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GILES HUGO

A conversation with David Marr

David Marr on Patrick White – A Life



When I migrated to the land of Oz almost seven years ago, Patrick White was one of the few Australian authors I had read. Since then – and thanks to four years of reviewing books for The Mercury, and ABC Radio 7ZR – I have read about 400 books by Australian authors. But it was only when I read David Marr’s Patrick White – A Life that I felt compelled to read more of White. When I spoke by phone to Marr for a press interview to coincide with his appearance at the 1993 Salamanca Writers’ Festival, I found him to be the perfect interviewee – erudite, honest, charmingly bitchy, and willing to say far more than I could cram into 1,500 words. This interview is not the cuts from that press interview, but rather a continuation of it. Previously I have tended to edit the interviewer out of the printed text, but with David Marr this proved almost impossible – the conversation was too animated to allow neat editing – and I have therefore left in many of my own interjections. I regret that they are often facile, inelegant and inappropriate, but they do serve to indicate some of the jumps in continuity. Read it – in the Gonzo spirit – as a conversation in the Warhol Interview vein, rather than as a highly polished ‘interview’. My thanks to Ralph Wessman for his patience and for doing the time-consuming donkey work of transcribing the tape for me to edit. My apologies to Marr for any errors due to my ignorance or inattention – he deserves a much better interviewer than I can ever hope to be.

Marr: My big fear in all of this was – of course I feared that I would go soft on Patrick because I’d grown fond of him – but I also feared that I might be too harsh on him in order to assert my objectivity. I knew I had to find a way between those two things. But my great fear was that he’d die before he read the manuscript. He didn’t have right of approval or veto or any of those things – but I was very anxious that he know what I had done to him. [Marr took the manuscript to White, who went through it and pointed out some inaccuracies, but he accepted Marr’s view of his life.] He challenged some things – and not just spelling errors – but he did not ask for anything to be changed or omitted.

Hugo: Going back to the thing of confronting himself;  he hadn’t got into the thing of the late ’60s, ’70s of openly declaring his homosexuality. During the evolution of Gay Rights in the late ’60s and ’70s, White had not publicly identified with the movement. He held back on that until Flaws in the Glass. In reading your view of him, did he, in a more final sense, come to terms with that publicly by approving your version?

No, I don’t think so…

He hadn’t joined the cause when it might have been appropriate to join the cause…

No, no. He was a patrician of Edwardian parents. They lived by the notion that you didn’t notice…. Families always have homosexuals in them – always have, always will…

…As long as you don’t frighten the horses?

Well, it’s something like that, it’s a little more subtle, and I’ve tried to set some of it out in the book. But what that means is for a person like Patrick White, sexuality is not a public cause in any way. The notion of it being a public cause seemed to him to be ludicrous. So he knocked back all of the overtures that were made to him to be a spokesman or a patron of the early calls for legal reforms. He did, however, talk behind the scenes, particularly to Neville Wran, who was the Premier of New South Wales and was most reluctant to put through reform legislation in NSW. White spoke to him. But he always refused any kind of public role as homosexual spokesman or advocate. Now what that meant was that for him to write Flaws in the Glass, the principal purpose of which was to declare his sexuality, was a very big step for him … a much bigger step for him than allowing a biography like mine to go ahead. Much bigger. It was the first big step and he was proud he had done it before anybody did it to him.

There’s the one bit in the biography about Time magazine and White sends a correction to them saying ‘I am the housekeeper’ [not his lifelong companion Manoly Lascaris]. He would do that, but he wouldn’t go further than that.

Well you see he would defend Manoly. And what that disgusting little piece in Time magazine about ‘the male housekeeper Manoly Lascaris’ was about was – apart from it being a routine piece of homophobic nonsense – it was extremely insulting to Lascaris. And White would fight like a fucking lion to defend Lascaris’s honour.

And right through the whole thing he was incredibly proud that that relationship had lasted … forever.

Oh yes. He saw it as the greatest achievement of his life in some ways.

How far are you with the letters? [Marr is working on a collection of White’s correspondence].

Well I ‘m at work on them, they’re not far off going to the publisher.

Have you a title?

Well I’ve called it in my mind The Book of Letters, but it’ll probably be called something like Patrick White: The Letters. But … nothing fancy. I don’t believe in fancy titles. There was a time when I was going to call my biography The Stranger of All Time.

It’s a sort of headline…

It is a sort of headline, you’re right, and it was a name that Patrick loved and that various people thought was terrific, but in the end my down-to-earth journo kind of mind said no! Call it… [Patrick White: A Life].

It is a life rather than the life....

Oh yes, it is a life, because you know this is just my version, anybody can go to all of the documents that I cite there...

…And write a different version …

Yes absolutely.

… for whatever reason.

And anybody else would write a different version to me, ‘cause that’s my version of his life.

One thing that has really impressed me is that a number of people I know – who don’t particularly like Patrick White and have had difficulty reading him – have said that reading the book has made them understand him and enjoy it, and even then go back and look at his writing.

Well, I’m always glad when I hear that. The book does have that purpose. I was brought up in a household which was a typical Australian household. One parent loved his [White’s] writing and the other one hated it. So the quality of Patrick White’s writing was a kind of issue in my family ever since I was a little kid, particularly because they had met him a couple of times; they had great friends who were in fact great friends of his. I never saw White when I was a child, but – in a way that he hovered at the edge of everybody’s imagination, I think, in Australia when we were growing up in the ‘50’s and the ‘60s – he was perhaps a little bit more vividly present in my family, just a tiny bit more. And this book is dedicated to my father, who hated Patrick’s writing and has never read more than half a page of anything he ever wrote. And it’s dedicated to him because I want to speak to those people, who haven’t been hooked.

White had several sort of awakenings in his life, when the scales fell from his eyes. One of the most remarkable things was when he suddenly got his spiritual awareness. Did he speak much about that to you?

Well, he spoke a little. I was very lucky, because at that time he was in an intimate correspondence with his cousin, Peggy Garland. And her letters, I’m thrilled to say, are now in the National Library in Canberra. And those letters chart the growth – or the expression of that kind of spiritual insight that he gained at that time. So that – while Patrick and I would talk quite a lot about the way in which this worked itself out through his writing and the way in which he changed through the years from being a kind of orthodox Anglican to a very eclectic believer – we didn’t actually talk very much about those early days. Those early days are all most beautifully recorded in those letters. But it was the essential insight … he had two, I think, essential insights….

There’s the one out in the rain…

Yes, the one out in the rain, but there’s an earlier one, actually, which is the knowledge that he must come home to Australia. It was the arrival home on what he thought was just a recce, and realising at once that he had to stay – that was the first insight. The second insight is the insight in the rain, and between them they made him as an artist.

Yes, ‘cause once he realised he was in Australia, there was this duality of, who is one? What does one owe to this European consciousness, what does one owe to the blood? You keep coming back to this thin of the blood which I think is very intriguing.

It’s an image he uses all the time. he’s proud of his blood. He’s proud of his family stake in this country, while at the same time rather despising them as people. But the knowledge that this was what he could only really write about – because you had to have roots to write…

There’s the whole thing of a tree, he keeps coming back to it, it’s a very early thing, a very sustaining thing.

There are some new letters I’ve got which I didn’t have at the time of this book. One of these letters is a letter to Edna O’Brien … he’s just read her book Country Girls and he’s just raving about it, saying to her: ‘One of the most wonderful things is that it captures childhood. And that’s what an artist had to do, has to capture childhood, an artist is always trying to capture childhood.’ And his childhood was Australia. And that’s what he knew was his fate in life, was to capture that – regardless of how much he would have referred to live in Paris, Cap Veral … which he could have done.

And that childhood has all the very elemental things of The Burnt Ones, of the other people that his growing up separated him from, once he went to school and once he went to Europe, things like that.

And doesn’t it also have that thing that seems to me to be associated with so many great artists, which is that he is born into the generation which is at one remove from family greatness. There has been a fall. And it’s a very comfortable fall. But nevertheless there are always dreams of greatness around him. And he becomes a dreamer. And that kind of dreaming of greatness seems to me to be part of so many great writers’ lives.

Did you choose the cover, that image, the [Brett] Whiteley portrait?

In a sense I did. The painting was used by the Sydney Morning Herald on the cover of the Good Weekend colour magazine when I was interviewed in the magazine about six months before the book appeared. At that stage we were going to use the same cover as was used in England, which if you look on the inside of the dust jacket there is a small, very elegant photograph of Patrick as a kind of matinee idol. That’s the cover of the English edition. The publishers out here [hardcover Random Century, softcover Vintage] suggested to me that instead we should use the Whiteley painting, and I at first hesitated, because it meant not having a uniform edition – which I quite liked the idea of. Then I realised that it was quite a good idea, and then I fought for it. London wasn’t interested, they found it much too confronting an image, yet I think the feeling here is that it’s perfect … just perfect.

You talk about the sitting for that [portrait]. It was the image that he [White] liked best; and there’s that thing about Whiteley asking White: ‘Give me your list of the best and the worst.’

Yes, your likes and your dislikes….

You talk about Whiteley pinning the list up on the canvas?

Yes, you can’t see it on that reproduction, because that’s just a detail from the whole canvas, but White’s left hand is resting on his desk and the likes and dislikes are pasted to the desk….

Ahhh! Is it just a corner in red?

That’s it. It’s in red biro. I own the original draft, Patrick gave me the original draft of his likes and dislikes … in slightly different order. But it ends with that wonderful dislike: ‘The grownup prefects from which we are never free.’

Yes, and when you think of the Gough Whitlam thing, and what followed, yes it’s very much so. And what do you think he felt about that image of him?

Well Patrick came to dislike it because it was the cause of his breach with Brett Whiteley. It was not the sole cause, I mean, he’d become rather disgusted with Whiteley’s … dissipations. As always with Patrick, he became disgusted with artists who were not working to the fullest of their potential. That’s why, that’s essentially his row with Nolan, the fact that Nolan in White’s view had gone off. It was the cause of his breach with [Geoffrey] Dutton, because Dutton didn’t live up to the high hopes White had had of him as a writer. It was the cause of his breach with a lot of people, that they were not working – and that was his worry with Brett, that Brett was putting it all up his veins and the work was going off. Now, because of that – I mean, Patrick always responded very personally to things in that way – because of that, he came to dislike that [Whitely] painting. But in my mind, it is the only great portrait of White.

With the letters, has more stuff come up?

Yes, oh a lot more letters have come up. I had about – it’s difficult to know exactly – I had about 2000, a little more than 2000 letters by the time I finished writing the biography, and I’ve got about another six or seven hundred more since then. None of them change any of its essential details. I love detail as you can tell, I mean the book’s full of detail, detail is what brings people and events alive. Some of them will be there in the book of letters.

Talking about consequences, what have you found – since writing it and since his death – what have the consequences of having written his biography been for you, either professionally or personally or as a writer yourself? How much has it altered your life, having taken six years out of your life to do this?

Well at some stage in the late 1980’s, I became not David Marr but Patrick White’s biographer. And I suppose I still am. And once I’ve got the letters out of the way, my principal task will be to disentangle myself from all of that. I mean obviously it’s changed me in the sense that it’s made possible the notion for me that I might now be able to find the time to write. And I still want to do a bit of television, I’ll be working for Four Corners in 1993. But I’ll be able to get on with writing projects I have in my mind. And that’s quite a big change for somebody in this country to be able to say, okay for the next few years I’ll just write.

What do you have in mind? Would it be a break from biography, or would you be doing … what sort of stuff?

Look, I’m not even being evasive when I’m being evasive like this. It is very difficult to actually work out what you’re going to do next when you’re in the middle of a book. You sort of convince yourself in a self-pitying way that you’re earning the right to unending leisure, and the notion of doing another book once you’ve finished is just ludicrous. [A most endearing giggle from Marr].

Would you like to work on fiction or …

No, no. I don’t see the point for me in fiction. I am unable to imagine a life as marvellous as the one I investigated. I couldn’t invent it, so my mind works in terms of…. What excites me is the bizarreness of the truthful, in the actual world. I mean, I love reading fiction, but I don’t actually make it up, that’s not my mind, I’m a journo … really.

You work in television. Does that give you a very different kind of way of looking at things? I’m thinking of the Stuart Challender interview you did. Again that was revealing – it was a challenge to that person to reveal himself. There was that break in the whole programme where finally he did come across…

It was what Stuart wanted to say. It was finding a way of him saying it. But the thing that television is for me is a way of working where words are not everything. I think I’m the same person when I’m working in television, but it’s a way of working within a different medium, and therefore it’s stimulating. And it’s also fun to work with people, I mean I do enjoy sitting at home at my desk for two or three years on my own, I do actually enjoy that very much. But I also actually enjoy from time to time getting out in a team and finding people.

[In the Stuart Challender programme,] You had the depth of the music to say things, and watching him working, just those kind of clips do say a lot about him, which you can't actually say in words.

Exactly. There are things you convey in images and with sound that you can’t convey with words. There are things that you can do with words that are impossible to achieve with images and sound. But, I must make it clear that the Stuart Challender film was a joint project of mine and a very, very talented television producer called Andrew Horton. I’m not claiming that as my sole effort.

And what other things do you want to do in TV, are there subjects there that you would like to pick up, given this gap of leisure you might have coming up?

Exactly what I want to do in television is the sort of stuff that can’t be predicted in this way. Some time towards the middle of 1993 I’ll turn up on Four Corners, and I will want to work on a story that is hot at that time. I love journalism, I mean I love the response to the immediate that journalism demands. I also love sitting down for six years and concentrating on one subject – but they’re just two different sides of me.

You say you love reading. Apart from Patrick White, who would you say has…

The goods? Well for me at the moment, I’m … David Malouf, I think he’s wonderful, I think David Malouf’s book of short stories is one of the best things that has been written in this country. Ian McKewan I’m a great fan of since reading Black Dogs … I was a bit doubtful until I read Black Dogs, but I think it’s a work of great power. Michael Ondaatje at the moment is being feted around the country; I think he’s a very fey number, I don’t like him much at all. Very wet and poetic. I read a fair amount of biography, I suppose, I’ve just read the Beaverbrook biography by Michael Davies and Anne Chisholm who were – for a time – in Australia. Michael Davies was the editor of The Age, and Anne Chisholm actually worked for me for a time when I was editing the National Times. And the Beaverbrook biography is absolutely first rate.

And the Bernard Shaw biography, Michael Holroyd [four volumes, Chatto & Windus]?

Look, it would be unfair for me to comment. I haven’t read it all, and Bernard Shaw is a subject that bores me profoundly. I’m sure I shall come back to him, when I’m old. People would often ask Patrick about great novels, particularly about Proust, which he read when he was at university; and there’s this wonderful letter of his to Maie Casey saying: ‘Look yes, maybe one day I’ll have the time to reread Proust but it will be a sign that all my talent has disappeared – if I’ve got that kind of leisure’.


First published in Famous Reporter 7, April, 1993.