Patrick White Essay - White, Patrick (Vol. 5)

White, Patrick (Vol. 5)

White, Patrick 1912–

White, an English-born Australian novelist, playwright, and short story writer, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. His novels, vast in scope, are "multilayered and exquisite."

Throughout this long book [The Eye of the Storm], Mr White curbs what his detractors have considered to be his excesses and, possibly in the curbing, dilutes some of his prodigious gifts. Gone are the baroque satirical setpieces such as the magnificent party for the artist in The Vivisector; instead a small dinner party or two which deflate the idle burghers of Sydney, but the targets seem hardly worth it. We are no longer treated to those superb passages of elliptical, truncated and barbarous Strine; just the odd phrase from Mrs Cush, the cleaning woman; but why give her such a crude joke name? Why call the most stupid, self-satisfied nurse Sister Badgery? Mr White is too great a writer to trifle with such vulgarity in a book so finely wrought as this. Why, also, does he bring in some of his favourite themes, invite comparison with earlier versions, and produce definite regressions? After the wonderfully moving and piteous Greek heiress who so loved the vivisector, why introduce briefly, and inevitably palely, the Greek mother of Sister de Santis? The noble, loving and eternally baffled nurse is a superb creation compared with which her mother seems dross.

The German-Jewish housekeeper with her incompetent theatrical past is an interesting near-victim of the holocaust, but when she recalls her escape from the gas, she also recalls that other escaper from Nazi Germany, Professor Himmelfarb in Riders in the Chariot and the comparison seems sacrilegious. These are harsh criticisms but they are aimed at weaknesses in the work of a writer who has long overtaken the need to toy with characters and situations which are less than perfect, and they are faults in a book which, by its own ambition, should not contain them.

These faults, irritating as they are, do not, however, detract from the marvellous precision of the writing. They are perhaps best described as errors of taste in a work whose complex structure is architecturally perfect and whose style is much freer, more devastatingly precise than even its most august predecessors. In earlier books there was a tendency towards the densely clotted, inexorable slow march of Faulkner. In The Eye of the Storm Mr White has attained, without the orotundity, some of the deadly irony and the epigrammatic skill of Henry James. James himself could hardly have bettered the mutually embarrassed encounter of Princess Dorothy and Sister Manhood….

As one surveys this book and its substantial number of characters, it is almost impossible … to find a single human being who engages the reader's sympathy, let alone, and much more importantly, the author's. Mr White's formidable satirical gifts have previously seemed apposite and just, linked from Voss onwards with huge compassion and the creation of men and women with true nineteenth-century fictional grandeur. In The Eye of the Storm no stone of human character is left unturned without the revelation of some evil or distasteful worm beneath….

If one takes as basic a theme as sibling rivalry, sibling love and sibling sex, and considers that cold climax between Dorothy and Basil Hunter at Kudjeri and compares it with the Dostoevskian intensity and compassion of the two brothers in The Solid Mandala, one sees the disastrous gap between this chillingly brilliant new book and the sheer moral grandeur of its great predecessors….

The weight of hatred, disgust and dislike is overpowering, and, one suspects, finally excessive and hence fatally detrimental to what should have been a great novel. In comparison with most of today's fiction, The Eye of the Storm is truly remarkable, with its relentless narrative thrust, the lucidity of its style, the all-seeing comprehension of the characters. But, in the final analysis, it does not survive comparison with the heights of White's genius, Voss, Riders in the Chariot, The Solid Mandala, and The Vivisector.

"High Wind in Australia," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), September 21, 1973, p. 1072.

The Eye of the Storm … is a good novel to read to get a sense of White's power.

In a way, White reminds me of a contemporary Jane Austen. As a modern, though, he has learned to use stream of consciousness, to intersperse playlets into his novel, to multiply points of view into comment on his subject, and to distrust the consolations of society. But like Austen at her best, he makes tempests in teapots feel like violent storms….

Ideas as such don't exist within this novel; White seems as innocent of Great Ideas and Great Events as Austen.

I mention all this only to pay tribute to White's unique achievement, for The Eye of the Storm is a rather long novel (over 600 pages) written within extremely severe limits. It succeeds, I think, because White knows his cliché characters so well that he makes us know them fully. Somehow, they never depart from the stereotype, yet they consistently surprise. Whether it be the usually dowdy Sister deSantis ashamed of the garish hat she has bought, or Mrs. Hunter remembering the tenderness of caring for her dying husband, from whom she had been estranged for years, the effect is akin to our first realization that Falstaff can suffer. The type remains, but we understand, feelingly, what it must mean to be a human being of that type. I know of no other novelist capable of writing a novel in which each character is both static and complexly moving. (p. 269)

Lee T. Lemon, "Static and Moving," in Prairie Schooner (© 1974 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Fall, 1974, pp. 268-69.

Was it O'Faolain who looked for both punch and poetry in short stories? [In The Cockatoos] Patrick White has both, in abundance. His events would all rate at least a paragraph in the most sensation-seeking newspaper. They are transformed to the status of works of art by the author's poetic imagination and the power of his prose. He is the most eminent of his own cockatoos, 'real dazzlers of birds … heartless from the way they slash at one another, kind, too, when they want to be'. (pp. 61-2)

John Mellors, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of John Mellors), January 9, 1975.

["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 experience beyond anything yet traveled, hope of which may have beckoned from earliest years and gone ignored, only haunting dreams and spoiling the day at hand. Passing us through these barriers is what Mr. White is doing in his writing. (p. 4)

Eudora Welty, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 19, 1975.

When Australian novelist Patrick White was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, the good judgment and sanity of the Swedish Academy came once again under suspicious international scrutiny. (p. 34)

Patrick White is known to American readers, but reviewers here have tended to see in him a kind of bush D. H. Lawrence, a pretentious primitivist who assembles characters burning with thematic purpose—intense, dreaming Prometheuses—within vast, creaking narrative structures that offer individual experiences as universal myths. The looming continent embraced and traversed by White's uprooted Europeans is an abstract and primeval test of their ability to "break through" to self-understanding. "Down under" (especially when it maps the route of a protagonist's soul-journey) is hell, nor are they out of it.

Each of White's novels is a search for ultimate meanings. Oddly, each is also an ambitiously comprehensive sweep over a large and confusing terrain, nevertheless focusing on an individual character or several characters—and on such individuals' ways of perceiving the life that clamors around them. Thus, a plain, awkward woman's willed retreat from her ugly life becomes a rich romantic escape into idealized selfhood (The Aunt's Story). A laborious trek across the Australian continent is elevated, by the imaginations that fuel it, into a Christ-like epic of aspiration and sacrifice (Voss). The painfully entwined lives of two brothers—one priggish and hateful, the other gentle but retarded—writhe in an operatic struggle that aims to oppose the creative and destructive halves of the human soul (The Solid Mandala).

It is the apparent distortion of focus, I believe, that makes White's books confusing. Our attention is pulled toward individual characters; emphatic images and phrases direct us to infer grand meanings from their conflicts. But their actions, and the announced significances therefrom, are frequently credible only as symbol and are unconvincing as drama. We wonder, a bit resentfully, how cataclysmic universals can be latent, behind a "realism" that has been so patently fabricated. White's fourth novel, Riders in the Chariot (1961), drearily exemplifies his weakness for contrivance. It is a complicated interweaving of the life-altering "visions" that possess four starkly imagined, tormented characters: a gnarled, pathetic madwoman; a patiently long-suffering farm wife; a Blakean aborigine painter; and a despised Jew (whom White will not resist crucifying, in an insanely feverish climax). The novel is about the irresistible permeability of evil in all of us; when the novel concentrates on its people, there is superbly convincing drama. But White is interested in the intersection of their fates, and the metaphoric momentum rips every realistic detail away from its location, as the riders lumber toward their prepared apocalypse. It's an unusually strong novel, owing to its potential. There are four striking, separate centers of interest, but the direction the novel takes is toward the interlocking and relating of its separable meanings. We lose our sense of the characters' powerful individuality, because we're encouraged to perceive the blueprints that explain them and schematize their relationships.

White's style poses additional problems. The prose is densely packed, jangling with implied resonances. The rhythms place heavy emphasis on single words and phrases. We're forced to read slowly and look for the critical object or image. But the syntax frequently deceives, because White's language doesn't concentrate in a way that is related to meaning; it stretches for vivid devices to express even subsidiary meanings. Essentials, and incidentals as well, are worked over with bone-crushing emphasis. (pp. 34-5)

It's obvious that White's avidity for gargantuan effects makes him a clumsy writer, in the noticeable element of sentences and paragraphs. And yet this stylistic crudeness has never seemed to bother White's British critics, who almost unanimously assert his importance as a Homeric celebrator of heroic psyches. (The Eye of the Storm, labeled elephantine and unintelligible by most American reviewers, was respectfully praised throughout the United Kingdom.) One can argue that the tradition of the serial novel, with its jerry-built crisis points and unabashed inset summaries, has inured British critics to verbosity and over-writing. But it's also true that they tend to view single books as parts of a writer's total output, and it may be this practice, too often ignored by American criticism, that contributes to the world's high opinion of Patrick White.

I think that if one reads all of White's novels and short stories (not necessarily in their order of publication), one can sense a central strength inhering in White's view of the relationship of individuals to universals. Abstractions and eternalities are the quarry of the journeys and quests and symbolic confrontations that occupy the forefront of his novels. But it is individuals who dominate his spacious canvases: We see the huge and menacing intimations of eternity as they are seen by White's seekers after enlightenment and transcendence. (p. 35)

The short stories seldom match the flawed but genuinely imaginative grandeur of the novels. What they gain is focus, for White employs the story form for creating characters uneasily involved in exterior relationships, who recoil into deep self-absorption or recapturable (thus, comforting) pasts. An early collection, The Burnt Ones (1964), contains several remarkable examples of White's technique of slow, patient revelation. In stories such as "A Glass of Tea" and "A Cheery Soul," challenging outward conflicts force people backward and inward, toward discovery of the forces that have made them what they are and that continue to rule their lives.

The stories collected in The Cockatoos are reputedly recent work, but at least two display flaws that suggest they may be early stories, later rewritten….

[The] Stories are credible in direct proportion to the use White makes of their characters' inner lives….

Only in "A Woman's Hand" do we see White's peculiar strengths and weaknesses in exhilarating combination. Evelyn and Harold Fazackerley, in retirement from a life of cautiously borne disappointments, meet, and awkwardly destroy, a friend from Harold's childhood…. Telling the story, White stays near the psyche of the coarse, selfish Evelyn; but when a devastating impression of waste and folly echoes out from the carnage, it is Harold who briefly assumes understanding—as if to remind us that pockets of sanity are only slender islands amid the upheaval, often glimpsed too late and too distant. It is the opening story in this collection, and a good one, I think, with which to begin one's reading of Patrick White. Its style sometimes verges on obscurity, its organization succumbs to illogic. But the confusions are the kind that are suffered by people who venture deeply into their own—and others'—souls. At the story's outset, it is the quirky strangeness of the Fazackerleys that impresses. As the story ends, we've come to know that they are the same kind of people we are—and the shock of recognition is genuinely appalling. (p. 37)

Bruce Allen, "In Lawrence's Shadow," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), January 25, 1975, pp. 34-7.

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. (p. 23)

"The Full Belly," about a family of starving Greek aristocrats during the German occupation, isn't quite bearable. Although White's prose has never been more razor-sharp, he uses it to slice his characters to bits…. I think that White intended us to sense our own atavistic potentiality in the family's dehumanization, but what we sense is that the author loathes his characters. White has compressed his grimmest personal vision into 20 pages—a feat of storytelling, but the compulsive read seems an eternity.

The opening novella, "A Woman's Hand," is less accessible and, perhaps for that reason, not nearly so repellent. I shuddered at the central figure, a frigid busybody wife who brings about a marriage that leads to insanity and death. She appears throughout White's work in one form or another, and he clearly despises her. Although I'm not sure what "A Woman's Hand" is supposed to be about and don't understand the motivations, and although I suspect that White shares my uncertainties, the novella is riveting. White has gone further with one of his stylistic specialties: prose rhythms that provide equivalents for the characters' hang-ups and eruptions into madness, eruptions that the reader can only partially intuit. The madness in "A Woman's Hand" is never clarified; it's suggested by the insane friends perception of ocean sunsets as blazing peacocks, emblems of a voluptuous redemption that is unattainable. White has taken the most lucid passages of madness from The Aunt's Story into pure impressionism. He almost succeeds, because his subliminally erotic imagery, tinged with religious elements, pulls one in although the imagery has nothing coherent behind it.

It's a measure of White's artistry that The Cockatoos, flawed and disturbing as it is, makes one eager to see what he will do next. But the short form is not, and probably never will be, the best showcase for his genius. Since White is now a Nobel winner, many readers are eager to encounter his work for the first time and may imagine that a new story collection is a good introduction. The Cockatoos, although it should be read, isn't the ideal starting point. It will tantalize some; others need to respond to the breadth of vision in the major novels before they approach these strange but impressive minor works.

Patrick White's procession of novels is majestic; no other living novelist in English is so consistently audacious or writes on such a large scale. In America only pulp novelists like Michener are interested in full-dress productions. White, a serious artist, has given us Voss, a historical epic of Tolstoyan proportions; and his work ranges from the spacious epic to the fiercely introverted writhings of his new book, The Cockatoos. We are drawn to White's heroic writing even when he puts us off. His satiric dialogue can be overly vicious, as in Riders in the Chariot; and his schematized conceptions cripple a poor novel like The Living and the Dead and mar one of his best, The Solid Mandala. His hatred of his characters reaches a culmination in The Cockatoos. But White is full of surprises. He follows his worst novel, The Vivisector, which loads an overheated Passion Play tone onto a standard tortured-artist story of the Irving Stone variety, with The Eye of the Storm, a serenely visionary work in which his prose reaches new heights.

In the seven-year hiatus between his false starts (Happy Valley and The Living and the Dead) and the appearance of The Aunt's Story, White began developing his prose, a mixture of the tangy, lazy rhythms of Australian diction and glittering bursts of imagery that sometimes emerge from the text with a beautiful naturalness, sometimes with a shock that is like a slap in the reader's face—a prose style both precise and flexible. Speaking voices overlap into description; and points of view can be separated by slight modulations in one brief scene, even in one paragraph. Pitch is heightened by minor chord changes from sentence to sentence, from phrase to phrase. The prose daringly calls attention to itself in such passages as the German housekeeper's cabaret act before her painted death-doll mistress in The Eye of the Storm, or the aged Waldo's preening in his dead mother's ball gown in The Solid Mandala. These scenes are incomparable pieces of stage direction, but White provides everything—actors and props aren't needed. (Oddly, his plays are hopelessly "literary" and derivative, while his fiction is miraculously scenic.)

In The Aunt's Story White rearranges the pieces of an Australian spinster's mind as though they were chips in a mosaic. Although he doesn't entirely control his effects, parts of the novel even today read like a breakthrough. Unfortunately the middle section is a stiffly self-conscious nightmare-reverie, possibly modeled after "Nighttown" in Ulysses, in which Theodora is supposed to be crossing over into madness. White records the tiny alterations in Theodora's perceptions of reality without resorting to conventional explanations and metaphors for insanity.

The Tree of Man, unlike The Aunt's Story, has no obvious experimentation. It's an Australian farm saga told, for White, as simply as possible. A basic fallacy creeps in: because of the Parkers' poverty, White grants them a wholeness he denies his more affluent characters. But this epic of the soil avoids most Pearl Buck overtones by the power of the images; the fire and flood are White's first great descriptive scenes. Another important factor in White's growth as an imaginative artist first appears: the view of Australia as a primordially unshaped, almost mythic continent. The transportation of the first convicts is like Lucifer cast into hell; and the natural disasters in The Tree of Man are plagues, manifestations of divine wrath at those who would try to shape the wilderness. (pp. 23-4)

Voss is one of those rare novels that pulls the reader up successive peaks of intensity until he emerges, purged, at the top. The book is completely achieved, despite a typical last White touch: a trivializing epilogue that neatly wraps up all the narrative threads that might better have been left free.

Voss is the last of White's straight narratives. The later novels, except for The Vivisector, form a trilogy of symbolic works. Instead of archetypal characters, like Voss and the Parkers, White gives us characters who are extensions of another kind of archetype—a risky attempt for a novelist, but White has never been one to avoid risks. Each novel's title is the governing metaphor. Riders in the Chariot, the least successful, presents four characters, various examples of the earth's wretched, who will finally ride in triumph in the apocalyptic chariot of fire. The riders are joined by tenuous plot linkages, and White uses them questionably…. Does White really like his miserable creatures, or does he only think he should? Riders in the Chariot is split down the middle; but it has powerful scenes, such as the Jew's recollection of the death camps (with White's characteristic connections between violent death and sex, connections that increase the horror), and curious exchanges, that suggest Jane Bowles, between bizarrely matched couples drawn together by mutual freakishness.

White, whose fiction is rarely far from the feel of flesh, can't get his winged chariot to soar. He does much better with earthbound symbols: the storm's eye, and the mandala, which is an ordering of chaos, not a transcendence of it. The Solid Mandala is a glass marble, a child's toy, with twin strands of color that in different lights twist and untwist in colors that blind and illuminate….

The Solid Mandala probes further beneath the surface of human frailty than any other White novel. The Eye of the Storm—about a dying woman, once a great beauty and sexual monster, and those who wait for her to die—is a panoramic view, suggesting what is underneath by resonant language and juxtaposition of shifting time and place. The themes are highly charged: the helplessness with which we anticipate death, the shame of old age and the body's ugly tyranny (the imagery, as George Steiner notes, is largely fecal), the ways that recollections of sex and sexual failure and continuing desires push us into collision with others; who are pursued by their own demons. This is the most highly plotted of White's works, and some of the subplots are embarrassments; but the plotting advances the action only slightly. The plots principally serve as supporting metaphors to the central scene: the dying woman's memory of being trapped in the eye of a hurricane. The savage beauty of destruction as seen from that small area of calm brings back her entire life, the past recaptured in that one instant of revelation. The novel is structured around the storm scene, like ripples spreading in a pool. White seems to be writing from the storm's eye, from that lucidity that is reached only after tortuous mazes have been traveled. (p. 24)

John Alfred Avant, "The Oeuvre of Patrick White," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 22, 1975, pp. 23-4.