C.K. Stead

  • Flaws in the Glass: A Self-Portrait by Patrick White
    Cape, 272 pp, £7.95, October 1981, ISBN 0 224 02924 X

Matthew Arnold worried that a literary reputation in England, unconfirmed by ‘the whole group of civilised nations’ (by which he meant Europe), might be merely provincial. At the same time he was pretty confident about which poets Europe ought, in due course, to favour. Wordsworth was admired at home but not abroad; and since Arnold was sure Wordsworth as a poet in English ranked second only to Shakespeare and Milton, and that among European poets of the 18th and 19th centuries only Goethe was superior, he anticipated a European recognition of Wordsworth which has never come. Arnold also liked to qualify and trim the literary verdicts which Europe had already handed down. Thus Byron had been overrated; and Goethe’s observations on Byron were manipulated by Arnold both to acknowledge a greatness and to set limits on it – a ‘splendid personality’ in poetry, but a slovenly artist and a childish intellect.

The question of the home judgment and the judgment abroad arises frequently in post-colonial literatures, and the case of Patrick White illustrates its complexities. First, how ‘Australian’ is White? He was born in London but of parents who were both Australians of grazier stock. He returned to Australia during his first year of life and lived in Sydney until the age of 13. So far so good. What follows, however, though it can’t deprive him of his Australianness, makes him a slightly alien figure. He is sent to an English public school, and later to Cambridge. Coming down from Cambridge, he lives a literary-bohemian life in London, and then joins the RAF during the Second World War. Is the man who returns to Australia to live after the war Australian? He is: but he’s untypical – and the question whether the Australia he sees is the place most Australians occupy is bound to be asked from time to time.

White had published two novels before going into the RAF. His third, The Aunt’s Story, came out in 1948 and passed relatively unnoticed. The great acclaim began with The Tree of Man, published in 1956. I was living in Australia when news of White’s success with English and American reviewers was coming in. Along with everyone else in any way literary I read the novel, I suppose for the same reason. Success in those days meant success somewhere else. The local product, admired only at home, could never be considered quite as seriously as the work that had made its way in a larger world.

Here is a problem for the literary critic in a society emerging from its colonial phase. He can’t escape from the judgments uttered abroad. If he disagrees with them (and there have always been disagreements about White), it’s difficult simply to shrug them off. They loom too large. He will be tempted to attack them – even to attack the work which attracted them. I don’t greatly admire A.D. Hope as a critic, and I’m sure his judgment of The Tree of Man was grossly unbalanced: but I think I understand the pressures which prompted him to describe it as ‘pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge’ when it first appeared, and then to republish that review almost twenty years later when Patrick White won the Nobel Prize. One possible view of White – unfair, no doubt, but not entirely – is that he is is praised in Europe because he presents an image of Australia intelligible to the European imagination; and that he is praised in Australia because, although everyone knows how off-centre that image is, nevertheless he makes Australian literature respectable.

If the critic has his problems they are minor compared to the writer’s. The critic utters his judgment and goes off to lunch. The writer has to live with it and with the indignation it engenders. Throughout Flaws in the Glass there are complaining references, sometimes direct, sometimes oblique, to critics, especially academics, who have failed or refused to understand White’s work. That he should have made his commitment to live in Australia when he might very comfortably have lived elsewhere; and that he should have received for this little thanks and years of what looks like envious nit-picking – this, it’s quite clear, seems to White a monstrous ingratitude, a further example of the great Australian nastiness.

Anyone who gives a moment’s thought to it must feel some sympathy: but White’s counter-punches are needless and ill-judged. To give an example: in the course of a passage claiming for himself special insights available only to those who are sexually ambivalent, he writes: ‘ambivalence has given me insights into human nature, denied, I believe, to those who are unequivocally male or female – and Professor Leonie Kramer.’ A footnote tells us Professor Kramer is an ‘Australian academic’ – no more. Why she has been singled out for this swipe is unexplained. The reason, I suppose, is that Professor Kramer wrote an unsympathetic piece about Riders in the Chariot in Quadrant in 1973. It was a very schematised and somewhat tedious exercise – but so is the novel, despite its one or two brilliantly memorable scenes. And in any case, the grumble as it stands is unintelligible. White ought to have expunged it from his book and simply visited Sydney University at night with a spray can.

White is direct, frank and unsensational about his homosexuality, which may well be a key to understanding his work and his life. He grew up in a wealthy family, comfortable, accustomed to servants (English and Scots) to whom he felt attached, undisturbed (he says), but nevertheless driven in on himself, by the early recognition of his own sexual ambivalence. There seems to have been affection rather than love between him and his mother; and he records that for most of his early life places, houses and landscapes meant more to him than people.

From this protected environment he was removed to go to his English public school (Cheltenham). He hated it, felt betrayed, and longed for Australia. But on returning home he felt alien and was glad enough, after a couple of years on the land as a jackeroo, to set out again, this time for Cambridge. After Cambridge it was London, haunting the theatres and living the life of the homosexual artist on a generous allowance remitted by his father. Soon he ‘moved into the comparatively sumptuous Eccleston Street duplex on the strength of an inheritance; there seemed no reason why literature should exclude pleasure and elegance.’ No reason at all, I suppose: but there does seem to have been something trivial about the life White was leading in the late 1930s which gets into the prose of his account:

Joyce painted. Never a talent which threw off the influence of the Slade, she ended up teaching in loony bins. Much of her life she spent in run down country cottages, far from a water supply, and with cats for company. She had a complicated marriage, with a husband who came and went, and worse ... I remember Betty who deplored Cambridge (with the exception of Kings, because Kings was more Oxford than Cambridge) bursting out with ‘I wonder what happens to them all – such pups!’ Joyce quietly suggested, ‘They grow into dogs, I expect, and marry bitches.’

White’s war in the North African desert was dreary on the whole, but it took him to Alexandria where, in July 1941, he met Manoly Lascaris, ‘this small Greek of immense moral strength, who became the central mandala of my life’s hitherto messy design’. Forty years later they are still together.

When the war ended White wanted to live in Greece. Manoly favoured Australia, although he had never been there. The novelist wavered, and records that his decision was partly influenced by hunger. For a ‘gross character’ like himself, the Europe of ration-cards was intolerable. Another deciding factor was that his mother, who professed always to hate Australia, was resolved to live in England when the war ended, and the son ‘knew ... my mother and I could not live in the same hemisphere.’

He settled with Manoly on a few acres at Castle Hill just outside Sydney, where they grew vegetables, fruit and flowers, bred dogs and goats, ran a couple of cows, and were generally unsuccessful small farmers. White wrote his most famous books there (a kind of drudgery which he also describes as ‘an escape’), suffered repeated asthma attacks, drank too much, raged, threw saucepans of Irish stew through the kitchen window, felt rejected by Australian critics, and was unhappy.

One is offered little more than passing glimpses of this crucial period of his life: but I suppose domesticity, homosexual or heterosexual, seldom makes substantial copy, and tends to vanish from memory almost while it is happening. In 1963, he and Manoly moved to central Sydney, a house close to Centennial Park which White has continued to enjoy. The years since have been happier, with increasing fame and frequent journeys to Greece which are recorded in detail in the section ‘Journeys’, making up almost a quarter of the book. Not the least of the things which strike one as odd about Flaws in the Glass is that it gives a much more vivid image of Greece than of Australia.

White has learned in old age to play some small part in public life, taking sides with Labour, making speeches, supporting dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam against Governor-General Sir John Kerr (whom he describes as ‘a rorty farting old Falstaff’), declaring himself a Republican, and writing a play with strong social over-tones. But when the Nobel Prize was awarded to him in 1973 he refused to go to Stockholm to receive it, and the principal reaction recorded here is petulance at being besieged by newsmen.

One of Thomas Hardy’s friends or acquaintances, a man who went by the name of Clodd, is reported to have said of him: ‘He was a great writer but not a great man. There was no largeness of soul.’ It seems a very old-fashioned judgment – we prefer our heroes warty these days – but one can see what Clodd meant. Even on his death-bed Hardy was dictating inept lampoons on his critics. I doubt whether the Nobel Prize, which he was disappointed not to have got, would have made any difference – and it seems to have made little to White. Close on 70 and laden with honours, he is still grumbling. I suppose there is a kind of modesty in that – a failure to take the measure of his own public success, and to recognise that negative judgments are merely an aspect of it. Perhaps, too, it takes just that kind of obsessive and discontented streak to create and sustain the alternative worlds of major fiction. But it doesn’t make for impressive autobiography (it didn’t in Hardy’s case either). So much of White’s subject-matter seems trivialised here by gossip, occasional bitchiness, and even snobbery, in his anecdotes about people (Joan Sutherland, the Queen, Sidney Nolan etc), and by a refusal to find excitement or grandeur or anything at all except dreariness in public events. The European will not learn much about Australia from this book; the non-literary person will find little about what it is like to be a writer; and the heterosexual is offered few insights into the nature of the homosexual life.

More than once White argues that homosexuality gives him an advantage as a writer since it permits him to be male or female as his characters and narrative require. This is a familiar argument, and one I have never found entirely convincing. What seems to me at least equally significant is that White’s actual experience is homosexual while the most important relationships in his novels (with the exception of The Twyborn Affair and perhaps The Solid Mandala) are heterosexual. Of course the imagination ought to be able to cross that bridge, either way – but not if it is baulked by envy, resentment or a sense of inferiority. Here is how White imagines he would have been if heterosexual and male:

If an artist, probably a pompous one, preening myself in the psychic mirror for being a success ... My unequivocal male genes would have allowed me to exploit sexuality to the full. As a father I would have been intolerant of my children, who would have hated and despised me, seeing through the great man I wasn’t. I would have accepted titles, orders, and expected a state funeral in accordance with a deep-seated hypocrisy I had refused to recognise.

There is a parallel passage about what he might have been if unequivocally female (‘an earth mother churning out children ... passionate, jealous, resentful ... a whore ... a nun’). What these passages suggest (and contrary to what he claims for the homosexual temperament) is a difficulty in imagining heterosexual experience except in terms which are either negative or melodramatic.

Australia has produced at least three major novelists since the 1930s – Christina Stead, Xavier Herbert and White. In 1975, two years after White’s Nobel award, Herbert published his greatest novel, Poor Fellow My Country, and I remember wondering whether Australia had got its Nobel too soon. On reflection, I think it unlikely Herbert would ever have won it. Reverting to the analogy with which I began, Herbert is probably a sort of Wordsworth to White’s Byron – the writer destined to be fully intelligible only within the limits of his own language and region. Australians will make their judgment on the relative importance of these writers to the development of their literature and their consciousness of themselves. But that White and Christina Stead have been able to keep the lines of literary communication to Europe open and to keep Australian voices audible in a larger literary world ought to be a matter for celebration.

White’s performance as a fiction writer is uneven, and I think I can see in this auto-biography some of the elements in his character which lead at times to shallowness, banality and inflation in the writing. What is disappointing about Flaws in the Glass is that it offers little evidence of or clue to the writer who can transform himself at times into one of the truly great magicians of the fictional mode.