peteg's blog - noise - books - 2017 03 24 PatrickWhite Voss

Patrick White: Voss.

/noise/books | Link

Jacob remarked a long time back that I was pretentious enough to try to read this. Finally feeling up to it, I rejoined the Randwick City Library, which seemed to be only local library with a (dead tree) copy of what I'd imagined to be White's masterwork, just before I rejoined the workforce. Strangely the library allows anyone (really anyone?) to join, resident or not, who fronts their counter with sufficient proof of address.

Where do I start. It's hard to say what this book is, or if we're supposed to enjoy it. White apparently based the character Voss on the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, and lazily omitted a map or sufficient geographical cues for us readers to figure out where the party got to. (Very roughly they start around Newcastle and head northwest through the Downs towards Darwin-ish. How far they get is anyone's guess.) The two-track structure exhibits the set pieces of 1840s Sydney society in undercooked connexion with the expedition via Voss's entanglement with Laura Trevelyan, who White is clearly fascinated by. The characters are deeply drawn here (in striking contrast to Mohsin Hamid's deliberate genericity), so much so that action is almost purely symbolic. White makes very effective use of all of them in combination, exploring and probing with shifting viewpoints that teach us much through powerful dialogue. It is the central strength of this work. I was a bit put out by his drawing of Mrs Bonner however, for he seems to reflect his disdain for the shallowness of people like her (such as he imagines) with shallow art. Le Mesurier was a cypher to me, and ultimately was little more than a punchline for how crazy one can go in the Australian bush. Belle Bonner becomes intriguingly egalitarian; I wish he'd made more of that.

At times the sentential structure seems aimed to befuddle a formal logical reading, almost as if White was challenging the symbol pushers of his day to represent his work. I found it occasionally fun to try to figure out what was being denoted, but it's a game that is tiring at novel length. Voss acquires a wife by tense (p261), in conversation with Palfreyman, which I guess is an antecedent to Charles Yu's device. What fun, having Aborigines corroborate (p287). I think White believes that goats are the most rational of all animals; did I get that right? It had me more nonplussed than Douglas Adams with his famous championing of dolphins. For a while I believed White to be antipathetic to felines, but later I realised that "knowing the cat" involved a bare back, leather, and sadism.

So, is there anything for us to learn from a 1950s take on events from a century prior to that? I mean, as a/the great work of Australian literature, Voss is resolutely backward looking: it provides absolutely no guide to the future, to what might be possible once the country has been explored and subjugated. This conundrum has beaten all Australian minds, great and small; there has been no vision since Howard built a petite bourgeoisie on the back of Keating's economic rationalism. Unlike Hardy's fabulous Jude the Obscure, I don't feel that White's characters suffer timelessly. They burnt bright, and are now burnt out. Is it unfair to characterize this novel as a failure of a Kurtz to reach his heart of darkness? Or a variant of the timeless Wuthering Heights stripped of hope? In any case, often in spite of myself, I did get right into it: Voss the man, wedged between the competing traditions of German idealism and German pragmatism, is so perfectly contrary and fatal.

I later read A. D. Hope's infamous review of White's The Tree of Man at the Fisher Research Library (included in Critical essays on Patrick White compiled by Peter Wolfe). It's not so bad; the "illiterate sludge" charge is the final phrase of the piece and the rest fairly evaluates the author's strengths and weaknesses. I'm glad Voss wasn't written in that experimental style; perhaps this is the later "very formidable prose style which [AD Hope] can enjoy very much."

The ABC had a series on White back in 2014 that adds some colour.