Vivisector month, week one wrapup

Thursday 7 September 2006

I was trapped for what seemed the better part of a week at a Keiji Haino gig and so haven’t been able to give nearly as much time to writing as I wished. Analysis and comments of chapters 1-3 of Patrick White’s The Vivisector abound at the Readers’ Group.
What a cynical and complacent piece of hackwork this book is shaping up to be! Having previously gone some way toward talking myself out of liking White’s work at all, I was prepared to be “surprised” by the novel’s qualities and rediscover depths to his writing that I had forgotten. As it turns out, either I’m more persuasive than I thought or White is still worse than I remembered.
The admired vividness of White’s prose, his descriptions of place and character, keeps getting lost in a muddle of inconsistencies in his style. The most conspicuous but least offensive lapses are the clumsy images he hopes might shock, which read like a self-conscious attempt to build a reputation as an imitator of Kingsley Amis. Then there are the brief shifts to a second-person narration, which appear too frequently to appear to be giving us any particular revelation, and instead come across as a stylistic tic; they do, however, help disguise White’s egregious habit of interpreting his own writing for us. Like a school text, he can’t help deflating the authority of his words by letting an explanatory gloss trail limply after.
To welcome them, Mamman had been wearing an apron over her dress as though she had come from cooking the dinner herself, which of course she hadn’t.
“Oh, Harry,” she said, and when she came up for breath: “It’s been so lonely!” In a house full of maids, and Rhoda, and Miss Gibbons.
As if Mrs Courtney’s capacity for self-delusion needed further explication. Bizarrely, more subtle points are permitted to stand for themselves. (Mrs Courtney once comments while reading Hardy that he means to shock her: is she reading The Mayor of Casterbridge?) You’d like to think the narrator only knows what Hurtle knows to excuse these lapses, but tracking the shifts in narrative tone ultimately dispels this hope.
This is not an assertion that the only worthwhile books are those written, god forbid, in an immaculate, or even consistent, prose style. What makes this book the work of a middlebrow hack is its pandering to the intellectual pretensions of its presumed readership. So far, the plot resembles A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as though it were written by Stephen Dedalus himself, cribbing from the back cover blurb of Jean-Christophe, with a dash of Great Expectations to spice things up. If you haven’t read the book, you can probably invent your own precis of the first quarter of the novel based upon what you already know about other artistic Bildungsromans, or Hollywood movies, and it will match White’s themes pretty closely.
Perhaps (I hope) I’m too thick to have noticed it yet, but I keep waiting for the first sign that the book is about to truly begin, and rise to challenge a single received idea it has indolently offered us. It hasn’t happened. Given his reputation, it is astonishing that White affirms, affirms every bourgeois pseudointellectual commonplace that was the currency of mid-century chattering. The special child who stands apart from his peers. The Artist as an individual possessed by a vision no-one else can understand. A boy’s sexual curiosity as an adjunct to his artistic insight (it would be too funny if in later chapters he conflates artistic and sexual activity!) Salt of the earth working class versus pretentious, decadent upper class. Mutual antipathies and alliances between siblings. Distasteful Freudian aspects of family life which simmer and – yes! – boil over. The squalour of everyday life for the common man. An unbroken list of cliches, all permitted to sit undisturbed for 170 pages and counting.
It is the book that “Makes Us Look Smart, because it follows the rules we’ve been taught to explicate.” And White has thoughtfully written his own Cliff Notes into the text, in case we are too busy to understand what we’ve just read.
  1. Ben, what a great review!

    And you read the eXile too!

    I just finished Pleasant Hell before I started on White…now THERE'S something new…

  2. Given his reputation, it is astonishing that White affirms, affirms every bourgeois pseudointellectual commonplace that was the currency of mid-century chattering.

    Yes, but are you looking at him in context? As far as I know (and I'm certainly not an expert), at the time there wasn't much of this 'pseudointellectual' writing happening in Australian lit. What set PW apart was that he was engaging with overseas literary trends, in Australia. He was probably tame in a European context, but he certainly shook Australians up a bit at the time.

  3. I love this post. I haven't read The Vivesector – too busy to join in the fun (or, possibly, "fun"), but still I appreciate your critique.

  4. David – thanks! But I only read the eXile for the funny death stories and pictures of topless prostitutes in nightclubs.

    Ampersand – The context is part of my problem with the book. I know there wasn't much (pseudo)'intellectual' stuff in Australian writing then, but is White writing within the context he knows, or which his probable readership knows?

    I've read about a 1960s production of The One Day of the Year in Europe that baffled audiences: "Why's that kid so worked up? Hasn't he read Camus?" But the trends White is dealing with in this book are from before World War Two. Either way, if it's true, then The Vivisector may be a book of its time, and unable to transcend it.

    On the Readers' Group site I've taken on some other comments and have started to suspect I may be wrong, and White may be writing with a much more slippery narrative voice than I first thought.

    Tim – You are a sad example of the Tall Poppy Syndrome that is ruining Australia. I bet you were forwarding email jokes about Steve Irwin before they'd prised that spine from his stiff, saintly hand.