The Patrick White read along for “Voss” finished up today so here are a few quotes I have found about White and then “Voss” itself, all to whet the appetite for my opinion that will follow.
‘…Patrick’s gift for hatred almost exceeded his gift for literature and, it would seem, welled not so much from vanity as self-hatred. He despised so many of us. He behaved obnoxiously. But we still wiped the clay from his feet and propped him back on his pedestal. Perched up there he grumbled away, criticising the view. But at the end of the day we had to keep Patrick enpedestalled, as our official hero. Because if we hadn’t had Patrick as a hero, who the hell would we have?’
- Phillip Adams (broadcaster)
‘Well, I still hope to see the Bunyip before I die. It might even be Mr Patrick White who produces it; but not till he learns that, whatever life may be like, the English language is neither hugger-mugger, nor transient, and that it is never safe to break it into small pieces as a means of writing a novel. When so few Australian novelists can write prose at all, it is a great pity to see Mr White, who shows on every page some touch of the born writer, deliberately choose as his medium this pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge.’
- D. Hope (poet)
Voss was written about ten years after World War 2. In an interview, White recalled two influences: his reading of a book on the German-born nineteenth century Australian explorer, Ludwig Leichhardt; and his own experience of being in the North African desert during the war provoked by the “arch-megalomaniac,” Adolf Hitler. The broad outline of the narrative is based on Leichhardt’s ill-fated journey of exploration in search of an overland route from Sydney to Darwin. Voss and his party are financially supported by a group of Sydney merchants and Voss develops a strange but compelling relationship with Laura Trevelyan, the step-daughter of one of them. The relationship between these two misfits appears to continue through letters and some kind of psychic and spiritual companionship long after the expedition has left civilisation. The relationship may not be realistic but it is convincing.
Voss’s expedition passes through the magnificent settled lands of the Hunter Valley where they spend time on a station belonging to the cultivated Sandersons and then on to the more primitive farm of Boyle on the outer edge of the Darling Downs. With two Aboriginal guides, the party then strikes out into “unknown” country and confronts not only physical but also psychological and spiritual challenges to their sense of themselves as civilised subjects. There are struggles between the various members of the party: between those who are more practical and those whose motivation for joining is more altruistic, more personal or more concerned with inner understanding. The challenges faced by the expedition are of course both practical, physical ones as well as psychological and spiritual. The ways in which various members of the party deal with suffering is one of the interests of the middle part of the book.
But in Sydney, there are challenges to be faced as well, though not of such an obvious kind. For Laura and for her step sister – the apparently well-adjusted Belle Bonner – there are different needs. The emerging culture of colonial Australia requires both men and women to find new ways of relating to society and to nature. Laura takes on the responsibility of bringing up Mercy, the daughter of the servant, Rose and also opens a school, while Belle becomes the facilitator of social interaction among the increasingly diverse population. At the end of the novel, the citizens of Sydney unveil a statue to celebrate Voss’ probable achievement. The highlight of the ceremony is the appearance of Judd the ex-convict who is the sole surviving member of the expedition. Judd’s memory is possibly faulty, Laura’s understanding of Voss may lack substance, and the citizen’s need to memorialise something may have very little to do with the actual achievement of Voss yet there is a clear sense that the community as a whole has grown and developed, that the ways of interpreting experience have been enlarged and increased and that the possibilities for living fully and meaningfully in Australia have expanded.
This is for many readers White’s most demanding and most impressive novel. The language is not always easy and the relationship between Voss and Laura is difficult to accept in realistic terms but the reading experience is powerful, unforgettable, and deeply engaging.
- Alan Lawson (ed.)Patrick White Selected Writings, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1994
Personally I found this book, the inaugural Miles Franklin Award winner, Australia’s pre-eminent literary award, along the “demanding” lines, I am firmly in the A.D. Hope camp of “pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge”, however that does not mean it is not an impressive work.
Very much like the title character Voss and his journey into the unknown centre of Australia, my reading journey was arduous, at times felt fruitless and I wanted to abandon the journey, however, also like Voss I persisted, and unlike our protagonist, I came out the other side.
Human behavior is a series of lunges, of which, it is sometimes sensed, the direction is inevitable. (pp8)
Voss, “sufficient in himself”, Laura, “happiest shut with her own thoughts” and the harsh new land of Australia, are the three main players here.
Everyone is still afraid, or most of us, of this country, and will not say it. We are not yet possessed of understanding. (pp23)
…he was drawn closer to the landscape, the seldom motionless sea of grass, the twisted trees in grey and black, the sky ever increasing in its rage of blue; and the landscape, always, he could become the centre. (pp169)
There are obvious homosexual references, obviously a less frequently appearing theme in the 1950’s and the depiction of the Aboriginals is less than savoury, however we do need to keep in mind that even at the time of publication the right to vote for the first peoples of this Nation was not even law. Having said that, the 1958 novel “To The Islands” by Randolph Stow has a much more sympathetic portrayal of the indigenous peoples, although set in a different era and possibly reflecting the missionary view of the locals rather than Voss’ view of a recent arrival in colonial Australia.
The arduous journey that Voss undertakes is, at times, clearly explained, in other places it shimmers as an hallucination, dreamlike, mystical in the portrayal;
Then it began to rain again, and did not hold up. Nobody could conceive of eternity except as rain.
Men and beasts were grown very thin as they butted with their heads against the solid rain. Some of the men were hating one another worse than ever. Animals hate less, of course, because they have never expected more. But men grow green with hatred. Green slime was slapped upon the ground across which they were floundering. On that side of the river there were trees of shiny green with long, dark lances for leaves, which threatened the eyes and eardrums. Yet, in the condition to which they had come, the men’s souls were more woundable than flesh. One or two most dispirited individuals confessed to themselves that their greatest pleasure would have been to die. (pp 268-269)
A novel that is an exploration into the harsh new country, an exploration into one’s own self, a revelation of reserves, a mystical relationship where the lines of human connection become blurred. The isolation coming through as you personally work your way into the book.
When the girl was gone, she prepared herself as if for a journey, with shawls, and plaids, and a book of sermons that she always held in an emergency, and presently her husband came, who could no longer sit alone in the desert that the house had become. Not suddenly, not tonight, not to Mr Bonner alone. These two people, looking at each other at intervals, in the hope of rescue, had begun to realize that their whole lives had been a process of erosion. Oases of affection had made the desert endurable, until now the fierce heat of unreason threatened to wither any such refuge. (pp361)
Yes, a desert for all.
Now I have two of the Miles Franklin winners under my belt, maybe that’s a new challenge, the remaining fifty-nine make a nice list (I own about ten, and really do not want to read about a further ten, but never say never).
Did you join in the read along? Did you find it “pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge” or “powerful, unforgettable, and deeply engaging”?