- Patrick White: Letters edited by David Marr
Cape, 678 pp, £35.00, January 1995, ISBN 0 224 03516 9
Loved and loathed, Patrick White loomed over Australian literature for decades as a distant, grimacing colossus. There was simply no way around him, no way he could not be taken into consideration. Not only did he appropriate the physical and spiritual landscape in his major novels, The Tree of Man, Voss and Riders in the Chariot: in cultural terms he became the landscape. Writers around him and after him were forever in his debt, or at least his shadow. The scope and achievement of his work simply made everything else look ordinary, and Australians – normally prepared to make a virtue of their ordinariness – bridled. In retrospect, and now that ‘the monster of all time’ is safely dead, it would appear that his countrymen needn’t have taken it all so personally, since it’s difficult to find peers for White anywhere.
David Marr’s excellent and sympathetic biography confirmed White’s singularity and perhaps even his greatness, but the recent Letters, astutely edited and accompanied by acerbic and timely interpolations, reveals the Nobel laureate as a man lagging well behind the work. Readers who have drunk deeply from the novels may recognise in the letters the same irritable, restless intelligence and charming vulgarity, but there is scant compassion, less pity and precious little visionary wisdom. ‘I don’t know why one would ever expect more than simplicity from the great,’ he wrote to Pepe Mamblas in 1937. But despite the many voyeuristic pleasures to be had from this collection, there is rarely anything that resembles mere simplicity. White obviously wrote novels and letters from different parts of himself. He was a snob and a gossip and his letters are so laden with ambivalence, bitterness and self-loathing, so much studied nonchalance and self-absorption, that any respite fills the reader with a ghastly burst of gratitude.
There are moments of kindness and forbearance in his correspondence with the novelist Elizabeth Harrower, the painter Brett Whitely and Cynthia Nolan, as well as supportive letters to Randolph Stow, his modest and neglected peer. There are moments, too, in his long relationship with Viking’s Ben Huebsch, but the brightest example, the most sustained retraction of the claws, is reserved for Philip Garland, the brain-damaged son of his long-suffering cousin Peggy. At length and with great care he writes of animals, music and travel, gently encouraging the disturbed boy without condescension. ‘Now you will have to write back, as you promised,’ he writes, ‘and tell me about everything. I shall always be interested to hear what you have to say.’ White was uncomfortable with children, yet his letter is in many senses pastoral; it stands out among the six hundred or so presented in this collection as one that carries a hint of the deep feeling for the damaged and bewildered which marks the novelist’s best work, from The Aunt’s Story to the grand failure of The Twyborn Affair.
From his surviving letters it is plain that White saw himself as one of his own ‘burnt ones’. From his early years he adopted, or perhaps inherited, a romantic and gnostic view of the world, sensing that there were two species of human, ‘the people who are aware and the people who are well, just dead’.
Initiation into White’s imaginary priesthood was by a suitable suffering, preferably an artistic one. His illuminati were refined by fire. The young Paddy’s awkward, Anglo-Australian childhood at Belltrees, his recurrent asthma and his uncomfortable homosexuality gave him licence to feel the eternal outsider. This was compounded by his adult readiness to assume (and often imagine) hostility on the part of others. His feelings of martyrdom at the hands of Australian critics like A.D. Hope, who called The Tree of Man ‘illiterate verbal sludge’, only confirmed and cemented his world view.