LOST MAN BOOKER PRIZE
Looking back at the Lost Booker: The Vivisector by Patrick White
It's ugly, loaded with implausible love affairs and often plays out in the toilet, but Patrick White's depiction of the life of fictional Australian artist Hurtle Duffield does credit to the Lost Booker shortlist
Thu 18 May 2010
It is a good general rule that any novel which discusses "urgent matters of the spirit" should be treated with caution. Patrick White's The Vivisector does so at length, "in a chaste slit of a room overlooking the luminous sea". It is not for the faint-hearted.
There is a deadly earnest in White's descriptions of the life and paintings of the Australian artist Hurtle Duffield (thought by many to have been inspired by Sidney Nolan, though White always denied it). He sets out to describe the creative process – and all that must be sacrificed, ignored or consumed to contribute towards it – in exhaustive and exhausting detail. Expect no delicate irony here. When he writes that Duffield "smote them with his brush", he means it. When he writes, "he didn't worry, two lovers could add up to an infinity of cats" or "light follows dark not usually bound by the iron feather which stroked" he means … something … important – and you'd better put the work in, because White won't do it for you.
Given that context, it probably won't come as a surprise that Duffield is the kind of artist who paints in blood. And shit. Poo, in fact, is a very important element in this book. Great swathes of the novel are set out in the "dunny" – and it's here Duffield gains his greatest enlightenment. Even when there's no toilet around, there's always a good chance Duffield will let loose a good "fart" or at least a "belch".
True to its title, The Vivisector also deals enthusiastically in viscera. We see all manner of offal and dead matter and sheep guts torn out by hand. We see souls laid bare and human weakness examined in all its forms, especially when it comes to sex – or, as White prefers to describe the act of love, "depravity". Copulation is a matter of disgust, "wrinkled, ugly old cocks" and "gluttony". Lovers "drink saliva" and "claw at each other". There are hints at incest. There is a man who masturbates over a cliff edge onto lovers hiding in lantana bushes. There is paedophilia. It's ugly.
If I tell you the book is also loaded with heavy-handed religious imagery, implausible love affairs and unbelievable dialogue, generally relating to the deep, dark tea-time of the soul – oh, and that it's more than 600 pages long – I expect I will have gone a long way towards putting off the uninitiated. But that would be a shame. It's well worth attempting.
The first 100 pages, in fact, are little short of wonderful. There's a vivid sense of illumination as we see the young Duffield take in the sights and smells of the world he will channel into his art. In one memorable scene, where he is pushed into a cupboard full of women's clothes, he has those sights and smells thrust upon him. Things become less engaging once Duffield grows up, but there's still an impressive intensity of purpose and some fine writing. Yes, it's often dull and absurd, but I never lost the sense that something important is happening here. In 1970, there was little new in writing about what it means to be an artist, but that doesn't detract from White's sincere determination to convey the way his protagonist sublimates all feeling to his art and tries to find "some formal order behind … chaos and unreason".
That ugliness, too, serves a purpose. Out of and in spite of it, Duffield creates something sublime. And we can believe in its sublimity because White's descriptions are so convincing – especially since he rarely makes the mistake of describing the pictures in physical rather than emotional detail. Although I spent a lot of time hating the book, I also ended up loving it. It's one that would do credit to any shortlist – but is unlikely to win the Lost Booker public vote. I'd still vote for JG Farrell. But I'm glad I've read The Vivisector.