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Voss (Penguin Classics) Paperback – January 27, 2009
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"One of the greatest magicians of fiction ... White's scope is vast and his invention endless" * Observer * "Patrick White is, in the finest sense, a world novelist. His themes are catholic and complex and he pursues them with a single-minded energy and vision" * Guardian * "Australia's greatest novelist" -- Geoffrey Rush "The outstanding figure in Australian fiction" * New York Times * --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
About the Author
Patrick White (1912-1990) was born in England in 1912, when his parents were in Europe for two years; at six months he was taken back to Australia, where his father owned a sheep station. When he was thirteen, he went to school in England, to Cheltenham, “where it was understood, the climate would be temperate and a colonial acceptable.” Neither proved true, and after four rather miserable years there he went to King’s College, Cambridge, where he specialized in languages. After leaving the university he settled in London, determined to become a writer. His first novel, Happy Valley, was published in 1939 and his second, The Living and the Dead, in 1941. During the war he was an RAF Intelligence Officer in the Middle East and Greece. After the war he returned to Australia.
His novels include The Aunt’s Story (1946), The Tree of Man (1956), Voss (1957), Riders in the Chariot (1961), The Solid Mandala (1966), The Eye of the Storm(1973), A Fringe of Leaves (1976), and The Twyborn Affair (1979). He also published two collections of short stories, The Burnt Ones (1964) and The Cockatoos (1974), which incorporates several short novels, a collection of novellas, Three Uneasy Pieces (1987), and his autobiography, Flaws in the Glass (1981). He also edited Memoirs of Many in One (1986). In 1973 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Upon his death, The Times wrote, “Patrick White did more than any other writer to put Australian literature on the international map.… His tormented oeuvre is that of a great and essentially modern writer.”
Thomas Keneally has won international acclaim for his novels Schindler's Ark, Confederates, Gossip from the Forest, Playmaker, Woman of the Inner Sea, and A River Town. He is most recently the author of the biography American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles.
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He is a loner and something of a mystic: he needs to find `knowledge', in a not really scientific sense. He finds a wealthy sponsor in Sydney, and he finds a soul mate in the sponsor's orphan niece Laura, an outsider due to her emancipated mind. She is the useless, futureless extra in the wealthy family. She is rather like a Jane Austin heroine. Her mental loneliness mirrors Voss's, but their relationship is a misunderstanding, of the kind that relations are often made of since time began.
Voss assembles a team and off they go, towards the huge white spot in the map of the time. He is a lousy leader and a worse team player. He is insane insofar as he plainly rejects tapping information sources that would have been available. He is in a way a trickster, because he has no real intention to provide his sponsors with the useful information that they look for. He is looking for his personal spiritual victory, not somebody else's wealth or fame. Self-destruction seems unavoidable.
His spirituality is based on a self-centered deism. In his god he worships himself. He despises Laura's self-found atheism and calls it self-murder. He is a sort of negative Messiah, attracting followers, that he leads not to redemption, but to neglect and annihilation. He is not a positive hero, he is more like a monster that we watch with amazement. Initial sympathy is gradually eaten up by surprise. On the other hand, says White, his arrogance resolves, sometimes, into simplicity and sincerity, but it is hard to distinguish.
Confrontations between aboriginals and the white invaders of a continent play a major part in the plot, as do the myths of the 'blackfellows'. Voss's and his expedition's appearance happen to co-incide with the comet's show in the night sky. At this stage of the expedition, Voss is already in a mental delirium and halucinates about his 'fiancee'.
This is my second encounter with Voss. The first one, in the 70s, shortly after White was en-Nobel-ed, was with a German edition, and it failed. Since the book may not have changed since then, it must be changes in me, or the simple fact that the German translator slaughtered White's magnificent language. Because now I am often enchanted by his sentences which shy away from simple word combinations and keep surprising me with challenges to normal perception.
One of White's language devices is the fact that Voss struggles with the English language. He is often baffled by others' meaning and never sure if his own meaning is properly expressed. As he says to his sponsor: if we compare meanings, we would perhaps arrive at different conclusions.
White was apparently not much appreciated in his home land, possibly because he lacked conventionality, also in his chosen lifestyle. His success came from the US and England. Well, and Sweden.
My assessment of the novel: a masterpiece with a highly ambiguous message. Or no message.
For the foreign visitor is Johann Ulrich Voss, a German explorer who is to lead an expedition to traverse the unexplored Australian interior. Awkward and antisocial, he is nonetheless a secular messiah with an almost divine sense of his own destiny. Funded by Laura's uncle, he gathers together a motley collection of misfits and visionaries: a secret poet, a sensitive ornithologist, a simple-minded boy, a rich dilettante, and a former convict whose practical know-how rivals Voss's own. [White's fondness for visionary loners will get even greater play in his later novels, RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT and THE VIVISECTOR.] Accompanied by two aborigines, Voss leads the party into the bush and through the desert, encountering both beauty and hardship, but ultimately tested less by the physical world than by the terrible discovery of their own inner natures.
But back to that meeting in the drawing-room. "So the light began to flow into the high room, and the sound of doves, and the intimate hum of insects. Then, too, the squat maid had returned, bearing a tray of wine and biscuits; the noise itself was a distraction, the breathing of a third person, before the trembling wine subsided in its decanter into a steady jewel. Order does prevail." How beautifully White uses the intrusion of the "squat maid" -- an ex-convict with an ugly hare lip -- to emphasize that oasis of peace! Though Voss and Laura dislike each other at first, they recognize an inner kinship, and remain in each other's thoughts and, for a while, letters, even as the explorer puts half the continent between them. Chapters in the wilderness alternate with those in Sydney, where White's lucid wit (channeling Austen, Thackeray, and Trollope) provides a much-needed relief from the ordeals of Voss and his party. Yet Laura is no minor character, and her spiritual quest is no less intense for being conducted amid the confining world of picnics and balls.
Every part of this astonishingly diverse book seems to contain parallels, foreshadowings, or echoes of every other. It would be a great novel in any context, but specifically a great Australian one. The contrast between the thin veneer of culture at one corner of the country and the untamed vastness behind it must have had special resonance in its early years as a colony, but it has also entered the mythology of the emerging nation. The Australian outback becomes a metaphor for existential challenge, a crucible in which the externals of wealth and class melt in the forging of a new person. Yet it is also a reproach, a vast and magnificent barbarity that cannot be covered over with the lace-doily trappings of civilization. It can be challenged only by people of sense and spirit, visionaries and outcasts like Voss and his followers. Such people, Laura included, will suffer and may not always succeed; White, something of an outcast himself, is too much of a realist to offer easy solutions. But the spirit does endure.
[Spoiler alert: Do NOT read the otherwise excellent introduction by Thomas Keneally before tackling the book itself, as it manages to give away just about everything important in the plot -- not that this is primarily a plot-driven book.]
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Voss, the hero of this epic novel set in Australia, leads a group of men into the outback where they suffer and ultimately perish.Read more