Patrick White (b.1912 – d.1990) is a fascinating oxymoronic figure in Australian Literature with a taste for dualities, ambiguity and ambivalence. Born fortuitously in London while his Australian parents were on their honeymoon, he came from a family of wealthy pastoralists whose great-grandfather first settled in Australia in 1826. Despite his patrician education and his upper-class background, he defined himself as a socialist (who more than once barracked for the Australian Labor Party) and empathized with ordinary people, if not with the subaltern (mainly the Jews and the Aborigines). No matter how reclusive he was – first establishing himself in Castle Hill for 18 years and then moving central to 20 Martin Road because he felt suburbia was gradually swallowing him up –, the Centennial Park distinguished dweller occasionally went public to speak on behalf of the conservationists, the pacifists and the republicans, especially once he gained international recognition. While he tried to export himself to Europe and the United States as a transnational writer, he also made a valuable contribution to Australia’s literary heritage by drawing his inspiration from national icons for the subject-matter of his fiction: Ludwig Leichhardt in Voss (1957), Roy de Maistre for The Vivisector (1970), and Eliza Fraser for A Fringe of Leaves (1976). Throughout his life, White has always been sitting on the fence, fuelling his public image of insider-outsider, of an exile at home. The anxiety of not belonging – that runs through his oeuvre with his mostly peripatetic characters which hardly settle down – may derive from his inability to fit in and from his divisive yearnings. If his correspondence edited by David Marr is any proof, White regularly pined for Europe (France and Greece, but not dreaded England!) while wishing to “wander off round Australia” (29/07/1951, PWL 85).
His uncomfortable in-betweenness expressed in terms of gender, social and cultural identity is possibly the key to White’s ambivalence, his most defining trait. The Twyborn Affair (1979), which critically confronts the politics of sex while revealing the author’s private inner world, is exhibit A for displaying the politics of ambiguity and sexual indeterminacy that clearly comes through in his autobiography, Flaws in the Glass (1981):
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 on me to range through every variation of the human mind, to play so many roles in so many contradictory envelopes of flesh.
Socially, no matter how close to the people White wanted to be, he is no Tim Winton. He held no populist beliefs, roamed the world on frequent travels and moved deftly in high society. As for the cultural identity malaise he experienced in his youth, it is rather symptomatic of the postcolonial condition of twin allegiance – a no-win situation in which people feel they can never belong. Seeing himself as “a man of divided loyalties” for being brought up in Australia and in England, White bitterly recalls that at his British school he “was accused of being a cockney or colonial, and back in Australia, ‘a bloody Pom’. Language troubles have widened the split in my nature.” (FG: 41) These various splits or dualities in his nature account for the strong sense of fragmentation which defines some of his characters, particularly in the three novels which deal with mental illness and multiple identities: The Aunt’s Story (1948), The Twyborn Affair, and Memoirs of Many in One (1986). Even though Patrick White wanted to steer clear of Freudian psychoanalysis, he seems to be in tune with the Freudian axiom according to which psychological novelists who cared to go through self-observation tended to split up their ego “into many parts-ego” projected onto the various characters: “I could never write anything factual; I only have confidence in myself when I am another character. All the characters in my books are myself, but they are a kind of disguise.” (PWS: 23)
Shortly before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick White’s vanity preened itself a little when he reported in a letter to Marshall Best that Anthony Burgess made the following statement at the 1970 Adelaide Festival: “A country is only remembered for its art. Rome is remembered for Virgil, Greece for Homer, and Australia may be remembered for Patrick White.” (PWL 361) In some ways, there is still some truth in that flattering accolade because, to date, he remains Australia’s only Nobel-Prize winning author. And one can sense the national malaise of being forced to lionize an author who has had a rather strained relationship with Australia, an author who flaunted Australia’s literary prestige worldwide and flayed its cultural values and popular beliefs by turns. White’s jaundiced view is adequately reflected in the following three most scathing comments taken from his published correspondence:
“Sometimes I get fed up to the teeth here in the country, where the type of Australian one encounters is the most uninspiring, unintelligent, deadening specimen to be found on earth. Although you will meet charming people here, I detest the average Australian, who is little more than a cheap imitation of the American.” (16/03/1931, PWL 5-6)
“How sick I am of the bloody word AUSTRALIA. What a pity, I am part of it; if I were not, I would get out to-morrow. As it is, they will have me with them till my bitter end, and there are about six more of my un-Australian Australian novels to fling in their faces…” (08/02/1958, PWL 130)
“What is so amazing is that Australians have changed so little; we are the same arrogant plutocrats, larrikins, and Irish rabble as we were then. At least the graziers have been damped down.” (28/12/1973, PWL 428)
In his grumpy-old-man days, when he grew oversensitive and cut loose some of his lifelong friends like the Duttons, he went as far as to loathe nationalistic institutions like Australia Day. His mercurial moods and weather-cock statements make it extremely difficult for scholars to work out his personality and mind-set.
Adding to this confusion are a few misconceptions related to White’s reputation that must be discarded once and for all if one is to have a rational outlook on his oeuvre. One of the running truisms in Australian Literary Studies posits that Patrick White would be much more read about than read. Given the 20-odd single-author monographs that have been published on his oeuvre since his death, and twice as many since the 1950s, it is no wonder that anyone intent on studying White will spend much more time reading the available mass of critical material than White’s literary production. The fact that the bulk of these monographs were published outside Australia and written by non Australian scholars attests that White may have had solid grounds for feeling he was a writer chiefly praised abroad and misunderstood at home, and for establishing the Patrick White Award (whose untaxed cash prize is now valued at $18,000) traditionally given to under-recognised authors. However, if one must render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, the first attention he received early in his career came from two Australian scholars whose monographs were published in Australia.
It therefore seems rather peculiar that there have been talks about the fragility of White’s significance and of his waning critical reputation (when almost 50 monographs have been published worldwide at regular interval between the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize and today), of the decline in numbers of Patrick White scholars (possibly explained by the fact that after so many publications attached to his name, academics seeking to break new grounds may opt for a less studied literary figure), and of public disinterest. Sales of the posthumously published The Hanging Garden (2012) might contradict this latter assumption, unless readers will not fancy an unfinished novel nor even dare go against White’s will.
Reading White’s self-analysis to which he was consciously prone in both his autobiography and correspondence will give a clear indication of how tormented his soul was. Living in seclusion, he gradually built himself a romanticized and charismatic writer’s persona that would adroitly paper over the cracks of his strong – if not unappealing – personality. With character-driven novels constantly churning round in his head, Patrick White fuelled his romantic literary reputation of being a compulsive writer, one working under duress and who has a taste for painstaking work and a honed prose:
“Lawson strikes me as being an extremely complex character under his deceptively simple ‘Australian’ surface – a tortured manic depressive soul like many other creative artists. I know this is an unfashionably romantic view of the creative artist, but I think the fashionable opinion has been developed largely by intellectuals with little of the artist in them. Believe me, the creative artist does live under enormous stress, which drives many of us to drink or drugs in order to wring out the ultimate meaning, and I cannot see that it will ever be otherwise unless the arts die an unnatural death.” (PWS 55)
He quickly gained the reputation of being “Australia’s Most Unreadable Novelist” and, being highly sensitive to other people’s opinions about his work, he never missed an opportunity to spread the word, thus consolidating the ivory tower he has erected for himself and establishing himself as an écrivain maudit. This reputation was confirmed in 1956 when “the great Panjandrum of Canberra” (PWS 21) described White’s prose as “pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge.” Not only has AD Hope’s notorious broadside left a deep scar on White’s mind, but it gave the novelist a severe blow to his self-esteem and probably enhanced his fragility, sense of insecurity and taste for self-deprecation. His uncompromising personality has led him to turn down many honours and prizes, but unlike Jean-Paul Sartre who rejected the Nobel Prize and the tidy sum attached to it, White diplomatically circumvented the difficulty by sending his friend Sidney Nolan to accept the Nobel Prize on his behalf and donated the $80,000 cash prize to a trust fund to establish the Patrick White Award. He even went as far as to entrust the State Library of NSW with the medal and diploma he indirectly received from the King of Sweden. Paradoxical though it seems, White perceives these tokens of recognition as some form of diversion from work, some corruption that might impede the artist’s freedom. He even castigated Governor-General Sir Zelman Cowan for undermining “the Republican Movement by distributing orders and titles to artists and intellectuals whose vanity does not allow them to refuse” (PWS 88-9).
Bibliography of monographs on Patrick White and his works
Argyle, Barry. Patrick White (Edinburgh/ London: Oliver and Boyd, 1967).
Beatson, Peter. The Eye in the Mandala: Patrick White, a Vision of Man and God (New York: Harper and Row, 1976).
Beston, John. Patrick White Within the Western Literary Tradition (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2010).
Bjorksten, Ingmar. Patrick White: A General Introduction (Stockholm: Forum, 1973).
Bliss, Carolyn. Patrick White's Fiction: The Paradox of Fortunate Failure (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986).
Brissenden, R. F. Patrick White (Melbourne: Longmans, Green, 1966).
Budurlean, Alma. Otherness in the Novels of Patrick White (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2009).
Bulman-May, James. Patrick White and Alchemy (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2001).
Burman, Beyla. The World In Patrick White: The Vivisector: An Interpretation (Edsbruk: Holms Gards Tryckeri, 1984).
Coad, David. Prophète dans le désert: Essais sur Patrick White (Lille: Presses Universitaires de Septentrion, 1997).
Collier, Gordon. The Rocks and Sticks of Words: Style, Discourse and Narrative Structure in the Fiction of Patrick White (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992).
Colmer, John. Riders in the Chariot: Patrick White (Port Melbourne: Edward Arnold Australia, 1978).
Colmer, John. Patrick White (London/ New York: Methuen, 1984).
Dillistone, Frederick. Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot (New York: Seabury Press, 1969).
During, Simon. Patrick White (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1996).
Dyce, J. R. Patrick White as Playwright (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1974).
Giffin, Michael. Arthur's Dream: The Religious Imagination in the Fiction of Patrick White (Paddington: Spaniel Books, 1996).
Gray, Martin. Patrick White: Life and Writings. Five Essays (Stirling: University of Stirling, Centre of Commonwealth Studies, 1991).
Hadgraft, Cecil. Patrick White (Brisbane: University of Queensland, 1951).
Hansson, Karin. The Warped Universe: A Study of Imagery and Structure in Seven Novels by Patrick White (Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1984).
Heltay, Hilary. The Articles and the Novelist: Reference Conventions and Reader Manipulation in Patrick White's Creation of Fictional Worlds (Tubingen: Gunter Narr, 1983).
Hewitt, Helen. Patrick White, Painter Manqué: Paintings, Painters and Their Influence on His Work (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2002).
Joyce, Clayton. Patrick White: A Tribute (North Ryde: Angus and Robertson, 1991).
Kiernan, Brian. Patrick White (London: Macmillan, 1980).
McCulloch, A. M. A Tragic Vision: The Novels of Patrick White (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1983).
McLaren, John & Mary-Ellen Ryan. Prophet from the Desert: Critical Essays on Patrick White (Red Hill South: Red Hill Press, 1995).
McMahon, Elizabeth & Brigitta Olubas. Remembering Patrick White: Contemporary Critical Essays (Amsterdam/ New York: Rodopi, 2010).
Morley, Patricia. The Mystery of Unity: Theme and Technique in the Novels of Patrick White (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1972).
Myers, David. The Peacocks and the Bourgeoisie: Ironic Vision in Patrick White's Shorter Prose Fiction (Adelaide: Adelaide University Union Press, 1978).
Pes, Annalisa. Stories That Keep on Rising to the Surface: i racconti di Patrick White (Verona: Universita di Verona. Dipartimento di Anglistica, 2003).
Riem, Antonella. L'universo terra in Voss di Patrick White (Verona: Edizione Universitarie, 1986).
Shepherd, Ron & Kirpal Singh. Patrick White: A Critical Symposium (Adelaide: Centre for Research in the New Literatures in English, 1978).
Stein, Thomas. Patrick White: "Voss" (Munich: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 1983).
Stein, Thomas Michael. Illusions of Solidity: Individuum und Gesellschaft im Romanwerk Patrick White (Essen: Verlag die blaue Eule, 1990).
Steven, Laurence. Dissociation and Wholeness in Patrick White's Fiction (Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1989).
Tabbert, Thomas T. Voss as Epitome: The Faust Motif in Patrick White's novel "Voss" and the Meaning of Its Title (Hamburg: Artislife Press, 2005).
Tacey, David. Patrick White: Fiction and the Unconscious (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1988).
Teetzmann, Karin. Patrick White und die journalistische Literaturkritik in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland im Vergleich mit Grossbritannien (Duisburg: Gilles & Francke, 1993).
Tournaire, Agnès. Le silence dans l’oeuvre romanesque de Patrick White (Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 1997).
Van Den Driesen, Cynthia. Writing the Nation: Patrick White and the Indigene (Amsterdam/ New York: Rodopi, 2009).
Walsh, William. Patrick White: Voss (London: Edward Arnold, 1976).
Walsh, William. Patrick White's Fiction (Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1977).
Wilkes, G. A. Ten Essays on Patrick White (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1970).
Williams, Mark. Patrick White (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1993).
Wolfe, Peter. Laden Choirs: The Fiction of Patrick White (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1983).
Wolfe, Peter. Critical Essays on Patrick White (Boston: G.K. Hall & Co, 1990).
Xu, Kai. Strangers in a Solitary Land: Contextualizing Eccentricity in Patrick White's Fiction (Shanghai: Shanghai Wen Yi Chu Ban She, 2007).
Yang, William. Patrick White: The Late Years (Sydney: Pan Macmillan, 1995).
“Sometimes I get fed up to the teeth here in the country, where the type of Australian one encounters is the most uninspiring, unintelligent, deadening specimen to be found on earth. Although you will meet charming people here, I detest the average Australian, who is little more than a cheap imitation of the American.”
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