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 feels 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
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, but 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.
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.
‘Voss’ by Patrick White, first published in 1957, is listed in Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, where 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”.