The Favourites: Madeleine Bendixen on Voss

Words by Madeleine Bendixen

Published on November 18, 2011


I’ve never grieved for another book the way I grieved for Voss. When I came to its last page, I felt sick with distress at the thought that the book was not endless. It had seemed so expansive, all-encompassing, a novel that could accompany the most private moments of my entire life.

Although I could re-read it, I knew I would never again have that same euphoric first-time encounter with the book.

But sorrow and joy are inextricably bound, as Patrick White will teach you in every one of his novels.

Voss would never be a stranger to me again. But when I came back to the book, I found new depths in it, chasms I hadn’t peered into. There were secrets and hints I hadn’t noticed before. And now, every return to the book brings new discoveries. I have a feeling I’ll never be finished with it.

The greatest joy is in having Johann Ulrich Voss and Laura Trevelyan in my system. I’ve internalised the German explorer and his lover and saviour, their voices, their visions of nineteenth century Australia, their movements and idiosyncrasies, their anguish and their revelation.

When I first read of the awkward, hubristic Voss making his journey into Australia’s desert interior, I was experiencing my own crisis, my own struggle with becoming. I felt hideous, unlovable and unsalvageable. I formed a ritual out of self-destruction. I made my entrance into a life tinged with mental illness. But White’s book seemed to offer me a special promise.

Because of White’s lofty artistic ideals and dense, difficult prose, many have called him elitist. But having read several of his novels, I think there’s a sort of ‘reverse elitism’ in his writing. The lowest of human beings are granted spiritual transformation in return for humiliation. His protagonists-always alien and dysfunctional, sometimes repulsive-are elevated by their encounters with pain and death, while the rational and attractive characters are left behind.

In Voss’ gross delusions, and in Laura’s terrible loneliness, White promised me that my fractured, ugly perception of the world could be a blessing as well as a curse. And his prose offered me a means of expression.

The writing in Voss is lumpy and odd. If you read the book aloud, the sentences feel strange in the mouth. The prose is highly mannered and extremely formal, even in the most intimate and most base of moments. It sounds almost as if it’s translated, or as if English was not White’s native language.

When Voss had finished this poem, he clapped the book together.
‘Irrsinn!’ said his mouth.
He was protesting very gutturally, from the back of his throat, from the deepest part of him, from the beginning of his life.

To me, this is the language of the non-rational, the syntax of my most powerful and unknowable emotions. White’s writing is a little like Virginia Woolf’s, but far less beautiful. Its ugliness stabs at the truth. It’s overwhelming. I feel it in my body-my chest, heart, lips, tongue-before my mind can understand it.

As she lay beside him, his boyhood slipped from him in a rustling of water and a rough towel. A steady summer had possessed them. Leaves were in her lips, that he bit off, and from her breasts the full, silky, milky buds. They were holding each other’s heads and looking into them, as remorselessly as children looking at secrets, and seeing all too clearly.

In a way, my instincts were right: Voss is my endless novel. It’s the most tragic and the most angelic book I’ve ever read. It’s taught me how to find my own language. It’s the scripture for my life.

With more confidence, Madeleine Bendixen could be an actress. With a better grasp on technology, she could be a film director. As it turns out, she’d prefer to write creative and critical work for the rest of her life. She will be completing an Honours year in Creative Writing in 2012.