The last book I remember reading before setting out from Auckland to Sydney in 1981 was Patrick White's The Vivisector - a Penguin paperback, as above, that I found somewhere and no longer have; perhaps it was a library book. Don't know who made that cover either though it does have echoes in it of Brett Whiteley's London paintings of the early 1960s. Anyway. The Vivisector, as books will, left me with an indelible impression of a Sydney I had not at that stage even seen: dark, visceral, stinking and steaming, a place of wild contrasts and elemental energies that were barely tamed by a vestigial and deformed social structure inherited from Great Britain. It is a portrait of an artist, Hurtle Duffield, and an account of his life and work. He has in his background gentlemanly forebears but is born into a slum in Surry Hills, one of the many and increasing kids of a bottle-o and a laundress, and then is sold - or bought - by a rich family, the Courtneys, for whom his mother works. For five hundred pounds. They live somewhere in the eastern suburbs, Rushcutters Bay White says, but he is always coy about places and times in the book, which is really charting an interior not an exterior geography, a spacetime that is as visceral as Duffield's paintings, which are powerfully evoked without ever really being described: a remarkable achievement in itself. Most of the action does happen in the eastern suburbs, where White lived later on in life. About of a third of the way into its 600+ pages Hurtle buys an old house in Flint Street, Paddington and lives the rest of his life there. Of course I didn't understand any of this when I first read The Vivisector and it was pure coincidence that the first house I lived in here, in Gipps Street, is just a stone's throw away from Flinton Street, which is maybe the inspiration for White's Flint Street. Paddington wasn't nearly as gentrified then as it is now, you could still pick up echoes and rumours of the working class suburb that grew up around the military barracks. Anyway. A few weeks ago, in the St. Vinnies around the corner, I saw a hardback copy, a 2nd edition, of The Vivisector for sale and almost bought it: but its spine was cracked and it had been written in in biro so I didn't. Then, not so very long afterwards, as if some power was importuning me, there was another, a first edition this time, without its dust jacket but otherwise in pretty good condition . . . so I did buy it. Even then I wasn't sure if I would re-read it, White's not easy, he doesn't write page turners and at 642 pps this is his longest book. Well, I got hooked. And I'm still hooked. About twenty pages from the end and I don't want it to finish. It is hardly the book I remember from 30 years ago, my memories of it were almost entirely taken up with the early stages, Hurtle's childhood and growing up, his love affair with the prostitute Nancy Lightfoot in pre- and post-World War One Sydney. And I was too young and too naive then to appreciate White's own presence in the book, his own amusement, delight, disgust, fascination, obsession with the character he has made, his habit of twitching Duffield's male or hetero drag aside to reveal flashes of his own lineaments as an artist and a man: I suppose I mean I read it quite literally the first time, as realism, and failed to realise the depth of White's duplicity and artistry - where the two can be distinguished. I hear his dry chuckle reverberating behind every other sentence, the enormous pleasure he takes in the construction of a mise en scene which he then, with even greater pleasure, reveals to be - fake. Or at least artificial. His satire on what passes for high society in Sydney is immaculate, cruelly accurate and yet, however much ridicule he heaps on people, you always feel his sympathy for their predicament, which is his own, and mine and belongs to all of us: that we are tied to a body that will in the end betray us. But the chief delight is his prose, which is highly wrought yet utterly convincing, sometimes Joycean in its coinages, psychologically acute, sensous and rich with a kind of rotting magnificence which is his as much as it is Hurtle Duffield's or the city's. Here's a passage from near the end: For instance: the blood of horses wallowing in sea shallows at dawn, milky water filling the satin troughs between belly and thighs as they shimmy on their lovely backs, before lunging to their feet to shake their barrels, all feathered with light and motion, flinging into the used sea the beads of water from their stringy manes. Where had he seen these bathers? He must convey something of the horses, not themselves, their spirit. In the same way the girl in the crushed pink hat and cotton frock strumming out of an old banjo all the remembered songs: fingers, nails blunted by the strumming, sanded texture of the arms, tremors of the breasts inside the gritty dress. As the girl entered the trees, her skin brindled by light and shade, the old banjo made a papery thump thump trailing behind her through the tussocks . . . he was also this girl with whom he might or might not have slept. Lying under the paperbarks, he identified the shammy-leather skin, the goose pimples growing in it, the sand tasted on interchangeable mouths. Now it was himself alone watching the great pantechnicon driving for what reason through the shallows. And the essence of smoky cat slipping through the long grass at dusk looking for a kill, at the same time to curl her tail around something in the name of love. Everything private perfect reduced to a kill if not by time the super-cat by the khaki klan of killers. Tear off a hand or leg it doesn't belong to you anyway for ever and blood is made to bleed. Like letters. My dear Cat. He composed letters just as he painted pictures in his mind and lost them before he could get them down. Everything comes back though, like the homing pigeons pensioned men keep in their yards. Stalagmites of white droppings, lacy scribbles of pigeon shit, a coral scratching over worm-eaten boards . . . from where did he know the horses, the shammy-skinned singer, the pigeon-loft held together by the rusty ends of kero tins? He didn't know. But he knew. Where and when doesn't in the end matter.