Why bother with Patrick White?

06 Sep



With Riders in the Chariot, White moved away from the broadly historical sweep of the previous two novels towards a closer examination of contemporary Australian life. Riders abounds in detailed social observation, descriptions of a Sydney that is expanding geographically, demographically and socially, and satire that is witty and occasionally savage. As always, White mixes these reading pleasures of a more realist kind with those of a psychological, metaphysical and the specifically religious scope. In some ways, Riders in the Chariot is White’s clearest and most comprehensive statement of the necessity of understanding that religious or metaphysical enlightenment comes in the very heart of ordinary everyday life itself and is inseparable from it. As always, White’s spiritually-inclined characters achieve their moments of insight, their visions even, in the most ordinary of mundane circumstances…

For all that, not my favourite White novel. I found the notorious crucifixion of Himmelfarb absurd as well, and suspect more than a little that there is an element of self-pity in it with White (and Manoly perhaps) feeling “crucified” in the Australia of the time, which then Liberal Party leaning intellectual and journalist Donald Horne was about to describe in the ironically titled The Lucky Country (1964). In a hot summer’s night in December 1964 I was about to write the last chapter of a book on Australia. The opening sentence of this last chapter was: ‘Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.’

White’s dislike of the suburbs, by the way, was a fashion almost at the time, from Robin Boyd’s The Great Australian Ugliness (1960) through the famous matriarch of Moonee Ponds, Edna Everidge, not then a Dame.

I have never forgiven White for hating school-teachers, who for him seemed to epitomise all that was second-rate in Australian culture.

I began writing again, painfully, a novel I called in the beginning A Life Sentence on Earth, but which developed into The Tree of Man. Well received in England and the United States, it was greeted with cries of scorn and incredulity in Australia that somebody, at best, a dubious Australian, should flout the naturalistic tradition, or worse, that a member of the grazier class should aspire to a calling which was the prerogative of schoolteachers! Voss, which followed, fared no better: it was ‘mystical, ambiguous, obscure’; a newspaper printed its review under the headline ‘Australia’s most Unreadable Novelist’. In Riders in the Chariot it was the scene in which Himmelfarb, the Jewish refugee, is subjected to a mock crucifixion by drunken workmates which outraged the blokes and the bluestockings alike. Naturally, ‘it couldn’t happen here’- except that it does, in all quarters, in many infinitely humiliating ways, as I, a foreigner in my own country, learned from personal experience.

That was The Man himself.

But none of the above-named were of the Left; White only went leftish in the 1970s, initially because of what Jack Mundey did to help save Centennial Park from the developers.

And with respect to Winsdschuttle’s musings: one wonders how being homosexual has made Professor David Flint sing from pretty much the same song-book as Windschuttle himself…

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Posted by on September 6, 2005 in Australia and Australian, book reviews, culture wars, Fiction, literary theory/criticism, OzLit, Political, reminiscing, right wing politics, Top read, writers


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