Patrick White – One of My Favorite Fiction Writers of the 20th Century


Patrick White

Born:   May 28, 1912    Died:   September 30, 1990

Naming my favorite writers is kind of like populating my personal Mount Olympus with my own literary gods.  Each of the writers has their own special talents and strengths and weaknesses. Keeping with that Olympus analogy then my Zeus, my god above all gods, is Australian Patrick White.  If I can convey why Patrick White deserves this special place in my literary pantheon, I feel I will have accomplished something special.

First I want to say that White’s fiction has the vivid storytelling and the unique fascinating characters of traditional good fiction.  However he always attempted to go deeper into the human mystery and usually succeeded. Let me explain.

Let’s start with a couple of simple sentences from White’s story “Dead Roses” which is in his story collection ‘The Burnt Ones’

“If she had only been able to touch him, they might perhaps have pooled their secrets and discovered the reason for human confusion. But as that wasn’t possible, she went outside, into the garden.”

Patrick White is always striving to find that deeper visceral truth between people that goes beyond thinking or rationality.   For instance, let’s take any situation where two people meet.  Each of us has a whole lifetime of experiences that make us unique including our inherited traits, sex, babyhood, childhood, parents, surroundings, school, work, friends, and enemies.  Reason can only take us so far in understanding what exactly happens when any two people meet or collide.  There is always a strong undercurrent.

“I am interested in detail. I enjoy decoration. By accumulating this mass of detail you throw light on things in a longer sense: in the long run it all adds up. It creates a texture — how shall I put it — a background, a period, which makes everything you write that much more convincing.” – Patrick White

All of the concrete detail in his stories keeps White from becoming too abstract. He is a writer who relies on the intuitive rather than intellect.

“I have the same idea with all my books: an attempt to come close to the core of reality, the structure of reality, as opposed to the merely superficial. The realistic novel is remote from art. A novel should heighten life, should give one an illuminating experience; it shouldn’t set out what you know already. I just muddle away at it. One gets flashes here and there, which help. I am not a philosopher or an intellectual. Practically anything I have done of any worth I feel I have done through my intuition, not my mind – which the intellectuals disapprove of. And that is why I am anathema to certain kinds of Australian intellectual.” – Patrick White

Perhaps White’s best representation of this battle between the cold rational versus the warm intuitive occurs in the novel ‘The Solid Mandala’ which is the story of two dependent but antagonistic brothers.

The one thing that I have left out so far is the sheer pleasure and enjoyment I get from reading one of Patrick White’s many masterpieces. He has a vivid lively way of presenting his stories whether he is writing about an explorer in the Australian outback in ‘Voss’ or a powerful Australian matriarch in ‘The Eye of the Storm’. His novels are long but they are well worth the effort and the time spent.

Fiction by Patrick White that I strongly recommend:  I would recommend any one of his many masterpieces. Here is my personal list: ‘The Solid Mandala’, ‘Voss’, ‘The Eye of the Storm’, ‘Riders in the Chariot’, ‘The Vivisector’, ‘The Tree of Man’, ‘The Aunt’s Story’, ‘The Twyborn Affair’, ‘A Fringe of Leaves’, ‘The Burnt Ones’ (a short story collection).

Quotes about Patrick White

“Patrick White has the ability, for the reader who stays with him, to penetrate one step further into their interior.” – Nicholas Shakespeare

“Patrick White is a strongly individual, richly gifted, original and highly significant writer whose powers are remarkable and whose achievement is large. His art is dense, poetic, and image-ridden. It is always a substantial and genuine thing. At its finest it is one which goes beyond an art of mere appearances to one of mysterious actuality.” – William Walsh, in Patrick White’s Fiction (1977)

Quotes by Patrick White

“What I am interested in is the relationship between the blundering human being and God.” – Patrick White

“Human relationships are vast as deserts: they demand all daring, she seemed to suggest.”  – Patrick White, ‘Voss’

“Human behavior is a series of lunges, of which, it is sometimes sensed, the direction is inevitable.” – Patrick White

“Because he had nothing to hide, he did perhaps appear to have forfeited a little of his strength. But that is the irony of honesty.” – Patrick White



‘The Abbess of Crewe’ by Muriel Spark – A Whole Lot of Bugging Going On


‘The Abbess of Crewe’ by Muriel Spark    (1974) – 116 pages

Only Muriel Spark could get me to read a novel about a convent – an abbey – of nuns (with the delightful exception of the children’s Madeline series by Ludwig Bemelmans of course).  I have read just about everything else Muriel Spark wrote so it was finally time to read ‘The Abbess of Crewe’.

“You mean, Lady Abbess”, she says, “You have even bugged the poplars?” 

Yes, ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ was Muriel Spark’s answering satire to Watergate where US President Richard Nixon had bugged his office, recorded all of his conversations, and which ultimately led to his downfall.

The novel is mainly played for laughs but does have a significant point.  Alexandra considers it her destiny to be the next Abbess of Crewe, and she will let nothing or no one stand in her way.  She has a team of nuns including Mildred, Walburga, and the gullible Winifrede working for her, setting up the electronic equipment.  There is also Sister Gertrude who is out in the field and calling in from the African jungle or the Andes or Tibet or Iceland with philosophical advice. Alexandra is opposed by the rebel nun Sister Felicity “with her insufferable charisma” who is rumored to be having romantic trysts with a Jesuit priest.

“Clear off,” says Mildred, which Winifrede does, and faithfully, meanwhile, the little cylindrical ears in the walls transmit the encounter; the tape-recorder receives it in the control-room where spools, spools, and spools twirl obediently for hours and many hours.

Perhaps the best way to describe ‘The Abbess of Crewe’ is that it is “horrifically comic” like so much of Spark’s work is.  It does capture that mood of Watergate as I remember it with all these underlings furiously working for their harsh unethical boss.

Muriel Spark writes of all the shenanigans going on in this abbey with her usual economical spirited sparkling style.  I can fully understand why Graham Greene provided Muriel Spark enough money early in her career so she could write full time, a good investment.  I wish there were more writers like Muriel Spark or Penelope Fitzgerald who could provide a dazzling entertainment in a hundred or so pages.  Having read and thoroughly enjoyed the 1296-page ‘War and Peace’, I feel I can speak out in defense of the short novel.

During her writing career, Muriel Spark eventually refused to be edited.  She insisted, “If I write it, it’s grammatical”.

‘The Abbess of Crewe’ was adapted into a movie called ‘Nasty Habits’ in 1977.


Grade:   A-


‘The Transition’ by Luke Kennard – A Remedy for Young Hapless Middle Class Under-Achievers


‘The Transition’ by Luke Kennard  (2017) – 328 pages

In, ‘The Transition’, Karl is a young man in the near future who has gotten himself and his wife Genevieve into a whole mess of financial trouble.  It is not that Karl isn’t smart; Karl is very smart.  He has gotten his Master’s Degree in English focusing on the Metaphysical Poets. Who would ever guess that somebody with that superior academic background would have financial troubles?

So now that he is out of college with a loving wife and huge college debts to repay, how does Karl keep the two of them above water?  It helps that Genevieve has a steady job as an elementary school teacher, but that is still not enough money.

However there is the Internet.  Karl makes money on the Internet writing glowing reviews of products he never used and restaurants he has never visited.  He writes brilliant academic papers under the guise of “study aids” that undergraduates can buy and use for their own course work.  Most of the Internet money he earns is faintly dishonest and the employers are anonymous, but he is underpaid for the work anyway.  He still has to jiggle payments between credit cards in order to stay afloat.

Ultimately one of his dishonest Internet jobs gets him into legal trouble.  He is given a choice.  He can either go to prison or enroll, along with innocent wife Genevieve, in something called The Transition. The Transition is a six-month rehabilitation program with a goal of rescuing “a generation suffering from an unholy trinity of cynicism, ignorance and apathy.”

Karl and Genevieve are assigned another couple, Stuart and Janna, as mentors to teach them fiscal responsibility.  Karl and Genevieve must move to an apartment adjoining their mentors. While Karl rebels against the imposed guidance of The Transition, Genevieve flourishes within this new system.

Luke Kennard has created a great setup for this novel which I suspect is a dilemma a lot of young people face with massive college debts and morally dubious low-paying opportunities involving the Internet.  The idea of this relief organization with mentors to rehabilitate people financially is also excellent.  My main concern with ‘The Transition’ is that the humor after the original setup is a little too tame and subtle for me.  It could have been broader and sharper.  I could picture these financial mentors Stuart and Janna as being much more obnoxious.  Somewhere I read an admiring review comparing ‘The Transition’ to ‘Lucky Jim’.  However Kingsley Amis was much, much meaner and nastier with his characters than Luke Kennard could ever be.  I felt Kennard’s attempts to be fair to all of his characters watered down the humor to some extent.


Grade:   B 


‘H(a)ppy’ by Nicola Barker – A New Age Social Media Dystopia


‘H(a)ppy’ by Nicola Barker   (2017) – 282 pages

‘H(a)ppy’ by Nicola Barker won the Goldsmiths Prize for “Fiction at its Most Novel”, a literary prize I particularly watch out for each year.  ‘H(a)ppy’ has been praised to the skies by reviewers in England, Scotland, and Ireland, yet I did not find even one notable review of the novel by a major United States reviewer. Appreciation for Barker in the United States still lags far behind her success in the British Isles.  At this point I would say that United States readers are too conservative and conventional to fully appreciate the wilder turns that Barker’s fiction takes.

About a decade ago, I was totally won over to Nicola Barker and her unique distinctly odd style of writing with her novel ‘Wide Open’.  At that time I recognized that Nicola Barker was a writer who was new and different yet still delightful, a writer to watch.

‘H(a)ppy’ takes place in a future where a confluence of social media rules everyone’s lives.  “The System” now protects and directs everyone with its “Path of Light”. Psychotropic drugs adjust personalities and advanced electronic devices monitor every thought and every act. Everyone keeps harmoniously “In Balance”. Our narrator Mira A. has almost totally bought into this New Path which is the new way of looking at things.  She says things like “I will not allow myself to regret this strange weakness, because regret is counterproductive.

The one trait in individuals that The System particularly watches out for and monitors for is an EOE, an Excess of Emotion.  Mira A. wants very much to fit into this System, but she also loves her music which can sometimes cause an EOE.

 “Don’t you think there might be a special kind of sadness that is almost a form of happiness?” 

‘H(a)ppy’ is somewhat self-centered and overwrought since it is concerned with only this one central character Mira A.  She wants to fit in and feels terrible that she can’t conform due to her love of music.  Her music makes it difficult for her to be one of the Young and perfected.  Just in terms of the story, it probably would have helped if Mira A. had had a sidekick she could talk to especially since Nicola Barker is usually so brilliant with dialogue.  As it is, I got a bit sick of all of the social media blather in ‘H(a)ppy’.

The text in ‘H(a)ppy’ is zany beyond belief.  Some of the words are different colors and there are experiments with the size of text, and there are a number of pages that have stuff on them that you could not possibly read (which makes the novel shorter than the 282 pages would indicate).  To me, all these experiments in text were more a distraction than anything else.


 Grade :  B+ 


‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor – The Human Part of Nature


‘Reservoir 13’ by Jon McGregor   (2017) – 290 pages

‘Reservoir 13’ begins with the disappearance of thirteen year-old girl Rebecca Shaw from a small English village.  However the novel does not turn into a mystery attempting to explain the girl’s disappearance. Instead ‘Reservoir 13’ becomes something much more than that.

It is a partial record of the events that transpire for the various townspeople after the disappearance, often the amorous events of these men and women, young and old.  Life goes on.

This may not seem like much but let me explain.

McGregor views the people of this rural village with the same calm steady keenly observant attitude with which he observes the trees, the birds, the fish, and the other animals.  His view appears to be that we humans are as much a part of nature as everything else.

This is an important lesson.

He mentions the births, the deaths, the getting together and the parting of the ways of the various townspeople.  No person is more important or less important than the others.  Just like the plants and the animals, we go about our various affairs.

“There was rain for most of the day and snow on the higher ground.  The tips of the new-growth heather could just be reached through the snow.  Wood pigeons came out into the gardens where feed was put out and were often chased away.”

McGregor describes the doings of the townspeople in the same steadfast methodical tone he uses for the plants and animals.

“At the school there had been talk that either James Broad or Liam, or both, had once slept with Becky Shaw.  That talk seemed malicious and unlikely.  Sophie and Lynsey wanted to know where the talk had come from and James told them he didn’t want to fucking think about it.  Sophie tried to give him a hug but he shook her off.  Liam threw stones into the water.”

Don’t even try to keep track of the stories of all of the various townspeople who are mentioned in ‘Reservoir 13’.  There are just too many things going on with way too many people to follow them all.  That is not the point of ‘Reservoir 13’.

What is the point of ‘Reservoir 13’?  For me it is that we humans are just as much a part of nature as the plants and animals.  Our matings and our partings are just as subject to the rules of nature as those of the other plants and animals.  This undeniable fact is both reassuring and frightening.

Even if life may have come to an abrupt end for someone else, daily life goes on for the rest of us.


Grade:   A


‘The Perfect Nanny’ by Leila Slimani – Not a Lullaby


‘The Perfect Nanny’ by Leila Slimani   (2016) – 228 pages                                                    Translated from the French by Sam Taylor

I would not read a bestselling thriller just because it is popular.  I have never read ‘Gone Girl’.  The only reason I have now read ‘The Perfect Nanny’ by Leila Slimani (titled ‘Lullaby’ in England and other English-speaking countries) is because it won the 2016 Goncourt Prize which to me is usually a mark of French literary distinction.  I have read several Goncourt Prize winners in recent years.

The young French couple Paul and Myriam are looking for a nanny for their two little children, Mila and Adam, so that Myriam can go back to her job as a lawyer. Their main requirement for a nanny is she not be an illegal immigrant.  The French woman Louise shows up, they hire her, and she turns out to be the perfect nanny in every respect.  The kids like her, and she has them doing all kinds of interesting things.  The parents even decide to take her along on their vacations.

And of course the situation is way too good to be true. ‘The Perfect Nanny’ is a nightmarish psychological thriller.

Looking at ‘The Perfect Nanny’ from a literary angle, I must say that I was not impressed with the novel. The prose here is efficient and workmanlike as we’ve come to expect for thrillers, and it is not at all individual or idiosyncratic as one might expect for a Goncourt Prize winner.  For a Goncourt Prize winner, ‘The Perfect Nanny’ is rather a drag at the sentence level.  There is not much going on in the individual sentences.

I also did not find the transformation of the nanny Louise from “prim politeness” to something entirely different at all convincing.  It seems to me that in a psychological thriller there should be hints from the very beginning that something is not right.  However in ‘The Perfect Nanny’ we read the entire first half of the novel, and Louise is still perfect in every way.

I probably will not be reading any further novels by Leila Slimani.  There is one French woman novelist who has not won the Goncourt Prize so far, yet I find her work of such a high quality that I can’t figure out why she hasn’t been awarded the prize yet.  I have read three novels by Delphine de Vigan: ‘Underground Time’, ‘Nothing Holds Back the Night’ and ‘Based on a True Story’. Any of these three but especially ‘Underground Time’ would have been a fine winner.  They have the literary fineness appropriate for the Goncourt.  Delphine de Vigan is the real thing.


Grade :   B-


‘The Seven Madmen’ by Roberto Arlt – A Maelstrom of Outcasts in Buenos Aires


‘The Seven Madmen’ by Roberto Arlt   (1929) – 242 pages                                                Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor


What words can I use to describe ‘The Seven Madmen’? It is intense, painfully honest, vivid, brutal, grotesque, and insightful as hell. At the same time the novel reflects the energy and chaos and explosive madness in Buenos Aires during the early 20th century.

Among Argentine writers, Roberto Arlt is a legend   His own definition of literature was “a good sock in the jaw”.

Roberto Arlt, born in 1900, was the son of two of the many Prussian immigrants to Buenos Aires. His parents were attracted to Argentina by the promise of land to farm not realizing that all the land was already in the hands of a few owners.  They wound up in the slums of Buenos Aires. Roberto began his career as a journalist writing Buenos Aires Sketches and he wrote the novel ‘The Seven Madmen’ in 1929.

‘The Seven Madmen’ is the story of Reno Erdosain, a small-time swindler and frequent brothel customer. Better than me describing Erdosain, let me give you some quotes about him from the novel.

“He understood that destiny had flung him into that maelstrom of outcasts who stamp life with the foul imprint of every imaginable vice and suffering.”  

“Yes, it’s sad to see other people happy, to see that they don’t understand that you are unhappy and always will be.”

“And yet it is only thanks to crime that I can affirm my existence, just as it is only evil that affirms man’s presence on earth. “

“And tell them I was a murderer. And yet, as a murderer have loved every kind of beauty, and have fought within myself against all the horrible temptations that have welled up hour after hour from deep with me. I have suffered for what I am, and for all the others as well, d’you understand? For all the others as well.” 

It is for good reason that Roberto Arlt has been called the Dostoyevsky of Argentina.  He tells the truth no matter how hurtful it is to himself.

‘The Seven Madmen’ is also a prescient political novel.  Even though it was written in 1929, it predicts the rise of Fascism.

“We will have a wide variety of perfect lies, each one labelled for a different disease of the mind or soul.”

“It’s all the borderline people who get puffed up with empty phrases…And the first people I am approaching for an answer are these malcontents.  As a goal I offer them a lie which will bring them happiness by inflating their vanity.”

Roberto Arltt

Arlt goes on to describe a Fascist society in more detail.  He males several allusions to Mussolini and Lenin who were already on the scene.

This story is continued in a second novel called ‘The Flamethrowers’ which I would like to read if only it were available in English.


Grade:   A


%d bloggers like this: