From the introduction
Out on the wastes of the Never-Never, That’s where the dead men lie! That’s where the heat-waves dance for ever – That’s where the dead men lie!
Barcroft Boake, Where the Dead Men Lie Human relationships are vast as deserts
Patrick White, Voss
Patrick White is one of the great novelists of the twentieth century, on a par with his fellow Nobel Laureates William Faulkner, Halldór Laxness and Thomas Mann; and yet, one hundred years after his birth, his name seems temporarily and inexplicably lost in the immense desert spaces to which he introduced a new generation of readers, buried like one of those legions of Herodotus, beneath the glare and flies and red Australian sand.
Unsentimental, White predicted as much for himself. In 1981 after yet another project to film Voss
had aborted, he wrote to the director Joseph Losey: ‘I’m a dated novelist, whom hardly anyone reads, or if they do, most of them don’t understand what I am on about. Certainly I wish I’d never written Voss
, which is going to be everybody’s albatross. You could have died of him, somewhere in an Australian desert, so it’s fortunate you were frustrated.’
To those who believe in the replenishing powers of fiction to lead you into a region different from any that you have been capable of imagining hitherto, and then to leave you, if for a flicker, with an uplifting sense that you are yourself a slightly different person (while paradoxically someone who understands themselves a little better), the fading of White’s reputation is a stain. It was through works like Voss
and his other ‘historical’ masterpiece A Fringe of Leaves
– plus novels like The Tree of Man
, Riders in the Chariot
and The Vivisector
– that White pioneered a new and absolutely necessary fictional landscape.
‘I don’t think I could have survived without Patrick White,’ said one of his friends in Sydney, Joan Masterman, ‘because he wrote in a way no one else did about Australia. He was the first white author to express through his characters the huge connection the Australian bush has on one’s psyche.’ His best material might be drawn from local watering holes and billabongs, from Faulkner’s native postage stamp of soil as it were; his reach is anything but local.
To the singer Van Morrison, in Ireland, White was one of the greatest influences on his life. He was the recipient of the only fan letter that Salman Rushdie has written (after finishing Voss); as well, of an impromptu speech from the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, for whom reading Voss was a searing experience. ‘It is like using an iron crow-bar at minus sixty-five degrees centigrade in Siberia: when you let go, part of the skin adheres to it. Part of me went to Voss and blood too.’
White, he was saying, does more than get under your skin; in his best work, he flays the reader bare.
‘I am never altogether happy if I do not know about past stages in the lives of my characters.’
White might have introduced ‘a new continent into literature’, to quote from his Nobel citation, yet his friend Barry Humphries called him ‘more Kensington than any man I know in Australia’. He was conceived in England, on Bisley plain, where his parents had gone to watch the shooting, and born at 11 a.m. on 28 May 1912 in their flat overlooking Hyde Park. He was baptised Patrick – a name he hated as much as his appearance, which has been compared to anything from a basilisk to a sea-lion – and, until he was twenty, known as Paddy – a name he detested still more. He had not a drop of Irish in him. ‘A Londoner is what I think I am at heart, but my blood is Australian and that’s what keeps me going.’ He was six months old when his parents took him to Australia for the first time.
He came from a family where ‘to become any kind of artist would have been unthinkable’. His parents were second cousins, descended on both sides from Somerset yeoman farmers who had sailed to New South Wales in the early nineteenth century and received generous land grants. The Whites were not literary: his father Dick read the stud-book, the Sydney Morning Herald
and detective stories. From Dick White, a tubby and indolent grazier whose principal passion was horses, he inherited his pale blue eyes and an income that permitted him freedom to write his ‘peculiar’ books that none of his White cousins could ever quite finish (‘I ... would be in the gutter if it weren’t for the Perpetual Trustees’); from his ambitious gritty mother, Ruth Withycombe – a lover of theatre, hats and terriers, who was prone to admonishing him with a horse whip – his prickliness and violent temper. Tickled by a legend that a Withycombe might have been a fool to Edward II, White assumed for himself the licence to pen the unsayable. ‘Anything I may have certainly comes from the Withycombe side.’ This included the weak lungs which had brought the Withycombes out to Australia in the first place. Asthma would be the curse and defining force of a life which, from early childhood, ‘nobody would insure’. In his acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy in 1973 White wrote: ‘Probably induced by asthma I started reading and writing early on.’
One of White’s ‘great reads’ as a boy was the dictionary. ‘My own explosive vocabulary was born in my early childhood – by life out of the dictionary.’ Aged seven he ran to look up a word after a visit to Tasmania. White was hiding in the raspberry bushes near Browns River when he overheard a woman speaking about him: ‘I can’t believe he’s one of theirs. He’s like a changeling.’ Throughout his life, he never sloughed off the impression of being someone else’s child, an outcast and a refugee (‘refugees are in contact with life,’ he liked to say). Nor did he stop eavesdropping. ‘His antennae are so good,’ recalled another friend, Ninette Dutton, ‘that you can go out with him in the morning, buy some coffee, go to a couple of galleries, get the bus home, and he has accumulated enough material for a week.’
Not only asthma and basilisk looks set him apart. There was his Australianness, ‘the deformity I carried around’ – like the hunchback of his Withycombe grandmother (and of Palfreyman’s sister in Voss
); there was his vocation as an artist in a land which cherished swimmers and athletes to an unmerciful degree; and there was his homosexuality. ‘As a homosexual I have always known what it is to be an outsider. It has given me added insight into the plight of the immigrant – the hate and contempt with which he is often received.’ And not only the immigrant: ‘Ambivalence has given me insights into human nature, denied, I believe, to those who are unequivocally male or female.’
That White was also ‘the greatest pessimist on earth’ he ascribed to a bush fire that he witnessed in the Southern Highlands, barely three months after his arrival in Australia, which destroyed the hotel he was staying in and from which he was rescued, in the nick of time, by his nanny. This was Patrick White’s truer baptismal moment. From the instant of his rescue, he coupled a permanent apprehension of danger with an abiding affection for Nanny Galloway’s replacement, a dark-haired Scots girl from Carnoustie. From the Presbyterian Lizzie Clark, he learned his moral code, which is that of the explorer Voss, and of Voss’s ‘twin obsessive’ Laura Trevelyan. To quell vanity and pride; to pursue simplicity and honesty; to conquer a harrowing sense of unworthiness; and, in as much as his changeling nature would allow, to love. ‘All genuine love was directed at this substitute of a mother,’ he wrote. ‘She was my real mother.’ In the White cosmos, love would always be synonymous with service.
At any rate, he came to look back on his close encounter with death as a germinating flash in which, like any healthy native gum-tree or bottle-brush, was contained the regenerative seed of future life. It is the scorching kernel of The Aunt’s Story
, perhaps White’s favourite of his novels (possibly because he felt it to be the most ignored): ‘We must destroy everything, everything, even ourselves. Then at last when there is nothing perhaps we shall live.’ It lies also at the core of Voss
, arguably the greatest of his novels: ‘To make yourself, it is also necessary to destroy yourself.’
‘My novels usually begin with characters; you have them floating about in your head and it may be years before they get together in a situation.’
He claims to have conceived Voss during the London Blitz, in a bedsitter in Ebury Street, close to where he was born, as German bombs rained down. But Voss’s lineaments can be discerned further back, in a poem about a ‘mad Messiah’ that White wrote at Cheltenham College, where his mother had sent him at thirteen for an English education, and in which he tried to make sense of ‘the emotional chaos of which I was in possession’. In that poem, a man with ‘wild eyes and flowing beard’ cries out: ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life.’ At school in Cheltenham (which he remembered as ‘a prison’) and afterwards at King’s College, Cambridge, White looked just like Voss – thin, angular, with those blue eyes – and behaved in the same prickly and perverse way. ‘He didn’t like himself very much, and had times of loathing himself,’ said his cousin Betty Withycombe. ‘His mouth was always set very hard. He had a strain of stubbornness in him.’ The historian Manning Clark passed him once in Sydney, walking down George Street, and was taken aback by White’s expression. ‘It is the face of a man who wants something he is never going to get . . . something possibly no human being can give him.’ But what? Clark ruminated: ‘a hunger for forgiveness in a man who places himself, through his pride and pessimism, beyond the reach of forgiveness.’ Of himself, White did once go so far as to acknowledge that ‘in some ways I suppose I am very Victorian’. He admitted of the novel which would take him another sixteen years to finish – ‘the book that has been wrung out of me in sweat and blood’ – that all its characters were aspects of him- self, but none more so than the figure ‘conceived by the perverse side of my nature’. In Johann Ulrich Voss, ‘there is more of my own character than anybody else’s’.
Copyright © 2012 by Patrick White. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.