Riders in the Chariot

SnakPatrick White 100th Anniversary Challenge

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Riders in the Chariot

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maj 9, 2012, 6:06 pm

Riders in the Chariot is often considered White's best novel, an opinion that I can agree with after rereading it. It intertwines the stories of 4 disparate individuals: an aboriginal artist, a holocaust survivor, an eccentric, half-mad heiress, and a religious washer woman. Each of them is an outsider, a damaged soul, and each has experienced similar visions of riders in a chariot in the sky.

Of this novel, White wrote:

"What I want to emphasize through my four "Riders"--an orthodox refugee intellectual Jew, a mad Erdgeist of an Australian spinster, an evangelical laundress, and a half-caste Aboriginal painter--is that all faiths, whether religions, humanistic, instinctive, or the creative artist's act of praise, are in fact one."

White's prose shimmers as he deeply probes the psyches of his characters. I find that he frequently writes on the periphery of what is actually happening, so close reading is necessary. His descriptions are vivid and brilliant. Miss Hare, the eccentric heiress, has, "at times the look of a sunflower, at others just an old basket coming to pieces."

When Miss Hare encounters Alf Dubbo, the aboriginal painter,

"Once she had entered through his eyes, and at first glance recognized familiar furniture, and once again she had entered in, and their souls had stroked each other with reassuring feathers, but very briefly, for each had suddenly taken fright."

I love the image of your ideas as "furniture" in your mind, and of "reassuring feathers."

While the novel is seemingly plotless, in actuality a lot happens, over an epic canvas, from the Holoicaust, to the "Great Experiment" in which half-aboriginal children were removed from their homes to be raised by missionaries. Dubbo, one of the children wrested from his parents, although a talented artist is an alcoholic who works as a janitor. The Jewish intellectual who survived the Holocaust, but who is wracked with guilt that his wife did not, has consciously decided to put aside his education and experience to work at a menial job. The laundress, who seems to have as many children as the old woman who lived in a shoe, nevertheless has it within herself to nurture the other three damaged souls. And Miss Hare, who lived a life of luxury as a child (but also a life without love) now lives in a decrepit mansion, with trees growing through the wall, and feeds snakes to try to befriend them.

The novel is divided into sections, each devoted to one of these characters. Thus, we not only delve into the mind of that character, but we also get glimpses of what the other characters look like to the outside world.

This is one of the best books I've read in a while, and I highly recommend it. I'm convinced White is one the twentieth century author who will still be read in the 22nd century.

maj 29, 2012, 5:47 am

I'm currently reading it quite slowly to let the detail and nuances sink in, you observations are spot on... of all his novels this one is shaping up as extraordinary (if such a thing can be said)... thanks for your great review...

maj 29, 2012, 6:56 am

Some great thoughts on Riders in the Chariot. I will get to this later in the year and your review has led me to expect great things.

maj 29, 2012, 7:24 am

This is the book I bought to read for the Patrick White challenge, and I still haven't gotten around to it. If I have more reading time this summer, I'd like to get to it then. Thanks for your review, which encourages me to tackle it.

jul 15, 2012, 3:40 am

Agree entirely with above comments. Iam still reeling from my reading of Riders in the Chariot. One of the best novels I have ever read. Here's my review/rave:

"White's exquisite prose draws the reader into the souls of Miss Hare, an elderly woman living in a dilapidated mansion; Mordecai Himmelfarb, a Jewish immigrant; Mrs Godbold, a long-suffering housewife; and Alf Dubbo, an Aboriginal man who paints. Plot is secondary to the spiritual journeys of the four characters. Each of these has its own culmination, resulting in moments of high emotion such as I have seldom experienced in literature.
Patrick White shows a piercing insight into human nature. He confronts all that is ugly and shameful, and in incredible detail. Riders in the Chariot is lengthy and not for the fainthearted but if you adore beautiful prose it is definitely rewarding. Reading this novel was an astonishing journey and one that I will never, ever forget."

jul 15, 2012, 5:28 am

Superb stuff on Riders in the Chariot amanda, I will put off reading it no longer, I'll get to it next week and of course now I know it is going to be wonderful.

jul 15, 2012, 9:43 am

Barry, I hope you aren't disappointerd. Fingers crossed.

jul 24, 2012, 11:37 am

I have just finished part 1 (88 pages in) of Riders in the Chariot. Am absolutely loving it so far. It is dense and claustrophobic, and a brilliant study of two rather lonely women at the moment. They remind me, oddly, of the sisters in Gormenghast: awkward, jealous, aloof and socially isolated. Himmelfarb had just appeared by the tree, and I am intrigued where this is going.

jul 24, 2012, 10:45 pm

#8 Ooh Andy, if you're enjoying it already you will become even more enamoured as you continue. ( I found Part I the most difficult.)

jul 25, 2012, 10:42 am

My review of Riders in the Chariot

A final thought; what an earth are we to make of White’s choice of names for his Characters: Mary Hare for instance the madwoman (as mad as a March Hare) Mrs Godbold the good Christian, The aboriginal artist who signs his paintings "A Dubbo" and there are others. The policeman to whom a fire is reported is called Mr McFaggot and the strong but brainless fiancée of one of the Godbold girls is Bob Tanner. Is Patrick White having his own little joke, should we take him seriously?

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Redigeret: jul 26, 2012, 9:42 am

#10 That's an interesting question. I assumed they were barbed jokes. Likewise the name of one town was Barranugli. Sounds like an Aboriginal word but is "barren+ugly". There was another place name like that.
Unusual isn't it? I wonder what is the literal meaning of "Himmelfarb"? "Himmel" is "heaven"??

jul 27, 2012, 8:14 am

Oh! I missed picking up on Barranugli. I must search for more witty naming in "Riders"

jul 31, 2012, 7:12 am

I am now most of the way through 'Riders...', and am absolutely spellbound. I have been reading a lot of shorter fiction and short stories, and really fancied something more ponderous and wordy, and White fits the bill. There are few (modern) authors who are brave enough to spend the best part of 400 pages simply introducing their characters (Hare, Himmelfarb, Godbold and Dubbo are now firmly in Sarsaparilla). I have found it to be a fairly downbeat book, and all of the characters, for their own reasons, are studies in loneliness and rejection, and it made me wonder what White's general attitude towards humanity is, because it is not a lovely thing in this book.

jul 31, 2012, 10:18 am

Andy, David Marr in his Biography of Patrick White; a life describes White at the time he wrote "Riders" as someone who at times hated humanity and this is expressed in his novel.

That grumpy old curmudgeon that you see peering out at you from his many photos was probably a bit more than grumpy throughout most of his life.

aug 2, 2012, 9:18 am

#13 I haven't read David Marr's book yet but I imagine White was an outsider for various reasons: he was an intellectual, he was an artist and he was gay. He would, therefore, have experienced the nasty side of human nature first hand. In the later years of his life he was known as a cranky old man, although there must have been more to him than that.

aug 2, 2012, 3:12 pm

-->14 baswood:, 15 It has been noticeable that all the positive characters (Hare, Himmelfarb, Dubbo and Godbold) are mis-shapen grotesques, physically unattractive. A lot of the negative characters, such as Flack and Jolley are physically less well defined, but White makes ugliness out of their normality. He describes one as 'lipstick glistened like and accident' (or similar words). It is as if he hates the veneer of humanity, the way it looks at its most normal and the way it feels fit to present itself in public.

-->10 baswood: As well as Barranugli (=Barren +Ugly), there is also a nearby town called Numburra (=Numb + Borough?). White doesn't work hard to disguise his contempt.

aug 2, 2012, 6:04 pm

Oh I like Numburra

aug 2, 2012, 10:57 pm

I've just changed the profile picture to "smiling White with cat". Will make us ponder even more, I daresay.

aug 3, 2012, 12:50 pm

-->18 amandameale:
There is still something slightly disturbing about the smile....

I finished Riders... last night. Excellent, really excellent. Possibly my read of the year to date. The ending, with the former Mrs Rosetree now back as a European exile in polite society was extremely bitter, while the fate of the four mystics did not reflect well on humanity as a whole. Still, I found it to be a strangely beautiful book.

I have a few reading commitments over the next month or so (book groups, etc.) but I will be trying to revisit White later in the year. Thanks for helping me discover him here.

aug 5, 2012, 9:53 am

The smile! Ha!

Andy, so pleased you took the challenge.

aug 16, 2012, 11:12 am

#19 Happy Valley (White's first novel) is out on or about the 25th through Text Publishing (in Australia) if you need a new reading challenge! First time in 70 years.