Some human beings are “doomed” to become artists, writes Patrick White in this memoir—or, as he calls it, a collection of sketches—and these chosen individuals are seldom also blessed with equanimity. Part of the artist’s burden is to be tossed to drunken heights one minute and then brought down to despair the next. Similarly, the creative artist can move from arrogance to humiliation and uncertainty, from confidence to timidity. None of this makes an artist easy to be around—or even easy to be.
White compares the creative artist’s extremes of emotion and attitude to the playacting of children and the grown-up playacting of the theater. He speculates that he may well have turned to writing as a means of coming to terms with the frustrated actor in himself: writing was a way to harness the swings of temperament inherent in his nature. Nevertheless, he adds, the magic of art remains unexplained and unexplainable. These themes—the sense of doom, the quality of “theater,” the aura of magic—run through all of Nobel Prize-winner White’s fiction, and through this informally constructed but fascinating and well-written autobiography.
Because he lacked the flamboyance and confidence of the professional actor, White writes, and because he was cursed with an instinctive and sometimes crippling reserve, he chose fiction—or was compelled toward fiction—as a means of introducing to the world “the cast of contradictory characters” of which he was composed. In the pages of White’s chatty but honest memoir, the reader discovers the curious contradictions of fate that thrust an essentially domestic individual into the midst of some of the more dynamic events of the twentieth century, from the development of a raw continent to the greatest war yet seen by mankind. Although a man with strong geographical and national roots, White nevertheless has spent much of his life caught up in the storms of history, far from his own continent. Yet his artistic vision, his “magic,” has remained true to his own rugged Australian world, and to the remarkable cast of characters who have journeyed from that unique land—through his genius—to the immortality of the printed page.
Not that White has always felt at one with his countrymen. On the contrary, he often has been at odds with the rough, proud, and often intolerant and insecure people of Australia. The land itself, however—that vast, unconquered, and unpredictable island continent—he loved and always found consoling. During his various periods of exile over the seven decades of his life, White has found that he was inevitably drawn back to Australia, to the wild, ruthless landscape, even more than to the people, and perhaps this is why his novels—despite their many vivid characterizations—leave the reader primarily with a sense of the land.
White was—and is—he confesses, an “obsessive” writer. He could not not write. From adolescence, he tried to make sense of the contradictory, often violent world by capturing it on paper as filtered through his own consciousness. A suggestion of the uncontrollable nature of existence runs through these memoirs. White speculates, without really coming to any conclusion, about the alternate directions his life might have taken: could his life and career have turned out any differently than they did? He seems to look back at his successes with awe and wonder, as if to say, “Fancy, my words causing all this fuss!”
Although his novels are filled with a violence appropriate to such a rough, dynamic, still-evolving land, Patrick White himself emerges from this book as a gentle, quiet man of enormous sensitivity. He suggests that when he writes, some unknown power takes command, driving him until the work is complete. Looking back at his novels, he is amazed by what he discovers in their pages. On one level, he remarks, he does find in the books a recognizable collage of his personal experiences, but on another level, he does not recognize the personality who seems to be revealed in his works. It is, paradoxically, that unknown man whom the critics and interviewers want to know: it is this literary magician who creates huge landscapes from unknown and hitherto uncharted territories of the soul and who fascinates the world.
Yet, White says, the masks he wears in his fictions are not those that other people expect him to wear in actual life. He is composed of many characters, but not all of them have been revealed to him or, through him, to the world. Entering his eighth decade, he still is embarking on voyages of exploration from which he may yet learn some fragments of truth about himself. It is this humility and this disarming openness that infuses all of his writing and that charges...