Writing about books that were important to him, Patrick White once said that one seems to "go on living in them for ever, possibly because they give glimpses of a heartbreaking perfection one will never achieve". Such was the case when, as a young aspiring novelist, I first read 'Voss' 50 years ago and watched its pages open like a vast geological fissure in the domesticated landscape of English fiction. Not that the book is perfect – its scale is too grand for that – and its terrain is Australian not English. But just as that continent's early explorers found its native species so strange they hardly knew how to see them, so White'saccount of a venture to the deep interior of both land and soul speaks to dimensions of experience so rarely examined that he felt hardly anybody would "understand what I am on about".
He needn't have worried - a Nobel Prize was waiting to honour a life lived,often bitterly,in exile from the common dream. But the rewards for his readers are also large. White has an exhilarating way with narrative and language. Some of his sentences are brisk as darts; others take off to soar and glide before landing at unanticipated destinations. The characters and events of this historical, psychological and, yes, metaphysical drama are orchestrated with compelling skill as we follow Voss and his motley party out of the complacent world of colonial New South Wales into the aboriginal desert. Neither explorers nor readers are prepared for what will happen there.
Yet 'Voss' is also a love-story dramatising the strange bond between two difficult, complex individuals, both ill at ease with the world. Laura Trevelyan, the highly intelligent, orphaned spinster.only recently consigned to live in Australia, and the intense, ungainly German, Voss, commissioned by her draper uncle to cross the country's outback, spend little time together. But their meeting is so powerful that, even as the expedition into the desert takes them further apart, they come to occupy each other's consciousness with telepathic intimacy.
The fuss and gossip of relationships in the social world are also shrewdly observed,and White's sympathies are flexible and compassionate enough to conjure farmers, poets, convicts, inarticulate serving-girls and indigenous tribesmen into full, breathing life. But this novel's strengths are more than naturalistic. The reach of White's vision is truly mythological, for as with Blake, Lawrence, Conrad and Cowper Powys, his imaginationcasts an apocalyptic blaze of light on the elemental ground of our being. As alert to "the cold flood of stars" above as to the hot boil of magma that underpins all our lives, it does so with an unflinching gaze.
White's death in 1990 caught the presenters of Radio 4's 'Kaleidoscope' on the hop. Neither knew much about his work which had fallen into neglect. It's time that was corrected, and as one of the great masterworks of 20th-century prose, 'Voss' offers an exciting place to start.
Lindsay Clarke's new novel is 'The Water Theatre' (Alma)