Flaws in the Glass: A Self-Portrait
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 being a colonial, shame of his own people’s apparent crassness in comparison with the nasty genteel indifference of assured ancestry—doesn’t make him exaggerate this paradoxical phenomenon of empire.) As a young adult, he came back to try living on the Australian land—the Monaro region that has continued working through its relationship with his consciousness, and is magnificently recreated fifty years later in The Twyborn Affair. Going to England for a university education, he stayed on after Cambridge to become a writer in a London bedsitter.
Of course. That is the pilgrimage of the colonial artist of the Twenties and Thirties—and before. In late-nineteenth-century South Africa, Olive Schreiner felt “stifled” (significant metaphor for the asthma sufferer she was, as White himself is) in drawing-room pockets of colonial culture, and went to England to breathe. In Australia, White could not “come to terms with the inhabitants”; away from Australia, the “consolation of the landscape” always drew him back: but—it was a “landscape without figures.” Intermittent self-exile, in England, America, and during the war in Africa and the Middle East, represents the split in being that is the initial stage in life’s painful pull toward art.
Australia was mother-land, father-land, in an extraordinary sense. White refers to his actual mother always as “Ruth”; she is a character rather than the closest relative in the kinship of blood. He seems to feel he inhabited her, that is all, for a time—like any other lodging left behind. England—the mother country to colonial ones—proved as little of a mother surrogate to run to; her earth alien. When aged seventy he worries away at the puzzle of his relation to his father, father and fatherland become one in an analysis that opens out like a great wound beyond its familial references. “Had I been able to talk to him, and if, at the risk of sounding priggish, there had been some vaguely intellectual ground on which we could have met, I would have loved my father.”
He would have loved Australia. If he had felt able to talk to Australians of his own uppercrust, if there had been some ground…Australia would not have been for him an inescapable land-scape without figures, a place of silence between the extermination of indigenous people and culture, and the burble of Sunday family lunch at the Sydney Club. This patrician-looking man (in Australia, he was the sole native I met whose Cambridge English had no comfy cadence of the miaow vowel) sought out the Lizzies, Flos, and Matts who were family servants. He came to love them “through their connection with everyday reality.” By contrast: “I had never seen my father in the context of reality” (my italics). This is no less than a definition of colonial culture. All its referents were in one or the other of the Old Countries. It was not connected with the real entities of the country it claimed. The Lizzies, the Flos, and Matts claimed no culture; but they lived at one with everyday reality on Australian earth. That was where the substance of a live culture would come from. The child’s instinct led him faithfully.
Did the “unreality” of colonial life create “unreal” family relationships? The fact that I can generalize from Patrick White’s experience to that around me in another colonial society gives the idea some credence. But writers “make” themselves out of such impasses. White writes, “I have stuck by my principles [the middle-class ones instilled by his parents] while knowing in my irrational depths what it was to be a murderer, or be murdered.” This knowing began by knowing what it is to be Lizzie, Flo, and Matt. All writers have to find the way to knowledge that remains, for most other people, buried within themselves. Being pitched into conflict between the unreality of colonial life (bourgeois safety) and the reality of native entities of land and/or people (revolutionary danger of untamed nature, masses, and mores) is the beginning of the way for writers in colonial societies, whether or not color is involved. White has “come to terms” with Australians by recognizing them in himself, in the writer’s irrational depths beyond class, race, or sex, at the same time as he stands apart from them. He talks to fellow Australians of themselves through his creation of them in his work. Surprising that he still troubles, in this book, to answer accusations that he is hard on them; he is hard on himself, in them.
The problem of colonialism, social and political, was resolved for the life by the work—almost. There was another problem, fed from the same bloodstream. White knew from an early age that he was homosexual. This doubled his sense of exclusion, since he felt himself set apart, if differently, both in Australia and London. He knows now that a solitary existence is the normal condition for artists. But, leading that existence as a young writer in London, he blamed his seclusion “wrongly on my homosexual temperament, forced, at that period anyway, to surround itself with secrecy, rather than on the instinctive need to protect my creature core from intrusion and abuse.”
Of homosexuality as a component in the development of a writer he makes the familiar claim that the homosexual temperament “strengthens our hand as man, woman, artist,” then, with the acerbity that is so much a part of his chameleon’s-eye originality, swiveling to observe all from unfamiliar angles, he is unafraid to add: “Homosexual society as such has never had much appeal for me. Those who discuss the homosexual condition with endless hysterical delight…have always struck me as colossal bores. So I avoid them, and no doubt I am branded as a closet queen. I see myself not so much a homosexual as a mind possessed by the spirit of man or woman according to actual situations or the characters I become in my writing.” White is a wizard at definitions. But this “mind possessed” is a definition of any writer, of any sex; White would have had it even if he had married the girl his mother selected, and fathered six little Australians. We are all pansexual, at work. Again, he at one stage considered writing “as a disguise”; in his case, for unapproved sexual desires—for other writers, for all writers, a disguise which is also a guise in which life becomes art?
Even if he had been born a generation later, it is doubtful if White would ever have had the temperament to be “gay” rather than plain homosexual. The emotional isolation he felt was resolved for him when, during the Second World War, he met Manoly Lascaris. This “unlikely relationship between an Orthodox Greek and lapsed Anglican egotist agnostic pantheist occultist existentialist would-be though failed Christian Australian has lasted forty years.” It is a relationship that describes its own parabola through White’s work. And I am not referring only or principally to the character Angelos Vatzatis, composed of respect, love, and irony in The Twyborn Affair. White chooses another symbol. He states with the single verbal gesture of deep emotion that Manoly Lascaris became “the central mandala in my life’s hitherto messy design.” That symbol, working inward, became central to one of his books, The Solid Mandala.
Any artist who knows what it means to sustain a long relationship with a human partner while the ego that is the genie of creation clamors through a lifetime will recognize a moving achievement in the service of the man and the genie. It is clear that Manoly has been able to temper the two worlds White could not live in—Australia and Europe. Manoly helped to resolve White’s Australian/colonial/class alienation by solving the personal motherless/fatherless/homosexual alienation. This stranger and Greek was the one who was able to take Patrick White back to Australia, after the war, and make it possible for him to accept and inhabit it as home, an Australian among Australians, despite the Cambridge vowels and the lack of appreciation of his work (he alleges) until he became visible on the wide screen of the Nobel Prize. The genuine, essential link to Europe, through Manoly’s culture and personality, has surely given White the freedom in which to re-create Australian consciousness in his unique grasp of the concrete, the relative, and the transcendent. The responsibility of Europe for Australia is always there. There are no antipodes to which human nature can ship what is intrinsic to it.
Everyone is always immensely interested to know which of his works a writer thinks his best. White’s list: The Aunt’s Story, The Solid Mandala, and The Twyborn Affair. He is one of the few writers who care to, and are able to give the genesis of his novels without self-consciousness. What he cannot give, of course, is the magicking, half witches’ brew, half elixir, that makes the old farmhouse he once lived in the eternal one of a novel, or twins two aspects of himself in his characters, the Brown brothers. Though the three novels of his choice—one an early work, one from his middle period, and the third his latest—are very different, The Twyborn Affair is the culminating expression of White’s vision, a vision that has made of Australian boiled mutton and plum duff an Ensor carnival. The bobbing, oversize heads are recognizable everywhere. Like the spirit of carnival, he carries them through the streets, dancing beauties and vomiting drunks, in celebration of life; and in the knowledge that King Carnival is always to be killed.
The fishhook of White’s social conscience (which seems to have kept up, if somewhat awkwardly, with his movement as a writer) winkled himself out of writers’ seclusion to take to the public platform in support of the Gough Whitlam government and in hope of an Australia-with-a-human-face. Political finagling felled that government, and White sees himself once again as the “skeleton at the Australian feast” of Mammon. What this great artist is grieving over, really—a grief encompassing disappointed hopes for Australian socialism—is the situation all contemporary artists complain of. The Futurists dreamed that by our time technology would have freed the imagination unlimitedly. What has happened is that technology has outstripped imagination in an unimaginable way; capturing human responses in the shallows, instilling a yearning for things instead of revelations. Looking up from the broken plastic and bottles afloat in Sydney harbor, the nearest White can get to optimism is the grim, cocky message: “Don’t despair…it is possible to recycle shit.”