Patrick White beyond the Grave

Patrick White beyond the Grave


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Patrick White (1912-1990) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973 and remains one of Australia's most celebrated writers. This book represents new work by an outstanding list of White scholars from around the globe. This collection of diverse and original essays is notable for its acknowledgement of White's homosexuality in relation to the development of his literary style, in its consideration of the way his writing 'works' on/with readers, and for its contextualizing of his life and oeuvre in relation to London and to London life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783083985
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 08/15/2015
Series: Anthem Australian Humanities Research Series
Pages: 220
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ian Henderson is the Head of the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London and lectures in the Department of English Language and Literature. Anouk Lang is a lecturer in Digital Humanities in the Department of English Literature at the University of Edinburgh.

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Patrick White Beyond the Grave

New Critical Perspectives

By Ian Henderson, Anouk Lang

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2015 Ian Henderson and Anouk Lang editorial matter and selection
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78308-399-2



Margaret Harris and Elizabeth Webby

Literature made front-page news in Australia on 3 November 2006: not a common occurrence. In Patrick White's home town, the lead story in the broadsheet Sydney Morning Herald was a report by his biographer David Marr about the National Library of Australia's purchase of a collection of Patrick White's papers, previously thought destroyed, from his agent and literary executor, Barbara Mobbs. 'The old bastard,' Marr began. 'Patrick White told the world over and over again that none of this existed. "Don't bother hunting for drafts and manuscripts," he snapped when I asked him years ago. "They've all gone into the pit." They hadn't.' Other media, both in Australia and internationally, picked up the story. The Times Literary Supplement ran a major essay on White by novelist David Malouf, while the Australian Book Review carried a piece by Marie-Louise Ayres, then the Library's curator of manuscripts, in which she described the material and indicated some of the insights it provides.

In preparation for the announcement of this extraordinary acquisition, Dr Ayres had led National Library of Australia (NLA) staff in an operation conducted in secrecy. They compiled a finding list of the 33 boxes of material found for release simultaneously with the announcement: an extremely valuable document describing the various items in the collection, which itself made history because of the way in which it was put together. Such catalogues are usually the work of a single librarian over an extended period, whereas this team performed the task in a matter of weeks. A small exhibition accompanied the announcement: it included realia like White's trademark beret and beanie, a pair of his spectacles and a selection of manuscript material. The librarians involved were aware that they were part of a once-in-a-lifetime experience; scholars round the world were stirred (there were early enquiries from as far afield as Scandinavia and the United States); and there was considerable public interest.

Soon, it was apparent that this material constituted 'literary treasure' in Marr's phrase. He was able to show, for example, that throughout the 10 working notebooks are scattered drafts for the openings of half a dozen of White's novels, including The Aunt's Story (1948). The richness of the treasure has become even more apparent as we have embarked on plumbing the depths of MS9982. In this chapter, we outline how the new material provides the occasion for a stocktaking of Patrick White and his legacy and what it shows about his writing life.

In the first place, it needs to be understood that although Patrick White's critical reputation underwent the usual slump after his death in 1990, he has never ceased to attract scholarly attention. Year after year, the AustLit database tabulates more critical publication on White than on any other Australian author (Henry Lawson is the runner-up). His work has stayed tenuously in print, with steady though small sales of his novels getting a boost in 2010, when The Vivisector (1970) was shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize, and again in 2012, when the centenary of his birth was marked by the publication of an unfinished novel, The Hanging Garden, and the reissue of his first novel, Happy Valley (1939). His plays have continued to be produced: there was a notable Sydney Theatre Company production of The Season at Sarsaparilla (1965), directed by Benedict Andrews, in 2007, while The Ham Funeral (1947) was directed by Adam Cook for the 2012 Adelaide Festival. In addition, a film of The Eye of the Storm (1973), directed by Fred Schepisi and starring Charlotte Rampling, Judy Davis and Geoffrey Rush, was released to critical acclaim in 2011, anticipating the 2012 centenary.

The National Library's acquisition of such a significant collection of manuscripts was marked by a symposium held there early in 2007, followed by a dinner based on some of White's very 1950s recipes, also preserved in his papers (the celebration was not a cerebral one only). Later in 2007, the jubilee of the publication of Voss in 1957 was the occasion for another symposium 'Remembering Patrick White', organized by colleagues from the Universities of New South Wales and Western Sydney in association with the Sydney Writers' Festival.

Yet another event, 'The Voss Journey', held in Canberra in 2009, was exemplary of the way the opening of the archive NLA MS9982 can expand knowledge of White's work. Spearheaded by Vincent Plush of the National Film and Sound Archive and Robyn Holmes of the NLA, the occasion also involved 14 other agencies, including the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Opera Australia and the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. It was at once an event with public outreach and an extraordinary exercise in scholarly recuperation. The focus was on the novel Voss and its afterlife. There were presentations on various attempts to adapt Voss, still ongoing. At various times, Harry M. Miller; Joseph Losey, David Mercer and Maximilian Schell; and Sidney Nolan and Stuart Cooper (a British director who now holds the film rights) have been involved in negotiations about a possible film version. An adaptation that did eventually happen, the opera Voss, featured prominently. Many of those from the 1986 Opera Australia production participated: David Malouf, the librettist; Moffatt Oxenbould, then artistic director of Opera Australia; Jim Sharman, the director; and especially memorable, Geoffrey Chard (Voss) and Marilyn Richardson (Laura), who spoke and coached younger singers to recreate some scenes. The production was screened, and composer Richard Meale's 'Suite from Voss' was premiered. The convenors have prepared a record of the event, with extended commentary, as Patrick White, Voss and the Australian Cultural Landscape.

Significantly, The Voss Journey, as the title indicates, located White in the context of the flowering of Australian performance culture in the 1970s. It foregrounded the importance of his relationships with key figures of that flowering such as Jim Sharman and Moffatt Oxenbould, many of whom are now depositing their papers at the NLA and elsewhere. Such a perspective situates White in an Australian and, specifically, Sydney context, in which he is no longer the sole colossus. It is exemplary of the way new material and the passage of time can identify unrecognized dimensions of his career.

It is important to realize that MS9982 is only one part of the White archive: the NLA already held considerable correspondence together with the curious and contentious manuscript of Memoirs of Many in One (1986), jointly owned with the State Library of New South Wales (SLNSW). Among the State Library's other White holdings are his portable typewriter, writing desk and chair, donated by his partner Manoly Lascaris after White's death. Typescripts of some early plays were deposited during the 1980s and 1990s in the Mitchell Library (SLNSW), the Fryer Library (University of Queensland) and the NLA. The manuscripts shown at the NLA in a white gloves event held as part of The Voss Journey included some from the papers of David Marr, Richard Meale, artist and set designer Desmond Digby and others.

What Material Is There?

The earliest material in the collection can be found in White's 10 working notebooks, which include entries made from the 1930s to 1980s. These notebooks were used by him in very different ways at various stages in his career, and contain entries ranging from student notes to confessional diary entries recorded during his war service, and extended drafts of fiction and plays. As a group, they are undoubtedly the richest items in the collection.

Notebook 1, dating from White's time at Cambridge studying modern languages in the 1930s, is a commonplace book containing many transcriptions of poems by French authors, mainly from the nineteenth century. Notebook 2, dating from the later 1930s to the early 1950s, also begins as a commonplace book with quotations from a large number of authors White was presumably reading at the time, ranging all the way from Chaucer and Cervantes to contemporaries such as Mahatma Gandhi, D. H. Lawrence and Katherine Mansfield. But after some 10 pages of quotations and a larger number of blank pages, White begins to use the notebook to jot down ideas for his own work. There is material here relating to Happy Valley, The Living and the Dead (1941), The Aunt's Story and Voss, appearing in seemingly random order in the notebook rather than anticipating the chronology of publication. There are also brief snatches of dialogue and lists of characters from several different plays, deriving from White's attempts in the 1930s to establish himself as a London playwright. Notebook 3 is White's fascinating diary of his experiences on war service in Sudan in 1941; it also contains many drafts of sections of The Aunt's Story, some extending to several pages, as well as drafts of a few poems and stories. Notebook 4 appears to have been in use during the 1940s and '50s and includes historical research for both Voss and A Fringe of Leaves (1976), as well as drafts for sections of Riders in the Chariot (1961), The Ham Funeral and other plays. Notebook 5, which also dates from the 1940s to the '50s, may be earlier than Notebook 4 and contains notes on the extensive historical research White undertook for Voss, while Notebook 6 has material relating to The Solid Mandala (1966), The Vivisector, The Eye of the Storm and Memoirs of Many in One, as well as plays and stories. Notebook 7 includes further historical research for A Fringe of Leaves as well as drafts of material for The Twyborn Affair (1979) and the plays Big Toys (1977) and Netherwood (1983). The last three notebooks contain mainly drafts of three of the plays, entitled 'Four Love Songs', which White was working on toward the end of his life, though Notebook 8 also has extensive drafts of a story, 'The Last Long Week End', plus a short piece of autobiographical writing, 'My Memories of Last Palm Sunday March'.

Other drafts of the 'Four Love Songs' exist elsewhere in the collection, also dating from the 1970s to the 1980s. One of them, 'My Big American', is a partial play script in the version in Notebook 8. Evie ('a large, florid woman. Plenty of lipstick, rouge, though she is not a whore; at least she would not like to be taken for one [...] She is the type that surfaces with wars and Americans on leave') and Vanda ('skinnier than EVIE, less outgoing. Clothes black, a fashionable-frumpish style') meet in a park, and fall into a risqué discussion of their experiences with men, especially American servicemen.

Evie: Not for me. Though I gotta admit I caught the diarrhoea in Honnerloulou.

Vanda: You can catch anything in Honoloulou.

(She pronounces the place name in her most elocuted style)

Here, the 'Big American' is Evie's collective term for her American lovers. There are two complete versions elsewhere (box 13, folder 34), one written for radio, the other for stage performance. In the latter, again the two women discuss men and conquests, harking back to Americans in World War II but mentioning also Korea and Vietnam. Here, 'the Big American' appears to have only a phallic connotation, until the light fades to a rosy glow:

'It's happening'
'It's happened ...'
(BOTH) The Big American BOMB

Such multiple drafts allow unprecedented access to White's thinking about individual pieces as segments of a larger work, drawing on his repertoire of character types and narrative motifs. Here too his increasing preoccupation in his last years with contemporary issues like nuclear disarmament is apparent (evidenced in other ways in MS9982, such as the drafts of speeches delivered in the 1970s and 1980s in box 15, folders 1–2).

Another example of the richness of the notebooks for students of White is his 1941 war diary in Notebook 3. This was drawn on by White himself when he was writing Flaws in the Glass (1981), as Ayres noted, pointing to his use of a description of a ewe giving birth. Many of the diary entries were also included by David Marr in his edition of White's Letters (1994), White having let him have 'a typescript of one gorgeous chunk of the notebooks'. This plangent section of the notebook is the least mediated of any of White's self-writing, which is not to say that the reflections of the young man on war service are unselfconscious. Here is a characteristic passage from the diary, written at Khartoum in February 1941, with mordant musings alternating with comments on his surroundings:

There is nothing like the state of superfluity in which I almost perpetually find myself in the RAF, for destroying faith, self-respect, everything else. All the morning I have been sitting in a room doing nothing. Round me the esoteric signs, acts, which nobody will take the trouble to explain. Either they are too busy, or else they are jealous of their esotericism. Many more of these mornings and I shall start listening to the walls, the way you can sometimes hear blank walls when [you] are both miserable & unemployed.

M. I like. He is small, neat, has a kind of nonchalant elegance. None of the HQ constipation and self-importance that I detest. If it does nothing else, this trial by RAF administrative [sic] may teach me to be humble. And how I shall value my own existence afterwards [...]

Je m'ennuie lying on my bed. All this staleness, sameness, effeteness, of music, of dishes in the kitchen downstairs.

We are all to blame, we are all to blame ... and if only all were convinced of it! Dostoevsky The Possessed (box 4, folder 4)

The quotation from Dostoevsky is one of several at this stage in the notebook, the bleak despairing mood of The Possessed (1872) evidently congenial to Pilot Officer White.

What is most extraordinary is the way the diary is intercalated with drafts of The Aunt's Story. There are a number of passages several pages in length including a draft of the opening of the novel ('Theodora Goodman went into the room where the coffin lay. It was not now the bedroom of her mother.') and many more sections of a few lines or a couple of paragraphs. In 1958, White wrote in his essay 'The Prodigal Son' about the ambivalence he experienced as a returning expatriate, referring to his reading the Journal of the explorer Edward Eyre during air raids in London in 1940 as possibly the moment when Voss was conceived. But until now, it has not been apparent quite how early both The Aunt's Story and Voss took shape, and how they are connected through the experience of vastation of the author and characters. So, in this notebook, we have at once new White text and material that requires revision of assumptions about the shape and trajectory his career took. This example shows how the archive offers new perspectives: its import is in the ways it enables fuller illumination by focussing, filling out and extending our understanding of White's writing life. Thus far, while any expectation that MS9982 would generate sensational revelations has been disappointed, at every turn this body of material surprises and rewards investigation, sometimes in ways that are completely unexpected.


Excerpted from Patrick White Beyond the Grave by Ian Henderson, Anouk Lang. Copyright © 2015 Ian Henderson and Anouk Lang editorial matter and selection. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Introduction (Ian Henderson); Part I. Resurrected Papers; 1. The Evidence of the Archive (Margaret Harris and Elizabeth Webby); 2. Leichhardt and ‘Voss’ Revisited (Angus Nicholls); Part II. Many in One; 3. White’s London (David Marr); 4. Elective Affinities: Manning Clark, Patrick White and Sidney Nolan (Mark McKenna); 5. ‘Dismantled and Reconstructed’: ‘Flaws in the Glass’ Re-Visioned (Georgina Loveridge); 6. Patrick White’s Late Style (Andrew McCann); Part III. The Performance of Reading; 7. Patrick White’s Expressionism (Ivor Indyk); 8. The Doubling of Reality in Patrick White’s ‘The Aunt’s Story’ and Paul Schreber’s ‘Memoirs of My Nervous Illness’ (Aruna Wittman); 9. Desperate, Marvellous Shuttling: White’s Ambivalent Modernism (Gail Jones); 10. ‘Time And Its Fellow Conspirator Space’: White’s ‘A Fringe of Leaves’ (Brigid Rooney); Part IV. Queer White; 11. Knockabout World: Patrick White, Kenneth Williams and the Queer Word (Ian Henderson); 12. Queering Sarsaparilla: Patrick White’s Deviant Modernism (Anouk Lang); Contributors; Index

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

‘Patrick White haunts us because he dared to speak the deliciously unsayable whether on sexuality, politics, the battle between personality and truth, or the impact of the Australian voice. This collection of essays documents and challenges the depth and internationalism of new critical reception. It is inspired, dealing with a quest for truth in White’s writings and the tensions between the belief and disbelief in a postcolonial global world of the sacred and the profane.’ —Ann McCulloch, Deakin University

‘A lively reminder that great writing continues to speak beyond its author’s death, this fine collection of essays by Patrick White scholars from around the world brings fresh perspectives from the archives and biography, and from modernist, postcolonial and queer studies, to the rich range of White’s work.’ —Susan Sheridan, Flinders University

‘With standout essays by Gail Jones, Ivor Indyk and Ian Henderson, this book leaves the critical battles of yesteryear behind to advance Patrick White studies in new and timely directions.’ —Jennifer Rutherford, University of Adelaide

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