A major Australasian critic, Charles Ferrall

Patrick White
Mark Williams,
Macmillan, 1993, $45.95

During the early 1960s Patrick White wrote an admiring letter to Janet Frame; she replied 22 years later. The Tasman is often wider than it looks, but this belies some more direct correspondences between their lives and their fiction.

Both chose to leave London for countries about which they felt strongly ambivalent, both rejected what White called the “dreary, dun‑coloured” realism of 1950s Australasian writing; both were attracted by the possibility of exploring worlds barely mapped by the European imagination; and for both the effect of transplantation and displacement was to liberate them from what Williams calls the “remarkable homogeneity of voice ‑ a curious kind of decorum ‑ that characterised the postwar English novel”.

Williams believes that White, Frame and that other periphery dweller, Malcolm Lowry, are “perhaps the crucial, postwar novelists”. Whatever the validity of such a claim, it could be argued that these three writers were part of a centrifugal movement away from the European and American literary capitals, reversing the centripetal tenancies of Anglo‑American modernism. Eliot, Pound, Mansfield, Yeats, Stein, Lawrence and a good proportion of the 1930s writers were all drawn away from various cultural provinces towards London and Paris; many of their successors after the war left Europe, in the case of many non‑American writers with the intention of decolonialising their respective cultures.

White had published two novels before his return to Australia in 1947. The second of these, The Living and the Dead (1941), is in many ways rather conventional: its style is from the 1920s and its characters (who depart or watch others depart, of course, for Spain) from the 1930s. White later described himself as “paying lip-service to the fashionable radical views” and as writing in a “fashionable style” before the war. Williams’ assessment is that the main character of The Living and the Dead, Elyot Standish, is “Prufrock seen through the eyes of an historically-minded, politically conscience-stricken, late-thirties writer”. It’s no wonder that he left London!

White’s next novel, The Aunt’s Story, was begun in London and completed at Castle Hill, now a suburb of Sydney but then on the border of the city and the country. Although it is, in my view, White’s most innovative and strange fiction, The Aunt’s Story is not one of his more widely read novels. In it White returns to a pre‑war, rural Australia before, in Williams’ words, “the great splintering of modernity has entered its closed world”.

Such nostalgia is characteristic of what is now called high modernism: Yeats had his Byzantium, Pound wandered around Provence with the Troubadours; Eliot longed for a time before Milton and Cromwell; and Lawrence thought for a while he had found it in New Mexico. Where I think White deviates from these writers is in his considerably more ambivalent attitude towards “modernity”: like them he expresses the sense of a secular fall somewhere within the historical past but for him this is not entirely unfortunate. Or as Williams puts it in his brilliant discussion of White’s most important novel:

Voss is the epic of the broken modern world in which there can be no homecoming. It is also the epic of Australia, because Australia, for White, is both the ‘modern’ world ‑ fallen away from any contact with the transcendent, adrift, rootless, antithetical to the imagination ‑ and also a visionary realm of imaginative possibility associated with childhood and the earthly paradise. It is the unavoidable object of his restless, ambivalent gaze.

 

Thus White was able to more easily accommodate himself to modern liberal democracies than his predecessors from the 1920s. During the 1930s, according to David Marr’s biography, White had an affair with an aristocratic Spanish fascist but by the early 1970s he was publicly supporting the Whitlam Labour Government! And as Williams explains, the repugnance he felt towards suburbia was moderating well before then, notably in novels of the sixties such as The Solid Mandala.

But if the label of late‑modernist will not entirely stick to White, then neither will the more promiscuous one of postmodernist. For all his fabulation there is always at least the gesture towards something outside the text. In The Twyborn Affair, Eddie may reconstruct himself as Eadith Trist and the transvestite Eudoxia Vatatzes but if these three selves had nothing in common we would be reading three novellas, not a novel. The current critical orthodoxies which assert that the self/ subject is entirely constructed will need to read White against the grain since all his novels, at least according to Williams, “invoke” some “essence” or “presence”, albeit something which is always “elusive” or “disappear[ing]”.

Towards such categories as “modernism”, “realism” and “postmodernism” and “postcolonialism”, Williams is sensibly eclectic, arguing that they “can only be usefully applied to [White ‘s] work so long as we acknowledge that none of these tendencies has been allowed to dominate the others”. It is curious that the word “bullying” crops up quite often in this study, usually in reference to White’s often “cantankerous, querulous” authorial voice. Williams is in many ways a remarkably liberal critic and I suspect that for him this may be one of the worst crimes a novelist or a critic could commit.

Nevertheless, it is probably because of his genuinely tolerant pluralism that Williams is unable to explore fully certain critical avenues. For example, he argues that homosexuality in White’s texts, because it is associated with “disguise and ambivalence, becomes a kind of metaphor for artistry itself”. That is a reasonably interesting starting point, but Williams ventures no further, presumably because he is as reluctant to turn White into a “gay” novelist as any other kind. (Given some of the bitchy comments White has made about the gay community there’s very little chance of that.) There is some discussion of “Bogomilism” in The Twyborn Affair ‑ a form of Christian gnosticism so ascetic and manichaean that it enthusiastically advocated sodomy ‑ but only really enough to inform me that the word “bugger” may derive from a corruption of Bulgar or Bogomil.

Similarly, Williams’ generous defence of White’s often tortuous style tends to be tantalising rather than complete. He argues that we need to “recognise the deliberateness of White’s strategies, especially his use of romantic clichés”. It seems that nowadays just about anything can be defended on the grounds that it is a parody or a self‑parody. One can just imagine what A D Hope, who pronounced that The Tree of Man was “illiterate verbal sludge”, would rather unfairly make of that kind of argument.

Like his subject, Williams’ critical voice is, in usually productive ways, difficult to pin down. (Maybe this has something to do with the fact that he is a New Zealand academic with a Canadian PhD writing about Australian literature.) He is a critic who, in addition to his impressive command of the twentieth-century novel, is as comfortable with Leavis as he is with Lukács.

Unlike many critics today he is not afraid to make value judgments, yet his discussion of “modernism” and “modernity” is attuned to some of the most important issues of current critical interest. There are lapses: Williams describes The Living and The Dead as “a direct, passionate and morally serious rendering of lived actuality”, a sub‑Leavisite phrase which doesn’t really mean anything. But such lapses indicate, if anything, his willingness to consider even unfashionable critical positions.

This is not just an important study of Australia’s most celebrated novelist but a significant contribution to recent debates about post‑colonialism, post‑modernism and the introduction of modernism to Australia. Williams’ first book, an excellent study of six contemporary New Zealand novelists, was published only three years ago. At that rate he is well on the way to becoming a major critic of twentieth-century Australasian writing.

 

Charles Ferrall is a senior lecturer in English at Victoria University of Wellington.

 

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