Patrick White: Within a Budding Grove

Patrick White is, on most counts, the greatest writer Australia has produced, though the sense in which that country produced him needs at once to be qualified—he had his schooling in England, studied at Cambridge University, spent his twenties as a young man about town in London, and during World War II served with the British armed forces. What Australia did provide him with was fortune, in the form of an early inheritance—the White family were wealthy graziers—substantial enough for him to live an independent life.

The nineteenth century was the heyday of the Great Writer. In our times the concept of greatness has fallen under suspicion, especially when attached to whiteness and maleness, and Great Writers courses have largely been retired from the college curriculum. But to call Patrick White a Great Writer—specifically a Great Writer in the Romantic mold—seems right, if only because he had the typically great-writerly sense of being marked out from birth for an uncommon destiny and granted a talent—not necessarily a welcome one—that it is death to hide, that talent consisting in the power to see, intermittently, flashes of the truth behind appearances.

The life arc of the kind of artist White felt himself to be is most clearly shown forth in Voss (1957), the novel that made his reputation. Johann Ulrich Voss sets off with a miscellaneous band of followers on a journey of exploration into the vast Australian outback. Most of the party die, including Voss himself; but in the course of their long march Voss makes discoveries about the human spirit in extremis that, by a kind of spiritual telepathy, he transmits to the beloved he has left behind in Sydney, and through her to us.

White’s sense of being special was closely tied to his homosexuality. He did not contest the verdict of the Australia of his day that homosexuality was “deviant,” but took his deviance as a blessing as much as a curse:
I see myself not so much a homosexual as a mind possessed by the spirit of man or woman according to actual situations or [sic] the characters I become in my writing…. Ambivalence has given me insights into human nature, denied, I believe, to those who are unequivocally male or female.
The award of the Nobel Prize in 1973 took many by surprise, particularly in Australia, where White was looked on as a difficult writer with a mannered, unnecessarily complex prose style. From a European perspective the award made more sense. White stood out from his Anglophone contemporaries in his familiarity with European Modernism (his Cambridge degree was in French and German). His language, and indeed his vision of the world, were indelibly marked by an early immersion in Expressionism, both literary and pictorial. His sensibility was always strongly visual. As a young man he moved among artists rather than among writers (he was an habitué of the studio of his close contemporary Francis Bacon), and often remarked that he wished he could have been a painter.

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