White, Patrick (Vol. 3)

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White, Patrick 1912–

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White, a British-born Australian novelist, short story writer, and playwright, was the 1973 Nobel Laureate in Literature.

Even in his relative failures, such as Voss, [Patrick White] seems to me an unmistakably major writer who commands a scope, power and sheer technical skill which put even our more ambitious novelists in the shade…. In theory [Riders in the Chariot], like some great, leisurely Russian masterpiece, takes in the whole of his society; it swings its beam right across Australia, shedding a brief light on everyone from double-barrelled aristocrats to factory-hands. But it is a narrow beam, which penetrates deeply and disperses little. Manners for White are not so much expressive of life as a caricature of it, a complicated, almost farcical excrescence….

When White plays tricks of style … he is using his wit not to pin a scene down but to evaporate it into fantasy. The images fuse sharply into each other, as in a dream. And the Australia he so lovingly plots begins to seem a country of the mind.

He has, in fact, reversed the novelist's traditional procedure: in his work it is manners and social behaviour which are dream-like; reality is all inward. He seems to see his artistic function as a matter of penetrating the hard shell of social habit until he exposes that peculiar vibration which makes each person what he is. He would draw, in short, a firm line between life and society. Society swarms around us—in most of its manifestations rather distasteful: all plastic, chrome and banging machinery—while significant life runs on in isolation below this turbulent surface, like the green, unnoticed river which flows beside Rosetree's Brighta Bicycle Lamps factory at Barranugli. Which, according to Patrick White, is where the crucifixion took place….

White is a myth-writer not a symbolist. In this, he is in the same camp as Sidney Nolan: both are artists of extreme technical sophistication, both have devoted themselves to the creation of coherent but expanding imaginative worlds, and both are obsessed by the vast, hard emptiness of the Australian subcontinent. Given this unyielding background, there seem to be only two ways of doing creative work: the artist either sticks doggedly to the facts as he knows them, and so remains provincial, like Howells in nineteenth-century America; or, like Melville, he populates the country for himself by absorbing it into his imagination and re-creating myths for it…. White, in his turn, has re-created Adam and Eve in The Tree of Man, Odysseus in Voss and now, in Riders in the Chariot, Christ….

Patrick White may have tried to evoke, in his latest novel, the whole of Australian society and have succeeded in projecting only a multiple image of his own isolation, but it is an image of great beauty.

A. Alvarez, "Patrick White's Riders in the Chariot" (originally published in The New Statesman, 1961), in his Beyond All This Fiddle: Essays 1955–1967 (copyright © 1968 by A. Alvarez; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 218-23.

The Eye of the Storm is without doubt worth its place in a glittering line. It is a novel, like the author himself, surely (we cannot make about White's work those calm, formal distinctions which Eliot favoured between man and theme, artist and suffering), preoccupied with death. This grim and no doubt inescapable infatuation is animated by an incessant, probing inquisitiveness….

White, who has shown himself elsewhere, in Riders in the Chariot and The Solid Mandala in particular, as deeply disturbed by the cruelty of communities with their inveterate bias in favour of the average, appears in this novel as appalled by the savagery of individual selfishness….

As well as the powerful treatment of the central theme, death as the point of life, an exploration of 'ce pays si lointain et inconnu' , there are other,...

(The entire section contains 5328 words.)

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