On Writers

Patrick White’s Kitchen

The Eye of the Storm won Patrick White his Nobel Prize. A rich and sick old woman is choosing her moment to die, so calls to her bedside the son Basil, an actor, and daughter Dorothy, a successfully alimonied divorcee, who are both expecting fat legacies, but mother prefers slow and extravagant dying, enjoying the dismay of her beneficiaries at the cost of her palliative care. From her deathbed she continues to rule them with small cruelties, as she has all their lives.

Some commentators believe Patrick White is the sole Antipodean writer worthy of a Nobel prize, and his novels are much admired, although many readers complain they cannot come to care about his characters. Fred Schepisi’s film of White’s The Eye of the Storm about their family hatreds made me tearful. When I told Fred this, he said, ‘When we are together I will tell you how we made you cry.’ I’d like to understand his trick but to the time of writing I haven’t spoken with him again. I did send him this anecdote.

I had forgotten how Patrick White was drawn to cruelties.  In mid 1970s, after White’s Nobel and the publication of The Eye of the Storm, I was in service once a month on the Literature Board, which was then chaired by poet Nancy Keesing.   White habitually invited the Keesings to dinner at the mansion ‘Highbury.’  White’s companion Manoly Lascaris was most often the cook, but at one of these gatherings White himself brewed a curry and served it individually to the guests, including a couple from a near house, who were effusive in praise of the curry, of the house, of White and his writing.  They left soon after eating and White saw them to the door, thanked them for their company, and returned to the table.  He was delighted with a trick he had played on them, preparing their dishes poisonously over-laced with chili,  inedible, and enjoyed watching them force their way through it, their descriptions of its deliciousness, their need then to leave early.  ‘They are such gushers,’ he laughed, ‘and oh, how I despise gushers.’

Nancy Keesing seemed still shocked as she told us.