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Patrick White within the Western Literary Tradition


John Beston


Sydney: University Press, 2010.

Paperback. xi+380 pages. ISBN 97920899370. $US 39.00


Reviewed by Nicholas Birns

Eugene Lang College, the New School (New York City)




I have to declare a personal interest in assessing this volume as John Beston published many of the essays that comprise this volume in Antipodes, the journal I edit. I was very pleased to see Beston—an early White scholar who devoted much of his subsequent career to work in medieval French—return to the charge with respect to Patrick White. As Beston makes clear in an addendum to his essay “Will Voss Endure?”, included in this book, this rediscovery of White was corollary with the move that Beston made, with his wife Rose Marie, back to Australia (Coffs Harbour, a place that White, with his family squattocracy background in other regions of New South Wales, would have appreciated) in the early 2000s after both the Bestons had made substantial academic careers in the U.S. This admission of a personal perspective is winning, as is the clear indication that other aspects of Beston’s trajectory influenced his perspective on White, such as the fact that, like White, he lived in and appreciated New Mexico, a different America than the normative one. Beston had the experience of someone who read much of White’s work as it came out. But the pause in his work as a White critic lent him a perspective that, when combined with the continuity he obviously represented, bestowed unusual depth. Beston’s wide reading and comparative reach also makes him one of the few critics able to keep up with White’s learning, and the reality that White was not only a complex writer but (as compared, say, to Faulkner) an erudite one. Though the Swedish Academy may have praised White for introducing a new continent into literature, Beston makes clear how indebted White is to European and, to a degree, US writers who came before him.  Beston states quite declaratively that the “prime element in White’s intellectual development was his study of French and German literatures during his formative years at Cambridge University from 1932 to 1935” [3].

Although a good deal of the book was published previously in Antipodes and elsewhere, this is not just a collection of essays. Beston has supplied an introduction and an overview of White’s career, and this is further supplemented by David Tacey’s sprightly Introduction, which restates Tacey’s fundamental skepticism about White’s achievement (far greater than Beston’s own) but also cogently links his own approach with Beston’s on a number of points, including the motif of the figure of the mother in White’s oeuvre. The book, though, does not mount a sustained argument other than the general one that the Western literary tradition matters to White and, concomitantly, that White—despite Beston’s demurral with respect to certain aspects of his work—is worthy to be examined against that horizon. The book is an omnibus of approaches and insights, many of them source-studies. Some of them are really striking, as Beston’s equation of Amy Parker’s dissatisfaction and boredom with that of Emma Bovary’s, or (my favorite) the occult love of Laura and Voss as derived from the gossamer romance between Meaulnes and Yvonne in Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. Beston pleasingly quotes long passages in French (with footnotes in English) reminding the reader that White certainly possessed the philological acumen to read these books in the original, and that the monoglot state presumed even of intellectual Anglophones today was not White’s own.  

American writers get their due as well. Beston speaks of White’s admiration of John Steinbeck (though I wish Beston had gone ahead with his original comparison of The Solid Mandala to Of Mice and Men rather than contrasting two lesser works by each author) as well as of Willa Cather. Beston’s work on White/Cather is especially notable as he is the first critic to take this relation seriously and more generally to see the comparative links between Willa Cather and Australian literature as a whole. His consideration of Voss and My Antonia as pioneer novels is a moving and sharp and generous piece, the kind of essay that students can learn from and that states what seems obvious—but needed Beston to demonstrate it. Beston, ever the linguist, is also convincing on why the accent in Antonia’s name does not need to be included when writing Cather’s title.

This is a series of essays, not a “White encyclopedia,” and so all important influences are not surveyed, although Beston goes as far as to dwell on White’s love of the South African novelist Olive Schreiner and his citation of the ancient African kingdom of Meroë in the Goodman family’s estate in The Aunt’s Story.  The long passage from the end of The Tree of Man concerning Stan Parker’s grandson’s dreams of death and life (“he would write a poem of life, of all life, of what he did not know, but knew”) made me think instantly of Virginia Woolf, who surely was at least as much an influence on White as Joyce (adduced by Beston) was. And, although Beston says that George Moore was responsible for “the Europeanisation of English-language literature” [3], Moore could not have done this without the criticism of Matthew Arnold in the generation before. An “Arnold and White” essay might well prove interesting. Beston is an opinionated critic, and one of the delights of this is that the opinions of the reader are solicited and crystallized in the process. One is at once impressed by the painstaking exegesis and then provoked by generalizations that, if not necessarily inarguable, have the merit of catalyzing a dynamic response.

As said before, Beston is not an unadulterated admirer of White. He finds The Twyborn Affair and Memories of Many In One needlessly experimental and preoccupied with sexuality. I disagree on Twyborn, but this is a common enough opinion among White critics. What surprises me more is Beston’s skepticism about the Sarsaparilla novels, especially The Vivisector, where he says that White “demeans creative artists generally” [13]. I think this is something different Beston had earlier, accurately, noted that White, as opposed to his sometime adversary A.D. Hope, was in the romantic, not the classical tradition. But after a certain point the benign theory of the artist Romanticism espoused was not working, no longer corresponded to the culture, or even simply, in an artistic sense, had already been done. New questions needed to be asked about the role of the artist, ones “beset by questions and ambivalence” [13], and The Vivisector was asking them. This to me is different from White being anti-art or anti-artist in the literal sense. Similarly, Beston says White “failed to create characters whose sexual lives are active and fulfilling” [148]. But maybe he did so because he felt that had already been done, say by D.H. Lawrence.

But though I feel Beston misses the mark here, he makes up for it in other ways: for instance in his noting of the persistent strain of social satire of White’s works. Whereas another of White’s finest critics, Peter Wolfe, had described the sage of Centennial Park as “no social historian,” Beston makes clear that social satire is an indubitable element in White’s work and one of his principal means of representing Australia. In one of the volume’s later essays, Beston takes up the subject of White’s style. Aided considerably by his technical linguistic background, he not only justifies some of White’s stylistic eccentricities, but also links them conclusively to his knowledge of continental languages.

For Beston, the major White works are Voss and The Aunt’s Story. And he persistently returns to two aspects of these works, the “Jardin Exotique” section of the former—whose stylistic bravado he aptly praises—and the mysterious relationship of Laura Trevelyan and Voss in the former, so passionate even as it is signaled mainly by absence and evasion. Spotlighted throughout a series of essays, one is left in no doubt as to the pertinence of these passages/themes and to Beston’s thorough appreciation of and insight into them. When Beston and White met personally in 1973, they seemed to get on, and one is not surprised, for Beston’s straightforward admiration of the works is just the sort of thing that might have passed through the mesh of White’s stringent attitude towards critics and would-be admirers.

The book is superbly produced by Sydney University Press and is quite affordable for libraries and even individuals in the bargain. It is an ample, generous book, more than just a monograph. Indeed, it is a trove into which readers of White can dip at will and find new insights, tangents, and connections. Beston is underappreciated among Australianists, simply because his career, in two fields and in two continents, does not lend itself to the conventional trajectories that academia, despite its assertions of idiosyncrasy, embraces. But he is one of White’s major critics. His volume fits well with Elizabeth McMahon and Brigitta Olubas’ recent Remembering Patrick White, Beston supplying the sense of tradition and literary background, the McMahon/Olubas anthology representing White’s more radical aspects—his sexuality and his revisionary take on the sacred. A decade ago, White appeared the stranded colossus of Australian literature. As Beston said, “the laurels have withered” [253], something Beston attributes to Australian anti-intellectualism. This recent spate of scholarship, from some very different sources, show they may well be on the verge of blossoming anew.


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