"Voss? No. He never was God, though he liked to think he was. Sometimes, when he forgot, he was a man."
Originally published in 1957, Patrick White's "Voss" is something of an overlooked classic. Set in 19th century Australia, it's the story of the title character, an imposing German explorer and an innocent young woman named Laura. Voss sets off on an expedition, while Laura waits patiently in Sydney. It's both an unlikely love story and an intense story of adventure and survival. White has a particular, idiosyncratic writing style, which can be both primal and poetic. White won the Nobel Prize in 1973. Introduced by fellow Australian writer Thomas Keneally ("Schindler's List").
White was certainly a brilliantly skillful writer, to have induced me to willingly subject myself to his self-indulgence and continue reading to the end. It is at times hard going but well worth the struggle.
Despite having been written in mid 20th century, the style harkens back to 19th century drawing room pretentiousness. The games of verbal badminton, obscure oblique repartee -- especially that between Voss and Laura -- would be intolerable were it not that White's prose is otherwise so compelling. It's not possible to believe that even in the 19th century people ever spoke in such terms. So one must accept that aspect of the book as pure fantasy and either go along with it, like a passenger on a midway ride for the sheer pointless thrill of it; or else throw the book against a wall. I've chosen the former.
So what shall we make of Voss, the man? Is he just a poseur, serenely ensconced in his own vanity, mocking the lesser beings around him, but ultimately a man of no consequence? Or is all of that just a façade meant to hold the world aloof, leaving him undisturbed to pursue his grand adventure? Certainly, men who dare greatly carry giant egos and an ego needs to be fed, one way or another. Undoubtedly he will achieve much, if only by sheer force of will -- or die noisily in the attempt. In the end, his true worth may be shown not by what he achieves but by what sort of man he becomes at the end of it all, either by valiantly perishing or by emerging as a whole human being, no longer a slave to his own ego. Voss the iconoclast rejects humility: to become humble is to forsake one's status as having been created in the image of God. That places him in a total win-or-lose struggle: prevail or be destroyed. (I will not reveal here how or if Voss resolves that dilemma; others will have to read the book to find out)
And what can become of Laura -- in he own way an iconoclast too. White's 19th century romantic notion of the remote, unattainable love, a spiritual bond that manages to transcend vast differences in personality as well as physical separation may be a little too much for most 21st century readers to accept. But, as with White's hundred year old writing style, either you go along with it or walk away from the book altogether.
White himself is every bit as uncompromising as his two protagonists.
This epic about a man's journey into the uncharted Australian desert and into his own heart and mind is rich classic. Brilliant, mystical and peerless writing.
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