📚 Voss (Patrick White)

Read Voss

Voss (1957) is the fifth published novel by Patrick White. It is based upon the life of the 19th-century Prussian explorer and naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt, who disappeared while on an expedition into the Australian outback.

Continuing my listening of the audiobooks provided through the ABC Listen app, I stumbled upon Patrick White’s Voss. I remember reading Voss at university, however I had seemingly forgotten many of the details. I was also intrigued how it might fair having also dived back into texts, such as Mrs Dalloway and The Trial.

What I had forgotten about White’s writing was the richness of the prose. I often listen to audiobooks while doing odd jobs around the house, but there was something about Voss (or White) that simply did not allow this. Instead, it became my train time, where I would turn it on and drift through the other worldliness of the text, often disappointed that I had arrived in the city or home already. Maybe it is White’s use of metaphors that really made me stop? As Lisa Hill suggests:

It’s not prose that flows, but rather that draws attention to itself with striking metaphor.

Or as Nicholas Shakespeare suggests, it was the way that White ‘gets below the surface’.

What White called ‘my peculiar style’ – ‘the fragmentation by which I convey reality’ – allowed him to get below the surface and weave about freely, in order ‘to create completely fresh forms out of the rocks and sticks of words’ – and to mould these words to achieve that ‘state of simplicity and humility’ which was, White believed, ‘the only desirable one for artist or for man.’

As with Laxness, to read Patrick White is to discover an extra taste bud. As with Faulkner, he plunges us into a dense, peaty world comparable to no other. But White has the ability, for the reader who stays with him, to penetrate one step further into their interior.

Or maybe his refusal for the mundane.

If White is a difficult writer at all I think the difficulty lies with his refusal of the banal, the mundane and profane.

Loosely based on the Prussian-born explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, the novel is part historical fiction, part internal journey, part romance, part exploration of space.

In Peter Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die it is described as “both a love story and an adventure story, yet it is neither […] but the most striking feature of this novel is its discordance, its unnavigable strangeness”.

For me it is a novel that lingers long afterwards. As Kim Forrester has suggested, ‘his prose glitters with jewels’.

his prose glitters with jewels waiting to be unearthed and the descriptions of the landscape and the expedition’s deeds are gloriously astute and evocative.



It is the thought of death that frightens me. Not its bones. -Page 90

Mrs. Bonner, having control, was almost happy. Only, thought and music eluded her. -Page 92

Walking in this darkness is full of dangers. “”It is not really dark. When you are accustomed to it.”” -Page 95

Atheists are atheists usually for mean reasons, Voss was saying. “”The meanest of these is that they themselves are so lacking in magnificence they cannot conceive the idea of a Divine Power.”” -Page 97

For some reason of intellectual vanity, you decided to do away with God, Voss was saying; she knew he would be smiling. “”But the consequences are yours alone. I assure you.”” -Page 98

Then he was touching her, his hand was upon her shoulder-blades, and they realized they had returned into their bodies. -Page 99

No one would be crucified on any such amiable trees as those pressed along the northern shore. -Page 102

He realized that he did not wish to recall this scene, or that, until now, he had chosen to take refuge, as the sailor had, in a second possibility. Voss, he began to know, is the ugly rock upon which truth must batter itself to survive. If I am to justify myself, he said, I must condemn the morality and love the man. -Page 107

The past is illusion, or miasma. -Page 109

As he withdrew through the already considerable crowd, he received the impression of a drowning that he was unable to avert, in a dream through which he was sucked inevitably back. -Page 119

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. They did, moreover, prefer to cast him in bronze than to investigate his soul, because all dark things made them uneasy, and even on a morning of historic adventure, in bright, primary colours, the shadow was sewn to the ends of his trousers, where the heels of his boots had frayed them. -Page 120

Tom, she was saying, men fall in love, over and over again, but it is always with themselves. -Page 131

Places yet unvisited can become an obsession, promising final peace, all goodness. So the fallible man in Voss was yearning after Rhine Towers, investing it with those graces which one hopes to find at the heart of every mirage, entering its mythical buildings, kindling a great fire in the expectant hearth. Its name glittered for him, as he rode repeating it to himself. -Page 138

I am glad that my knowledge of astronomy is very poor. “”Why so?”” asked Voss. “”To understand the stars would spoil their appearance.”” -Page 150

The horse had faith that paths do lead somewhere, and did follow, but the country itself was legendary. Birds plunged songless through the leaves in heavy flight. Dark birds, mostly. It was strange that such soft things could explode the silence, but they did, most vehemently, by their mere passage through it. -Page 158

In the foreground some dead trees, restored to life by the absence of hate, were glowing with flesh of rosy light. All life was dependent on the thin lips of light, compressed, yet breathing at the rim of the world. -Page 196

Harry himself had become leaner, for the distance had thinned him out. Yet, paradoxically, his once empty face was filled with those distances. They possessed, but they eluded him; he was still, and perhaps would remain always, lost. -Page 198

Written words take some time to thaw, but the words of lilies were now flowing in full summer water, -Page 206

Voss thought how he would talk eventually with Laura Trevelyan, how they had never spoken together using the truly humble words that convey the innermost reality: bread, for instance, or water. Obsessed by the struggle between their two souls, they had threatened each other with the flashing weapons of abstract reasoning, while overlooking the common need for sustenance -Page 208

Human relationships are vast as deserts: they demand all daring, she seemed to suggest. -Page 211

Words were not the servants of life, but life, rather, was the slave of words. So the black print of other people’s books became a swarm of victorious ants that carried off a man’s self-respect. So he wandered through the bush on that morning, and was only soothed at last by leaves and silence. -Page 223

So my wife speaks, he added, from a distance. “”Then you have a wife?”” asked Palfreyman, looking up. “”No, no!”” protested Voss, with apparent amusement. “”If she would exist!”” He laughed. “”Such are the pitfalls of grammar. I acquire a wife by simple misuse of a tense.”” -Page 286

I forgot to say she has had all the mirrors removed from the house, for her reflection is a double that she has grown to hate. Of course, there are all those other objects in glass, which I have mentioned, but they, she says, distort in any case.”” -Page 290

Men and beasts were grown very thin as they butted with their heads against the solid rain. Some of the men were hating one another worse than ever. Animals hate less, of course, because they have never expected more. But men grow green with hatred. -Page 294

her brother remembered, and that he had those seeds in his pack, in an old japanned spectacle-case. -Page 317

Once during the night she came to him, and held his head in her hands, but he would not look at her, although he was calling: Laura, Laura. So a mother holds against her breast the head of a child that has been dreaming, but fails to take the dream to herself; this must remain with the child, and will recur forever. So Laura remained powerless in the man’s dream -Page 328

Laura dear, men are what women make them. -Page 335

Miss Wilson did not intend to waste much time on Dr. Badgery, who was neither young, nor handsome, of moderate means, she suspected, and not quite a gentleman. If she did not also recognize sympathy, it was because she was not yet desperate enough. -Page 351

This devilish country, flat at first, soon broke up into winding gullies, not particularly deep, but steep enough to wrench the backs of the animals that had to cross them, and to wear the bodies and nerves of the men by the frantic motion that it involved. There was no avoiding chaos by detour. The gullies had to be crossed, and on the far side there was always another tortuous gully. It was as if the whole landscape had been thrown up into great earthworks defending the distance. -Page 369

All remembered the face of Christ that they had seen at some point in their lives, either in churches or in visions, before retreating from what they had not understood, the paradox of man in Christ, and Christ in man. All were obsessed by what could be the last scene for some of them. They could not advance farther. -Page 375

Then they were drifting together. They were sharing the same hell, in their common flesh, which he had attempted so often to repudiate. She was fitting him with a sheath of tender white. “”Do you see now?”” she asked. “”Man is God decapitated. That is why you are bleeding.”” -Page 399

The boy stood for a moment beneath the morning star. The whole air was trembling on his skin. As for the head-thing, it knocked against a few stones, and lay like any melon. How much was left of the man it no longer represented? His dreams fled into the air, his blood ran out upon the dry earth, which drank it up immediately. Whether dreams breed, or the earth responds to a pint of blood, the instant of death does not tell. -Page 431

Mr. Voss is already history. “”But history is not acceptable until it is sifted for the truth. Sometimes this can never be reached.”” She was hanging her head. She was horribly twisted. “”No, never,”” she agreed. “”It is all lies. While there are men, there will always be lies. I do not know the truth about myself, unless I sometimes dream it.”” -Page 450

Knowledge was never a matter of geography. Quite the reverse, it overflows all maps that exist. Perhaps true knowledge only comes of death by torture in the country of the mind.”” -Page 487

Voss did not die, Miss Trevelyan replied. “”He is there still, it is said, in the country, and always will be. His legend will be written down, eventually, by those who have been troubled by it.”” -Page 489

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