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Homages  //  PATRICK WHITE

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On the table is unfolded a large map of Australia. I still lived in Bordeaux. Was it in 1982 ? Later ? I have already written novels, novellas, but this time I'm working on the story of a young engineer who sails to Western Australia in the hope of striking gold. With the tip of my finger, I retrace the route taking my main character from the port of Fremantle to Kalgoorlie where the precious gold was found first. The roads wind gently through forests, towns and villages across the colored map with lovely autumnal colours of green and brown. My eyes follow the coast line. Down below is Perth, the capital city of the West. About twenty-five kilometers south-west of Perth, Fremantle, the harbour where berth the ocean liners and freighters sailing from Europe via the Suez Canal, the very place where my grandparents disembarked in 1912. The Swan River which runs through Perth, bathes the Swan Valley past Bassendean where my father was born. Kalgoorlie, inland, 700 kilometers east of Perth. Here and there, white large expanses of salt lakes. As far as I can remember, I know this country. That's where it all started for me, a kind of emotional big bang birthing an embryo of thoughts which never stopped growing, developing, invading my dreams, and ultimately, everything I wrote. I’ve never been to this mythical place. Nonetheless, the uncanny feeling that I come from there, something irrational binding me to this land I’ve only discovered through my grandparents’ stories, is real. Long before entering kindergarten, this country was mine. Upon opening her pocket world atlas, my grandmother used to point out at a large continent surrounded by oceans. “See the shape of Australia, she’d say, it looks like a rabbit's head! Look here, at the top, see the ears ?” My grandmother didn’t fail to point out that there was a state much larger than the others. It filled up the whole left side of the map. That was Western Australia. I tried hard to spot the rabbit's muzzle to the left, its mouth down, the ears above. And I’d laugh. On rainy days, my grandparents and I sat around the dining room table to look at snapshots from their youth in Australia. My grandmother opened the dresser drawer to take the plastic folder she’d slipped them into. She sat down and we’d looked at the old photos in a religious silence interspersed with sighs. It was a regular ritual. From time to time my grandparents whispered a word. And then, they fell silent again. Looking at these photos made them thoughtful and sad. I believe they regretted to have come back home. My grandfather loved the place. One of my solitary games consisted in perusing for hours through the old newspapers, yellowed catalogs and postcards brought back from Australia, or I’d contemplate the tiny nuggets of pure gold my grandmother kept in an oblong case, treasures picked up off the road after a willy-willy had swept the ground. I knew Australia, a country flowing with milk and honey, as though I’d lived there. As though I’d spent my childhood there instead of my father, as if I’d jumped into the Swan River from the wooden jetty with my playmates. My grandparents’ stories had become mine. Happy times, I could recall to the minute detail. Tragedies were hinted at, yet what wasn’t spoken of, I could guess as children do. Australia was a profound wound still bleeding, ready to reopen at any time. It brought back the hardship, exile, poverty, hunger. Maybe they regretted to have left Bassendean, thinking they’d made a mistake. I have sometimes the eerie sensation that I followed in their footsteps to achieve what they’d started once, and often I wonder why, even as an adult, I’ve never asked them why they had left Bassendean. There were certainly many complex causes coalescing into one decision, their leaving. One day, I could have been twelve or thirteen, the idea to live in Australia crossed my mind. Excited by a dream I’d mulled over for a while, I approached my grandmother as she was alone in the dining room to tell her very seriously: “I want to go to Australia one day.” She remained curiously still. I was waiting eagerly for her answer, yet she didn’t speak. She simply looked skywards, stared out the window so that she wouldn't cry, and said slowly, sadly: “Australia is a long way away, you know.”


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I find difficult to visualize my father's birthplace. What does the country look like ? If I want to add descriptions to my narration, I have to know. I search the foreign novels section in stores and libraries and finally, find a lead. I must read an author by the name of Patrick White. He is a Nobel Prize for Literature. I run to the largest bookstore in town, and there, on the display, a book jumps out at me. Author : Patrick White. Title : Voss. I grab the treasure as if I'd struck gold. I read Voss in French. The anxiety I burned with from the first to the last page, I still remember. I wanted to visualize how was the Australian landscape, well, I’m not disappointed. I have re-read Voss since then, twice, in English. In the beautiful, slow, thick and tragic prose of Patrick White. Each time, pervaded by the anguish fueling the story, unable to put the book down, I felt the same anxious apprehension. And each time I closed the book, I was overwhelmed. Voss is a novel whose plot is “only based upon that of Leichhardt” explained Patrick White. A Prussian explorer and naturalist, Ludwig Leichhardt had already led two expeditions in 1844 and 1846, yet he never came back from the third and final one in 1848. Nothing, not even a skull, a stirrup, a piece of leather, a knife, nothing was ever found except Ls carved on tree trunks. He might have perished in the Great Sandy Desert. Yet Voss is not an adventure novel, nor a historical novel. The inner journey of Voss is at stake. This “megalomaniac German explorer” embarks as a hero from Sydney for a grand expedition financed by the wealthy Mr Bonnet. The first part of his inland journey unfolds beautifully till tragedy strikes. The dreadful crossing of barren regions, lack of water and food, illness, fever, nothing deters the stubborn German. He refuses to retrace his steps despite the mutiny of his men, carries on with his desperate advance towards nowhere and taken over by madness, gradually leads his companions including cattle, sheep and horses to their death. The book, whose narrative is enlivened by the correspondence between Laura Trevelyan, niece of Mr. Bonnet, and Voss, two exalted souls drawn by a platonic passion, is of a dark beauty. It reveals a lot about the Australian continent and all that it implies of danger, fever and absolute. 

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One day, I realized the project I dreamed of as a child, and flew to the down-under land. I was quickly told that Patrick White is a literary icon here, studied in high school as Molière is in France. Patrick White came from an old Australian family of wealthy yeoman farmers. Born in England in 1912, he returned to Australia when he was four months old, went back to England to complete his studies, yet returned to the distant colony after WWII, shunning the brilliant London scene and the ovations of New York which had cheered his first literary successes when the Australian press was put off by his outlandish prose. Each of his books is a masterpiece, vitriolic portraits of a society he knew from inside, that of the colonists who sailed from England in the 19th century and made a fortune as landowners and graziers in the faraway land where the crown deported its convicts. Patrick White's mother was sorry that her son had embarked in a career as a writer. Writing was considered as a hobby like embroidery; in no case, could such an activity be a profession in its own right. As for his father, he was generous enough to grant his son an allowance to survive in London. He died in 1937, and didn’t get the chance to see his son awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. Patrick White was self-conscious, ill-adjusted to society, homosexual, introvert, pessimistic, had a “bitter nature” according to his own words, but above all he was endowed with an unparalleled wit to describe the stupidity, snobbery, prejudices and parochialism of his social background.

 

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The last times I was invited to book fairs in France were both pleasant and painful like in all gatherings where writers have to socialize for better or worse. We break the ice, well, we do when we can. A small group is chatting away nearby. I join in. A young woman says she comes from Montpellier. An older man declares he’d just arrived from Metz. He almost missed his train. He’s glad he could make it. Another one comes from Paris. I could tell. You can spot the Parisian writer by his assurance, his manners, his black outfit, a je ne sais quoi that gives you a hint of how rowdy it could be if you are both on the same panel. What about you ? Me ? I say I live in Australia. Then, there is usually a silence. My fellow-writers always believe it’s a kind of a joke. I specify then that I live near Sydney. And there, they stiffen. Another silence, and the remarks bucket down. People ask me why I got lost so far. Is it a form of suicide or what ? Someone sneers that apart from kangaroos, there is nothing in Australia. Another one says it's perversion to live on the other side of the world. At that point, generally, everyone laughs. Except me. I am mortified. After the pecking, which is supposed to be an ice breaker, the conversation falls flat. The group disperses. The first time this sort of verbal clash happened with a fellow-writer, many years ago, I believed at the time that my interlocutor wasn’t entirely aware of what he’d spat out. The argument got really out of control, yet I had the pleasant surprise to receive a letter of apology from my peer a few months later. I thought it’d be the end, yet, the scenario kept repeating itself at various book fairs over the years, nearly word for word, whatever the cities, whatever the writers. Australia, decidedly, doesn’t have a good reputation.

 

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The large map of Australia I scrutinized when I lived in Bordeaux, the same kind that tourists probably studied closely before catching their plane, couldn’t tell me a thing about the nitty gritty of the land. The countryside of Western Australia isn’t something you visit. It couldn’t be defined in terms like beautiful or ugly, hot or cold, agreeable or disagreeable, but in terms of experience. As I’d thought, there are no country roads winding through forests, towns and villages. No good restaurants. No petrol station and sodas vending machines. No shady picnic areas. The largest Australian cities resemble the largest cities of the world, of course. Streets, shops, restaurants, crowded footpaths like everywhere. But if you leave the urban and suburban leviathan, if you drive three or four hours, then you do understand. You know you’ve taken a step into another world. Add another four or five hours, and you are in the outback, distant, warmer, terrifying. The Western Australian outback is a strange, hostile, alienating place, yet nothing really matters after you’ve experienced the outback. Because there, in fact, there is nothing. I confirm. Nothing. Just space. No town, no village, just the bush, stunted eucalypts, with greyish green foliage, dry earth turning to dust in summer. The interior is a vast plateau. From time to time, rocky outcrops, seared under the scorching sun, hurl themselves lazily to show their skinned old dog back. You look, dumbfounded, carried away, crushed by the heat, assailed by the flies, drenched in sweat, exhausted just by looking at the horizon, but transported, carried away, because in the distance, there is a further, and still a further. The first time you feel it, after you’ve disembarked from the plane, you are taken aback. You stand there flabbergasted, breathless, floored, watching the most uplifting expanse of space you’ve ever seen in a lifetime. I remember how my heart felt as though it was being lifted upwards. If you keep going further, the infinite, ready to entice you, unreal like a wicked mirage, calls you. From the horizon comes the song of the sirens saying: come, come closer, a little more, come to me. In the plain murmurs the voice of the tempting devil and this call from afar, the one that disorientated Ludwig Leichhardt, the one that maddened Voss, does exist indeed, like a fever, a “call of the wild” to borrow Conrad’s words. The outback magnetises. Its supernatural beauty exerts a pull on you. Two emus stroll lazily in the distance. On the side of the road, a royal eagle, black, massive, aloof, shreds the decomposed carcass of a wombat run over by a truck a few days before most certainly. He holds it between his large claws and tears off the meat with great blows of his beak. The car passes. He doesn't move an inch. Miles before you reach Alice Spring, the sand turns red, the colour of blood. The bark of the trees turns white, powdery white, chalky white. You realise you are tiny, weak, fragile. You see the danger, everywhere. Your aloneness, critical. The car breaking down, dramatic. The lack of water, deadly, and above all runs the risk of getting lost at every crossroads. Everything looks the same. The road ahead is a grey empty stretch that keeps going like the shot of an arrow for 1000, 2000 or 3000 kilometres. You become like Voss, the doomed German, like Ludwig Leichhardt, because too much space annihilates space. On reading Voss, anyone can be easily pervaded by the mixed feeling so accurately captured by Patrick White of human terror and mystical madness. The head is spinning. Distress sets in. You feel before this unlimited space the same existential angst as Blaise Pascal gazing towards the cosmos: a terror nearing dread because the infinite spaces tell you how insignificant you are, dust, mortal lump of flesh. The miserable human being you have been so far no longer rules. Something else governs. Death lurks, quick, efficient. An accident ? No one will find your remains in this desolate part of the world. Here, in this infernal place, dwells an unknown beyond your understanding. Which one ? The answer is yours.  

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On reading Voss, all the nuances of the metaphysical journey across the Australian barren landscape come to life. Patrick White explained in his autobiography that the character of Voss came to him after he had been taken to hospital for a violent asthma attack, in his “half-drugged state, the figures began moving in the desert landscape.” Desert means more than an empty space. It means inner spiritual transformation. Voss is finally taken by a mystical but redemptive folly after he’s been humbled. Down with pride, down with the will to conquer, down with the glorious return to Sydney to be crowned with laurels. Voss imagined himself as an almighty conqueror. His journey through hell, last step before his death, transformed him. In Voss, Patrick White proved how much he could depict the landscape not with brushes, but with words. “I always see most of what I write and am, in fact, a painter manqué”, he wrote in his autobiography. He often refers to Klee, Greco, Roy de Maistre to illustrate his thoughts. For that very reason, Patrick White admired Sidney Nolan, the Australian landscape painter par excellence. The greatest Australian painters -Arthur Streeton, Russell Drysdale, Arthur Boyd, Albert Namatjira, Frederick Maccubbin- tried to capture their forbidding land so different from the friendly European sceneries. Above all, they give us a glimpse of infinity, nothingness, solitude, the grim vacuum of the interior, hostile to white men who never knew how to read it and could never survive there.

 

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One could object that nature is everywhere. No need to go to the end of the world to admire it. But are we talking about the same Nature ? Many countries I’ve travelled through seem to have forgotten what nature is. If it isn’t disfigured by mass tourism, it is spoiled by the sight of a highway, of a nuclear power station whose wisps rise behind this hill, of ugly buildings surrounding the hotel where you’ve retired for the week, to be quiet, to reflect. The forests have been felled. The absence of wildlife is heartbreaking. You don't dare to comment, that would be uncouth, but it’s true. The birds have left the silence of their absence. The human presence smears everything like dirty graffiti on the wall of a cathedral. Few places offer the opportunity to experience the fundamental and blissful solitude of our human condition, the peaceful sensation of being in the world to see each morning the sublime beauty of a landscape in its virgin state, as it was offered one day, at the dawn of times, undamaged by human hands, untouched by greed and profit. Here, beauty is given. Here, time is visible, time is perceptible, millions of years of relentless wind eroding the ground are etched in the Australian landscape. The great desert plain of the central plateau. Harsh and sublime. The sacred Ulluru, magic mountain. The thick, green jungle of Queensland. The ranges trickling away endlessly. The long, white and lonely beaches. Dolphins and whales swimming nearby. The vast primal forests of New South Wales. Nature here is more than a landscape. Unfortunately, the word landscape doesn’t convey the feeling of a living, generous, benevolent and pristine Nature endowed with a soul, peopled with animals, birds and mammals, busy with twittering and singing and squawking from dawn to dusk, a good comrade who doesn’t request more than to live in harmony with mankind. Its innocence is a given. The trace of your footsteps in the sand, and no other footprints than yours is a blessing. Here is beauty. Here is sublime. Here is blissful solitude. Here is the inner experience one will never journey through anywhere else but here. All that, I’d never had the time or the opportunity to tell my fellow-writers at the book fairs. That's why I live here.

© Catherine Rey 2022 - All rights reserved  

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