April 2014

Edward Stephens


The Human Skeptic: A Primer on Patrick White

Part 1

Let me put you in a box against your will. You read much and often. You have heard of Patrick White because when you're feeling desperate you browse the literature section of nobelprize.org and marvel that as an unpublished twenty-something you haven't won yet. Somehow you learned he was a homosexual Australian. You found The Solid Mandala in paperback at a used bookstore, but you put it back because suddenly there was Edith Wharton's The Decoration of Houses, which you've wanted to read since you can remember, and god, isn't The Solid Mandala a heavy title? (The Decoration of Houses was everything you wanted it to be and more. Good job, you tell yourself when you see it on the shelf.)

Now let's talk about Patrick White.

Patrick White: A Life

Patrick White: A Life by David Marr is one of the best-constructed books I have ever touched. The text is set beautifully on silky pages as broad as banana leaves -- it is an honest pleasure to turn them. All book manufacturers should take lessons from it. Still, it is a dull 640 pages, not even counting the stupefying number of endnotes. The problem seems to be in Marr's process: a combination of thorough research and rigorously unimaginative narrative. "My purpose in writing Patrick White's life was to find what made him a writer and where his writing came from," Marr explains in the afterword. He ignores the question of how critical work without a trace of opinion can get at the root of anyone's writing.

Well, Marr's is neither the first nor last toothless biography, and I'm glad of Patrick White: A Life as a reference. Here is a sketch I've drawn from it.

Patrick White was born in 1912 to a family of landed Australian graziers whose vast fortune sustained him until he died seventy-eight years later. All his life he suffered badly from asthma; others suffered badly for his temper. He spent a childhood in Australia between his uncles' enormous ranches and his parents' fashionable Sydney townhouse before receiving an English education at public school and Cambridge. He adored his nanny but could not stand his mother. Being homosexual was never a source of stress for him. It was not a discovery he came to terms with -- he just was. Concealing his homosexuality, however, put a strain on English life. Quite reasonably he suspected that society could turn on its "others" in a heartbeat. After an exhausting post-university stint as a ranch hand in rural Australia, White returned to London to write. He did not find much literary success in the city, but he found men to love, West End actresses to flatter, and a pair of painters, Roy de Maistre and Francis Bacon, to adopt as mentors. For a time he was in love with a Spaniard. White could be stubbornly loyal about politics when it involved a question of friendship: in a Jean Brodie-esque haze, he supported the fascists in Spain's civil war. London publishers were unreceptive to his work. A trip to New York proved fruitful: he sold his first novel, Happy Valley, to Ben Huebsch at Viking. From that point forward Patrick White was a professional writer, which is exactly what he wanted to be.

Then came the catastrophe from which White never recovered, World War II. He survived the German blitzes of London. He enlisted in the Royal Air Force and was dispatched to North Africa and Palestine, where as an intelligence offer he sat out maddening twelve-hour shifts in front of a radio to intercept signals for Axis air attacks. Later he learned of the Holocaust, knowledge that depressed him and exactly confirmed his suspicions of human society. While visiting a lover in post-bellum Egypt, he met a Greek aristocrat, Manoly Lascaris. He found in Lascaris his life's partner, and they lived together for thirty-five years, the rest of White's life. The relationship cinched White's life-long allegiance to the Anatolean Greek city of Smyrna, the 1922 sack of which he would thereafter regard as a personal affront, ending friendships over mere hints from others that the Greeks were hardly less barbaric than the Turks.

White and Lascaris settled into a house and a few adjoining acres twenty-five miles outside of Sydney to raise berries, goats, and competition schnauzers. His enthusiasm from then on for goats is a running theme in his writing. He thought of himself in that post-war time as a former writer. In a famous essay about the first years back in Australia, "The Prodigal Son," he wrote that "nothing seemed important, beyond living and eating, with a roof over one's head." Here was a man so stunned by man's capacity for cruelty, ignorance, and desolation that for years he abandoned his greatest weapon against it. (Incidentally, I will never understand how so many of White's critics latch onto another phrase from that essay, an empty and asinine self-congratulation in which the author compares his own writing to painting and music.) But he could not keep his energies at bay forever. The Tree of Man was published in 1955, and then Voss in 1957, and with those two novels he cemented his reputation as an important writer.

The remaining three decades of his life were by any measure quite successful. They were also turbulent. His volatile temper and tendency toward invective were always present in his writing, but outside of his fiction, where they were mitigated and refined by his mastery of language and a certain moral clarity, these traits brought him trouble. He broke off countless friendships over trifles. He transformed the world's highest literary honor into a tortuous demand on his energies, dragging out his official acceptance amid feints and refusals to comply with the Swedish Academy's standard procedures for Nobel winners. He published a "memoir" that was more of an excuse to skewer everyone with whom he had ever been on the outs, in addition to several friends and colleagues who had thought themselves on good terms with him. He became a public figure in Australian politics, a somewhat muddled bulldog, really, lobbying and speaking out for Labor government issues, almost certainly to a fault. Throughout these hectic years he continued to produce literary work -- novels, plays, short stories, sketches -- at an astonishing rate, much of it quite good. But his weak lungs finally caught up with him. In 1989 he took ill and never recovered. Manoly Lascaris woke early one morning to a nurse's urgent cries and went to the sickroom to hold Patrick White's hand while he died. Perhaps he had shouted himself out.

Voss (1957)

"Dr. ____, is there such thing as insanity among penguins?" asks Werner Herzog in the film Encounters at the End of the World, inviting an Antarctic biologist to describe penguins that become "disoriented" and run toward the center of the continent and certain death.

Patrick White's disoriented soul Johann Ulrich Voss likewise strikes out to meet his demise in the hinterland of Australia. Voss is the pettiest of men, a skinny, unmannered German who seeks at every turn the embarrassment of his fellows -- but his ambition for immortality is limitless. He has given himself up to the idea of it. White introduces him in threadbare clothing, as "a bit of a scarecrow," with bony joints and missing teeth, thus before the outset already losing bits of his person and property to the Australian continent.

Voss the man is a shambles, but Voss the book is a thrilling romance. Its setting is mid-nineteenth century Australia, a time when white Australians lived only in coastal settlements and the surrounding farmlands. The largest portion of the novel is an account of Voss's great idea: an expedition to the terra incognita. Such journeys are the stuff of the best adventure stories, and Voss is traditional in this respect. The party endures exposure, illness, and fatigue; they ford a high river; they suffer through the dry season; they engage the natives in battle and diplomacy. Violence, cunning, and determination rule the day -- only there's a wryness in the delivery, a subversive note not unlike the knowing farce of Cormac McCarthy's bloody westerns. Voss cherishes leadership, but he is not much of a leader. The expedition is at all times shedding its supplies, instruments, livestock, and even members -- to death and mutiny alike -- with reckless abandon, continuing the trend of withering begun by Voss's missing teeth.

Cold as he is to most beings, Voss yet falls in love with the niece of his most generous underwriter, the lovable chauvinist merchant Edmund Bonner. Voss encounters this niece, Laura Trevelyan, three times before his departure, but any notions of romance kindled between them in person are mere feints. His passion spills onto letters to her, however, sent from the last outposts of Australia's white civilization. She promises to marry him on his return, and in the meantime she returns to God on his behalf after having renounced Christianity on her own. Their correspondence in Voss, mostly undelivered and unread, is the best atom of an excellent whole. Voss and Laura develop a mystical connection, each privately hoping to achieve his salvation through their union (she administers doses of humility for him through prayer). As his slow march through the desert slides to desperation, the psychic connection grows more real. It culminates in Laura's marvelous fever dream of him in which she conflates ostentatious architecture with the unforgiving central Australian landscape: "So the party rode down the terrible basalt stairs of the Bonners' deserted house, and onward. Sometimes the horses' hooves would strike sparks from the outcrops of jagged rock." And with this dream White pivots the narrative from Laura's quarantine room back to the long desert trail.

A celestial phenomenon unites them one last time: a comet visible to the entire Southern sky captivates them simultaneously over the great distance. After a few days it travels beyond the realm of the naked eye, and Voss, by this time little more than a suit of rancid skin, is extinguished.

Critics have insisted that the spiritual dialogue between Voss and Laura is the heart of the book, but I suspect White set more store by the hero's affliction than its remedy. Vain unto the end, Johann Ulrich Voss is an anti-exemplar: a self-conscious martyr and dithering leader, his story is a shrill warning against supreme ego. And perhaps more to the point, there is no remedy for him; certainly there is no salvation. Like all of the doomed characters in the book, but more extreme by several degrees, Voss's human flaws -- quenchless greed, misplaced hubris, utter unforgivable pettiness -- survive outside of society far beyond the point it becomes clear that his human body will not.

Riders in the Chariot (1961)

Riders in the Chariot is a long novel, and it isn't much fun. None of White's writing is particularly cheerful, but Riders owes its inspiration to the some of the bleaker examples of human behavior: the unyielding horror of the second World War as White experienced and understood it. In letters to his publisher, he referred to it as his "Holocaust novel," a description at once misleading and quite true.

Four characters, each indelibly marked by a spiritual aura, are residents of Sarsaparilla, a fictional mid-century suburb of Sydney (and the setting of several other of White's novels and plays). They are: a white Australian geriatric who lives in the ruins of a great mansion and speaks with animals, a transplanted German Jew, a soulful and practical English-born laundress, and an aborigine artist. Riders consists of each of their lives as an episode. The four episodes are bound by present tense action in which they endure the cruelty of their Sarsaparilla neighbors.

Only the story of Mordecai Himmelfarb involves the Holocaust directly. Early in his career as a renowned professor of literature, he conforms to the assimilated ideal: secular, middle-class, driven by earthly ambition, devoted to scholarship of the German cultural heritage, well dressed. But a word from a Jewish beggar incites him to visit a distant family friend, a tailor, with whose profoundly Jewish daughter he falls in love. Like a charmer's melody the marriage draws out his spiritual heritage. Before long he indulges in Jewish mysticism, nightly poring over old books for years in the search for a great truth -- a truth far beyond his wife's humble spirituality. He gains renown as a scholar, as well as a new position in a prestigious university. Between his career and his mystic quest, he believes himself immune from the mounting troubles for Jews in Germany. Opportunities to smuggle himself and his wife to safety come to him, but he passes. Then the Kristallnacht. A premonition of danger seizes him, and rather than return home from a walk he calls on an influential and sympathetic Gentile friend, who shelters him.

When the night of terror comes to an end, he goes to his mansion to discover what he already knows in his heart: the house has been ransacked, and his wife is missing. He sees evidence that he, the prominent Jew, was the intended target of the attack. Guilt for the pride and cowardice that led to his sacrificing his wife gnaws at him as he takes refuge from the Gestapo in another rich Gentile's country estate. After a long stint of hiding he cannot bear it any longer, so he resolves to take the punishment he feels he deserves. An unexpectedly hilarious scene follows when he enters a police station to turn himself in:

"Well?" [the officer] asked, though. "What do you want?"

"I am a Jew," Himmelfarb announced.

Offering the paper.

"A Jew, eh?"

But the policeman was too distracted by his inability to lay his hand on some other document.

"Well," he grumbled, "you will have to wait. A Jew!" he complained. "At this time of night! And on my own!"

Alas, fate has other plans. Upon his arrival at a concentration camp the Jews on the train with him are prodded into a gas chamber, but a guard pulls Himmelfarb out of line to serve as an aide. It is a grim assignment. It is his task, along with a few others, to drag the lifeless bodies from the chamber and bury them en masse. Even the Nazi camp does not deliver him from his profound guilt, but rather forces him to confront it with his bare hands on a scale greater than he could have imagined. A short time later he escapes.

Himmelfarb's story -- some hundred pages in the first half of Riders in the Chariot -- represents perhaps Patrick White's best work and should be excerpted (along with another scene in the novel -- more on this below) for a White compendium or any anthology of Australian or Holocaust literature. With the caveat that I haven't read Aharon Appelfeld's Tzili, the saga of Himmelfarb has shown me the horror and furor of the Nazi extermination machine more clearly and in greater dimension than any other piece of art -- and the last sixty years of world literature and world cinema have not lacked for portraits of it. I am, frankly, still affected three weeks after reading it. White's version of the Holocaust appeals to me because it is not a simple tragedy of death but an instrument of shame for Himmelfarb. Its double injustice is to cut down his innocent wife and torture his private sense of wrongdoing. I think this relentless warping of personal beliefs, now that I can see it through White's art, is as true and as staggering as the incalculable murders committed in the name of social impulse.

The other great scene in Riders in the Chariot occurs when a wife goes to retrieve her husband from a brothel and is invited by the madame to wait for him in the anteroom. In the introduction to the NYRB edition, David Malouf describes the encounter as Dostoevskian. Indeed, it is the only time I have ever seen that adjective used accurately. I won't spoil it for you.

But Riders in the Chariot is much bigger than those two excellent parts. The rest suffers for a kind of preachy conviction. White builds the novel on the one hand upon an obstinately narrow brand of spirituality among a handful of characters and, on the other, upon a hateful depiction of cruelty among the masses. (When Patrick White referred to his "Holocaust novel" he meant that in a sense the Holocaust was not a crime of Aryan Germans but the inevitable crime of all human society.) The author's "correct" spiritual outlook follows the tradition of Sufi Islam, although he doesn't mention the influence. Just as the Hoopoe instructs his followers in Farid Attar's twelfth-century Conference of the Birds, the religion of the four marked protagonists consists of destroying the sense of oneself in pursuit of an unattainable spiritual truth -- although in the end only the pursuit of it matters -- at which point they become the enlightened Riders of the title. White leaves little room for nuance here, and even less in his bitter indictment of the modern Australian suburb and its suburbanites, all of whom are instruments of or accomplices to murder. The righteousness he wields against his fellow men isn't entirely inappropriate in a novel whose inspiration was the Holocaust, but it is remarkable that he writes so penetratingly of that catastrophe when the novel on the whole is a monotone rendering.

Edward Stephens is, in no particular order, a writer, reader, husband, and father. Look him up if you ever come to Athens, Georgia. He writes about fiction at bestsbindery.com under the name Barry Best.