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Riders in the Chariot [Paperback]

Patrick White , David Malouf
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

April 30 2002 New York Review Books Classics
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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Review

A poetically vivid narrative…It is a finely written novel with a rare flavor.
— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Riders in the Chariot is the most compassionate and the most beautiful of all Patrick White’s works; colours fly everywhere; his words, comic, ecstatic, are like the brushstrokes on a canvas by Nolan or Blake.
— Carmen Callil and Colm Tóibín, The Modern Library: The 200 Best Novels in English Since 1950

Patrick White is an outsider, and his characters are outsiders, outlaws, afflicted, and linked by their affliction. The visionary element in his novels is inseparable from a tough irony and a microscopically close, sometimes savage attention to physical minutiae. The coarser the texture of the physical—of bodies especially—the more likely to be illuminated by flashes of meaning and power.
— Rosemary Dinnage

About the Author

Patrick White (1912-1990) was born in London and traveled to Sydney with his Australian parents six months later. White was a solitary, precocious, asthmatic child and at thirteen was sent to an English boarding school, a miserable experience. At eighteen he returned to Australia and worked as a jackaroo on an isolated sheep station. Two years later, he went up to Cambridge, settling afterwards in London, where he published his first two books. White joined the RAF in 1940 and served as an intelligence officer in the Middle East. At war’s end, he and his partner, Manoly Lascaris, bought an old house in a Sydney suburb, where they lived with their four Schnauzers. For the next eighteen years, the two men farmed their six acres while White worked on some of his finest novels, including The Tree of Man(1955), Voss (1957), and Riders in the Chariot (1961). When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1973, he did not attend the ceremony but, with his takings and some of his own money, created an award to help older writers who hadn’t received their due: the first recipient was Christina Stead. Late in life, when asked for a list of his loves, White responded: “Silence, the company of friends, unexpected honesty, reading, going to the pictures, dreams, uncluttered landscapes, city streets, faces, good food, cooking small meals, whisky, sex, pugs, the thought of an Australian republic, my ashes floating off at last.”

David Malouf is a novelist and poet. His novel The Great Worldwas awarded the Commonwealth Prize and Remembering Babylon was short-listed for the Booker Prize. He has received the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Los Angeles TimesBook Award. He lives in Sydney, Australia.

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Customer Reviews

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Most helpful customer reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Worth the Effort April 21 2004
By JR Dunn
Format:Paperback
Yeah, he's Australian, and a Nobel Laureate to boot, two immediate strikes against any serious literary interest. His prose is so thick it could be used to reinforce concrete. His characters run the gamut from the Symbolic to the Deeply Symbolic, and have a tendency to climb onto soapboxes at the drop of a digger hat (often to ludicrous effect, as at the end of "Voss", where the 19th-century characters turn their backs on the business at hand--the death of a noted explorer--to spend the final pages on a 20th-century-style debate concerning the Status of Australian Literature). It often seems as if he went out of his way to adapt only the worst traits of his master, Dostoevsky, while tossing all the worthwhile ones.
But there's something to Patrick White, and this novel is where it all came together for him. Anthony Burgess, unlike the Nobel committee, didn't select this as one of his 99 great novels simply to shoehorn an Aussie onto the list, and there's a touch of the Burgessian in this novel's sprawl and reach. The characters, especially Alf Dubbo and Mrs. Godbold, stand well apart from whatever it is they're supposed to Represent. Although it occasionally falls to the level of a morality play, the story gains power as it progresses--one of the chief benefits of writing at this length. And though the climax, embodied in the murder of the Holocaust survivor Mordecai Himmelfarb, has its flaws (the author of "Days of Cain" can tell you that subtlety is the chief requirement for dealing with the Holocaust--the subject is simply too vast to handle otherwise), the conclusion is satisfying on all levels, with no (well, very little) last-minute thumping of the lectern on the author's part.
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5.0 out of 5 stars world masterpiece Dec 23 2003
Format:Hardcover
This is certainly one of the great masterpieces of world literature. There were occasionally some Australian slang or particular terms that I didn't understand but it did not detract from my immense enjoyment, and ultimate catharsis I derived from reading this novel. The character of Himmelfarb will be with me forever, and the other 4 major characters were equally vivid, unique, and profound.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Astonshing. Unforgettable. Sept. 10 2002
Format:Paperback
Riders in the Chariot is a supreme work of art. At least a dozen times, I found White's writing so moving and beautiful that I had to put the book down and reflect on what I'd just read. All too rarely has a book prodded me to deeply examine my own life and priorities -- this book is one of them. Riders in the Chariot provides a reaffirmation for the jaded 21st century reader: humilty over arrogance, beauty over ugliness, good over evil.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Epic scope and mystical significance. July 11 2002
Format:Paperback
This deceptively complex and tension-filled Australian novel begins as the straightforward story of Mary Hare, a strange, half-mad spinster who lives in Xanadu, a crumbling "pleasure dome," with the busybody Mrs. Jolley, a servant she fears. At various times in her meanderings, Mary meets a kind laundress named Mrs. Godbold, who lives in a shed with her nine children; Alf Dubbo, an often-drunk aborigine artist; and Mordecai Himmelfarb, a Jewish concentration camp survivor who has emigrated to Australia and now works in a machine shop.
In succeeding sections, in which these characters overlap, their intricate interior lives are developed in colorful, memorable detail, and the reader quickly sees that each is a lonely survivor of some traumatic experience which has made him/her question the nature of good and evil. Each hopes to unravel some of the mysteries at the center of the universe. Remarkably, all of them have experienced the same apocalyptic vision of a chariot being drawn by four horses galloping into a shimmering future.
In the hands of a lesser writer, the characters, their daily lives, and their vision of the chariot might have been presented in a sentimental or romantic way, or even been used to illustrate the author's religious views. But White's view of the chariot and its importance is far subtler--and more enigmatic--than that, and its role in the lives of these characters is both unsentimental and haunting. Tantalizing parallels between the vision of the chariot and the mysteries of Revelations, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and the Seven Seals, along with Biblical warnings about blood, fire, and destruction will keep a symbol-hunter totally engaged.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  16 reviews
51 of 51 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Epic scope and mystical significance. July 11 2002
By Mary Whipple - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This deceptively complex and tension-filled Australian novel begins as the straightforward story of Mary Hare, a strange, half-mad spinster who lives in Xanadu, a crumbling "pleasure dome," with the busybody Mrs. Jolley, a servant she fears. At various times in her meanderings, Mary meets a kind laundress named Mrs. Godbold, who lives in a shed with her nine children; Alf Dubbo, an often-drunk aborigine artist; and Mordecai Himmelfarb, a Jewish concentration camp survivor who has emigrated to Australia and now works in a machine shop.

In succeeding sections, in which these characters overlap, their intricate interior lives are developed in colorful, memorable detail, and the reader quickly sees that each is a lonely survivor of some traumatic experience which has made him/her question the nature of good and evil. Each hopes to unravel some of the mysteries at the center of the universe. Remarkably, all of them have experienced the same apocalyptic vision of a chariot being drawn by four horses galloping into a shimmering future.

In the hands of a lesser writer, the characters, their daily lives, and their vision of the chariot might have been presented in a sentimental or romantic way, or even been used to illustrate the author's religious views. But White's view of the chariot and its importance is far subtler--and more enigmatic--than that, and its role in the lives of these characters is both unsentimental and haunting. Tantalizing parallels between the vision of the chariot and the mysteries of Revelations, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and the Seven Seals, along with Biblical warnings about blood, fire, and destruction will keep a symbol-hunter totally engaged. At the same time, more literal readers will find the stories and characters so firmly grounded in the reality of 1960's Australia, that they are captivating in their own right and may be taken, and thoroughly enjoyed, at face value.

This is a huge novel, an old-fashioned saga of fascinating characters living their lives the best way they can, while wrestling with issues of epic significance. The author's primary concern with telling a good story never falters, despite the overlay of mysticism, and the leisurely pace and fully realized dramatic action make this a totally fulfilling reading experience. Mary Whipple
32 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Astonshing. Unforgettable. Sept. 10 2002
By Edward McGowan - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Riders in the Chariot is a supreme work of art. At least a dozen times, I found White's writing so moving and beautiful that I had to put the book down and reflect on what I'd just read. All too rarely has a book prodded me to deeply examine my own life and priorities -- this book is one of them. Riders in the Chariot provides a reaffirmation for the jaded 21st century reader: humilty over arrogance, beauty over ugliness, good over evil.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Down And Out Down Under Oct. 29 2005
By Daniel Myers - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is not a particularly cheery book. It deals with the lives of outcasts and what we today would, callously, call freaks. The book, while it does go into meticulous detail of the biographical material of the main characters' respective lives, is not primarily concerned with these elements. The book is centred around the visionary, otherworldly qualities of each, particularly a shared vision each of the four main characters has of a chariot mentioned in the book of Ezekiel.-This quality separates them from the world and people around them, which are clearly meant to be disparaged.-As Miss Hare cogitates in regard to the danger one of these normal people, Mrs Jolley: "But she did sense some danger to the incorporeal, the more significant part of her."-That significant part in all the four characters is the essential matter of the book.

Other people in the book are given to insubstantial matters, cruelty, and obliviousness, frequently rendered comically by White:

The other ladies glanced at her skin, which was white and almost unprotected, whereas they themselves had shaded their faces, with orange, with mauve, even with green, not so much to impress one another, as to give them the courage to confront themselves (p.323)

All very well. But it is this Manichean dualism between the saintly four characters and, well, everybody else which leads me to refrain from giving it five stars. Anyone who has encountered the world in its chaos of identities, acts of kindness, visionary aspects, thuggish and sadistic aspects knows that we all carry in us both the visionary, sensitive private individualism of the main characters, on the one hand, and the thuggish herd instinct of----everyone else in this book.

Still, it's well worth the read. White is a remarkable writer, and the work, despite my misgivings, is one every thoughtful person should not merely have on his or her bookshelf, but have read, from beginning to end. Its insights into prelinguistics subconscious perception are not to be surpassed---anywhere.
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The amazing richness of literature and mysticism April 21 2005
By Alekos - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
About a quarter of the way into this book I realized I was reading a brilliant treatise on mystical theology written in the form of a novel. This is a magnificent piece of work that brings together several realms of meaning, various settings, and divergent attitudes and dispositions about what it means to be truly human and live among other humans. There are four major protagonists of widely differing backgrounds. Each represents a peculiar moral stance that makes them capable of some unexpected actions and disables them with regard to others. Most of the action takes place in and around Sydney, Australia, but there are "lead up" sections in England and Germany. Mary Hare is ugly, less than intelligent, and stark raving mad. She lives in a crumbling mansion and experiences difficulty in trying to communicate with other people. For her, words are fragile and sometimes breakable and people use them in cruel ways. Yet she is an attractive personality whom we come to like because she is described from the inside. That is, we know what she feels, suffers and, most of all, remembers. Himmelfarb is a German Jew, a brilliant professor of philosophy whose father inexplicably converts to Christianity, thereby causing his mother to fade slowly away from sadness and a sense of being betrayed and victimized. He escapes the "final solution" by immigrating to Australia and taking a meaningless job in a factory owned by another German Jew who has also "converted." Ruth Godbold, a saintly laundress who lives in a shed with four daughters and an abusive husband, communicates mainly through acts of kindness. She nurses Mary Hare during a long illness and takes care of Himmelfarb in his last agony when some redneck thugs at the factory try to crucify him. Alf Dubbo, a native Australian brought up by religious people whose religiosity is questionable, develops his talent at painting and communicates through art. His ability to make moral decisions is confounded by his early experience with the preacher who kept sticking his hand into Alf's trousers.

These four have little contact and less communication with each other. None of them understands what the others are saying, except in a pre-linguistic sense. At a certain level, they already know what the others are saying, but they know it on a non-conscious level, like the prophets of the Hebrew Bible (whence the book's title is derived).

These four major personages suffer physically and morally and profoundly. This book zeroes in on the reality of human suffering and shows that we suffer or cause others to suffer because of some flaw in our own characters, in the sense of Sophocles. This is not, of course, the "message" of the novel (novels don't have messages; we all know that). More importantly, we see throughout the book the collective and communitarian dimension of suffering and its intellectual connections to some prophetic books of the Old Testament that emphasize the unitary nature of humankind and the need for a "suffering servant" to atone and expiate for the sins of others.

As a prose stylist, Patrick White is impressive, maybe supreme. This is the most well written book I have read in many years. His sentences are beautifully fragmented and fractured. His language (use of adjectives, etc.) is extraordinarily rich. In fact, it is gorgeous. Words and ideas have colors and smells. He omits unnecessary direct-object pronouns and even definite articles. Even the sound of his prose is amazingly satisfying: he makes liberal use of alliteration, especially in initial consonants, but in other contexts as well. Figures and tropes abound, even zeugma. And finally, if anyone wants an example of a memorable sentence, let me offer this one from page 26:

Mrs. Hare had soon taken refuge from Mary in a rational kindness, with which she continued to deal her a series of savage blows during what passed for childhood.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The richest novel in the world June 6 2005
By Magnús Eiðursson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Riders in the Chariot, Patrick White's international superseller at the time, was born from an incident in the late 40s, when a taxi driver, demanding the full fare of the journey from Sydney's Central Station to Petty's Hotel, was refused by White and began screaming "Go back to Germany!" White later confessed: "I think it was this more than anything which persuaded me to write the novel Riders". Fortunately, such germ was the foundation of one, perhaps the greatest, of the 20th century literary monuments, dense as the greatest novels are, but fleshy in the end, too much indeed. It is a plotless novel-as are most works by White, and if there's a plot, its one of living and surviving. The novel traces the lives of the 4 characters from their origin to their ends (something White is an undoubtful master doing, and White puts his hand on marvellous devices of narration as stream of conscioussness, epiphanies and of course, the wonderful and hillarious use of adjectives, though sometimes the image, nearer to incongruency but finally well put, is difficult to convey.

The chariot, itself, was familiar to Blake, Ovid, the apocalyptic writers of the Bible and to Redon. In White's chariot, as David Marr reported, "the riders are those who have known illumination as he had experienced it in mystical ecsatsy, in creation, music", etc. White wrote, according to his letters (to his Viking editor Ben Huebsch in February 1959): "What I want to emphasise through my four "Riders" - an orthodox refugee intellectual Jew, a mad Erdgeist of an Australian spinster, an evangelical laundress, and a half-caste Aboriginal painter- is that all faiths, whether religious, humanistic, instinctive, or the creative artist's act of praise, are in fact one". And for example, is a brilliant detail that in general, the novel is a study of GOOD people pitted against EVIL; nowadays... how nice!

Riders in the Chariot is not a novel easy to read, neither meant to be read to relax. As one of the 40 best Australian books ever, it's a work of pleasure for the deep and restless mind. A novel written to music, something important to the writer and the reader, and like a baroque piece exhibiting a down-to-earth accumulation of detail, this work is a must for anyone interested in the best literature of the past century and an innovative psychological narrative art that, in the hands of this Australian Nobel Prize winner, soars to the highest ranks.
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