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.

After that, Patrick White wrote at least six of the great modern and Modernist novels, with a stunning array of short fiction and drama. Marr has written of that whole life’s production – a writing life as strenuous, racked and self-questioning as any gaping aficionado of tortured genius might ask – in ways that support all the sensible things Barthes and Foucault ever said about the conditions and constraints of authorship. Not that Marr, who is a lawyer, an investigative journalist of distinction and a very good storyteller, invests in either theory or literary criticism: he has other fish to fry. He tracks the writing as activity and event, seen from outside. He shows how dependent White’s production was, not only on domestic stability and on adequate income from inherited wealth, but equally on adequate responses: from agents, publishers, go-betweens, critics, entrepreneurs.

With equal lucidity, he divorces the Nobel Prize from its myth of pure literary-ethical supremacy, adjudicated in monumental calm; he displays the intense micropolitics of the contest in a chapter which is at once solemn comedy and instructive cultural analysis. White was embarrassed, sceptical and delighted by the prize; he refused the grand moments in both Stockholm and Canberra and gave all the money away to found a prize for older and under-regarded Australian writers.

So you have the making of an Author, with a giant capital A. The famous name and the person could not have been more starkly, ludicrously separate. White, with all his curiosity, insight and love of performance, never wanted limelight for himself. He became a public man reluctantly, and every appearance through his sixties and seventies cost him in health and energy; he was chronically asthmatic, dependent on cortisone treatment.

By then he had travelled enormous distances, personally, philosophically and creatively, and Marr does the journey justice. White’s beginnings were in exceptional privilege and isolation – a poor little rich boy if ever there was one – in a prominent grazing family. His mother, the imperial Ruth, could have been scripted by Noel Coward. Attaining widowhood, she left to spend her last quarter-century in the London which had always been the Mecca of her late-colonial class; until then, from World War One to 1937, she was a leader of Sydney society, dabbling in galleries and little magazines as well as high-powered charities. Marr lets her emerge as a comic character of gorgeous theatricality, seen both in and outside her relation to Patrick; he refuses to make her a monster (so, if you attend properly to The Eye of the Storm, does White himself). For she was neither foolish nor uncaring. Little as she understood his work, she struggled for and found ways to accept her son’s departures from the life of the landed gentry, from the social round, approvable alternative careers like the diplomatic corps; and even, finally, from approvable masculinity. ‘We have all taken Manoly to our hearts,’ she wrote in 1958, when White and his lover were visiting London.

She marked his fiction throughout – hats, jewellery, make-up, grand snobberies and illusions, authority and courage. Ruth gave him materials for that mother whose death freed Theodora Goodman in The Aunt’s Story, for Alfreda Courtney in The Vivisector, for all of The Eye of the Storm, and for a score of minor figures like Mrs Fisher in The Tree of Man, who ‘was at her best in amusing relationships with artistic young men whose demands were decorative’. At the end of White’s writing life the ground was still fertile, yielding the glorious performative lunacies of Memoirs of Many in One.

He might have gone all the way with theatre, he tells us in Flaws in the Glass, but ‘lacking flamboyance, cursed with reserve’, he chose fiction ‘as a means of introducing to the disbelieving audience the cast of contradictory characters of which I am composed’. Understanding that, Marr has made something less like a portrait than an archival documentary, with many Patricks living and searching, writing, struggling – and toward the end, marching – through a succession of battle-grounds. We cut back and forth between uppercrust Australia and England, with side-excursions to Germany and Spain for an amazingly apolitical young writer in the mid-Thirties; pre-war and wartime London and America, wartime North Africa, Alexandria, where he met Manoly Lascaris in 1941; and Greece. He came back to Australia permanently in 1948, to settle with Lascaris first on a small farm on Sydney’s north-western fringe, then for twenty years in Centennial Park, a pleasant, affluent inner suburb. Through Lascaris, Greece became his ‘other country’.

Ten years after that return, he published the landmark essay called ‘The Prodigal Son’. Always hypersensitive to criticism, he was still suffering from Australian responses – some hostile, some merely tepid – to The Tree of Man and Voss. A much-quoted passage runs: ‘In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is ...’ Somebody should have argued back that any country with intellectuals among its schoolteachers and journalists isn’t doing so badly, and few recall the last bits: ‘Writing, which had meant the practice of an art by a polished mind in civilised surroundings, became a struggle to create completely fresh forms out of the rocks and sticks of words. I began to see things for the first time. Even the boredom and frustration presented avenues for endless exploration; even the ugliness, the bags and iron of Australian life, acquired a meaning.’

Among the bags and iron, he set himself to write into lives of underprivilege, seeming ordinariness and degradation, as well as the world to which he was born and the relations between them. In everything he wrote there is an upstairs/downstairs story; perhaps the most ferociously comic and horrific instances are the early chapters of The Vivisector. His goal wasn’t ‘understanding’, let alone empathy or pathos – on that score, he was as tough-minded as Brecht. It was rather to make us see: to explode that conservatism in which many conscientious liberals unthinkingly share, the idea that there is a world full of ‘ordinary men and women in the street’ who are less sensitive than the ones round your dinner-table, and whose lives are fundamentally predictable and undramatic (as yours, of course, is not). Early sexual frustration and loneliness, spartan labours in the outback, travelling and questing in love and out, then the Blitz – whatever the buffetings of his first thirty-odd years, they collaborated with White’s deep-set senses of performance and variety to drive his consciousness outward. By his middle twenties, finishing Happy Valley, he had left the self-absorbed lyric sensibility behind. In whatever sense he was, as he claimed, a romantic, it wasn’t the romanticism of the destiny-driven ego.

The personae of his fictions are not characters in the classic realist sense. They are fracturings, segments, pieces; thinking of the great couples – Amy and Stan Parker in The Tree of Man, the brothers of The Solid Mandala – I see them, not as Nolanesque figures in harsh landscapes, but as extended Cubist sequences. Each figure is seen through a series of windows, fragments of sharply-focused sight and insight. Walls, skies, furniture, fences, talk, ways of sitting and feeling are juxtaposed; various pasts cut into the present – White’s use of memory is rigorously anti-nostalgic. There is all that precise physicality, the notations of smelliness and rheuminess, flab, veins and blotches, the ‘slommacky’ bodies of women who’ve had too many children. Some link this to the alleged misanthropy; I think rather that the bodily whiffs and close-ups make sure we read and feel these figures as time-bound mortal animals, creatures of need and desire, limited agency and, sometimes, absurdly limitless hope.

Written with that intensity, they remain present, though somewhere outside, when each window shuts and the story shifts – think of Hurtle Duffield’s kin-family, left behind after seventy pages, and undismissable for the next five hundred. The storyteller doesn’t own his creations, the teller lets go of the tale. Thus, from the beginning of his mature period with The Aunt’s Story, and long before his conscious politicisation, White was a radical artist: first, in the sense that through writing he developed and projected an unfixed, dynamic notion of the person; second, in that all his narratives, ‘character’ is inseparable from advantage and disadvantage, from class and history. The subjects of privilege are often painted with compassion and comic enjoyment, but their illusions are taken by the throat. Third, because his treatment of sex and gender challenges new notions as well as old ones, theorists of gender difference could do far worse than start with The Twyborn Affair – or else with this biography, and work through it to the novels, any and all of them, contemplating the range of understanding on sexuality and the endless varieties of love. White knew from childhood what he was, and did not wish to change, despite believing that his nature committed him to loneliness. Marr delineates White’s self-understanding, his belief that he contained both male and female, and the way this worked for the fiction.

He also charts ‘the transformation of this private conservative into a public radical’, which began with White’s opposition to America’s role in the Vietnam War and to Australia’s support of that role. He voted Labour for the first time in 1969; and on 9 December that year joined 43 others in an antiwar demonstration in central Sydney. ‘This,’ writes Marr, ‘was White’s first public political act, and the press photographs ... were the first sight the public had had of him for seven or eight years.’ Not so, to my own knowledge. On 3 March 1966, he presented himself at a rally on the Sydney Opera House site to protest against the forced resignation from the half-realised project of the great Danish architect, Joern Utzon. White joined a thousand others in the march that afternoon from the site to the state parliament house; on 14 March, he appeared on the platform in Sydney Town Hall, supporting the speakers at a second crowded meeting. Two years later, on 4 February 1968, he was among the speakers at a great gathering, again in the Town Hall: Utzon wanted to return, and the meeting petitioned the state government in his support, to no avail. That passionate local cause, in which the building had become an irresistible symbol of both aspiration and conflict, became entangled with wider ones in a decisive shift of consciousness.

Through his last twenty years he was an activist: for both natural and built environments, for Aboriginal rights, for an Australian republic, against uranium mining, against French nuclear tests in the Pacific, and against the continuing presence on Australian soil of the four major American listening-posts which made the country a network of targets. This was in a setting where from the Fifties until lately, literature was held markedly aloof from politics.

White wouldn’t beat a drum for gay rights – that was in the realm of private choice. But when they called him an angry old man, or an angry old queen, he pleaded guilty and carried on. No one who heard it will forget the Palm Sunday speech of 1982, for which he did meticulous homework; he knew that Australian-mined yellowcake went for enrichment through Riga into the Soviet Union, and finished in a Swedish-built nuclear plant in Finland; he knew that France used uranium enriched in the Soviet Union; he knew which Australian uranium companies had supply contracts with Japan, the US, Sweden, West Germany, South Korea, Belgium. ‘So,’ he said, ‘the governments of the world are linked by the crossthreads on a monstrous web, spun from the motives of material gain, fear and suspicion.’ In that speech and others he found words for the terrible mix of love and exasperation, loyalty and anger, which made up his relations with Australia. But by then he knew he wasn’t alone, that the lives of thousands of other citizens, artists, writers, unionists, labourers – to say nothing of schoolteachers and journalists – were spent working and struggling in the cross-currents of this most tantalising society: like the Opera House on the outside, a great idea for a human space, botched within by false pragmatism, timidity and compromise.

Marr’s book is that memorial White never thought he deserved. Not a monument, but a great story, it opens up his double legacy. One part is the mantle of the major literary artist, which lies heavily; too many younger writers have attempted White’s kind of fiction, turning its influence to the purposes of introspection, the building and discovery of the self. The other legacy is incitement – for writers and others to make the connections between the great novels, with the plays and stories, and the speeches, the way his politics caught up with his aesthetics, the way the artist, finally, gave the citizen no choice but to take sides and act. From the furthest, safest edge he came all the way into a dangerous centre: ‘for me,’ he said in 1979, ‘the pavement and the crowd.’ It was a fantastic trajectory. It can be continued.