Monday, May 4, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“BEING HERE: Selected Poems” by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University Press, $NZ40)
There is a foolish and, I now realize, pointless game I used to play when reviewing any new collection of poetry.
I attempted to guess why the poems had been arranged in the order in which they were arranged; and why they had been divided into different sections. Sometimes this game led me to fashion all manner of elaborate theories about the thematic connections between the poems in Section A as opposed to the poems in Section B of the same volume. I’m afraid I attempted this in the brief notice I wrote of Vincent O’Sullivan’s capacious 2011 collection The Movie May Be Slightly Different when I reviewed it for the NZ Listener (23 July 2011) and I played the silly game again when I reviewed on this blog [look it up on the index at right] O’Sullivan’s prize-winning 2013 collection Us, then.
But I have given up playing this game. A wise poet told me that the only reason he divided a collection into sections was to give readers a break. Readers might be happy to read 15 poems one after the other, but they could be daunted by the prospect of reading 35 poems one after the other. Therefore, said the poet, dividing a new collection into sections was for him simply a way of signalling to readers that it was okay for them to take a break in their reading.
So I have abandoned the game. I now tend to approach new collections of poetry as collections of individual poems, each to be considered on its own merits.
But the rules are rather different, are they not, when it comes to a volume surveying a poet’s whole career so far? Surely it’s legitimate for a reader to look at the development or persistence of the poet’s ideas, or at the changes in the poet’s style, when the volume presents the poems in chronological order?
Let’s situate this argument.
Being Here: Selected Poems gives us, in order of publication, selections from over forty years of Vincent O’Sullivan’s output. It covers 15 collections, beginning with Bearings (1973) and ending with Us, then (2013), with eight new poems appended at the end. En route an earlier Selected Poems (1992) is sampled. Being Here: Selected Poems is a handsome hardback in which the 230 pages of poems are followed by an alphabetical index of titles of poems.
There is no introduction and no apologia by the poet. I have to assume (and why not?) that these are the poems Vincent O’Sullivan has chosen to represent what he, at the present time, considers the best and most vital of his work so far.
Again, I have to assume that O’Sullivan has had to be severely self-critical to make such a selection, because it represents only a small part of all the poetry he has had published. His first two collections of poems (from the 1960s) don’t figure. The 120 poems of The Movie May Be Slightly Different (admittedly a bigger-than-average collection) are represented by16 poems in Being Here. The 78 poems of Us, then are represented by 23 poems. So I could rattle on, comparing the contents pages of earlier volumes with the contents pages of this one. All “selected” poems are provisional, especially when the poet is still writing. It does mean, however, that the reader might sometimes regret what isn’t here. I’m sorry not to sight “The incentives, south”, which I still think one of the best of Us, then. And (blowed if I rationally know why), I missed the cheery “Anglicans, good oh!” from The Movie May Be Slightly Different. Other readers might have different omissions to mourn.
Reading Being Here from cover to cover over the course of a couple of weeks, I met many familiar acquaintances and re-considered some earlier judgments I had made on them. In Butcher and Co. (1977) and The Butcher Papers (1982), the figure of Butcher has always puzzled me. Is this meat-chopper-wielding guy a satirical swipe at the materialistic Kiwi joker, who has no time for Culture, God and Higher Things? Is he the man for whom the beauty of catching a fish ends merely in dead meat? (As is implied in the poem “Fish for All That Rise as Rise Wet Stars”). Or is he an affirmation that inside even such a joker as he, there is still room for poetry, myth and legend? (The poem “Do You Ever Consider” would suggest so). As I now read what is representative of the Butcher poems in Being Here, there is a fruitful ambiguity to the character, in which respect he is as distant cousin to the similarly mythologised “Mr Maui” of Peter Bland.
O’Sullivan’s preoccupations have changed over the years, but there are some constants in what is represented in Being Here. One of his greatest skills is his ability to express complex philosophical and theological ideas without condescension and without too much abstraction. His language often sounds deceptively colloquial. He does not show off his learning. But the ideas ambush us anyway. There are those instantaneous connections between things, which prove to be the heart of the poem. “Kingfisher: Winter”, from the first represented collection Bearings (1973), flips from a literal wintry scene to archetypes of Greek mythology. In “Holy Thursday – 2” (from For the Indian Funeral, 1976) a bite into a sweet potato (kumara) suddenly flips the poem from Mexico to New Zealand. Similarly, and especially in the earlier poems represented, the metaphysical butts into everyday reality. Death, with his horse and scythe, lurks in doorway in “For a Third Birthday” from Butcher & Co. (1977). More pointedly, “Don’t Knock the Rawleigh’s Man” (from The Rose Ballroom, 1982) seems set to be piece of Kiwiana nostalgia. (It appealed as such to my wife and me as we read it out, and had to explain to our teenaged daughters what a Rawleigh’s man was.) It transmutes into a reflection on the temptation of Christ; and the congeries of flashy things that detract from the deep heart’s core.
Another of O’Sullivan’s special skills is his pithy way with titles. His titles are an intrinsic part of most of his poems. A certain book editor once remarked to me that O’Sullivan’s titles are often better than some people’s poems. True. Prime example? “Nice Morning for it, Adam” (from the 2004 collection of the same name). If the reader were a little inattentive, he/she might at first take this poem to be simply about a gardener and flowers. Add the title and we have Eden and God with shears clipping us.
None of this means that the O’Sullivan’s poems are all conundra waiting to puzzle us. The straight colloquial satire is here, in the likes of “Resthaven” (from Butcher & Co.), a devastating reportage on old people trapped in a nursing home like prisoners. And quotidian reality – what we literally see, hear, smell, taste and touch – is a constant preoccupation. In the selection from The Pilate Tapes (1986) there are just a few of the poems referencing Pilate and the Crucifixion. (I note O’Sullivan does not include the most explicit Crucifixion and Resurrection ones, “fault / line” and “TELEX FOR JIX RE SUNDAY”, which he chose among the poems that represented him when he edited the Oxford Anthology of Twentieth Century New Zealand Poetry.) More space is given to the sequence “The Westmere Replays” which tells us of a man trying unsuccessfully to chat up women (“Corner”); a woman dying (“Visitor”); women remembering American soldiers in New Zealand in the Second World War (“Was She?”) and the experience of meeting an old flame after a long separation (“Late Romantic”, which opens with that fine anti-romantic line “The moon mightn’t be so fat if it wasn’t for what we fed it.”)
Quotidian reality is not, however, as straightforward as it at first seems, and this brings me to another O’Sullivan preoccupation which I can only call “the thingness of things”.
Often, in his poems of the last twenty years, there is a resistance to overloading things with “meaning”, an attempt to see things as they are without philosophising and without imposing upon them a human perspective. I was getting a little lost in the poems selected from the collection Seeing You Asked (1998), whose allusions were, to me, somewhat opaque and whose philosophical speculations strained; when “Right on”, the first poem selected from Lucky Table (2001), slapped me alert with its opening lines “A dead overturned beetle can look as if / it’s feeling in several fob-pockets at once, / checking the beetle version of time / when the ticking stopped on cue. / A dead beetle looks as though / there’s nothing left to do, supposing / it stayed alive. Dead and complete”. Sure, there is the hint of anthropomorphism here (feeling in fob-pockets), but this is a brilliant reflection on the humanness of being human and the animalness of being animal. The beetle and its death are different from, and other than, the human. A similar idea is seen in the reflections on an elephant in “The monastic life” (from Nice morning for it, Adam, 2004)
From Seeing You Asked, the poem “As is, is” wishes for a world in which it were possible to meet reality face to face, with the line “Come down, each atom invites, come down to where things actually are”. But given the nature of human perception, given the human propensity for abstraction, and given language’s nets of metaphor and approximation, this is not possible.
In “River road, due south” (from Nice morning for it, Adam) we seem to be getting a picture of literal “reality” until we re-read the opening line and realize we are in an extended metaphor.
“Being here” (from Further Convictions Pending, 2009) wishes for direct experience of bees, apricots, the beauty of the day – the thingness of things. But metaphor and abstraction creep in. In other words, in high-falutin Kantian terms (of which O’Sullivan would never be guilty in his poetry), we can know only the phenomena, never the noumena. The noumena are the Eden that is never attainable. The screen of our humanity comes between us and nature. That O’Sullivan chooses “Being Here” as the title of this collection shows how central these concerns are to him.
Which, as I now realize, is a very lame way to sum up the man’s work. What of those poems about childhood? What of the ones that comment on high art – literature and especially paintings? What of the familial ones? To do justice to them all, I would have to write a notice much longer than this.
Time for the purely personal response.
First, I have to mention three poems that have stayed with me since I closed Being Here.
* “Poem 13” from the chilly, wintry collection Brother Jonathan, Brother Kafka (1980) because of its severe and admonitory opening: “To be in a place for spring and not have lived its winter / is to get things on the cheap – it is asking from sky / as much as taking from earth, what has not been earned, / it is food without its growing, pay without labour.”
* “Saving the Image” from The Rose Ballroom (1982) is as perfect a poem about the persistence and wayward ways of memory, and the potential falsity of artificially-preserved images, as New Zealand has produced.
* The brilliant “No harm in hoping” from Lucky Table (2001), which I here quote cheekily in its entirety:
“At the end of the story I want you
to say, ‘I’ve forgotten the plot entirely.
It’s no use asking which character was which,
What name she used, what his job was.
Or where the bridge crossed the canal.’
At the end of the story I want you
to remember only the important things
that walk between the congregations of print
like a bride you’ve read of between the torches
of the story you thought you read.”
Second, a summary of this whole review.
It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? This is essential reading.
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.
“PEELING THE ONION” by Gunter Grass (first published as Beim Hauten der Zweibel 2006; English translation by Michael Henry Heim first published 2007)
After last week’s note on Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, I am this week again going to do something which it is not my custom to do. I am going to serve up to you in this “Something Old” slot, neat and unaltered, a review which I originally wrote for another publication. However, I have my reasons. The death of 87-year-old Gunter Grass (1927-2015) occurred three weeks ago, on 13 April. Along with Heinrich Boll (Nobel Prize for Literature 1972), Gunter Grass (Nobel Prize for Literature 1999) was one of the best-known, and certainly the most-visible, German writers of the late twentieth century. Some would rank him as the greatest German novelist since Thomas Mann (Nobel Prize for Literature 1929), and there is the coincidence that Thomas Mann was a native of Lubeck, the city in which Gunter Grass spent most of the second half of his life (as I saw the mayor of Lubeck explain in one of the many telecast obituaries for Grass). However, the surreal, politically-committed, “magical realist”, cruel, excessive and often very funny Gunter Grass had little in common, in terms of style, with the reserved, intellectualising and haughtily ironical Mann.
Now normally, if a novelist of this stature died, I would dive for my reading journal and give you a re-cast version of what I wrote about one of his novels. But I am unable to do this. I read Gunter Grass’s “Danzig trilogy” (The Tin Drum, – still his best-known novel - Cat and Mouse and Dog Years) and his Local Anaesthetic years before I started a reading journal, so I haven’t preserved my thoughts on them. I remember laughing sardonically at a university student production of his play The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising, his satirical view of how Bertolt Brecht acted (or rather, failed to act) during the 1953 workers’ uprising in East Berlin. Of course all the campus Marxists, wounded by the satire, rushed off to write articles on how unfair the play was to Brecht. I also, more recently, read Grass’s My Century (Mein Jahrhundert, 1999) in which, as the century was about to turn, he reflected on changes (political, social, cultural) in Germany with representative, pithy stories, like a series of serious anecdotes. But I have little to say on this, except to commend it as an easy read.
So, to commemorate Gunter Grass, I fall back on the only review I ever wrote of one of his books. It is a review of his childhood and young manhood memoir, Peeling the Onion.
The following review, which appeared in the New Zealand Listener [4 August 2007] is largely self-explanatory, except that I should clarify a few things.
First Lech Walesa, Polish anti-communist dissident and later president of post-communist Poland, was at first loud in denouncing Gunter Grass for the chief shocking revelation in Peeling the Onion. Walesa was one of the first to suggest Grass should be stripped of his Nobel Prize. Later, however, Walesa changed his mind and apparently became a friend of Grass’s. He was another who gave a televised obituary for Grass, bonded by the fact that they were both natives of Gdansk (which once went by its German name, Danzig).
It would also be fair to note that some of the German intellectuals, who criticised Grass for his shocking revelation, did have a point. On reflection, Grass’s revelation was not all that shocking. But it was odd that a man who had so often lambasted his fellow countrymen for not facing up more forthrightly to their Nazi past, should neglect to mention this aspect of his life until so late in the day.
One final clarification. As I’ve noted before, the historian in me bridles at memoirists who stretch things a bit, especially if the memoirist plainly tells untruths [look up my views on William Wright’s Lillian Hellman, the Image, the Woman via the index at right]. I do now wonder if I didn’t let Gunter Grass off a little easily because he was such a renowned novelist. Apparently Gunter Grass wrote two other volumes of memoirs (which I have not read) after Peeling the Onion, and even if they had no upsetting revelations to offer, some critics carped at their lack of veracity. Being an imaginative novelist, Gunter Grass could also have been a prize bullshitter.
Okay, enough of this waffling. Here, unedited and unaltered, is the review of Peeling the Onion which I wrote for the Listener eight years ago:
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The central metaphor is easy enough. Like peeling an onion, the autobiographer takes away one layer after another to reveal his true character. He has to be careful, though. As it says in Peer Gynt, he may discover that, like an onion, he has no heart. Gunter Grass, graphic artist and Nobel Prizewinner for literature (1999), places before each chapter of his autobiography, Peeling the Onion, his own line drawing of an onion deconstructing.
We’re ready to accept this image when a doubt hits us. Surely a man as clever with words as Grass is just as adept at concealing as revealing. Who says he isn’t mystifying us and adding skins to the onion?
After all, there is quite a bit he might wish to conceal. The chief awkward fact is fairly shocking. In the last three months of the Second World War, as the Reich collapsed and the Red Army closed in, Grass was a member of the Waffen-SS.
Publication of this fact caused outrage before the German edition of this book appeared. Some people called for Grass’s Nobel Prize to be revoked, especially as he had enjoyed half a century as Germany’s most outspoken liberal intellectual. However, others (like Lech Walesa) withdrew their outrage once they examined the facts more closely.
Grass was 12 when the war began and 18 when it ended. He has never disguised the fact that he was in the Hitler Youth and (at first, at any rate) was immensely proud of Germany’s lightning conquests. A regular little patriot. Like most Hitler Youth, he was conscripted into the armed forces when Germany was at its last ditch. The group he was conscripted into was a Waffen-SS reconnaissance unit. Apparently (according to his account) he never fired a shot. The kid was lucky enough to meet a level-headed Wehrmacht corporal who advised him to ditch his SS collar flashes if he didn’t want the Russians to shoot him out of hand. Grass got rid of his SS tunic, acquired a regular army one, fled west and was captured by the Americans. (Meanwhile, in Danzig, his mother was repeatedly raped by the [Russian] victors, offering herself in place of her daughter.)
All this sounds plausible, as do his hair-raising accounts of wartime escapes. We’re dealing with a conscripted teenager, then. Not a war criminal. But there’s still this niggle. Why has Grass, usually so frank about his country’s sins, chosen not to admit this experience until he is nearly 80? Is he peeling the onion or adding another skin? Or is it simply another example of that national guilt that drives Grass, like so many German writers, into the familiar Teutonic variety of verbose irony?
Peeling the Onion’s 400 pages take us from 1939 to 1959, when The Tin Drum was about to be published. There are certainly other matters that Grass is evasive about. He ends when he is married to his first wife, but as they subsequently divorced, the passages about her have an oddly mawkish “where-did-we-go-wrong?” tone. On other things, he wriggles uncomfortably. Of Catholicism, he says he gave up on his mother’s religion when he was 14 and has never looked back. But then he has to deal with months of receiving charity at a Franciscan hostelry, and his Catholic sister’s failed attempts to become a nun. He teases the reader about whether he did or did not meet the young Joseph Ratzinger (the present [in 2007] pope) when he was a teenager.
Occasional dodginess noted, this is still essential reading for Grass-followers. Outside the SS business, the chief surprise is how closely the author’s life followed things that seemed complete fabrications in his novels. Some of the crazier stuff in The Tin Drum, Cat and Mouse, Dog Years and Local Anaesthetic, it turns out, had flesh-and-blood antecedents. The author is allowed the odd self-important tone about his works. They are, after all, Germany’s most significant novels for the second half of the 20th century. His political perspective seems a sane one, too. Grass is the gradual socialist wary of extremes of left and right.
At least, that’s what he says he is.
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.
REVENGE OF THE STAGE PLAY
Some years back, I had a very awkward experience at a party and (as so often) it was all because of my big mouth.
I was introduced to a tall and rather severe-looking young woman, whose name now eludes me. For reasons which I cannot recall, the talk turned to live theatre. I said that, much as I enjoyed live theatre, in New Zealand it had basically become the pastime of a tiny group of people. In itself, this did not worry me. Poetry, in which I am a participant, is possibly the pastime of an even smaller group of people, but that does not negate its validity as an art form. But, said I, I was tired of the assumption, made by so many devotees of live theatre, that live theatre is at the cutting edge of our culture, that it is radical, that it is poised to stir up the masses. Its reach and influence are actually very limited, I said. After all, unless one belongs to the very small number of devotees, how many live stage plays does one go to per year, compared with the number of movies and TV dramas and YouTube viewings one enjoys? Then, twisting the knife, I noted how many popular live performances now aped cinema anyway – all those big-budget musicals that try to draw audiences in by their memories of film versions of the same show.
This got a very cool response from my interlocutor. It turned out that she was a theatre critic who prided herself on her avant garde tastes and who responded by talking about all the plays she had seen which defied the tired conventions of film and television and had vital things to say about New Zealand society. The suggestion that live theatre was the pastime of a very small audience was deeply annoying to her.
Naturally I protested (as I do now) that I am not a philistine. I like live theatre’s ability to present a drama using little more than the voices and movements of the actors. I enjoy participating imaginatively more than one really does with the movies where (increasingly today) so much depends on visual effects. But live theatre is still a minority pursuit and no longer the mass medium it once was.
None of this mollified my interlocutor, however, who clearly had me typed as a barbarian and whom I last saw glaring ferociously at me as I left the party.
Since that unhappy exchange, I’ve often thought about the relationship between film and live theatre.
I did a lot of such thinking a couple of weeks ago when I watched (on YouTube, of course) an 82-year-old film, the name of which I will not disclose. It was made in 1933, in the era when the techniques of sound film were still rather primitive. As cineastes, film buffs and people who take degrees in film would readily tell you, the cardinal sin of very early talkies was their staginess. Talking pictures took some years to break away from being filmed stage plays, did not use the technical and visual resources of film as well as they could have, and tended to photograph scenes in a rather static way, often with a camera fixed in one place through very long takes. Some people argue that camera work was much more deft, and the camera certainly moved more, in the late silents than in the early talkies.
The film I saw (adapted from a stage play) was guilty of all these faults.. Characters spoke dialogue as if they were addressing the stalls. They enunciated as if they were not yet used to these new-fangled microphones. And there were many of those dreaded shots, so common in early talkies, in which key members of the cast lined up in a row the way they would on stage, if they all wanted to be seen by every member of the live audience. [I illustrate this phenomenon here with two such shots, which did not come from the film I was watching].
Yet here was a very curious thing. Taking all this on board, I found myself liking this film. Accepting technical imperfections is part of the deal when we watch a very old film, but this did not explain my favourable response. The fact is, I liked it for its very staginess. It was a stage farce and it worked perfectly as a stage farce. I was enjoying the very thing that film critics despise. I was enjoying “canned theatre”.
And so we reach the age of the revenge of the stage play.
“Canned Theatre” has made a curious comeback.
We can now see, regularly, filmed transcriptions of live theatre, such as the Met Opera seasons and the National Theatre Live seasons that appear in our boutique cinemas. Such transcriptions are not exactly films. We go knowing we are getting “canned theatre”, and wanting to get it. I leave aside the Met operas and just say that in the last few years I’ve enjoyed seeing, on screen, such stage productions as the intense translation of Racine’s Phedre starring Helen Mirren; the jolly tomfoolery of Fiona Shaw, Richard Briers and a cast of expert farceurs in Dion Boucicault’s London Assurance; a fine production of All’s Well That Ends Well, convincing me that it’s not one of Shakespeare’s duds after all; and (most recently) James Franco and Chris O’Dowd as George and Lennie in a stage adaptation of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men.
In each case I’ve enjoyed a camera staying still long enough to let me enjoy seeing and hearing actors speak long speeches, without interruption or cut-away shots. I’ve enjoyed watching a story develop as dialogue and the actors’ movements. I’ve enjoyed the experience of live theatre. Of course it isn’t live at all. What such transcriptions really give us is the best possible view that one could get in a theatre. Indeed, it may be better than what the live audience of these productions would have seen, coming complete with close-ups to give us the expressions on the actors’ faces.
In these transcriptions live theatre does become a mass medium once again, because each transcription is seen worldwide and therefore by a much larger audience than saw each production on stage.
So the obvious paradox. Live theatre becomes a mass medium once again, by virtue of not being live.
Monday, April 27, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“TELL YOU WHAT: Great New Zealand Nonfiction 2015” Edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew (Auckland University Press, $NZ29:99); “SAM ZABEL AND THE MAGIC PEN” by Dylan Horrocks (Victoria University Press, $NZ35)
There is a great temptation in reviewing an anthology of prose pieces. You are tempted to go all bibliographical, name-check every one of the contents, and then start picking favourites.
I find it very hard to resist this temptation with Tell You What: Great New Zealand Nonfiction, so I will go all bibliographical. But I will at least refrain from name-checking every single item in the book.
Tell You What was jointly edited by Jolisa Gracewood and Susanna Andrew, who are both Auckland-resident writers and reviewers. Susanna Andrew runs the books pages of Metro magazine. Tell You What was published in November of last year, and I have only now had the pleasure of catching up with it. It consists of 29 nonfiction pieces, nearly all originally published in the last two or three years, and most written by the New Zealand-born, although there are one or two written by the merely New Zealand-resident. I totted up the names of the authors (see what I mean about going all bibliographical?) and discover that the selection consists of 15 men and 14 women, so you can rest assured that it is gender equitable.
In their perky introduction, Gracewood and Andrew basically argue that New Zealand nonfiction is not esteemed as highly or taken as seriously (in reviews, journals etc.) as New Zealand fiction is. They say that it should be. The first selection in the book (Anthony Byrt’s very brief “What I’m Reading”) is an apologia for reading on-line nonfiction rather than fiction. Gracewood and Andrew also reflect one major change in publishing by declaring (p.2) “fully half the contents of this collection were originally published in the ‘web’ ”. As I already knew (and as you must know by now, because you are reading a blog), in the last twenty years there has been a seismic shift in the way prose of all sorts reaches the public. With editors of newspapers and publishers of books, there is now much hand-wringing over the way printed paper is being supplanted in many areas by the computer screen. Interestingly, though, when people really want to preserve something in more permanent form, they still turn to paper – as in this anthology, or as in the anthology The Best of Best New Zealand Poems (2011), which celebrated the 10th anniversary of an on-line phenomenon.
Okay, after the bibliographical stuff, I come to the harder part of reviewing, which is actually reviewing.
A simple statement to begin with. I loved this collection and found there were only one or two selections that didn’t engage my attention or arouse my admiration. As the longer pieces are only eight or nine pages long, it would make a very good bedside book.
The editors do not state that they had a scheme in arranging the contents in any particular order, but I can sometimes see the ghost of a scheme. Eleanor Catton’s “Land of the Long White Cloud” is a very visceral reflection on New Zealand landscape. Lara Strongman’s “A Song From Under the Floorboards” has a similarly strong sense of place in reflecting on childhood and memory. David Haywood’s “What Not to Expect” considers the difficulties of getting on with family life when it has been disrupted by a major crisis. Nic Lowe’s “Ear to the Ground” reinserts Ngai Tahu into the history of Christchurch. What I haven’t said is that three of these four pieces, which open the anthology, turn on the trauma of the Christchurch earthquakes, their aftermath, the rebuild and what this has to do with the city’s society and history.
While I wouldn’t call it a scheme on the part of the editors, there are other major themes in this collection.
One is family and personal connections – Megan Clayton’s “The Needle and the Damage Done”, with its profound reflection on her pregnancy and people’s reaction to it; Naomi Arnold’s “Mother’s Day”, concerning the unexpected sojourn of a relative in her home as a family was being reconstituted; David Herkt’s “Paul” (one of the most confrontational and powerful in the collection) about caring for and interacting with a man who is both mentally-challenged and gay. The pieces on forebears (Simon Wilson on his grandparents; Keith Ng on his grandfather) are also part of this family and relationships theme.
And yet some of these selections could be read from another perspective. Megan Clayton’s piece is as much about how people are undervalued in a monetarist society as it is about her pregnancy. This brings us to the impact of neo-liberalism upon New Zealand, most blatant in Greg Bruce’s “The Desperate Quest: How Auckland’s Property Market Drove Me to the Edge of Insanity”. But it is also found in Nic Lowe’s “Ear to the Ground”, where there is the epiphany (p.42) of people actually talking to each other during the Christchurch re-build rather than just continuing with their private economic concerns. New Zealand society doesn’t have to be atomised by self-interest!
Some pieces are good advocacy (Tina Makereti on the impact of the Maori language on writing in English; Leilani Tamu on racialism and sexual abuse). Some have a strong conservation theme (Rachel Buchanan’s “There’s a Buried Forest on my Land”, relating the present to the whole botanical and geological history of Taranaki; Claire Browning on planting tree in Featherston). One mixes a conservation theme with the good, clear, expository prose of science popularisation (David Winter’s “The Origin and Extinction of Species”). Then there are the ones from left field, which do not reflect on New Zealand at all (Gregory Kan’s “Borrowed Lungs”, about training in the Singaporean army; Jemima Diki Sherpa’s “Three Springs”, on Nepal and mountain-climbing).
Oh dear! I seem to have fallen into the trap of flinging a lot of titles at you after all.
Time to make some evaluations and award some prizes.
Most Maddening Selection in the Book: the poet Alice Miller’s “Digesting Ourselves”, a somewhat disjointed reflection on how Facebook, the Internet etc. are affecting human interaction. It does set some good intellectual hares running, though.
Most Intellectually Challenging Selection: Allan Smith’s “What I Learned from Momo”, a complex contemplation of the author’s interaction with the architect Maurice K. Smith and his aesthetic values. It did come alive for me, however, when Smith got into analysing the mural that graces the old Odeon theatre in Auckland. (How often I tried to decode it while waiting to review some goddam film at the Odeon!)
Two Pieces About Which I Have the Most Mixed Feelings: Alice Te Punga Somerville’s “Shine Bright Like a Moko”, which centres on Rihanna’s hand tattoo. (Is it a serious reflection on cultural appropriation; or is it much-ado-about-nothing sparked by a pop star’s foolish fashion statement?). AND Jose Barbosa’s “My Swim with Kim” ( It seems half satire on Kim Dotcom and his entourage, but half social gossip.)
And finally, The Piece That Gave Me the Greatest Inner Satisfaction: Ashleigh Young’s gentle, witty piece “Small Revolutions”, about cycling in the city. She balances her enthusiasm for urban cycling with a frank acknowledgement of the pains and disadvantages of cycling. It’s a very fine balance, which is what cyclists should have, after all.
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Once before on this blog I reviewed a work by the artist Dylan Horrocks, his Incomplete Works [look it up on the index at right] and I was really chuffed when he sent an appreciative response to my brief and inadequate review.
The burden of my argument then was that I had not paid much attention to comics as an art form, and had great difficulty in accepting the concept of the “graphic novel”. I think I’ve got over that difficulty now, because I had no difficulty in accepting both the intention and the form of Horrocks’ thoroughly grown-up graphic novel Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen.
Let me do the boring thing I so often do in reviews and give you a little synopsis.
Sam Zabel is a cartoonist, with more than a passing resemblance to Dylan Horrocks.
Married, with two kids, Sam Zabel should have domestic bliss with his family, but he’s slowly going nuts with boredom. He’s lost the creative buzz that cartooning once gave him, he looks glum even when he reads Tintin books to his kids, and he absolutely hates having to drudge away drawing, on commission, frames for a “superhero” comic featuring Lady Night. As another character says, Lady Night looks more like a porn star than the way superheroes used to look in comic books. Worse, when Sam dreams, his dreams resemble a randy adolescent’s masturbation fantasies. They feature exotic women with perky boobs, few clothes and a willingness to engage the male dreamer in creative copulation (e.g six pages of out-of-control orgy with green-skinned Mars women at pp.78-83).
So are comics doomed to be puerile kidstuff, promoting fantasies?
That’s one line of enquiry this graphic novel takes, but there are plenty of others. To get all academic about it, Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen becomes an interrogation of the whole comic-book form.
Meeting first an amateur cartoonist called Alice Brown, then a woman hero, escaped from manga, called Miki, Sam is dragged in his dreams through various genres of comics, engaging with them as living things. At one point he is worshipped as a god by the natives of Mars (cartoonists are gods over their own creations, are they not?). His dreams are sparked in part by finding a New Zealand comic from the 1950s drawn by (the fictitious) Evan Rice – so there is an element of nostalgia in Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen for an earlier, simpler, and not-so-sexualised type of comic. Sam Zabel is, after all, interested in finding once again the simple joy he got out of comics as a child.
It is important that Sam’s two companions in his dreams are both women, because another line of enquiry is the question of how much comics – and especially fantasy comics – promote specifically male fantasies. In other words, how sexist are they? “Do you ever feel ashamed of your fantasies? Do you worry they might be bad or dangerous or wrong?” Sam asks Alice Brown in a dream sequence, which shows him still sexualising her. “Are you kidding?” replies Alice, “Didn’t you read that paper I wrote last year for the ‘Feminism and Pornography’ conference on sexual fantasy and the erotic politics of shame?” (p.137) Obviously your modern male cartoonist, going through a mid-life crisis, can’t any longer ignore the arguments of feminism.
I haven’t mentioned the Magic Pen that finds its way into the title – symbol, I surmise, of the creative power of drawing and cartooning, from the dawn of humanity (cave drawings are awarded a sequence) to the present. Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen does question the common genres of comic book, but in the end it affirms the form. Sam Zabel emerges from his wild and fantastic travels determined to engage in a new way with the world about him, perhaps with a greater sense of responsibility about the impact cartoons have. Fittingly the epigraph to this graphic novel is W.B.Yeats’ line “In dreams begins responsibility”.
Now you see what I’ve done in this excuse for a review, don’t you? Being basically a literary word-man, I’ve engaged with Dylan Horrocks’ ideas without saying anything about the visual impact of Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen. And a huge part of the impact of any graphic novel is visual. (70%? 80%? More?). I’ll confine myself to these statements – it is colourful, it is action-packed (many pages with minimal text), and it is very, very recognizably the work of Dylan Horrocks. The firm outlines of characters. The eyes most often rendered simply as large black dots. The lack of chiaroscuro in presenting characters (usually one uniform colour, without shading, per human face).
I should also add that it is great fun. Comic books are meant to be that, aren’t they?
Footnotes. By the way, there are some nice incidental in-jokes here. When Sam Zabel gives a paper at a literary conference (the same conference Dylan Horrocks once attended, oddly enough), there’s a friendly caricature of a real New Zealand literary academic at the podium
At the back of the book there is a glossary, explaining terms used at various points in the speech bubbles. Many of these are common New Zealand references that presumably would be incomprehensible to non-New Zealand readers. And a high proportion of them come from the colourful oaths used by a Kiwi cartoon character who has clearly learned to swear at the Captain Haddock school of swearing (“Thundering typhoons!”, “Billions of blue blistering barnacles!” etc.). They include such choice cusses as “Hinemoa’s calabash!”, Hillary’s ropes! ”, “Marauding moas!” “Trespassing tapus!” and my favourite (when he begins to get lectured on sexism) “Kate Sheppard’s ribbon!”
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“THE INHERITANCE OF LOSS” by Kiran Desai (first published 2006)
I usually write these “Something Olds” by going to the extensive notes I’ve taken in my reading diaries over the last twenty-or-so years, and then writing them up in readable form, sometimes doing a little extra research as I do so. In the case of Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss, however, I am not going to do this. The Inheritance of Loss is one of the best Booker winners of the last decade, and I recommended it emphatically when I reviewed it for the New Zealand Listener in the year it appeared. So I am simply going to serve you the review I then wrote.
Before I do so, however, a few of my usual words on the author. As many people noted when she won the Booker, Kiran Desai (born 1971) is the daughter of another distinguished novelist, Anita Desai, who has been three times Booker-shortlisted but who, unlike her daughter, has never won it. The Desais (mere et fille) are of Bengali and German ancestry, so the themes of racial and cultural identity, especially as they relate to India, and of the impact of different cultures upon one another, are natural themes for both of them. Anita Desai now teaches literature at an American university. Kiran Desai moved from India as a teenager (aged 15) and has also largely been resident in America ever since. Apparently Kiran Desai is a meticulous and slow writer. The Inheritance of Loss took her seven years to write and was only her second novel. She is the youngest woman to have won the Booker.
And what follows is simply, and unaltered, the review I wrote for the Listener (18 November 2006):
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About two-thirds of the way through The Inheritance of Loss, there’s an ironic and sad scene where upper-class Indians are buying in essential supplies, so that they can barricade themselves in their homes to ride out a period of civil strife.
Essential supplies include reading matter from the local club library. One Anglophile woman states her preference for the novels of Anthony Trollope “Old fashioned books is what I like,” she says. “Not the new kind of thing, no beginning, no middle, no end, just a thread of… free-floating plasma.”
As drawn by Kiran Desai, the speaker is a shallow fool. But I’m sure that Desai approves at least in part of her sentiment. The Inheritance of Loss is modern in the sense of having a lively apprehension of different cultures and their relativity, a sharp ironical eye and multiple narrative points of view. But it also has a clear beginning, middle and end – the sort of firm structure that is absolutely essential for real impact in literature.
In Kalimpong in Darjeeling, bang up against India’s border with Nepal, retired judge Jemubhai Popatlat Patel thinks nostalgically of his days in the (British) Indian Civil Service and pretends to be a cultured Englishman. But in his dreams he relives racial humiliation in England and knows how much his Englishness has been compromised.
Meanwhile down in the servant quarters, the cook imagines his son Biju is making a great success of himself in the new global power, the United States. But we know better. Biju lives a precarious existence in New York without a Green Card, toiling for exploitation wages in fast-food joints and restaurants that are, says Desai, “perfectly first-world on top, perfectly third-world twenty-two steps below.”
Between the judge and the cook is the judge’s orphaned teenage granddaughter Sai Mistry, old enough to be falling in love, and beginning to get sentimental over her Maths tutor Gyan. But Gyan, frustrated and poor, is drawn to be part of a local nationalist insurgency.
The novel is set in the mid-1980s, when Indian-Nepalese are about to demand separate statehood in a violent way. It moves between the consciousness of Judge Patel, Sai, the cook, Biju and Gyan. From the opening page we know bad things are going to happen to its wealthier characters when young men break into the judge’s house and steal firearms in the name of an independent Gokhaland. The novel observes closely, but ploughs a clear narrative path.
Kiran Desai (Indian-born, American-resident) satirises the unreal memories that expats often have of their homeland and the unreal images that the colonised often have of their overlords. Western tourist views of India get a pasting, but Desai is equally merciless about the religious snobberies, class distinctions and ethnic barriers among Indians. She loves India, but observes its pimples without postcolonial whining.
If cultural and political matters are part of a novel, there’s a temptation to reduce it to a list of Important Themes. I admit to peeking at Pankaj Mishra’s review of this novel in the New York Times, and I discover that it is apparently about Globalisation, Multicuturalism, Economic Inequality, Fundamentalism and Terrorist Violence.
Indeed it is about all of these things. In part. But if they were the whole of The Inheritance of Loss, it would be more tract than novel. The inheritance of Loss is as much about Desai’s excellent style, ability to sum up character in a phrase and eye for a telling image. Phrase for phrase, it is a rich work.
Like all literary prizes, the Booker has an uneven track record. It’s sometimes gone to brilliant works (Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Nadine Gordimer’s The Conservationist), sometimes to duds (James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late) and sometimes to what seem consolation prizes for writers whose better work had missed out (Ian McEwan’s trite Amsterdam). Kiran Desai’s second novel, The Inheritance of Loss was this year’s [2006’s] Booker winner. In this case, the judges got it dead right.