Sam van Zweden



Melbourne Writers Festival

On Patrick White’s Face

Badge from MWF websiteThe launch of the Melbourne Writers Festival should have involved Simon Callow, and Dickens, and the Age Book of The Year, but for me it was all about Vicks steam inhalations, antibiotics, my couch and Gourmet Farmer. On Friday the story was much the same, and so my MWF didn’t get started until yesterday morning. Bright and early, I battled my flu-brain and made it in time for David Marr’s lecture about Patrick White’s face.

The specificity of this lecture is what got me there. I only have a fleeting knowledge of David Marr (now someone I’ll be trying to see again), and have never read any Patrick White (oh, put down your pitchforks!), but I found the idea of the lecture intriguing. Can a face hold a person’s story? What can we tell from a picture?

“Reading” visual material is something I’m deeply interested in. My partner is a photographer, and I am working on a memoir which draws on old photographs as a means of creating and understanding stories. In attempting to read old photos of myself, of my family; trying to read photos I don’t recall being taken, this process has made me really consider what it means to read a photograph. Going into Marr’s lecture I wondered – can a person’s story be written on their face in a way that can be directly read? Is it just about having the keys to unlock its secrets?

Marr looked at photography and paintings of White throughout his life in chronological order, starting with a picture of “Paddy White”, very young, and very endearingly dressed as the Mad Hatter. Moving forward through White’s life, Marr spoke about White’s obsession with having himself visually documented. White wanted to demystify his face, to make sense out of it. He wanted to see what it held, and to see what meaning creative people (artists, painters, photographers) could draw from it. Even to Patrick White, his face was a mystery.

Some stories show themselves clearly on White’s face. Certainly, stress could be seen around war-time. It can be seen when White was affected by medications, and when his teeth were pulled for dentures. What is less readable is the stuff that makes White’s story truly interesting and worth hearing – the stories around the photographs. This is where Marr’s expert knowledge comes into play. Marr knows that the reason White looks so outrageously pissed off in one picture is because he found the photographer attractive. That he disliked another for being “too German” (particularly his hands, apparently). That copies of many White portraits were seemingly cursed, being punched, chopped up, stolen, lost, or otherwise removed. So maybe photos can’t just be read. Perhaps the whole process is far too dependent on the kind of knowledge that experts like David Marr have about the subject of the photographs.

Marr spoke of White’s “London Face”, the mask of pretension that White would use in photographs – in White’s most enjoyable portraits (and those that White felt most accurately showed his inner being), that “London Face” is nowhere to be seen, and we are confronted mostly by White’s incredible eyes. Eyes that Louis Kahan (whose portrait of White won the Archibald Prize in 1963 – pictured left) called “the eyes of a seer”. Sure, all great writers seem to really see, but White’s eyes seem to almost speak back, telling some of the stories they hold.

One idea that interests me in reading a photograph is Roland Barthes’ idea of ‘punctum’: that thing that could be inconsequential, but which snags the eye and keeps drawing you back. That exists in White’s portraits – it’s often his eyes, but it also often manages to be another part of his face. And perhaps this is the key to artists’ life-long love affair with White’s face, and White’s own continual pursuit of finding the meaning in this thing that faced him in the mirror every day.


At 4pm today (Sunday, 26th August), a session called “Remembering Patrick White” will continue this discussion of the life behind this face. David Marr is part of the panel, and he’s a brilliant speaker. 

Emerging Blogger, Coming Through!

An exciting announcement! I’ve been accepted as one of the Emerging Bloggers for the Melbourne Writers’ Festival (in partnership with Emerging Writers’ Festival). Myself and four other bloggers have been granted the amazing opportunity to go along to the Festival and soak up all the writerly and readerly vibes, and blog about it all. So fear not, I’ll be taking you with me all the way!

Below is the piece I submitted to apply for this opportunity. I hope you enjoy it, and I’m looking foward to sharing the Festival with you here. Keep an eye out before the festival for my picks, and if you’re a Festival attendee and you need a date, hit me up. We can hang.

Only Connect: 

Think about the last really good book you read. Really good books grab hold of something inside us and don’t let go. The best books are the ones that are close to impossible to articulate in terms of why they are so great.

Give it a go – in that last great book you read, what about it stuck with you? Was it the author’s use of rhythm, alliteration or pastiche? If you’re a really critical reader, perhaps you do take note of the author’s knack with minimalism, or their broad use of literary allusion. But you remember these things because they provoke some sort of feeling inside you.

While we may live in a post-modern world, where the author is dead and reading any cultural artefact becomes a individualist free-for-all, good books don’t exist in a vaccuum. Good books come about through that invisible bond between the reader and the writer. By spinning this story and sending it out into the world, the author has followed EM Forster’s mandate to “only connect!”. There is a lot of wisdom in the idea that a reader’s experience impacts the meaning that they draw from a text, but that text doesn’t come from nowhere.

I’ve just finished reading Charlotte Wood’s Love and Hunger. The book is a foodie memoir, made up partly of Wood’s memories of foods and the stories that go with certain foods for her, and partly of recipes that go with the stories she tells. Upon finishing this book, I needed to sit in silence for a while, having had something inside me moved. I needed to be still and interrogate my emotions to figure out what about this book had so grabbed hold of me. I realized that the reason I was so affected by Love and Hunger was because of my own closeness to food, with two chefs in my immediate family. The bond that Wood makes clear between food and stories is something I relate to entirely. In reading this memoir, I felt a connection with the author, despite never meeting, never talking, never interacting beyond the pages of her book.

Finding a good book involves handing yourself over entirely to what you’re reading, trusting the author’s attempt to connect with their readers, and doing your part as a reader by interrogating your emotions. Turn inward and look inside yourself for the answer; the connection.

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