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Monday musings on Australian literature: Patrick White (would be) 100 (today)

May 28, 2012

I had planned to follow up last week’s Monday musings with another post on Colin Roderick’s mid-twentieth century series of books on Australian prose, but I hadn’t remembered then that today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Patrick White, Australia’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature*. Colin Roderick will therefore have to wait for the man who wasn’t quite on his horizon when he was selecting his books and authors in the late 1940s.

White had, in fact, published three books by 1950 – Happy Valley, The living and the dead (1941) and The aunt’s story (1948) – but he clearly wasn’t quite on Roderick’s radar at the time. As you’ll see next week (be patient!), many of the writers who were recognised then have long faded from our collective memory, while White went on to put Australian literature firmly on the world stage.

As well as being our first Nobel Laureate in Literature, White has another “first” to his name. His 5th novel, Voss, won the first Miles Franklin Award in 1957. A fitting start, it seems to me, for what has become Australia’s most significant literary award. Voss was, also, my introduction to White, way back in my last year of high school. It astonished me, it grabbed me – and I immediately went out and bought his collection of short stories, The burnt ones, to keep on reading. Since those days, I have read more of his novels but I haven’t completed his oeuvre.

What is it about White? For me it’s his writing – his language and tone – and his humanity. He had a reputation for being grumpy and temperamental, but his caring for “other” (for “foreignness”, as the panel discussing him at this year’s Sydney Writers Festival put it) pervades his novels. His characters are, for the most part, ordinary or sidelined people. They are not heroes or heroines. They bumble through life. They are flawed (even the grand visionary, Voss!).

And this brings me to his autobiography, or “self-portrait”, which is tellingly titled Flaws in the glass (1981). What a great title for an autobiography! Early in this book he writes:

I grew conscious of wanting to be a writer on leaving my hated English school and returning to the Australia I had longed for. No, it wasn’t so much a case of growing consciousness as a matter of necessity. Surrounded by a vacuum, I needed a world in which to live with the degree of intensity my temperament demanded.

That he was an intense man shows in his writing and in his relationship with others. He fell out regularly with friends – “I have to admit to a bitter nature” he says. But he is also known for standing up for those in need and for his principles. He returned his Order of Australia medal after the Dismissal of the Australian Labor government in 1975. And on his death he left his money to his favourite causes: the Smith Family, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Aboriginal Education Council of NSW and NAISDA (the Aboriginal and Islander Dance College).

It is hard to know where to stop when talking about such a complex man, so I’ll just finish with two quotes depicting his love-hate relationship with Australia. He loved the landscape, as shown in this description of his absence during World War 2:

I read The Peapickers and was filled with a longing for Australia, a country I saw through a childhood glow … I could still grow drunk on visions of its landscape. (Flaws in the glass)

But his fellow Australians? That was another matter:

the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the most important, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes… (White, quoted on Radio National’s website)

Regardless of what we think about the Great Australian novel, it’s hard not to see Patrick White as a, if not the, Great Australian Novelist.

* This is not to ignore the wonderful JM Coetzee who is also a Nobel Laureate … but, while he lives here now, it would be cheeky to claim his Nobel prize for our own.

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. May 28, 2012 8:15 pm

    Fancy that about The Peapickers! I read that with Janine’s AustLit group but – wow, I never thought about Langley’s contemporaries reading it, and especially not PW!

    • May 28, 2012 9:29 pm

      It’s interesting isn’t it … It’s pretty over-the-top had has some values he may not have agreed with, but I can see why he might have liked it because she shows such love of the country. It’s a book you don’t forget!

  2. May 28, 2012 8:16 pm

    I love how he describes writing as being a necessity. It inspires me.

  3. May 28, 2012 10:21 pm

    My favourite all-time writer! I grew obsessed with White’s language and otherness in my teens and think I must have read nearly all of them. It’s crazy, at the moment I am returning to study the same sonatas I was playing then, and now I feel it’s time for me to reread White. I feel he defined my vision of Sydney quite honestly, from Sarsparilla (Castle Hill, near where I grew up) and his Kings Cross of The Vivisector. I even wrote an (unanswered) letter to him at that time and totally excused him for being a cranky old man!!

    • May 28, 2012 10:45 pm

      Oh, yes I agree Catherine … one has to excuse him. That line about the “intensity of my temperament” tells us all we need to know, really. I enjoyed dipping into Flaws in the glass – which I seem to do every now and then – while writing this, and wanted to stop everything and read his new posthumously published novel. But, I think I have other books on my reading schedule which deserve their time in the sun, so it will have to wait!

  4. May 28, 2012 11:50 pm

    Thanks for the post which motivatedf me to go and look at the Patrick White titles I have unread. Amazon has a copy of Happy Valley for 2,377.48

  5. Meg permalink
    May 29, 2012 8:03 am

    I agree with all comments. Patrick White’s writing for me is so expressive, so knowing of people, so cutting and so right. To read his books is a pleasure. At first he seems hard going, but once you get into his rhythm everything is so clear. All Australians should be very proud of him.

    Meg

    • May 29, 2012 8:26 am

      Oh yes, Meg, “cutting” is a good word. And I agree that he isn’t as hard as people think.

  6. May 29, 2012 5:47 pm

    Lovely post. I haven’t read PW for years, but did re-read Voss a few years ago; it stays in my mind more than any of the others, and I was interested to hear David Malouf (who wrote the libretto for the opera) single it out too. What fascinated me was the telepathic communication between Laura and Voss, and the wonderfully intense and vivid creation of that desert world, juxtaposed with the colonial coastal fringe which Laura rather spikily inhabited. Amazing book, one I would pick out, along with Lilian’s Story, Cloudstreet, and recently, Foal’s Bread, if you were to ask me which Australian novels have made the strongest impression on me as an adult.

    And I wonder what you think the Great Australian Novel is?

  7. May 30, 2012 2:15 am

    He sounds like an interesting fellow. I find it fascinating how a person can love a certain landscape but not feel so kindly towards the people inhabiting it. I wonder if the people were removed or somehow different, if the feelings for the landscape would be different or is it really possible to keep the two separate?

    • May 30, 2012 3:04 pm

      Good question, Stefanie. I think it must be possible to keep it separate but I guess it is hard to prove the case. Maybe in Australia we can because so much of it is empty, we could just go out there, stand in the middle of nowhere, and see if we still love it!! Hmmm …

  8. May 31, 2012 4:43 am

    It is, and his Hanging Garden looks interesting too.

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