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Sex, drugs and Patrick White


Tree of Man by Patrick WhiteAlthough I never met either of them, I once received a postcard from Patrick White and his partner Manoly Lascaris. I keep it in a small wooden inlay box in the hall closet with a few other treasures.

The card has a botanical drawing of fringed Australian violets on the front and on the back is written the date, 28.8.82, and Thank you for the honour, signed first Patrick and then, underneath, Manoly. It arrived after I sent a note to White telling him that we had named our new baby son Patrick Manoly — to 'honour both the inspiration of your writing and your long and loving relationship'.

Our Patrick Manoly is now a beautiful young man who occasionally wonders in a good-natured fashion if he is the only bloke in Australia to be named after a gay couple. (He's not the only one to question it; recently at the Sydney Writers Festival, a young man, on hearing I had named my son Patrick for Patrick White, remarked, 'At least you didn't call him 'Manoly'. 'Oh but I did,' I responded gleefully.)

But for us, my partner Anthony and I, there was no question. White was part of our daily life, our conversations, our meals, even our relationship; you could say it was a kind of literary ménage à trois.

I found White first, when I was a teenager, so I had a prior claim. I studied The Tree of Man at school and fell into White's harsh arms without question. Stan's transcendence, seeing God in a line of ants and finally in a gob of spit, delighted my romantic mind, ever hungry for the glowing moment when the ordinary skin of the world split open and revealed its true nature.

But the real moment of no return arrived soon after when I read Voss. I came to an image, which, at 18, I recognised and adopted immediately as the central motif of my life.

I still have the original dusty copy with my name and 1972 written inside and, today, when I started flicking through the pages trying to find the image, I found a red circle around page 99. There it was: 'Then sometimes it seems that all these faults and hesitations, all the worst evil in me is gathering itself together into a solid core, and that I shall bring forth something of great beauty. This I call my oyster delusion.'

Oh yes, I thought then, that is me. I bob around in the tide of events, never doing anything of real significance, yet somehow I think one day that all 'these faults and hesitations' (though not evil, that was too big a claim to make even for a pretentious teenager) will produce a pearl of great beauty. The oyster delusion; I understood and feared even then it was delusion that could control a whole life.

Not long afterwards I went to New Zealand and met Anthony, who being a New Zealander, had not read or even heard of White. I gave him to understand there was no future for us without White in it. Being already a great reader, he allowed himself to be seduced, and to my great relief, fell equally in love with The Tree of Man and Voss, and then A Fringe of Leaves and over the years, The Solid Mandala, The Twyborn Affair and all the rest.

Back in Australia we went to university together and lived in a share house with our first-born son and a collection of art school students. Hurtle Duffield was our companion for weeks and months on end as we all read The Vivisector, passing the one paperback copy around the household. I must have been last to read it because it is still on my bookshelf 30 years later. Riders in the Chariot too went the rounds of the house, its four mystics singing to our youthful longing for something extraordinary.

I am making it sound as if we were a very bookish and perhaps pitiable household, having the most fun ever with Patrick White, but there was all the usual sex and drugs and rock'n'roll. None of that clashed with White, in fact the drugs in particular affirmed the transcendent moment, the light that could shine in any ordinary day.

Anthony and I moved away to the Blue Mountains, but the White affair continued for us both. We bought his books for each other, we read sentences or pages out to each other, we sat and read silently side by side in front of the fire, we trekked down to Sydney and saw A Season at Sarsparilla and A Cheery Soul, never quite as convinced by his plays, but always loyal.

So loyal in fact both of us discounted all reports of White's grumpiness, his ill temper. That was uncharacteristic, especially of me, because I've never thought being an artist was any excuse for bad behaviour. I've always thought a writer behaving badly was no different to the butcher behaving badly, but somehow, White's famous ill temper escaped my stolid censure. He was exempt. No one was allowed to criticise White to my face.

This morning I went to my bookshelf and slid out the half row of White books. I opened The Solid Mandala and saw Anthony's notes for a short story from 20 years ago in the back pages. The same in A Fringe of Leaves. The Tree of Man was falling to bits, no back or front cover; Voss was sticky-taped together.

And then I picked up Flaws in the Glass with its poetic opening deconstruction of the possibility of an innocent or truthful autobiography. Because it is a life story, I recalled the day White died. I was in the shower when Anthony came in to tell me and my tears mixed with the shower, making it seem as if I were shedding far too many tears for someone I had never met.

I wrote another note then, this time just to Manoly, expressing our sorrow and sympathy. Some weeks later we received a plain little card from 20 Martin Road, thanking us for our 'kind letter'. It also said 'Patrick and I were very flattered when we first heard about 'Patrick Manoly' and I wish him luck — Yours Manoly Lascaris.'

And then to our shame, White started to fade a little in our daily lives. We remained faithful of course, still no one was allowed to criticise him in front of us — I once disrespectfully headed my lecture notes 'Leonie's lies' during an Oz lit class on White given by the Dame herself — but we didn't read him any more. When I taught at university I despaired of students enrolled in literary studies who had not even heard of White, but we didn't read him. He was a cherished memory, a shared love in the heart of our lives. But his books gathered dust.

And then I walked past my local bookshop last week and saw The Hanging Garden. I was afraid. What if I didn't like it? What if it was just our foolish youthful passion? What if I found him dreadfully overcooked as I found Christina Stead when I looked at her again?

I bought it of course, but gave it to Anthony first, unable to face the possible disillusionment. Anthony took it overseas with him to read in interminable airport lounges. I waited anxiously, not confessing my fears, not wanting to admit disloyalty. It seemed like it would somehow call into question everything we had shared if White turned out to be a youthful indulgence, an embarrassing extravaganza.

A week or so later Anthony skyped from his hotel room and said 'I've finished.'

'Yes,' I said, hearing my voice failing a little, holding my breath. 'And?'

'It affirms everything we ever thought and felt. Australia was lucky to have him. He sees and knows the human heart and mind, and expresses it, like no one else. Head and shoulders.'

I breathed out again. Anthony kept talking about the words, the awareness, the story, and I drank in every word like lovers do.

The next day I went to the hall closet and found the wooden box and dug through the cards and letters until I found the fringed violet card. It was wrapped in a plastic grocery bag with the plain card from Manoly. It seemed exactly right, an ordinary daily plastic bag, containing an affirmation of the way words make possible tender connections between human beings. I put the cards back, reassured that the centre held.

Today I opened The Hanging Garden and began to read; 'It made the reasonable child feel grave, important ...' The still familiar observations and rhythms fell around me like grace.

Thank you for the postcard Patrick White, I forgot to ever say. Thank you for all your words. 

Patti MillerPatti Miller has taught writing for over 20 years. Her many books include The Last One Who Remembers, Whatever the Gods Do and The Memoir Book. Her latest book is The Mind of a Thief. Patti teaches at the Faber Academy in Sydney. 


Topic tags: Patti Miller, Patrick White



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Existing comments

My -- that's a lovely essay. How intimate and affectionate a look at how, yes, some writers become our teammates, cousins, inky friends, even. And what a great to-read list for non-Australians.

Brian Doyle | 13 June 2012  

Ah yes, I raise my glass!

Kay Bushnell | 13 June 2012  

Thanks, Patty! As one of those literary students who'd never read Patrick White, reading your love letter makes me want to rush out and find his books!

Pip | 13 June 2012  

What a joy of a piece! How long before it becomes a granted in the Australian mind that in the works of White we have the density of experience, the thrilling power of imagination and the mastery of language to embody them that simply transcend anything that any other Australian, indeed any but a few writers anywhere, has achieved.

Joe Castley | 13 June 2012  

Patti, you have struck upon really important factors in the life of reading: where we were when we first read the book and who were when we read it. These factors are never even considered in English classes, but are so important to our knowledge, experience and memory of what we read. The impact of Patrick White on Australian readers has so much to do with our own experience of Australia, because he talks about it in such vivid detail, often as though for the first time. I was a teenager when I first read ‘The Vivisector’, which is why it is always a White favourite for me. What was most memorable were the descriptions of the country – flora, fauna, water and earth – and even though I knew all of these things, his words made them more alive in my mind. ‘The Tree of Man’ is an epic of humans in nature, but I remember too university tutorials where we talked for the first time not about English scenes but those we knew so well (bushfire and flood), not English mores but the tough emotional world of the bush. It was inspiring to be in amongst it. Last year I went back to ‘The Eye of the Storm’, certainly a book for adults. What an achievement, to spend the whole book describing a matriarch dying and in the process to bring up from her memory all the best and worst of her life. It’s an incredible imaginative experience. I was struck by White’s sympathetic portraits of her servants and others trying to make ends meet, and his devastating portraits of the pretensions of Sydney’s upper crust. I confess not to have read ‘Riders in the Chariot’, so it’s about time.

PHILIP HARVEY | 13 June 2012  

Thank you for that beautiful piece. I love Patrick White's writing too. It was good to hear you reflect also on "Flaws in the Glass" - such a wonderful autobiography. The film of the engrossing "Eye of the Storm" is well worth seeing - made with a lot of love. Again - thanks.

Faye Lawrence | 13 June 2012  

Hi Patti thank you for your article on Patrick White I. Too am a great admirer. Of his. Having read Voss and The Tree Of Man in the late 60s.
A few months ago when I was working at Vinnies I came across a large volume Patrick White letters Edted by David Marr published1996 from his estate . Needless to say I brought it .
Absolutely fascinating yes he was abrupt and cranky amazing what he wrote to important people of his day even to his Mother .
Every now and then I read a few makes my day.
Did enjoy Eye Of The Storm Sunday week ago on Aunty ABC 1
Look forward to your next article.

Mary Walsh | 13 June 2012  

Patti - my Patrick White experience was in one way the opposite of yours. I had never wanted to read anything Australian, but when I went to Indonesia as an Australian Volunteer Abroad, I had no books and no money. But I did have access to the library at the Australian embassy in Jakarta. I started at the beginning with A - it might have been Jessica Anderson - and worked my way along until the day I picked up a White and took it back to my hovel, and in the sweltering heat, I read. Then back to the embassy for another, and another, 'till I had read them all. There wasn't anyone in the village I could talk to about them - they always seemed to be an experience that belonged to me alone. I was there two years, and recalling the time, so much of that exotic experience seems coloured by reading the mind-blowing White.

Russel | 13 June 2012  

Our book club has decided to take the plunge and do a Patrick White novel in October, which reminds me I must reserve a copy now. I am a little nervous about the magnitude of his work and his reputation as impenetrable. But nothing ventured nothing gained. Thanks Patti for the reminder.

Jenny Esots | 13 June 2012  

Thank you for this delightful essay Patti

Kevin Mark | 13 June 2012  

I just had a quick glance at the Life of Patrick White exhibition at the National Library (hoping for a longer look soon) so your article was a timely surprise. I must admit to a little giggle when I saw one of the first items on display was the young Patrick's silver spoon...Yet how far from the ordered, safe life of the complacent wealthy did his imagination transport him? And what a long-lived marriage, so rare in our modern world.

Penelope | 13 June 2012  

If anyone wants to know what Patrick White was really like they should go to the current exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. There they will see, repeat see, how a a real artist, Brett Whitely, perceived him. I support A.D. Hope's criticism of The Tree of Man - "verbal sludge". In fact I belong to the School of Literary Appreciation that expects writing to reveal truth and meaning and not conceal it. I don't deny White's literary descriptive powers. Indeed, if I were to describe White in his old age I would plagiarise his description of old Mrs Goodman, in The Aunt's Story, who died in her sleep. "His lips had sunk in on his gums, leaving him with a final expression that was gentle, and prim, and uncharacteristicall silly." But for every occasional flourish there is a lot of padding that seems to serve no other purpose than to make the journey toward the final page as burdensome as possible. As a writer White was a verbal sadist.

Uncle Pat | 15 June 2012  

I was collecting material on the Hanging Garden and come to this piece by accident. It is a wonderful surprise to read Patti's article. I love Patrick White's novels (i'm from China!!). A quick response to "uncle patty"'s expectation of writing "to reveal truth and meaning and not conceal it": as the Chinese philosophy says, "LIfe and Death", that's all, truth unconcealed and revealed direct. You can get it anywhere, why bother with literature or any other means of representation.

Sam Zhou | 12 October 2013  

This reminds me of how powerfully we can connect with our favourite writers. The fantasies we have of them through their writing. It's almost as if they enter into our imaginations as the most wondrous creatures, simply because of their writing, and in real life they can be so different. Such pleasure in another for their writing is touching.

Elisabeth | 10 December 2013  

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