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Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Book Review: The Living and the Dead (1941) by Patrick White

Book Review:
The Living and the Dead (1941)
 by Patrick White

 Australian author Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and The Living and the Dead is set in London, his only book with London as a setting, so it makes sense that this title made the 1001 Books list.  I didn't know that White was an Australian author until after I finished this book and looked him up online.  One of the revelations about from the process of a chronological reading of the 1001 Books list is just how very long it took colonies to produce their own notable authors.  Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, India, Pakistan- the development of independent literature recognized at an international level came after World War II.

  The  experience of writers from these outlying colonies prior to World War II seems largely tied to the experience of returning to England and Europe and writing about that, with many of the early writers who tackled colonial subjects being from England, making the reverse trip.  The Living and the Dead is an excellent example of a writer from a colony writing a book that has nothing to do with the place he is from.

  I think that's an example of the larger artistic phenomenon of outsiders making the most acute observations of a society because of their particular vantage point.  "Outsider art" often refers to artists who are outsiders by virtue of their lack of formal artistic training or marginal socio-economic status, but the phrase is just as apt for writers who literally come from a place outside of the original artistic community.

  White treads in the territory of D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.  That is a sensibility that is long on spiritual discomfort and physical inaction.  The twins at the center of The Living and the Dead, Elyot and Eden Standish, are the children of an upper class would-be painter and his wife, the flirty flaky daughter of a socialist harness maker from Norwich.   White gives us the romance between the parents before switching to the story of the children.  The parents and the children could be characters from any number of inter-war English novels.

  I could imagine a Netflix/television series that simply intertwines the plots of various English novels written after World War I and before World War II.   You could simply layer the various plots on top of one another and intertwine them to create a panoramic narrative of inter war English society.  The children live in an air of spiritual dissatisfaction and alienation from their surroundings that seem recognizably modern, but the narrative technique is a step below the modernist experimentalism.  For the better, I think.

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