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Monday, 13 August 2012

PATRICK WHITE Voss (1957)


Knopf/Random House Centenary Edition, 2012


As the evening was approaching, he resolved to camp there in the elbow of the river, and sent the natives back to convey his intention to the other members of the party.  In consequence the leader was left alone for some little time, and then the immensity of his presumption did accuse him.  The dome of silence was devoid of all furniture, even of a throne.  So he began pulling logs together, smashing sticks, crumbling scrub, and was building their first fire.  Sympathy, brilliance, warmth did not, however, immediately leap forth, only a rather disappointing flame.  It was a very human fire.  Walking up and down, its maker was overcome by the distance between aspiration and human nature.  The latter, it appeared, was almost inescapable, like those men whose dust he could already see.  Fidgeting in a similar dust, his spurs accused him of his own failures.
    Of which we must make the most, Laura Trevelyan implied.


The NovelAn arrogant German-born explorer, Johann Ulrich Voss, decides, almost arbitrarily, to lead an expedition consisting of half a dozen untrained men into the unexplored heart of arid nineteenth century Australia.  The expedition is almost ready to depart when Voss finds himself inexplicably drawn to an unmarried English woman named Laura Trevelyan –– an orphan who lives with her prosperous merchant uncle, scatterbrained aunt and pretty younger cousin in what was then (and still is) the genteel, well-to-do Sydney suburb of Potts Point.  

Voss sets off for the bush without bothering to propose to Laura but soon regrets his mistake and writes to her, offering to marry her in the unlikely event that he and his men return alive from their courageous if foolhardy expedition.  His letter eventually finds its way to Laura, who struggles at first to know what to make of this unprecedented and wholly unexpected proposal.  She hardly knew this strange haughty German fellow, who seemed to despise her and everything she stood for on the few socially awkward occasions when politeness required her to endure his far from sparkling company.  Nevertheless, she finds herself agreeing to marry him, recognising in her fiancée's haughtiness and God-defying arrogance a spirit as proud, indomitable and difficult to fathom as her own.  

From that moment on, even though the harsh realities encountered by Voss on his expedition make it impossible for him to communicate with Laura again, their lives become inextricably linked in a way that goes beyond ordinary human affection and even, at times, that of ordinary human emotion.  As Voss and his men endure disillusion, illness, deprivation and starvation during their arduous and increasingly futile journey towards the never-sighted west coast of Australia, the bond between the explorer and his fiancée grows ever stronger until she becomes a genuine living presence in his life, their uncanny spiritual connection never waning for an instant even though time and distance continually conspire to sever it.

Vintage Books UK, 1994
From what, on the surface, appears to be a relatively simple tale of love and colonial exploration, White created a novel of incredible spiritual depth and occasionally baffling complexity.  Voss is anything but the stereotypical nineteenth century explorer, setting off to conquer the Great Unknown for scientific, commercial, patriotic or even cartographic purposes.  His journey is as much an inward-looking spiritual one as it is an outward-looking physical one, an attempt, as he describes it, to 'discard the inessential and to attempt the infinite' and thereby discover his own unique 'genius.'  As White himself put it in a letter to his US publisher Ben Huebsch:  'I wanted to write the story of a grand passionIt is different from other grand passions in that it grows in the minds of the two people concerned more through the stimulus of their surroundings and through almost irrelevant incidents.  Voss and Lauraeven find each other partly antipathetic.  Yet, Voss writes proposing to the girl on one of the early stages of the journey, partly out of vanity, and partly because he realises he is already lost; she accepts, partly out of a desire to save him from his delusions of divinity; partly out of a longing for religious faith, to which she feels she can only return to through love'  The novel explores the nature and meaning of love on many different levels – love between an eccentric man and an equally eccentric woman, love between a leader and the otherwise incompatible travelling companions whom fate and his own rampant egotism have bound together in a punishing test of mutual adversity, the love a human being may or may not feel for God even as he or she resents His omnipotence and seeks in vain for concrete proof of His existence.   

Voss is also a remarkably vivid examination of the mindset of colonial Australia –– a place where true men of vision were in very short supply but were seldom welcomed and embraced when they appeared.  Laura's struggles –– to gain the acceptance and respect of her acquaintances and her straitlaced aunt and uncle, to overcome the restrictions placed upon women by rigid codes of behaviour which seek to reduce them to no more than subservient breeders of future generations –– are as taxing in their way as Voss's misguided attempts to explore a country whose vastness he cannot begin to fathom but is nevertheless determined to press on and 'conquer' even if doing so results in the annihilation of himself and every member of his party.

White's novel was also unusual for its time in its portrayals of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal culture, both of which are depicted without the slightest hint of disrespect or patronage.  The young blackfeller Jackie, who accompanies Voss on his expedition and becomes a kind of Judas figure to his shabby colonial Christ (the character of Voss was very loosely based on the Prussian-born explorer Ludwig Leichhardt who is believed to have perished
some time after April 1848 while attempting to cross Australia's Grand Sandy Desert), is possibly the most important and vividly drawn character in the book after Laura and the explorer himself.  White realised, at a time when such realisations were far from common in everyday Australia, that the country is and always will be the property of its traditional native owners –– arguably the only people truly capable of understanding it in the way that an 'outsider' like Voss so eagerly yet hopelessly yearns to do.  Few novels, before or since, have succeeded in capturing the eeriness and desolation of the Australian outback in quite the way that White captures it in Voss.  His greatest novel is as vast, mysterious and powerful as the uncharted territories of land and soul it so hauntingly describes.


PATRICK WHITE, c 1950

The WriterPatrick Victor Martindale White was born on 28 May 1912 in London, where his English-born Australian parents Dick and Ruth were holidaying at the time.  'Home' for them, however, was not England, but 'Bolaro' a sheep station not far from the small town of Adaminaby in the picturesque Southern Highlands of New South Wales.

The family returned to Sydney when White was six months old, where they lived on Philip Street in the heart of the city in separate but adjoining flats – one occupied by Dick and Ruth and the other occupied by young 'Paddy,' his strict Irish nanny Lizzie Galloway and, in time, his younger sister Suzanne.  White was a sickly child who spent much of his time in bed recovering from the chronic asthma attacks which prevented him from making friends with other children but gave him plenty of time to discover the absorbing world of books.  His favourite story was The Swiss Family Robinson and the affection it inspired in him as a boy was something he would retain all his life.  'One seems to pass over,' he later wrote, 'and go on living in them [ie. the beloved books of childhood] for ever after.  I think possibly it is because they give one glimpses of a heartbreaking perfection one will never achieve, whether it is the rather comic, homespun achievements of the Swiss Family, the perfect refuge of The Secret Garden, the interiors and scenes of family life in Tolstoy.'

At ten White was sent to boarding school, where he struggled to fit in with his less precocious classmates.  When financial trouble caused the school to close, its headmaster suggested that he be sent to England to complete his education –– a suggestion his loyal, Empire-supporting parents were happy to accept.  White described the time he spent as a boarder at Cheltenham College in Gloucestershire as 'a four year prison sentence.'  Nevertheless, he would remain in England until the age of seventeen, forming few close friendships but developing a love for the theatre which, until the composition of fiction took over as the guiding passion of his life, led to him seriously considering the idea of pursuing a career on the stage.

His parents, worried that his artistic ambitions would interfere with their plans for him to return to Australia and play his appointed role in the family business, agreed that he could give acting a try on the understanding that he returned to Bolaro and worked there as a stockman, or jackaroo, for two years.  White consented to this arrangement, writing three unpublished novels in secret when he wasn't busy herding sheep, and did not return to England again until 1932, when he entered King's College, Cambridge to read for a degree in Modern Languages.  It was during his time at Cambridge that he fell deeply in love for the first time with a divinity student who, like him, had made several unsuccessful efforts to deny his homosexuality.  

 Portrait of WHITE by ROY DE MAISTRE, 1939
After gaining his BA, White went to live in London, where in 1936 he met and began an affair with the painter Roy de Maistre – a man eighteen years his senior who became his artistic mentor and encouraged him to rework one of the manuscripts, originally written while sheep farming at Bolaro, that in 1939 would become his first published novel Happy Valley.  During his stay in London, White also wrote poetry and several unproduced plays, living a comfortable bachelor's life on the £10,000 inheritance he received following his father's death in 1937.  

White's inheritance enabled him to visit New York in April 1939 and to cross the continent by train, a journey that included a pilgrimage to DH Lawrence's last home in New Mexico and, thanks to his new lover Walter 'Spud' Johnson, a meeting with his hero's widow Frieda.  White later travelled, alone, to Cape Cod, where he immediately resumed work on his second novel, The Living and the DeadHe could quite easily have stayed in the United States and was urged by many of his friends to do precisely that.  But he eventually decided that he must return to England to play some role, however small, in the war.  'I am doing this,' he wrote to Johnson in July 1940, 'from no personal desire — my life here has been too happy and in every way satisfactory — but just because I don't feel I can ignore the war altogether.  I've got to go through some of that,' he concluded, 'before I can enjoy something else — I hope — as a permanent state.'  By September of that year he was once again in London, working for Foreign Relations Department of the Red Cross, where he was tasked with '…the missing in the various dead countries of Europe.'  In the meantime, he did all he could to obtain a commission in the Royal Air Force.

White received his commission in November and spent the next six years serving as an RAF Intelligence Officer in Egypt, Palestine and Greece.  In July 1941, while stationed in Alexandria, he met a young Greek named Manoly Lascaris – the man he called 'my sweet reason' who would soon become his lover and eventually (although not always happily) his lifelong partner.  White returned to Sydney in late 1946 and Lascaris agreed to join him there, arriving by flying boat in February 1948 after months of separation and uncertainty caused by difficulties in gaining permission to emigrate.  Within days of Lascaris's arrival the two men bought a property called 'Dogwoods' in what was, at that time, still the semi-rural outer Sydney suburb of Castle Hill.  They would live and work at Dogwoods for the next eighteen years –– growing and selling flowers, vegetables and milk and breeding prize-winning Schnauzers while White somehow found the time to write the novels –– The Tree of Man (1956), Voss (1957) and Riders in the Chariot (1961) – upon which his literary reputation would come to primarily rest.  Unlike his contemporaries, White refused to flee Australia in search of a more liberal-minded atmosphere in which to live and work.  Australia was in his blood even if he felt, as he stated more than once, more like a Londoner in his heart.

WHITE with one of his Pugs, c 1970
White's work was never as highly regarded in his native Australia as it was in North America and, to a lesser extent, England.  The Tree of Man, the novel that would secure him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, was panned by many local critics while their more astute North American counterparts found its densely allusive style to be the logical extension of the Modernist tradition established and practiced by an earlier generation of writers including DH Lawrence, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner.  (White has occasionally been called, and not without justification, the antipodean William Faulkner.)  Only with the publication of Voss in 1957, and his winning of the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award that same year, did his work begin to find some measure of acceptance (but not what could really be described as widespread popularity) in his homeland.  

One source of the writer's unpopularity was his prickly personality, which could be by turns outspoken, blackly pessimistic, belligerent and taciturn.  Although he and Lascaris had many friends, and made many more after selling their Castle Hill property in 1963 and moving to a new home near Sydney's Centennial Park, he was never an easy man to know, his moodiness, sarcasm and ability to hold a grudge alienating more than one old friend and prompting him to say, after being named the Australian of the Year for 1974:  'Something terrible happened to me last week. There is an organisation which chooses an Australian of the Year who has to appear at an official lunch in Melbourne Town Hall on Australia Day. This year I was picked on as they had run through all the swimmers, tennis players, yachtsmen.'  While he always claimed to love Australia, he never felt at ease with the fame it had begrudgingly bestowed on him as its most famous literary export and its sole recipient (so far) of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In addition to his twelve published novels – which included the other, equally brilliant 'colonial novel' A Fringe of Leaves (1976) – White also wrote eleven plays, the screenplay for the 1979 Australian film The Night the Prowler and an autobiography titled Flaws in the Glass which appeared, to the considerable astonishment of friends past and present, in 1981.  In 1986 Voss was adapted into an opera with music by composer Richard Meale and a libretto penned by White's fellow award-winning Australian novelist David Malouf.  

White died on 30 September 1990 and was unceremoniously cremated a few days later with no one in attendance as per the instructions outlined in his will.  A major biography, Patrick White: A Life, written with his approval by journalist David Marr, was published by Random House Australia in 1991 with an edited collection of the novelist's letters following three years later.  White's partner Manoly Lascaris died in Sydney in 2003 at the age of ninety-one. 

2012 marks the centenary of the birth of PATRICK WHITE.  Click HERE to read a long and moving 2008 article about him and MANOLY LASCARIS by his biographer DAVID MARR.  

Text Publishing reissued Happy Valley, the first novel by PATRICK WHITE, in August 2012 –– the first time the book has been reprinted in English since its original publication in 1939.  Click HERE to visit the Text Publishing website and read more about what it calls 'the missing piece in the extraordinary jigsaw of White’s work.'

You might also enjoy:
ELIZABETH HARROWER The Watch Tower (1966)
MORRIS WEST The Devil's Advocate (1959)
D'ARCY NILAND The Shiralee (1957)

 
Last updated 9 April 2021