peteg's blog

Patrick White: The Vivisector.

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Sometime last year I signed up at the UNSW Library as an alumnus borrower for $90, optimistically imagining I would scour the shelves for all those books the kids no longer even see, what with all their iTech going bang right in front of the quiet signs while the cockroaches munch on lunch droppings. Conjoined with this was a capricious plan to read some of Patrick White's novels, seeing that at least some of his short stories weren't completely dire, and because Jacob kept joking about me being pretentious enough to attempt Voss.

Well, it pays to start somewhere down the chain. This one from 1970 is reputedly one of his better efforts, and it took me about a month to chug through. As an exemplar of brutalist modernism its only peer in my mind is the UTS tower, and that has rounded corners. The studied scatalogy was perhaps innovative or shocking when published, but is not much of anything now, and that goes double for the Australian patois. This is partly redeemed by White's fluid notions of identity: Hurtle Duffield is sometimes us ("you"), and Ms Hollingrake is the original chameleonic social cypher.

Here White is one type of artist (a writer, a vivisector) trying to capture the life of another (a painter, just possibly ostensibly Sidney Nolan or Francis Bacon) in a series of episodic, periodic portraits. We see the artist as a young man, sold into penury as a plaything of the nouveau riche, and finally post-stroke, as a master who may just have got the last word in. Clearly White put a lot of himself into the curmudgeonly Hurtle Duffield, perhaps with an eye to someone realising the paintings he only sketches with words.

I have to observe the obvious influence of Lolita on the final movement: Kathy's father is an absent Russian, and White knowingly deracinates her with Volkov, slipping singularly to Volkova when she is in her element as a young woman (p531). White opines "It seemed as though the heart were a cupboard one simply had to open: innocence hides nothing; and perfection bears looking at." Shuard is transparently the Quilty character (p534 and earlier), and making him a critic was pretty lame. I didn't get into Hero (Hurtle's Greek mistress), though I did enjoy how Nance loosed his artistic sensibility on his return from the first World War.

As Duffield says to Rhoda about Kathy: "You can't expect more than their art from artists. If you did, you might forget about the art, and die of shame for what they've shown you of mankind." — and that bites White both ways. Maman utters the semi-wise "half of cruelty is thoughtless", but no, it is not thoughtlessness so much as carelessness; being mindful does not preclude klutzing it right up. White treats May Noble, the working class artist (as the Courtney's cook), to the only letter that resonated with me (p178); a beautiful piece of plain speaking. None of this is to say that he misses any opportunity to punish his characters.

David Malouf's Harland's Half Acre covers similar territory, but as I read it well before this book log took form I cannot recall how close these are. It is impossible for me to like or dislike this novel; it was somewhat engaging, superior to Happy Valley, and so I will probably try another one.