About Patrick Victor Martindale White, Nobel Prize in Literature, 1973
Patrick Victor Martindale White (28 May 1912 – 30 September 1990), an Australian author, is widely regarded as an important English-language novelist of the 20th century. From 1935 until his death, he published 12 novels, two short-story collections and eight plays.
White's fiction employs humour, florid prose, shifting narrative vantage points and a stream of consciousness technique. In 1973, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature—and was the only Australian citizen to have been awarded the Literature prize until J. M. Coetzee became an Australian citizen in 2006. The Vivisector, a novel about the life and times of a successful modernist painter, was shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize in 2010.
White was born in Knightsbridge, London, to an English-Australian father and an English mother. His family later moved to Sydney, Australia when he was six months old. As a child he lived in one flat with his sister, nanny and a maid; while his parents lived in an adjoining flat.
At the age of four White developed asthma, a condition that had taken the life of his maternal grandfather. White's health was fragile throughout his childhood which, while it precluded his participation in many childhood activities, stimulated his imagination. He would perform private rites in the garden and would dance for his mother’s friends. He loved the theatre which he first visited at an early age.
At the age of ten White was sent to Tudor House School, a boarding school in the New South Wales southern highlands, in an attempt to abate his asthma. It took him some time to adjust to the presence of other children. At boarding school he started to write plays. Even at this early age White wrote about noticeably adult themes. In 1924, the boarding school ran into financial trouble and the headmaster suggested that White be sent to public school in England; a suggestion which his parents accepted.
White struggled to adjust to his new surroundings at Cheltenham College. He later described it as "a four-year prison sentence". White withdrew socially and had a limited circle of acquaintances. Occasionally, he would holiday with his parents at European locations, but their relationship remained distant.
While in London White did make one close friend, Ronald Waterall, an older boy who shared similar interests. White’s biographer, David Marr, wrote that the two men would walk, arm-in-arm, to London shows; and stand around stage doors crumbing for a glimpse of their favourite stars, giving a practical demonstration of a chorus girl's high kick ... with appropriate vocal accompaniment. When Waterall left school, White withdrew again. He asked his parents if he could leave school to become an actor. The parents compromised and allowed him to finish school early on the condition that he came home to Australia to try life on the land.
Travelling the world
White spent two years working as a stockman at Bolaro, a 73-square-kilometre (28 sq mi) station near Adaminaby on the edge of the Snowy Mountains in south-eastern Australia. His parents felt that he should work on the land rather than become a writer and hoped that his work as a jackaroo would cause his artistic ambitions to fade. Although White grew to respect the land and his health improved, it was clear that he was not cut out for this life.
From 1932 to 1935, White lived in England, studying French and German literature at King's College within Cambridge University. White's homosexuality took a toll on his first term academic performance, in part because he developed a romantic attraction to a young man who had come to King's College to become an Anglican priest. White dared not speak of his feelings for fear of losing the friendship and, like many homosexual men of that period, feared that his sexuality would doom him to a lonely life. Then one night, the student priest, after an awkward liaison with two women, admitted to White that women meant nothing to him sexually. This became White’s first love affair.
During White's time at Cambridge he published a collection of poetry entitled The Ploughman and Other Poems, and wrote a play named Bread and Butter Women, which was later performed by an amateur group (which included his sister Suzanne) at the tiny Bryant's Playhouse in Sydney. After being admitted to the degree of Bachelor of Arts in 1935, White briefly settled in London where he lived in an area that was frequented by artists. Here, the young author thrived creatively for a time, writing several unpublished works and reworking Happy Valley, a novel that he had written while jackarooing. In 1937, White’s father died, leaving him ten thousand pounds in inheritance. The fortune enabled him to write full-time in relative comfort. Two more plays followed before he succeeded in finding a publisher for Happy Valley. The novel was received well in London, but poorly in Australia. He began writing another novel, Nightside, but abandoned it before its completion after receiving negative comments—a decision that he later admitted regretting.
In 1936 White met the painter Roy de Maistre, 18 years his senior, who became an important influence in his life and work. The two men never became lovers, but remained firm friends. In Patrick White's own words "He became what I most needed, an intellectual and aesthetic mentor". They had many similarities. They were both homosexual; they both felt like outsiders in their own families; as a result they both had ambivalent feelings about their families and backgrounds, yet both maintained close and life-long links with their families, particularly their mothers. They also both appreciated the benefits of social standing and connections; and Christian symbolism and biblical themes are common in both artists' work. Patrick White dedicated his first novel 'Happy Valley' (1939) to de Maistre, and acknowledged de Maistre's influence on his writing. In 1947 de Maistre's painting Figure in a Garden (The Aunt) was used as the cover for the first edition of White's The Aunt's Story. White also bought many of de Maistre's paintings for himself. In 1974 White gave all his paintings by de Maistre to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Towards the end of the 1930s, White spent time in the United States, including Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and New York City, where he wrote The Living and the Dead. By the time World War II broke out, he had returned to London and joined the Royal Air Force. He was accepted as an intelligence officer, and was posted to the Middle East. He served in Egypt, Palestine, and Greece before the war was over. While in the Middle East, he had an affair with a Greek army officer, Manoly Lascaris, who was to become his life partner.
The growth of White's writing career
After the war White once again returned to Australia, buying an old house in Castle Hill, now a Sydney suburb but then semi-rural. Here he settled down with Lascaris, the Greek he had met during the war. They lived there for 18 years, selling flowers, vegetables, milk, and cream, as well as pedigreed puppies. During these years he started to make a reputation for himself as a writer, publishing The Aunt's Story and The Tree of Man in the US in 1955 and shortly after in the UK. The Tree of Man was released to rave reviews in the US, but, in what was to become a typical pattern, was panned in Australia. White had doubts about whether to continue writing after his books were largely dismissed in Australia (three of them having been called ‘un-Australian’ by critics), but, in the end, decided to persevere. His first breakthrough in Australia came when his next novel, Voss, won the inaugural Miles Franklin Literary Award.
In 1961, White published Riders in the Chariot. This was to become both a bestseller and a prize-winner, garnering him a second Miles Franklin Award. In 1963, White and Lascaris decided to sell the house at Castle Hill that they had named "Dogwoods". A number of White's works from the 1960s depict the fictional town of Sarsaparilla, including his collection of short stories, The Burnt Ones, and the play, The Season at Sarsaparilla. By now, he had clearly established his reputation as one of the world's great authors, but remained an essentially private person, resisting opportunities for interviews and public appearances, although his circle of friends had widened significantly.
In 1968, White wrote The Vivisector, a searing character portrait of an artist. Many people drew links to the Sydney painter John Passmore (1904 - 1984) and White's friend, the painter Sidney Nolan, but White denied these connections. Patrick White was an art collector who had, as a young man, been deeply impressed by his friends Roy De Maistre and Francis Bacon, and later said he wished he had been an artist. White's elaborate, idiosyncratic prose was a writer's attempt to emulate painting. By the mid sixties he had also become interested in encouraging dozens of young and less established artists, such as James Clifford, Erica McGilchrist, and Lawrence Daws. White was later friends with Brett Whiteley, the young star of Australian painting, in the 1970s. That friendship ended when White felt that Whiteley, a heroin addict, was deceitful and pushy about selling his paintings. A portait of White by Louis Kahan won the 1962 Archibald Prize.
White decided not to accept any more prizes for his work, and declined both the $10,000 Britannia Award and another Miles Franklin Award. White was approached by Harry M. Miller to work on a screenplay for Voss, but nothing came of it. He became an active opponent of literary censorship and joined a number of other public figures in signing a statement of defiance against Australia’s decision to participate in the Vietnam War.
In 1973, White became the first (and to this day the only) Australian to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, "for an epic and psychological narrative art, which has introduced a new continent into literature". His cause was said to have been championed by a Scandinavian diplomat resident in Australia  White enlisted Sidney Nolan to travel to Stockholm to accept the prize on his behalf. The award had an immediate impact on his career, as his publisher doubled the print run for The Eye of the Storm and gave him a larger advance for his next novel. White used the money from the prize to establish a trust to fund the Patrick White Award, given annually to established creative writers who have received little public recognition. He was invited by the House of Representatives to be seated on the floor of the House in recognition of his achievement. White declined, explaining that his nature could not easily adapt itself to such a situation. The last time such an invitation had been extended was in 1928, to Bert Hinkler.
White was made Australian of the Year for 1974, but in a typically rebellious fashion, his acceptance speech encouraged Australians to spend the day reflecting on the state of the country. Privately, he was less than enthusiastic about it. In a letter to Marshall Best on 27 January 1974, he wrote: "Something terrible happened to me last week. There is an organisation which chooses an Australian of the Year who has to appear at an official lunch in Melbourne Town Hall on Australia Day. This year I was picked on as they had run through all the swimmers, tennis players, yachtsmen".
The twilight years
White and Lascaris hosted many dinner parties at their Centennial Park home in a leafy part of the affluent Eastern suburbs of Sydney. In Patrick White, A Life, Marr portrays White as a genial host but one who easily fell out with friends.
White supported the conservative, business oriented Liberal Party of Australia until the election of Gough Whitlam's Labor government and, following the 1975 Australian constitutional crisis, became particularly anti-royalist, making a rare appearance on national television to broadcast his views on the matter. White also publicly expressed his admiration for the historian Manning Clark, satirist Barry Humphries, and unionist Jack Mundey.
During the 1970s, White’s health began to deteriorate—his teeth were crumbling, his eyesight was failing, and he had chronic lung problems. In 1979, his novel The Twyborn Affair was short-listed for the Booker Prize, but White requested that it be removed to give younger writers a chance to win. (The prize was won by Penelope Fitzgerald, who ironically was just four years younger than White.) Soon after, White announced that he had written his last novel, and that in the future, he would write only for radio or the stage.
Director Jim Sharman introduced himself to White while walking down a Sydney street, Sharman asking White if he could make a film of The Night the Prowler. White wrote the screenplay for the film.
In 1981, White published his autobiography, Flaws in the Glass: a self-portrait, which explored issues about which he had publicly said little, such as his homosexuality, and his refusal to accept the Nobel Prize personally. On Palm Sunday, 1982, White addressed a crowd of 30,000 people, calling for a ban on uranium mining and for the destruction of nuclear weapons.
In 1986 White released one last novel, Memoirs of Many in One, though it was published under the pen name "Alex Xenophon Demirjian Gray" and edited by Patrick White. In the same year, Voss was turned into an opera. White refused to see it when it was first performed at the Adelaide Festival, because Queen Elizabeth II had been invited, and chose instead to see it later in Sydney. In 1987, White wrote Three Uneasy Pieces, with his musings on ageing and society's efforts to achieve aesthetic perfection. When David Marr finished his biography of White in July 1990, his subject spent nine days going over the details with him.
Patrick White died in Sydney on 30 September 1990.
Patrick White and Christina Stead continue to be widely recognised as the foremost Australian novelists of the twentieth century. His writing tackles existential questions as well as myriad human flaws, weaknesses and hypocrisies, and it is full of fresh and original metaphor. Admittedly, White's style is also often very condensed and perhaps at first somewhat difficult to approach - such noted writers as Robert Hughes and David Malouf have expressed their difficulties with some of White's writing. Nevertheless, Patrick White's greatness as a novelist remains undoubted.
In 2010 White received posthumous recognition for his novel The Vivisector, which was shortlisted for the Lost Man Booker Prize for 1970.
In 2009, The Sydney Theatre Company staged White's play The Season at Sarsaparilla. In 2011 Fred Schepisi's film of The Eye of the Storm was released with screenplay adaptation by Judy Morris, Geoffrey Rush playing the (White-like?) son Basil, Judy Davis as the daughter Dorothy, and Charlotte Rampling as the dying matriarch Elizabeth Hunter. This is the first screen realisation of a White novel, fittingly the one which played a key role in the Swedish panel's choice of White as Nobel prize winner.