Patrick White 1912–-1990
(Full name Patrick Victor Martindale White; also wrote under the pseudonym P. V. M.). English-born Australian novelist, short story writer, playwright, memoirist, and poet. See also Patrick White Literary Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 4, 5, 7, 9, 18.
A notable voice in Australian literature, White is known for his stylistically complex novels and short fiction that feature eccentric characters, harsh environments, and satirical portrayals of Australian society. White's frequent use of isolation as a theme stemmed from his personal feelings of alienation and nonacceptance by his fellow countrymen. White's work has never captured a large audience, but critical understanding and appreciation of White's work has increased over time.
White was born in London, the oldest child of a wealthy Australian couple. At an early age, White began writing plays and attended Australian schools. When he was thirteen years old, his parents sent him to Cheltenham College, a boarding school near Gloucester, England. Following graduation in 1929, White returned to Australia and worked as a jackeroo, or ranch hand. During this time, he published a thin volume of poetry and began writing novels. In 1932 White returned to England to attend Cambridge University, where he studied French and German. After graduating in 1935, White remained in London but took a trip to the United States and Europe. White returned to Australia following service in the Royal Air Force as an intelligence officer in the Middle East. His literary career spanned nearly a half century, producing twelve novels, several plays, three volumes of poetry, and three short story collections. White's work established him as an authentic voice of Australia, winning him the 1973 Nobel Prize for Literature. White died in 1990.
Major Works of Short Fiction
White once remarked that the present is “a tireless dance,” and is always “a variation of the same theme.” During an interview with The New York Times Book Review, White told the interviewer that his “dominant obsession” was the search for “meaning and design” in what he described as “the tragic farce of life—to find reason in apparent unreason, and how to accept a supernatural force which on the one hand blesses and on the other destroys.” His comments during that interview reflect many of the themes that recur in his short fiction. White's three short story collections—The Burnt Ones, The Cockatoos, and Three Uneasy Pieces—feature many of the same themes, including isolation, the interplay between illusion and reality, and past events and memories intruding into the present. Employing techniques such as stream-of-consciousness narratives, complex flashbacks, use of unusual syntax, and the exploration of dreams and states of madness, White's short fiction delves into human psychology, spirituality, and man's search for meaning. Characters portrayed in White's first collection, The Burnt Ones, are haunted by feelings of isolation, intense self-examination, and an acute awareness of how they are different from others. Loneliness as a theme is present in White's second short story collection as well. In The Cockatoos, characters in many of the stories are bourgeois older couples, who in their remaining years, make various attempts to escape feelings of isolation within their marriages. In “A Woman's Hand,” Evelyn Fazackley's invasive matchmaking leads to the marriage of two acquaintances. The union, however, leads to the mental collapse of one partner and the death of the other. In “The Cockatoos,” the title story of the collection, Mrs. Davoren and her husband are alienated from each other and have not spoken for years until the unusual arrival of cockatoos in their yard. The birds provide the couple a topic for conversation as well as a connection long absent from their marriage. But the connection is short-lived after a neighbor shoots two of the birds and Mr. Davoren is killed in his attempt to wrest the gun from him. Three Uneasy Pieces, White's last published book and short story collection, differs from the previous two collections in that most of the stories are confessional and written in first person.
White's literary reputation rests primarily on his novels and plays; since his death, the majority of critical commentary has focused on his longer fictional works. White's short stories, which mimic many of the same themes and literary techniques found in his novels and plays, are similarly criticized for their multiplicity of symbols, myths, and allegories. Some critics have remarked that his writing is “unreadable” and convoluted, while others have praised White's use of language and imagery. Despite criticism of the language White used to write his stories, many have noted that his short stories and longer fiction provide insight into the mystery of the human psyche and the collective unconscious through psychological exploration of his characters. “In describing the pathos of a slow crumbling of suburban souls, his stories evoke a sense of tragedy—a tragedy not so much of an individual, but of a civilization, of a whole way of life,” said critic Hameeda Hossain. Scholar William Walsh has described White as a “richly gifted, original and highly significant writer whose powers are remarkable and whose achievement is large. His art is dense, poetic, and image-ridden. … At its finest it is one which goes beyond an art of mere appearances to one of mysterious actuality.”
The Burnt Ones 1964
The Cockatoos 1975
Three Uneasy Pieces 1988
Patrick White: Selected Writings (short stories, poetry, drama) 1994
Thirteen Poems (poetry) 1930
The Ploughman, and Other Poems (poetry) 1935
Happy Valley (novel) 1939
The Living and the Dead (novel) 1941
Return to Abyssinia (drama) 1947
The Aunt's Story (novel) 1948
The Tree of Man (novel) 1955
Voss (novel) 1957
The Ham Funeral (drama) 1961
Riders in the Chariot (novel) 1961
The Season at Sarsaparilla (drama) 1962
A Cheery Soul (drama) 1963
A Night on Bald Mountain (drama) 1964
The Solid Mandala (novel) 1966
The Vivisector (novel) 1970
The Eye of the Storm (novel) 1973
Poems (poetry) 1974
A Fringe of Leaves (novel) 1976
Big Toys (drama) 1977
The Twyborn Affair (novel) 1980
Flaws in the Glass: A Self-Portrait (autobiography) 1981
Netherwood (drama) 1983
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The Times Literary Supplement (review date 1964)
SOURCE: “Sparks from a Burning Wheel,” in The Times Literary Supplement, October 22, 1964, p. 953.
[In this review of The Burnt Ones, the critic provides a negative assessment of the short fiction collection.]
In Mr. White's more recent novels a centrifugal tendency has been increasingly apparent: things do not fall apart—Mr. White has too much control to permit that—but they do tug apart. In Voss the centre holds only by a dream communion between Voss and Laura Trevelyan which intensifies and tightens as the physical distance between them increases. In Riders in the Chariot even Mr. White's technical ingenuity is hard put to it to keep the reins of his quadriga; and the real unity of the novel depends less on its structure than on the burning vision which informs it. Now, in this collection of stories, sparks from his anvil rather than chips from the axe which shaped that holy rood, the most unified of his novels, The Tree of Man, he seems to have accepted a further fragmentation.
If a reviewer confesses to a gratitude tempered by disappointment for The Burnt Ones, this cannot be attributed to any failure in his technique. The skill is as pervasive as ever and the flaws too minor. For there are flaws: certain characteristic devices seem to recur because they have...
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SOURCE: “A Dangerous Spark of Life,” in Saturday Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 44, October 31, 1964, p. 54.
[In this negative review of The Burnt Ones, Stilwell sharply criticizes the style of White's writing, arguing that many reviewers have overpraised his writing talent and accomplishments.]
It may seem perverse to suggest that the Australian Patrick White is among the more difficult practitioners of fiction now living and working. At first glance—and often at twentieth glance—his pages are likely to look shallow, ungainly, homemade, even simple-minded. You might suspect that, far from being masterful exploitations of language and experience, they were scribbled on rough-grained boards by a novice writer wielding a carpenter's pencil. Yet much of White's difficulty arises precisely from this unpromising “surface.” For before you can decide whether really profound matters are going forward within his work, you need a constantly reasserted act of faith to believe that such writing could be worth bothering with at all.
Once you achieve this act of faith, what then? Does Patrick White deserve, and repay, a reading in depth? I think he may, at least partially. There can be little doubt that far too many critics and reviewers have overpraised his gifts, his accomplishments. At the same time, however, there can be little doubt that his voice is incomparably the most commanding...
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SOURCE: “Patrick White: The Short Story Pinches,” in The Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 56, No. 297, November 12, 1964, p. 11.
[In his unfavorable review of The Burnt Ones, Kiely maintains that the “exceedingly gifted writer may be dabbling in the wrong form” by penning short stories.]
Most Americans are not quite sure how to take Australia. The vast stretches of land, the rough living and ranch humor appeal to us and remind us of what we once were and would sometimes still like to be. But the little pockets of provincial snobbery and British respectability disturb our frontier ideal. They not only alter the vistas of open spaces and natural living, they stand right up and block the view, making it strange, incomprehensible, and unreal. The seven Australian tales in Patrick White's collection of eleven stories entitled The Burnt Ones are effective explorations of this problem, told not from an American but from an Australian point of view.
None of the stories takes place in the great “outback,” but rather in the smallish cities and suburbs fringing the continent's rim, suspended between the deep interior and the sea. The fellow countrymen whose lives Mr. White explores huddle at the edges of these desolate and immense regions cultivating their rose gardens or picking through their rubbish piles in a variety of pathetic and bitterly comic efforts to guard...
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SOURCE: “Taking the Measure of the Terror of Isolation,” in Commonweal, Vol. 81, No. 8, November 13, 1964, p. 241-42.
[In the following positive review, Greene discusses the common themes that tie together the stories in The Burnt Ones.]
Every living short story, as Elizabeth Bowen reminds us, demands a measure of experiment. Today, what narrows the range of some practitioners is that they pit technical bravery against their need to document a lost paradise. In this contest, invention too often becomes the first casualty. Most of us have read quite enough narratives with a “My Days as an Unlicensed Dentist in Detroit” format. Such nostalgia Mr. White vigorously dismisses. Seven of these stories occur in his own Australia; the rest introduce people who live in the Mediterranean world. Initially, perhaps, one frets about the identity of the wallaby, and what is signified by the ugly word “fridge,” but this man's imagination by-passes more than geographical boundaries. Mr. White commands attention even when he leaps—lapses is too weak to characterize diction so alive, if hieroglyphic—toward the inexpressible.
As one reads one recalls another melancholy searcher, Sherwood Anderson. Just as for his less sophisticated American brother, Mr. White's adversary is the terror of isolation. In “Dead Roses” a hefty Australian girl rejects the advances of a young physicist. She...
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SOURCE: “The Stories of Patrick White,” in Meanjin Quarterly, Vol. XXIII, No. 4, December, 1964, pp. 372-76.
[In the following essay, Lindsay praises The Burnt Ones, saying White's work “shows some important advances and makes clearer than ever the need to grapple with his work in full critical seriousness.”]
It is a tribute to the work of Patrick White that one is forced to judge it by the highest standards: even a qualified praise of its achievement means far more than easy superlatives evoked by writing which carries on in the closed circle of more conventionalised methods. His latest book, The Burnt Ones, shows some important advances and makes clearer than ever the need to grapple with his work in full critical seriousness. The eleven tales vary in length and value, but at their best they rank high. ‘Dead Roses’, ‘The Woman Who Wasn't Allowed to Keep Cats’, and ‘Down at the Dump’ show his literary method, his aesthetic vision, gaining a new clarity and compactness, with nothing of the self-indulgence that can be urged against certain aspects of the novels. Indeed it is by a consideration of the sparer and more intellectually controlled form of such stories that one can bring out what was cloudy and weak in the larger canvases; what was there fabricated to suggest a grand and penetrative view of life rather than springing directly from the material and White's...
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SOURCE: “The Short Stories of Patrick White,” in Southerly, Vol. 24, No. 2, 1964, pp. 116-25.
[In the following essay, Burrows illustrates how White uses observations and anecdotes about Australian society in his fiction as a form of social satire.]
At her first appearance in Happy Valley (1939), the loneliness and discontent of poor Vic Moriarty are epitomised in her absurd day-dream of being mentioned in the social pages of the Herald as having played bridge at David Jones. She pictures herself wearing a powder-blue dress (p. 37). At her final appearance in Riders in the Chariot (1961), Mrs. Chalmers-Robinson, socially rehabilitated at last, actually does lunch at a smart Sydney restaurant. She is wearing a powder-blue dress (p. 544).
Out of innumerable trifles like this, many of them similarly recurrent, there is made up one of the most striking, even obtrusive, characteristics of the work of Patrick White. It ranges from this flicker of bored but perhaps mildly compulsive distaste for a social cliché to a fascinated loathing for contemporary Australian society in certain of its aspects.
For illustration we can turn to a passage from Riders in the Chariot which seems at first sight to provide a notable exception. At the end of the novel, Mrs. Godbold—“the rock of love”, “the infinite quiver” full of “the arrows of...
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SOURCE: “White's Short Stories,” in Overland, No. 31, March, 1965, pp. 17-19.
[In the following essay, Taylor discusses the shortcomings and the success of White's short stories in The Burnt Ones, maintaining that the stories are “fine, penetrating, courageous and illuminating in their economy.”]
Patrick White is central to Australian literature just in so far as he chooses to remain at odds with its society. To say that he is one of our sharpest and best social critics is stating a commonplace. The “suburban” world of Sarsaparilla and Barranugli receive about as much sympathy as they offer love. But one of his strengths is the ability not only to make us feel strongly about the mess we have created, but also to make us feel that it's worth feeling strongly about. For barren, ugly, or sweet and sickly though it may be, it is still the breeding ground of human lives. And where human lives are being bred, there are always some who will, perhaps even only part-consciously, grope towards the fullness of living that can be sensed among a mass of flowers and foliage.
In this volume of short stories, The Burnt Ones, White, as in “The Aunt's Story” and “Riders in the Chariot,” can turn his attention to Europe without diverting it from Australia. Four of the eleven stories here reprinted are set in the Greek Mediterranean. There is, it is true, a Greece of pines...
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SOURCE: A review of The Burnt Ones, in The Australian Quarterly, Vol. VII, No. 4, December, 1965, pp. 120-23.
[In the following review, Hossain discusses how the stories in The Burnt Ones mirror themes in White's novels and act as commentary on Australian society and the human condition.]
Patrick White was introduced to me as one of the best Australian writers of today. On reading The Burnt Ones, a collection of his short stories, which led me to read two of his more recent novels, The Aunt's Story and Riders in the Chariot, it seemed evident that he is outstanding among contemporary fiction writers outside Australia as well.
As with most good writing it is possible to approach Patrick White's work on several levels. First for its regional connotations as having something to say about Australian society. Although one gets glimpses of the concerns and values of middle-class Australian society, such as a consciousness of money, class and status, and a striving to attain at least one if not all of these; an involvement with objects (also important symbolically) and a suggestion of intellectual emptiness—it would be presumptuous as a foreigner to appraise it on this level. His work, however, transcends this environment, as Patrick White's ultimate concern is the basic human condition as it unfolds in the portrayal of the inner lives and the tragic...
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SOURCE: “Writer and Reader,” in Southerly, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1965, pp. 69-71.
[In the following review, Heseltine asserts that The Burnt Ones is “an essentially uneven book,” but that through the unevenness “shines one of our great creative spirits.”]
“Dead Roses”, the story which Patrick White has placed at the beginning of The Burnt Ones, is long, previously unpublished, and resumes the chief features of the ten which follow it. It is largely concerned, for instance, with the influence on Anthea Scudamore of her dreadful, domineering mother. It is a theme which has already engaged Patrick White in his novels; but he has imagined no more hatefully satirical version of it than those scenes in “Dead Roses” where poor Anthea has to make long-distance telephone conversations to Mummy in the delighted presence of some holidaying friends. Yet it is not even in “Dead Roses” that White vents his hatred of Australian matrons with the most passionate intensity. He reaches the height of his hate in “Clay” and “The Letters”. In both stories, a son suffers at the hands of an over-possessive mother; in both, the son takes refuge in total psychotic collapse. In both, the pattern of the prose seems to be woven less from satiric comment than obsessive emotional need; in both, the almost hysterical tone spreads out so far beyond the necessary requirements of dramatization as to...
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SOURCE: “Short Stories,” in Patrick White, Oliver and Boyd LTD, 1967, pp.66–89.
[In the following excerpt, Argyle points out that while White is primarily known as a novelist, his short stories show the same “intelligence” and “wealth of experience” that mark the author's longer fiction.]
When in the early sixties White began publishing those stories which he has since collected, with two additions, under the title of The Burnt Ones, many of his recent English readers were surprised that a novelist who dealt in great themes at great length should bother with an art-form used mainly by beginners. It had also become an axiom among many professional English readers of novels that the short-story was dead. Had they not, they felt, helped to kill it, assisted by a dearth of magazines and a surfeit of television and Somerset Maugham? With its roots in Scotland and its greatest modern practitioners in Ireland and America, the short-story, belonging to a wide tradition, did not fit easily into the Great Tradition. But in publishing The Burnt Ones, White was returning to a form he had first used nearly thirty years before, when he wrote “The Twitching Colonel,” which appeared in the London Mercury of April 1937, and “Cocotte,” which Horizon printed in 1940.
Neither shares the quality that so distinguishes his later stories, and their main...
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SOURCE: A review of The Cockatoos, in The New York Times Book Review, January 19, 1975, pp. 4, 37.
[In the following review, Welty discusses how the six short stories in The Cockatoos have similar themes involving characters who “come to a point of discovery” by confronting their problems.]
These [the stories in The Cockatoos] are six stories (a few are short novels) to do with lives often driven or hopeless, but what they are ultimately about is what might have been. They bring together the possibilities and the impossibilities of human relationships. They happen in Australia, Egypt, Sicily, Greece, where they go off like cannons fired over some popular, scenic river—depth charges to bring up the drowned bodies. Accidentally set free by some catastrophe, general or personal—war, starvation, or nothing more than a husband's toothache—Patrick White's characters come to a point of discovery. It might be, for instance, that in overcoming repugnancies they are actually yielding to some far deeper attraction; the possibilities of a life have been those very things once felt as its dangers. Or they may learn, in confronting moral weakness in others, some flaw in themselves they've never suspected, still more terrifying.
The common barriers of sex, age, class, nationality can in uncommon hands operate as gates, which open (for White's characters) to...
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SOURCE: “Nobelity Without Authenticity,” in The National Observer, Vol. 14, No. 4, January 25, 1975, p. 21.
[In the following negative assessment of White's fiction, Frank deems White's short stories “disappointing,” arguing that while they exhibit a “verbal richness” and “psychological acumen,” they feature characters who never seem real and plots that “verge on melodrama.”]
The Nobel Prize for Literature has often been a suspect award. Writers have frequently been honored not for their literary greatness, but for their moral courage (Pasternak, Solzhenitsyn) or for their good fortune in coming from a country that had not yet had a winner in this most famous of literary sweepstakes.
No one can deny that in their desire to honor literature, morality, and nationalism, the Nobel committee has at times immortalized some deservedly neglected authors. (Remember that of the six Americans to receive the prize, three were Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, and Pearl Buck.) On the other hand, though, in recent years truly great writers like Samuel Beckett and Pablo Neruda have also been singled out by the sages of Stockholm. Which all means that you never know with the Nobel Prize; maybe the winner is the genuine article, maybe another dud.
Patrick White is the Australian who won the prize in 1973. Few people I knew had ever heard of White; fewer still...
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SOURCE: A review of The Cockatoos, in The New Republic, Vol. 172, No. 12, 1975, pp. 23-4.
[In the following review, Avant maintains that the short story form “demands immediate rapport between artist and audience; and White, the most austere of modern novelists, isn't an intimate writer.”]
White is a master of the novel. At his best he draws us in, but only so far: the vise that grips the reader is carefully distanced, and that distance can provide an oracular power. But the short story is a form that demands immediate rapport between artist and audience; and White, the most austere of modern novelists, isn't an intimate writer. The stories in his early collection The Burnt Ones are either whimsical, with O. Henry twists and lovable Greeks talking in English except for occasional italicized Greek words, or portentous without delivering. The Cockatoos, a new collection of novellas and stories, shows White trying to shape the short form to his own special gifts rather than degrading those gifts by trying to be cozy. The title story and two others, “Sicilian Vespers” and “Five-Twenty,” are too attenuated to hold much interest; but the rest, although one doesn't necessarily like them, command attention.
“The Night the Prowler” rings changes on that hoary motif, the victim who is actually the victimizer. Felicity, the proper daughter of proper...
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SOURCE: “Patrick White's ‘The Cockatoos,’” in Southerly, Vol. 35, No. 1, March, 1975, pp. 3-13.
[In the following review, Hassall praises White, contending that the author's writing shows he is “clear-eyed,” compassionate, and “can tell a good old-fashioned story extremely well.”]
Most of the six shorter novels and stories in Patrick White's second collection begin, like The Eye of the Storm and The Solid Mandala, at the end of life. They are about retired couples, living out their last years together. Though three of the stories have previously been published separately,1 the collection is a comparatively unified one, held together by the characters' common predicament—loneliness—and by their common, often violent, attempts to break out of it. It is a little surprising to find as the protagonists of these stories some of the ordinary, dun-coloured inhabitants of suburbia, people incapable of the magnificent isolation of an Elizabeth Hunter, but tough enough to withstand the helpless alienation which overwhelmed their counterparts in The Burnt Ones. Most of them have made peace, of a kind, with life, settling for what they have got as best they can. But if they are ostensibly better adjusted than some of White's earlier characters, they have not escaped from the more intimate rigours of marriage, nor from the hunger of the heart for a human...
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SOURCE: “More Burnt Ones: Patrick White's ‘The Cockatoos,’” in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 14, No. 2, 1975, pp. 520-24.
[In the following essay, Beston asserts that the short story form “does not offer White the space he needs for his greatest strength,” which is the portrayal of his characters' fantasies.]
In The Cockatoos, Patrick White's latest collection of stories, there are only six stories against the eleven in The Burnt Ones (1964), his last collection. Two of the stories are of novella length (“A Woman's Hand” and “Sicilian Vespers”), and another two could also be considered novellas (“The Night the Prowler” and “The Cockatoos”). Nevertheless, White's concept of the novella is no different from his concept of the short story, so that one can validly refer to all the stories as short stories.
The short story as a form does not offer White the space he needs for his greatest strength, the portrayal of a character's fantasy. It is in her fantasies that Theodora Goodman comes most to life in his masterpiece, The Aunt's Story; to White, a character's fantasies represent his most real and vital self. But in order that the reader can interpret the significance of a fantasy, the author has to provide a background of fact and experience from which the character's fantasy can emerge. Even in a full length novel like The...
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SOURCE: “Short Stories and Plays,” in Patrick White: A General Introduction, translated by Stanley Gerson, University of Queensland Press, 1976, pp. 75-8.
[In the following excerpt, Björksten states that the short story is “not Patrick White's best medium of expression” during his discussion of The Burnt Ones.]
THE BURNT ONES
After Riders in the Chariot Patrick White wrote eleven short stories, which were published in 1964 in his first collection of short stories. He named the collection after the Greek hoi kaumenoi—the burnt ones, the poor unfortunates. The title characterizes all White's “elect”, those inhabitants of his created world who have been burnt by society and by existence. However, even if one recognizes the characters in the short stories, they are not representative of the whole of White's portrait gallery. They reflect features of some of the figures in his novels, placed in a familiar setting—Sarsaparilla and the Australian emptiness—as well as a Greek, particularly a Smyrniot Greek, background which White sometimes makes use of as a parallel. The social satire directed at a “dead” materialism and against hostility to nonconformists, with its touches of indignation, has the tendency, however, to make a trite caricature of the satire. Clearly enough, Patrick White has since realized that a biting and bitter tone, while it...
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SOURCE: “The Rhetoric of Patrick White's ‘Down at the Dump’,” in Bards, Bohemians, and Bookmen, edited by Leon Cantrell, University of Queensland Press, 1976, pp. 281-88.
[In the following essay, Wilson praises White's short story “Down at the Dump,” asserting that it “demonstrates the superb adroitness with which White can modulate his discourse among many functions—satiric, compassionate, speculative—and give it a dimension that is metaphysical, even religious, in its range.”]
This typical and very effective example of White's prose is a reminder of how fully he has exploited the resources of language to create his literature and how well he has assimilated some of those more successful technical experiments that have given to the prose of Joyce and of Faulkner such extreme flexibility and intensity, and how White has in fact produced a mode of discourse that generates a distinctly new rhetoric. The elements comprising it have undergone further sophistication; the new mix is full of surprises, sudden switches of kind and of key and of pace. Interestingly, the prevailing tone produced by all this variety and flux most often resembles low-keyed, casual chat. Next to it, the remarkable closing paragraphs of The Dead and the equally remarkable eloquence of “Barn Burning” seem to have achieved their effects by means much more familiar and obvious. All three writers are...
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SOURCE: “Other Work,” in Patrick White's Fiction, Rowman and Littlefield, 1977, pp. 67-84.
[In the following essay, Walsh discusses the common aspects of White's short stories, plays, and novels.]
The scope of the eleven stories in The Burnt Ones (1964) is naturally more confined than in the novels, but the shape and proportions are the same. There is a similar sense of the depth of human nature and the same strikingly individual sensibility, giving off a mixed odour of sweat and spirituality. The people in the Australian group of stories may be ordinary (“Dead Roses”, “Willy-Wagtails by Moonlight”) or drab (“Clay”, “Down at the Dump”), the events few and unspectacular, the context conventional or down at heel, the air wretched or melancholy, and yet from these unpromising constituents Patrick White constructs a celebration of human possibility which is at once lyrical and quite unsentimental. White has an eye which is gluttonous for detail. Each passage is firm from the presence of discriminated actuality. But all the solid, objective existence, convincing in surface, sure in implication, is submissive to the initiative of the writer. It is as much the result of reflection as observation, and it is composed of detail which is both authentic in its own right and quick at every point with the highly individual quality of the author's mind. This is particularly evident in the...
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SOURCE: “Narrative Techniques in the Shorter Prose Fiction,” in The Peacocks and the Bourgeoisie, Adelaide University Union Press, 1978, pp. 173-90.
[In the following excerpt, Myers observes that White's more successful short stories mimic the intensity, tension, and density of imagery in his novels.]
In an interview with Craig McGregor that took place some years after the publication of The Burnt Ones and some years before The Cockatoos appeared, Patrick White had the following to say about his short stories:
Short stories? I don't really like writing them so much—though I have nearly got enough for another volume. All my effects are cumulative, and one doesn't really have the time to get the effects you want. The novella is more satisfactory; you can put more into it. Sometimes if I become very depressed while writing a novel and I get an idea for a short story I get that down, and afterward I feel as though I have been liberated somehow.
It is not uncommon for writers of fiction to compose stories or novellas as off-shoots of their major works, composed while this is in progress, and embodying a theme or an incident which doesn't quite fit within the framework of the novel. Thomas Mann, for example, composed Death in Venice as a companion piece on death to his great epic The Magic Mountain. But...
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SOURCE: “The Cockatoos,” in The Peacocks and the Bourgeoisie, Adelaide University Union Press, 1978, pp. 131-37.
[In the following excerpt, Myers examines the title story of The Cockatoos, asserting that it “is not a short story but a remarkably compressed novella” that integrates complex narrative methods and variations in mood.]
This is a story about very ordinary people's suffering from lovelessness and crippling inhibitions, and about their tormented yearning for the release of passion. It is also a story about both the brutal cruelty and the kindness of which humans are capable; about the perversion of sexual love into smothering possessiveness or into neurotic fear of intimacy and the reaction to such perversion in the quest for freedom and the courage to bear this freedom. The story vibrates with intensity of vision into the paradoxes of human misery and successfully probes the inner truths of four major characters, Mick and Olive Davoren, Busby Le Cornu and Tim Goodenough. In the scope of its characterisation, the rich development of the titular image, the unflinching representation of life's and people's loathsomeness as well as their joy, and in the integration of complex narrative methods and variations in mood, this is not a short story but a remarkably compressed novella.
Structurally, “The Cockatoos” is a non-sequence of isolated scenes, with absolutely...
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SOURCE: “An Indian Story: ‘The Twitching Colonel,’” in Patrick White: A Critical Symposium, edited by R. Shepherd & K. Singh, Centre for Research in the New Literatures in English, 1978, pp. 28-33.
[In the following essay, Shepherd views “The Twitching Colonel,” one of White's earliest short stories, as a harbinger of themes that surface later in the author's fiction.]
I wish to look at an early short story by Patrick White, “The Twitching Colonel,” which appeared for the first (and only) time in London Mercury in 1937 two years before Happy Valley in 1939. This story is of special interest for several reasons. It is a very early piece and quite unlike anything in the early novels, though, thematically, it anticipates the whole corpus of White's fiction concerning the nature of “reality.” My present interest lies with the special oddness of this story, its aura of Indian-ness in the way it reflects something of the essential philosophy and symbolism of classical India. I personally approach White's fiction with some familiarity of India and its cultural traditions. Reading White I am always impressed by what strikes me as his similarity with a modern Indian metaphysical novelist, Raja Rao, especially in the treatment of ideas concerning illusion and reality, the psychological and physical, the spiritual and material.
“The Twitching Colonel” is...
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SOURCE: “Proserpina and Pluto, Ariadne and Bacchus: Myth in Patrick White's ‘Dead Roses,’” in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 10, No. 1, May, 1981, pp. 111-14.
[In the following review, Nelson asserts that “Dead Roses” is one of the best works in The Burnt Onesand shows how White uses myth to add comedy to the story.]
‘Dead Roses,’ the longest and one of the best stories in Patrick White's collection The Burnt Ones, is saturated in classical myth. The central figure, Anthea Scudamore, is a goddess manquée who, faded and suburban as she is, seems in her finer moments to have ‘strayed out of some other category, of divinities and statues’ (p. 68).1 When Anthea arrives for the first time at the Tullochs' island retreat she appears to the watching Flegg as ‘a regular Juno’, monumental, over-dressed, and forbidding (p. 18). But on her second, solitary visit she is metamorphosed into Venus wading in the foam:
So deserted was her desert beach that she took off her clothes once, without even looking over her shoulder, and walked into the milky sea. Exquisite skirts of foam clung to her ankles, and began to soothe her thighs …
This latter theophany is a little pathetic, since there is nobody around to see it. Anthea herself evidently senses that it has...
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SOURCE: “‘Down at the Dump’ And Lacan's Mirror Stage,” in Australian Literary Studies, Vol. 11, No. 2, October, 1983, pp. 233-37.
[In the following essay, Brady praises White's story “Down at the Dump,” calling it one of the author's most interesting stories “for the insight it offers into people and society.”]
‘Down at the Dump’ is one of White's most interesting stories, not merely for the insight it offers into people and society but also for the structures underlying it, structures which deepen our understanding not only of White and his art but also of his relations with his culture as a whole.
By now, of course, it is a truism to say that White's art is not mimetic, not concerned to reproduce surface appearances, but expressive, concerned with inwardness, with the writer's sense of himself and the world. This story, like nearly all of his work, relates primarily to psychic archetypes and only secondarily to social realities. But it is also an attempt at self-portraiture, at putting on stage ‘the cast of contradictory characters of which I am composed’.1 Paradoxically this attempt leads beyond the self. As in psychoanalysis the psyche becomes a myth among myths, part of a fully fledged mythology, and the need to become aware of one's situation in inner space leads to a reorientation in the outer world. Whatever might be the case elsewhere, as far...
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SOURCE: “Potato Peel,” in Observer Review, October 30, 1988, p. 44.
[In the following laudatory review of Three Uneasy Pieces, Sage praises White's short story collection, calling it “a marvelously cunning raid on the inarticulate.”]
Patrick White's new book isn't slim, it's emaciated. If his last one, Memoirs of Many in One, was about role-playing and multiplying yourself, then Three Uneasy Pieces is pared down with a vengeance to 59 pages. He's trying out a new route in his cranky, self-consuming search for illumination—not so much reviewing his repertoire as puzzling about what he has left out.
The negative way (in mystic's jargon): and though if you followed this paradox to its conclusion you would find yourself contemplating a blank page, Three Uneasy Pieces is good value in every sense, a marvellously cunning raid on the inarticulate that pulls off the hardest trick, simplicity.
This makes paraphrase more embarrassing than usual. The pieces come in ascending order of explicitness. The first, ‘The Screaming Potato’, takes a kitchen sink dilemma (‘wondering whether to gouge the eyes … a certain amount of flesh would disappear with the gouging’) as a metaphor for cruelties inflicted ‘in the name of morality and justice’. The second, ‘Dancing with Both Feet on the Ground’, is a danse macabre featuring...
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SOURCE: “Warts and All,” in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4470, December 2-8, 1988, p. 1350.
[In the following mixed review of Three Uneasy Pieces, Enright contends that while there are “brilliant passages” throughout the collection, the “book's chief uneasiness lies in the reader's fear of having missed the point.”]
On the first leaf of this slim triptych Patrick White suggests that we do indeed grow wiser with age, just as long as we disbelieve the myth about growing wiser with age. Sterility and decay are the primary themes here; and guilt: even vegans must feel guilty as they hear “the whimper of a frivolous lettuce, the hoarse-voiced protest of slivered parsnip”.
In the third and most substantial story, “The Age of a Wart”, the narrator, born into a wealthy Sydney family and now a famous writer, “a stuffed turkey at banquets”, broods on his vanity and false ambition. He compares himself with his schoolfellow, a poor boy called Bluey, who has since lived with Aborigines and taught them carpentry, helped to drag out bodies in Bethnal Green during the Blitz, kept up the spirits of prisoners of the Japanese (“‘E was the best mate a man ever'ad’”, says a survivor), and ministered to A-bomb victims in Hiroshima.
This almost excessively exemplary history, underscoring “the distance between life and literature”, heightens...
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SOURCE: “Crusades Against Hoopla and Pain,” in Critical Essays on Patrick White, edited by Peter Wolfe, G. K. Hall & Co., 1990, pp. 65-7.
[In the following review, originally published in Antipodes: A Journal of Australian Literature in 1988, Bliss maintains that the stories in Three Uneasy Pieces “lack the convincing density and scope of the major novels and even of much of White's short fiction.”]
Patrick White's Three Uneasy Pieces is a slender, 10,000-word short story collection, which makes a sharp and caustic statement in its timing, an intriguingly antiphonal suggestion in its prose. Published in December of 1987, it was rushed into production before 1988 in order to avoid any appearance on White's part of having validated Australia's Bicentennial by issuing a celebratory volume. So anxious was White to disassociate himself from the Bicentennial hoopla that he snatched the manuscript from its original Melbourne publisher, when that house was unable to meet his December 31 deadline, and handed it over to astonished and delighted Pascoe Publishing, a small firm whose head man, Bruce Pascoe, admits that the book's acquisition is “more of a windfall than a coup.” Taking full advantage of its windfall, Pascoe had the book typeset in a matter of days, took White's corrections on the proofs by telephone, and reportedly “camped” at the printer's until the first run...
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SOURCE: “Patrick White's ‘Five-Twenty,’” in Westerly, Vol. 40, No. 1, Autumn, 1995, pp. 39-44.
[In the following essay, Spinks praises White's short story, “Five-Twenty,” for its “austerity” and insight into human character.]
The pages of The Cockatoos, Patrick White's second collection of short stories, are littered with ruined epiphanies. In the title story each character interprets the migratory birds as a symbol for an experience of transcendence they neither expect nor feel they deserve. Compelled by years of lovelessness into a bitter and silent marriage, Mick and Olive Davoren begin to develop a new language of tenderness in the presence of their mysterious visitors. The cockatoos appear to offer a glimpse into a world of harmony, order and beauty; but their departure leaves death, silence and aching loneliness in its wake. Meanwhile “The Full Belly” depicts the horror of Greece under German occupation, where villagers make faltering attempts to spiritualise their physical distress through religion, sex, and music. The spiritual isolation enforced upon the individual trapped in a world devoid of grace or redemption is perfectly expressed in the character of Costa Iordanou, the young musician, who is alive to the “austerities” of Bach but unable to grasp the “epiphanies”1 that Bach's music promises to reveal. The mundane and supramundane worlds touch...
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Barnes, John. “New Tracks to Travel: The Stories of White, Porter, and Cowan.” Meanjin Quarterly. XXV, No. 2 (June 1966): 154-70.
Compares the short stories written by Australian writers Patrick White, Hal Porter, and Peter Cowan.
Bliss, Carolyn. “Transpositions: Patrick White's Most Recent Fiction.” Westerly 34, No. 3 (September 1989): 77-82.
Discusses White's short story collection, Three Uneasy Pieces, as well as some of the author's other works.
Brissenden, R. F.. Patrick White,London: Longmans, Green & Co. LTD, 1966, pp.3-49.
Explores White's background and development as a writer.
Gowda, H. H. Anniah. “R. K. Narayan and Patrick White as Short-Story Tellers,” in R. K. Narayan: Critical Perspectives. New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Limited, 1994, pp. 53–65.
Explicates the stylistic and thematic differences between short stories written by Narayan and White.
Additional coverage of White's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3-5, 7, 9, 18, 65, 69; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84, 132; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 43; and Major 20th-Century Writers, Vol. 1....
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