It’s true. Back in 1981 when we were just beginning Neos — Young Writers we had a generous letter from the great man, subscription enclosed, and later I learned he had been singing our praises to poet Robert Gray.
When I first tried to read Patrick White’s work, The Tree of Man in this case, I could not finish it, but later when I found myself having to teach this very novel to Year 12 in Wollongong I became a convert. It was reading chunks aloud to the class which converted me. I began to enjoy prose which previously had given me indigestion. His work still makes many people dyspeptic.
I even ended up giving a lecture on the subject to an English Teachers Association Year 12 Study Day, developing my thesis that the book was really a spiritual quest, which I tended to read, not entirely wrongly, in terms of Zen. Many years later a girl who was in that audience told me that lecture had changed her life! I was quite at odds with Professor Leonie Kramer on this (and yes, I did discuss it with her once) as she simply did not read White’s work that way. White famously hated her, as any reader of Flaws in the Glass knows. I wrote more on White last year, including reference to his various faults: see Why bother with Patrick White? But in the 70s and 80s I devoured almost all he wrote. And speaking as I did earlier today of the multiplicity of readings critics make, here is one, and it isn’t totally naff either, that reads his novels with this rather surprising question in mind: “How to think this sibling cum Oedipal incest configuration in cultural terms?” It hadn’t really occurred to me, that one.
Today I was very interested in David Marr’s stories about the previously hidden White papers. Typical of him. See A secret life of love, loss and stroganoff.
A pocket diary for 1988 survives. During the Bicentenary he took an angry stand against the national mood of self-congratulation. All this was very public. For once he courted publicity. Papers carried photographs of him posing with the Aboriginal flag in his garden. But tucked in the back of that diary Ayres found a scrap of paper on which he had scrawled this prayer: “May I be guided in the coming year in my efforts to unite people, through the written and the spoken word, that we may abandon despair and apathy for a fresh belief in spiritual progress and universal peace.”