Her Life as a Man

The Twyborn Affair

by Patrick White
Viking Press, 432 pp., $14.95

Patrick White
Patrick White; drawing by David Levine

I think many critics are frightened of Patrick White. Who can blame them? I quail myself, at the task of conveying why I believe this turgid, crotchety, tortuous, racked, oblique writer is nevertheless great—and a Nobel prize winner. I looked for inspiration at the eulogies on the book jackets. “Epic” recurs, and “monumental”; comparisons are made with the Alps, a cathedral, the book of Genesis, even Everest; “greatness,” “power,” “scope” are evoked. The blurb for this latest book goes right over the top with “irresistible sweep of a symphonic poem,” and more. The most honest reaction comes from the critic who says a Patrick White novel defies review. It defies reading sometimes, too; intelligent people have said to me that they know the books may be important, but they can never get beyond the first few pages.

Those who do admire White’s greatness have to get through a thicket of stylistic idiosyncrasies, be alert to meanings only obliquely indicated, accept the level of intensity the author demands; there is a relentlessness about White. You submit, or drop out. The little mediocrities and compromises that relax both novelist and reader have no place in his books; when he writes badly, as sometimes he does in The Twyborn Affair, it is because he concentrates his style to the point of self-parody—to the detriment of the affection and humor and variety that season his intensities.

White is now nearing seventy and The Twyborn Affair is his thirteenth book. He is entirely committed to being an Australian writer and all his books are concerned, tenderly or savagely, with his homeland; but in fact he was educated in England and only went back to Australia to live in 1948. So he is an outsider; and his characters are outsiders, outlaws, afflicted, and linked by their affliction. If there is a guiding theme in White’s novels, it comes in a phrase in Voss: knowledge, says Laura Trevelyan there, “only comes of death by torture in the country of the mind.” Perhaps the most powerful and accessible of White’s books, Voss is the story of an attempt to cross the Australian continent in the 1840s, based on the life of the explorer Leichhardt. But it is a mythical journey. White can balance reality and fantasy so that we accept their unity: deserts blossom into phantasmagorias; Voss’s inexorable death is paralleled by Laura’s torture “in the country of the mind.” At his best White can effortlessly create myth from a thread of realistic narrative.

White’s subject is illumination: a radiant structure behind the grotesque material rubble, which can—by some—be glimpsed; but it is only the outcasts who have endured a death of this kind to whom the glimpse is allowed. The rest, the rabble, are comfortable, rather cruel: casual, busy crucifiers. Those who can see—the burnt ones (title of one of the books)—tacitly recognize one another; in a sense…

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