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The Vivisector (Penguin Classics) Paperback – 27 Jan 2009
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"One of the great magicians of fiction . . . White's scope is vast and his invention endless."
-The Observer (London)
About the Author
Patrick White (1912-1990) was born in England in 1912, when his parents were in Europe for two years; at six months he was taken back to Australia, where his father owned a sheep station. When he was thirteen, he went to school in England, to Cheltenham, “where it was understood, the climate would be temperate and a colonial acceptable.” Neither proved true, and after four rather miserable years there he went to King’s College, Cambridge, where he specialized in languages. After leaving the university he settled in London, determined to become a writer. His first novel, Happy Valley, was published in 1939 and his second, The Living and the Dead, in 1941. During the war he was an RAF Intelligence Officer in the Middle East and Greece. After the war he returned to Australia.
His novels include The Aunt’s Story (1946), The Tree of Man (1956), Voss (1957), Riders in the Chariot (1961), The Solid Mandala (1966), The Eye of the Storm (1973), A Fringe of Leaves (1976), and The Twyborn Affair (1979). He also published two collections of short stories, The Burnt Ones (1964) and The Cockatoos (1974), which incorporates several short novels, a collection of novellas, Three Uneasy Pieces (1987), and his autobiography, Flaws in the Glass (1981). He also edited Memoirs of Many in One (1986). In 1973 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Upon his death, The Times wrote, “Patrick White did more than any other writer to put Australian literature on the international map.… His tormented oeuvre is that of a great and essentially modern writer.”
J. M. Coetzee was born in Cape Town, South Africa, on February 9, 1940. He studied first at Cape Town and later at the University of Texas at Austin, where he earned a Ph.D. degree in literature. In 1972 he returned to South Africa and joined the faculty of the University of Cape Town. His works of fiction include Dusklands, Waiting for the Barbarians, which won South Africa’s highest literary honor, the Central News Agency Literary Award, and The Life and Times of Michael K., for which Coetzee was awarded his first Booker Prize in 1983. He has also published a memoir, Boyhood: Scenes From a Provincial Life, and several essays collections. He has won many other literary prizes including the Lannan Award for Fiction, the Jerusalem Prize and TheIrish Times International Fiction Prize. In 1999 he again won Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize forDisgrace, becoming the first author to win the award twice in its 31-year history. In 2003, Coetzee was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
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Most helpful customer reviews on Amazon.com
Australia has produced many authors of extraordinary vision, but few can match the scope and moral intensity of Patrick White at his best (although Richard Flanagan comes close with GOULD'S BOOK OF FISH), and it takes a Dostoevsky to turn the heat up much higher. His VOSS (1957) is a masterpiece, beautiful both in its containment and its quest to explode conventional boundaries. RIDERS IN THE CHARIOT (1961), by contrast, is a brilliantly unruly study of four very different characters on the fringes of society, linked only by the intensity of their half-crazed visions of God. One of these four is a self-taught, virtually autistic, half-caste painter called Alf Dubbo; although drunken and dissolute in his private life, he has a particular fascination for religious subjects, and White has an uncanny ability to convey the intensity of his vision and the texture and warp of his paint. Now in 1970, he makes such a painter the subject of an entire book.
Although growing up in poor circumstances similar to Dubbo's, Hurtle Duffield is adopted as a child by a rich family and has the benefit of a first-class education. Later, he throws off these bourgeois ties to live in squalor on a patch of waste land, visited occasionally by his mistress, a Sydney prostitute, and a gay gallery owner who becomes his first dealer. Later still, he moves back to Sydney, and though living in a ramshackle house in a poor quarter, begins to find success in selling his paintings and attracting the attention of a number of rich female patrons. The book proceeds in a number of long chapters, jumping from decade to decade in the twentieth century, marked not so much by changes in Hurtle's outer life as by a succession of different lovers and the changing preoccupations of his artistic vision. Towards the end, he meets a young girl who is on the way to becoming an artist in her own right, a concert pianist, and a new tenderness enters the book. But this also brings on a spiritual crisis resulting in the last pictures of all, almost mural-sized daubs of dark tortured paint (one thinks of the "black paintings" of Goya) referred to by rumor as "The God Paintings." Does Duffield find God at the end, come face-to-face with the being he refers to as "The Great Vivisector"? Perhaps. But by this time, White has begun to fracture his language almost abstractly to echo Hurtle's mind, devastated by a series of strokes, leaving readers to draw their own conclusions.
Unfortunately, the novel does not quite live up to its promise. The seventy-year story of a life is too loose a form to achieve the jangling juxtaposition of the other books, thrusting flint against steel. As Coetzee says, too much is prelude to what most matters, and too little is written at white heat (his pun, but an apt one). I also find that the double strands of sexual history and artistic exploration detract from one another. There are striking moments of fusion, as when Duffield's accidental sight of his hunchbacked sister naked by a bidet becomes the subject for a series of paintings that one is not only told but believes to be great. But towards the end, in the episodes with the young pianist, I found the various strands pulling against one another just when one might want them to interweave. All the same, one does get some feeling for the work of this artist (a little Sidney Nolan, but mostly Francis Bacon), and an even stronger sense of what it is to be the victim-possessor of an unrelenting, searing vision. And that is no small achievement.