I’ve just finished re-reading Voss by Patrick White – a relief in some senses, as it will be nice to have my brain back for a little while after almost total immersion in what is an astonishing, moving, harrowing piece of literature.
Much has been written – although not enough – about the genius of White, who is, for me , perhaps of all authors, the most perfect marriage of artist and art form. The novel is his perfect mode of expression – he captures in a sentence aspects of the human that, for most writers, would be the subject of a book – and his mode of expression pushes the possibilities of the novel to their limit. What I wish to concentrate on is his audacity. I remember reading Voss for the first time when I was a teenager, and having to go for a walk after reading Chapter Thirteen, stunned by the literary trick, as it were, that White had pulled off.
In the chapter the main two main protagonists – I say ‘main’ as White has a Tolstoyan capacity for spreading the load of the novel across numerous characters, each emotionally satisfying and emotionally involving – Voss and Laura Trevelyan, he lost in the desert, she in bed with fever, communicate with each other in thoughts and dreams, shared emotions and shared morbidity. They do so without acknowledging the other, nor does the novel waste time by attempting to explain the interaction. This is not an encounter with the supernatural, still less is it some sort of Jungian shadow play. Simply, they are able to commune because the novel allows them to – their shared emotional (and religious, and ethical, and practical, and numinous) journey is allowed because in this novel, such a journey is allowed. (I was reminded as I read it of Ives Symphony No 4, with which I am currently obsessed – varying threads of story, various tunes, exist simultaneously, without apology, without bowing to traditional notions of form).
I have railed against realism before, and won’t here, but to me the increasingly hegemonic notion that the novel is some sort of window to the world is both limiting and disheartening. Novels are made-up stories built of words, and the limits of the reality that they can express is set by the novel itself, not by reference to an outside arbiter, least of all ‘reality’. The emotional impact of Voss comes precisely from the ability of White to bring disparate times, places, characters, emotional states, existential states and so on and so on, into simultaneity, without recourse to some sort of ‘extramural’ coherence. It makes sense because it makes sense. And that is audacity, and an overwhelming belief in the novel, as a novel.