Join J M Coetzee And Thomas Keneally In Rediscovering Nobel Laureate Patrick WhiteHurtle Duffield, A Painter, Coldly Dissects The Weaknesses Of Any And All Who Enter His Circle His Sister S Deformity, A Grocer S Moonlight Indiscretion, The Passionate Illusions Of The Women Who Love Him All Are Used As Fodder For His Art It Is Only When Hurtle Meets An Egocentric Adolescent Whom He Sees As His Spiritual Child Does He Experience A Deeper, Treacherous Emotion In This Tour De Force Of Sexual And Psychological Menace That Sheds Brutally Honest Light On The Creative ExperienceFor Than Seventy Years, Penguin Has Been The Leading Publisher Of Classic Literature In The English Speaking World With Than , Titles, Penguin Classics Represents A Global Bookshelf Of The Best Works Throughout History And Across Genres And Disciplines Readers Trust The Series To Provide Authoritative Texts Enhanced By Introductions And Notes By Distinguished Scholars And Contemporary Authors, As Well As Up To Date Translations By Award Winning Translators The very few novels available about art and its makers are little indication of the immense curiosity aroused by the tempting unknown interiors of the artistic mind While it s difficult to put into concise words what exactly about artists fascinate readers, perhaps the kind of questions one would very much like to ask would be easier to phrase What goes on in the mind of an artist How does he she feel What is their experience of the world like Because artists surely are strange creatures, and in these novels about art and their makers lie the prospect of having them offered up on platter, pinned and wriggling, for our imagination to feast on.In The Vivisector, White offers for our consideration the painter Hurtle Duffield The novel mirrors the artist s personality alternately selfish and altruistic, brilliant and brusque, venomous, tender, coarse, cold, amusing and passionate and without passion As the novel begins and ends, so does Duffield, followed from birth till death, and his life unfolds in these pages with a hideous, familiar enchantment of a raw wound For Hurtle is a raw wound, compelled by his nature to feel and remember every impression made upon him from his earliest years, and to feed them to the fire of his art Art Even after scores of all manner of relationships parental, romantic, lustful, brotherly, impermanent , the reader is made to feel that Art is the only thing he has truly loved and lived for.In this intermittently repulsive and ultimately strangely moving record, White s pen moves from the gristly to the sublime with the same poetry as evidenced below He loved the feel of a smooth stone, or to take a flower to pieces, to see what there was inside He loved the pepper tree breaking into light, and the white hens rustling by moonlight in the black branches, and the sleepy sound of the hen shit dropping He could do nothing about it, though Not yet He could only carry all of it in his head Not talk about it Because Mumma and Pa would not have understood They talked about what was right and honest , and the price of things, but people looked down at their plates if you said something was beautiful 10 11 If I ve learnt anything of importance, it was you who taught me, and I thank you for it 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 exictement and terror, wondering whether I would dare go through with 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 the courage in me It was the paintings I used to look at sideways whenever I got a chance I wouldn t have let on, because I was afraid you might have been amused, and made me talk about them, and been even amused when I couldn t discuss them at your level But I was drinking them in through the pores of my skin There was an occasion when I even dared touch one or two of the paintings as I left, because I had to know what they felt like, and however close and exciting it had been to embrace with our bodies, it was a truly consummating love shock to touch those stony surfaces and suddenly glide with my straying fingers into what seemed like endless still water 537 8 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 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 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.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 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 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 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.I would also 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 either 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 others, 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 are the Courtney s who buy a son, and the parents who sell one, there is a couple who collect cats and a child and 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. So I ve started a project, in which I read a couple of things by everyone who won the Nobel for literature No, I m kidding I d rather walk two hundred miles into the middle of nowhere, sit under a freeway bridge, knife myself in the stomach and die slowly over five days in excruciating pain than read things written by most Nobel laureates No, I m reading this because a the cover of this book is freaking amazing and b I m 33 now, and apparently that s the age when culture cringe starts to fade for uppity Australian men, and I realized there were many authors I should really start reading I read The Solid Mandala at university, but only because I was going through a phase of only taking courses with gender or class etc in the title, and it happened to be in the course Gender in Australian Literature SM went completely over my head 14 years later, I m in a much better spot to appreciate White s very dense prose And for the first 400 or so pages I was blown away I repeatedly told my wife that this was the best book I d ever read and so on and so on It felt like a brutal denunciation of everything, first from the perspective of Hurtle Duffield looking at the rest of the world, and then from the perspective of someone looking at Duffield, who is an horrific human being I usually don t like overly descriptive prose, but I was willing to let it slide, because Duffield is meant to be a genius artist it makes sense that he d notice the color of things and the way light works etc I could see some problems with the book even as I was enjoying it so much it s much a composition than a story people from Duffield s past keep showing up again in utterly ridiculous ways But again, I let it slide, because everything else was so great And then it suddenly turns into Lolita without the shame, White tries to make us sympathize with Duffield, and blah blah blah For the first two thirds, this is still an amazingly great book Once the reader s meant to take the overblown Romantic Artist Seeing Into The Truth of Things bullshit seriously, however, I have to tap out All of which is to say White does things with language that stagger me, and I will keep reading his work But when I re read this, I ll stop before The Volkov arrives on the scene well known psychological phenomenon in which Australian assume that a work of art philosophy etc must be bad simply because it was done by an Australian. I did a bit of research on the internet and found out from Wikipedia that this book was dedicated to the painter Sidney Nolan Patrick White denied that the main character Hurtle Duffield was supposed to be Sidney Nolan or any painter for that matter I had never heard of Sidney Nolan I love when books let me discover something new , so for me, the whole time I was reading this book, I kept feeling like Hurtle Duffield was like the painter, Francis Bacon I have done some research on the internet on who Sidney Nolan was, and I must admit I quite like his Ned Kelly series For those of you who don t know who Ned Kelly was, Edward Ned Kelly was a famous Australian bushranger outlaw who has had reached folkloric heroic proportions to many Australians as a Robin Hood type, there is a decent Wikipedia article on him for those who are interested I suppose I can see Duffield as Sidney Nolan but really while I was reading this my mind s eye saw him as a romantic, less sharp but still dissecting Francis Bacon Francis Bacon was an Irish born British painter and not Australian at all and this book takes place in Australia but I never got a real sense of place from this book only of all the people Anyway, as I mentioned before the author claimed that Duffield had no connections to any painters that actually existed, so I suppose it is okay for the reader to associate Duffield with whatever artist they would like This remarkable book is about getting into the mind s eye of the visual artist It is smartly written, and I loved all of the descriptions, even when Hurtle is being mean and insensitive, which he tends to be a lot He is pretty selfish and mainly only concerned with his work, preserving his solitude, and his own outlook on life but also has moments of giving and caring especially as he ages I ended up liking Hurtle Duffield despite some of his flaws I enjoyed some of the other characters in this as well I liked his deformed sister Rhoda I enjoyed the friendly, and sometimes not very friendly banter between Hurtle and Rhoda I enjoyed all the weird details that the author includes about everything I liked knowing all of Duffield s thoughts and all the details of his life from when he is a child, to when he is an old man I enjoyed the language employed by the author It was a bit mean and sharp at times and brutally honest, I almost felt like it was something John Waters would have recommended, maybe he has recommended this book to someone After reading this, I have decided that Patrick White was a brilliant writer I am very glad I have not been put under his dissecting microscope This gets 5 stars and best reads pile. The God PaintingsThis book comes with great peripherals On the cover of the Penguin Classics edition is a superb painting by Jason Freeman, showing an operation on a human eye as brilliant as it is horrifying, the image perfectly captures the mind of the protagonist, Australian painter Hurtle Duffield, whose laser gaze sears into the souls of his subjects, even if he must destroy them in the process You open the cover to find an excellent introduction by fellow Nobelist J M Coetzee, and four pithy epigraphs that suggest the goals of this huge novel, beginning with the painter Ben Nicholson As I see it, painting and religious experience are the same thing , and ending with Rimbaud He becomes beyond all others the great Invalid, the great Criminal, the great Accursed One and the Supreme Knower For he reaches the unknown Cover painting by Jason FreemanAustralia has produced many authors of extraordinary vision, but few can match the scope and moral intensity of Patrick White at his best although Richard Flanagan comes close withGould s Book of Fish, and it takes a Dostoevsky to turn the heat up much higher HisVoss1957 is a masterpiece, beautiful both in its containment and its quest to explode conventional boundariesRiders in the Chariot1961 , by contrast, is a brilliantly unruly study of four very different characters on the fringes of society, linked only by the intensity of their half crazed visions of God One of these four is a self taught, virtually autistic, half caste painter called Alf Dubbo although drunken and dissolute in his private life, he has a particular fascination for religious subjects, and White has an uncanny ability to convey the intensity of his vision and the texture and warp of his paint Now in 1970, he makes such a painter the subject of an entire book.Although growing up in poor circumstances similar to Dubbo s, Hurtle Duffield is adopted as a child by a rich family and has the benefit of a first class education Later, he throws off these bourgeois ties to live in squalor on a patch of waste land, visited occasionally by his mistress, a Sydney prostitute, and a gay gallery owner who becomes his first dealer Later still, he moves back to Sydney, and though living in a ramshackle house in a poor quarter, begins to find success in selling his paintings and attracting the attention of a number of rich female patrons The book proceeds in a number of long chapters, jumping from decade to decade in the twentieth century, marked not so much by changes in Hurtle s outer life as by a succession of different lovers and the changing preoccupations of his artistic vision Towards the end, he meets a young girl who is on the way to becoming an artist in her own right, a concert pianist, and a new tenderness enters the book But this also brings on a spiritual crisis resulting in the last pictures of all, almost mural sized daubs of dark tortured paint one thinks of the black paintings of Goya referred to by rumor as The God Paintings Does Duffield find God at the end, come face to face with the being he refers to as The Great Vivisector Perhaps But by this time, White has begun to fracture his language almost abstractly to echo Hurtle s mind, devastated by a series of strokes, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.Unfortunately, the novel does not quite live up to its promise The seventy year story of a life is too loose a form to achieve the jangling juxtaposition of the other books, thrusting flint against steel As Coetzee says, too much is prelude to what most matters, and too little is written at white heat his pun, but an apt one I also find that the double strands of sexual history and artistic exploration detract from one another There are striking moments of fusion, as when Duffield s accidental sight of his hunchbacked sister naked by a bidet becomes the subject for a series of paintings that one is not only told but believes to be great But towards the end, in the episodes with the young pianist, I found the various strands pulling against one another just when one might want them to interweave All the same, one does get some feeling for the work of this artist a little Sidney Nolan, but mostly Francis Bacon , and an even stronger sense of what it is to be the victim possessor of an unrelenting, searing vision And that is no small achievement Self portraits by Sidney Nolan L and Francis Bacon R A monumental novel which sets out to chronicle the life of fictional artist Hurtle Duffield from childhood to death Sold by his poor parents into a wealthy family, the driving force throughout his life is to realize his inner vision by whatever means he can His ruthlessness in dissecting and exposing the passions and weaknesses of those around him in order to serve his art leaves him cut off from those warmer human emotions which could so easily be his until a musical child, whom he recognises as a kindred spirit, awakens something like love in the by now aging artist.This is an extraordinary novel, a psychological study of a difficult man that is handled with consummate skill, and the brilliantly expressive writing never falters throughout the six hundred plus pages Artists and writers may recognise the Hurtle Duffield in themselves that creative impetus that can so easily become obsession and endanger the lives and happiness of others, if not themselves I d written the above when I realized that something was wrong Like all great literature there s a deeper level to this novel that has not been mentioned in any of the reviews I ve read, including the blurb on the back cover Read no further if, like me, you prefer to make your own discoveries From the moment he draws the Mad Eye when a child, his paintings are an attempt to answer the ultimate question the question implied in the writing on the dunny wall God the VivisectorGod the Artist God The seminal paintings throughout his career are all the result of coming close to what he perceives as the truth Chance meetings play an important part at moments of exhaustion in his art After a period of painting furniture he takes a ferry and finds himself sitting next to a printer Duffield seems able only to open up to strangers, and they have a revealing conversation in which the artist questions his culpability in the lives of those he has used Unlike previous reviewers I cannot see Duffield as the Vivisector His treatment of the people in his life, although careless, is not entirely cold blooded There are glimpses of warmer feelings at certain points, although he can never be possessed by those who care for him From his natural parents who sold him and one feels that his mother glimpsed his future, and realized the only way she could help him to achieve it would be to sell him to the wealthy Courtneys , to the Courtneys themselves Nance Boo Hollingrake, his first wealthy patroness Hero, his Greek mistress Cutbush and Duffield s deformed sister Rhoda are all used to further his art without giving of himself For Duffield is possessed only by his art The musical child Kathy Volkov, in whom he recognises a kindred spirit and who becomes closest to him and shows him something akin to love, does not attempt to possess his spirit, and he knows that he cannot possess hers, for she too is possessed by her art He sees in her the possibility of giving birth to his inner child Perhaps a truth revealed here is that love will not attempt to own the beloved, but will allow them to fly Duffield s question, the one that all of us neither blessed nor afflicted with blind faith spend our lives wondering about is the unanswered one on the dunny wall The truth for which Duffield has spent his life seeking can be revealed not through art, but only by death, and at the inevitable end, when we lose Duffield to the Great Vivisector, we can only hope that the words on his lips, the revelation that he seems to glimpse, is the truth that he has spent his life seeking. The Vivisector has its moments undeniable, succinct moments of clarity and of honesty, moments that shine out from the page and that can make you look at a certain subject in a different way and it is these moments that make this book a worthwhile read, despite its length and its absence of likeable characters Just like Hurtle Duffield has to toil for his art, you may feel yourself wading through endless description, occasionally pretentious art posturing and repetition but there are diamonds in that rough Someone asks Duffield what his art means he says If I could write it in words, I wouldn t want to paint.The novel is written in long chapters, each meticulously described, which tend to amalgamate around certain flash points of Duffield s life In one chapter he may be a young lad of 20 who lives in a wooden shed, the next he is a successful artist who buys a mansion, with no intervening description This tends to make certain passages of the book jump seemingly out of nowhere and, as is notable during the latter half of the book, Duffield himself is wilfully ignorant of the passages of time wilfully perhaps because of the spectre of death which approaches Personally I found it quite jarring, but entirely within context.It has to be said that the book is probably too long there are moments especially in the chapter featuring the entirely unconvincing Hero Pavloussi where reading becomes a real chore, and you suspect that White drew out the work intentionally to make it that little bit literary But as I mentioned before, there are finds to be had Duffield awkward relationship with his foster sister Rhoda is a highlight, as is the vivid section about his intense and tragic affair with the prostitute Nance Lightfoot.On the whole The Vivisector is worth the read for the nuggets of truth and art that lie in what unmistakably is a mire of mud. This was my third Patrick White book, and easily my favourite It will also likely be the best Australian novel I ever get to read He s a worthy recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature for sure, and it s certainly one of great novels about painters At over 600 pages, The Vivisector was a book to relish over weeks rather than days, and for as much as I thought this novel was superb, it did contain one of the most unlikeable central characters I have come across recently Although as the book progresses, you start to see him in a different light That character is Hurtle Duffield, the vivisector by nature, the painter by profession The novel looks at his life from childhood to old age.This is novel of great dense complexity and deserves to be approached in a way that sees the reader becomes the vivisectionist Hurtle is complex, and it s easy to simply despise him as an adult, but his redemption comes with the recognition that, perhaps, for his entire life he has been truly misunderstood Hurtle feels a confused and endless discord between the physical and metaphysical world, and as a child he is convinced that only his thoughts are real He doesn t get along with his siblings, and withdraws into his own world by scribbling on the walls An early indication of what lies ahead for him For someone so young his confidence is scary, believing creatively he is way away of other pupils at school After travelling around Europe and being in the trenches of the First World War, he commits himself to art ahead of other people He eventually becomes comfortably rich, but he never seems to take any consolation in his success In fact, he seems almost embarrassed by his accomplishments, as if it s something shameful to hide away from He is burdened with the responsibility of extracting some form of truth from the world, with cruelty merely being a by product White s novel is an introspective profile of the conflict within the artist, the physical beast who creates with mind and hand in equal measure The best part of the novel for me was when his sister, who he hasn t seen for years, comes to live with him You start to see Hurtle act a little with his heart, and this is all down to a child he meets His outlook on life and others takes a slow turn, after spending most of the novel up to this point treating his human subjects with brutal menace Those in his life, particularly the women he courts, become the victims of his demonic ego, he was a cannibal of the mind The novel takes on some huge themes family, love, sex, responsibility, identity, and looks at how difficult it can be to strike the right balance, creatively, and in one s personal life A quite brilliant piece of writing. One of Patrick White s masterpieces Here White explores the meaning of art and the process of creation There might even be some shards of a roman a clef in here as well Splendid and overwhelming Like so much of White s best works, one feels the touch of the ineffable.