Wednesday, July 27, 2011
originally published, 1957
Voss is, on the surface, a novel of historical fiction set in colonial Australia. It is also, paraphrasing the blurb on the back of my copy, a novel that deals with the inner (and in some cases exterior) battles faced by the people of this novel, but above all those of the main character, Voss. It is the author's fourth novel, following The Living and the Dead, The Aunt's Story, and The Tree of Man, none of which I have read. Voss is an example of modernist literature, and although the novel garnered a great deal of criticism when it first came out, it seems that readers today seem to be more appreciative of this book. The main character is, according to several sources, modeled after a Prussian naturalist named Friedrich Wilhelm Ludwig Leichhard, who made two overland expeditions exploring Australia. The first was successful; the second less so, as Leichhard vanished into the arid inland desert, at that time inhabited only by indigenous tribes. The novel is extremely complex, filled with symbolism and I believe a literature professor could offer a year-long course on this book. It's also one of the most character-driven novels I've ever read.
At the heart of this story are the two main characters, Johann Ulrich Voss,and Laura Trevelyan, the niece of Voss' expedition sponsor, Mr. Bonner. Laura is relatively new to New South Wales and has come to live her aunt, uncle and cousin. They meet when Voss, who has already been in Australia for just over two years, shows up at the Bonner home to meet his patron. Voss is planning to cross the continent on foot; Bonner has made all of the expedition's arrangements. But prior to Voss heading out for parts unknown, he and Laura meet a few times; each time they come to learn a little more about each other, and Laura's life, although she doesn't quite know it yet, is forever changed. Eventually, the first party departs, being carried by ship to meet up with the rest of the crew as well as two Aboriginals. The expedition is off -- Voss is now a pilgrim, heading for the interior, and from the outset, things begin to fall apart, only getting worse as time goes on: the challenge of the deadly, arid deserts; loss of a great many of their animals; a slog through an impossibly sodden landscape, and a rainfall that seemingly will not end. And things only get worse. While things are happening on the expedition, the action periodically shifts back to Laura, who has not forgotten Voss and who eventually becomes caught up in a strange relationship with the man that in time becomes more of a mystical union, an obsessive co-mingling of souls and minds that transcends the ordinary.
The character of Voss is definitely complex. While he chides Laura for her recent decision to give up on her belief in God, Voss, as it happens, worships only himself -- he lives to know everything, because he believes that "Knowing so much, I shall know everything." Laura, on the other hand, had "read a great deal out of books as had come her way....until her mind seemed to be complete." Voss is "compelled into this country," deciding that rather than study a map of where he's about to go, he will "first make it." Arrogant, self centered and somewhat deceitful, Voss was once told by a Moravian monk that he has a "contempt for God, because He is not in your own image." He longs for those who will follow him, but will not listen to others, eschewing advice that in some cases turns out to be badly needed, preferring to do things his way. Voss seems to have has ulterior motives for being the first to explore and to cross the continent, none of which have to do with the scientific, economic or any other kind of data his benefactors are looking for. His journey is less concerned with the physical and more concerned with the mind. He is a tortured man, and often seems to be at war within himself. Part of him wants to be God and he acts upon this desire all through the expedition; yet ultimately he comes to realize that he has "always been most abominably frightened, even at the height of his divine power, a frail god upon a rickety throne, afraid of opening letters, of making decisions, afraid of the instinctive knowledge in the eyes of mules, of the innocent eyes of good men, of the elastic nature of the passions, even of the devotion he had received from some men, and one woman, and dogs." But ultimately, his quest for knowledge and the wild interior of Australia do him in; consume him, so to speak.
And all the while, Voss' spiritual quest finds a mirror in Laura, back at home. When all is said and done, Laura, now 26 and resigned to her fate as headmistress of a local girls' school and old maid, has championed Voss and his expedition, noting that "His legend will be written down, eventually, by those who are troubled by it." She will hear nothing that detracts -- above all, because of what ultimately becomes of Voss, he's become a mythological figure, providing a piece of the colonists' newly emerging cultural identity as Australians. As one person remarks to Laura, "We are in every way provided for, by God and nature, and consequently, must survive" to which Laura states "Oh, yes, a country with a future. But when does the future become present? That is what always puzzles me."
I liked this book immensely. I won't even pretend to get all of the symbolism, religious and otherwise, and I see some gnostic elements throughout the book that I could spend hours thinking about. But there's so much more in this story. The writing is beautiful, but often tough, sometimes reading like a 19th-century narrative, and took quite a long while to read. It's also very complicated, with many mystical components. One of the best parts of this book and in the author's writing is in how he deals with the aboriginal people. His portrayal of their world view and their relationship to the environment is amazing, as is how he treated them dealing with their fears and resentment of strange white people invading their territory. But it is above all the characters that drive this novel, especially those of Voss and Laura, but each character has a symbolic role of some sort to play. Voss is definitely a challenge, and I recommend it to the bravest of readers! I think I'll be going back to it some day for a reread.