“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.
- First winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 1957
- Voss was book number 60 – the final book – on my Classics Club List #2
- Bill’s review @The Australian Legend
- Voss Week 4 & Week 3 summary
- Voss Week 3 & Week 2 summary
- Voss Week 2 & Week 1 summary
- Voss Week 1
- Getting Ready
- Coming Soon…
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 this land’s first storytellers.