1001 books, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Patrick White, Publisher, Read Along, Setting, Vintage

‘Voss’ by Patrick White

Voss by Patrick White
1994 edition
Fiction – paperback; Vintage Classics; 464 pages; 1994.

First published in 1957, Patrick White’s Voss went on to win the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award that same year. Some 15 years later White received the Nobel Prize for Literature, the only Australian to ever win the accolade, earning him a formidable presence in the Australian literary canon.

His reputation as a fine but difficult writer often puts people off trying his work (myself included), but every time I read a White novel (I’ve read four now, three of which are reviewed on my Patrick White page) I come away from the experience wondering what I was scared of. Yes, his books are hard work, and yes, the prose sometimes feel convoluted and old-fashioned. But he’s a terrific storyteller and everything about his work — his characters, his descriptions of people and places and atmospheres, his ability to capture people’s emotions and motivations and innermost thoughts — is masterful. You don’t just read a Patrick White novel, you become immersed in it.

The same could be said of Voss, the bulk of which I read in March as part of a Patrick White read along but then put aside (with just 30 pages to go) because work got in the way. I finished those last few pages on the weekend, which explains the long wait for a review I had planned to write two months ago.

An outback romance

Voss by Patrick White
2011 edition
Set in 19th century Australia, Voss charts the journey of a German naturalist, Johann Ulrich Voss, keen to explore inland Australia. It is largely based on the exploits of Ludwig Leichhardt, a legendary Prussian explorer, who disappeared in 1848 while midway through an ambitious expedition to cross the continent from east to west. To this day, no one quite knows what happened to him.

Voss not only tells the story of that fateful expedition, it also tells the (fictional) story of the woman he left behind. Laura Trevelyn is one of those Victorian women destined to be a spinster all her life. She’s plain and intelligent and doesn’t really fit in. No one much likes her, because she’s smart and outspoken at a time when women should be seen but not heard.

The pair meet through Laura’s uncle, who is the patron of the expedition, and while they do not form an immediate attraction, there is something about Voss that intrigues Laura. When he embarks on his adventure with a party of settlers, including a ticket of leave holder, and two aboriginal guides, the pair conduct a romance via correspondence. Later, they communicate via shared “visions” — with Voss in the outback and Laura in Sydney — which gives the novel an other-worldly feel that riffs on the theme of spiritual connection with the land.

Two stories in one

The story is composed of two intertwined narrative threads; one that charts Voss’s journey inland and the pitfalls he must address, including drought, floods, starvation and near mutiny by his party; and another that follows Laura’s life in Sydney, where she “adopts” the orphaned child of a servant and later succumbs to an almost deadly fever that renders her not quite sane.

Both threads are highly detailed, with little evading White’s forensic eye. This makes for dense text, the kind that is so rich and multi-layered it can occasionally feel impenetrable. But it’s worth persevering, for his prose glitters with jewels waiting to be unearthed and the descriptions of the landscape and the expedition’s deeds are gloriously astute and evocative.

Next morning, while the lamps of friendship hovered touchingly in the dew and darkness, and naked voices offered parting advice, the company began to move northward, with the intention of crossing New England. It was a good season, and the land continued remarkably green, or greyish-green, or blue-grey, the blue of smoke or distance. These were sparkling, jingling days, in which sleek horses, blundering cattle, even the sour-heeled mules had no immediate cause for regret. Men shouted to their mates, their voices whipping the blue air, or else were silent, smiling to themselves, dozing in their well-greased saddles under the yellow sun, as they rubbed forward in a body, over open country, or in Indian file, through the bush. At this stage they were still in love with one another. It could not have been otherwise in that radiance of light. The very stirrup-irons were singing of personal hopes.

Of course, when the expedition finds itself in trouble and Voss is no longer seen as an angel but a living, breathing devil, the novel moves into darker, more tormented territory. White is not afraid to plunge his characters into life or death situations and to test their mettle and moral character. This makes for heightened reading, but occasionally the narrative plods along, perhaps mirroring the expedition’s own dull slog towards a destination that seems impossible to reach.

I found myself enjoying Laura’s story more than Voss’s, but even her narrative sometimes got bogged down in extraneous detail.

A powerful novel

There’s a lot to say about this powerful novel. From its richly evocative language to its clever structure, it deals with so many dual themes — good versus evil, intellect versus emotion, spirituality versus reason, Europeans versus indigenous populations, the tamed land versus the outback — that I could never possibly cover them all here.

In Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die it is described as “both a love story and an adventure story, yet it is neither […] but the most striking feature of this novel is its discordance, its unnavigable strangeness”.

While I can’t say I loved Voss, reading it was a fascinating experience. I devoured most of its 400-plus pages on a weekend getaway to the coast, including the 90 minute train ride there and back, because it’s the kind of novel you need to lose yourself in; you need to get to grips with the pacing, the characters and the dense prose style and you can’t do that if, like me, you usually read books in bursts of 30 minutes or so. I’m very glad I took the plunge to read it.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Patrick White, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Solid Mandala’ by Patrick White

SolidMandala 

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 316 pages; 1977.

In Jungian psychology a mandala is a symbol that represents the effort to reunify the self.

In Patrick White‘s novel twin brothers, Arthur and Waldo Brown, cannot seem to reconcile the fact that they once shared a womb, the two of them being so different in temperament and personality. And yet, there’s a strange kind of reliance on one another, especially in old age, when the two share a bed and often walk about town holding hands.

Even their lack-lustre love lives (neither of them get married) are remarkably similar, when, as teenagers, they both fall for Dulcie Feinstein and then, as adults, when they strike up a close friendship with their neighbour, Mrs Poulter.

But despite their differences and their tendency to secretly loathe one another, they cannot escape their lifelong familial bond. It is their ongoing struggle to find a balance between intimacy and independence that marks the lives of these two very different men.

Arthur, the older of the two, is good-natured, if a little simple, and is content with his lot in life, working as an assistant to Mr Allwright, the grocer. But Waldo, the bookish one who works in a library, has literary aspirations and thinks himself superior to most people but lacks the confidence to chase his dreams.

First published in 1966, The Solid Mandala is Patrick White’s seventh novel (he wrote 12 in total, along with two short story collections, a memoir and a bunch of plays) and is set in Sydney, Australia, in the early part of the 20th century.

The Browns are recently arrived immigrants from England and the twins are already marked out as different by the mere fact that the family refuses to go to church like every other good Australian citizen. This effectively sets a pattern for the rest of their lives, because neither Waldo or Arthur ever really fit in. Even as retired gentlemen their appearance on the street, walking their dogs and holding hands, causes a stir.

“I never saw two men walkin’ hand in hand,” Mrs Dun murmured.

“They are old.” Mrs Poulter sighed. “I expect it helps them. Twins too.”

“But two men!”

“For that matter I never saw two grown women going hand in hand.”

The Solid Mandala follows the day-to-day lives — from cradle to grave — of these seemingly unremarkable men. Both twins have a chapter each in which to narrate the story. This makes the relatively drab subject matter come alive by showing how alternative perspectives on the same events and incidences can be vastly different from one person to another and how those said perspectives are coloured by individual prejudices, personalities and beliefs.

Ruthless and brutal in places, the prose is also illuminated by White’s distinctive literary flourishes — the tendency to drop punctuation when he wants to convey a character’s excitement, for example — and wonderfully descriptive passages about Australian life and landscapes:

It was really the grass that had control at Sarsaparilla, deep and steaming masses of it, lolling yellow and enervated by the end of summer. As for the roads, with the exception of the highway, they almost all petered out, first in dust, then in paddock, with dollops of brown cow manure — or grey spinners — and the brittle spires of seeded thistles.

There is much grace and beauty here and plenty of laughs, but in places I felt overwhelmed by the sadness that effuses the story, the sense of loss and regret and the inability to escape the past and to truly grasp life by the horns. And the near-perfect ending, I have to say, came as somewhat of a shock, so much so it’s taken me a month to write this review, because I wanted to think about this book before I put pen to paper.

Ultimately, The Solid Mandala is a very human book about how two people living one life can grow apart but never grow away from each other. I very much enjoyed it.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Patrick White, Penguin, Publisher, Setting

‘The Vivisector’ by Patrick White

The_Vivisector

Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 617 pages; 1989.

First published in 1970, The Vivisector by Patrick White details the life of Hurtle Duffield, an Australian artist, from a four-year-old up until his death as an elderly man living as a recluse in Sydney with Rhoda, his hunch-backed step-sister.

A clever, all-knowing kind of boy, Hurtle shows early signs of creativity, drawing on walls and being attracted to old paintings and leather-bound books. His poverty-stricken parents — a laundry woman and a bottle collector — are convinced his intelligence mark him out as a genius and sell him to a wealthy family in the hope he will get the education he deserves.

Thanks to the nouveau-rich Courtneys he enjoys an oh-so comfortable lifestyle and gets to travel abroad.

But there is a part of Hurtle that cannot engage with people on any emotional level — perhaps because he sees himself as a loner that doesn’t fit in  — and as a young adult cuts himself off from his step-family, finding comfort in the life of a struggling artist.

Later, with the help of a mysterious benefactor, he becomes a comfortably rich artist, but he never seems to take any consolation in his success. In fact, he seems almost embarrassed by his accomplishments, as if it’s something shameful to hide away.

All the while he carries on a series of failed love affairs, using women as muses to inspire his painting.  He never invests much of himself into these relationships until, at the ripe old age of 55, he falls in love with a teenage girl — it is this Lolita-like relationship that serves to shape the rest of his creative life.

I read The Vivisector as part of the Patrick White Readers’ Group and enjoyed the stimulus of a reading schedule and regular discussions. The book deals with some big themes, including sex, art, identity, love and how difficult it can be to seek balance in our creative and personal lives.

Overall I found it surprisingly readable — perhaps because of its rather old-fashioned straightforward narrative — despite the fact the main character is highly sexed, not particularly likable and emotionally distant.

The early chapters feature some of the most moving and articulate descriptions of childhood that I have ever read, and for that reason alone The Vivisector is worth exploring.

But the momentum in these early chapters is not sustained throughout the rest of the book. Some of the chapters border on being too languid for their own good. This is not so much a reflection of the writing style, which is rich and evocative, but of the characters, which are tedious and boring, and the lack of any sustained plot.

Fortunately, the final chapters, which pick up the thread of Hurtle’s previous life, inject a bit more vigour into the storyline. I was truly sorry when I came to the last page as I had grown to love this old curmudgeonly character and his funny, crude ways.