Patrick, We Hardly Knew You…

July 29, 2010 at 12:35 am (Uncategorized)

A little emotional this morning, having just finished Patrick White: Letters, edited by David Marr. This will probably sound strange, but I’m really going to miss him. Nothing else of PW’s that I go on to read – for now I must belatedly acquaint myself with his fiction – will have the intimacy of this vast parcel of correspondence. I have no doubt that Marr’s biography Patrick White: A Life makes for excellent reading, but it is necessarily at a remove from the irreplaceable and often very funny voice of the man himself, and while I expect PW’s fiction will close this gap in one way, I know that making up stories erects barriers of a different nature between writer and reader.


I wish Patrick White were my pen pal.

No offence to the friend who currently holds the post – how sad that it’s dwindled to just the one, and how grateful I am to her for indulging me – but I really wish letters from PW were regularly dropping through the mailbox. What a treat – and (certainly for some of his correspondents) what a nightmare. Talk about tough love. In the way of a lot of very bright people, PW was evidently burdened with an inflated sense of certitude, and at times it made him a shockingly rigid judge of others. It was painful – watching, through these letters, the toxic disintegration of some of his long-term friendships. Decades-old affections: abruptly dismissed. And he wasn’t one to spend any time looking back, either. Once you were gone from PW’s good graces, you were in most cases done and dusted. By his own admission, he was not one to forgive.

We’re all together a vast jumble of contradictions, aren’t we, it’s human nature and I no longer find it surprising, and nowhere is this constant oscillation of the self more in evidence than in this collection of letters. The same man who was so inflexible was also generous to a stunning, sometimes very moving degree – the same man who could be so bitter as to make one flinch reading his enraged denouncements, simultaneously so thoughtful and sweet. I found myself cheering so many of his shrewd observations, agreeing with so many of his causes, greatly enjoying his witty forays into what turned out to be our many shared interests (though of course a great many writers love art, music, film, theatre, cooking, and travel – and to my knowledge all love reading), and yet also recoiling so completely from the worst of his venom, wincing at the unblinking, pigheaded cruelty of the sentiments he so freely expressed to others. It’s a terrible, blinding disease to fancy that one is always right.

And yet I was overwhelmed, again and again, by the realisation of how very little anything has changed. Much of his anger was, to my mind, well placed, not to mention uncannily, worryingly current given some of these letters were written half a century ago: he was repeatedly, badly disappointed and disillusioned by politics; he loathed Australia’s petty obsessions with things like material goods, vacant celebrity, TV and sport; he deplored the sacking of the country’s natural resources and the treatment of its original inhabitants; he scorned Australia’s status as slobbering lapdog to both England and the US; he feared for the environment and the future of the planet; he became a dedicated republican and lobbyist for nuclear disarmament, and he despaired of a world in which war was the habit, and not the hard lesson learnt.

Reading all this, I could only think, time and time again, “Yes – yes, yes, yes.”

Maybe by the time I am in my 70s I’ll be an incurable curmudgeon too. You must get pretty jack of it by then, and unfortunately that merry-go-round feeling – that creeping sense that we are all just caught forever re-enacting scenes that have already played and will keep on playing throughout time – leads me to suspect that’s about the size of what’s coming. And yet despite it all, he did believe – no doubt against his better judgement – in the better self. He did believe in our potential for change, he did believe we could become better than we are. He believed in art and music, love, moments of transcendence, and – interesting to me because so foreign – he believed in God. Not the God of a particular church, mind you, but perhaps an expression of the ultimate contradiction, a force he felt as something both altogether personal and absolutely universal. I can certainly relate to that – it’s just that for me, this is evidence of the human spirit at work, rather than the celestial.

Patrick White, it’s been truly lovely to meet you. Sorry I’m so late.



  1. litlove said,

    I’m most intrigued by Patrick White now, who is, I confess, an author I’ve never read. It’s really interesting to think that it’s his letters that have made such a big impression (not that I’m saying you don’t like his other work) because I figure you have to be quite the writer to make correspondence fascinating all the time. It’s too easy to fall back on banalities about the weather and how the photocopier at work broke down again and whether the shoes you like will be in the sale. I also wonder whether people will publish collections of emails in the future? I sort of hope so.

    • doctordi said,

      LL, I don’t know whether I’ll enjoy his novels or not, since like you I’ve not read any of them, but his letters have definitely piqued my curiosity. Oh, but don’t get me wrong – he talked often of the weather, and always about his health, which was never great.

      The thought of my own emails ever being in the public domain is simply too horrifying to contemplate, but having read PW’s letters, I’d certainly read another author’s collected emails (although I don’t think they’re the same).

  2. Grad said,

    We must be on a wave-length you and I. I just wrote a post about letters. Those precious little insights into people’s souls and lives. They contain all the passion, happiness, heartbreak, and hope of life. Wonderous things are letters.

    • doctordi said,

      Graddikins, there’s no one with whom I’d rather share a wavelength! Yes, exactly as you say. Love ’em.

  3. Lilian Nattel said,

    I’ve never read him either, but you have certainly made me curious, too.

    • doctordi said,

      Well, at least you guys aren’t *Australian* – a quick ask around has revealed hardly anyone I know has ever read a single one of his books. Very bad, kind of like your saying you’ve never read Atwood and LL’s never touched Dickens.

  4. Annah said,

    ahhh you have fallen for him as I did. He was a complicated, intelligent, life loving man. Strangely enough, not many Australians know of him as a writer, a political figure or even for the fact that his family owned practically half of NSW. After reading David Marr’s ‘A Life’, I excitedly wanted to discuss him with my Australian friends, work colleagues…..anyone….but alas, I was always meet with “Patrick who?”….I found that so odd. I would have thought he and his family would have been famous historical figures, and Patrick at least, after becoming the Nobel Prize winner. If he had been a New Zealander he would have statues of himself all over the place, and we would have studied him at school with pride.

    It is so wonderful to meet the writer (so to speak) before you embark on their novels. I find the reading of their work so much more enjoyable if I have been fortunate enough to have had a peek into their life before hand, and can understand them before I enter their ‘make believe world’ that they have created in their novels.

    In the modern world, it will be blogs and emails that we dredge up to get to know tomorrows writers. It makes me look forward to reading your novels in the future, having been fortunate enough to get an insight into your beliefs and experiences through reading your blog….the day will come Im sure.

    • doctordi said,

      Annah, what a lovely thing to say! I think I’m the fortunate one, having you in my corner.

      And yes, I agree that reading PW’s letters will bring something valuable to my experience of reading his novels. It’s not the way I usually come to an author’s work, I must say, but in this case it feels right. I feel sad to be coming to him so late when he’s such a phenomenally important figure in Australia’s literary history. It’s extraordinarily remiss.

  5. davidrochester said,

    *little dance of joy*

    Oh, what wonders await you in his fiction, which is unlike anything I have ever read, and which shaped much of the intellectual terrain of my late adolescence. Although it is not necessarily the most accessible, I love “A Fringe of Leaves,” about a 19th-century shipwreck, and its aftermath. Beautiful, disturbing, primal, and searingly insightful about human nature.

    • doctordi said,

      What I love about the letters is that I now know all about A Fringe of Leaves, whereas before I don’t think that title would have meant anything to me at all. David, I should have known you’d be part of PW’s American audience – it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that you’re already well acquainted. I’m undecided as to which one I want to read first… maybe The Vivisector…

      • davidrochester said,

        That was my introduction to PW, and it’s probably his most “readable” book, though it’s also marked by the emotional violence and intellectual vigor that make him such a remarkable author. I love that one too … not least because of the antiheroine character who is the keeper of the (anti)hero’s conscience, and the mirror of his soul.

      • doctordi said,

        The Vivisector it is, in that case – I do want some of his apparently characteristic brutality, but I’d also like to enjoy the maiden voyage into PW’s vast mind.

  6. Pete said,

    Also very interested to hear more about PW’s work, especially since David gives him a rave review. I remember a friend reading The Cockatoos but that’s the only reference I have for him.

    • doctordi said,

      Pete, I’ll be sure to let you know how I go. It’s all very exciting!

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