The 100 best novels: No 77 – Voss by Patrick White (1957)

A love story set against the disappearance of an explorer in the outback, Voss paved the way for a generation of Australian writers to shrug off the colonial past

Robert McCrum introduces the series

The lone rider on his journey to self-realisation, the plot of many westerns, is perfectly suited to the Australian outback, and it gives Patrick White’s monumental novel an archetypal power that still dominates the Australian literary landscape. Only Christina Stead (The Man Who Loved Children) rivals White’s achievement.

Voss is based on the story of Ludwig Leichhardt, the Prussian naturalist who made several explorations of the Australian interior in the mid-1840s. Leichhardt aimed to pioneer an overland route from Brisbane to Perth but he vanished without trace in the infinite vastness of the interior.

White focuses on two characters: Voss, the German explorer, and Laura, a naive and lovely orphan recently arrived in New South Wales, who meet for the first time in the house of Laura’s uncle, the patron of Voss’s expedition. Their complex and passionate relationship, a mutual obsession based on separation, is set against the merciless landscape of Voss’s trek towards oblivion.

White, who in 1973 became the first Australian to win the Nobel prize for literature, was a difficult man, notorious for his abrasive relationship with a society that, high and low, did its best to alienate him. Much of White’s prickly rage went into Voss, who is misanthropic, wilful and doomed. “The map?” says the explorer, when asked about navigation. “I will first make it.”

White was a literary map-maker, too. He is both of his time (sharing many preoccupations with Saul Bellow and William Golding, 73 and 74 in this series), and a cultural pioneer, asserting the need for a richer and more complex understanding of a great country. Until the 1950s Australian poetry and fiction, like American literature in the 19th century, was in thrall to dusty English models. Angry and often obscure, deeply intellectual and gay, Patrick White liberated his readers from a cultural prison. Parts of Voss, notably the treatment of Indigenous Australians – “black swine” to the explorer – remain contentious but White is a founding father of the literary independence movement that followed in the 1970s and 80s. His work paved the way for David Malouf, Murray Bail, Peter Carey, Tim Winton, Christos Tsiolkas, Julia Leigh and many more. He is also a pioneer in “Commonwealth Literature”, a genre that’s now virtually redundant, having been overtaken by the influence of global media and global English.

A note on the text

Voss was published by Eyre & Spottiswoode, a London-based imprint with strong Australian connections, in 1957. The first edition had jacket art by Sidney Nolan, and although it was the novel that established White’s profound originality, not everyone was convinced. One hostile newspaper review declared White to be “Australia’s most unreadable novelist”. The distinguished Australian poet AD Hope once said of White that, although he “shows on every page some touch of the born writer”, he nevertheless lacked style, choosing “as his medium this pretentious and illiterate verbal sludge”. To the end of his life, White would never quite shake off a reputation for “difficulty”.

The indispensable study of Patrick White and his work comes from David Marr in Patrick White: A Life (1991). Voss has also been adapted into an opera with a David Malouf libretto. White himself wanted Voss to be produced for the cinema, directed by Ken Russell and, later, Joseph Losey, but the film was never made.

Three more from Patrick White

The Tree of Man (1955); Riders in the Chariot (1961); The Solid Mandala (1966).

Contributor

Robert McCrum

The GuardianTramp

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