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Failing Patrick White

As a young writer in the early 1980s I had the good fortune to come to the attention and into the company of Patrick White. Now, I know not everyone whose path crossed Patrick’s in that period will describe their encounter as an instance of luck working in their favour, but that is how it was for me and still how I see it today. I learned much from him back then and, as far as I can tell, failed him only once.

In those years I was busy on various writing fronts: producing short stories for literary magazines, freelancing features for Fairfax and ACP publications, and also scripting one-offs and series drama for SBS.

Yet the thing I cared about most was fiction, and in this realm White stood for me as the very model of the independent and brave literary voice. I admired him for many reasons, not least for his engagement with European notions of authorship on the ‘why’ as well as the ‘how’ of the task. To me he was in the line of Stendhal, Flaubert, Zola and others whose outlook was realist, naturalist, radical, critical – male authors not afraid to foreground women in their fiction (how well they did it was another question), for whom character was central, and who were unafraid to skewer the pretensions and failings of their society.

More than weighing him as ‘our’ very own Nobel Laureate, a home-grown winner in the very Australian mode of ‘clever us, we’ve got champion book writers as well as swimmers,’ like others I looked to White as a vital contributor to better understanding and improving the place. Here was a writer with a distinctive public as well as literary voice who was unafraid to use his art to penetrate the good bloke-ism and cultural complacency that continued to linger well into the second half of the twentieth century in Australia – despite post-war modernisation, despite the Whitlam government’s liberations (a complacency that sadly still lingers in new-old ways).

The attention began when I wrote to thank him for Flaws in the Glass, his memoir of the early ‘80s and still one of the best, most self-lacerating books by an Australian author about themselves. With no expectation that he would write back, it was a surprise to receive a letter in return, one that not only announced he’d read my recently published collection of stories, For the Patriarch, but that also heaped more than a few words of praise on it (some of which shamelessly grace the current edition).

The young person I was back then was enormously thrilled to receive such an accolade, and it wasn’t the end of it. Not long after this exchange Ann picked up the phone one Saturday afternoon at our rented place in Leichhardt to find — to her and my amazement — Patrick on the line. I took the phone nervously, eventually able to concentrate enough to realise he was extending an invitation to lunch. We thereafter had what might best be described as a master and student relationship, which included my visiting Manoly and him in Centennial Park, being indeed treated to lunch, and sharing a small correspondence over a couple of years before letters and contact ceased.

The letters were a delight to receive just for the handwriting alone. I loved reading the satisfyingly broad cursive that he applied across the page from margin to margin. As David Marr’s work on his life and correspondence has shown, Patrick was prolific in the now-distant epistolary form, using it to write publicly and sternly to newspapers while also providing friends and associates with private commentary or treating them to his mordant humour. He was much given to commenting on those things that had taken his interest or that troubled him, in the world nearest as well as more broadly — and with an artist’s rather than critic’s sense of what needed to be said.

The work I was producing then for the National Times, the SMH and The Bulletin included pieces on television, travels to Greece, food, Australian literature and religion, and it was a pleasure to learn these topics were of interest to him too, and that he was keen on what I wrote. About the only thing he didn’t like was that I was also working for ‘the telly’, as he called it. If he was content to read my freelance journalism, he considered television a distraction and was concerned that it would take me away from what he believed was or should be my ‘real work’.

So it happened one time that he also most generously thought to give me an idea for a story, which was included as part of a longer letter and which he set out as follows:

Some years after Hitler’s war when Manoly and I were in Herakleion I got an idea for a story of sorts, which I was going to write, then became sidetracked. On the outskirts of the town we came across a squalid building which had ended up as a rundown cinema. There was a poster pasted on the façade advertising a film with, I think, Lana Turner. The building was old. There were fragments of stone lying around which suggested classical Greece, but the present-day cinema had also served as church & mosque.

My imagination saw four phases, which I planned to convey as four visions, slides or ‘songs’. In the first of these the building was a temple of Aphrodite. After it crumbles a Byzantine church rises on the site, where the goddess has become the Panagia. Then, when the Mother of God is expelled by the Moslem and the church becomes a mosque, woman is excluded. Finally in the squalor and chaos of the post-Hitler years, the goddess returns in the form of one of the vulgar western film stars such as Lana Turner & Greece sinks even deeper into a plastic culture.

Whenever anyone sends me an idea for a novel or story, it’s the last thing I want to use. Probably my suggestion will fall on stony ground with you, but I offer it as a seed which might possibly germinate in your particular imagination…

Enormously flattered that he should send me this idea and his imprimatur to proceed, also much spurred along by a dose of first-book-author testosterone of my own — and more than ready to ignore his warning — what could I do but give it a go? I wanted to give it a go for many reasons, not least because I wanted to please the master with a good piece of journeyman work of my own. I wanted to justify his writerly faith in me by showing that I could pull this intriguing idea into shape as a convincing story.

Not that I couldn’t foresee problems. Laid out as he had it, the bones were a little too suggestive of historical pageant. I worried that, in his own way of structuring narrative, the story he would have produced on these foundations would stand in ways that were intensely and characteristically psychological, even if I couldn’t be certain exactly how. I was wary I might instead end up with a series of static tableaux. And while I imagined I had some sense of the tone he had in mind I couldn’t be entirely sure there either. I might have called him or written to ask for further guidance, but was of course too proud. I had already published a book of short stories of my own — surely I would be able to glean these things for myself?

The more I thought about it, especially given his relationship with and understanding of Greece, the more I convinced myself that Patrick saw a tragi-comic core to the material, allowing for cultural absurdities and incongruities to be harnessed to a darker story, one with an overall leaning to tragedy. I certainly thought there was a kind of humour in this rendering of an idea about Greek history, whose inner logic dictated that an ancient site of veneration would end up hosting a Lana Turner movie – and on the screen of a roofless old outdoor cinema in a dusty street on the outskirts of modern Herakleion, the capital of Crete, no less.

And with this hint, I went on to conceive a long short story that would somehow work backwards from the modern era, one centred on a character I thought would be recognisable to Patrick – a typical post-war Athenian spiv who pays peanuts for an empty lot he can use as an open-air cinema, but who ends up going broke all the same. An already delusional man who, on a humid night after too much to drink, watches the whole spectacular and too often disastrous parade of the Greek experience somehow unfurl across his big screen. He sits pinned to one of the folding seats alone, forgotten and passed by. More or less riveted in place, I would have him unable to move or do anything but watch as glory and majesty fade through the ages and Greece ends up in the contemporary ‘squalor’ that Patrick described and that a showman of this type had helped create.

As the ‘film’ ended in the story, I would have him shake himself together and out of his hallucinatory state, while at the same time vowing he would change, become a better man. And in committing to this path he would be doing his own patriotic and citizenly duty as Greek and Athenian – after all that he’d been shown, he believed he owed nothing less to his country and race. I tried to write this with a light touch, working around some of the seriousness of the base material, in a tone of the gentlest irony and trying to avoid the obviously arch or tongue in cheek.

Whatever else, I thought the story as it was beginning to take shape had meaning for me, for extra-curricular as well as literary reasons. I was then, as now, very much drawn to subjects Greek, had a strong attachment to Greece decades after my parents’ migration to Australia, still had relatives there, and really, wished the place well. My own approach to the material could also stand on some hard facts about Greece as a modern nation-state: that its origins lie not in the classical era (though there were of course borrowings) but in a revolt against the Ottomans in the early nineteenth century; and that the development of a contemporary identity has been interrupted by a number of political or economic crises, each of which has been followed by a reinvention of one kind or another.

Not that I expected fair winds and blue skies from Patrick. I knew I would have to proceed cautiously, because there were always potential reefs and shoals when it came to him and things Greek. His living connection with Greece was most clearly through Manoly Lascaris, but temperamentally he was also much drawn to the tragic view of life that runs deeply through its history, art and life. His grasp of the various forms of Greek culture and what they meant could be at least as real and artistically fruitful to him as the prompts and cues he drew from Australia — as in the ‘Greek’ stories in The Burnt Ones, for instance. Greece seriously mattered to him.

Patrick admired various Greek artists and film-makers, notably the great film director Theo Angelopoulos (who I first heard about from him), and also liked to make practical suggestions and offer support to local practitioners who he felt were simpatico (he was a fan of Peter Lyssiotis’s work for instance, full of praise for his Journey of a Wise Electron). But it was no easy road with him. In matters Greek, as in others, he proffered his judgements in ways that made you feel you were under a particularly powerful microscope.

Then there was his personality. White’s public appearances and political statements led many of the tall poppy-cutters of the time to view him as first and last some kind of haughty elitist. Yes, he could be aloof and splenetic, but Patrick was someone capable of kindness who also sought sociability, who worked to be a friend to those he was drawn to, and often became such. His polarities could lead to intense engagements as well as furious retreats. Some friendships lasted, others were brought to a harsh close. Isolation I sometimes think held both beauty and terror for him. He was a man who sought his better angels — or perhaps I just wanted to believe this — even as he sometimes found it difficult to leave behind his worst. In any event I wanted to continue to have his interest and for him to think of me as an ally and friend.

And so I put the story idea through two drafts, which took me some months to work through. When I could no longer think what more or better I could do, I settled on a ‘final’ version and sent it to him for his response. From the initial suggestion to my stuffing the story pages in an envelope, something like a whole year passed. For some reason I thought he would take his time answering, but he replied fairly quickly. The letter opened with thanks for my sending him the piece, but rather than reading the rest sequentially, my eye drifted down to see what further subjects it might contain – that year had been a particularly bad one for his and Manoly’s health, I knew. I was forced back to the first paragraph, whose words I had in truth already registered but had difficulty taking in:

I feel I have been a bad influence. You have made a kind of priggish sermon out of the idea I gave you, when there is none of that in your own stories. You will do better to follow your own nose.…

I was hugely disappointed to have not met his patronly and authorly expectations. A ‘priggish sermon’ was the last thing I had in mind. Re-reading it, I could see how, if you turned the thing a certain way under the light, you might see the tone as priggish, but turned another way, surely not…? Sad as I was at this outcome, I comforted myself thinking that at least the failing was rooted in an aspect that I’d sort of anticipated anyway – the question of tone. It was not as if the threat of it falling over for that reason wasn’t there in the first place. How much was it my fault anyway? But then, I had gone and ignored the man’s quite sensible caution right at the start…

After these and many and diverse other gloomy assessments, I finally accepted Patrick’s own – more than that, agreed with it, and set the story aside as a failed experiment. And continued to think that had I been as good a writer as the old man, I would surely have done justice to the idea and won his approval. In the end I never reworked or sent the story out for publication.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have worried because, nevertheless and anyway, that attempt most unexpectedly provided a creative seed many years later. While I was writing the novel Houdini’s Flight, I found myself imagining an episode comprised of a series of historical scenes to be played out as part of a magic show – a performance that conjured images from Australian and Greek pasts and made them somehow appear on a white bedsheet hung from a Hills Hoist, as that hoist spun lazily round in a 1950s Sydney suburban backyard.

So it seemed all had not been lost after all. If you’re out there somewhere Patrick, this is to say I miss you. And that some of us at least are happy to say we continue to learn from you and remain inspired by your fine and exemplary art.