The incomparable Mr White

When his masterpiece 'Riders in the Chariot' was published, the Australian Nobel prize winner, Patrick White, received a telephone call. A man, with a thick East European accent, asked him whether he wanted to go further. Startled White declined and put down the receiver. Later he recalled the voice as that belonging to the relation of a friend and regretted his decision.

The invitation was to study and penetrate the Kabbalah  - the mystical stream in Judaism - a profound intuitive grasp of which pervades 'Riders...'

This afternoon I found myself in a familiar quandary, namely what to read next, having finished John Shirley's excellent account of the life and teaching of Gurdjieff.  Pondering the bookcase of my personal 'canon' (in my bedroom), I considered whether I had the energy for a White.

He is after all a writer who, with conscious deliberation, creates sentences that require you to read slowly, ruminatively. Originally he wanted to be a painter, and, in fact, became a distinguished patron of art, and his words are continuously creating pictures. You have to create a tactile, seen, smelt, heard world as his narratives unfold in a way that is demanding and haunting.

A deep breath, and I decided on 'The Tree of Man' and within three pages was completely hooked.

A man, who we discover is Stan Parker, has set about clearing land in the outback as (we surmise) a future home. He is alone, except for discretely acknowledged dog, his memories and the world. In a short space, White paints a vivid and compelling picture of Stan's contrasting and conflicted parents, each harbouring a different 'God' moulded out of need and their fancy - the one fiery of his blacksmith father, the other gentleness personified of his frightened genteel mother.

You are pitched not only into an arresting narrative - why is Stan here and from whence does he come - but are immediately pondering the nature of our projections - of divines fashioned out of conflicting human needs. We live in a polyvalent world and yet it is anchored in a clearing reality but not one susceptible, as White continually reiterates, to being captured in words. It must be suffered through into experience, seen not said.

To this day, I recall my first reading of 'Riders...' in my room at Commonwealth Hall (when studying at the University of London). I could barely set it aside - image after image speaking to me of both the complexities of being human and a simplifying touch of presence that strengthened you, by its presence, to endure and (hopefully, maybe) understand finally the mystery in which those complexities sit. An understanding that, to quote Wittgenstein, you would only ever be able to compassionately show not say.


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