On this day: First Australian Nobel Prize for Literature

By Signe Cane 13 December 2013
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Patrick White was a quiet achiever – even when he won the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Patrick White was the ultimate quiet achiever – even when he became the first Australian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

ON 10 DECEMBER 1973, instead of being in Stockholm to receive his Nobel Prize from the King of Sweden, Patrick White, then 61, was at home in Sydney.

Patrick had been in poor health and, worried that his asthma would flare up in the northern winter, he sent a friend – renowned painter Sidney Nolan – to accept the coveted medallion on his behalf.

“Patrick wasn’t a great speech giver and he wasn’t a glory seeker. He didn’t need any of that,” says friend and former literary agent Barbara Mobbs. “He’d had enough travel by then.”

Patrick had turned down a number of awards before this one, but the Nobel Prize proved too big an honour to refuse. It was the prize that put him on the map – not on the world stage, as he was already celebrated internationally, but in the minds of many Australians.

Soon after the award was announced, The Canberra Times reported: “The most important effect of Patrick White’s Nobel Prize [in] Literature will be to convince Australians that he is a novelist of world stature.”

Australia’s greatest writers

The truth was that most of his novels, particularly his earliest, had been less enthusiastically received at home than abroad.

Patrick didn’t celebrate the traditional values that readers had grown to expect from Australian literature. Instead, he explored high-brow existential and psychological matters, and many Australians found it difficult to warm to the cerebral author.

Indeed, after Patrick finally settled in Sydney with lifetime partner Manoly Lascaris, he commented that he felt like a stranger even within his own family: “Here [Manoly and I] had each other for support, he an exiled Greek, I not so much an Australian as a fake Pom and writer nobody had heard about, posing as a member of my own family,” Patrick wrote in his autobiography Flaws in the Glass.

Born in London in 1912 to Australian parents, Patrick had spent his early childhood in Australia, but was sent back to England for what he later called a “four-year prison sentence” at a public school.

After graduating from Cambridge and publishing his first novel in 1939, he had started to gain moderate success when the outbreak of World War II interrupted.

During the war Patrick served as an operational intelligence officer, and thought of his role in the war as insignificant. “I was unable to write, and this finally became the explanation of my state of mind: my flawed self has only ever felt intensely alive in the fictions I create,” he later wrote. After the war he returned to Australia.

Life of Patrick White

While Patrick had friends in the steadily growing Australian arts scene, he didn’t seek these relationships. “People sought him out because he was good company, fun to be around and very bright,” says Barbara. The writer shied away from public attention and loathed journalists. “He would never seek out the press, he found the attention a bit uncomfortable.”

Patrick actively sought out the simple life. He wrote in the essay The Prodigal Son in 1959: “Possibly all art flowers more readily in silence. Certainly the state of simplicity and humility is the only desirable one for artist or for man. While to reach it may be impossible, to attempt to do so is imperative.”

In his later years Patrick declined several literary awards. As Barbara notes, “he felt he had his lot and now he drew out of the running to give other people a chance. As a rare person in the sense that he didn’t need a job to support himself, Patrick recognised that award money can be of great financial benefit to some authors.”

Patrick used the Nobel Prize money to establish the Patrick White Award, for distinguished older Australian writers whose writing has not received adequate recognition.

Text by Signe Cane