The preface to R. S. Edgecombe's Vision and Style in Patrick White declares that morality and vision grow out of style in White, and a number of thoughtful insights on the subject in the following chapters fuel Edgecombe's argument. He traces the thematic reverberations between the name Voss, eponym of White's 1957 novel, and the Modern German word, Phos, meaning light. He uses the homophonic likeness between Hurtle, the first name of White's artist-vivisector, and the compound hurt-all to explain the artist's brutality in White's 1970 novel. This South African scholar also supports his belief that The Eye of the Storm (1973) is White's "finest achievement" with a brief, incisive analysis of the book's main figure. But curiously we are not as grateful or impressed as we might be. Even before reaching his chapter on Eye (the book's fifth), we have been watching him say less and less about style. This cloudiness of purpose sinks the book.
Ironically, Vision and Style would have hit sea-bottom earlier than it does had Edgecombe tried to make good on his intent, stated in the Preface, to yoke White's style to his moral vision. Edgecombe simply does not understand style well enough to write a book on the subject. He puts the jawbreakers "apodosis" and "crudified" in the same sentence. He offers nouns like "epizeuxis," "floristry," "nurturement," and "succedaneum." Adjectives like "credal" and "suppletory" greet us together with the adverbs "similaically" and "cheatingly." Edgecombe inclines to modifiers throughout. Several times, for instance, he claims an adjective or an adverb to be the focus of a quoted passage. Analogously, modifiers recur often in his own prose, a practice that robs his sentences of vigor and drive; instead of referring to rapacity, he cites "rapacious motives."
Other sentences beg for the editor's blue pencil, or scythe, because of their wordiness: "The hubris of the man [that is, Voss] thus manifests itself as the chief impediment to the realization of his true self" reads better as "The man's hubris thus blocks self-realization." Making its latinate prose sound so fussydefensive is the book's lack of a consistent analytical technique. Vision and Style is heavy with both quoted material and parenthetical remarks, five sets of which occur on page 122 alone. Would not better organization, we wonder here, have removed the need for so many asides?
Misreading can hobble Edgecombe as much as his failure to shape his material does. His calling Ruth Godbold of Riders in the Chariot (1961) a "quiet, saintly creature" is a case in point. This stalwart overcame the horror of accidentally crushing her brother's skull to migrate to Australia, where she raised six daughters on her own after her wife-beating husband—whom she once followed into a brothel—decamped. Even when Edgecombe reads a passage clearly, he may not develop its import. Thus he neglects to say that Waldo Brown's "public denial" of his shambling twin in The Solid Mandala (1966) takes place in the library where Waldo works. That Waldo orders Arthur out of the library, a place open to all, to hide his tie with Arthur from his colleagues creates the scene's painful, sordid climax.
Elsewhere, too, Edgecombe slights the pain so central to White's vision. Although he discusses the calm Elizabeth Hunter feels in the eye of the wild, shrieking storm that had battered her near the Queensland coast, he ignores the [End Page 873] effects of the battering itself. And the statement that, in Riders, "the redemptors . . . exist for the benefit of humankind" neglects the physical ugliness of the redemptors, the truth that they cause as much harm as good, and the physical or moral death of three of them. Edgecombe's disregard of this kind of evidence both betrays him into laboring side issues and trivializes White's art. Vision and Style breaks little new ground. It will quote an oft-quoted passage from White without wresting new goodness...