AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
THE QUESTION "WILL VOSS ENDURE?" WAS ASKED BY A longtime friend of mine when I was recently revisiting Australia, and my attempt to answer it has touched off this essay. The question is a good one, for almost fifty years have passed since the publication of that work in 1957. One is aware that not much does survive long in our fast-changing world; values change faster and faster, and accordingly many great literary works of the past seem to have less and less relevance to us. I have read Voss many times over the last forty years and have read it again recently in order to suggest an answer to my friend's question. My own response to Voss seems to be a common one now, and since it has bearing upon the likely ultimate place of Voss and Patrick White within Australian literature, it is worth considering. My answer shows a marked ambivalence: on the one hand, Voss still impresses me as a great novel and on the other, it gives me less pleasure every time I read it. In the course of this essay, I would like to look at both aspects in some detail: the greatness of the novel and the qualities that alienate the reader from it.
What makes Voss a great novel? Essentially, it is its undertaking of themes of great significance in its culture: the exploration of the heart of a land only recently settled and, more abstractly and more importantly, of a new culture still in formation. These two themes are closely linked, each reinforcing the other. They are developed with an intensity unmatched elsewhere in White's writings and are conveyed in a style that is often highly poetic and even memorable. With all his idiosyncrasies, White is one of the great stylists of the twentieth century. Quite simply, reading Voss represents the kind of challenge to one's intelligence that only great novels are able to offer.
Stories of exploration of the interior of the continent are a vital part of Australian consciousness: every Australian child from Patrick White's generation (he was born in 1912) through at least the 1970s has had his imagination fired by the stories of the nineteenth-century explorers. (In the 1980s, massive migration from continental Europe and from Asia diminished a sense of Australia's past--and that is one factor that will affect the abiding interest of young Australians in White's novel.) Voss's story is based mostly on the explorations of Leichhardt, but also incorporates elements of the journeys of Eyre (the spearing of Palfreyman) and of Burke and Wills (the poorly organized aspect of the expedition and the unknown late of the explorers), and it is the more evocative for suggesting all these explorers. Fascination with the heart of Australia has not diminished but, rather, grown: one of the most distinguished books to be published in Australia as the twentieth century ended, Roslynn Haynes's Seeking the Centre, deals with the growing importance of the heart of Australia to its mythology and culture.
But the themes of geographical and cultural exploration of a young country were not chosen by Patrick White merely because of the importance of explorations in Australian history. They have a vital significance for White himself, and that is why the book is so intense. One could argue convincingly that in no other novel of his is he so ardently committed to making the cultural map of Australia, that is, to establishing Australia as a significant presence on an imagined cultural map of the world, not just a large unit of physical geography. Through the persona of Voss, in the opening chapter of the novel, he declares "I am compelled into this country" (16). When Mr. Bonner asks Voss if he has studied the map and he retorts, "The map? I will first make it," we should understand that what is really being talked about here is White's ambition to put Australia on the cultural map (19). It is a startlingly ambitious undertaking, so ambitious that White will accuse himself repeatedly of arrogance. Voss is a highly self-critical work, a project that tears White apart, for he will not allow himself to feel any gratification for what he really succeeded in: putting Australia on the cultural map.
It is in his essay "The Prodigal Son," written when he was forty-six (hence in 1958, the year after Voss was published), that White talks most explicitly about the cultural deadness of Australia in the 1950s:
In all directions stretched the Great Australian emptiness, in which the mind is least of possessions, in which the rich man is the important man, in which the schoolmaster and the journalist rule what intellectual roost there is, in which ... muscles prevail, and the march of material ugliness does not raise a quiver from the average nerves. (157)
No doubt White's disappointment at the failure of The Aunt's Story to elicit any notable reader interest when it was published in 1948 …