RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT*
Lecture given as part of the Wheeler Centre Australian Classics Series, Melbourne, with James Ley (25th November, 2013).
To begin: I believe Patrick White is the greatest – perhaps the only truly great – writer Australia has produced. In 1973, he became the first and only Australian to win the Nobel prize for literature – Coetzee won his in 2003, before he took out Australian citizenship. It’s no matter that Patrick White was born in England, no matter he was schooled there and lived there as a young man, his work is steeped in his being an Australian, or rather steeped in his abrasive relationship with Australia.
Sometimes the Nobel judges get it astonishingly wrong, but not in the case of White.
I do not like all his books – but then only the mediocre man is always at his best as Somerset Maugham once wrote – in defence of himself. But when asked for my list of ten Australian classics Patrick White takes up four spaces.
My ten Australian literary classics – in no particular order:
Riders in the Chariot
The Twyborn Affair
Eye of the Storm
Picnic at Hanging Rock – Joan Lindsay
An Imaginary Life – David Malouf
Lilian’s Story – Kate Grenville
The Getting of Wisdom – Henry Handel Richardson
The Fortunes of Richard Mahony – Henry Handel Richardson
The Monkey’s Mask – Dorothy Porter
My Brilliant Career – Miles Franklin
(And yes, I know, there’s 11 in my list, but the universe IS expanding.]
James Stern, in reviewing THE TREE OF MAN for the NYTBook Review in August 1955 defined the essence of a classic. ‘Almost all novels are transients, very few remain on, permanent residents of the mind. Of those that do, some cease to be books and become part of the reader’s past, of an experience felt so deeply it is sometimes difficult to believe that the illusion has not been lived. From these rare works of literature characters emerge better known than our most intimate friends, for every human being has a secret life… To reveal in a novel this life (which is that of the soul) in such a way that by the time the last page is reached all questions have been answered, while all the glory and mystery of the world remains, is not only the prime function of the novelist but the artist’s greatest ambition – and surely his rarest achievement.’
A classic does not need to be the most brilliantly written book, nor does it need to be popular in its day, but it DOES needs to stand the test of time. In this regard it is important to distinguish between classic and popular. So Christos Tsiolkos’ The Slap is popular, but whether it will become a classic requires a couple more decades.
A classic work of literature also needs to address fundamental and universal human issues (if it doesn’t it will become dated) and it needs to do so in an original way.
Riders in the Chariot is about the conflict between good and evil, it’s about exile and belonging, and human brutality pitted against great humanity – all of these are fundamental human qualities, and all are as relevant today as they’ve ever been. Indeed, it could easily be argued that a book driven by these ideas is even more relevant in today’s bullish, combatative, humanely-bereft world.
RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT, White’s 6th novel, was published in early October 1961 when he was 49 years old. It came after THE TREE OF MAN (1955-6) and VOSS (1957). It received some enthusiastic reviews here in Australia and in the UK, although more tempered in the US (where he had previously triumphed). But overall they were the best reviews he’d ever had. The novel won the Miles Franklin Award (his second – VOSS won the inaugural Miles).
In his correspondance Patrick referred to it as his Jewish book. But it could equally be his aboriginal book, his Christian book, his outsider book; it could also be his exploding-myths-about-Australian-culture book, myths such as mateship, support for the underdog, egalitarianism and a fair go for all. RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT is dedicated to his friend Klari Daniel and his American publisher Ben Huebsch, both Jewish. Huebsch, at Viking US published White’s first novel, HAPPY VALLEY, and would be with him for five books. He died at the age of 88 in 1963 as Patrick was getting started on THE SOLID MANDALA. Huebsch was a visionary publisher (oh how we mourn the passing of the likes of him), the first in the fundamentally puritanical US to publish James Joyce and DH Lawrence – amongst others. Klari Daniel was a refugee from Hungary, who enjoyed with White a very close relationshiop for ten years before the inevitable falling out –cauliflower salad finally did it, but in truth, he got sick of her. (In fact he ‘was dispersing’ most of his Jewish friends after the publication of RIDERS, according to David Marr in his brilliant biography of White. p. 383*).
RIDERS was for White his Jewish book because, of the four main characters that fuel the narrative of this novel, it was the character of Mordecai Himmelfarb who presented the greatest challenges to him. White had written aboriginal Australians before, and his good salt-of-the earth characters, like Mary Godbold, are all over his novels, eccentricity such as that manifest by Miss Hare was no problem for him, but Jewishness, in particular a German Jew who had survived the Holocaust was new for him.
In fact it was new for most people at the time.
In 1961 there had been little written about the Holocaust and hardly anything in fiction (Elie Wiesel’s NIGHT, a sort of fictional memoir, comes closest; it was published in 1960). These days there are whole sections in bookshops devoted to the Holocaust, there are Holocaust studies at universities, there are Holocaust museums, there are Holllywood films from Sophie’s Choice and The PIano to the fake and sentimental Life is Beautiful, and umpteen documentaries of which the most profound and comprehensive is Claude Lanzmann’s SHOAH (and yes he did have a longish affair with Simone de Beauvoir). There’s a huge Holocaust industry now, but there was not at the time of White’s writing.
There were two main triggers to the Holocaust entering the public domain. The first was the Eichman Trial in 1963 along with Hannah Arendt’s extraordinary series of articles published in the New Yorker of that year, later to appear as the book EICHMAN IN JERUSALEM. The second was the Hollywood miniseries HOLOCAUST (broadcast in 1978).
RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT was published in 1961, although work on it started many years earlier. As usual Patrick White was well ahead of everyone else.
I have read RIDERS three times: in 1980, 1996 and again this year. In between I have often dipped into portions of this novel as a means of feeding my own writing. White is a master of detail, and he’s a master at metaphor: he’s been a gift to this novelist, to any writer who revels in the richness of English. Three readings of RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT and I have never regarded it as a Jewish book much less a Holocaust book. And I still don’t. It is a novel about outsiders, exiles either at home like Miss Hare, Mrs Godbold and Alf Dubbo, or exiles from home like Himmelfarb. And it is a great novel of spirituality, of those riders in the chariot, God’s chosen four, embodying the spirit of the Lord, as described in Ezekial Chapter 1. Each rider with four faces and four wings, joined together and going forward together, vague to the reader, even to themselves, but each of them instantly recognisable to the other.
THE WRITING OF RIDERS STRETCHED THROUGH 4 YEARS
One of the earliest mentions of his ‘Jewish novel’ is in a letter White wrote to Ben Huebsch in February 1957. The novel is already brewing but White writes ‘I may not have the courage to embark on anything so esoteric.’ (Letters 111*). His first mention of the title, RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT, is in September of that year, also in a letter to Huebsch – always addressed as MR Huebsch (Letters 122). The brooding continues, while at the same time VOSS is making its way in the world and White is occupied with the various machinations of publication and reviews.
In February, 1958, a year after he first mentioned the new novel and just before he and Manoly Lascaris left for 8 months overseas, White writes to Huebsch: ‘If I were not going away, I think I might start RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT at this point. Always when I meet with lack of understanding in Australian critics [most recently to VOSS] I feel like sitting down and starting another of the novels they deplore, to give them further cause for complaint….Oh dear, it is going to be a very trying book to write, but I am living with it all the time now. It is shaping and altering, and the four voices of what I still like to think of as a kind of cantata are beginning to sing in the way that, finally they must.’ (letters 131). In this same letter he refers to Himmelfarb as a ZADDIK ‘one of the 36 Jews of exemplary righteousness, secret saints, believed to be on earth at any one time’.
White and Manoly Lascaris returned to Sydney 1/10/58. Once home White starts to write RIDERS. Just 10 weeks later, just before Christmas he writes to Ben Huebsch (MR Huebsch still): ‘I have started on my new book….and have written – how much it is difficult to say, perhaps a third, perhaps not so much, but I can see it will take some time, and perhaps need as many as three writings. I shall want someone here to check the Jewish parts after a second writing. I feel I may have given myself away a good deal, although passages I have been able to check for myself, seem to have come through either by instinct or good luck, so perhaps I shall survive. After all, I did survive the deserts of VOSS.’ (letters 151).
By May of 1959 he has written 90,000 words and anticipates it will come in at 120,000 – he was way off there. He describes the book as follows to Ben Huebsch:
‘…the book [does not] have an exclusively Jewish theme…What I want to emphasize through my four ‘Riders’ – an orthodox refugee intellectual Jew, a mad Erdgeist [Earth spirit] of an Australian spinster, an evangelical laundress [I love the image of this ambiguous description]. and a half-caste aboriginal painter – is that all faiths, whether religious, humanistic, instinctive, or the creative artist’s act of praise, are in fact one.’ (letters 153)
By January 1960 he reports to Huebsch that he’s finished the first version of RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT. (Letters 162). He confesses among other things that it has run to some 200,000 words! (he emphasizes the figure with an exclamation mark). He gets Klari Daniel to check the Jewish bits. She was Hungarian and not German which might explain some of the mistakes.
The second version is finished by August 1960 and now it’s 230,000 words – which I would estimate to be about the size of the final version. White has tried it out on a Jewish friend and is feeling far more confident. He WANTS the approval of Jewish readers.
In a short letter to MR Huebsch – but signed PATRICK – (3/1/61) he writes: ‘I am about to send the MS. of Riders in the Chariot by airmail (first or second class depending on the sum involved). ‘ Patrick had plenty of money but was often protective of it. (After Patrick’s death Lascaris was surprised to learn HOW much money there was, given the frugal way they had been living.) As for White’s finished manuscripts, they were always typed on what was known as onion skin airmail paper, single spaced. Very light.
When he hears back from Huebsch (within the month), he writes (5/2/61):
Dear Ben, (To burst into first names so late in the day!) Your letter and cable were a great relief….you have been the true judge over so many decades…Himmelfarb was a worry, because he had to be just right….In the end what helped me most was the fact that throughout my life I have been an outcast myself in one way and another: first a child with what kind of a strange gift nobody quite knew; then a despised colonial boy in an English public school; finally an artist in horrified Australia – to give you just a few instances.’
Huebsch loved the book.
Geoffrey Dutton was one of the early readers – pre-publication. Patrick writes to Huebsch: ‘He (Geoffrey) has gone off his head about it, but of course he is a very superior Australian.’ (letters 190). (The mandatory falling out would soon occur with Geoff Dutton and his 1st wife Ninette. In the latter half of the 1970s White came to regard Dutton as a dilettante who had sold out to Mobil Oil and a conservative government. You’re vile vile vile he said to Ninette.)
RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT is set in fictional Sarsaparilla on the outskirts of Sydney. Sarsaparilla draws on Castle Hill where Patrick and Manoly had a small farm – Dogwoods – from 1948, when they arrived in Australia, until they moved to Martin Road Centennial Park in October 1964. At Castle Hill they felt the Sydney suburbs encroaching on them, just as they encroach on Sarsaparilla in the novel. The fibro houses that replace Xanadu, Miss Hare’s crumbling mansion, also came to Castle Hill.
The structure of the book is very simple: the narrative is handed between four main characters with a little overlap.
MARY HARE opens the novel. Firstly the significance of the name. Mary annointed and dried the feet of Jesus. Late in the novel, Mary Hare warms the feet of the dying Himmelfarb – the Jesus figure. And HARE: hares have a rich mythological tradition – pre-Christian with Pagan flavour, often associated with the lunar cycle – and Miss Hare, so powerfully connected with the natural world, is a quintessential Pagan. Miss Hare is a spinster. She lives in the family mansion, Xanadu, now crumbling all about her. She needs help in the house, with everyday living, and has just organised for a housekeeper, Mrs Jolley to come and live with her. Mrs Jolley is ordinary, unimaginative and incapable, or even interested in understanding her eccentric employer. She is one of the evil ones in this novel. She and her friend Mrs Flack truly demonstrate the banality of evil – to draw on that famous phrase of Hannah Arendt’s.
MORDECAI HIMMELFARB has the same initials as Mary Hare – and given the importance of names to the novelist, I cannot think it is accidental. Himmelfarb translates to himmel = sky or heaven and farb = colour. Himmelfarb thus becomes the colour of heaven. He is the Jesus figure, the Zaddick. He was a professor of English in provincial Germany. After the death of his wife and the loss of job, home and freedom at the hands of the Nazis, Himmelfarb eventually makes his way to Australia. He takes on manual work at the Brighta Bicycle Lamps factory. The intellect has failed us, he says.
RUTH GODBOLD (née Joyner) has resonances with the biblical Ruth, the loyal ever-faithful woman who says to her mother-in-law Naomi: ‘Entreat me not to leave thee’. And GODBOLD – well, it is exactly as it suggests. Mrs Godbold is a washer woman living in a shack with many children and an abusive, violent, unfaithful, boozing husband. She was born and raised in what she describes as flat fen country – probably the fen country in eastern England, particularly as she mentions the great cathedral. (The Fens have been referred to as the “Holy Land of the English” because of the churches and cathedrals in the region, e.g. at Cambridge, Ely, Peterborough to name just three.) After the death of her brother and mother, Ruth Joyner migrates to Sydney – alone – where she enters service with Mrs Chalmers-Robinson. It is there she meets her future husband, the iceman, Tom.
And lastly there’s ALF DUBBO, the ‘half-caste’, removed from his black mother. to live with Rev Timothy Calderon and his sister Mrs Pask (whose now-dead husband the Reverend adored). The traditional land of the Dubbo-ga or the Dubbo mob is located where the town of Dubbo is today. The name Dubbo comes from a red or blood pigment found in the earth of the area, and highly prized. Alf the painter has an almost magical feel for colour. It was as a boy in the house of the Calderons that he discovers painting, becomes in thrall to it, and on his thirteenth birthday receives Mrs Pask’s old paints. His has been a rough life, and a tough one. He, like Himmelfarb, also works at Brighta Bicycle lamps.
These are the four riders. We meet them singly or in pairs. Only at the end of the book do they all come together in the same place, although Dubbo remains outside the group, staring in at the others through the window of Godbold’s house. I wanted the four to be properly joined, just once in this long book. But Dubbo has a job to do. He loads the vision through Godbold’s window with ‘panegyric blue’ – the laudatory blue, his secret blue, and goes home to paint it.
The greatest danger of a narrative where there are several equally weighted characters is that the reader comes to prefer some of the characters over others, making the book proceed with lurches and falls. On my first reading, the book was dominated by Himmelfarb. On my second it was Hare and Himmelfarb. On this, my most recent reading, I have been drawn strongly to Godbold and Dubbo. On the fourth it will be different again.
Of course your reading pleasure may have been disrupted by other things, most particularly White’s unique, fleshy, evocative writing style. Indeed, some readers find his writing clotted to the point of unreadable. The fact is that when subjected to analysis many of White’s sentences do not make sense. It’s not simply the way he drops the subject off a sentence or omits a verb, sometimes the sentences if put through a reality scrim are absurd. And yet the overall effect of the language is profound. It reminds me of Mark Rothko’s huge canvases of colour: I have stood before a Rothko with tears rolling down my very private cheeks. Such a profound effect these canvases have and I don’t subject it to analysis, because I don’t want to destroy the experience. White’s sentences exert a simliar power and allude to a similar mystery.
But I will admit that at times, particularly in the first third of the book, I read paragraphs that sounded almost like a parody of White. e.g. The following lines about Miss Hare’s father:
p. 24 ‘Years after, when his stature was even further diminished in her memory, her mind would venture in foxy fashion, or more blinderingly worm-like, in search of a concealed truth.’
This quote not withstanding, most of the time when I find myself verbally overwhelmed, I will stop, and then reread the seething paragraph, often out loud and then I will understand what White is truly saying. And to be honest at the end of reading I feel hugely fortunate to have read such language.
Here are a few extremely lush paragraphs. But wonderful. It helps to read them aloud.
In an early Himmelfarb section telling of his past, the issue is discussed of why, with the rise of Hitler, Jews didn’t leave (143)
‘There were many, however, in the aching villas, in the thin dwellings of congested alleys, ….. in tasteful, beige apartments, who, for a variety of reasons, could not detach themselves from the ganglion of Europe: their bones protested, or they loved their furniture, or they must surely be overlooked, or they were drunk with kisses, or transfixed by presentiments of immolation, or too diffident to believe they might take their destiny in hand, or of such faith they waited for divine direction. These remained. And the air was tightening. All remarks, even the silent ones, were aimed at them. Their own thoughts suspected doors, flattened themselves against the walls, against the dying paper roses, and pissed down the sides of lavatory bowls, to avoid giving their presence away.’
The underlined bits, when read analytically are nonsense, but within the paragraph, they supply emotion, tension, temperature, texture. The sum is definitely more than the parts.
And after a beating from her husband, suffering his ‘rampant masterfulness’ – this from Godbold (p.233).
‘She would have liked to talk to somebody about the past, even of those occasions which had racked her most, of emigration, and miscarriages, not to mention her own courtship; she longed to dawdle amongst what had by now become sculpture. For present and future are like a dreadful music, flowing and flowing without end, and even Mrs Godbold’s courage would sometimes falter as she trudged along the bank of the one turbulent river towards its junction with the second, always somewhere in the mists. Then she would look back over her shoulder at the garden of statuary, to walk amongst which, it seemed at that enviable distance, faith was no longer needed.’ The past as statuary is so vivid, so utterly original.
Not easy, this sort of writing, but evocative and true.
With a writer like Patrick White you need to trust him to know what he’s doing. If you do then you will glide over the difficult bits – he knows where he’s going even if you don’t. He will guide you. But at the same time you can’t read his books empty-handed: he expects his readers to have a reasonable historical, artistic and literary literacy. He expects people to know about Hitler and the Nazis, neither are mentioned by name in the novel, also Kristallnacht; he expects us to know enough about art to understand the type of painting that is Dubbo’s.
And as with all great writers you have to forgive him his mistakes. And there are mistakes with his German Jew, in particular. For example, on Kristallnacht, it would be most unlikely that Reha, Himmelfarb’s wife would have been taken away or even harmed – much less killed. Jewish men and boys were targetted, and while 30,000 Jews were rounded up 9/10 November 1938 and sent to camps many had been returned within 6 weeks. And I think he rather labours the point with the Riders in the Chariot. It is mentioned many many times. He has written his four main characters as visionaries, ‘illuminates’ (63), it is not necessary for him to explicate the whys and hows. And occasionally he WILL get a word wrong. In a Himmelfarb section before Himmelfarb leaves Europe, in a portion written from H’s point of view, White uses the word ‘dug’ for breast (184). It’s quite wrong. Firstly, when used to describe a woman’s breast it is a derogatory term and Himmelfarb is not wanting to be derogatory. The origin of the word is unknown but it sounds like English slang and absolutely not the sort of word to be used by a European intellectual. But quibbles like this are, in fact, only quibbles, and few in number.
There’s a fabulist tone to RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT – not magical realism, but it does require a suspension of belief not customary with realist fiction. Sometimes there’s an almost incantatory feel to this work. Mies van de Rohe, the great modernist architect said that ‘God resides in the details’. This Patrick White knew, and his detail is breathtaking. He has a bus driver clean his ears with a key (435). Tom Godbold had ‘fine dark eyes’ (230) and ‘one of those long, tanned faces, too thin; it made [Ruth] think of used pennies….She would have gone on looking at the man’s face, if he had not been in it.’ (254). ‘It was only later that everyone…realised that Tom Godbold’s tragic eyes had merely been looking deeper into himself.’ (230). In referring to the evil Mrs Jolley, White writes of ‘the swept chambers of her mind’ (74) – how much better than empty-headed – and later he refers to the ‘nylon dream’ of America (143). And there’s humour too: when someone enters the office at Brighta Lamps the stenographer ‘did not rise, of course, having reduced her obligations at the salary received’ (201 & 203).
Then there are the ideas, the risks, the breathtaking narrative flare of this novel. White portrays evil through Flack and Jolley, a couple of petit-boirgeois widows; he infuses pity into the wealthy Mr Rosetree (Haim Rosenbaum). He displays goodness – and a whole lot more – in a washerwoman, a mad spinster, a German Jewish refugee, a hard-drinking aboriginal painter. People pushed to the margins tend to have a clearer view of mainstream society – not simply their unique perspective but as well they are not blinded by mainstream values: certainly this is the case with White’s riders.
There’s another much more uncomfortable truth in this novel: that all positive qualities – kindness, humility, generosity, faithfulness, creativity, learning – make those who do not have those qualities uncomfortable, can even turn them into brutes. ‘To some it is always unendurable to watch the antithesis of themselves’ (402, my emphasis). It is not enough that Blue and his mates (the lucky seven who win the lottery) crucify Himmelfarb, they set fire to his wooden house thinking he is inside. Miss Hare, also thinking Himmelfarb is burning to death, accuses them: ‘You have killed him!’ Blue and his mates beat the flames off her. ‘And continued to belt at her, now with their dislike and their consciences, in addition to their coats.’ (423)
At a time when we call those seeking asylum – sanctuary – criminals, and banish them to places we’ve never been nor are ever likely to go. At a time of race riots in Cronulla and Indians fearing for their safety in Melbourne streets and security guards at all Jewish schools, RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT remains of enduring relevance.
‘Go home. Go home,’ the watching rabble shouts as Himmelfarb is hoisted on the tree.
Just like us now.
Go home. Go home. To anyone who is different.
The relevance of RIDERS remains because we fear the outsider. The black skin, the bearded believers, the men with hats, the women with veils, the children with bent spines, the adults with jittery limbs. We fear the very fat and the very thin, we fear the androgynous men and women, we fear the beggar and the drunk. And what do we do with this fear? Rather than try and understand it we berate and condemn those who cause our discomfort – just like those men who crucify the Jew Himmelfarb on Good Friday, who beat Dubbo, who ostracise Miss Hare, who deride Mrs Godbold as simple. This great novel of the outsider is, in my opinion, more powerful and certainly more relevant to today’s world than when it was written.
Patrick White. Riders in the Chariot. Penguin edition. 1984.
David Marr. Patrick White. A Life. Random House. 1991
David Marr (ed). Patrick White. Letters. Random House. 1994