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Laden Choirs

Laden Choirs: The Fiction of Patrick White

Peter Wolfe
Copyright Date: 1983
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Laden Choirs
    Book Description:

    In 1973 the Australian novelist Patrick White won the Nobel Prize for Literature, the year that his great novel of family ties and change,The Eye of the Storm, was published and became a bestseller in America and Europe. Yet White is still not widely known or read, and few writers of today have provoked so many contradictory judgments.

    Now Peter Wolfe has written the first book-length study of the work of this brilliant and haunting novelist. The study offers a subtle, penetrating examination of White's style, his skill in building narrative tension, and also the depth and complexity reflected in his characterization, which, in his novels, always dominates action. Fittingly, for a writer whose novels bear the indelible stamp of Australia, the study also examines White's psychological use of setting and the intense sense of place found in his work.

    No other critical study of White covers such a broad range of his writing. Peter Wolfe considers here the entire canon of the novels.The Tree of Man,Voss,The Vivisector,The Eye of the Storm,A Fringe of Leaves, andThe Twyborn Affair(White's most recent novel) are all discussed. White's themes and settings range from the power and immensity of the wilderness of the Australian outback to the dislocations wrought in traditional values by postwar industrialization and urban sprawl.

    Laden Choirsmakes accessible to an American audience a writer of the first rank, whose work lies at the heart of modernist concerns. Literary students and scholars who wish to explore the world of Patrick White will find this book an essential key.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-6506-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. 1. The Art of the Copious
    (pp. 1-33)

    Readers have started to feel that Patrick White is a good writer because he is Patrick White; they can admire one of his novels because if it weren’t good he wouldn’t have written it. They needn’t look far to justify their admiration. White has the abundance of a major author who doesn’t limit himself to one kind of book or restrict his range of experience. AlthoughThe Tree of Man(1955),Voss(1957), andA Fringe of Leaves(1976) convey the power and immensity of the wilderness, the setting of a White novel can also be urban. When he isn’t...

  5. 2. Groping in the Barrens
    (pp. 34-49)

    Like white’s first published book, a collection of verse entitledThe Ploughman and Other Poems(1935),Happy Valley(1939) uses materials from Belltrees, his family’s 220,000-acre homestead in the Upper Hunter Valley of New South Wales.¹ Also likeThe Ploughman,White’s first novel offers faint hope amid a welter of wintry images, losses, and tears. Sometimes the hope is so faint as to seem nonexistent. Renewal always carries a surcharge of madness or grief. The speaker in a love poem called “Second Life,” seeking ease from pain, finds hope (but not relief) in keener pain: “The Sun, in risen might,/Has...

  6. 3. Silhouettes on a Glass Box
    (pp. 50-65)

    The Living and the Dead(1941) poses technical challenges beyond those facing the freshman novelist ofHappy Valley. Set mainly in England, the book includes important scenes which take place in Germany and France. Though using a smaller cast than its predecessor, it delves deeper into its characters’ lives. Its time scheme also displays a new sophistication. Not only does the work swathe three generations; it also shifts time, repeats events from different points of view, and, perhaps most boldly, ends only hours after it begins. On the other hand, it is written with the mind’s eye rather than with...

  7. 4. Pieces of Self
    (pp. 66-85)

    The still, slack neutrality ofThe Living and the Deadleaves us unprepared for the sensual gusto, verbal invention, and humor ofThe Aunt’s Story(1948), a work that engages our hearts and minds from start to finish. Rightly judged as White’s first serious look at the linkages joining self to universe, the work also moves gracefully, avoiding the solemnity and ponderousness that can make his later, longer works such heavy going. The art ofAunt’s Storyrelies on a severe economy of means. White’s sketch of a successful meatpacker in a passenger train speeding through America’s corn belt reveals...

  8. 5. Strange Truths along Well-Trod Byways
    (pp. 86-103)

    A work dealing with family life and the shaping of the wilderness,The Tree of Manforgoes the cosmopolitan touches of its two consciously modern predecessors,The Aunt’s StoryandThe Living and the Dead.Nor does the work feature characters who are either projections of or symbolic stand-ins for the author, like Elyot Standish, the effete, self-disparaging intellectual, or Theodora Goodman, the mustachioed spinster whose madness deepens the longer she stays away from Australia. The White ofTreeleans less on personal experience than on an Australian heritage that goes back four generations. Its ancestral roots give his 1955...

  9. 6. The Immensity That Enfolds
    (pp. 104-123)

    LikeA Fringe of Leaves,White’s other novel set in the nineteenth century,Voss(1957) stands more firmly as a period piece than as a historical novel. Stressing mood over documentation, it captures the Australian spirit at a time of burgeoning nationalism. The distinction between suburban gardens and the vast, mysterious outback, the importance of emancipists, those former prisoners who stayed in the colony after serving their time, and the growing popularity of the word “country” over the earlier “colony” all describe Australia trying both to define herself and to discover a sense of common purpose. The book’s narrative technique...

  10. 7. The Sowing of the Seed
    (pp. 124-139)

    Riders in the Chariot(1961) treats time the way Voss treated space—conveying its mystery, displaying its effects, and, with a metaphysical fillip, downgrading its import. Life obeys a strict economy in White; effects follow causes, and what happens is inevitable, even if its meaning bypasses most. The shabby figure of Israel, the Dyer of Holunderthal, in northern Germany, reveals the pervasiveness of home truths. The grubby, mousy dyer, indelibly stained with the colors of his craft, remains a force long after leaving the action. He indirectly introduces Himmelfarb to his future wife; he attends the wedding, the only member...

  11. 8. Deeper than Blood
    (pp. 140-154)

    White likesThe Solid Mandala(1965) because of its welding of vision and craft: “It’s a very personal kind of book, I suppose, and comes closest to what I’ve wanted,”¹ he said in 1969. Several familiar motifs helped him approach his ideal. Shifting time as freely as he did inRiders,he oscillates between the present and the world of remembered experience.The Aunt’s StoryandThe Eye of the Storm,though published twenty-five years apart, indicate another crucial similarity. Whereas three of the four riders in White’s 1961 novel live alone, the main characters inMandalalive together as...

  12. 9. Knives of Light
    (pp. 155-174)

    Do we need another novel about an artist after reading about Joyce’s budding author inA Portrait(1916), Cary’s painter inThe Horse’s Mouth(1944), and Mann’s musician inDr. Faustus(1948)? Yes-if the novel says something new and important about the artistic process, the artist’s personality, and the tie joining the artist to his background.The Vivisector(1970) shows how and why Hurtle Duffield’s artistry was formed, why he stayed with it, and what price he paid. It also conveys both the agonies and the rewards of imaginative creation. Vulnerable and self-critical, Hurtle dramatizes the superiority of instinctive arousal....

  13. 10. Jaws
    (pp. 175-196)

    Nothing beforeThe Eye of the Storm(1973) could have prepared us for the book’s new maturity in subject, approach, and procedure. Here White demonstrates his appreciation of the incongruity of experience, and especially of unlooked-for turns in social behavior. A morsel of unchewed pear that shoots out of a distraught mouth can incite a little drama of its own. Relying more on accurate observation than on technical virtuosity, White adopts a rich, supple Jamesian idiom. The touch that seems quicker and lighter than before chimes with artistic intent.Eyeis a long, complicated novel written in long, complicated sentences....

  14. 11. Castaways
    (pp. 197-214)

    A Fringe of Leaves(1976) returns to the question which underlayTreeandVoss, White’s two novels of the 1950s. Again White asks: What is the Australian? How did he become the way he is? And where is he heading? Like the European prospectors who camp near the goldfields of Ballarat, Victoria, in Henry Handel Richardson’sAustralia Felix(1917), the English characters inFringeget a stronger dosage of Australia then they had bargained for. Beyond the symbolic fringe of White’s title lies a world indifferent to human needs and goals. The waves created by this indifference break over a...

  15. 12. Ways of Escape
    (pp. 215-229)

    Rejecting the social and moral realism often associated with Englishlanguage fiction,The Twyborn Affair(1979) turns from the external world to the one within. It also follows the modernist practice of presenting character as radically individual. Mixing dream and desire, it portrays the world as an outward reflection of the private ego. Life makes impressions inTwyborn Affair,as it did in Ford Madox Ford’sThe Good Soldier,another work whose main assumptions and approaches break with those of the British fictional tradition. Its main figure, like those of Ford’s 1915 novel, half perceives and half invents what he construes...

  16. Conclusion: Courting the Ineffable
    (pp. 230-232)

    Any final assessment of Patrick White’s art must deal with Leonie Kramer’s objection to his “strict supervision” of narrative flow, character deployment, and dialogue: “The spontaneous overflow of life that is so characteristic of Dickens and Dostoyevsky ... is notably absent in White .... There is a deliberation which suggests that each step is carefully planned, and that the whole action is moving towards a predetermined end. Curiously, that end, when it comes, might not seem so inevitable as one would expect, nor as appropriate as that of the more conventionally planned, yet also more casually narrated novel.”¹

    Kramer’s brilliant...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 233-240)
  18. Index
    (pp. 241-248)