On Patrick White
This short book, the third in Black Inc’s “Writers on Writers” series, sees Christos Tsiolkas reviving his love of Patrick White. Tsiolkas acknowledges David Marr’s thorough and acclaimed White biography early on – here he’s writing something between a personal–professional appreciation and a critical study.
The main idea is to position White, who comes from white, wealthy, landowning, settler, British origins, as the author of a humanist, polyglot literature that should be read in the Australia of today. We may not need an argument against White’s irrelevance, and he may not need defending from the postcolonial readings Tsiolkas seems concerned with here, which are more and more interested in contemporary behaviour and less and less in 20th-century novelists. But Tsiolkas’s reading feels intuitive and sound. How does a person of White’s background – and the artistic climate of his times – write something that feels unexpectedly current?
Tsiolkas locates this in White’s relationship with his long-term partner, Manoly Lascaris, and adds Vrasidas Karalis’s book about Lascaris to the list of essential books on White, “not only for the insights it provides into White and his relationship with Lascaris, but also as an honest reflection by Karalis on the existential impermanence of the migrant experience”. It is proximity to the migrant experience that accounts for White’s quality and reach. For Tsiolkas, “by choosing to link his own personal and sexual alienation with the cultural isolation that he saw mirrored in the experience of the exile, White was able to create a literary language and a fluid and highly sensual writing that allowed him to move between genders and between states of being”.
It’s a great idea, and it could be expanded and adapted to say something useful about many authors. How do the people around an author influence their ability to think beyond themselves? This is one question among many in a crowded, loving, energetic book. Tsiolkas admires some of White’s books above others, including The Eye of the Storm, which may be the most like Tsiolkas’s recent work. What could be done with an essay of this length that focused on any single one of them? Instead, the book conveys “something of the wonder [he] experienced as both reader and writer in finding White, at first tentatively and then with greater confidence, creating an immigrant language”, and it will send other readers back to White as well. CR
Writers on Writers, 112pp, $17.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 12, 2018 as "Writers on Writers: Patrick White, Christos Tsiolkas". Subscribe here.