He or She

Robert Taubman

One comes back so often to the question of what it means. The skill of the performance no less than the ambiguity of the material provokes such a response – a doubt about this novel. In other novels, Patrick White has offered the reader something more obvious to fix the attention, such as Voss’s intense and dominating will. In the absence of an obvious meaning nothing so fixes the attention in The Twyborn Affair. There is a good deal of absence in this book. Patrick White has been seen as sharing D.H. Lawrence’s interest in states of ‘pure existence’, but here it is questions of existence itself, and of the possibility of non-existence, that absorb him.

‘There was no real reason why Monsieur Pelletier should exist’ and ‘neither Madame Réboa nor Monsieur Pelletier believed in each other entirely.’ Monsieur Pelletier, newspaper vendor in St Mayeul, is not important to the novel, but similar uncertainties surround its central character. He or she – Eudoxia or Eddie or Eadith – is first encountered in St Mayeul in 1914. He (‘dear boy’) is living at the time with a Greek gentleman and assumes the style of Eudoxia, ‘ex-Empress (hetaira) of Nicaea, expert in matters of protocol and mayhem’. The pre-First World War Riviera scene, picked out in loving detail (a 1912 high-set Austin in bottle-green, the music of Massenet and Chabrier), is made doubly unreal by the imaginations of these two, which dwell a great deal on Byzantine genealogy. What their relationship really is – if, for instance, it’s anything so ordinary as homosexual – the reader can only speculate, as does the Australian tourist Mrs E. Boyd Golson, mysteriously attracted to Eudoxia by a glimpse over the villa wall. Eudoxia next appears as Eddie Twyborn, apprentice on a sheep station in Australia. The scene is now less fantastic, the sheep station brutally real: yet this is a ‘healing landscape’ and its natural phenomena ‘were becoming his deepest source of solace’. Eddie is aware of ‘the self which, he felt sure, was in process of being born, and which was the reason he had chosen a manner of life on the whole distasteful to him’. An affair with Marcia, the owner’s wife, is followed by an episode with the station manager involving mutual homosexual rape. This – it may be the rediscovered femininity, or a larger failure, including that of Australia and of giving birth to a self – sets the tone of the last part (a triptych-like plan is familiar in Mr White’s novels). ‘She was too disgusted with herself, and human beings in general, ever to want to dabble in sex again, let alone aspire to that great ambivalence, love.’ In spite of which, she is now, as Eadith Trist, a neurotic madam running a prosperous London brothel. ‘Mauve was her colour when in full panoply’: the atmosphere is again raffish, fantastical, with a touch of Rosa Lewis and the Cavendish Hotel in the Thirties. The note of fantasy that goes with Eddie’s appearances as a woman cannot but affect the reader’s sympathies, though the story tries to hold the balance even. It is as a daughter, not a son, that Eddie reaches a reconciliation with his mother, and then again it’s as a man that he’s killed in the London Blitz.

The key theme in all this is not just sexual ambiguity, though that turns up in several of the apparently ‘normal’ like Mrs Golson, so much as an underlying problem of identity. Even in the unlikely world of her Byzantine liaison Eudoxia is trying to order her life, and ‘perhaps even make it into something believable’. Eddie’s mother is ‘himself in disguise’. Seeing himself a mirror, ‘he was surprised to find himself look as convincing as he did, and wondered whether this had been Marcia’s impression too. Probably not. For the reflexion was already fluctuating, in the satin shoals, the watery waves of the mottled glass, as well as in his own mind. He was faced, as always, with an impersonation of reality.’ The same sensation of confused identity visits other characters, and seems allied to something in Mr White’s style that entails a use of the adversative, the muting or modifying of a statement by an alternative: ‘Or she could; one always can – but can’t,’ ‘and while wanting to, might not have wanted’, or ‘condemning yourself for the monster you are and aren’t’. Swayed from side to side, the reader is not any clearer for these possibly subtle observations.

Eddie appears, at times at least, to give himself a direction – towards the birth of a self, associated with ‘normal’ sex and hard work, an escape from his feminine characteristics. This is not to say that masculinity is ever established as itself much of a value. The novel contains a strong suggestion of distaste for women; the males in it are betrayed either by women or by the feminine in themselves; but what a masculine ideal might be remains vague. And other values are briefly evoked, as when Eadith Trist speaks for her composite selves: ‘Whatever form she took, or whatever the illusion temporarily possessing her, the reality of love, which is the core of reality itself, had eluded her, and perhaps always would.’

As I think the language suggests, what this might mean goes unrealised. Eadith chooses to regard the suicide of a prostitute in her employ as ‘the first event in her life for which she could be held, however indirectly, responsible’, and it provides her on the way to the funeral with a vision of her own chosen Hell. This is somewhat more modern and existentialist than ‘the reality of love’, but just as much a desperate gesture in the void. It seems that the void itself is Mr White’s own chosen subject. If this void is ultimately without meaning – and he doesn’t persuade us otherwise – it offers him as a novelist plenty of scope for invention, or, at any rate, contrivance.

Like Mrs Golson listening outside Eudoxia’s villa, his characters are often caught in a moment of attention and expectation which isn’t a response – as it might be, say, in Virginia Woolf – to some tremor of life usually unperceived, but which arises only from a situation the author has devised by withholding information. Who is Mrs E. Boyd Golson, why is she compulsively drawn to Eudoxia? The answer hasn’t to do with ‘life’ in any sense that will increase our understanding of it, but with sheer contrivance. The effect, as in Jacobean drama or the Gothic novel, is sometimes intriguing, but a reader who has expected more will feel tricked. If, morally, the void lacks meaning enough to enable a character like Eddie to find himself, it also lacks most of the natural evidences of life. Everything here is almost startlingly at the mercy of the author’s will. There may be no reason why Monsieur Pelletier should exist, but by reminding us of this Mr White makes him something less than a person – a mere speculation.

By contrast, for instance, Auden’s invention of a bearded lady in The Rake’s Progress was not only daring but necessary and appropriate: in the context of the opera, it created a need for what it supplied. But Patrick White’s exercises in buffo extravaganza, his 1914 St Mayeul, the Byzantine connection, or the brothel, come with their own built-in self-destruct mechanism: they can hardly expect to be believed. Modern eclecticism and contrivance seem in such cases simply ends in themselves, entirely gratuitous. I imagined that the Australian scenes might be an exception, to be taken more on the level of straight communication: but the thought of Eddie’s mistress on the sheep station and ‘the voluptuous ease of entry through the gateway of Marcia Lushington’s thighs’ discourages me.

Mr White’s style is of course a problem on its own. Impossible to tell, as with Nabokov and Humbert Humbert, how to divide responsibility between author and character. His use of the adversative style seems to be a technique of evasion. It is related to his mastery of distancing: ‘He … smiled, while the others read his thoughts, no doubt correctly’ is a wonderful way of leaving all concerned, including author and reader, on different levels of understanding.

It is his characters who suffer most: they are so clearly being used for effect. With a sort of ventriloquist’s skill he does get an effect with the more bizarre of them, while the prosaic and average like Mrs Golson are given and fulfil their role of being mocked. Eddie, for all the worry about existence and identity, has the compensation of some highly-coloured roles, among them the conscious artifice of his performance as Eudoxia, ‘expert in protocol and mayhem’. One has seen before in Huxley or Firbank, and in Iris Murdoch, the same sort of manipulation of character, the same sort of contrived pattern-making, together with all the risks of mis-relation to a human reality. In Eddie’s case, the protocol and mayhem are particularly difficult to square with a final assessment that puts him on the common level as ‘a muddled human being astray in the general confusion of life’.

Mr White’s assessments of people and things can be, if taken seriously, quite amazing. There are indeed moments when time, place and a certain imagination of disaster in Mr White seem to hit it off, as in a scene of wartime evacuees in a London railway station. Yet the tone doesn’t so much communicate recognition as surprise one with the unrecognisable: ‘The outbreak of war was to some extent a relief. The people could now assemble in the churches unashamed …’ Who else has mentioned, along with the smell of khaki and sweaty socks in 1940, the ‘stench of duck droppings’? It is an appropriate moment when Eadith, encountering concrete dragon’s teeth and pill-boxes on the East Anglian coast, is reminded that ‘this low-keyed war was not entirely fantasy.’ She is quite right: the war was real. It is the novel that is fantasy.