The Solid Mandala – by Patrick White


Review by Gabriel

The Solid Mandala tells the story of the Brown brothers, Waldo and Arthur, non-identical twins living in the small Australian town of Sarsaparilla.  It’s a novel about lost souls and everyday saints, and what they do to find a place in the world, told with all the beauty and poignancy one can expect of White.

White has gone for the literary trope of twins that embody his notions of “good” and “bad”, and his world view is clearly laid out as a result.

Waldo is a failed writer who upholds his sense of superiority by remaining aloof.  He collects knowledge, but understands little due to his stubborn godlessness. Bitter and selfish, he is incapable of loving others except on his own narrow terms.

Arthur, on the other hand, is a ‘dill’ with an unspecified intellectual impairment, ennobled by his selflessness and his capacity for love.  He is also impulsive, sensuous and consciously disregards social norms.  In contrast with Waldo whose intellectualism is driven by a need to feel superior, Arthur has a natural wide eyed curiosity about spirituality and, or course, literature. 

All of which makes him a little too perfect. He springs from the womb a fully enlightened person, and undergoes no character development throughout the novel.  He’s a sympathetic character, but one that is completely unrelatable.  It’s no surprise that the bulk of the novel focuses on Waldo, who seems capable of anything, constantly teetering on the edge between sinfulness and redemption.

The novel is divided into four sections, with the middle portions devoted to Waldo and Arthur.  These are bookended by short sections focusing on Mrs Poulter, a familiar of Arthur’s with more worldly concerns. She is paired alternately with a narrow minded biddy and her callous husband, parallels of Waldo in the established dichotomy.  It is her interaction with the latter that suggests White’s ultimate pessimism for the place of love in the world.

Not much happens in the novel. The brothers lives are mundane. Their childhood and adolescents are recounted in detail, and then they are suddenly old men, with no marriage of children to mark the intervening years.  I’m not ruining anything by telling you this.  White isn’t read for edge of your seat thrills and plot twists, but for his skill with language, his exploration of characters and his epic themes.

Links

The ABC First Tuesday Book club discuss The Solid Mandala

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11 Responses to The Solid Mandala – by Patrick White

  1. Henry says:

    I don’t think I would like this book Gabe, especially if it you read it for the language and characters. Yuk.

    Nice work, the site looks pimpin’

  2. Lisa Hill says:

    Great review, Gabriel, and I especially like what you write about ‘lost souls and everyday saints’. And Henry, give it a go, it might surprise you! I thought it was a great book (see
    http://anzlitlovers.wordpress.com/2009/08/12/the-solid-mandala-by-patrick-white/)

  3. Gabriel says:

    Thanks, Lisa. I enjoyed your review as well, as well as all the extra content you went to the trouble of finding.

  4. Gladys says:

    ‘White isn’t read for edge of your seat thrills and plot twists’? I read Patrick White for both, Gabriel, and wait very patiently for endings as exquisite as that in ‘The Solid Mandala’, meanwhile entranced by White’s entertaining irony and endless interconnections.

    The ending of ‘The Solid Mandala’ is surprising, poignant and gloriously transcendent. Years later, I warm inside just thinking of it.

    Arthur, the dill, is ‘ennobled by his selflessness and his capacity for love’, although it’s his searing insight that best characterises him, an insight which grows steadily throughout the novel.

    • Gabriel says:

      Thanks for your input. I’d be interested in hearing why you felt that way about the ending. While I definately thought the ending was interesting, I wouldn’t describe it in the way you did, but maybe I’m missing something.

  5. Gladys says:

    Gabriel, here’s my angle on ‘The Solid Mandala’. I know it’s rather long but explaining Patrick White endings is far from simple. I hope I have highlighted more than a few ‘edge of your seat thrills and plot twists’, and welcome any comments you or others might have.

    George Brown, persists in reading Greek tragedies to the silent son, Arthur. At long last, Arthur breaks his silence though drama in his ‘tragedy of a cow’. All are disturbed. In response to his mother’s, “Cows often last for years and lead very useful lives,” we have: ‘“So you see?” Arthur laughed’. He feels the tragic dreadfully but afterwards can laugh!

    Appallingly, the text continues, ‘Dad got up and limped inside’. The ‘dill’ Arthur, has laid bare more of Greek and real-life tragedy than Dad can handle. In the end, he must use tongs to deposit on a fire the “The Brothers Karamazov” with its surfeit of interpersonal tragedy. Likewise Waldo, who inadvertently triggers much of Arthur’s insightful brilliance, is crippled by the smallest of life’s setbacks.

    Intelligent Waldo, once a boy with a future, was mother’s favourite. Waldo NEVER DISAPPOINTED HER, despite Mrs Poulter’s rude accusation that the negligent Waldo was killing the aged Ruth, at whose sickbed Arthur just sat for hours at a time.

    Meanwhile the dill brother quietly ferrets out something of life’s meaning – the incommunicable ‘diversity of what he only partly understood’ – whether by intuition, Greek myth, mandalas, drama, dance, Dostoevsky, dreams or poetry. Unassuming Arthur always gave ‘the performance they expected of him’, an extreme under-achiever (except in maths) because ‘Waldo needed it that way, only the knife could sever it’. But is Arthur REALLY the backward one? ‘Then Arthur realised Dad [who grew silenter in the face of silence] would never know, anymore than Waldo.’

    Living a dreadful Greek tragedy, the proud and vulnerable Waldo is humiliated by proximity to his insightful, angelic brother, and continues to “get it wrong” all the way to suicide. And likewise book-burner George, with the classical pediment and gammy leg, whom young Arthur felt ‘turn against him’ following the ‘tragedy of a cow’ performance. Waldo and his dad are both cripples and, as Arthur muses, “The afflicted cannot love one another”. So many lost souls include Mrs Edna Dun, Mr Dun, Bill Poulter, Mr Crankshaw, Mr Allwright and Mrs Mutton.

    On his fruitless visit to the Brown home, Johnny Haynes, decades earlier the clever school bully, tellingly says of Arthur, “I was never too sure about the twin; I think he wasn’t so loopy as they used to make out.” Arthur, the visionary, had BECOME dumb for Waldo and George!

    Arthur, who lives as a derelict to appease Waldo, is more bold, good-tempered and saintly than even Stan Parker in ‘The Tree of Man’. Yet both confess to killing; in Stan’s case, ‘an old, bearded man…dying upside down in [the fork] of a tree’ in a flood, vainly seeking a lost cow; in Arthur’s case, it’s Waldo. And Arthur’s intuitive interpretation of his role in Waldo’s suicide can’t be dismissed. The defeated Waldo’s dying words are “I never cared for marbles. My thumb could never control them,” contrast with Arthur’s “By Tuesday I’ll have plenty to tell. We’ll walk the grounds together. That’s how time passes. In little attentions.”

    Mrs Poulter and Arthur had shared walks, and a numinous dance under the ‘orange disc’. For years afterwards Mrs Poulter had only a big plastic doll (as a substitute for childlessness and, Arthur, her banished man-child); her husband Bill, who faced life issues by laying ‘around without his teeth imagining an ulcer’; Mrs Edna Dun; and her ‘religion to believe in’. But a greater disaster strikes when Waldo is dies and her best friend Edna retreats into dark recesses with no false-teeth to suck. Mrs Poulter’s God is ‘brought crashing down’.

    But miracles happen! The banished Arthur stands before her, Christ-like, humbly taking the sins of Waldo upon himself. Salvation beckons to her even as Arthur, the SANE one, is consigned to the nut-house. Salvation beckons inside the glass eye of the whorled mandala (the boy’s toy) and blazes with the warmth of ORANGE ju-jubes, her free-will offering to Arthur, this man-child. Therefore Mrs Poulter is jubilant, and now nobody can reasonably censure her for communing with her saviour inside ‘Peaches-and-Plum’.

    As a youth the strong, blond Arthur resembled the Greek athlete; in the end he resembles a Greek god. In his autobiography, “Flaws in the Glass: A Self-Portrait”, Patrick White describes Mrs Poulter as “Arthur’s earth-mother and GODDESS”.

    …Later that evening, when husband Bill asks for news, she truthfully replies, ‘nothing I can think of’. In other words: nothing that would constitute ‘news’ for Bill, a soul adrift. And she returns to ‘her actual sphere of life’ within THE SOLID MANDALA. Wow, what an inspirational ending!

    ——-

    Months after reading the novel, I recognised a creedal motif, The Apostles’ Creed, underpinning the ending of ‘The Solid Mandala’.

    The humiliated twin, Waldo, died of ‘the hatred which only finally killed’: a whole of life crucifixion, taking ‘such a time dying’. Arthur, ‘more than half of’ Waldo, descended into hell: ‘reduced to nothing’, vicariously experiencing guilt because ‘he knew Waldo would have been ashamed of sorrow’. Kind Arthur, ‘the cause of everybody’s shame’: a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, as vividly portrayed much earlier in his ‘tragedy of a cow’.

    On the third day the man-child, Arthur, rises again from the dead, and is seen and believed on by Mrs Poulter, who is saved, not so much from sin, as from childlessness to an everlasting life: “I come, my love!” He ascended into heaven: ‘For Arthur the orange disc had not moved noticeably since he began his UPWARD climb’.

    Now to the novel’s breathtakingly optimistic and exultant finale. It is left to the reader to articulate The Third Article of Mrs Poulter’s creed (the scaffolding for ‘her actual sphere of life’). I believe in the Holy Spirit (Arthur’s ‘totality’)…the communion of saints (‘their two faces becoming one’ in the solidity of the mandala)…the forgiveness of sins…the resurrection of the body…and the life everlasting. Patrick White Magic!

    • Gabriel says:

      Hi Gladys. My apologies for not responding sooner. Firstly, thanks very much for putting so much time and effort into such a considered comment.
      Am I right in saying that you consider Arthur to be a martyr, who assumes the sins of Waldo, and simultaneously provides both a saviour and child to Mrs Poulter? It’s an interesting interpretation that certainly allows for a much more uplifting ending than a more literal reading, where Arthur is taken to a mental institution and Mrs Poulter is ignored by her husband. I don’t think I’ll be able fully appreciate your comments until I give the book another read, but I’ll definately keep them in mind. I hope you’re right, as I prefer hopeful endings.

  6. Gladys says:

    Arthur is not so much ‘a martyr’ as one whose life is a perpetual sacrifice: a living sacrifice out of love for others, and especially for Waldo. Arthur can be ‘saviour and child’ to Mrs Poulter – not to Mrs Dun, George or Waldo – because Mrs Poulter is always open to the spiritual, the numinous.

    Mrs Poulter is not only ‘ignored by her husband’ – as always – but, in her time of greatest need, by her friend Mrs Dun, who closes the door in her face. Not so Arthur. What an indictment on society that ‘Arthur is taken to a mental institution’, Arthur, the one who sees further! Yet Arthur remains positive. And happily, Mrs Poulter finally sees.

    Paradoxically, Gabriel, the ending is thoroughly heart warming. When you re-read the book you’ll see the ironic opening chapter, between Mrs Poulter and Mrs Dun, in a new light.

    I love just thinking and writing about it.

  7. [...] is also a very elegant explanation and discussion of the significance of Waldo’s death at Writer on Writer – scroll down to see comments by [...]

  8. Thank you for your contribution. Your views on the book definitely helped.

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