire, near, though not beside the man, who was not intimate with his animals. He did not touch or address them. It was enough for them to be there, at a decent distance. So the dog sat. His face had grown sharp with attention, and with a longing for food, for the tucker box that had not yet been lifted from the cart. So the sharp dog looked. Hunger had caused him to place his paws deliberately. His yellow eyes consumed the man in the interval before meat.

The man was a young man. Life had not yet operated on his face. He was good to look at; also, it would seem, good. Because he had nothing to hide, he did perhaps appear to have forfeited a little of his strength. But that is the irony of honesty.

All around, the bush was disappearing. In that light of late evening, under the white sky, the black limbs of trees, the black and brooding scrub, were being folded into one. Only the fire held out. And inside the circle of its light the man’s face was unconcerned as he rubbed tobacco in the palms of his hard hands, a square of tinkling paper stuck to his lower lip.

The dog whistled through his pointed nose. In the light of the fire the bristles of his muzzle glistened. As he watched for an end to this interminable act.

Still there it was, with the smoke coming out.

The man got up. He dusted his hands. He began to take down the tucker-box.

How the dog trembled then.

There was the sound of tin plate, tea on tin, the dead thump of flour. Somewhere water ran. Birds babbled, settling themselves on a roost. The young horse, bright amongst his forelock, and the young and hungry dog were there, watching the young man. There was a unity of eyes and firelight.

The gilded man was cutting from a lump of meat. It made the dog cavort like a mad, reddish horse. The man was throwing to the dog, while pretending, according to his nature, not to do so. The dog gulped at the chunks of fatty meat, the collar working forward on his neck, the eyes popping in his head. The man ate, swallowing with some ugliness, swallowing to get it down, he was alone, and afterwards swilling the hot, metallic tea, almost to get it finished with. But warmth came. Now he felt good. He smelled the long, slow scent of chaff slavered in the nosebag by the munching horse. He smelled the smell of green wood burning. He propped his head against the damp collar discarded by the horse. And the cavern of fire was enormous, labyrinthine, that received the man. He branched and flamed, glowed and increased, and was suddenly extinguished in the little puffs of smoke and tired thoughts. The name of this man was Stan Parker.

The figures of speech are sensational: the way the tree becomes, first the horse (shaggy and stolid), and then the man (who likewise "sighed and took root"). The capacity to tell a story of extraordinary ordinariness, and to imbue it with "the simplicity of true grandeur", and thereby elevate, even exalt, the ordinary into something truly extraordinary. The mingling – so carefully, so precisely, in a manner almost over-stylised, but deliberately so – of comedy and profound spirituality. And particularly the poet's eye for detail, which is so essential in real novel-writing – look at Dickens if you don't believe me.

Art students were once sent to galleries to make copies of the masterpieces, in order to learn the techniques through imitation. So too should the budding writer. In my late teens and early twenties I went like an avid disciple from guru to guru, imbibing their every word until I could speak their thoughts in a pale facsimile of their voice (thinking of course that they were already my thoughts, and already my own voice): Solzhenitsyn, Gide, Lawrence, Camus, Marquez, Faulkner, Borges, many others. Of all my teachers, it was at PW's feet that I learned the most, and neither the Chronicle nor, especially, The Flaming Sword, could have been written without his influence.

Later, there were more difficult lessons to learn from him than style and character; how hard it is to grow old gracelessly, when there is nothing more to say but only the need and the desire to go on speaking. His last books are so bilious, so cantankerous, his autobiography so superficial, his letters so utterly banal – once having succeeded as a writer, it is, I am afraid, no longer possible to take up pen and paper in the guise of a mere dull human being. One is condemned to make literature out of everything. Posterity expects.

Reading this passage aloud, I find myself searching for the Australian accent that must, surely, be present somewhere, whether in the order of the words – PW's syntax is self-consciously idiosyncratic, as his grammar is often deliberately faulty, to create a lyrical continuum, or sharp caesura; because in good prose one also counts the syllables – or more subtly, in the flavours and smells and sounds that constitute both a very personal inner landscape and the more obviously "strine" exterior. But the voice remains Edwardian English, even when it speaks of stringybarks and tucker-boxes: a fact confirmed by tapes of him in interview or readings from his books. I have often wondered if this is why so many Australians disparage him, as most English also do, each for the fact that they recognise the other in him. Like all great artists he remains an outcast even beyond death, condemned rather for what he was not than reverenced for what he was; though I have a fancy he will be ennobled in about four hundred years, as the first great Australian author, and the last great author anywhere at all, in the last years of the 20th century. 

"The Tree of Man" is published by Penguin, and the passage here is reprinted without the formality of permission. I'm sure they won't really mind.

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