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

12 responses to this post.

  1. Oh wow, what a treat it is to get up on a Sunday morning and find this post in my inbox! I love Patrick White, but I’ve never been able to express my reasons as convincingly as you have here.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Lisa,
      Morning in Australia! It is headed toward evening here in Minnesota.
      I started reading Patrick White about the same time as I was reading Tolstoy and the other Russian Masters, and I was caught by both. With Patrick White it was one long masterpiece after another: The Tree of Life, Riders in the Chariot, Voss, etc. etc.I do believe that Patrick White was responsible for a long string of great Australian fiction writing. I see Joan London still carrying on that tradition, but am not sure what other Australians are also at this point. Murray Bail.
      I would be interested in hearing which Australian writers you believe are carrying on the White tradition today.



  2. Great to see Patrick White amongst your pantheon Tony. I love that you love him (and have been meaning to comment on some of your other favourite authors – will try to do so).

    You’ve chosen some excellent quote. I particularly love the last one about the irony of honesty.

    As for your answer to Lisa. I think you could also say Thea Astley (though of course she’s gone now too so perhaps that puts her out). She has a similar intensity (and honesty – ha!) to White. A willingness to confront sacred cows head on.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi Susan,
      Yes, I’ve read a couple of Thea Astley (It’s Raining in Mango and Beachmasters) and she is very good. There was also Elizabeth Jolley. I suppose there are still some Australian masters in Tim Winton, Peter Carey, and Kate Grenville. You probably know a few others. For a while there,I was reading a lot of Australians.



      • I know of many others, but those who seem more White-like is interesting. Not I think Grenville, though I like her, but yes, possibly Jolley and Winton. Malone is interesting too.



        • I looked at the Stella shortlist and didn’t recognize any names, so I’m somewhat removed from the current Australian scene at this time. 🙂



          • It’s amazing, I think Tony, how quickly the literary landscape can change. I would probably feel the same about current award lists in the USA too, though your culture of course seeps more over here than vice versa!



  3. One of the best reviews of Patrick White I have read.

    Liked by 1 person


  4. Posted by polixines on August 5, 2020 at 1:29 AM

    Excellent. This is wonderful writing and makes one want to explore Patrick White’s novels.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi polixenes,
      I do hope you will explore at least one of Patrick White’s novels. They are truly a unique experience. ‘The Solid Mandala’, ‘Voss’, or ‘Riders in the Chariot’ each would be a good place to start.
      Thanks for the kind words.

      Liked by 1 person


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