Vos by Patrick White, book of a lifetime: A dazzling and illuminating novel

Thomas Keneally first read White's book as a young Australian and it told him that he could write, though never as well
Click to follow

This may be the greatest book even written in Australasia, and that includes DH Lawrence's Kangaroo. I first read it as a young Australian full of that rather large-scale cultural cringe that made Australians of my generation mad, bad, dangerous to drink with, and full of yearning.

And so I stumbled on Voss, a book written on the western edge of Sydney by a man some sneered at while others whispered was a genius. For a bewildered Antipodean c1960, this was not only a dazzling and illuminating novel but a revelation of cultural possibilities, too.

Voss is a German explorer (based on the Prussian explorer Ludwig Leichhardt) who feels drawn to penetrate the core of Australia, to imbue what is meaningless in European terms with European meaning. His expeditionary force is a fascinating combination of European scientific refinement, from German specialists to earnest young Britons to the crass colonial-born. Before departing, Voss is drawn into a potent relationship with the expeditionary sponsor's niece, Laura, and though the relationship is intensely perceived, it is not physical. Laura has a convict maid, the detritus of the British Isles, and she adopts her child with such ardour that the story is that the child is, in fact, Laura's and Voss's, and bares a name which gives us a clue that the child is an inheritor – its name is Portion.

Meanwhile Voss suffers all the appropriate stations of the Cross explorers in Africa and Australia in particular had perforce to endure. White's view of Australia in Voss is the one he seemed to carry through life: a place that only a true seer like Voss could perceive a-right; a place of European alienation which Christ's blood might not have redeemed; a place where lonely knowers of things pierced the conundrums but became lonely the more mysteries they solved; and – in contradistinction to the British backpackers presently disporting themselves on my hometown beach at Manly, New South Wales – a place dangerous to European bodies and souls.

I owe him the message that told me I could write too, though never as well. He never liked me, the miserable old sod: I was crass and loud and Irish-Australian. But I acclaim him (indeed I wrote the introduction to the Penguin Classic edition, which he would have hated). So sleep well, dear Patrick. You showed us how it's done: the sacrament of the novel.

Thomas Keneally's latest novel, 'Shame and the Captives', is out

Comments