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  • Patrick White’s Centenary: Australian Monolith, Explorer of the Inner Desert.

    208 miles southwest of Alice Springs, in Australia’s Northern Territory, somewhat to the west and south of the dead center of the continent, where, were it a body, its heart would beat forth a circulation of scorching rocks and pebbles, rises Uluru, the sandstone monolith called Ayers Rock. Its 1142 vertical feet and 5.8 mile circumference have been home to the creator gods of the Anangu people for so far back in time as to yield time’s immateriality. Those who bandy the notion of history call its painted caves prehistoric. For those to whom it remains sacred, the only temporal frame with which to regard it at all it is the dreamtime. One legend has it that the Rock was originally an ocean on whose shores a great battle was fought. In protest, the earth itself rose up, and has remained. This accounts for the known parts. Its unknown parts extend, by some estimates, as much as 20,000 feet below the gibbers plain.

    Uluru/Ayers Rock is the most recognizable image of the antipodean world, outstripping Sydney’s opera house, the fjords of New Zealand, and koala bears. The Cyclopean feature on the face of the desert defining the Australian interior. The people of Australia – not the People of the dreamtime, but the immigrants, descendents of European settlers and British penal colony overseers, those who, in the words of Patrick White’s Voss, “huddle” along the coast – live out their time either turning from or turning toward this 529,000 square miles of emptiness glaring out from the heart of the continent.

    Portrait of Patrick White by Brett Whiteley

    Patrick White was one who turned toward. His fiction rises, forbidding, beautiful, from the desert we all must cross who would count ourselves among the Living. As much as any writer of the twentieth century, he knew that the great expanse of emptiness must be explored, for emptiness is not nothingness but the only place from which we can know ourselves. And death, in the desert or the suburbs, is not life’s greatest peril. This distinction goes to Mediocrity. Listen to  this passage from The Aunt’s Story: The unmarried Theodora Goodman has just had a transcendent and wordless spiritual exchange with a Greek cellist, and receives a letter from her sister, Fanny:

    About this time Fanny wrote to say it was going to happen at last. When I was so afraid, dear Theodora, Fanny wrote. But  Fanny had made of fear a fussy trimming. Emotions as deep as fear could not exist in the Parrotts’ elegant country house, in spite of the fact that Mr. Buchanan’s brains had once littered the floor. Fanny’s fear was seldom more than misgiving. If I were barren, Fanny had said. But there remained all the material advantages, blue velvet curtains in the boudoir, and kidneys in the silver chafing dish. Although her plump pout often protested, her predicament was not a frightening one. Then it happened at last. I am going to have a baby, Fanny said. She felt that perhaps she ought to cry, and did. She relaxed, and thought with tenderness of the tyranny she would exercise.

    ‘I must take care of myself,’ she said. ‘Perhaps I shall send for Theodora, to help about the house.’

    So Theodora went to Audley, into a wilderness of parquet and balustrades. There was very little privacy. Even in her wardrobe the contemptuous laughter of maids hung in the folds of her skirts.

    ‘God, Theodora is ugly,’ said Frank. ‘These days she certainly looks a fright.’

    The Aunt’s Story, pp. 112, 113

    The bight of his prose attends the jaws of his own horror at the malicious force of the mediocre, the “average”, as embraced by those who turn from the desert.

    ‘A pity that you huddle,’ said the German. ‘Your country is of great subtlety.’

    Voss, p. 11

    Patrick White’s entire oeuvre is a paean to the plight of the man or woman living out of a spiritual vision, or, as Paul Tillich would have it, an “ultimate concern”, assailed by the malevolence, sometimes intended, often inadvertent, of the desert deniers. His personal theology aside, the God of his novels is, in Christian terms, Old Testament, an austere flame lighting the way of the chosen, if not always warming them, and laying waste to those who would choose.

    Patrick White, 1912 - 1990

    His affinity for those budding on the world’s far and tenuous branches he attributed to his homosexuality. It gave him dispensation, he felt, with the oppressed and reviled. He found it useful, in terms of his artistry, to adopt the rather outmoded notion that his orientation was a kind of gender inversion, a feminine spirit in a man’s body, which allowed him special knowledge and the ability to inhabit many lives. The title of his last completed novel was Memoirs of Many In One.

    In my case, I never went through the agonies of choosing between this or that sexual way of life. I was chosen as it were, and soon accepted the fact of my homosexuality. In spite of looking convincingly male I may have been too passive to resist, or else I recognised the freedom being conferred upon me to range through every variation of the human mind, to play so many roles in so many contradictory envelopes of flesh. I settled into the situation. I did not question the darkness in my dichotomy, though already I had begun the inevitably painful search for the twin who might bring a softer light to bear on my bleakly illuminated darkness.

    Flaws in the Glass, pp. 34, 35

    Against his disavowal of “the agonies of choosing” and his easy acceptance of the “fact”, his telling self-analysis of having been “too passive to resist”, his taking his sexuality for a “darkness”, suggests a somewhat different, more tormented relationship with himself. Very little of his writing deals explicitly with homosexuality. In all the novels up to The Twyborn Affair (1979), the homoerotic undercurrents are so fleeting, so organic, so subtly rendered, that the closest reader would be forgiven for missing them. But all of his work shoots from Jacob’s hip, wounded in a battle where to be blessed means to finally accept and assimilate (though by no means necessarily to reconcile) one’s own multiple and warring selves, even those which destroy.

    Some critics complain that my characters are always farting. Well, we do, don’t we? fart. Nuns fart according to tradition and pâtisserie. I have actually heard one.

    Flaws in the Glass, p. 143

    At his centenary, Patrick White’s relevance has increased, it seems, inversely to his readership. He is one of the essential writers. I hope you will read him.

    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.

    Flaws in the Glass, p. 70


  • As Patrick White turns 100, why is no one reading him?

    Patrick White, 1912 - 1990

    The time has come to speak of Patrick White, whose centenary on May 28th, is fast upon us.  I will try to keep this post fairly short because I am currently in such a snit of idolatry that I won’t have anything especially coherent to say. I will simply put forth that, for me, Patrick White ranks along side Henry James, D. H. Lawrence, Joseph Conrad, Virginia Woolf, William Faulkner, James Joyce, and Saul Bellow as one of the greatest novelists to write in English in the twentieth century. Hyperbole? You decide:

    The woman winding wool held all this enclosed in her face, which had begun to look sunken. It was late, of course, late for the kind of lives they led. Sometimes the wool caught in the cracks of the woman’s coarse hands. She was without mystery now. She was moving round the winding chairs on flat feet, for she had taken off her shoes for comfort, and her breasts were rather large inside her plain blouse. Self-pity and a feeling of exhaustion made her tell herself her husband was avoiding her, whereas he was probably just waiting for a storm. This would break soon, freeing them from their bodies. But the woman did not think of this. She continued to be obsessed by the hot night, and insects that were filling the porcelain shade of the lamp, and the eyes of her husband, that were at best kind, at worst cold, but always closed to her. If she could have held his head in her hands and looked into the skull at his secret life, whatever it was, then, she felt, she might have been placated. But as the possibility was so remote, she gave such a twist to  the wool that she broke the strand.

    The Tree of Man

    Here is the Whiteian sublime. The physicality he evokes signifies without strain: note her too large breasts, elected from, we gather, a panoply of attributes waxing too large in her plain life. And how about that biblical ninth sentence, gathering into her obsessions the hot night, insects filling the porcelain lamp shade, the eyes of her husband, and finally  something vast and forsaken at her core. Of course, we realize upon reaching the end of this passage, which feels more like a perimeter than a terminus, how obvious, the strand of wool will break, lacking, as it does, the heart’s resilience. Whole chapters could be written plucking the riches from the limbs of this passage. And, in a fictional output comprised of some six thousand pages of such passages, this one is more or less garden variety, making the oeuvre of Patrick White one of the most valuable gardens in modern literature.

    Which begs the question, why is no one reading him? Why am I practically the only one I know who has even heard of him (apart from those few of my friends who politely let me blather encomiums)?  His oeuvre has received sufficient critical attention to persuade me that I am not alone in my admiration. But even those who speak highly of him tend to refer to him as “the most important figure in Australian letters,” or “the first to put Australia on the literary map.” Three cheers for post-White Aussie writers. But White himself is so much more than the down-underwriter of his country’s literary life. He is a world writer in every sense, and should be spoken of in the same terms we reserve for José Saramago, Thomas Mann, Philip Roth, Nadine Gordimer. Why isn’t he?

    In my search for answers I’ve been reading his books like mad, reading criticism, trolling the internet, and talking with friends. A distillation of what I’ve found comes down to these four points:

    1. Patrick White is a high modernist, making him unfashionable in a post-modern world. As far as I can tell, what this means is that he followed Joyce, Woolf, Pound, and their ilk, in the belief that the old assurances provided by religion, society, and political designations, could no longer bear the weight of modern life and thought. These writers saw a sharp division between literary art and more accessible, or popular, writing. Their books are frank about their difficulties. White has been criticized for the density of his “mannered” or “poetic” prose, his “clotted images”, and fragmented sentences. Naturally, this will limit his readership, but it cannot, on its own, account for his enduring obscurity. His writing is dense, but not daunting. Most of the best of Faulkner is much more difficult. We don’t call Samuel Beckett unfashionable just because no one writes like him now.

    2. Patrick White is too pessimistic, too dark, and what he asks us to consider about human nature – ourselves included –  is beyond the pale for most readers.  I concede this may be so. Many readers have commented on the “shock of recognition” which assails them on nearly every page. But this laying bare, this “truth telling”, to use a rather hackneyed term, this “vivisection”, to use a Whiteian term, is solidly within the purview of the artist. Do serious readers really find the meanness of Nabokov so much more edifying? Does one turn to Eugene O’Neill for a little cheer-up? If White is too relentlessly grim, how, then, make sense of the ever-rising star of Cormac McCarthy, who throws a dense, gorgeous, ball of modernist prose at the violence at the heart of the void? (White’s biographer, David Marr, has said, perhaps too felicitously, that McCarthy could be “up before Media Watch on charges of plagiarism by spirit.) While we’re at it, why don’t we, for the sake of our constitutions, leave Shakespeare on his increasingly dusty shelf while we get a little spiritual r&r.

    Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris in the kitchen

    3. Patrick White was gay. This seems to be the pet gripe of educated gay men of a certain generation, who, to compensate for their admitted fragility in the world, draw strength from being “the only gay in the village.”

    4.  Patrick White was Australian, making him peripheral to the bossier entities of the literary world. This argument is, sadly, the most persuasive. It grieves me to think that literature may be subject to the same laws as cynical politics: if a country fails to find ascendance in the consciousness of a more established block, it could drop off the map altogether and the privileged parties would be none the wiser. Sam, my partner, has a different take. “There is just so much literature,” he says. His point being, if you are looking to expand your knowledge of even just the essential modern writers, would it occur to you to look to a country known mainly for kangaroos, English convicts, a rather flamboyant strain of machismo, the world’s largest Gay Pride parade, one famous piece of architecture, and an accent often invoked in comedy? Of course there is great writing coming out of that lonely desert of a continent, or at least the thin portion of it strung along its Eastern cost, but its not where most of us would go looking for it. All the same, I would think the fecund sub-genre of post-colonial literature would be happy to hold up Patrick White as one of its shining lights. Can it really come down the banality that Naipaul, Walcott, Gordimer, Coetzee, and Rushdie hale from politically sexier homelands? But then, how to account for Les Murray, widely considered one of the three or four greatest poets currently writing in English. He’s Australian.

    None of these explanations finally compel. Factoring in the idea that depth and brilliance in a body of work ought to outweigh whatever might be put in the opposing balance – an apparently fanciful notion in which I persist –  here is one further explanation:

    5. Ignorance of Patrick White and his work has, quite simply, become a habit. A bad one, I might add.

    As with racism, car crashes, and other absurdities, I find Patrick White’s obscurity hard to live with. My question – why is no one reading him? – is not rhetorical, but an honest plea for responses. Someone, please tell me.