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by Bamber Gascoigne

Patrick (Victor Martindale) White (1912-1990)


Australian novelist, short story writer, and playwright, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. Patrick White's international breakthrough novel was Voss (1957), a symbolic story of a doomed journey into the Australian desert. Riders in the Chariot (1961) was set in the imaginary Sydney suburban town, Sarsaparilla, White's Yoknapatawpha. These works established him as one of the most important modern writers. In his own country White had to wait a long time before his unadorning picture of the Australian middle class was accepted.

"I would like to believe in the myth that we grow wiser with age. In a sense my disbelief is wisdom. Those of a middle generation, if charitable or sentimental, subscribe to the wisdom myth, while the callous see us as dispensable objects, like broken furniture or dead flowers. For the young we scarcely exist unless we are unavoidable members of the same family, farting, slobbering, perpetually mislaying teeth and bifocals." (from Three Uneasy Pieces by Patrick White, 1987)

Patrick Victor Martindale White was born in Knightsbridge, London of Australian parents. The early years of his life White spend in Australia, where his father, Victor Martindale, owned a large sheep farm. Victor – known to everyone as Dick – was one of four brothers in parthership at Belltrees on the upper reaches of the Hunter River. At forty-three he married his cousin Ruth Withycombe, who enjoyed living in the Sydney instead of the bush.

Already in his childhood, White showed interest in writing, and at the age of nine his first piece, written under the pseudonym 'Red Admiral', was published in the children's page of the Sydney Sunday Times. In 1925, he was sent to an English public school, Cheltenham College, an experience which he hated and referred to it as a 'four-year prison sentence'.

After returning to Australia, he worked for two years as a jackaroo on a remote sheep station. To relieve his boredom, White wrote novels. From 1932 to 1935 White studied French and German literature at King's College, Cambridge. In 1935 White received his B.A. and settled in London, where he contributed poems to the London Mercury. His first published novel, the modernist Happy Valley (1939), set in New South Wales, won the Australian Literature Sociaty's gold medal. It was followed by The Living and the Dead (1941), set in pre-war London.

At the end of the 1930s, White spent some time in America. During World War II White served in Royal Air Force Intelligence in Greece and The Middle East. "Superficially my war was a comfortable exercise in futility carried out in a grand Scottish hotel amongst the bridge players and swillers of easy-come-by whisky," White recalled in Three Uneasy Pieces (1987). "My chest got me out of active service and into guilt, as I wrote two, or is it three of the novels for which I am now acclaimed." After the war, White settled in Australia with a Greek friend, Manoly Lascaris. They bought an old house in Castle Hill, a suburb of Sydney. Before moving White burned most of the papers in his and Lascaris' custody. For the next eighteen years they lived a farmers life, selling flowers, vegetables, milk, and cream. White made Lascaris to promise that all the remaining drafts of writing and letters would be destroyed after the death of the author. "The final versions of my books are what I want people to see and if there is anything of importance in me, it will be in those," he said in a letter to the Director-General of the National Library of Australia.

Write first important work, The Aunt's Story (1948), was a comic account of the travels of a spinster, Theodora Goodman, caught between two cultures of Britania and Australia. The Tree of Man (1955) was first published in the United States and subsequently in England. When White started to work with the novel he doubted whether he should write another word after his books were ignored in Australia. However, this novel immediately established White's reputation as a major writer and was compared to Thomas Hardy, Leo Tolstoy, and D.H. Lawrence. The Tree of Man was a family saga, which focused on ordinary people at the beginning of the 20th century. The protagonist, Stan and Amy, in searching for value in life establish a family and farm in the Australian wilderness, have children and grandchildren, but the land is eventually engulfed by suburb.

The epic theme was continued in Voss, which returns to the colorful Australian past, but from an outsider's perspective. White depicts the doomed attempt of a Nietzschean German visionary, Johann Ulrich Voss, to lead an expedition across the continent in 1845. Voss has a mystic communion with Laura Trevelyan, who lives in Sydney, and shares his fever until his death by decapitulation. The story was suggested by the true record of the German explorer Ludwig Leichardt, who led a mission into the then-unexplored wilderness of the Australian interior and died in the desert in 1848. Voss is a typical character in White's stories, which often dealt with misfits or eccentrics, people somehow separated from the society. As a megalomaniac conqueror, a self-made god or devil, he much resembeles Aguirre, portrayed by Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog's film from 1972. "Two of the greatest difficulties have been to try to make an unpleasant, mad, basically unattractive hero, sufficiently attractive," White explained in a letter, "and to show how a heroine with a strong strain of priggnishness can at the same time appeal."

Various attempts were made to adapt Voss to the screen, among others Harry M. Miller, Joseph Losey, David Mercer and Maximilian Schell were involved in negotiations about a possible film version. When White met Losey in Sydney in 1974, he discoverd that they had much in common: asthma, theatre, love of dogs, etc. The film projects never materialized but what was realized was the opera Voss (1986), composed by Richard Meale. David Malouf wrote the libretto.

In Riders in the Chariot White had several outcasts - a Jewish refugee scholar, a half-caste painter, a spinster, and a washerwoman, Ruth Godbold, who finds a mystic feeling of togetherness with her living friends and the dead ones. The novel was the first set in Sarsaparilla. During 1960s White published several books or plays depicting the town, among them The Burnt Ones (1964), a collection of short stories, and the play The Season at Sarsaparilla (1962). The Solid Mandala (1966) was influenced by thoughts of Carl Jung.

In his late years White became vocal on such issues as Aboriginal rights and protection of environment. He was a strong supporter of Gough Whitlam's Labour government of 1972 to 1975. After the novel The Twyborn Affair (1979), in which White explored depths of human psyche, he indicated that it was his last novel and that in the future he would write only for radio and the stage. But in 1986 he published another novel, Memoirs of Many in One 'by Alex Xenophon Demirjan Gray, edited by Patrick White'. In his frank self-portrait, Flaws in the Glass (1981), White depicted his life as a writer and a homosexual in Australian society. Homosexuality was a theme which he had not much dealt before. The book also contained a brief and revealing account of his allegedly 'ungracious' reception of the Nobel Prize. White, who guarded his privacy, did not attend the award ceremonies, but persuade his friend, the artist Sidney Nolan, to accept it in Stockholm on his behalf. After posting Flaws in the Glass to his publishers in London White began to work on The Hanging Garden (2012), about the effects of war on two children. He put the manuscript aside to finish another time but never returned to it again. 

In Three Uneasy Pieces White charted the progress of the wart, gave his views about old age and potato peeling, and examined our efforts to achieve aesthetic perfection. White died on September 30, 1990 in Sydney, after a long illness. Lascaris, who ignored directions to destroy White's papers, survived his partner by 13 years. Throughout his career as a writer, White had protected his own privacy. On his own instruction, the news of his death was made public only after the funeral had taken place. White destoyed much of his correspondence and he kept no copies of letters he had sent.

A selection of White's letters, edited by his trusted biographer David Marr, came out in 1994. It had turned out, that although White had urged his correspondents to burn the letters, only a few had done it. This collection chronicle the author's interest in Jewish culture after an early ignorant anti-Semitism, his idyllic wartime period in West Africa, his anti-royalism sparked by the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis, and his belief in the validity of homosexual unions.

For further reading: Partick White: A General Introduction by I. Björksten (1976); Patrick White's Fiction by Carolyn Jane Bliss (1986); Patrick White: Fiction and the Unconscious by David J. Tacey (1988); Dissociation and Wholeness in Patrick White's Fiction by Laurence Steven (1989); Vision and Style in Patrick White by Rodney Stenning Edgecombe (1989); Critical Essays on Patrick White, compiled by Peter Wolfe (1990); Patrick White: A Life by David Marr (1992); Patrick White and the Religious Imagination by Michael Giffin (1999); Patrick White and Alchemy by James Bulman-May (2001); Remembering Patrick White: Contemporary Critical Essays, ed. by Elizabeth McMahon and Brigitta Olubas (2010); Patrick White Within the Western Literary Tradition by John Beston (2010); Patrick White: Australia's Poet of Mythic Landscapes of the Soul: Man, Language, Autobiography by Ryszard W. Wolny (2013); Patrick White Beyond the Grave: New Critical Perspectives, edited by Ian Henderson and Anouk Lang (2015); Patrick White by Christos Tsiolkas (2018); Voss: an Australian Geographical and Literary Exploration: History and Travelling in the Fiction of Patrick White by Elena Ungari (2019)

Selected works:

  • The Ploughman, and Other Poems, 1935
  • Happy Valley: A Novel, 1939
  • The Living and the Dead, 1941
  • The Aunt's Story, 19487
  • The Tree of Man: A Novel, 1955
  • Voss: A Novel, 1957
    - Kohti mantereen sydäntä (suom. Jussi Nousiainen, 1977)
  • Riders in the Chariot, 1961
    - Ne jotka vaunuissa ajavat (suom. Laura Tala, 1967)
  • The Ham Funeral, 1961 (play)
    - TV film 1990, prod. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), cast: Tyler Coppin, Max Cullen, Maggie Kirkpatrick, Robyn Nevin, Kerry Walker
  • The Season at Sarsaparilla, 1962 (play)
  • A Cheery Soul, 1963 (play)
    - TV drama 1966, prod. British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), dir. Gilchrist Calder, adaptation by Jonquil Antony, cast: Hazel Hughes, Stephen MacDonald, Patricia Heneghan, Aubrey Richards, Barbara Lott, Jane Eccles
  • The Burnt Ones, 1964
  • Night on Bald Mountain, 1964 (play)
  • Four Plays, 1965
  • The Solid Mandala: A Novel, 1966
  • The Vivisector, 1970
  • The Eye of the Storm, 1973
    - Myrskyn silmä (suom. Jussi Nousiainen, 1974)
  • The Cockatoos: Shorter Novels and Stories, 1974
  • A Fringe of Leaves, 1976
  • Big Toys, 1977
    - TV film 1980, prod. Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) dir. by Chris Thomson, teleplay Patrick White
  • The Night the Prowler: Short Story and Screenplay, 1977
    - film 1979, prod. by Chariot Films, dir. by Jim Sharman, screenplay by Patrick White, starring Ruth Cracknell, John Frawley, Kerry Walker, John Derum, Maggie Kirkpatrick
  • The God in the Rafters, 1978
  • The Twyborn Affair, 1979
  • Signal Driver: a Morality Play for the Times, 1982
  • Flaws in the Glass: A Self-Portrait, 1981
  • Netherwood, 1983
  • Memoirs of Many in One, 1986 (by Alex Xenophon Demirjian Gray, edited by Patrick White)
  • Three Uneasy Pieces, 1987
  • Shepherd on the Rocks, 1987 (play)
  • A Sense of Integrity, 1988
  • Patrick White: Selected Writings, 1994 edited by Alan Lawson)
  • Patrick White: Letters, 1994 (edited by David Marr)
  • The Hanging Garden, 2012 (unfinished novel, with a note from David Marr)

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