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 they are the structure that informs or redeems the indifferent mass. In Riders in the Chariot, for instance, he follows the linked histories of a Jewish refugee, an impoverished truck-driver’s wife, an “abo” artist, and an eccentric spinster. Dubbo, the aboriginal, paints a celestial chariot carried by four winged creatures; White makes it clear that his four rejects are the charioteers. He quotes from Blake as epigraph: “The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me, and I asked them how they dared so roundly to assert that God spoke to them…. Isaiah answer’d: ‘…my senses discover’d the infinite in everything….’ ”

It sounds pretentious; but the visionary element in White’s novels is inseparable from a tough irony and a microscopically close, sometimes savage attention to physical minutiae. The coarser the texture of the physical—of bodies especially—the more likely to be illuminated by flashes of meaning and power. To quote from Voss again:

He added at once, louder and brisker than before: “Topp has dared to raise a subject that has often occupied my mind: our inherent mediocrity as a people. I am confident that the mediocrity of which he speaks is not a final and irrevocable state; rather is it a creative source of endless variety and subtlety. The blowfly on its bed of offal is but a variation of the rainbow. Common forms are continually breaking into brilliant shapes. If we will explore them.”

So they talked, while through the doorway, in the garden, the fine seed of moonlight continued to fall and the moist soil to suck it up.

His The Tree of Man, for instance, is a long, patient story of Australian peasants in the outback, of dry landscapes and poor smallholdings; yet in the great bush fires and floods of the continent there is again the mythical and elemental quality. But White’s charity toward the physical has been growing smaller in his recent books, his obsessive repulsions getting stronger. These later books are darker; the bed of offal more visible than the rainbow; the earthy, ironic vein of tenderness thinning out. In the earlier The Tree of Man, for instance, an old man is being badgered by a callow evangelist selling instant salvation; the old man coughs and spits; there is an illumination:


He pointed with his stick at the gob of spittle.

“That is God,” he said.

As it lay glittering intensely and personally on the ground.

The young man frowned. You met all kinds….

After he had gone and the tracts were flapping and plapping in the undergrowth, and the black dog had smelled one with the tip of his dry nose, the old man continued to stare at the jewel of spittle. A great tenderness of understanding rose in his chest. Even the most obscure, the most sickening incidents of his life were clear. In that light.

In The Twyborn Affair excreta are smeared about gratuitously. A man masturbates and feels “the trickle of his own cooling sperm. A single gob, on reaching his kneecap, struck him cold, disgusting him…”—and us; a woman crushes fleas, and—“That,” she said with some satisfaction, “is the creamiest flea I’ve ever squashed” (inaccurate as well as gratuitous; fleas do not squash creamily but crisply into a blood-spot).

The protest against the physical—“But to the girdle do the gods inherit, / Beneath is all the fiend’s”—is central to The Twyborn Affair’s special preoccupation, the experience of gender. Eddie/Eadie Twyborn is twice-born, has two lives, as a man and as a woman, though (s)he is barred from belonging securely to either. In The Vivisector White has a character write of a homosexual—“he has understood through what he calls his ‘Infirmity’ (which I am told is also known as ‘The Third Sex’)…. I believe the afflicted to be united in the same purpose.” Not a true hermaphrodite but a transvestite homosexual man, we see her first as Eudoxia—Doxy—Vatatzes, the lovely concubine of a fierce old Greek from Smyrna. This first incarnation is set in the pre-1914 Côte d’Azur: olive trees, warm sea winds, English tea-rooms, a faded pink villa with marigolds in the garden. Angelos and his E. stroll arm-in-arm on the terrace, play Ravel together. She loves, after a fashion, her “old monster.” In a shabby pension he has a heart attack. It is a pity, at this point, to have to reveal the twist of the plot, for the reader’s shock is in Angelos’s dying words: “I have had from you, dear boy, the only happiness I’ve ever known.” Until this point we had accepted E. for what she seemed to be, the lovely Mme. Vatatzes.

In the second of the novel’s three sections Eddie Twyborn takes up life as a man. There has been the Great War in the meantime, and a DSO for courage—just “despair running in the right direction”—and, going back to his homeland, he throws himself forcibly into masculinity: working as a jackeroo in the bleached outback of Bogong, New South Wales, acquiring blistered hands and a leathery neck and a slouch. He even lets himself be drawn into fathering a child on his employer’s wife. But this embodiment is no more durable than the first. His cover is sprung when the queer-bashing farm foreman pitches himself into his bed. He moves on.

Then the third and last attempt to construct a passable self: an outré and dreadful petrification, this. There is a loosening of realism here, a jolt toward the fantastic. It is London in the 1920s, and E. has become Eadith Trist, madam of Mayfair’s most elegant brothel. She is imposing, heavily maquillée; the male body hair meticulously removed with wax and honey by an Arab girl. She is abbess, headmistress, a neuter among “the moaning and sighing of whores as the leftovers among their pseudo-lovers, the prickling pursy or smooth sinewy male animals, ground between their thighs or squelched against their buttocks…. It seemed as though the bawd alone must fail to drown in this loveless social orgasm.” She is triste; and arranges trysts, unattainable for herself, between aristocrats and her stable of hand-picked and disciplined whores. One of these milords she loves, as she loved Angelos. He would marry her, but she has no way of telling him who she is.

It becomes, at times, too much of a case history, too near the clinical; where White might have brought off a sense of the universal in bisexuality, he remains too much bound to Eddie/Eadith’s muddled personal pain. His burnt ones, so often, have those glimpses that transcend their afflictions; E. remains a somewhat passive figure, molded helplessly by chance circumstance. And there is something clinical in the recurring gusts of repulsion: White is always obsessed by mouths, but here the omnivorous vagina dentata dominates: mouths gaping, smeared with paint, flecked with crumbs, bubbling with saliva:


But the eyes: if only they had been less daunting; and the ferocious mouths. All the veils had been raised to allow the parrot-ladies to fall upon le goûter, the black, the white, the beige gloves unbuttoned, folded back like superfluous skins for the ivory-skeletal or white-upholstered claws to fork unencumbered at confectioner’s custard, whipped cream, chocolate pyramids, and chestnut worm-casts.

Behind E. the androgyne, White places the figures of his loved and feared parents in their Australian suburb: Judge Twyborn and his raddled, alcoholic wife Eadie, who loves terriers and other women, in that order. But here as elsewhere he allows marriage a certain solemnity, contrasting it with the chancy horrors of sex; E.’s tragedy is to be outcast from marriage. The climax, less crudely melodramatic than it sounds, is the meeting of E. and the widowed Eadie in a London church in an air raid. “Are you my son Eddie?” the mother scribbles on a prayer book. “No, but I am your daughter Eadith.” There is a reconciliation of mother and daughter, of sister and sister, perhaps of one merged person, wife of the father Judge that E. loves so much. But then E. must be killed in a raid, one hand blown off, “a detached hand lying in a stream of blood.”

Yes, horribly clogged with crude Freudian sexual symbolism. But a summary of White’s plot gives no idea of the intricacy and density of his style; and I have quite failed to suggest his humor—it is unquotable, because it is not “humorous,” not added on in little detachable units. Nor, even in these later books, is all darkness. “Common forms are continually breaking into brilliant shapes.” Even toward sex there is one passage in The Twyborn Affair where White extends his mercy. An Australian soldier is talking to E.:

“I’ll tell you something,” the captain said, “I’ve never told it to anyone before—somethun funny that happened to me…. I went over to a farm that was still of a piece under cover of the next ridge. Always take a squint at what they’re up to on the land. Got a place of me own at Bungendore. Well, I was pokin’ round this poor sort of farm. God, it stank! of pig shit, like most of these Frog farms do. When I saw a bloody woman’s face lookin’ out of the winder at me. So I went in to apologize. We stood there sizing each other up…. And we started takin’ off our bloody clothes…. I don’t mind saying I was tremblin’ all over from what we’d been through up the line. But I mounted, and she let me in. An’ then this funny thing happened. It was not like I was just fuckin’ a Frog woman with greased thighs…. Just joggun along like it was early mornun, the worst of the frost just about over. As you doze in the saddle. The light as warm and soft and yeller as the wool on a sheep’s back….”

The captain spat on the estaminet floor.

“You’ll think me a funny sort of joker. But that’s how it was as I fucked this Frog. And more. Wait till I tell yer.” If he could; he’d begun to look so uneasy. “It was like as if a pair of open wings was spreading round the pair of us…. An’ don’t think I’m religious!” The captain had followed him as far as the door. “Because I believe in nothun!”… “NOTHUN!” he screamed.

This is the White who “discovers the infinite in everything,” White the visionary and critic-defying. Over marriages, and over such lovers, as E.’s journal says, despite all “the Holy Ghost presides…. Sometimes the Holy Ghost is a woman, but whether He, She, or It, always there, holding the disintegrating structure together (or so we hope in our agnostic hearts) and will not, must not, withdraw.”

This Issue

April 17, 1980