White: Autobiographical Statement
White: Autobiographical Statement
(Written at the time of the awarding of the Nobel Prize)
I was born on May 28th 1912 in Knightsbridge, London, to Australian parents. Victor White was then forty-two, his wife, Ruth Withycombe, ten years younger. When I was six months old my parents returned to Australia and settled in Sydney, principally because my mother could not face the prospect of too many sisters-in-law on the property, in which my father had an interest, with three older brothers. Both my father’s and my mother’s families were yeoman-farmer stock from Somerset, England. My great-grandfather White had emigrated to New South Wales in 1826, as a flockmaster, and received a grant of crown land in the Upper Hunter Valley. None of my ancestors was distinguished enough to be remembered, though there is a pleasing legend that a Withycombe was fool to Edward II. My Withycombe grandfather emigrated later in the nineteenth century. After his marriage with an Australian, he and my grandmother sailed for England, but returned when my mother was a year old. Grandfather Withycombe seems to have found difficulty in settling; he drifted from one property to another, finally dying near Muswellbrook on the Upper Hunter. My father and mother were second cousins, though they did not meet till shortly before their marriage. The Withy-combes enjoyed less material success than the Whites, which perhaps accounted for my mother’s sense of her own superiority in White circles. Almost all the Whites remained wedded to the land, and there was something peculiar, even shocking, about any member of the family who left it. To become any kind of artist would have been unthinkable. Like everybody else I was intended for the land, though, vaguely, I knew this was not to be.
My childhood was a sickly one. It was found that I was suffering from nothing worse than asthma, but even so, nobody would insure my life. As a result of the asthma I was sent to school in the country, and only visited Sydney for brief, violently asthmatic sojourns on my way to a house we owned in the Blue Mountains. Probably induced by the asthma, I started reading and writing early on, my literary efforts from the age of about nine running chiefly to poetry and plays. When thirteen I was uprooted from Australia and put at school at Cheltenham, England, as my mother was of the opinion that what is English is best, and my father, though a chauvinistic Australian, respected most of her caprices. After seeing me “settled” in my English prison, my parents and sister left for Australia. In spite of holidays when I was free to visit London theatres and explore the countryside, I spent four very miserable years as a colonial at an English school. My parents returned for the long holiday when I was sixteen, and there were travels in Europe, including Scandinavia. Norway and Sweden made a particular impression on me as I had discovered Ibsen and Strindberg in my early teens–a taste my English housemaster deplored: “You have a morbid kink I mean to stamp out”; and he then proceeded to stamp it deeper in.
When I was rising eighteen I persuaded my parents to let me return to Australia and at least see whether I could adapt myself to life on the land before going up to Cambridge. For two years I worked as jack-eroo, first in the mountainous southern New South Wales, which became for me the bleakest place on earth, then on the property of a Withycombe uncle in the flat, blistering north, plagued alternately by drought and flood. I can remember swimming my horse through floodwaters to fetch the mail, and enjoying a dish of stewed nettles during a dearth of vegetables. The life in itself was not uncongenial, but the talk was endlessly of wool and weather. I developed the habit of writing novels behind a closed door, or at my uncle’s, on the dining table. More reprehensible still, after being a colonial at my English school, I was now a “Pom” in the ears of my fellow countrymen. I hardly dared open my mouth, and welcomed the opportunity of escaping to King’s College, Cambridge. Even if a university should turn out to be another version of a school, I had decided I could lose myself afterwards as an anonymous particle of the London I already loved.
In fact I enjoyed every minute of my life at King’s, especially the discovery of French and German literature. Each vacation I visited either France or Germany to improve my languages. I wrote fitfully, bad plays, worse poetry. Then, after taking my degree, the decision had to be made: what to do? It was embarrassing to announce that I meant to stay in London and become a writer when I had next to nothing to show. To my surprise, my bewildered father, who read little beyond newspapers and stud-books, and to whom I could never say a word if we found ourselves stranded alone in a room, agreed to let me have a small allowance on which to live while trying to write.
At this period of my life I was in love with the theatre and was in and out of it three or four nights of the week. I tried unsuccessfully to get work behind the scenes. I continued writing the bad plays which fortunately nobody would produce, just as no one did me the unkindness of publishing my early novels. A few sketches and lyrics appeared in topical revues, a few poems were printed in literary magazines. Then, early in 1939, a novel I had managed to finish, called Happy Valley, was published in London, due to the fact that Geoffrey Grigson, the poet, then editor of the magazine New Versewhich had accepted one of my poems, was also reader for a publishing firm. This novel, although derivative and in many ways inconsiderably, was received well enough by the critics to make me feel I had become a writer. I left for New York expecting to repeat my success, only to be turned down by almost every publisher in that city, till the Viking Press, my American publishers of a lifetime, thought of taking me on.
This exhilarating personal situation was somewhat spoilt by the outbreak of war. During the early, comparatively uneventful months I hovered between London and New York writing too hurriedly a second novel, “The Living and the Dead.In 1940 I was commissioned as an air force intelligence officer in spite of complete ignorance of what I was supposed to do. After a few hair-raising weeks amongst the RAF greats at Fighter Command I was sent zigzagging from Greenland to the Azores in a Liverpool cargo boat with a gaggle of equally raw intelligence officers, till finally we landed on the Gold Coast, to be flown by exotic stages to Cairo, in an aeroplane out of Jules Verne.
The part I played in the war was a pretty insignificant one. My work as an operational intelligence officer was at most useful. Much of the time was spent advancing or retreating across deserts, sitting waiting in dust-ridden tents, or again in that other desert, a headquarters. At least I saw something of almost every country in the Middle East. Occasionally, during those years bombs or gunfire created what should have been a reality, but which in fact made reality seem more remote. I was unable to write, and this finally became the explanation of my state of mind: my flawed self has only ever felt intensely alive in the fictions I create.
Perhaps the most important moments of my war were when, in the western desert of Egypt, I conceived the idea of one day writing a novel about a megalomaniac German, probably an explorer in nineteenth century Australia, and when I met my Greek friend, Manoly Lascaris, who has remained the mainstay of my life and work.
After demobilisation we decided to come to Australia where we bought a farm at Castle Hill outside Sydney. During the war I had thought with longing of the Australian landscape. This, and the graveyard of postwar London, and the ignoble desire to fill my belly, drove me to burn my European bridges. In the meantime, in London, in Alexandria on the way out, and on the decks of liners, I was writing The Aunt’s Story.It was exhilarating to be free to express myself again, but nobody engaged in sorting themselves out of the rubble left by a world war could take much interest in novels. Australians, who were less involved, were also less concerned. Most of them found the book unreadable, just as our speech was unintelligible during those first years at Castle Hill. I had never felt such a foreigner. The failure of The Aunt’s Storyand the need to learn a language afresh made me wonder whether I should ever write another word. Our efforts at farming–growing fruit, vegetables, flowers, breeding dogs and goats, were amateurish, but consuming. The hollow in which we lived, or perhaps the pollen from the paspalum which was always threatening to engulf us, or the suspicion that my life had taken a wrong turning, encouraged the worst attacks of asthma I had so far experienced. In the eighteen years we spent at Castle Hill, enslaved more than anything by the trees we had planted, I was in and out of hospitals. Then about 1951 I began writing again, painfully, a novel I called in the beginning A Life Sentence on Earth, but which developed into The Tree of Man.Well received in England and the United States, it was greeted with cries of scorn and incredulity in Australia that somebody, at best, a dubious Australian, should flout the naturalistic tradition, or worse, that a member of the grazier class should aspire to a calling which was the prerogative of schoolteachers! Voss, which followed, fared no better: it was “mystical, ambiguous, obscure”; a newspaper printed its review under the headline “Australia’s Most Unreadable Novelist.” In Riders in the Chariotit was the scene in which Himmelfarb, the Jewish refugee, is subjected to a mock crucifixion by drunken workmates which outraged the blokes and the bluestockings alike. Naturally, “it couldn’t happen here”–except that it does, in all quarters, in many infinitely humiliating ways, as I, a foreigner in my own country, learned from personal experience.
A number of Australians, however, discovered they were able to read a reprint of The Aunt’s Story, a book which had baffled them when first published after the war, and by the time The Solid Mandalaappeared, it was realised I might be something they had to put up with.
In 1964, submerged by the suburbs reaching farther into the country, we left Castle Hill, and moved into the centre of the city. Looking back, I must also have had an unconscious desire to bring my life full circle by returning to the scenes of my childhood, as well as the conscious wish to extend my range by writing about more sophisticated Australians, as I have done in The Viuisedorand The Eye of the Storm.On the edge of Centennial Park, an idyllic landscape surrounded by a metropolis, I have had the best of both worlds. I have tried to celebrate the park, which means so much to so many of us, in The Eye of the Stormand in some of the shorter novels of The Cockatoos.Here I hope to continue living, and while I still have the strength, to people the Australian emptiness in the only way I am able.
[© The Nobel Foundation, 1973. Patrick White is the sole author of the text.]