“She could not explain that a moment comes when you yourself must produce some tangible evidence of the mystery of life”
– from The Tree of Man
The above quotation almost made its way into the flyleaf of TWB and comes from Australia’s one Nobel literature prize winner, Patrick White who was born 100 years ago this year. (J.M. Coetzee, an Australian citizen, won the award in 2003 but much of his writing and sensibility are defined by his native South Africa).
In my opinion, if you want to read the best portray of the fragmented, multi-layer vastness that is the Australian landscape, Patrick White is the man for you. He knew the land too – he had spent time as a jackaroo (an Australian Cowboy) in New South Wales as a young man where he wrote his (ultimately aborted) first novel.
However, John Grisham he ain’t. He’s defined as a Modernist, a tag synonymous with “difficult”. “The Tree of Man” for example, which portrays domestic life in the bush over several generations, is a challenging read. (If you want a good read about early bush life you might go for Henry Lawson’s Drover stories.) Slated in Australia, “The Tree of Man” received high praise overseas and helped tip the Nobel Prize in his favour almost two decades later.
For a real sense of the blinding light, the variegated terrains and the sheer immensities of Australia read “Voss” or a “Fringe of Leaves” – both based on real colonial figures.
“Voss” recounts the experiences of Ludwig Leichhardt (after whom the Italian suburb in Sydney is named), the Prussian explorer whose party was lost without trace in the Outback somewhere in the Great Sandy Desert in the 1840s.
“A Fringe of Leaves” is based on events in the 1830s involving a shipwreak, an Aborigine kidnapping and a dramatic rescue aided by an escaped convict. The story gave its name to the world’s largest sand island just off Queensland. (See, respectively, the chapters on Kakadu and Fraser Island in TWB for more)
Incidentally, if you’re walking along from Sydney’s Circular Quay to the Rocks anytime soon, check out White’s from among literary plaques on the pavement including the quotation from Voss.
In his autobiography, “Flaws in the Glass” White said that “Australia will acquire a national identity until enough individual Australians acquire identities of their own”. A century since his birth, and in no small thanks to the influence of his writings on fellow Australians, I think it can clearly say that it the continent finally has.