Patrick White doesn’t write books that you can casually pick up and put down, or read for five minutes before bed. You need to be willing to devote time to them to fully appreciate their rhythm and complexity. This alone probably makes White’s novels a tough prospect, but he’s also a modernist, which I understand is enough to send many people running for the hills.
It’s no surprise, then, that White’s popularity has waned in recent years. His plots are slow moving, full of mundane events where each character’s reactions are recounted in exacting detail. His values, too, belong to a different era. He shows disdain for the trappings of status or wealth, instead honouring simplicity, selflessness, and especially spirituality. This moral certainty can lead him to be a bit ungenerous at times in, and whenever I picture White I imagine him to be a crotchety old man (although this might be because most of the pictures I’ve seen of him match this image).
Which probably doesn’t make you want to read White, and I can understand why he wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea. But to me, he is, hands-down, the best Australian author I have read. The originality of his voice. His innovation with sentence structure. The grace and humour of his imagery and similes. And above all, his unerring examination of humanity. The mental landscapes of White’s characters are rendered in such unflinching detail that mundane lives are transformed into spiritual epics. The worlds he creates are full of frustrated dreams and hardship. But it is the flaws and yearning of his characters that makes them relatable. White doesn’t need to rely on suspense or adventure. Readers are hypnotised by the beauty of his language and his ability to depict the profound in the everyday.
I was surprised to learn that when he first started to become famous in Australia, White’s writing was labelled as “un-Australian”. His novels are set in Australia, of course, but he also captures so much of the character of the country. The isolation of the bush. The vast scale and history of the continent. The intellectual aridity of the suburbs. Not to mention the dialect, the dry humour and the fatalism that seems to characterise so many Australian stories.
If you think this is the kind of writing you can get into, you can probably find a few of White’s novels at any second hand book store for the price of a coffee. Then, next time you’ve got a few hours or a day to spare, find a comfortable nook and give yourself over to a completely original landscape of Australian literature.
Books reviewed by this author