Voss | Patrick White #ReadtheNobels

Voss Readalong November 2022

Opening Lines:

“There is a man here, miss, asking for your uncle,” said Rose.

And stood breathing.

I love this opening.

I can just see Rose, the hard-working, impatient, put-upon servant being asked to do something she doesn’t normally have to do on a Sunday, and doing it huffily and with attitude. All it took Patrick White was three carefully placed words.

I’m not sure why I found these opening chapters of Voss so off-putting as a nineteen year old. I had pretty much read all of Jane Austen by that point, so the drawing room drama was something I was not only familiar with, but enjoyed. Curiously, back then, I had an idea it was set in Adelaide for some reason. It was only as I was doing the pre-research for this readalong that I realised it was a Sydney book. I obviously wasn’t paying attention at nineteen!

Patrick White dedicated the novel to Marie Viton, Madame d’Estournelles de Constant. She was a French translator who persuaded Éditions Gallimard to buy White’s first three books. They enjoyed a regular correspondance as she worked on his translations. According to David Marr in Patrick White: A Life, Viton encouraged White to begin writing again after he had moved to Castle Hill.

Voss is not an easy book to summarise.

There is an epic, majestic quality about PW’s intentions regarding Voss and his writing that almost translates into Voss’ own story and intentions (I say almost, because after 460-odd pages, Voss is still a mystery to me), but what is it all about?

On the surface it’s an explorer gets lost story, but then, by the end, something should be found? It could be said that Voss found love at the end – an equal, deep, mystical love to sustain him ‘to meet the supreme emergency with strength and resignation‘ (i.e. death). But I was unable to read this as a love story.

Said explorer was also a megalomaniac, so it could be said that Voss was searching for humilty and redemption. Perhaps Laura and Voss did heal each other. Perhaps Voss did conquer his pride at the end, but again this was not obvious to me.

I didn’t feel like I ever really got inside Voss’ mind or understood him. And by the end I didn’t care too either.

Usually I love books that explore the interiority of its characters. Voss & I should have been a good fit. But the story never really engaged me fully. I could appreciate and admire PW’s descriptive writing, the way he could turn a phrase and startle you with his imagery, but Voss’ journey, the physical and metaphysical, never really convinced me. I was more interested in Judd’s story, or Angus or Dugald or Rose.

The time period was fascinating and well-researched. You could sense that PW knew a lot more than he actually included. One of the reasons I read historical fiction is to see how the characters react and behave in situations where they do not know how it will end. This advantage lies with the reader. The trick then for the author is to bring this uncertainty alive. To convince the reader that the characters way of acting and behaving was reasonable given the knowledge they had at the time. I wasn’t as convinced as I should have been.

White knew he had a hard task ahead of him when he wrote to Ben Huebsch (partner in Viking Press US) that,

Two of the practical difficulties have been to try to make an unpleasant, mad, basically unattractive hero, sufficiently attractive, and to show how a heroine with a strong strain of priggishness can at the same time appeal.

Patrick White: A Life | David Marr (first published 1991; my edition 2018) pg 290

Reading Voss has been a worthwhile experience and I’m glad I read it, but there were good points and some not so good.

Voss himself regularly overwhelmed the story, and at times I felt the ponderous presence of Patrick White looming over the pages. The religious symbolism also felt very heavy-handed and tedious. I do not enjoy reading books laden with religious imagery where it feels like the author is evangelicalising or on some mission to convince you to see the light too. According to Marr, ‘Catholics were very interested in his work; nuns were writing theses on Voss’ (p330), but it was all too much for me.

Given that PW had never been to any of the remote desert areas of Australia, his descriptive powers were impressive. Apparently his knowledge of the scenery came via the paintings of Sidney Nolan, particularly those dedicated to the ‘ludicrous journey‘ (Marr p293) of Burke and Wills.

Less convincing was his portrayal of Aboriginal life that he had gleaned from readings he found at the Mitchell Library. PW’s views on colonisation and the impact on Aborigines may have been in advance of the average Australian from this time, but there was still a paternalistic overtone that rubbed me the wrong way many times. Marr also revealed that PW relied on M. Barnard Eldershaw’s A House is Built and Ruth Bedford’s Think of Stephen for background details of early Sydney life (Lisa’s review of A House is Built indicates why this may not have been as useful as PW thought).

When I first started researching Voss, several authors and books were cited as being influences on PW whilst he was writing, but White himself felt that he was ‘conscious of being influenced more by music and painting than writing‘ (Marr p294). He claimed Mahler meant most to him as he was writing, while Berg’s Violin Concerto got him through Laura’s illness and Bartok’s Violen Concerto helped him with Voss’ ending.

Finally Marr explains that PW was finishing Voss as the British and French troops entered the Suez Canal. He wrote to Huebsch saying, ‘it is difficult to concentrate for the stink of history just at present‘ (p295). Megalomaniacs were in the news and on his mind.

Voss was White’s attempt to challenge the accepted Australian mythology of the adventurous outback hero by creating an almost anti-hero whose journey was more interior than actual. There is a LOT to unpack and analyse if you so desire, or you can simply be swept away by PW’s epic, often startling prose.

I still have reservations, but I have not been put off Patrick White. The Tree of Man is lurking somewhere on my TBR shelf, and I really should read David Marr’s biography in full, not just the pages with Voss references! One thing I have learnt during the Voss Readalong though, is that Patrick White is best in small doses. Men with such grand visions can be rather exhausting to be around, whether they be fictional characters or real life authors.


Related Posts:

Title: Voss
Author: Patrick White
ISBN: 9781742756882 
Imprint: Vintage Australia 
Published: 1 October 2012 (originally published 1957)
Format: Paperback 
Pages: 464
Dates Read: 29 October 2022 - 24 November 2022
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 our first storytellers.

13 thoughts on “Voss | Patrick White #ReadtheNobels

  1. Thanks Bron for suggesting and leading this read-along. I agree with everything you’ve said here. The historical fiction just seems to be an excuse for White to write. I was much less impressed with Voss this time around, because, as you say, his paternalism about Aboriginal life (he does well to rise even a little above what I assume are the settler attitudes of his Walgett rellos) and yes, the fact that White’s exploration of Voss’s interior doesn’t seem to go anywhere, however brilliantly it is written. Nevertheless it is an interesting contribution to Australian mythology even if more of its time than I initially expected.


    1. I’ve been wondering how Sue might find Voss after reading it and loving it so much at school, if she would now also see it as somewhat dated and not as she remembered?

      I’m glad I read it too, but I hope I enjoy White’s other books more than this one. Have you read/enjoyed any of his others Bill?


      1. I don’t like Tree of Man at all. I didn’t think much of A Fringe of Leaves. I’ve read and admired (maybe not liked) The Twyborn Affair and The Aunt’s Story. I own and have not read Happy Valley and Memoirs of Many in One, so I will probably read Happy Valley, his first, next.


  2. Job well done! I read Voss a few years ago and have really no desire to read P. White again.
    Good news: One can finally check this book off the list of Australian books to read before you die…AND add it to Read Nobels List! Watched the Socceroos…and they fought a good fight right down to the last seconds! NL plays on Friday against Argentina….I hoping for the best, preparing for the worst b/c you never know what Messi can do! Have a good day!


  3. I finally finished it last night. I don’t know. I’m not sure I gave it my best reading attention, but it also didn’t entirely engage me. As you said in one of your earlier posts, I think, it starts very well, but then it didn’t entirely convince in the middle chapters. The reaction to the lost expedition at the end seemed stronger again.

    I think I liked the Laura Trevelyan chapters better, but I wasn’t convinced by the quantum entanglement between Voss and her. Obviously it was meant to be mystical, but I wasn’t convinced by their magnetic attraction when they first met so the ‘romance’ at a distance didn’t really work for me.

    I pulled Riders in the Chariot off the shelf and glanced at it again. It was 10+ years since I read it, but I remembered it pretty well. It has that same interest in spirituality (the chariot is Elijah’s) and will that this one does, and I think that same interest in Australian identity as Voss (though I may not have paid much attention to it at the time). It has the same quirky, though not difficult, prose as Voss, maybe a little tamed down. I liked it a lot at the time. Maybe the fact that it was not a historical, but set in a Sydney suburb, helped? Some of Voss felt too much like it came out of books. Especially the competing doctors when Laura has brain fever.

    Anyway, pretty long for a comment 😉 I don’t know if I’ll get around to writing a post, though I did renew the book, so I still have it.


  4. Pingback: 2022 | The Books

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