Monday, April 2, 2012
Book Review - Nobel Prize Winning Authors - Voss by Patrick White
Lately I’ve been searching for really outstanding books set in Australia to read, and that search led me to Australia’s first, and so far only, Nobel Prize winner, Patrick White and his extraordinary novel, Voss. Voss is the fictionalized account of the life of German explorer Ludwig Leichardt and his 1848 trek into the heart of the Australian desert where only aboriginal tribesmen dared to roam, and his subsequent disappearance. Much has been made of White’s fictionalization of the life of a real life explorer, but it should be remembered that today, the fictionalization of real life accounts is pretty routine.
Johann Ulrich Voss is determined to be the first white man/European to cross the Australian desert from coast-to-coast, though neither he nor White’s readers will be prepared for what happens once Voss sets out. His motley group is financed by the wealthy Sydney resident, Edmund Bonner. Before Voss sets off on his cross-Australian trek, however, he meets and falls in love with the Bonners’ orphaned niece, the English girl, Laura Trevelyan. Laura and Voss have a special connection, a strange bond, a real meeting of the minds, or souls, if you will, however neither recognizes the strength of that connection until Voss is hopelessly lost in the Australian desert. Although Laura and Voss have spent little time together, their bond is so powerful that the farther the Voss expedition heads into the desert, the more powerfully Voss and Laura are connected. There are letters, and in one Voss proposes. Laura happily accepts. Theirs in such an unlikely romance, but in White’s hands, it’s totally believable and even tender.
From the beginning, Voss is presented as having one heck of a god complex. “I am compelled into this country,” Voss tells Mr. Bonner. And when Mr. Bonner asks, “Have you studied the map?” Voss replies with typical hauteur, “The map? I will make it first.” And that pretty much sums up how Voss felt about each and every situation in which he found himself, with the exception of situations involving Laura, of course.
White writes of his hero, “At times his arrogance did resolve itself into simplicity, though it was difficult, especially for strangers, to distinguish these occasions.” For Voss, “[p]laces yet unvisited can become an obsession, promising final peace and goodness.”
One can’t, however, sally forth into the central Australian desert in the nineteenth century and expect to return safely without developing a little humility. For Voss, however, that humility came just a little too late:
He himself, he realized, had always been most abominably frightened, even at the height of his divine power, a frail god upon a rickety throne, afraid of opening letters, of making decisions, afraid of the instinctive knowledge in the eyes of mules, of the innocent eyes of good men, of the elastic nature of the passions, even of the devotion he had received from some men, and one woman, and dogs.
You might think Voss’ megalomania, his defiance and his arrogance, make him a particularly odious character, but such isn’t the case. He’s quite fascinating and vividly drawn. He’s so well drawn and so complex that he seems to leap off the page.
Laura, too, who feels she’s traveling a spiritual path that runs parallel to Voss’, and who is ennobled and redeemed by all that befalls Voss’ expedition, is an equally complex and headstrong character. And it’s Laura who understands that Voss was doing more than traversing Australia’s barren interior. He was, Laura says, creating a myth. A visitor tells Laura, “We are in every way provided for, by God and nature, and consequently, must survive.”
Laura replies, “Oh, yes, a country with a future. But when does the future become present? That is what always puzzles me.”
Laura believes a country without a myth – or myths – is nothing but a savage wilderness. She says, of Voss, “His legend will be written down, eventually, by those who are troubled by it.”
Laura, in other words “gets it.” And she “gets” Voss as well. She may be the only person who ever has.
Voss is a beautiful book, written in beautiful, rich, precise prose. The prose is, in fact, so precise that it makes the reader stop and marvel. Fairly early in the book, White writes that: “The darkness was becoming furious.” Furious. Have you ever seen darkness become “furious?” I have, but I don’t know that I would have thought to write about it using that particular word. It seems to anthropomorphize “darkness” a little too much when taken out of context. When read in the context of the entire novel, however, it “fits” perfectly. Such is the genius of Patrick White.
And then there’s this: “All this queerness was naturally discussed as the carriage crunched onward, and the German, walking into the sunset, was burnt up.” Burnt up? It’s precise, and you’ll marvel at this perfect choice when/if you read the book.
Some of White’s sentences are clipped and defined, while others are long and fold back in on themselves. Both work beautifully, and each seems the perfect choice for the job it has to do.
Voss and Laura are such fully formed characters that they spring instantly to life, and one comes away from this book believing that Voss was the real-life German on whose life the character was based, and that Laura must certainly have existed, somewhere, in some time. Even the minor characters are beautifully delineated:
His Excellency the Governor wished Mr. Voss and the expedition God-speed and a safe return, the Colonel said, with the littlest assistance from his fleshless face, which was of a rich purple where the hair allowed it to appear. And he clasped the German’s hand in a gloveful of bones.
Voss is a book filled with vivid images like the one quoted above, with images of Voss as he was “burnt up,” with the darkness as it becomes “furious.” And those images stay with the reader long after he or she closes the book. In fact, they tug at the reader’s consciousness, luring him back to Voss’ story when he really should be doing something else.
Voss is a historical novel, but it’s also a deep psychological portrait. It’s a journey of the mind, of the consciousness, as well as the physical body.
Voss understands this, and Laura comes to understand it, too. The fact that Voss dies in the searing heat of Australia’s heart doesn’t make his journey any less real or any less important.
White wrote Voss in a style called “High Modernism.” High Modernism, according to Norton celebrates “personal and textual inwardness, complexity, and difficulties.” Unfortunately, this literary movement had faded from favor by the end of the 1920s, and today, White isn’t read nearly as much as he should be. Oh, the post-modernists are still in favor. Go into any bookstore and you’ll find copy-after-copy of novels filled with the exuberant and whimsical prose of David Mitchell, the furious prose of Salman Rushdie, and the stylized prose of Alice Munro. And that’s great. They’re all great writers. But you’ll be hard pressed to find any of White’s books. That’s so unfortunate because Voss is probably as perfect as a novel can get, and it’s certainly a ripping good tale. Part of the problem might be that Australia’s changed since White wrote Voss. It’s no longer a vast, dangerous wasteland in which even a seasoned explorer can meet a terrible and unexpected end. Yet people are forgetting, I think, Voss’ spiritual journey, to the center of the soul, and the spiritual journey Laura takes with him. A journey like that is still a journey to uncharted territory, and is still worth the price of admission to Voss’ world alone. As Laura puts it:
This great country, which we have been presumptuous enough to call ours, and with which I shall be content to grow since the day we buried Rose. For part of me has now gone into it. Do you know that a country does not develop through the prosperity of a few landowners and merchants, but out of the suffering of the humble?
Voss is an ultra-Australian novel, and that’s just what I was looking for. And no matter what you might think of Patrick White, who could be scathingly dismissive of other writers, he was truly a genius, and Voss is one of the masterpieces of the twentieth century.
When White wrote about books that were important to him, he said that one seems to “go on living in them for ever, possibly because they give glimpses of a heartbreaking perfection one will never achieve.”
So it is with Voss.
1/5 (Cover Art – Penguin Classic)
Recommended: To everyone who loves perfectly written literary fiction.
Note: The cover of the Penguin Classics edition is so bad I almost didn’t buy the book. Being a very visual person, it actually interfered with my reading enjoyment. In addition, it bears no resemblance to the story the book tells. Publishers, please take the advice of Julian Barnes regarding cover art. It’s more important than some publishers seem to think. I’ve chosen to display a different, slightly more aesthetically pleasing cover image here.