The ABC have a well-intentioned website under a title which is so hopeless that it’s almost endearing: “Why Bother With Patrick White?” The photo on the splash page is typical of the image which even White’s fans seem determined to perpetuate: he is in grainy sepia, looks about 117 and is scowling sideways at the title, although, really, who could blame him?
Why bother with Patrick White? Well, why bother eating a delicious meal, or reading long, beautiful novels like The Tree of Man, or getting up in the morning?
Ok, so: The Tree of Man is not difficult to read. It’s written with a precision which would be breathless were it not for the calm, meditative grandeur that flows underneath it: I can’t think of another novel which has quite this tone, although Madame Bovary perhaps approaches it.
It also has a surprisingly gentle sense of humour. When the book’s hero reaches the age at which he attracts the attention of the young girls of the district, White uses the lovely phrase “Stan Parker was now a young man with shoulders”. There are touches like this on almost every page.
The cover blurb of my copy, and the ABC website, talk about the book in terms of mythic allegories, the book being an Australian creation myth, spirituality and what not; all of that stuff is in there as well, but I think that this is the kind of talk that puts people off reading the man’s books, so forget I mentioned it.
I tried reading it when I was eighteen and then again when I was in my early thirties, and gave up both times. I can’t really explain why: I was wrong about a lot of other things too.