Patrick White: a Life
Cape, London, 1991, $49.95
In future each issue will contain at least one review of an important book published outside New Zealand. Here A F Bellette reviews the first biography of Australia’s perhaps greatest and certainly most controversial literary figure.
Patrick White died in late 1990 at the age of 78. For a long time he had been both the enfant terrible and the Grand Old Man of Australian literature. The dual role suited him. He could indulge his taste for outrage and insult and at the same time claim to be the defender of old values. Personal relationships were for the most part disastrous. Australia itself assumed for him a malevolent identity: a ‘hateful place’, a ‘piddling colony’ ‑ but the only place he really knew, and he never seriously considered living anywhere else. Like D H Lawrence before him, White engaged in a lifelong acrimonious argument with a society he could neither forgive nor ignore. His art not only proceeded from but depended on this and the energies it released. A fundamentally religious quest for ultimate meaning underlies White’s work, but along with it is the no less compelling need to fling literary success in the faces of his many enemies and detractors.
David Marr’s acclaimed biography stresses throughout the conflicting elements in White’s personality as it is variously interpreted by a gallery of fascinated and sometimes appalled observers. White himself was such a gallery, and seemed to recognise in himself no single personality, but a series of roles played out in private and public. He was ‘cast, director and audience in this little theatre of the mind’. Theatre is the dominant metaphor in the book. White’s plays, unfamiliar to most of his readers, receive much attention. On the evidence presented here, he was more at home in the theatre than in any more purely literary context.
The biography took six years to write. White died very shortly after its completion (which might account for the relative brevity of its concluding chapters). Given the nature of its subject it could not have been an easy task. White seems to have accepted that it needed to be written while he was still around. What difficulties he placed in his biographer’s way can only be guessed at, but in the end he did not ask for any changes. The tone of the book is far from adulatory: while always respectful towards White it has its own acerbities. And it is often very funny in an understated, slightly throwaway manner, hinting at a certain collusion. It is a remarkable and moving account of the life of a great writer. But without detracting from the achievement one could wish it were more than that.
Marr offers no assessment of White as a writer. Where he stands in Australian and world literature, why he won the Nobel Prize, what his work might be said to signify beyond the raw material of his own experience, are issues not addressed. The decision not to evaluate or interpret the works was obviously a deliberate one, though it is not alluded to. Perhaps White with his known dislike of interpreters insisted on it. But White says of his life at one stage that ‘it is not the least bit spectacular: it is humdrum. I expect that is one of the reasons I write novels’. Literary biographies must come to terms with this: whether spectacular or humdrum, the novelist’s life has already been taken over by the book and thus evaluated as literature. The process by which this occurs may be mysterious, inaccessible, or in White’s case painful and seen even as an affliction, but it happened, and it is only because it did that the present book came to be written.
Marr, of course, has read the novels with care. And he parallels them with the life in a way which cannot be described as satisfactory. Here is an example from early in the book: ‘The fleshy, spiked bunya bunya pine stood at the elbow of the gravel drive. One day the tiresome Mr Voss stood beside that tree to interrupt the Bonners on their way to a picnic. The fallen spikes, lying neglected on the gravel, caught Harry Courtney’s eye as he drove Hurtle Duffield to the door. Aunt Theo, who came out with the most surprising remarks, liked to joke that she had left her breath under the bunya bunya. The tree was Paddy White’s protector’.
By this pastiche is Marr implying that art and life are one, or that the life is the text and there is nothing outside it, or that traditional literary criticism effects separations that the biographer must repair? The insistence with which Marr, on almost every page, matches up people, objects and incidents with their fictional counterparts would seem to indicate some programme, some critical stance, but none is ever advanced. And since the novels, stories and plays are only described in terms of the briefest plot summaries, we can never come to any understanding of White’s literary purposes. It might have been better to have left them out altogether.
The problem announces itself in other ways. To readers of the biography who are familiar with the novels (and familiarity is assumed, since in passages like the one quoted no identifications of characters or contexts are made) the invited comparisons often work adversely, at the expense of the life. The religious and visionary dimension of White’s fiction is a fact upon which much critical attention has rightly been focused. As an aspect of his own personal experience, it is here rendered unconvincingly, and described in the terms of vague cliché. Patrick White’s religious conversion and Stan Parker’s in The Tree of Man are not comparable, for reasons that have more to do with the ‘shaping power of the imagination’ than with the authenticity or otherwise of the actual experience. Likewise, the world of gossip, anger and vituperation, however necessary and invigorating, within which so much of this book necessarily locates itself, can be justified, in the religious sense of the word, only by its transformation into art. By cutting off at the point at which that transformation occurs, the last and most important dimension of the life is lost, and a good biography is denied the opportunity of becoming a great one.
A F Bellette is senior lecturer in the History of Art at Victoria University of Wellington.