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10 June 2009

The Place of Voss

The Place of Voss

'The Voss Journey', organised in Canberra in May 2009, was a special event that looked at the myriad ways that Patrick White's classic forms a part of Australian national psyche. Vincent Plush reports.

People joke that Patrick White’s Voss is the great Australian novel that no one ever manages to finish. Everyone knows about it, but few have actually read it. Indeed, it is hardly an easy read as it traces two journeys which parallel and intersect with each other.

On the one hand, it traces the attempt by Johann Ulrich Voss to 'cross this country from one side to another', as he claims. 'I mean to know it with my heart,' he announces at the very outset of the opera by Richard Meale and David Malouf. 'It is mine by right of vision.' Underlying that quest is a second, much more personal journey, Voss’s telepathic relationship with the young woman he meets briefly in colonial Sydney, Laura Trevelyan, who becomes his muse.

Four hundred pages later, we feel that we, too, have come on a journey, more of the soul than across geography. We arrive at its conclusion exhausted, yet uplifted, with a better knowledge of where we are and what makes us who we are.

In these still early years of the 21st century, it is possible to look back on the iconic works of the 20th century and view them with fresh interpretation. At this point in time, Voss beckons close scrutiny. Its creator has been dead for nearly two decades and his work has endured the customary decline and rise of critical estimation. We are engaged in a national debate about the role of literature and history in our school syllabuses. We have emerged from ‘the history wars’ with a new understanding of the role of Indigenous culture in our makeup. We have moved from an intense (even fierce) adherence to nationalism in our novels, theatre, opera and films to a more mature vision and intent. Perhaps we are even more comfortable in our own skins.

A half-century after its creation, Voss seems very much a product of its time. 'Small wonder that history, our history, disappears from syllabuses in our schools and universities, just as our literary classics, out of print, disappear from the bookstores...'Patrick White, 45 years old at the time and at the height of his creative powers, had survived the desperate urgency of war and its reconstruction. He had witnessed first-hand the Nazi blitz of London and had trawled the deserts of Egypt, enduring separation from his own muse, Manoly Lascaris. He returned to Australia, hating its small-mindedness and enthused by its possibilities. From the ashes of the old would grow the new.

The figure of Voss embodies many conflicts and contradictions: the prescience and persistence of Ludwig Leichhardt and Edward John Eyre, and, White admits, 'there is more of my own character [in Voss] than anybody else’s'. Only recently did we learn, through a chance remark by Barry Jones, of another dimension to that torn creature of White’s imagination: Adolf Hitler.

On so many levels, Voss required, even demanded, close scrutiny, and what better place to do that than in Canberra, with its institutions and their collections, with its space both literal and psychological, with its air and relaxed, uncluttered autumnal beauty? Voss is history and fiction writ large; it would also need to be viewed as an opera and various other musical compositions, as a film which eluded some of the giants of 20th century cinema, as a saga and persona burned on the national psyche.

For four days in May 2009, we attempted to find a place for Voss – in its manifold dimensions – in our culture, our history and, indeed, its imprint on the national psyche.

History and memory provided the maps for 'The Voss Journey' which we undertook over those remarkable days in Canberra. As we prepared for this expedition, mounted by an historic alliance of over a dozen national cultural institutions, we asked ourselves: How do we remember events, people, things? How do we preserve these memories? What do we do with our history?

For many of us who work in archives and the national cultural institutions, the answers to those questions are buried in our collections. Much of what we have remains in storage, often imperfectly described and catalogued. We may have a sense of what we have there, even if we can’t comprehend or grasp the totality or significance of those collections. That comes with an interpretation of the contents of our collections, not always a priority or indeed the forte of the institutions themselves.

The Voss Journey began in mid-2007, with more of a blueprint, an outline, I suppose, than a map. Somehow, in that year, we had allowed three significant cultural anniversaries to pass almost entirely un-noted. Coincidentally, all were connected with Voss – the 50th anniversary of the publication of the novel by Patrick White (1957), the 25th anniversary of the first hearing of part of the opera by Richard Meale and David Malouf (the 1982 Adelaide Festival) and the 75th birthday of the composer himself (born 1932).

Sadly, there’s nothing especially unusual about this: we allow these things to escape under our radar too frequently. I suspect this kind of cultural oversight or neglect happens less often in those places where a sense of history is imbued in the bloodstream. (I am thinking here of the USA, obviously, where, it seems, every anniversary of any significance is the cue for reflection, commentary and celebration). For over 220 years now, we have believed the line that as 'a young country' we have little history (Euro-history, it must now be said) of significance. Small wonder that history, our history, disappears from syllabuses in our schools and universities, just as our literary classics, out of print, disappear from the bookstores and our musical classics fade from the airwaves and concert halls.

This is exaggeration and gross over-generalisation, of course, but for good reason: we Australians are not particularly good at preserving our history. We pride ourselves that we do collect things, but, like Duke Bluebeard’s treatment of his wives, we stuff things behind closed doors and throw away the keys of access and understanding. So our history remains beyond reach – figuratively and literally – beyond reach and memory. Thus we forget things like anniversaries.

There was no grand design or polemic behind The Voss Journey. Naïvely, I thought it would be a good idea to secure the film of Voss from Opera Australia and screen it in Arc, the new cinema at the National Film and Sound Archive, where I have worked since February 2007. It was as simple as that: we could cover three memory bases at once, the novel, the opera and its composer. Then Robyn Holmes, my good friend and colleague and Curator of Music at the National Library of Australia, suggested that the NLA put on show one of the its prized recent acquisitions, Patrick White’s notebooks and other material relating to Voss, and Quentin Turnour, the NFSA’s cinema programmer, drew my attention to the existence of several unproduced film scripts in the NFSA’s collection.

Casual conversations and meetings with colleagues working in other institutions produced further suggestions: Leichhardt’s plate now preserved in the National Museum of Australia, the book club readings all over Canberra, a Leichhardt-themed dinner produced by The Ginger Room in Old Parliament House, the Indigenous dance-prelude at the Australian Institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, and so on. I wish we could claim that all this was indeed part of a grand design but, like so many good ideas, The Voss Journey began with a relatively simple notion and grew serendipitously into the project that sprawled over those four days of Canberra’s splendid autumn.

As our Journey began, new vistas opened out, new prospects presented themselves for exploration. In the archives of the NLA and the NFSA, over a dozen collections yielded further information. These collections began to speak to one another. Our map became a mosaic of tantalising, interwoven connections, yielding clues to the full story (it is hard to resist a Dan Brown moment of comparison here!). Over several months, we produced a condensed version of a Voss timeline which became our new map. Some of our special guests – and these included Barry Jones, David Malouf and Jim Sharman – offered contributions on the spot. Others, like Marilyn Richardson and Geoffrey Chard (the two lead singers in the opera Voss), Moffatt Oxenbould (the Artistic Director of Opera Australia who saw Voss from its birth pangs to its resoundingly successful production) and various scholars, had all made valuable contributions earlier. Three additional box-loads of 'Vossiana' from Harry M. Miller which arrived only days before the project began threw astonishing new light on the fractious film history of Voss, and the integral role of Sir Sidney Nolan in that largely undocumented and unresolved saga.

It seemed that Voss’s landscape changed with every passing day. We were perhaps a little naïve in thinking (hoping?) that our Journey might end with the screening of the opera-film which was its starting-off point. It soon became clear that this Journey would continue for another few years, until Patrick White’s centenary in 2012, at least.

So long as our archives and collections embark on these explorations our collective history is within our gaze and grasp. The Voss Journey suggests a kind of template for future collaborative excursions into our history by the very people and institutions which are entrusted to safeguard, preserve and interpret that history.

Further links

The Voss Journey, NFSA (www.nfsa.gov.au/voss.html)



Vincent Plush is an Australian composer and Head of National Cultural Programs at the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra.


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