This post is for the Patrick White readers group.
I missed commenting on chapters 1-3, so we’re up to 4 and 5 now. By now, this big, baggy Howl’s Moving Castle of a novel has truly hit its stride. The Vivisector is a big, raucous, messy thing, with hair sticking out of its apertures and stinky breath. It traces the life of an uncompromising artist from his grittily portrayed working class beginnings through a kind of Rake’s Progress of urban adventures, embracing the extremes of experience from the poor Bottle-o’s family, boarding-house culture and prostitutes to the drawing rooms of the rich and cultured. And everything in between.
Quite a few people complain about it. Does it have Portrait of the Artist elements? Does it contain selfindulgent cliches of the gifted young man alienated from society and his peers? Yes, and yes. It’s long, lurching and– something many readers can’t stomach– definitely not “plot driven”. That’s no hardship to me, because all my favourite novels are heavy on dialogue and character. Plot, to me, is a bonus. In The Vivisector, the protagonist, Hurtle Duffield, simply muddles through the different stages of his life as an artist and as an eccentric, who carries his own little cloud of chaos around him, much like the cloud of dust around the Peanuts character Pigpen (who he sometimes resembles.) Both women and men from every stratum of Sydney society are drawn to him, which makes for some interesting situations.
In chapters 4 and 5, having been de facto “sold” by his parents to the well-to-do Courtney family, Hurtle – now reverting to his old name Duffield – turns his back on their world and plunges once again into Sydney slum life. Chapter four, which is very long, is divided between an inner city boarding house and “greasy spoon” and the bush shack which Hurtle moves to in order to paint, living in solitude like a mad anchorite.
Chapter four is also the Rabelaisian story of his first love affair with the prostitute Nance, and I want to say more about that but I’m worried about spoilage; so, more about that when it’s time to do chapters 6 and 7. I loved the sheer earthy exuberance of the language. If anyone’s hesitant to read White because of the Australian prejudice against elites and elitism, please don’t be put off. This writing is anything but prim and intellectual.
Here’s a passage which many Book Groupers loved:
‘I thought to make a puddun, Mrs Lightfoot, but am fucked for fat,’ the old woman said. ‘Could you loan me a penny or two for suet?’
Hurtle the artist, and lover, is a bit like a big, drippy, confused expressionist painting himself.
…there stood the tree studies of Nance propped on a converted balcony after the style of Nance’s own*. Two of the versions had gone so cold he dropped the parcel of fish scraps. He rushed, mumbling moaning for his own shortcomings, and kicked the boards into a corner. Then he got down, and tried to help the abortive paint with his fingers, but already it had hardened. Only the black-and-white drawing of the spreadeagled female form coaxing fire out of a grate led him to hope; thought he kicked that too, more gently, up the arse. He thew himself on the floor, and lay there functionless, till the abrasive carpet began to grow meaningful, under his cheek, and in his mind.
After chapter four ends in tragedy, chapter 5 is a kind of stocktaking. Hurtle muses about his recent life story with a stranger, while creating a surreal and obscene work of art from the landscape around them.
Published in 1970, when the new hippie-alternative-lifestyle culture was in flower, it’s interesting that White creates a central character who takes a similar way of life to the extreme, while placing him in a 1940s setting.
It’s a good read. Try to hunt it down if you can.