Patrick White is a fascinating oxymoronic figure in Australian Literature with a taste for dualities, ambiguity and ambivalence. Born fortuitously in London while his parents were on their honeymoon, he comes from a family of wealthy pastoralists whose forebears first settled in Australia in 1826. Despite his patrician education and his upper-class background, he defined himself as a socialist who more than once barracked for the Australian Labor Party and empathized with ordinary people, if not with the subaltern (mainly the Jews and the Aborigines). No matter how reclusive he was – first establishing himself in Castle Hill for 18 years and then moving central to 20 Martin Road because he felt suburbia was gradually swallowing him up – he occasionally went public to speak on behalf of the environmentalists and the Republicans, especially once he gained international recognition. While he tried to export himself to Europe and the United States as a transnational writer, he also made a valuable contribution to Australia’s literary heritage by drawing his inspiration from a series of national icons (Ludwig Leichhardt, Eliza Frazer, Sidney Nolan, etc.) in his fiction. White has always been sitting on the fence, fuelling his public image of being an insider-outsider – if not an exile at home.
One must admit that the Centennial Park distinguished dweller had a rather strained relationship with Australia, flaunting its literary prestige worldwide while repeatedly flaying its cultural values and popular beliefs. He did exclaim in his published correspondence edited by David Marr that: “Sometimes I get fed up to the teeth here in the country, where the type of Australian one encounters is the most uninspiring, unintelligent, deadening specimen to be found on earth. Although you will meet charming people here, I detest the average Australian, who is little more than a cheap imitation of the American.” (16/03/1931) “How sick I am of the bloody word AUSTRALIA. What a pity, I am part of it; if I were not, I would get out to-morrow. As it is, they will have me with them till my bitter end, and there are about six more of my un-Australian Australian novels to fling in their faces…” (08/02/1958) “What is so amazing is that Australians have changed so little; we are the same arrogant plutocrats, larrikins, and Irish rabble as we were then. At least the graziers have been damped down.” (28/12/1973)
His uncomfortable in-betweenness expressed in terms of gender, social and cultural identity is possibly the key to White’s ambivalence, his most defining trait. The Twyborn Affair (1979), which critically confronts the politics of sex while revealing the author’s private inner world, is exhibit A for displaying the politics of ambiguity and sexual indeterminacy that clearly comes through in his autobiography, Flaws in the Glass (1981). Socially, no matter how close to the people White wanted to be, he is no Tim Winton. He held no populist beliefs, roamed the world on frequent travels and moved deftly in high society. As for the cultural identity malaise he experienced in his youth, it is rather symptomatic of the postcolonial condition of twin allegiance – a no-win situation in which people feel they can never belong. Seeing himself as “a man of divided loyalties” for being brought up in Australia and in England, White bitterly recalls that at his British school he “was accused of being a cockney or colonial, and back in Australia, ‘a bloody Pom’. Language troubles have widened the split in my nature.” These various splits or dualities in his nature account for the strong sense of fragmentation which defines some of his characters, particularly in the three novels which deal with mental illness and multiple identities: The Aunt’s Story (1948), The Twyborn Affair, and Memoirs of Many in One (1986).
Born in London to Australian parents on their honeymoon, Patrick White (b.1912 – d.1990) grew up and was partly educated in Sydney before he was sent back to England to benefit from patrician schooling. The pull of home prompted him to break off his studies and return to his native island when he came of age. After jackarooing in rural Australia for two years, he enrolled in King’s College (Cambridge), started to write sporadically, and ended up producing twelve novels. His thirteenth novel in progress was posthumously released early this year under the title of The Hanging Garden.
Shortly before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature, Patrick White’s vanity preened itself a little when he reported in a letter to Marshall Best that Anthony Burgess made the following statement at the 1970 Adelaide Festival: “A country is only remembered for its art. Rome is remembered for Virgil, Greece for Homer, and Australia may be remembered for Patrick White.” In some ways, there is still some truth in that flattering accolade because, to date, he remains Australia’s only Nobel-Prize winning author.
Among the almost 50 monographs that have been published worldwide at regular interval between the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize and today, it is no wonder that anyone intent on studying White will spend much more time reading the available mass of critical material than White’s literary production. The fact that the bulk of these monographs were published outside Australia and written by non Australian scholars attests that White may have had solid grounds for feeling he was a writer chiefly praised abroad and misunderstood at home, and for establishing the Patrick White Award (whose untaxed cash prize is now valued at $18,000) traditionally given to under-recognised authors. However, the first attention he received early in his career came from two Australian scholars whose monographs were published in Australia.
It therefore seems rather peculiar that there have been talks about the fragility of White’s significance and of his waning critical reputation, of the decline in numbers of Patrick White scholars (possibly explained by the fact that after so many publications attached to his name, academics seeking to break new grounds may opt for a less studied literary figure), and of public disinterest. Sales of the The Hanging Garden might contradict this latter assumption, unless readers will not fancy an unfinished novel nor even dare go against White’s will.
Reading White’s self-analysis to which he was consciously prone in both his autobiography, Flaws in the Glass (1981), and correspondence will give a clear indication of how tormented his soul was. Living in seclusion, he gradually built himself a romanticized and charismatic writer’s persona that would adroitly paper over the cracks of his strong personality. With character-driven novels constantly churning round in his head, Patrick White fuelled his romantic literary reputation of being a compulsive writer, one working under duress and who has a taste for painstaking work and a honed prose.
He quickly gained the reputation of being “Australia’s Most Unreadable Novelist” and, being highly sensitive to other people’s opinions about his work, he never missed an opportunity to spread the word, thus consolidating the ivory tower he has erected for himself and establishing himself as an écrivain maudit. This reputation was confirmed in 1956 when “the great Panjandrum of Canberra” described White’s prose as “pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge.” Not only has AD Hope’s notorious broadside left a deep scar on White’s mind, but it gave the novelist a severe blow to his self-esteem and probably enhanced his fragility, sense of insecurity and taste for self-deprecation.
Source: Trouble Magazine, August 2012, pp.56-9.
Jean-François Vernay is the author of three monographs: Water from the Moon: Illusion and Reality in the Works of Australian Novelist Christopher Koch (Cambria Press, 2007); The Great Australian Novel– A Panorama (Brolga, 2010); and an essay on fiction, literary theory, criticism and emotions: Plaidoyer pour un renouveau de l’émotion en littérature (Paris: Complicités, 2012). His first fiction, Un doux petit rêveur, will be published in September by Les 2 encres.