Voss by Patrick WhiteVoss by Patrick White


byPatrick WhiteIntroduction byThomas Keneally

Paperback | January 27, 2009

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Join J. M. Coetzee and Thomas Keneally in rediscovering Nobel Laureate Patrick White

In 1973, Australian writer Patrick White was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature "for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature." Set in nineteenth-century Australia, Voss is White's best-known book, a sweeping novel about a secret passion between the explorer Voss and the young orphan Laura. As Voss is tested by hardship, mutiny, and betrayal during his crossing of the brutal Australian desert, Laura awaits his return in Sydney, where she endures their months of separation as if her life were a dream and Voss the only reality. Marrying a sensitive rendering of hidden love with a stark adventure narrative, Voss is a novel of extraordinary power and virtuosity from a twentieth-century master.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.
Patrick White (1912-1990) was born in England in 1912, when his parents were in Europe for two years; at six months he was taken back to Australia, where his father owned a sheep station. When he was thirteen, he went to school in England, to Cheltenham, “where it was understood, the climate would be temperate and a colonial acceptable...
Title:VossFormat:PaperbackDimensions:464 pages, 7.71 × 5.09 × 0.96 inPublished:January 27, 2009Publisher:Penguin Publishing GroupLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:014310568X

ISBN - 13:9780143105688

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Read from the Book

From the introduction   Introduction     Out on the wastes of the Never-Never, That’s where the dead men lie! That’s where the heat-waves dance for ever – That’s where the dead men lie! Barcroft Boake, Where the Dead Men Lie   Human relationships are vast as deserts Patrick White, Voss    Patrick White is one of the great novelists of the twentieth century, on a par with his fellow Nobel Laureates William Faulkner, Halldór Laxness and Thomas Mann; and yet, one hundred years after his birth, his name seems temporarily and inexplicably lost in the immense desert spaces to which he introduced a new generation of readers, buried like one of those legions of Herodotus, beneath the glare and flies and red Australian sand.   Unsentimental, White predicted as much for himself. In 1981 after yet another project to film Voss had aborted, he wrote to the director Joseph Losey: ‘I’m a dated novelist, whom hardly anyone reads, or if they do, most of them don’t understand what I am on about. Certainly I wish I’d never written Voss, which is going to be everybody’s albatross. You could have died of him, somewhere in an Australian desert, so it’s fortunate you were frustrated.’   To those who believe in the replenishing powers of fiction to lead you into a region different from any that you have been capable of imagining hitherto, and then to leave you, if for a flicker, with an uplifting sense that you are yourself a slightly different person (while paradoxically someone who understands themselves a little better), the fading of White’s reputation is a stain. It was through works like Voss and his other ‘historical’ masterpiece A Fringe of Leaves – plus novels like The Tree of Man, Riders in the Chariot and The Vivisector – that White pioneered a new and absolutely necessary fictional landscape.   ‘I don’t think I could have survived without Patrick White,’ said one of his friends in Sydney, Joan Masterman, ‘because he wrote in a way no one else did about Australia. He was the first white author to express through his characters the huge connection the Australian bush has on one’s psyche.’ His best material might be drawn from local watering holes and billabongs, from Faulkner’s native postage stamp of soil as it were; his reach is anything but local.   To the singer Van Morrison, in Ireland, White was one of the greatest influences on his life. He was the recipient of the only fan letter that Salman Rushdie has written (after finishing Voss); as well, of an impromptu speech from the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, for whom reading Voss was a searing experience. ‘It is like using an iron crow-bar at minus sixty-five degrees centigrade in Siberia: when you let go, part of the skin adheres to it. Part of me went to Voss and blood too.’   White, he was saying, does more than get under your skin; in his best work, he flays the reader bare.   *   ‘I am never altogether happy if I do not know about past stages in the lives of my characters.’   White might have introduced ‘a new continent into literature’, to quote from his Nobel citation, yet his friend Barry Humphries called him ‘more Kensington than any man I know in Australia’. He was conceived in England, on Bisley plain, where his parents had gone to watch the shooting, and born at 11 a.m. on 28 May 1912 in their flat overlooking Hyde Park. He was baptised Patrick – a name he hated as much as his appearance, which has been compared to anything from a basilisk to a sea-lion – and, until he was twenty, known as Paddy – a name he detested still more. He had not a drop of Irish in him. ‘A Londoner is what I think I am at heart, but my blood is Australian and that’s what keeps me going.’ He was six months old when his parents took him to Australia for the first time.   He came from a family where ‘to become any kind of artist would have been unthinkable’. His parents were second cousins, descended on both sides from Somerset yeoman farmers who had sailed to New South Wales in the early nineteenth century and received generous land grants. The Whites were not literary: his father Dick read the stud-book, the Sydney Morning Herald and detective stories. From Dick White, a tubby and indolent grazier whose principal passion was horses, he inherited his pale blue eyes and an income that permitted him freedom to write his ‘peculiar’ books that none of his White cousins could ever quite finish (‘I ... would be in the gutter if it weren’t for the Perpetual Trustees’); from his ambitious gritty mother, Ruth Withycombe – a lover of theatre, hats and terriers, who was prone to admonishing him with a horse whip – his prickliness and violent temper. Tickled by a legend that a Withycombe might have been a fool to Edward II, White assumed for himself the licence to pen the unsayable. ‘Anything I may have certainly comes from the Withycombe side.’ This included the weak lungs which had brought the Withycombes out to Australia in the first place. Asthma would be the curse and defining force of a life which, from early childhood, ‘nobody would insure’. In his acceptance speech to the Swedish Academy in 1973 White wrote: ‘Probably induced by asthma I started reading and writing early on.’   One of White’s ‘great reads’ as a boy was the dictionary. ‘My own explosive vocabulary was born in my early childhood – by life out of the dictionary.’ Aged seven he ran to look up a word after a visit to Tasmania. White was hiding in the raspberry bushes near Browns River when he overheard a woman speaking about him: ‘I can’t believe he’s one of theirs. He’s like a changeling.’ Throughout his life, he never sloughed off the impression of being someone else’s child, an outcast and a refugee (‘refugees are in contact with life,’ he liked to say). Nor did he stop eavesdropping. ‘His antennae are so good,’ recalled another friend, Ninette Dutton, ‘that you can go out with him in the morning, buy some coffee, go to a couple of galleries, get the bus home, and he has accumulated enough material for a week.’   Not only asthma and basilisk looks set him apart. There was his Australianness, ‘the deformity I carried around’ – like the hunchback of his Withycombe grandmother (and of Palfreyman’s sister in Voss); there was his vocation as an artist in a land which cherished swimmers and athletes to an unmerciful degree; and there was his homosexuality. ‘As a homosexual I have always known what it is to be an outsider. It has given me added insight into the plight of the immigrant – the hate and contempt with which he is often received.’ And not only the immigrant: ‘Ambivalence has given me insights into human nature, denied, I believe, to those who are unequivocally male or female.’   That White was also ‘the greatest pessimist on earth’ he ascribed to a bush fire that he witnessed in the Southern Highlands, barely three months after his arrival in Australia, which destroyed the hotel he was staying in and from which he was rescued, in the nick of time, by his nanny. This was Patrick White’s truer baptismal moment. From the instant of his rescue, he coupled a permanent apprehension of danger with an abiding affection for Nanny Galloway’s replacement, a dark-haired Scots girl from Carnoustie. From the Presbyterian Lizzie Clark, he learned his moral code, which is that of the explorer Voss, and of Voss’s ‘twin obsessive’ Laura Trevelyan. To quell vanity and pride; to pursue simplicity and honesty; to conquer a harrowing sense of unworthiness; and, in as much as his changeling nature would allow, to love. ‘All genuine love was directed at this substitute of a mother,’ he wrote. ‘She was my real mother.’ In the White cosmos, love would always be synonymous with service.   At any rate, he came to look back on his close encounter with death as a germinating flash in which, like any healthy native gum-tree or bottle-brush, was contained the regenerative seed of future life. It is the scorching kernel of The Aunt’s Story, perhaps White’s favourite of his novels (possibly because he felt it to be the most ignored): ‘We must destroy everything, everything, even ourselves. Then at last when there is nothing perhaps we shall live.’ It lies also at the core of Voss, arguably the greatest of his novels: ‘To make yourself, it is also necessary to destroy yourself.’   *   ‘My novels usually begin with characters; you have them floating about in your head and it may be years before they get together in a situation.’   He claims to have conceived Voss during the London Blitz, in a bedsitter in Ebury Street, close to where he was born, as German bombs rained down. But Voss’s lineaments can be discerned further back, in a poem about a ‘mad Messiah’ that White wrote at Cheltenham College, where his mother had sent him at thirteen for an English education, and in which he tried to make sense of ‘the emotional chaos of which I was in possession’. In that poem, a man with ‘wild eyes and flowing beard’ cries out: ‘I am the Resurrection and the Life.’ At school in Cheltenham (which he remembered as ‘a prison’) and afterwards at King’s College, Cambridge, White looked just like Voss – thin, angular, with those blue eyes – and behaved in the same prickly and perverse way. ‘He didn’t like himself very much, and had times of loathing himself,’ said his cousin Betty Withycombe. ‘His mouth was always set very hard. He had a strain of stubbornness in him.’ The historian Manning Clark passed him once in Sydney, walking down George Street, and was taken aback by White’s expression. ‘It is the face of a man who wants something he is never going to get . . . something possibly no human being can give him.’ But what? Clark ruminated: ‘a hunger for forgiveness in a man who places himself, through his pride and pessimism, beyond the reach of forgiveness.’ Of himself, White did once go so far as to acknowledge that ‘in some ways I suppose I am very Victorian’. He admitted of the novel which would take him another sixteen years to finish – ‘the book that has been wrung out of me in sweat and blood’ – that all its characters were aspects of him- self, but none more so than the figure ‘conceived by the perverse side of my nature’. In Johann Ulrich Voss, ‘there is more of my own character than anybody else’s’.

Bookclub Guide

An Introduction To Voss The German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt was one of several nineteenth-century adventurers to perish in the Australian outback. Such attempts to cross the continent, not all ending in tragedy, inspired a fictional genre, the bush novel, that shares similarities with American westerns. These pulp novels centered on the derring-do of Europeans in an exotic, threatening, and often unknowable place. It is this genre that Patrick White borrows from and ultimately subverts in his novel Voss. While he based his doomed protagonist on Leichhardt, White was not interested in a “historical reconstruction” of the failed 1848 expedition, as he told his publisher. Instead, Johann Ulrich Voss becomes the vehicle with which White explores our flawed abilities to perceive and communicate deep truths and the role of suffering in finding the path to wisdom, themes which recur throughout his fiction.Voss’s expedition is sponsored by the well-to-do Sydney draper Edmund Bonner. When Voss first arrives at the Bonner house on a Sunday morning, he is marked as an outsider. Not only is he German and awkward in the company of genteel society, but he apparently lacks the good sense not to call on his patron during church hours. Furthermore, his apparent compulsion to venture into the Australian wilds arouses the interest and dismay of his hosts in Sydney. Equally distressing is his fondness for reciting romantic German poetry. Voss assembles a motley crew of adventurers around himself, including Palfreyman, an ornithologist who struggles vainly to reconcile his faith with his scientific principles, and Le Mesurier, a Rimbaud-like figure whose most important possession is a notebook filled with apocalyptic prose poems. Later in the journey they are joined by two aboriginal guides, Dugald and Jackie, and by Angus, a rich young property owner, and by Judd, a recently freed convict.To each of these characters the journey means something different. Edmund Bonner has recruited the team, in part to attach his name to what could be a historic expedition. To Palfreyman, the journey will have obvious scientific usefulness. To Judd, it is an opportunity to exercise his newly won freedom and his formidable bush skills. To Voss, the journey takes on metaphysical and spiritual dimensions. Apparently reared on German idealist philosophy, he sees himself as a Nietzchean superman or the embodiment of “will.” Will, the expression of historical and metaphysical truth, is a crucial concept in the philosophy of Hegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Throughout the novel Voss invokes will as a force capable of overcoming all human and natural obstacles. “Future,” Voss says before their journey, “is will” (p. 62).As they move deeper into the bush, Voss becomes less of a superman, an unyielding Prometheus against a cruel universe, and more of a martyr in a Christian passion play. The Christian imagery highlights Voss’s suffering but also his megalomania for assuming the role of martyr as well as redeemer. During the sacrifice of the goat on Christmas Day, Voss has a vision of “racked flesh” and of a departing soul. The scene prefigures Voss’s own death, which he eventually welcomes as a sacrifice. Later in the novel, when it becomes clear that they have ventured into hostile aboriginal territory, Judd persuades a few of the members to abandon the journey and turn back with him. In Voss’s universe, Judd is Judas to his Christ. The remaining adventurers follow Voss and his quest for divinity. He will either triumph against the forces of death and despair or will offer himself as a sacrifice to the godforsaken continent of Australia.Laura Trevelyan, the orphaned niece of the Bonners, makes possible Voss’s redemption. The two first meet at the Bonners that Sunday morning and instantly form a symbiotic relationship. Once separated, the two communicate with each other through dreams and visions. It is only through her intercession that Voss realizes the folly of his quest to cross the continent and of his delusions of divinity. After Voss has been captured by aboriginals, and most of his men have either fled or been killed, Laura says, “It is only human sacrifice that will convince man that he is not God” (p. 362). She offers this seemingly in response to Voss’s defiant claim, “They cannot kill me. . . . It is not possible” (p. 357). Just before he is beheaded with the penknife, a comet races across the night sky. This may be an allusion to Lucifer’s fall, but to his aboriginal captors it enacts the story of their ancestor the Great Snake, who returned to earth to punish man. Both stories emphasize Voss’s divine punishment for his overreaching pride. At last, he realizes that “I have no plan . . . but will trust to God. . . . I am to blame” (p. 371). Before his grisly death, he supplicates Christ and sees the comet dip below the horizon, leaving only the constellation of the Southern Cross in the sky. ABOUT PATRICK WHITEPatrick White was born outside London, England in 1912. When he was six months old the family relocated to Sydney, Australia. White’s childhood in Australia was plagued by numerous illnesses, including asthma, a condition that worsened throughout his life. At twelve, he was sent to a boarding school in Cheltenhem, England, which he considered his “English prison.” While on a school holiday in Scandinavia he discovered the plays of Ibsen and Strindberg, and his budding vocation as a writer.White finished his schooling early and returned to Australia where he worked for two years as a jackeroo in the mountains of New South Wales. Although his health improved during this time, it became clear to White that he was not suited for a life outdoors. From 1932 to 1935, White studied French and German literature at King’s College, Cambridge. It was then that he began writing plays and poetry in earnest. After taking his degree, he stayed in London and associated with other writers and artists, including the young painter Roy de Maistre. De Maistre would become an important friend and influence on his career. White dedicated his first novel to de Maistre and used a specially commissioned painting of his for the cover of one of his novels. When his father died in 1937, White was left an inheritance of 10,000 pounds, which provided the means to finance a career as a writer.His literary break came in 1939, when his first novel, Happy Valley, was published in London and later in America by the Viking Press, which would be White’s longtime U.S. publisher. The book, like most of White’s novels, was well received in Britain and America but was dismissed in his own country. During the Second World War, White served as an intelligence officer for the RAAF in Egypt, Palestine, and Greece. While in the Middle East, he met Manoly Lascaris, a Greek Army officer, who would become his lifelong partner. After the war, the two settled down in an old farmhouse outside Sydney, where for the next eighteen years White would publish his most accomplished novels. Notable among these works are The Tree of Man(1955), Voss (1957), and Riders in the Chariot (1961).Australians finally accorded him recognition and respect by selecting Voss as the winner of the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award. White won the award again in 1961 for Riders in the Chariot and again in 1968 for The Vivisector. After winning the Britannia Award in 1968, the relatively wealthy author decided that he would not accept any more prizes for his work. White’s stature as a leading international writer was enshrined in 1973, when he became the first Australian to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy cited his “epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature.” White didn’t attend the Nobel ceremony but did accept the monetary award, which he used to establish the Patrick White Literary Award “to advance Australian literature.” In addition to supporting Australian literature, White was a generous contributor to the aboriginal community and the visual arts. White’s health began to decline in the 1970s but he continued to publish respected work throughout his later years, including the The Twyborn Affair, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1979. White’s last novel, Memoirs of Many in One, appeared in 1986. In addition to his many novels, White published several plays, the short story collections The Burnt Ones, The Cockatoos, and Three Uneasy Pieces, and the autobiography Flaws in the Glass. He died on September 30, 1990. DISCUSSION QUESTIONSQuestions For Discussion, VossVoss is among other things a fine satire of middle-class Sydney society. Discuss the relative absurdity of the comedy of manners taking place in Sydney while the expedition’s adventures unfold in the outback. Does the Sydney plot function as comic relief in the novel? Is there any humor in White’s fictional universe?Voss turns the conventions of the Australian bush novel on its head, much like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian did with the conventions of the American western. Both novels are equally violent and at times unforgiving in their bleak outlook. Compare the ways the authors bend a popular genre to their own literary purposes.One important theme in the novel concerns language and the difficulties inherent in trying to use it to communicate deep truths. Consider these two statements by the narrator: “Words were not the servants of life, but life, rather, was the slave of words” (p. 196); “All words must be deceitful, except those sanctioned by necessity, the handrail of language” (p. 267). Compare Voss’s use of language with that of Palfreyman, a man adept at scientific taxonomy but limited in foresight.With the exception of Dugald and Jackie, aboriginals tend to exist on the periphery of the novel, as unknowable and threatening presences. Do you think White’s portrayal of aboriginal culture is insensitive? Do you think the aboriginals function here much like the Africans in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness?What is the significance of the cave episode in Chapter 10? It contains obvious parallels with Plato’s allegory of the cave, in which humanity without philosophy is capable of seeing only the shadows of reality. Why does Voss’s shadow “dominate the wall” of the cave?Discuss the Christian parallels in the novel. Voss is clearly Christ, Judd is Judas, and Laura is either Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary. Do these parallels exist for Voss alone? How do the aboriginals view his death? How does Judd view it?Most critics have seen Voss as a variation of the tragic hero cut down by hubris. Unlike Lucifer or Prometheus, however, Voss experiences true humility, partly through the intercession of an absent lover, i.e., Laura. How do you read the climactic chapters of Voss?From the beginning of the novel, when Laura says in reference to Voss that she “would not want marriage with stone” (p. 61), to the commemoration of the bronze statue at the end, Voss is associated with rocks and hard metal. This of course is in line with his flinty, stubborn nature. White also uses fire in reference to Voss. Discuss White’s elaborate use of imagery and its relationship to the novel’s characters and themes.At the end of the novel, why does Judd say that he was present at Voss’s death, that he in fact closed his eyes? Does Voss haunt Judd like he haunts the outback?Laura and Voss, despite being separated for most of the novel, have the most intimate relationship among the characters. Discuss their form of communication. One thing to consider is that White actually believed that mental telepathy was possible.