Saturday, January 05, 2013

Flowers in the Desert: Patrick White at 100

By   on The Millions , December 28, 2012 3

coverA hundred years after his birth, Patrick White (1912-1990) remains Australia’s only Nobel laureate for Literature (in 1973), but he’s as unknown to most readers as his name is nondescript. Though it rightly inducted him into the company of Faulkner, Hemingway, Beckett, and Bellow, White’s Nobel has done little to ensure the longevity of the work that earned it.

The centenary of his birth has seen a stirring of renewed interest, including the publication of his unfinished final novel, The Hanging Garden, and a number of events and panel discussions (including a podcasted roundtable with contemporary Australian writers called “Is Patrick White Anti-Australian?”) but the fact remains that only a few of his thirteen novels, and none of his plays and story collections, are in print in the US.

Lauded by the Nobel committee for his “epic and psychological narrative art, which has introduced a new continent into literature,” White might best be described as a chronicler of the potential of the Australian imaginary. He was also a chronicler of weakness, shortcoming, and deformation, but always in pursuit of a solitary vision of the ultimate on the far side. If being a national figure requires a burden of accessibility, whereby the author’s voice sheds its idiosyncrasies to become the voice of a mass socio-historical experience in an objectively real place, his failure to achieve this status only proves the success of his actual project.

It’s hard to believe that his novels appeared contemporaneously with those of Gaddis, Coover, and Pynchon. Though he takes on the instability of identity in his own way (one of his characters plumbs her “self of selves”), it always resolves or collapses into inner unity, not into the pyrotechnic fragmentation of high postmodernism. His winding streams of consciousness and sudden perspectival leaps draw from the European Modernism of the early 20th century, and his belief in the mystic potential of nature and the supremacy of Art draws from the Romanticism of the early 19th, yet neither would have accommodated him.

As the 20th century finishes receding, we will have to interrogate its artistic legacies and decide which few to carry with us further into the 21st, rescuing them from the Flood that will wash the rest away. I think White should be among these few, but unpaired, able only to reproduce with himself inside the Ark. It’s right that he should be at large in time, reachable only by straining to get to where he is, ready for the discomfort of being alone with him there. To borrow a phrase from The Twyborn Affair, he is “the stranger of all time,” no more or less the voice of now than he was, or wanted to be.

Full essay here.

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