I recently re-read Patrick White's The Twyborn Affair (Jonathan Cape, ISBN 0-224-01733-0). This book was published in 1979, so it's over 30 years old now. How does it stand up?
Many people make the mistake of thinking that White has no sense of humour. To me, this book is one of his funniest, but admittedly his sense of humour is not for everybody, and it is oftentimes very black.
I read this book in the light of David Marr's biography of "the monster of all time" and White's own autobiography Flaws in the Glass. With these in the back of my mind, the character of Eddie Twyborn, who is also the beautiful young woman Eudoxia Vatatzes and the aging Madam Eadith Trist, becomes similar to White himself.
The book can be read as a veiled memoir.
Eudoxia is young White playing with an older boyfriend (or two or three) in the London demi-monde before World War II. While Eddie Twyborn's experiences mirror those of White as a jackaroo in Australia before World War II, it is also possible to interpret this as his artistic experience at Dogwoods at Castle Hill. His dogged work as a writer in a historically hostile environment, forced into a man's persona, fits this allegory easily. The rape of Eddie by Prowse can then be interpreted as a clear attack on the artist, White being savaged by his Australian critics. That Prowse later allows Eddie to sodomise him to atone for the rape is a sign of White being accepted. Perhaps it is a joke too; this may well be White's interpretation of his being awarded the Nobel Prize.
Eadith Trist is White glorying in his later years. There is a man under the ample disguise of the whoremistress, but it is Eadith who is finally accepted as a daughter by the mother who had rejected Eddie.
And it all ends in destruction through the image of the London blitz, with Eddie/Eadith dying on the pavement just moments from reunion with his/her mother.
The Twyborn Affair -- a book about how an artist, or perhaps a man, sees himself. A recurring them in White's work. The Vivisector charts how a painter is condemned to paint the truth, or the truth, at least, as he sees it. The Twyborn Affair reveals how White saw himself. He did not spare himself any pity. This is a ruthless self-analysis.
But don't forget also to laugh. The joke is, ultimately, there's no joke.
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