What is in a name?
So said some dude with a beard. Well, the answer is quite a lot, as it happens. I once knew a man with the surname Dicker, and it nearly ruined his life. According to the man himself people mercilessly took the piss, girls were embarrassed to date him, he couldn’t get a job, etc, and as a result he became so ultra-sensitive about it that he lost all confidence in himself. I think it is fair to say, then, that a name can colour how one sees a particular person or thing. I mention this because Patrick White was a man who clearly had problems with naming his novels; indeed, his chosen titles seem almost designed to put you off, to make them seem as unappealing as possible. The Aunt’s Story? Gawd. Riders in the Chariot? Sounds like some made for TV film. Tree of Man? My favourite, that one. If there’s a title more suggestive of pretentious, worthy and dull I’ve yet to encounter it. No one wants to read a book called Tree of Man, just like no one wants to date a dude called Dicker. It is no surprise, in this regard, that White’s most popular, his most famous works, are Voss and The Vivisector. Great titles, those. On name alone, one anticipates that The Vivisector is either going to be great or fantastically ridiculous, or at least entertainingly bad. In reality, it is a little of all three.
Before I finished this book I was convinced that my reading days might be coming to an end. I mean, reading in meant to be fun, right? I wasn’t having fun, quite the opposite. I’ve always chosen books meticulously, but when you spend longer weighing up the pros and cons of reading a bunch of books than you would actually spend reading them from cover-to-cover you know you’ve taken a wrong turn somewhere, mentally. So, as I come to write this review I guess I have to try to understand why I could finish this book and why I liked it, especially as it is not perfect, is not without its flaws. Patrick White could write like a motherfucker, and that helps of course. But my appreciation is based on more than that, because all of his novels are beautifully written and I’ve given up or abandoned a few over the last couple of weeks. In any case, of the White novels I’ve read or sampled, this one, on a stylistic basis, is the least sophisticated, least like it has come from an alien brain.
The problem with, say, something like Tree of Man, which houses prose to die for, is that it suffers from a lack of [essential] humanity, some deftness/lightness of touch. It is too foreboding, too suffocating, too intense. The Vivisector, however, despite its ominous title, boasts, at least in the opening section, a Dickensian charm. Indeed, the plot is straight out of Dickens’ world: Hurtle Duffield is an extraordinary boy born to ordinary [and poor] parents. His mother starts work as a laundress with a wealthy family to whom she eventually sells the boy; this boy grows up to be a famous, and self-absorbed, painter. It is to White’s great credit that The Vivisector transcends this fairy-tale scenario, that he breathes life into most of the [sometimes pretty rote] characters. Yet even when he doesn’t quite manage to do so, as is the case with Hurtle’s biological mother [who is entirely one-dimensional], they are treated with greater warmth and affection by the author than is usually the case. And this is a novel that needs it – that warmth, that twinkle in the eye – because it had the potential to be too scathing, too dour and in love with itself.
[Two Studies for Self Portrait by Francis Bacon, 1977]
My favourite character in the novel is not Hurtle, but Mrs Courtney, the boy’s adoptive parent. She’s a kind of Woolfian heroine: elegant, eccentric, and quietly losing her mind. She, one assumes, buys Hurtle as a kind of substitute for the hunchbacked daughter she herself produced [and there’s an interesting distinction here, the poor parents producing a genius and the well-to-do ones producing a kind of cripple]. This daughter, Rhoda, is a difficult, largely unaffectionate child and Hurtle is expected to better play the role of dutiful offspring, to be a son that his wealthy parents can be proud of. However, Hurtle’s and Mrs Courtney’s relationship has a more sinister or erotic fragrance. From the beginning there was a sense that they were perhaps too close, or liked each other in a way that wasn’t platonic, or simply parent-child. There is a complex dynamic here: Mrs Courtney, who suspects her husband of infidelity, chooses a boy to perhaps please him [as heir]. Yet from her own perspective, Hurtle isn’t only a substitute child but a substitute husband too. Hurtle, on the other hand, is drawn to Mrs Courtney not as a mother, but sees in her, well, art itself I guess, or something exotic and beautiful like art. All of this is brought together in one of the novel’s most memorable passages, the erotically charged scene when Hurtle is shoved by Mrs Courtney into her wardrobe full of dresses. As Hurtle’s senses are overwhelmed, as he has some sort of sensual reverie, Mrs Courtney likens the boy to a dog which must have its nose rubbed in your scent in order for it to know you as its master.
At least in the first part of the novel, it is the development of an artistic consciousness that is White’s greatest achievement. From a very young age Hurtle is different, precocious; he notices things that one would not expect, and comes to find some outlet for his feelings and observations, his acute interest in the world, in what he calls ‘droring.’ In the first 150 pages there are numerous clever and wonderful scenes involving his awakening as an artist, like when he covers the walls of his room with paint, or his fascination with the Courtney’s ‘shandeleer,’ itself a work of art. If you’re ever been artistically or creatively inclined, then these passages will likely touch or interest you a lot.
“They walked on rather aimlessly. He hoped she wouldn’t notice he was touched, because he wouldn’t have known how to explain why. Here lay the great discrepancy between aesthetic truth and sleazy reality.”
The second half of book, based on reviews I have read, is where many readers fall out of love with White’s work. Once Hurtle grows up and moves away from the Courtney’s the book is certainly less charming, less likeable [not necessarily less enjoyable]. I’ve used the word pretentious a couple of times, and it’s a word, an accusation, frequently levelled at the book. I don’t quite get that. I think it says more about the reader than White or his characters. Adult Hurtle takes his art seriously, of course, but pretentious he isn’t, quite the opposite: he struggles with his work, criticises it, and often believes that he fails to realise his vision. I think people throw the word pretentious around simply because Hurtle is an artist, and it makes a certain kind of person’s toes curl to read about the artistic process or to read discussion of art. My advice on that score would be for these people to, uh, avoid books about artists in the future.
“It was you who taught me how to see, to be, to know instinctively. When I used to come to your house in Flint Street, melting with excitement and terror, wondering whether I would dare go through it again, or whether I would turn to wood, or dough, or say something so stupid and tactless you would chuck me out into the street, it wasn’t simply thought of the delicious kisses and all the other lovely play which forced courage into me. It was the paintings I used to look at sideways whenever I got the chance. I wouldn’t have let on, because I was afraid you might have been amused, and made me talk about them, and even more amused when I couldn’t discuss them at your level. But I was drinking them in through the pors of my skin.”
I would say that Hurtle’s position as supersized bastard is overstated too. Nearly every review wants to make a point of what a See-You-Next-Tuesday he is, and I don’t really get that. Cantankerous? Maaaaybe, but, no, not really. I’d say he has a fairly healthy bullshit detector. His greatest character flaw, if it is indeed a flaw, is his inability to emotionally connect with other people. He abandons the Courtney’s without compunction, he fails to respond to his lovers in any way other than artistically, and never appears to be greatly touched or upset by their suffering [suffering they seem to cultivate, it is fair to suggest]. If you wanted to label him, then, I’d say you could possibly call him sociopathic, or even autistic, but I think evil, or horrible or detestable are too strong. I will confess, however, that I saw myself in him at times, so perhaps I’m sticking up for myself here.
Before concluding I’d like to come back to that title. What is its significance? It refers to Hurtle himself, of course, and how he approaches relationships with other people. The idea, voiced by many of the characters, is that Hurtle uses other people, particularly women, for his art. People are inspiration, they are there to be taken apart, understood, and used for your own ends; this is, I guess White is suggesting, what it means to be an artist, and he would have seen himself, as a writer, in the same way. However, I think that the title has a broader significance, certainly in relation to God, who is described as the divine vivisector. I don’t have the patience [and you don’t want to read it, I’m sure!] to explore that fully. It is worth noting that almost everyone in the novel uses other people, not just Hurtle [in fact Hurtle is perhaps the most honest person in the book]. Off the top of my head: there’s the Courtney’s who buy a son, and the parents who sell one; there is a couple who collect cats and a child, but who drown the moggies once they get bored of them and also give back the child to her mother; there is a woman who sets Hurtle up with her married friend in order to enjoy, I dunno, the composition [for her the union is something to look at, to experience, like a work of art], there is a husband who uses his wife as decoration and so on and so on.
To sum up then, The Vivisector isn’t easy to love [certainly beyond the first section], contains characters who are not especially likeable [if you want that sort of thing], and does meander towards a conclusion for the last two hundred pages. However, if you are patient, if you’re interested in art or artists, if you like big books with challenging ideas and themes, if you like serious and sometimes ridiculous literature, or if, like me, you’re often accused of being an irascible prick who is at odds with the rest of the human race then you’ll probably get a big kick out of this.