The poetically writhing words of Patrick White's Voss imbue the novel's inanimate world with a life commonly attributed to humankind alone: darkness strangles, the sun cauterizes, leaves slash at one another, rain sighs, and dawn shrieks with jubilation as red light flows out along the veins of morning. Such anthropomorphizing imagery reinforces a view of the protagonist's voyage of discovery into Australia's heart as a metaphor for the inner journey beckoning us all.
Few, however, much less those seeking consolation in worldly achievements and society's pretensions, dare venture into the uncharted desert that illumines the soul. Johann Ulrich Voss, a proud, resilient and fiercely independent German with the first touches of grey in his beard, is obsessed by a long-held ambition to cross the immense island-continent. To this misanthrope possessed of seemingly unshakeable belief in his own divinity, the future is nothing but will, its antithesis compassion, grace, humility, repentance, human frailty.
Before escaping the strictures of Victorian Sydney, by chance he meets his sponsor's niece, Laura Trevelyan, a sensitive young woman vacillating in the darkness between atheism and faith, rationalism and God, pride and humility. Despite their few encounters, when the explorer leads his expedition up the coast and turns one morning to follow his shadow into the searing unknown, he is embarking on a voyage leading ever more deeply into an inescapable love between Laura - the feminine side of his Jungian subconscious - and himself.
Their mystical journey together, stripped bare of obfuscating flesh by the tyranny of distance, penetrates into a vast land. As unforgiving as the outback, this unfamiliar realm is governed by an irrationality that confounds human plans and perceptions, and erodes hubris and obstinate self-belief. United by a love born high above the expedience of mundane coupledom, as their physical separation increases, and long after correspondence by letter has become impossible, they draw ever closer. It is testament to the author's imaginative powers and his skill as a novelist that their transcendent union, despite the hundreds of miles between them, is consummated with a wedding and newborn child.
Without marching towards one's own destruction, there can be no humility and therefore no love. Voss and his small party are gradually worn down over the months by the rigours of their journey and the hidden allegiances unearthed by their tribulations. Laura's love, burning with anxious awareness of the leader's fallibility, spreads into the fissures appearing in his beleaguered resolve, prising cracks still wider in a series of dreams shattering erstwhile convictions. In striving to cross these landscapes of land and love, in which all are destined to suffer and fail, the human soul is ultimately liberated to return into a God omnipresent in the very physicality of the earthly environment itself.
Who hasn't rejoiced before a field, a river, an expansive sky, and perhaps tried to capture its essence in words or paint, on film or even as music, just as Voss, albeit more disturbingly, endeavours to take the entire country within his stride? Earth, trees, rocks, sky, air, and indeed all physical forms, are objects of love, illimitable repositories of the all-encompassing whole that is our dreams and our struggles to live as human beings. They absorb and preserve our spirit. To try to depict our physical environs, to strive to encompass them in a journey itself destined to failure, is to create a self-portrait.
This is an ancient wisdom possessed by the many aborigines the party encounters, peoples who in their veneration for the harsh land they inhabit recognize this terrain as their history and all that they are, as the terrestrial home of their revered Great One. To push into the interior in a vainglorious and inevitably futile attempt to conquer the exalted residence and all it signifies is to invoke His wrath, to bring the Great Snake down from the sky in anger.
We all have deserts to cross. Voss grapples in the Australian wilderness with the rocks of his own prejudice and hatred. But he himself is also a desert, vast and ugly by Laura's accurate reckoning. Immured in hide-bound Sydney, capital of coin and kindly conceit, itself no less a desert than the country's scorching centre, she travels the path of love into this man possessed. Only through setting off on such voyages of discovery into the interior, in the final analysis into our own misunderstanding, do we bring life and love to deserts real and metaphysical - to life and love themselves. As a sage Laura senses long after the expedition is over, 'perhaps true knowledge only comes of death by torture in the country of the mind'.
As White acknowledges in his autobiography, Flaws in the Glass, this novel has a basis in the nineteenth-century expeditions led by the German explorer Leichardt. And years before Voss was written, the seed of its eponymous character was sown in the mind of a sexually repressed wartime intelligence officer unhappily required to censor his own men's letters in the isolation of the Egyptian desert, at a time when all lived in the shadow of 'that greater German megalomaniac'.
But moving irretrievably beyond history, the novel is the product of a creative act to which the spurs are many and various, not least White's frequent respiratory afflictions. Writing the shocking denouement in the desert was fuelled by bronchitis, Bartok's Violin Concerto and a scathing review of the author's most recent book.
Although White did not rank Voss among his top three novels, this best-known of his masterpieces is but one offering from a man who dared to set off into the unmapped desert. Like the struggles of the painter in The Vivisector, the settlers in The Tree of Man and the author himself, Voss's is an epic journey deep into the human condition. On this enlightening voyage, it seems ever less extraordinary when dresses, too, sigh, muscles and hair dream, spurs and complexions accuse, men glimmer or glitter coldly, even kindness cauterizes, and the arches of one's feet become exasperated.