Much more than biography

Wednesday, September 11, 1991

By Noel McGuire

Patrick White — A life
By David Marr
Random House. 727 pp. $49.95 hardback
Reviewed by Noel McGuire

After he won the Nobel prize, Patrick White became a Living National Treasure. The fact that, to a large extent, his work was ignored and/or reviled in this country prior to the award, was glossed over in the rush to claim him as a native son, a reaction which White properly held in contempt.

White held a lot of things in contempt — many rightly so, others not so correctly. This book would not be one of them. David Marr's book is more than just a biography; it is also a review of White's literary output. In chapters devoted to each of his major works, the book also charts White's life from birth to death. It is a valuable critique of the life and work of White and his lifelong partner/lover, Emmanuel (Manoly) Lascaris.

Lascaris was, from their first meeting in Alexandria, the mainstay of White's life, and without him White would not have been able to produce the work he did. Without his forbearance, his tolerance of White's alcohol-fueled rages while working, the sublimation of his own life in Patrick's, Australia and the world would have so much.

As Marr says, White is not a sympathetic character. To many, including Lascaris, he was a bastard, an intolerant, nasty bastard. His childhood, his semi-squattocratic background, the torment of his early realisation of his homosexuality, all combined to create an introvert who, despite himself, managed to produce over the years an impressive opus of literature which, at least to my generation, is totally authentic.

I've known Stan and Amy Parker, and Mrs O'Dowd. I recognise Miss Hare and Alf Dubbo, even Hurtle Duffield. And, as a kid, with others, I threw rocks on Mordecai Himmelfarb's roof, though back then his name was Raphael, and the whole town was scandalised that a Jew should come to live among us.

But I never knew Patrick White or Manoly Lascaris, to my regret, since I consider the lifelong commitment they made to each other truly admirable. David Marr has rectified that. Given a free hand, able to record the intimate feelings of both men and of their friends, acquaintances and enemies, Marr has produced a portrait of both men which must rank as one of the most significant works of biography/history in this country.

Both were products of their time; White of the "Belltrees" squattocracy, Lascaris of the Smyrnan remnants of imperial Byzantium. None of us can shuck off totally our earliest

influences, and these two were no exception. White's imperiousness, his intolerance, his self-righteousness and impetuousness; and Lascaris' self-effacement, his inherited belief in the imperial tradition of service to higher things and his assumption that genius excuses all: these things grate. But biography should be biography, warts and all, and this huge book captures the characters of both men perfectly, so that, at the end, we are in sympathy with them.

In Patrick White — A Life, David Marr has produced not only a biography of, arguably, Australia's greatest writer, but a literary, political and sociological history of this century in this country. It may not please those on either side of politics who demand the ideologically correct, but neither Paddy White nor Stan Parker would have expected that.

Issue