Words from the Great White Shark
PATRICK WHITE: LE 1 I ERS edited by David Marr Cape, £35, pp. 677 Patrick White always attracted the most towering quotes for his dust-jackets. `Stands in the same relationship to the rest of present-day English and American fiction as the Alps to the Cotswolds.' `Stands out among contemporary novels like a cathedral surrounded by booths.' `The one novelist at present at work in the English language who is indisputably pos- sessed of genius.' Genuine art that digs more deeply into the universal experience of human living than all save a few great books.' As I witnessed at the time the bestowal of these accolades one by one, it struck me to compare them with blows delivered with the open glove by boxers: the slap creates great decibels but it is not that firm bunched fist that brings the knockout. If all these raves were true, then White could not escape being one of the very few key novelists of the century. In 20 years' time, when one thought about fic- tion, White would necessarily form a vital part of that thinking. The critical currency would casually include 'the world of White' as it includes 'the world of Waugh' or 'the world of Greene' or if you like, bless us, `the world of Murdoch' or 'the world of Spark'.
That surely has not come about: but if it has not, that is not to be laid at the door of David Marr, who now heroically follows 727 pages of Life with 677 of Letters. These two massive tombstones, one at head and one at foot, are very much of a build and indeed, it might be said, of a build with the novels themselves, at any rate in poundage. Of course if one is a glutton for gigantism one cannot, by definition, ever have too much; and those who won intellectual nur- ture from the Life will find the Letters another huge gravy-swimming plateful of the same. Others might feel that both White and Marr could have said less in order to say more.
White himself once remarked, in his endearing way, that 'My homosexuality gives me all the insights that make me a great writer.' The impression one might rather get from the Letters is that certainly his orientation may have been in some sense his original deep wound, for wound- ed he undoubtedly was: but he is not in the least overtly, except to a small extent in his last novels, a 'homosexual writer'. Any more than, except for Maurice, E. M. Forster was. The inclination in either case seems to have been a negative or subtrac- tive factor rather than a positive informing power. The condition rather led, for both, given the climates of their times, to senses of social isolation, rather than the specific sexuality, that drove. Socially indeed, White was even born a rather grand Australian, a fourth-genera- tion scion of large farming landowners, magistrates, members of state parliaments; all his life he enjoyed a reasonable private income. But somehow, despite all that, alienation set in early. Perhaps it was the sex, perhaps it was the schooling away in England; at any rate over the years he increasingly saw himself as the ultimate antipodean malcontent, suffering from a whole succession of 'diseases' — the dis- ease of foreignness, the being an English- man in Australia, an Australian in England; the disease of an unrelenting memory for a thousand and one treasured personal slights, no matter how unintend- ed, how trivial; the disease of unslakeable self-regard and literary ambition. No writer ever made larger demands for and on him- self, or meditated larger revenges. One is reminded, ludicrously, of Baron Corvo. But of homosexuality as such, in the Letters, there is hardly a glint. But then there is, for that matter, precious little of any personal kind, either man to woman or man to man. He keeps his cards close to his chest, defending his heart behind them. The burthen of the Letters then is dou- ble: half that comprehensive dispraise, hatred of self, contempt for all who fall in his way; and half written in the conviction that each single one of his humble corre- spondents must be agog to learn every tiny last detail of his current literary enterprise, down to the final nut and bolt. About the recipients' own activities there is notably less concern: there is, from internal evi- I've always been a bit of a ladykiller.' dence, little telling apart of one correspon- dent from the next. One yomps on for page after page, hoping against hope for a change of scenery, a change of mood, a change of heart. In vain. 'One of the great- est letter-writers of his time', as his present blurb describes him, must do better than lay down a carpeting of 'I' from wall to wall. Correspondence, unless one writes (which White assuredly did not) purely for publication, must be a two-way process.
Certainly we hear much, very much, of the geneses and gestations of the various novels: but here perhaps Man has to a degree cut the ground from under his own feet by already dealing with all this in exemplary manner in the Life. We hear but hardly learn. What is to some extent fresh is the quality and quantity of the remorse- less vituperation, which ranges from the serious and arguable to the merest knee- jerk cantankerousness. Hardly a public fig- ure escapes, hardly a private friend. The landscape about him is spattered with blood-drops from bitten would-be helping hands. If A suggests putting in White for a literary prize, then A is a complete shit to think of him in connection with something that was won last year by that complete shit B. Bang-bang. No wonder that his auto- biography, Flaws in the Glass, in which he worked off a few hundred such grievances, was known in his circle, though behind his back, as Claws in the Arse.
Even the poor unoffending monarch is lashed, though all she had ever done to him personally was to invite him to lunch (`She is probably the first of the Windsors to invite a serious writer to lunch') and offer him a knighthood (`You can imagine my reply.') And 'Just heard that abominable woman QE II exalting Britain's part in the Falklands War. It seemed from here that Thatcher's gang was every bit as bad as the Argentinian one' — though I don't recall weeping mothers circling Trafalgar Square every Thursday bearing photos of their beloved desaparecidos.
It is always tricky to balance Letters against letters. Those of Larkin, and indeed his Life, have lately provided us with some- thing of a comparable scenario: though most people will, I believe, find that after all the mud and moans have trickled off and died away, the poems stand out as clean and virginal as ever. 'But artists don't operate like that: you have to allow', plead- ed one of White's victims in saint-like mode; 'like that' implying ordinary worka- day loyalty, decency and humility. It is, I suppose, possible that White and Larkin are in like case. You have to allow; after Marr and Motion have done their best and worst, nece7ssary doings for that matter. But whether White was indeed a mighty novelist, or whether a vast stout candle of not quite first-class wax into whose fat flame squadrons of provincial moths queued for immolation, is a query that only that critic Time will eventually resolve. Not for us, I think, just yet.