Great Books: ‘Voss’ by Patrick White

Inspired by the deserts of his homeland Australia, Patrick White mastered a unique and unsparing prose which continues to resonate with writers the world over.
Voss was Patrick White's magnum opus. Credit: Culture Club / Getty Images.
Voss was Patrick White's magnum opus. Credit: Culture Club / Getty Images.
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In June of 2019, a year before he died, I went and talked to the veteran publisher Tom Maschler about his favourite authors. At Jonathan Cape, Maschler had been responsible for introducing to British readers some of the best known writers of the post-war era, from Gabriel García Márquez to Jeffrey Archer (‘I discovered him believe it or not’), by way of Joseph Heller, Salman Rushdie, Bruce Chatwin, Ian McEwan and Julian Barnes. I was intrigued to know which out of all his authors had most impressed the 85-year-old.

Maschler thought for a moment. His favourite writer was García Márquez – ‘without question’. But the writer who had impressed him, whom he admired possibly ahead of the others that he had published, was the Australian novelist Patrick White. 

‘Whenever he finished a book, he wanted me alone to come out to Sydney, where he lived, and I would go to my hotel and read the manuscript and have dinner with him, and that became a ritual. But if you say to some young literary person ‘Patrick White’, they’ve not heard of him.’

Patrick White is one of the great novelists of the twentieth century, on a par, I would argue, with his fellow Nobel Laureates William Faulkner, Haldór Laxness and Thomas Mann; and yet, thirty years after his death, his name seems inexplicably lost in the immense desert spaces to which he introduced a new generation of readers, buried like one of those Roman legions of Herodotus, beneath the red Australian sand. 

I had heard of Patrick White long before I felt the temptation to read him. In Australia, where he is still impossible to avoid, he towers in his literary landscape like a colossal and solitary eucalypt, souring all beneath. Conversations with writers who had brushed against him conjured a prickly figure whose character sounded as difficult and exasperating as his prose, and for many years his gnarly reputation put me off. Yet even those who owed him no favours, like Tom Keneally, to whom White had not been especially supportive, had no doubt of his genius. ‘On his day,’ Keneally admitted, ‘White is better than Faulkner.’

‘I don’t think I could have survived without Patrick White,’ said one of White’s friends in Sydney, Joan Masterman, ‘because he wrote in a way no one else did about Australia. He was the first white author to express through his characters the huge connection the Australian bush has on one’s psyche.’

To the singer Van Morrison, in Ireland, White was one of the greatest influences on his life. He was the recipient of the only fan letter Salman Rushdie had written (after finishing Voss); as well as an impromptu speech from the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, for whom reading Voss was a searing experience. ‘It is like using an iron crow-bar at minus sixty-five degrees centigrade in Siberia: when you let go, part of the skin adheres to it. Part of me went to Voss and blood too.’

This was roughly my experience as well. When at last I overcame my resistance and picked up Voss and started to read, I found myself lost in a region different from any I had been capable of imagining hitherto; from which I was released with an uplifting sense that I was myself slightly altered – while, paradoxically, someone who understood themselves a fraction better. 

The critic James Stern has described the transformative impact of reading White like this: ‘Every human being has a secret life, one unknown to all but himself and which he takes with him to his grave. To reveal in a novel this life (which is that of the soul) in such a way that by the time the last page is reached all questions have been answered, while all the glory and mystery of the world remains, is not only the prime function of the novelist but the artist’s greatest ambition  – and surely his rarest achievement.’

Those who venture for the first time into White’s red desert are in for a bracing treat. He is not, in fact, particularly difficult or tricksy, like his peers Vladimir Nabokov or Samuel Beckett. His fiction is rooted in, and nourished by, the epic dramas of the great nineteenth/early twentieth-century authors, like Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence. But a ‘historical’ novel is the last thing Voss is. It is the work of a writer who is contemporary, exciting, heart-wrinkling, who understands women better than virtually any other male novelist I can think of, and who addresses universal themes in a prose that is entirely and compellingly his own. What White called ‘my peculiar style’ – ‘the fragmentation by which I convey reality’ – allowed him to get below the surface and weave about freely, in order ‘to create completely fresh forms out of the rocks and sticks of words’ – and to mould these words to achieve that ‘state of simplicity and humility’ which was, White believed, ‘the only desirable one for artist or for man.’

As with Laxness, to read Patrick White is to discover an extra taste bud. As with Faulkner, he plunges us into a dense, peaty world comparable to no other. But White has the ability, for the reader who stays with him, to penetrate one step further into their interior. Not many desert journeys are so rewarding. White’s imperative to fill Australia’s great emptiness – in the teeth of complete disinterest  – had the pioneering effect of introducing ‘a new continent into literature’, to quote from his Nobel citation. I’ve now reread what White called his ‘explorer novel’ five times. If there’s a single book I would recommend to restore our diminishing faith in the replenishing powers of fiction, it’s Voss.

Nicholas Shakespeare

Nicholas Shakespeare is award-winning author of several novels, biographies and works of non-fiction including 'Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister'.

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