Posts filed under ‘J.M. Coetzee’

The Solid Mandala

It is not outside, it is inside: wholly within.
Meister Eckhart

It was an old and rather poor church, many of the ikons were without settings, but such churches are the best for praying in.


The Solid Mandala, Patrick White, 1966. I’d been meaning to read this for quite a while, partly because of the intiguing title, and partly because of its epigraph from Meister Eckhart (always on the look-out for all things medieval). But I have to admit it was a sense of duty more than anything else that kept me plugging away through the first two hundred pages. I don’t find Patrick White’s novels easy to like. It portrays the everyday life of twin brothers, Waldo and Arthur, in grimy detail. Mucus, excrement, furtive orgasms, tedious suburbia, two old men and their two old dogs. Their codependent relationship of love and hate borders on homosexuality. The first two hundred pages are told in Waldo’s voice: the ‘clever’ twin, awkward and unlucky in love, narcissistic and burdened by his half-wit of a brother, he dwells endlessly on his thwarted literary ambitions. But, just when I thought I couldn’t take any more, the narrative shifts into Arthur’s voice. And lightens, and comes together, and starts making sense. Becomes beautiful.

Arthur is a holy fool. He is a lot cleverer than Waldo admits, because Waldo’s identity is predicated on being the smart one beside Arthur’s stupidity. In the first two thirds of the novel we see Waldo constantly taking care of Arthur, but in the last third it is revealed that Arthur is just as preoccupied with taking care of Waldo, perceiving his weaknesses so accurately that he knows to conceal what he knows, what he reads, and the success of his own relationships. He discovers that the concept of the mandala expresses perfectly what he intuitively knows:

“The Mandala is a symbol of totality. It is believed to be the ‘dwelling of the god’. Its protective circle is a pattern of order superimposed on – psychic – chaos. Sometimes its geometric form is seen as a vision (either waking or in a dream) or -”
His voice had fallen to the most elaborate hush.
“Or danced.” Arthur read.

Arthur is obsessed with marbles, which become the ‘solid mandalas’ of the title. Over the years, his collection condenses to four special marbles, which represent himself, and the three people he most loves. He considers throwing one away because it has a knot in it, before realizing the the knot, in fact, is the point: ‘…till from looking at his own hands, soothing, rather than soothed by, the revolving marble, he realized that the knot at the heart of the mandala, at most times so tortuously inwoven, would dissolve, if only temporally, in light’ (p. 273). He offers this marble to Waldo, ‘half sensing that Waldo would never untie the knot.’

There are repeated references to Tiresius, as well as to The Brothers Karamazov, which acts as an echo of the brothers’ fraught relationship, and their searches for transcendence. Their weatherboard house is fronted by a tragic parody of a Classical facade. Finishing the novel, I understood why White deserved the Nobel Prize. It is a heavy novel, but the weight of it is essential. Arthur’s voice would not come as such a relief if it had not been proceeded by Waldo’s. His revelations would not seem so dearly won. The two are connected, bound together. The epiphanies are expertly enfolded into the structure of the whole, much more convincingly than in my hazy memory of The Tree of Man. I was quite astonished how White managed to make this heavy material blaze with light – like the knot in Arthur’s marble. There are also some echoes of The Idiot, and in my opinion, The Solid Mandala is a worthy successor to Dostoevsky, much more so than Coetzee’s Master of St Petersburg, which I didn’t care for. This novel is quite remarkable. Consider me a convert.

Image: ‘The One’, Kiolero, flikr.


October 14, 2007 at 3:37 pm Leave a comment


This is a very good book – enjoyable to read, haunting, strange, unsettling, inconclusive but satisfying. This is the third book I have read by J.M. Coetzee and it is definitely my favourite. The other two, Youth and The Master of St Petersburg, seem thin and lopsided in comparison (I was never predisposed to like The Master of St Petersburg, however, as I was a Dostoevsky worshiper when I read it, and it doesn’t paint a very flattering portrait of him). In contrast, the characters of Disgrace are human, flawed, warm, embracing contradictions. The novel, set in post-apartheid South Africa, is perfectly balanced between three voices – the disgraced academic, his stubborn and vulnerable daughter, and the silent hurt of wounded, unwanted animals. A peculiar combination, but the voices weave together and create a curious music of degradation, loss and hope, much like the opera that the academic, David Lurie, tries to write about Byron’s lamenting mistress. Touching on grandeur, but horribly comic. The sense I am left with is that of creeping very close to the edge of everything – a blank white mist of fog, unbearably sad – and looking at it coolly, calmly, and stroking it.

May 31, 2007 at 1:48 pm 5 comments

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