New Emissary

Patrick White

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New Emissary

Patrick White

This literary great sent a friend to accept his Nobel Prize for him in 1973.

‘Because he had nothing to hide, he did perhaps appear to have forfeited a little of his strength. But that is the irony of honesty.’

–Patrick White, The Tree of Man

This year, Australian writer Patrick White was posthumously nominated for a major prize. In March his novel, The Vivisector, was short listed for the Lost Man Booker Prize, a new award that gave literary works from 1970 another shot at the Man Booker Prize, which due to rule modifications was skipped that year.  

Even nearly two decades since his death, this announcement fired up debate. Writer Greg Clarke noted that it was well worth re-celebrating a book that he called an ‘unsung’ work of a ‘genius,’ on the subject of ‘the relationship between art and spirituality.’ Meanwhile, Arifa Akbar, Art Correspondent forTheIndependent, called the nomination a ‘posthumous blow,’ reminding us how the late Australian author ‘loathed literary accolades,’ and therefore had even in death ‘been subjected to the thing he hated most: the prospect of winning the Booker Prize.’

Though The Vivisector didn’t end up taking the title, just the thought that White could have won it still brings a bit of a grin to my face; after all, this is the same man who despised the idea of literature awards so much that he removed his own candidacy from the Booker shortlist in 1979 and sent a friend to accept his Nobel Literature Prize in 1973 on his behalf. As for the latter, White was the first-ever Australian to receive the title, which according to the Nobel Committee was given to him for his ‘epic and psychological narrative art, which…introduced a new continent into literature.’

I wonder also what White would make of his 1973 work, The Eye of the Storm, being turned into a major motion picture.

The movie, currently being filmed in Australia and starring acclaimed actor Geoffery Rush and stage actress Judy Davis, was covered in the Sydney Morning Herald last week. The newspaper asserted that this, combined with the Lost Booker nomination, signals a Patrick White ‘revival,’ that will continue to heighten as we approach White’s 100 birthday in 2012.

When I asked Simon During, author of many books including Exit Capitalism: Literary Culture, Theory and Post-Secular Modernity, what makes White’s work still so appealing to many, he pointed out that while the author is often categorized a ‘spiritual writer,’ there’s a universal element to his stories as well, and that’s what makes him attractive to a wide range of international readers:

‘I think White's appeal is because he is in the end a spiritual writer, interested in questions of how human beings relate to the meaning of life. This is a universal question. He does not belong to any particular religion, which also helps his work to be enjoyed by many.’

During noted that while his personal favourite of White’s books is The Solid Mandala, he’d recommend Riders of the Chariot for readers new to his work.