Analysis

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 855

The most significant portion of White’s self-portrait lies in the section he calls “Flaws in the Glass.” The other two parts, although interesting, informative, and sometimes amusing, remain limited in appeal. After all, the book’s prime value stems from the entry it allows into the heretofore private world of a major novelist, not from details about foreign places and other people. Thus “Flaws in the Glass,” on which this analysis focuses, may be read in two ways: first, as background for White’s fiction; second, as a record of an artist’s development and achievement. To suggest that the self-portrait provides detailed accounts of the novels’ sources is misleading. White has never resorted to autobiographical fiction but has criticized this approach, which has long dominated Australian novels, calling it “pragmatic” and “documentary.” In his article on Flaws in the Glass, he encourages fiction writers to launch into “that admittedly disturbing marriage between life and imagination.” His self-portrait records his own venture into that marriage, an exploration that has produced some of the century’s greatest fiction.

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One aspect he examines is family. His own—wealthy sheep graziers—belonged to the Australian aristocracy, those who considered themselves “Anglo-Australians” and England their true “home.” These pseudoaristocrats, sometimes called “squatocrats” because they “squatted on” or took over public lands to make their fortunes, receive satiric treatment throughout the novels; thus, White’s true account of his mother, father, other relatives, and their friends sheds light on his handling of this class in his novels. Always able as a child, White recalls, to see through any form of pretension, he was never absorbed into a world that aped British ways twelve thousand miles removed from their source. Thus, he became an outsider, quickly identifying more fully with the underdog, the misfit, than with the antipodean elite. In his fiction, it is the outsider—a refugee, a washerwoman, an aborigine, a mental incompetent, to name but a few of the novels’ visionaries—to whom White grants vision, understanding, and salvation, even if the characters on whom he confers these prizes most often suffer, go mad, or die.

The early awareness and acceptance of his own homosexuality also excluded him from the morally restrictive and outwardly respectable world in which he matured. Sexual ambivalence White does not consider a flaw; he treats it in a forthright manner that put to an end the speculation of those who had sensed a homosexual vein in his work. He records with candor his longtime relationship with the Greek soldier he met during World War II. As they grow old together, White imagines the “voyeur” seeing them as that “bloody pair of poufs,” using the Australian slang for homosexuals; in spite of appearances, however, he believes that they will “live on like more orthodox couples who have weathered a long relationship, . . . playing according to the moment one of the several characters in our repertoire: husband/wife, father/mother, continuing child, to name the more basic.” Critics discussing White’s work since the 1981 publication of Flaws in the Glass have often addressed his homosexuality and based their conclusions on passages from the self-portrait. Two years earlier White had published The Twyborn Affair (1979), a novel in which the main character is a transvestite; thus, transvestism serves as a metaphor, a device which becomes clearer in the light of White’s belief, noted in Flaws in the Glass, that sexual ambivalence has given to him “insights into human nature, denied . . . to those who are unequivocally male or female.”

Finally, White’s attitude toward his own country, which he once described as “the Great Australian Emptiness,” emerges in the self-portrait. Setting most of his fiction in Australia, primarily in or near Sydney, White has so often satirized and ridiculed every shred of Australian life that one critic called him “Austraphobic.” Perhaps Australians have taken White’s displeasure with them and their country too literally. More likely, he is talking about the void of modern life, not that of Australia in particular. The passages in “Flaws in the Glass” that deal directly with his use of Australian background support this assumption, showing that the fictional representation of the country and its social milieu is only a backdrop for larger purposes, not an attempt to re-create the actual. White observes: “In the theatre of my imagination I should say there are three or four basic sets, all of them linked to the actual past, which can be dismantled and re-constructed to accommodate the illusion of reality life boils down to.”

Through Flaws in the Glass, White boils down his own life, viewing it as another “illusion of reality.” As a gloss to his fiction, the self-portrait succeeds in part, amplifying a complex body of writing, yet leaving intact the work’s metaphysical mystery. As a book to be read independent of the art itself, Flaws in the Glass follows the course of one artist’s development, depicting family and friends, defining the role of sexuality, discovering the land’s effect on an individual’s mental territory, and recording the quest for “total sincerity,” which White considers the greatest virtue.

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Critical Context