Voss Readalong – Getting Ready

Voss Readalong November 2022

I first attempted Voss in my late teens whilst at uni. I never made it passed the first couple of chapters. At nineteen the story felt completely irrelevant to the life I was living and I wasn’t prepared to push through the literary challenges laid down by Patrick White. Grumpy, old white guy may have crossed my mind at the time.

Thirty-five years later I have a lot more literary fiction under my belt, although none of it is Patrick White. I’m rather nervous about attempting a readalong of a book I’m not sure I will enjoy reading. However, my copy of Voss has been sitting on my TBR pile for way too long and White is considered such a master of Australian literature by so many people I respect – it’s time to give him one more shot.

To break through my apprehensions, I’m going to look to the movie version of Andy Weir’s The Martian for some modern day inspiration. When botanist Mark Watney discovers he has been left behind on Mars and has to fend for himself, he realises he is going to have to “science the sh*t out of this” to stay alive until he can be rescued. I’m not sure White would have appreciated being coupled so closely to popular culture, but Watney is an explorer just like Voss, and to help me through reading Voss, I plan to research the sh*t out of this!

To begin, the books I have on hand:

Chapter 25 is devoted to Patrick White. The comments focus on obsession, madness, mythology, love and mysticism, while Gleeson-White declares that Voss is,

…one of Patrick White’s most extraordinary acts of imagination, during the course of this novel of exploration the lives of these three outcasts of Sydney society – the bookish orphan Laura, the foreigner Voss and the emancipist servant Rose – will become bound with the Australian landscape and united in a mystical realm that only Voss and Laura can access.

I took a little umbrage at Peter Boxall’s page on Voss thanks to his flippant comment underneath the original cover design. He said “an artist’s impression of White’s dogged hero.” An artist! To not even name Sidney Nolan, one of Australia’s most famous modern artists! Bah humbug indeed!

I’m now not sure I want to find out what he says about the book, but here we go…

…the most striking feature of this novel is its discordance, its unnavigable strangeness. The land itself is the most imposing presence, and the deadly vastness of the unmapped interior exerts an extraordinary influence on the European culture the colonists bring to it.

Includes a longish section on White, but was published before Voss was written and therefore has nothing to say about it.

In a discussion on White’s first novel Happy Valley (1939) though, they say “the animating principle of the story is acceptance of the suffering which life necessarily imposes.” From what I have gleaned so far, this could be a true statement about much of White’s writing.

  • Book blurb from my 2012 Vintage edition of Voss:

The great poet of Australian landscape, he has turned its vast empty spaces into great mythic landscapes of the soul….his belief that it is eccentric individuals who offer the hope of salvation.”

The good folk over at Goodreads provide mixed responses:

  • The story is a conflict of the ideal and the actual (Vit)
  • Voss is dense, however, and I don’t think it will reward anything but careful reading. (William2)
  • White seems to like putting humanity on trial (Julie)
  • Great was my admiration in some parts, deep was my agony in others. (Ailsa)
  • The book opens with the delicacy of a Jane Austen. (Roger)
  • You might think Voss’ megalomania, his defiance and his arrogance, make him a particularly odious character, but such isn’t the case. He’s quite fascinating and vividly drawn. (TheGirlBytheSeaofCortez)
  • The world of this book exists in Dreamtime — every moment coexists as an inseparable part of a greater whole, everywhere and everywhen. (Richard)
  • If it wasn’t for my huge aversion to the existential-angst-in-the-wilderness genre, I might have actually enjoyed it. (Alison)
  • ‘Voss’ is refreshingly homoerotic — it’s all about dudes trying to be close with other dudes, admiring each other’s teeth and manes, touching each other’s knees, huddling close by campfire. (Anna)
  • A German Ahab on an expedition to cross Australia, his white whale an idiosyncratic woman he falls in love with in Sydney and the limitations of the human spirit. (Daniel)
  • Way too long, extremely boring, the prose is impenetrable. and the misogyny! (kiwi)
  • The sense of place is palpable, the weather oppressive, the emotions overwhelming, making this dense and difficult book compelling and oddly beautiful. (Amy)
  • Voss’s own explorations into the cruel and unforgiving heart of Australia were less exciting than the cruel and unforgiving world of Laura Travelyan’s Sydney. (Salvatore)
  • White has moments of brilliant writing followed by incomprehensible tracts of philosophy. (Don)
  • He is prosaic and poetic by turns but he is always willing to reach into the muck to find the truth of his creations. (Amanda)

The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (18 July 1933 – 1 April 2017) after reading Voss said,

“It is like using an iron crowbar at minus 65 degrees centigrade in Siberia: when you let go, part of the skin adheres to it. Part of me went to Voss and blood too.” 

Nicholas Shakespeare in an archived Radio National Books and Art transcript revealed what White himself said about Voss in 1981.

I’m a dated novelist, whom hardly anyone reads, or if they do, most of them don’t under- stand what I am on about. Certainly I wish I’d never written Voss, which is going to be everybody’s albatross.

This essay also provides lots of fascinating background about White’s early life and some of the stories about how Voss came into being. It also includes a quote from White’s cousin, Betty Withycombe, “Your style which always bordered on the precious has toppled right over. It reminds me of a custard which has cooked too long and curdled.” Ouch!

  • Closer to home Lisa @Anz LitLovers has blogged about her experience of reading Voss in 2009. She inspired me with these words, to finally give it a go, when I was still um-ing and ah-ing about it last month.

I was out of my depth too, so I looked things up when I needed to, and that made me enjoy the book more, partly because I understood the book better, and partly because I enjoyed learning new things through the research….But – as will be obvious to anyone who knows this book really well – I didn’t always know when I didn’t know something. (unknown unknowns!) But, I wasn’t reading this book to pass a test or gain a PhD, I was reading it for fun, so I was free to tackle it any way I like and while I’m interested in hearing from others more expert than me, I’m immune to criticism about my reading of it.

Yes, his books are hard work, and yes, the prose sometimes feel convoluted and old-fashioned. But he’s a terrific storyteller and everything about his work — his characters, his descriptions of people and places and atmospheres, his ability to capture people’s emotions and motivations and innermost thoughts — is masterful. You don’t just read a Patrick White novel, you become immersed in it.

Hopefully all of this hasn’t put you off (too much)!

On Tuesday 1st November, the Voss Readalong begins.

The plan – read FOUR chapters a week. Every Tuesday of the month I will publish the weekly prompt.

Discussions can take place on your own blog or in the comments of my weekly posts. You can write one review post at the end, or contribute posts along the way. I’m easy and flexible. Whatever works best for you. As Lisa said above, we are reading Voss for fun…for our own pleasure and edification. The concensus seems to be that any effort we put into reading Voss will be rewarded in the end.

In preparation for Tuesday, your first research task is to read up on Ludwig Leichhardt and Edward Eyre, the two explorers who inspired White to create Voss.

  • Patrick Victor Martindale White born 28th May 1912 Knightsbridge, London
  • His parents returned to Sydney when he was six months old
  • Died 30th September 1990 Sydney
  • He wrote 12 novels, 3 short story collections and 8 plays.
  • Patrick White was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature 1973 “for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature.”
  • Edward John Eyre (5 August 1815 – 30 November 1901)
  • Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhardt (23 October 1813 – c. 1848)
Voss book cover collage, including the original designed by artist, Sidney Nolan.
  • This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.

20 thoughts on “Voss Readalong – Getting Ready

  1. This is so interesting because I read this in my last year of school, when I was 17 or 18, and I gobbled it up. I have often thought that was because, at one level, it so feeds into the angst that teens often feel. It possibly also helped that I had a little interest in Leichhardt having lived for 3 years by his river – but that wasn’t the main thing because my best friend, who hadn’t, also loved it. Of course, issues like “homoerotic” never crossed our minds back then, in 1970!

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    1. My angst didn’t really kick in until was mid twenties – a slow developer – I just wanted sweet & simple before that ☺️

      I had a sneaky peak at the first chapter last night, & I now think Voss and I will get along just fine this time around.

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  2. Thanks for the mention. Hope you enjoy the book. Don’t overthink it. I honestly don’t think you need to know any of the history it’s based on. White is a brilliant storyteller and the narrative works as a standalone.

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    1. My memory of trying to read it at nineteen has been pretty dire all this time. The language felt dull & torturous & difficult. So I’ve been nervous.

      We’ve actually got a busy week coming up, so I sneakily read the first chapter last night, & found to my delight, that it was nothing like I remembered!!

      The ‘overthinking’ comment made me laugh – I’ve been hearing that all my life ☺️

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    1. I thought that too Karen, but I started the book on the weekend (I have a crazy busy week this week and decided to make things easier for myself by getting a head start!) I read most of the first chapter on Saturday night in bed, then the rest of the chapter plus all of chapter 2 on Sunday night.
      I did only manage half of chapter 3 last night after a big day at work, but I’m finding it rather like reading an Austen or a Dickens so far – something to pay attention to, but not difficult once you get into the flow of White’s writing.

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        1. I’m finding it a thoughtful read so far, enjoying White’s unique way with language & the glimpses of old Sydney.

          I don’t usually pay attention to metaphors & similes when reading, but interesting to see that many of my favourite lines are actually metaphors.

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  3. I have read Voss in the distant past. And enjoyed it. Existential angst in the wilderness (outback) is definitely my thing – well, after Regency romance anyway. I know you don’t have the time, but David Marr’s biog is definitely a big part of researching the hell out of White. I have one lightweight detective fiction to finish then it will be Voss, Voss, Voss all the way home (Derby to Perth). I might write to you and Karen (BT) along the way and see how you are progressing.

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    1. The Marr bio is certainly on my radar but yes, too much to take on right now. I might save it for the next White readalong!

      The first Voss post with prompts has just gone live. As I mentioned to Karen, I actually started on the weekend as I have a crazy, busy week this week. I’m loving the views of old Sydney, lots to unpack about class & colonialism.

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  4. My library was able to provide a copy (Modern Library) & I read the first couple of pages, plus the introduction which was by Nicholas Shakespeare. I looks like it will work for me, so I’ll be in, but I’ll miss the first prompt, because we’re going to be out of town for a week, so I won’t really get started until we’re back & I’ll catch up then.

    But this is all very informative & interesting. Thanks!

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    1. I’m thrilled you’ll be able to join us Reese!
      My first two weeks have ended up much busier than I anticipated, so I’m very behind with comments (as you can see) though have managed to stay on track with the reading schedule.

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