Based on the title, I had always thought this novel was about some sort of Australian serial killer. In my head, there's a giant list of authors that I want to read before I die. Patrick White was somewhere in the middle of this list, until I learned that this novel was about the life of a famous painter. Therefore, it shot up to the top, and once I finished Stendhal, I immediately devoured The Vivisector. It only took me three days to read a 600+ page novel. That's the spoiler alert for what I thought of this book.
This is indeed, one of the more harrowing cover images I've ever seen. My copy of The Vivisector has a different cover, but I could not find a suitable facsimile of it during a quick Google image search. The shock of the image did go along with my preconception of the novel's subject matter. Whoops. Anyway, this is an atrocious but relevant cover image.
Hurtle Duffield is a young boy in Australia, living in (close to) poverty. His mother, a laundress, and his father are too poor to really help Hurtle's burgeoning genius. A rich family, the Courtneys, adopt Hurtle and allow him to develop his artistic skills. Her foster sister, Rhoda, suffers from a curved spine, but she introduces him to Boo Hollingrake, a beautiful girl. When Hurtle goes off to fight in The Great War, he leaves his provincial Australian life behind and focuses on painting. He falls in love, well not love, but more fascination with a prostitute, whom he paints a portrait of. When this affair ends, Hurtle takes up with the now-rich Boo, widow of a sugar magnate, and patronage of Hurtle's now-famous paintings. She inadvertently introduces Hurtle to Hero, the Greek wife of a shipping magnate, and they indulge in an animalistic affair. However, this ends poorly, and Hurtle ends up alone again, living in a giant house, painting constantly. In his fifties, he meets the thirteen year old Kathy, a piano prodigy and then Rhoda comes back into his life. Hurtle hopes that Rhoda will be Kathy's defense against Hurtle's own desire to lay her bare and open.
Okay here's the review in a few words: lush, provocative, stunning, gorgeous, painful. This book was really fucking good. White's thesis is that Hurtle is a vivisector, mercilessly and cruelly exposing everyone in his life to the air, through the torture of art. He loves nothing save for the act of painting. Once a work is completed, Hurtle moves on, to vivisect the next person, no matter how hurt that person may be. He is a man of strong passions, but with a short attention span. He loves, if that's the word, and leaves.
In portraying the life of Hurtle, White is absolutely successful. In conveying the inherent suffering of an artist, White is wholly convincing. In addition to utterly capturing the tortured artist, White is also guilty of the most sumptuous and evocative prose I've had the pleasure of reading in the past little bit. Perhaps it's because I've been reading things in translation the past couple weeks, but White's prose is in complete contrast to the cold and academic voices employed by translators. His descriptions of things are rooted in colours and in forms, just like a painter would see things. Hurtle isn't interested in how things feel, rather in how they appear. Each little piece of description is clustered and close, damp and close like a hot dank forest of words. They're like thick gobs of paint on canvas, surely the intent, and it succeeds expertly.
This is a book I would love to teach in university. The system of imagery used by White is thick and deep. It should be no surprise that symbolism is lavishly used, as painters see in symbols and forms. There's the chandelier in his foster parents' house, the rocks in the outback that his prostitute lover commits suicide on, the rocks that he must paint, the hunched back of his foster sister, the numerous birds that appear frequently. The vivisected dog, cruelly opened and exposed. The fur coat. There's just so much in this book.
Are there problems with the book? Yes, a couple. This isn't perfection. White's sometimes rushed pace makes certain episodes suffer a little. We skip from his thirties to his fifties, and no doubt nothing interesting happened, but something could have. This is a very slight issue, considering the rapid pace actually helps the book more than hinders. I'd be hard pressed to find another 600+ page book I've read this fast. I absolutely devoured it.
Of course, I'd be remiss in not admitting my critical bias. As mentioned before, I've taken up painting again. I've been working steadily with watercolours and pastels the past week. I've even attempted at drawing with pastels something from this novel. So obviously I'm biased to enjoy a long novel about a painter, especially a painter in a country I'm desperate to visit.
The Vivisector, apart from the not-so-great title, is an amazing read, full of passion and verve and suffering and everything that artists will recognize. This might be a better portrait of the artist than Joyce's first novel. No, it's not a better novel, but White seems to understand the artist a little bit better. This might be because White is a bit more cruel, a bit more honest than Joyce. The Irish writer loved games and puns and language, but White is more interested in real life.
For a novel about painting, there's surprisingly little information about the paintings themselves. Only a few are detailed enough to be vivid. The rest are hazy or just never described. All we know is that Hurtle is a technical wizard, capable of surrealism and naturalism and something transcendental. But this is the point. I said that White is interested in real life. Not still lifes. Not surrealist works. He wants to lay bare the soul of the artist, not the soul of the art. It's an important distinction.
This is going to be a bit shorter of a review if only because I don't think I can add anything to what I've already said. The Vivisector is an amazing, vivid and visionary novel, full of all of the small details that lesser authors miss and it lays bare the absolute suffering that creates and sustains the successful artist. I'm sure there's something to be said about the autobiographical details, but I'm not sure if I know enough about White to sound anywhere near authoritative. Thanks for reading.