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  • Patrick White's Fiction: The Paradox of Fortunate Failure
  • Manly Johnson
Carolyn Bliss. Patrick White's Fiction: The Paradox of Fortunate Failure. New York: St. Martin's, 1986. 255 pp. $25.00.

Some ten years ago Alan Lawson in a Patrick White number of Texas Studies in Literature and Language observed that criticism of White's work had failed to take into account the ground already covered by other critics. Without pausing over its accuracy or raising questions about Lawson's presumptive judgment of what the tasks of criticism are, it is good to report that with Carolyn Bliss's book his objection is overcome. She leaves no critical stone unturned, and what's more, in these litigious purlieus, she stones no critic. Bliss synthesizes the good, the brash, even the inept, to produce a strong sense of the critical patterns already established. She goes beyond this body of commentary, extending it, in what now that it is done seems to be the only way possible, into a thesis that makes a satisfying explanation of the contradictions so often observed between White's celebration of charity, love, and forgiveness and a persisting uneasiness that darkens his fiction.

Her analysis confronts White's shortcomings—or as she insists his failures—and finds them "felicitous." It is a systematic approach to "failure" through its anatomy in the early works, its mystery in the major phase (Voss through The Vivisector), its state in the later works (through The Twyborn Affair), and the discipline of failure through analysis of style and technique. In this last section, the thesis assumes its full shape and persuasiveness.

Bliss describes in the work not simply either a philosophical or a religious imagination but utilizes implications of both to reveal functionalism in White's dense and often tortuous style. A. D. Hope should not forever have to answer for his early characterization of that style as "sludge," because all critics find themselves at times under pressure to render judicious opinion about work whose form and content militate against their own deepest aesthetic principles. Hope, dedicated to a classic symmetry and clarity of image and statement, could hardly help finding White's quite different objectives offensive.

Bliss's analysis makes White's objectives understandable as legitimate artistic principles, without denying the aesthetic legitimacy of Hope's opposition to those principles. She accomplishes this work of accommodation and, yes, reconciliation (in the parliamentary tradition of criticism) through eminent fairness in interpreting other analyses of White's work and through a cool, judicious prose style that probes the mysterious depths of multiple personality, the relations of art to life, and the problematics of indwelling spirit, without reductionism or damage to their significance in the whole fabric of a work. Part of her general success rises from the way critical interpretations (hers and others') are introduced into the carefully selected salient features of each novel. There is no plot summary without commentary that illuminates or brings apparent inconsistencies into question. As the discussion progresses, it becomes apparent that the questions are being gathered into a thesis whose implications are specified in the final chapter, "Style and Technique: the Discipline of Failure": "White himself fails: to articulate the vision, to distinguish the sublime from the ridiculous, to honour the prerogatives of the omniscient narrator, to resolve ambiguity, to clarify point of view, fully to endorse a character or precept, to provide comfortable closure in his novels, or to write works which fit uncomplainingly into pre-established [End Page 764] genres. . . . This is not to argue that White is praiseworthy because he fails, but rather that these deliberate technical failures represent the successful incorporation of philosophical vision within fictional technique."

In her treatment of White and his interpreters, Carolyn Bliss renders a service to the growing presence of Australian literature and more immediately to the reader already informed in the established literature in English, curious about the apparent similarities with and not always obvious differences between that writing and Australian writing.

Manly Johnson
University of Tulsa


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pp. 764-765
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