Patrick White was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973 “for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature” (I think what this is saying is that White was the first great writer about rather than from Australia). Of ‘Voss’, the citation said it is “an intensive character study against the background of the fascinating Australian wilds”. Faint praise, don’t you think?
Briefly, ‘Voss’ tells the story of an expedition, led by the eponymous character, to cross the Australian continent east to west. A party of settlers and two Aboriginal guides cross drought-plagued deserts as their resources gradually and inevitably dwindle. The objective is unclear – is this simply exploration ‘because it is there’ or is there a commercial imperative, based upon the vague suspicion that the heart of Australia might have riches in minerals, wildlife, or farmland? Interspersed with the chapters telling the story of this adventure are scenes of prosperous colonial life back in Sydney.
In his few days in Sydney before the start of the expedition, Voss meets a young woman, Laura, with whom he develops an unusual relationship. They retain a psychic connection despite their physical separation. There are distinct echoes of Jane Austen in some scenes of White’s portrait of life in mid nineteenth century Australia, where the arrival of eligible young men on board a navy ship causes quite a flutter among the young women of the settlement
“There is many a young fellow in the country who would jump at the opportunity of union with such a respectable firm.”
“I do not doubt it,” said Laura, “but I would not care to be the reason for anybody’s marrying a store.”
“It would be in the nature of a double investment,” the uncle replied gallantly.”
“Mr. Bonner,” protested his wife, “I am prepared bluntness should be a virtue in business, but in the family circle, it is not nice.”
Mrs Bonner is a direct descendant of Mrs Bennett, and the humour White derives from her neuroses lightens the mood following grim scenes from the expedition:“Mrs. Bonner was most fortunate in that she was able to banish thought almost completely from her head”.
There is a slight but distinct homo-erotic undertone some scenes – this is largely done by hints, looks and ambiguity, but it’s there nonetheless (I wrote this before subsequently reading that White was gay). Sentences such as “So the German was despising what he most desired: to peel the whalebone off the lily stem and bruise the mouth of flesh” (213) are really hard to deconstruct, but the overall impression is sexualised, phallic. This dense language is typical of the novel, in particular when conveying Voss’s internal monologue, or descriptions of the journey. White’s sentence construction, unexpected imagery (aboriginal women are “as cold as dead lizards”, (378) and a comet is “as soft as dandelions” (381)) and his (over)use of adjectives have given him the reputation of being a difficult writer – the Goodreads reviews of ‘Voss’ are littered with confessions of readers ‘giving up’ in frustration.
When writers, not least Nobel prize winners, do this, it is usually worth asking why. The principal reason is fairly easy to discern – White wants the reader to take time over his sentences, deliberately causing one to go back, sometimes several times, sometimes fruitlessly, to tease out the layers of meaning. There is a poetic quality to much of this, particularly the habit of describing things in unlikely ways. Here’s a good example of a sentence that demands to be read at least twice:
The midwife…arrived shortly, with an infallible knowledge of the world and a leather bag.” (228) (Was her infallible knowledge of her leather bag an important qualification for the midwife role?). Or what about this sentence:
“Just then, there was a crunching of soft stone, and a sound of leather and a smell of hot horse, followed by the terrible, distant voices of people who have not yet made their entrance” (15). Sound of leather is not too hard – it creaks – but why are the distant voices terrible? The reader has to answer this themselves – perhaps the person who is hearing this approach has a fear of other people, and is terrified by their presence. Neither Voss nor Laura, the only characters in the room when these sounds are heard, are shown to be particularly concerned about the presence of others (not that either are hugely sociable either) – so one could speculate that this is a mutual fear – they do not want to be intruded upon. There are other ways of conveying this desire to be alone however, and using the word “terrible” feels like hyperbole.
One final example – Mr Bonner, sponsor of Voss’s expedition, is described thus:
“Her husband, who was inclined to jingle his money, for fear that he might find himself still apprenticed to the past…”
Is White saying here that Mr Bonner’s money jingling is a way of reminding himself he is no longer a penniless child? I think so, but it is a reading that needs to be teased out of the sentence, making the reader do the work.
My main concern about ‘Voss’ is its brutal portrait of the aboriginal peoples of Australia. They are merciless, unthinking killers, and are shown as having no empathy for the white explorers. The racially charged terms that are used to describe the aborigines in the novel are I am sure historically accurate, but the novel does nothing to challenge the casually racist attitudes of the settlers and explorers.
Finally, a quick word about spoilers. No-one likes them, no-one commits them deliberately, but if you want to avoid them then don’t read this in a Penguin Modern Classics edition, where the blurb gives the novel’s ending away!