The Nobel Prize in Literature 1973
Presentation Speech by Artur Lundkvist, of
the Swedish Academy
Translation from the Swedish text
Your Majesty, Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen,
This year's Nobel Prize for Literature has been awarded by the Swedish Academy to the Australian Patrick White. In the - as always - brief citation, mention is made of "his epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature". These words have been somewhat misunderstood in certain quarters. They are only intended to emphasize the prominent position occupied by Patrick White in the literature of his country: they should not be taken to deny the existence of an important body of Australian literature apart from his writings.
In fact a long succession of authors have endowed Australian literature with an independence and a character which are unmistakably Australian and by virtue of which that literature has long deserved to be regarded in the eyes of the world as something more than an extension of the English tradition. It will be sufficient here to mention such names as Henry Lawson and Henry Handel Richardson. Lawson was the son of an immigrant Norwegian seaman by the name of Larsen, and in his short stories he gave authentic expression to various types of down-to-earth Australian experience. The authoress writing under the name of Henry Handel Richardson achieved in her most important sequence of novels an authentic and grandiose memorial to her father as the exponent of a lingering British way of life in Australia. Nor should one neglect a number of ambitious but somewhat recondite poets who have heightened Australian awareness and intensified the expressive powers of their language.
For all his originality, there is no denying that the work of Patrick White displays certain typical features of Australian literature generally sharing with it the background, natural history and ways of life of the country. It is also well known that White stands in close relation to advanced Australian pictorial artists such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Russel Drysdale, who with the means at their disposal aim at something of the same expressiveness as he sets out to achieve in his writing. Also it is an encouraging sign that White's influence has gradually made itself felt and that several of the most promising young writers are to be seen as his successors in one way or another.
At the same time, however, it should be emphasized that White is less preoccupied than some of his representative colleagues with things specifically Australian. Although most of his novels are set against an Australian background, his main concern has been to depict people whose problems and living situations are highly individualized, transcending the local and the national. Even in his most typically Australian epic, The Tree of Man, in which an important part is played by nature and society, his principal aim has been to portray his characters from the inside, to make them come alive not so much in terms of typical or atypical settler careers as in the guise of unique individuals. And when he accompanies his explorer Voss into the wilderness of the continent, that wilderness becomes first and foremost a dramatic scenario for the obsession and self-sacrifice of a Nietzschean willpower.
One is struck by the frequency with which Patrick White has made his main characters to a greater or lesser degree outsiders in relation to society: aliens, maladjusted or retarded people and quite often mystics and zealots. It is as though in these people, destitute and vulnerable as they are, he found it easiest to discern the human qualities which fascinate him. This is the case with the characters of Riders in the Chariot, whose alien status or deviation brings them persecution and suffering but who in a mystical way are also the elect, victorious in their misfortune. It is also the case with the two brothers in The Solid Mandala, with their contradictory characters: the well-adjusted but spiritually barren and the clumsy but intuitively percipient. In a way it is also true of the all-pervading principal characters in White's two latest and largest novels: the artist in The Vivisector and the old woman in The Eye of the Storm. In the artist the creative urge is portrayed as a species of curse, as a result of which his art becomes an all-consuming effort of which both its practitioner and the people close to him become the victims. In the old woman the author has taken the experience of a cyclone as the mystical centre from which an insight radiates to shed light on her life, with its many misadventures, right up to the moment of her death.
Patrick White is a rather difficult author not only because of his special ideas and problems but also perhaps no less due to his unusual combination of epic and poetic qualities. In his broad narrative he uses a highly compressed language, a verbal art worked out to the last detail and constantly aiming for a maximum of expressive effect, a relentless intensification or a subtle penetration. Here beauty and truth are closely allied or completely fused together: a beauty radiating light and life, evoking the poetry inherent in things, in nature and in all manner of phenomena, and truth which exposes and liberates, even though at first it may seem repugnant or frightening.
Patrick White is a social critic mainly through his depiction of human beings, as befits a true novelist. He is first and foremost a bold psychological explorer, at the same time as he readily refers to ideological views of life or mystical convictions to elicit the support and the uplifting message which they have to offer. His relationship to himself, like his relationship to his fellow beings, is complex and full of contradictions. Exalted demands are thrown into sharp relief against emphatic denials. Passion and longing are confronted by a distinct puritanism. In contradistinction to what may be pride in himself he glorifies humility and humiliation, a persistent feeling of guilt that demands atonement and sacrifice. He is constantly assailed by doubts concerning the capacity of thought and art, even though he is indefatigable in his high-minded pursuit of both these things.
Patrick White's literary art has spread his fame throughout the world and he now ranks as Australia's foremost representative in his field. His creative work, performed in solitude and doubtless in the teeth of considerable opposition, in various kinds of adversity, has gradually yielded lasting and progressively more widely acknowledged results, in spite of the doubts he himself may have had concerning the value of his efforts. The controversial side of Patrick White is connected with the extreme tension of his self-expression, with his assault on the most difficult problems: the very qualities that constitute his indisputable greatness. Without those qualities he would be unable to bestow the consolation now present in the very midst of his gloom: the conviction that there must be something more worth living for than our onward rushing civilization seems to offer.
The Swedish Academy regrets that Patrick White is not here to-day. But as his representative we greet one of his best friends, the excellent Australian artist Sidney Nolan. And now I beg you, Mr. Nolan, to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature, awarded to Patrick White, from the hands of His Majesty the King.
From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, Editor-in-Charge Tore Frängsmyr, Editor Sture AllÚn, World Scientific Publishing Co., Singapore, 1993
Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 1973