Patrick White

Patrick White’s plays are conventionally assigned a marginal place in the landscape of his writing. Historically, they have either been regarded as poetic but unconvincing extensions of the performative dimensions of his prose, or as fundamentally misconceived exercises in contempt. Tim Winton spoke for the latter camp when, writing in the London Review of Books (22 June 1995), he dismissed White’s dramatic work as a ‘long and wasteful engagement with the theatre and its poisonous hangers-on’. Winton’s judgement is informed by a solitary model of authorship that can be applied to the rural metaphysics of White’s Castle Hill novels but that is increasingly inapplicable to the urbane satires his work became following his move to inner-Sydney in 1964.

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Patrick White, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973, has long been considered Australia’s finest novelist. And yet, the thirtieth anniversary of his death in 2020 passed by with barely a murmur. Was this merely a consequence of the pandemic, or are there larger cultural forces at play? In today's episode, historian and ABR Calibre prize-winning essayist Martin Thomas considers the posthumous neglect of the great Australian writer, who once described himself as a ‘Londoner at heart’ and who continues to challenge jingoistic and complacent forms of nationalism.

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‘Your sense of permanence is perverted,’ said Holstius to Theodora Goodman in The Aunt’s Story (1948). ‘True permanence is a state of multiplication and division.’ The words are prescient, for Patrick White, who wrote them, has done rather well at dissolving into the impermanence of post-mortem obscurity. Perhaps unsurprisingly in view of the pandemic, the thirtieth anniversary of his death in 2020 left little imprint. No literary festival honoured the occasion, and no journal did a special issue. If White is looking down at us from some gumtree in the sky, he will be bathing in the lack of glory. He despised the hacks of the ‘Oz Lit’ industry as much as he loathed the ‘academic turds from Canberra’.

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What we know and how we think and feel are socially and thus historically conditioned. But it can also be geographically conditioned. ‘Australia’, as Mrs Golson remarks in The Twyborn Affair, ‘may not be for everyone ... For some it is their fate, however.’ Our subject is Patrick White and criticism of his work in Australia and my argument is that ours is a culture in general, and a literary culture in particular, with an indifference to and perhaps fear of hermeneutics, which George Steiner glosses as some ‘essential answerability’ implicit in the act of reading over and above understanding or – Leavis preserve us! – evaluation.

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Like every one of his previous novels, Patrick White’s latest work is both utterly characteristic and completely unpredictable. With the third line, we know we are in for another of White’s dissections of human behavior. ‘“Bit rough, isn’t it?” her chauffeur ventured.’ The verb almost parodies White’s careful placing of human acts any other writer would – perhaps rightly – consider insignificant. It is also characteristic of his more recent novels that the first people we meet are peripheral, people who serve both to comment on the action and to offer a commentary just by their presence. They are the reverse of the chorus of a Greek tragedy in that they are the problem to which the central characters address themselves rather than the passive victims of this address.

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Our new Laureate. Australian Book Review is thrilled to name Robyn Archer as our new Laureate. She joins David Malouf, who became the inaugural Laureate in 2014. Robyn Archer is ...

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‘Down at the Dump’ is the final story in Patrick White’s 1964 collection, The Burnt Ones. It begins with a colloquial ‘Hi!’, marooned on the story’s first line, and ends with a short, unpunctuated paragraph, intensely poetic, that recalls James Joyce at his least opaque: ‘The warm core of certainty settled stiller as driving faster the wi ...

Andrew Fuhrmann’s acclaimed Fellowship essay on the theatre of Patrick White closely examines these brilliant, problematic plays and draws on interview material with key directors closely associated with White.

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With the centenary of Patrick White’s birth being celebrated this year, it seems appropriate to highlight the great legacy that White left Australian writers in the form of the Patrick White Literary Award. On 16 November, the 2012 Award was presented to novelist, short story writer, and essayist Amanda Lohrey, the thirty-ninth winner since the Award was first presented, to Christina Stead, in 1974.

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Happy Valley is the first of Patrick White’s novels and it is a consistently compelling book, as well as the exhilarating performance of a great writer in the making. Everyone knows the legend, rooted in truth: that Patrick White finds his voice as a consequence of the war and after discovering the love of his life in Manoly Lascaris; and that the first in the long line of his masterpieces is The Aunt’s Story, which he brings back to Australia with him in 1946, the token of his love/hate for the country which provides the enduring matter of his great works, the intimately suffered homeland which he cannot separate from the compulsions of his own heart.

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