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Picture of Australian novelist Patrick White

September 30, 1990
Patrick White   (1912 - 1990)
Patrick White, Down Under
by Steve King

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On this day in 1990 Patrick White died. White won the 1973 Nobel for having "introduced a new continent into literature," but he remains one of the 20th century's under-read giants, even in his native Australia. The neglect is due in part to the challenging writing -- the "profound and beautiful" Voss, the "difficult but immensely powerful" The Solid Mandala, the fictional Sydney suburb of Sarsaparilla which White made "as real as Faulkner made Yoknapatawpha County," say the critics. But the neglect is also due to the challenging man, as viewed through Australian eyes especially. Even the decorous Nobel Committee, though determined to remain polite to a man who refused to show up for their Prize, suggested that White's "outsider" characters -- "aliens, maladjusted or retarded people and quite often mystics and zealots" -- were akin to White himself, a man "full of contradictions," "exalted demands" and "emphatic denials." Recently, in an article praising Voss and appealing for more readers, countryman Thomas Keneally referred to White's "savagely alienated and provoked sensibility."

Although not his only topic, Australia -- or Australians, as his novels show a love for the land -- certainly got White going. When, in his mid-seventies, he described the 1988 Bicentennial as an invitation "to celebrate our emptiness in a great shower of bullshit," he was just being consistent:
    "In all directions stretched the Great Australian Emptiness, in which the mind is the least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which beautiful youths and girls stare at life through blind blue eyes, in which human teeth fall like autumn leaves, the buttocks of cars grow hourly glassier, food means cake and steak, muscles prevail, and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves."
Cartoon aside, the man and the country do seem a mismatch. White collected art, and wrote his books about complex, yearning individualists to classical music. He was homosexual, and something of a gourmet -- though a long way from effete, a longer way from a-pint-with-me-mates.

But it is hard to imagine White happy in any country. He was resigned not only to "my dreadful fate of being an Australian," but to the belief that "I had the wrong chemistry for happiness." Some of those invited to dinner at his hilltop home in Sydney describe the feeling of having stepped into Wuthering Heights, or being drawn into Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf conversations. He usually turned down the dressings and obligations of fame -- honorary doctorates, prizes, a knighthood, interviews. He accepted the Nobel, but kept an army of unrequited journalists camped on his lawn throughout the night, refusing to get up before his usual hour. When he quit the Order of Australia -- an "irrelevant bauble" from the "Land of High Farce – and sheep shit" -- he was commenting on himself as much as on his country: "You've got to have something to fight against; otherwise you'll die of bush ballads."

Nor is this the whole person. His frank autobiography, Flaws in the Glass, can be as hard on himself as on others. He took his 1979 novel, The Twyborn Affair, off the Booker shortlist because he thought younger writers should have a chance. He gave all his Nobel money, and a lot more besides, to causes, museums, literary awards, the poor of Sydney, the Aboriginal and Islander Dance Company. He marched and spoke up on issues from Nuclear Disarmament to Save-The-Park, and wrote open letters to world leaders: "Come on, cowboy!" to Ronald Reagan, and "I urge you to search your heart, Mrs. Thatcher, if one exists behind the pearls...." He told people to stop reading about him and read his books -- perhaps not starting with the highly-praised Voss: "It got in the hands of gushers, and I hate gush."

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