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Anxiety and spite in a man of letters

12 May 2012 7,304 views No Comment

PATRICK Victor Martindale White was born in Knightsbridge, London, 100 years ago this month. As befits his standing as a winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, his centenary is a significant cultural event for Australia and deserves serious analysis as well as celebration. From 1935 until his death in Sydney on September 30, 1990, White published 12 novels, two short-story collections and eight plays.

This year’s centenary will most likely reinforce White’s standing as an Australian icon, but we need to remember that, as a writer, he toiled away for years in private obscurity. White’s first two great novels (‘The Tree of Man’ and ‘Voss’) attracted acclaim from the cognoscenti in the mid-1950s. He won the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award, in 1957, for ‘Voss’.

But White did not really become a truly public figure, known and revered by many Australians who may never have read anything he wrote, until the early 70s.

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The obscurity ended after two notable events. White was awarded the Nobel prize in 1973. And a year earlier Gough Whitlam was elected prime minister after Labor had been in opposition federally for 23 years. With a dashing new PM and a new world-famous author, Australia at last seemed to many progressives to have made a clean, if belated, break with its unheroic colonial past. White was ready to deploy his new-found prominence on Whitlam’s behalf. In 1974, after an early election was called, he spoke at a rally at the Sydney Opera House in support of his political and cultural hero, who went on to be re-elected. A year later, glory turned to rage when John Kerr dismissed Whitlam and replaced him with Malcolm Fraser. What White regarded as “a brave experiment” had ended. After Whitlam stood down as Labor leader in 1977, White addressed a farewell rally in Canberra at the Albert Hall.

Once he evolved into a public figure, there was no turning back for White. Fame, he found, had its obligations. All kinds of people whose business it was to generate publicity started to solicit him for product endorsements.

White’s engagement with the publicity machine had its awkward moments. A handful of White letters held in the National Library of Australia make this abundantly clear. In October 1977 White agreed to come to Canberra to launch the fourth volume of Manning Clark’s ‘A History of Australia’. The novelist and historian shared an admiration for Whitlam, and for each other.

Original correspondence, which can be read in the National Library, shows White reacting with alarm at the prospect, as the event drew nearer, of having to launch Clark’s book. It is quite an experience to witness the Nobel laureate in such a tizz.

The event, down to arranging White’s airfare to Canberra, was organised by Peter Ryan, Clark’s publisher at Melbourne University Press and, after 1993, his latter-day scold and critic.

Well before the day of the launch (March 6, 1978) a worried White contacted MUP to find out what exactly was expected of him. He told Ryan he had never launched a book before and had kept well away from other authors’ launches. He was quite a novice in such matters.

Whatever Ryan advised did the trick. Although White found public speaking stressful, the launch (in the Canberra Club) went off well — with the novelist’s endorsement of Clark and his book receiving widespread media coverage. White was quoted as saying “the evil powers, though formless and only too loathsomely powerful, will be routed by the flood of light he lets in”.

After the ordeal was over, White wrote a letter of thanks to Ryan, noting that Clark’s book was selling well and expressing the hope the launch had contributed to this success. Clark’s publisher, for his part, was keen to maintain such a profitable connection.

A good chance to bond further came in the autumn of 1980 when MUP published a biography of Ludwig Leichhardt by writer Elsie May Webster. Ryan was keen to promote it.

Was not the author of ‘Voss’, a novel known to be based in part on the life of Leichhardt, bound to look kindly on a book about the tragic Prussian explorer? Ryan, motivated by this thought, sent a gift copy of Webster’s scholarly tome to White.

But the gesture, though well meant, was a faux pas, as White made amply clear in a waspish reply to Ryan.

White had, he told Ryan, “groaned” when Webster’s book arrived. The publisher did not seem to realise there was a limit to the novelist’s passion for Australian explorers. He was, it was clear, quite Voss-ed out. “I can hardly endure to read another book about an explorer,” White hissed.

But worse was to come. White went on to tell Ryan he was getting ready to plough through the Webster biography but had given up in disgust when a subsequent mail delivery contained a card from MUP inviting him to the launch of the book.

Ryan’s postcard indicated that, of all people, Fraser, the great post-Whitlam Dismissal bugbear of White, had been asked to perform the launch at the National Press Club in Canberra.

White concluded his letter with a catty farewell. He told Ryan that “if she will submit to Mal, Elsie is not my whirlwind” (her biography was called ‘Whirlwinds in the Plain’). Clark’s publisher, by having anything to do with Fraser, had well and truly blotted his copybook in White’s eyes.

The years when progressive Australians revered Fraser lay far in the future. In 1980 he remained, for White and many others, Whitlam’s unloved nemesis.

Ryan’s Leichhardt launch had to go ahead in the face of the anti-Fraser fatwa from White. As matters turned out, the prime minister was absent as well. He was winging his way to Africa to try to nut out a deal with rebellious Rhodesia (the future Zimbabwe) and had to be represented by David Thomson, Fraser’s minister for science and the environment and, for good measure, federal member for the seat of Leichhardt.

White may have boycotted Ryan’s latest launch but Clark attended it. White was convinced Clark was failing to maintain the anti-Dismissal rage of 1975. Two months later he told Clark he had been “terribly disappointed” to discover the historian had attended a public function at which Zelman Cowen, Kerr’s successor as governor-general, had also been present.

The relationship between the unambiguously gay White and the allegedly bisexual Clark was complicated and, it seems, highly sexualised. White chided Clark: “You say repeatedly you are coming to see me. You never do, or if you do, you bring one of your children to act, I feel, as a shield.” Some time after, the historian wrote in his diary: “Alas, my being received back by Patrick White did not last for long. I have again offended him. This hurts me, because I am still in love with him.”

Although White’s letter to Ryan repudiating the Leichhardt launch was rather disrespectful to the publisher, such was the novelist’s fame that there was no question of Ryan tearing it up. Anything produced by White was preserved as a more or less sacred object. White’s wish for all his correspondence to vanish — “Letters are the devil, and I always hope that any I have written have been destroyed” — was again ignored.

The publisher hung on to the bitchy missive and kept his other White letters as well. To ensure their preservation they were included in material Ryan later donated to the National Library.

The White-Ryan letters are a genuine find. The correspondence is among the more comic of the cultural gems buried in institutions such as the National Library. They deserve to be better known if we are to celebrate White’s centenary year in all its shame and glory.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 35 books, most recently the satire Fool’s Paradise. Stephen Holt has co-written with Fitzgerald a biography of journalist ‘Alan “The Red Fox” Reid’.

The Weekend Australian, May 12-13, 2012 Inquirer p22