WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD! This is a discussion amongst participants of ReadLiterature.Com's reading group. Since they have all read the book, they discuss it freely - including its twists, turns, and the ending. If you have also read the book, you might enjoy the comments of other readers. But if you haven't and intend to do so, then the following discussion might ruin it for you.
Posted by Lale on 23/9/2002, 21:06:20
While Stephen is gathering his thoughts on The Viv, here is a glossary of the local speech in Hurtle Duffield's Australia:
haristercrat - aristocrat
yairs - yes
edgercation - education
shillun - shilling
corneelun - cornelian
droring - drawing
muslun - muslin
gunner - gonna (going to)
millioneer - millionaire
pertater - potato
yez - you
shandeleer - chandelier
sov-run - sovereign
nothun - nothing
terbaccer - tobacco
Lale - Lale
Posted by Stephen Hill on 23/9/2002, 21:47:58
Flaming struth, just can't keep up with the jingo.
Geez you guyz, you'd better get your brolleys out or our youz be as tasteless as a soggy pavlova - and you know that's just not ocker tucker. Youz got a have one of dooz after such a pleasant barbie, it good da have after douz tasty snags.
Much better dan dose New Zealanders with their fush and choops, cant talk pwoperly or anyfing - no pwoper edgercation, orz they got is dose sheep and a couple of Rugby players.
Ere in Orstalia weze got a 'you beauty, dinky die' edgercation system, weez even got teachers and stuff. We had dis fatty geezer politican heez said we need to spend more on universities (big word for an Ozstralian) - but weez said dat too complicated, weez rather spend it on beer and stuff - we got lots of Tooheys ere, itz good to have wiv da barbie, much better dan having some fat fellow saying weez got to be da 'clever country', wez mighty clever, wez Ozzies can get 'ome pissed wifout much probalem, and weez even learn how ows to work da next day wiv the hangover.
Yorz a shout next, Isa bought da last round.
Posted by Stephen Hill on 2/10/2002, 11:25:15
As always with Patrick White novels there is never a shortage of ideas implanted within the text, and while 'The Vivisector' might be his most convoluted novel, and probably not as assessable as some of his earlier works, it certainly does not not have a shortage of discussion points.
Now the question will remain whether this was a good introduction to White, maybe some of his earlier work that focuses more on the landscape, that trawls the barrows of Australian mythology would have been a kinder introduction. However, I found this novel a very rewarding read, and was elated by its ending.
I am not attempting to step away from this novel's complexity, so hopefully this does not stink of crude reductionism.
Lets start with the obvious, the timeless conflict between art and life. Now this has been addressed in a range of writers immemorial - from Balzac, Kazantzakis, Roth etc., read any writer's biography and you are likely to be confronted with the following struggle. To obtain mastery of an artform requires such dedication that it is hardly conducive to the living a rich life. That cruel contradiction that a writer requires both the ability to observe a society, and yet must remain cloistered for lengthy periods of time to developing his writing skills, to reflect on life's events, to overcome lingering doubt, are all part of art's difficult development.
Throughout this book, White seems to be exploring this point, which is obviously very applicable to his own life, if one takes into account his rather reclusive lifestyle. Indeed, whilst I've never bothered researching much about his life, this book does seem to have some fascinating parallels to his life. But let us explore the life of Hurtle Duffield.
Hurtle Duffield, is a painter who dedicates his life almost completely to his work. For through the hermetic Duffield we are presented with a life from early childhood to senescence What I particularly like about this unsentimentalised portrayal of Duffield is how small and at the same time limitless his life is, the book seems to a document both his triumphs and his failings.
Nearly all of Duffield's time and energy is spent in the culmination of his art, now while this may lead to a lot of questions relating to creative life. Questions like, do artists reach a trascendant state - do they reach a point of nirvanic ecstasy. Is art the refuge for failed lives attempting to contemplate a finer existence?
Duffield throughout his life feels that he is serving mankind through his work, as searches for moments of beauty and strives for some grandiose notion of human fulfillment. Duffield is greatly affected by his mother's efforts to eradicate cruelty to animals. Yet the question remains in his attempt to renounce cruelty, by pursuing his art with such intensity, is he not the Vivisector of human lives? As Mrs Courtney reflects, `Half of cruelty is thoughtless', and it seems that at times Duffield has few thoughts about other people.
Looking through Hurtle's life, at the long-list of spurned lovers, family members, friendships and opportunities, which he sacrifices to perfect his painting. Looking through from childhood, the intense early relationships, how quick he is to forget his true parents, how cold he is to his rather pious Maman, how unpredisposed his nature is to his adventurous father, his separation from his step-sister Rhoda, with a relationship predicated more on pity than platonic respect, to Boo-Olivia Davenport, to his admiring benefactor, the troubled relationship with Nance, his cruelty to Hero Pavloussi, how he refuse to re-unite with his admiring relatives at the end of his life, how he is able to earns society's plaudits and veneration yet seems disposed to reject them, it is a grand tragedy and the guilt that burdens and hamstrings Duffield, which becomes an outlet for further painting. As Nance Lighfoot puts it to Duffield: 'What your sort don't realise, is that other people exist. While you're all gummed up in the great art mystery, they're alive, and breakun their necks for love.'
However, is there a redemption of character with Duffield's reconciliation with his step-sister Rhoda, and with his mentorship of the precocious neighbour who is able to overcome the mediocrity of suburbia. Is his advice and wisdom and explanation of the passion for art, a kind of gentle guidance that will ensure that the wellspring of talent will not wither away, or is he sending her upon the precarious and painful road of an artist. I found the relationship between Duffield and Kathy quite unsettling at first, was it predicated as some sort of atonement for the guilt he felt for his previous lovers?
"God knew, he had multiplied, if not through his loins; he was no frivolous masturbator tossing his seed on to wasteland. He had sympathised with the passionate illusions of several women, and could hardly be held responsible for their impulse to destroy themselves through what they misunderstood as love; until finally: had he himself been destroyed by a little egotistical girl whom he valued above his vocation?" p.508
It is definitely not an orthodox relationship that White's narrative was embarking on, but in many way's Duffield seems to be acting like a father-figure for a girl who obviously had a gift that needs to be nurtured, but while he is not a father in the parental point-of-view, is he I kind of artistic father. Would the only sort of child Hurtle could share a connection with by one that he offers a birth of knowledge, curiosity, appreciation of beauty.
Duffield reflects: "I know parents sometimes grow to resent their children if they're in any way transcendent - as much as if they were ugly and stunted. What so many of them really look for is a healthy, normal, biddable child who will flatter their complacency like a glass. But Kathy will never be that. And you, Hurtle, are not a parent." P.509
Now this novel is quite unsettling at times, it certainly has a range of jarring experiences. Duffields life could be seen as a desolating, humiliating experience, or is it much more. Are we to celebrate the life and the austerity of many an artist's life, or should we just reflect on their work, but is this not a by-product to the sacrifices they have made along the way. The question is when does the questing for beauty become an anti-pursuit, does it ever become a fierce separation from life?
Critics of Duffield, could suggest that like Kafka's Gregor Samsa, Duffield is attempting to opt out of life, Duffield's insect-live existence, his existence somewhat like the dilapidated building he cohabits. What is sad is that Duffield when he finally wins social approval, he is unable to enjoy his material success, mainly due to the flocks of dilettante, impresarios, sleazy art-critics that seem to mock his existence with their narrow-mindedness. Duffield is venerated in ways that he despises, real-estate near him is snapped up by people who want to be seen to be living near this `national treasury'. Politicians, journalists scramble to be linked with him, yet this had little to do with the intentions which propel Duffield's art.
Duffield's attempts to reach the beauty of the heavens, leads to great art, he also able to ensure that Kathy was untainted by the mediocrity of her surroundings, possibly his sole earthly achievement. His art is definitely attempting to broach out further. The Question of whether he neglected his life in the pursuit of such beauty, whether he is as guilty as the masturbating greengrocer he condemns is one for which there will probably be a range of differing conclusions. The last few paragraph's see Duffield finally visualise what he had been striving for, reaching an ecstasy in the mind as he passes away from this world, was this the culmination of an artistic quest ?
As Duffield says to Rhoda about Kathy: "You can't expect more than their art from artists. If you did, you might forget about the art, and die of shame for what they've shown you of mankind."
In the end for all his failings and cruelty, Duffield achieves in the one thing he cherishes - his artistic pursuit, the carcass that remains will be swallowed by the vultures who desire to see him fall from his ethereal perch. Those who thought he should pursue an `honest trade', those who want to translate his work through their own prism, those who fail to understand his inner life. But they can do little to touch him now, his degradation is long finished, he is painting with the cherubic entities or whatever beauty he finds or recalls, and his art lives on.
INDI- GGODDDD (5 Stars)
Posted by Rizwan on 2/10/2002, 18:54:58
I'm disappointed I missed out on reading this book. It sounds utterly fascinating! And your introduction/summation of it was equally intriguing. One day, I hope soon, I will stumble upon this book in a used bookstore somewhere, and when I do, I will rush straight to the cash register, pay for it, and begin reading it right then and there! I can't wait...
Posted by Chris on 3/10/2002, 0:57:23
I had an entirely different take on Hurtle Duffield than did you, Stephen.
To me, Hurtle wasn't serving mankind through his work; rather, it seemed to me that Hurtle couldn't have cared at all whether or not his work affected anyone. He worked selfishly and painted only for his own pleasure - and sometimes his own release.
I think this facet of Hurtle's character is central to White's overall statement about the artist. Not only must an artist truly immerse himself in his work at the expense of personal relations, but he, the artist, must necessarily work for himself; to work for the pleasure of others would be a betrayal of art itself.
Posted by Dave on 3/10/2002, 5:49:56
This book was very interesting to me, as the subject of the artistic temperament interests me to no end.
I will begin my comments with a review I wrote a couple of nights ago, and follow this with some other comments:
IT RAINS ON YOU.
I find it difficult to assign an exact number of stars to my assessment of this book. My "enjoyment" of the book is at about a three star level, but White's ability to achieve what he set out to do is worthy of five stars... so I am rounding off to four.
What did he set out to do? To show the lifelong inner workings, to lay bare the soul of this particular artist, the painter Hurtle Duffield. White achieved his goal, we're left with a brilliant portrait, his depiction of the artist is itself a work of art, the work of a genius.
But the book is difficult, slow-moving and dark. It will not appeal to those who want a quick-paced storyline... and forget the word "action" all ye that dare to enter herein. These pages will rain on you.
But the book is not without its merits. Artists are not normal. They are eccentric. Hurtle Duffield is a born artist, and as such, from childhood onwards he is not normal. He is consistently, and increasingly, eccentric. As a child, he is keenly observant... in a sense, vivisecting everything he sees and experiences. His adoption into a wealthy family allows for the opportunity to expand his horizons, to experience the world... yet even this good fortune is no panacea, it is clouded with difficulties, with dysfunction. The fertile ground for the artistic mind to germinate.
Hurtle (as perhaps all great artists) becomes the sort of person who influences those who come in contact with him, but is unable to influence himself. His relationships are tragic and self-destructive for everyone involved. He becomes a recluse, spending the latter portion of his life living with his equally eccentric sister, the kind of guy that neighborhood kids invent legends about!
In his mansion he continues to paint his masterpieces, which are internationally recognized.
The only way that Hurtle can REALLY communicate with the outside world is through his art, and White does a superb job of showing us how detrimental this type of obsession can be for the personal life of the artist himself. It's a world few of us ever see. And it's gloomy.
At one point the narrator says that Hurtle's "repeated downfall was his longing to share truth with somebody specific who didn't want to receive it." This is a significant theme of the novel, Hurtle searching for the Ideal. And Hurtle himself cries out at one point, "I'm an artist. I can't afford exorcism."
Of course, White's choice of title for his book is significant. So, as I read the book, I kept asking myself... "Who IS the vivisector?" Is it "God" as Hurtle concludes in chapter 8? Or is it Hurtle himself?
How easy it is to blame God for our temperament, or for the choices we have made in life... famous artist or not!
The title is significant. White is asking something here, not giving us the answer. If Hurtle dies alone, and unfulfilled, is this God's fault? Hurtle's?
Who is the Vivisector in this novel? God? If so... who does he vivisect? Everyone? (If so, I can think of many people I know who do not seem very vivisected at all)! Does God arbitrarily pick and choose then?
Does God even exist?
If it's Hurtle, who does Hurtle vivisect? Himself? His original parents? His sister? Every woman in his life? Page 458 says "there were days when he himself was operated on." And the inference is that he (Hurtle) was the vivisector!
White leaves these questions unanswered, and to me, it was an eerie feeling, like one of those paintings with the eyes that follow you no matter where you walk in the room.
The book is worth reading, but keep an eye to the title of my review...
Posted by Dave on 3/10/2002, 6:02:46
There is so much I could say about The Vivisector, about this character of Hurtle Duffield, I truly do not know where to begin. So, these comments will not be exhaustive... I'm sure I will submit other reflections after this, and more importantly, I'm interested to see how we interact with all of the ideas and opinions that Hurtle inspires in us, as readers.
As Stephen suggests, I agree that this book is primarily dealing with the timeless conflict between art and life.
What price art?
Recently, I was at the National Gallery here in Ottawa, and in one certain room there were works by Van Gogh, Renoir, Cezanne, Monet, Pissarro. I asked the guard on duty... "would it be fair to say that this is the most valuable room in this entire building?" He smiled, and with a fairly serious look in his eyes, simply said...
It's quite easy to be awestruck or fascinated with what fine art COSTS, as in $$$. To purchase and maintain. But, how little we know of what it actually cost the creator to produce it.
Among other things, White's book is a superb look at this side of "art." The obsession that moves the cogs.
White begins at the beginning. There was never a point when the young Hurtle Duffield was NOT thinking artistically. And placing Hurtle in this poverty stricken family brilliantly emphasizes the fact that the truly artistic mind (creativity) is not the product of privilege. In Hurtle's case, it is not something that is learned, quite the opposite, it blooms in the very soil of ignorance... it develops despite ridicule, obstacle, or opposition. It defies opinion, and transcends limitations.
Such is the case with little Hurtle, and White's moving him into the Courtney family is a stroke of genius... if anything in the world may have been able to stifle the painter in Hurtle, it may have been his original "Pa". Pa's pride almost thwarted Mumma's aspirations for her son, and as I read those first pages, I was rooting for Hurtle all the way, hoping that he would make it into the Courtney household.
This move/adoption afforded Hurtle the opportunity to develop his inward and outward "painter", while at the same time providing a source of regret and pain that will find its way into his work. All his life (see page 347) Hurtle was extremely bothered about the fact that he was sold for "500 quid."
As Hurtle grows, he becomes less and less communicative with the outside world. Not only is he uncommunicative with others, but he hates it when they try to communicate with him. When he gets letters from Mary Noble (the maid from his childhood years) and from Caldicott years later (p.234) he rips them up. Of the many times he received a letter from Olivia Davenport, he only read one once, when he was in the outhouse... and even then, he wiped his butt with it (p.301)!
This seeming contempt that he has for others is because "the only life he could recognize as practical was the one lived inside his skull." (p.382-383).
We learn the most about ourselves by listening to our own self-talk. If you analyze Hurtle's self-talk it is quite revealing, and it's interesting that the two times we learn the most about him are when he is talking to people that are complete strangers to him.
1) the green-grocer in the park.
2) the man (Mothersole) on the ferry.
To these two, he really opens up, and I found these sections interesting.
To the green-grocer he says "I don't know why: most of the time I'm alone... I am not in need - of any thing, or any one." Later he adds, "I've never been in need of consolation! I have what I know and what I can see. I have my work."
And this is the most revealing... "I've been accused of loving myself. How could I? When I've always known too much about myself."
To the man named Mothersole, on the ferry, Hurtle complains that his paintings "died" that morning. "Paintings die like anything else, a great many with their creators, and this morning I realized, I think, that I'm already dead."
This is a significant statement. What was the cause of Hurtle's realization? Well, just prior to this inexplicable and useless ferry ride, Hurtle was criticised at two levels. While in the outhouse, he overheard the two women speaking of his eccentric ways. Secondly, the girl in the smallgoods store called him old.
These two simple occasions threw Hurtle's world (this world where he believes he has no needs) into a tailspin. Everything is crumbling, even his paintings have "died" in his opinion..... why? Because he cannot handle even the slightest criticism in any form.
And this is the same person who took no bull from anyone as a kid?
Remember how he used to kick the tar out of anyone that criticised him, or even made fun of his sister?
Now, the slightest thing crumples him up like a piece of paper!
This continues, and becomes ever worse, until the very end of his life.
I find this interesting. It's as though White is showing us that the art is NOT ENOUGH!
The further Hurtle is immersed in his obsession, the less healthy he becomes, both emotionally and physically.
And notice how fame and recognition do nothing to allay this descent? In fact, as the value of his work increases, Hurtle becomes less functional. The greater his admirers, the greater his contempt for them.
Nowhere is White more eloquent in revealing this inadequacy of art than in the depiction of Hurtle's relationships with women.
All his life Hurtle was searching for the Platonic Ideal. He called it "a commodious banality" or "simplicity". As in his series of paintings entitled "Furniture" he was going for lucidity, or an almost perfect simplicity... "the essence of table and chairness of chair."
Similarly, he tried to sculpt his chance meeting with Nance Lightfoot into an Ideal relationship. It ended tragically. He was a bit more successful (in my opinion) with Hero Pavloussi. Perhaps she would be the Ideal?
No... didn't work out.
But notice something interesting in these two relationships, and to a lesser extent with his Olivia Davenport experience, Hurtle is able to BLAME the women he's known in his life for their own disillusionment with him. He thinks...if these women were silly enough to love him, well then, it serves them right if they ended up disappointed!
Ah... but then there's Kathy.
He blames the women he's known in his life for their own disillusionment with him.
All except Kathy Volkov.
He can't blame her for anything, because she's the only one that never suffers disillusionment... and this realization nearly kills him.
With the resilience of youth, she effortlessly moves on from Hurtle... and rather than destroy herself over him (like Nance and Hero) she goes on to become ever more successful, emotionally fulfilled and self-actualized.
Now he looks at his previous relationships with disgust because they fell so short of the true Ideal, which is Katherine Volkov. And in his jealous resignation "he wondered whom he had been addressing all these years." (p.495). In other words, what does his art mean in the face of the loss of Kathy?
Now he realizes he had been trying to do something impossible with his art.
Humpy Rhoda, reeking of mothballs, cat pee, and horseflesh, asks him "The horrors are less horrible if you've created them yourself. Is that it?"
But there's no solace even in this dim possibility, and he answers her "No, I'm still trying to arrive at the truth."
Many times I was disgusted with Hurtle. He never did anything funny, almost never did he do anything nice. But I tried to imagine his frustration, and ended up sympathizing with his lifelong struggle to keep a sense of futility at bay. It must be a terrible burden to feel that your life's calling is to literally TRANSMIT your perception of objective truth onto canvas.
But White seems to be saying that this is the gift (or curse)... of the artist.
The great Oxford writer Hugo Dyson once said:
"Man without art is eyeless; man with art and nothing else would see little but the reflections of his own fears and desires."
Hurtle Duffield had only his art.
Posted by Lale on 4/10/2002, 13:34:21
: introduction/summation of it was equally
: intriguing. One day, I hope soon, I will
: stumble upon this book in a used bookstore
: somewhere, and when I do, I will rush
: straight to the cash register, pay for it,
: and begin reading it right then and there!
: I can't wait...
My dear Rizwan, you really needn't rush that much ;-)
Yes, Stephen has written a very good review, I agree. I actually liked his review better than I liked the book. I give 5 stars to Stephen's review but I do not rate the book as high.
Both Stephen and Dave made it sound like a book one should not miss, and I really admire both of their comments. However I have a different opinion of the book and I started writing it but I soon realized that it was taking longer than I thought. (It is a book one wants to say a lot about, as seen in the previous reviews.) Right now, I have to go to my French class and we have an exam today. Therefore, I cannot complete my comments. I was very anxious to get this discussion started and I pestered Stephen for a long time, and now, I am being awfully late in posting my own comments. I apologize for this. It just has been a full week.
And tomorrow (listen to this!), Anna and I are going to meet in Antwerp. We are both taking off early in the morning from our respective home towns and we are meeting in Antwerp (sort or half way between us) to have a day visit of the gorgeous town, to have literary and non-literary conversations and to enjoy Monk's beer. So, tomorrow I won't be able to finish my comments either. Give me until Monday morning, please.
By the way, I am one hundred percent in agreement with this assessment of Chris:
: To me, Hurtle wasn't serving mankind
: through his work; rather, it seemed to
: me that Hurtle couldn't have cared at
: all whether or not his work affected anyone.
: He worked selfishly and painted only for
: his own pleasure - and sometimes his own release.
Chris, I would like to hear more of your thoughts on this book.
Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 4/10/2002, 14:51:43
First of all a confession: I did not finish The Vivisector, but gave up at page 360. I very rarely stop reading books halfway and if I do it is because they are so bad that I find them a waste of precious reading time. This one I chucked out not because it was bad (on the contrary, Patrick White is a very capable and interesting author) but because I found the book so utterly depressing that reading it became a chore.
The first part, however, about Hurtle's childhoodwas absorbing and fascinating. To me the child remained an enigma, but an interesting one. He is a strange child, unresponsive, aloof, withdrawn, hardly ever letting on what is going on inside him, almost autistic. If it were not for his angelic good looks he would be probably be considered a rather unattractive child. It seemed to me that very little goes on inside young Duffield's heart, and certainly not as concerns his relationship with other people, until his artistic sensibilities are awakened and stimulated. He lives for and through these alone. That part of him is fascinating and White renders it admirably. For instance, I loved how he wrote about the huge impression the chandelier made on Hurtle, how it was the most beautiful, most awe-inspring thing he had ever seen.
Then the unresponsive, aloof child grows up and (as we would expect) turns into a man that is unable to relate properly to other human beings. Like Chris I don't see him at all as an idealist who gives up everything for his art, but rather as a severe emotional cripple who can't do anything BUT live through his art. It is all he is capable of. Stephen, I was surprised to read your statement that "Duffield is greatly affected by his mother's efforts to eradicate cruelty to animals." When was that? It must have been after page 360, for in the earlier part of the novel I have not been able to find an instance of his showing even the least bit of interest in her efforts in that field.
What depressed and repelled me most in this book was the succession of depraved people who crowd around Duffield as he is grown-up. There was very little I was able to even recognize let alone identify with in both Duffield and the women he has affairs with. They could have been from another planet, so alien were they to me. Often in books it is incredibly interesting, insightful and rewarding to creep into the minds of people who are different from oneself, even if they remain something of a mystery, as in our next book "The Sheltering Sky" (which I did finish and did enjoy). In this case, however, everybody seemed so selfdestructive and rotten, everything seemed so dark and bleak, that reading on became distasteful.
Conclusion: I feel much the same way about the book as Chris and Lale. As for hearts: the first half of the part I read definitely merits 4 hearts, the latter half only one, which brings me to an average of 2.5 hearts.
Posted by Chris on 5/10/2002, 5:25:31
Perhaps my previous comments were a bit misleading, but I rather, on the whole, enjoyed the book. Hurtle was, no doubt, emotionally and socially incompetent, but I think much of that part of his character was White's statement about the sacrifices of being an artist. Apparently, devoting yourself to your work enough to do great things is something of a double-edged sword, and those aspects of Hurtle's character which we so loathed were nothing more than the yin to his paintings' yang.
As I read the book I wondered what all of you thought about the rather abrupt change in White's style mid-way through the novel. In the first half (roughly), I was reminded somewhat of James Joyce's semi-stream of consciousness technique and I really enjoyed the prose; at times it was difficult, but still rewarding. Then, the second half of the novel was written in a much simpler, much more quotidian style, and overall devoid of the kind of stylistic creativity of the first half. The strength of White's narrative was sustained adequately, but I was puzzled by the stylistic departure.
Did anyone notice this?
Posted by Lale on 6/10/2002, 22:12:05
I did not like this book. I give it three stars because of the first 200 pages, which was brilliant. It all went downhill from there.
Let's talk about the first 200 pages: I was so happy to be reading a book of this skill, this mastery, this originality. Those of you who know me better know that originality is my oxygen, it is my bread, it is my coffee. I live for originality.
The first part of The Vivisector, firstly, had a story that I had not seen in a novel before, and secondly, it had a style that was unheard of.
(remember we are still talking about the first one thirds of the book)
The story: An uprooted child! Completely déraciné. And for this uprooting to happen it was not even necessary for the transaction between the two families to be completed, to reach a conclusion. Hurtle was placeless as soon as the possibility emerged. With the first mention of an adoption his life was changed. Even if Pa had been strong enough to hold on to his son, Hurtle was going to remain homeless because the thoughts of a beautiful house and a pretty mother were going to haunt him forever. Then the transaction was completed and a little boy left his home and family for a supposedly "better" one. The topic is very very interesting. From that moment on his life in this new house, his memories of his real family and his confusion, rootlessness, his not belonging neither here nor there were going to be a truly interesting story and I was thrilled to have found an analysis into such a life.
The style: One moment the narration is "he" and the next it is "you". Look at these two consecutive paragraphs:
"Because you didn't know what to answer, you went away. You didn't love books all that much, but wouldn't have known how to tell Pa you neither loved an `honest trade'. You loved what? You wouldn't have known, not to be asked.
"He loved the feel of a smooth stone, or to take a flower to pieces, to see what there was inside. He loved the pepper tree breaking into light, and the white hens rustling by moonlight in the black branches ... "
Absolutely brilliant. I thought I was holding a masterpiece in my hands. We actually had this conversation with my husband:
Husband: How is the book going?
Me: Super. You must read it.
Husband: You say that for every book.
Me: No. This is literature.
And then all of a sudden that book ended and a new book started. The style changed. The rootlessness was abandoned unresolved (yes, I know, this story never really left the book, it was inherently always there, but that was not what I wanted, I wanted it to be the one and only story).
I realized that in every book there must be a moment of beauty, a place of comfort, something where the reader can rest her eyes on. This book never gives the reader a break. There is constant ugliness, filth and dysfunction. Nancy, Hero, Rhoda, Olivia Davenport, none of them is pleasant or attractive in any way. The hut "up the line", Nancy's room, life with Rhoda are all filled with discomfort, lousy food, and unhygienic sanitary. Only when Hurtle looks at the view of the stones outside his hut, there is a brief moment of something beautiful but it is not long enough to sustain a sense of beauty. It is depressing to be reading page after page of dirty clothes, dirty food, dirty skin. Not anyone is likable, no character is good enough to accept or feel sorry for. I was not able to connect with any of the characters in the book.
I did not get the impression of beauty in Hurtle's art either. Maybe the paintings were "real" but, I really don't know if I would be attracted to anything he created.
Throughout the book I knew that he would one day run into Lena. I was very disappointed when it actually happened. It was an anti-climax. It reminded me once again how that part of the story was not dealt with sufficiently.
What was Hurtle's contribution to this world? To life, to society, to the people who loved him? Nancy did love him, I think, and maybe Hero and Rhoda did too. What did his art accomplish? He painted because it gave him an existence, maybe it gave him pleasure, maybe he was addicted to it. But it was not something that was meaningful or useful for anyone else. One art dealer bought a couple of his paintings and then decided to promote him because his eccentricity would fetch high society buyers. The domino effect afterwards. His fame did not mean that people actually liked what he had created and Hurtle knew that. It is admirable that he didn't care for the minister's speech or for money or for other superficial things. But he still had the chance to do good and he didn't.
I simply did not find the book worthy of 617 pages. Hurtle's madness and his constipation and the disgusting foods he ate all the time and his art ... his life in general, bored me.
Hurtle's "spiritual child"
Posted by Chris on 7/10/2002, 1:58:43
What did you all think of the inclusion of Kathy Volkov and Hurtle's appreciation of her as his "child?" For me, this development was a bit weak, and I never really bought into the significance of any relationship between the two - other than Hurtle becoming the proverbial 'dirty old man.'
Posted by Dave on 7/10/2002, 5:11:15
I find all of the comments on this book to be really fascinating. There are so many different ways of looking at it, the very nature of the Viv cannot help but breed diversity of opinion, because truly it is a weird book.
For instance, Lale has commented on how the book seems to be written in "thirds", like the first 200 pages are quite excellent, the next 200 get worse, and the final 200 are so pitiful as to be better off never having been written, everything becoming less palatable the further one chews into it. Anna felt it all becoming so increasingly bleak and dark, that she didn't read that last third at all. Chris comments on how the writing style changed midway through. Agreed. Stephen calls the whole thing "convoluted" and yet loved the book in a five-hearted way! We allow him the patriotic fervor... after all, his rating MAY be based on the amount of kangaroos in his backyard at the time...
As for me, I loved the first 200 pages, then I felt that the next 200 were really lagging, but (go figure) I thoroughly enjoyed the last 200. That last third, which starts at chapter 7 radically skips a few decades from the previous chapter. All of a sudden Hurtle is fifty-five years old, and White may be justly criticised for jolting the reader like this... but I forgave him, and just got on with it, and I found that the story was revitalized with Hurtle's reunion with Rhoda, and then the whole Kathy Volkov thing.
So there you have it... totally different impressions from almost all of us.
Apart from White's structure of the book, what I find the most interesting among us is the criticism of the character Hurtle. We all sort of hate the guy. It is mentioned by all of us, I call him "not normal"... Chris calls him "emotionally and socially incompetent"... Anna calls him a "severe emotional cripple"... Stephen concedes that Hurtle is "hermetic" and unduly self-centered... and Lale would fasten the four corners of Hurtle's coffin with nails labelled "Mad, Boring, Disgusting, and Constipated" etc.
All of this is true, Hurtle is an incredibly debilitated, maybe even depraved human being. Definitely depressed and depressing, if nothing else. But having said this, I still don't see how this affects an assessment of the BOOK. Other than that it makes the story... unpleasant.
But I think that is exactly what White was trying to do... to show us that the inner life of this painter was unpleasant. Our comments show that he succeeded. But saying that the book is "not good" because of this unpleasantness is sort of like saying that Nabokov's Lolita is "not good" because Humbert Humbert is a pedophile. Isn't it?
Another interesting thing where I seem to part from the consensus, is this issue about whether or not Hurtle's art was "attractive" or whether his artistic motives were beneficial to anyone other than himself?
Since when has this ever been a criterion of art anyways?
I've always thought of "art" as something that was this grand cathartic moment for the artist him/herself. Whether or not it can be appreciated by, or even appeal to the audience afterwards is almost irrelevant. (This is just my opinion).
And for the artist to begin his work by saying... "I sure hope someone is going to like this as much as I do"... I've just never seen this as a valid beginning for art.
Art is the most subjective thing in the world. I mean surely, I've looked at art and said, "Wow, that is terrible" or "Wow, I just don't get it" but someone else can look at the same thing and think it is the most meaningful experience they've ever had (or whatever).
In other words, if the artist had to please every possible observer, he would never create anything at all. There would always be someone who says... "I just don't get it." Like me when I look at something by Jackson Pollock! But can you imagine how ridiculous it would be if Jackson Pollock neglected his calling as a... splatterer... because I wouldn't be able to understand his work?
Hurtle did what he did because he COULDN'T NOT DO IT!
That (to me) is what art is! It's a working out of the obsession. It must be done at all cost.
The fact that Hurtle thought only of this "working out" that needed to get done, is, in my opinion, consistent with how most artists would describe their process.
But the majority of us have been criticising Hurtle because he thought only of himself.
Leo Tolstoy would have done the same.
As much as I absolutely love Tolstoy, I do not agree with his theory of "art" which (greatly simplified) states that "art must not be regarded as a means of procuring pleasure, but as an aspect of social life." In other words, the artist's duty was not to give form, color, and rhythm to his flights of fancy, but to amuse the workers after their hard day of labor, and give them "rest, as refreshing as in their sleep."
His criterion of artistic "quality" if you will, was the approval of the masses, however ignorant and illiterate they were. The notion that a work might be beautiful and have no meaning for the masses was an invention of the wealthy, who, out of pride and perversity, had encouraged the artists to work for a narrow circle of so-called connoisseurs. And thanks to them, said Tolstoy, modern art was running to wrack and ruin.
According to him, the motivating force behind the artist ought to be the sought out desire (appeal) of the masses (or what I would call, the "lowest common denominator" among an already unartistic grouping of people). To me, it's absurd.
Carried away by his theory, Tolstoy furiously set about demolishing alleged geniuses. French literature fared worst. He condemned Baudelaire, Verlaine, Mallarme, Jean Moreas, etc.
For painters he condemned Renoir, Monet, Manet, Sisley, Pissaro... those painters whose sole occupation was to represent "the pleasures and graces of a life of leisure and idleness"..... "comprehensible only to people of a certain class".
In the world of music, he condemned Beethoven, Schumann, Berlioz, Lizst and Wagner, all of whom he said were "dedicated to the expression of sickly states of nervous emotion." But then, on the other hand, certain sections of Bach, one of Chopin's nocturnes, and a dozen or so pieces of Haydn, Schubert, and Beethoven were O.K.!!
So, who died and made him boss?
To get back to the Viv now, I don't even know why I keep defending this book.
I'm not even an Aussie!
And I too, like all of us, thought it was weird and difficult. Wanted to scrap it a few times.
But, in a final defense of Hurtle (as a character) I will point out his own words to Olivia. She was wondering why women sometimes looked to artists to receive what they could not find in real life.
And in that "un"selfish moment of lucidity, he warned her, "Better wait till they're dead. What they have to tell or show improves with decontamination - if it doesn't go up in hot air, or sink into a wall." (409).
In other words, he was aware that his own personality was a detriment to his work. His presence contaminated it. If it was to be understood at all, it would be better understood when he was out of the way. He at least knew that we didn't like him.
Posted by Lale on 7/10/2002, 11:31:19
: succeeded. But saying that the book is "not
: good" because of this unpleasantness is sort
: of like saying that Nabokov's Lolita is
: "not good" because Humbert Humbert is a
: pedophile. Isn't it?
I don't know the answer to this. I thought Lolita was a great book, I loved it, and yes, Humbert Humbert was the slime of the earth, the lowest possible life form, a disgusting creature. Even murderers don't like pedophiles. In prison, they usually seperate pedophiles from the other inmates because they get killed or otherwise harmed by the "normal" criminals. Yet, the book was brilliant.
With The Vivisector, I did not have similar feelings. I simply hated the man and didn't like the book.
If Hurtle lived today, and if I had seen some of his art in the exhibitions, I might have liked them, and then I wouldn't have cared how he lived. Like I said before, I love originality and I am truly drawn to most things that are artistic. If I saw and liked his works, then I might have said to my friends "apparently he is a nut case and lives in filth, but the man can paint". In the book, however, we don't know how his paintings look like, we are given some hints as to their darkness and "vivisecting" qualities, and there is no evidence that anyone ever really liked them.
: whether or not Hurtle's art was
: "attractive" or whether his artistic
: motives were beneficial to anyone
: other than himself? Since when has this ever
: been a criterion of art anyways?
I was aware of this even when I was writing those comments. But he, in his entire life, never did anything good. He bought a fur coat ("Squirrel, Hurtle. We agreed on squirrel.") for Rhoda which made her look pathetic. That was his contribution to humanity.
: I've always thought of "art" as something
: that was this grand cathartic moment for
: the artist him/herself. Whether
: or not it can be appreciated by, or
: even appeal to the audience afterwards is
: almost irrelevant.
It is supposed have an effect on the audience. Some impact. Some change. When I visited the Picasso Museum here in Paris,
(I have to open up paranthesis here: the Picasso museum, at the time, was also housing an exhibit by David Hockney. Now, this has been keeping me awake at nights for the past few days. In which book we read "Oh I know hockney, there are two kinds of hockney, field hockney and ice hockney"?)
yes, when I visited the Picasso Museum here in Paris, I became a different person. It had such an effect on me. And I think this is what art is all about.
Your point of view here, is one that is often used by the artists themselves. But I don't know if their definition or anyone else's definition should be the master definition of what art is.
: And for the artist to
: begin his work by saying... "I sure hope
: someone is going to like this as much as I
: do"... I've just never seen this as a valid
: beginning for art.
Well, that is how *I* begin ;-)
Look, the joke aside, when you create something, you want other people to like it. Period. Hurtle was happy to hear (especially at the beginning) that people were buying his paintings.
I used to make and sell jewellery. One day a friend of mine said "How can you let these go? When someone buys a necklace, don't you feel sad parting with it?". I said that it was the greatest pleasure to see someone like a necklace so much that they were willing to pay good money to own it.
When I said his art was useless, I meant that there was enough evidence in the book that noone really liked them just for their own sake. His fame was coincidental as it always is in contemporary art. Thanks to one dealer who knew how to market a new product, Hurtle got into the heads of the high society ladies.
And as a person, he was not a "good" person, he never did any good to anyone.
I know we have diverted from the topic quite a bit. Maybe I must just conclude that this was one of those books that simply wasn't for me.
Posted by Lale on 7/10/2002, 11:37:08
: as I believe he is saying in the
: Vivisector, the artist must be willing to
: sacrifice relationships and must
: selfishly create for his own reasons, did
: White practice what he preached?
: Stephen - do you know anything about Mr. White's life?
Stephen had said earlier that there were parallels in his life and Hurtle's life.
I can only hope that White, unlike Hurtle, had occasional decent meals. Clean, hearty, appetizing, pleasing to the senses of sight, smell and taste, good decent meals.
Posted by Anna van Gelderen on 7/10/2002, 20:04:58
: But saying that the book
: is "not good" because of
: this unpleasantness
Dave, just to avoid any misunderstandings: I never said that the book is "not good", I even called White a very accomplished writer. I just said that I couldn't stomach the book anymore and that going on reading a book that gets you down-down-down seems masochism to me. But that, of course, is merely a very personal, very subjective response - and also a completely unique one for me, for I have never given up on a book for that reason.
Of course you are perfectly right, Dave, it is nonsense that art should be pleasant and attractive. Not that being pleasant and attractive disqualifies it from being great art, as some people claim (that's just the other extreme ). For art to be an eyeopener it may even be necessary to shock or to disgust. Only in the case of the Viv here the author has way overshot the mark, as far as I am concerned. With me has not accomplished what he wanted, for I did not wish to go on reading and therefore communication between me and the book stopped. I did not want to get into closer touch with people that had mainly depravity to offer me. I simply did not want to know them any better, just as I wouldn't want to go on looking at a painting that I found completely and utterly depressing.
But again, this is a purely personal response. And I am glad that most of you did enjoy the book.
Posted by Dave on 8/10/2002, 5:42:31
Everyone has such insightful views on this book. I really enjoy reading this discussion. I don't know why the book stays with me, why I think about it still throughout the day (at work). I certainly didn't ENJOY the book enough to warrant so much reflection on it! Pourquoi? Je ne sais pas!
Chris asked the question of the significance of the Kathy Volkov section. Actually I think her place in the book is really important, not only in showing us that Hurtle can be a "dirty old man" but also because she was not affected by Hurtle's grossness like the other women were. (I mentioned all of this in that first posting of mine, so I won't repeat it again here). This fact destroys Hurtle. It is so revolutionary for him, that I think we can divide his life into periods labelled B.K. & A.K. (Before Kathy & After Kathy).
As far as Hurtle's "dirty-old-man-ness" it goes without saying that what went on with Kathy Volkov was totally wrong (on BOTH their parts, there was something definitely wrong with that kid too) but again, in Hurtle's defense (what am I, this guy's moral defense lawyer already?)... in Hurtle's defense I would state two things:
Firstly, he did not initiate this particular impropriety, she did. Granted, he should have put an end to it though.
Secondly... he tried to. Even though Hurtle had already invited Rhoda to come live with him, I thought it was at least slightly admirable that he had the conscience to try speed up the process when he imagined the possibilities of the Kathy problem. He hoped that Rhoda's presence would forestall any impropriety with Kathy. He was trying to avoid inappropriate meetings with Kathy by having Rhoda within earshot, but, at the same time White tells us that "he knew the real source of his gloom was the probability that Kathy would not come before Rhoda was installed." (p.439).
I thought this tension in Hurtle was a brilliant thing done by White. Hurtle is not one-dimensional here. Rather than being some superhuman statue of a man, he is morally torn. I don't think his real attraction to her was physical though. It quickly BECAME that, with her help, and much to his own surprise.
Lale, I agree with you that my ramblings about art theory probably lead astray from what this forum is about... which should be simply whether or not we enjoyed the book and why!
I always fall overboard when I start to talk about art because I find it all so fascinating. I really ought not to have dragged in old Tolstoy either, because he changed his profound views on subjects about as frequently as his underwear anyway! (Both of which were about once a month if I'm not mistaken).
Also, the whole "art's effect on the audience" thing. I see where you are coming from about that Picasso experience. I can relate a similar feeling when I went to a Van Gogh exhibit here. It affected me in a positive way for a long time afterward. Somehow I don't think Hurtle's art would move one so! Nor have lasting value!
(Olivia Daveport was addicted to it... and then she gave it all away).
I think that all of us who have read the Viv would really like to have a look at Hurtle's work. When it comes down to it, it was probably pretty weird stuff. Remember when a mere glimpse of it caused Hero Pavloussi to run from the room in terror? Even so, I would like to see the legendary "Pythoness".
Anna, you are right, no one has actually called this book "not good" (except maybe Lale, and even then, she did not use those words). But I have a thing for quotation marks. It's inherited from my mother and I'm "not kidding".
Here is some miscellany I have noted as I read this beast of a novel:
* Hurtle, on modern art (to Nance):
"If I could put in words, I wouldn't want to paint."
* Nance, on being a prostitute (to Hurtle):
"It's funny, you go on the job and know more or less what you'll get. It's what you never find that keeps you at it."
* Hurtle, on physical love:
"...an exhilerating steeplechase in which almost every rider ends up disqualified for some dishonesty or another."
* Rhoda (to Hurtle) on his obsessions:
"Your painting and yourself. But those too are gods which could fail you."
SOMETHING I WONDER:
It's interesting to me that both the Courtney children evolved into such eccentric types. It's clear that Hurtle's journey into eccentricity was due to his artistic nature (as Chris mentions above)... but what is the cause of Rhoda becoming the weird catwoman? Is it because of her hump? Ostracism? Her mother's rejection of her?
Interesting too, that the person Hurtle hated most in his childhood (Rhoda), becomes the person he most wants to love in old age.
Why is this? Has he secretly pitied her? Is he trying to atone for something? Simply the fact that their formative years had a common source?
SERIOUSLY RECURRING WORD:
When we read Jeffrey Lent's "In The Fall" I remember commenting that he used the word "patina" a serious inordinate amount of times. That favorite old household word... patina!
Then, I just finished reading Vikram Seth's "A Suitable Boy" and noticed the same thing as he used the word "contiguous" about a thousand times.
But here in The Viv, I noticed White's favorite word as being "verdigris". I wish I counted, but I'm sure he used it twenty times. "A green or bluish deposit that forms on copper, brass, or bronze surfaces when exposed to the weather." He kept describing people's skin as being this green color. Strange.
"...the ribs were a boy's, as primitive as bacon bones." (p.458).
"A mild, Quakerish light failed to cool his fever..." (p.468).
POSSIBLE EDITORIAL GLITCH:
If Hurtle's paintings were so valuable... valuable enough to be internationally known as "a Duffield"... then how is it that the original works could be left scattered about his dilapidated house, with so little attention to security that cats are allowed (in one instance at least) to wander in and out through the open back door?
Why is this impregnable fortress never robbed of its "Duffields"?
Another possible miscalculation... Rhoda is wearing the squirrel coat to Kathy's concert (the second one where she is playing Mozart's "K") but, if you realize how much time has passed here, you notice that it's at least fifteen years since Hurtle got her that coat. Would anyone (even Rhoda) wear something for that long? It must be worse than an old dishrag by now!
...I think I'm all done...
Posted by Lale on 8/10/2002, 10:12:08
And here is one that I liked:
Page 49, little Hurtle talking to her future mother:
"But I'm at school now, where they learn you to forget what you know."
Posted by Stephen Hill on 9/10/2002, 8:03:25
I think I am correct in saying that Duffield is affected by his mother's efforts. I think Maman's beliefs and actions in regards to the cruelty of animals had an enormous influence on Duffield. Duffield is definitely haunted by the Vivisector image as it reappears regularly throughout the book and through his work. I think Duffield was affected by his mother in this manner, if not in the way his mother desired.
Whilst Hurtle was never involved in any causes, hardly a Duffield trait, he does seem somewhat perplexed when Hero's gardener is carrying a bag of cats that are about to be drowned in the creek. However, he's a little weak-willed to intervene.
It could be added that Rhoda's vocation as eccentric cat-woman probably stemmed originally from her upbringing. Hurtle in allowing Rhoda to move in, seems untroubled by the cats, which is strange considering how they could easily damage his works of art. However, it could be that he is too absorbed in his work to even notice, which I think White humorously alludes to on a range of occasions.
Posted by Stephen Hill on 9/10/2002, 8:29:18
I was thinking that the style change in the book almost reveals a schism between Hurtle's internal world and how he perceived the world, with the rather limited one he was forced to cohabit.
While the visions of splendour that may have been applicable to Hurtle's art, and are applicable to his view of nature, his view of the richness of Europe and the vastness of the Australian landscape. Contrast that with the fact that Hurtle had trouble seeing the people living nearby, as anything other than dull and dreary. However, in his defense, when you consider the vacuousness and the pretensions of some of the characters who surrounded him, you can understand why.
The tragedy is that in turning his back on these dilettantes and vultures surrounding him, who he feels want to own him for all the wrong motives, he is also turning his back on those who would have a genuine concern about him.
Re: Hurtle's "spiritual child"
Posted by Stephen Hill on 9/10/2002, 9:03:59
When I originally came across Kathy Volkov in the story I was a little concerned where this could be leading. But I think Duffield saw something untainted in the artistic aspirations of Kathy, and he hoped he could nurture what was inside of her.
To his credit, Duffield was concerned about exploiting this relationship, and this is one of the reason's why he invites Rhoda to move in.
Kathy is one of the few conduits Duffield had to the outside world. Outside a few failed relationships Kathy is one of the few people in the book that Hurtle communicates with on a non-superficial level.
In the end even Mrs. Volkov recognised the role that Hurtle had played as a mentor for Kathy.
BTW, love the way, the Australian 'cultural cringe' (I'll discuss this point in more detail later) is brought into this part of the book. The fact that before the pioneering work of White, Nolan etc. - art was always seen as coming from overseas. And it is not until Kathy returns from Europe that she is recognised as a venerated musician.
Duffield (in possible parallels to Patrick White) battles away in obscurity with little recongition for many years and with negative reviews in the Sydney Morning Herald (the SMH, which was at that time was a conservative newspaper, was not a fan of White). However, Hurtle ends up with all this ridiculous fanfare, which White had trouble dealing with at the end of his life.
What do you think about this book?
Write a review and give your opinion and analysis!