Patrick White
The Vivisector by Patrick White

Patrick White’s The Vivisector, the writer’s longest novel, explores the nature of artistic creativity and the link between a painter’s character and the work that it gives rise to. As with all White’s novels, scenes from the author’s own life serve as mini-templates for episodes in the novel. People, places and scenes that one has absorbed in reading White’s biography enjoy creative re-purposing in various corners of the narrative. That much is fascinatingly voyeuristic testament to White’s novelistic skill. But it is the parallel that the reader inescapably draws between Hurtle Duffield’s brushstrokes and Patrick White’s penmanship, inexact yet unavoidably linked, that makes The Vivisector such a fascinating read. One does not end up comparing Duffield with White, although there may be as many convergences and divergences. It is that the novel addresses the creative process where the artist’s life is shown to be a well-spring from which so much paint gushes forth and, by inference, so many words arise.

There is welcome relief and there are counter-balancing challenges. The relief is that the plot is a uniform, fictional biography. White gives us a continuous account of the life of the artist Hurtle Duffield. It runs from infancy to the moment of death, an interruption that leaves the final sentence without its full stop. Unlike many of White’s preceding novels, there are no temporal dislocations, saving a war-service interlude when the young Duffield serves his country in France in the First World War. This is truncated into an epistolary form, becoming reminiscent of the exchanges between Laura Trevelyan and Voss in the novel of that name (separate post on this site). This continuity is welcome - and one needs it. The challenge of Hurtle Duffield’s personality, lifestyle and attitude to other people is sometimes such an uncomfortable read that it’s simply a relief that the novel is shorn of too many narrative complexities.

Hurtle Duffield, differentiated from the start

If artists see reality differently to the rest of us, does this mean that they are qualitatively different from the rest of us? Judging from some of the details that White scatters throughout The Vivisector, the answer is a firm Yes. On the novel’s opening page the infant Hurtle asks of his father why their chickens are pecking a “crook-necked pullet”. “Because they don’t like the look of it. Because it’s different,” his father replies, which stands as the first in a succession of differences on which we are meant to ruminate. His grandmother is also different as she was “a haristocrat” according to his mother. Hurtle’s precociousness sets him apart from his many siblings, and his parents are ill-equipped to handle him. White emphasises this by using second-person narration through the boy’s early years, a device intermittently used by Joyce in Portrait of the Artist. This draws the reader closer to the growing child as well as enlarging the character’s idiosyncratic vision. He could be an infant cuckoo in his parents’ nest.

His father re-sells glass bottles and his mother, like the saintly Ruth Godbold in Riders in the Chariot (separate post on this site), is a laundress. Of their six - and soon to be seven - children, Hurtle is the odd-one-out. His parents’ discomfort in the face of the young boy’s sensibilities makes them fearful. Hurtle is so incongruously a member of the Duffield family from the start of White’s novel that we suppose a generational leapfrog beginning with his ‘haristocrat’ grandmother has taken place. Or is he in reality a changeling, a proposition that White might have taken from his own childhood experience as a bookish child with literary sensibilities in a family of graziers and horse-breeders? White’s biographer, David Marr, recounts the story that after the White family had been holidaying in Tasmania, White dashed for his dictionary to check on the word ‘changeling’ which he had overheard being used about him:

Margaret Gordon was saying, “I can’t believe he’s one of theirs. He’s like a changeling.” He did not know the word, but he caught the tone and was shocked. The dictionary proved him right. It was awful to think he was mixed up for someone else’s boy and not Ruth’s and Dick’s at all. The idea was horrible at first, but it came to promise escape. (Patrick White - A Life by Andrew Marr, p. 44)

The escape that White provides for Hurtle is to perfect his artistry, to channel it towards maturity - at the exclusion of almost everything else. The young boy draws from an early age. Too poor to pay for extra help with him, his mother arranges to scrub the church hall floor in exchange for extra lessons for him until his schooling begins.

It was certainly most unusual, not to say peculiar, the treatment young Hurtle Duffield was getting. “But don’t you see, he’s an unusual child?” Mumma called over the palings. (The Vivisector, p. 14)

The unusual child is given a formative early glimpse beyond his own family’s grinding poverty when he accompanies his mother to do the laundry for the wealthy Courtney family. In the doorway of the laundry at the back of the house, Hurtle sees his mother with “the drops falling from her hands which the water had pleated” (p. 56), an almost throw-away observation that deserves to be savoured, classic and visually-strong White. Inside the high-ceilinged mansion, Hurtle and his mother encounter Mrs Courtney and the boy’s drab world is flooded with colour. She was

moving round her mauve room in the sound of her stiff blue dress, smoothing its wine-glass waist, rearranging papers on her desk, the bowls of violets … (The Vivisector, p. 26)

Her blue dress and blue eyes make a lasting impression on the boy, whose own blue eyes he considers to be grey, and sometimes on the greenish side. The central importance of blue to White as a stand-in for ‘the idea of God’ has already been encountered in Riders in the Chariot with the paintings of Alf Dubbo. And Himmelfarb, the crucified Jew, had a name that translates from the German as ‘sky blue’. From this point on in The Vivisector, barely a page of the remaining 600 plus lacks mention of at least one colour. It is a defining characteristic of the novel.

When Hurtle eventually gets to school, he can write when other children of his age can’t hold a pencil. Challenged about this by an uncomprehending teacher, he is put to writing a composition. The six year old’s vision is clear:

… and am droring a picture which will be a shandeleer with the wind through it when it is finished, I would like to draw everything I know. There is drawing. (The Vivisector, p. 41)

The image of the chandelier that he first saw at the Courtney’s insinuates itself into the artist’s mind for the rest of his life, its crystals twittering and tinkling in the imagined breeze. Sometimes it blazes up in him; sometimes it goes out.

Nobody, not his family, not Mrs Courtney, only faintly himself, knew he had inside him his own chandelier. This was what made you at times jangle and want to explode into smithereens. (The Vivisector, p. 52)

It is a haunting and beguiling image, a source of refracting light that White uses to signal the unstoppable upwelling of the artist’s vision.

Duffield becomes Courtney

What the very young Hurtle Duffield saw was qualitatively very different from what anyone else in his large family saw. In a literary masterstroke that paves the way for the artist’s growing dislocation from society, White has him ‘adopted’ by Mr and Mrs Courtney, although ‘bought’ would be more accurate. No officials were involved and a sum of £500 changed hands. It is the start of the twentieth century and the informality of such an arrangement would be inconceivable today. So Hurtle moves house and home, loses five or six siblings, and acquires a sister in the form of Rhoda Courtney who straightaway he wants to draw, or even to paint - if he had the paints. He also moves to a house where art hangs on every wall. Delivered by his real father, he is welcomed by his new father’s steadying hand on his shoulder. Mrs Courtney shows the boy to his room and he is absorbed into his glittering new home as “Mr Courtney your father who wasn’t, slipped away as though he really was” and a new phase in the artist-to-be’s life begins. This novel, as with anything produced by Patrick White, fizzes with intelligence.

The household into which the young Hurtle is supplanted is wealthy beyond the boy’s imaginings. The Courtney mansion houses Australia’s elite at the start of the twentieth century, much in the way that the White family themselves were in any of their Hunter Valley mansions or Sydney town houses. (For a voyeuristic glimpse of this style of property, the White family home is documented on this Federation Home website.) Harry Courtney, like White’s own father, is a grazier with estates outside the city. He even takes Hurtle to the Mumbelong estate, giving him a glimpse of wilder countryside. Alfreda Courtney is involved in charities - and luncheons - and wants the young boy “to like beautiful things”. Where he used to call his real parents Mamma and Pa, he now uses Maman and Father. His relationship with these new parents is more formal; they appear more distant:

He discovered there were periods when the Courtneys who had bought him would not expect his company, when it was like living in a different house, almost in a different part of the town. (The Vivisector, p. 81)

But the chandelier is ever-present, as are the paintings, the first one of which is a scene of “dressy ladies huddled halfway between the flat sea and the bathing machines”. “We bought it back with us from Europe,” explained Mrs Courtney. This may well have been Eugène Boudin’s Beach Scene at Trouville which Hurtle comes to think of as “their bloody old French painting”. It marks a baseline in the young artist’s taste, one which he must advance away from. He has more original conceptions in mind and shortly draws his new mother who observes that the result gives her “a melon chest”. She wonders if it is a likeness, thinks it’s not but accepts that “it’s more interesting as a work of art”. This development results in them engaging a tutor to give him drawing lessons - and another to work on his Latin and mathematics. The resulting encounters have unexpected consequences. His art teacher warns him that people will laugh at him if he draws things “his own way”. “They’ll laugh at you if you do. They’ll think you either ignorant or pulling their legs,” becomes a challenge. His Latin teacher, bearing some internal crisis which results in his suicide, becomes the subject of an early painting, executed on Hurtle’s bedroom wall in red paint that he found in the shed. The rage of his mother confirms the brilliance of his painting.

In psychological terms, everything about the boy’s personality might be explainable by his ‘difference’ from his birth parents compounded by his deracination and transfer to a family that is culturally the polar-opposite. White signposts these relationships with subtlety. It is not difficult to feel sorry for the young boy. His outburst of red paint on his bedroom wall apart, Hurtle engages with his new family and absorbs the cultural riches that he is now faced with. But there is much more to it than some developmental cause and effect. The narrative wants us to tune in to the growth of the young boy’s artistic sensibilities. Although he can’t explain what he knows, he is convinced that “he saw rather than thought. He often wished he could think like people think in books, but he could only see or feel his way” (p. 108). Even the Ouija board, the planchette, that the family consults tells him that he will be “a painter, an oil painter”. When the family holidays in France, there is a cultural revelation for the young boy: “most important of all were the paintings which showed him a reality more intense than the life he had so far experienced” (p. 129). Back in Australia, Hurtle boasts to his schoolmates that his father had taken him on a tour of Parisian brothels. If true, it would have been in keeping with the wealthy father’s parental ‘duties’. Though a great artist is being formed, the foundation is being laid for what Peter Wolfe calls a “disordered interior world”. The one is not a consequence of the other, of course, but in Hurtle Duffield’s case it very much is what Patrick White had in mind.

Courtney returns to being Duffield

As if White hadn’t already done enough to destabilise the young Hurtle by replanting him into the upper-crust Courtney family, he then has him join up and serve his country in Europe during the First World War. By the time of his eventual return home - via France, washing dishes as a Duffield once more - the artist has been informed by his adoptive sister Rhoda that her father (and his ‘adopted father’) had died of a stroke, and by May the cook that his ‘adopted mother’ had remarried and moved to Europe, leaving him homeless and penniless. With these twists and turns of White’s the artist emerges as a jagged, fractured individual of broad perspectives but narrow understanding. If he makes sense of the world in which he is a part it is with his brushes:

He sat in church stroking his soft, silly shadow of moustache, not so much sulking at God as contemptuous of all the kidding going on around him; till a fragmentation of light, or the illumination of a phrase, or some simple irrelevant image, a table for instance, cropping up in his own mind, started him tingling electrically, afraid he might never be able to pin down his own insights, let alone convey them to others. (The Vivisector, p. 147)

In a sense, this dual amputation of the artist’s past fits him to become the socially isolated individual that White wanted him to be. His devotion to his art, subjugating everything to the marks he makes on canvas, shoulders all acquaintances aside. In a rudimentary cabin “up the line” he establishes a live-in studio of domestic squalor and chaos. As the paintings sell, the maturing artist moves back into the city, buying a corner house in Flint Street that opened onto Chubb’s Lane. It had two entrances and two outlooks, one onto the smart, upmarket street, the other along a row of more squalid lodgings. Product of both milieux, he straddles all social divides, consorting with prostitutes and glitterati alike. The route to this point has passed through poverty and privilege alike. There has been plenty of White’s mannerly material but The Vivisector is appropriately as painterly a novel as one could imagine. Hurtle’s thoughts are “not the consecutive, reasoned grey of intellectual thought, but the bursts of kaleidoscopic imagery, both flowering in his mind, and filtered sensuously through his blood” (p. 195).

The vivisection metaphor

Many of Patrick White’s novels have some metaphorical device around which their narratives turn. In Riders in the Chariot it is the chariot of Ezekiel that roams the skies, each visitation to those who are equipped to see it offering a promise of divine grace. In The Solid Mandala (separate post on this site) the metaphor emanates from Arthur Brown’s mandalic marbles, worthless childish marbles, permanently pocketed and of great personal significance with their Jungian promise of spiritual harmony and balance. Commentators differ in their view of these devices with some complaining that they are excessively pre-ordained with the consequence that they rob the characters of their autonomy. This charge is levelled by John Colmer against Riders in the Chariot (Duality in Patrick White, John Colmer; in Shepherd & Singh, see below). I don’t side with that view for Riders; those spinning chariot wheels and swishing horses’ tails serve to announce internal mood changes that are key to the development of the novel’s four main characters. In contrast, I found the marble metaphor of The Solid Mandala made the novel a “discordant proposition”.

For The Vivisector White used vivisection as the novel’s central metaphor. It is there in the title. On the cover of the Penguin Modern Classics paperback there is John Brack’s surrealist painting Still Life with Self Portrait. In this sense one might imagine that White has threaded this metaphor throughout the book and that it is integral to our understanding of it. Happily this is not entirely so. The subject of vivisection is withheld for the first hundred pages and there are only a further twelve references throughout the novel. It therefore can’t be said to be a heavily-weighted metaphor.

Soon after Hurtle’s new mother informs him that she has a particular interest in the prevention of vivisection, the young boy dreams of the sheep that was killed for meat on his new father’s country estate, “except that in the dream [Eldred] hadn’t killed, only skinned” the animal. The dream continued with his mother disembowelling the animal and explaining that she was “only helping it to die to save it from the vivisector” (p. 109). In London the family happen upon a shop window display of a stuffed dog on a vivisectionist’s operating table, an anti-vivisection tableau. Hurtle’s fascination with the scene, which he eventually draws, is contrasted with Mrs Courtney being galvanised into founding an Australian anti-vivisection society. He “was shaken by the impression he seemed to make on others” (p. 141). Feedback about how different he is begins to register with him. Mrs Courtney tells him that he was “born with a knife in your hand. No your eye” (p. 150) and May the cook, who shows him particular kindness, observes that he has the hands of a surgeon (p. 162).

Ultimately the vivisection metaphor starts as a shorthand for Hurtle Duffield’s unsympathetic - even cruel - style of portraiture where his subjects are painted warts and all. This morphs into a more complex form where Hurtle himself uses the term “the Divine Vivisector”, as if everyone - himself included - should be thought of as having been created by an omnipotent artist, with defects in plain sight. Thankfully the artist did wonder “whether he believed in God the Merciful as well as God the Vivisector” and the novel ends with an intimation that he might have found the former.

As a central metaphor that appears throughout the book, albeit infrequently, it is probably superfluous. Unflattering portraiture has its effect on the painter’s subjects and this dynamic does not require vivisection to be mentioned. We see the paintings perform their cutting function without the term being employed. The novel could comfortably stand without any of it, although White didn’t labour the point.

Hurtle Duffield’s brushstrokes

The artist’s life can be traced by two pathways. One is a succession of people who become subjects for his canvases: the grocer Cecil Cutbush, Rhoda his own adoptive sister, the prostitute Nance Lightfoot, the fabulously wealthy Boo Davenport and Hero Pavloussi, both patrons of the artist, and the under-age musical genius Kathy Volkov. Duffield damages nearly all of them, cutting them in paint. The other is the succession of paintings he produces: Lantana Lovers under Moonfire, Electric City, Marriage of Light, Pythoness at Tripod, Infinity of Cats, Flowering Rosebush, Girl at Piano, The Lopsided Blind and Spiral. White’s gift of naming people and things is never better.

Duffield’s first work arises from a torrid relationship with Nance Lightfoot, a prostitute who literally bumps into him in the downtown part of Sydney. Her podgy, unattractive presence seems to reconnect Hurtle with his Duffield origins. She becomes his enabler and he her pimp. We squint at these episodes through slatted fingers. This is White moving in a direction we’ve not before encountered. The canvases - of “abortive paint” - that result are no-holds-barred. Even one of Nance that she encounters in his lodgings provokes an innocent but direct “They’ll run you in … for doing a woman like that. With ’er bum cut in half. And tits hangun. What’s she doin?” (p. 203) His answer that she was “lighting a [gas] fire” may have helped orientate the viewer, but it didn’t exonerate the painter of his severity. It’s not the absence of flattery that shocks: it’s the excess of cruelty. Seconds later, Nance tucks into a chicken leg and Duffield is reminded of Goya’s Saturn. If you don’t know it, look it up: it’s instructive!

White has us face Duffield’s paintings tangentially. The artist’s view to the canvas is face-on so White places us as spectators to that relationship, never fully seeing the canvases, but rather seeing the emotional process within the artist. Painting Nance, Duffield engages in a “wrestling match … to recreate the body as he saw it without losing the feel of flesh”. This involves different processes. After working on the “formal outline”

he was faced with laying on the colour: the lettuce tones; kohlrabi purple; crimson radish; old boiled swede for the shabbier pockets of skin. What he conceived that day was vegetable in form and essence: limbs spongy in substance, though still crisp enough for breaking off; the necklaces around the fibrous throat carved deeper by love-throes. Like all human vegetables she was offering herself to the knife she only half suspected. (The Vivisector, p. 207)

The transition from sponginess to crispness, and the progressive introduction of the carving and cutting idiom is masterful Whitean prose (if that’s the correct eponymous adjective). We don’t need to have White describe the final canvas. We’ve seen the artist’s intent and the result won’t be flattering. The conceit is that Nance didn’t offer herself to the metaphorical knife: White had the artist take that liberty. His career is just starting and White is going to show us the path it takes:

Suddenly he had begun to live the life for which he had been preparing, or for which he might even have been prepared. At the end of the years of watching, of blundering around inside an inept body, of thinking, or rather, endlessly changing coloured slides in his magic-lantern of a mind, the body had become an instrument, the crude, blurred slides were focusing into what might be called a vision. Most of the day he now spent steadily painting, still destroying, but sometimes amazed by a detail which mightn’t have been his, yet didn’t seem to be anybody else’s. (The Vivisector, p. 217)

Duffield’s output increases. A dealer is engaged. Electric City and Marriage of Light are sold. Apparently, “people of the better class” are buying. In as much as Duffield’s eventual success as an artist lies in his ability to command high prices and be the talk of the art world, it comes at high cost to those whom he paints. His depiction of them is too brutally honest for most viewers to bear. The effect upon some among them provokes suicide - or attempted suicide. Nance’s death was perhaps the result of the former, although White leaves this open to interpretation. She is found at the bottom of a gorge beside the artist’s shack. Duffield observes the wreckage and paints on. He is not overtly sociopathic, but certainly single-minded, one-track minded with a desire to paint whatever the cost to his friends, lovers and intimates. “I have been accused of loving myself,” he observes. “How could I? When I’ve always known too much about myself” (p.268). As the novel proceeds, the carnage builds up. One is tempted to compare Duffield with Voss from White’s novel of that name: two visionaries effectively blind to the human maelstrom that their passing leaves behind them.

A key subject that the budding Duffield paints is his sister Rhoda. Separated when he left on military service, they are later reunited and she comes to live with him in the artist’s substantial Sydney town house. His chance encounter of her preparing to wash when they were on holiday in France in their childhood had stayed with him, fermenting its way to a canvas which he eventually makes a start on. Pythoness at Tripod (also discussed below) becomes a central painting in his portfolio, typifying a style of brutalist portraiture. Her birth defect hump is not brushed out of his depiction of her:

It was curiously weightless relief: to draw his sister Rhoda Courtney standing beside the bidet on its iron tripod in the hotel bedroom at St Yves de Trégor. If he had betrayed a timid, wizened tenderness by raucously breaking open the door protecting her nakedness, the drawings were at least a kind of formal expiation: Rhoda’s hump sat for moments on his own shoulders. As his resistance of years collapsed, he knew how he should convey the iron in crippled bones; he saw the mesh of light, the drops of moisture in the Thermogene tuft. With few pauses, he made several drawings, each of which contributed something to what he wanted. (The Vivisector, p. 280)

The execution of the portrait presents the artist with a challenge and he is initially unsure which pigment to use for Rhoda’s flesh. Distracted by the possibility that it had “the shrill smell of milk on the turn” or perhaps “the pliability of chickens’ breastbones”, he bungles the welcome of an important visitor. Later at the same visitor’s house party, his attention is drawn to a hiccupping guest whom he glimpses in mid-hysteria. Their eyes meet and they were momentarily “united by sheet lightning” (p. 311). He takes his leave prematurely and dashes back to the studio and “slashed brutally at one Rhoda Courtney, but got what he wanted: sheet lightning invaded the eyeballs” (p. 313). Several commentators consider that this painting appears to have evolved from Roy de Maistre’s 1934 Figure by Bath which White would have known. That a much more famous set of canvases by Francis Bacon may also have evolved from the de Maistre one gives this fictional painting a harrowing parallel. Everything about this conception bears the same egocentric perspective of how it might offer the artist “expiation”. No consideration is given to his sister who will eventually encounter the painting. “I might be vivisected afresh, in the name of truth – or art,” she later told him (p. 462) and “I was born vivisected. I couldn’t bear to be strapped to the table again,” she added (p. 463). His apology speaks volumes: “I can’t help it … if I turned out to be an artist.”

We tolerate this as readers not because White seems to be approving of Duffield’s misanthropy but because we hold out for some form of absolution. In the meantime, White’s prose beguiles us, dazzles us, shocks us with its ceaselessly creative energy as we see the artist’s eye observe and his mind calculate how to represent that observation in paint.

Further artistic violence is offered when Duffield paints an Infinity of Cats to record an episode involving the artist’s new lover and patron, Hero Pavloussi. Her husband had ordered that their cats be drowned rather than found new homes prior to their moving abroad. Hero takes Duffield’s decision to paint the scene which he had witnessed as overly judgemental. His follow-up and nameless painting of them in the throes of love-making proves to be so disturbing to her that she subsequently attempts suicide. For his part, he considers it to be “an expression of truth, on that borderline where the hideous and the depraved can become aesthetically acceptable” (p.377). Where Duffield sees a borderline that he can knowingly cross and explore, for the rest of us it’s a terra incognita that we have no interest in thinking about. We are left to wonder whether these decisions are in Duffield’s control. J.M. Coetzee was of the view that Duffield’s vision was that God was the great Vivisector who “flays and tortures us while we still breathe” (Late Essays 2006 - 2017, p. 220) which sounds like a Romantic notion of the artist whose role is to channel inspiration (sometimes divine) that is outside their own control. These borderlines, of course, are set by White himself. “My pursuit of that razor-blade truth has made me a slasher,” he said in Flaws in the Glass (p. 155), which places the author himself as the Great Vivisector, the same “supreme torturer” we encountered in Voss, as I noted when writing about that novel.

Kathy Volkov

I have alluded to substantial challenges that the reader of The Vivisector is going to face, yet there is one more, one that will be insurmountable for many readers. Duffield’s final muse is the 13-year old Kathy Volkov with whom the artist enters into a sexual relationship. That White has the young girl make all the moves does not diminish the much older man’s culpability. It is a relationship that places the novel’s central character beyond the limits of our sympathy. As I said, it will be a show-stopper for most readers and it is debatable whether White’s inclusion of this relationship adds anything to the existing power of the novel or simply consigns it to the library shelf that requires special permission to access.

The more intimate moments of their relationship make for profoundly uncomfortable reading. That Duffield thereafter awaits destruction for this and fears his sister’s “sulky fire” that will burn “down the whole house” would be the just deserts that one almost wants to see. White has Duffield think of Kathy as his “aborted spiritual child” and the artist as “an elderly sensualist”. The squinting through slatted fingers that will have been practiced up to this point of the novel will be indispensable in this section of the book.

The Nobel committee of 1972 were persuaded by Karl Ragnar Gierow, secretary to the Academy, that White had demeaned the image of the artist. David Marr says that Gierow swayed a number of academicians that “White depicted the painter as a user and consumer of human beings” (Marr, p.534). The prize that year went instead to Heinrich Böll. The follow-up to The Vivisector, The Eye of the Storm with its “more moral view of the artist” as Marr put it, swung the 1973 vote White’s way. How large a role was played in that delay by White’s inclusion in the novel of Kathy Volkov is not to my knowledge recorded. For many readers, if The Vivisector is their first taste of White, it could easily be their unfinished last.

Yet as White has Kathy grow into a married woman, becoming a concert pianist of talent and fame, the relationship between them stands in stark contrast to others that Duffield had established. It has aspects of a father-daughter relationship or a mentor-protégé. Although the bad taste left by their liaisons never goes, one is tempted to see within this, if the sex were removed entirely, a fictional exploration of parenthood by a writer who was never a parent himself.

It is also a fictional genuflection towards musicianship on White’s part which chimes well with the artistic world that the novel so spikily explores. Kathy’s talent as a pianist gets serious attention from White. He has her give a Liszt recital, a deliberate link back to his earlier great novel Voss, as John Carmody neatly reminds us when quoting White on his aims for that book:

Always something of a frustrated painter, and a composer manqué, I wanted to give my book the textures of music, the sensuousness of paint, to convey through the theme and characters of Voss what Delacroix and Blake might have seen, what Mahler and Liszt might have heard. (The Prodigal Son in Patrick White Speaks, p. 16)

With Kathy Volkov in The Vivisector, White seems to have succeeded in conveying what de Maistre and Bacon might have seen, “what Mahler and Liszt might have heard”:

Suddenly Katherine Volkov bowed her head. Although she had closed her eyes, it was she, not the vegetable conductor, who was in control. Because she willed it, from her quivering shoulders to the toe of her arrogant shoe, they were carried away on the wave of violins. And Katherine Volkov was parting the music with her long strong arms. Her entranced eyes were at times as fixed as electric light bulbs, as she mounted, and mounted, the flood, at times closed, while she flowed with the stream of overscented dreamed-up music: or curled, an archetypal figure he could no longer recognize, in the troughs between certain waves. (The Vivisector, p. 523)

This injection of music into the book, greatly valued as it is, comes at prodigious cost.

White as social commentator

All Patrick White’s novels disport finely-honed social observations. His prose delivers a lifetime’s harvest of careful people-watching, much of it cutting, sheaves of it endlessly enjoyable and plain funny. His The Vivisector continues this tradition. Although the handsome but misanthropic Duffield is sought after as a guest, White tends to have him button-holed rather than holding sway, or simply observing the social goings-on. His rich clients insist on his attendance, as in this soirée at Boo Davenport’s:

Mrs Davenport’s friends could be divided roughly into three categories. There were the hectic, iridescent, frittering fly-by-nights. Olivia had a weakness for the rag bag, and these were her collection of gay snippets: gin would never drown them, nor benzedrine overcome their colds, only make them more endemic. The fritterers held their drinks rather high and downed them quickly. They appeared to know everybody, but everybody: their conversation was a perpetual tip-and-run.
Then there was the old, slow, swollen-veined, heavily tactical train of tortoises, moving their arthritic necks in the direction of the conversation they were making: some of them relatives – revered, theoretically loved – old barristers, doctors, heaviest of all, the graziers, and old lipstuck ladies who forgot what they had begun to tell, but continued bravely throwing in Galsworthy, Asprey and Our Pioneer Families. All of them tortoises, when not elephants, sometimes a stiff flamingo, but old: some of them on sticks, some with signet rings eating into skin-cancered hands. All had known her so long, they enjoyed the privilege of referring to their hostess as ‘Boo’; she might have been hundreds-and-thousands , the way they sprinkled their anecdotes with her name. (The Vivisector, p. 307)

On a later occasion, much resembling the previous one, where wealth accrues to the elderly, White clearly has great fun depicting the upper echelons of Sydney society.

Mrs Mortimer’s party was so much the same in different clothes he wondered at what date the archetypal party had been held. The ladies screamed, or cooed, from stylized positions which suggested they were somehow out of joint, eyes straying, anointed eyelids fluttering as they wore the few cultivable topics, either marvellous or ghastly, to further shreds. The men were in general solider, not to say heavier: patches of light were reflected in their well-groomed shoulders and flanks, and you half expected a jingle of brass when their hostess, an adept at flicking the social whip, drove them straining from their last objective to the next.
One of the husbands, a mature grey with a hint of the investor in his wall eye, came up as though he would like to conspire. “Painting anything lately, Hurtle?” (The Vivisector, p. 428)

It is not as if this is central to the art world that Duffield inhabits - although his mingling does from time to time result in a sale. It may perhaps help lend a jaundiced note to the artist’s view of his fellow man and serve to bolster his idiosyncrasies. Above all, White shows us more of the society that he would have known well, using it as a vehicle for his satire.

In this regard, one of the novel’s set pieces is White’s depiction of the attendees to the Hurtle Duffield Retrospective that the Trustees of the State Gallery hold in his honour. A sustained collection of overheard snippets of conversation works brilliantly to distance the artist from the exhibition goers. Few know him personally so he can work his way through the different galleries incognito, taking in the inconsequential and the germane alike. A dozen or so pages of passing conversational nattering gloriously skewers what we all say when looking at paintings. Every subject under the sun is paraded, some of it being just gossip between friends interjected between canvases. White at his best and, according to Hewitt, using his experience of the 1967 Art Gallery of New South Wales Retrospective in honour of the 50th birthday of White’s one-time close friend, the celbrated artist Sidney Nolan.

Patrick White, the consummate prose stylist

White shows us both what Duffield sees and how he reacts to what he sees. Whilst the artist’s reactions often involve a rush of responsive energy, imagined or physically with brush in hand, the observational element gives White free reign to give us more prose of the sort that we either love or hate, sometimes convoluted, visually striking, very often enigmatic and multi-layered. White’s preference for allusive, indirect description that builds mood and intimates pieces of meaning that approach significance seems perfectly suited to the business of ‘showing’ us the internals of an artistic process. Processing his text becomes not unlike the process of interpreting a painting. The semantics of the procedure lose definition and we find that we have been subtly shifted into the poetic. I would argue that this is one of the very great delights of White’s prose.

We can see this operating in the following passage, where Duffield and Hero Pavloussi take a ferry to the fictional Greek island of Perialos. Seen through Duffield’s eyes, White pulls elements of the scene into focus with the rest a blur of (divine) blue against which the boat makes its progress.

Very early the swell subsided, and they entered a blue morning in which veiled islands were swimming, or in some cases, hedgehogs of brown rock. The steamer functioned at two speeds: one for the immediate foreground; the other for the passive distance on which they might never make an impression. Kerchiefed women continued calling to their Lady for protection, and a theological student spouted like a whale over a consignment of peasant cheeses spread on a covered hold for the passage between islands. (The Vivisector, p. 395)

The musicality of the prose starts with mid-length phrases before stretching out to a lengthy three-part sentence that leisurely extracts significance. The women’s prayers resonate with the student’s holding-forth. At the visual level the humped, hedgehog islands and rocks work with the metaphorical whale, while the cheeses offer a similar formation in miniature. Above all, there is a simplification towards the island where artifice falls away in pursuit of the atonment that Hero Pavloussi seeks - with Duffield, his “blotting-paper stare” soaking it all up.

When Duffield hears that his ex-lover Hero had died of cancer, he paints Flowering Rosebush, an enigmatic canvas too deeply invested in private associations to mean anything to anyone else:

the face at the heart of the bush reduced to an eye, its remote candour undazzled by its setting of rose-jewels; the original seascape dissolved in space by fluctuations of gelatinous light, in which a threat of crimson was still suspended. (The Vivisector, p. 441)

One can only guess that the seascape behind the rosebush is the one that Duffield saw when the couple travelled to Perialos.

I have commented elsewhere that White often employs a form of sustained metaphor to help position a scene with particular finesse - or focus in on a specific aspect of an episode. So here when Kathy introduces him to her future husband and he notes that “his handshake an encounter with wire” (p. 532). As the couple leave his house, he watches the young woman cross the yard:

entwining an arm with one of Dr Harbord’s: the two arms might have been wire; and in spite of Kathy’s confidences, would have liked to take a pair of pliers, and snip the arms off at the shoulder, and watch the blood spurting from the wire snakes after they had tinkled on the asphalt. (The Vivisector, p. 534)

The violence of the thought is truly lancinating and, aware of it, White closes the fit of jealousy with:

When the gate was closed between them, and he could no longer see her, he went and twisted the wireless on, and an edifying music came out, because it was Sunday. (The Vivisector, p. 534)

Although the artist’s action is a twist instead of a turning on - which continues the violence - the use of “the wireless” then defuses the violence far better than if it had been “the radio”. White thus signals that Duffield has put down his metaphorical pliers. (How this works for those who now no longer know either a radio and even less so a wireless is conjecture. Indeed, there’s a separate metaphor reliant upon a potential archaism when White says of his sister Rhoda coming directly to the point about something that “Rhoda’s decision to abandon subterfuge had the effect of a blind going up too quickly” (p.528). If one knows the form of window blind that has a spring-loaded roller, this works perfectly, conveying a snapping surprise that reverberates after a room is filled with light.) Both instances of metaphor, one sustained and one that catches us unawares, are masterful.

Close reading of White’s prose is endlessly rewarding. White explains how Duffield in a later phase takes up collage. (So, apparently, did Matisse and Miró.) A potential American client, Propert, visits Duffield in his studio and spies a collage he is working on and he declares that he must have it yet Duffield has no interest in selling it. “Propert was smiling an unhappy smile for the bright collage of their relationship which, in spite of its early promise, had come visibly unstuck,” was White’s way of dispatching the client from the misanthropic artist’s lair.

The Vivisector contains some of White’s bolder forays into linguistic experimentation. The young Hurtle’s family’s demotic spoken language is extended by Nance’s street language. Some of her outbursts about her own father’s abuse of her makes you wonder from where White gained such experience of the vernacular. It is bold and striking stuff, particularly as it stands in such contrast to the more polished Courtney spoken language. The range of registers that White employs is exciting.

Additionally, there is the period when the elderly Duffield begins his “falling falling falling” following his first stroke. A left-hemispheric stroke disrupts his spoken language and White shows this with collisions of accumulating adjectives, scrambled word ordering and word-finding difficulties. Parts of the text seem to have come from the pen of Gerard Manley Hopkins or even from Joyce with a fruitful interplay of semantic resonance. White also reverts Duffield to his younger speech patterns, re-introducing the second-person narration that we saw in the start of the novel, as well as loosening the old man’s humour with the introduction of glorious puns. The stroke Duffield suffers is shown to be one of God’s more intimate brushstrokes.

The delight of the novel is its stylistic playfulness and experimentation, in contrast to the darker view it contains of a tortured artist at work. Artists may be qualitatively different from the rest of us - though perhaps by only small degrees - and we can only hope that among their number (and the rest of us as well) the Duffield type is a rare exception. The ever-perceptive J.M. Coetzee held the view that the novel “was fated to be an elegy not only for the school of painting represented by Duffield but also for the school of writing represented by White himself” (Late Essays 2006 - 2017 p. 225). Even so, the book - as with all White’s novels - merits being periodically brought out into the light. If we can cope with its more troubling dimensions, we may find its refractive powers continue to dazzle like the Courtneys’ chandelier.

Paintings relevant to Patrick White’s The Vivisector

Helen Verity Hewitt’s book, Patrick White, Painter Manqué: paintings, painters and their influence on his writing offers valuable insight into the life-long regard Patrick White had for art and in particular for oil painting. Her lavishly illustrated book documents the different paintings that possibly played a role in waymarking White’s life and literary output. The book documents when White owned each of these paintings and attempts to single out those that may have had a relevance to individual novels, in some case identifying particular treasures that hung over his writing desk.

What surfaces is that the writer was a huge patron of the arts, particularly of Australian artists. Over his lifetime he amassed a substantial collection of paintings, not for investment purposes but to hang on his own walls. In a 37-page appendix Hewitt lists the paintings that White at one time owned and subsequently donated to the Art Gallery of New South Wales. This amounts to some 250 paintings.

Difficulty in securing copyright permission for many of these paintings means that they can only be linked to rather than displayed here, but the trail is hopefully illuminating.

Beach Scene at Trouville by Eugene Boudin, 1863

1/5 Beach Scene at Trouville by Eugene Boudin, 1863
Beach Scene at Trouville by Eugene Boudin, 1863

The young Hurtle Duffield sees his first painting - of ladies and bathing machines. It was painted by Eugene Boudin (1824-1898). It hangs in the house of Mr and Mrs Courtney whose laundry his Mamma takes in. He comes to think of the painting as “their bloody old French painting”. White may have had in mind this Beach Scene at Trouville painted by Eugene Boudin. It represents a point of departure for the artistic vision of the young Hurtle Duffield. (Neither White nor his relatives ever owned this painting.)

Spring Frost by Elioth Gruner, 1919

2/5 Spring Frost by Elioth Gruner, 1919
Spring Frost by Elioth Gruner, 1919

Spring Frost by Elioth Gruner was bought by Patrick White’s uncle FG White. It hung in the family’s dining room and White grew up with it. Helen Hewitt observes that “White, in his writing, was to seek not only the effulgence and epiphany of Spring Frost but also the shadow and struggle ‘beneath the surface’ ” (Helen Verity Hewitt’s Patrick White, Painter Manqué, page 8).

Donated to the Art Gallery of New South Wales by FG White in 1939.

Figure by Bath by Roy de Maistre, 1934

Composition with a Bath by Roy de Maistre on Sotheby’s website

This painting adorns the cover of Helen Verity Hewitt’s Patrick White, Painter Manqué - and for good reason. White, along with Francis Bacon, would have seen Figure by Bath being painted by de Maistre. All three were friends. The disturbing canvas could well have been in White’s mind as he described Hurtle Duffield painting his step-sister Rhoda in his Pythoness at Tripod painting. Her hump-backed and naked form had been burned into the artist’s memory from when the young boy happened upon her washing when the family were holidaying in France. “Rhoda was standing beside one of the spindly iron-legged bidets. She was naked down to the soles of her feet” (The Vivisector, p. 134). When White had him start work on the painting “he was seething with it” (p. 280). Bacon probably took de Maistre’s painting as inspiration for a much more harrowing work, his Three studies for figures at the base of a crucifixion, 1944.

Bonfire in the Bush by Grace Cossington Smith, c.1937

3/5 Bonfire in the Bush by Grace Cossington Smith, 1937
Bonfire in the Bush by Grace Cossington Smith, 1937.
© The Estate of Grace Cossington Smith

White lived with this painting between 1960 and 1973. Helen Hewitt contends that “many of White’s major themes are interwoven in this painting” (Helen Verity Hewitt’s Patrick White, Painter Manqué, page 118). The artist’s father and sisters in white Edwardian dress are beside a bonfire in the family’s garden in Turramurra. The figures appear to be engaged in some ritual, seemingly alien in the verdant bush. The fire attempts to domesticate a tiny corner of the vast wilderness. The artist said that the painting was about the loss of her mother to the family. One can imagine that the splintering and fragmenting of light that the canvas so clearly depicts drew White to own it.

Donated to the Art Gallery of New South Wales by Patrick White in 1973.

Song of the Edda by Lawrence Daws, 1958

4/5 Song of the Edda by Lawrence Daws, 1958
Song of the Edda by Lawrence Daws, 1958.
Reproduced with permission of the artist.

White bought Lawrence Daws’ Song of the Edda in 1958, followed by four more of his paintings. This landscape, which is only partially figurative, would have appealed to White because of the mandalic potential of the dazzling sun. Hewitt recounts that White enjoyed discussing Jungian philosophy with Daws.

Donated to the Art Gallery of New South Wales by Patrick White in 1975.

Coast Wind by Thomas Gleghorn, 1959

This painting hung above White’s writing desk as he worked on Riders in the Chariot. It depicts a bluster coming up the Austrailian coast from the south, a huge moon fragmented among clouds. This large, luminous work is suggestive of the sorts of transcendental moments that are dotted about in the novel. White knew Gleghorn well and even gave the opening speech at an exhibition of the artist’s work in 1959. Gleghorn even offered to teach White how to paint, although that offer was never taken up.

Donated to the Art Gallery of New South Wales by Patrick White in 1968.

Zeus, Poseidon, Pluton by Stanislaus Rapotec, 1969

Hewitt observes that this painting by Rapotec “had been a source for Hurtle Duffield’s final paintings” (Helen Verity Hewitt’s Patrick White, Painter Manqué, page 116). Rapotec, a Slovenian who arrived in Australia in 1948, had, like White, served in the Middle East during the war.

Donated to the Art Gallery of New South Wales by Patrick White in 1969.


5/5 Portrait of Patrick White © William Yang, 1980
Patrick White 1980 by William Yang. Collection: National Portrait Gallery, Canberra. © The artist.

(Page numbers in The Vivisector refer to the Jonathan Cape edition, 1970.)

In words

  • David Marr, Patrick White: A Life; Vintage, 1991.
  • David Marr (editor), Patrick White: Letters; Jonathan Cape, 1994.
  • Peter Beatson, The Eye in the Mandala: Patrick White, a Vision of Man and God; Barnes & Noble Books, 1976.
  • Peter Wolfe, Laden Choirs: The Fiction of Patrick White; The University Press of Kentucky, 2015.
  • Brian Kiernan, Patrick White; Macmillan Press, 1980.
  • Patrick White, Patrick White Speaks; Jonathan Cape, 1989.
  • Patrick White: from the Nobel Prize website:, first published 29 August 2001.
  • A conversation with Patrick White, Southerly, the journal of The English Association, Sydney, 33 (2), June 1973.
  • Karin Hansson, doctoral thesis The warped universe. A study of imagery and structure in seven novels by Patrick White; Lund Studies in English 69, CWK Gleerup, 1984.
  • Karrin Hansson, Patrick White – Existential Explorer: The Nobel Prize, 29 August 2001.
  • R. F. Brissenden, Patrick White; Longmans, Green & Co., Writers and their Work: no 90, 1966.
  • Geoffrey Dutton, Patrick White; Oxford University Press, 1971.
  • William Walsh, Patrick White - Voss; Edward Arnold, 1976.
  • Patricia A. Morley, The Mystery of Unity: Theme and technique in the novels of Patrick White; McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1972.
  • R. Shepherd & K. Singh (Eds.), Patrick White - A critical symposium; Centre for Research in the New Literature in English, Adelaide, 1978.
  • J.M. Coetzee, Late Patrick White in J.M. Coetzee, Late Essays 2006 - 2017; Vintage, 2018.
  • Helen Verity Hewitt, Screaming Silent Words - Francis Bacon, Sidney Nolan and Hurtle Duffield; Antipodes, Vol. 14, No. 1 (June 2000), pp. 53-57 (5 pages), Wayne State University Press, (available on JSTOR).
  • Helen Verity Hewitt, Patrick White, Painter Manqué: paintings, painters and their influence on his writing; The Miegunyah Press At Melbourne University Press, 2003.
  • John J. Carmody, Patrick White, Composer Manqué: The Centrality of Music in White’s Artistic Aspiration; Antipodes Vol. 29, No. 1 (June 2015), pp. 153-161.

On film

  • The late, great Patrick White (p1). A discussion with David Marr and Kerry Walker; YouTube, 2nd May 2013.
  • The Life and Faith of Patrick White. Greg Clarke interviews Patrick White’s biographer David Marr; YouTube, 27th May 2012.
  • Interview of Nobel laureate Patrick White; YouTube, recorded in 1973 and published on 22nd January 2010.
  • Patrick White interviewed by Michael Billington; BBC World Service, 9th August 1982.
  • Patrick White Omnibus tribute; BBC, 2nd October 1990.
  • The Strand Archive talks to Patrick White’s biographer David Marr about the author’s unpublished novel The Hanging Garden; BBC, 19th April 2012.
  • Novelist Andrea Goldsmith, in conversation with James Ley, explores the poetically vivid fictional universe of Patrick White: Australian Literature 102: Patrick White: Riders in the Chariot, YouTube, 27 Jan 2015.

[The Vivisector by Patrick White is available in the UK from]

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