Monday musings on Australian literature: 1950s prose-poets criticised

Randolph Stow, To the islandsSerendipitously, while trawling Trove for something else recently, I came across a fascinating article in the Tribune about the winners of the first two Miles Franklin Awards. The article was written by Jack Beasley in July 1959, and the two winners were Patrick White’s Voss (1957), and Randolph Stow’s To the islands (1958), two books which are now regarded as significant Australian classics. Jack Beasley wouldn’t have agreed!

So, who was Jack Beasley? Born in 1921, he was interested in the arts, was closely associated with the Australasian Book Society, and at one stage had his own publishing company. He wrote several books, including a memoir and a couple of books on Katharine Susannah Prichard. He was also a member, for many years, of the Communist Party of Australia. The Tribune, for those of you who don’t know, was the Party’s official newspaper. This background is relevant to his criticism of White and Stow’s wins.

Patrick White, VossHe commences his article by stating that Randolph Stow’s winning the award has created quite a lot of discussion, particularly since it followed Patrick White’s winning for Voss the year before:

The two authors are the leading exponents of the so-called “prose-poetry” school, very fashionable today in literary circles attached to the big publishing houses.

He quotes Sidney J. Baker, whom he describes as a Sydney Morning Herald authority. Baker

regards their work as a “new type, of novel … distinguished by strength and sincerity and blowing away traditional debris like a cool wind after sizzling heat.” It should be added that among the “traditional debris” blown away are the traditions for which Miles Franklin herself so firmly stood.

Hmm, so the award should only be for writers who write in the same style as Miles Franklin?

Anyhow, Beasley writes that Franklin “believed that literature drew its ideas from life and attachment to native soil, and she wrote with a vigorous, entertaining prose”:

Her major work, ‘”All That Swagger” is notable for Danny Delacy and his “brave Joanna,” Irish immigrants who go through life undaunted by its buffetings and rejoicing in its happinesses.

In sorry contrast are the morbid heroes of Messrs. White and Stow, who flee from life and society in search of some individual haven.

To Beasley, prose-poetry “is a fad of style, a pretentious juggling of words and grammar”. He quotes from both White and Stow to prove his point, and then argues that while this “obscure” style is new in Australia, it “emerged many years ago in bourgeois culture”. He names “Joyce, Proust, Virginia Woolf and the extreme case, Gertrude Stein” as exponents of the style.

“Individual haven” and “Bourgeois culture” give away his leanings. He discusses To the islands:

According to some reviewers, “To the Islands” shows a warm sympathy for the Aborigines. This is partly true, but an even warmer sympathy is shown for the missionaries and whatever might be the personal motivation of individual missionaries, history has shown that the missions have played their part in the destruction of tribal life and the continuing ordeal of the Aboriginal people.

This is of course true, but what becomes increasingly clear is that Beasley’s main criticism is in fact less the style than the content of White and Stow’s work. The criticism focuses very much on the fact that their focus is the “individual” which is not part of Communist ethos. He describes White and Stow as being “closely bound to the capitalist class”, and writes that their protagonists, Voss and Heriot,

are nothing more than the bourgeois intellectuals, or more correctly a personification of the crisis of the intellectuals, desperately reaching for a sanctuary. They feel the sands shifting beneath them but are still unable because of their individualism to accept the new ideas that are emerging.

He believes intellectuals need to grasp new ways of thinking:

Only by coming to the working class and taking their part in the struggles led by this class for a better life, only by ceasing to believe in the omniscience of the lonely individual and learning in life of the inexhaustible strength of collective ideas, can the intellectuals have a future.

The socialist countries show again and again that there is no hostile contradiction there between the intellectuals and the proletariat and the Australian workers have always welcomed those who joined their cause.

Only at the end of his article does he return, somewhat off-handedly, to the style issue:

It is not suggested that Miles Franklin would have supported all of the views stated above [that is, his political views], but both the misanthropic themes and the literary quality of the two prizewinners are at variance with her view of life and literary standard.

It might have ended there but, intriguingly, a few weeks later, a letter in response appeared in the same paper – by author Alan Marshall. He thought the article was the “best analysis” he’d read of this new trend, but he takes issue with a couple of points. One is Beasley’s generalisation about “intellectuals”, his tarring them all with the same brush, but the other is his use of the term of “prose poets”.

Marshall writes:

What is wrong with prose poetry? The works of Katharine Prichard are full of it; Turgenev was a master at it; Gorky often delighted in it; Sholokhov’s works feature it. It can lift prose to its highest level and be an inspiration to mankind. In the hands of the writers I have mentioned it not only appeals to the highest emotions but to the reason as well.

Patrick White and Stow are not Prose Poets.

They are obscurantists juggling words to obscure sense in an effort, to create a sense of profundity. They believe readers have little faith in their judgement; that readers praise what they cannot understand for fear of being regarded as incapable of appreciating good writing.

Ouch … “obscurantists”, not “prose poets”.

I’m leaving it here. I’m sharing this because I like hearing the arguments and ideas of another time, and testing them against our own (with the benefit of time). Marshall’s criticism of authors writing obscurely to create profundity is often trotted out. But, clearly, his and Beasley’s assessments of White and Stow have not stood the test of time, thank goodness.

Monday musings on Australian literature: Patrick White and those Blue Poles by Jackson Pollock

A change of pace for this week’s Monday Musings to give you a bit of a rest after my few rather lengthy posts of late. Enjoy!

I have already mentioned Patrick White a few times this month. One was my reference to his calling himself a “painter manque” in my review of his debut novel, Happy Valley. Another was mentioning his willingness to stand up for issues important to him, in last week’s Monday Musings on Australian women poets. Today’s post takes up both these points … You see …

In 1973 the Australian Government bought Jackson Pollock‘s painting Blue Poles. With a price exceeding $1 million, the painting’s purchase could not be approved by the then director of National Gallery of Australia, James Mollison, but had to be signed off by the Government. It just so happened that this Government was the new Labor Government which had won power the previous December after 23 years of conservative rule. Australia was ripe for change – and for philosophical and intellectual debate if not downright conflict between the conservatives and the progressives. And so, with announcement of the purchase, all hell broke loose, so to speak. Here is where our “painter manque”, Patrick White, enters the picture.

Campaigns were mounted to prevent the acquisition. One of these was a petition which Patrick White was invited to sign by a Canberra resident. Now Patrick White, as those who know him would expect, wasn’t having any of it. Here are some words from his letter, which you can view in full on the Leski Auction Site (where it was advertised for auction in 2012):

I am not signing the petition because I think you are wrong. You are the kind of person any creative Australian has been fighting against as long as I can remember, the aggressive philistine, often in disguise, who has held us back.

After a couple more paragraphs, he concludes

I regret to say, Mrs English, you are the (perhaps) well-meaning, but destructive, Australian busy-body, we must continue fighting against in the arts.

Don’t you love those parentheses around “perhaps”? How very White!

Patrick White Terrace

Patrick White Terrace, National Library of Australia

Delicious descriptions from Down under: Patrick White on men and sheep

A few months ago I wrote a Monday Musings on the representation of sheep – well, people who work with sheep anyhow – in Australian literature. I was therefore tickled when early in Patrick White’s Happy Valley, which I reviewed last week, he talks of men who work with sheep, as follows:

Men who work a lot in the open, especially men who work with sheep, have a habit of repeating things, even trivial things, several times, perhaps because conversation is scarce and it gives them a sense of company to have  a phrase coming out of their mouths, even if the phrase is already stated. Clem Hagan was like this. He repeated a remark ponderously, sometimes with different intonation just for variety’s sake. He stared out in front of him with an expression that might have been interesting if you didn’t know it was due to his having spent most of his life looking into the distance for sheep. Anyone who stares long enough into the distance is bound to be mistaken for a philosopher or mystic in the end. But Hagan was no philosopher, that is, he searched no farther than the immediate, sensual reality, and this translated into simpler terms meant a good steak with juice running out at the sides, and blonde girls with comfortable busts.

White then goes on to describe a man who thinks he’s God’s gift to women – and whom many women, though it beats me why they do, let think so.

Patrick White, Happy Valley (Review)

Patrick White, Happy Valley

Book cover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

My love affair with Patrick White, figuratively speaking, began in my last year of high school when I studied Voss. Always partial to Aussie literature, I was, at 17 or 18, bowled over by White’s writing, passion and vision – and by his rather acerbic, though mostly compassionate, view of the way people submerge their “selves” in exterior trappings. I was consequently thrilled when Text decided to publish his first novel as part of its Text Classics series because this book, first published in 1939, was not published again in White’s lifetime. His decision, not his fans, I might add!

Why White refused its republication is a matter of some conjecture. He describes it in his autobiography, Flaws in the glass (1981), as “my first published, best forgotten novel”. Whatever the facts, being published in England and New York in 1939 probably made it easy to “lose”. All I can say is that it’s a great shame, because this is one helluva novel.

But let’s not conjecture, and get on with the book. It’s hard though to know where to start. As a newly released but first Patrick White, it’s going to be (and probably already has, but I’ve kept my eyes averted) the subject of much critical and literary analysis. How, this amateur blogger thinks, can I add to that? By, I suppose, just picking a few things that interested me.

There were several things that interested me in this novel, besides the fact that it is a good read. Perhaps I’d better explain that, the plot, first. It’s set in, yes, a town called Happy Valley, in the Snowy Mountains-Monaro region of New South Wales, just south of where I live and where Patrick White was a jackeroo for a year. If you know Patrick White, you’ll know the town’s name is ironic because White’s people are rarely happy. Life tends to be, for them, disappointing at best, sterile, depressing and/or meaningless at worst. In this book we have a large number of people and families, representing a cross-section of a typical country town: the doctor (Holliday), the teacher (Moriarty), the squatter (Furlow), the storekeepers (Quongs), the banker (Belper), the piano teacher (Alys Browne), the farm worker and “stud” (Clem Hagan), the “simpleton” (Chuffy Chambers). The novel begins and ends with the doctor, but its subject matter is the desire to escape. Many of the town’s residents don’t want to be there, and dream of ways out. Alys dreams of California, Hilda Holliday of Queensland, Sidney Furlow of anywhere-but-here, and so on. For the most part the novel chronicles the relationships between the people, explores the sources of their discontent, and teases them with future possibilities. It seems, until near the end, that nothing particularly dramatic will happen but then a shocking event occurs which precipitates decisions – some big, some small – that will change the lives of those concerned. For the better? Well, that’s a question for us readers to consider, but it’s important to recognise that for White the important decisions/shifts that have to be made are internal. Here is Alys near the end, seeing her escape dream for what it was:

I shall not hurry, she said, I shall shape time with what I have already got.

It’s a good story – and it’s clearly White.  There are a lot of characters, which can be the downfall of first novels, but White handles them well. The connections are clear and he keeps them all moving along so that we readers rarely, if ever, feel lost – once we have them in our heads.

What bowled me over most about the novel though is its style. It’s big – it’s inventive, expressive, rhythmic. As I was reading it, I was reminded of DH Lawrence (and his intense sensuality) and James Joyce (and his “stream of consciousness”). Peter Craven, who wrote the introduction to Text’s edition, agrees, and adds Gertrude Stein (whom I don’t know well enough) and Virginia Woolf (whom I should have picked too!). However, despite these pretty clear influences, the novel doesn’t feel slavish. Although this is (obviously) early in his career, his mature style is already evident. I was impressed by how he moves pretty seamlessly between description, dialogue and interior monologue, by how he shifts point-of-view, even within paragraphs, and by how, almost imperceptibly at times, he changes voice from third to second to first person. It’s spirited, gutsy writing. You feel, sometimes, that’s he’s strutting his stuff, but he rarely loses us and, while he may occasionally push a little too far, it doesn’t feel like showing-off but more like a writer with ideas bubbling out of him.

Earlier in the review, I mentioned writers that I felt influenced White, but now I want to mention one that I think was influenced by him, and that’s Thea Astley. She also had a pretty acerbic view of the world, and could skewer characters for their superficiality while maintaining, unless they really didn’t deserve it, compassion for them. White and Astley also use humour, usually wry or satiric rather than belly-laugh. I loved this description of a person in a bar early in the novel:

But another was an old man, one of those static old men you see in country bars, who seem to have no significance at all, except as recipients of drinks that they pour in through the meshes of a yellowish moustache, just standing and nodding, willing to listen to a story, but never giving much in return. They are generally called Abe or Joe. Though this one was called Barney, as a matter of fact.

That made me laugh; it’s the sort of writing that made me keep reading. But it’s not all quite this benign, because Happy Valley is a town where there “never was co-operation”, where “people existed in spite of each other”, where town “stud” Clem would like to “take a lump of wood, treat her almost like a snake”.

One of the threads running through the novel concerns the limits of language to express true feeling:

Both of them wanting to say something and then it only came in words.

White, I understand, would love to have been an artist, calling himself a “painter manque”, but oh dear, what words we would have missed had he done so.

Lisa of ANZ Litlovers, also a Patrick White fan, loved the book too.

Patrick White
Happy Valley
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2012 (orig. published 1939)
ISBN: 9781921922916

(Review copy courtesy Text Publishing)

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

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.