Patrick White - obituary
Australian Book Review
December-January 1990
pp, 31-32

I met Patrick White in 1965. Reduced to £1.9s.6d. he was lying, in an AU.S. edition of Riders in the Chariot, on a sale tale at Finney Isles department store in Brisbane.

So much has changed. Today, we would talk of remainders; the shop has been taken over by David Jones which has in turn been taken over by Adelaide Steamship which later bought up Grace Bros; prices are now given in dollars and cents.

Being an intellectual at twenty-two is a risky undertaking. After completing my honours year, but still living in Brisbane, I was being very careful to read books that my friends had not. By this method I read Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys. Earlier this year, White remarked that he had tried to read it when a schoolboy but had been to shocked ;and put it aside until he was n his twenties when he better appreciated Powys’s darkening non-sequitors.

To read any Australian novel at that time posed a different kind of danger. Even though a friend was writing her Masters thesis on White’s use of colours, I suspected that no Australian writer could help keep my head above the Brisbane stream of unconsciousness. Three years before Bjelke-Petersen became premier, a squad of Special Branch detectives had parked all day and late into the night outside a conference attended by no more than have been any doubt, debated “Is Queensland a Cultural Backwater?” To stay afloat, I had been reading Svevo, Ehrenberg, Calvino, Oblomov and Camus.

The generous U.S. binding on that sale copy of Riders encouraged me to sample its first page. White had me at the third sentence: “She appears an unusual person”, Mrs Colquhoun ventured to hope”. That line has remained in my memory, because of its seesaw of surprise and its promise that White’s would not be a normal kind of fiction.

Because it was my first Patrick White, I have never re-read Riders in the Chariot. I always recommend it to novice readers as the place to begin. Every couple of years I take up my Penguin copy – that U.S. Edition having been exchanged long since for books or cash – and get as far as the third sentence, whereupon I see the colours of Alf Dubbo’s paintings, or Himmelfarb’s crucifixion, Ruth Hare’s communion with the birds. Such partial recollections do less than justice to the complexities of the novel. That its scenes still come back to me as rich and as alive as any event I actually have experienced is testament to White’s conception and his skill in execution.

Equally memorable and of wider significance was a different recognition that Riders in the Chariot brought to me in Brisbane in the mid-Sixties. White’s vision and prose expelled my concern that to write about this country was in any limiting. Twenty years later, Manning Clark told me that he looked to White as the great liberator whose novels had encouraged him not to count sheep or lashes but to begin his A History of Australia as a clash of belief systems.

Over the years I have met readers in whom White’s writings produced a similiar setting free. Waiting for the next of his novels kept up the spirits of a housewife during the decades of her bearing and raising four children in Perth’s equivalent of Sarsaparilla. IN the 1980s, an assistant in a Brisbane bookshop came to life when I asked for White first editions. He too wanted to write. By reading White he also dared to hope.

My attachment to Riders in the Chariot has not been in the least diminished by acceptance of two lines of criticism. Arthur Phillips chastised White for the “algebraic symbolism” in that novel:

But then there comes what would be a climatic moment – the moment when spiritual enlightenment is achieved. Suddenly we are jolted down to the level of the algebraic symbol – that chariot, that tatty Grand Opera stage property. So obvious a devisal can do no more than convey a meaning. It cannot compel us to a sense of our presence in a significant experience.

True, But that moment is over-whelmed in my memory by the infinitely more significant experience of the entire novel.

Similarly, I accept Jack Beasley’s point about White’s disdain, if not hatred, for working people when he pictured the factory hands as Himmelfarb’s tormentors, an attitude not erased by his including the Aboriginal and the washerwoman among the riders in the chariot, or by his later radical commitments.

So much has changed that today the liberation that White brought to every area of Australian creativity is sufficiently recognised. By the 1980s we could take for granted what he had struggled to achieve. Historians and social commentators, film-makers and poets as well as enlists fail to appreciate their debt to his achievement that made it possible for the rest of us to proceed in whatever ways we like. People who have never read a line of his fiction are the beneficiaries of his breaking down the barriers that determined what is should mean to write about Australia.

Last year’s triumphal production of The Ham Funeral underlined that White’s Expressionism had been equally revolutionary in his demands on the Australian stage, even though West End conventions had made it harder for critics to acknowledge his achievement.

If he helped us escape from the dictates of a dun-dreary journalism it was because he fulfilled the commands of the bush school more brilliantly than they had been able to sustain. It is for his evocation of our landscapes that I find myself re-reading his other books when I am overseas. Even The Aunt’s Story has been an antidote for homesickness.

Few novelists have matched White’s capacity to create a different world of experience within each new novel. Much as I treasure my recollections of Riders in the Chariot, his greatness does not depend on a single work but soars through the galaxy of his inventions.

No one will take White’s place because White has been there first and fought those battles. During the next century, Australia could produce even greater writers. If such appear, they will have to remake his heritage as thoroughly as he transformed the family saga into The Tree of Man.

Few novelists have matched White’s capacity to create a different world of experience within each new novel. Much as I treasure my recollections of Riders in the Chariot, his greatness does not depend on a single work but soars through the galaxy of his inventions.

No one knew more keenly than White to be an artist in our mass marketeering society was to risk becoming a commodity for gossip columnists. What he shunned in life he has not been able to escape in death. Thos who could not stay the distance – morally, aesthetically or politically – have excused themselves by declaring that he had grown bitter.

It is said against Le Gay Brereton that he would begin discussion of Henry Lawson by saying “Henry Lawson first met me…”. There has been some of that since White’s death. What matters to us all are the writings and the presence. What grieves and delights his friends are matters for them to talk over, off camera.

When the radio broadcast that he had died, I was breakfasting by Sydney harbour. The sun and water played their early morning game of dazzling the eyes of those fortunate enough to pay homage at that hour. At the sound of the announcer’s voice, a light went out.