Patrick White’s classic Australian novel Voss, published in 1957 is very loosely based upon the life of an iconic explorer Ludwig Leichhardt. Historical fiction, “inspired by”. For this work, White won the first Miles Franklin award (Best Australian novel), and was later a Nobel laureate (1973). Subsequent Franklin winners include three timer Peter Carey for Bliss (1981), Oscar and Lucinda (1989) and Jack Maggs (1998); and four-timer Tim Winton for Shallows (1984) and Cloudstreet (1992), Dirt Music (2002), and Breath (2009). The award was funded by the estate of the writer of My Brilliant Career, Miles Franklin. Nominee’s who have not won the award include Richard Flanagan, and J.M. Coetzee. Tough crowd.
I was looking for a sprawling tale of exploration and privation in the outback. I got something less than that, so my disappointment with the novel reflects my expectations. What you do get though, is a sharp critique of Australian society layed bare in all its vulgarity, and a novel that tweaks the issues of class, and race in a colonial society. A German explorer, Johann Ulrich Voss, sets out to explore the untamed wilds of Australia, after having been funded by a merchant with money to spend and a reputation to make. Bonner’s orphaned niece has been raised by Bonner and his wife. Laura Trevelyan is a woman perhaps ahead of her time: smart, independent minded and strong-willed. Women are bred to catch a man, like Laura’s cousin Belle. An example of the sort of advice that Laura receives from her Aunt:
If Laura had more colour, she would be a beauty, Aunt Emmy considered, and advised her niece always to drop her handkerchief before entering a room, so the blood would rush to her cheeks as she stooped to pick it up.
Laura forms a sort of amorphous relationship with Voss just before he sets out on his journey. In their limited correspondence, they begin to consider themselves husband and wife. They will never see each other again.
Voss is a megalomaniac of the first order, and with a God complex to boot. Yet he wrestles with faith and the will of God, concepts with which he has a running dialogue, that comes to include Laura. In fact, he is, temporarily at least, saved from annihilation by the aborigines, when a comet appears for three days. The natives believe the white man has caused the comet to appear.
Voss would sometimes feel embittered at what he had not experienced, even though he was proud not to have done so. How they merge themselves with the concept of their God, he considered almost with disgust. These were the feminine men.
His foil (later his rival) in the excursion into the desert is Judd, a free-man of little learning, but a man of worth, an ex-convict. There is a discussion about the celebration of Christmas in the outback. Many men take to their bibles, but Judd
…always hastened to remove himself from the presence of true initiates when they were at their books. All the scraps of knowledge with which he was filled, all those raw hunks of life that, for choice or by force, he had swallowed down, were reduced by the great mystery of words to the most shameful matter. Words were not the servants of life, but life, rather, was the slave of words. So the black print of other people’s books became a swarm of victorious ants that carried off a man’s self-respect.
White’s prose seems outdated to me today, of the 19th Century, yet imbued with some modern twists. Especially in the unreal relationship between Voss and Laura, who carry on their affair in their dreams which seem to wash into each other. Toward the end, this is even more pronounced. Stylistically, White has a way of putting a stamp on a scene just concluded that seems very up to date, as here, where a round of speechifying has just concluded at a reception:
Then a horse neighed, dropped its fragrant dung, and life was resumed.
White, who felt himself an outcast (he was gay) is quite good when he tackles the alienation of the aborigines. One of the most complex characters in the book is a young aborigine, Jackie, who acts as sort of a guide to Voss. The alienation of Jackie from his own people is particularly poignant, and probably reflected the alienation that Patrick White felt as an outsider in his own land. Consider this a specialty read.