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Riders in the Chariot (1961)

by Patrick White

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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6811933,712 (4.09)2 / 68
Patrick White's brilliant 1961 novel, set in an Australian suburb, intertwines four deeply different lives. An Aborigine artist, a Holocaust survivor, a beatific washerwoman, and a childlike heiress are each blessed-- and stricken-- with visionary experiences that may or may not allow them to transcend the machinations of their fellow men. Tender and lacerating, pure and profane, subtle and sweeping, "Riders in the Chariot" is one of the Nobel Prize winner's boldest books.… (more)
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English (17)  Dutch (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (19)
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
Riders in the Chariot is so beautiful it hurts. By 1961, Patrick White - having sampled England, the USA, Europe, and the Middle East before and during the war - was already the stuff of Australian legend, living a near-secluded life on his property outside Sydney, kept company only by his partner Manoly and their dogs, and carefully-curated dinner parties with the friends who could still stand him, this opinionated, moody, artistic heir who lived like a provincial greengrocer. He was also about to turn 50, and felt the pressure of age and expectation. Most writers slow down after middle-age; White, if anything, sped up! Having published only two novels in each of the 1940s and 1950s, he would do two plus a short story collection in the 1960s, and then five books in the 1970s.

Riders, to me, is the end of the first major phase of White's writing. It is another reckoning with Australian culture, but - unlike The Tree of Man and Voss - it is focused on the present. Unlike Happy Valley and The Aunt's Story, there is some sun peeking through the clouds. (Some sun. Don't get excited.) In his four disconnected suburban character portraits, White lays bare his fascination with the "other" - and, more to the point, mainstream Australian culture's fascination-cum-disgust with them. Alf the artist, Ruth the humanist, Mordechai the devout, and Miss Hare the lover of nature, are each visionaries (literally, as it turns out) whose lives are as delicately-painted as fine china. It is some of White's best character work, I think, intertwined with hefty religious symbolism.

‘Well,’ replied Mrs Sugden, ‘I cannot deny that Miss Hare is different.’

But the postmistress would not add to that. She started poking at a dry sponge. Even at her most communicative, talking with authority of the weather, which was her subject, she favoured the objective approach.’


For me, the success of White as a novelist lies in the potent meeting of his certainty and his uncertainty. Never one to hold back an opinion, publicly or privately, he was a cantankerous old geezer from about the age of 21. He wanted to lay the sins of Australia bare, if you'll pardon the cliche, and made no bones about same. Yet always the uncertainty. White was doubtful, perhaps even fearful. He knew he was religious, but couldn't pin it down. Deeply asthmatic, he had to retreat from much of the Australian country he wanted to experience (White had to push hard to be enlisted during WWII). He avoided public appearances much of the time over a concern about how he sounded, how he came across. And, of course, his homosexuality was the albatross which he had always accepted, but could never find completely acceptable. And this inability to be completely certain is, I think, what drew White to write such incisive character studies, to second-guess points-of-view, to be a teller of tales rather than seeming didactic (even when he's being so!). I'm reminded of a line from Jessica Anderson's Tirra Lirra by the River in which a dead woman is said to have been sad because "For the whole of her life, she had tried to have faith, and... for the whole of her life, she had only opinions."

Or I could be overthinking it. Perhaps that is enough of my thoughts for one review. The riders' stories achieve the perfect confluence of literary fiction; they mean more than just their own lives, but they also are distinctly that: their own lives. ( )
  therebelprince | Oct 24, 2023 |
3.5 stars, rounded down.

I sometimes complain that books I read are not about anything substantial. Riders in the Chariot does not have that problem. Every page is about something that is meant to be significant. Sadly, I believe White sometimes goes for too much. Too much symbolism, too much obscurity, and too much mysticism. What he does, in consequence, is interrupt the flow of the story and leave the reader feeling he has missed something that is essential to understanding the ideas presented, but too vague to nail down. I would rather have the narrative suggest and give me some room to interpret; for a man who obviously hates preachers, White tends to preach too much.

There are four central characters, each an outsider, with physical repulsions but pure souls. While White appears to be open to Judaism, he shows a marked loathing for other organized religion, making most of the Christians in his novel nothing short of monstrous. The four visionaries that are his main characters find their spiritual connections through other mediums: Mary Hare through nature; Alf Dubbo through art; Mrs. Godbold through humanism; and Mordecai Himmelfarb through Jewish mysticism.

I believe White means us to see all men as the same and faith and religion as an impediment to society rather than an asset:

‘It is the same’ she said, and when she had cleared her voice of hoarseness, continued as though she were compelled by much previous consideration: ‘Men are the same before they are born. They are the same at birth, perhaps you will agree. It is only the coat they are told to put on that makes them all that different. There are some, of course, that feel they are not suited. They think they will change their coat. But remain the same, in themselves. Only at the end, when everything is taken from them, it seems there was never any need. There are the poor souls, at rest, and all naked again, as they were at the beginning. That is how it strikes me, sir. Perhaps you will remember, on thinking it over, that is how Our Lord himself wished us to see it.

While I could easily agree with the quotation above, my own views on faith in general are almost diametrically opposed to White’s. I see my faith as the thing that sustains and supports me, while he saw faith as a thing that corrupts and defiles. I do not mind considering the other man’s point of view, but there was nothing in this novel to convince me that White’s view had merit. The horrors he detailed were the evils of man, not of God.

Some parts of the book are quite compelling and the prose flows, and then there are sections that seem distracting and the writing punishing. I would be thinking to myself that I could not connect to what was going on, and then White would ease into the story and pull me right back in again. I felt their pain, their convictions, their unfair circumstances and the injustice of the society they occupied. I believe White understood outsiders, but I thought he had perhaps viewed too much of the evil to appreciate that there was also good.

I admit to being happy to be done with this chunker. It will probably prey upon my mind for a while, though, because it has an essential element for a good book--it makes you think, it asks you to question, it demands that you inspect your own beliefs and heart.


( )
  mattorsara | Aug 11, 2022 |
Not sure why I gave this 3 stars before...this was amazing second time around. ( )
  jaydenmccomiskie | Sep 27, 2021 |
I'd been aware of White for some time but his books always looked forbiddingly dense to me, but I've been going through a more ambitious reading phase so I took the plunge. This work seems to tally with my reading preferences- outsider characters examined in intense detail. White's style is unique, he approaches subjects from the periphery before getting to the heart of the matter. It's not an easy read by any means, his meaning only reveals itself as you probe further into an incident or description but it's very rewarding. I don't know what younger readers would make of the mystical symbolism, it's an undeniably 'spiritual' work and probably not immediately appealing to a contemporary readership. But for anyone with either experience or sympathy for those living on the margins and the original insights that accrue from those positions, it's an enlightening read. ( )
  Kevinred | Sep 9, 2021 |
White is fascinating: he has precisely two tools in his kit, and when they're working, I couldn't care less about his failure to, you know, structure his books or think through his incredibly vague ideas. When the two tools aren't working, I can't stomach more than about 15 pages at a time.

Luckily, in 'Riders', White is at or near peak. As seasoned readers will know, White can't focus on more than two people at a time, which means that almost every scene/chapter/section/book he's ever written involves two or fewer people. Here, I do not care, because the individuals are so fascinating--whether they fill me with joy, as in the case of Mordecai; with hatred for my country, as in with Dubbo (a victim of it) or the Mrses Jolley and Flack (the victors); love, as with Mrs Godbold; or deep ambivalence, as with Miss Hare. And their interactions are things of stupendous wonder.

I do not care about White's failings, because he hits you over the head with things like:

"Where fippancy is absent, truth can only be inferred"

and

"I am afraid it may soon be forgotten that our being a people does not relieve us of individual obligations" (I can't help but wonder if White and Arendt stole each other's ideas)

and, gloriously--I say this as someone who isn't much impressed by descriptions in literature--

"the plump, shiny, maculated birds, neither black nor grey, but of a common, bird colour, were familiar as her own instinct for air and twigs. And one bird touched her deeply, clinging clumsily to a cornice. Confusion had robbed it of its grace, making it a blunt thing, of ruffled gills."

The flipping and flopping between incredible precision--plump, shiny, maculated, ruffled gills--and intentional generalities--bird colour, a blunt thing; the way the initial hards cs pile up higher and higher, and then, just when you think you're done, he throws in one more to start the final sentence, and then lets you relax into grace: not many can pull that off. Don't worry, the bird is okay in the end, too. Similarly, there's a scene at the end of chapter 12, too long to quote, in which a train makes its way through the city, which is simply too good.

Well, well. It is also, in the end, a book about how good will triumph over evil, and how nature mysticism, art, the major world religions and general kindness are all one, and all good. The plot is a fine, but overly schematic, retelling of the great world religious myths. That's okay. White, like Joyce, is a great wordsmith, and it would be silly to read him for ideas--not because his ideas are bad or wrong, but they are uninteresting. I, too, hope that good triumphs over evil.

But that train in the city: "Sodom had not been softer, silkier at night than the sea gardens of Sydney. The streets of Ninevah had not clanged with such metal. The waters of Babylon had not sounded sadder than the sea, ending on a crumpled beach, in a scum of French-letters." Nobody is better than White at coming close to intellectual and aesthetic collapse and somehow saving his sentences with a phrase. ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Patrick Whiteprimary authorall editionscalculated
Malouf, DavidIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Patrick White's brilliant 1961 novel, set in an Australian suburb, intertwines four deeply different lives. An Aborigine artist, a Holocaust survivor, a beatific washerwoman, and a childlike heiress are each blessed-- and stricken-- with visionary experiences that may or may not allow them to transcend the machinations of their fellow men. Tender and lacerating, pure and profane, subtle and sweeping, "Riders in the Chariot" is one of the Nobel Prize winner's boldest books.

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