Patrick White, the first great novelist to come out of Australia, was born in 1912, won the Nobel Prize in 1973, died in 1990 and his work promptly dropped from fashion. His style of narrative-driven psychological modernism seemed outmoded, perhaps, when the highbrow section of the literary marketplace had turned to the exuberant post-modernism of Salman Rushdie and David Foster Wallace, on the one hand, and the differently stylized realisms of Raymond Carver and Alice Munro on the other. A chapter from one of White’s novels, submitted pseudonymously to a list of top publishers in 2007, was rejected by every one of them. White -- who was gay, had a gallows wit and self-consciously cast himself as an outsider, both ahead of his times and behind them -- would have seen the humor in that. He once said that he had wasted his life writing and should have stuck to “learning to cook properly.”
More recently Peter Carey, the second great Australian novelist, bemoaned the fact that virtually all of White’s work was out of print both in England and America. Now here are stunning new editions of White’s two most indelible books, “Voss” (Penguin: 440 pp., $16), introduced by Thomas Keneally (author of “Schindler’s List” and much else) and “The Vivisector” (Penguin: 617 pp., $17), accompanied by an essay from another Nobel laureate, J.M. Coetzee.
“Voss” is a historical novel, set in the 19th century, and its eponymous hero is based on a doomed German explorer who vanished into Australia’s dead heart, the brutal and ancient desert that occupies much of the continent, then roamed only by aboriginal tribesmen. Voss’ fatal flaw, and, oddly, his immense appeal as a character, is his pigheaded megalomania. Asked if he has studied the map of where he intends to go, Voss replies: “The map? I will first make it.”
White, with nice irony, writes of Voss: “At times his arrogance did resolve itself into simplicity, though it was difficult, especially for strangers, to distinguish these occasions.” For Voss, "[p]laces yet unvisited can become an obsession, promising final peace and goodness.” Like the British explorers who vanished into the frozen wastes of Antarctica, Voss thinks he’s making a journey of the mind, which is, in a way, how the story plays out, even though he dies in the grumbling darkness of wilds that are very real.
Voss makes the mistake of going into the desert with the idea of playing God, though his trek does finally inspire humbling self-knowledge. “He himself, he realized, had always been most abominably frightened, even at the height of his divine power, a frail god upon a rickety throne, afraid of opening letters, of making decisions, afraid of the instinctive knowledge in the eyes of mules, of the innocent eyes of good men, of the elastic nature of the passions, even of the devotion he had received from some men, and one woman, and dogs.”
White writes beautifully, precisely, and “Voss” is a heroic, brilliant novel. At its core is a haunting love story between the messianic Voss and Laura Trevelyan, the awkward young orphan he meets in Sydney before his journey. White keeps this platonic romance alive in his characters’ minds especially while they’re apart, giving the book its ache. Joseph Losey tried to film this story, and Peter Carey himself riffed upon it in his wonderful “Oscar and Lucinda.”
The impressionistic, painterly quality of White’s prose is to the fore in “The Vivisector,” a rambling narrative with eye-peeling power, and perhaps the most convincing of all fictional attempts to capture the magic-lantern sensibility of a great visual artist. The book’s hero, Hurtle Duffield, is a fictional composite of several painters White knew, including Francis Bacon and Sydney Nolan. Bacon (I used to see him in pubs in London’s Soho) had watchful sharks’ eyes that would suddenly light up like lasers, as if he were considering the removal of your viscera. Almost every sentence of “The Vivisector” has this scalpel-like quality, recasting the world’s surface to show how Duffield will render it in paint. The book begins: “It was Sunday, and Mumma had gone next door with Lena and the little ones. Under the pepper tree in the yard Pa was sorting, counting, the empty bottles he would sell back: the bottles going clink clink as Pa stuck them in the sack. The fowls were fluffing in the dust and sun: that crook-neck white pullet Mumma said she would hit on the head if only she had the courage to; but she hadn’t.”
Duffield’s parents give him away, so he is without illusions from the start, and he finds himself able to see through and dissect the weaknesses of others, qualities that inform his art and brutalize his relationships. “They walked on rather aimlessly. He hoped she wouldn’t notice he was touched, because he wouldn’t have known how to explain why. Here lay the great discrepancy between aesthetic truth and sleazy reality.” One of Duffield’s paintings is called “The Mad Eye,” representing God as artist, vivisector and enemy.
Like Voss, Duffield has his megalomaniac will, then, and, as in “Voss,” “The Vivisector” counterpoints a tone and philosophical reach that mimic Dostoevski with a gift for social observation and comedy worthy of Henry James. “Mrs. Trotter made a sincere though wrong sound, while opening her handbag to look for help,” White writes, describing a scene in which Duffield mingles with Sydney’s high-bourgeois ladies, angling for a patron. “Mrs. Horsfall closed the glossy pages and let the magazine fall plunk on the pearl-shell table.”
Both of these novels concern visionaries at large in a landscape that obsesses them while they almost hate it. Both reflect White’s ambiguous attitude to Australia, whose literary map he was indeed writing. Both show how plans, whether divine or not, seem to show themselves in our lives when least desirable. Both have pace and power, immense dramatic force, and deserts of sometimes intimidating mysticism. Best of all is the style. “Down the sleek asphalt hill the evening traffic was spurting through the purple shallows,” White notes, a great moment that recalls Saul Bellow, another writer who seemed so often to see through into the essence of stuff.
Twenty years after Patrick White’s death, “Voss” and “The Vivisector” are revealed once again as masterpieces. White may have deprecated his own talents, but he’s still cooking -- mightily.
Rayner’s Paperback Writers column appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.