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Monday, May 10, 2021

Something New

We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.     

“WHAT YOU MADE OF IT – A Memoir 1987-2020” by C.K. Stead (Auckland University Press, $NZ49:99)


            I really do play the game of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds as I review the third volume of C.K.Stead’s autobiography. But it’s hard for me not to do so. When I reviewed on this blog the second volume You Have a Lot to Lose, I found myself methodically drawing up a list of things I admired and things I found a little repellent – or, as I put it, things where C.K.Stead’s opinions and prejudices coincided with mine, and things where they didn’t. You Have a Lot to Lose covered the thirty years from 1956 to 1986 when Stead had a career as an academic. What You Made of It covers the 34 or so years after he decided to leave academe and be a full-time writer. And again I weigh up the pros and cons.

            There are many things in this book to enjoy and savour. There are Stead’s various encomia on France (Chapter 2 and elsewhere); and his vivid account of the impact movies had on him as a youngster and his desciptions of California while discussing the genesis of his novel Sister Hollywood (Chapter 4). His version of his long-lasting friendship with Allen Curnow (Chapter 10) is fair, balanced and affectionate, though he doesn’t fail to note the cantankerous and crotchety side of the man, which was probably downplayed by Terry Sturm in his Curnow biography Simply By Sailing in a New Direction. His account of visits to South America are vivid and exemplary in evoking the heat, culture and alienness of the place. His recall of physical trials after having a stroke, and his awareness of ageing, are convincing insights into what it is to be a near-nonagenarian.

            Then there are the arguments Stead proposes which seem to me sane and well-considered.

            I find it hard not to agree with his robust argument that the worth of a poet should be judged by the quality of the poetry and not by the political or social beliefs of the poet – as in his discussion of anti-semitic Ezra Pound and sort-of anti-semitic T.S.Eliot (Chapter 3 pp.52 ff. ). In chapter 6 there’s more detail on Pound in relation to Stead’s book Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement.  The issue is raised again in a disagreement he had with his friend Craig Raine (in Chapter 14). On a related topic, broadly speaking I agree with Stead that criticism of the actions of the state of Israel is not the same as being anti-semitic. This is sounded in Chapter 12, where Stead has a disagreement with his long-time friend the photographer Marti Friedlander.

             When he writes of the importance of our inherited European culture  - though he is mainly at this point talking of France  - he argues that being in Europe gives “locations and states of being that make one reflect on the human spirit, and what it is enriched by, and how places have grown in value by human occupation – how history and culture and nature have developed in unison there, and how we New Zealanders are inextricably linked to, and enriched by, our European past, and foolish if we try to sever inherited connections.” (p.49) Quite so.

            As a one-time high-school teacher I endorse most of this statement, relating to the 1970s and 1980s: “I was resistant to ideas strongly prevalent at the time that it was wrong to correct the written language of the schoolyard because that undermined the confidence of vulnerable youngsters who needed self-belief. I favoured an education system that exposed young people to the best in literature, and the streaming of classes according to ability, so that those with real talent would not be held back by those who lacked it.” (p.55) My quibble here would be that some schools streamed too rigorously and in effect created a rigid caste system.

            I sympathise with his views on the flawed nature of the Treaty of Waitangi and its subsequent fetishisation (see p.64 and also p.201). Related to this I agree, a propos controversies surrounding his novel The Singing Whakapapa, that to present a Pakeha viewpoint was not the same as being anti-Maori, though he was aware that some of the things he wrote “put me sometimes in unwholesome company and in places I would prefer not to be” (p.189) Elsewhere he refers to presenting the argument that welfare should be distributed on the basis of need rather than of race, he knowing that the need was greatest in Maori communites and that therefore Maori would benefit most. But his argument was taken up by those (like the politician Don Brash) who wished to promote the fiction that Maori were being unfairly favoured in terms of welfare. This is not, and was not, Stead’s view at any time.

            When he comes to Witi Ihimaera, he notes that his earlier work was “simple, direct, authentic… before he developed a tendency to overwriting and the grandiose” (p.211). Again, I endorse this critique. But I do note that, waspishly, (on p.210), Stead has to tell us that Ihimaera, as a student, wasn’t able to cope with the Maori language and managed to get a degree by avoiding it; and Stead clearly resents the fact that both Ihimaera and Albert Wendt were able to be given high academic positions when they quite simply didn’t have the qualifications for them (pp.211-212).

            And, of course, I can’t deny the argument that the literary world can be a fractious, bitchy, competitive place. Stead endorses an essay by Karl Miller. Speaking of spite, he says “the literary world was full of it, and it was important that it should be recognised and ignored, walked around rather than confronted” (p.179).

            I could add much more in the same vein. There is much admire in Stead as poet, novelist, essayist and controversialist, and I hope that what I am writing here is not seen as part of a calculated mission to denigrate him. 

            But having run with the hares I now have to hunt with the hounds. There is a downside to much of What You Made of It.

            It is only fair that Stead discusses his own books in some detail. After all, he did say at the beginning of You Have a Lot to Lose that he was intent on writing about books and the making of books. But he has the awkward habit of not only telling us about the real characters and events that fed into his novels. He tends also to synopsise his own novels in laborious detail, as with Talking About O’Dwyer in Chapter One (where he insists the novel is clearly not [only] about a version of Dan Davin);  or Villa Vittoria in Chapter 7; or The Secret History of Modernism in Chapter 12. In each case, it is as if he is offering us a primer to pre-empt other possible interpretations and readings of his work. I turn rebellious. Ultimately the biographical and autobiographical detail he attaches to each of his novels is a distraction from the novels themselves which (like all books) should be judged by “the words on the page”.

            There are moments when he shows a certain blindness to the reason for social movements in his time. There were controversies related to his novel The Death of the Body. Stead asserts that the novel was not “anti-women” and goes on to say that “the radical feminists of the time were less liberators of oppressed women and more accurately seen as manifestations of sexual puritanism.” (p.61) But where did this “sexual puritanism” come from? Wasn’t it in great part an inevitable reaction against the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s when it was men who mainly benefitted from the notion that casual affairs were there for the taking and  bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”?

            Much heavier to bear is, alas, Stead’s propensity for self praise. Of his own essays on social and cultural issues in New Zealand he writes “how refreshing those essays now look, how clear-eyed and sharp and truthful. I was one voice and a good one” (p.56). On a short story he wrote, which caused some controversy, he says “it still strikes me as full of charm and cleverness and humour” (p.269). Once again I have to say that judgments like these might reasonably be made by other people who read his work, but it’s embarrassing to see them made by the author himself. “I have been chastised for quoting favourable reviews” Stead notes (p.299) before quoting some favourable reviews. He rarely quotes unfavourable ones, and then only to dismiss them.

            Then there is Stead’s desire to prove that he was right in every debate in which he has been involved. His intent here appears to be to nail down definitively what he sees as the facts. And often this involves calling out, as dishonest or conspiratorial, anyone who has criticised him.  In Chapter 3 he claims that he was subject to attack by interested parties in the media and that he was right in the biffo about having a flat in London as a retreat for New Zealand writers. He attempts a veritable hatchet-job on Vincent O’Sullivan (pp.74-77) describing him as the cunning eminence grise of New Zealand literature always plotting to undermine him. (I’m tempted to comment “Look who’s talking, mate!”)  Later, after presenting a reasonable case for his view of Maori matters, he blots it (central paragraph p.189) by descending to virtual conspiracy theory as he berates those who criticised him on these matters. And when he does more-or-less apologise for something,  he does so in a very roundabout, ambiguous way. I refer to his take (Chapter 7) on his part in the sending of a foolish letter to a national magazine when he was a young man.

            Stead, according to this memoir, was right about everything, and apparently more perceptive then anyone else. He quotes A.S.Byatt telling him “You see very clearly, Karl, but sometimes there are things you don’t see.” Stead replies “What I don’t see is usually the Emperor’s clothes.” (p.103)

            Oddly enough, the self-righteousness and the self-praise come with a large sense of grievance.

            While Stead has sometimes reasonably noted the commercial nonsense involved with book awards, there’s a strong smell of sour grapes when he fails to win at the New Zealand Book Awards: “I didn’t win either category, and tried to suppress the feeling that the whole distracting and disappointing business was a commercial matter we (or I) might be better without.” (p.346) Later (p.380) he consoles his son for not winning an award by saying “The Montanas are like that - homely and idiotic.” He is upset that one of his novels, Villa Vittoria, was well reviewed in New Zealand but ignored in the UK (Chapter 7).  He notes that “In the years around 2007 honours seemed to pour upon me and it felt (however it appeared from the outside) that the more I was rewarded in New Zealand the more I was punished.” (p.365) He continues to be angry that his novels Mansfield and My Name was Judas didn’t win Montana Awards and “I swore that that was the last time I would attend one of those ghastly events, which were more about commerce and hype than literary quality.” (p.366 ) I sympathise with some of his views on book awards – they are never definitive guides to the worth of any book – but these really are the grumbles of somebody who wanted more applause. And he wanted more applause for a few friends. He notes that there was the (distant) possibility that Janet Frame could win the Nobel Prize for Literature. But J.M.Coetzee won that year. Stead of course tells us that Coetzee was a writer “whose work I disliked and thought hugely overrated” (p.337). So that puts him in his place.

            Pace Janet Frame, Allen Curnow and perhaps a few selected others, there is the pervasive sense that Stead sees most New Zealand literati as a poor lot in comparison with those illustrious people he has befriended and socialised with in England, America and Europe, and of whom he tells many (generally not particularly enlightening) anecdotes. In his introduction Stead describes What You Made of It as “the report of one who consistently reflects, looking out rather than in and reporting what he sees.” (pg. x) Perhaps he should have done a little more “looking in” – a little more self-questioning. Then he might have reflected that self-praise tends to alienate readers and make him look like the smartest kid in the class who keeps telling us dullards how smart he is.

            Yet here’s the Stead paradox. In many respects he IS the smartest kid in the room, through his commentary, poetry and novels. Perhaps he should have left these real achievements to speak for themselves without puffing them.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Here endeth my review, except for…

A Necessary Footnote: I apologise for stating the bleeding obvious, but the hard fact is that C.K.Stead’s autobiographies (or “memoirs” if he prefers)  will now be read in the light of his novelist daughter Charlotte Grimshaw’s very different memoir The Mirror Book, which deals with many things Karl Stead has not mentioned. The Mirror Book has been noted and dissected on many platforms over the last couple of months. It was the (long) cover story of one issue of the Listener (issue of 3 April, 2021), and drew letters to the editor (some applauding the memoir, some reproving) over the following two weeks. A couple of on-line reviews by women uncritically applauded The Mirror Book as evidence of a woman bravely telling the truth. One “reviewer” seemed to spend his column proving to us how well he knew the Stead family. Another condemned Stead both pere et fille for (in his interpretation) living privileged lives. Then, some weeks after the original feature article in the Listener, which reproduced Charlotte Grimshaw's view of things, there was another, shorter, feature in the Listener (issue of 8 May 2021) giving the view of Grimshaw's younger sister Margaret. Her account of her parents was far more benign than Charlotte's, though she did not address any of the specific issues Charlotte had raised. I come from a larger familiy than the Stead family, and I'm pretty sure that if any of my siblings were to write an account of the familiy it would be very different from what I would write. Even people who grow up in the same house can have very different perspectives. Be that as it may, Margaret Stead's article couldn't help looking like an exercise in damage control.

            In his introduction to What You Made of It, Karl Stead explains “my family are mostly background to a literary life – but to treat them otherwise always threatened to expand the memoir beyond reasonable limits” (p. xi) On page 277 he says of his children “there have been only glimpses of them, and they will have their own stories to tell.” You betcha, as The Mirror Book focuses on the dynamics of the Stead family and says some harsh things about Karl and Kay Stead.

            In at least one post-publication interview (with Catherine Ryan on Radio New Zealand  National, Thursday 8 April), Charlotte Grimshaw made many positive remarks about her parents, saying her memoir presented “no blame, only explanation” and that it could be read as a tribute to her mother. But her tone was more combative in a Newsroom post headed “My literary family were too busy deciding whether to sue” (posted 14 April 2021). Here she said her parents tried to dissuade her from having The Mirror Book published at this time.  Kay pointed out to me and others… Karl was about to publish his third autobiography, in which he drove a nail into the arguments of X, and put readers straight on the issue of Y, and made sure the question of Z was put to rest, and now I’d got in the way of this with my appalling self-indulgence…” The phrasing of this suggests an awareness of Karl Stead’s strong desire to have the last word on every controversy in which he has been involved. Meanwhile I’m left wondering if the Croatian woman Stead discusses in Chapter 11 of What You Made of It is the same person to whom Charlotte Grimshaw refers in The Mirror Book on p.149. I think many people will be playing similar intertextual games with these two very different memoirs.

Something Old

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. 

“A BETTER CLASS OF PERSON” (first published 1981) and “ALMOST A GENTLEMAN” (first published 1991). Two books of autobiography by John Osborne 

 


 

            It’s amazing how a writer’s reputation can change over decades. The best part of 70 years ago, in 1956, John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger appeared and was hailed by some reviewers as the rebirth of British theatre. For some years it maintained that reputation. Look Back in Anger was said to have introduced hard realism and honest colloquial language to the English stage and banished forever the more genteel dramatic schools of Terence Rattigan, Christopher Fry, Noel Coward et al. Goodbye upper-class “anyone for tennis”. Hello working-class and lower-middle-class “kitchen sink”.

The angry orations of Jimmy Porter were heard as the authentic discontents and frustrated hopes of young men in drab post-war Britain. A PR man invented the phrase “angry young man” to publicise the first production of the play, and “angry young men” stuck as short-hand for a new breed of gritty British working-and-lower-middle-class realist novelists and playwrights. In his lengthy verbal abuse of his upper-crust wife Alison, Jimmy Porter rails against the Establishment and the class-system. Because of this, it was assumed that the 26-year-old John Osborne (1929-1994) was a left-wing radical.

            Thus it seemed through the plays Osborne was writing up to the mid-1960s, especially The Entertainer (his best play in my opinion) which could be read as a condemnation of Britain’s foolish Suez expedition; and Luther, where Martin Luther rails and rants very much in the style of Jimmy Porter.

            Then, as it always does, opinions began to change. It was noticed that Osborne’s later – and less successful - plays were becoming more condemnatory of things other than the Establishment. His letters to the press were increasingly conservative, even crustily reactionary. Slowly it dawned on critics and audiences that the anger of Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger and the desperation of Archie Rice in The Entertainer were not the creations of a radical. The discontents of these characters were really a lament for the lost power and eminence of Britain in a world which it no longer dominated. They embedded much nostalgia. The Entertainer is as much about the long-lost glamour of Edwardian music-hall as it is about a topical war. Jimmy Porter is not angry at the Establishment because he wants a socialist revolution. He’s angry because he can’t be part of the Establishment. Be it noted that Osborne’s royalties made him a very rich man, allowing him to buy a country house and play the part of a tweedy squire. As one obituary noted, he re-embraced the Anglican Church he had left in childhood and offered a large sum of money to the local church’s roof-restoration fund, only on the condition that the vicar reverted to using the 16th century Book of Common Prayer rather than more modern liturgical texts.

            And then there was the impact of feminism, now damning Osborne for his misogyny. Jimmy Porter’s wife Alison, always ironing clothes, was really a symbol of women’s subjugation which Jimmy Porter (and by implication John Osborne) fully endorsed. Here I quote shamelessly, from the internet, the introduction to an article by a woman student who “takes to task the established critical view of Look Back in Anger as an essentially radical play about our class-ridden society… It is not class but sex that is really the main focus of Osborne's abusive attention in the play… The play is, in fact, a blatant and particularly vicious attack on women. It seems to me that Osborne uses the insubstantial class element in the play not to attack the 1950s world of privilege and snobbery but to disguise in pseudo-social terms his fear and loathing of women.”

            Very well. There have been other revolutions in taste since this first revulsion from Osborne’s work. His earlier plays have been revived with some success in the 1990s and 2000s (just as Terence Rattigan’s and Noel Coward’s have been) and Jimmy Porter is seen as a product of his time, his angst real even if his anger is misdirected. Even so, nobody now would see Osborne’s plays as essential works.

            In case you were wondering (if you haven’t yet snoozed off), all this is by way of talking about the two volumes of John Osborne’s autobiography that I have read. In A Better Class of Person, first published in 1981, Osborne deals with his life from childhood to the first production of Look Back in Anger in 1956. This is, in effect, a book about the making of the playwright. In Almost a Gentleman, first published in 1991 (three years before his death) Osborne covers the years from 1955 to 1966, when his play A Patriot for Me was first produced. It is interesting to note the class-conscious title of each book. Years later, the two books were published in a single volume under the title Looking Back – Never Explain, Never Apologise.

            A confession on my part. I read A Better Class of Person, when it was new, and before I adopted the habit of writing copious notes on every book I read. I therefore recall moments of it from memory. Little John Osborne was very much of the lower-middle-classes. His father was a commercial artist and his Cockney mother was a barmaid. What I remember clearly from A Better Class of Person is the boy’s attachment to his quiet and reflective father, who died of tuberculosis when Osborne was ten. Less genteel was Osborne’s mother. The most vivid moments in the book record Osborne’s deep loathing of her. Young Osborne and his mother attend a film premiere and join the line to greet Paul Robeson. Young Osborne cringes as his mother shakes Robeson’s hand and says “I always liked you darkies”. At every turn, his mother is presented as uncouth, loud-mouthed, crude, vulgar and domineering. He hates her.

Other parts of the book record Osborne’s truncated schooldays. He tells a tale of warding off a pederast in his holidays. He was expelled from one school for striking a teacher who had first struck him in punishment for some small misdemeanour. Unlike Jimmy Porter, Osborne received no higher education after schooldays and first tried his hand in journalism before attending a drama school and drifting into repertory theatre. On the whole, this is presented as negatively as he presents his mother – seedy provincial theatres, dismal digs for actors, meagre wages and some desperate measures to attract audiences. This includes an account of putting on a Christmas panto, Aladdin, so bad that the mother of the child-“star” marches into the theatre and drags her daughter away from the humiliation of it. Still, Osborne learned the craft of the theatre by being an actor, and developed an ear for dialogue. He also married an actress whom he later divorced. She was clearly the model for the much-abused Alison in Look Back in Anger.

This first volume of autobiography ends with the triumph of Look Back in Anger but you can see where many of Osborne’s obsessions came from – loss of father at the young age (nostalgia for the good old days); detestation of mother (a strain of misogyny); frustration and class-envy (on every page).

 


 

So I come to the second volume of his autobiography Almost a Gentleman, which I read recently. It goes through the ten years up to 1966 when, despite one or two theatrical flops, John Osborne was still being hailed as a major and dynamic figure in British theatre.

If A Better Class of Person shows his hatred and loathing of his mother, Almost a Gentleman ramps up the misogyny to hysteria as Osborne eviscerates each of his many wives. Wife Number Two was the actress Mary Ure (who first played the role of Alison in Look Back in Anger). She left him for the actor Robert Shaw. Osborne gleefully tells us that ten years and four children after she left him, she died in her own vomit. Wife Number Three was the film-critic and occasonal novelist Penelope Gilliat, who bore him a daughter (whom he later disowned). Apparently her main crime was that she worked too hard as a critic and so didn’t act as Osborne’s servant, the way he expected a good wife to act. (For the record, Gilliat died of chronic alcoholism a couple of years after Osborne wrote this book). Fourth and last wife was the acerbic actress Jill Bennett. Osborne presents her as a tight-fisted, avaricious bitch who, when she died, left half-a-million pounds to a home for dogs, not because she liked dogs but because she simply wanted to annoy people. He also quotes with delight the comments of other people as to her complete lack of talent as an actress.

Writers often damn their ex-spouses, but as all this bile is being poured out, one can’t help wondering what attracted Osborne to any of these women in the first place. Perhaps more to the point, what attracted these women to Osborne when all he does is spit out his contempt for each of them? We also get accounts of some of his affairs, including the charming tale of a Swiss mistress who ended up running a brothel in Mexico.

The same sort of contempt is poured upon the liberal-leftish political affiliations he was once assumed to have. In his sixties at time of writing, Osborne speaks of CND Aldermarston marchers in the 1950s and 1960s as pathetic dupes who didn’t understand how the world works. Occasionally he hits the nail on the head when he notes that the Establishment he attacked in his younger years has simply been replaced by a new sort of Establishment. He consciously cultivates the image of a Tory squire, declaring his liking for John Betjeman, Evelyn Waugh, Max Miller and other such solid English stuff. There is plenty of ammunition here for the view that the “angry young man” was angry only because he lacked the social status he so desired. Little wonder that the cover photograph of the original edition of Almost a Gentleman (taken by celebrity nitwit Lord Snowden no less) shows Osborne in tweedy country gentleman attire.

All books relating to show-business – which includes “serious” drama –become at some point a welter of names and dates as colleagues, actors and directors are listed. There is much such in-talk in Almost a Gentleman

 


 

Two points are of interest.

Osborne was a randy, and apparently quite brutal, heterosexual. (At one stage he quotes from his diary, thanking God that he is both English and not queer.) Yet being in the world of theatre, he inevitably spent much time in the company of homosexuals. His expressed attitude towards them is one of tolerant amusement, sometimes breaking down into his habitual contempt. Oddly enough, however – given his deep disgust for his four ex-wives -  his greatest words of affection go to other men, particularly to George Devine, the producer at the Royal Court Theatre who “discovered” him and championed his first plays, and (more guardedly) to the director Tony Richardson. Mind you, Osborne detested Richardson’s sometime wife Vanessa Redgrave, whom he contemptuously dubs “Big Van”.

Second point – reading this bilious memoir, it is odd to find the conjunction of gritty Brit kitchen sink drama with Osborne’s accounts of travels to the USA in the late 1950s, luxuriating in hotels and enjoying a life quite unlike the constricted, depressed people his early plays dramatised.

One final thought: Both of Osborne’s autobiographies, but especially Almost a Gentleman, are so vitriolic, violent in their abuse, egotistical and negative about current pieties, that I can’t help thinking they were written in the spirit of provocation. Osborne wants to outrage and annoy readers, the better to get their attention. And getting attention is what showbiz is all about, isn’t it?

 

 

Something Thoughtful

 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.   

WAS BILLIE KILLED TWICE?

           


            I have a confession to make which will probably reveal my age and the antiquity of my tastes. For quite a few years I was, and in a way still am, a fan of Billie Holiday. Don’t get me wrong. Billie Holiday died in 1959, at the age of 44, when I was a young child. She had been long dead before I’d ever heard of her or been old enough to appreciate her.  But once the age of CDs came around, I hunted out re-pressings of her work and revelled in them. This wasn’t to the taste of my then-teenaged elder children, who sometimes made scathing comments on what I was listening to, or even did rude impressions of Billie Holiday’s distinctive growling and soothing voice. But – bless him – one of my sons bought me, as a birthday present, a boxed set of Billie Holiday CDs called Billie Holiday – The Legacy 1933-1958.

            I still listen to it and other CDs of Billie sometimes, enjoying everything from her 18-year-old debut belting out “My Mother’s Son-in-Law”, through the swing years with “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”, to her rich middle period with “Lover Man”, “Fine and Mellow” and “God Bless the Child” (one of the very few songs she actually helped to write). Later came her very regrettable decline. Understand, please, that not everything she recorded was great, and in a way her very last recordings – especially the ones caught “live” in nightclubs – are an embarrassment, the result of years of smoking, heroin and physical abuse. It’s said that in her very last years, she was sometimes so zonked out on drugs that she had to be helped on stage and her voice was reduced to a faint croak.

 

            In 1972 there appeared the film Lady Sings the Blues, purporting to be the life story of Billie Holiday and starring the Motown singer Diana Ross. I was a young rookie film reviewer for the now-long-gone Auckland evening newspaper the Auckland Star.  I saw the film and wasn’t very impressed. I won’t belittle Diana Ross’s real talent as a pop singer, but her voice in the singing sequences sounded nothing like the voice of Billie Holiday and, apart from being African-American, Diana Ross’s public persona was nothing like that of Billie. To put it simply, she was badly miscast. Worse, the film’s depiction of Billie’s life was heavily fictionalised, and at some points glamourised.

            I would call this film the first killing of Billie Holiday.

            I have a copy of James Baldwin’s book-length essay The Devil Finds Work, which is his critique of the American film industry from a black perspective. In it, Baldwin tears apart the film Lady Sings the Blues, basically arguing that it’s a complete betrayal of Billie’s life, made to pander to white audiences and concluding dishonestly with the expected Hollywood happy ending. The film closes with Billie giving her triumphant performance at Carnegie Hall which was, in fact, many years before she died.

            One of Baldwin’s constant complaints was that the film was not true to Billie’s “testimony”, her autobiography also called Lady Sings the Blues (published in 1956), which Baldwin regarded as authentic. But there’s a great irony here. Apart from the fact that the book was (obviously) ghost-written, and based on interviews, many critics believe that it was also heavily fictionalised. This view has been contested recently, but it is upheld by Donald Clarke in a much better biography of Billie Holiday which sits on my shelf called Billie Holiday – Wishing on the Moon (published in 2002), a very detailed and documented tome, 500 pages, with Donald Clarke’s preface calling the book Lady Sings the Blues “hopelessly inaccurate”. Later he calls the film version “one of the worst films ever made”.

 

            Now nearly half-a-century has gone past since Diana Ross failed to embody Billie Holiday. A new feature film about Billie has been released, The United States vs. Billie Holiday.

            I ask myself, is this the second killing of Billie Holiday?

            The film is clearly produced for a generation that believes Black Lives Matter, and it is angled to present Billie as “the godmother of civil rights”. One of its central plot points is that Billie heroically insisted on trying to publicly perform Abel Meeropol’s famous anti-lynching protest song “Strange Fruit” but, says the film, the song was banned and Billie was arrested by a phalanx of police when she tried to perform it. This is at best half-true. The song was indeed controversial and, as the film correctly says, Billie was often required by club-owners to strike it off her repertoire. But the song was never officially banned, Billie first recorded it in the 1930s and her recording was widely distributed. She also performed it frequently in clubs and theatres without harrassment, even if there were grumblings from conservatives and some white Southerners. There was one episode where she was forced off stage while singing “Strange Fruit”. You could say that this is something that the film has “hyped up”.

            Sad to report, much that The United States vs. Billie Holiday says is historically accurate. When she was a little girl, Billie did indeed work as a cleaner in a brothel. She was raped as a little girl. She did tend to pair with abusive men who beat her up. (It’s frightening to hear her incarnation in this film singing “I’d rather my man hit me / Than he up and quit me” and “I swear I’ll call no copper / If I’m beat up by my poppa”). A BBC documentary about her some years back suggested she had a strong masochistic streak. It’s also true that she became hopelessly addicted to drugs, served jail time and was hounded by the FBI who wanted to take her down as “an example”.

            Unfortunately the film fumbles some of these details. It presents one (African-American) FBI agent infiltrating Billie’s entourage and then falling in love with her, becoming her lover, and later regretting that he’d ever been asked to spy on her. There was indeed such an FBI agent who later regretted his actions, but there is no evidence at all that he became her lover. Unfortunately, too, the (white) G-men hounding Billie are presented in cartoonish, unconvincing stereotype form, uttering what sounds like comic-book dialogue. (I’m not such a stickler for historical accuracy that I expect a film to show everything about a character’s life, but for the record, the film does not mention Billie’s long and loud tiffs with her mother; and it does not mention that early in her life she had a septic abortion which rendered her sterile and left her pining for children and being a soft touch when she met children. This was a big factor in her emotional life.)

            All this relates to distortion of facts, but the worst of is that The United States vs. Billie Holiday has such a slack and uncoordinated screenplay. Again and again we see Billie and her entourage shooting up. I’ve rarely seen a film with so many shots of needles plunging into flesh, in one case with blood spurting back.  Again and again we have sequences of Billie either having crazy sex with her men or being beaten up by her men. By the time we get to her deathbed, face puffy, body fading, we wonder if the film’s real purpose was to warn us about drugs. There is little dramatic momentum to it.

            So am I condemning this film as the second killing of Billie Holiday?

            Oddly enough, not really. For the film is redeemed by one factor and one factor only, and that is the stunning performance of Andra Day in the starring role. Unlike Diana Ross, Andra Day can sing in a voice that sounds convincingly like Billie Holiday’s. Indeed, there were some times when I wondered whether the producers had done what was done in the 2007 film about Edith Piaf La Mome (released in English-speaking countries as La Vie en Rose) – re-mastered the original singer’s recordings and dubbed them in. But this technique is not used in The United States vs. Billie Holiday. Andra Day does her own singing. I suspect she has been at it for some years. “Andra Day” is a stage name, derived from Billie Holiday’s sobriquet (bestowed on her originally by Lester Young) “Lady Day”. Obviously Andra Day has aspired to be Billie Holiday for quite some time.

            Andra Day has won the Golden Globe Best Actress Award for her perfomance in The United States vs. Billie Holiday and was nominated for an Oscar, which she did not win.  She, when she sings, is what makes the film worthwhile. But it’s a real pity about the inept screenplay, even if it is more truthful than the film Lady Sings the Blues.

 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Something New

We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.


“TOMORROW THE WORLD” by M.K.Joseph (Atuanui Press, $NZ35); “TRANQUILLITY AND RUIN” by Danyl McLauchlan (Victoria of Wellington University Press, $NZ30); “THE DISINVENT MOVEMENT” by Susanna Gendall (Victoria of Wellington University Press, $NZ30)


            When M.K. (Michael Kennedy) Joseph (1914-1981) died, five of his novels had been published, but he left in his archive a number of completed, unpublished, typescripts. One of them, the medieval adventure Kaspar’s Journey, was published in 1988, seven years after his death. And only in October 2020 did Atuanui Press publish his alternative-history thriller Tomorrow the World.

            The year is 1960. Germany won the Second World War when Britain caved in, in 1941. The Nazi Reich embraces all of Europe and most of the Eastern Hemisphere. But Hitler is now in his seventies, old, getting feeble and living in a delusional mental dreamland. Who will succeed him? Surviving Nazi bosses seem to be lining up to become the new Fuhrer – Heydrich, Himmler, Goebbels, Goering, Bormann and the rest of the gang. There are rivalries and tensions at the top.

            In England, Jeff Amherst is a conforming bureaucrat, happy enough with the Nazi regime that has dominated the country for nearly two decades. He works for the German I.G.Farben corporation. With a wife and son and home in a better part of London, he is content to be one of the thousands of Londoners to join in the official celebration of the Fuhrer’s birthday; and he enjoys seeing the Nazi-sponsored revival of English volkisch traditions such as morris dancing. If there are disturbing rumours about the way Jews are disappearing and being “resettled” in the Reich territory of Australia, Jeff can still shrug them off.

            For all his conformity, a Resistance group finds a way to blackmail Jeff into working for their cause, and Tomorrow the World becomes the story of how he is forced to act as a courier, taking a mysterious package across the Greater Reich to Munich.

This is the thriller element of the story, and it works well. The ending might be a little abrupt, but it is plausible, and en route Joseph creates a number of details that other writers have ignored, such as the use of England’s ancient and under-used canalways as a means of escape. Accompanying Jeff is an interesting woman called “Charlie” (Charlotte) Peace and some sexual moments of a rough, comradely sort. There are traitors and informers to dodge, and glimpses of other Resistants in Europe.

Joseph does not subscribe to English exceptionalism. The English population acts very much as populations in other (historically) occupied countries did – most people keep their heads down and try to keep out of trouble. Only a small proportion actively resist. Jeff is not exactly an heroic figure. There is also an awareness that (as in historically occupied France) there are rival factions in the Resistance, often at odds with one another.

But all this is only the novel’s thriller element, as Joseph has much to say about the Nazi phenomenon. Joseph was in England when war broke out, and joined the Royal Artillery. He was in the D-Day landings in 1944 and went through campaigns in France and Belgium, ending his war in occupied Germany. He knew war well at close quarters – unlike at least one of his poetic critics. In some respects Tomorrow the World, despite being counter-factual, continues the exploration of war and Nazism that were part of two of his published novels, I’ll Soldier No More (1958), a realistic, and very autobiographical, account of an artillery unit at war; and A Soldier’s Tale (1976), which explored some of the ambiguities of collaboration and resistance.

In Chapter Two, a Cockney Jew gives Jeff Amherst some distressing news about what is really happening in England. This sounds very much like exposition for the reader. Similarly, Chapter 10 is an almost stand-alone chapter in which we are invited into old Hitler’s mind to see his accumulated madness. But, artificial though this chapter might be, it gives us Joseph’s very convincing diagnosis of Nazism as  Wagner-inspired megalomania built on a mixture of distorted Nordic pagan mythology, racial hatred and personal insecurity. As convincing are Joseph’s accounts of the grandiose and oppressive architecture that a triumphant Nazism might have built in a reconstructed Berlin. There is also his awareness that there was a true resistance movement among Germans, even if it was held in check for years by Hitler’s apparent victories.

There are now many counter-factual fictions about a victorious Nazi Germany, some of them written before, and some after, Joseph was writing. But Tomorrow the World is written from Joseph’s own perspective and says things unique to his own world view.

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Some time back, I reviewed on this blog, with pleasure, the two novels so far written by Danyl McLauchlan, Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley and Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley . Both are lively Gothic fantasies filled with chases and pratfalls, with a post-modernist sensibility and much satire on the bohemian lives of Wellington students, stragglers and wannabes.

Nothing in these books prepared me for McLauchlan’s third book, totally different in kind. Tranquillity and Ruin is a sequence of four long essays, written in 2018 and 2019, with lengthy Foreword and Afterword. They plumb serious questions of consciousness and belief, and chronicle a search for the healing of a troubled mind.

McLauchlan is a committed atheist. I’m not. But I found myself fully in sync with what he was saying as soon as I read the opening essay “Arise and Pass Away”. Here McLauchlan says he has suffered chronic insomnia, has been prone to taking walks in the middle of the night, and has a history of taking anti-depressants. To all of which I can only say “me too”,  although I appear never to have been as fully depressed as McLauchlan has been (“mild bipolar disorder” was the diagnosis I was once given). McLauchlan, in his 40s, attempted to heal his troubled mind with meditation via a form of secular Buddhism – he was wary of the religious element. He found it really did help his mind to focus more, to calm him down and to make him less depressed. But he continued to be afraid that the meditation process might take him down mystic paths which he didn’t want to tread. So, as he fell once more into depression, he looked for enlightenment elsewhere.

The next three essays follow his attempts.

First, in the essay “The Valley and the Stream”, he recalls going on a retreat to the Wangpeka Study and Retreat Centre in the foothills of the Southern Alps. Because he is reflecting on states of mind, he considers how philosophers and psychologists have attempted to struggle with the problem of what Consciousness is and what Being itself is. Do we delude ourselves when we think we are autonomous beings with free will? Seeking inner peace, one of McLauchlan’s main theses here is that the mind is always cluttered with “noise” and the chatter of many “sub-minds” within the mind, overstimulated by too much information. Such an overload is the condition that causes insomnia and depression when the mind succumbs to “obsessional looping” as the sub-minds play again and again the same (depressing) thoughts. Meditation can be a means of cleaning out much of this “noise”. But McLauchlan admits that he did not really discover a way to meditate fruitfully, often finding the process boring and slipping into irrelevant and unhelpful thoughts.

In “The Child and the Open Sea”, he attends a camp in the bush organised by the small group of people who call themselves Effective Altruists. These are people who want to do good in the world, but who know that many well-intentioned schemes to better the lot of humanity collapse, because they are based on insufficient research and vague wishful thinking. (Examples of such failures are given). The philosophy of the Effective Altruists appears to be hard, materialist untilitarianism, with much resort to statistics and much discussion of moral dilemmas that might block effective altruism. McLauchlan tends to call them “rationalists” – people with immense trust in science – but he also notes some eccentrics and dogmatists in their fold. As he tells it, there is much reliance on the philosophy of Derek Parfit. To this reader at any rate, Parfit’s argument that there is no such thing as an individual – and that therefore we should act altruistically as we are acting for ourselves – seems a very contorted way of saying we belong to the same species. Page by page, this long essay raises many cogent matters, but perhaps in the end it fails to produce a focus as it comes up with no central line of argument.

It does, however, give its due to a strictly non-religious, scientific, rationalist view of the world.

In “The Hunger and the Rain”, McLauchlan goes to Bodhinyanarama, a Buddhist monastery in the Stokes Valley. The framework of this essay is McLauchlan’s diary of attempting a retreat there. He ponders on the new regime of unfamiliar food he eats there and on his own looming obesity. He does get used to the new meditation cycle the Buddhists approve. Being an atheist, he sees it primarily as a means of cleansing and renewing the mind, but he still reacts negatively to some of the spcifically religious elements of the retreat. Nevertheless, he listens with tolerance, especially in a conversation with the (Australian) head monk. At a certain point, this essay considers the rather intolerant atheist Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene. Mclauchlin approves of much that Dawkins preaches, but finds his argument to be self-contradictory and somewhat dehumanising. In turn, this becomes a dialogue between Dawkins and Martin Heidegger, wherein science is pitted against metaphysics. There is a curious outcome from this combat. It is McLauchlin’s conclusion that some sort of religious assumptions are necessary for a community like a monastery or a meditation centre to be stable and survive. He remains an atheist, but can appreciate how valid religious ceremonies and forms can be to so many people.

To squeeze these essays crudely into a nutshell, McLauchlan is saying that science and religion should respect each other because they have much to learn from each other. The metaphysical cannot be discarded, even by the materialist and atheist.

This rough outline of Tranquillity and Ruin misses out something very important. McLauchlan does not indulge in academic-speak even as he investigates major philosophical concepts. This text is peppered with very relatable descriptions of his own periods of discomfort, with amusing side-notes and with other signals that this is a very personal process. A genuinely enlightening book and a very good read. 

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Some years ago I saw a very good horror film. It involved ghosts. But what made it effective was the fact that ghosts were never seen and hardly referred to. They were implied only, which made them scary as they became the unseen presence, the insubstantial elephant in the room, all the more daunting for never being delineated clearly. What we only half-know can be terrifying. This is the effect of ellipsis.

Of all the words used in the back-cover blurb of Susanna Gendall’s debut novel The Disinvent Movement, the most important is “elliptical”. Told in the first-person in bite-sized chapters, The Disinvent Movement is written in a very elliptical style. There are gaps where things are not told to us. We have to infer, from very brief phrases here and there, what the narrator’s concerns really are.

We infer she is in her thirties. We know she has children. We understand the action takes place in France and Switzerland with memories of New Zealand. We realise early in the piece that she feels alienated from the society she is in, and detached from the domestic life she is expected to live. She says: “There was a time when I looked around and noticed that everyone had crossed over to the other side. I had no idea where they were or how they had got there – all I knew is the I was not with them.” (p.13) Frequently there are signs of detachment, not from reality necessarily, but from accepted systems of signification, as when she consults a dictionary: “How could so many words exist? Why choose one over another? Faced with this vast ecosystem that lived, supposedly, in my own head, words great and small crawling around, dozing, incubating, I had to take another sip of coffee.” (p.69) This indicates some sort of trauma in process.

But these alone are not the unseen presence, the daunting elephant in the room. Buried deeply in the text is the story of an abusive husband and the narrator’s desire to flee from their marriage. The husband is first introduced thus: “I met my husband at the airport. I recognised him for what he was: my absolute negative.” (p.27) There is evidence husband and wife have given up on each other, as when we are told they avoid confronting the real issues by burying themselves in media: “This was the way we talked to each other now – through the voices of journalists we’d never met before, through movie reviews and recipe instructions and letters that told us the amount we owed for the temporary use of electricity.” (pp.48-49) There is no depicted violence, there are no passages of direct abuse, but almost as a throwaway, there’s a comment about bruises on the narrator’s arm. And there is a throwaway line (here underlined by me) telling us there was violence in the narrator’s childhood too: “I was born in a bland house by the sea. My mother didn’t like it there. There were squashed mosquitoes on the ceiling and the linen was the wrong colour. And my father kept knocking her unconscious. I had always admired her for getting out.” (p.71)

The narrator wishes to abscond, but talks about it in an almost jocular way, as if she is avoiding the issue: “I had heard it takes at least seven attempts to get out. Seven just happened to be my favourite number.” (p.38) There are formidable barriers in her way, things that hold her back: “Each morning I knew I was closer to leaving. This was not so much about walking out the door as it was dismantling a whole system of belief.” (p.58) Perhaps it’s the children, but they are treated in an elliptical way too, as in: “The children went away for a while and were replaced by a thirty-something unshaven man.” (p.75)

I am labouring the point here, but all the ellipses and all the gaps are telling us of a frightened or bullied mind who can’t bring herself to face some things. In fact, she can’t even name some things. A lover is referred to only as “Maurice’s friend”. If her husband has a name, I missed it in my reading.

And there is a dose of escapism. The eponymous “disinvent movement” refers to the narrator’s plans to drive some things out of existence. She teams up with a man who wants to drive cars of out existence by vandalising them. Or does she? There is a strong suggestion that this movement is a figment of her imagination – another case of eliding reality and avoiding the harder facts of her life under the impress of long-term trauma.

If you skip through the novel too quickly, you might think it is a collection of unrelated anecdotes, told in a wry, deadpan voice as in “I met this guy who spent half his life wearing a suit in America and the other half a mundu in Kerala. He was trying to work out what to do next. In the meantime he wore shirts and pants” (p.24). Or as in witticisms such as the narrator’s reaction to visiting a spartan hotel: “Instead of a bathroom there was a velvet curtain, hung somewhere between poverty and decadence.” (p.66) But these are not loose anecdotes. They are building blocks leading up to a diagnosis.

It’s a very interesting exercise in style.