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Patrick White was the primary Australian author to win the Nobel Prize in Literature – 50 years later, is he nonetheless being read_

Do you know that 2023 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Patrick White successful the Nobel Prize in Literature, the primary Australian author to be so honoured?

Till final week, neither did I. Nor did lots of my fellow teachers. As a lover of White’s writing, I used to be shocked by my very own lack of knowledge, which was shortly overshadowed by the realisation that seemingly everybody had missed it. Certainly somebody will need to have commented?

So far as I’ve been capable of finding, there was one article again in autumn by Barnaby Smith within the NSW State Library’s journal Openbook and few Twitter posts equally aghast on the neglect.

Against this, you might be greater than doubtless conscious that this October marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Sydney Opera Home, formally opened by Queen Elizabeth II two days after the announcement of White’s award. As David Marr recounts in his biography of White, when the photographers crowding round White’s home had been requested if they may come again within the morning, they replied: “We have now to do the Queen within the morning.”

Cultural cringe

Once I first started serious about penning this piece, I used to be motivated by a way of frustration that White – and Australian literature extra typically – was once more being uncared for.

My first thought may very well be summarised as follows: “How dare they neglect him! There ought to have been conferences and celebrations – a pageant that would go away the Opera Home within the mud! Think about the furore if Eire had forgotten Beckett’s fiftieth anniversary in 2019! What a contemptuous place that is that may neglect an necessary event for one among its biggest writers!”

Earlier anniversaries had obtained vital consideration. The fiftieth anniversary of White’s best-known novel Voss in 2007 was marked with a two-day symposium. The centenary of his delivery in 2012 was likewise acknowledged with conferences in Australia and varied worldwide places.

What was completely different about this anniversary?

Regardless of my anger, ought to I actually have been that stunned? Final semester, I had quizzed my first yr Literary Research college students to see if anybody knew who our first Nobel laureate in literature was.


Once I informed them, nobody had heard of Patrick White, not to mention learn him.

The identical goes for Miles Franklin (each the creator and the prize), Christina Stead and Joseph Furphy, simply to call the canonical writers I assumed they could have recognized. Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson had been the one two to obtain a reprieve.

Up to date Australian authors didn’t fare a lot better. Once I requested them why they didn’t learn a lot Australian literature, essentially the most frequent reply – normally tempered with laughter – was: “Effectively, I assume it’s simply not superb, is it?”

Right here is the opportune time to introduce the inconceivable to keep away from idea of the “cultural cringe”, the time period coined by A.A. Phillips in 1950. The cringe, Phillips wrote,

primarily seems in an lack of ability to flee pointless comparisons. The Australian reader, roughly consciously, hedges and hesitates, asking himself ‘Sure, however what would a cultivated Englishman consider this?’

In relation to White’s reception, particularly post-Nobel, the cringe is in all places obvious. It was fostered by the prize quotation itself. For the Nobel committee, White was worthy of the prize as a result of he had created an “epic and psychological narrative artwork which has launched a brand new continent into literature”.

As many individuals have highlighted, White’s Nobel was a watershed second of worldwide recognition for Australian literature. It will be adopted by Thomas Keneally successful the Booker Prize in 1982 for Schindler’s Ark and Peter Carey successful of the identical award in 1988 for Oscar and Lucinda.

Right here had been indicators, finally, that Australians may produce actual literature – a minimum of, based on Europe and Britain.

Learn extra: Minimalist poet Antigone Kefala wins the Patrick White Award for her contribution to Australian literature

A author unread?

White’s relationship to Australian literature was all the time shaky, if not outright venomous. He infamously chastised mainstream Australian writing as little greater than the “dreary dun-coloured offspring of journalistic realism”.

Many Australian readers had been blissful to return the favour. His native important reception was typically uncomprehending, and at occasions hostile. A.D. Hope’s equally notorious evaluation of The Tree of Man judged the novel to be “pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge”.

White’s uneven reception mirrored an anxiousness about what Australian literature really was. That is nonetheless a dwell subject in literary research. The preeminent questions requested in undergraduate Australian literature models are nonetheless: What’s Australian literature? What counts as Australian literature? What’s the author’s relationship to the “nation”?

However these questions are as we speak requested inside the context of ever-diminishing Australian literature packages at universities, the place you can be fortunate to seek out one that gives multiple unit about it, and generally not even that. On these grounds, one may simply conclude that White’s star has diminished. Madeleine Watts, in her 2019 article, appropriately titled On Patrick White, Australia’s Nice Unread Novelist, will surely agree.

Christos Tsiolkas makes an analogous argument in his 2018 e-book on White for Black Inc.’s “Writers on Writers” sequence. He displays that his want to put in writing the e-book emerged out of a “sense of pissed-offness” at not having been made to interact with White earlier by “my tutors, my fellow writers and our critics”.

That Watts and Tsiolkas are each novelists themselves would possibly clarify their fervour for White, a author who matches properly below the moniker a “author’s author”. And but White’s repute has all the time been tied up with the parable of him being a fantastic “unread” novelist. Watts herself quotes a letter White wrote in 1981, within the final decade of his life, by which he declared:

I’m a dated novelist, whom hardly anybody reads, or in the event that they do, most of them don’t perceive what I’m on about.

This isn’t even near the one time White voiced such frustrations. They’re littered all through his letters and documented in David Marr’s biography. Equally, one of many clichéd tenets of White scholarship has been an try to determine whether or not we should always proceed to learn him or not – as if this had been actually the elemental query on everybody’s thoughts.

So lots of our modern discussions about literature – after we keep in mind to have them – constellate round points which can be actually on the service of producing discourse about “literature”, slightly than real criticism and engagement with its inventive qualities.

I’m drawn to those debates as a lot as anybody. The questions of why literature issues and what makes it significant must be mentioned continuously. They’re a few of the most fascinating questions we are able to ask. However the issue with these discussions, and the perpetual disaster of the humanities and literature that we hear about a lot, is that they distract us from what is definitely significant about literature: studying it.

Learn extra: Home made and cosmopolitan, the idiosyncratic writing of Gerald Murnane continues to draw devotees


Once I got down to the write this piece, I needed to observe by means of on my anger. I needed to say that it was a scandal White had been forgotten by our cultural establishments, that it was an indication of our degraded cultural state. However the extra I’ve considered it, the extra I’ve been drawn to the concept that possibly, simply possibly, that is the very best factor that would occur to White and Australian literary tradition extra broadly.

Ever since he received the Nobel prize, White has been unable to flee the institutional framing of his work, whether or not he’s being critiqued negatively or positively. The query that’s requested of White is not only “ought to we learn him”, however ought to we research him. He has been sure up in cultural debates which will by no means stop.

White’s repute as a canonical author, and extra particularly as a “troublesome” modernist creator and a “author’s author”, is a catastrophe with regards to getting folks, together with college students, to truly learn him. He isn’t solely the type of author one would anticipate to review at college and college; many individuals assume he can solely be learn in these contexts.

After all, White is a troublesome author, although it’s typically missed that he may also be humorous, particularly in his depictions of suburbia. A favorite scene is that this one in The Cockatoos, describing an existential alternative acquainted to each Australian:

Olive Davoren fell asleep, a pillow-end between shoulder and cheek, like a violin. She had seen seed at Woolworths and Coles; it was solely a matter of selecting. One of many birds was pecking at her womb. He rejected it as if discovering a husk.

What has by no means been unsure is the sweetness and sensuality of White’s writing. When studying him, I typically really feel like Laura Trevelyan in Voss, listening to the eponymous German explorer:

She didn’t elevate her head for these the German spoke, however heard them fall, and cherished their form. Up to now departed from the rational degree to which she had decided to stick, her personal ideas had been grown obscure, even pure. She didn’t care. It was pretty. She would have favored to sit down upon a rock and take heed to phrases, not of any man, however indifferent, mysterious, poetic phrases that she alone would interpret by means of some sense inherited from sleep. Herself disembodied. Air becoming a member of air experiences a voluptuousness no much less intense as a result of imperceptible.

The extra we are able to be taught to learn White on this spirit – absolving our rational types of scholarly detachment, only a bit – the extra we’d be capable to learn him because it has all the time been potential to learn him: listening to the form of his phrases, their voluptuousness.

Think about, perverse as this will likely sound, if White by no means received the Nobel prize? May or not it’s potential that the studying of his work could be in a greater place as we speak? On the very least, we wouldn’t have nearlyas a lot of the “pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge” – to borrow a phrase – that’s obsessive about the discourse round White, slightly than his precise works.

Literary prizes, as Beth Driscoll has highlighted, have turn into an important a part of literary tradition. They supply many advantages for successful writers. The home and worldwide gross sales of White’s books drastically elevated within the years after he received the Nobel. If he had by no means received, it’s completely conceivable that his work would now be out-of-print.

However the aura of a prize shines briefly. Generally it’d fade after every week, a yr, generally 50. However it’ll fade. What stays is the work itself.

Instantly after the Nobel Prize announcement in 1973, White was interviewed on tv by Mike Carlton. Requested whether or not the prize was a “crowning achievement”, White responded:

I hope my books are the crowning achievement of my profession, not awards. However maybe that’s useless.

Useless or not, it could appear, possibly till now, that the award has been the crowning achievement. In mild of the neglect of its fiftieth anniversary, possibly we are able to begin to learn White once more – learn him as aesthetically-minded people, not as establishments.

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