BORIS PASTERNAK once said that the good thing
about being a writer is that "although the artist will die, the happiness of living which he has experienced is immortal; captured in a personal and yet universal form, it can actually be relived by others through his work." Reading this bitter, honest biography by Australian novelist Patrick White, the reader finds very little happiness of living. Instead we experience with White all the bad food, bouncing buses, stuffy rooms, malfunctioning toilets and exasperating people that apparently fill his world. Even winning the Nobel Prize for literature is, as White describes it, a tiresome inconenience about on a par with locking your keys in the car in a rainstorm.
Since winning the prize in 1973, White has guarded his privacy. He shuns interviewers, saying there would be no life and work of Patrick White to discuss if he spent time chatting about them. Expectant and curious readers will learn that White is a homosexual, which one might have guessed from the androgynous hero of his latest novel, The Twyborn Affair; that he was born in London in 1912 to prosperous landed Australians; that he was sent back to England to public school and to study modern languages at Cambridge. Asthmatic and sulky, he was not, he believes, the sturdy heir his grazier parents wanted. Of his parents he writes with scorn: "I resented their capacity for boring me, and my mother's relentless determination to do everything for my own good, which included dumping me in a prison of a school on the other side of the world." White's satisfaction in later life comes from a loving 40-year relationship with a Greek man, Manoly Lascaris, whom he met during World War II; from his work; and from a strong though ill-defined religious striving.
There is plenty of material in the book for the future biographer, especially one with a psychiatric bent. White's "small and mild" father left whippings to his mother "whose technique with a riding crop was formidable." He remains unforgiving, enraged still at his parents' "amusement at their child's attempts to express his ideas." For the general reader, however, the book is hard going. With arrogant disregard for chronology, and for the formality of introducing the people he mentions, and with his twisting sentence rhythms and dense imagery, White seems to be trying to repel the reader as much as he does the journalists and thesis writers who pursue him.
White begins with himself, "the green, sickly boy, who saw and knew too much," bumping up against a confusing assemblage of Austrian relatives and going to boarding school, which he hated. In English school he was reminded "of the deformity I carried round--my Australianess." Only after a description of drifting around London and New York during World War II does the story become easy to follow. Because we know the external sequence of events here we can appreciate White's vivid descriptions of London in the Blitz, suffering under "a sinister pattering of metal rain," or "silken, boring Alexandria, pinned between the desert and the sea, with no outlet but adultery and bridge."
As a Royal Air Force intelligence officer, White had to go through the pockets of shot-down enemy airmen for maps, letters and diaries. Another intelligence duty that was fine training for a future novelist was to censor the letters British soldiers wrote home. "It seemed as though the scruffy, crumpled letters left in my tray, together with the letters to and from Manoly, were my only connection with real life."
In the section on the war, White's bleak vision is in harmony with his subject. His dismal view becomes tiresome however as the story line dissolves into notes on his travels with Manoly in Turkey and Greece and on friends and enemies in Australia. The reader gets irritated when every wound is "suppurating," every meal "tepid and oily," every icon "worm-eaten," every saint's face "pimpled, scrofulous," and fellow travelers compose a "grotesque cavalcade." Perhaps as a result of his allergic asthma, White is obsessed with stale air (that Anglo- Australian word "fug," referring to funky stuffiness, turns up again and again) and the smell of excrement and feet.
White's misanthropy does not exclude his readers. He writes: "I saw the Parthenon as the symbol of everything I or any other solitary artist aspired to before we were brought down into the sewage and plastic of the late Twentieth Century. Don't despair, however, any of you who have continued reading, it is possible to recycle s---."
Perhaps White attempts to repel people because he believes that without complete solitude he couldn't write. "Sexual ambivalence helped drive me in on myself," he writes. "Lacking flamboyance, cursed with reserve, I chose fiction, or more likely it was chosen for me, as the means of introducing to a disbelieving audience the cast of contradictory characters of which I am composed." Writing is not a solace but "a daily wrestling match with an opponent whose limbs never become material."
The critic George Steiner described White as "a master of solitudes, both in landscape and inside man." From his autobiography it would seem that there are only a few people in the world he can stand to be around. "I tell myself I must not hate human beings," he writes. "I try to conjure up a vision of an actual landscape and the inhabitants to whom it belongs. But it is hard for visions to survive in the plastic present, as mascara trickles from smeared eyes and blown-up lips gorge themselves on mass-produced food. There comes a moment when a stream of semi-digested eggplant, mincemeat, and tomato is vomited across the screen of memory in a sour splurge." The reader necessarily recoils from the image of life as so much semi-digested moussaka.
But Flaws in the Glass shouldn't keep readers away from his novels and stories. A Fringe of Leaves and Voss are, in particular, absorbing reading. Both are historical novels about literal rather than psychological treks.
In his novels there's plenty of dung and "fug" but White as novelist transcends these elements. In one rare interview White said of The Tree of Man, his first international success, "Life in Australia seems to be for many people pretty deadly dull. I have tried to convey a splendour, a transcendence, which is also here above human realities." In Voss he writes, "The blowfly on its bed of offal is but a variation of the rainbow." In his autobiography White gives us the offal and the fly without the rainbow.
Despite this apparently miserable view of human nature, White still considers people worth writing about, if not worth being with. He gives us a clue to the difference between composing an autobiography and a novel. He says that, though he never reads his books once he has corrected the proof, "If for some specific reason I have to open one and glance at a paragraph or two, I am struck by an element which must have got into them while I was under hypnosis. On one level certainly there is a recognizable collage of personal experience, on another, little of the self I know."
The title, "Flaws in the Glass," comes from White's early memory of a streaky gilded mirror in an English drawing room and suggests that any effort at representation is likely to distort the truth. There is truth missing in this self-portrait of a seemingly bitter, caustic, uncharitable man. As well as contributing generously to aboriginal schools, and establishing an award for unrecognized Australian writers with the money from the Nobel prize, Patrick White has given the world his novels.y