Patrick White is a middlebrow hack.

Monday 16 October 2006

The final instalment of the online reading of Patrick White’s novel The Vivisector. Previous posts here and here.
“Then we also have our obligations to animals and humans,” she added with a moist pathos.
He remembered the sackful of cats, and she lowered her eyes, perhaps on catching a reflection in his.
We remember it too, because we were told about it only two pages earlier. Even then, it was carefully spelled out to us that if a man is carrying a sack of cats to water, he means to drown them, do you see? The first sentence of The Da Vinci Code should be enough to convince you it’s not worth reading, yet it’s scarcely any worse than passages like the one above which litter The Vivisector.
There’s an old dictum that writers should show, not tell; but White has an exasperating compulsion to show, and then tell what he’s just shown. Perhaps he didn’t trust, or recognise, his own abilities as a writer. Perhaps he was pitching his writing toward an envisaged audience of reluctant students. Perhaps he was afraid that not quite everyone would appreciate his Depth of Feeling, and so had to keep reminding people that he was a Serious Writer, at the expense of the writing itself.
Just in case we’re too thick to get that the cats are Symbolic, Hurtle and Hero then proceed to argue about them for no-one’s benefit other than our own. Ridiculously, this carries on for several pages. Every subsequent, inevitable reference to cats for the remainder of the chapter (including one otherwise effective moment when Hero addresses her “adopted” Aboriginal child as “kitten”) comes across as phoney and heavy-handed as, well, something out of Dan Brown. An especially self-important Dan Brown.
For those wanting to keep track, Hurtle’s previous clichéd lover, the Maternal Whore, has been disposed of by authorial fiat and replaced in unconvincing circumstances by Hero, another clichéd lover, the Slumming Patroness. (Her husband is that other great cliché of the novelist’s time, the Greek Shipping Tycoon. Perhaps White was trying to forestall silly questions about where he gets his ideas from.) There is, of course, another patroness on the scene, and so another cliché, the Triangle, inveitably ensues, thus fulfilling the need for a section about The Artist And His Women.
Strangely, neither woman has apparently ever shown a personal interest in any other bohemian besides Hurtle. He is that most infuriating of stock protagonist types, the Guy Stuff Just Keeps Happening To.
The last three chapters of the book improve dramatically, inasmuch as they begin to play with our expectations more than fulfil them, albeit in a way that renders the preceding seven chapters superfluous. Hurtle is such an inert, narrowly defined character in the novel’s first 400 pages that there is nothing in him or the limited depiction of his world that enlarges upon our appreciation of the final 200. In fact, knowledge of the earlier chapters may even hinder our taking seriously the latter part of the book, with its plot heavily based upon a series of reunions of sufficient improbability to make Dickens blush.
White’s description of people and places is so thoroughly squalid that it becomes unintentionally comic; you could almost make a drinking game out of the number of times a character eats food that has spoiled. Ultimately, his unvarying determination to depict the vulgarity of everyday life is revealed as a veneer of bourgeois titillation to disguise the utter conventionality of the author’s thoughts behind it; a surface of exaggeratedly gritty reality to distract from the dishonesty of the characters and plot: the Crucified Artist Hero and Redemption Through a Child. The noble overreach of the book’s ambition is hamstrung by White’s self-regarding redundancies and need to assert the profundity of his unexceptional insight.
The Readers’ Group is planning another online reading of a White novel soon, which I won’t be joining. Reading this book put me off White more than I expected, and I don’t want to return to him in a hurry, when other, doubtless better books sit unread on my shelves. In particular, I don’t want to reread a White novel: I rather liked the ones I read years ago, and I’m afraid it will spoil my memories.
  1. Your PW posts have been fascinating. I skimmed the first chapter of The Vivesector and decided it would be too dull to trawl through. Also the title always makes me think of The Island of Doctor Moreau, a book that scared the bejibbers out of me as a child. So I didn't read it. I enjoyed Riders in the Chariot and some of the short stories a few years ago, and like you I don't want to spoil my memories.

  2. patrick white???
    What's happening to you in pommy land – Australian-ness at unheard of levels…
    have a look at this
    http://blogs.theage.com.au/music/archives/2006/10/not_fffade_away.html

    luv,
    MUD supporter

  3. Say what you like about Patrick, but he has been the unintentional inspiration for several brilliantly scathing reviews: A D Hope's review of 'The Tree of Man', and Hal Porter's hilariously bitchy review of White's autobiography.

    White couldn't help but respond to either of them; he insulted Hope (rather bizarrely) by calling him 'That great Panjandrum', and sneered at 'That green sack of pus', Porter. In the process, he proved one of the points Porter made – that although he could, in his novels, be funny, he was never witty.

  4. Tim – your instincts on White are spot-on. My greatest disappointment with the book was that any vivisection, metaphorical or otherwise, that occurs is purely passive.

    Anon – like all good Australian expatriates I have become a self-appointed expert on the mores of my mother country, regardless of how long I've been away.

  5. Timt – one of the posthumous appeals of White is that he was such a bitchy old queen. There's plenty of that in The Vivisector, but unfortunately it gets lost in a swamp of misbegotten earnestness.

    Anon – we're kind of drowning in mouldy oldies revival tours in the UK too, not to mention the fossils that never went away here, like Chas and Dave, who are likely to turn up at your local for a quick chorus of "Snooker Loopy".

    Unfortunately, the lead singer of Mud died last year, so I haven't the chance to see them for myself until they hire Shakin' Stevens or whoever to replace him.