Voss by Patrick White

Voss by Patrick White, the first Australian Nobel Prize winner in Literature, is a novel published in the year 1957. It was his fifth published novel and is possibly known by many to be his best work. The novel is based on the life of the Prussian naturalist and explorer named Ludwig Leichhardt, who went for an expedition with a few people to accompany him. They never returned, and no trace of their dissolution has been revealed or discovered, even faintly. There have been investigations concerning the disappearance of the explorer and his party, but nothing has been stated in terms of empirical data. He was most famous for his exploration of Northern and Central Australia.

Voss, the protagonist, although it is difficult to name one central character in this epic novel, is based on the personage of Ludwig Leichhardt. It begins with a strange meeting between Voss and Laura Trevelyan. Mr Bonner, Laura’s uncle, is sponsoring the expedition and arranging goods and human beings for the formation of a party to accompany Voss to the expedition. The first part of the novel shimmers in the beautiful setting of the hometown of Laura Trevelyan, where families live a life of multiple happenings and visitations, friendly and convivial, in the span of a day. Voss and Laura, slowly begin to understand each other and feel for each other deeply. On a garden meeting, isolated from the humdrum and the loud noise of the celebration, they reveal their intimacy to themselves and find refuge and attraction in their weirdness and deep social awkwardness.

Then follows a scene where the whole town prepares, in small and big ways, to set the expedition party off for their long struggle and deathly endeavour. It is an immaculately written scene which captures time and space slowly, spilling over sixty pages creating the atmosphere of the war moments in Greek myths. The party sets off for the dream of their life, into the inferno of the country, gathering additional people and goods for their survival. The strangeness, which came out in little webs of glimpses in the first part, drenches the whole novel into metaphysics: the telepathic thoughts between Laura Trevelyan and Voss; the nature of commingling between the sky and the ground, the leaves and the sun, the raindrops and the mud, the animals and the human beings, Christ and Devil.

Major characters in the book are Voss, Mr Palfreyman, Judd, Ralph Angus, Jackie, Dugald, Turner, Mr Sanderson, Mr and Mrs Bonner, Belle Bonner, Laura Trevelyan. Contrary to the eponymous title, the novel is enhanced by the force of its supporting characters and narratives. Every character has a presence in the novel, even if they occupy a shorter space in temporality. Patrick White is a writer who has the practicality to describe the most vivid physical descriptions of tangible objects, yet he also is a man of imagination, and that is the sole reason why this novel achieves the rough warmth of steep rocks and the blue haze of the sky. He deploys language to fit his thought and powerful reflection and proves to be a prose master in the English language. He does something oddly visceral with his language, his words melt and solidify, move and stop; until they slowly slip, descend and transcend the boundaries of logic into the sensuousness of human sense, the divine and the nebulous. Words, although impenetrable and enigmatic, inject hypnotism and a heightened sense of reality in the conscious mind of the reader, whilst touching and awakening the subconscious.

A great masterpiece should be universal, and universality, in one way, springs from the infinite. Voss occupies the space of infinity through its joyful and rewarding albeit difficult prose style. Unlike most dense and challenging writing, the sentences in this novel seem to know where they are heading, in what direction they are aiming to go. It never seems ridiculous to toil through the hard crust of the rocky words in order to reveal the softness beneath them. When I say Voss is work of infinite dimensions, I mean to say that the book will prove to be different to every reader because his language springs up a rich collection of emotions and images, which will differ in the mind of every reader.

Due to the ignorance of the contemporary readers, even the most ardent bibliophiles, novels of many great writers have been largely ignored. In the same literary canvas where wonderful writers like Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Vikram Seth, Julian Barnes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez have flourished and soared high in popular admiration and profits; the same literary canvas holds the most brilliant novelists of our time such as Penelope Fitzgerald, John McGahern, VS Naipaul, J.M. Coetzee who have a dedicated yet small set of followers. Patrick White certainly belongs to the latter class of writers, he is a man who has given birth to almost a new renaissance of writing and new literary genre, yet his name is fading away from the minds of contemporary readers.

It is a sad fact that the writers who are ignored by the new readers of our time deserve greater acclaim than the ones who have already received it. I am hesitant to signify or assign a specific renaissance or genre to Voss, because it is a roughly realist novel which veers towards the transcendental, the surreal and a hint of magical realism.

I might agree that some of the colonial adventures shown in the book might seem old-fashioned to the new readers, but I would say almost every sentence of this book is calculated and purposeful. Seldom there have been writers who have such a balanced command over liminal spaces in our psychological and physical horizons of nature. The novel rides astride on two boundaries enriching the story with movement. The words move like sharp darts across the fertile landscape to the bleakest thoughts of its memorable characters until they merge to create a mind-bending portrait of new realism. Voss is difficult and formidable, yet it also proves to be one of the greatest novels of our time. Patrick White is a great writer and, in my view, should be recognised alongside the great names of literature such as Leo Tolstoy, George Eliot, and Jane Austen. If Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and George Eliot had written a novel together, Voss would be the result of that endeavour.


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