Flaws in the Glass: A Self-Portrait
by Patrick White
Viking, 260 pp., $14.95
What do you expect from an autobiography? Those who write them are as uncertain as those who publish them. They don’t even use the term, any longer. Czeslaw Milosz subtitled his a search for self-definition; Sartre, endowed by nature with the physical possibility of never looking anyone in the eye, stressed that his autobiographies was nothing but words. The Australian novelist Patrick White has written one of the two key autobiographies by contemporary writers (my other nomination is Milosz’s) that fit the lock of the creative process. Yet he has insisted that his publishers misrepresent and undervalue his book by stating on the jacket that it is “merely” a self-portrait in the form of sketches.
All these cautionary riders to the form: biography, well yes; auto—don’t ask too much. Too much of what? There’s another decision. A review I read in an English literary magazine sulked because Patrick White had not written enough about being a homosexual. I, personally, should have been disappointed if he had written more about being a homosexual than about becoming and being a writer. Is autobiography the story of a personality or the work that has made the subject an object of sufficient public interest to merit writing about him/herself? If the subject is an artist, and in particular a writer, for whom the act is performed in the medium of his own art, what one wants, expects, is a revelation of the mysterious incest between life and art.
In his own books, White finds something of the “unknown-man” thesis that writers expect to find when they visit the author, and that he is “unable to produce.” That unknown man is the writer of this autobiography; neither White the novelist nor White the man, but of their dark union: he has produced the revelation. It is read by glares of Australian sun and flares of European war, in the first, main section, a broken narrative that carries perfectly the philosophical proposition of its title, “‘Flaws in the Glass,” and in the second section, “Journeys,” by a kind of reflection cast up in sea-crossings that are also connections, of a nonnarrative nature. The scrappy third section at first appears to be a filler the book could have done without. On reading cat-scratch anecdotes, wry incidents, and a brilliantly elliptical telephone conversation, one realizes all these are the geneses of unwritten short stories—a condition that offers addenda to the existence of the unknown man.
Patrick White was born in England in 1912 of Australian parents and brought back to Australia about the time he was able to sit up. He had imported English nannies, and later fulfilled colonial parental ambitions by being sent “home”—away—to Cheltenham, where he suffered traditional miseries endured by embryonic writers in English public schools—and then some, if we are to believe that anticolonial jeers were as bad as racialism, at that time. (I myself wonder whether his own infant snobbery—suppressed dislike of …