In the course of writing the authorized biography of Patrick White (1991), David Marr gained access to approximately two thousand of Patrick White’s letters, many of which appear in his edition of Patrick White: Letters. After finishing the biography Marr located three other major collections containing approximately one thousand additional letters, a few of which he included in his book. The number of letters is a bit surprising because although White was a prolific correspondent, he frequently implored his correspondents to destroy his letters, which he described as “the devil,” and even sought to emulate Ernest Hemingway, who he believed had successfully blocked the publication of his own letters.
Although Marr includes about six hundred letters to some eighty correspondents, he does not have any of the letters White wrote to Manoly Lascaris, his companion and lover for most of White’s life. (White’s letters to his other lovers, such as Pepe Mamblas and Spud Johnson, are included.) Marr does comment on their relationship, and White often refers to Lescaris in his letters to other people, but White’s letters to Lescaris have apparently been destroyed. In his letters, however, White comments on the nature of their relationship, which he describes as a “homosexual marriage” involving a great deal of give- and-take; and he writes, “Living together means endless arguments and patching up,” adding that only vegetables live happily ever after.
The letters Marr includes are arranged chronologically, beginning with a child’s Santa Claus letter in 1918, though Marr has imposed a kind of thematic structure on the sixteen chapters, which conclude with letters written shortly before his death. In addition, Marr provides a running commentary on the letters, putting them in context, describing literary, political, social, and biographical details that bear on the letters, which are heavily edited. Works, characters, political events—all are identified and sometimes commented on, though not always objectively: Marr characterizes the government of Queensland (1968- 1987) as “shabby and conservative.” On the whole, however, the editing serves to supplement White’s letters and to further Marr’s intent to allow the man to speak for himself.
White’s letters, frank and extremely personal, were written, according to Marr, to “amuse, inform, and upbraid his friends.” They reveal a great deal about his attitudes toward Australia, his family, his literary debts, his travels, his taste in literature, art, and music, his business deals, and his prejudices, but much less about his views on the form or content of his own work. In fact, White seems resolutely opposed to analysis, insisting instead on intuition and discussing what produces creativity. Several of the letters are to academic critics of White’s writing who have, in his view, overinterpreted his work, finding sources for it, as examples, in T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Gordon Fraser’s The Golden Bough. White acknowledges the influence of Carl Jung and Martin Buber, but for the most part his letters do not yield much of interest to literary critics concerned with the “meaning” of his work. Like most writers, he uses material taken from his life, but he also lives in his novels: “All my fiction is in a sense about myself.” Marr, however, is analytical and offers several insights about how White’s art and life are related. On the subject of writing White is more forthcoming, especially in his remarks on revision, which he aptly describe as “oxywelding.” White’s only extended critical commentary on his work concerns the problem of narration in The Vivisector (1970), which required both third person point-of-view and a sense of “fragmentation.”
Some of White’s most memorable images concern writing and the people he knew. About Tom Garland, his cousin Peggy’s husband, White wrote that he “remains only an outline, like a man in a novel by a woman,” a comparison that reveals his aversion to dealing with real family problems in other than literary terms and his sexual biases. In another letter, he amusingly describes Ivy White in operatic terms: “Imagine a Brunnhilde who had left the Ring and joined the Salvation Army, taking with her, however, plenty of Wagnerian sex and hysterics.”
White’s literary views are intimately connected to his life as an Australian writer. Like James Joyce, White is both attracted to and repulsed by his native country, which in turn seems ambivalent in its response to him. White notes that he is an Australian writer by fate, not by choice, and yet there is a curious love-hate...
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