Monday, October 5, 2015

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For over four years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.  
“THE BACK OF HIS HEAD” by Patrick Evans  (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

I think I was still a teenager when I first read Anthony Powell’s early novel What’s Become of Waring? (first published in 1939). That’s the one where a London publishing company gets all in a tizz because its bestselling author, the travel writer T.T.Waring, has gone missing and has apparently died. Since nobody seems ever to have met him, this sets off enquiries into his adventurous globetrotting life. The denouement (sorry for the spoiler – but the novel is nearly eighty years old) reveals that Waring, who wrote purple prose about such places as the Arabian Desert and darkest Borneo, never in fact left his English home. He concocted his travel books by banging together bits from older and forgotten travel books by other writers, and then padding them out with platitudes, which his middlebrow readers took for serious adult philosophy.
That was the first book I can recall reading which satirised the literary and publishing worlds, but I (and probably you) have read many other such books since then. Usually they have the theme of exposing the feet-of-clay of a famous (fictitious) author. Powell’s novel was a jolly jape for literary types. At least part of its fun came from its brevity. In the old Penguin edition on my shelf, What’s Become of Waring? runs to a trim 200 pages.
This is how I begin a considered review of Professor Patrick Evans’ novel The Back of His Head because, alas, one thing it lacks is the wit of brevity. Even allowing for a slightly large typeface, it runs on for about 370 pages. Yet at heart, I believe, it is intended as a jolly jape for literary types. Much laughter in the English Department common room, chaps.
Raymond Thomas Lawrence, the Nobel Prize-winning New Zealand novelist, is dead. He was known for his evocative novels about his life in North Africa, and his heroic role in the Algerian war of independence against the French. He died in mysterious circumstances, and there were rumours that he had been “hit” by a foreign spy service. As well as poetic descriptions of landscape, his novels also featured scenes of weird violence, some of a sexual nature, some directed against boys. Though he’s been dead for seven years, Lawrence’s spirit lingers around his fusty Residence on the hills outside Christchurch, which tourists are welcome to visit. Some members of the Trust that runs the Residence refer to Lawrence, in hushed tones, as “the Master”.
Most worshipful of the trustees is the novel’s narrator, Peter Orr, who was also Lawrence’s nephew and adoptive son. In its set-up, The Back of His Head has fun satirising the expected inward-turning bitcheries of a small coterie, like the trustees, on the fringes of the literary life and clearly trying to preserve something that has now died. Peter Orr has a fussy self-regarding voice, filled with arch literary quotations (“submit to the destructive element”, “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”, “a two-dimensional Ozymandias”, “golden lads and lasses” etc. etc.). The other trustees are the bluff, hearty Robert Semple, who delights in making rude piss-and-fart type jokes to wind up Peter Orr and to show how he’s not cowed by High Culture; the novelist Marjorie Swindells, who is somewhat romantic and sentimental; and the fey Julian Yuile who (ultimately) turns out to be no fool. In this monetarist age, and as shrines to Great Writers are less esteemed than they once were, there are anxious discussions among the trustees about whether they should flog off some of “the Master’s” effects to raise cash and modernise the place.
Mainspring of the “plot” (such as it is) is the threat posed by an academic called Geneva Trott, who claims to have copies of hitherto-unknown taped interviews concerning Lawrence that will destroy the public’s perception of him. Trustees particularly dislike Trott for her unauthorised biography of the great novelist and for interpretations of his work that they consider less than worshipful. So how will the trustees deal with this threat to Lawrence’s reputation? What damage will be done if the taped interviews are released? Read on…. and find at least some farcical outcomes.
That, of course, is as far as I will go with plot summary, it never being my intention to provide spoilers of new novels.
I can say, however, that from early in the novel The Back of His Head has a second narrator in the form of one Thom Ham, whom Peter Orr rudely calls “Gradus”. Ham was Lawrence’s male nurse in the years of his last infirmities and he got to know many of the man’s personal – and often distasteful – quirks. We soon twig that the voice of Thom Ham is the voice on those troublesome taped interviews, and every so often he addresses as “Patrick” the literary sleuth who is interviewing him (so there’s another jolly self-referencing jape for you). In contrast with the voice of prim, literary Peter Orr, Patrick Evans tries his hardest to make Thom Ham’s voice the voice of a non-literary, half-educated plain man-in-the-street who doesn’t understand all this literary flapdoodle. Regrettably, the voice doesn’t come off and doesn’t sound authentic. It is an awkward literary contrivance. The satirical intention seems to be somewhere along the lines of Voltaire’s cynical “no man is a hero to his valet” as Thom Ham becomes intimately acquainted with the great novelist’s corporeal being, showering him, wiping up his messes, feeding him, taking him out etc. And we wait to find out what the big compromising revelation will be – the one that the trustees so fear.
Continuing literary in-jokes, The Back of His Head includes a cod academic entry at the end, listing and commenting on all Lawrence’s works and written in bleached academic-speak. At the end of his acknowledgements, Patrick Evans remarks that the novel:
“…. is not a roman a clef and all its characters are fully imagined … Had the author intended to refer to actual people past or present he would have made it evident that he was doing so. Those who think they see themselves in the novel’s pages can be assured that they are taking themselves too seriously.” (pp.373-374)
Fair enough. I didn’t spot any notable New Zealand literary figures in disguise here. But I do wonder about the names of some of the characters. Why has the loudmouth trustee got the same name as the bellicose Minister of Works in the First Labour Government, Robert Semple? And as for calling the great novelist Lawrence – is this a nod to T.E. Lawrence-of-Arabia (desert settings; boys) or maybe to Lawrence Durrell (sybaritic North African settings; unorthodox sex)? Or maybe it means nothing at all, just as the gag about Raymond Lawrence’s staff (Peter Orr; Mrs A.Round; the pair called Butt) having names that are prepositions seems to mean nothing at all.
Okay, then, in form and general conception, The Back of His Head is a donnish jape. But Patrick Evans apparently intends to fry bigger thematic fish in this pan. Perhaps he even intends to say something significant about the state of literature.
Take the novel’s title. It refers literally to an eccentric portrait of the novelist, which hangs in Lawrence’s Residence and which looks at the back of his head rather than the front. The title implies, however, that fiction is woven from the “back” of an author’s head – all the subconscious stuff and all the half-remembered or misremembered stuff – as much as from the “front”, the conscious mind. So Lawrence’s writings are often things which impel him, rather than things which he impels. Lawrence has obsessions, and his obsessions lead him to abuse and mistreat people.
In short, he is a bit of a shit.
In order to imagine and visualise the characters he creates for his novels, he gets people in his employ (including Peter Orr when he is a vulnerable adolescent) to dress in women’s clothes and perform for him. He tells young Orr that he is his “bumboy” and that he must suppress any of his own creativity. Apart from the implicitly kinky sexual desires, how much does even Nobel Prize-winning literature justify such exploitation? (Obvious answer – not at all.) To what extent can novelists “steal” other people’s lives for material? Elsewhere, the novel raises the questions – To what extent can a novelist’s “borrowing” from other writers be justified before the charge of plagiarism kicks in? And does it matter that a novelist mythologises and falsifies details of his own life, so long as good literature is created?
On the wider scene, The Back of His Head takes on the whole cult of celebrity authorship.
Why do we have these “shrines” or “residences” to well-known authors anyway? Don’t they encourage a tourist approach to literature rather than a real appreciation of literary works? (The philistine part of my mind now has happy visions of a bulldozer demolishing a fibrolite bach on Auckland’s North Shore and the residence of Miss Beauchamp in Wellington and whatever frame-up there is in Dunedin – to the general improvement of real New Zealand culture.) Is any real purpose served by all the writing schools that have sprung up in New Zealand tertiary institutions in the last three or four decades? “Teach writing? What do you fucking mean teach it? They don’t teach you to shit, do they?” says Raymond Lawrence contemptuously on p.27. Don’t writing schools encourage mediocrity and conformity to current literary fashions? (Hmmm. I believe Professor Evans has argued this case before in non-fictional form.) In The Back of His Head a major irony is that the novelist who rages against writing schools ends up having one named after him.
And has the age of serious novel-reading passed anyway? The Back of His Head contains a really grisly scene where poor Peter Orr is invited to give an address to writing students about the late, great Raymond Lawrence, and finds that they yawn, check their cell-phones and ask only questions about how they can get published. They are not in the least interested in the Great Writer.
So there are all these serious cultural and literary matters fluttering around in this novel. And yet, are they not as editorials in a farce? I read The Back of His Head with pleasure and superior amusement up to a point, and then my interest drooped. I don’t necessarily disagree with Patrick Evans viewpoint on the literary life (or rather the viewpoint of his dyspeptic fictional novelist). But I do expect my farces and japes to move faster than this. Let’s say 200 pages max.

Something Old

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.

 “THE AUTUMN OF THE PATRIARCH” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez  (“EL OTONO DEL PATRIARCA” written 1968-74; first published in Spanish 1975; English translation by Gregory Rabassa first published 1976)

            As I remarked some months back on this blog (see review of The General in His Labyrinth), I was never as enamoured of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera as were most of the admirers of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014).  Though they are the most-praised novels of the Colombian Nobel Prize-winner, their undertone of boastful machismo, and the diffuseness of their narratives, frequently irritated me. I might some day deal with them on this blog (when I will, of course, also have favourable things to say about them).  But I re-affirm here that I was more impressed with Garcia Marquez’s more overtly political novels.
            The Autumn of the Patriarch, coming relatively early in the Garcia Marquez canon, is one of the most political. It is a “dictator novel”, apparently as established a South American genre as the “jungle novel” (see the review of Jose Eustasio Rivera’s The Vortex). It is written in a fantastical style that is nearer to magical realism than to the more sober and researched history of The General in His Labyrinth. It is an account of the unnamed dictator of a Caribbean-coast country, like Colombia. We are told at one stage that he has been ruling for one hundred years. In other words he is the paradigm of all South American dictators, the “eternal” dictator. He is the father of over five thousand children and his age is given as being somewhere between 107 and 232. He has magical powers, mythologised by his hypnotised subjects. When he is bored with a night, he can decree that it become day, and it does.
            There is no linear narrative. This is very self-consciously an experimental and modernist novel, a novel of memory and reveries and reflection and thoughts drifting back and forth in a semi-steam-of-consciousness, linked by key words and odd, fortuitous associations. It begins and ends with the dictator’s death. It is divided neatly into six sections of equal length.
The narrative viewpoint shifts and shifts again, often in the same sentence. Sometimes it is told in the “we” of the collective hero (like Silone’s Fontamara), who is the voice of the community. Sometimes it is told in the first-person-singular of the dictator himself. Or of his aides. Or of his whores. The most obvious stylistic device, and the one most challenging to readers, is the use of long string sentences, running for pages and punctuated only with commas (a nod to Faulkner?), involving different narrators. One critic computed that the whole novel comprises only fifty sentences. It is odd how the effect of these sentences is at once breathless and languid.
The novel’s best moment is the opening (recapitulated at the end), where crowds burst into the dictator’s palace to find his dead and useless body, now stripped of real power and yet still radiating power like a fetish. It sets the tone for the sense of decay (physical and moral) that dominates the novel.
In a series of memories we are introduced to a number of socially-representative characters.
There is Patricio Aragones, the dictator’s exact double, who took his place on public occasions and who was therefore assassinated in his place – thus the dictator’s two “deaths”. There is General Rodrigo de Aguilar, the general’s most loyal supporter, who later conspires against him and is executed and eaten. There is also the dictator’s mother Bendicion Alvarado, an ignorant bird-seller. The general wants to have her canonised as a saint when she dies. He expels the church and shoots the priests when they don’t comply. The proletarian Venus, Manuela Sanchez, brings in the typical Garcia Marquez theme of machismo and love-making. Leticia Nazareno is a novice nun whom the dictator kidnaps and makes his chief mistress. Her love leads him to frenzies of revenge on others. The man who runs the dictator’s security services, Jose Ignacio Saenz de la Barra, is in charge of the state’s torture chambers. All torture is done far from the dictator’s residence so that the dictator can claim to be totally ignorant of what is going on. Hence the official torturer has a chance of becoming the scapegoat for popular wrath, should there be a revolution.
Some of the incidental stories in The Autumn of the Patriarch are consciously and deliberately bizarre. If we were not aware that dictators, answerable to nobody, really are capable of such things, we might read such stories as particularly sadistic surrealist fantasies. The dictator has two thousand children murdered by drowning, when the public realizes that the children have been used to rig the national lottery: protests of the pope and the League of Nations do not make them appear again. The dictator likes seducing innocent and virginal schoolgirls who are sent to him. He flies into a rage when he discovers that they are all in fact practised whores, groomed and dressed by his security services to look like schoolgirls. The dictator sells the Caribbean Sea, drop by drop, to the United States of America, which helps to keep him in power.
By its mannered style, The Autumn of the Patriarch gives off a sense of something heavy weighing down the state and stifling social life. It is, as the title tells us, the “autumn” of the patriarch. There are many descriptions of the dictator walking slowly through his huge palace, like a man who has lost something and then forgotten what it is. He is dying. His power – built on violence, built on his increasingly non-functioning penis – is waning. But the dictator is also the “patriarch” – both literally and figuratively he is the father of his people. They believe in him, even as they despise him, and he is their product, having come from the lowest social classes. There is a symbiotic relationship between oppressor and oppressed. Often in dreamlike terms, the novel is also telling us that the dictator is a recurring type. This dictator may die, but another like him will take his place, despite all the fervour of revolution. Of course the dictator’s absolute power is hollow – it leads nowhere and builds nothing. But then, in the dismal recurrent course of history, the joy of his overthrow is also hollow.
In one sense, given that this novel was conceived and partly written in the 1960s, it is oddly retro in its imagery. We often appear to be dealing with a theatrical dictator of the 19th century rather than with the 20th century monsters, many of whom were (and are) more savvy about public relations and about what to suppress and how to propagandise. The world of The Autumn of the Patriarch is the world of dictator as make-believe military leader, with a big military hat and lots of gold braid.
Wikipedia’s brief snippet on this novel informs us that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was inspired by a number of real dictators, including various dictators of Colombia and Venezuela. There could also possibly be an element of Spain’s Francisco Franco. Apparently the novel was written in Barcelona, in the last years of Franco’s regime, and it was first published in Spain in 1975, some months before Franco died. It was [another snippet from Wikipedia] apparently the most widely-read novel in Spain that year. Reading it, my mind clanged with images of Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic and Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay and the Somosas of Nicaragua. Oddly, though, I thought most of Juan Peron of Argentina (far away from Garcia Marquez’s Colombia). That military uniform. That symbiotic relationship with the people who at once loved and hated him (and his wife). Cuddling up to the church and then turning against it when it wouldn’t do his bidding. And having a long “autumn”, including a return to power after he had been overthrown. The eternal dictator. The fraud. The hollow man behind the big smile.

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.

Do come in, please.
We’ve got the fire going.
The tea is on, you can have crumpets if you like, or if you prefer there are sardines on toast.
Now what was this little problem you had?
Oh yes, I remember. You can’t stand “light verse”
You want poetry to be serious and meaningful, and whenever you see an old volume of “humorous” or “light” or “comical” poetry in a second-hand bookstore, you get very cross.
It reminds you of stuffy Oxbridge dons of the Jowett era writing rhyming jokes for their amusement or university students one hundred years ago trying to be witty in extended epigrams. It’s all so dated and so unfunny. It’s all so English and so class-bound. It reeks of privilege. In a word, it’s twee.
Yes, yes, you have told me this so often.
But you know, there are times when I wish I was in that common room, in those students’ digs. You see, it’s the innocence that attracts me. And the nostalgia. So much of it (India or China?) reminds me of my childhood.
I read this stuff in battered old volumes on lower shelves when I was a kid and before I ever got to read the serious stuff. I knew the parodies before I knew what they were parodying. When Harry Graham and other rhymesters first performed for me, I hadn’t a clue as to their time-and-place specific social norms. They were just pure nonsense. Innocence.
So (have another crumpet), let me once again try to convince of the modest merit of this stuff by exposing you to some of it.
Take, for example, this jeu d’esprit written by a popular newspaper columnist in the 1930s. It has no meaning – no meaning whatsoever. It is pure nonsense unencumbered by either conscience or social significance.

The Dancing Cabman
     J.B.Morton (“Beachcomber”)
Alone on the lawn
The cabman dances
In the dew of dawn
he kicks and prances

His bowler is set
on his bullet head
for his boots are wet
and his aunt is dead 

There on the lawn
As the light advances,
On the tide of the dawn,
The cabman dances.

Swift and strong
as a garden roller
he dances along
in his little bowler

skimming the lawn
with royal grace
the dew of dawn
on his great red face

To fairy flutes
as the light advances
in square black boots
the cabman dances
            Did you not feel at least a little frisson of joy as that one unfolded? Very well then, you are still unconvinced? You want something closer to demos? Why not this delightful piece of proletarian anonymity? I have heard it called “The Irish Pig” by those who wish to belittle the Irish, and the word “colleen” does suggest an Hibernian connection. I remember hearing frequently a doleful rendition of it on an old 78, which had a chorus wailing “Yes the pig got up and slowly walked away, slowly walked away, slowly walked away” ad unfunny infinitum, but I prefer what passes for the original.

                                    The Pig (Anonymous)
'Twas an evening in November, as I very well remember,
I was strolling down the street in drunken pride.
But my knees were all a-flutter, so I fell down in a gutter,
And a pig came up and lay down by my side.

Yes no one was I disturbing as I lay there by the kerbing
when a passing colleen I did hear to say:
"You can tell a man who boozes by the company he chooses"
And that, the pig got up and walked away!

            Oh dear. You are still dyspeptic and unimpressed, aren’t you? You want something more self-consciously intellectual. Well why not this peerless piece of literary criticism from the 1890s? I still think it is the sanest comment on this particular poet. And funny.

                  Sonnet on Wordsworth
Two voices are there: one is of the deep;
It learns the storm-cloud's thunderous melody,
Now roars, now murmurs with the changing sea,
Now bird-like pipes, now closes soft in sleep:
And one is of an old half-witted sheep
Which bleats articulate monotony,
And indicates that two and one are three,
That grass is green, lakes damp, and mountains steep:
And, Wordsworth, both are thine: at certain times
Forth from the heart of thy melodious rhymes,
The form and pressure of high thoughts will burst:
At other times -- good Lord! I'd rather be
Quite unacquainted with the A.B.C.
Than write such hopeless rubbish as thy worst.

            Alright, sourpuss. You’re still grumbling. You still want the modernist, the postmodernist, the self-conscious-about-my-seriousness. I’ve had enough. The tea’s gone cold anyway. If I must drive you from the room, I shall drive you with something that even I now find twee and dated. But when I was twelve or so, the rhymes had me in stitches

The Hippopotamus
Patrick Barrington
I had a hippopotamus. I kept him in a shed
And fed him upon vitamins and vegetable bread
I made him my companion on many cheery walks
And had his portrait done by a celebrity in chalk

His charming eccentricities were known on every side
The creatures' popularity was wonderfully wide
He frolocked with the Rector in a dozen friendly tussles
Who could not but remark on his hippopotamuscles

If he should be affected by depression or the dumps
By hippopotameasles or the hippopotamumps
I never knew a particle of peace 'till it was plain
He was hippopotamasticating properly again

I had a Hippopotamus, I loved him as a friend
But beautiful relationships are bound to have an end
Time takes alas! our joys from us and rids us of our blisses
My hippopotamus turned out to be a hippopotamisses

My house keeper regarded him with jaundice in her eye
She did not want a colony of hippotami
She borrowed a machine gun from from her soldier nephew, Percy
And showed my hippopotamus no hippopotamercy

My house now lacks that glamour that the charming creature gave
The garage where I kept him is now as silent as the grave
No longer he displays among the motor tyres and spanners
His hippopomastery of hippopotamanners

No longer now he gambols in the orchards in the spring
No longer do I lead him through the village on a string
No longer in the morning does the neighbourhood rejoice
To his hippopotamusically-modulated voice.

I had a hippopotamus but nothing upon earth
Is constant in its happines or lasting in its mirth
No joy that life can give me can be strong enough to smother
My sorrow for that might-have-been-a-hippopota-mother 

            Now begone, blast you! The fact is, I was going to impress you with C.S.Lewis’s “Awake, My Lute!” but I can’t find it in any of the resources near at hand. Besides, you’d probably sneer at somebody having such innocent fun.
            Next time you come, you can provide the collation.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For over four years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“R.H.I. – Two Novellas” by Tim Corballis  (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

In his preface and author’s note, Tim Corballis explains the somewhat daunting title given to this volume, which comprises two separate, but thematically compatible, novellas.
The “R.” stands for Joan Riviere, one of the early British disciples of Freud and psychoanalysis, who is the subject of the first novella. The “H.” stands for Hermann Henselmann, who is the subject of the second novella. He was a modernist German architect who lived through the Nazi regime and wound up helping re-design East Berlin when it was part of the Communist statelet of East Germany.
 And the “I.”? Well that stands for the author, Tim Corballis, who is writing his imaginative versions of these two real people on the basis of his archival research in Britain and in Berlin. Corballis is aware that he himself is as much a character in these two novellas as their two ostensible protagonists are. He intervenes with paragraphs on his experiences in doing his research, or on the ethics of deploying guesswork in depicting real people. His is fully aware of what a sticky business it is to claim to represent real people in fictional form. In the second novella, when he presumes to tell us what a real character thought, instead of simply writing “he thought”, Corballis uses the formula “he thought, I wrote”, reminding us that all “thoughts” that appear in fiction are the products of the author’s imagination.
“I” could also mean the reader who, like the reader of any book, adds his/her interpretations of the characters and their world as he/she reads.
Thus for the author’s own explanation of the title “R.H.I.” But I’m sure an author as culturally literate and media savvy as Tim Corballis would be aware that “RHI” is a common internet abbreviation for “Rumour Has It” – one of those abbreviations with almost as much currency as the ubiquitous “LOL”. And “R.H.I.” is indeed a book about things half-known, guessed at, intuited, and always slightly out of either reach or verification. Like a rumour. Like most of the “history” that we think we know.
These two novellas could conceivably be read separately. But they are presented to us together in the one volume, they complement each other and they have things to say in common. They are both imaginative leaps into the mindsets of progressive thinkers from the early and mid-20th century. They deal with the female and the male. The psychoanalyst and Marxist. The inner world and the outer world. The critic and the creator. The passive and the active. And yes, this formula, especially the last part of it, is very reductive and imprecise. Corballis himself is apologetic that his female protagonist is so passive and hopes that “gender… is in these books… in more complicated ways.” (p.9)
To deal with “R.” first.
It begins with a First World War soldier who has suffered from gas penetrating his lungs and who was thus unable to take part in an attack. He felt helpless and passive. The woman who tends to him suggests his passivity is close to a fear of rape. He is somebody who has been acted upon rather than acting.
Thus into the fictionalised account of some of the early life of Joan Riviere. It is the minutely-observed account of a very self-conscious and nervous young woman. There is her awkward courtship with an equally tentative and perceptive young man, the lawyer Evelyn Riviere who gives her her married name. When they marry, Joan feels that she is being formed rather than willing herself into psychic existence. Thus:
 The ritual was something to perform, to savour, to be gotten through with. She didn’t think this but felt it. Was it her, taking part? Stupid question of course it was. But the question, at least, was asked, even if she didn’t ask it consciously of herself. What was this HER, this SHE, this JOAN R that was coming into existence, while JOAN V passed away – a new person, a stranger? Oh all these thoughts and questions here in the one calm space in the world, the one space not tainted by the smell of an impending avalanche.” (p.38)
This is in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1908, Joan has a daughter with Evelyn. Suffragettes are calling for change. Then war approaches in 1914. But suffering great tension with her husband, having a very ambiguous attitude towards her infant daughter, Joan remains frozen and helpless to do anything. She reflects, as the newspapers shriek war:
 The violence – Joan was afraid of what she felt about it – was meant to clear things away in order to build something new. It was meant to make people – people walking past, people caught in their lives – to make them stop. Joan’s own desire for violence (was that it?) was the same: she wanted to clear something away. But what was her object, her target? If she clenched her fists to strike, she had no option but to keep them clenched and still.” (p.60)
Later she discovers psychoanalysis. She comes into contact with Freud’s first major British follower, the Welshman Dr Ernest Jones. And as she herself is psychoanalysed, she discovers the unconscious, which (as well as history; as well as the patriarchy) is another thing that drives her along will-lessly. In the following passage (whose main indications of passivity I have underlined), Tim Corballis breaks the fourth wall and reflects on how we regard her passivity, and if we have a right to judge her negatively for it:
And this horse, this ‘unconscious’, was it somewhere deep inside her, a secret, a part of her? Or would a better metaphor for her lack of control be something not inside her but something external: the amber she was encased in? This amber was the amber of history, something that preserves but colours what it encases, something that fills every crevice, something through which it is impossible to touch the object. Why else has Joan seemed to us so passive, so constrained, so distant and incapable of action, as if she were hardly a person at all? For us here, now, perhaps this is only a difficulty of perspective. For us, there is the fact that she did this or that, all in the past and set once and for all, so how can she really ‘do’ anything? Isn’t she swept along, every word comfortably in its historical place, set firm in the invisible record? But of course, we ourselves are inside our own history, one reflected back to us on television screens. How often are we ourselves the actors in the world reflected to us? Was time and history the amber that constrained and preserved Joan for the future, at the same time as it was the horse that dragged her onwards? And what kind of question is that?” (pp.68-69)
This novella is not a simplistic tract, but Joan’s neuroses clearly have much to do with the dominance of males. She comes to understand the immense and continuing hold her deceased father still has over her. Real letters concerning Joan, exchanged between Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones, are quoted towards the end of this novella. They give us a whiff of patronising chaps who, for all their psychoanalytic sophistication, made all sorts of simplistic assumptions about the proper role of women. Added to this there are the references to Jones’ marriage and the simple wife whom he chose.
How can I sum up this odd, allusive novella?
More than anything, I am reminded of the modernism of Virginia Woolf – the floating consciousness and free associations of her Mrs Dalloway period, where the mind is led, but does not lead; where images of physical things are almost detached from physical reality; where there is an odd absence of solidity, and linear time vanishes. Far from being either content or elated, the soul is weighted with uncertainty, and bearings are lost. Neurosis rises.
Some passages are like modernist experimentalism. For eight pages, in double columns, Corballis presents us with both the conversation going on between psychoanalyst and analysand, and the imagined conversation inside the analysand’s head. It is an interesting attempt at simultaneity, but unfortunately it is impossible to read the two conversations simultaneously.
Perhaps, with its self-references, “R” could be called a post-modernist modernist novella.
“R” is about 100 pages long.
So is “H”.
In many ways, I found “H” much easier to read, perhaps because the state of mind of its protagonist is not as complex as that of Joan Riviere. The architect Hermann Henselmann is under great psychological stress and is battered by the forces of history, just as Joan is, but the stresses have not been internalised as neuroses. Henselmann knows they come from the history that is going on outside him.
Like “R”, “H” begins with a scene involving a soldier – the meeting of a German woman and a Red Army soldier in the ruins of Berlin in 1945. Foreboding is here, but also the sense that history is both personal and public.
Nurtured in the Weimar years, designing in the internationalist style (severity, simplicity, steel, glass walls etc), Henselmann, partly of Jewish descent, endures Berlin in the Nazi years where internationalist architecture is condemned as “cultural Bolshevism”. As the bombs fall, he survives by making functional buildings on commission, but the net grows tight. Unlike Joan Riviere, he has a spouse in whom he can confide, and his wife bounces back his misgivings on how pusillanimous he is being in face of the totalitarian state.
Corballis brings in the idea that the destructiveness of modern warfare is a form of spacial creativity, as when one of Henselmann’s colleagues remarks of the Allied bombing that it recreates imagination:
A city cannot, says Friedrich, be blown up – it must be burned down. The point of such a campaign was to transform the whole environment. Everything familiar would be reduced to nothing, and so the life experience, the reality of the survivors, reduced to an illusion, and so also to nothing. The change in the city would be absolutely incomprehensible to its survivors, and it would mean that the survivors also died by virtue of having nothing remaining of themselves. The familiar moral relationship between individual acts and their punishment would be destroyed, as punishment was visited arbitrarily from the sky on everyone, irrespective of their deeds. This, thought H, was the nature of the physical world, which knew nothing of  the moral balance between acts and rewards….” (pp.139-140)
Ironically, with the Nazis gone and the new Communist statelet in place, Henselmann’s preferred internationalist and modernist style is still out of favour. Stalinism insists first on decorativeness, and then makes the claim that the older German classical style of architecture is most beloved by the workers.
A more subtle temptation is presented to Henselmann in these post-war years than in the Nazi years, when he was surviving a hostile regime. As a Marxist, he is on the side of the workers, so in Communist East Berlin he gradually comes to rationalise his lack of artistic integrity in terms of serving the workers’ interests.
Much of this second novella concerns his vacillation and the quarrel he has with himself as he helps the new regime rebuild its half of the old bombed-out city. Bertolt Brecht plays a small role as somebody who subtly dissuades defection to West Berlin (the Wall is not yet built). He is also seen apparently listening attentively to East Berlin workers in 1954, when they attempted to protest against the Communist regime; but then, notoriously, doing nothing to help. I assume (or rather, I hope) that Corballis was being ironical when he has Brecht saying that the workers’ protests have energised him to write a poem.
Is it because I’m more acquainted with historical and political matters than I am with psychoanalysis, that I found “H.” easier to read than “R”? Possibly. Or maybe it’s because my male mind tunes in more easily to Henselmann than to Riviere?
I must end with a confession. Reading the blurb of this book before reading the book itself, I feared I was in for a self-indulgent literary exercise – perhaps indeed an exercise in preciosity. I am happy to have been proven so wrong. Convincingly creating two quite different people – for all the author’s misgivings – “R.H.I.” is a subtle piece of work, a careful probing of two quite different mentalities, and certainly a very provocative reflection on the nature of history.

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.

“HISTORY: A Novel” by Elsa Morante (“LA STORIA” first published in Italian 1974; English translation by William Weaver first published 1977)

            Sometimes a novel can stay in your head for years, even if you were never fully satisfied with it in the first place. This has been my experience with Elsa Morante’s History. (The original Italian title La Storia means both “story” and “history”, just like l’histoire in French.)
When it was first published in Italy in 1974, it was a huge bestseller, although the critical reaction to it was mixed. It was translated into most European languages, made it into English in 1977 and earned high praise from at least some highbrow reviewers. It has been placed on a few of those tedious “100 Best Novels of the 20th Century” lists, although it was never in any other country the bestseller that it was in Italy. History is a blockbuster, being the best part of 800 pages long in the hardback version I read nearly thirty years ago. Looking at it again years later in the Penguin Modern Classics edition (the same translation by William Weaver), I find some of the judgments I made on it then still seem valid, while others I would modify.
Despite its length, its central storyline can be synopsised briefly. Spanning the years from 1941 to 1947, it deals with a poor woman’s dogged attempts to survive and to protect her two children in Italy during the Second World War and its immediate sombre aftermath.
Ida Mancuso (sometimes known as Ramundo) is a partly-Jewish working-class schoolteacher in the San Lorenzo quarter of Rome. She is widowed and has an unruly pubescent son Antonio (usually known as Nino and sometimes as Ninnuzzu). Ida is raped by the German soldier Gunther, who proceeds to be killed in the war. Ida gives birth to the rapist’s son Giuseppe (usually known as Useppe). From this point on, the focus of her life is protecting Useppe.
The war years are bleak. Ida is bombed out of her home and evacuated to a crowded room, which she has to share with a large and rowdy Neapolitan mob nicknamed ironically “the Thousand”. In a spirit of pure devilry and adventurousness, the thuggish teenager Nino, who was once an ardently Fascist youth, now joins the partisans. Ida has to worry about whether he will be killed in action, just as she fears that a pogrom will be unleashed against people of her ancestry. Her fears are shared by Davide Segre, an Italian Jew who has escaped from a round-up in the north and who travels under the alias “Carlo Vivaldi”. Davide, who is something of an intellectual, becomes as important as Ida in the latter part of the novel. Davide joins the loutish Nino in the partisans toward the end of the war (they are hailed as heroes by the Communist tavern-keeper Remo, but the novel takes a more ironical view of their exploits).
The war ends. Nino’s visits to his mother become rarer. Ida is frequently sick as is the little boy Useppe. There are suggestions that wartime malnutrition has weakened them. On top of this, Useppe shows signs of being an epileptic. Nino (who is hero-worshipped by his little brother) becomes a black marketeer. He dies in a road crash. Davide the intellectual, having no cause to serve, sinks into lethargic despair. He moves in with the ugly old whore Santina to have a place to sleep, but she is murdered by her pimp. Submitting to complete despair, Davide commits suicide by overdosing on painkillers. Useppe, now aged six, is subject to nightmares and convulsions. He dies in a fit.
After all her deprivations, Ida’s mind cracks. She goes raving mad and, we are told, spends the last nine years of her life in a madhouse.
Over 800 pages, the brute forces of history have destroyed the Wretched of the Earth - Davide the hunted intellectual; Ida and the two sons she tried to protect; not to mention the hordes of bombed-out and displaced refugees who figure greatly in supporting roles. I said the novel was long but, as you can see, the concept is essentially a simple one. Apparently Elsa Morante’s first inspiration for the novel was a newspaper story, just after the war, about a bereaved working-class woman found raving mad over the corpse of her child in a bombed-out Roman apartment.
According to my reading diaries, when I first read this novel I called it “long-winded” and “overlong” and I resented some of the author’s stylistic mannerisms. There are some direct addresses to the reader in the otherwise third-person narrative, as if the narrator is an historian conveying historical records to us. (“As far as I have been able to discover, Ida was at this time….” etc. etc.). These come across as very arch.
Given that most of her main characters are not very conscious of the forces that create their historical circumstances, and are not following in detail the huge world war of which their Italian experience is just a small part, Morante precedes each of the novel’s seven parts with a summary of historical events, newspaper style. Some critics have compared this technique with the newspaper cut-up style of John Dos Passos in his USA trilogy. While it is not the author’s intention, this does make the experience of her main characters look a small thing in comparison with the death camps, the bombing of Coventry, the Battle of Stalingrad and so forth.
More than anything, though, I found the novel too loaded with physical descriptions of places and circumstances, often leaving the characters as small and redundant figures on a large and over-elaborated stage. The urge to document and record takes precedence over characterization. Ida herself is, after all, not a very complex character. The author herself says early on that Ida has a childish and immature mind – and she sinks into the background once Davide comes to dominate the pages. In the latter half of the novel, little Useppe also becomes a centre of attention, with his poetic mind and his attraction to animals (the dogs Blitz and Bella, and the cat who lives in the crowded cellar with “the Thousand”). The author is in effect attempting to make the child a representative of all the privations that war wreaks on the helpless – spiritual privations as well as physical ones.
The trouble here, though, is that nobody in the novel, apart from the omniscient narrator, appears to have a thinking adult mind. Even Davide, the novel’s representative of intellectuals, produces no more than thirty pages of semi-coherent drunken ravings shortly before his death. Things happen to characters. In an odd way, amid all their experiences, they are passive creatures. Puppets.
The author’s position is summed up in a sentence before the death of Useppe: “All History and all the nations of the earth had agreed on this end: the slaughter of the child Useppe Ramundo”. History is a blind force in which power squashes weakness and poor people are passive and helpless victims. Useppe’s whole young existence has been the progressive stripping from him of everything that could give his life colour and meaning – the dog Blitz, his brother Nino whom he idolises, Davide, the kid Pietro Scimo (who is hauled off to reform school and away from Useppe once the war is over).
This passivity – and essential brainlessness – of the main characters, places us and the author-narrator in an odd position. We are in effect forced to look down on the characters rather than to see them as our fellow human beings. In this respect, much of History has the same effect as the worst tendencies of Emile Zola. Here is the author ostensibly asking us the see the realities of deprived lives and to sympathise with them; but in effect making us see them as a species quite different from us literary and reading people. On first reading this book, I found myself using the word “patronising”.
And yet, coming back to History for a second time, I do find that it has a major strength, too. It is that very documentary tendency which has such a negative effect on characterization. It is the asides of the novel – the vignettes of things that are not essential to the arc of the main narrative – that are most memorable. These I held in my mind longest between my two readings of the novel. I would include such scenes as Ida chancing on a rail-truck crammed with Jews in wartime Rome and obviously bound for a death camp; or the horrible and minute description of Nazis murdering the family of one of Nino’s girlfriends, deemed to be partisans; or the account, quite unconnected with the rest of the novel, of an Italian soldier dying on the Eastern Front. I do not think History works as a novel, but as documentary it has some very arresting moments.
To round things off, a few words about the author.
Elsa Morante (1912-84) was for twenty years married to AlbertoMoravia, Italy’s best-known novelist of the mid-20th century; but obviously she, as a writer, resented being known to the general public mainly as another novelist’s wife. Feminist critics have adopted her own view of herself and “talked her up”. Her marriage was very stormy (both spouses had multiple affairs and arguments) and ended in divorce. Morante and Moravia had something in common, however, which was important to the genesis of History. They both had some Jewish forebears and for some of the Second World War, they chose to hide out among south Italian peasants for fear of a round-up. Clearly some of the things Morante records in History came from her observations in those years.
History took Morante many years to write, and she regarded it as her magnum opus. But, despite its being a huge bestseller in Italy, she was wounded by the critical response. The Left were irked that she tended to see history as a blind, irrational force, even if early passages denounced capitalists and big business for promoting war. This led to negative reviews from Morante’s left-wing friends, who ridiculed Morante for ignoring ideology and seeing working-class people as so helpless and passive. The Marxist film director Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote a particularly stinging review, which led Morante to break off her long friendship with him.
From just a little searching around the ‘net, I am interested to find that scholarly articles are still written about History in publish-or-perish academic journals. But, amidst the praise, there is often an undertone suggesting that the novel has not survived all that well as a literary work and is not held in the same esteem as it was originally. It is mainly analysed as an historical document.

Redundant cinematic footnote: I have not seen the 1986 Italian film La Storia based on the novel and starring Claudia Cardinale in the leading role. Apparently filmed as a TV series, it was cut down to make a feature film, but was not successful internationally.