I make no progress with Patrick White’s Voss. At the end of every chapter I read, I go back and read it from the beginning, lingering over scenes and passages, adding to the annotations I’ve already littered the margins with. Technically, I am about to begin Chapter 6. But I’ve backtracked so many times, reliving pages—I’ve even gone ahead [something I rarely do] to read more and more, and eager to experience those scenes as they fit into the narrative, but appreciating them still out of context. What is wrong with me?
It’s a strange book, a stranger book for me to read. It’s about the wastelands of Australia in the 19th century, dared to be explored by one Johann Ulrich Voss, madman misfit genius, arrogant and awkward and doubly estranged to a land that is nonetheless his home. It’s also about the love between him and headstrong, independent Laura Trevelyan—another foreigner forced to adapt to the land, another misfit. It’s an adventure, it’s hidden love, it’s damnably good prose, it’s the most alive and complex characters filling a world so alien to me, but now so very much welcome.
Questions about home abound. Laura, in her first meeting with Voss, is struck by how both possessive the man is of Australia and how at ease he is there. Her? “She was so afraid of the country which, for lack of any other, she supposed was hers.” We find echoes of this sentiment as we move on—mostly from observations of the astute Laura. This is an adopted home; Australia’s essential history is one of exile or dead-ends or second chances. At a dinner party, the topic of Voss’s venture is discussed, and Voss himself:
‘He is obsessed by this country,’ said Laura Trevelyan. ‘That was at once obvious.’
‘He is a bit mad,’ pursued the Lieutenant monotonously.
‘But he is not afraid,’ said Laura.
‘Who is afraid?’ asked Tom Radclyffe.
‘Everyone is still afraid, or most of us, of this country, and will not say it. We are not yet possessed of understanding.’
The Lieutenant snorted, to whom there was nothing to understand.
‘I would like not like to ride very far into it,’ admitted Belle, ‘and meet a lot of blacks, and deserts, and rocks, and skeletons, they say, of men that have died.’
‘But Laura, together with the obsessed Herr Voss, is unafraid. Is that it?’ asked Lieutenant Radclyffe.
‘I have been afraid,’ said Laura Trevelyan. ‘And it will be some time, I expect, before I am able to grasp anything so foreign and incomprehensible. It is not my country, although I have lived in it.’
Tom Radclyffe laughed.
‘It is not that German’s.’
‘It is his by right of vision,’ answered the young woman.
And it is. Indeed, Voss, earlier, quite plainly says: “I am compelled into this country.” That this uncharted land is his home is matter-of-fact—it’s such a ridiculous claim, but one made with conviction. He may be right, he may be wrong. This might just be a bad idea, if a foolish one. His purpose for discovering a land he feels already his? “I will cross the continent from one end to the other. I have every intention to know it with my heart.” That, simply, that.
For now, at least.
There is still so much, so much. And I’m only yet to begin the sixth chapter! I want to talk about Voss’s madness, his ridiculousness, but how heroic he seems to my eyes. And silly, yes, that too. I want to talk about the inscrutable Laura as best I could. I want to linger over their few moments together, corporeally, their bodies occupying the same space—this is, after all, not just about hidden love, but love that spans lands, connected only by letters and thoughts and visions and dreams. I want to talk about how disquieting this book is, and how alive it is in my hand—the winds thick with dry dust, the heat against one’s burning nape, the sweat curling down backs.
I continue to make no progress, walking around in circles, talking to myself, plucking lines and passages out of memory and air.
(Yes, there is a [bookmark in the shape of a] hand flailing out of the cover image’s waistband, um ok, crotch. Yes, there is. No, I didn’t do it on purpose. I find it really funny now, though, because I am immature.)