Tag Archives: Patrick White

The Passion of Letters (2)

This is the follow-up article to EPISTOLARY PLEASURES, posted 22/6/15.

I am reading Jonathan Galassi’s novel, Muse, an indulgent, insider’s treatment of independent literary publishing houses, together with their publishers, editors and pesky authors. (Jonathan Galassi is publisher at Farrar Straus Giroux, and Homer Stern, one of the main characters of Muse, shares much in common with Roger Straus.) The first half of the novel consists of long, flat character sketches, with no narrative to flesh out the characters or, indeed, make them stick, dotted with pseudonyms for well-known writers such as Sontag (here a black woman writer, but otherwise Sontagian), Brodsky (can’t resist citing S and B together), Bellow, Malamud, Walcott, and many many others. (Even our Les is mentioned later in the book, and by intimate first name – no pseudonym for him.) Fortunately Muse picks up halfway through when it shifts from tuneless character description to a story with narrative pull.

So I’m reading about Ida Perkins, the famous, successful poet at the centre of this novel, when I come across a reference to onion skin paper. The American narrator associates it with European paper suppliers. That sends me on a search of French web-sites for papier en pelure d’oignon (pelure, I have just discovered in my long-neglected Petit Larousse, is the skin, peau, found on fruits and vegetables). Much to my disappointment, thirty minutes of wandering the web has yielded nothing so concrete or desirable as un canet de papier pelure (a pad of onion skin paper).

Onion skin paper, so rare in today’s world, is mentioned in Muse, a recently published novel. And I recall that Patrick White, in order to save on postage, used onion skin paper to send his manuscripts – typed single spaced – to his overseas publishers. I’m scrabbling for onion skin paper references, as if the mention might somehow conjure up the real thing. (Jean Porter, Dorothy’s mother, sent me an aged half-quarto onion skin pad containing a half a dozen airmail blue sheets. I now ask all people of a certain age to search deep in their desk drawers for long-forgotten onion skin pads. And I ask the same of you, too, dear followers of this website.) The fact is I can’t have too much of the stuff.

I pass the days with a heightened awareness of onion skin paper; I’m also alert to any references to letter-writing. The latter are surprisngly common given the ubiquity of email, twitter, texting and the like. The mind seeks out what it needs. If it is focussed on onion skin paper, it will find references to onion skin paper that would have been previously missed. A mind attuned to letters will find them, in drawers and filing cabinets, in conversation, and most particularly in books.

One of the great pleasures of reading is that it generously satisfies the bookish wanderlust of the devoted bibliophile. You start with one book, follow a reference to a second, double back to the first; then you might take a tangent off to a third book, a fourth, a fifth, and so on. People think that this sort of meandering was invented with the web, but of course it has been around for as long as print.

Last month was a Ted Hughes month for me. I began with Elaine Feinstein’s concise and informative biography, moved on to Hughes’s poetry, and I revisited Janet Malcolm’s excellent book, The Silent Woman, about the stoushes surrounding the writing of the various biographies of Sylvia Plath. One of these biographies was written by Anne Stevenson – a very torrid and trying project for her – who, I discovered in my rereading of Malcolm’s book, wrote a verse novel called Correspondences. A Family History in Letters, (OUP, 1974.) This detail entirely escaped my attention when first I read Malcolm’s book in London, back in 1994, but then I was not alert to letters in the same way as I am now.

I finally located a copy of Stevenson’s book through Better World Books*, and it arrived a couple of days ago. It is a lovely red cloth hardback. It carries a library catalogue number plus the imprint of the library: University of California, Riverside. The withdrawal slip on the inside of the back cover is pristine: there has not been a single borrower. The spine of the book is very stiff, it does not feel as if this book has ever been opened. Sad, I find myself thinking, but pleased that this handsome book has found a home now with me..

The earliest poem-letter in the book is dated 1829, the latest, 1968. The letters are supplemented by fictional newspaper clippings and other bits and pieces of connective tissue. The book is slender, just 88 pages. I read it at a sitting and glean through these letters the lives and times of several generations of a New England family. The letters provide plenty of narrative, but, at the same time, they open up huge narrative spaces which I willingly fill.

This, I decide, is one of the pleasures of reading the letters of others: what is written leads easily on to what is not written – but could be. Or what’s an imagination for?** So it’s not simply the entrée to a private life that’s the attraction of letters, it is also that letters, from someone unknown to you written to someone else also unknown, provide space for you: the intruder, the snoop, the trespasser, the eavesdropper, the peeping Tom, the insatiably curious, the writer in search of characters: you.

I’ve always known this. So many diaries are written with an eye to posterity; the writer at her/his desk copying out today’s offering, every now and then glancing over a shoulder to see who is watching. Letters, too, can carry this same self-consciousness – but not all of them. In a single volume of a famous person’s letters it is not so difficult to determine which have been written primarily for future generations and which are utterly rooted in the time, the place and the grievances of the author’s present. This immediacy of an authentic letter is gold for all future readers, but particularly for biographers. Indeed, letters are the gold standard in manuscripts.

Janet Malcolm expresses this exactly. (The Silent Woman. Picador, 1994. P. 110.)

‘Letters … are the fossils of feeling. This is why biographers prize them so: they are biography’s only conduit to unmediated experience. Everything else the biographer touches is stale, hashed over, told and retold, dubious, inauthentic, suspect. Only when he (sic) reads a subject’s letters does the biographer feel he has come fully into his presence, and only when he quotes from the letters does he share with his readers his sense of life retrieved. And he shares something else: the feeling of transgression that comes from reading letters not meant for one’s eyes. He allows the reader to be a voyeur with him, to eavesdrop with him, to rifle desk drawers, to take what doesn’t belong to him. The feeling is not entirely pleasurable. The act of snooping carries with it a certain discomfort and unease: one would not like this to happen to oneself. When we are dead, we want to be remembered on our own terms, not on those of someone who has our most intimate, unconsidered, embarrassing letters in hand and proposes to read out loud from them to the world.’ (Emphasis added.)

In The Science of Departures, the character, Sylvie, who collects letters knows exactly this close, intimate connection with a stranger, this artless exposure of the letter-writer; she knows, too, the thrill of secret transgression. She was taught, as was I, that to open a letter not addressed to you was tantamount to stealing. It was, simply, one of the worst sins you could commit. Sylvie’s life is narrow. Born in 1930, she is too old to benefit from the freedoms of the 1960s, and too timid to draw from feminism and free education in the 1970s. The letters in her collection, about 200 in total, transport her to times and places she would never visit in a lifetime, and they take her into the hearts and minds of men and women whom, even if she were to meet them or their ilk, she could never know – or herself – so deeply or intimately as she does from their letters.

I find myself wondering if Sylvie’s life were fuller would she continue to collect letters. I have just finished a chapter in which I introduce her to the man who will become her lover (she’s in her fifties, it will be a grand passion) so I will have to decide at some point. Yet my inclination is that her letter collecting will endure: that most lives ought to be large enough to contain more than one passion, and messy enough to benefit from the the order that accompanies any collection.

Sylvie is not the only character I’ve created whose pleasures are bound up with letters. In Reunion, (4th Estate, 2009), Jack, knows the power and pleasure of writing and receiving letters. He and his beloved Ava complete their post-graduate study in Oxford. She stays in Oxford with her husband, while Jack returns to Australia. The following is from Reunion, p.6.

‘Within days of arriving back in Melbourne Jack had written to Ava, a long humorous account of the potholes of homecoming that disguised the misery he actually felt. And she had quickly responded. The pleasure of that letter was astonishing. This written communication, Jack realised, involved the two of them in the sort of intense and intimate conversation he had always longed to have with her. Soon they were exchanging weekly letters in what would eventually become a twenty-year correspondence.’

Jack has loved Ava almost from the time of their first meeting. The correspondence between them manages to sustain his unrequited love, and it does so safely, fuelled not by uncertain and flawed reality but rather his fertile and utopian imagination.

‘Anyone who has enjoyed an intense written relationship is well-acquainted with the impact of words that are read rather than spoken. In the silence of a room, with all stops pulled out on imagination, emotions swirl like magma below a charged earth. You feel the fire and the erotic plumes, you spark with possibilities, and it begins even before you open the latest instalment, when you collect the mail and recognise her letter. You know her handwriting, the way she prints your name and address, the way she underscores the area code, you know her scrawl of sender details on the back, you can see her fingerprints, her signature as it were, all over the envelope. You feel the quickening of your heart, the thump of anticipation as you take the mail inside. You sort through the letters, you leave hers till last. Then you make yourself a fresh cup of coffee, sit in a favourite chair, open her letter and read, once, twice, three times, the burn of just you and Ava together and nothing to intrude on your secret and highly charged tryst. And during the writing and the reading and the re-readings and all the times in between as you shop and cook and clean, as you sit out the tedium of dried-out colleagues and plodding students, you not only relive your love, you make it and remake it and embed it in a world that seems both miraculous and tangible. There is nothing to compare with the clandestine enclave of letters.’ Reunion, p. 139.

And this is the case whether love is your passion, as is the situation with Jack, or whether the passion is for something else: books, ideas, humour, friendship.

Since acquiring my onion skin paper I have been writing letters. In addition to my old friend who lives in the next suburb, I have written to my agent, Barbara Mobbs (and also Patrick White’s agent). How well she remembers onion skin paper, Barbara wrote back to me. ‘Having left home at 19 and lived all over the place, I must have written hundreds of letters on that paper. And yes,’ she adds, ‘PW loved it because it made the postage cheaper when he sent the novels to London and New York.’

Most especially I have written to my old friend in London, the one with whom I used regularly to exchange long and thoughtful letters about life, ideas and the books we were working on (she is a scholar of the long 18thC). F and I have frequent contact via email, but the letter I sent her on onion skin paper and the one I received back from her have quite a different depth and tone from our emails.

I think more carefully when I write a letter, it is a far more contemplative, ruminative process than email. In preparing to write, my mind meanders, collects, connects, and in the actual writing the mind moves forward. It is a deeply pleasurable activity.

I recommend it.


*Better World Books is an excellent social venture that recycles old books, primarily from libraries but also other sources. From its profits, it donates back to libraries as well as to literacy programs. If it’s a second-hand book you are wanting and a hike through your local second-hand bookstores has proved fruitless, try betterworldbooks.com rather than feeding the behemoth Amazon.


**’Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what’s a heaven for?’
          Andrea del Sarto. Robert Browning.


On an entirely different matter: for those of you in Melbourne, I am repeating my National Library of Australia’s Ray Mathew Lecture, titled PRIVATE PLEASURES, PUBLIC EXPOSURE: the Imagination in the Digital Age, at 6pm, 5th August, Boyd Centre, 207 City Road, Southbank. The event is free but bookings are essential on PH: 03 9699 8822 or email: rsvp@australianbookreview.com.au



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

The Vivisector

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.



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