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.