Monday, August 14, 2017
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.
“SANTA EVITA” by Tomas Eloy Martinez (first published in 1995; English translation by Helen Lane first published 1997)
I have often enough mentioned my alienation from “magical realism” (see on this blog my take on Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s OneHundred Years of Solitude). In a lifetime’s reading, the only novel with “magical realist” tendencies that I read with pleasure was Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children – a fantasia of India at the time of gaining independence from Britain. “Magical realism” quickly degenerated into novels that blurred history with fantasy largely because their authors had a limited knowledge of history, or wanted to evade its meaning. Therefore I am almost embarrassed now to find myself praising a novel that not only has many attributes of “magical realism” but that, on the cover of the paperback edition I have, features an endorsement by Gabriel Garcia Marquez himself (“Finally, this is the novel I always wanted to read!”)
Why should I make this exception?
Because, despite being surrealist and dream-like in sections, Tomas Eloy Martinez’s Santa Evita, no matter how extraordinary it seems to us, is largely based on verifiable fact. And, in what seem its wilder flights of fancy, it also provides a shrewd analysis of the mentality of a very large part of a large nation.
First a word on the author, as is my wont.
Tomas Elroy Martinez (1934-2010) was an Argentinian journalist and novelist, some of whose publications were banned when Argentina was a dictatorship. He went into voluntary exile, mainly to Paris. While he was in Europe, he interviewed the exiled former dictator Juan Domingo Peron (who was then living in Madrid). Juan Peron had ruled Argentina from 1946 to his overthrow by the military in 1955. For much of his dictatorship, Peron’s chief propaganda asset was his wife Eva (“Evita”) Duarte Peron (1919-52), whom the masses adored because of her apparent genorosity and because she was a poor-girl-made-good. While dressed in diamonds and the latest Parisian fashions, she could still claim to represent “the shirtless ones”. Eva Peron died of cancer at the age of 33 in 1952. As you will already know, Webber and Rice wrote a sentimental and historically very inaccurate musical about her called Evita. Indeed by now you are probably whistling “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina”. But, being a well-informed Argentinian, Tomas Elroy Martinez had a much more nuanced view of the woman
As well as writing Santa Evita, Martinez had already written a novel called The Peron Novel and he wrote other works set in the Peron years. He spent some years as an academic in American universities before returning to Argentina, once it was safely a democracy. And that was where he died. Santa Evita was his most popular novel and the one that was translated into many languages
The novel opens with Evita’s death from cancer. It then follows the travels of her corpse.
This is, in effect, a novel about a dead body and the strange legends that grew about it.
Evita’s corpse was laid to rest for three years in a modest burial place in Buenos Aires as plans were made for a huge mausoleum to her. But the military men who overthrew Juan Peron (in 1955) stole her corpse as they feared it would become a site of pilgrimage or a rallying point for Peronists. So the novel chronicles the travels of her corpse over nearly 22 years, until it was repatriated and buried in Argentina in 1974. Copies of the corpse were made by the original Spanish embalmer Dr Arato, to throw nosy people off the trail should they be looking for the real corpse. The corpse was hidden in government buildings, hidden on a boat, taken to Europe and hidden in a convent in Spain and then in a cemetery in Milan.
As a functionary of the post-Peron regime, it becomes the obsession of Colonel Moori Koenig to find the real corpse and definitively dispose of it. But, even though they find ways of avoiding saying her name (they call her “the woman”, “the deceased”, “the body” etc.), he and his men become obsessed with the magical powers of the corpse anyway. They almost become the corpse’s guardians against defilement. And they are pursued by Peronist devotees of Evita who call themselves the Commando of Vengeance, manage to track down the corpse to its every new hiding place, and set up shrines there despite the rigid security systems that are in place. (At some point one might ask why the corpse wasn’t simply cremated and the ashes thrown into the sea – but this question never arises.)
As it follows no neat linear chronology, and as it moves back and forth in time, Santa Evita proves to be a postmodernist novel. There are plenty of demonstrably “unreliable narrators” – the original undertaker, the officer who was responsible for Eva’s first interment, Eva’s butler, Eva’s hairdresser, Eva’s mother, an intelligence officer or two.
It is hard to guage Tomas Eloy Martinez’s own attitude. Does he see Evita as a saint or a whore? A great philanthropist or an embezzler of money donated by the trusting poor? (Plenty of people harboured all these opinions when she was alive.) Is he cynical or amused or in fact a party to the cult of Evita?
At the very least he is aware of how much his country’s mental health was bound up with this woman. “Miracles” were attributed to her after her death, and 40,000 letters were written to the pope asking for her to be canonised. (The Vatican wisely ignored them – which may be part of the reason Juan Peron turned so sharply against the church in the last years of his dictatorship.) Of course the novel presses closely upon the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose robes (in Argentina, at least) Evita was in danger of stealing. The novel becomes hallucinatory, but only in the way that this woman becomes so totally entangled in the Argentinian people’s dreams and aspirations – like, of course, dictators such as Hitler (“the psychopathic god” as one biography called him), Stalin (“Uncle Joe”), Mao, Fidel Castro and others who have claimed to actually be the people they rule. By accurately refecting the way Evita’s admirers saw her, much of Santa Evita put me in mind of the skewed conspiracy theories of the 20th century.
But here is the odd thing. When I checked the novel against a sober biography of Eva Peron, which I have sitting on my shelves next to Santa Evita, I found that all the craziest stuff about the peregrinations of Evita’s corpse were perfectly factual. I am referring to Eva Peron by Nicholas Fraser and Maryia Navarro (it has also been marketed under the title Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron). It was first published in 1981.
This raises a number of awkward questions about Santa Evita. Martinez often writes in the first person and presents himself as the investigator interviewing witnesses. Martinez did in fact interview many relevant people before writing this book. So is this a novel or a work of non-fiction? But then we also have imaginary conversations and plainly fictitious elements. Especially in the character of Colonel Moori Koenig, some critics have detected the influence of Jorge Luis Borges, with his theories of the malleability of truth and the dominance of imagination. As a naïve seeker of truth, I find this unsatisfactory but I still admire this novel or work of non-fiction or whatever its genre may be..
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.
I’ve recently been fretting a little about the matter of public holidays in New Zealand. Not because I’m against them (quite the opposite) and not because I want them in some way reformed. But because every so often there is a quite unnecessary controversy about them.
To remind you, we have in New Zealand 10 public holidays which the whole nation celebrates. They are New Year’s Day and the Day After New Year’s Day (1 and 2 January); Waitangi Day (6 Febuary); Good Friday and Easter Monday (moveable dates, usually in April); Anzac Day (25 April); Queen’s Birthday (5 June); Labour Day (23 October); and Christmas Day and Boxing Day (25 and 26 December). On top of this, each of twelve designated regions celebrates its own Anniversary day. This means that every New Zealander enjoys eleven statutory holidays - so employees must be paid on those days. There is also provision for some holidays that fall on the weekend to be “Mondayised”, so that workers don’t miss out on a day off.
In the past, New Zealand has celebrated other holidays. Empire Day was a quasi-public holiday from 1903 to 1958, when it became Commonwealth Day and then faded away as New Zealand no longer thought of itself as a version of Britain in the Pacific. In 1907, New Zealand became a “dominion” (whatever obscure thing that may mean) and for a very short time Dominon Day was celebrated, but it disappeared quite quickly (apparently it lingered longest in Wellington, where they have a greater taste for constitutional obscurities). Occasionally people have suggested the creation of new public holidays. In 2016 there was a petition asking for a public holiday commemorating the so-called “Land Wars” (i.e. the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s), but the suggestion was not picked up.
It is a very easy game to point at the irrationality of some of our public holidays. Queen’s Birthday celebrates a totally notional event (of course it is never on the reigning monarch’s real birthday). Why do we have Anzac Day – the day commemorating sacrifices in wartime – on the date of what was, when all legends are washed away, a foolish and failed campaign? Waitangi Day will always be a site of controversy – which is why some people have tried forlornly to replace it with a New Zealand Day or even to revive Dominion Day. Then there is the matter of those provincial Anniversary days. Provinces in the political sense were only a very short-lived phenomenon in New Zealand and their foundation is not something most people would bother to celebrate if the holidays had not been established for so long. In fact when a “Land Wars” day was proposed, somebody suggested it could replace all the redundant Anniversary days and therefore not clutter up the calendar with yet another holiday. But then, irrational of not, some provinces still make a big thing of their Anniversary days and hold special events (like the harbour regatta in Auckland), so again the suggestion did not fly.
Quite apart from this, there are those insistent secularists and monetarists (often the same people) who nag away at the special status of the Christian festivals of Good Friday, Easter and Christmas. One level of their attack is to say that most New Zealanders aren’t practising Christians anyway (almost true – but repeatedly polls have shown that most New Zealanders are in favour of retaining these holidays). Another is to claim to be ethnically aware and ask why we shouldn’t celebrate some indigenous festival – such as the Maori New Year Matariki. (Some Maori also proposed Matariki as a public holiday – as did the New Zealand Republican Movement, which said it should replace Queen’s Birthday).
But, transparently, the main objection of monetarists to Good Friday and Easter Sunday (and Anzac Day) is that there is some limited closure of shops and other commercial outlets on those days. How often I have heard whines about garden centres being closed on Easter Sunday, and wondered why eager gardeners couldn’t have bought what they wanted the day before or after that. Did it really inconvenience anybody that such centres were closed for a few hours on those days?
The real aim of neo-liberals is, of course, to attack the whole principle of public holidays. I am as aware as you are that on Anzac Day or Labour Day or Waitangi Day, most New Zealanders do not spend most of the day meditating on the sacrifices of our armed services or the struggles of the working class or our very imperfect founding document. Most see it simply as a wlcome holiday.
To the monetarist neoliberal, however, a public holiday is a barrier to commerce; a halt to the most sacred principle of making money. To remove those special days, or have most people still working on them, would be to cap the whole neoliberal exercise that has been on track for the last thirty years or so. That is, to turn New Zealand into a “24/7/365” country, where shops would be open all hours all days all year and where there would be no special extra pay for those who have to work on public holidays.
My own own view is that, irrational or not; misremembering parts of our history or not; public holidays at the very least remind us that we had a past as a nation, and that we came from somewhere. And on top of that, I have the deep-seated notion of “jubilee” – that is, the necessity for a time when all work is set aside and people stop focusing on making money for a day or so and reflect or enjoy themselves as they please.
Monday, August 7, 2017
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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“TESS” by Kirsten McDougall (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)
Sometimes, reviewing newly-published novels is like entering a boxing ring with one arm tied behind your back. The impact of a novel is its total impact – how it reads from beginning to end. But with newly-published novels, there is a well-established (and perfectly justifiable) convention that reviewers should not give away essential developments of the plot which the author means to come as a surprise to readers. Tess has such developments. They colour the way I read this brisk and short (c.150 pages) novel, but I will stick to the convention. Of which more later.
Nearly five years ago on this blog, I had the great pleasure of reviewing Wellington-based writer Kirsten McDougall’s first novel The Invisible Rider, with its interesting mixture of dream, reverie and hope as it gave, in vignettes, the life of a decent suburban chap. Now comes her second novel, Tess, but it is a very different production. I would not go so far as the blurb, which calls it a “gothic love story” but, with its tragic backstories and its scenes of extreme emotion, it tends somewhere in that direction.
On a rainy and miserable day, Lewis, a 45-year-old dentist with a small-town (Masterton) practice, picks up a hitchhiker, a taciturn 19-year-old woman who takes a long time to say much and to give her name as Tess. She is obviously running away from something, but she will not say what. After helping her escape the unwelcome attentions of a bunch of local yobbos, Lewis takes Tess back to his own home, and they set about sharing the same house.
We soon discover that Lewis is a man going through a complex sort of grieving. His wife apparently died in some sort of accident; his old mother is Altzheimic and doesn’t recognise him when he visits her in the nursing home; and for reasons that take a long time to emerge, he is alienated from his daughter Jean, who has run away. As for Tess, it’s clear she had a troubled childhood and was brought up by her eccentric grandmother Sheila after her mother abandoned her. It’s something more recent that has set her on the run, apparently to do with an abusive relationship, but that is made clear too late in the novel for me to reveal it here.
Kirsten McDougall’s skill in the first half of the novel is the subtle way she dramatises the tension between these two lost souls. Lewis is not a sexual predator and has not picked up a young hitchhiker to exploit her. He genuinely wants to help, but he is also lonely and needs the company. Occasionally he feels sentimental about the young woman, and once he almost crosses a line, but he draws himself back with the thought that she’s about the same age as his absent daughter. Tess is quite capable of looking after herself, but is aware of this sexually-charged tension. It is the tension of a middle-aged man and a younger woman sharing the same space without really cohabiting.
Then Lewis’s daughter Jean comes back – a bitter, abusive and angry young woman – and the whole shape of the novel changes.
The backstories of both Tess and Lewis are revealed in flashbacks. Another skill of McDougall’s is capturing the child’s-eye-view of the world when Tess was living with her grandmother. Take, for example, this precise and detailed description of the way the child Tess reacts to a horse:
“The horse came closer and her mother held the apple on a flat palm, offering it. Tess watched the horse turn its head to the side and open its big horse lips to show its teeth, which looked like old man’s fingernails, large and yellowed. The horse wrapped its meaty tongue around the apple and pulled it into its mouth in one piece. It crunched down and small pieces of apple iced with long threads of saliva fell from its mouth as it chewed. Her mother ran her hand over the long bone of is nose. It seemed to Tess that its face was mainly made up of its nose. Rose [Tess’s mother] asked Tess if she wanted to do the same. Tess looked at the horse’s eyes, large and shiny globes, andthought she did want to touch it, but then it spluttered from its nostrils and shook its head and Tess said no.” (p.28)
The mixed fascination and fear of a child is captured perfectly here.
At about the midway point, however, there are two surprises, both of which I’m bound to leave vague for the reason I’ve already given. One has to do with paranormal powers. The other has to do with the sexual relationship of two characters. The paranormal powers really does take us into “gothic” territory – or at least some distance from the realism we thought we were appreciating. The sexual relationship develops credibly enough, but is sprung upon us so suddenly, and without any real build-up, that it comes close to shock value. And, in both flashbacks and in the linear present, much violence enters the story. In fact, the past complications of both Tess and Lewis are laid on in extreme form.
Finishing Tess, I felt like a tired rugby commentator, waiting to say it’s “a novel of two halves”. Of McDougall’s clear and precise prose style there is no doubt. She can create a vivid scene and make us aware of how characters are feeling by their actions and way of speaking. But the transition from one sort of tale to another does not quite work. In the end, as she wanders off, Tess has become more of a redemptive fantasy figure than the real young woman she began as.
Other readers may be able to reconcile the two halves more easily than I can.
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
“COUSIN BAZILIO” by Jose Maria de Eca de Queiroz (“O PRIMO BASILIO” first published in 1878; first full English translation by Roy Campbell published 1953; another translation by Margaret Jull Costa published 2003)
I often wonder how hard it must be to establish an international reputation if you write in a minority language. Write in English, Spanish, French, German or Russian and you will be capable of addressing a large audience in your own language. But write in some more marginal European language - Croat or Flemish or Romanian, let’s say – and you are at the mercy of translators to build your wider fame. I know that Portuguese is the language of Brazil as well as of Portugal, and is therefore spoken by many millions of people. But as far as Europeans and other Westerners are concerned, it is a minority language; and literature in Portuguese is a closed book.
For years there have sat unread on my shelves six novels by the Portuguese novelist Jose Maria de Eca de Queiroz (1845-1900). Often regarded as Portugal’s greatest novelist, Eca de Quieroz (his last name is also spelt “Queiros”) has been compared with Balzac, Flaubert, Zola and other French nineteenth-century realists. Only recently have I begun to read my way through (English-language translations of) Eca de Queiroz’s work, and I have discovered that these comparisons are perfectly legitimate. But I have also discovered that Eca de Queiroz has a voice uniquely his own, with his detailed depiction of distinctly Portuguese manners and attitudes, as well as his very vivid evocations of the Portuguese physical scene.
Take one of his most famous novels Cousin Bazilio (O Primo Basilio). Like Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Fontane’s Effi Briest, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Zola’s La Curee, it deals with an adulterous affair in which the woman is depicted in more detail than the man – although distinctly masculine judgements are made on her. It uses some of the devices which were relatively common dramatic tropes in French realist novels. As in Zola’s La Curee (which was written years before Cousin Bazilio), and as in Guy de Maupassant’s Fort Comme LaMort (which was written years after Cousin Bazilio), it has a scene set in a theatre in which the events on stage loosely echo what the novel’s characters are experiencing. The novel’s level of sexual intrigue, and its depiction of a whole society, also suggest to me the long-term influence of Balzac’s CousinBette, as does the fact that Cousin Basilio features a vindictive and vengeful old maid wreaking havoc on others. I wonder too if Eca de Queiroz wasn’t following the example of Balzac’s Cousin Pons in naming his novel after somebody who is the mainspring of the action, but who is not the main character. The eponymous Bazilio disappears a little under two-thirds of the way through the novel, making a brief reappearance at the very end.
Cousin Bazilio shows a level of frankness in sexual matters that was simply not permitted in novels of the English-speaking world at the time. Apparently its first English translation, in 1889, was heavily bowdlerised and irrelevantly retitled Dragon’s Teeth. Only in 1953 did the poet Roy Campbell’s complete and unbowdlerised translation appear. Another full translation came in 2003. It is Roy Campbell’s translation that I have read.
In late 19th century Lisbon, Luiza, young and childless, is married to the solid mining engineer Jorge. The marriage is tranquil and uneventful, although Luiza is not unaware that other people have different morality from the official and accepted one. Luiza’s gossipy friend Leopoldina, slightly less affluent that Jorge and Luiza, has taken a string of lovers and doesn’t hesitate to give Luiza too-worldly advice.
Jorge has to go away for some weeks, on mining business, to a distant Portuguese province. In his absence, Luiza’s cousin Bazilio turns up. He has had an adventurous life in Brazil, Paris and elsewhere. To the reader, it is at once quite clear that Bazilio is a rake, a cad, a bounder and a serial seducer of women. But Luiza has fond memories of him, because they were childhood friends with an innocent love for each other. Despite her misgivings, Luiza’s head is soon turned. In her mind, it is the classic contrast of dull-but-reliable husband and dangerous-but-exciting intruder, a configuration as old as Madame de La Fayette’s 1678 novel La Princesse de Cleves. Thus Luiza thinks:
“[Jorge] had everything to make a woman happy and proud; he was handsome, with magnificent eyes; and he was loving and faithful… Nevertheless, against her will, she began to think of Cousin Bazilio, swaying his white burnous in the Holy Land, or sitting upright in his phaeton, in Paris, and guiding his spirited horses with graceful skill: and that gave her the idea of a more poetic life and one more suited to sentimental romances.” (Chapter 3)
It doesn’t take Bazilio long to seduce Luiza, with smooth talk and declarations of true love. He at first swyves her in her home, in a scene written with great discretion, wherein Luiza swoons away at the crucial moment. (It reminds me of the similarly discreet scene of Esther’s deflowering in George Moore’s EstherWaters). But they are aware that gossipy neighbours may be watching, so Bazilio arranges a love-nest for their assignations. Luiza is at first shocked by how sordid the place of their rendezvous is. Eca de Queiroz uses an interesting extended simile to convey her sense of deflation after romantic dreams:
“So a yacht, nobly apparelled for a romantic voyage, goes down to the anchorage on the mud-banks of the lower Tagus; and then you see its eager and adventurous owner, who had been dreaming of the essences and perfumes of aromatic forests afar off, sitting motionless under cover and trying to stop his nose, so as not to breathe the marshy stenches and the sewage that surrounds him.” (Chapter 6)
But Eca de Queiroz makes it clear how naïve Luiza still is about Bazilio’s motives:
“He began to use rough words and brutal gestures so that she began to doubt if he loved her at all and feel that he only desired her body. At first she wept, resolved to have an explanation from him, to break with him if necessary – but good heavens! She never dared. His glance, face, figure and voice dominated her and, firing her with passion, took away any courage she had for quarrels or complaints. She was always convinced that he loved her, and that the exaltation of his passion compensated for the greatness of sentiment which he lacked. He enjoyed her so much because he loved her so much. And her natural honesty and her sense of shame found refuge in fabricating such fantastic arguments.” (Chapter 6).
Even less than halfway through the novel it is plain that Bazilio, having conquered Luiza, is losing interest in her. She has to coax him into passion and becomes frantic at the thought that he might desert her. He has to introduce her to “new sensations” (cunnilingis is suggested) to keep his interest alive.
Whereupon the thunderbolt falls on Luiza. Her maid Juliana is a vindictive and bitter person, tired of living in a stinking-hot, rat-infested garret, desiring an easier life and permanently angry at having to wait on such a vapid mistress. Juliana finds and secretes passionate love letters Luiza has exchanged with Bazilio and proceeds to use them as a means of blackmailing her. At first Juliana demands huge sums of money. Luiza rushes to Bazilio with the romantic idea that he will run away with her. He does indeed run away – but on his own, back to Paris. Before he goes, he frankly tells his equally cynical friend Viscount Reynaldo what he really thinks of Luiza and reflects quietly to himself:
“Smoking he began to consider the situation with a kind of squeamish horror. That would have been the last straw – to trundle that little baggage all the way to Paris! What impudence! The whole affair had been a mistake from the start. He should really have come to Lisbon, conducted his business, immediately left the Central Hotel and taken a steamer, wishing his Fatherland to the Devil. He had wound up his affairs successfully soon after he arrived, yet like a great idiot he had remained roasting in Lisbon and frittering away his money on endless cabs – just for one of those bits of skirt. Surely, for that sort of thing, it would have been better to bring Alphonsine [his French mistress] with him from Paris and taken her straight back.” (Chapter 7).
So we have the new regime under which Luiza has to live – serving Juliana, satisfying her every whim, giving her new and luxurious quarters, handing on expensive clothes to her – and all the while under the shadow of Jorge’s finding out about her affair with Bazilio. By the time Jorge returns home, Luiza is even doing the starching and ironing while Juliana lies about the house pretending to be ill. It is almost farcical satire on social class as maid and mistress swap roles. Yes, there is the slightly mitigating circumstance that Luiza has accessed one of Jorge’s letters to a friend showing that out in the country, Jorge was casting a lustful eye over available country girls. But this does not lessen Luiza’s terror at being found out and the consequences her husband could impose on her. Her health begins to deteriorate under the stress. She has headaches and fevers in true psychosomatic fashion.
Reader, I have often said that I do not hesistate to reveal essential plot elements of an old book that has already been long in the public eye. But I will not reveal what happens in the last third of Cousin Bazilio because Eca de Queiroz’s plot-spinning is so well wrought. The dove-tailing of events, and clever connections with minor characters who have been introduced early in the novel, are the work of a real master. Suffice it to say that it does not end well for either Juliana or Luiza. At one point, Luiza almost prostitutes herself to get money to pay off her blackmailer. There is a touch of melodrama in the denouement, and if it were bowdlerised a little the novel could almost be read as an exemplary tale on the dangers of adultery.
But it is too sophisticated a work to be a moral sermon.
Eca de Queiroz could be accused of cynicism. No character in this novel is seen in a good light. They are deluded and naïve (Luiza); exploitative (Bazilio); pompous and self-righteous (Jorge); venal (Juliana); morally corrupt (Leopoldina); or hypocritical (many minor characters). There is no real exemplar of virtue here, although Luiza’s terror and Jorge’s bafflement at his wife’s behaviour do often make us sympathise with them.
One of the novel’s greatest strengths is the way it is able to suggest a whole society in this “Domestic Episode” (as the novel was originally subtitled). Cousin Bazilio gives us the “upstairs and downstairs” of Jorge’s and Luiza’s domicile, depicting the servants as roundly as the bourgeois and bourgeoise master and mistress. There is not only the detailed portrait of Juliana, but also the cheerful sketches of the cook Joanna who, smitten with a neighbourhood apprentice, carries on a more straightforward illicit affair than the one that entangles Luiza. In the narrow streets of old Lisbon, there is the sense of people always watching, always prying into other people’s business. This is a society on the edge of modernity, but with lingering peasant folk superstitions, especially among the lower orders. Officially everybody is Catholic but the bourgeois males are sceptics and anti-clericals to a man, often in the interests of following their own libertinism. The women (both bourgeois and lower class) pray when it suits them, though mainly in the cause of asking God to hide their sins from others. They also follow advice which the church wouldn’t sanction – consulting “wise women” in quest of love potions or magical cures for diseases. Yet there is the buzz of the late nineteenth century. People of Jorge’s and Luiza’s class go to the opera, read modern novels, consult newspapers and discuss political affairs. The parlour is filled with the sound of the piano playing Chopin or Verdi or Gounod, and Luiza fills her head with the superior romantic trash of Dumas fils’s La Dame aux Camelias.
There are two chapters which are almost self-contained social satire. In Chapter 2 there is a soiree at which are an unsuccessful doctor who feels political influence has caused him not to be promoted; an overripe woman foolishly imagining that a court official will soon start courting her; a courteous Councillor with somewhat unrealistic olde worlde habits of thought and a naïve reverence for the monarchy; and a local playwright who obviously trades in melodrama. But Eca de Queiroz is too skilful to have this as a mere intrusion in the novel, for all these characters play a key part in the unwinding of his plot in the novel’s last third. The playwright, for example, has written a play which hinges on whether a husband will or will not forgive his adulterous wife. (And the theatrical event everybody goes to later is Gounot’s opera Faust, with its plot of temptation and a seduced and abandoned woman.) Chapter 10 has the scene where the old Councillor throws a party to celebrate a royal order that has just been bestowed on him. Again, the chapter throws light on men who are important to the plot, with all their status-seeking and social-climbing and cynical talk about women and the church.
And very impressive is the sense Eca de Queiroz gives of the bright, glaring sun and the stinking heat of Lisbon and its environs in summer, as in this sequence where Bazilio takes Luisa into country:
“The sun reflected on the trees until the shadows themselves seemed to glow on the ground. Everything had the appearance of August. The grass on the cracked earth was like ashes. Heaps of yellowing dust lay at the sides of the road. The villagers drooped over the croppers of their mules, with danglish legs under wide red sunshades, and the light that came down from the obscure sky made the whitewashed walls glitter blindingly with the reflections of pails of water left outside the doors.” (Chapter 5).
One final plaudit. If I am to trust the translation I read, Eca de Queiroz was a master of bright and colloquial dialogue, quite unlike the more artificial form of conversation that appears in so many nineteenth century novels.
The swift and believable talk is another reason to seek out this fine novel, which makes us see a whole society in a tale of adultery.
Cinematic footnote: Cousin Bazilio has been filmed at least five times by Portuguese, Spanish, German and Brazilian companies. At the time of writing this notice, there is news that Ben Kingsley will star in a two-part American TV adaptation. I have seen none of these adaptations, which appear not to have made a dent on the English-speaking part of humanity. But the publicity I have seen that surrounds some of them would suggest that the story is presented as a tale of “forbidden passion” and of a woman breaking free of marital conventions for some steamy sex. Bollocks! The novel is essentially about a naïve woman who is seduced by an insincere smoothie, with a story arc that shows no good comes of it.
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.
It had rained and rained for about three days and we had kept indoors, hugging ourselves in the winter chill and beginning to get cabin fever. And then on the Saturday the sun came out and the sky was a welcome uniform blue.
I said: “Let’s go for a walk while we can.”
She said: “Sure. Let’s walk down to the high school. They’re having a sale of second hand books.”
This seemed a good plan to me. The high school is about helf a mile away, so it would be a healthy mile-long walk.
I vowed that I would buy very little, if anything. God knows, our house is overstuffed with books as it is, and this blog and other reviewing outlets mean that I always have a formidable pile of new books waiting for my attention. But we took a backpack with us anyway. We walked sunlit suburban streets, then scrambled through the muddy tracks of a reserve of native trees and emerged near the high school.
Of course, despite my vow, I bought too much. Could you resist good copies of Maurice Gee’s Ellie and the Shadow Man and Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran and David Lodge’s A Man of Parts and Thomas Keneally’s A Family Madness and Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War, all in excellent condition and each costing only $2? Of course not. And she couldn’t resist all the sheet music to add to her very large collection – classical, jazz, popular sing-songs. You need them all when you teach music. So I carried a heavy backpack as we trudged home up a long hill, avoiding the muddy track of the reserve.
But it was not the exceptional plums that disturbed me, nor even the uneasy sense that it would be a very long time before I got around to reading the books I had bought – and even longer beofre I turned some of them into “Something Olds” on this blog.
What disturbed me was all the stuff between the few plums at the second-hand book sale.
Trestle table after trestle table of formula thrillers, formula romances, formula “historical” novels. Yesterday’s bestsellers now looking tawdry and rather pointless. Danielle Steele. Wilbur Smith. Dan Brown. Bryce Courtenay. Clive Cussler. Jilly Cooper. Who – honestly, who? – would want to read this junk now? Indeed (and at this point you may huff and puff if you will about my elitism and cultural snobbery) who really wanted to read them in the first place? Books inspired only by a publisher’s contract, maybe gaining some populatity by their glib novelty which has now been killed by time. Books that aspire to be movie tie-ins.
Trestle table after trestle table of dated political commentary.
Trestle table after trestle table of dated how-to-get-rich books, targeting people who will never be rich.
Trestle table after trestle table of self-help books which would be resorted to only by those who are congenitally incapable of helping themselves.
And the ghost-written autobiographies of forgotten soap-opera stars or sportspeople. And the showbiz puffery books.
And the ghost-written autobiographies of forgotten soap-opera stars or sportspeople. And the showbiz puffery books.
To find my few treasures, I walked slowly up and down all the lines of tables, examining all the spines, and found that this dross dominated by a ratio of about ten to one. I stopped and looked at the whole school hall. Hundreds of books – thousands – that need never have been written in the first place. Square miles of forests that need never have died. Redundancy. Incitements to non-thought.
We had come on the second day of the sale, so it is possible that many books of real worth had already been snapped up before we arrived. Even so, my gut still sang the song that it often sings in large bookshops or at bookfairs.
How many books really need to be written?
If all you desire is formula, why not read the thousands of formula books that have already been written, rather than craving new ones?
Why not send a note to publishers asking them to save their time and just do reissues and reprints?
In fact they could be helped along economically by pulping and recycling the books they have already published.
Monday, July 31, 2017
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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“WHITE TRASH – The 400-Year Untold Story of Class in America” by Nancy Isenberg (Atlantic Books / Allen and Unwin, $NZ45)
One of my sons used to relate with amusement the opinions of some American students, who were in the same History class as he at university. No matter how much evidence was presented to them, they refused to believe that the United States had ever participated in imperialism in the age when empire-building was common among European nations. The British, the French, the Dutch and others built empires, they thought, but the democratic USA wasn’t part of this perfidious business. Somehow they failed to recognise as acts of imperialism the progressive taking of Native American territory, the annexation of half of Mexico in the 1840s, the Spanish-American War, the capture of Puerto Rico and Guam, turning the Philippines and Cuba into client states and the forcible expropriation of Central American territory to build the Panama Canal.
Apparently, because these acts were American, they were not imperialism.
This is an example of the phenomenon of national “exceptionalism” – the idea that somehow a country is exempt from the social pressures and movements that activate other countries. I’m not so crass as to think that only Americans suffer from this delusion. When I tutored German history at university, I often heard of the German belief in the “Sonderweg” (“special way”) that their country had become unified. Some Germans apparently forgot that the unification of any country has its own unique features and is therefore as “special” as Germany is.
A foolish American belief in “exceptionalism” with regard to imperialism is less pervasive, however, than the foolish American belief that the USA is a classless society. Here again there is “exceptionalism”. The USA, goes the belief, was founded on democratic principles. All its citizens are equal and have the same rights. There is no hereditary ruler or aristocracy. Sure, there are differences in wealth, but anybody who works hard can make it to the top – “log cabin to White House” – so there are no real class differences. The USA is a meritocracy.
If Nancy Isenberg’s large (300 big pages, plus over 100 pages of notes, references and index) book White Trash has any mission, it is to shatter this illusion. By focusing on the most deprived, poorest and least educated whites in the USA (yes, there are deprived blacks, but they are not the focus of this narrative), Isenberg wants to show that there has always been an underclass in the USA, and that claims to “classlessness” are mere rhetoric. “Throughout its history”, she says in her preface, “the United States has always had a class system. It is not only directed by the top 1 per cent and supported by a contented middle class. We can no longer ignore the stagnant, expendable bottom layers of society in explaining the national identity.” (Preface, p.xv). In the modern context, Republicans are more likely to condemn the poor for being idle and dependent but, says Isenberg, Democrats have their own condescension: “Democrats, in general, endorse the liberal idea of meritocracy, in which talent is rewarded through the acquisition of earned academic credentials. Yet this dream is not possible for all Americans. Only 30% of Americans today graduate college, which means the majority does not imagine this path up the social ladder is a ticket to success.” (2017 Preface p.xxvii).
So she launches into the long history of “white trash”, whose origins predate the invention of the USA. In the 17th century, colonising England attempted to off-load many of its poorest classes as indentured labour to the wealthy colonists and plantation owners. They were already known as “lubbers”, “rubbers”, “clay-eaters” and “crackers” before 13 colonies asserted that they were now the United States of America. “First known as ‘waste people’, and later ‘white trash’, marginalised Americans were stigmatised for their inability to be productive, to own property, or to produce healthy and upwardly mobile children – the sense of uplift on which the American dream was predicated.” (Preface, p.xv)
In both the New England (Puritan) colonies and the Virginian (tobacco-growing plantation) colonies, there was a rigid social hierarchy and many landless indentured labourers. Of the Puritan colonies Isenberg writes: “By the 1630s, New Englanders reinvented a hierarchical society of ‘stations’, from ruling elite to household servants. In their number were plenty of poor boys, meant for exploitation. Some were religious, but they were in the minority among the waves of migrants that followed [the first few ships]. The elites owned Indian and African slaves, but the population they most exploited were their child labourers.” (Introduction, p.10)
Men who are now considered to represent the Enlightenment took it for granted that any society settled in American had to have social inequalities. John Locke (Chapter 2) wrote a constitution for the Carolinas which showed an essentially feudal mindset. Tenants of landowners, in Locke’s Utopia, were to be allowed no land. They and their descendants would be bound to the landowner’s land. Only thus would there be social stability.
The men who founded the American Republic had many of the same attitudes. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine (Chapter 3) both exalted the hard-working, industrious and philoprogenitive middle class, who they believed would create a new sort of society in America. They spoke of the benefits of industry, trade and commerce while pretending that social class didn’t exist. Neither of them had anything to say about slavery or about the huge classes of servants and indentured labourers. Indeed their words for the young republic’s poor were most often words of contempt. They were idle, a rabble etc.
In response to Thomas Paine’s view that America was to be the home of able, hardworking men and women, Isenberg tartly remarks: “This overly sanguine portrait cleaned up class and ignored what was unpleasant to look at. Indentured servitude and convict labour were still very much in evidence as the Revolution neared, and slavery was a fact of life. Philadelphia had a slave auction outside the London Coffee House, at the centre of the town on Front and Market Streets, which was directly across from Paine’s lodgings. In Common Sense, the propagandist mentioned ‘Negroes’ and ‘Indians’ solely to discredit them for being mindless pawns of the British, when they were incited to harass and kill white Americans and undermine the worthy cause of independence…. Civilized America was being pitted against the barbarous hordes set upon them by the ‘hellish’ power of London.” (Chapter 3, p.82)
A major framer of the American constitution was equally limited in his views. Thomas Jefferson (Chapter 4) had the habits of thought of the wealthy Virginian gentleman and plantation-owner that he was. His aim was to create an agrarian republic based on trade in agricultural produce, but headed by a “natural” aristocracy, which he believed would arise by its own talent. In effect, he wanted to perpetuate a squirearchy based on land ownership and he refused to recognise that there was an underclass, even if he did often speak of “rubbish people”. Notes Isenberg:
“The question that Jefferson never answered was this: What happened to those who were not part of the talented elite? How would one describe the ‘concourse of breeders’ living on the bottom layer of society? No matter how one finessed it, rubbish produced more rubbish, even if a select few might be salvaged. If the fortuitous breeders naturally rose up the social ladder, the unfortunate, the degenerate, remained mired in the morass of meaner sorts.” (Chapter 4, p.102)
There were many “squatters” and “crackers” on the pre- and post-Revolutionary “frontier” – that is, the margin where British (and later American) territory met country occupied by “Indians”. Many of the founders of the republic, and many of the middle classes, regarded these people as landless scum but, just as the British had recruited vagrants for their armies, their descendants the Americans used these “frontier” people to fight Indians and break open the land for later settlement. There was also (Chapter 5) the growing awareness that the votes of the “squatters” and “crackers” could be solicited in elections. The ephemeral figure of Davy Crockett gave the frontiersmen an heroic image. But the first person to appeal systematically to the underclass was Andrew Jackson, the bellicose, profoundly racist military man. Framing himself as the champion of the frontiersmen and uncouth rural lower classes, Jackson made it to the White House. But in the end, he too saw the lower classes as not being part of the political nation, given that he never moved to enlarge (manhood) suffrage and kept to a high property qualification for voting.
As she approaches chapters concerning the American Civil War, Isenberg tends to concentrate more and more on the American South. The term “poor white trash” was already in circulation early in the 19th century, but it became a widespread usage in the years just before the civil war. As Isenberg tells it (Chapter 6), anti-slavery (abolitionist) Northerners saw the South’s poor white underclass as enfeebled because the institution of slavery had denied them the opportunity to labour honestly. Isenberg at this point surprises me by pointing out that the “Free Soil” movement, which wanted slavery not to be extended beyond the existing “frontier”, also wanted newly-settled territories to segregate white from black, so that poor whites would not drift into habits of idleness. Meanwhile, the pro-slavery leaders of the South saw their white underclass as the products of bad biology. Even if nobody yet knew about genetics, there were already widespread theories of poor biological inheritance. This allowed the slave-owning gentry to ignore the issue of class, and to believe that the illiterate, uncouth whites among them simply had the wrong ancestors.
In the Confederate South, however, quite apart from the issue of slavery, there were huge class differentials between whites with regard to the prosecution of the war. (Chapter 7) Plantation owners with more than 20 slaves were exempted from military service. Wealthier men were allowed to send substitutes off to fight. This meant that the Confederacy relied on mass conscription of poor non-slave-owning whites, many of whom felt no loyalty to the Confederacy. This really was, as the poorer soldiers said, “the rich man’s war but the poor man’s fight”. The result was a very high rate of desertions and, in effect, a class war. As the war dragged on, Confederate posses were sent out to round up some of the more than 100,000 deserters, many of whom hid out in swamps and wasteland. As often as not, the deserters fought them off. Says Isenberg:
“Wars in general, and civil wars to a greater degree, have the effect of exacerbating class tensions, because the sacrifices of war are always distributed unequally, and the poor are hit hardest. North and South had staked so much on their class-based definitions of nationhood that it is no exaggeration to say that in the grand scheme of things, Union and Confederate leaders saw the war as a clash of class systems wherein the superior system would reign triumphant.” (Chapter 7, p.173)
It was after the civil war that the plague of eugenics swept America. Always seeking ways to “explain” why there was a deprived underclass without having to examine the unequal economic basis of society, and leaning on social Darwinism, academics and those in positions of power hit on eugenics. The “poor white trash” must be the result of poor breeding. Many who believed this came from the North. After the civil war, Freedmen’s Bureaux were set up in the South by the federal government to assist former slaves in establishing themselves in business or farming. But they also offered assistance to poor landless whites. Again and again, bureau men discovered that black freedmen were more industrious, more literate and more willing to work than were the “white trash”. Very soon “They invoked a vocabulary that highlighted unnatural breeding, unfit governance, and the degenerate nature of the worst stocks. At the centre of the argument was the struggle that pitted poor whites against freed slaves.” (Chapter 8, p.176)
The eugenicists had a number of plans – forced sterilisation and castration; quarantining of the “unfit”; even systematic killing of the “unfit”. These ideas were mainstream. As Isenberg notes; “Such proposals were not merely fringe ideas. By 1931, twenty-seven states had sterilisation laws on their books, along with an unwieldy thirty-four categories delineating the kind of people who might be subject to the surgical procedure. ….” (Chapter 8, p.195) As late as 1927, the much-respected justice Oliver Wendell Holmes endorsed compulsory sterilisation in the case of Burke vs. Bell (p.205). It is no accident that it was when eugenics was still mainstream that novels by William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell began to perpetuate the stereotype of slobbering, degenerate, white trash with their overlarge families of idiot children and uncontrollable sexual lusts. It was much easier to deny people decent schooling and incomes when you could say they were subhuman anyway.
When Isenberg gets to the Great Depression after 1929, she notes that class consciousness was suddenly given a boost as millions of middle-class and working-class people were thrown out of work and realised how precarious their class status had been. The white underclass in the South expanded as “…the South’s one-crop system and ‘rural slum areas’ in the countryside… guaranteed the pernicious cycle of poor white and black sharecroppers’ poverty from one generation to the next. Two-thirds of the nation’s tenant farmers were in the South, and two-thirds were white. These facts cannot be overstated. The agricultural distress of the Depression exposed the South’s long-standing dependence on sub-marginal land and sub-marginal farmers.” (Chapter 9, p.215) This was the world of Steinbeck’s Okies and Arkies and The Grapes of Wrath. Yet even in these conditions, many leading Southern politicians clung to the idea that poverty was simply the result of sloth. Hence there was sometimes in the South resistance to New Deal programmes that would have provided some social uplift. This was at the time that journalists – and especially photo-journalists – were documenting the South’s rural white poverty and esposing wide class divisions.
When Isenberg comes to the 1940s and 1950s (Chapter 10), she switches to a concern for media interpretations of “white trash” and gets into the related (and mainly Southern) phenomenon of trailer parks and “trailer trash”. She also notes the extreme shock that the ending of racial segregation was to poor whtes, focusing on the events in Little Rock in 1957. And it is only at this point that she gives some thought to the separate, but related, topic of hillbillies. Reaching the near past and the present (Chapters 11 and 12), Isenberg notes the rise of identity politics and hence the rise of “white trash” nostalgia and “white trash” pride. But there was still much middle-class condescension, as in James Dickey’s novel (and film) Deliverance, which harked back to the days of eugenics with its stereotypes of inbred, moronic white trash.
By the time we get to these chapters, Isenberg surrenders much of her detailed social analysis and – something in the manner of post-modernists – becomes more concerned with appearances and perception than with quantifiable facts. So there are detailed accounts of the appeal of Elvis Presley or of the Southern good o’ boy President Jimmy Carter and of his loudmouth slob brother Billy Carter. And there are wry pages on Dolly Parton and the wealthy (and fraudulent) preacher Jimmy Bakker and his tacky wife Tammy Fae and how they represent the “trailer trash” ethos almost driven to high camp. And there are notes on how “Slick Willie” Bill Clinton won the White House partly by manipulating his supposed “poor Southern white boy” appeal; and how Sarah Palin played to a similar audience. Indeed after all these commentaries and character profiles, Isenberg returns to sober class analysis only in the very last paragraph of Chapter 12 (p. 309).
So to her Epilogue, which stridently returns to her key theme – that America is not exceptional, does have a class structure and has always had an ignored white underclass – the “white trash” of the title. She sums up much of their historical plight thus:
“They are blamed for living on bad land, as though they had other choices. From the beginning, they have existed in the minds of rural or urban elites and the middle class as extrusions of the weedy, unproductive soil. They are depicted as slothful, rootless vagrants, physically scarred by their poverty. The worst ate clay and turned yellow, wallowed in mud and muck, and their necks became burned by the hot sun. Their poorly clothed, poorly fed children generated what others believed to be a permanent and defctive breed. Sexual deviance? That comes from cramped quarters in obscure retreats, distant from civilisation, where the moral vocabulary that dwells in the town has been lost. We think of the left-behind groups as extinct, and the present as a time of advanced thought and sensibility. But today’s trailer trash are merely yesterday’s vagrants on wheels, and updated version of Okies in jalopies and Florida crackers in their carts.” (Epilogue, p.320)
After all this, let me make it clear that I do not disagree with Isenberg’s essential thesis. In fact a big part of me wants to say that Isenberg is stating the bleeding obvious. Most informed and thinking Americans are fully aware that they live in a class-based society – as does every other human being on the planet. Essentially, rhetoric about “classlessness” is there for public orations and the cheesiest of high school civics courses. Perhaps the American “exceptionalism” is merely the fact that the lowest stratum of their society is so overtly and so aggressively ridiculed.
And here I take issue with one of Isenberg’s assertions. She speaks of middle-class condescension towards the white poor, and notes Republicans are fond of preaching the value of hard work as a means of social improvement rather than government assistance to the impoverished. But Isenberg could have made it clear that the “liberal” – and presumably Democrat-voting - urbanites are just as prone to ridiculing the “poor white trash”. Look at any late night New York satire show to see what I mean. While I’m nitpicking, I should also note that while she (quite rightly) condemns the eugenics movement, Isenberg neatly sidesteps its relationship with the push for birth control and ultimately abortion, which Isenberg clearly supports. Let’s remember that Margaret Sanger, in effect the founder of Planned Parenthood, and her colleagues were ardent eugenicists who hoped that birth control would wipe out the “unfit”, and limit the number of blacks in America, to ensure the dominance of white middle-class people who were having fewer children. My point here is that Isenberg cherry-picks her cast of characters.
One final point. In her second preface, Isenberg notes “The book was originally published in the middle of the contentious 2016 presidential election season.” (2017 Preface p.xix) The impetus to write it may have come from her fears about the looming presidency of Donald Trump and the populist appeals he made. But as it happens, the book makes no further mention of Trump and his presumed fan base.
I am worried by the way White Trash wobbles in some chapters away from the social analysis that is given elsewhere; and I am not as amazed as some American reviewers seem to have been by the revelation that America does have social classes. But, messy and rambling though it is in structure, this book does give much food for thought and it is certainly a repository of many interesting anecdotes and insights.