Fiction – paperback; Penguin; 617 pages; 1989.
First published in 1970, The Vivisector by Patrick White details the life of Hurtle Duffield, an Australian artist, from a four-year-old up until his death as an elderly man living as a recluse in Sydney with Rhoda, his hunch-backed step-sister.
A clever, all-knowing kind of boy, Hurtle shows early signs of creativity, drawing on walls and being attracted to old paintings and leather-bound books. His poverty-stricken parents — a laundry woman and a bottle collector — are convinced his intelligence mark him out as a genius and sell him to a wealthy family in the hope he will get the education he deserves.
Thanks to the nouveau-rich Courtneys he enjoys an oh-so comfortable lifestyle and gets to travel abroad.
But there is a part of Hurtle that cannot engage with people on any emotional level — perhaps because he sees himself as a loner that doesn’t fit in — and as a young adult cuts himself off from his step-family, finding comfort in the life of a struggling artist.
Later, with the help of a mysterious benefactor, he becomes a comfortably rich artist, 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.
All the while he carries on a series of failed love affairs, using women as muses to inspire his painting. He never invests much of himself into these relationships until, at the ripe old age of 55, he falls in love with a teenage girl — it is this Lolita-like relationship that serves to shape the rest of his creative life.
I read The Vivisector as part of the Patrick White Readers’ Group and enjoyed the stimulus of a reading schedule and regular discussions. The book deals with some big themes, including sex, art, identity, love and how difficult it can be to seek balance in our creative and personal lives.
Overall I found it surprisingly readable — perhaps because of its rather old-fashioned straightforward narrative — despite the fact the main character is highly sexed, not particularly likable and emotionally distant.
The early chapters feature some of the most moving and articulate descriptions of childhood that I have ever read, and for that reason alone The Vivisector is worth exploring.
But the momentum in these early chapters is not sustained throughout the rest of the book. Some of the chapters border on being too languid for their own good. This is not so much a reflection of the writing style, which is rich and evocative, but of the characters, which are tedious and boring, and the lack of any sustained plot.
Fortunately, the final chapters, which pick up the thread of Hurtle’s previous life, inject a bit more vigour into the storyline. I was truly sorry when I came to the last page as I had grown to love this old curmudgeonly character and his funny, crude ways.