For a few weeks recently, as bedtime approached each night, a sense of dread would begin to creep over me. This was because I knew The Vivisector was there, crouched on the bedside table, waiting for me. Unwisely, I had promised myself I must read at least 10 pages of it every evening before going to sleep.
I discovered halfway through the book - too late - that I had chosen Patrick White's very longest novel as the one to read in order to be able to say I'd read something by him, (which actually I could already say, as I'd been forced to drag my eye over page after page of The Tree of Man in school - but, as so often, in response to trauma, my mind had blanked the whole unpleasant episode, other than the bare fact of it).
The Vivisector tells the story of Hertel Duffield, a painter, recognised as astonishingly gifted by his poverty stricken parents and sold, essentially, at about six years old to a family better able to provide for him. The book covers his entire life and his various relationships, including one that would now be viewed as disgracefully paedophilic, with females. The one that lasts longest is the platonic one that exists between him and his hunchbacked adoptive sister, Rhoda.
White, it seems to me, owes a great deal to William Faulkner. The book has the same mysterious approach to structure, stretches of time being described in intense detail and then decades being leapt over, with the narration switching from authorial voice to second person stream of consciousness in a way that works brilliantly well. A vivid sense of the strangeness of being alive is conveyed, as well as a feeling of experiencing time as it flashes past Hertel in a succession of intensely felt moments.
Appropriately, the book is at its best with the visual, creating vivid flashes like snapshots in the reader's mind. For instance, I felt I was standing in a room full of Gainsboroughs when I read that from paintings in "stately London art galleries ... lords and ladies directed blue stares out of billowing shrubberies, or proudly reined in their horses before a perspective of park." Similarly, I recognised a London afternoon in the phrase, "it was one of the greyest days, pierced by black monuments". Back home in Sydney, a whole scene is conjured up, as White explains how one "evening at dusk a wind from the south threatened the suffocating warmth from the fire ... blowing ... the cigar smoke ahead of it and, as the long wads of ink-blotted cloud passed overhead, unravelled, then matted thicker than ever, the garden, though stationary was slowly being poured into fresh, coldly boiling forms. It was not yet raining, but the wind in the leaves made them look a liquid black."
White is also extremely observant about people and comes up with rather wonderful phrases. He describes one woman as " a sort of forgettable person. Even living in the same house she mightn't have been there. Like junket". He tells the reader of a foreign couple's conversation: "From time to time the words either of them used in the foreign language came out tentatively, as though they suspected they might be borrowing something which didn't suit their personal vocabulary", a situation I recognise, as will anyone who has to speak a foreign language regularly.I also recognised the sensation he describes when Hertel feels "the sweet gust of gin explore his skull".
Sadly, when it comes to women, White rather lets himself down though. He tends to be bitter and dismissive about them, and his descriptions of breasts, (some are extinct volcanoes, others rotting persimmons), can only remind the reader that he was homosexual. His dialogue is also terrible, especially as he insists on indicating class by making his poor characters say, "yer" and "somethun" and so forth. There are times when the book reads more like a script for Kath and Kim than the work of a Nobel Prizewinner for Literature.
The central premise of the book seems to be that artists cannot love, because they are always thinking about painting. Hertel ponders how to paint a fried egg, when he should be paying attention to others' emotions. Even when he is almost dying, his major interest is the indigo shade of the sky, (was this scene supposed to be a mirror of the one where Andrei Bolkonsky dies in War and Peace, or is it just coincidence? Probably the latter).
Perhaps visual artists are constantly framing what they see into works of art, rather than getting on with living. I don't know. Perhaps they do, as White puts it, "thrust against the virgin board" on which they are painting, (can't imagine what he is trying to imply at all). Certainly, I am thankful that White never became a painter himself; his imaginings are quite enough, thanks. Take this description of something by Hertel, in which "all the women he had ever loved were joined by umbilical cords to the navel of the same enormous child. One cord, which had withered apart, shuddered like lightning where the break occurred; yet it was the broken cord which seemed to be charging the great tumorous, sprawling child with infernal or miraculous life" - or, worse still, take the canvas in an earlier episode, which Hertel decides to complete by rubbing it thoroughly with his own excrement.
And here we come to the central reason for my nightly dread. Whatever else the book is, it is reliably and repetitively squalid. Hertel spends an awful lot of time straining in the vine-clad dunny at the end of the garden or back in the house thinking about how constipated he is, (partly because he has a habit, when busy, of subsisting almost entirely on hardboiled eggs.) White justifies this by saying of the constipated Hertel that "a smooth velvety stool might have been the great rectifier", adding, probably truthfully, (but so what?), "much more depended on the bowels than the intellect was prepared to admit." He can never resist mentioning that there are "shit smells" in the offing or bringing in references to such things as "slivers of dog shit". At one point, he has Hertel contemplating public masturbation, for no reason I can really see, other than out of an irrepressible desire to epater la bourgeoisie, (and, judging by White's treatment of females, this ambition is aimed almost exclusively at the female of the species).
All the same - even though the book was never an enticing or appetising prospect, (and not exactly replete with laughs - I counted four instances that could, if you were extremely generous, be described as attempts at jokes), I cannot deny that it is full of a strange, glitteringly intelligent - if very unloving - vigour. I also retain from it a few marvellous phrases that I think will come in useful. For instance, one unctuous figure is described as "visibly streaming with flattery" - I've met people like that, and I will be better protected against them henceforth, with that set of words kept firmly in my mind. Additionally, I picked up the odd intriguing aphorism, such as the statement that "pity is half-hearted love". I don't know if it is true, but I look forward to thinking about it.
In conclusion, while there is a great deal in the book's content that I will be hoping to forget forever, I would, with reservations, recommend it overall. It is an astonishing, original, if very peculiar, novel. Having said that, I must also point out that I'm very relieved it is no longer in my bedroom. Furthermore, I doubt I will be rushing to take it back down from its current position, safely upstairs, on a very high shelf.