Patrick Victor Martindale White was not only a major Australian novelist but also one of the outstanding English-language writers of the twentieth century. A second-generation Australian, he was born in London in 1912 while his parents were on a visit there. Both his parents belonged to landholding families in the Hunter Valley of New South Wales. After his early education in Australia, he was sent to England for four years at Cheltenham, a preparatory school. He returned to Australia to train for life as a grazier but persuaded his family to let him return to England, where he took a degree in modern languages at Cambridge University. He would later stay in England, beginning his literary career. His first novel, Happy Valley, was published in England in 1939. The Living and the Dead was hurriedly completed as White shuttled between America and England awaiting service in World War II; it is, accordingly, the least satisfactory of his novels. The Aunt’s Story, begun in England but completed en route to Australia after the war, represents a major advance and is one of his two best novels. (The Eye of the Storm, written twenty-five years later, is the other.)
After settling in Australia, White entered his major creative period. Believing that Australia lacked a spiritual dimension, he tried to provide that in his next two novels, writing about the two great Australian movements, the pioneer settlement of the land in The Tree of Man and the exploration of the continent in Voss. Though perhaps not his best novel, Voss is often and validly considered the “great Australian novel”; in 1986, it was made into an opera, with the libretto written by David Malouf. The Tree of Man brought world attention to White, and his reputation continued to rise with Voss and Riders in the Chariot, his most ambitious novel, embracing Judaism as well as Christianity, Europe as well as Australia, and aboriginal as well as Caucasian aspects of Australian life.
The Solid Mandala marks the beginning of White’s decline, which continued with the publication of The Vivisector. His achievement was such, however, that he was already a strong contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature when The Vivisector appeared. The Nobel Prize committee looked with disfavor upon the negative portrait of an artist in The Vivisector (the artist dissects his subjects for his own purposes), and it may be this disfavor that spurred White on to a recovery of his powers in The Eye of the Storm. That novel secured for him the Nobel Prize in 1973, the first time that the award was given to an English-language writer outside the United Kingdom or the United States. Yet the Nobel Prize seemed to have constrained White, for the novels that followed The Eye of the Storm are rather slight or unattractive. A Fringe of Leaves tells a good story well but is one of White’s less important works, while The Twyborn Affair and Memoirs of Many in One are decidedly strange and unprepossessing. White later announced that he had finished writing.
White also wrote short stories but showed no special talent for short fiction. His short stories lack the spiritual dimension of his novels and reveal his less pleasant side. They show at times a derisive enjoyment of the characters’ distress and an interest in disturbed states of mind. White also wrote a number of plays. His early plays might have had more significance had they been performed when they were written–The Ham Funeral is an early and interesting example of what was later called the Theater of the Absurd–but the delay lessened their impact and discouraged White’s theatrical career. Late in his life, with his reputation established, he again turned to the theater, but the late plays tend to be marred by moralizing.
It is as a novelist and especially as one of the great stylists of the English language that White will be remembered. He wrote at least four major novels (The Aunt’s Story, The Tree of Man, Voss, and The Eye of the Storm) and one flawed masterpiece (Riders in the Chariot), an achievement few novelists in English can equal. White’s novels were concerned very early with establishing an arbitrary and unclear distinction between the living and the dead (the title of his second novel) or the elect and the nonelect. Mostly his elect are social outsiders with some special gift of perception or creativity–visionaries of a kind. Here White’s homosexuality came into play; he regarded homosexuality as a gift for the artist. As expressed in the works, it becomes an examination of artistic insight as well as the doubleness of human beings in the form of androgyny. Among the ranks of his outsiders are Theodora Goodman, Stan Parker, Laura Trevelyan, the four riders in the chariot, Arthur Brown, Hurtle Duffield, and Elizabeth Hunter. A corollary of this theme is his series of Christ figures, of whom Voss is the first and Arthur Brown the last. After The Solid Mandala, White’s elect figures are stripped of their association with Christ and accorded merely human status, with some unpleasant characteristics, such as those of Hurtle Duffield and Elizabeth Hunter.
One becomes aware in a number of White’s novels of an ongoing battle between the protagonist and his or her mother or a mother figure. That is most obviously the case in The Aunt’s Story, Voss, The Eye of the Storm, and The Twyborn Affair. The Eye of the Storm contains the greatest elevation of the mother in Elizabeth Hunter (a thinly disguised version of White’s own mother) and the greatest self-abasement of her offspring; however, White’s growing self-disgust had already manifested itself in The Solid Mandala. This self-disgust is developed at greater length in the portrait of the artist in The Vivisector and resumed in the two novels The Twyborn Affair and Memoirs of Many in One. There is no mellowing or maturing in the late White, only disintegration. His best work was done in the years 1948 to 1960; after that date, only The Eye of the Storm shows a resurgence of his massive talents. After a long illness, White died at his home in Sydney on September 30, 1990.