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.