Books The Mi­grant Ex­pe­ri­ence

Chris­tos Tsi­olkas on Pa­trick White

The Monthly (Australia) - - MAY 2018 -

When I read David Marr’s com­mand­ing bi­og­ra­phy, Pa­trick White: A Life, the sto­ry­teller in me was de­lighted to find that the young Pa­trick had been shipped to Chel­tenham Col­lege in Eng­land as a youth, and that there he had ex­pe­ri­enced an ex­ile from home and fam­ily that marked his char­ac­ter and his writ­ing through­out his life. Marr elo­quently de­scribes the alien­ation the young boy felt upon be­ing wrenched from his priv­i­leged and co­cooned up­bring­ing in ru­ral New South Wales and bour­geois Syd­ney, to find him­self sud­denly a colo­nial mis­fit in one of the elite cen­tres of English life. I found my­self in Chel­tenham over 70 years later, and while there said to a friend, My God, this is one of the whitest places I’ve ever been. Some­thing of the strange­ness I felt in Chel­tenham, the sense of be­ing an out­sider, made sense to me when I read Marr’s ac­count of White’s ex­pe­ri­ence as a school­boy. This is pre­cisely where the sto­ry­teller in me gets ex­cited. Of course, life isn’t fic­tion and it would be reck­less to pre­sume that the con­fu­sions and emo­tions the young Pa­trick White ex­pe­ri­enced as a trans­planted colo­nial in Chel­tenham 80 or more years ago were iden­ti­cal to the dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing anx­i­ety I ex­pe­ri­enced as an Aus­tralian writer vis­it­ing the UK in the early 21st cen­tury. For one, White came from a line of wealthy Aus­tralian land­hold­ers and was born into a fam­ily that proudly

as­serted its Bri­tish ori­gins. I was born to peas­ant Greek im­mi­grants whose mi­gra­tion to Aus­tralia made our fam­ily very much part of the work­ing class. Nev­er­the­less, de­spite these dif­fer­ences of time, his­tory and cul­tural roots, there is some­thing in White’s at­trac­tion to, and re­sent­ment of, his colo­nial sta­tus that links him to me. White railed against the parochial­ism and mean­spirit­ed­ness of Aus­tralian cul­ture all his life, and this an­tag­o­nism is a con­stant pres­ence in his writ­ing. It lends his won­der­ful au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, Flaws in the Glass, some of its most vivid im­agery. And a fractious de­sire – fractious be­cause never ful­filled, never fi­nally con­sum­mated – to leave Aus­tralia and make Europe his per­ma­nent home is part of the life that Marr sur­veyed and also a re­cur­rent de­sire of the char­ac­ters in White’s nov­els. In fic­tion he could sat­isfy that long­ing: in both the early work, The Aunt’s Story, and the late mas­ter­piece, The Twyborn Af­fair, main char­ac­ters can make that great di­vorce. But White him­self re­mained in Aus­tralia till the end of his life. That in it­self is an im­por­tant bi­o­graph­i­cal el­e­ment that I think in­forms how we un­der­stand his work. The flight of mid-20th-cen­tury writ­ers from Aus­tralia in or­der to con­sol­i­date their iden­ti­ties and their ca­reers was so com­mon­place as to be un­re­mark­able – so much so that we had a name for the sense of in­fe­ri­or­ity in­volved: “cul­tural cringe”. Ran­dolph Stow and Christina Stead, two other writ­ers of com­pa­ra­ble abil­ity, had to leave their home coun­try to con­tinue writ­ing. And a later gen­er­a­tion that in­cludes Robert Hughes, Ger­maine Greer and Clive James also had to make that par­tic­u­lar mi­gra­tion. I think one thing that marks White’s writ­ing and makes it dif­fer­ent from the work of these other writ­ers is that the Aus­tralia that emerges across his work is not static. This coun­try, in all its beauty and ug­li­ness, in all its mean­ness and po­ten­tial, is a per­pet­ual char­ac­ter in his nov­els. It changes and grows, it keeps re­peat­ing the same mis­takes, and yet it can sur­prise us. This is one of the things I adore about the man’s work. There isn’t a whiff of nos­tal­gia for Aus­tralia in his writ­ing. David Marr’s bi­og­ra­phy and Flaws in the Glass are such de­fin­i­tive works on Pa­trick White’s life and imag­i­na­tion that we might be­lieve there to be no fur­ther call for bi­o­graph­i­cal ex­ca­va­tion, that they pro­vide all the il­lu­mi­na­tion we need. But I want to of­fer another work as also piv­otal to our un­der­stand­ing of White. This is a lesser-known book by the critic and aca­demic Vrasi­das Kar­alis, his Rec­ol­lec­tions of Mr Manoly Las­caris. Pub­lished in 2008 and based on a se­ries of in­ter­views Kar­alis con­ducted with Las­caris, Pa­trick White’s longterm part­ner, the book is of in­ter­est not only for the in­sights it pro­vides into White and his re­la­tion­ship with Las­caris, but also as an hon­est re­flec­tion by Kar­alis on the ex­is­ten­tial im­per­ma­nence of the mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ence. The Las­caris who emerges from these con­ver­sa­tions scut­tles the ro­man­tic and clichéd sense of him as im­mi­grant and refugee that I had been car­ry­ing around in my head for years. Of course, there is po­lit­i­cal and his­tor­i­cal tragedy in his bi­og­ra­phy, specif­i­cally the al­most com­plete purge of the Greek, Ar­me­nian and Jewish com­mu­ni­ties in Ana­to­lia after the cre­ation of the mod­ern Turk­ish state in the early 1920s. Las­caris’s fam­ily, who lived in the Ot­toman city of Smyrna (now İzmir), had to flee the city and were scat­tered, as were hun­dreds of thou­sands of other refugees, across Europe, Egypt, Canada and the US. But Las­caris is clear in wish­ing to dis­tin­guish his own fam­ily’s ex­pe­ri­ence from that of peas­ant and work­ing-class Ana­to­lian refugees. As they con­verse, the older man ad­mon­ishes the younger for “pro­le­tar­ian” and “vul­gar” ex­pres­sions. The use of that specif­i­cally Marx­ist term “pro­le­tar­ian” is telling, as if Las­caris wishes to place him­self out­side the fa­mil­iar so­ciopo­lit­i­cal un­der­stand­ing of mi­gra­tion. His isn’t the con­fes­sion of a “wog”, he seems to be im­ply­ing, and in so do­ing he marks a gulf be­tween his own ex­pe­ri­ence and that of the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Greek im­mi­grants. Las­caris is proud of his fam­ily’s con­nec­tion to the royal court of an­cient Byzan­tium; he is, what­ever the re­al­i­ties of his bank ac­count, al­ways an aris­to­crat.

It’s not faith that Pa­trick White takes from Ortho­doxy, but a sen­si­bil­ity.

Hear­ing Las­caris’s voice in his in­ter­views with Kar­alis, I am granted in­sight into a very dif­fer­ent per­cep­tion to that of the Greek im­mi­grants I grew up among, where the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tives spoke of grind­ing ru­ral poverty and lim­ited ed­u­ca­tion, ex­pe­ri­ences that owed noth­ing to and had no re­la­tion­ship with cos­mopoli­tan, ur­ban cen­tres. I think it is in un­der­stand­ing that dif­fer­ence that I gleaned how much White and Las­caris shared in their com­pre­hen­sion of ex­ile. One Aus­tralian and the other Ana­to­lian, they were both up­per-class men who owed al­le­giance to an idea of Em­pire. In fact, that’s how they met – both fight­ing in a world war wear­ing Bri­tish uni­forms. But that al­le­giance was also chal­lenged, and there­fore in part re­sented, be­cause the very no­tion of Em­pire was col­laps­ing, and the Bri­tain they be­longed to ei­ther con­de­scended to them or no longer wanted them. This alien­ation from Em­pire they also shared. The one thread that con­nects Las­caris to the Greece I know from my fam­ily his­tory, and one of the great gifts Manoly be­stowed on his lover, is the re­li­gion of Greek Ortho­doxy. From his in­ter­views, it be­comes clear that Las­caris’s de­vout faith can­not be di­vorced from his pride in the his­tory of the re­li­gion. Faith is both be­lief and blood. For the Greeks liv­ing in Ana­to­lia and the Mid­dle East, it was their re­li­gion, even more than their lan­guage, that set them apart from their neigh­bours. But if that was all re­li­gion meant to Las­caris, it would not have had the im­pact it did on White as a writer. Greek Ortho­doxy’s his­tory, sep­a­rated by schism and Em­pire from West­ern Europe, sur­viv­ing for half a mil­len­nium in a largely Mus­lim world, is char­ac­terised by mys­ter­ies that ex­hort the un­knowa­bil­ity of God.

Cleaved from earthly power with the con­quest of Con­stantino­ple by the Ot­tomans, Ortho­doxy is marked by a fa­tal­ism that sep­a­rates it from both Catholi­cism and Protes­tantism. Ortho­doxy’s lore rei­fies the seer, the her­mit and the seeker, those who aban­don earthly plea­sures to find God’s im­ma­nence in the nat­u­ral world. Ortho­doxy es­chews the in­tel­lec­tual quest for God. It’s not faith that Pa­trick White takes from Ortho­doxy, but a sen­si­bil­ity, one that al­lowed him to re­turn to Aus­tralia and see the land­scape in a way he could not be­fore his re­la­tion­ship with Manoly. The seer, the her­mit and the seeker will be­come cen­tral to his work, and the spir­i­tu­al­ity in his nov­els will not arise from char­ac­ters pon­der­ing the ex­is­tence or non-ex­is­tence of a de­ity, but from en­coun­ter­ing the God­head in the vi­o­lences and ec­stasies of the nat­u­ral world. It’s this sen­si­bil­ity that con­nects White’s writ­ing, for me, to the great Rus­sian writ­ers. It is this supreme gift that I think Las­caris gave him. I sus­pect an in­ter­ven­tion is nec­es­sary here, that I may need to de­fend my­self against the ac­cu­sa­tion that it is my own Greek her­itage that steers me to­wards Las­caris and his in­flu­ence on White. This is true, un­doubt­edly. But I ask you to trust that what I am try­ing to get at is a trans­for­ma­tion in White’s writ­ing that is linked to his falling in love with Manoly Las­caris – that by falling in love and pledg­ing a com­mit­ment to a life to­gether, White took on an un­der­stand­ing of ex­ile and of spir­i­tu­al­ity. Of course, White’s feel­ings of be­ing an out­sider to his coun­try and fam­ily her­itage were al­ready there be­fore World War Two and be­fore meet­ing Manoly. As he points out in Flaws in the Glass, “Sex­ual am­biva­lence helped drive me in on my­self.” Those out­sider emo­tions were there dur­ing his time as a school­boy in Chel­tenham, and then later when he re­turned to the UK after spend­ing time as a jacka­roo in outback New South Wales. The rage and the hope­less­ness he felt at the para­dox­i­cal small­ness of Aus­tralia, that in­cred­i­ble small­ness of such a huge coun­try, find ex­pres­sion in Happy Val­ley, his first novel. And, in his sec­ond, The Liv­ing and the Dead, a book that be­trays the ur­gency of a young writer try­ing to prove he is the equal of the Euro­pean writ­ers who have in­flu­enced him, Aus­tralia is al­most – al­most, but not quite – ex­cluded. But un­doubt­edly, al­though the first two nov­els con­firm the young White as an im­mensely tal­ented writer, they pale along­side the nov­els he was to write on his re­turn to Aus­tralia, with Manoly, after the war. There is an alert­ness to beauty and to the sen­su­al­ity of land­scape in Happy Val­ley, and there is also an aware­ness of the vast­ness and some­times bleak­ness of space. But there is no awe. What I miss in this book and in The Liv­ing and the Dead are the flights of ec­static lyri­cism that are so much part of the ex­pe­ri­ence of read­ing The Aunt’s Story (first pub­lished in 1948), The Tree of Man (1955) and Voss (1957). Yes, that dif­fer­ence can be at­trib­uted to the ma­tur­ing of the man through his ex­pe­ri­ence of life in Eng­land and, cru­cially, to his ex­pe­ri­ence as a sol­dier in war. And by the time of The Aunt’s Story White had gained a con­fi­dence in his craft that saw him be­gin to tran­scend his mod­ernist in­flu­ences. Yet what also emerges across these three great early works is a de­fi­ant cel­e­bra­tion of the wan­derer, the ex­ile and the pil­grim; and also a spir­i­tual di­men­sion to his writ­ing, a lan­guage of tran­scen­dence that finds the sa­cred in the ma­te­rial world and in the ac­ci­den­tal moments when strangers be­stow kind­ness on one another.

The Ortho­dox East en­ters White’s writ­ing and this is trans­for­ma­tive, not only for his lan­guage, but also for how it ini­ti­ates some­thing in Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture.

White’s no­tion of the sa­cred is never sen­ti­men­tal; nor is his cham­pi­oning of the ex­ile. A sus­pi­cion of mad­ness and self-delu­sion taints the rev­e­la­tory bliss of The Aunt’s Story’s Theodora Good­man, as it does the gar­gan­tuan folly of ex­plorer Jo­hann Ul­rich Voss. And in The Tree of Man, Stan and Amy Parker are Adam and Eve be­fore the Fall, though this in­no­cence and grace is ap­pre­hended by them only in blind­ing moments of il­lu­mi­na­tion that last an in­stant; it is cer­tainly not un­der­stood by their chil­dren and the com­mu­nity that be­gins to form around their once iso­lated farm. But mad­ness, folly and naivety do not di­min­ish any of these char­ac­ters. Their vivid­ness is a tran­scen­dence that we as read­ers com­pre­hend and are shaken by. This is the foun­da­tion of my love for Pa­trick White. And I be­lieve that this foun­da­tion is in­sep­a­ra­ble from the gifts that Las­caris of­fered his part­ner: a fierce and life­long com­mit­ment to the ex­pe­ri­ence of ex­ile suf­fered by the dis­placed Ana­to­lians, and an un­der­stand­ing of and love for the ma­te­rial spir­i­tu­al­ism of Greek Ortho­doxy that of­fered a way for White to cre­ate a lan­guage of spir­i­tual yearn­ing and de­vo­tion, even as an avowed non-be­liever. The Ortho­dox East en­ters White’s writ­ing and this is trans­for­ma­tive, not only for his lan­guage, but also for how it ini­ti­ates some­thing in Aus­tralian lit­er­a­ture. What I am try­ing to do is to con­vey some­thing of the won­der I ex­pe­ri­enced as both reader and writer in find­ing White, at first ten­ta­tively and then with greater con­fi­dence, cre­at­ing an im­mi­grant lan­guage. This is an edited ex­tract from Chris­tos Tsi­olkas’s On Pa­trick White: Writ­ers on Writ­ers (Black Inc.; $17.99), out this month.

Pa­trick White in his Cen­ten­nial Park home, Syd­ney, Au­gust 28, 1956. © Hugh Ross / Fair­fax

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