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When an Australian novelist, Patrick White, received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973, his work proved to be generally unknown beyond a select circle of international admirers. He had by then published eight novels, four plays, and a collection of short stories; since 1973, four novels, another short-story collection, and three plays appeared. White, who passed away in 1990, shunned publicity and never granted interviews. He avoided talking about his writing, even declined to go to Stockholm for the Nobel ceremonies, and his life long remained something of a mystery to the outside world. The Nobel Prize drew attention to the writer himself, a circumstance resented by White, who believed that his work should speak apart from its creator. Even after receiving the Nobel Prize, White continued to guard his privacy, which became more difficult because of reporters, celebrity seekers, and critics demanding interviews and prying into his personal life.

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Thus, when Flaws in the Glass, subtitled A Self-Portrait, appeared in 1981, it constituted a major event for White’s admirers—and, to some extent, for his detractors. From the outset, White described the book as neither an autobiography nor a memoir but as a portrait drawn from staring into the mirror of self and discovering the reflected flaws. His admirers considered the work revelatory, even if White had little to say about his writing. His detractors, on the other hand, insisted that the pettiness, meanness, and cynicism they saw dominating the self-portrait proved their critical acumen in claiming that the importance of White’s work had been overestimated.

“Shall I perhaps overdo the flaws in my anxiety to portray the real person?” White asked in a short article he wrote about the genesis of Flaws in the Glass. Stressing the difference between factual writing and fiction, he went on to say that he feared that the novelist in him might dominate, and thus endanger accuracy. White noted in Flaws in the Glass that his “pursuit of that razor-blade truth” in fiction had made him “a slasher” in everyday life. Has this tendency to slash others’ weaknesses led White to turn himself into yet another fictional character fit only to inhabit one of his novels? Or has he painted an honest self-portrait? Perhaps he has simply exposed the human side of the artist by talking about such matters as difficulties in maintaining friendships, his homosexuality—which he prefers to call “sexual ambivalence”—cynicism, and long-held disgust with his pretentious parents, whom he treats harshly. Perhaps, too, White decided to air all these matters in his own way, thereby preventing future biographers from making startling discoveries about his life. Again, D.H. Lawrence’s admonition seems applicable: The reader should pay attention to the tale, not the teller.

The first section of the book, “Flaws in the Glass,” covers 155 pages and contains the most significant autobiographical material, recounting White’s early life, time spent in England, experiences during World War II, his longtime relationship with a man he met during the war, their return to Australia, and the years of writing. The next sixty pages, “Journeys,” recall various trips he and his companion made over the years—some of them pleasant, some not so. Grouped under the heading “Episodes and Epitaphs,” the events recorded in the final thirty-eight pages range from a biting account of a luncheon aboard Queen Elizabeth’s yacht to an attempted explanation of his odd attitude toward receiving the Nobel Prize. As well, a few of the “episodes” and “epitaphs” reveal some rancorous details about the author’s friends and former friends. The last two pages, however, move away from cynicism and carping into a kind of lyrical celebration of living and dying, in which White envisions “all that I have ever lived, splintering and coalescing, . . . as though in preparation for the Twyborn moment of grace.”

Flaws in the Glass

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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 his work with the dynamic of a youthful, vigorous society. It is, he suspects, as if fragments of some universal truth rise continually from the black, bubbling pool that is his essential self, but not all of them are recognized, or even recognizable—even by himself. All he can do is continue to probe and write and discover, until his voyage of exploration crashes against the shores of mortality.

Perhaps the power of this memoir chiefly resides in White’s ability to capture the universal in the particular. Casually, he slips in and out of his own past, not always in chronological sequence, and meanders through the gardens of his memories. Yet at the same time, he seems to be carefully assessing the human condition and the pain and beauty of life on earth for every man and woman. In his discussions of his art and craft, White tenderly explores the agonies—and the occasionally sublime joys and triumphs—of the creative artist everywhere.

As a child, White was overwhelmed by his eccentric parents, the relentlessly upper-middle-class Dick and Ruth White, who had no notion of the kind of human being their son was (since they could not conceive of any human being different from themselves), and who later were horrified by his inclinations toward the arts and literature. They never understood Patrick and did not feel obligated to try. Their world was the correct world; their ideas were the correct ideas. Patrick’s obligation was to conform, or, at least, to put up a front of conformity. Indeed, White came to realize that all his parents cared about was the appearance of respectability. They never did understand how he could be indifferent to “appearances.”

In some respects, White’s personal story is the classic one of the sickly, sensitive youth who never fits in with the bourgeois world of his parents and who eventually flees it to embark on his own quest for personal salvation through art. Yet, when he writes about it, he does so with a touching honesty that raises the story above the familiar. The cast of supporting players, the aunts and uncles and cousins, the godparents and neighbors, are sketched in with the deftness of a Charles Dickens.

One of the primary events of White’s life was World War II. He served in the Air Force Intelligence in the Middle East and in London, and his experiences in Egypt, Palestine, and Greece profoundly affected him, changing his perception of the world and altering his future life. He was in London during the Blitz, seeing with his own eyes the horrors of war turned on innocent civilians. The decadent and chaotic life of Alexandria, Egypt, during those years might have provoked White to produce fictions of surrealistic sensuality and stylistic ornateness, in the manner of Lawrence Durrell, but in fact, his time there made him focus ever more firmly on the world he had left behind. As a censor, he discovered in the private letters of the men a new breadth of understanding about the human condition. Every experience added to White’s perception and to his determination to reveal his own vision through his writing. As he says, seeds were planted during those violent, drawn-out war years that lay buried in the dark, moist recesses of his heart and mind, seeds that years later bore fruit in the vast garden of his literary work.

It was during the war that White became concerned with the philosophical and moral rationale behind human actions. How do human beings, as individuals and as nations, emerge as they finally do? What forces shape them? What unconscious drives propel them? What torments and fears warp or twist them? He came to have little doubt that entire countries or civilizations can be twisted and corrupted as easily as individuals, yet part of him always retained a belief in the healing power of the land, especially that of the wild homeland he had left behind.

White knew very well that many of his own problems derived from his relationship with his mother, Ruth. Imperious, quick to quarrel, snobbish and essentially shallow, she devoted her life to the pursuit of impossible social goals. Eventually, she gave up her battle to achieve status and respectability—beyond that of the family’s nouveau-riche position—in Australian society and fled to England for her last days. Even when he was separated from her, when he was abroad or when she was gone, White found her shadow extending over his life. Even in his seventies, he found it difficult to write objectively of her power over him.

During World War II, while stationed in Palestine, Patrick White met the man who was to become his closest friend and lifelong companion, Manoly Lascaris, a young Egyptian-born Greek. Although sometimes separated by war or other circumstances, White and Lascaris remained partners from the time of their meeting in July, 1941.

Lascaris proved to be a calming influence on White’s often impetuous nature. With his encouragement and support, White was able to devote himself to his writing with a renewed dedication. Nevertheless, when White was invited to lunch on the British royal yacht Britannia with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, Lascaris was not invited.

Although White threw off the restraints of conventional, organized religion while in his late teens, he embraced art and writing as a different kind of religion. His inklings of God’s presence, he writes, must necessarily be interwoven with his love of individual human beings and his love of his art. Perhaps, he adds, that is why he does not extend his love to human beings in general. Yet, no one who reads his novels could doubt his love of humanity, as expressed in the compassionate (although sometimes angry) portraits of his countrymen.

The teachings of Carl G. Jung also profoundly influenced White. He was particularly moved by his first reading of Jung’s Psychologie and Alchemie (1944; Psychology and Alchemy), which had a direct influence on his masterpiece The Solid Mandala (1966). During the time when he was composing this novel, White reexamined his spiritual values and realized that for better or worse, his spiritual roots were indeed in the soil of Australia.

“Doomed” to be an artist, the aging White surveys the world around him and realizes that very little beyond his work remains of value to him. Possessions are meaningless, unless one has someone to whom to leave them, and White is childless. His memories, except for those he puts on paper, will die with him. He has had everything, he writes, and nothing. Only love, in the end, redeems; and it was with love that this man, doomed to be an artist, created his “children,” his works of art. It is with love that he bequeaths them to the world and to posterity. He tries his best, in this memoir, to be a crabby old man, but his essential humanity triumphs, just as it triumphs in his novels.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 99

The Atlantic. CCXLIX, March, 1982, p. 83.

Bliss, Carolyn. Patrick White’s Fiction: The Paradox of Fortunate Failure, 1986.

Carpenter, Humphrey. “Patrick White Explains Himself,” in The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII (February 7, 1982), p. 9.

Davin, Dan. “By Way of Fiction,” in The Times Literary Supplement. November 20, 1981, p. 1373.

Gordimer, Nadine. “Mysterious Incest,” in The New York Review of Books. XXIX (April 15, 1982), pp. 14-15.

Library Journal. CVII, January 15, 1982, p. 179.

New Statesman. CII, October 30, 1981, p. 30.

Newsweek. XCIX, March 1, 1982, p. 71.

Saturday Review. IX, February, 1982, p. 62.

Tyler, Anne. “The Imagination of Disgust,” in The New Republic. CLXXXVI (March 31, 1982), pp. 40-42.

World Literature Today. LVI, Summer, 1982, p. 569.

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