Where to start with this towering novel by Patrick White? The fact that I finished reading it yesterday evening. That when I started reading it, a couple of months ago, the handsome hardback I bought on our short trip to Lewes, I immediately felt rejuvenated. Here was a book, a writer, I really wanted to read. Every sentence startles. It’s exhilarating, daring, often caustic writing. I’m reassured, yes, Patrick White does warrant his place right up there in my literary pantheon (I’m sure he’ll rest easy in his grave in that knowledge). The nice coincidence that the bookmark I randomly picked to accompany me on my journey through The Vivisector, a ‘Hill of Content Bookshop’ bookmark, reproducing signatures from their Visitors’ Book, includes the autograph of Patrick White on one side, and Sidney Nolan on the other. Sidney Nolan, the painter, to whom the book is dedicated, along with his then wife Cynthia; and on whose life and art White must have drawn, in part at least, for The Vivisector’s protagonist, Hurtle Duffield. The price White paid, apparently, was the end of their friendship.
Many of White’s recurring themes are here – a spiritual quest that is ultimately futile yet has to be pursued; the thin social veneer that hides (but does not diminish) individual suffering; the squeamish horror of failed relationships between human beings, coupled with the impossibility of avoiding such interaction. No one “does” cruelty, abasement, pathos and disgust quite like Patrick White. He evokes vulnerability with quintessentially White-ian images – a man’s hairy wrists, or a thread of skin from hot milk dangling from a lip. I found affinities with Beckett, too, for the first time, elements of slapstick and farcical dialogue.
From the wonderfully vivid and unsentimental portrayal of Duffield’s childhood (his growing awareness of his difference, his separateness from both his blood and his adoptive family), through his development as a painter (with the small matter of two World Wars as backdrop) to the point where he is feted by an establishment he loathes, White’s depiction of Duffield’s creative process, or his inner life if you like, strikes me as true, and a great achievement. Towards the end of his life, Duffield suffers a stroke, and the language in this passage, as he struggles to claw himself back to a state where he can paint again, is a tour de force of jumbled images, confused and partial words, and comic elisions. There is also an extended bravura section describing the excruciating private view of Duffield’s retrospective at the State Gallery. White, amongst many other things, was a master of scathing social satire.
2012 marks the centenary of Patrick White’s birth. Definitely time to dust off and rediscover the work of this cantankerous, flamboyant and brilliant writer.