There is a widespread notion, especially it seems in England, that Patrick White is a novelist of the first order. His rise to prominence has been quite sudden; after three early novels had passed without notice, The Tree of Man (1952) was greeted as a major work, and comparisons with Lawrence, Faulkner, Melville and even Dostoevsky recurred in reviews. His next novel, Voss won a major literary award, and his latest, Riders in the Chariot, has received consistently favourable reviews. And now, by a curious retrospection, The Living and the Dead, first published in America in 1941, is being highly praised on its first publication here—though this is an unimpressive book, and certainly White’s weakest. This error in judgment, however, is symptomatic; for there is a disturbing vagueness behind the enthusiasm for White’s work and, I believe, a general failure to distinguish between his intention and his achievement.
The books certainly have a largeness of conception which sets them apart from most contemporary English novels, with their prudently limited studies of social behaviour. White is, if nothing else, a write on the grand scale; and—partly as a reaction to specifically Australian conditions—he has deliberately aimed high. Writing of The Tree of Man, he says:
“Because the void I had to fill was so immense, I wanted to try to suggest in this book every possible aspect of life, through the lives of an ordinary man and woman. But at the same time I wanted to discover the extraordinary behind the ordinary, the mystery and poetry which alone could make bearable the lives of such people, and incidentally, my own life since my return.”
The next novel, Voss, was written partly as a reply to what he feels is the typically Australian novel, “the dreary, dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism”. He tries instead to convey through the theme and characters of Voss “what Delacroix and Blake might have seen, what Mahler and Liszt might have heard”. Like his own character, Voss, he is apparently trying to “discard the inessential and attempt the infinite”, and he rejects the realm of social living as not only inessential, but as a distraction from the more permanent elements of
Clearly White is attempting major themes; but it is also clear that his books raise critical difficulties which reviewers tend to evade. They seem on the whole to accept his own conception of his work, and adjectives such as “visionary”, “metaphysical” and “poetic” recur frequently. Many critics evidently share White’s own sense of a gap between the different levels of reality—the “realistic” and the “poetic”—as well as his impatience with a good deal of contemporary writing. Various Australian writers, for instance, have pointed out that White has extended the range of Australian fiction “not only by his experiments with form and language . . . but by conceiving and acting out the drama of his characters in an imaginative world with one more dimension than novelists generally recognise as existing”. This claim is hardly clarified when the same writer goes on to describe the new “dimension” as “metaphysical, mythopoeic, religious”. English reviewers have found the same qualities. White—with Durrell, Pasternak and Nabokov—has been suggested as one of the alternatives to the unambitious novels of social realism: these writers are evidently practitioners of the “poetic” novel. Some have praised him for his experiments with language, without asking the obvious question: what exactly is he doing with language, and are his eccentricities a means of exploring areas of experience inaccessible to normal narrative techniques? A. Alvarez, although he sees the dangers of “hepped-up” poeticising, is almost equally vague when he praises White because, like Joyce, he is a master of “myths” and because he uses the novel “to explore a territory usually reserved for poetry”. The reference to Joyce surely suggests the inadequacy of any simple dichotomy between social realism and “poetic” writing. There is a similar vagueness in a long article in The Times Literary Supplement which describes the novels as “parables” which “set up resonances beyond the narrative framework” and “pursue truth beyond the obvious” into the realms of enigma. This kind of praise
The grandeur of White’s aspirations, and his often compelling brilliance, are undoubted. In fact it is because of this “grandeur” that we need so urgently to discriminate in his work between the false rhetoric and the truly exploratory use of language; between the passages which are pretentious and mystifying, and those which reveal new depths of experience. The central question raised by his works is whether he establishes significance in dramatic terms—or whether in the last count his attempt to work through myth and symbol is an evasion of the complexities of actual life, and of artistic creation as well. The three early books are of minor interest, though they suggest some of White’s characteristic themes. The finest, undoubtedly, is The Aunt’s Story, with its powerful juxtapositions of Theodora’s intense perceptions, against those of “normal” people. But the account of her gradual withdrawal from conventional behaviour and even from her own identity sometimes seems designed simply to illustrate the epigraphs which head each section of the book—epigraphs about the nature of suffering, and the relationship between illusion and reality. White seems determined to prove a point about the kind of perceptions possible to the isolate, and the destructive effect of those perceptions on everyday life; in the end this insistence diminishes the effect of his own narrative. A similar over-emphasis on the inevitability and value of suffering blurs the effectiveness of Happy Valley. Although weakened by a certain technical clumsiness, this is a potentially interesting study of life in a small rural town, and of the way the characters’ lives interlock, often tragically, despite their isolation. White only obscures the effect of the drama that he sets up by heavily underlining its significance.
The Living and the Dead, just published here, is flawed by even more radical weaknesses. The story centres upon the reserved and scholarly Elyot Standish, whose inertia and inability to enter into living relationships are intended to epitomise the sterility of his whole society: