Voss by Patrick White (Lisa Hill, ANZ LitLovers)

My blog post about this brilliant book is way too long to post all of it here, and there are lots of spoilers.  To read the whole thing (you have to be keen!) please visit ANZ LitLovers.  

Voss was Patrick White’s fifth novel and is the book that won the inaugural Miles Franklin Award in 1957.  Prior to that the writer who would become Australia’s only Nobel Prize Laureate had been dismissed in Australia, as indeed he so often is today.  Where else but Australia could there be a website so offensively titled as the ABC’s Why Bother with Patrick White?

There is a curious ambivalence about this site, presumably set up to explain White and his works yet careful to add demurrers – as if to commit the un-egalitarian sin of praising White is to risk the charge of being  ‘un-Australian’. To read through the Opinion pages is to feel an increasing sense of dismay when there are comments like this:
White’s critique of Australian ordinariness is no longer especially vital or useful, and that his reputation is as Australia’s genius loci means it is more important to criticise than to join him. He is doomed to be increasingly neglected, or, at any rate, celebrated only in lip-service.(Simon During)

Yet the summary of Voss suggests an enticing story.  It is a fictionalised account of the life of the explorer Ludwig Leichardt, and it is salutary to remember that despite the fuss sometimes made about it today,  fictionalising actual events is nothing new.  What was distinctive about Voss is that the novel is an example of High Modernism – which according to Norton celebrates ‘personal and textual inwardness, complexity, and difficulties’ and this movement was out-of-date by the end of the 1920s. Alternatively, says Wikipedia, High Modernism is characterised by the ‘Great Divide’ i.e. a clear distinction between capital-A Art and mass culture, and it places itself firmly on the side of Art and in opposition to popular or mass culture.  That sounds more like Patrick White!

It’s not prose that flows, but rather that draws attention to itself with striking metaphor.  When White writes The darkness was becoming furious (p89, Vintage Classics Edition) -  in these five words one can imagine a spiteful wind springing up and hurling little eddies of leaves onto the ankles of Voss and Laura as they walk alone in the garden.  But there’s also all the baggage of Night itself, with social meanings, pregnant with gossip and innuendo and anxiety about the reputation of women and girls.  There’s also this,  about Voss’s intrusion into the Bonner’s carriage and his awkward departure: All this queerness was naturally discussed as the carriage crunched onward, and the German, walking into the sunset, was burnt up. (p73) 

Clever it is, but it can sometimes be quite bewildering, even if you think you know what White is doing…
I have blogged before (see Modernism – Hooray for Wikipedia) about how my reading of Voss coincided with reading Margaret Olley, Far From a Still Life, and how I discovered Wikipedia’s article about Modernism in painting.  From this and other reading I grasped the idea that (in art) it means to exaggerate some aspect of a subject and not necessarily to be obliged to represent reality.  So, in William Dobell’s portrait of Joshua Smith, the exaggeratedly long neck and large ears; in Impressionism the exaggeration of light and movement; and in Olley’s work, exaggeration of colour, and perspective.  This exaggeration can also be seen in White’s portraits….

Minor characters are deftly rendered:
His Excellency the Governor wished Mr Voss and the expedition God-speed and a safe return, the Colonel said, with the littlest assistance from his fleshless face, which was of a rich purple where the hair allowed it to appear.  And he clasped the German’s hand in a gloveful of bones. (p113)

Sometimes with White’s spiteful wit:

The numerous grave and important people who were surrounding the Colonel lent weight to his appropriate words.  There were, for instance, at least three members of the Legislative Council, a Bishop, a Judge, officers in the Army, besides patrons of the expedition, and citizens whose wealth had begun to make them acceptable, in spite of their unfortunate past and persistent clumsiness with knife and fork. (p113)

He also refers to the Palfreymans as being of the doormat class (p350) – and Laura’s wardrobe at the Bonner’s is ‘not a very good piece of furniture, but Mrs Bonner truly did love her niece, in whose room she had put it. (p374)  Such exquisite social commentary!

His scorn for mass culture intrudes in unexpected places.  Sanderson, a pastoralist who escorts Voss from The Osprey into the bush, is an ascetic who left Belgravia to ‘mortify himself’ in Australia.  Despite himself he is rich, and owner of a vast amount of land, but he leads a restrained life, except for his predeliction for books.

He did live most simply, together with his modest wife.  They were seldom idle, unless the reading of books, after the candles were lit, be considered idleness.  This was the one thing people held against Sanderson, and it certainly did seem vain and peculiar.  They had whole rows of books, bound in leather, and were for ever devouring them.  They would pick out passages for each other as if they had been titbits of tender meat, and afterwards shine with almost physical pleasure.  Beyond this, there was nothing to which a man might take exception.  (p126)

It is near impossible to read Voss without having to pause to think about these self-conscious images.  Definitely not bedtime reading!   I couldn’t just keep turning the pages when I read, horrifed, the scene where Voss’s letter to Laura is lost.  There were other poignant losses: the expedition’s cattle; the navigation equipment; Rose Portion – who had only a meagre slice of life; and then Mercy’s place in society; the expedition itself - but this loss when Dugald abandons his mission bears so many meanings, it’s worth quoting in full:

‘You will go straight to Jildra,’ said the German, but making it a generous command.
‘Orright, Jildra,’ laughed the old man.
‘You will not loiter, and waste time.’
But the old man could only laugh, because time did not exist. (p218, my underlining)

Was this the first time in literature that a writer has understood with such sensitivity the Aboriginal world view, their ties of kinship and the vulnerability of their way of life? Here is Dugald en route, meeting up with his people and trying to explain his burden:

These papers contain the thoughts of which the whites wished to be rid, explained the traveller, by inspiration: the sad thoughts, the bad, the thoughts that were too heavy, or in any way hurtful.  These came out through the white man’s writing stick, down upon paper, and were sent away.
Away, away, the crowd began to menace and call…
With the solemnity of one who has interpreted a mystery, he tore them into little pieces…
The women were screaming, and escaping from the white man’s bad thoughts.  Some of the men were laughing. 
Only Dougal was sad and still, as the pieces of paper fluttered around him and settled on the grass, like a mob of cockatoos.
Then the men took their weapons, and the women their nets, and their dillybags, and children, and they all trooped away to the north where at that season of the year there was much wildlife and a plentiful supply of yams.  The old man went with them, of course, because they were his people, and they were going in that direction.  They went walking through the good grass, and the present absorbed them utterly.  (p220)

In those few short paragraphs White shows the gulf between what Dugald and Voss understood of one another and how there can be no conception of betrayal of trust and no guilt. They were Dugald’s people, and they were going in that direction.  The present absorbs them into the landscape which has been theirs for millenia – but this way of life, even then on the edge, is doomed. A loss of unimaginable proportion.

I read this book in June 2009.
Cross-posted in full at ANZ LitLovers.
Lisa Hill, Melbourne, Australia.

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