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A drawing a day: The fevered beauty of Patrick White’s debut novel

The drawing: Young Patrick before the craggy face; his sensational first novel, Happy Valley, back in print.

Patrick White? That most prized of our sacred cattle — I can hear murmurs and groans. But try imagining White in his twenties, the young stallion…with all that prodigious imagination reined to a youth’s wild ambition. White was just 27 when Happy Valley was published in 1939 to great acclaim, and immediately out of print ever since for over seven decades until this year, White’s centenary.

Late notice: Discussion this evening. A discussion of the book and Patrick White between publisher Michael Heyward and Barbara Mobbs, White’s old friend and executor of his estate, and literary agent for hordes of Big Names (eg, Helen Garner, Kate Grenville, Murray Bail etc.) At 188 Collins St, Melbourne 5:30pm. Full details here.

There were only 2000 copies printed; I have a friend who has been seeking it in 2nd hand shops for a long time, You never know, I may strike it lucky, he says. Which is rich as eBay had a “good” first (then, only) edition for $2000; a fine copy was worth $10K. Now a minty-new hardback is out for under $30 courtesy of Text Classics, so he can stop fossicking.

The prospect of reading Patrick White does not instantly fill me with joy, even if the first half of The Aunt’s Story remains my pick as the Great Australian Novel. But reading Happy Valley! It was a rush, from the startling opening scene — what country was this set in? — and its gallop through the middle passage of sunlit summer plains, through the seasons to its resolution. White’s first sentences of published fiction:

It had stopped snowing. There was a mesh of cloud over the fragile blue that sometimes follows snow. The air was very cold. In it a hawk lay, listless against the moving cloud…

This is Patrick before the craggy face and glowering aura of Nobelhood. Happy Valley thrills with the influence of modernist experiments, but is full of passionate human entanglements. Even then he was trying to write the big novel. It has an epic feel and moves fast, excitingly, a movie waiting to be made. It reads like it could have been written anytime, it has stayed fresh. And that feels kinda classic.

 

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