On Patrick White

Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Christos Tsiolkas

This is the new element in White’s achievement: to trace for the first time, to be among the earliest to express, in the English language, the migrant’s story. 

The literary politics of the early twenty-first century make such a claim audacious, even scandalous – for isn’t White as white as his name? – but the truth is that White’s achievements, in the rush of writing that coincides with his return to Australia, transcend the bounds of identity. From 'The Aunt’s Story' onwards he will write as woman, as Aborigine, as Jew, as migrant, and always as outsider. What these transformations allow for readers, too, is the leap of faith that is the great gift of the novel form – the licence to imagine ourselves in completely different guises and genders and experiences. And for those of us who are writers, White’s work dares us to resurrect this capacity of the novel even as we are increasingly aware of how the novel’s emergence from within European history makes the universalism of such a claim now suspect. Here I think it is no accident that White is a colonial subject, Australian, not from the centre. I think what initiates this great audacity – this ability to imagine and speak in so many voices, from within so many experiences – is the pledging of his life to Manolis Lascaris, refracting his own experiences of exile and of being an outsider through those of his immigrant lover; and discovering, also through Lascaris, a spiritual language with which to communicate. 

I am trying to get at what it is in the man’s work that means so much to me, and why I believe White’s writing should not be consigned to literary history or confined to the twentieth century. I hope it is clear that I am not suggesting that White was merely translating what he learnt from Lascaris. The audacity, the wonder, comes from the new Australian language that White created to express this understanding. This daring, this verve, offers Australian writers a way of persisting to write outside ourselves and to commit to the novel, not only as a form of the past but also as a form of the present and for the future. And because White’s achievements exceed the categories of nationhood and geography – he is both a great Australian novelist and a great novelist period – his legacy is an inspiration for a novelist wherever she might find herself. 

Just the other month, I was corresponding with a writer friend from the Philippines who was struggling with the question of how to write a multi-character novel that could illuminate something of her country’s complex and tumultuous colonial history. I suggested she read White’s 'The Eye of the Storm'. She wrote back with enthusiasm and joy at having discovered a novel that could explicate a world – and make sense of our world – in the form of a chamber piece: how White can make history comprehensible out of the interconnections and violent disruptions of family life. Her email thrilled me. We don’t have to abandon the novel. There was something intimate in that thrill, the passing on of a love. Please, I urged her, please read 'The Tree of Man' next. 

Two people do not lose themselves at the identical moment, or else they might find each other, and be saved. It is not as simple as that. 
– 'The Tree of Man' 

The adamantly secular will scoff but there does seem to be something of the miraculous in 'The Tree of Man'. The critical third eye that is always present when I read, that clocks the not-quite-right word or the lazy sentence, the unnecessary exposition or lugubrious description even within the books I cherish, the books I adore and which I think are tremendous – that eye is of no use when I read 'The Tree of Man'. There are a handful of novels that have had this effect on me: Austen’s 'Pride and Prejudice', Tolstoy’s 'Anna Karenina', Woolf ’s 'The Waves', Tanizaki’s 'The Makioka Sisters', Ellison’s 'Invisible Man', Nabokov’s 'Lolita', Yourcenar’s 'Memoirs of Hadrian', Endo’s 'Scandal' and Rushdie’s 'Midnight’s Children'. (Even as I glance at this list I am all too aware that it doesn’t include the writers and the books that mean the most to me, novels that I love possibly more than the ones I have listed above: no Dostoevsky, no Conrad, no Stendhal, no Genet, no Mailer and no Céline.) 

The miracle of these perfect novels is that, from the opening sentence to the final word, the real world collapses and we are enfolded in a fictional reality that is stronger and more present than our material surroundings. The gift of being enraptured by such novels is that they continue to feed our desire as readers, to keep us hungrily reading, greedily searching for that experience once more. That the experience is so rare doesn’t invalidate or contaminate the reading we do when we are searching. We keep reading, even if we are often disappointed, because as maturing readers we realise that there are also pleasures to be found in those novels that don’t quite work. We still fall in love with novels and with writing, we are forgiving of imperfection, banality, pedestrian syntax. This is intrinsic to the erotics of reading. 

And also to the erotics of writing. In no way do I want to diminish the necessity of discipline and the labour of craft that is essential to the writing of a novel. I am suspicious of a romantic notion of literary genius. Writing is work. But once transfigured by reading a work such as 'The Tree of Man', by the realisation that it is beyond one’s calling to imagine and then write such a novel, you are not incapacitated as a writer. Rather, you are humbled, and your return to the desk is tempered by this understanding. You are grateful for the opportunity that life and circumstances have given you to engage in your labour. You are careful from then on, as I am now after reading 'The Tree of Man', to watch against self-regard, to fight against turpitude, and to accept but also confront your own limitations. Your approach from now on is that of the besotted, grateful and self-disciplined lover of literature. 

After 'The Tree of Man', this is how much I love Patrick White, as a reader and as a writer. And this is an Australian novel, this is an Australian book. It came from within our immature and too often inward-looking culture. That too feels a little miraculous. 

An edited extract. 'Christos Tsiolkas on Patrick White', is the third book in the 'Writers on Writers' series, published by Black Inc. ($17.99) in association with the University of Melbourne and State Library Victoria.