In early 2010, Random House publisher Meredith Curnow took a peculiar call from the Sydney literary agent Barbara Mobbs. The former rep for Patrick White – and since his death in 1990, his literary executor – asked the publisher to meet her in a café in the QVB for a cup of tea. There was something she wanted to show her.
“Something” at first appeared a bit of a letdown, a generic looking ring-bound folder, the kind in which you might find a third-rate Honours thesis. But inside was a bit of buried literary treasure: the manuscript of an unpublished Patrick White novel. For Curnow, who had spent years acquiring the rights to re-publish White from Random House UK, it was a thrilling moment. “I really believe that all Patrick White should be in print and available to all Australians,” she says.
Australians will be able to read the contents of that folder this April as Random House, through its Knopf imprint, releases the first White novel published since 1986’s Memoirs of Many in One. Fatefully, it arrives on the centenary of his birth. Set in Sydney during the Second World War, The Hanging Garden tells the story Eirene Skavlos, a Greek-Australian girl raised in Greece, and Gilbert Horsfall, an English boy, both brought to a house in Neutral Bay to wait out the conflict. In the novel, the famously grumpy White does a brilliant job channeling the childrens’ inner worlds and evoking the garden they make their own. The work's as opaque as some modern readers would expect of White, but as good as his defenders would hope.
Yet White did not want the world to see it. He began writing in 1981, just after sending off the manuscript for his controversial memoir, and put the book aside later that year. It was found in the desk of his Centennial Park home when he died nine years later and his instructions to Mobb were to destroy everything left behind. Mobbs did not follow those instructions, and in 2006 sold the hand-scrawled manuscript, along with 32 boxes of letters and other papers, to the National Library in Canberra, the proceeds going to charities.
Seeing something in the five bundles of foolscap that would become The Hanging Garden, she approached two Sydney University professors about transcribing the prose from White’s blue biro flat scrawl to more legible type – and with an Australian Research Council grant, two PhD students set to work. The result would be ring-bound and presented to Curnow.
“Barbara doesn’t even believe in posthumous publishing,” says Curnow. “And it’s always been very controversial. More often than not it’s unsuccessful – people will go, ‘This isn’t how I remember Nabokov.’” So it was key to know the book would show White on top form.
The professors, the students and other readers who made the trip to Canberra to read the manuscript – White enthusiast and biographer David Marr among them – faced challenges. There was the idiosyncratic White punctuation and the handwriting itself. Marr describes it in a note at the end of the book as “superb at first glance” but with “traps and hidden tangles for the uninitiated.” (Marr had been initiated: he edited a collection of White’s letters published in 1996). Complicating the process further was White’s inclusion of Greek phrases, many gleaned from his life partner Manoly Lascaris. “Manoly’s Greek was colloquial, so we had to find someone who’s Greek wasn’t scholarly,” says Curnow. “In the end, pretty much all the holes were filled.”
But why not destroy it, as per White’s wishes? “If we thought it was subpar, we would have,” says Curnow. “As Barbara says, had he really wanted it destroyed, he would have either destroyed it himself or made her destroy it in front of him, as he did other things.” In his note, Marr points out that when White left his former home in Castle Hill, he burned all his manuscripts himself.
Marr also hints that The Hanging Garden might not have been abandoned, but set aside to be revisited. The novel ends with the children as teenagers at the close of the war. But on the back of the last page of the foolscap bundles is a note in what Marr describes as “shaky biro”: '14 in 1945, 50 in 1981.'
The Hanging Garden is available April from Knopf, $29.95.