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Me and Patrick White

I wrote the piece below in 2004, thinking I would publish it to coincide with the release of The Resurrectionist. But delays in the publication of The Resurrectionist meant I forgot about it, and it languished on my hard drive until I stumbled on it this morning. Obviously the passage of time means it is, of necessity, an historical document: I’m no longer the writer who wrote it, and many of the concerns and anxieties it articulates are no longer current. But I feel there’s enough in it which remains true to make it worth allowing it to see the light of day, especially given the recent announcement that Random House will be publishing The Hanging Garden next year. That being the case I’ve left its references to events and conversations as they were, rather than updating them, meaning there are moments of anachronism (Jim Sharman gave me Riders in the Chariot a decade, rather than three years ago, and my remarks about Peter Carey’s reputation now look out-of-date) but otherwise it’s pretty much unchanged.

Almost thirty years ago, Harold Bloom made his name with his thesis about the anxiety of influence. Bloom argued that all writers are necessarily belated, oppressed by the presence of those who came before them. This relationship is Freudian, the younger cast as “son” to the predecessor’s “father”. Animated at first by admiration the younger initially find expression through the work of their predecessor, rewriting and reinterpreting it in a process that begins in indebtedness and mutates over time into rejection, a process which enables them to finally break free, finding a voice of their own.

This tension between the enabling possibility of another’s work and the disabling effect of one’s indebtedness to it is one most writers are aware of. Amongst the loose group of writers who comprise what one could describe as my generation, those of us who came of age in the 1990s, there are several lines of influence: Michael Ondaatje and Nicholson Baker, Jeanette Winterson and Raymond Carver. Follow our work back and you will find it divides into several schools, with each of them at the stream’s source.

In the last decade Peter Carey has risen in stature and achievement to a point where his success dwarfs any other Australian writer. And yet his work seems to occupy less and less space in our literary imagination. In part this is a function of his continuing physical remove from this country: his presence as a commentator and as an opinion-maker diminished by that distance. In part it is about a broader shift in the dynamics of international publishing, a shift which has seen the local scene change in response to the winds of global markets. But it is also, I suspect, about a deeper loss of interest in Carey’s central subject, the idea of Australia, as nation, as mirage. Whether they are allergic to the conversation itself or simply the terms Carey and others conduct it in, over the last decade Australians seem to have become increasingly impatient with discussion of who they are, of where they come from.

And so, for us, although there are writers in our imaginary landscapes of whom we are aware, there is no commanding presence. Sometimes this seems almost unfortunate: without a pacesetter, without someone with the imaginative authority to define the idea of Australian literature we appear, both to ourselves and to outsiders as something of a rabble. Without a national project advanced from within our work chases off down endless cul de sacs and wandering byways. In my better moments I see this as a sign of strength, of diversity and creative freedom, other times I am not so sure.

Of course it was not always thus. In the 1960s and 1970s one figure commanded the literary landscape, and ruled the artistic life of Sydney like an (intermittently) benign despot. Nobel Prize winner, patrician activist, host of legendary proportions, he was famed for his savagery as well as his generosity, his intolerance of fools and charlatans, his immense warmth and his uncompromising intelligence.

I never met Patrick White. And yet now, a decade after his death he often seems as much a living presence as ever. His name crops up in conversation with those who knew him with surprising frequency. Not as someone made distant by the passage of time, but as someone who merely stepped outside for a moment. “Patrick” they call him, as if he needed no further identification, never “Patrick White”, their words never prefaced with “I remember . . .” or “Once . . .”. The tic is a curious one, and a revealing one. The reach of his influence is present always in the worlds of the arts, where those who knew him now populate the boards, run the theatres, the opera, the galleries.

It is almost inconceivable what it must have been like to write into a world so dominated by as towering, and as capricious a figure as his. Even now there is something crowding about the religious intensity of his vision, something which demands of one some justification, some thing which must be said that he has not already said.

David Malouf once said to me that finding a place out of Patrick’s shadow was a real problem for the writers of his generation. “Who are you?” he said one felt was being asked. “Why are you interesting? After all we already have our writer, and there’s only room for one.” I have heard others say similar things. And yet his writing brought into being the idea of an Australian literature which might embrace and exceed its origins, an idea of a literature which might give shape to an imagination large enough to fill the emptiness of the continent. Without Patrick White there is no Randolph Stow, no David Malouf, no Rodney Hall, no Peter Carey, not because their writing depends upon his in any derivative sense, but because the transformative possibilities contained within his writing altered the way we understand ourselves, opening new dimensions and possibilities in our conception of the land and how we see it.

For me it was different. It was Malouf and Carey who gave me the tools, who led me to think about what an Australian might write about. Never having studied literature at university I am not sure I was even particularly aware of Patrick White until I began writing in my mid-twenties. He died at about the time I wrote my first poem, and by the time my first novel was published in 1997 he seemed almost a relic from some distant past, mostly unread, more famous for being the subject of David Marr’s biography than for his work. I remember playing devil’s advocate (or what in my obnoxious way I believed to be devil’s advocacy) at about the same time. “Why read him?” I used to ask, “why not consign him to the dustbin of history?” It made people uncomfortable, I remember, though in retrospect perhaps not in quite the way I had intended.

I don’t know what response I was after. I suspect I was showing off a bit, and probably at some deeper level trying to clear some space for myself. Tangled up with notions of influence and its anxieties there is another relationship, an Oedipal urge which drives many people who begin to write, an arrogance, a bolshevik desire to destroy the past. Time, and experience temper this, the writing of those who came before you beginning to reveal itself as you learn to see it for what it is, not for what it represents. You grow up, in other words.

Despite my ambivalence I owned copies of The Tree of Man, of Voss, of The Vivisector. Occasionally I would flirt with the idea of reading them, sometimes going so far as to open them and read a few pages. Three or four times I started The Tree of Man, only to put it aside again. Too hard, I thought, too brittle. And then one day, spurred in part by my growing embarrassment about my ignorance, I picked it up one last time, and quite suddenly understood. There is a thrill of recognition that books can sometimes bring on, a sense that they shimmer with meaning and purpose. And as I read that opening chapter I felt it.

As I read on I found myself riveted and repelled in equal measure. There is something almost Blakean in White’s work, some sense of the infinite which is at once terrible and wonderful, and it can be hard to look at it directly. There was a challenge here for my writing as well, I understood, an implicit question as to its worth, its relevance. White’s writing swoops and vaults, it commands, and it seems to expand in every direction, to fill the space into which it is cast.

Reading through the other novels I found my fascination increasing. There is nothing easy in White’s writing, for all that he can be very funny, in its very textures it exalts and strains. Peter Craven once said of him that he had to write badly to write well (a remark Mark Davis made merry with in Ganglands) but I think Craven was groping towards something vital in White’s writing, some inner tension between the sources of its energy and what White sought to find in it. White himself spoke of the “struggle to create completely fresh forms out of the rocks and sticks of words”. Thomas Mann famously said a real writer is someone who found writing difficult, and if there was ever an illustration of this it was White.

It is this sense of struggle, of the link between destruction and birth, between mortification and transcendence, between the emptiness of the landscape and the scale of the imagination which is irresistible in White. Almost everything that comes after looks timid in comparison, pale echoes of the enabling parent. And yet this vision demands of those who write now, to find words and stories capable of matching his. It demands we look again, with an intensity to match his at who we are, what we are. It demands we grapple with the metaphysical landscape we inhabit. It demands we seek out the oppressed and the marginalised, and give voice to their needs, their dreams. And most of all it demands we strive, and seek transcendence through words.

Beside my desk I have a first edition of Riders in the Chariot. It was given to me three years ago by Jim Sharman in a typically disarming act of generosity. When I protested it was too much he insisted I take it, saying it gave him pleasure to be giving it to me, if only I would agree to pass it on in my turn, twenty or thirty years from now to a writer I admired, a person of the age I was then, or younger. I know Jim saw in this the passing of a sort of baton, the bearing of a sense of what writing might be about, what it might be for into the future. It is something I will be proud to do.

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. What a wonderful article. You articulate something I feel as a West Australian writer and growing up with Winton’s work (but put so much more succinctly). The Twyborn Affair was my White fave. Delicious.

    March 3, 2011
  2. Bloom’s Oedipal preoccupations now seem inextricably linked to modernism, not only because Freud is himself the archetypal modernist, but in the sense that Bloom characterises literature as a heroic, virile struggle: transcendence and originality being, in this formulation, the ultimate proof of masculine conquest. Like any good postmodernist (small ‘p’, with the usual ironic shrug), I am rather suspicious of this rhetoric. White is of course a more interesting and complex case study re: masculinity than Hemingway or whoever, but otherwise your description of his work here sounds very modernist (difficulty as exaltation, etc.). Getting the Nobel Prize is so twentieth century, donchaknow: like historians aspiring to be magisterial or definitive.

    I am just beginning to consider the question of what it means to be an Australian writer, having moved here recently. I confess I have never read White, and I have little interest in doing so, precisely because I feel under no obligation to compete with him. Perhaps that puts me at a disadvantage in describing early twenty-first century Australia, but I’m not convinced.

    However, I am certainly interested in your interest in him, if I can put it like that.

    March 3, 2011
    • Interestingly you’ve homed in on exactly the ambivalence contained in my suggestion that the piece was a historical document, and that I’m no longer the writer I was when I wrote it. Certainly I think literary culture generally is in the midst of a pretty seismic shift, one which is altering a lot of our notions about what literature is, and does, and undermining many of the assumptions about what constitutes “great” writing that have held sway for a long time.

      March 3, 2011
  3. Jane GW #

    Yes great article James. I especially like and relate to your being ‘riveted and repelled in equal measure’ by White’s writing and think your comparison of him to Blake is brilliant. So right – they are hard to look at directly.

    I also had the same tortured road to P White. Set out to debunk his myth (in my undergraduate honours thesis) but as I read realised he really was as great as his reputation. I was also sucked into White via ‘The Twyborn Affair’.

    March 3, 2011
  4. I got handed Riders in the Chariot by a very precocious schoolmate when I was 14, in 1967, which was only six years after it was published, and tore through the rest pretty quickly and bought them as they came out from about The Vivisector onwards, so I’ve never been an adult who hasn’t read most of his work, and I’ve always loved it to bits. In the history of Aust Lit he’s regarded as the person who finally cracked the monolith of ‘dun-coloured realism’, but I read it all arse-backwards — PW first and then all the dun-coloured realists only later. Whom I also like. (Kylie Tennant, in a review of Voss: ‘When the novel strikes off into the deserts of mysticism, I am one of those who would rather slink off home.’)

    Never felt the need either to debunk or to compete (just as well), but I think this may have something to do with being a woman. I don’t remember Bloom even acknowledging women writers or how their existence might screw up his Freudian schema, but it’s a very long time since I read it, so I could be quite wrong. I wonder what clash of the Titans would have ensued if Christina Stead had stayed at home. No I don’t. PW = male mystic; CS = female materialist and Marxist. No contest, Stead would have sunk like a stone and possibly drunk herself to death. But in terms of originality and breadth of vision she is every bit as good as he is, I reckon.

    March 3, 2011
  5. Jane GW #

    Entertaining thought Kerryn, P White v C Stead. Didn’t what you describe pretty much happen when she did eventually return to Australia? I mean, sunk like a stone.
    I didn’t feel need to debunk White in Bloom/Bradley sense. Just thought on basis of my extreme dislike of first of his books I read – ‘The Tree of Man’ at school – that’s he’d been wildly overrated and set out to say so. Turned out I was wrong.

    March 4, 2011
  6. Stead vs White? A sort of modernist cage fight? I can just see it.

    March 4, 2011
  7. Tim #

    Kerryn’s experience is very similar to mine, though my first White was Vivisector, which I read at 16 and loved. In fact, it taught me how to read. But I also agree with her that Stead is White’s match and that now I probably prefer her (Cotter’s England and The Beauties and the Furies are extraordinary books).

    You probably know Angela Carters essay about Stead, but it is worth remembering how it starts:

    “To open a book, any book, by Christina Stead and read a few pages is to be at once aware that one is in the presence of greatness. Yet this revelation is apt to precipitate a sense of confusion, of strangeness, even of acute anxiety, not only because Stead has a devastating capacity to flay the reader’s sensibilities, but also because we have grown accustomed to the idea that we live in pygmy times. To discover that a writer of so sure and unmistakable a stature is still amongst us, and, more, produced some of her most remarkable work as recently as the Sixties and Seventies, is a chastening thing.”

    And yeah, same could be said of White…

    March 4, 2011
  8. I don’t of course object to ye olde novels by ye olde modernists on principle (I likes me some modernists). I just feel that I’m allowed to choose my own canon, particularly since I never studied Australian literature formally.

    March 5, 2011
  9. bluerose #

    Monumental and syncretic. White finished working just as Aust. society began to splinter as so much of Anglophone society has. The right-wing revolutions of the last 40 years began in Oz…

    March 10, 2011

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