I’m reading Patrick White’s collected letters at the moment, a vast selection edited by David Marr. I can’t tell you how much I am enjoying it. I was given this book (I’m afraid I can’t remember by whom, although I think perhaps a university friend), many years ago now, and all of a sudden I was really seized by an urgent desire to read it. I’ve no way to account for this sudden appetite – I’m still yet to read a single one of his novels. It seems increasingly bizarre to me, now I’m learning more about him, that I was never once, in all my great many years of schooling, called upon to read a single one of his texts. This is a situation I shall have to correct for myself at the first available opportunity.
Patrick White, for those of you who don’t know of him, currently retains the title of Australia’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature. He was almost as famous as a curmudgeon as he was a man of letters, which former reputation I am finding surprising as I read his prolific private correspondence (and this is only what survives – imagine if he hadn’t demanded the recipients destroy it all! His lifelong partner Manoly Lascaris complied, but I can’t help feeling pleased that so many of PW’s friends defied him on this count. And since Marr secured PW’s permission to collect and publish what remained before PW died, one hopes that the author might have been grudgingly pleased too), because he’s very good company indeed. There’s plenty of talk of his being bitter and cynical and miserable, but thus far very little evidence to support this version of himself that he evidently liked to cultivate. Still, all may be about to change… I’ve only reached his 40s. Maybe by the end he really is an incurable sourpuss, but it hasn’t happened yet.
It’s a fascinating life journey through letters, and it reminds me, over and over, how much I love the epistolary form. So imagine my delight when I came home from my walk today to find a REAL LETTER waiting in the letterbox. It just. Made. My. Day. I badgered this friend – who returned to England from Australia a couple of years ago now – into becoming my pen pal a little while ago, because I was so desperate to keep my own letter writing alive, and deflated beyond tolerance by continuing to write letters to people who do not write back. It is thoroughly demoralising and wretched in a way few things are to have years of letters go off to a meet a great big unanswered dead-end. Poe of course was interested in missing letters, but I’m much more caught up in those that are never written in the first place. Over the years I’ve ended up feeling quite wounded, which is terribly unfair, I suppose, given no one asked me to start writing the damn things in the first place. My wanting people to reciprocate is distinctly not the same thing as their wanting to themselves, and any die-hard letter writer probably needs to accept that the only response to their efforts may be a deafening silence. In which case I would say, welcome to my world.
So I pestered A into signing her life away, and thus far I’ve managed to drag a princely total of two letters out of her. Today’s is the second, and it’s a huge improvement on the first – in which she cheated by enclosing lots of interesting clippings from the TLS, but very little in her own hand – it’s long and entertaining, and gives me WILD RENEWED HOPES for our future correspondence. I devoured it with a lunatic grin plastered all over my face, and felt such a surge of pleasure to have received it that anyone would think she’d mailed me some cake. When I glimpsed the handwritten envelope, just visible beneath all the bank statements when I cleared the box just now, I can honestly say my heart leapt. A letter! Oh, it’s a real letter! And it’s for me – happy day!
So if she thinks she’s got a hope in hell of being let off the hook now, then boy, has she got another thing coming. In fact, she really does – I’ve only to write and send it.