Why do we read Patrick White?

The answer, ‘because he won a Nobel Prize’ is not sufficient in itself. If it were, we’d read Vicente Aleixandre, Jaroslav Seifert and Wislawa Szymborska. But by and large, we don’t.

Nor do many of us read White. No doubt some of us did, when journalists camped out at his house on Martin Road in 1973, ready to tell their readers, viewers and listeners that Australia had its first literary Nobel Laureate.

But who reads Patrick White today, in the year we celebrate the centenary of his birth? Almost no one. The Tree of Man, has sold 464 copies this century. That’s thirty-eight per year.

One of those copies sits on my bookshelf at home, and I often wonder who the other 463 buyers were. Whoever we are, we’re a select bunch, and I’m sure we’ve all asked ourselves at least once, ‘Why do I read Patrick White?’

For me, the question never arose while reading The Tree of Man, a worthy contender for the title of ‘the Great Australian Novel’.

But it did about halfway through A Fringe of Leaves, while its heroine Ellen Roxborough, possessed by what White termed a ‘passive depravity’, was being brutalised by the Australian landscape and its original inhabitants.

There’s an easy answer, of course. It’s because he writes sentences like these:

There were intimations of thunder besides, followed by a plashing of rain, a sluicing of leaves in the darkened garden. As aftermath, a scent of citrus and laid dust invaded the room. Even the light seemed to have been washed: it wore a pronounced, lemon gloss; the shadows were a bluer black.

White once said that for him, each comma was a sculpture; and to read his novels, to read passages like this, is to find prose so artfully shaped it can at times be breathtaking.

Indeed, White’s writing isn’t just staggering in its deftness and complexity; it describes phenomena so specifically Australian as to produce a dull twang in any Antipodean reader. His washed, citrus-tinged light could only exist along the arching extremes of the Queensland coast, where Roxborough recovers from an ordeal more punishing than the reader might at times be able to bear.

But it is this very ‘Australianess’ that may cause that reader to pause and ask the question: why? Does the mirror he held to our nation in 1976 still reflect a face we recognise?

The narrative arc White draws in A Fringe of Leaves is so enormous it reaches from Sydney to Cornwall to Gloucestershire, then to Hobart, Fraser Island, Moreton Bay (Brisbane) and Sydney. It is deeply inscribed, an attempt to circumnavigate a continent that clearly reviled and fascinated its most decorated storyteller.

In this book, White was trying to make sense of Australia through one of its foundation myths: the story of Eliza Fraser, who lived with the Indigenous people of Fraser Island (later named for her) after being shipwrecked off the Queensland coast, only to be rescued and returned to white society by an escaped convict.

It’s a classically Australian narrative, in which the ‘mother culture’ of Britain collides, often violently, with its own convicts and an unknown Indigenous population, but not one that can pass without certain caveats in a century that might be gently, even reluctantly, rejecting White. We cannot, at least I hope we cannot, let pass a description of an Aboriginal person as a ‘monkey-woman’ from an omniscient narrator.

We cannot accept an author simply inventing details about a real Indigenous culture to suit his own vision of savagery. The Butchulla people of Fraser Island had been so devastated by white settlement by the time White was researching the novel, that there was little known about them when he wrote it. Without historical precedent, White has the Butchulla people engaging in cannibalism, rape and enslavement, simply for dramatic value.

We certainly cannot accept the licence White takes with Indigenous Australia when we remember that this book was published one year after Gough Whitlam, of whom the author was a public champion, famously poured earth into the hands of Vincent Lingiari.

This is a novel not only out of our time, but also out of its own.

It’s easy to see why a man who dedicated his life to interpreting Australia would be attracted to Fraser’s tale. But in a decade when we laud such affecting retellings of first contact, from Rohan Wilson in The Roving Party and Kim Scott in That Deadman Dance, we can no longer read A Fringe of Leaves to understand that encounter.

The Nobel academicians fought for years over whether to award their prize to Patrick White.

As David Marr wrote in Patrick White, A Life, in the end it came down to one man, Harry Martinson, to choose between White and Saul Bellow, who would go on to get the prize in 1976, in the year A Fringe of Leaves was published. Martinson refused to choose between the two authors, electing instead to give the prize to the ‘new’ nation of Australia.

That nation is much changed in 2012, and to those asking, ‘Why not read Patrick White?’ as they grasp a copy of A Fringe of Leaves, I’d strongly suggest picking up the 465th copy of The Tree of Man instead.

Megan Clement is a journalist from Melbourne.