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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Living and the Dead

Patrick White

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To purchase The Living and the Dead

Title: The Living and the Dead
Author: Patrick White
Genre: Novel
Written: 1941
Length: 358 pages
Availability: The Living and the Dead - US
The Living and the Dead - UK
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Our Assessment:

B+ : interesting, sombre family portrait of life between the World Wars

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Listener . 31/7/1941 Edwin Muir
The Nation . 8/3/1941 .
The NY Times . 9/2/1941 Jane Spence Southern
The Spectator . 11/7/1941 Kate O'Brien
Times Lit. Supp. B 5/7/1941 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is a second novel, rarefied in temper, fastidious in sensibility, often subtle in intellectual perception, the work of an anxious and acutely word-conscious mind. Mr. White's style is tricky and individual, though also curiously misty and bloodless." - Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Written as World War II closed in on England The Living and the Dead is a somber family novel. The Spanish Civil War is the central political conflict that colours the action, but the book covers the entire span between the wars in most of its misery. Set in London, the novel revolves around the brother and sister Elyot and Eden Standish and their mother, Catherine.
       In an early scene (though set late in the period the novel covers), Elyot reflects on his deceased mother:

It was so easy to substitute the dead for the living, to build a cocoon of experience away from the noises of the street.
       The three Standishs are complicated figures, not necessarily naturally aloof but ultimately driven to stand apart. The mother was born Kitty Goose, transformed by marriage into Catherine Standish. Her husband is no saviour, however. Her situation is improved, but not convincingly, and her spirit is quickly and decisively broken. The husband is a failure, and he fails at his marriage as well, leaving Catherine to raise the two children. Kitty's transformation into and fate as Catherine is extremely well done.
       Elyot is a writer and critic, provided for by a small trust. He is devoted to his books, "a devotion to the dust," as White describes it. Elyot studies in Germany and at Cambridge, gaining experience and yet finding himself apart. "It began to occupy him more and more, his not being part of anything," but he is unable to change his condition.
       His sister, Eden, is more of a free spirit, though that is only a manifestation of her own search for meaning. She turns to politics, and to men, suffering also from her choices.
       Other figures include Connie Tiarks, a childhood acquaintance of the Standishs' who later becomes a friend and remains close to the family over the years. She loves Elyot, but it is a love that is not meant to be.
       The strongest character is Joe Barnett, a working class man involved with Eden (and admired by Elyot). He decides that he must fight in the Spanish Civil War; there fate has its way with him.
       Elyot, in contrast, is almost completely unable to act, stumbling even into his career.
His work had evolved out of his innate diffidence, the withdrawing from a window at dusk, saying: I must do something, but what ? Out of his bewilderment he had taken refuge behind what people told him was a scholarly mind. He hung on gratefully, after a month or two of uncertainty, to remarks made by tutors at Cambridge and the more wishful and hence more helpful remarks of his mother. So that he became before long, forgetting the process, a raker of dust, a rattler of bones.
       A novel of paralysis and senseless sacrifice, love (never, here, happy or fulfilled), death, and the politics of the thirties, is an interesting document of a certain milieu and times. White writes well enough to enthrall with his language alone (see the above quoted passages), though he seems a bit uncertain about his theme and approach. The book is not entirely a success, but it is still of interest.

       While typing the manuscript, in New York in 1940, White wrote to Spud Johnson about the novel:
I don't know how it will strike anyone else as a book, but to me it seems the drabbest, dreariest thing ever written. I'm afraid my six months war depression must have got into it. On the other hand I can see interesting points in it, which make me hope it may be more interesting to a reader than I, as its author, am ready to believe.
       The judgement is too harsh -- as were many of White's judgements regarding his own work. Aside from the fact that he did not notably lighten up in much of his later work (with a few exceptions) the grimness is fitting for the book, and ultimately the points of interest (and the writing) do make it worthwhile.

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The Living and the Dead: Patrick White: Other books by Patrick White under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Patrick White (1912-1990), Australian author. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. Schooled in England (at Cheltenham, and King's College, Cambridge). His first novel Happy Valley was published in 1939. Worked for R.A.F Intelligence during WWII, after which he returned to Australia.

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