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We thank author, Toni Brisland, for sharing her passion and research into the life of ‘Australia’s only Nobel Laureate for Literature’; Patrick White. Her findings are remarkable, just like the man himself – a person of great humility and honour. Thanks, Toni, for teaching us more about this phenomenal Australian icon and his similarities to Alfred Nobel. 🙂
An interesting realisation when I was writing my non-fiction book for middle readers on the life and times of Australia’s famous novelist and playwright, Patrick White, was that he and Alfred Nobel had several characteristics in common, including that part of their legacy was to set in place an Award.
Alfred Nobel laid the foundations for the Nobel Prize when he wrote his last will. Nobel was a Swedish chemist, engineer and armaments manufacturer who invented dynamite and an explosive device called a blasting cap, which inaugurated the modern use of high explosives. When he died in 1896 his net worth was approximately $US250 million and he had over 450 patents. His will stipulated that an award ought to be set up to honour people around the world for outstanding achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and for persons or organizations who promoted peace. A Foundation was set up to manage the award and monies. The first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901. Later, the annual Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel was set up.
Patrick White is the only Australian to have won the Nobel Prize for literature and his Nobel Prize citation states that he won the award “for an epic and psychological narrative art, which has introduced a new continent into literature”. His friends said at the time of his winning this Award that they had never seen him happier.
With the Nobel Prize winning monies of $AUS81,862 Patrick White established a trust fund for an annual literary prize for Australian writers – The Patrick White Award. The award is given each year to a writer who has been highly creative over a long period of time but has not necessarily received adequate recognition. The first winner was chosen in 1974. He stipulated that the award be announced the Friday after the Melbourne Cup to turn attention from sport to literature. This Award has been given each year to date to a veritable “who’s who” of Australian literature: Christina Stead, Gwen Harwood, Randolph Stow, Bruce Dawe, Marjorie Barnard, Rosemary Dobson, Thea Astley, Tom Hungerford, Louis Nowra to name a few of our well-known authors.
As part of my research I emailed the Nobel Prize organization in Sweden to ask them how many Australians had won a Nobel Prize. They responded the next day to say that nationality is not a statistic they keep because there are often multi-national groups who win a prize or organizations made up of many people. I enjoyed going through the winners of each year in each category to arrive at the best figure I could and in my book I talk about how many times Australia has won it up to 2019, rather than how many Australians have won it. The answer: 12 in total across all categories, but not once for peace, and only once for literature – to Patrick White.
Both Patrick White and Alfred Nobel loved peace. It has been said that Nobel created a prize for peace because it is possible that he wished to compensate for: dynamite and other inventions that could be used for destructive purposes; as well as, his many business interests in the armaments industry. Patrick White led anti-Vietnam War rallies calling for Australian Soldiers to come home.
Both men led a retired and simple life and both were self-disciplined, devoting themselves to their work. Being able to create was their passion. They both could be courteous dinner hosts, good listeners and were men of incisive wit but their life’s joy came from the solitude sometimes necessary for creativity to reach its potential. Neither had children.
Patrick White shunned the public eye. Even when reporters clamoured at his doorstep at the international announcement at 9pm of him winning the Nobel Prize, he didn’t venture out of his house until the next morning to be interviewed. Also, he did not attend the Nobel Prize giving ceremony in Sweden. Patrick White sent his friend, artist, Sidney Nolan to accept on his behalf. Alfred Nobel also shunned the public eye to the extent that he didn’t want the Nobel Prize to be set up until after he died.
Patrick White recognised the importance of the diversity in Australian culture and the importance of our first peoples before many others. In Patrick White’s will after he had provided accommodation for his partner Manoly and an income from royalties, his monies were split between – the Smith Family, the Art Gallery of NSW, the Aboriginal Education Council of NSW and the Aboriginal and Islander Dance Company. Upon Manoly’s death thirteen years later, his home and the remainder of the Estate went to Patrick White’s extended family.
In conclusion I thought I’d list some of Patrick White’s LOVES from the biography of Patrick White by David Marr, pp 557 – 558: silence, the company of friends, unexpected honesty, reading, going to the pictures, dreams, uncluttered landscapes, city streets, faces, good food, cooking small meals, pugs, the thought of an Australian republic, his ashes floating off at last (on a pond in Centennial Park). And his HATES: the PR machine, pretentious socialites, money grabbers, first nights and film premiers, insomnia, the ‘Show’ (RAS), sport, noise, motels, liars, TV, jet flights, unnecessary cars, unending worthy radio talks and the overgrown school prefects from whom we never escape.
Article by Toni Brisland
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