Bags and Iron

Sylvia Lawson

  • Patrick White: A Life by David Marr
    Cape, 715 pp, £20.00, July 1991, ISBN 0 224 02581 3

Gossip makes the world go round, and we always want the stories of the gods. So biography prospers, and whatever’s between its covers, the big one is always a glossy commodity, further upmarket than most fiction. The hype for this one was noisy and predictable: excerpts, interviews and even reviews focusing on homosexual love-lives, Patrick White’s awful temper, and the detective-biographer’s own gripping adventures getting hold of 2500 letters. A magazine cover shows the author, companion and dog arranged in a pastoral trio in the Fifties. Towards an Australian Bloomsbury? There has to be more going on. It’s not enough to confirm the greatness of greatness; we want to know our business with the dead.

David Marr unfolds it, steadily, over seven hundred pages. The first vindication of his huge and wonderful book is that it offers ways into all of White’s work, uncovering materials which were taken up and transformed in the making of the novels, the stories and – not least – those dark, bizarre and often hilarious plays so long in want of new stagings. By making connections between experience and fiction, the book might well shift the obstacles to reading for those who still find the modernisms of, say, The Aunt’s Story and The Tree of Man too fractured and restless; and for those others, critics among them, who think White’s writing is pervaded by misanthropy and disgust. Those elements are there, in the life as in the work: but so, as Marr shows, were practicality and realism and resilience, the kind of humility and sense it took for White to find a path away from everything he had known up to his mid-thirties, make a simpler life with his lover, come to terms with his own difficult country, and write.

In an early chapter, the four-year-old Patrick finds magic and shelter in a huge tree in his parents’ garden: ‘The fleshy, spiked bunya bunya pine stood at the elbow of the gravel drive. One day the tiresome Mr Voss stood beside that tree to interrupt the Bonners on their way to a picnic. The fallen spikes, lying neglected on the gravel, caught Harry Courtney’s eye as he drove Hurtle Duffield to the door. Aunt Theo ... liked to joke that she had left her breath under the bunya bunya ...’ Patrick ‘wondered if paradise was somewhere in its branches, a thought that crossed the mind of the poet Le Mesurier as Voss’s party passed Aborigines heading out of the desert for the soft country where they could pick the bunya nuts’.

Here 1916 is put beside 1948 (The Aunt’s Story), 1957 (Voss) and 1970 (The Vivisector). The minutely-researched history functions as groundwork and structure; above it, Marr has made a great mosaic of the intersections between writing and life. None of White’s many styles bleed over into Marr’s, whose own prose is never less than lucidly, gracefully instrumental. It doesn’t go without saying: White has a whole population of imitators.

Marr chronicles habits of work (like tonnages of single-spacing on onion-skin), unfinished projects, more and less intelligent critical responses. He tells comic and dreadful stories of White’s adventures in the theatre in both Australia and Britain. He disproves the well-worn view that White received no recognition in Australia until New York and London had praised him: this was largely true of the academic establishment, but the Australian Literature Society gave its gold medal for Happy Valley in 1941, and several freelance writers were knowledgeably enthusiastic.

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