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Australia's Clenched Soul : PATRICK WHITE: A Life By David Marr , (Alfred A. Knopf: $30; 650 pp. )

March 15, 1992|Thomas Keneally | Keneally is an Australian novelist whose last book was "Flying Hero Class." He teaches in the Graduate Programs in Writing at UC Irvine.

In 1973 the Swedish Academy awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature "to Patrick White for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature."

Australians thought that at last this was their chance to take to their hearts and reexamine the great, austere Modernist of Martin Road, Centennial Park, Sydney. But then as always Patrick White refused to be cozy about his demeanor toward the human race, toward Australians in particular. He refused public appearances; he would not go to Stockholm, and to the thousands of people (including myself) who wrote to him offering congratulations, he replied that the Nobel Prize "was the most destructive thing that could befall any writer."

Yet as ambiguously as he accepted the prize he had also ambiguously sought it, once complaining at the dinner table in Sydney to Artur Lundkvist of the Swedish Academy about the way the Swedes were dallying with his nomination.

White's anomalies were all of a piece with his flawed soul and massive talent. His only excuse for his thorny character was his half dozen or so great 20th-Century novels. Though no two White admirers agree on what the best novels are, "Voss," "The Tree of Man" and "Riders in the Chariot" made his international repute.

People complained that he never seemed to share a lot with ordinary Australians. He came in fact from a background that most of them were unfamiliar with. His clan was the nearest thing to grandees Australia could produce--they owned enormous sheep-grazing acreages in the Hunter Valley, northwest of Sydney. They were Australian mimics of British gentry.

"I am an anachronism," White, born in 1912, lamented, "something left over from that period when people were no longer English and not yet indigenous." His mother would not employ Australian servants, since they were likely to be crass. She brought Patrick up to suspect the turbulent, snot-nosed, proletarian Irishdom of Inner and East Sydney. He would later parody her pretensions savagely in a number of fictional clones he made of her.

His father was a genial fellow who bought and raced a number of champion horses. The boy, an austere, asthmatic child, wanted to escape "the sheep world." No one then or after could understand why he didn't find it easier to be a friend, a mate, a cobber. He was growing up in the most casual, easeful societies on Earth, and his soul was, in one way, wrong for Australia: "I can never forgive mediocrity in anyone. I'd almost rather have a positive, flashy badness."

His parents sent him to one of the best British schools, Cheltenham, where his inevitable Australian accent was patronized by the British. He went to Cambridge, pursued homosexual affairs, came home and worked hard as a jackaroo, an unpaid apprentice sheep farmer. He yearned for a man to be his life companion, and he wrote some novels. Jackaroo-ing made him decide he would never want to administer or work on the great White pastures. He went to London and had tentative affairs, one with a Spanish envoy of Franco's.

From the time his first book, "Happy Valley," was published in the late 1930s, White was "dogged all his career by the demand he put aside his private vision and write optimistically about decent Australians."

Then, as on the day he won the Nobel, he would not be chatty and companionable; he refused to be a mate, for he was to be Australia's Prophet Elijah, and he flayed us with scorpions.

Despite his severe asthma, he served as an intelligence officer in the Royal Air Force for six years through World War II, writing novels on desert air strips, the sweat falling on the page. In Alexandria, in an urban villa, he met his man--a small, tidy, generous-hearted Greek officer called Manoly Lascaris. They would meet as often as their different commands would permit, and were in the same tide of troops that liberated Greece. White had found his only mate, and they decided that they would live together in Australia. What Lascaris knew of that continent until that moment came from the label of the Tasmanian jam that his family used to eat when he was a child.

It was at first sight a strange decision. Australia at the end of World War II was full of bright young actors, writers and artists who had only been waiting for the war's end and the loosening up of shipping so that they could get back to Europe. White took the other direction, to a small, raw, muscular society that would never come to terms with him. Yet when he neared the coast of Western Australia, he got "the first whiff of a fate that would never be renounced."

Back in Australia, living at first on a little farm with Lascaris, he began to write his mature works: "No plot, except the only one of living and dying." He raised schnauzers too, this most private of men, and took them to the Royal Easter Show, standing behind the dogs' benches and answering the public's questions. He would never be as forthcoming about his novels as he was about his dogs.

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