Monday, March 23, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD OF FAME” by Bridget van der Zijpp (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)
I have repeated two principles so often on this blog that they have virtually become mantras and you are probably sick of hearing them.
They go like this:
Principle A: Never underestimate or sneer at the power of good storytelling. Even if a novel is not the most subtle or profound piece of work, the ability to tell a story well is a thing to be prized, and the term “page-turner” should be reserved only for those novels that have nothing to offer but a jaded plot ingenuity.
Principle B: It is unmannerly to spike all the surprises that new novels have to offer. If major twists in the plot are central to a new novel’s impact, then reviewers should not deploy “spoilers”. [On the other hand, it’s perfectly okay for critics to give away twists in the plots of novels that have been available to the public for years – as I do frequently in this blog’s “Something Old” section.]
Both of these principles come into play with Bridget van der Zijpp’s second novel In the Neighbourhood of Fame.
The title has a double meaning.
Evie, with slightly surly teenage son Dylan in tow, has come back home from Oz for her father’s funeral, and is settling things up as she stays in her father’s home. The house is just across the back fence from the large and leafy property of Jed Jordan, who once made a splash as a Kiwi rock-star but whose career has subsequently gone nowhere is particular. He apparently spends his days pottering around growing peppers in his greenhouses and occasionally doodling with his guitar. But he’s still kind of famous among the middle-aged nostalgia crowd and Evie is in his neighbourhood. So they’re both in the neighbourhood of fame.
Something niggles in Evie’s mind. Her son Dylan was the result of a casual teenage sexual encounter and she never has been sure if Jed Jordan or another boy was Dylan’s father. She wants to find out. So she starts going through her back fence and being friendly to Jed as she circles nearer the topic of his possible paternity. Not that Jed is exactly the boy she once knew. As she remarks: “The missing years between us contained both his rise to fame and also, apparently, a large decline in scope.” (p.59)
Of course there’s another woman in Jed’s life – his wife Lauren, who is apparently admired for her chic and her model-girl looks. Lauren works in showbiz promotion and publicity. She, too, niggles at something about Jed. When they first met, he treated her like a mere groupie. Now she wonders if he is sometimes unfaithful to her. And, truth to tell, she’s also a little bored with him. So she embarks on an affair, which seems to have overtones of mommy-porn fifty-shades-of-blah crassness about it. (She has anonymous sex with a creep she meets at a revival screening of Last Tango in Paris.) It at once makes Lauren feel guilty.
As for the third female in Jed’s life, she’s a naive teenager, Haley, who has heard Jed’s music played by an old rock-music-journalist geezer. Haley has set her heart on doing an interview with Jed as part of a school project.
So there’s the set-up. Three women taking an interest in an over-the-hill rocker. The inquisitive neighbour who possibly bore his son. The bored and guilty wife. And the little kid who thinks she is growing up fast by exploring sex. Evie, Haley and Lauren tell the whole story in alternating chapters and in the first person. Or at least Evie and Haley speak in the first person while Lauren, for some reason, speaks in the second person (“you”). I’m not quite sure why Bridget van der Zijpp chooses this voice for Lauren, unless it’s a way of suggesting her hauteur or her attempts to distance herself from her own guilt. I did note that, possibly for the same reason, young Haley switches to the second person at the point (pp.116-118) when she joylessly surrenders her virginity.
Van der Zijpp tells the story skilfully. She suggests the exact social milieu with precision when Evie meets Jed for the first time in years and comments: “His clothes were so artfully unkempt as to be an announcement that he was above caring what anybody thought of him” (p.10) – an apt description of the “dressing down” that is part of any rocker’s contrived public image (even a has-been rocker). A little further on Evie notes of Jed and his wife: “They had a big outdoor wedding at his place and his father paid a team of professional landscapers to work for six months to ensure the garden was worthy. This news had been in a House and Garden magazine….” (p.11) We know at once that we are in the world of trust-funded music-making where “rebellious” music aimed primarily at teenagers is really a rich kid’s commercial indulgence.
From Lauren, when she isn’t rethinking the wisdom of her sleazy affair, there are some apt comments on the tiny fish-pond that is New Zealand criticism of all genres. Thinking [in the second person] of how her husband’s second album tanked, she reflects on the power of just one negative review:
“On the walk home you begin about the reviews Jed got for his second album. Is it possible to say that they were unfair? People had been excited about it pre-release, its originality, but somehow he struck a public mood that wasn’t inclined to see it favourably. It essentially came down to one big review in one of the major dailies, one reviewer who set the tone that others followed. That’s the problem with being notable in New Zealand – it’s different from being noticeable elsewhere in the world. The population is so small, an the opportunity for over-familiarity so great, and really, it only takes one unbeliever…” (p.34)
There is also the waspishness of the following when Lauren does a post-mortem on an unsuccessful play that was produced by her theatre-promoter millionaire father-in-law’s company. She says:
“You have always known that this theatre complex was originally conceived by Jed’s father as an appeasement to the local council, to smooth the way for the construction of his ten-storey hotel above the site. Some experimentalism pleases the arts advocates on the council, who like to regard the city as having a vibrant cultural centre. And the populist theatre pleases the council’s tourism team, who use it as a tool to draw audiences from outside the city….” (p.63)
Central Auckland and its council in a nutshell.
But you will notice that I have merely given you the scene-setting and told you that these three women have an interest in Jed.
The point is that the first half of this novel is really the set-up, the rest is the pay-off, and I run up against my rule about not giving spoilers while reviewing a new novel. Obviously the entanglement of Jed, Evie, Lauren and Haley is going to go badly awry somehow. It has to do with accusations made on Facebook and Twitter, who turns out to be blood relation to whom, how social media can damage people’s lives and how the public too easily assume that the private lives of even half-famous people are public property.
It is a neat piece of storytelling; but then that may be its problem. It is too neat. The way characters’ back-stories are contrived in the first half of the novel is only to justify some of the implausibility of how they are related in the second half. (Sorry - my non-disclosure rule kicks in here). In short, I think it becomes well-written soap and something for the glossies rather than a novel that exploits all the possibilities of the characters the author has created. A neatly dove-tailed piece of narrative carpentry, however.
Dyspeptic footnote : On p.93 the author (or her narrator) uses that redundant and semi-literate term “evolvement”. Perhaps she should have a word with her copy-editor. Or perhaps she isn’t a believer in evolution.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“WASHINGTON SQUARE” by Henry James (first published 1880)
A couple of years ago on this blog, writing about Henry James’ Roderick Hudson [look it up on the index at right], I explained what my basic attitude to Henry James was and still is. I admired and enjoyed the novels of James’ early and middle periods, but I could never get my head around those rambling, ruminative, frequently pompous and often otiose dissections of the wealthy and the privileged that made up his last period. I recycled the old joke about James the First, James the Second and James the Old Pretender – and I still can’t stand the Old Pretender. From The American up to Portrait of a Lady – fine. From there on to the likes of The Awkward Age and The Golden Bowl – no thanks.
What I neglected to note in my dyspeptic comments were two very important points. First, that the earlier James had a sly sense of humour, and it should never be underestimated. Second, that he wasn’t always the best judge of his own work.
I take as my example of these two things the wholly delightful early piece of James, the very short novel Washington Square (154 pages of text in the paperback edition on my shelves). James himself did not think highly of it. He excluded it from the collected edition of his works that he oversaw late in life. And maybe this was a good thing. James had the unlovely habit of tinkering with, and rewriting, bits of his earlier novels when they came to be collected - and I’m glad Washington Square escaped this fate.
Part of the delight of Washington Square is that it is often so funny, even if it has sometimes been interpreted as a domestic tragedy.
Plain, untalented, and in fact not particularly bright, young Catherine Sloper lives with her widower father Dr Austin Sloper in New York’s fashionable Washington Square. Dr Sloper is a wealthy man and naïve Catherine will obviously inherit his money. The lively and handsome young fortune-hunter Morris Townsend takes an interest in her. Catherine believes he loves her for herself and believes she is in love with him. She is encouraged in this delusion by her aunt Lavinia Penniman, whose view of young lovers is moulded by the drivelling romantic fiction she reads, and who acts as letter-carrying and assignation-making go-between behind Dr Sloper’s back. But Dr Sloper stands in the way of the union of his daughter and the young man. He knows full well that Morris Townsend, without a profession or means of support, has only a mercenary interest in Catherine. He is all flash and no cash.
Given his stern demeanour, given the patronising way he treats his daughter, given the downright cruel things he sometimes says about her lack of both talents and good looks, Dr Sloper could easily be seen as nothing more than a villainous, tyrannical father. He frequently remarks that she has none of the beauty, poise and wit of her mother, who died giving birth to her. But the nuanced thing is that he is absolutely right about lively, charming Morris Townsend. The young man really is interested only in Catherine’s inheritance; the father has read the situation more accurately than the daughter has; and for all his unkindness, the father really is protecting the daughter from making a match that can only end in unhappiness.
In the novel this plays out as Catherine only gradually being undeceived. Realising that he will never get his hands on Catherine’s money, Morris goes off on a “business trip” from which, despite his protestations to Catherine, he never returns. The years go by, and Catherine (whose father has died in the interim) slowly comes to realise that Morris never loved her and has deceived her. This, as she continues to live unmarried with her aunt Lavinia, becomes the great psychological fact in her life. She was not loved for herself. She was cheated by a young man with his eyes on her inheritance.
After about twenty years, Morris Townsend returns to New York. Foolish Aunt Lavinia arranges for him to meet with Catherine, much against Catherine’s will. When she lays eyes on him (in the novel’s last chapter) “[Catherine] would never have known hm. He was forty-five years old, and his figure was not that of the straight, slim young man she remembered.” Morris, clearly having made nothing of his life, wants once again to court her for her money. Catherine is not moved and firmly tells him to be on his way. He leaves. Catherine goes back to her crocheting, and the novel ends.
There are some scenes in which Catherine defies her father even when she has come dimly to understand the truth about Morris; but if she has grown in any way, it is simply in a very limited self-knowledge. She now knows that she is not attractive to men, she will never marry, and her lot is to sit out life quietly in the residence her father has left her.
The novel is told in the third-person. James lets us share the thoughts of Catherine, Dr Sloper and Aunt Lavinia; but Morris is seen from the outside only. The tone is consistently ironical, witty, barbed. We pity and sometimes laugh at Catherine’s naïvete, but we are never encouraged to see her as a tragic heroine. Dr Sloper’s cruel comments about Catherine are often cruelly funny (Chapter 13 – a minor character asks of Catherine “Doesn’t she make a noise? Hasn’t she made a scene?” to which Dr Sloper dryly replies “She isn’t scenic.”)
So this is, first and foremost, a sad little social comedy, perfectly proportioned.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Okay, gentle reader, I have been leading you on a bit here. In deciding to write about Washington Square this week, I was really looking for the excuse to tell you what the movies have made of this dry, ironical, witty little domestic tale.
For years I have had a DVD copy of William Wyler’s 1949 film The Heiress, based on the stage adaptation of Washington Square by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, which had already wowed Broadway before the film was made. I have seen this film a number of times.
When I was a film reviewer, I saw on its first release Agnieszka Holland’s 1997 film version of the story, called Washington Square. I recently borrowed a copy of it from my local video library and watched the two films once again. And – goodness – it did tell me something about the difficulties of adapting this sort of literary source to the screen.
Take The Heiress first of all. Filmed in crisp black-and-white, it follows James’ plot fairly closely, but manages to turn James’ ironical social comedy into a sort of hothouse Racinian drama, focusing almost exclusively on the four main characters. 28-year-old Montgomery Clift is appropriately charming as Morris Townsend, and his habitual tentativeness (and bewildered Method Acting stare) makes it credible that he has half-convinced himself that he really loves Catherine for more than her money. Miriam Hopkins flutters around effectively enough as silly Aunt Lavinia. The outstanding performance is by Ralph Richardson as Dr Sloper – stern and mocking of his daughter, but very sly in the way he interrogates Morris and ironically cuts the young man down to size. At this point I note how amusing Old Hollywood always was in its habit of casting English actors in American roles that required some gravitas. But there is the big problem of Catherine herself. How can you get a really young actress (Catherine is about twenty years old for most of the story) to carry the story with the proper nuance? The Heiress has 33-year-old Olivia de Havilland in the role. To her and the producers’ great credit, she is deglamourized and is made as credibly “plain” as Catherine is supposed to be. She acts well (she won an Academy Award for her turn here). But – alas – all the time we are aware that this is a grown woman, far too old for the role and pretending to be a giddy and innocent 20-year-old.
Then there is the ending. The Heiress makes it far more melodramatic than the novel. Morris arranges to elope with Catherine, but he discovers he will not gain as much money as he thought he would out of such a manoeuvre. Catherine sits up all night waiting for him to snatch her romantically away. He never turns up. She realises that he has deceived her. But the film-makers want to give her heroic status by showing that she is capable of turning the tables on him. Some time later (but when he is still young and attractive – not middle-aged) Morris turns up again, seeking her hand in the hope of at least getting a comfortable life out of her. Catherine pretends to be ready to go with him. He dashes off to get his things, but when he returns, she has barred the house door to him and ordered the servants not to let him in under any circumstances. The film ends with her, stoic and grim-faced, climbing the stairs away from the door upon which Morris is hammering futilely and which we know she will never open to him.
So, as seen in The Heiress, Catherine has got her revenge, even if she still faces an unhappy and loveless life. (And might I add that that fade-out shot of Montgomery Clift hammering on the door and shouting “Catherine! Catherine!” reminds me of another Method Actor, Marlon Brando, a couple of years later at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire wailing “Stella! Stella!” to the wife who won’t let him in.)
It is a very good film, the acting is fine, it works well as a tightly-structured melodrama and I have enjoyed it thoroughly a number of times. But it is not the ironical thing that Henry James wrote.
Turning to the 1997 film Washington Square, we find a very different sort of beast. It more-or-less follows James’ story, but from the opening shots we know that this version (scripted by one woman, Carol Doyle, and directed by another, Agnieszka Holland) is going to do its darndest to turn Washington Square into a feminist tract. We begin with a shot of Dr Sloper’s wife dying in childbirth, with blood smeared all over the sheets (so, dear viewer, see what women had to endure in those days when fathers ruled households). Later there is a scene where Catherine, as a child, is so frightened at having to sing a song in public that she urinates on the carpet. (See the cruel things little girls were forced to do in these male-dominated households.) Following the tradition of gravitas-seeking Old Hollywood, most of the leading roles in this American story are played by English actors – Albert Finney as Dr Sloper, Maggie Smith as Aunt Lavinia and 28-year-old Ben Chaplin as Morris Townsend (a comely enough lad but – as even heterosexuals such as I can see – not as gorgeous a chap as the young Montgomery Clift). And once again, when the main part of the story finally gets going, we have an over-aged Catherine Sloper, played by 35-year-old Jennifer Jason Leigh. Let me make it clear that I think she is a very, very good actress. In her coyness, her finger-counting, her moments of embarrassment, she does get across Catherine’s little girl qualities in the early parts of the film. But she is still a grown woman and a very attractive one. It is hard to believe that there is no eligible bachelor who would court her for herself.
In this version, Morris’ venality is downplayed. We do know he is after Catherine’s money, but the emphasis is thrown onto the father’s cruelty. The film is stacking up to show us the evil of the domineering patriarchy, rather than the naïvete of the girl. By film’s end (and rather improbably given the helpless thing she has been earlier on) Catherine has become an assertive woman, scorning both father and suitor. In the last sequence, Morris visits her when she is undeceived about his motives. She is busily running a kind of creche for little girls. She is seated at a piano playing. She sends Morris away curtly, then turns and gives a wise smile to the little girl sharing the piano bench with her. The implication is obvious, dear sisters. In the nineteenth century, women cannot have power, but Catherine is a pioneer in showing that women can live free of fathers and dodgy men who might become their husbands; and the little girl represents the future generations who will assert their full equality with men.
This version has some good moments, but also some supremely silly ones. As an example, there is a sequence where Maggie Smith’s doddery Aunt Lavinia (far more doddery than Miriam Hopkins’ turn in the same role) makes one of her covert appointments with Morris to keep his connection with Catherine going. The scene is set in what is obviously a brothel and we can hear women in the background moaning orgasmically as they are rough-handled by customers. Ah yes, dear viewer, see another way in which women are exploited and mistreated by men. But the possibility that a woman like Aunt Lavinia would enter such a place is virtually nil.
Believe it or not, I do not condemn films for being different from their sources – it is almost inevitable that they will be – but I do note that both these films play to the audience expectations of their day. The Heiress, in the 1940s, gives us romantic melodrama. Washington Square, in the 1990s, gives us girls-can-do-anything tract. The wit of Henry James is lost in both. But for sheer entertainment value, and as a well-structured drama, The Heiress still wins hands down.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
HEGEMONY MEANS POST-POSTMODERNISM
As I walked through the wilderness of the world, I met two daunting giants, posed on two neighbouring mountains.
And – lo! – one was called POSTMODERNISM and one was called HEGEMONY.
And as I approached, POSTMODERNISM did roar at me polysyllabically and with little style, with much hot air blowing to little purpose past my ears until I cried as loud as I could “Stop! Stop! Make this concession to me please. Say clearly what you really think.”
And POSTMODERNISM laughed. And POSTMODERNISM smirked. And POSTMODERNISM pretended that I was a person of little culture in that I could not follow his formless outpourings. And then POSTMODERNISM spake thus;
“Fool!” said POSTMODERNISM “Do you not understand there are no absolutes, no ultimate truths? For verily I tell you, before my dead brother MODERNISM was, all men said that GOD knew everything and therefore GOD was right and that was truth. But my brother MODERNISM brayed in a thousand voices and said that all men were right, and the truth could be found in each human heart. Since I slew my brother, I preach you the new reality – if every human heart is right, then no human heart is right. For there is no right and wrong, no truth and untruth. There are only truth claims. There is only the relative. There is no absolute. So I bring you liberty. For as there is no right and wrong, no true and untrue, then no one can lay claim to dominance. I liberate you. I give you a world in which all respect all as none have access to the infallible. Oh men! Oh women! Rejoice, for I lead you to a new tolerance, a new brotherhood and sisterhood where none are right and all are respected and true pluralism reigns in every land.”
And as POSTMODERNISM spake, a train of relativists and postcolonial theorists danced at his feet saying “Hosanna! Hosanna! All are equal. All are valid. Let all cultures be respected equally. Let all know that none is better than another. Let us live in the amity of uncertainty!”
But among them, there were those who cried “Hosanna! Hosanna! Your truth is no better than my truth. Your untruth is no better than my untruth! And I say that human rights are a fiction and a fable that cannot be supported by hard material reality, and what one society says about them is as good or as bad as what another society says about them. So bring on torture. Oh, bring on genital mutilation and female circumcision, for there are no truths or untruths and all is relative and who may criticise? And behold, I say the Holocaust never happened, for who may deny me and who dares make truth claims to oppose me? For truly I say that which POSTMODERNISM taught.”
Whereat POSTMODERNISM was sore wroth but knew not what to say.
But the Earth trembled and the two mountains shook and HEGEMONY rose to his full height and snorted flame and spoke with the clarity of a garish neon sign.
“Ha!” roared HEGEMONY in reply “Nature still abhors a vacuum. Tell all your fairy-tales of consensus and communality; of pluralism and particularity; of tolerance and variety. But I will speak with an older thunder.”
And he did puff and roar so that the tree-tops swayed and the mountains quaked and POSTMODERNISM was so abashed that he quivered and shook and then fell apart into the thousand-and-one unstable constituent pieces of which he was made. And POSTMODERNISM rolled, dead, to the bottom of his mountain as a heap of impotent pebbles for the rains to scorn.
And HEGEMONY laughed his godly laugh and said “There never was, there is not, there never will be a society without its norms, a people without its unexamined truths. Be they right or be they wrong, be they relative or absolute, they are still their truths. And with the force of my fist and the weight of my numbers, I say there has never been, is not, and will never be a society in which all truths have equal weight. Some dominate and those that dominate bear my name. Let those who followed dead POSTMODERNISM think he still reigns. Let them, in their limited and exclusive individual worlds, imagine they are free. But I say I now rule, for some truths and ideas prevail and some do not and all are not equal.”
And as he spoke and laughed ten million TV frontpersons and journalists and admen and publicists and propagandists and public relations experts danced at his feet chanting “We will drug them truly in your name! We will let them think that they think freely as we bend them to your will!”
And like a fist punching my face, HEGEMONY triumphed in every land, sometimes wearing his Cultural mask and sometimes wearing his Intellectual mask and always wearing his Moral mask.
And in sorrow and still seeking truth, I went my way through the wilderness.
Monday, March 16, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE PORCELAIN THIEF” by Huan Hsu (Fourth Estate / Harper-Collins, $NZ34:99)
Huan Hsu is what he himself calls an “ABC”, an American-born Chinese. His parents and grandparents were middle-class Chinese who supported the Kuomintang (Chang Kai-Shek) Nationalist side in the Chinese civil war, and so fled the country after the Communist victory in 1949. Some branches of the family settled in Taiwan and some, like Huan Hsu’s parents, in America. One consequence of this is that Huan Hsu still uses the old Wade-Giles system of Romanising his Chinese name, rather than the Pinyin system that has now been adopted on mainland China; although he accepts Pinyin versions of most of the names he deploys in his narrative.
As he tells it, growing up in Utah and going to an American high-school, Huan Hsu was often indifferent to, and sometimes even embarrassed by, his Chinese heritage. He writes and often thinks in an American idiom. He interprets the world according to Western categories. He views democracy and civil society as much to be desired.
But he knew always that he was irrevocably Chinese. His parents spoke Mandarin at home, even if he himself lost the language as a child and had difficulty re-learning it as an adult. “I could barely speak Chinese”, he says (p.12). However, there was one story from his background that greatly intrigued him. His great-great-grandfather Liu Feng Shu was a wealthy landowner, for whom many sharecroppers worked on a large estate. Liu Feng Shu owned a very large and very valuable collection of classical porcelain. In 1938, as the invading Japanese armies approached his part of China, Liu Feng Shu decided that the only way could preserve his priceless collection was to bury it. Huan Hsu explains how Liu did just this with the help of a servant:
“When the [Chinese Nationalist] soldiers moved on, Liu and Old Yang waited for the sun to set and went into the garden with shovels and picks. Over the next few nights, they removed a patch of flax and dug a large hole, deeper than a man was tall, and as wide as a bedroom, and lined the walls with bamboo shelving. Working by moonlight after the village had gone to sleep, they filled a vault with the family’s heirlooms: intricately carved antique furniture, jades, bronzes, paintings, scrolls of calligraphy and finally, Liu’s beloved porcelain collection. Vases of every shape and size; painted tiles of Chinese landscapes; hat stands; figurines of the Fu Lou Shou, the trio of Buddhist gods that represented good fortune, longevity and prosperity; decorative jars, plates and bowls; tea sets; the dowries for his granddaughters. Liu and Old Yang packed the porcelain into woven baskets lined with straw, and once the vault could hold no more, they sealed it with boards, covered it with soil, and replanted the flax.” (p.4)
As one who had chosen journalism as his trade, Huan Hsu decided to make it his mission to find out what had become of this collection, whether it was still buried where his great-great-grandfather had buried it, whether it had been looted and dispersed during the various upheavals in China’s later history…. or whether the whole story of this valuable hole was just a family legend.
Huan Hsu’s uncle is a multi-millionaire industrialist, who has established a large electronics firm in the state-controlled capitalism of modern “Communist” China. Huan Hsu was able to get a position in his uncle’s firm in Shanghai, and use this as a base for his investigations into the missing porcelain collection.
Let me make it clear that The Porcelain Thief does not cheat on this aspect of the story. It really does deliver the narrative of a treasure hunt as Huan Hsu travels to various parts of mainland China, and to Taiwan, interviewing and questioning officials and elderly relatives about his great-great-grandfather and his estate, although telling very few people the story of the hidden treasure (lest – in a society notorious for bribery and corruption – some other enterprising person immediately should head for the putative site of the loot and dig it up). One grandmother proves to be a particular comic turn in this long narrative, with her switching between remembering intriguing details and then evasively “forgetting” the important things.
At one point (Chapter Eleven, called “City of Fire”), Huan Hsu stops to give an overall account of the importance of porcelain, ceramics and pottery in China’s ancient culture (including the fact that it was a misreading of a place name stamped on the bottom of elegant Chinese pottery that led Westerners to call the Middle Kingdom “China” in the first place, and also led Westerners to call its porcelain “china”). As he writes:
“Porcelain soon became China’s most famous, most enduring invention. As early as the Tang dynasty, cargo ships loaded with porcelain sailed west for he Middle East, where middlemen would transfer the wares to Europe. For the Chinese, porcelain wasn’t just a sanitary material, dinnerware, or a hobby. Porcelain was as central to the Chinese identity as the Yangtze River, the bones to the Yangtze’s blood, and it was no accident that the material became eponymous with its country of origin. Porcelain touched every member of Chinese society, from peasants’ rice bowls to the imperial family’s massive collection. Porcelain formed the basis of China’s mythology and morality tales and fuelled its economy, including the golden age of the Ming dynasty, which boasted the world’s largest economy. There was simply no Western analogue to the breadth and depth of porcelain’ infiltration of Chinese art, industry and culture, though the automobile in America comes somewhat close.” (p.181-182)
Huan Hsu also brings his story to a clear dramatic close, writing in Chapter Fourteen (“Xingang Marks the Spot”), as he returned to the site of his ancestor’s estate:
“After three years of searching for my great-great-grandfather’s buried porcelain collection, I found myself squeezed into a black Mazda with distant relatives, cruising along the Yangtze River. We headed for Xingang, where my ancestors had lived for more than six hundred years, where twelve generations of them were interred in the family cemetery, and where we hoped to find my great-great-grandfather’s former estate and see if Tang Hou Cun [an elderly relative] could remember where the porcelain had been hidden.” (p.318)
I will not tell you what the outcome of this quixotic quest was – read the book – though the last forty pages are breathless with anticipation.
Having established all this, however, another fact about The Porcelain Thief is also glaringly obvious. While Huan Hsu does not cheat the reader, the book is as much a primer on recent Chinese history, and a travelogue giving an expatriate Chinese’s view of present-day China, as it is a treasure hunt. Indeed, for much of its length, the treasure hunt is a mere pretext for an account of how an “ABC” sees China.
Early in the piece, Huan Hsu remarks:
“When I moved to China, I knew it would be mean. I expected chaos, overcrowding, pollution, the absence of Western manners and sanitation, inefficiency, and stomach problems. While China was known for rigid control, everything outside the political sphere appeared to be a free-for-all, and daily life in China hardly resembled the regimented totalitarian image that foreigners held. The short – and cynical – explanation was that the government had an unspoken agreement with its citizens: as long as they stayed out of politics, they were free to enjoy the fruits of capitalism and consumerism….” (p.29)
Thus, among other things, the government doesn’t mind that the author’s wealthy uncle, who is a devout Methodist, sets up two Christian churches next to his factory (one English-language and one Chinese-language) and encourages workers to attend services there – which of course the more ambitious employees do. The impression here is very similar to the impression given of Vladimir Putin’s Russia in a book I recently reviewed for the NZ Listener, Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True and Everything is Possible. China’s central government (like Putin’s) controls tightly anything that threatens its hold on power, but otherwise gives its citizens (or subjects) the illusion of freedom. State control of ideas does bring huge problems. As Huan Hsu reads it, the culture of bribery and nepotism and routine exam-cheating in China’s institutes of higher learning collaborate with state controls to ensure that there is little real innovation in Chinese industry. The Chinese are excellent at replicating (usually plagiarising) technology which has originated elsewhere, but hardly ever come up with a new idea.
Huan Hsu takes a very long time to adjust to the public manners of modern China – the commonplace spitting (and urinating and defecating) in the streets. The fact that in many quarters of any Chinese city, the garbage piles up uncollected. The national inability to conceive of such a thing as an orderly queue – when goods are for sale or when trains are being boarded there is an every-man-for-himself free-for-all rush and scrum. The indifference to basic safety in driving. (Inter alia he tells an anecdote of his own fierce altercation with a driver after he had nearly been run down on a crossing). And of course the choking, sky-blotting, thick, poisonous atmospheric pollution that blights every modern Chinese city.
He narrates his first encounter with Beijing thus:
“ My initial impression of Beijing was that all the Olympic investment had paid off. The 2008 Summer Olympics had been touted as the capstone of China’s ascension, when it would finally demonstrate that its software had caught up with its hardware. The effort put toward up grading Beijing’s culture was impressive as the construction of the Bird’s Nest Stadium or the shuttering of nearby factories to ensure blue skies and clean air. Citywide etiquette lessons were initiated: signs discouraged spitting, driving violations were aggressively ticketed, and the eleventh of every month was “queue up” day, the number a pictorial representation of two people standing in line. But now that the world wasn’t paying attention anymore, China didn’t seem to be either, and its finely crafted façade had been succeeded by its old habits. The monumental sport and hospitality venues erected for the games had already acquired the patina of dust that eventually claimed everything in China. Smog obscured the sky, the opening of subway doors sparked a feeding frenzy, and trash was someone else’s problem.” (pp.258-259)
Despite boasting about thousands of years of culture and civilisation (longer than any continuous civilization in the West), thoughtful Chinese themselves wonder why there is now so little civil society, so much public rudeness and confrontation, so much indifference to the common good. One answer offered to Huan Hsu by a Chinese woman (p.102) is that those thousands of years of culture, Confucianism, public politeness etc. were really swept away by the revolutions of the last one hundred years.
This has a certain plausibility, although the modern history lessons that Huan Hsu interpolates could also suggest other reasons. Certainly, as the author tells it, China was plagued by problems that arose from foreign intervention – Britain’s forcing of opium on the Chinese Empire in the Opium Wars; the unequal “treaties” and concessions which European powers wrested from China in the era of Western imperialism; the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. But Huan Hsu sees most of China’s woes as being self-inflicted. The corruption of the late imperial court. The failure of the Nationalist Republic really to unify the country after the promise of Sun Yat Sen’s revolution. The rival (and – in Huan Hsu’s account) equal rapacity of Nationalist and Communist forces in the civil war. And, for Huan Hsu, most disastrous of all – more destructive of traditional Chinese civility than anything that had gone before – the malign folly of Mao’s imperial reign in the pointless “Great Leap Forward”, the great famine and the “Cultural Revolution”, which really meant an orgy of violence, persecution of educated people, and concerted cultural vandalism.
For Huan Hsu, there has been no comparable civilising force in China since the old imperial civil service exams (open to all, though requiring huge mental ability) were abolished.
Summarised as I have summarised them here, Huan Hsu’s views might sound like the nostalgia of somebody from a Kuomintang background whose ancestors were wealthy landowners. I am sure that somewhere, an apologist for modern China is waiting to caricature them this way. But this would be a gross misrepresentation. Huan Hsu is as unsparing of the Nationalist side of the historical equation as he is of the Communist side. (When he visits Taiwan, he enjoys the courtesies of the Chinese population – so unlike the free-for-all of public behaviour on the mainland. But he also sees a society comparatively tatty and run-down). What he is lamenting is the failure of a real civil society to develop. His nostalgia is for the July the 4th movement of the early 1920s. It envisaged a republican, democratic system in which intellectuals and others would enjoy freedom of speech on all matters and into which the best of Western thought would be incorporated. His lament is that such a state never developed.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE DISTANCE AND THE DARK” by Terence de Vere White (first published 1973); “CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT – Twelve Stories” by Terence de Vere White (first published in 1977)
It’s the week of St Patrick’s Day so, as I’ve done for the last three years, I give you on this blog a “Something Old” related to Ireland. How it is related to Ireland is, however, a little problematical, as its viewpoint is very much a minority one. I caution you that this is a rather obscure novel which you are highly unlikely to read, and for that reason I do not hesitate to give away the whole of its plot, “spoilers” and all. I further caution you that its author was a respected, but not exactly a stellar, literary figure, so let me say a few words about him first of all.
Terence de Vere White (1912-1994) was for most of his life a Dubliner and wrote a total of 26 books, 12 of them being novels and nearly all of them being concerned with Irish matters. He was as well known for his biographies (of the Irish Free State jurist Kevin O’Higgins among others) and his social histories as for his fiction. For 16 years he was literary editor of the Irish Times. It was when he held that position that he wrote The Distance and the Dark. The Irish Times is generally seen as the major Irish newspaper that most expresses an Anglo-Irish or “West Briton” mentality. Because Terence de Vere White worked there; because he took his degree at the old Anglo-Irish bastion Trinity College; and because so many of his works do reflect a conservative Anglophile social class in Ireland; it was widely assumed that he was of Protestant background. In fact, this wasn’t quite true. His father was Protestant, but his mother was Catholic, and his mother had the greater influence on his upbringing as his father died when he was very young. Nevertheless, de Vere White didn’t observe any particular faith. He was twice married and once divorced. His second wife was the biographer Victoria Glendenning. But, a bit of a lad and in middle age, he also fathered a child on the (much younger) travel writer Dervla Murphy, who chose not to marry him and to raise the child on her own.
The Distance and the Dark has been seen by at least one literary historian (Derek Hand in his A History of the Irish Novel) as part of the resurgence of the “Big House” novel – the type of novel in which comfortably-off upper-middle-class Irish landowners reacted to Ireland – that occurred in the early 1970s in the first phase of Ireland’s renewed bout of the “troubles”, when the IRA was once again a force to be reckoned with.
Everard Hardy, wealthy gentry-type farmer, is informed by an honest Garda (Irish policeman) that his home is going to be raided for arms. In the raid, the honest informer and Everard’s young son are killed by an IRA group. Everard sets himself the task of finding the men responsible, not to exact revenge, but simply to confront them with what they have done and to make them see how wrong it is. However, as a member of the wealthy Anglophile landowning class, even though his family have been resident in Ireland for many generations, he finds his enquiries are pitted against the ingrained distrust of the local Irish population. Even the Garda and Irish government officials know that there is no way you can easily bring a prosecution against the IRA, and certainly no way you can indulge in a bout of moral reasoning with them.
While all this is going on, Everard’s marriage breaks down. His (young, English) wife walks out on him with a jockey who may (or may not) be homosexual. And when this happens, Everard foolishly finds solace in an affair with his best friend’s wife.
He does eventually get to confront the IRA man responsible for the murders, but his moral denunciations fall on the deaf ears of somebody who knows that he will never be prosecuted. Everard’s wife, having discovered that her flashy jockey lover really is homosexual, writes to Everard asking to be taken back. Everard sends a telegram dutifully accepting her. But before she returns, he is killed by the same IRA gang who killed his son, because in trying to get close to them, he has witnessed them carrying out a daylight robbery on a post-office.
On the last page we learn that the son who was killed was not really his, but the result of his faithless wife’s liaison with an English novelist.
Clearly Everard Hardy (whose name sounds as Anglo and as non-Irish as de Vere White) has not understood or known the people who are close to him any more than he has understood or known the larger Irish society that surrounds him.
When I first read The Distance and the Dark (the title is a quotation from Robert Browning) I wrote in my reading diary that it was “a solid middle-range, intelligent novel”. Despite the expected revenge motif (man seeks killer of son…), it actually resolves itself into a largely unflattering portrait of a particular social class – horsey Irish gentry who a few generations back would have been called Anglo-Irish (one of de Vere White’s non-fiction books, The Anglo-Irish, was a social history of this class). They are citizens of the Irish Republic, but they take English newspapers, are mainly Protestant, and basically regard the locals as either servants or barbarians. And even if their families have in a few cases resided in a particular location longer than the local Irish, they have a colonialist’s siege mentality, passing the time betting on horses or committing adultery in a bored and indifferent sort of way.
They have no particular beliefs, except in their own survival as a class. A minor character is described thus:
“He had become completely cynical about the sentimentalities of Irish politics and the sanctification of violence, provided it took place in the past. He was a completely modern man, believing in almost nothing, with a good-natured contempt for the unenlightened folk he met in the village.” (Chapter 12)
Everard Hardy is essentially a decent man, wanting to settle up moral accounts with his son’s murderers, but in this tale his decency ends up looking like naïve gullibility. I am not sure what de Vere White’s ultimate point is. The personal and the political intermesh, and not all victims are necessarily guiltless themselves. Other than that, I got only good story-telling with a slightly sardonic edge and with moments of gentler humour such as:
“She was not sociable: she loved her garden: she adored her husband, who had flattered her so much when he proposed that she had never completely recovered from the grateful surprise.” (Chapter 19)
Comparing The Distance and the Dark with the one other work of fiction by de Vere White which I have read, however, I detect a larger and more depressing theme. Terence de Vere White’s short-story collection Chimes at Midnight (1977) comprises twelve short stories. I will give you a taste of them by quickly synopsising some.
* A young woman fears her fiance’s latent homosexuality and draws sullen comfort from the death of his best friend.
* An unsuccessful novelist fritters away his time by wondering about his girlfriend’s fidelity.
* A husband prefers reading pornography to making love to his wife.
* A clerk has grandiose plans for his future, but gets fired for daydreaming.
* Through fear of not seeming “liberal”, a stuffy committee appoints to a sinecure a candidate it does not really want.
* A dithering litterateur justifies to himself his inability to get rid of the pushy lodger who threatens his marriage.
* It takes a lodger thirty years to discover that the only reason an obnoxious fellow-lodger has been able to stay on is that he is the landlady’s lover.
Get the idea? Nearly all these stories (and the other five which I have not synopsised) suggest a sense of practical impotence often expressed in sexual terms, an inability to affect other people in any meaningful way and a growing awareness of an inability to relate to society at large. Collectively, they are like the handwringing of an author who knew this was a fair judgment on his own social class.
I think these are the underlying ideas of The Distance and the Dark too.