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Cornflower book group

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Mr Cornflower

The early part of Voss I found occasionally exasperating; there are just so many false notes especially when describing the acts and thoughts of the two main characters. "He was glittering coldly" (try registering that, all you method actors out there). Did White perhaps feel, writing in Australia in the mid 1950s, a desire to disrupt and challenge a prevailing anti-intellectual culture by being consciously analytical and introspective? But the book picks up remarkably once they are in the outback and I found this part by far the more rewarding and I am glad to have read it.

Angela Young

I'm not sure I would have finished Voss if I hadn't wanted to say something coherent about it today ... it was, at times, heavy going, but I'm glad I persevered because it seems to me, this morning, that the book is chiefly concerned with the importance of the way human beings connect (or don't) below the level of conscious thought, and through dreams. For instance, on page 182 of my Vintage Classics copy, 'For almost all, the situation had begun to assume the terrible relevant irrelevance of some dreams. They stood rooted in the urgent need to find the compass.'

And I did love the way Patrick White trusts his readers to understand (or to intuit) his meaning through metaphor and without explanation. For instance, when Laura says that she would choose pear blossom for Belle's wedding bouquet and Belle objects saying that the black sticks will be unmanageable and look ugly, Laura thinks: 'Her cousin ... was the more poignant in that her pure poetry could transcend her rather dull doubts. The blossom was already breaking from her fingertips, and from the branches of her arms.'

This is a book that will live on in my dreams, and I wondered if White was deliberately echoing the Aboriginal cultural history of Dreamtime in the way he wrote the book (where they experience the past, present, and future at the same time and across great distances, British Council website, The Dreamtime page) and whether his intention was to show that the white man would never be able to live in an inhospitable environment if he expected to find an external paradise, as against the Aborigines who intuit an internal paradise and through that intuition are inspired about where to find what they need to survive externally?

And I absolutely loved Dugald's explanation of the white man's need for paper and words, and why he tears Voss's letter up and throws it away on page 220: 'These papers contained the thoughts of which the whites wished to be rid, [he explained] 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.

I am very glad this book was the Book Groups' choice. I would never have read it if it hadn't been.

Peter the flautist

"Needs a good editor" were my thoughts after having read about half of this book. For me it was about the journeys, both physical and mental of the Voss and Laura. The episode in the outback was the highlight of the book and the writing. I'm not familiar with Hardy at all, but some of the writing was leaden and some of the metaphors clumsy. I noted this one "It was not the volcanic silence of solitary travel through infinity" in Chapter 6 in particular.
I felt the overwhelming weakness was the emotional connection between Voss and Laura which seemed just implausible. I was also so dissapointed by the "action-at-a-distance" link between Voss's death and Laura's recovery from fever. This struck me as very cliched and I didn't expect that from this book.

As usual I declare myself very satisfied to have been introduced to a new writer, but I do not think that on the basis of this book I will be pulling the other novels by Patrick White from the shelves. However I strongly feel that breaking new ground is (for me at any rate) the whole point of this Book Group and providing I can get my paws on them I'll read every book that comes up for discussion.

Dark Puss

Barbara MacLeod

I first read this book 25 years ago and was quite blown away by it. Coming back to it I was disappointed to find it a rather ponderous read. I guess it is a book of its age.

I struggled with the dream-connection of Voss and Laura. Yes, as Angela states, I also think "White was deliberately echoing the Aboriginal cultural history of Dreamtime in the way he wrote the book" .

A topic that always fascinates and puzzles me was addressed in this story: that of our need, in society, to put people up on pedestals, our need for heroes. Scott of the Antarctic comes to mind.

[page 109 Vintage Classics] "What kind of man is he? wondered the public, who would never know. If he was already more of a statue than a man, they really did not care, for he would satisfy their longing to perch something on a column, in a square or gardens, as a memorial to their own achievement." If heroes are transcendent and mythic, the story of Voss certainly was written to convey that. But did Voss combine greatness with goodness? Well, if suffering, of himself and his party, is a mark of goodness, then perhaps 'yes'.

I felt that the point made in the following quote also applied to the Patrick White's hero: " The reason [Bellow's] and Dostoevsky's heroes are incapable of ever arriving at any closure is that they love their own suffering above everything else. They refuse to exchange their inner torment for the peace of mind that comes with bourgeois propriety or some kind of religious belief. In fact, they see their suffering as perhaps the last outpost of the heroic in our day and age." (Charles Simic in New York Review of Books, May 31, 2001)

Lindsay

Well, not quite sure where to start! I thought Voss was very fine indeed; not a work of genius, but very very good indeed. It only fails because, like its hero, it takes on the very highest peaks. It was hard work, and very intense, and I'm disappointed (though not just becasue I suggested it!) that so few people were prepared to make the effort. I am glad that some colleagues got something out of it, but I think it's really interesting that reactions are so different even in this small sample to a book which is so challenging - I think this is perhaps because it is so difficult that none of us has been capable of internalising White's vision.

It's difficult firstly because the central theme - the spritual union of Voss and Laura is so fleetingly described. What is it? Is it action at a distance as Dark Puss suggests (spot the physicist), or a mere remembering of each person by the other and the inspiration of those memories? Well I think it's something different from either, I think it's real but magical, in the sense of the magic realism of the Latin American authors of the last decades of the C20th. She IS there in the desert with him. And she gets better when he dies - not as a cliche - but because it would make no sense for anything else to happen: all her strength has been supporting him, and when he dies, the burden is removed and she can sustain herself again.

It's long, and occasionally exasperating, but I don't see Victorianism or Hardy in it at all: more Grass or Coetzee. The language is intense, powerful, enigmatic, and it's a struggle. But when it works, its a revelation, a flash of dark intensity.

But what none of the commentators so far have tackled is, what is Voss about? Why is his story of interest? And the answer surely, is that his is an attempt to live by the will, and without other people. And it fails, as it always must, but it fails in heroic, tragic, circumstances. Man is not enough, however strong, and this is full of interest becasue none of us are strong enough for the challenges we face, and, in the end, we will all fail (if in no other way, that we will die with aspirations unmet). Voss is clearly (anachronistically) written with Also Sprach Zarathrutra in mind: and it poses no answers (because there are none)to the terrible question, of How do we live, when Man is not enough and God is dead? That is why it is worth the struggle to read Voss, and to think of him every day of your life.

Barbara MacLeod

Yes, failure features very strongly in this book: Voss "his spurs accused him of his own failures." "He remembered, with some feeling, the telescope that Judd himself had rigged up, and found unequal to its purpose of exploring the stars. Associated with such thoughts, of human failure and deceit, the German's shoulders narrowed as he flumped across the dusty yard." Frank Le Mesurier kept a journal where "his failures took shape...". Palfreyman tries to take on the suffering of his sister and return her love in the measure that she needs "but so far, I have failed." At the conclusion of the story Laura says, in response to her Aunt Emmy "I know that my will wavered, for which I hope I may be forgiven....He [Voss] will forgive me for, at that distance, I believe, failures are accepted in the light of intentions."

I remember thinking when I first read the book years ago that it was very much about failure - this expedition is a disaster waiting to happen, sort of thing. However, on this second reading, I am rather with Laura - it all depends on how you look at things.

Harriet

I read this a couple of months ago and absolutely loved it. I thought I'd be able to say why when this Cornflower discussion started, but now I can't really marshal enough coherent thoughts to explain myself. I agree with Angela's reading of the novel, though -- I found the dreamlike, psychic connection between Voss and Laura entirely gripping, and overall also the power of much of the writing -- Cornflower has found some duff passages but she also quotes some fine examples. I felt it absolutely conveyed the time and the place, the strangeness, the impossibility of communication between races (and indeed between human beings in general), the harshness of Voss's character and the deep emotions that were hidden beneath. All the men on the expedition, their interactions. Laura's family, their shallowness, her difference from them, her ability to love them in spite of it. Certainly like Lindsay I think this is nearly a great novel.

Roobeedoo

Having just emerged from another, more recent, outback novel (His Illegal Self by Peter Carey)I couldn't face this. I had a real addiction to Patrick White as an undergraduate and actually wrote my postgrad thesis on "Riders in the Chariot". But I haven't read Voss. Reading all your comments, I am intrigued. But I am not sure I have the energy right now. What is it about the Australian outback that inspires writers to invoke / evoke a trance in their readers - is it about Dreamtime, as Angela suggested? Sometimes it is enough to let the language wash over you, but I never feel able to do this with Patrick White, he seems to require a more considered reading. Has anyone else read Oyster by Janette Turner Hospital? Another one to throw into the mix!

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