From the Archives, 1990: Patrick White, author and stirrer, dies at 78
Although not a popular writer in the ways that Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson are, and though probably many modern Australian novels have outsold his, White was always pleased to find he had sympathetic “ordinary” readers(as distinct from academics, whom he scornfully ignored) scattered through the suburbs that he satirised.
The frequently heard phrase “like something out of Patrick White” reveals how widely he has affected our consciousness, and even readers more familiar with newspaper accounts of his latest controversial political involvement than with his fiction were well aware of him as the Grand Old Man of Australian Letters.
Patrick Victor Martindale White was born in London on May 28, 1912, the son of V.M. White. His early education was at Tudor House, Moss Vale, followed by a stint of jackarooing on the Monaro and around Walgett.
He returned to England to complete his education first at Cheltenham College and then at King’s College, Cambridge.
He travelled extensively in Western Europe and the United States and, during World War II, he served as an intelligence officer in the RAF in the Middle East and Greece. After demobilisation, he settled on a farm at Castle Hill in Sydney’s north-west.
He wrote prolifically for over half a century – novels, short stories and plays – sustaining a level of creativity unrivalled in this country. The variety of his characters and settings, his styles and modes, was prodigious.
Each new work was a fresh and unpredictable departure, but also one which extended, and qualified, his fascination with the paradoxes of human experience, which most often he located in Australia, past or present.
How well qualified he was to present Australia’s human comedy became an issue in the 1950s and 1960s, when he came fully into prominence. Although his first novel, Happy Valley (1939), had won the Australian Literature Society’s Gold Medal, there was not much awareness of him here until the appearance of The Tree of Man (1955) and Voss (1957).
Praised in England and the US (where, like all his novels, they were first published), these reworked the staple Australian family saga of pioneering and the tragic inland journey of exploration in a modernist manner.
This manner entailed a pronounced, if questioning, religious dimension which confused the developing, and opposed, orthodoxies of Australian literature.
For some who favoured democratic social realism, White was outside the native tradition. For others, White’s “universality” was a welcome alternative to an embarrassing provinciality.
Personally, White seemed to be outside the mainstream of Australian culture at that time. Given his background, he seemed to many an Anglo-Australian from the colonial past.
Instead of writing about “the Common Man” for an audience of the same, in the “characteristically” Australian way, he seemed an elitist aesthete tainted by the misanthropy of modernism.
It was not until after the war and his decision to return to Australia to live that he engaged fully with his Australian experience. His first truly individual novel, and also his most experimental, The Aunt’s Story (1948), imaginatively projects his memories of his Australian childhood and later wanderings in Europe and America.
On returning to Australia with Manoly Lascaris, the Greek poet he met during the war who became his life-long companion, White, in response to what he felt was the provincial pettiness of local critics, assumed the role of proud Proustian recluse or Joycean exile at Castle Hill at a time when it was a rural retreat on the outskirts of the city.
In the 1960s, in novels, short stories and plays, he lashed out at what he saw as the philistinism and materialism pervading contemporary Australia, epitomised in the mythic suburb of Sarsaparilla, modelled on Castle Hill.
This was an extraordinarily prolific period, with the novel Riders in the Chariot, the plays The Season at Sarsaparilla and A Cheery Soul, and the short story collection The Burnt Ones appearing in successive years from 1961 to 1964. The heavily satiric phase in White’s writing also coincided with a more general awareness, assisted by Barry Humphries (whom White admired), that post-war Australia was characterised by values that were essentially suburban
With comic satire, White was relocating “literature” (usually thought of as remote, and most often imported) in the contemporary and the familiar. The stimulus his example provided other writers cannot be overestimated: here was the internationally known author of The Tree of Man and Voss, which by comparison now seemed quite classical, engaging playfully and often savagely with the immediate and the mundane.
This stimulus can be seen most markedly with the drama. After the earlier-written The Ham Funeral was rejected for the 1961 Adelaide Festival, but given a successful fringe production outside it, White wrote The Season and A Cheery Soul (later revived at the Sydney Opera House).
Satiric but also affectionate towards suburbia, they broke with the prevailing realist conventions. In spirit and techniques, many plays of the”new wave” dramatists a few years later had much in common with them. In the short story and the novel White was also making writers, and perhaps more importantly readers, aware of a wider range of possibilities.
In 1964 Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris moved from Castle Hill to Centennial Park. The novel The Solid Mandala (1966) was the last of his”Sarsaparilla” books. Sydney and Sydney society provided most of the settings for his next novels, The Vivisector (1970) and The Eye of the Storm (1973), and the “shorter novels” collected in The Cockatoos (1974).
With the move to Centennial Park came increasing involvement in political issues. White’s opposition to censorship and the Vietnam War, and his concern over Aboriginal rights and urban development, led to his publicly supporting Labor in 1972.
In 1974, the year after he won the Nobel Prize, he was named Australian of the Year. After the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, he returned his Order of Australia and became a supporter of constitutional reform and republicanism.
A bitter critic of the Fraser Liberal Government, he soon became disillusioned with the new Labor Government’s policies on uranium mining and foreign alliances and supported the Nuclear Disarmament Party instead.
Once assumed to be a reactionary Anglophile, White later revealed himself to be a patriotic progressive. Although his politics were of an idealistic rather than a party kind, they involved a lot of marching and speechmaking, even as his health declined.
His writing, once hailed or attacked for being more “universal” than Australian, also reveals a deep involvement with his own country, its history and potential.
The major historical conflicts that have provided Australian writers with distinctive themes – conflicts between the Aborigines and white settlers, between the convicts and their governors, between Sydney and the Bush – recur throughout his works, as do versions of his own experiences, all presented with an unprecedented eye, and ear, for social differences and tensions.
In 1976, White returned to the historical novel with A Fringe of Leaves, based on the story of Eliza Fraser, and in 1978 his return to the stage was marked by Big Toys, a contemporary morality about public corruption focused on the uranium issue (two other plays followed in 1983).
His autobiography, Flaws in the Glass, appeared in 1981. A merciless, and artful, self-examination, it omits his many acts of generosity such as his support for Aboriginal education, his presentation of a collection of paintings to the NSW Art Gallery, and his setting aside money from the Nobel Prize to establish an award for older Australian writers whose work has not received adequate recognition.
In Flaws in the Glass White was frank about his homosexuality, a subject that he had addressed in The Twyborn Affair (1979), the novel that had appeared immediately before the autobiography. A text for the post-modernist present, The Twyborn Affair showed White continuing to respond provocatively and playfully to changing social and literary attitudes.
As ever, White’s new work broke out of the categories his interpreters have attempted to force him into. The more fervent, and humourless, have attempted to canonise him as a saint or a sage.
Playfulness also characterised his 1986 novel, the slighter Memoirs of Many in One.
Patrick White remains the greatest Australian writer to date by far, not only because he produced more major works than any other Australian writer has but also because, beyond that, he transcended the cultural divisions from the past which he encountered on returning to Australia after the war.
He was both contemporary and a traditionalist, an Australian and simultaneously an international writer; his works are both local and universal, realist and symbolic, social and metaphysical.
Lesser writers (and critics) might see these as necessarily opposed categories. White assimilated them, playing them against each other.
Once seen as aloof from Australian “reality” and culture, White changed our perceptions of these, as they have themselves changed over the long time he was writing about them.
White’s being here contributed to those changes and to an altered consciousness of Australia. He opened up “the country of the mind” and, like Voss’s, his spirit is still there.