Thursday, February 26, 2009

Voss by Patrick White

Judd looked up, out of the distance.

"Voss? No. He was never God, though he liked to think that he was. Sometimes, when he forgot, he was a man."

In the mid-19th Century a German named Johann Ulrich Voss sets out to cross the entirety of Australia, at that time even more sparsely populated than it is now, filling in the map that lay blank between the coastal fringes. Voss is brilliant and peculiar; as his beloved, Laura Trevelyan says, Australia is his by "right of vision." But the same force that drives him into Australia blinds him to the reality of his own nature, and he arrogantly leads his troop into their oblivion.

Laura is the niece of Voss' chief investor, and when they meet, they are instantly revulsed by each other, and it isn't until Voss has already set out that he realizes those characteristics that repelled them from each other--their intelligence, emotional coldness, and headstrongness--are the things which they have in common, and immediately writes a letter of proposal. Though they are never truly married, Voss and Laura form a kind of psychic bond: while he wastes away traveling further into the desert, she too, takes mysteriously ill.

Voss was written in 1957, but it could have been written in the time period when it is set. White's prose has a Jamesian richness to it that is betrayed only a strangely abstract sense of description. The book it reminds me most of is Heart of Darkness, another book about traveling into the unknown and frightening heart of a country. As Voss' party ventures futher into the interior, they begin to literally fall apart. The aboriginal guides they take with them ultimately, in a particularly Conrad-like way, revert to tribality. At one point Voss sends back with one aborigine man named Dugald a letter asking Laura's uncle for her hand in marriage, with some notes from the expedition. Dugald, however, discovers another tribe in the bush and begins to feel pulled back toward his ancestral way of life:

With great dignity and some sadness, Dugald broke the remaining seals, and shook out the papers until the black writing was exposed. There were some who were disappointed to see but the pictures of fern roots. A warrior hit the paper with his spear. People were growing impatient and annoyed, as they waited for the old man to tell.

These papers contained the thoughts of which the whites wished to be rid, explained the traveller, by inspiration: the sad thoughts, the bad, the thoughts that were too heavy, or in any way hurtful. These came out through the white man's writing-stick, down upon paper, and were sent away.

Away, away, the crowd began to menace and call.

The old man folded the papers. With the solemnity of one who has interrupted a mystery, he tore them into little pieces.

How they fluttered.

The women were screaming, and escaping from the white man's bad thoughts.

Some of the men were laughing.

Only Dugald was sad and still, as the pieces of paper fluttered round him and settled on the grass, like a mob of cockatoos.

Then the men took their weapons, and the women their dillybags, and children, and they all trooped away to the north, where at that season of the year there was much wild life and a plentiful supply of yams. The old man went with them, of course, because they were his people, and they were going in that direction. They went walking through the good grass, and the present absorbed them utterly.

I love that passage, though I fear it's a little bit racist. How heartbreaking it is to know that Voss' proposal will never arrive.

Voss is, along with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one of the most pleasant surprises of the year for me. It seems to a bit hard to find in A bmerica, which is a shame because White was one of Australia's premier writers and a Nobel laureate as well. I recommend it, if you can get your hands on it.


Nihil Novum said...

I own The Solid Mandala by this guy. Maybe I'll read this year.

Brent Waggoner said...

I didn't.