Saturday, 26 May 2012

"Has anyone other than..."

the speaker asked and then named my father, "Read any Patrick White?"
Nobody in the room put their hand up.
I can remember, at age fourteen, feeling faintly embarrassed by this - and who, I wondered, was Patrick White? Did he matter?
My father had to study White as part of his university degree in English. White came in under the compulsory unit on Australian literature or it is likely that even my father would not have read any of his work.
It is the centenary of White's birth this coming week. He was, until JM Coetzee became an Australian citizen, our only Nobel Prize winner in literature. Along with Christina Stead he is regarded by some as a towering and highly influential figure in Australian literary history. He is an academic's novelist.
I suspect that the vast majority of Australians have no idea who he is and have never read any of his work.
At the time of publication it was regarded as "unAustralian" - whatever that may mean.
I also suspect that his homosexuality made many people uncomfortable in an age when same-sex relationships were considered much less acceptable than they are now.
I would probably have taken very little notice of him except for the question put by the speaker at a gathering of the public to hear an author speak. At fourteen I was not interested in reading him anyway.
I did not study English at tertiary level. I was never required to read White. I have not read him. I have tried but his writing simply does not interest me.  I met him. That was enough.
I was fortunate enough to meet many writers through my friendship with Judith Wright. In later years Judith, growing increasingly deaf, would sometimes ask me to accompany her to an event so that I could -discreetly - interpret for her.
Patrick White, a notorious non-attender at many things, happened to be present on one occasion. The two of them clashed but they were both involved in something and they needed to speak to each other. Judith had to speak to someone else she knew well. She decided that Patrick White could wait but I could entertain him - or he could entertain me. She introduced me with the words,
         "This is Cat. And be polite to her. She writes too."
White was not in a congenial sort of mood at all. I believe he rarely was at functions he had to attend. He looked me up and down. Naturally I was tongue tied, all too conscious that I could not say I had read any of his books - or that I liked them.
         "Write? I suppose you can put two words together if she says you can. You might be able to write something when you are as old as I am."
It was, I believe, a typical sort of comment. I wonder if I will ever be able to read his work?


Anonymous said...


I had to read a short story of his once upon a time ... about all I can remember about it is that it was too long. Put me off ever reading anything else!

Jan said...

've read several of the books, but have never been able to finish Voss.
My sister, currently touring Australia in a small caravan by herself, wrote the other day to say she was now past where my mother reached in the book but that there was a piece of paper with notes on it still in front of her. In dad's handwriting, they were from night time uni study. So he has probably gone further than anyone else in the family.

Vanessa Gebbie said...

Arrogant sod!
I met an apparently eminent British male white middle-class novelist a few years ago. He wrote stuff that didn't interest me, so I hadn't read him, good as it might have been. And Im not that well read, really anyway!
Thought it best to come clean - I apologised, and said 'I'm afraid I have yet to read your work' - in case, as so many do, he expected me to know his books.

He looked me up and down (Obviously a trait!) and said ''If you don't know the work of one of the best novelists working in Britain today, you can't be much of a writer"

and went to speak to someone else.


Anonymous said...

Could not agree more Vanessa! Cat can certainly put more than two words together. Chris

the fly in the web said...

Yes, I've read his stuff - but it was a long time back.

What an arrogant pig, though!

catdownunder said...

Yes, he was arrogant - I think David Marr brings that out in his biography. He make's White out to be quite congenial but always falling out of friendships - rather a contradiction.
I think there are some very ego-driven writers Vanessa - and they are not necessarily the best writers from my point of view.
Your dad too Jan? I suppose all students of Australian literature are required to plough through his work - Judith was wise to advise me against doing English!