The Late Great Patrick White

March 8, 2011

In the 1960s and 1970s one figure commanded the [Australian] literary landscape, and ruled the artistic life of Sydney like an (intermittently) benign despot. Nobel Prize winner, patrician activist, host of legendary proportions, he was famed for his savagery as well as his generosity, his intolerance of fools and charlatans, his immense warmth and his uncompromising intelligence.

James Bradley, ‘Me and Patrick White’

A couple of weeks ago, I listened to a panel discussion at the Wheeler Centre entitled “The Late Great Patrick White.” It was the first in the Centre’s series of discussions about the lives and works of Australian writers who are no longer with us. I can only hope that the others turn out to be as fulfilling as this one because it was a fantastic event: impassioned, intelligent, often very funny. Happily, there’s no need to recount the discussion in detail now that the Centre has uploaded video, but I do want to add a few general remarks on White and the event participants and to point towards what I think were some of the night’s most valuable moments.

Chaired by the critic and polymath Stephen Armstrong, the panel of three speakers consisted of the poet and novelist David Musgrave, whose outstanding Glissando owes an enormous debt to White’s Voss; the actress Kerry Walker, a friend of White who first met him when she won the lead role in Jim Sharman’s film adaptation of White’s The Night the Prowler; and David Marr, another friend of White who also served as White’s official biographer and as editor of White’s posthumously published Letters. On the whole, the panellists were well-chosen. Musgrave offered a respectful first-hand account of White’s literary influence, while Walker shared a few amusing personal anecdotes to flesh out the man behind the prickly public persona. And Marr? As is his wont, of course, he dominated the proceedings, seizing as much speaking time as Musgrave and Walker combined. That’s no bad thing, however, since he is a fiercely engaging speaker who communicates not only a great passion for White’s work but also an encyclopedic knowledge of his life and legacy. If only Randolph Stow had an admirer of Marr’s ilk.

Among Marr’s best contributions to the discussion were his remarks on White’s legacy in American literature and on the Wraith Picket hoax of 2006. In the first set of remarks, Marr noted that “you can hear the voice of Patrick White in The Shipping News” because Annie Proulx is a fan of White’s work, while Cormac McCarthy, too, could be “up before Media Watch on charges of plagiarism by spirit.” In the second set of remarks, Marr revealed that he thought the hoax was unfair because the work sent to publishers — the third chapter of The Eye of the Storm — was far from White’s best work. “I’m not somebody who says that every word Patrick White wrote is a work of genius,” he admitted to my satisfaction. White may well be the best writer Australia has ever produced, but in my view, after hitting his stride with The Tree of Man, Voss, and Riders in the Chariot, he went slack until he rebounded with A Fringe of Leaves and The Twyborn Affair — the latter being identified by Marr as White’s singular masterpiece.

My favourite moment, though, was when Marr tried to articulate White’s worldview — a worldview that manifests in a tension, throughout all of White’s work, between grotesque carnality and humanistic charity — in the context of White’s persecution by literary censors. Just before he offered a lengthy but engaging summary of the Menzies Lecture on White that he delivered last year, now available in essay form in Best Australian Essays 2010, he made these comments at about the 38:30 mark in the video I linked to above:

Because White was a huge figure in Australian literature, there [were] a lot of effort[s] to try to corral him… [on the part of] the moral forces who wanted to keep literature polite in this country. Literature was… a battleground for respectability and for decency and for that kind of thing. Now, what these idiots… didn’t realise about White is that he was the most powerful spruiker for morality that anybody was gonna read in an Australian work.

[But] this is the thing about White. What makes him extraordinary — and makes him, for many people, uncongenial — is that his work is not about finding happiness in the usual ways that are celebrated in literature. You don’t find happiness, in Patrick White’s works, through sexual fulfillment. You do not fall in love. The conclusion — well, you can fall in love, but the conclusion of one of White’s novels is never that the lovers get together. That fundamental pattern of a novel is not White’s. His [work] is warning people against easy pleasure. It’s warning them against the pleasures of drink and food and sex and laziness and relaxation. It’s warning them against the dangers of living in this country, and it is telling people that the point of living is to work, and to work with what God has given you as your talents.

And the greatest failures in his work and… the people he fucked off in his life, viciously at times, were all the people that he believed had failed their own talent and not lived up to the promise that was in them at birth. And [yet] here were these petty little would-be moral tyrants whingeing about this man whose greatest message about this country, in the end, was that we are an unprincipled people. And that’s, for me, why White remains a strong force in this country… and a voice that still speaks here.

As luck would have it, the Wheeler Centre event coincided with the welcome news that White will continue to speak here well into 2011. Later this year, an as-yet-undisclosed publisher will bring out The Hanging Garden, one of the three unpublished novels found in the White archives acquired by the National Library of Australia in 2006. Funnily enough, even though I read about the announcement an hour or so before I set off for the Wheeler Centre, I’m not sure that the news had reached the panellists on stage, since David Marr in particular made no mention of it despite having written about the novel a few years ago in The Monthly:

The survival of 32 boxes of White’s papers was revealed [in 2006] with immense hoopla. ‘Patrick White’s return from the pit,’ read the banner headline in the Sydney Morning Herald. For the first time in many years, White was back on the front pages of the papers. But here was something curious: while the press, fans and scholars dived on the biographical material — the notebooks and letters — we shied away from the manuscripts. It says a great deal about the sinking reputation of the most prodigious literary imagination in the history of this nation that we were all more curious about the life than the writing. After being displayed for a few triumphal weeks, the three manuscripts were returned to the library’s strongroom all but unexamined.

I’ve now read them from beginning to end, the first person to do so, it seems, since White put them away in his desk. I already knew a good deal about two of them. ‘Dolly Formosa and the Happy Few’ is a fragment of a novella about an ageing actress. ‘The Binoculars and Helen Nell’ is a great fat novel of about 160,000 words about the many remarkable lives of a cocky farmer’s daughter. Both projects were begun and abandoned in the late ’60s. Letters White wrote at the time discuss their plots, their progress and his reasons for putting them aside. Having them to read is a wonderful experience, but they don’t give any radical, fresh insight into White and his work.

The third is a different kettle of fish. When I was writing White’s biography, I came across brief references to a novel begun and put aside in 1981. I gave the project the code name “Novel Y” in my research notes and its fate rates a bare mention in my book. But here is the manuscript, and having read it I realise ‘The Hanging Garden’ was a masterpiece in the making and its abandonment after 50,000 words was a watershed in White’s life and a loss, a damn shame, for Australian writing.

Not anymore; and with discussions like the one at the Wheeler Centre working to remember White, his legacy seems to be in much better shape than it was just five years ago. Next at the Centre: “The Late Great Thea Astley” on April 19, a great second choice for a promising series of events. Like White’s work, hers could also use a little remembrance — and deserves it, too.

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