Monday, May 13, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
What is the opposite of “mellowed”? “Acerbicised” perhaps? I wish there were such a word in the English language, as it would describe precisely the author of The Last Train to Zona Verde. He is more embittered and disillusioned than ever, and probably with very good reason. Paul Theroux is now 72 years old and quite different from the 30-ish chap who wrote The Great Railway Bazaar and established himself as an important travel writer all those years ago. As several indications in the text suggest, the journey he recounts in The Last Train to Zona Verde may well be his last. He even winds up saying he is no longer particularly enamoured of train journeys, which have often been his trademark.
Let’s get our geographical bearings. A bit over a decade ago, Theroux took a long journey down the east side of Africa, beginning in Cairo and ending in Cape Town. It became his 2002 travel book Dark Star Safari. In 2011, aged 70, he set out on an overland journey, where he meant to travel up the west side of Africa, starting in Cape Town and, he hoped, going on to Timbuktu. But he never completed the journey. Instead, having begun in South Africa and made it through Namibia (formerly “South-West Africa”) with a side-trip to Botswana, he decided to abandon his trip in Angola, which he found to be Hell on Earth. So the book is subtitled “Overland from Cape Town to Angola” and it ends with a 20-page reflection called “What Am I Doing Here?” in which he questions the whole rationale for travel books and heavily suggests that he will retire back to America for good. Indeed in some countries the book is being released with the more emphatic subtitle “My Ultimate African Safari”.
For the record, “zona verde” is simply Portuguese for “the green belt” and is used by Angolans to mean something like “the bush”, after whose simplicities Theroux hankers. But he is fully aware that such hankerings are mainly romantic delusions.
This notion is expressed in the very opening pages of The Last Train to Zona Verde. Theroux pictures himself walking with the Ju/’hoansi (“Bushmen”) people of the Kalahari as they hunt, and contrasting their simple subsistence way of life with the fact that at that very moment, in Europe and America, banks are crashing, capitalism is crumbling and money is being rendered worthless. So we appear to be building up to a dithyramb on the superiority of the primitive, earthy life. At which point Theroux whips the rug from under us by reminding us that his momentary reverie was pure delusion, for virtually no Ju/’hoansi now live the way he describes them, and those who do are unhappy employees of the tourism industry who are made to act out a “traditional” way of life for foreigners’ cameras. Most “Bushmen” want to join the modern economy and end up living in urban slums.
The book thenceforth sets itself against tourism-inspired romanticism.
Theroux visits post-apartheid South Africa’s squatter camps. He applauds the real self-help he sees there, and the inhabitants’ initiatives for education. But, in spite of the optimism, he is aware that physically, the old apartheid-era townships were better maintained. The new squatter settlements are more squalid than the old workers’ quarters were. In one slum called Lwandle:
“Former migrant labour hostels had been converted into dwellings for families, but they were just as crowded, dirty and unheated. Small children, ragged and barefoot, chased each other on a chilly evening, running past a wall with a painting of Steve Biko, killed by police during the apartheid era, one of the martyrs of the freedom struggle. Not far from where we were talking, a woman was doing her laundry, slapping at wet clothes in a small public sink fixed to a standpipe by the dirt road…. The museum at Lwandle had been more successful than the cultural committee at Lwandle might have intended, since the whole of the township seemed to have been preserved as a grubby reminder of the bad old days persisting into the present. The only difference was that instead of Lwandle serving as a camp for overworked men, it was now a camp of unemployed families, scraping by on handouts and menial labour.” (pp.48-49)
In many ways, the new South Africa is a frightening place (32,000 homicides and 70,000 rapes annually), but Theroux is not engaged in any cheap post-colonial drooling. Instead, he is affronted that the South African government, like the governments of most of Africa, is so self-serving, corrupt, faction-ridden and largely unconcerned for the majority of its citizens. He writes:
“Many of the South Africans I’d met wanted to be reassured. ‘How are we doing?’ they’d asked, but obliquely. How did South Africa compare to the country I’d seen on my trip ten years before and written about in Dark Star Safari? I could honestly say that it was brighter and better, more confident and prosperous, though none of it was due to any political initiative. The South African people had made the difference, and would continue to do so, no thanks to a government that embarrassed and insulted them with lavish personal spending, selfishness, corruption, outrageous pronouncements, hollow promises and blatant lies.” (Pg.66)
The opening sections of this book are saturated with a sense of guilt as Theroux (a.) realizes that he is just another slum tourist, like so many others who come to gawk; and (b.) understands more acutely how privileged and cossetted his own life is between his bouts of roughing it. Occasionally he refers to himself and to other travellers as “romantic voyeurs”. He also knows how easy it is to succumb to the tourists’ version of Africa. He enjoys the safe and friendly hotel in urban South Africa before he begins to see the slums and the hinterland. He realizes that much of the apparent modernity and cleanliness is a mere façade built over massive human misery.
This sense is stronger when he comes to travel through Namibia, which was, long ago, a German colony. The town of Windhoek, dominated by Europeans, seems so clean and orderly and civilised in a colonial way – a place where you can buy hygienically prepared food and walk the streets safely. But again it is mere façade, for outside the old town are the larger townships where the great majority of (African) Namibians live, and the townships are as squalid as possible. And what is true of Namibia is doubly true of Angola, where there is not only routine poverty and squalor but also a huge culture of bribery and violence among police and government officials. Far from having a few respectable towns as façades, Angola has only the isolated and security-guarded mansions of the very rich who rake in the wealth that no Angolan government would think of sharing with the general population. As for Angola’s capital Luanda, it is a mountain of filth, which doesn’t have even the superficial charm of Windhoek.
None of this is meant to incite nostalgia for an old imperialist Africa. Theroux is unsparing in his accounts of the old German regime in Namibia, which practised genocide; and the old Portuguese regime in Angola, which enslaved Africans and kept them illiterate. Even so, over bumpy, pot-holed roads with unreliable drivers, it’s a chastening and unhappy journey, but doubtless a truthful one.
There are many consistent themes in this book. One is Theroux’s detestation of the tourist version of Africa, meaning wealthy Westerners going on “safari” far from the everyday realities that most Africans endure. For such tourists, the wildlife is more important than the human beings. When, in Namibia, he crosses the “Vet Fence” that protects farms from roving beasts, he finds neglected and impoverished tribes. “The Ju/’hoansi lost their land in the cause of nature conservation, and expanding game reserves where elephants… were killed by wealthy foreigners” says Theroux, endorsing ethnologist Robert Gordon’s comment that “tourism robs the people of their dignity, exploits and suppresses them, and leaves them manipulated and unprepared for new ways of life.” (p.156). “Death by tourism” is a term Theroux sometimes uses. Clearly, then, he is very “conflicted” in the chapter where he is guest at a millionaires-only tourist camp where the wealthy ride elephants and kid themselves that they have seen raw nature. He likes the food and hospitality he is shown, but then hates himself for being part of a wider exploitation.
Another major theme is Theroux’s intense suspicion of foreign aid schemes, a suspicion he has already expressed in some of his earlier books. He notes:
“Anyone who has spent even a short time in a Third World country has seen this waste of money and the futility of a great deal of foreign aid. Africa is the happy hunting ground of donors, also of people seeking funds. The classic African failed state is composed of a busy capital city where politicians on large salaries hold court and drive big cars; dense and hopeless slums surrounding the capital; and the great empty hinterland, ignored by the government and more or less managed by foreign charities, which in many instances are big businesses run by highly paid executives.” (p.192)
This theme reaches a crescendo in the chapters on Angola, where Theroux notes that billions of dollars of annual revenue (from minerals) are routinely stolen by a typically kleptocratic government, while the populace at large starves. Foreign aid simply allows dictators and titled thieves to share nothing and still expect handouts. Theoretically, Angola should be one of the wealthiest nations on the continent. In reality, its people are among the most degraded. As for new sources of foreign “aid”, they are as destructive as the old. Theroux opines (p.265) that increased Chinese involvement in Africa is strictly on Chinese terms – in other words the Chinese are the new wave of exploiters.
And along with the pitfalls of tourism and foreign aid, Theroux hits hard at those inane Western “celebrities” (usually movie stars or rock stars) who say widely-publicised and inaccurate things about Africa, usually in the cause of promoting themselves as humanitarians. While in South Africa, he notes the sinister influence of the youngish ANC defector Julius Malema, who greatly admires Robert Mugabe and wishes to follow Zimbabwe’s disastrous policy of seizing all white-owned farms (and thus reducing the country to chronic famine). Malema is regarded with horror by most South Africans (black and white) as he incites rallies of young people to sing songs about killing all white farmers. At which point Theroux notes:
“But wait: one voice was raised in defence of Julius Malema, fat and sassy in his canary-yellow T-shirt, his fist raised shouting ‘Shoot the Boer – shoot, shoot.’ This supporting voice was the confident brogue of the Irish singer Paul Hewson, known to the world as the ubiquitous meddler Bono, the frontman of U2. He loved the song. The multimillionaire rocker, on his band’s ‘360-Degree Tour’ in South Africa in 2011, had squinted through his expensive sunglasses, tipped his cowboy hat in respect, and asserted that ‘Shoot the Boer’ had fondly put him in mind of the protest songs sung by the Irish Republican Army….” (p.65)
The singing dimwit who couldn’t see that he was supporting mass murder is, in Theroux’s version, at one with the likes of Madonna ostentatiously adopting African children.
Yet, while despising the tourists and publicity hounds, Theroux also spends much time kicking away the ladder upon which he himself is standing. The Last Train to Zona Verde is replete with stories on the shortcomings of travel-writers, and how easy it is to fake a travel book without much real knowledge of the lands being described. Theroux refers to the forgotten novelist Frederic Prokosch’s faked 1935 novel of Asia The Asiatics, which was written entirely in America when the author knew Asia only from other peoples’ travel books. Theroux comments:
“The Asiatics was much admired by the traveller Bruce Chatwin, who habitually fictionalised his travel writings, punching up mild episodes and giving them drama, turning a few days in a place into a long and knowledgeable residence.” (p.73)
Of Laurens van der Post, Theroux says his first book “made a crepuscular and existential narrative out of a fairly conventional few months of bushwhacking with a team of hearties… I realized from that book and a few others that he was something of a mythomaniac.” He goes on to describe van der Post as a “posturing fantasist and fake mystic in the field.” (pp.137-138)
Other travel writers are similarly rebuked although, in fairness, Theroux is equally ready to praise those books that are genuinely informative about a country. Generally they are books written by real ethnologists, geographers and political commentators – and therefore less likely to become bestsellers like the popular and meretricious fantasies of a Chatwin.
Finally, as he rationalises his own decision not to finish his planned journey, Theroux tells us:
“It takes a certain specialist’s dedication to travel in squalid cities and fetid slums, among the utterly dependent poor, who have lost nearly all their traditions and most of their habitat. You need first of all the skill and the temperament of a proctologist. Such a person, deft in rectal exams, is as essential to medicine as any other specialist, yet it is only the resolute few who opt to examine the condition of the human body by staring solemnly…. up its fundament and trawling through its intestines, making the grand colonic tour. Some travel has its parallels, and some travellers might fit the description as rectal specialists of topography, joylessly wandering the guts and entrails of the earth and reporting on their decrepitude. I am not one of them.” (pp.341-342)
In short, says Theroux in this overlong image, he doesn’t want to be a tourist but he is tired of looking up the arsehole of humanity.
Yes, this could well be his last travel book.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "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 five or more years ago.
It is sometimes amusing to see a novelist tripping over his own worst faults. This is the case with Emile Zola’s La Conquete de Plassans, variously translated into English as The Conquest of Plassans and A Priest in the House. It is the fourth of the twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series and like the first, La Fortune des Rougon, it is set in Plassans, the fictional version of Zola’s hometown Aix-en-Provence. Together with the volume that followed it in the series, the wimpier and even less credible La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret, it is Zola’s most overtly and intentionally anti-clerical work. La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret is about a priest whose natural longings are in conflict with his vows of celibacy. La Conquete de Plassans is an attack on the church’s political power. The polemic you can take of leave, but the style and arc of narrative show Zola so furious that he descends into ripe and ridiculous melodrama. This was always a temptation in his work, and here it really overcomes him.
M.Francois Mouret and his wife Marthe live in Plassans with their mentally-retarded younger daughter Desiree and her two older brothers Octave and Serge. They are persuaded to take as a lodger the priest l’abbe Ovide Faujas, who arrives with his elderly mother, the cunning peasant Mme. Faujas.
The two of them settle into the upper storey of the house and are a continual source of curiosity to Mouret, who all but listens at key-holes to find out about them as they live upstairs silently and frugally.
Mouret is not particularly religious and is not a practising Catholic, but can at least tolerate the clergy. The story that follows, however, is one of the priest gradually taking over the society and opinions of Plassans by skill and intrigue.
There is the circle of sympathetic women Fr.Faujas is able to gather about himself as he becomes their confessor and gets the women to become patronesses of a society to prevent young local women falling into vice. Marthe Mouret rapidly develops into a churchgoer. Later, Fr.Faujas persuades Francois Mouret to let his vulgar relations, his sister Olympe (a loudmouth) and her husband Honore (a drunkard), take up residence as well, and Mouret begins to feel himself being squeezed out of his own home. Faujas enters into civic intrigue. He outmanoeuvres other candidates to become the resident priest of the church of Saint-Saturnin when the incumbent dies. He persuades the bishop, the unworldly Monsignor Rousselot, that he has powerful friends in Paris and it is best not to cross him. All the time, there is the dim suggestion of political intrigue and of Faujas having been involved in something shady in his previous parish, but we are not told what it was.
Faujas gets young people to form a “cercle de la jeunesse” to take them away from more riotous pleasures, but also to bring them more within his orbit. He begins to exert great influence over Mouret’s sickly and weak son Serge, who now declares his intention to study for the priesthood. Mouret is so shocked and staggered by this that he can find no ready response and begins rapidly to age, to be unseated from his usual place at table as Faujas and his mother take over the dining area, and to withdraw into his study, the only place where he is now master.
At the same time, Marthe becomes more and more religious, a sentiment which Zola describes as a neurosis connected with her erotic longing for l’abbe. As Holy Week approaches, Marthe’s religious feelings develop into full-blown mania. She now begins to scream at night and rave and mortify her own flesh, leaving bleeding wounds – but all the other members of the household believe it is her evil husband Mouret who is beating her, despite her disavowals, which they interpret merely as a saintly wife protecting her husband. This leads to Mouret’s being declared criminally insane as the priest enters into a scheme with jealous neighbours to deprive him of his property. When his wife has her next attack, Mouret is carted off to a madhouse.
Things now become frantic as the priest’s secret manoeuvres get his preferred political candidate elected and the town’s anti-clerical republicans trounced. Marthe’s mania reaches a higher pitch. As it does so, Fr.Faujas’s relatives take the opportunity to plunder the house. Finally comes the moment in church when the demented Marthe approaches Faujas and declares how obsessed with him she is, how it has cost her her children and her husband, how totally innocent her husband is and [at last she says it] how she loves him. The priest rejects her brutally, saying she is all the impurity and filth against which priests have to fight.
Shattered and at once miraculously cured of her mania as she leaves the church, Marthe tells herself that she must rescue her husband and regain control of her house. She travels to the madhouse and is able to get permission to see her husband in his cell. At first he is rational consideration itself, expressing tender regard for her and their family. But then he starts crawling around on all fours howling like a beast. Marthe is shocked and horrified and taken ill, especially when she now learns how fully and calculatedly the priest’s relatives have taken possession of her home.
In the novel’s overwrought and melodramatic denouement, Francois Mouret escapes from the madhouse and walks through the rain back to Plassans, arriving late at night. He manages to get into his house, discovers the kitchen in horrible smashed disorder, creeps up the stairs, conveniently overhears the priest’s relatives, now settling into the master-bedroom, explicitly say how they will legally get the house from Marthe and how, if necessary, they will spread rumours saying she has slept with the abbe. Mouret also sees Fr.Faujas at work in his room. Methodically, and in improbably complete and undetected silence, Mouret goes about the house piling up outside all the doors and windows bundles of dry wood, which he has found in his greenhouse. Then he sets fire to them, burning to death the abbe, his mother, his relatives and himself.
This conflagration is offset by irony in the final chapter. In a serio-comic scene, neighbours watch the blaze being put out and calculate that the five people are dead. Most react with relief that l’abbe Faujas is now gone while one or two regret that their schemes, which he promoted, will not now prosper. On the last page, Marthe opens her eyes before dying, to see her son Serge, summoned from the seminary, dressed in a soutane. The malignant power of the church has apparently triumphed.
There are time-specific political elements in all this, which needn’t detain us long. All the Rougon-Macquart novels were written during the Third Republic, but are set in Napoleon III’s Second Empire. In La Conquete de Plassans Zola delineates the town’s cliques of Bonapartists, legitimists (old-style royalists) and republicans at one another’s throats. The novel sees the more intriguing members of the clergy as having helped Napoleon III to power. In this case, Faujas has been sent to Plassans specifically to “conquer” it. Mouret was a possible leader of republicanism. Hence having him incarcerated is a political manoeuvre, just as taking over his house is a symbolic taking over of the town. There is further symbolism in the fact that the garden of the Mouret’s house adjoins the gardens of the legitimist family and the imperialist functionary.
The propagandist intent of this novel doesn’t require much explication, so clearly is it intended as an anti-clerical work. Zola’s aim is to present the clergy as shifty, self-interested and implicated in political and financial intrigue. In so doing, he turns all their charitable enterprises into suspect and dubious works, which are merely for their own benefit and power. Youth clubs are merely to snare young men into the church’s control. Societies to rescue fallen women are merely to gain control of gullible bourgeoises who are impressed by such things. So is confession. Like Iago, Zola “turns virtue to pitch”. The only alternative view offered of clergy is of ineffectual and therefore rather useless scholarly types (like the bishop) who are unworldly to the point of having no real impact.
The church, as Zola sees it, is really run by its nasty careerists.
So often in the novel, Faujas is described as smelling of wax and incense – Zola is literally saying that he has an odour of sanctity – and as appearing as a black [soutaned] shape. That is, as something sweet-smelling but evil. “Creeping Jesus”. One can see how all this would have played in its newspaper serialisations, with the illustrations of the time. The evil priest garbed in black manipulating the honest bourgeoises. Dare one make the obvious point that in tone it is only a whisker away from the anti-Semitic fictions of the age? Jew or priest – the same propaganda techniques apply.
Stylistically, the novel is very different from the three novels that precede it in the series. It is divided into shorter chapters (23 of them in all) as opposed to the few much longer chapters that seemed to be Zola’s preferred structure. Unlike its immediate predecessor Le Ventre de Paris [look it up on the index at right] it does not have any long elaborate descriptions. Plot is carried by dialogue and action in a series of small incidents leading to its climax.
The intrigues of the priest, and the wife’s erotic attraction to him, are credible enough. In fact, the mingling of the erotic with the spiritual is probably the novel’s best insight. In any congregation there are, after all, women who imagine that their strong attraction to a priest is a gift from God rather than the stirring of their loins. This point has been made by more than one writer. (Look up the “fruit of the forbidden priest” section in James Joyce’s Ulysses – pg.373 of the Penguin edition). But Zola’s novel loses whatever insightfulness it has, and topples over into melodrama, with Francois’s descent into madness, his incarceration, and the final arson and death by fire, which seem like the conclusion to a 1940s Hollywood movie. The madness of Marthe has a certain credibility, given that her religious (and erotic) obsessions are charted; but her sudden snapping back into sanity, when the abbe finally spurns her, is ridiculous. As for Francois Mouret’s madness, I suppose the best Zola could plead would be his favourite theory of hereditary insanity, which seems to cover a multitude of sins when it comes to his one-dimensional characterisation.
In terms of Zola’s inspiration, I am reminded of one commentator’s view that Zola’s critique of speculators in La Curee is in fact a love-hate thing. While apparently condemning roundly the opportunistic redesign of Paris, he in fact half-admired it as a feat of modern engineering, just as he admired the enterprise of speculating capitalists whom he affected to criticise. In a way, I think the same is true of his view of the church. He detests it and all its works, but somehow he recognises its powerful psychological and aesthetic appeal, and therefore becomes furious and somewhat irrational as he deals with it. He shouts and screams hysterically against the church in the way a puritan shouts and screams hysterically against sex.
Consider Mouret’s admiration, in Chapter Four, of the way the priest is able to get information out of him without revealing anything of himself: “Ce diable d’homme! Il ne demande rien et on lui dit tout”.
Consider Marthe’s huge relief, in Chapter Fifteen, on first becoming a religious worshipper. Zola is basically adopting the “heart of a heartless world” position of Marx: “Ce grand repos qu’elle avait d’abord goute dans l’eglise, cet oubli du dehors et d’elle-meme, se changeait en une jouissance active, en un bonheur qu’elle evoquait, qu’elle touchait. C’etait le bonheur dont elle avait vaguement senti le desir depuis sa jeunesse, et qu’elle trouvait enfin a quarante ans; un bonheur qui lui suffisait, qui l’emplissait de ses belles annees mortes, qui la faisait vivre en egoiste, occupee a toutes les sensations nouvelles s’eveillant en elle comme des caresses.”
And then consider the last paragraph of the second-to-last chapter, showing how Zola so easily goes melodramatically over-the-top. Here, the mad arsonist Mouret grapples with Faujas’s sturdy peasant mother in the fire: “Et il roula avec le corps le long des marches embrasees; pendant que Mme Faujas, qui lui avait enfonce les dents en pleine gorge, buvait son sang. Les Trouche [Faujas’s relatives] fambaient dans leur ivresse, sans un soupir. La maison, devastee et minee, s’abbatait au milieu d’une poussiere d’entincelles.”
Poor Zola. He got so carried away that he literally lost the plot.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
THE WISDOM OF THE ANCIENTS
I walk into a tourist shoppe on Granville Island in downtown Vancouver and I see a volume entitled First Nations Wisdom.
I pick it up and turn its expensive, glossy pages carefully.
Each page features a wise saying.
Each page identifies the name of the person who said this wise saying and the culture this person came from.
To somebody of European descent the cultures are all exotic. African or Inuit or Tibetan or Balinese.
Each page features some artistic motif from the given person’s culture.
“Here”, the volume promises implicitly, “you are getting the wisdom of older cultures. You are discovering your inner shaman or tribesman. You are rejecting a Euro-centric view of the world.”
Except, of course, that the language throughout is English. And most of the wise sayings seem remarkably like platitudes. They would not go down at all if the authors were identified as, say, English or American. Indeed they would rapidly be seen for the old saws that they are.
The book is not casting much of a spell over me – and such limited spell as it does cast is broken when I turn one page and discover a “wise saying” (i.e. platitude) from one prolific Maori author of dubious competence. I know that such wisdom as he received came as it does to every other New Zealander – from his schooling, his family and the media. There is nothing exclusively tribal or ancestral or ancient about it.
I set the book down in a slightly grumpy mood.
I will not draw too many generalisations from this.
Losing one’s patience over a publication so obviously aimed at tourists really would be squashing a flea with an elephant. Tourist tat is inevitable, and attempts to co-opt indigenous cultures to tourist commerce are inevitable. If I walk a few doors along from this tourist shoppe I will find myself in a private gallery selling expensive art-works that use Native American and Pacific motifs. Tiki made of silver or of genuine jade. Totem poles. Fetishes. Same phenomenon as the glossy book, only catering for a wealthier market. And produced by people equally aware of, and savvy about, their audience.
I do ask, though, why the promise of ancient wisdom from pre-industrial societies has such a hold over some people.
I must make myself quite clear here.
Like you, I respect cultures other than my own. I believe the myths, legends and creation stories of African, American, Asian and Pacific cultures are every bit as majestic and inspiring as the myths, legends and creation stories of ancient Greece or the Celts. I am as interested in, and moved by, traditional indigenous art-works as I am by European ones. I endorse fully the idea that the world is richer for its great variety of languages and that each language encodes its own unique culture.
But I resist, and will continue to resist, the notion that there is some superior indigenous wisdom to which people of European descent are not privy and which will always have to be reverenced in hushed tones. To dress proverbs and maxims as tribal, ancestral and ancient does not make them any more wise. And the balance of folly and wisdom is fairly universal. If I did not believe this, I think I would be bordering on the racist.
Another thought occurs to me. I believe the most potent works of art now being produced are in fact fusions of traditional motifs with modern (Western) technology and techniques. While visiting the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, I was arrested by a large sculpture executed by my namesake, Bill Reid. The sculpture represents the mythical origins of the Haida people (one of the First Nations whose tribal lands are on the fringes of Vancouver). A huge crow – a bird of cunning and wisdom – straddles a sea-shell from which the Haida people emerge.
Reid was of mixed European and indigenous descent – Scots-German father and Native American mother. He did not begin to develop an active interest in Native American culture until he was well into adulthood. Only then did he begin producing his sculptures that present origin myths in three-dimensional form.
At first, tribal elders and some ethnologists saw Reid’s work as inauthentic and demeaning, because it did not present the creation myths in traditional ways. Now, his work is universally admired.
I took inexpert snaps of his larger-than-life sculpture from six aspects as I walked around it. I thought it did present some form of ancient tribal wisdom – but it did so using Western technology. The two are equals, you know.
Monday, May 6, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
Satire is a tricky beast. Make it too harsh and bitter and you reveal a lack of sympathy for the human species. Make it too soft and sentimental and it loses all point as satire. I suppose there has to be an element of savagery in satire – it is, after all, telling us that some human beings are fools – but there also has to be something one can identify with. Isn’t satire supposed to “reform manners”? It can do this only if it suggests there is something worth reforming.
I’m in two minds about the success of Marina Lewycka’s Various Pets Alive and Dead as satire. To cut to the chase, it is a “good read”, it hits some targets spot on and it has some moments of genuine hilarity. But it goes a little diffuse and cuddly before the last pages, as if the author is reassuring us that’s she’s only kidding and doesn't mean any offence.
The basic set-up is this. With her partner Marcus (whom she never married) Doro, now in her sixties, brought up her kids Clara and Serge on an anarcho-Marxist-hippie commune just outside dismal Doncaster in the 1970s and 1980s. It was the type of place where lentils were usually on the menu, care of children was supposed to be a communal concern, marriage was frowned on as bourgeois, there was much talk of the coming revolution and much swapping of sexual partners. Newborn kids were lumbered with names like Ulyana and Kollontai and the red flag was waved ostentatiously for local miners who (in the 1970s and 80s) were suffering Thatcherite closure of their pits.
But try as they might, the communards remained middle-class dreamers to their fingertips. Whenever they contacted the real proles, the proles either saw them as soft touches for cash or as people to exploit for their naivete.
Doro has an epiphany one day in the commune in which she realizes:
“…she couldn’t help being thoroughly and undeniably middle class…. So were all of them, in their thoughts, their habits, their tastes and preferences. The fact that they’d just gone off picketing didn’t alter that one iota. Did any of the [working-class] women in the soup kitchen wear dungarees or read George Eliot or eat vegetarian mush? Although they’d lived up here on the fringes of this working-class community for fifteen years, they’d barely touched its inner life.” (Pg.81)
Doro solves this dilemma at the time by smoking a joint, which says something else about the intellectual weaknesses of the commune ethos.
Out of this mush, the inevitable happened. Doro’s children Clara and Serge grew up to loathe and despise the fact that they had nothing of their own; that their parents didn’t show them any more regard than they showed other kids in the commune; and that they were constantly surrounded by the smells of unwashed bodies and the jealousies and bullying of other unsupervised kids. At the first opportunity they escaped the commune and everything to do with it, and turned their backs on the things their parents stood for.
At the time the main plot unfolds (2007 and 2008) Clara has long since tired of being “a prototype of a new kind of human being – the torch-bearer of the non-bourgeois, non-private, non-nuclear non-monogamous non-competitive non-violent society they’d set out to create…” (Pg.94) She is now an elementary school teacher trying her best to nurture proletarian kids, which is at least something her mother would have approved of. But Clara also insists on having a clean and tidy flat of her own which she doesn’t wish to share with anyone, and indulging in harmless pleasures such as gourmet foods which her parents would have seen as decadent luxuries.
Meanwhile Serge has turned 180 degrees away from any collectivist ideals. The genius of the family, he is supposed to be doing a PhD in Mathematics at Cambridge, to which he won a scholarship. But, unbeknown to his parents, he has absconded to London and become a number-cruncher for an investment firm, making fortunes for his dodgy bosses by devising the mathematical formulae that will allow them to profit from plunging markets. In short, he is a prize capitalist exploiter.
We see in close-up the way he is seduced by young City financier types:
“They laugh and he laughs too, suddenly engulfed in a warm gloopy wave of at-oneness with his beautiful young, high-flying free-floating no-baggage global elite, whose title is wealth, whose passport is brains, whose nation is money.” (Pg.61)
Thus the set-up. Dreamy collectivist hippie parents of the 1970s turning out money-obsessed individualist kids. From Flower Power (with a light dash of feminism and Marxism) to worship of The Market. The hilarity of seeing an upbringing producing the exact opposite of what was intended.
Except that Marina Lewycka is too shrewd to leave the novel on that level. After all, exposing the shortcomings of old hippie communes isn’t exactly hot news, is it? At a certain point we realize that, for all her ideological fuzziness, Doro is a more humane person than her City son. And we can’t help sympathising with some of her tastes:
“Doro has a long list of things she disapproves of, including consumerism, racism, war, Botox, Jeremy Clarkson and trans-fatty acids. Maybe bankers have been added already; if not, it can only be a matter of time.” (Pg.19)
Old communes were partly a composed of unrealistic nonsense, but they had at least the grain of an idea in their hopes for the social good. As grey-haired Marcus still tries to type out yet another Marxist tract, and as grey-haired Doro joins yet another demo against a commercial take-over of local farming allotments, we smile indulgently, but we know that they are better people than the son who kids himself that there is nothing immoral in making and breaking business firms simply for the sake of the financial rake-off. The processes of Serge’s self-deception are viewed with sharp irony:
“He won’t let himself get seduced into that life of aimless consumption, fetishisation of high-value objects, partying to oblivion, life ruled by P&L, body-rhythms ruled by uppers and downers. He wants money not to acquire stuff but to buy freedom – the escape to the modest beach house in Brazil…..Okay, so he might also have a nice suit or two.” (Pg.165)
Elements of the plot do weight our sympathy towards Doro’s point of view (especially her devoted care for Clara’s and Serge’s Downs Syndrome younger sibling “Oolie-Anna”, which becomes more and more important as the novel progresses). Doro is really the main character and certainly the novel’s moral centre. Clara is a little redundant in terms of plot development and her tribulations at the trendy elementary school, amusing in themselves, blunt the satire somewhat. Marina Lewycka is at her best in puncturing the financial whizz-kid’s pretensions and in holding up to ridicule some current social attitudes. A particular sting is that the most materialistic of Serge’s thoroughly materialistic colleagues is the Russian girl he lusts after, a citizen of the former Soviet Union who wryly reminds him that communism merely succeeded in turning Russia’ current masters into the most ruthless of buccaneer capitalists.
I do not want to talk this enjoyable novel up too much. It’s a brisk, efficient, funny popular novel, not a great and penetrating work of literature. The narrative structure is clever, cutting between the characters’ present lives and their memories of the old commune, which allows us bit by bit to learn of the traumas that drove them away. (Some of which involved the sudden death of beloved pets – thus giving the novel its title). Its two major weaknesses are its rather lame and forgiving ending, which does not resolve all the loose ends; and Marina Lewycka’s unhappy way with physical farce.
There are a number of scenes which are meant to be uproariously funny but which are not as good as their set-ups – escaped classroom hamster wreaking havoc as it is chased around elementary school; zealous wimmin’s meeting called to denounce the patriarchy being disrupted by cussing , smoking prole woman and crude bloke who pees in the fire; horny office attempts at love-making being interrupted by the cleaning lady etc. etc.
The novel’s better social attire is worthy of less clichéd knockabout. But this doesn’t stop Various Pets Alive and Dead from being a fun read.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "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 five or more years ago.
I’ve just been reading one light satire (Marina Lewycka’s Various Pets Alive and Dead) that incidentally points out how an attempt at communal living failed. I now turn to a more sober book that does something similar.
I chose a novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) once before as a “Something Old”. (Look up The House of the Seven Gables on the index at right). On that occasion I took the opportunity to remark that two of his four novels have managed to continue being read by a general public (The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables) while two now are kept alive only by the specialists in university literature departments (The Marble Faun and The Blithedale Romance). This is a truthful statement and I am not championing his two lesser-known novels as great works of literature. But, as always, the historian side of me does often find lesser-known novels fruitful material for considering the values of past ages, and such is indeed the case with the messy and ill-organised novel that is The Blithedale Romance.
Briefly, this is the story of a botched attempt at communal living.
The narrator, Miles Coverdale, joins a Utopian community at Blithedale farm, where the communards do all the manual work of toiling and tilling as well as trying to live a “higher” intellectual life. Coverdale’s chief companions in the scheme are the forceful reformer Hollingsworth; the forceful romantic woman, also an ardent feminist, who goes by the name Zenobia; and the waif-like and innocent Priscilla.
Hollingsworth’s chief aim is to find the ideal way of healthy living that will help to rehabilitate criminals. But the novel’s dramatic focus is on the relationships of the intellectual communards.
Priscilla dotes on Zenobia and sometimes serves her like a disciple; but she comes to worship Hollingsworth. Clearly Zenobia also loves Hollingsworth, so there is rivalry between the two women. A sinister mesmerist called Professor Westervelt hovers on the edge of the story, suggesting more mechanistic ways of “reforming” people’s character.
For many and various reasons not happy with the Utopian community, Coverdale drifts back to the city. Old Moodie, who brought Priscilla to the community, reveals to Coverdale that Zenobia and Priscilla are in fact half-sisters. They are both daughters of Old Moodie, by different women.
Typical of Hawthorne’s writing, the novel concentrates more on a “situation” upon which Hawthorne can comment than it does on dramatic development. Nevertheless, it does have its dramatic moments. In one climactic scene, Hollingsworth rescues Priscilla from the clutches of the mesmerist Westervelt, by intruding on his stage performance. In another, Hollingsworth renounces Zenobia and goes off with Priscilla.
Zenobia commits suicide by drowning.
In a postscript told years later, there are two ironic conclusions. The first is that Hollingsworth, the man who would have set the world to rights, has been emotionally and mentally stultified by his remorse at Zenobia’s suicide, and has given up all reforming activity. The second is that the narrator Miles Coverdale, who is still a bachelor, admits that he has achieved very little in his life, and has not developed as the poet he intended to be. He attributes this to his unrequited love for Priscilla, which he never admitted to himself when he was living at Blithedale.
Tapping in to Hawthorne’s typically symbolic choice of names, it is clear that there was nothing blithe in Blithedale. It was a blithe Edenic daydream unconnected with human social reality. The Utopian ideal could not withstand human nature and the personality clashes between individuals. The fact that Hawthorne has given his main character the name of an early Protestant reformer (and Bible-translator) Miles Coverdale also suggests that communal living didn’t sit easily with Hawthorne’s instinctive individualistic Protestant-Puritanism, no matter how much he attempted to distance himself from it. Note how the two “dales” clash.
As a whole, The Blithedale Romance seems to me to be an unresolved mess. Stylistically, it is of a piece with Hawthorne’s other works, but here, whatever his virtues are elsewhere, they have been turned into defects. Once again, the plot development is a jerky series of self-contained scenes and vignettes, hastily wrapped up in the conclusion. Once again, there is much unassimilated anterior action (Zenobia’s mysterious story of the Veiled Lady, and Old Moodie’s account of his prior life as “Fauntleroy”).
The first-person narration of Miles Coverdale creates a very special problem. Hawthorne always has much direct authorial comment, but the direct first-person voice inevitably makes Miles seem like a Peeping Tom. Committed to this voice, Hawthorne has to use Miles to convey to us intimate details of other characters’ lives. So we get Miles spying from a treetop in a forest so that he can witness an encounter between Zenobia and Westervelt; spying on the inhabitants of houses opposite his city hotel room; and passively witnessing the climactic encounter between Holingsworth, Zenobia and Priscilla. In all cases, he is the witness only because Hawthorne needs to tell us things.
Apparently much critical comment on this novel has focused on Hawthorne’s attitude to women. Thematically, Zenobia and Priscilla are respectively the forceful “modern” woman who wants to set the world to rights, and the “domestic” woman who craves a home and family. (A similar contrast is found in the characters of Miriam and Hilda in Hawthorne’s last novel The Marble Faun.) Hawthorne admires Zenobia’s fire, but gives every evidence of approving more of the domestic Priscilla. Indeed Zenobia, with her eventual suicide-for-love, ends up confirming all the negative things which Hawthorne claims not to believe about women’s intellect. (Given the contrast of the two women, and the wooing of one of them by a man, I can’t help wondering if Henry James had read this novel before writing his The Bostonians although, typically, in his own novel James implies a lesbian attraction of one woman for the other.)
In his longest single analysis of Zenobia’s mind, in Chapter Six, Hawthorne is in effect saying that feminists upset a social and sexual order worth preserving. The narrator says:
“ I recognized no severe culture in Zenobia; her mind was full of weeds… She made no scruple of oversetting all human institutions and scattering them as with a breeze from her fan. A female reformer, in her attacks upon society, has an instinctive sense of where the life lies, and is inclined to aim directly at that spot. Especially the relation between the sexes is among the earliest to attract her notion.”
Whenever he addresses the issue directly, Hawthorne affirms woman’s intellectual equality with man, but the trajectory of the story says that women who attempt to rival men intellectually will end up as self-destructive emotional wrecks. They are denying their essential domestic womanhood. You do not need to attend a seminar to be able to work out what recent feminist critics think of that.
Yet there is a string of irony here. The “domestic” woman Priscilla is also revealed to be the woman who is at times controlled by a mesmerist. Could this be a satirical rendering of conventional marriage?
The worst fault of this novel is that Hawthorne himself seems unclear in his purpose. The book is an uneasy blend of two things. First, there is a realistic account of a failed experiment (and note how vague Hawthorne is about the day-to-day running of Blithedale – is he suppressing details of sexual relations in such a setting?). Second, there is a world of fantasy with the portentous intrusion of the demonic mesmerist Westervelt. There is a “moral” of sorts – the idea that Utopian communities are impossible given the imperfect nature of human beings. In the character of Hollingsworth, Hawthorne apparently intends some such message. The man’s high-flown reformism shipwrecks on his own passions. He intends to reform criminals by appealing to their higher instincts. But he forgets how much he is ruled by his own instincts. At one point he conspires basely to get money for his schemes. This good thematic idea is, alas, buried in much dross. The novel’s fantastic element seems sheer impertinence, while the narrator’s priggish tone, and lack of self-awareness, merely irritate.
As so often in Hawthorne, however, there are some shining passages in the lousy overall design. Some of the best chart the community’s failure. In Chapter Three we are told:
“Constituting so pitiful a minority as now, we were inevitably estranged from the rest of mankind in pretty fair proportion with the strictness of our mutual bond among ourselves.”
This is a pretty fair psychological deconstruction of the elitism and clannishness that are inherent in so many communard endeavours.
Then in Chapter Four there is this devastating admission:
“The power of regaining our former position contributed much, I fear, to the equanimity with which we subsequently bore many of the hardships and humiliations of a life of toil.”
In other words, like commune-hippies of a later date, with credit cards in their back pockets, these communards are really only playing at adopting the simple life. They know that if things get really rough, they can return to urban or suburban comfort.
The novel’s best set-piece is in Chapter Eight, where Hawthorne contrasts the neighbouring farmers’ envious rumours about Blithedale with the hard reality of working the soil; and contrasts Arcadian daydreams with the reality that “intellectual activity is incompatible with any large amount of bodily exercise.” There is also, in Chapter Ten, an amusing account of those intellectual day-trippers whose enthusiasm for going back to the soil lasts all of about five minutes.
I would also applaud Hawthorne’s perception when his narrator describes the mesmerist introducing his show (in Chapter 23) thus: “It was eloquent, ingenious, plausible, with a delusive show of spirituality, yet really imbued throughout with a cold and dead materialism”. These are true words – especially that “delusive show of spirituality” bit - of all later charlatans who believe “sprituality” resides in drugs, reincarnation, séances, “altered consciousness”, hypnotism etc. all of which are really things that just bind us more closely to material reality.
When I commented on The House of the Seven Gables, I noted that Hawthorne anticipated some things that later became dominant motifs in American culture – the love of speed and the hope that technology would create a freer future, for example. For all its many and gross deficiencies as a piece of writing, The Blithedale Romance does likewise. Here we have a clear anticipation of the “alternative lifestyle” phenomenon. In my lexicographical ignorance, I also admit to being surprised that this 1852 novel describes a city bar where they mix “cocktails”. I thought this was a term of later origin.
One final point, which I have deliberately delayed mentioning because of my deep-seated belief that novels should stand or fall on their own merits, and not be interpreted through footnotes.
The character of Zenobia strikes me as quite incredible – 50% fiery feminist and 50% weak slave to passion, who pens soppy fables for a living. A little research tells me that in fact Hawthorne based her on a real woman, Margaret Fuller, who combined just these characteristics and was indeed a paradox. (Margaret Fuller died conveniently two years before the novel was written, but not by suicide). Indeed, the whole novel is based on Hawthorne’s own experience, a decade before the novel was written, of an attempt at communal living at Brook Farm. The narrator Miles Coverdale is a version of Hawthorne himself, accounting for much of his awkwardness as a narrator. Apparently, when the novel first appeared, some critics recognized it as a roman a clef and wrote about it as such.
But this simply reinforces my own aesthetic. In the novel, Zenobia remains unbelievable. Hawthorne may have done his work as a memoirist. But he hasn’t done his work as a novelist.