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How To Beat Your Patrick White Phobia

He is one of those daunting authors — many readers simply give up on him. Here’s a path to discovering the magic of Nobel-winning Australian author Patrick White, born a century ago.

When Patrick White died in September 1990, Sydney University English professor Andrew Riemer, now chief book reviewer for The Sydney Morning Herald, suggested it wasn't uncommon for important writers, when they die, to go into a period of eclipse for 20 or 30 years before eventually being rediscovered by a new generation of readers. This, he predicted, would probably be Patrick White's fate.

And so it has turned out. During the past two decades there have been times when many of White's novels were out of print. Ironically, while the novels receded from view, the plays continued to be performed. Not all of them, because White was no great playwright, but at least The Ham Funeral, Season at Sarsaparilla and A Cheery Soul, the only three that were any good.

White seems to have wanted to make the experience of reading Voss as arduous as Voss’s own fatal journey into the interior. Many readers fall down like parched pack animals and don’t ever get back up again.

But there are signs that White may be enjoying a small revival to coincide with the centenary of his birth. A fine exhibition of memorabilia is currently on show at the National Library in Canberra, featuring manuscripts, photographs, paintings and furniture that will seem strangely familiar to anyone who has read David Marr's excellent biography of White.

In June, the Australian Chamber Orchestra will present a new work by composer Carl Vine, an 11-minute "secular cantata" for soprano and string orchestra that takes as its text the short final chapter of White's novel The Tree of Man, which Vine describes as "a concise summary, not of the action of the rest of the book, but somehow of its very essence."

Less successful has been the dubious decision to ignore White's wishes and posthumously publish a fragment from a discarded novel called The Hanging Garden. However, The Hanging Garden contains at least one memorable line, about the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the way Sydney's sybaritic Eastern suburbs seem to be a world away from the staid North Shore:

In Sydney, it seems, a bridge does not bridge, it separates.

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So why is it that Australia's most famous novelist isn't more widely read — indeed, wasn't more widely read during his lifetime? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that White's two best-known novels, and therefore the books that many readers come to first - The Tree of Man (1955), and Voss (1957) - are also his least accessible. White seems to have wanted to make the experience of reading Voss as arduous as Voss's own fatal journey into the interior. Many readers fall down like parched pack animals and don't ever get back up again. I struggled through to the end of the Miles Franklin Award-winning Voss, only to be defeated for years by The Tree of Man. The fact is that White's books from the 1950s are a much harsher prospect than the books from the 1970s — but then the 1950s were also a much harsher time in Australia.

"The real problem with Patrick White is that his novels have dated," someone suggested to me recently. "Those rich families with sheep stations and mansions in Bellevue Hill and ties back to the Mother Country — contemporary Australians no longer feel a connection with any of that these days." Which is true enough. And White's novels have dated in other ways. Certainly his understanding of his own homosexuality as an expression of his "feminine side" was hopelessly outdated even while he was writing, even though it did provide him with very useful material as an artist.

But I have been re-reading my favourite White novels over the past few weeks, and I think they stand up remarkably well: much lighter and more sprightly in the way they are structured; much, much funnier; and more lyrical and in love with the erotic pleasures of language than I had remembered.

So here, in no particular order, are the White novels I think are the most approachable, the ones that offer up the most delectable fruits.

The Vivisector (1970)

He continued walking with his own thoughts, apart from Mumma, down through the street where the better houses began. He touched the leaves of some of the glossy bushes to find out whether they felt as fleshy as they looked. Some of the flowers had a scent of ladies' powder. Birds rose and fell in the air like the notes of music out of the piano shops in Surry Hills.

The story of an artist — Hurtle Duffield — born into poverty and adopted by a wealthy family that resembles Patrick White's own, The Vivisector speaks of White's sense of having been a changeling. There's been a lot of speculation about which real life artist Hurtle Duffield is based on (the English painter Francis Bacon would seem to be the best bet) but, as usual, this is really Patrick writing about Patrick, and writing about Sydney in all its gaudy magnificence. The opening section, depicting the world as seen through the eyes of a very bright, very unusual child, is one of the most amazing passages in all of White, and also one of the most compulsively readable. The scene where Hurtle Duffield is joined on a park bench in the dark overlooking the Sydney skyline by an old perv named Cecil Cutbush is unforgettable.

Riders in the Chariot (1961)

Walking and walking through the unresistant thorns and twigs. Ploughing through the soft, opalescent remnant of night. Never actually arriving, but that was to be expected, since she had become all-pervasive: scent, sound, the steely dew, the blue glare of white light off rocks. She was all but identified.

So Miss Hare stumbled through the night. If she did not choose the obvious direction, it was because direction had at last chosen her.

I am not sure it makes much sense talking about your favourite Patrick White characters in the way you might talk about your favourite characters in Dickens. White read Dickens avidly during the war when he was stationed in Tobruk, and, as with Dickens, many of White's characters are grotesques. But many of his most important characters are really just different versions of himself. Or his hated, monster mother.

In any case, Riders in the Chariot, with its four central characters united by a shared mystical vision, is my favourite White novel, and the small hedgehog-like Miss Hare, bustling through the undergrowth to and from her vast rotting mansion, is my favourite White character. White is supposed to be dated, but this great book anticipates one of the central stories of contemporary Australia: at its centre are an Aborigine and a refugee, and they and the two good souls who reach out to them are all outsiders.

Riders in the Chariot also contains White's most glorious study of suburban evil, in the form of two middle-aged ladies, Mrs Jolley and Mrs Flack, who spin other people's fortunes like the Greek fates or the witches in Macbeth. Trudging home on the road between Baranugli and Sarsaparilla, Mrs Jolley

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would have liked to kill some animal, fierce enough to fan her pride, weak enough to make it possible, but as it was doubtful any such beast would offer itself, scrubby though the neighbourhood was, she drifted dreamily through the series of possible ways in which she might continue to harry the human soul.

I once heard a delicious anecdote about White and his partner, Manoly Lascaris, attending a dinner party in Sydney where there were portraits on the walls by Desmond Digby of two middle-aged women with pursed lips and hats. One of the guests is said to have observed that they looked like characters from a Patrick White novel. "I think you're probably right, they do," said White. At which someone else asked: "Why do you write the way you do about those women?" White replied: "Because I hate them and want to destroy them."

The Twyborn Affair (1979)

'Are you my son Eddie?'

'No, but I am your daughter Eadith.'

The two women continued sitting together in the gathering shadow. Presently Eadie said, 'I am so glad. I've always wanted a daughter.'

The Twyborn Affair moves from the south of France to a sheep station in New South Wales and then to London during the Blitz (which White himself experienced). The novel's central character, Eudoxia/Eddie/Eadith Twyborn, moves also between male and female personas. Perhaps one of the reasons why White's novels aren't more popular is that they never culminate in conventional romantic, sexually consummated love. But in the first section of The Twyborn Affair White offers a rare glimpse of exactly that kind of love, in the form of the young Eudoxia and her much older Greek lover in their rented villa on the French Riviera.

It has been suggested that the central character of The Twyborn Affair is based on a real person, Herbert Dyce Murphy, the only (known) transvestite to be a member of the Melbourne Club, who called himself Eadith Murphy and is said to be one of the female figures in an important painting by E. Phillips Fox in the National Gallery of Victoria. There is an entry in the National Dictionary of Biography on Murphy, written by Stephen Murray-Smith, who says, "He greatly enjoyed his feminine life...a French lieutenant proposed to him in the Bois de Boulogne." In any case, The Twyborn Affair represents White at his warmest and most sympathetic.

He’s got radical, huge weaknesses, self-indulgences, but they are eclipsed by the purity and precision, the elegance and the penetrating perceptiveness of his prose. That’s why he lives.

The Solid Mandala (1966)

"There's more life up this end," Mrs Poulter said.

"Yairs," said Mrs Dun. Then, because never let it be hinted that she did not make her contribution, she added: "Yairs."

"It's the shops that gives it life," Mrs Poulter said. "There's nothing like shops."

"It's the shops all right."

The story of two middle aged brothers, Waldo and Arthur Brown, one intellectual and increasingly driven by hatred, the other a simpleton and mystic driven by goodness and love, The Solid Mandala has a strong claim to be considered White's finest novel. The opening pages are a comic tour de force — just two old ladies on the eight-thirteen bus from Sarsaparilla. Wearing hats and gloves, their vowels flat and their mouths pursed in perpetual disapproval, they have already made an appearance in the much darker form of Mrs Jolley and Mrs Flack in Riders in the Chariot. With the same brevity as the opening scenes of Hamlet or King Lear the opening pages set the scene for the giant suburban tragedy that is about to unfold.

Australian writer Peter Robb, in Lives, his recently published collection of essays, makes an interesting reference to "the great kitsch structures of White's novels of the Fifties and early Sixties, those parts of his books that now seem so dated and inessential, the dragging-in of religion and spirituality to give 'meaning'. Something similar happened with the painters, Sidney Nolan and Arthur Boyd, plonking allegorical figures in their Australian bush, inventing mythologies."

I asked Peter Robb to elaborate on this comment when I interviewed him recently for The Global Mail. He sees White's mythologising impulse as coming from a deep anxiety about what kind of art you could make in Australia and what kind of significance you could find in the very provincial Anglo society of the 1940s and early '50s. And Robb sees this anxiety as "peculiarly naked" in White's work.

"I find [these mythological structures] very persuasive up to a point, but then at a certain point you see what's going on — this desperate anxiety to impart a sort of mythic significance to the suburban life that he's describing. And it's intimate with his very best work. Riders in the Chariot is a wonderful novel, but it is riddled with this kind of thing," Robb says.

<p>Photo by AGIP/RDA/Getty Images</p>

Photo by AGIP/RDA/Getty Images

The Eye of the Storm (1973)

You can hear the darkness clotting in the rooms below, Lippmann bumping into furniture and sighing for the Jews; outside in the park, screams from rape and waterfowl.

The Eye of the Storm is a Gothic novel about a haunted house (as if White and Lascaris's home in Martin Road, Centennial Park were haunted by Patrick's mother, Ruth, who never actually lived there). Without question, Ruth was one of those women that Patrick hated and wanted to destroy. The novel's endlessly dying matriarch, Elizabeth Hunter ("this half-dead bed-wetting still spiteful old woman"), is part death goddess, part female Lear, her memory splintered into fragments, her domain shrunken to her upstairs bedroom, with a paid retinue of nurses who keep watch around the clock, and two awful adult children, Basil and Dorothy, who have returned from overseas.

At one point, the Jewish housekeeper, Lotte Lippmann (who makes coffee that is "bitter-tasting, and strong enough to blow a safe let alone a human skull", and who presumably has no family), remarks: "I will never understand why Anglo Saxons reject the warmth of the family." Nurse de Santis replies: "They're afraid of being consumed. Families can eat you." White certainly thought that.

The Eye of the Storm isn't one of Patrick's best novels, but it was the first I ever read and I still have a real affection for it. As The Vivisector does, this book mythologises a recognisably contemporary Sydney, and re-reading it after many years I have been struck by the way it seems to overflow with an endless stream of fabulous images — of the gloriously named nurse, Flora Manhood, walking in a daze down Anzac Parade in the surreal neon-lit hours before dawn; of a basin of fat covered in green fur, growing silently in a wire safe in the dark kitchen; of Lotte Lippmann, dancing for a dribbling Elizabeth Hunter in her bedroom ("dancing, but with eyes closed, nostrils pinched, as though the risen dead might stand before her, still trailing the stench of burning"); of the old harpy expiring at last, seated on her commode; of the virginal Sister de Santis stepping out into the garden at dawn to pick roses:

A dew was falling, settling on her skin; vertical leaves were running moisture; trumpets of the evening before had furled into crinkled phalluses; grass was wearing a bloom it loses on becoming lawn. Encouraged by the rites of innocent sensuality in which she was invited to take part, she tore off a leaf, sucked it, finally bit it to reach the juicy acerbity inside. Not a single cat appeared to dispute her possession of its spiritual enclave as she rubbed, shamefully joyous, past shaggy bark, through flurries of trickling fronds.

Dawn, or the hour before dawn, is Patrick White's favourite time of day. He also loves late afternoon when, in Riders in the Chariot, "light was no longer distributed by the sun in honest golden metal; it oozed, a greenish steamy yellow from the flesh of the grass." Re-reading White's novels I see that one of his great subjects is light in all its infinite variety - sunlight, deep shadow, inky darkness, streetlight. Another is gardens. I think I could read White's descriptions of plants, grass, fleshy leaves, and the shadowy wonder of gardens, and never grow tired.


I'LL LEAVE THE LAST WORD to Peter Robb. What does he value most in Patrick White? Why will White's novels live on?

"What he will live for is what every writer lives for: it's his language. You open a book by Patrick White and you see this is a first-rate writer who uses language like no other Australian writer before or since. This is what makes him a major figure. He's got radical, huge weaknesses, self-indulgences, but they are eclipsed by the purity and precision, the elegance and the penetrating perceptiveness of his prose. That's why he lives."

4 comments on this story
by John

Lovely to read an appraisal of White's work. Riders In The Chariot is my favourite too, though in contrast to SC I found Tree of Man absolutely enveloping (and enjoyed Voss greatly too) but cannot get past the first thirty pages of Twyborn Affair - I've tried twice. I also think Solid Mandala overrated (though it is good). The first I read was The Aunt's Story, which along with A Fringe of Leaves and The Burnt Ones I think underrated.

Also, I don't think the dated-ness of certain attitudes and perspectives in White's work is any problem. Reading any fiction, one has the multiple pleasures (if it's any good of course) of having something of a portal into the attitudes of the time of the writer, the particular biases of the writer, and whatever insights they might give into the time the work is set if not the writer's present. So anything 'dated' is really just a window in White and his world, and his time, whether that's the late '40s or the mid '80s.


July 9, 2012 @ 4:36pm
Show previous 1 comments
by Bee

What an excellent article! I've forwarded the link to others in the hope that that they, too, can find their way to these extraordinary novels.

When I was nineteen I first broached Voss; then again at 23 and 25. Each time I gave up at the end of chapter 2. Then when I was 27 I read The Vivisector with utter delight. Thus began a lifelong love of White's work. At the age of 65 I have just begun yet another re-reading of the whole, beginning with my first edition Happy Valley, acquired 30 years ago.

I don't find it helpful or even sensible to ask whether White is 'dated': we are hardly in the realm of 21st-century throwaway consumerism here. Each work is of its time, and transcends it.

January 11, 2013 @ 7:16pm
by alun severn

A splendid piece -- it has prompted to do what I should have done before: reread some White after something like thirty years. I read virtually all of the main titles in the 80s, I think. Recently I read David Marrs' A LIFE. But I haven't been back to the novels. Now I will. Thanks for the nudge.

May 25, 2013 @ 1:11am
by r cullen

just now finishing twyborn affair - so enjoyable; delightful & yet dense with finely wrought prose; a couple years ago read the vivisector - amazing; at times very cutting edge ie white goes into areas of consciousness few writers ever have dared to go.
i dont know australia but am just scratching my head over his being dated; maybe ill see some of it -the mythology element robb says seems artificial- in novels like the mandala & riders of chariot which i read long time ago. in any case for the sheer beauty & power of his prose there has never been a better writer.

October 21, 2013 @ 6:57pm
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