May 2018

Arts & Letters

Patrick White’s immigrant language

By Christos Tsiolkas

White gained from his partner’s Greek Orthodoxy a sensibility that changed how he saw Australia

When I read David Marr’s commanding biography, Patrick White: A Life, the storyteller in me was delighted to find that the young Patrick had been shipped to Cheltenham College in England as a youth, and that there he had experienced an exile from home and family that marked his character and his writing throughout his life. Marr eloquently describes the alienation the young boy felt upon being wrenched from his privileged and cocooned upbringing in rural New South Wales and bourgeois Sydney, to find himself suddenly a colonial misfit in one of the elite centres of English life.

I found myself in Cheltenham over 70 years later, and while there said to a friend, My God, this is one of the whitest places I’ve ever been. Something of the strangeness I felt in Cheltenham, the sense of being an outsider, made sense to me when I read Marr’s account of White’s experience as a schoolboy. This is precisely where the storyteller in me gets excited.

Of course, life isn’t fiction and it would be reckless to presume that the confusions and emotions the young Patrick White experienced as a transplanted colonial in Cheltenham 80 or more years ago were identical to the discombobulating anxiety I experienced as an Australian writer visiting the UK in the early 21st century. For one, White came from a line of wealthy Australian landholders and was born into a family that proudly asserted its British origins. I was born to peasant Greek immigrants whose migration to Australia made our family very much part of the working class. Nevertheless, despite these differences of time, history and cultural roots, there is something in White’s attraction to, and resentment of, his colonial status that links him to me.

White railed against the parochialism and mean-spiritedness of Australian culture all his life, and this antagonism is a constant presence in his writing. It lends his wonderful autobiography, Flaws in the Glass, some of its most vivid imagery. And a fractious desire – fractious because never fulfilled, never finally consummated – to leave Australia and make Europe his permanent home is part of the life that Marr surveyed and also a recurrent desire of the characters in White’s novels. In fiction he could satisfy that longing: in both the early work, The Aunt’s Story, and the late masterpiece, The Twyborn Affair, main characters can make that great divorce.

But White himself remained in Australia till the end of his life. That in itself is an important biographical element that I think informs how we understand his work. The flight of mid-20th-century writers from Australia in order to consolidate their identities and their careers was so commonplace as to be unremarkable – so much so that we had a name for the sense of inferiority involved: “cultural cringe”. Randolph Stow and Christina Stead, two other writers of comparable ability, had to leave their home country to continue writing. And a later generation that includes Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer and Clive James also had to make that particular migration. I think one thing that marks White’s writing and makes it different from the work of these other writers is that the Australia that emerges across his work is not static. This country, in all its beauty and ugliness, in all its meanness and potential, is a perpetual character in his novels. It changes and grows, it keeps repeating the same mistakes, and yet it can surprise us. This is one of the things I adore about the man’s work. There isn’t a whiff of nostalgia for Australia in his writing.

David Marr’s biography and Flaws in the Glass are such definitive works on Patrick White’s life and imagination that we might believe there to be no further call for biographical excavation, that they provide all the illumination we need. But I want to offer another work as also pivotal to our understanding of White. This is a lesser-known book by the critic and academic Vrasidas Karalis, his Recollections of Mr Manoly Lascaris. Published in 2008 and based on a series of interviews Karalis conducted with Lascaris, Patrick White’s long-term partner, the book is of interest not only for the insights it provides into White and his relationship with Lascaris, but also as an honest reflection by Karalis on the existential impermanence of the migrant experience.

The Lascaris who emerges from these conversations scuttles the romantic and clichéd sense of him as immigrant and refugee that I had been carrying around in my head for years. Of course, there is political and historical tragedy in his biography, specifically the almost complete purge of the Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities in Anatolia after the creation of the modern Turkish state in the early 1920s. Lascaris’s family, who lived in the Ottoman city of Smyrna (now İzmir), had to flee the city and were scattered, as were hundreds of thousands of other refugees, across Europe, Egypt, Canada and the US. But Lascaris is clear in wishing to distinguish his own family’s experience from that of peasant and working-class Anatolian refugees.

As they converse, the older man admonishes the younger for “proletarian” and “vulgar” expressions. The use of that specifically Marxist term “proletarian” is telling, as if Lascaris wishes to place himself outside the familiar sociopolitical understanding of migration. His isn’t the confession of a “wog”, he seems to be implying, and in so doing he marks a gulf between his own experience and that of the overwhelming majority of Greek immigrants. Lascaris is proud of his family’s connection to the royal court of ancient Byzantium; he is, whatever the realities of his bank account, always an aristocrat.

Hearing Lascaris’s voice in his interviews with Karalis, I am granted insight into a very different perception to that of the Greek immigrants I grew up among, where the dominant narratives spoke of grinding rural poverty and limited education, experiences that owed nothing to and had no relationship with cosmopolitan, urban centres. I think it is in understanding that difference that I gleaned how much White and Lascaris shared in their comprehension of exile. One Australian and the other Anatolian, they were both upper-class men who owed allegiance to an idea of Empire. In fact, that’s how they met – both fighting in a world war wearing British uniforms. But that allegiance was also challenged, and therefore in part resented, because the very notion of Empire was collapsing, and the Britain they belonged to either condescended to them or no longer wanted them. This alienation from Empire they also shared.

The one thread that connects Lascaris to the Greece I know from my family history, and one of the great gifts Manoly bestowed on his lover, is the religion of Greek Orthodoxy. From his interviews, it becomes clear that Lascaris’s devout faith cannot be divorced from his pride in the history of the religion. Faith is both belief and blood. For the Greeks living in Anatolia and the Middle East, it was their religion, even more than their language, that set them apart from their neighbours. But if that was all religion meant to Lascaris, it would not have had the impact it did on White as a writer.

Greek Orthodoxy’s history, separated by schism and Empire from Western Europe, surviving for half a millennium in a largely Muslim world, is characterised by mysteries that exhort the unknowability of God. Cleaved from earthly power with the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans, Orthodoxy is marked by a fatalism that separates it from both Catholicism and Protestantism. Orthodoxy’s lore reifies the seer, the hermit and the seeker, those who abandon earthly pleasures to find God’s immanence in the natural world. Orthodoxy eschews the intellectual quest for God.

It’s not faith that Patrick White takes from Orthodoxy, but a sensibility, one that allowed him to return to Australia and see the landscape in a way he could not before his relationship with Manoly. The seer, the hermit and the seeker will become central to his work, and the spirituality in his novels will not arise from characters pondering the existence or non-existence of a deity, but from encountering the Godhead in the violences and ecstasies of the natural world. It’s this sensibility that connects White’s writing, for me, to the great Russian writers. It is this supreme gift that I think Lascaris gave him.

I suspect an intervention is necessary here, that I may need to defend myself against the accusation that it is my own Greek heritage that steers me towards Lascaris and his influence on White. This is true, undoubtedly. But I ask you to trust that what I am trying to get at is a transformation in White’s writing that is linked to his falling in love with Manoly Lascaris – that by falling in love and pledging a commitment to a life together, White took on an understanding of exile and of spirituality.

Of course, White’s feelings of being an outsider to his country and family heritage were already there before World War Two and before meeting Manoly. As he points out in Flaws in the Glass, “Sexual ambivalence helped drive me in on myself.” Those outsider emotions were there during his time as a schoolboy in Cheltenham, and then later when he returned to the UK after spending time as a jackaroo in outback New South Wales. The rage and the hopelessness he felt at the paradoxical smallness of Australia, that incredible smallness of such a huge country, find expression in Happy Valley, his first novel. And, in his second, The Living and the Dead, a book that betrays the urgency of a young writer trying to prove he is the equal of the European writers who have influenced him, Australia is almost – almost, but not quite – excluded. But undoubtedly, although the first two novels confirm the young White as an immensely talented writer, they pale alongside the novels he was to write on his return to Australia, with Manoly, after the war.

There is an alertness to beauty and to the sensuality of landscape in Happy Valley, and there is also an awareness of the vastness and sometimes bleakness of space. But there is no awe. What I miss in this book and in The Living and the Dead are the flights of ecstatic lyricism that are so much part of the experience of reading The Aunt’s Story (first published in 1948), The Tree of Man (1955) and Voss (1957). Yes, that difference can be attributed to the maturing of the man through his experience of life in England and, crucially, to his experience as a soldier in war. And by the time of The Aunt’s Story White had gained a confidence in his craft that saw him begin to transcend his modernist influences. Yet what also emerges across these three great early works is a defiant celebration of the wanderer, the exile and the pilgrim; and also a spiritual dimension to his writing, a language of transcendence that finds the sacred in the material world and in the accidental moments when strangers bestow kindness on one another.

White’s notion of the sacred is never sentimental; nor is his championing of the exile. A suspicion of madness and self-delusion taints the revelatory bliss of The Aunt’s Story’s Theodora Goodman, as it does the gargantuan folly of explorer Johann Ulrich Voss. And in The Tree of Man, Stan and Amy Parker are Adam and Eve before the Fall, though this innocence and grace is apprehended by them only in blinding moments of illumination that last an instant; it is certainly not understood by their children and the community that begins to form around their once isolated farm. But madness, folly and naivety do not diminish any of these characters. Their vividness is a transcendence that we as readers comprehend and are shaken by.

This is the foundation of my love for Patrick White. And I believe that this foundation is inseparable from the gifts that Lascaris offered his partner: a fierce and lifelong commitment to the experience of exile suffered by the displaced Anatolians, and an understanding of and love for the material spiritualism of Greek Orthodoxy that offered a way for White to create a language of spiritual yearning and devotion, even as an avowed non-believer. The Orthodox East enters White’s writing and this is transformative, not only for his language, but also for how it initiates something in Australian literature. What I am trying to do is to convey something of the wonder I experienced as both reader and writer in finding White, at first tentatively and then with greater confidence, creating an immigrant language.

This is an edited extract from Christos Tsiolkas’s On Patrick White: Writers on Writers (Black Inc.; $17.99), out this month.

Christos Tsiolkas

Christos Tsiolkas is the author of five novels, including DamascusThe Slap and Barracuda, and the short-story collection Merciless Gods.

Patrick White and Manoly Lascaris, Sydney, 1989. Photo by William Yang

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