Patrick White (1912-1990)

Long recognized internationally, Australian writer Patrick White was the first of his countrymen to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he received in 1973 "for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature," as the citation read. In addition, he won prestigious local awards, such as the Miles Franklin Prize and the Gold Medal of the Australian Society. His novels have inspired many translations and an opera; his plays have aroused heated controversy; and his short stories are featured in standard Australian anthologies. Yet, neither artistic fame nor his right by birth to a place in the pastoral elite of Australia could quiet a lifelong pessimism that constituted, as he acknowledged, a deep strain of "black in White." A caustic satirist as well as a bold visionary, he disclosed spiritual riches in the sun-scorched expanses of Australia but found wastelands in its opulent dining rooms, cluttered with festive roasts and self-congratulatory platitudes. 


Like many of his literary forebears, White shaped his work by a dual allegiance to the colony, Australia, and to the motherland, England. By World War I the White family formed an important pastoral dynasty located on the rich upper reaches of the Hunter River, north of Sydney. Belltrees, the family seat, was one pole of his youthful experience in Australia; the other was Lulworth, a mansion in eastern Sydney, overlooking Rushcutters Bay, where his father, Victor Martindale White, moved to satisfy his wife, Ruth Withycombe White, in 1916. At their marriage in 1910, the predominantly Anglo-Saxon population of Australia still referred to the United Kingdom as "home." Their son, Patrick Victor Martindale White, born in Knightsbridge, England, on 28 May 1912, later called himself "an anachronism, something left over from that period when people were no longer English and not yet indigenous." His sister, Suzanne, born in 1917 completed the family. Ruth White early had literary ambitions for her son, and, because of her deference to British culture, Patrick was sent to England as a boarder for four years at Cheltenham College, a public (that is, private) secondary school; the experience both drove the sensitive, sickly child in upon himself and helped shape his grim view of human nature. White's education was completed in the early 1930s by a prolonged period as a jackeroo, or trainee stockman-grazier, in outback New South Wales, followed by the study of modern languages at Cambridge University. This stage of his education was complemented by extended vacations in both Germany and France between 1932 and 1935, which improved his grasp of German, French, and the Romantic tradition. White, in later life, was categoric about the crucial impact of his early years. "I feel [that] more and more, as far as creative writing is concerned, everything important happens to one before one is born," he remarked disingenuously. To childhood he attributed an unequaled clarity of vision and added in his autobiography, Flaws in the Glass: A Self-Portrait (1981): "One thinks to escape, but doesn't, or not wholly: the fingerprints are taken early."

One means of escape was his early attraction to homosexuality. But even before this discovery, White felt himself a misfit as well as set apart by an unusually high ration of suffering. Severe asthma dogged him for forty years, unsettling his comfortable childhood with unpredictable attacks. A precocious child among happy, well-to-do sensualists, he imagined himself a changeling or cuckoo in the home nest, while his privileged upbringing left him feeling a colonial in England. But the effect of his sexual preference was more far-reaching. It made his existence seem deformed and a sham, though it later energized his art. He wrote all his life about misfits, eccentrics, and outcasts, and, like some of them, he felt himself a foreigner in his home country.

By the early 1930s he had written several unpublished, naturalistic novels as well as desultory verse, selections of which were published privately by his mother in Thirteen Poems (circa 1929) and The Ploughman and Other Poems (1935). Then in 1936 he fell under the spell of James Joyce 's Ulysses (1922), and his conversion to artistic modernism was clinched shortly afterward when he encountered Australian painter Roy de Maistre in London. De Maistre's abstract canvases taught White "to write from the inside out," or to make his central concern the changing theater of the individual mind. The expatriate de Maistre became White's lover, surrogate father, and artistic mentor, encouraging the young man's strong visual imagination and lifting him forever above the Victorian provincialism that dominated Australian art.

White believed, too, that homosexuality gave him special insight into the psyches and emotions of both sexes. An inestimable boon for a novelist, it enabled him to slip in and out of his male and female characters at will, recalling the Greek Tiresias who, according to legend, lived part of his existence as a woman, part as a man. He displaced the Western ideal of the unitary personality by the view of self as an amalgam of separate selves, as is evoked by the title of his autobiography, Flaws in the Glass, where his writing he calls predominantly intuitive, conceived and executed under his feminine aspect. But transgressing sexual norms also added to his sense of himself as deeply flawed. Identifying readily with have-nots, he recognized that there was much in common between casual, predatory homosexual coupling and prostitution--a point driven home during the London Blitz, when he "learned a lot about the whore's mentality, and . . . the whole tragi-comedy of sex."

World War II created a great caesura in his life and work. Before joining the Royal Air Force as an intelligence officer, White had led the life of a transatlantic intellectual. He was equally at home in London and New York, pursued his sexual predilection with Americans in brief affairs, and was encouraged in his vocation by excellent reviews of his initial work. Nevertheless, he fell prey to a sudden "fit of wretched patriotics." In 1941 a regulation uniform, a common enemy, and prescribed work in Egypt gave him a fleeting sense of belonging in his unit but without effacing his terrible sense of otherness: "I am fond of these people. . . . But am I entitled to it? It is like reaching over into a world to which you don't belong, from oil to water, or more opposed substances." The loss of comrades completed his shift from political apathy in the 1930s to a hatred of Adolf Hitler's war. He experienced its ravages through air attacks or as an official censor of service correspondence or, more cruelly, when required to search German corpses for military information. Egypt also afforded unexpected compensations. Although bemused by the "labelled dust" of Cairo's great archaeological museum, his heart went out to the "fierce landscape" nearby that cleansed the soul and could make him feel like "Adam walking through the Garden." The mate he chose was Greek in origin, Manoly Lascaris, whom he met in Alexandria. By 1946 the emotion he felt for Lascaris had extended to Greece. White, having learned Greek and spent a year in Athens, seriously considered settling there. Shrewdly, however, he decided in favor of Australia, memories of which had been stirred in him by barren, war-torn landscapes. These memories poured into the pages of his first postwar novel, The Aunt's Story (1948), the final section of which he completed onboard ship before he disembarked in Sydney in October 1946.

White's published fiction divides into four major phases. The apprenticeship period, during which he was avowedly "drunk on the techniques of writing" and sought a distinctive theme, ended with The Aunt's Story. This book summarized his experience of three continents and demonstrated his mastery of the modern psychological novel. But, like its predecessors Happy Valley (1939) and The Living and the Dead (1941), it lacks an overarching, sustaining vision. This vision emerged eight years later in The Tree of Man (1955), a novel that signaled the beginning of White's reexamination of Australian themes. The pioneering-farming tradition as subject matter yielded to exploration in Voss (1957), then to diverse forms of urban and suburban experience in Riders in the Chariot (1961) and The Burnt Ones (1964). Immensely ambitious, these books, according to "The Prodigal Son," were part of his program to reveal the limitations of the dominant realist tradition in Australian literature by discovering "the extraordinary behind the ordinary," as well as by creating "completely fresh forms out of the rocks and sticks of words."

This ambition resulted, however, in occasional overwriting or labored symbolism that called forth mixed reviews, most notably A. D. Hope 's notorious verdict in 1956 on The Tree of Man: "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 chose as his medium this pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge." White never forgot this insult. The great character portraits in The Solid Mandala (1966), The Vivisector (1970) and The Eye of the Storm (1973) followed. During his final phase he set his literary house in order, publishing a second collection of short stories in The Cockatoos: Shorter Novels and Stories (1974); his greatest novel, A Fringe of Leaves; and three extremely different fictional self-portraits--The Twyborn Affair (1979), Flaws in the Glass, and Memoirs of Many in One (1986). Never content with success and determined not to become "the waxwork so many successful Australians become," White strove for change as he tirelessly looked "for an unopened door, through which I can step and find myself rejuvenated."

His earliest published novels, Happy Valley and The Living and the Dead, were highly self-referential. The first is set in the high country near Cooma, where he had worked as a jackeroo; the second unfolds in London during the Spanish Civil War. Happy Valley is a generic country town--the more enlightened members of which long to escape--and the antipodal counterpoint to London in his next book. White's township is described as "unreal," and life there is likened to a hollow toy to be rattled; the suffering it inflicts on its inhabitants is caught in an epigraph from Mohandas Gandhi as "the indispensable condition of our being." Deprived of an informing metaphysical context, Gandhi's words teeter between nihilism and existentialism, as White's novel does. The blindness, barrenness, and futility of human existence are recurring motifs. The town is described in the novel as little more than "a peculiarly tenacious scab on the body of the brown earth," which itself is steeped in "an underlying bitterness that had been scored deep and deep by time." In this town a human being confronted by indifferent primordial forces has no option but "to beat" his "head against the wall, substituting wall for the intangible." This plight takes various forms. Mrs. Vic Moriarty chooses adultery with a hopeless cynic: "Killing a sheep, or time with Vic, was the same, a bleat." The young lovers, Oliver and Alys, decide to flee, only to have their escape cut short when they run over Ernest Moriarty, who has just slaughtered his faithless wife. Yet, in comparison to the resigned, comatose lives of his neighbors, Moriarty's angry if pointless end has a certain worth--"He has achieved something where we have failed"--or as the schoolteacher remarks, "Man hasn't much to say in the matter. I know. He's a feeble creature dictated to by whatever you like, we'll call it an irrational force. But he must offer some opposition to this if he's to keep his own respect."

These concerns recur in The Living and the Dead , together with White's bitter verdict on Britain. He found life in England thin and heartless, a "blathering through cardboard," with Londoners divided into the mentally aware minority and the terminally apathetic. Already, Happy Valley signaled the Australian's obsession with "so much time squandered in the face of the final issue" by characters such as the willfully blind Hilda, who "built herself a raft of superficialities and floated [it] down the stream." The Living and the Dead, which focuses on two generations of the Standish family, is peopled with Hilda's metropolitan counterparts. In response to the apparent lack of meaning of life they hide behind routines, exchanging one for the next. Catherine Standish, with her marriage shattered, builds a "protective cocoon inside the reduced body" of her marital home. The stockade of her son, Elyot, is made of literary studies--a sterile, shallow existence: "He had begun to arrange his life in numbered pages. He had rejected the irrational aspect of the cramped houses, the possibility of looking inward and finding a dark room." Nor does orthodox belief afford special insights, whether represented by idealistic Joe Barnett, who "was born with a faith in faith," or the more self-serving Catherine Standish: "Spiritually, she liked to believe, she managed to keep to the heights. A precious country, it was cheaply reached." Behind the trivial clutter of their daily lives, White suggests, there must be something more--though his characters, when faced with "a personal Spain . . . something destructive of the superfluous," retreat into still narrower orbits. The exception is Elyot's aptly named sister, Eden, whose departure for Spain from Victoria Station frames the main narrative, offering hope beyond stifling conformity.

The notion of opened and closed worlds is central also to The Aunt's Story , although in it White's emphasis falls on perception rather than action, or on the difference between introspection and a distracted life of mindless doing. Its subject is Theodora Goodman's journey to freedom. A spinster who has spent her prime caring for her mother, Theodora has always been awkward, set apart as much by her strange intuitions as by her unfeminine moustache. At the outset the reader is told not only that "old Mrs Goodman did die at last," but also that "Theodora had not yet learnt to dispute the apparently indisputable." Gradually, she learns that she must destroy what White terms "the great monster Self" to usher in a desirable state "which resembles . . . nothing more than air or water"--an absolute openness that society disclaims as madness. Remarkable empathy allows her access to the secret lives of people, objects, and animals, in which she perceives lessons relevant to her own condition. Travel as well as domesticity take on the force of self-encounters, a condition foreshadowed by the scrambling and overlapping of dream and wakefulness in her childhood: "She was walking in the passages of Meroë, a reflection walking through mirrors, toward the door which had always been more mirror than door, and at which she was now afraid to look."

She overcomes this fear in part 2, "Jardin Exotique." The title refers to small, sun-drenched collections of succulents grown in the south of France. It is a correlative for prickly Theodora and for existence in its opaque, forbidding aspect, whereas the promise of escape from this trap lies in a nautilus shell. As the section unfolds, characters become fluid and reality splinters, underlining how thin and permeable the membrane is that "separates experience from intuition." At crucial moments the membrane dissolves: "The nautilus flowered and flowed, as pervasive but evasive as experience. The walls of the Hotel du Midi almost opened out." Dissolution finally comes in fire, foreshadowing both catastrophic war in Europe and Theodora's attainment in part 3 of an emptiness that is also a fullness, a selflessness that also perfects and completes. The final section signals this shift with its initial portrait of her open hands and the trumpeting corn of the American Midwest destroying "the frailer human reed." In this section "the reasonable life," described as "admirable . . . though limited," is eclipsed by disintegration or a going out from the self to merge with, and hence possess, the world at large. Beneath her physical shell, Theodora has become endless and immense, so that even when her disorientation puts her in the hands of a kindly doctor, White's conclusion affirms obliquely her enduring enlightenment: "The hat sat straight, but the doubtful rose trembled and glittered, leading a life of its own."

Underlying her attainment of vision was a recoil from the reality known by most men and women. It was as if White, during the long hiatus that separated his second and third novels, had, like his character Mrs. Rapallo in The Aunt's Story, "stood so close to the making of history that I have been suffocated by the stink." The European lodgers at the Hotel du Midi are spiritually dysfunctional, rootless, and threatened by imminent conflagration. The Australians of part 1 fare no better. Theodora's brother-in-law, the pastoralist Frank Parrott, "was what they call a practical man, a success, but he had not survived"; her sister, Fanny, lapses into "the comfortable narratives of wives and mothers." But the powerful emotions aroused by actual war, as well as the exemplary affection of White's companion Lascaris, had already pointed the author in a different direction from them, which is indicated near the conclusion of The Aunt's Story, when Theodora becomes "a world of love and compassion that she had only vaguely apprehended."

Eight years separated the appearance of White's third and fourth novels, during which time he became reacquainted with the basic realities of Dogwoods, a six-acre property north of Sydney at Castle Hill, where he and Lascaris grew fruit and flowers, gathered farm produce, and bred goats as well as schnauzers. White also observed local characters whom he stored away for literary resurrection as inhabitants of Sarsaparilla. What he saw in contemporary Australia both drew and repelled him. Brought face to face again with his cocky countrymen, he longed, like the hero of The Twyborn Affair, for "the courage to stick a finger in the outraged navel and await reactions." Yet, in 1947 he also acknowledged a broadening cultural horizon to his publisher at Viking, Ben Huebsch: "The people are beginning to develop, and take an interest in books, and painting, and music, to an extent that surprises me. . . . One gets the impression that a great deal is about to happen." Incomprehension, however, could set him fulminating: "How sick I am of the bloody word AUSTRALIAN. What a pity I am part of it; if I were not, I would get out to-morrow." Nevertheless, he recognized that the country, unlike postwar Europe, offered people the basic necessities as well as "a reasonable expectation of justice," while the writer in him had to learn that "even the boredom and frustration presented avenues for endless exploration; even the ugliness, the bags and iron of Australian life, acquired a meaning."

Equally significant was White's return to faith in 1951. In Flaws in the Glass he described himself spiritually as "a lapsed Anglican egotist agnostic pantheist occultist existentialist would-be though failed Christian Australian." Noted here are stations of his progress, but not its culmination. The author of The Living and the Dead could attribute to Elyot Standish an utterly desolate view of existence: "Then it snapped. You heard the ping, ping, the glurg. You could pitch your voice, your whole soul, into the cone of darkness, to be bandied about, a ball of ineffectual down." Similarly, the war left White unable to "find any point, see any future, love my fellow men," and he confessed at the beginning of the 1950s to having gone "quite sour," as he began a novel provisionally titled "A Life Sentence on Earth." He had had, however, occasional inklings of uplift in barren countryside or isolated Greek monasteries. These places had fed his spiritual hunger, though fittingly his search terminated mundanely at Dogwoods. There, at the height of a storm, he fell heavily in the mud, spilling the slops he carried for the schnauzers as well as the curses stored up for decades against the perceived injustice of existence. Eventually, his blasphemy was staunched by an acute sense of his own ridiculousness, which, coupled with further inexplicable intimations, rekindled his faith. When Anglicanism proved irrelevant, he resolved "to evolve symbols of my own through which to worship," and these played an increasingly central role in his next creative phase.

His new novel, now titled The Tree of Man , proved a great labor to write after years of silence. In this work the stylistic sophistication and heightened aesthetic awareness of The Aunt's Story are radically reduced. In Theodora's realm, reality constantly threatens to yield up another dimension ("The garden was full of music. . . . The fuchsias trembled like detached notes waiting to bridge the gap between bars"). Stan and Amy Parker, White's pioneer couple, encounter an intensely stubborn landscape. Nevertheless, their struggle to establish a farm is imbued with archetypal resonance, so that it assumes aspects of a creation myth that White's publisher Huebsch immediately recognized: "your people might be out of the Scripture. All of life and all of nature are implicit in the tale." The tale reworks such standard scenes of frontier saga as flood and bushfire, and traces with immense sympathy the long marriage of the Parkers, charting its vicissitudes as well as the irreducible solitariness and mystery of each soul. The Parkers' son, Ray, dies a minor hoodlum; their socially ambitious daughter, Thelma, develops into a prototype of shallow suburban womankind, displaying the "nastiness" inherent "in the evolution of a synthetic soul." Her restlessness apparently derives from her mother's, which drives Amy into an arid affair with a traveling salesman. What elevates ordinary as well as stock events is the novelist's ability to make them portals to an enlarged awareness. Both flood and fire dislocate daily habits and perceptions, allowing individuals who are possessed of sufficient humility and courage to confront ultimate questions. For Stan this revelation first occurs at the height of a storm: "The lightning, which could have opened basalt, had, it seemed, the power to open souls . . . something like this had happened, the flesh had slipped from his bones, and a light was shining in his cavernous skull." Subsequent events confirm the power of apparent evil and the pain endemic to existence--each human face in White's world eventually having "received the fist." Yet, this negative ledger is counterweighted by the lives of ordinary people such as the Parkers and Quigleys, in whom loving warmth prevails despite human failings, and by White's newfound conviction that even the most trivial paths chosen are part of a greater plan. Eventually, Stan's death occurs in the "boundless garden" adjoining his property, and his regeneration is confirmed by the appearance of his young grandson, an aspiring poet, who is "putting out shoots of green thought. So that, in the end, there was no end."

This endorsement of a self-effacing simplicity was followed by a contrasting portrait of "the great monster Self" in Voss. Loosely based on the expeditions of Ludwig Leichhardt, Voss moved the explorer narrative into untrodden psychological and metaphysical regions. Its characters, like those in many of White's subsequent works, divide into those who are content with accumulating material objects and those who long for something spiritually satisfying. The latter embrace figures as diverse as the saintly Palfreyman; the pragmatic Judd, seared in the furnaces of penal affliction; and Sanderson, who has transmuted self-mortification into pastoral success. The extremes are represented by the smug materialism of the Bonners and by Voss's intention to achieve the stature of deity; as he puts it in terms dismissive of the Bonners' passion for material possession, "in this disturbing country . . . it is possible more easily to discard the inessential and to attempt the infinite." The key to Voss's spiritual growth is Laura Trevelyan, his peer in pride and imagination. Laura decides to save him through her example and her love, and their subsequent ability to communicate telepathically over vast distances affirms the triumph of both the superrational and the German's emotional sensitivity over his all-devouring will.

That the author had never experienced the harsh landscape through which the expedition treks, except in written accounts or paintings, matters little. His hostile terrain has the properties of all arid places; they are where mortification and spiritual reward may be reckoned with and where individuals can measure their own presumption against forces that surpass human energy and technology. The wilderness can also serve as a mirror of the individual soul. Laura calls Voss her desert, a metaphor for his alienation among "rocks of prejudice . . . even hatred," where "you will find your situation . . . exalted." With the distorting prism of selfhood removed, however, the desert becomes a place where "the world of semblance communicated with the world of dream." Finally, Voss, "truly humbled," realizes that he was never more than "a frail god upon a rickety throne" and dies in accordance with Aboriginal lore. Possession, like understanding, White suggests, comes through the toil and suffering of generations ("in failure, in perpetual struggle, in becoming"), as well as through expanded perception: "The blowfly on its bed of offal is but a variation of the rainbow. Common forms are continually breaking into brilliant shapes. If we will explore them."

White's visionary potential was celebrated four years later in his most ambitious novel, Riders in the Chariot. Described by him as "a cantata for four voices," it pits four social outcasts against Australian incomprehension and its hideous by-products. The reader is quickly warned about the first unlikely visionary, Miss Hare: "For a variety of reasons, very little of her secret, actual nature had been disclosed to other human beings." From the outset she has already achieved Voss's goal: the land "belonged to her, over and above actual rights." But whereas Voss strode forth proudly to possess it, she approaches her domain like a subhuman creature, tunneling her way through undergrowth on hands and knees, instinctively worshiping her surroundings and meekly accepting lacerations as the price of existence. Her fellow outcast-mystics are the fertile but slatternly Mrs. Godbold, who lives with her children in a shed; Mordecai Himmelfarb, a Jew who escaped the Nazi death camps; and Alf Dubbo, a syphilitic Aborigine with the spark of artistic greatness. Humility and an ability to witness Ezekiel's chariot in the here-and-now draw these four together in a calculated affront to Australian norms. Himmelfarb's life story provides one of the earliest dramatizations of anti-Semitic madness in Germany. A former professor of English literature and a part-time cabalist, he first loses his profession, then his wife and home, only to suffer his supreme indignity in Australia, "worse because it was imposed by man--or could it have been sent by God?"

White wrote Riders as if he wanted to explode local complacency once and for all. "I have never been one to sit and smile sweetly when there was an offending eye to spit in," he confessed, adding elsewhere, "There is so much that has offended me over the years, and now I must give expression to my feelings." Whereas he described the Parkers as "like characters out of my childhood" seen through "a glow of morning," he scorned their modern descendants as smug and superficial. They have elevated ordinariness into a secular religion and custom into a dictatorial mind set. Opposing Miss Hare's gifts for love and revelation are the "lethal performance" of Mrs. Jolley and Mrs. Flack, who, intolerant of difference, are bent on preserving their version of normality. Echoing their hate-filled voices is Shirl Rosetree, an overcompensating migrant and apostate Jewess proud of the solid respectability she and her factory-owner husband have achieved in Paradise East. The fourth grotesque in this earthbound group is Blue. He epitomizes blue-collar Aussie mateyness, reduced by White to a brainless physique with eyes that "filtered glimpses of an infinite squalor." Knowing instinctively that "all manner of cruelties" can be passed off as practical jokes, Blue focuses his fellow workers' distrust of the odd Jew and oversees Himmelfarb's gruesome crucifixion on a mutilated jacaranda outside their factory: "the majority were pacified by the prospect of becoming involved in some episode that would degrade them lower than they had known yet; the heights were not for them." White underscores the truth that Nazi Germany had no monopoly on barbarity. "There is always the beast lurking, who will come up, booted, bristling, his genitals bursting from the cloth which barely contains them"--unless the voice of the angry prophet is heard, together with his redemptive message.

White's concern with expanding the nationalist canon and revealing the hidden depths missed by local realist writers assumed diverse forms in The Burnt Ones. It signaled the importance of Greece in his life with four stories drawn from his own or Lascaris's experience there, while the title, as White explained to Huebsch, translated a common Greek "expression of formal pity. One realizes they aren't prepared to do anything about the objects of their pity because nothing can be done." These tales are significant precursors of later migrant literature, and Greek characters or settings appear in most of his novels. In general, the stories collected in this work and in The Cockatoos suffer from comparison with White's longer fiction. Characterization is more shallow, and the author's customary satire is often unleavened by a compensating perspective, though some stories dramatize the clash of antithetical approaches to life. For example, "Miss Slattery and her Demon Lover" juxtaposes European experience and sexual honesty. Similarly, "Down at the Dump" defies accepted standards by valorizing what conventional people scorn as trash. At the cemetery, which abuts the rubbish dump, the bottle-collecting Whalleys, exuding natural instinct, meet the stiff, conformist Hogbens. Also ignored locally is the spiritual dimension of life, which White insists on by conjuring up the deceased Daise Morrow beside her grave as the service intones clichés about "the risen dead." The love offered previously by this fallen woman makes her, as her name suggests, a focus of regeneration, while in the dump itself nature's "superior resilience" gradually subverts man-made waste.

The beginning of his next major creative period coincided with both White's last change of residence and a turn toward the theater. The death of his mother in 1963 released him from a problematic relationship and brought him the cash that eased a move to a large house in the eastern suburbs of his youth, opposite Centennial Park. His new home revived his youthful passion for the stage. Before the war he had written for the theater, and his play Return to Abyssinia enjoyed a brief season in London in 1947. Shortly afterward he wrote The Ham Funeral, which was resurrected in 1961 for the Adelaide Festival, only to be rejected at the last minute by the governors of the festival. This rejection launched White's career as a local dramatist, and in anger he began to write The Season at Sarsaparilla (performed, 1962; published, 1965). Six further plays by White were performed over the next decade and a half: A Cheery Soul (1963; published, 1965), Night on Bald Mountain (1964; published, 1965), Big Toys (1977; published 1978), Signal Driver (1982; published, 1983), Netherwood (1983), and Shepherd on the Rocks (1987).

Like his novels, his plays repudiate naturalistic conventions. Their characteristic themes and techniques emerge in The Ham Funeral. A self-consciously unsettling play, it opens with a warning to the audience from the Young Man: "I'm sorry to have to announce the management won't refund any money. You must simply sit it out, and see whether you can't recognize some of the forms that will squirm before you in this mad, muddy mass of eels." The ensuing action and set waver uneasily between naturalism and symbolism. The house and its inhabitants, it is occasionally suggested, are also aspects of the Young Man's psyche. Thus, the powerful stage presences of Will and Alma Lusty are later identified with compassion and passion, and the sequestered Girl is identified with his anima, as the landlord's death and funeral assume the dimensions of psychodrama. White's later plays are similarly adventurous, mixing temporal as well as mental states and drawing liberally on specifically theatrical resources. A recurring concern is the capacity of individuals to break out of ruts or through conventions for the sake of self-fulfillment. The cumulative verdict is pessimistic. Already Will Lusty remarks, "A man only 'as to bounce like a ball to know 'ow much of 'is will is free." Similarly, The Season at Sarsaparilla, which vividly portrays a cross section of contemporary suburbia, demonstrates that "there's practically no end to the variations on monotony," or on people's ability to procrastinate and compromise. Subsequent plays debunk do-gooders and idealists alike, showing humankind to be irrevocably flawed and the world to be equally destructive of love and high intentions. White's canvas of characters is predictably broad, encompassing all classes and including striking male and female leads. In no sense closet dramas, his plays were written for performance and were often rehearsed with his input. Yet, despite exploding the confines of realism and targeting current social abuses or deficiencies, they lacked the massive impact of the novels and left some people regretting this dissipation of his creative energies.

The first novel to benefit, arguably, from White's sortie into the theater was The Solid Mandala , which is dominated by the complementary narratives of two brothers, Arthur and Waldo Brown. Again White's subjects are unprepossessing figures that the world ignores, unless, as the narrator notes sardonically at the outset, "life took its cleaver to them." White wields the blade himself, first in his capacity as dissecting novelist, then when Waldo's corpse is ripped open at the neck by his starving dogs, much as his soul has been consumed lifelong by spite and loathing. Waldo is the first major narrator of the novel--belittling his brother, highlighting his own authorial aspirations, and trying to create a sanitized public persona. A self-obsessed intellectual living without love or friendship, Waldo is, the author conceded, "myself at my coldest and worst." This librarian is also warped by an unconfessed homosexuality and an unresolved mother-fixation. Both compulsions flare in a great, culminating scene when, prompted by compelling memories, he dons his mother's evening finery--momentarily becoming the drag queen he had been so savagely suppressing.

Waldo's version of events is then subsumed within Arthur's account of his own quest for insight and completion. This mentally simple narrator is another of White's unsuspected saints, a man who achieves without fanfare what Waldo can only imagine. The latter, for instance, is usually "too preoccupied to notice anyone beyond the outskirts of his mind" and works in jealous secrecy on his magnum opus, "Portrait of Tiresias as a Youngish Man." Arthur's empathy, in contrast, enables him to become the Protean Greek, to "retire behind his eyelids." Arthur is also the apostle of selfless love and of wholeness, embodied by the mandala. His preferred and suitably innocent, even childish, paradigm consists of four marbles. Each of these solid mandalas he assigns to an important person in his life, keeping one marble for himself and living to witness his rejection by Waldo, who thereby consigns himself to the torments of a lost soul. Overall, the novel at once affirms Christ's teachings and yet escapes conventional schemata. Waldo's behavior represents a profound "blasphemy against life" while Arthur's reveals God to those who can see.

With The Season at Sarsaparilla completed, White chose inner Sydney as the backdrop for The Vivisector , which affords both a portrait of the idiosyncratic painter Hurtle Duffield and an apologia for the author's lifework. Although he had known many artists, such as Francis Bacon and Sidney Nolan, White confessed that "The Vivisector is more about myself than any other of my unfortunate characters," and in it he explores the suffering, destructiveness, and exaltation that he associated with the artist's vocation. These traits already distinguished Alf Dubbo of Riders: "the furtive, destroying sickness, and almost as furtive, but regenerative, creative act." The Vivisector dramatizes this psychological profile. According to one of Hurtle's most perceptive correspondents, humans by their nature are afflicted, and creators more so because "through your art you can see further than us." Similarly, humans are cruel, but artists surpass them in brutality through a capacity for dispassionate analysis that links them with the Godhead, conceived of as the Divine Vivisector. Both God and painter wield the knife unsparingly, so that even Duffield's earliest work is called the product of a mentally deficient person "or some kind of criminal," much as he will be attacked for "the ugliness and cruelties" of his later canvases. Admittedly, outraged critics of White and Duffield had grounds for protest. The novelist acknowledged that vulgarity was a staple of his fiction, or, more accurately, what amounts to an obsession with the most sordid human functions. This belief assumes the proportions of an excremental vision in one of Hurtle's most notorious canvases, which rudely negates the notion of a benignly radiant Pantocrator by depicting "the moon in one of its destructive phases. . . . The innocent lovers are under attack. . . . The moon is shitting on them." The rottenness and "attempts at evil" of individuals, Duffield states, "are childlike besides the waves of enlightened evil proliferating from above."

The defense of such art is its honesty. The novelist described his earliest works as a groping toward truth. Decades later, in Flaws in the Glass, he asked, "Am I a destroyer? this face in the glass which has spent a lifetime searching for what it believes, but can never prove to be, the truth." The goals of Hurtle's mature art resemble those of the novelist. First, he wishes "to arrive at the truth"--that is, "to find some formal order behind a moment of chaos and unreason" that otherwise "would have been too horrible and terrifying." The second is to project intimations of an essentially inexpressible promise beyond the knife--to paint the unattainable indigo. A less peccant individual might draw back from this prideful endeavor. Arthur Brown, for example, was repeatedly silenced by the limitations of language, although he intuitively hit on actions that transcended them, whether in creating symbols of totality or in dancing the mandala, an effort that concluded triumphantly with "his mouth . . . a silent hole, because no sound was needed to explain." White, however, makes no claims to such imminence. But his shattering of syntax points beyond normal perceptions to a higher purpose as surely as did Duffield's inspiration declare itself as a series of broken brush strokes culminating in a blazing, inexplicable light.

The author as vivisector is much to the fore in White's next novel, The Eye of the Storm , which, despite its considerable length, is one of his most intense and concentrated works. It focuses on the last days of the eighty-six-year-old Elizabeth Hunter, evoking in detail her claustrophobic sickroom and the routines and thoughts of the female staff who sustain her decaying body, as well as the mental life of her children, Dorothy de Lascabanes and Sir Basil, both of whom have returned from overseas in the hope of grabbing their inheritance more quickly. As her mind deteriorates, so too does the present, revealing key moments in her past, while her home opposite Centennial Park evolves into a microcosm of human life, "its silence alive with clocks, suggestions of subterfuge, the blatant echoes of downright lies, together with hints of the exasperating, unknowable truth." Character in this novel rivals truth in its complexity. No longer do people split into absolute categories of the living and the dead, nor are responses always foreseeable. Unlike his earlier caricatures, no one in this work seems irremediably fallen. Rather, each person has the capacity to see "clearly right down to the root of the matter."

White's faith in language, though, had rarely been stronger, as his portrait of the octogenarian shows. Once a great beauty, Mrs. Hunter consists now only of cruelty and vanity, as "under the transparent skin, bones awaited distribution for the final game of jacks." Eventually, she suffers the ultimate indignity of dying on her commode, which Dorothy explains as a fitting end to her mother's worldliness: "could anything of a transcendental nature have illuminated a mind so sensual, mendacious, materialistic, superficial as Elizabeth Hunter's?" Dorothy is wrong; her mother is granted the clearest perception of pure being in the book, and in an equally unexpected twist, the reader is invited to contemplate the possibility that "for an instant Elizabeth Hunter's image radiated all the human virtues in an unmistakably celestial aura."

Elizabeth's cocooned existence is rent by news of her husband's cancer--"the charming filigree of her life had been hammered without warning into an ugly, patternless entanglement." Later she experiences directly an act of God in the form of a cyclone--a fury that harbors preternatural calm at its center: "the myth of her womanhood had been exploded" to be replaced by "this dream of glistening peace through which she moved." Occurring midway through the novel rather than at its end, this vision of a state of grace suggests the continual potential of time to reveal a "lustrous moment," or a pattern, in which cynics perceive nothing--a point clinched by Sister de Santis. The novel opens and closes with this person for whom service is a way of life. Her capacity for mundane epiphanies joins her to White's riders in the chariot, and at the end she is transfigured by a faith-confirming light, too solid and powerful to ward off.

The Nobel Prize in 1973 changed White's life and work. Up until then he had successfully avoided giving interviews or taking a public stand on issues of national importance, claiming that a writer said what he had to say in his works. International recognition, coupled with unprecedented local agitations, weakened this resolve, and he campaigned for issues as diverse as saving Fraser Island, reinstating the sacked Labor government, and stopping conscription for the war in Vietnam. Big Toys expressed his disgust with Sydney power brokers, and the same privileged clique also felt his wrath when he mounted the podium to denounce uranium mining. "Life in this piffling British colony," he stated, "has made me a republican and driven me always farther to the Left, till I am what the conservatives describe as a 'traitor to my class.'" Less publicly, he was a munificent benefactor. His prize money from Stockholm funded a grant for Australian writers. He gave generously to causes he favored, and he made liberal art bequests to the State Gallery of New South Wales.

Fraser Island also interested him as the setting for a novel that had long awaited completion, A Fringe of Leaves. Begun in 1961, its story of an Englishwoman's survival among Aborigines, after shipwreck off the Queensland coast, left him ample latitude to speculate on the impact of Australia on its white settlers and also on the kind of person who could have survived Eliza Fraser's ordeal. In the novel she starts out as a simple Cornish farm girl, Ellen Gulyas, close to nature but also with undefined aspirations represented by Tintagel, a nearby site, shrouded in myth, which she has never visited. Next comes induction into English social life through the Roxburgh brothers. Her sickly, pampered husband, Austin, provides her with a cultivated veneer, but he is ill equipped to deal with harsh realities. One aside reduces his expensive education to "a dust of dictionary words and useless knowledge"; another notes that for him death is a literary conceit. Unfulfilled passion propels Ellen into adultery with Austin's more robust brother, Garnet, who is "less her seducer than the instrument she had chosen for measuring depths she was tempted to explore." Later, this exploration gains speed when the overlay of white acculturation, together with her clothes, are violently stripped away by the indigenous people, in a variation on White's recurring call to put aside nonessentials. Adapting the rude and savage way of life of her Aboriginal captors becomes for Ellen a rite of passage to self-knowledge, during which she is saved by her tough Gulyas heritage. It also helps her question the laws of civilization, as when she inadvertently participates in cannibalism--described as a "sacrament" in a setting of "exquisite innocence." This scene nourishes "not only her animal body but some darker need of the hungry spirit," strengthening rather than diminishing her stature before she is led back to a white settlement by her lover and rescuer, the escaped convict Jack Chance. How these ordeals will affect her among so-called civilized beings is unclear. To her fellow settlers she appears enigmatic, as she does to herself: "Mrs Roxburgh could not have explained the reason for her being there, or whether she had served a purpose, ever." The novel ends tantalizingly with an implicit warning against the human predilection to "grasp at any circumstantial straw which may indicate an ordered universe."

From the mystery of Mrs. Roxburgh, White moved daringly to his own predicament in The Twyborn Affair. Although earlier novels had included sexually ambivalent figures, such as Elyot Standish or Waldo Brown, this work is his first overt, extended portrait of a gay male. Eddie Twyborn is forced to lead a sham existence that leaves him feeling that he is a "mistake trying to correct itself" or, more sweepingly, "the stranger of all time . . . the eternal deserter in search of asylum." The novel is divided into three sections that depict his various personae and the dilemmas they cause. In the first he masquerades as Eudoxia, young wife of the aging Greek Angelo Vatatzes on the Côte d'Azur. Their precarious idyll, however, constantly faces exposure by the prying heterosexual world, as well as by jealousy and the charged emotions that draw the two men together. It ends with Angelo's death and the impression their relationship conveys to outsiders of its depravity, which is focused by a squalid bathroom and a grotesquely large enema. Part 2 problematizes the cult of Australian masculinity. It opens with Eddie Twyborn, a decorated war hero, returning home, convinced that he has been "born without the requisites for grace." Working next as a jackeroo, he tries to come "to terms with his body . . . to live in accordance with appearances" in a milieu dominated by an aggressively masculine ethos. Sexual intercourse with the station-owner's wife, however, fails to establish his male identity. At the same time the supposedly unitary image of Australian masculinity begins to fragment. First, the conqueror of the land, Greg Lushington, is revealed on nearer acquaintance to have a gentle, wondering side. This frustrated poet periodically disappears overseas "to lose--or find himself." Next, the embodiment of "inviolable masculinity," his overseer, Don Prowse, displays homoerotic impulses. Though ostentatiously virile and tirelessly boasting of his conquests among the local women, Don returns drunk one night and has sex with Eddie.

The matter-of-fact statement, attributed to Marcia Lushington, "that one isn't the same person every hour of the week" has massive ramifications, which the novel explores. The possibility of ambivalent or multiple identity is thereby admitted, an occurrence that has the potential to destabilize not only relationships but also gender categories. It ultimately leaves Eddie/Eudoxia wondering "where civilization ended, and still more, where it began." In part 3, during his second extended disappearance from Sydney, he reemerges as Eadith Trist, madame of one of the most illustrious brothels of London. Much as twilight and the limbo between waking and dreaming are the states in which he/she feels "as much herself as a human being can afford to be," so her brothel carries forward the theater of seesawing lusts that has constituted Twyborn's life. The plot is further complicated by parallels between the colonial and the homosexual struggles for acceptance and self-understanding in the face of hostile norms. This theme unfolds against the backdrop of an impending European catastrophe that menaces individuals as well as society "with extinction by the seas of [the] black unreason on which it floated." Beyond the theatrical roles, mirrors, and fantasies that energize both the brothel and the world at large, Eadith/Eddie/ Eudoxia gropes toward final consummation through love. This time, however, the fulfillment is nonsexual. Initially, Eadith finds it with an aristocrat who, at her bidding, renounces physical coupling. His unselfish response is offered as convincing "proof" of love and, by sanguine extension, of its divine guarantor. Then, in a first in White's fiction, the protagonist is reconciled with his domineering mother. Is all ordained, including the bomb that finally cuts Twyborn down as he hastens to reconnect with his mother? And if so, to what end? The mother is left in a garden reminiscent of Stan Parker's, musing "Eadith Eddie no matter which this fragment of my self which I lost is now returned where it belongs," in the company of a quizzical bird, his beak raised "towards the sun."

Memoirs dominated White's last productive years--an autobiography followed five years later by Memoirs of Many in One, allegedly written by Alex Xenophon Demirjian Gray and edited by White. At first sight the two works seem unrelated, but they actually complement each other. The demand for information about the novelist had increased since he won the Nobel Prize and gained further public prominence, and White decided to preempt critics "anxious to put in the warts" by trying "to show where I think the real ones are." He also thought it was time to discuss his homosexuality, his forty-year bond with Lascaris, and the forces that had propelled his career "as truthfully and simply as I can." To Graham Greene he referred to Flaws in the Glass as "The Poof's Progress." Dignified, yet also lively and candid, the book provides an indispensable guide to his life and work--as well as a coherent picture of his development that does not do full justice to his sense of himself as shifting, fragmented, polyphonic. In later life White maintained that his important fictional characters were latent aspects of himself, and that he was "several people in one" with "only one life between them." These diverse personae find voice in his final novel, primarily through the imaginings of demented Alex, as well as through her family and friends. Included here is her future editor, Patrick White--arthritic, crotchety, and "too piss-elegant by half," who shares more than unlikely blue eyes with this Greek dowager. Her mind, like his, turns repeatedly to questions of sexuality, family relations, religion, and the theater, while to her is attributed his bawdiness and desire to scandalize. In her fantasies Alex, as a gate-crasher who suddenly morphs into an apocalyptic horsewoman, confronts diverse "dinosaurs of disaster," or, as an inmate of the psychiatric hospital Bonkers Hill, has her face smeared with her own excrement. Archives, as Alex asserts, "are only half the truth." The other half is provided by this coda that enables the author to reflect on the creative process, the vagaries of identity, and the public figure he has become.

White, as he once acknowledged, "had the wrong chemistry for happiness." Cynical, homosexual, and unforgiving, to the end he fired off barbs against a world in which he never felt at home. Being gay roused in him a self-loathing he never quite shed. But he also credited his homosexuality with sharpening his mind, teaching him the value of gentleness, and awakening in him a sympathy for other outsiders, such as Aborigines, immigrants, and the disabled.

Moreover, being gay attuned him to the value of the irrational and the painful, one of the most shocking aspects of his art. White faulted Christianity for downgrading the sordid and the shocking. His biographer David Marr notes that Voss features "an unpleasant, mad, basically unattractive hero." The religious fervor Voss injects into his trek across Australia turns this stretch of dry, rocky terrain into the Promised Land. The Vivisector teems with viscous matter; only by accepting it does Hurtle Duffield become an artist and experience rebirth into an eternity. Elizabeth Hunter's toilet-seat death in The Eye of the Storm calls forth the beautiful rose growing out of a manure pile and, along with it, the mystery of unity that redeems all of creation.

The daytime logic that invokes moral judgments casts little light on White. He flirted with fascism in the 1930s because a lover was one of General Francisco Franco's aides. Vain, priggish, and cruel, he held grudges for years. He would accuse his detractors of ignorance, malice, and collusion. Nor did his friends escape his wrath. Though he enjoyed cooking and hosting dinner parties, he would sometimes insult his guests so brutally that they would leave the table midmeal. Marr quotes White as calling himself "a failure as a human being."

Was White too harsh on himself? He did cast off friends, sometimes coldly and abruptly. But his capacity for self-renewal included bonding. In the 1970s, when his interest in the stage revived, he befriended a host of actors, directors, and stage designers, believing that, despite a forty-year age gap in most cases, they understood him better than his contemporaries did.

His last years drew him increasingly into the public sphere, but without affecting his convictions or beliefs. Besides using his $80,000 Nobel Prize money to lend a hand to struggling Australian writers, he also helped feed and clothe Sydney's poor and contributed to Aboriginal causes. Although he refused to campaign for gay rights, he marched through Sydney's rain in 1982 to speak to some thirty thousand people on the need for nuclear disarmament. He addressed the same subject in Melbourne in 1988; then, despite being afflicted by age, osteoporosis, and his lifelong battle with asthma, he stood at his lectern signing copies of his books for another half hour.

Such kindliness points to an important issue--that of serving others with dignity and grace. White's life clamored with noise--the gunfire of World War II, in which he served in the RAF; the yearlong celebration of Australia's Bicentennial in 1988, which he hated; and the snarling rages he flew into at home. At the center of this furor stood Lascaris, "that small Greek of immense moral strength" who shared White's life for forty-seven years. Lascaris's patience, humility, and quiet simplicity brought him much closer to White's ideal of selflessness than White ever came himself. Without his nurture and support, White could not have written his books, and he knew it.

Patrick White died after a long illness on 30 September 1990. Fiercely private and independent, he asked for his ashes to be scattered in Centennial Park, which he hoped to protect as a revenant. Similarly, his novels continue to haunt Australian intellectual life, to shock, inspire, and tantalize, reflecting and fulfilling his and Alex's credo that "words are what matter. Even when they don't communicate . . . Somebody may understand in time."


From: Ackland, Michael, and Peter Wolfe. "Patrick White." Nobel Prize Laureates in Literature, Part 4, Gale, 2007. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 332. 


  • Further Reading


    • Alan Lawson, Patrick White (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1974).
    • William J. Scheick, "A Bibliography of Writings about Patrick White, 1972-1978," Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 21 (1979): 296-303.



    • David Marr, Patrick White: A Life (Milsons Point, N.S.W.: Random House Australia, 1991; London: Cape, 1991; New York: Knopf, 1991).



    • May-Brit Akerhold, Patrick White (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1988).
    • Peter Beatson, The Eye in the Mandala: Patrick White: A Vision of Man and God (London: Elek, 1976).
    • Carolyn Bliss, Patrick White's Fiction: The Paradox of the Fortunate Fall (London: Macmillan, 1986).
    • Simon During, Patrick White (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1996).
    • Rodney S. Edgecombe, Vision and Style in Patrick White: A Study of Five Novels (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1989).
    • Martin Gray, ed., Patrick White: Life and Writings: Five Essays (Stirling, Scotland: Centre for Commonwealth Studies, University of Stirling, 1991).
    • Brian Kiernan, Patrick White (London: Macmillan, 1980).
    • A. M. McCulloch, A Tragic Vision: The Novels of Patrick White (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1983).
    • David J. Tacey, Patrick White: Fiction and the Unconscious (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1988).
    • John A. Weigel, Patrick White (Boston: Twayne, 1983).
    • G. A. Wilkes, ed., Ten Essays on Patrick White: Selections from Southerly (1964-67) (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1970).
    • Mark Williams, Patrick White (London: Macmillan, 1993).
    • Peter Wolfe, ed., Critical Essays on Patrick White (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990).
    • Wolfe, Laden Choirs: The Fiction of Patrick White (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1983).