Of the major twentieth-century writers in English, Patrick White stands with the best, partly because he refused to repeat himself and partly because he refuses to tell you everything, so that when you read him there is a sense of discovery.
By Roberta Silman.
Patrick White would have been 100 years old on May 28th, and although he has been dead for 22 years and won the Nobel Prize (the first Australian to do so) in 1973, his work, upon rereading, resonates as strongly and importantly today as when his novels were first published. In fact, he is one of the few writers in my experience whose work glows even more brightly than it did when I first encountered him in the early 1970s.
“Read Voss,” my first editor at The New Yorker told me. And when I did, I discovered why she felt she couldn’t really describe it more than to say that it had “great mystery and value.” Perhaps that is why his work has never found the wide audience it deserved, but, as we all know, it isn’t over until it is over. Moreover, I would not suggest Voss first. Of all his novels, it is the most difficult. For a good introduction to White’s genius, I would suggest his first book, The Happy Valley, or The Tree of Man or Riders in the Chariot or The Aunt’s Story. Then go on to The Eye of the Storm (his Nobel Prize-winning book) and Voss and The Fringe of Leaves, which he had abandoned and then returned to after he won the Nobel Prize.
Of the major twentieth-century writers in English, he stands with the best, partly because he refused to repeat himself and partly because he refuses to tell you everything, so that when you read him there is a sense of discovery, a sense that here, in your hands, is an experience that will somehow enlarge your perception of the mysteries inherent even in the most ordinary life, an encounter that gives you insight into good and evil and how they shape our individual journeys from birth to death. Reading such work engenders a kind of rapture; it is what I feel when I read James Joyce’s short stories and certain parts of Ulysses or the novels and stories of Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Elizabeth Bowen, and William Trevor. Or when I see a Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter or Eugene O’Neill play.
Part of it has to do with the language—all of the above writers chose their words with great care and expect them to matter. There is no skimming a White novel. Another part of it has to do with the moral basis of his narratives. Although he never preaches, you know that an ethical imperative propelled White to tell this particular story, whether it about a couple conquering the outback, an early German explorer who opens up parts of Australia, the struggles of an artist, the Jews after the Holocaust, or a shipwreck and a rescue that lands a woman among the Aborigines.
In White’s case, it also has to do with his refusal to write fiction that merely reports, that falls into the well-meaning category of what a friend of mine calls “a state of the nation” novel. White’s characters are often combinations of traits from people he knew, but they are elevated beyond realistic portrayal into the realm of the near-mythic, endowed with a larger-than-life quality that reflects deep internal and external conflicts: White’s skeptical yearning for the transcendent, Australia’s vast wilderness and its disturbing history.
Here is an example of White’s prose from the opening of Riders in the Chariot:
“Who was that woman?” asked Mrs. Colquhoun, a rich lady who had come recently to live at Sarsaparilla.
“Ah,” Mrs Sugden said and laughed, “that was Miss Hare.”
“She appears an unusual sort of person,” Mrs Coquhoun ventured to hope.
“Well,” replied Mrs Sugden, “I cannot deny that Miss Hare is different.”
But the postmistress would not add to that. . .
Miss Hare continued to walk away from the post office, through a smell of moist nettles, under the pale disc of the sun. An early pearliness of light, a lamb’s-wool of morning promised the millennium, yet, between the road and the shed in which the Godbolds lived, the burnt-out blackberry bushes, lolly and waiting in rusty coils, suggested that the enemy might not have withdrawn. As Miss Hare passed, several barbs of several strands attached themselves to the folds of her skirt, pulling on it, tight, tight, tighter, until she was all spread out behind, part woman, part umbrella.”
White was a difficult child—asthmatic, solitary, socially immature. When quite young, he also realized he was homosexual, which made him even more of an outsider in the milieu of privileged Australians whose expectations included a conventional life with marriage and children. He was born in London of not young parents: Dick, a sweet somewhat dull man who died in middle age and Ruth, a domineering woman who lived until she was 90 and clashed continuously with her son. When White was a toddler, the family went back to their thousands of acres in Australia, their horses and high teas and country clubs; there he was cared for by a devoted nanny until he was sent to Cheltenham in England (which he called his four year prison sentence), went on to King’s in Cambridge, and then journeyed back to Australian to work for a while as a “jackeroo,” a stockman who took care of cattle and sheep in the outback.
Luckily for him, the Second World War intervened and during his time in Air Force Intelligence in the deserts of the Middle East he met the man who was to become his life partner, Manoly Lascaris, whose father was Greek and whose mother was American. Lascaris was calm, forbearing, and possessed of a great generosity of spirit, particularly an ability to forgive. He proved a perfect foil for what White called, in his autobiography/memoir Flaws in the Glass, his “bitter nature”: a pessimistic, often volatile temperament that came from feelings of inadequacy that sometimes led to outrageous and mean behavior.
Their 50 year marriage was not easy, and White would never come out. Still, the writer always said he had had more happiness than most. Moreover, White could be charming and funny when he was relaxed, and everyone who knew the couple agreed that he was probably more relaxed and easier in his skin with Lascaris than anyone else. They made many loyal friends, whom they entertained on Sundays when White cooked exquisite lunches, anxious until the main course had been served but excellent company after that.
At the end of his memoir, long after the author had admitted to himself that he believed in something that, for want of a better word, might be called God (even though he had no use for organized religion), White tried to pin down what his relationship with Lascaris had meant to him:
When I say love redeems I mean the love shared with an individual, not necessarily sexual, seductive though sexuality may be. Those who believe I don’t understand Christian love will probably be joined by the ones who interpret this other statement as the straw grabbed at by an ageing man as passion floats out of reach. If it is making do, let us make do, whatever our age, in a world falling apart.
For anyone interested in their life together, David Marr’s 1991 biography Patrick White, A Life is a marvelous book, filled with a detailed depiction of White’s life and work. Wise and compassionate, the volume shows enormous respect for White’s great determination and intelligence, yet does not flinch from revealing the whole story—how the author’s stubborn streak could get him into trouble and, for example, end a 30-year-old friendship with a temper tantrum over something trivial. Or how Lascaris watched over him when he was sick with the bronchial trouble that plagued him all his life, sometimes landing him in hospital when he least expected it. Or how he was seduced by the world of the theater that never treated him kindly.
Although he was far from a brilliant student, White had always been a voracious reader, gobbling Dickens and Trollope and Shakespeare when he was young and turning to Chaucer and Dostoevsky and Dickens again during his years in the Air Force. When he and Lascaris decided to settle in Australia, White began to write seriously, which he could do because he didn’t have to worry about money because of inherited income. He had his ups and downs with publishers in London and Sydney and New York, but in the long haul, he was one of the luckiest twentieth-century authors—he had Juliet O’Hea at Curtis Brown as an agent and Ben Huebsch at Viking in New York as his editor; both were utterly loyal and fostered his career despite poor sales, sometimes in London, sometimes in New York, and almost always in Australia.
He and Lascaris tried farming and breeding dogs at their first farm, which was about 20 miles from Sydney, then later bought a home in one of the city’s suburbs. White never really made very much as a writer, but they had enough if they were careful. White did the housework and cooking, and Lascaris the shopping and cooking and gardening. When he won the Miles Franklin Award for Voss and was asked what he would do with the 500 pounds in English money, White said, “I am going to buy a hi-fi set,” then added after a moment’s reflection, “and a kitchen stove.”
One of the most interesting things to me is White’s powerful love of music, particularly his need for it when he was writing. Marr observes that “to get in the mood for work” he played the gramophone until he was “quite drunk” with music. The author claimed that music lulled images out of the unconscious and helped him shape his fiction. While working on Voss, White turned to the music of Alban Berg, to whom he felt very close after he learned that Berg was a bronchial asthmatic, as well as the compositions of Bartok and Mahler. Each book had its own composer or visual artist, a muse that helped see him through the completion of the work. White’s love of art led to a very close relationship for many years with Sidney Nolan. The author was a collector of Australian art, which went to important museums after Lascaris died in 2003.
Ironically, it was Nolan who represented White at the Nobel ceremony in Sweden because White was offended at the invitation, which he perceived as demeaning to Lascaris. The whole incident was typical of the craziness in White’s personality: he refused to acknowledge Lascaris as his partner yet didn’t like it when the Swedish Academy didn’t know how to invite his mate.
If he had gone to Sweden or even have consented to send a statement, he might have said something like what he wrote in Flaws in the Glass:
What do I believe? I am accused of not making it explicit. How to be explicit about a grandeur too overwhelming to express, a daily wrestling match with an opponent whose limbs never become material, a struggle from which the sweat and blood are scattered on the pages of anything the serious writer writes? A belief contained less in what is said than in the silences. In patterns on water. A gust of wind. A flower opening. I hesitate to add a child, because a child can grow into a monster, a destroyer? Am I a destroyer? this face in the glass which has spent a lifetime searching for what it believes, but can never prove to be, the truth. A face consumed by wondering whether truth can be the worst destroyer of all.
Once more, a bunch of contradictions. Yet it is exactly those conflicts that make White so visionary a writer and that made his life so hard. His existence as a homosexual artist was filled with highs and lows that sometimes seemed to overwhelm him.
Just as I was finishing this piece, I Googled White’s name to see what is happening on the weekend of his hundredth birthday. Sure enough, the Great Lakes Advocate had an article by Marr reporting that Happy Valley will be published again in Australia so that White’s work will be brought to the attention to the young. (White never allowed his first novel, which appeared in the late ’30s, to be republished.) The publisher said after reading the book,
“For me it was a revelation. It will change our understanding of White’s development and it will help us understand why his love/hate relationship with Australia went so deep and was so profound for him all his life.”
Marr ends his piece with this anecdote: “Mobbs [White’s literary executor] is a droll woman. White often asked her: ‘Will they read me when I’m dead?’ She always replied, ‘I’ll let you know.’” Given the magnitude of White’s brilliance, the answer will always be yes.
Roberta Silman is the author of Blood Relations, a story collection; three novels, Boundaries, The Dream Dredger, and Beginning the World Again; and a children’s book, Somebody Else’s Child. She can be reached at email@example.com.