Forty five years ago as the King of Sweden was handing the Nobel Prize for Literature to Sidney Nolan in Stockholm in the early European afternoon of December 10, 1973, Patrick White was dining with Stephen Murray-Smith at the annual Overland dinner in Melbourne.
The Prize had been a long time coming. White’s claque had been lobbying since the late 1960s. His advocate on the Committee, Artur Lundkvist, got him onto the shortlist in 1969 but Samuel Beckett prevailed.
David Marr quotes a translation of a 1969 review where Lundkvist considers that White had given Australia something of a language of its own.
For Australia has long been one of the relatively voiceless countries unable to articulate its innermost problems … Emptiness, desolation, banality, robust extroversion and stagnant welfare – these are the main things one associates with Australia…
It turned out not to be an easy sell, even in Scandinavia.
Lundkvist visited White at his outer Sydney farmlet in March 1970 to find him exasperated that:
Over and over again I figure as a likely candidate and nothing comes of it.
A few weeks later a Swedish translation of The Tree of Man came out but Solzhenitsin won in 1970. White huffed ‘it would only be humiliating’ to have what was not given to Tolstoy, Henry James, Proust and Joyce. Lundkvist rested White’s case in 1971 and Neruda won.
Marr reports that a few weeks later one of White’s fellow students at Cheltenham College in England nearly 50 years earlier was interviewed by officials of the Academy. Now teaching English Literature in Oslo, Professor Ragnar Christophersen was married to an Australian and related by marriage to Stig Ramel who was about to become President of the Nobel Foundation. Christophersen told Marr in 1986:
‘some geyser (sic) was asking me all sorts of questions about Paddy White… I put two and two together.’ He wrote to White who ‘more or less said to hell with the Nobel Prize.
Lundkvist had a formidable opponent in the secretary to the Academy, Karl Ragnar Gierow. The Swedish translation of The Vivisector (dedicated to Cynthia and Sidney Nolan) came out in the European summer. White and his partner Manoly Lascaris were doorstopped by the press in October 1972, but Gierow, according to Marr, used what he considered White’s demeaning portrayal of the artist against him and Heinrich Boll won. White said bitterly ‘I no longer believe in the Nobel Prize. I think it should be discontinued and the money used to feed the hungry.’
In 1973 Jonathan Cape rushed four advance copies of The Eye of the Storm to Lundkvist who in his review considered:
… we are almost entirely spared the elements of obscurantism that have at times been present in White’s work.
Marr says Lundkvist was able to get the numbers by arguing that The Eye of the Storm presented a more moral view of the artist than White had shown in The Vivisector.
It has been suggested that the casting vote was made by an Academician who, like the vivisector Hurtle Duffield, had himself had been sold for adoption as a child and that he proposed the citation:
To Patrick White for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature.
After Nolan accepted the Prize for White the Swedish band played Percy Grainger’s In an English Country Garden.
White struggled to be gracious in victory saying his response to the prize was ‘bewilderment, alarm and cynicism.’ He told the ABC:
I don’t feel particularly Australian. I live here and work here. A Londoner is what I think I am at heart but my blood is Australian and that’s what gets me going … There have been plenty of authentic voices before mine and many Australians will say mine is not authentic.
But now it had come, he didn’t feel able to risk travelling to Stockholm in the middle of the northern winter because of his severe asthma. He asked his friends Sidney and Cynthia Nolan to represent him while, somewhat to his hosts’ surprise, he kept his long-standing dinner date with Overland.
The Secretary of the Academy, Gierow, refused to read the Presentation Speech so Artur Lundkvist did the necessary. He name checked Henry Lawson who was the son of a Norwegian seaman by the name of Larsen. Perceptively, he also cited Henry Handel Richardson without actually saying that Richard Mahoney and Patrick White might be thought to have a lot in common.
Lundkvist also said:
It is also well known that White stands in close relation to advanced Australian pictorial artists such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Russel (sic) Drysdale, who with the means at their disposal aim at something of the same expressiveness as he sets out to achieve in his writing.
Referring to White’s latest two novels Lundkvist noted that:
In the artist the creative urge is portrayed as a species of curse, as a result of which his art becomes an all-consuming effort of which both its practitioner and the people close to him become the victims.
Which was prescient.
Nolan and White in 1963.
Sidney Nolan claimed that The Vivisector was based on his life, although White disavowed any connection between Nolan and the novel’s main character Hurtle Duffield.
In a letter to both Cynthia and Sidney Nolan while he was writing The Vivisector in December 1967 White wrote:
I should like you to read it to see how close or remote I am from the workings of a painter’s mind. I should hate to find he is only a painter in a novel like most of the painters in fiction. I have also thought I would like to dedicate the book to you, but you’d have to decide on reading it, as it will probably shock a lot of people, Australians in particular.
In her 2003 study of Patrick White, Painter Manque, Helen Verity Hewitt quotes White as saying that the Australian painter Roy de Maistre, based in London:
…introduced me to abstract painting about 1936. Before that I had only approached writing as an exercise in naturalism… Then gradually one saw that it was possible to weave about freely on different levels at the same time.
White enjoyed the company of artists, even if the dinner parties he gave for them and others often became the stage for the bullying vituperation that he seemed to consider as much an art form as Edward Albee did in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
And he staged such a scene at the end of the Overland dinner in Melbourne as Sid was collecting his prize in Stockholm.
According to Marr’s biography in 1986, White lost his temper when he was asked by Barrett Reid if he had ever published in the magazine Angry Penguins, funded by Sunday and John Reed from their outer Melbourne home Heide (known in some quarters as the Bloomsbury of Australia.)
Certainly not.’ White replied. ‘But I would like to write a novel about her.’ ‘About Sunday?’ Reid asked. ‘Have you ever met her?’ ‘That woman! That woman! I don’t need to meet her to write about her.’ White shrieked. And declined an invitation to meet her the next day. ‘Well in that case your novel will be based on muddled mythology like your other novels,’ Reid is said to have been brave enough to say to the newly minted Nobel Laureate for Literature.
Janine Burke published the collected letters of Joy Hester and Sunday Reed in 1994, at much the same time as Marr published White’s Letters. Burke’s biography The Heart Garden Sunday Reed and Heide came out in 2004. The Baillieu heiress Sunday and her husband John patronised several emerging artists during and after the Second World War. Sidney Nolan was enticed from, perhaps bought out of, his first marriage to join them in a menage a trois that lasted until he broke away with John’s sister Cynthia (who, like Sunday, was several years older than him and looked rather like her). Sunday and John then adopted the child of Joy Hester and Albert Tucker. Sweeney Reed took his own life in 1979.
Hewitt reports that in 1971:
While White was working on The Vivisector, Nolan was working on his huge Paradise Garden, 768 little paintings.. The drawings show erect penises and a severed penis, a severed head, graves, amputated hands, skulls with a heart between them, references to Nolan’s first Ned Kelly paintings (which the Reeds refused to let go of for many years afterwards) and to the ‘paradise garden’ at Heide.
And there are signs that White may have begun to write his novel about ‘that woman’ in The Vivisector.
Hurtle Duffield may have been partly drawn from Francis Bacon, to whom de Meistre introduced White in London in the 1930s. In the first section of the novel, Hurtle’s paintings of Nance Spreadeagle are as unflinching as Bacon’s work, eventually sending Nance over the edge after he paints his self-portrait in his own shit.
But Hurtle’s adoptive, emotionally predatory mother (like most of White’s mothers) marries a Julian Boileau. And the petitioners awaiting Olivia Davenport’s patronage in her afternoon salon variously speculate that she is nymphomaniac, lesbian and/or frigid, with a marital history very like Sunday’s (who suicided a week after John Reed’s death in 1981, with the help of Barrett Reid according to Burke.)
Probably Hurtle is Bacon and Nolan and Patrick White himself, with dashes of the other artists White himself patronised. Almost gratuitously, as a boy Duffield meets a jackeroo, Col Forster, when he is visiting his adoptive father’s property Mumbelong. The boy tells Forster:
I’m going to be a great painter…. Col Forster couldn’t laugh enough. ‘ Well, good luck to you, kid! I’m going to write the Great Australian Novel.’
But he doesn’t survive the war.
A year before the Prize White had written to Cynthia Nolan:
I have not come across the destroyer you say there is in Sid, but there is a kind of shadowiness in him at moments which could be hiding that.
She took her own life almost three years to the day after Sidney had accepted the Prize for Paddy. White wrote to Randolph Stow in late 1979:
I no longer have any connexion (sic) with Sid, I realised when Cynthia died that it was she who was my friend. Sid had always been very nice to Manoly and me, but somehow we never got through to each other, and I couldn’t forgive his falling on the bosom of the other one [Mary Boyd] when Cynthia’s ashes were hardly cold, that is why he has become such a dreadful painter.
And he told Joseph Losey (who was talking of making a film of Voss) in 1981 Sid has developed into the great commercial traveller and gravy-train artist.
Nolan had no Nobel Prize to win but he was made Knight Bachelor in 1981 despite his wartime desertion and Order of Merit in 1983 with a Companion of the Order of Australia thrown on for good measure in 1988. White took to referring to him as ‘Sir Neddy’.
Patrick White was born in England into the Anglo-Australian grazier gratin from which he received annuities all his life. As well as the sometimes life-threatening asthma, he suffered from the hyperacuity of the marginal man as he moved between England and Australia although he had the good fortune of the groundedness provided by his life partner Manoly Lascaris (despite frequent provocation).
For all his protestations, White responded more warmly when he was voted Australian of the Year a few weeks after winning the Nobel Prize. He wrote to his London publisher:
I am amazed at the way Australians have reacted, in a way they usually behave only for swimmers and athletes. I am very touched, and I have been feeling guilty for some of the things I said in the past.
Barrett Reid lived at Heide until his death in 1995, editing Overland after Stephen Murray-Smith’s death in 1988.
Sue Rabbitt Roff lived next door to the Murray-Smiths in her high school years and well remembers the Meanjin and Overland cricket teams changing from their whites behind the ti trees for the annual post-match beano. Her archival researches into Australian cultural and nuclear history are at http://www.rabbittreview.com.