Sunday, April 23, 2017
Voss by Patrick White
What a book. I can't say Voss was the most moving or powerful book I've read this year (that would probably be the sadly-unreviewed Invisible Man), and I can't say it was an easy read. But what I can say is that it is like nothing I've ever read. The back cover blurb makes it sound like a western set in 1800s Australia, and a longer summary would read like a "love in spite of obstacles" story in the vein of Castaway, but in reality, Voss--named after the protagonist, a fiercely internal and independent man who leads an expedition to fill in the massive blank spot that is the outback--often barely reads like a novel at all, as White chooses words and images that evoke while often barely making logical sense, as he elides over the most desperate and disturbing happenings on Voss' excursion in favor of long passages of obscure poetry and often leaves the expedition entirely to focus on Laura Trevelyan, Voss' once-met love--but I digress.
So the plot is this--Johann Wilhelm Voss is patronized by Laura's uncle to lead the aforementioned expedition to the Outback, at the time a complete mystery. While at the kick-off party for the expedition, Voss meets Laura, an intelligent girl who has recently decided she doesn't believe in God and doesn't understand her family. After one incidental and fairly confrontational conversation about those two topics, Voss and Laura gradually realize that they are connected--in love--even as Voss and his party move further from civilization and toward almost-certain death.
The love story is an interesting construction. Not only do Laura and Voss have only one conversation, but 1/3 of the way through the book they communicate in words for the last time, as their letters start meeting ignominious fates before reaching their targets, but as Voss draws nearer to his ultimate destiny and Laura grows sick in tandem, they begin sharing psychic experiences--awfully disorienting to begin with, since White just starts talking about them as if they're together and never explains--but that's the way Voss is. Even after spending hours with the text, it's easy to slip out of concentration and miss something really important, like a death, a healing, or even a decapitation. Like Cormac McCarthy, White has little interest in the shocking for its own sake--a particularly grisly death is given less time on the page than Laura's shorn head, post-sickness haircut--and more interest in the crushing cruelty of the unloving land.
So there's so much material to unpack here, I can't even begin to do it justice, but I wanted to include a couple more samples of White's writing. As good as the book is narratively, his prose is the biggest draw. At times reminding me of McCarthy, Austen(!) and Dostoevsky, White nevertheless has a singular style that doesn't easily fit into any boxes I own. Here's Laura at a funeral:
But Laura was calm rather than cold, as, all around her, the mourners surrendered up their faces to the fear of anonymity, and above, the clouds were loading lead to aim at men. After the first shock of discovery, it had been exhilarating to know that terrestrial safety was not assured, and they solid earth does eventually swirl beneath the feet. Then, when the wind had cut the last shred of flesh from the girl's bones, and was whistling in the little cage that remained, she began even to experience a shrill happiness, to sing the wounds her flesh would never suffer. Yet, such was their weakness, her bones continued to crave earthly love, to hold his skull against the hollow where her heart had been. It appeared that pure happiness must await the final crumbling, when love would enter into love, becoming an endlessness, blowing at last, indivisible, indistinguishable, over the brown earth.
And here's Voss, facing his fear of death:
He himself, he realized, had always been most abominably frightened, even at the height of his divine power, a frail god upon a rickety throne, afraid of opening letters, of making decisions, afraid of the instinctive knowledge of in the eyes of mules, of the innocent eyes of good men, of the elastic nature of the passions, even of the devotion he had received from some men, and one woman, and dogs.
Afraid of the devotion he had received from men, a woman, and dogs. That's a whole character--maybe a whole novel!--right there in one line. Great stuff.