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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Vivisector

Patrick White

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To purchase The Vivisector

Title: The Vivisector
Author: Patrick White
Genre: Novel
Written: 1970
Length: 567 pages
Availability: The Vivisector - US
The Vivisector - UK
The Vivisector - Canada
The Vivisector - India
Le vivisecteur - France
Der Maler - Deutschland
  • The Penguin Classics edition (2009) comes with an Introduction by J. M. Coetzee

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a powerful vision of the life of an artist, well-written -- weakened only by the gaps in the life White leaves.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Harper's . 9/1970 John Thompson
The LA Times A 29/3/2009 Richard Rayner
The New Statesman . 23/10/1970 T.G.Rosenthal
NY Times Book Rev. . 8/11/1970 .
TLS . 23/10/1970 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "The impressionistic, painterly quality of White's prose is to the fore in The Vivisector, a rambling narrative with eye-peeling power, and perhaps the most convincing of all fictional attempts to capture the magic-lantern sensibility of a great visual artist." - Richard Rayner, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Patrick White's new novel The Vivisector unfortunately does miss, though in the biggest possible way. (...) Finally, and most decisively, the author is the most ambitious writer in the world: it is hard not to admire the aggressive strength with which he attempts to club the reader into submission. Hard, but very necessary. (...) It is characteristic of White to have no style, but rather a manner -- an inflated manner. And it is characteristic of an inflated manner that you cannot ease off without lapsing into a deflated manner" - Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The title suggests White's vision of his protagonist's approach to art. Hurtle Duffield is a painter, but certainly the vision is also White's of the artist per se, and the text is by and large a ruthless vivisection of the artist from early childhood to death.
       Hurtle, who shows signs of genius in his childhood is basically sold by his impoverished family to a wealthy one, a couple who only have a daughter, the malformed Rhoda (hunchbacked, she is crippled in more ways than the obvious). He breaks from his second family while still young, enlisting in WWI, and after the war begins his artistic career, one which eventually leads to great success.
       White only shows us certain stations of the artistic life, dwelling on Hurtle's childhood (well done) and then other stations, particularly those when others -- women, in particular -- exert their influence, basically by loving him, a love he is incapable of fully returning. He does not reject those that wish to help him -- the prostitute, the art dealer, and others -- but it is his art that is his only passion.
       White does a convincing portrait of the artist as painter, though tellingly the most accomplished sections describe Hurtle's youth and then his old age when he has a stroke that affects his speech -- the artist (writer) struck dumb. Hurtle in his decrepit house, joined late in life by his sister who spends her time taking care of stray cats, is a believable picture of the single-minded artist with little sense of the outside world.
       Late in life Hurtle does find his passion in another genius, a musical prodigy, Kathy Volkov -- a Lolita of sorts (with other suitors). White handles this complex relationship relatively well, though this element hangs in a difficult balance for most of the end of the novel.
       There are huge gaps in the life of the artist, and this is our main complaint about the book. The missing bridges sometimes make for too large a gap. What there is is, however, very well done. White's style is effective, as always, and his characters are entirely believable. In particular we commend his ability to capture the difficulty of communication and relationships between the characters. The difficulty of articulation, cruelly reduced to Hurtle's inability even to get any words out when he is felled by the stroke, is something that White does better than almost any author.
       Recommended as a dark though honest picture of the life of the artist obsessed by his art, though it might be too earthy for some.

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The Vivisector: Reviews: Patrick White: Other books by Patrick White under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Patrick White (1912-1990), Australian author. Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1973. Schooled in England (at Cheltenham, and King's College, Cambridge). His first novel Happy Valley was published in 1939. Worked for R.A.F Intelligence during WWII, after which he returned to Australia.

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