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.
David Marr’s biography tries to support White’s view of himself as prophet and outsider, while revealing, as do the Letters, just how much of a privileged insider the novelist really was. White was born into the squattocracy, the landed gentry of New South Wales; forever mobile and solvent, despite his protestations to the contrary, he had rare access to all levels of society, and had choices that were unknown to most Australians. Whether in the bush or at Cambridge, White had time and means to ‘find himself’, mixing with the bright and powerful, belonging to a class which gave him some measure of sexual society that he would have been unlikely to find as the son of a labourer. Also White was fortunate to come of age during a war which did more to educate and liberate him than cause him grief or loss. In his working life he was rarely without champions, his mother Ruth being the first (however unwelcome she was in the role of booster). For a diffident man he had many friends, and for a difficult writer he had many readers. As an Australian writer he was English enough to reassure the English and exotic enough to interest the Americans. He had the loyalty of his partner Manoly Lascaris for half a century and in his old age he had laurels and glory and unprecedented access to the leaders of the nation. Whatever the wounds of his childhood, the torments of his asthma and the otherness of his sexuality did to scar him, White was essentially one of the free and powerful. He needed the stance of outsider for his own purposes as a romantic.
In writing about his cousin Betty Withycombe in 1938, the young Patrick comes unconsciously close to describing himself:
Betty is in one of her Brontë-esque moods. Not that I am not very fond of her. But she is inclined to take up that ‘myself-at-war-with-the-universe’ attitude and to think that no one else can ever be affected in the same way. In the long run it is very trying.
Patrick and ‘the demi-nun of Oxford’, as he was to call Betty in one of his many rages, maintained a prickly correspondence for much of his life. They were too alike for things to go smoothly: like Betty, White was possessive, judgmental, a gossip, a master at taking umbrage and dealing in careless advice. When, late in life, White asked her to send him some of his early letters to aid him in the writing of his memoir, Flaws in the Glass, she duly sent them. He barely looked at them and burnt all four hundred without telling her.
‘Letters are the devil,’ he wrote to his American publisher Marshall Best, the successor to his great mentor Ben Huebsch, ‘and I always hope that any I have written have been destroyed.’ One can only wonder what the great bulk of his correspondence with Betty Withycombe might have revealed. On the subject of religious faith, for instance, both biography and letters are strangely faint. A great deal of White’s better work deals with the spiritual quest which so offended his critics. White is reticent about this in the letters that survive. When Peggy Garland asks about his faith, his responses bristle with the gnostic’s impatience with the uninitiated. His smugness makes one cringe:
I have to take on trust some of the obscurer details (which I don’t doubt I shall clear up eventually) and which are not sufficiently important to interfere with the goodness and rightness and immensity of the whole. Here, of course, one arrives at the super-rational which can only irritate those it does not convince.
In this century it has hardly been unusual to be oblique or even evasive about questions of faith, but it’s hard to believe White had no more to say than this. (There is enough depth in Stan Parker’s gob of spit at the end of The Tree of Man to convince me of that.) It is hopeless but still tantalising to imagine what may have been found on this subject in the letters to Betty Withycombe. She was after all his earliest mentor, an Anglican tertiary, and she knew him well enough for him to speak his mind to her.
Similarly, there are few intimate family letters of letters of intimacy of any nature, except for some love-notes to the rather alarmed Brian James, the Australian actor White fell for in 1963. There are no letters to his mother Ruth and none to Manoly, who faithfully burnt them. There are early letters to lovers and ex-lovers, but so many doors are closed to us that our view of the novelist is only partial.
The most revealing access to the writer’s mind, free of performance, is White’s war diary, found in his desk after his death. In this journal we see the self-absorbed colonial dandy (who complains that the war is threatening his West End career) become the young man stripped of ennui and many of the assumptions of his class and time. It might be said that White had three saviours: the Australian landscape, Manoly Lascaris and three months of World War Two. It is his RAF period that shows a man confronted by the immediacy of life and death and the connectedness possible – even necessary – between humans. There are beautiful passages of prose and balder moments of insight. He seemed relieved but also shocked to discover that there should be people around him with interests and lives different from his. In 1940 he wrote to one-time lover Spud Johnson that ‘the war has loosened people up a lot and at the same time consolidated them, which I suppose is some advance – if there isn’t some corresponding reaction afterwards.’
In his own case there was something of a reaction afterwards, a steady withdrawal into a version of his Edwardian self; but even in his grimmest Australian years he was never able to return to a state quite so removed by privilege and abstraction as the psychic fog he moved through in pre-war London.
As he struggles with his new surroundings, taking stock of his sexuality, his mortality and his spiritual inklings, the reader encounters him at his most intimate and vulnerable.
During the last month, that is, since leaving England, or perhaps more correct to say since joining the RAF, I have lost what I know as myself. I want to say to the people who know me during this period. This is not I, I am somebody different.
22 January 1941
I know what it is now to be obsessed by a job. That is, something imposed outside oneself, for I have always been obsessed by my own work, too thoroughly. Now I am a slave of a series of complex operations, that I want to keep going, the wheels rotating, feverishly. It is imperative. All depends on me ... Now I enjoy liking someone unlike the people I usually like.
11 March 1941
It is touching and almost painful to see White being introduced to the great world. He always retains his ‘difference’, his sense of feeling an impostor or a ‘foreign body’ but it is hard to ignore his delight in reporting to Jean Scott Rogers that ‘those three months are three of the most important I have ever lived. I was doing a necessary job. They liked me and wanted me there.’
One wonders if the little epiphanies of the RAF period were what enabled him to return to Australia and embrace a semi-rural life with Manoly Lascaris. Although he was reluctant to admit to even the most fleeting moments of happiness, his letters from Dogwoods brim with hard-won pleasures and the satisfactions of domesticity. To his countryman Keith Michell, he writes:
I almost succumbed to the glitter of London, Europe and all that, but of course, it is different for an actor, who is fed on glitter to a great extent. Since the war I have hardly stirred from these six acres outside Sydney, and as a writer, I feel I am the better for it.
The novels go some way to proving him right. Those written during this time are his finest. Whether it was the modest, isolated life and the saintly support of Lascaris, or simply the period when his vision and his gifts were a match for one another, it is impossible to say, but his move to Sydney in 1964 marks his retreat into the kingdom of disgust – the steady burgeoning of his fame and the diminution of his powers. In Sydney his life becomes far more social; the prickly persona that once protected him begins to eat him alive and he becomes much more read about than read. As he begins to be affected by fame he becomes again the stage-door Johnny, the maker of silly pronouncements, the tantrum-tossing rich boy. He restarts his long and wasteful engagement with the theatre and its poisonous hangers-on and he begins pruning himself of longstanding and fruitful friendships. In short, he becomes a silly old bugger.
For the wincing reader there is some chilly fun to be had observing the man pitilessly exposing the stupid and hypocritical, but it is only a camp fascination that is left when he goes on to destroy the cumbersome, ugly and plain unlucky with a twitch of the nib. Lord Maugham, he writes, ‘has a face like a wizened cow’s twat’. Stravinsky’s wife becomes ‘a kind of St Bernard; one imagines her carrying him about the house in her teeth.’ White acknowledged his inability to forgive or forget even the most minor shortcoming, and explained it away as hereditary. As he grows older and crueller, it is difficult not to agree with him in this matter and see how far he falls back into the aristocratic world view of Belltrees, the loathed family seat. He never doubts his judgment that others are crass, lack discipline, moral fibre. Only retainers and dogs seem to have had any lasting claim on his emotions, and he was far less equivocal about the latter. ‘Our pug Daisy died of a heart attack in the middle of the night a week ago. We dug her grave by torchlight. She was our most loveable dog character and we miss her very much.’
Fame seems to have robbed White of his vision and replaced it with his mission – keeping everyone else, from the next door neighbours to Ronald Reagan, in line. Preaching from the high ground of material safety, White excommunicated Geoffrey Dutton for the sin of trying to make a living. Sidney Nolan, it seems, committed the crime of marrying without the laureate’s blessing. White ranted at friends who accepted honours, even after he took the silliest and most ruinous prize of all. In the end he was too close to his own creation, The Eye of the Storm’s Elizabeth Hunter, seething and hissing on the lonely commode. More read about than read. More feared than loved.
Out of the fear and anger that his work might be ignored, White created a monster of a persona which robbed his work of the lasting attention that it deserves. His only bestseller was Flaws in the Glass, his exercise in vengeance. Few of his novels sold as well as his biography. The country he raged against, convinced it hated him, became his last enduring audience long after his American, English and European readerships shrank to the confines of the syllabus. Despite the many virtues of this collection, the letters themselves contribute to the heightening of the legend and the fading of the work.
‘I am not of great interest as a person,’ White wrote, ‘I like to think my books are better than I.’ It’s hard not to hold it against him.