The work of Patrick White, Australia's best known writer and only Nobel laureate in literature, has to date inspired more than twenty-five books and literally hundreds of articles, monographs, theses, and reviews. Like most of the recent entries in the field of White criticism, Laurence Steven's study moves beyond the encyclopedic, synoptic, and introductory treatments that seemed obligatory until the mid-seventies and rejects any claim of responsibility to the entire oeuvre. Instead, Steven focuses attention on five novels and a single theme: that of an inadequate—because schematic, elitist, and dualistic—concept of human existence [End Page 296] eventually healed into "wholeness" and relocated within the sphere of human affairs. He sees this salutary process occurring at moments in four of the works he examines and almost uninterruptedly in one of them.
The five novels on which Steven concentrates are The Aunt's Story (1948), Ridas in the Chariot (1961), The Vivisector (1970), A Fringe of Leaves (1976), and The Twyborn Affair (1979). Thus, while his study is selective, it also comprehends nearly the whole of White's career, surveying more than thirty years' worth of novels. Among these, the exemplary text is A Fringe of Leaves. Here, Steven argues, White most successfully reconnects two worlds which had heretofore been not only separate in his fiction but also frequently antagonistic: a "transcendent realm of significance" on the one hand and "the banal, quotidian actuality" of everyday life on the other.
According to Steven, these two arenas of meaning are brought together in A Fringe of Leaves, but just as crucial as their coincidence is the conjunction of human beings, whose relationships are fully endorsed in the novel and offered as paradigmatic of the ideal configuration of human relationship to deity. Within this paradigm, love and connection are paramount. In other words, the White of Fringe cancels what Steven sees as the modernist subscription to a "doctrine of alienation." He thereby overcomes an Eliotic "dissociation of sensibility," which had prompted him to reject the claims of a messy, emotional, fragile, transitory, and dangerous world in favor of the cool, cerebral serenity, the order and compelling beauty of Himmelfarb's chariot (Riders in the Chariot), Hurtle Duffield's "Indigod" (The Vivisector), or Stan Parker's overarching "One" (The Tree of Man). Steven suggests that in moving back from these realms into the midst of mankind, White both answers and transcends his era, achieving the major status Steven wants to accord him when he "challenges us to recognize the hints and promptings of a way beyond" alienation and dualism.
In the preface to his book, Steven acknowledges that one catalyst for the study was a former professor's contention that there were "no great novelists born after 1900." This unnamed professor seems to have had a Leavisite conception of a literary tradition to which Steven wanted White admitted, even though his birth came twelve years after the deadline. If Steven is right in believing that White's importance to twentieth-century literature remains debatable, his focus on the centrality of human interaction to the Whitean view of life and art has surely strengthened the case of White's advocates.
Nonetheless, Steven's approach can be faulted. For in predicating White's standing almost wholly on a single text, while assessing those both before and after as comparatively flawed, he risks leaving the reader with the impression that White managed only one unalloyed success in a career of otherwise ambitious but disappointing attempts. Faulkner once said that writers should be judged "on the basis of their splendid failure to do the impossible," but a judgment of repeated failure to do what is seen as both possible and imperative ultimately dislodges White from the exalted position Steven's book was written to establish for him. [End Page 297]