by Nicholas Shakespeare
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, Halldo ́r 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 Roman 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 under- stand 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 under- stands themselves a little better), the fading of White’s reputa- tion 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 billa- bongs, 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 litera- ture’, 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 nine- teenth 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 Palfrey- man’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 High- lands, 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 Nancy 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 regenera- tive 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 float- ing 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, 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 posses- sion’. 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 after- wards 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 per- verse side of my nature’. In Johann Ulrich Voss, ‘there is more of my own character than anybody else’s’.
One unusually dreadful night in the Blitz, so one of the legends goes, White grabbed a bottle of Calvados and under his bed started reading the journal of the explorer Edward John Eyre, who in 1840-41 had walked across Australia from Adelaide to Albany. White was ‘electrified’. ‘Falling bombs and Eyre’s journal started in me a longing for Australia and some kind of creative urge I could not yet channel or even define.’ Under that barrage, he was possessed with a ‘terrible nostalgia’ for the scents and sounds of the landscapes he had known during two years when he had worked as a jackaroo, before going up to Cambridge: ‘Frosty mornings on the Monaro, with sulphur- crested cockatoos toppling the stoked oats; floodwaters of the Barwon and Namoi through which I swam my horse to fetch the mail; the peppertrees and cracked asphalt of steamy Sydney streets.’ But it was another two years before the idea for what he called his ‘explorer novel’ took root – and then nowhere in Australia, but in a tent in the North African desert, where White, working now for Air Force Intelligence, had been posted as a censor.
Not long before his arrival in Maarten Bagush, White had fallen in love with the character who was to play, so to speak, Laura Trevelyan to his Voss. ‘Perhaps the most important moments of my war were when, in the Western Desert, I con- ceived the idea of one day writing a novel about a megalo- maniac German, probably an explorer in nineteenth-century Australia, and when I met the Greek friend Manoly Lascaris who has remained the mainstay of my life and work.’ He turned against virtually everything else in the end – books, people, Australia – but not Lascaris. What Laura was to be for Voss, Lascaris became for White: ‘the twin who might bring a softer light to bear on my bleakly illuminated darkness’. Obsessed, White explained, by his role as censor, and separated from Lascaris after their initial encounter in Alexandria, ‘we perfected the art of writing to each other in code … As a result, isolation, desert, repressed sexuality, the voice of Vera Lynn on the Orderly Tent wireless, the letters which might never reach their destination, or if they did, convey an uncom- municative message, preyed on me to the extent that my pre- sent circumstances began to coalesce with memories of nights in my Ebury Street bedsitter reading Eyre’s Journal as the bombs fell on London. A seed was sown in what had the appearance of barren ground.’ In pages gritted by sand, in text blurred with sweat, White furiously made notes. But not for another twelve years did the seed germinate.
In Sydney after the war, while waiting for Lascaris to join him from Egypt, White researched his explorer novel in the Mitch- ell Library and discovered for the first time an account of Ludwig Leichhardt: an autocratic German of unstable mental- ity, whose party of seven men and seventy-seven animals was lost without trace somewhere south-west of Darling Downs, early in 1848, while trying to cross the Australian continent. The thirty-four-year-old Leichhardt, an irresponsible blun- derer and sponger, tall, jealous, another with White’s blue peering eyes, and described by a member of Leichhardt’s second expedition (and of a search party sent to look for him in 1852) as the most selfish man he had ever known, replaced the more appealing character of Eyre as White’s model.
Leichhardt had been the most famous man in Australia when his first expedition reached Port Essington in December 1845, after fourteen months and seventeen days. His dis- appearance three years later in the unknown heart of Australia inspired nine further expeditions to discover his fate, and a 1941 historical account by Alec Chisholm, Strange New World, which White read. In this, the epic story of Leichhardt, the heroic failure, swiftly degenerates into the tawdry fantasies of figures invariably less heroic – and further, who claim to be in tantalizing possession of relics which they refuse to let anyone see. For a second time, White was hooked. Here was a Scott of the sand.
A pastoralist, Duncan McIntyre, discovered two trees carved with Leichhardt’s initials near the Flinders River plus a pair of saddle-horses padding around in a distressed state. Seven- teen years on, the women of Melbourne ‘sent round the hat’ and collected £4,000 to sponsor MacIntyre to investigate the Gulf of Carpentaria, where he proceeded to die.
In 1871, an expedition to Cooper Creek learned from an aborigine about a party of white men killed at a nearby water- hole when he was a child. A sub-inspector of the Native Mounted Police came upon several skeletons on the ground, some scraps of moleskin, an iron tomahawk and fragments of a white man’s hair woven into a bag used for carrying around the narcotic pituri. ‘I have no doubt that the bones I found must be the remains of some of Leichhardt’s party.’
But in June of that year, a horse-stealer, Andrew Hume, who had grown up near the Whites’ extensive properties in the Hunter Valley, made an appeal to the authorities to release him from his prison cell in Parramatta: his case was strengthened by an extraordinary story and also proposal. In 1862, while travelling in the interior, Hume had met, living with the natives, the sole survivor of an exploratory party. This man had buried packages containing vital documents ‘and other relics’ beneath two marked trees a hundred miles apart. He had suggested that Hume take a party and dig the documents up.
A year after he was released for this purpose in January 1872, Hume reappeared in Brisbane. He had found the white man – Adolf Classen, Leichhardt’s putative brother-in-law and second-in-command of the 1848 expedition. From Classen, Hume had learned how Leichhardt’s men had mutinied west of Queensland and attacked their leader when he refused to turn south, Leichhardt dying in Classen’s arms. Classen had decided to remain in the interior, taking an aboriginal wife and fathering three children. He had handed over Leichhardt’s diaries, watch and telescope, apparently, to Hume, who had stuffed them into his satchel.
Hume reached Sydney in February 1874, but with his satchel empty. Intact when he left Brisbane, it had been ripped open – Hume had no idea when or where – and the contents stolen. Pooh-poohed by many as an outright fabricator, Hume was believed in by at least two men of knowledge and influence, Dr J. D. Lang and John Campbell. The upshot was that Hume set off again in July with two companions. This expedition petered out in another catastrophe, a delirious Hume wandering in aim- less circles after shooting dead his horse for its blood, before expiring himself. His body, like Leichhardt’s, was never traced.
The most convincing relics to turn up in ninety years were a wrought-iron saddle-ring discovered in the Simpson desert in 1938 by Dr Grenfell Price, plus two coins from a pre-Leichhardt era: a half-sovereign worn on a chain and a Maundy three- pence dated 1841, before Leichhardt sailed from England. As for what had happened to Leichhardt – drowned in a flash flood, perishing of thirst, killed by his own men, the aborigines, himself – that book remained rivetingly open.
White responded to many aspects of Leichhardt’s story. His nationality for one thing. White spoke German reasonably well. At Cambridge, he had spent his long vacations in Ger- many (and would make Voss’s birthplace the ‘gabled city’ of Hanover). Leichhardt’s autocratic make-up chimed with ‘that greater German megalomaniac’ who had been responsible for those bombs falling in the Blitz and for the many months that White had spent ‘traipsing backwards and forwards across the Egyptian and Cyrenaican deserts’. But something else attracted a preternaturally sensitive Australian writer to an ‘unusually unpleasant’ German visionary: Leichhardt, it turned out, had explored White’s heimat.
In a cedar forest, on or near the Whites’ Hunter Valley estate at Belltrees, in 1842, the incompetent Prussian had lost his butterfly and flower specimens and horse. As well, Arthur Hentig, one of Leichhardt’s five white companions on the fatal 1848 expedition, had worked as a farm overseer in the Hunter Valley. Shortly after Lascaris flew in from Egypt, in March 1948, White took him to Belltrees in order to resume research into events that had occurred exactly a century before; and, second, to introduce Lascaris to his family territory. White’s favourite painting was by Max Wetters, showing ‘the country around Belltrees’. He was felled by that landscape which led him, as ever, back ‘to childhood, the source of creation, when perception is at its sharpest’. Ditto Voss. ‘It was the valley itself which drew Voss . . . ‘‘Achhh!’’ cried Voss upon seeing.’
But this for the moment was as far as White went. In disgust, he put aside his notes after the dismal reception of his third novel, The Aunt’s Story – overlooked, especially by local critics, where it was not misunderstood or reviled. ‘The failure of The Aunt’s Story and the need to learn a language afresh made me wonder whether I should ever write another word.’ Instead, he bought ‘Dogwoods’, a villa in a hollow on a six-acre pad- dock twenty-five miles from Sydney, where he and Lascaris grew cabbages and cauliflowers, churned butter, and bred schnautzers and goats. Few Australians knew where White was or had read him (less than 350 had bought copies of his second novel, The Living and the Dead). He was known, if at all, he wrote bitterly, as ‘a fake Pom and writer nobody had heard about’. In his cups, he would round on Australia as ‘a country of frustration’ where ‘the national genius is for ugliness’, and in a rare piece of journalism, written to defend Voss, he would condemn his homeland in one long contemptuous sentence. ‘In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which beauti- ful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes, in which human teeth fall like autumn leaves, the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier, food means cake and steak, muscles prevail, and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves.’
Farming consumed him now, he wrote to a friend in New Zealand. ‘I feel I shall never put pen to paper again, and can’t much care.’ He was, he told her, in a ‘colourless state of wishing for nothing more’. In such a state, William Faulkner had stopped thinking of himself in publishing terms.
Exactly as rejection spurred Faulkner into writing The Sound and The Fury (after his publisher turned down his 600-page manuscript of Flags in the Dust, with a recommendation that he did not offer it elsewhere), White’s imperative to fill Australia’s great emptiness – in the teeth of complete disinterest – drove him back to his desk, and to sit down and dirty, in fresh words, with ‘the bags and iron of Australian life’. In the process, he wrote two successive classics. The first was The Tree of Man, a novel which delved beneath the kind of rural existence, snout to the soil, that White and Lascaris pursued at ‘Dogwoods’. The second was Voss, resumed after one of his most violent asthma attacks in twenty years (probably encouraged by ‘the pollen from the paspalum which was always threatening to engulf us’).
The seed sown in the North African desert in 1942 ger- minated in November 1954 in the public ward of a Sydney Hospital. ‘My only consolation is that these attacks are a great help creatively,’ White wrote to his faithful American publisher and bedrock Ben Huebsch, whose belief remained steadfast that reviews did not matter – a good book would always find its reader. ‘Yesterday, I was seeing quite clearly whole stretches of a novel I am planning to start after Christmas, and which had remained misty until now.’ For six weeks, asthma had knocked White over ‘like a ninepin’ and reduced him to retch- ing for non-existent air, but his affliction served as the source of his renewal. ‘In my half-drugged state, the figures began moving in the desert landscape. I could hear snatches of con- versation, I became in turn Voss and his anima Laura Trev- elyan.’ And then this Yevtushenko moment. ‘On a night of crisis, with the asthma turning to pneumonia, I took hold of the hand of the resident doctor standing by my bed. He with- drew as though he had been burnt.’ While White recovered in hospital, he sketched out the skeleton of the novel he now knew he would write.
‘A novel should heighten life, should give one an illuminating experience; it shouldn’t set out what you know already.’
White had never ventured into the hinterland which his book brings into blazing dimensions, and would never do so save in his head; the furthest he penetrated was to a Queens- land property called ‘Brenda’, where he had travelled with a Withycombe uncle back in 1931. Often influenced by paintings, he was guided into Voss’s landscape by Sidney Nolan’s red outback canvases which had been inspired by another calami- tous expedition, that of Burke and Wills (1860-61). Writing to Nolan in the hope that he would respond to the idea of doing the jacket for Voss (he did), White sketched out his theme: ‘The character is based, but only based upon that of Leichhardt. The book is really about the development of a relationship between Voss and a woman he meets briefly while passing though Sydney. It is the story of a grand passion consummated only in the minds of the two people concerned as the expedi- tion advances into the interior.’
To Joseph Losey, he described the couple’s chief and binding characteristic: ‘Both LT and Voss are Will personified.’
It was nothing if not an act of will for the taciturn White to write about the ‘grand passion’ of a man and a woman who had met each other for a few hours in total. ‘It is an act of will for me to sit down at my desk every day and start work,’ he later groused. ‘I am mentally very frightened indeed.’ He touched on the process in a 1977 screenplay (The Monkey Puzzle) in which an autobiographical writer called Will Garlick madly explains in voice-over that art, like life, is ‘an act of almost pure (softly) will . . . and courage . . . the courage not to side- step one’s blemishes and vices – all ALL must be shown in what amounts to a gigantic orgasm of honesty.’
White’s will was of a piece with his honesty and courage. Helevelleditatthepage,uprootingcliche ́s,hackingaway comforting or familiar phrases, scooping out verbal equivalents of the maggots that he scraped from his sheep at ‘Dogwoods’. ‘My pursuit of that razor-blade truth has made me a slasher.’ He described as ‘impossible’ but also as ‘imperative’ the daily wrestling-match in which he perceived himself to be engaged: ‘to create completely fresh forms out of the rocks and sticks of words’ – and then to try and mould them in order to reach that ‘state of simplicity and humility’ which was, White believed, ‘the only desirable one for artist or for man’. Also in clear-felling terms he wrote to Ingmar Bjorksten in 1973: ‘I can’t talk about style. I only know I do what I do when I feel that it has to be done; I tend to break up language trying to get past what is stubborn and yielding, to convey the essence of meaning.’ Out of that wrestling-match, that clear-felling, burst The Tree of Man, Voss and half a dozen major works. ‘I have the same idea with all my books; an attempt to come close to the core of reality, the structure of reality, as opposed to the merely superficial.’
Questioned once about his motivation for writing fiction, White replied: ‘It simply popped out because it had to.’ He never considered himself to be all that literary. ‘Which writers have influenced me? Joyce and Lawrence . . . The nineteenth century Russians too.’ He admired Tolstoy for his interiors and scenes of family life. As well, George Moore and Stendhal. Novels he particularly cherished were The Swiss Family Robinson, The Secret Garden and Le Grand Meaulnes. But he did not set himself up as an intellectual. ‘There is nothing cerebral about me,’ he insisted. ‘What drives me is sensual, emotional, instinctive.’ In this, he was like his heroine. ‘ ‘‘I can understand him,’’ said Laura Trevelyan, ‘‘if not with my reason.’’’ He approached everything intuitively, muddling away at it, getting flashes here and there. ‘I shocked some people the other day by saying writing is really like shitting; and then, reading the letters of Pushkin a little later, I found he said exactly the same thing! It’s something you have to get out of you.’
To get it out, he showed the dedication of a desert father. ‘Whatever happens I sit down at my desk for at least four hours a day.’ He knew that you can break up language, but only from a block that you have first already built. David Marr puts it well in his invaluable biography: ‘Both men were explorers: Voss on horseback crossing the continent and White at his desk trying to fill the immense void of Australia.’ And yet White professed the same loathing for his vocation as on ump- teen occasions he experienced for himself: ‘I suppose, at heart, I am really as malicious as my Australian critics.’ Asked by Brett Whiteley (who was painting his portrait) to provide a list of loves and hates, White included under the heading of H A T E S, ‘The overgrown school prefects from whom we never escape’ – and ‘Writing’. He wrote to Geoff Dutton in 1968, ‘I still think creativity is 90% awful drudgery.’ He claimed to have spent three days on just one line in The Tree of Man. ‘I rewrite endlessly, sentence by sentence; it’s more like oxywelding than writing.’ To his American publisher: ‘I hate writing intensely, and if I had the glimmering of anything else in me, would be off with that tomorrow.’
He would like to have been a visual artist. He always saw most of what he wrote, he said. ‘Why can’t a writer use writing as a painter uses paint? I try to.’
In London during the Blitz, the artist Roy de Maistre had taught him ‘to look at paintings and get beneath the surface’. De Maistre, one of White’s first lovers, became his ‘intellectual and aesthetic mentor’. ‘I began to write from the inside out when Roy de Maistre introduced me to abstract painting . . . As far as I was concerned it was like jumping into space, and finding nothing there at first . . . Then gradually one saw that it was possible to weave about freely on different levels at one and the same time.’ Getting below the surface, writing from the inside out, weaving about freely: this was White’s ambition. What White called ‘my peculiar style’ – ‘the fragmentation by which I convey reality’ – owed a lot to De Maitre; Voss and Laura, too, when they ride out together, side by side, writing their legend in the dust.
‘You will not leave me then?’ he asked.
‘Not for a moment,’ she said. ‘Never, never.’
Music was another influence. ‘Always something of a frus- trated painter, and a composer manqu ́e, I wanted to give my book the textures of music, the sensuousness of paint, to convey through the theme and characters of Voss what Delacroix and Blake might have seen, what Mahler and Liszt might have heard.’ To Ben Huebsch: ‘You talk about the ‘‘symphonic struc- ture’’ of Voss – well, in the last ten years I think music has taught me a lot about writing . . . I feel that listening consciously to music helps one to develop a book more logically.’ At ‘Dog- woods’ a Viennese neighbour had introduced White to Mahler and, spurred on by Fritz Krieger to buy a gramophone, White played over and over again the violin concerto of Alban Berg, another asthmatic, while writing his way through Laura Trevel- yan’s ‘brain fever’. ‘I get quite drunk with music and play it a lot to lead me up to my work.’ He chose Barto ́k for Voss’s end. ‘I couldn’t get the death of Voss right, and I was in bed with bronchitis feeling like death. I suddenly got out and put on the Barto ́k Violin Concerto, and everything began to come right.’
He had begun writing Voss early in 1955, in bed. After such a lengthy gestation, it came rapidly. He wrote on lined foolscap paper with a fountain pen (‘a most beautiful hand, it was very easy to read,’ recalled Lascaris, when feeding the manuscript, page by page, six years later into a bonfire). He had almost finished the first draft by the end of October. ‘Am pleased with it only but in fits. I am never pleased with anything really,’ he wrote to Huebsch. He finished the second draft the following June. ‘As usual I have no idea what it is like, but perhaps it will turn into something.’ After typing out a third draft in December 1956, he dedicated the novel to Marie d’Estour- nelles de Constant, a French translator who had persuaded Gallimard to buy White’s first three books. ‘At the time I felt I was getting nowhere and that there was not much point in my continuing to write. Nobody read what I had to say … when I wrote Voss I felt that although we had never met, I owed her a book.’ On 17 December he posted the typescript to Ben Huebsch in New York. White had been crossing the same desert with his characters for more than sixteen years. He felt scoured out and fluey while he waited for his publisher’s reaction. ‘I am always on tenterhooks until I know that my books are not just private illusions.’
Voss was published in New York in August 1957 and sold 9,000 copies. At first largely ignored, its fate tracked White’s reputa- tion. Nowhere was this truer than in Australia. ‘Here,’ White wrote, ‘ the dingoes are howling unmercifully.’
White lost no time in telling Huebsch that the novel had received ‘the worst reviews anyone has had since [Katharine] Hepburn was here in Shakespeare’. For Australian critics, White’s prose remained as difficult and exasperating as his character – ‘pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge’ in the lacerating phrase of the poet A. D. Hope; for Alan Nicholls of The Age, the novel was (according to White) ‘the most terrible thing that has ever happened’. White quoted the reaction of his cousin Betty Withycombe – ‘Your style which always bordered on the precious has toppled right over. It reminds me of a custard which has cooked too long and curdled.’
But the novel found its readers, exactly as Huebsch had pre- dicted, and ‘in time I was forgiven, Voss canonized’ – until it became White’s turn to resent the way in which ‘the explorer novel came to be revered almost to the point of tedium’.
Few revered his achievement more intelligently than the critic James Stern who had first championed White in the New York Times Book Review. Nor yet has anyone (in my opinion) put less tediously the effect of reading him:
Almost all novels are transients, very few remain on, permanent resi- dents of the mind. Of those that do, some cease to be books and become part of the reader’s past, of an experience felt so deeply it is sometimes difficult to believe that the illusion has not been lived. From these rare works of literature characters emerge better known than our most intimate friends, for every human being has a secret life, one unknown to all but himself and which he takes with him to his grave. To reveal in a novel this life (which is that of the soul) in such a way that by the time the last page is reached all questions have been answered, while all the glory and mystery of the world remains, is not only the prime function of the novelist but the artist’s greatest ambition – and surely his rarest achievement.
Stern was reviewing The Tree of Man, but his words apply equally to each of White’s great novels, and out of these, I would argue, most especially to Voss. Because those who venture for the first time into White’s desert are in for a bracing treat. He is not particularly difficult or tricksy, like his peers Nabokov or Beckett. His fiction is rooted in, and nourished by, the epic dramas of the great nineteenth/early twentieth- century authors, like Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence. But a ‘historical’ novel is the last thing Voss is – ‘Half those profess- ing to admire Voss,’ it amused him to observe, ‘did so because they saw no connection between themselves and the nine- teenth-century society portrayed.’ It is the work of a writer who is contemporary, exciting, heart-wrinkling, who understands women better than virtually any other male novelist I can think of, and who addresses universal themes in a prose that is entirely and compellingly his own.
As with Laxness, to read Patrick White is to discover an extra taste bud. As with Faulkner, he plunges us into a dense, peaty world comparable to no other. But White has the ability, for the reader who stays with him, to penetrate one step further into their interior. I side with Tom Keneally, who owes him no favours, when he says: ‘On his day, White is better than Faulkner.’ He towers over the Australian literary landscape as does Goethe (whom he detested) over German literature. He is solitary, unique and ultimately imperishable, like one of those colossal eucalypts on which the prickly Leichhardt carved his initials. In the confident and affirming words of Laura Trevelyan: ‘Voss did not die . . . He is there still, it is said, in the country, and always will be.’