Tuesday, 3 November 2009

78 - 'The Twyborn Affair' by Patrick White

What's 1474 divided by 10? What is 432 divided by 6? Answers (and relevance) later...

Anyway, I 'm here to review my latest read, 'The Twyborn Affair', a 1979 novel by the only Australian winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick White (oh, alright, two if you count Coetzee). This book was nominated for the Booker Prize, but White insisted it be removed from the shortlist to allow younger writers the chance to win - which says something about him (but I'm not sure what). A brief warning: don't read this if you are planning to read the book as it's difficult to review without giving away information which could impair your enjoyment of the text.

As if any of you could tear yourselves away. Anyway, White's novel is centred on the life of a confused creature who takes on several names and identitites in a search for peace and satisfaction. We meet our hero(ine) at three different points in his/her life: in provincial France, shortly before the outbreak of World War I; in rural New South Wales in 1920; and in London around the start of the Second World War. So far, so 'normal'. However, the reality is that in the body and mind of the Sydney-born son of a Judge and a socialite, multiple personalities and sexualities are to be found.

The book follows him/her on their quest to find a place in a world which, while well aware of differences in sexual orientation, forces people to suppress them - or, at least, keep them hidden. Whether as Eudoxia, the young Australian 'wife' of an ageing Greek aristocrat, as Eddie, the supposed 'real' identity, who attracts both genders, or the middle-aged Eadith, the chaste matron of a house of ill repute, peace of mind is hard to come by.

Gender identity is far from being the only conflict in this novel. Another major theme is the cultural difficulties felt by Australians at the time vis-a vis their colonial masters. The 'cultural cringe' felt in the past has largely subsided (or may merely have moved on to idolising American culture, rather than British); however, in 'The Twyborn Affair', the Australian characters are keen to tone down their boisterous personalities - and their broad accents - in seeking the approval of the English they meet.

Another area of interest is the relationships between parents and children. Eddie/Eadith's link to their mother is strongly felt, first in the background, then more strongly foregrounded, and the issue of parental influence and relationships crops up in other characters (including a strong hint of incest in one case). In fact, it is tempting to link Eadith's issues to his mother and her youthful bedroom indiscretions (tempting, but wrong).

From what I have read about White, there is a lot of the writer in this novel. He too was tortured by his homosexuality and spent time in the outback as a Jackaroo (his parents were trying to drive out literary, not sexual, tendencies) before finding success as a writer. At the time of writing this book, his health was in steep decline, and the language of this book, especially the first two parts, is steeped in the language of entropy and decay. The reader is constantly confronted by descriptions of pungent smells, bodily emissions, decaying objects and people. Oh, and there are farts a-plenty.

Time to come back to my maths questions. 1474/10 = 147.4 while 432/6 = 72. Yes, I may have a bit of a hangover from 'The Housekeeper and the Professor', but the sums posed actually show how difficult this book was to get into. The first shows the number of pages of my previous book (Vikram Seth's 'A Suitable Boy') divided by the number of days I read it in. The second... well, I'm sure you've got it now. Basically, I read Seth's book twice as fast as White's novel, and while that can be put down largely to the difference in complexity, it must also be attributed to my investment in the story.

In addition to the rather unpleasantly descriptive nature of certain parts of this novel, I felt that the second of the three parts dragged unnecessarily. It was about forty pages longer than the other two (and felt about 140 pages longer). I'm not quite sure why this section failed to grab me; perhaps Eddie just wasn't as interesting as his female alter-egos. I would also have liked some hints, if not the full story, as to how Eddie became Eadith. The change is presented as a fait-accompli, which is, for me at least, rather unsatisfying.

'The Twyborn Affair' is, obviously, an excellent piece of writing, unique even, from an extremely famous and talented writer. I did enjoy it, but it was a bit of a slog, and, at times, I wasn't convinced that I would actually get there. As an analysis of the problems faced by those who slip between society's neat gender divide (and a critique of the hypocritical society which attempts to maintain that distinction), it's a very powerful work. As an entertaining way to spend your time, I'd take 'A Suitable Boy' any day. However, life would be much duller if books only followed the pattern of one of these books; asking the difficult questions is just as important in literature as answering them nicely with a wedding.