Monday, August 3, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“STARLIGHT PENINSULA” by Charlotte Grimshaw ($38, Penguin-Random House)
Back in October 2012, when I reviewed Charlotte Grimshaw’s novel Soon on this blog, I ended my detailed critique by hoping fervently that Grimshaw would move on from dealing with the self-deceiving and self-justifying Dr Simon Lampton, whom I found a tiresome character in many ways.
I clearly spoke too soon and in a manner that would doubtless have irritated the author. For in her latest novel Starlight Peninsula, Grimshaw is still in the world of Lampton and his social circle, although they are now seen from a very different perspective.
Let’s explain this in more detail. Grimshaw’s collections of linked short stories Opportunity (2007) and Singularity (2009) introduced some of the characters who appear in her novels The Night Book (2010) and Soon (2012). To simplify brutally, Simon Lampton is an affluent gynaecologist, financial supporter of the National Party and personal friend of the sometime prime minister David Hallwright. Lampton and his wife have adopted a girl, Elke, who turns out to be the biological daughter of Hallwright’s wife Roza – a daughter whom Roza had by an earlier liaison. Much of the narrative tension of The Night Book came from the uneasy position of the adoptive daughter in Lampton’s family. Much of the narrative tension of Soon came from the psychological conflict between Roza and Lampton’s wife Karen over the formation of Elke. Both these personal dramas were given a vivid social setting. In interviews, Grimshaw has denied that Prime Minister David Hallwright is based on John Key, but similarities between the two are unmistakable in Soon, and much of that novel amounted to a scathing satire on the neo-liberal monetarist ethos that currently controls this country’s ruling party.
In the storylines of both the earlier novels, there was a sense of moral corruption rotting the social fabric. There were also plot elements concerning dark secrets that influential people would prefer to keep hidden. Roza was worried about the possibility that earlier indiscretions in her life might be exposed. Dr Lampton was spooked by the thought of an affair he had had becoming known to his wife. A left-wing investigative journalist, Arthur Weeks, was circling too close to some of the dirty secrets of Lampton and his friends. In Soon, Lampton may (or may not) have accidentally (or accidentally-on-purpose) killed the nosy Arthur Weeks, but had friends powerful enough to have the matter covered up.
This is all back-story to Starlight Peninsula. But only back-story. I emphasise that to read any episode of Grimshaw’s Lampton-iad is to read a novel which is complete in itself. We are not dealing here with a series of “sequels” to The Night Book. As is now clearer to me, we are dealing with something more like a roman fleuve (like Balzac? like Zola?). The novels interconnect, but each is its own singular literary achievement.
And in Starlight Peninsula, the narrative perspective is very different. Soon was written in the third-person, but largely seen from the perspective of Simon Lampton. Starlight Peninsula, also third-person, is largely seen from the perspective of a character we haven’t met before, Eloise Hay. She lives by herself in a desirable piece of Auckland real estate, the Starlight Peninsula of the title, which was long ago working class but is now gentrified. She is extremely unhappy. For her chronic depression, she regularly sees a German psychotherapist, Dr Klaudia Dvorak. She drinks too much. She sometimes has migraine headaches and sometimes what amount to fugues. Much has gone wrong with her recent life, notably the fact that her husband Sean has deserted her for a flashy actress. Eloise regrets that she has no children. Sean, we discover, is the scion of a wealthy family (his mother being one Lady Cheryl Rudd); but even more significantly, Sean is a lawyer who works for the National Party politician David Hallwright, so we are now on the very fringes of the social set we saw in the earlier novels. Although a middle-class woman with a career, Eloise Hay is outside the magic circle of the very wealthy.
Alone and emotionally vulnerable and disoriented, Eloise Hay is reduced to borrowing a friend’s pet dog for companionship. She is also in some sense attracted to a new neighbour, the solid Nick Oppenheimer, who may or may not be the supportive character he seems. Eloise keeps thinking back to the death of the man she lived with before her marriage – Arthur Weeks, the left-wing journalist who died in Soon. The circumstances of Arthur’s death nag at her subconscious and emerge in the intuitive conviction that Arthur’s death was not an accident. This, in turn, leads to her stalking and on some occasions confronting Dr Simon Lampton and the police who dealt with the case. Dr Lampton makes his appearance some way into the novel. I understand that when I reviewed Soon, my characterisation of Lampton as a “creep” offended the novelist. I apologise for any offence given, but I find it hard to alter that characterisation on this outing. To say the least, Lampton still strikes me as a man whose moral compass is defective, rendered more sinister by the smooth suavity with which he responds to Eloise.
Eloise Hay’s doubts, guesses, intuitions, unease, disquiet and fears about the death of Arthur Weeks are the main narrative thread of Starlight Peninsula. Eloise is a flawed person who suspects certain unpleasant truths, but feels both threatened and fairly helpless to do anything about them.
It has to be said clearly that this is a novel which has all Grimshaw’s literary strengths on display. The dialogue is sharp and pungent (save in some opening sequences where it’s a little too self-expository as Eloise Hay’s background is filled in). The story does not plod along in strictly linear fashion, but is “layered” so that we find events interlocking and overlapping in unexpected ways. And there is great play made with some sort of objective correlative or (if the term isn’t too simplistic) symbolism. As Eloise Hay has her migraines and doubts and fears; as the country labours under moral rot; there is a drought going on and fear of fire. The country burns. The country is sick. When Eloise sets fire to a pile of rubbish, she causes a major blaze, which brings the fire brigade in. At her place of work, people suffer shocks from static electricity when they touch furnishings and door handles. The unease and disorientation of the main characters are reflected in the physical conditions of a sick country. Literary allusions are deployed discreetly. There are references to the Russian film masterpiece Stalker, to Yeats, to Balzac, and (relevant to Eloise’s uncertainties about reality) especially to Chekhov’s story about the black monk who may or may not be a figment of the imagination. (Given that Eloise is a mentally-disturbed, possibly neurotic, person who nevertheless intuits the truth, I’m surprised Dostoievsky didn’t get a mention.)
There is an element of topicality to this novel. (I wonder how it will read in ten or twenty years time?) Libel laws mean that novelists do not loudly proclaim whom they chose to depict in fictional form. In Starlight Peninsula the Key-esque David Hallwright has been replaced as prime minister by a certain Jack Dance, so that a subplot concerning intrigue within the ruling National Party can be introduced. (Hallwright is plotting to roll the prime minister in a caucus coup aided by the aggressive Minister of Justice Ed Miles). Anyway, it can’t be said that the prime minister in Starlight Peninsula resembles John Key. Other minor characters seem recognisable from real life. There’s brief mention of a mayor who’s had an affair with an employee. Eloise Hay works as researcher and producer for a TV show, Roysmith, “a weekly show of supposedly hard-hitting current affairs, although they were forced by the network to cover a lot of human interest and fluff” (p.24). According to one character, its host, Scott Roysmith, “doesn’t smile, he beams” (p.21). He is ironically described as having a reputation for being “a deep thinker” (p.171). Now I wonder who this can possibly be based on? There is a crusading nuisance called Terry Carston who champions a convicted murderer, Andrew Newgate, who was acquitted after a second trial. But the Minister of Justice is dithering about paying compensation. Could this have any possible connection with a real-life situation? Of course one minor character in Starlight Peninsula is so outrageous that he can only have been produced by Charlotte Grimshaw’s unaided imagination. This is the “obese and six foot six” (p.92) German media pirate Kurt Hartmann who is described by another character as “operating a big electronic warehouse and it wasn’t his business if people were storing material in it that breached copyright.” (p.41) Both comic and sinister, Hartmann has been illegally spied on by New Zealand’s security services as the government wants an excuse to extradite him to the USA where he will face prosecution. Hartmann has an ostentatious mansion decorated in the worst possible taste. At one point he is interviewed by Eloise Hay, and he plays a role in the novel’s denouement, inasmuch as a fairly open-ended story has a denouement. Preposterous to imagine that such a person could exist in real life…
Starlight Peninsula has a strong element of social satire, some of it both waspish and funny. I relished (dammit, I almost fell off my chair laughing at) Grimshaw’s dead accurate account of media personalities showing themselves off at the charity-performance of an opera, hoping to be seen as patrons of High Culture, and then at the end of the performance, rushing to the bar as “reward for having sat through that boring shit for so long, in a good cause.” (p.170)
Starlight Peninsula also has a strong element of social commentary. As in Soon, Grimshaw is concerned with the stratification of New Zealand society as neo-liberalism has taken hold, the proliferation of gated communities and privileged groups, the ostentatious displays of wealth by those who have long since lost any sense of egalitarianism. Her protagonist Eloise Hay has sort-of left-wing convictions but comes from an affluent background in the novel’s equivalent of Epsom or Remuera. Returning at one point to her childhood neighbourhood, she reflects on:
“The drone of lawnmowers, the roar of leaf blowers. The svelte blondes in their tanklike SUVs. Sporty, burnished lycra-clad couples, bedizened widows with stiffened stacks of dyed hair. This was Jack Dance’s constituency: true blue. This was where the affluent lived and rejoiced in the gap – the gap between rich and poor. Because what would be the point of being rich, if everyone else was rich too? Look how far away the poor were! The further away they got, the more enjoyable everything was. And the clearer it was that you’d arrived. Obv. Eloise knew all this: she grew up here. She knew the hilarity, the tolerant mirth that ideas like ‘wealth distribution’ and ‘fairness’ were met with around these parts. Left-wing candidates were laughed off doorsteps at election time: they just didn’t get it…” (p.206)
Yet I think I agree with Philip Matthews when he said, in a review of Soon, that what Grimshaw writes is not “simply political satire” – or for that matter simply social commentary, important though these things are in Grimshaw’s work. Given that Eloise Hay works in journalism, and given that she is trying to unravel a mystery basically using her imagination and intuition, there is much discussion in the novel about what truth is, what the difference is between bias and reporting, whether we don’t all edit what we understand to be the truth, and other weighty epistemological matters. In effect, Starlight Peninsula is as much concerned with perception as with politics. The main character is often tempted to draw conclusions from things she has intuited or seen from the corner of her eye. Given that such insights are neither fully conscious nor fully rational, this touches on another question that Grimshaw has broached in her earlier fiction. How much are human beings compelled and predetermined creatures rather than reasoning and choosing creatures? (There is some reference in Starlight Peninsula to dogs and whether we are not simply instinctive creatures as they are).
A part of me wants this novel to be more the social satire. A part of me wonders if asking questions about the nature of truth isn’t a timorous way of backing off from harder social commentary. I’m a little miffed that the conclusion comes close to the cynicism that says everyone has his / her price. I’ll suppress such misgivings. To make a big thing of them would be to violate one of the chief rules of good reviewing, which is to review the book the author has actually written rather than the one the reviewer wishes had been written.
Starlight Peninsula works on a whole lot of levels. And this time I will not end on a dismissive comment about the awfulness of Dr Simon Lampton. Chances are, when she next puts him in a novel, Charlotte Grimshaw will surprise me.
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.
“HAIL AND FAREWELL” by George Moore (originally published as three separate volumes “AVE” , “SALVE”  and “VALE” ; revised and published as a single volume “HAIL AND FAREWELL” in 1925)
As I’ve remarked before on this blog [look up GeorgeMoore for comments on his novels Esther Waters and The Lake], George Moore (1852-1933), like Henry James, had the maddening habit of writing and publishing a book, and then years later tinkering with it and bringing out a new and “revised” edition. This may be a perfectly valid procedure for a non-fiction work, into which new research has been invested after the first publication. But it is merely fastidious affectation with a work of fiction, which the public has already had the chance to read and judge. In the case of Hail and Farewell, however, George Moore might have had very good reasons to revise. Originally published as three separate volumes, Ave, Salve and Vale between 1911 and 1914, Hail and Farewell is Moore’s autobiography of his life among the literati of Ireland in the 1890s and early 1900s. It was a little controversial because in it, Moore drew very unflattering portraits of people who were still alive. It is possible that in his 1925 revision, he modified his poisoned portraits or toned it down somewhat. He certainly shortened it.
I say “possible” because I have read only the original three-volume version and not the revision. The three volumes in question were lent to me by the late and great Auckland craft-printer Ronald Holloway. They were first editions from 1911, 1912 and 1914, so of course I handled them with care before returning them to Ron. I remember the pleasure Moore’s racy style gave me – so much so that I whizzed through the first volume Ave at a single sitting. But I also remember the slightly queasy feeling much of it gave me. A self-opinionated egotist, Moore’s view of Irish literary life always implies, and frequently asserts explicitly, the author’s immense superiority to all his contemporaries. Finally, as Moore departs from Ireland, he lets us know that the Irish are really a backward and stupid bunch, and Moore much prefers the literary life of Paris or London (where indeed he resided for most of the rest of his life). Writing when he was in his ‘sixties, it is an understatement to say that Moore was clearly settling some old scores, even if he spins many engaging anecdotes en route.
To orient you a bit more explicitly, here is what the original three volumes offer by way of narrative.
Ave has Moore, in 1894, leaving London with his fellow Irishman, the pious Catholic playwright Edward Martyn, and returning to Dublin in the hope of helping establish an Irish Literary Theatre. He rubs shoulders with Lady Gregory and W.B.Yeats and Douglas Hyde and “A.E.” and other luminaries in Irish literary nationalism. The Church disapproves of Yeats’ ultra-nationalist play The Countess Cathleen. Moore quarrels with Martyn over a play Martyn has written which Moore judges to be so unpolished that he undertakes to re-write it himself. Moore is uncomfortable in Dublin, whose literary leaders he increasingly judges as provincial. He takes a number of European trips. He attends the Wagner festival in Bayreuth. Having long since abandoned the Catholicism in which he was raised, he decides that he will be more comfortable as an agnostic living in England. But there is shrieking jingoism in England at the end of the 1890s, at the time of the Boer War. Moore publicly denounces the British use of “concentration camps”. This drives him back to Ireland where he decides to settle permanently. Even though he speaks no Irish, he becomes involved in the Gaelic League’s attempt to revive the language.
Salve continues the memoir chronologically. In 1901, “A.E.” kindly finds Moore a house to live in, in Dublin. Moore continues to be involved with Yeats, Lady Gregory and others in the Irish Literary Theatre, which now becomes the Irish National Theatre. To help the Irish language movement, Moore writes (in English) stories of Irish peasant life, based in part on his childhood memories of his life in County Mayo, from which the (wealthy and land-owning) Moores originated. The arrangement is that his stories will be translated into Gaelic by others, and printed in an Irish-language magazine edited by the Jesuit Father Tom Finley. The arrangement works well enough, but Moore is allergic to Catholic clergy, and all his encounters with the priest set him off on angry theorising about how all religious dogma is the enemy of true art. (In the process, and somewhat implausibly, he manages to interpret all Medieval and Renaissance Catholic art as really being “pagan” – I’ve noticed that this particular dodge had recently become quite commonplace among those who like the Art but want to strip the Church of any relationship with it.) Indeed, Salve comes to be dominated by Moore’s growing anti-Catholicism. He quarrels with Martyn and mocks him for his “peasant” religion. More disastrously, he quarrels with his younger brother, Colonel Maurice Moore, a practising Catholic who still lives with his family at Moore Hall in County Mayo, even though George Moore, the older brother, is heir to the estate and in control of their inheritance. Neither Maurice nor George enjoyed their schooling at the Catholic Oscott College in England (George recalls the confessional being used as a means of discipline, and claims that a priest once tried to seduce him). However, their attitudes to religion are now diametrically opposed. George has no real commitment to religious belief, but to signal his contempt for a Catholic-dominated nation he decides to publicly declare himself a Protestant and decides to leave Ireland permanently. (His sceptical researches into the New Testament at this point were clearly the origin of his sceptical novel about Jesus, The Brook Kerith). He begins to make a round of valedictory visits to friends.
And so to the third volume, Vale, in which Moore shakes the dust of Ireland from his feet. On the framework of sitting by his fireside smoking his cigar, Moore recalls his past, including his grandfather’s pretensions to literary culture and his father’s failed attempts to make a soldier of him. He recalls his mingling with raffish racecourse types in England. (His novel Esther Waters is specifically referenced.) He remembers his training as a painter, his bohemian life in London and Paris, his quarrels with James McNeill Whistler, his friendships with Manet and Degas and Renoir. And he recalls Yeats railing at middle-class philistinism in the arts… which leads Moore to theorise that all art is really middle-class, and maybe Yeats is written-out as a poet. Moore expresses contempt for Lady Gregory’s artificial language in re-telling Irish folk tales. He gives an account of the hostile reception given to J.M.Synge’s The Playboy of the Western World, and a wrenching version of Synge’s death from cancer, too sick, as he lay in hospital, to gaze at the Wicklow Hills where he had roamed and dying with tears in his eyes. More than any other part of the trilogy, Vale is dominated by anecdotes and reminiscences of the artistic and literary life. But it ends on a note of psychological cruelty. Visiting his Catholic brother Maurice at Moore Hall, George rails against Catholic orders, who are being bequeathed some of the stately homes where gentry used to live. George had never married and was childless, despite – not always credibly – boasting of many past love affairs. As controller of the estate, George says that Maurice may inherit Moore Hall so long as he does not raise his children as Catholics. Colonel Moore indignantly rejects this attempt at financial blackmail. George Moore leaves Ireland for good.
For all the engaging briskness of his style, for all his genuine wit and the brightness of his anecdotes, George Moore the egotist can’t help emerging as a somewhat repugnant character in this autobiography. He is the man who tells Yeats how to write, presumes to advise Synge on how he should revise his plays, belittles artists greater than himself, such as Whistler, and generally expects to be accepted as the great authority on all things cultural. Reading between the lines (especially in the second volume Salve), it is clear that he did not make as big a noise in the Gaelic language scene as he expected to. I gain the distinct impression that the only people who continued to listen to him during his whole Irish sojourn were the acquiescent “A.E.”, the long-suffering Edward Martyn, and his brother Maurice, no matter how much he mocked them. Indeed, upon finishing the whole trilogy, I couldn’t help wondering how many quarrels he had really had in Ireland and how many peoples’ backs he had got up. In the last volume, he openly admits how much his first volume had irritated people. This leads me to some speculations. Did he eventually leave Ireland to avoid all the embarrassment and ill feeling his waspish pen-portraits had caused? Or was he by this stage simply bored with his intellectual toying with Gaelicism?
As in all memoirs, autobiographies and reminiscences, there is the problem of conversations being (supposedly) remembered word-for-word from many years previously. To his credit, George Moore does record at length his brother’s reasonable rejection of his eventual proposal about their inheritance; but more often it is Moore who is recorded as having triumphed in any exchange of words with others.
So, with all the usual caveats, Hail and Farewell has to be seen as one of those self-justifying exercises by a very talented literary egotist. In re-reading it, I was most reminded of similarly self-promoting memoirs such as Wyndham Lewis’s Blasting and Bombardiering and Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I was also reminded of the pitfalls of taking an egotist’s memoirs as objective fact – in which respect I think of the memoirs of Gunter Grass and Lillian Hellman, about whom I have previously commented.
And yet, like the memoirs of Hemingway and Wyndham Lewis, Hail and Farewell has been a veritable source-book for literary historians, and with very good reason. It is filled with good anecdotes about Irish literary worthies, malicious and patronising though many of them are. My pen was kept busy copying the best of them into my reading diary. The malicious side of me relishes Moore’s backhanded introduction to Yeats:
“I could see that among much Irish humbug there was in him a genuine love of his art, and he was more intelligent than his verses had led me to expect.” (Ave, Chapter 1).
He describes Yeats as something of a literary fop, and delights in depicting the bard, with spiritual pretensions, scoffing the iced buns to which he was addicted. Later, he mocks Yeats’ infatuation with Maud Gonne thus:
“Yeats, walking by, saw divinity. We have all enjoyed that dream. If our lady be small, we see her with a hand-mirror in her boudoir, and if she be tall as an Amazon, well then we see her riding across the sky hurling a javelin.” (Ave, Chapter 2)
Yet he does also have one luminous scene where, while discussing poetry with Yeats, he shares with Yeats the sight of 36 swans rising from the lake at Coole Park “a great clamour of wings, and the snowy plumage of thirty-six great birds rushing down the lake, straining to rise from its surface… a suggestion of fairyland.” (Ave, Chapter 9). And he does have an interesting description of standing with Yeats and watching a fisherman cast his fly. (Salve, Chapter 8). The references to two of Yeats’ best-known poems are obvious.
Perhaps signalling his own alienation from the literary in-group, he comments sensibly enough:
“We are apt to think we are living intensely when we congregate in numbers in drawing-rooms and gossip about the latest publications, social and literary, and there is a tendency in us to look askance at the man who likes to spend the evening alone with his book and his cat….” (Ave, Chapter 4)
It is interesting that one of the main reasons he gives for dumping Catholicism and tactically allying himself to Protestantism is that Protestantism will lead people more quickly away from Christianity altogether:
“…when papists have been persuaded to bring up their children as Protestants the next generation may cross over to the agnostic end of the quadrille. My [Protestant] co-religionists will not like to hear me say it, but I will say it all the same: Protestantism is but a stage in the human journey [towards agnosticism]” (Salve, Chapter 12).
The limitations of Moore’s aesthetic are evident in his dismissive comments about Whistler:
“His jokes were disagreeable to me; he did not seem to take art seriously…. Whistler discoursed to his friends on the beauty of Oriental art, and his praises sent me to the Japanese screen, but I could discover no correct drawing in it, and begged one of the visitors to tell me how faces represented by two or three lines and a couple of dots could be considered well drawn.” (Vale, Chapter 2).
Indeed, the limitations of his views are evident in his many references to his own greatness and to his being the salvation of Irish literature, if only other Irish writers would listen to him.
I have more to criticise in the Hail and Farewell trilogy than to praise. But it is memorable, it is readable, and its value as literary history is beyond dispute.
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.
REID’S READER FOUR YEARS ON
I have been writing Reid’s Reader for just over four years. This blog first appeared in June 2011. I would have produced a note on this a month ago, except that I was off on a European holiday at the time, and the blog was taking a break. So I now commemorate this august 4th anniversary by reproducing my answers to a questionnaire which I filled out in early June. The questionnaire was sent to me by Elizabeth Heritage, a publicist for the New Zealand Booksellers’ Association, as she was researching an article on book blogs in New Zealand for the booksellers’ own blog The Read. Inevitably (and as I had been advised in advance), the detailed answers I submitted became a mere one or two brief quotations in Elizabeth’s article, for which she had sent her questionnaire to five or six other bloggers and critics as well.
To celebrate the 4th anniversary of Reid’s Reader, I therefore reproduce in full below the answers I gave, which might once again remind you why I devote many unpaid hours a week to producing what you are reading. Here we go:
Why is book reviewing valuable?
Book reviewing has two separate and equally valuable purposes. First, simply to INFORM potential readers of the existence, subject matter, genre, and quality of a book. I do not believe that reviews are of much value unless they spend at least some time giving this sort of factual information. Second, book reviews should give an INFORMED [and preferably detailed] OPINION of the given book’s worth. This should always be a measuring of the book against whatever can be perceived as the author’s intention, or whatever the perceived genre is. Obviously, you do not review a thriller as you would an historical treatise. A really good review will also consider the moral, ethical or social implications of a book and its STYLE (the last of which is usually forgotten in brief newspaper reviews).
What role do you see blogs (in general) playing in New Zealand's literary culture? Your blog in particular?
First and most clearly, not all blogs concerning books are equal. Some are simply platforms for publicity – especially those run by publishers or booksellers or other people in the book industry. One would have to be very naïve indeed to go to such blogs expecting to find impartial analysis or comment on any book. The role of such blogs is to SELL books, not to evaluate them. Then there are blogs about books, which are in the nature of author support groups. These are those in which a group of people decide to write about a particular writer in order to promote (or console) such a writer. I am always very wary when I see a blog which claims to have been set up to “discuss the work of” any given living writer. Again, this really means that it will be providing publicity, even if of a more pretentious sort. Finally, genuine review blogs. Those that are run conscientiously are doing what all reviews and critiques should do – they are providing analysis and comment. They are raising the level of literate culture. At least I hope so. One reason I see for their proliferation (apart from the fact that many people like to have a say) is that there are big gaps in detailed book commentary in the existing print media. As for my own blog, it is for others to say how effective it is, but at least one reason I set it up was the frustration of not being able to analyse books in real detail in the existing New Zealand outlets. I hasten to add that I was, and still am, a regular reviewer in “Landfall”, the “Listener”, the “Sunday-Star Times” and (more occasionally) “New Zealand Books” – and on these platforms detailed comment is possible. But I wanted to be able to make detailed, analytical comment on books more regularly than my participation in these outlets allowed. There certainly is a place for the shorter newspaper review – well written it can give an indication of both a book’s contents and its worth. But I always crave being more analytical.
How do you choose what you will write about on your blog?
I have got to begin by saying unashamedly that the focus of my blog is on the highbrow. Every week, I use my own mailing system to send links to my week’s postings to academics in universities (especially those teaching history, languages and literature) and to people whom I know in the creative arts. My weekly posts have three sections. Firstly, in “Something New”, I analyse in detail a newly-published book. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of my choices are New Zealand books, and I often choose quite academic histories, collections of poetry, books on literature and culture from our university presses. Much of the New Zealand content I consider is scarcely dealt with in the mainstream press. I hasten to add that I do sometimes review thrillers and popular novels on my blog. I’m not a snob and I occasionally enjoy a good yarn. But these tend not to be my focus. The second section of my blog is called “Something Old”, and is the detailed consideration of an older book – anything from a classic from centuries ago to a book published four or more years ago. This allows me to make detailed use of the personal reading diaries that I have kept for years. My more general rationale for this is that a genuinely literate culture is one that is NOT tied to what has just been published or what is currently fashionable. Libraries are filled with books that are worth searching out. Finally, I have a section called “Something Thoughtful” which, basically, is my excuse to write a weekly essay or memory or diatribe or editorial on whatsoever I please – literary or otherwise.
Do you have any sense of whether/how your blog contributes to book sales?
Whenever I review a new book on my blog, I send a link and notification to the publishing house that provided the review copy. I emphasise I am NOT in the business of providing publicity, and the publishers I deal with know this. If the review in question is a largely favourable one, then the relevant publishers usually say how pleased they are; but if it is not so favourable, most are sophisticated enough to understand that my purpose was to review, not to publicise, and some even say that they quite agree with my viewpoint. How does all this affect sales? I really do not know, but the mere fact of being reviewed (favourably or unfavourably) draws some attention to books and must have some impact.
On average, how many visitors does your blog get per month and how long do they stay?
At the moment, I get approximately 3,000 page-views per week, so that adds up to about 12,000 per four-Monday month. (My blog has a new post every Monday, except twice in the year when I give myself a five or six week break).
Which other New Zealand book blogs do you read?
NO COMMENT – or I would be inclined to comment on them!
Any other thoughts/comments/anecdotes?
A simple statement – unless your vocation is really to write puffs and to be a publicist, then do not expect to make friends by writing honest and balanced reviews. New Zealand is a very small country with an even smaller pool of authors. It is hard not to meet or know or bump into the people whom you review. One Eminent New Zealand Literary Figure told me that he once ventured to review honestly a New Zealand book, and it caused him so much trouble in terms of feedback that he vowed never to review another New Zealand book again. I’m not in that position, but I do know that authors can be quite effusive when I have praised them, but a few get genuinely irate when they don’t get the praise they think they deserve. I NEVER sit down with a negative attitude towards any author. I at least attempt to judge each book on its merits. I am judging the book, not the author, no matter how pleasant or unpleasant he or she may be. But over the years I have had pompous novelist ABC and frankly neurotic novelist XYZ sending me screeds of e-mails accusing me of “malice” because (in fair, detailed and balanced reviews) I failed to recognize the overpowering genius of their efforts. Yes, impartial and well-documented reviews can be a perilous business.
Monday, July 27, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“LYDIA BRADEY: GOING UP IS EASY” with Laurence Fearnley ($38, Penguin-Random House); “RED NOTICE” by Bill Browder (Bantam Press, $37:99)
This week, for a change of pace, I look at two recent works of non-fiction, one New Zealand and one American. The New Zealand one first.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I admire physical adventurers, risk-takers, people who accomplish extraordinary physical feats. But I know I am not one of them. So I admire them from a distance. All the time I was reading New Zealand mountaineer Lydia Bradey’s memoir Going Up is Easy, I was looking for insights into what makes such adventurers tick, and I think I found quite a few.
To orient you – Going Up Is Easy is Lydia Bradey’s first-person account of her climbing career. It was put together in a long series of conversations with her friend, and sometime flatmate, the novelist Laurence Fearnley. Fearnley recorded and edited Bradey’s words, and at the end of some chapters Fearnley provides commentary (printed in italics), adding details and making observations about Bradey that Bradey has not made herself.
Bradey’s main claim to fame, and the one that is emphasised in the blurb, is that she was the first woman to climb Mount Everest without using oxygen. She achieved this feat in 1988, when she was 27. Laurence Fearnley speaks about sharing a house with Lydia Bradey in 1989, and of the climber’s troubles at that time:
“Lydia was troubled about what was going on around her, the direction her life was taking and her future. She was awaiting word from Nepal concerning her penalty for climbing Everest illegally, without a permit. On a more personal level, she was pretty lonely. She was still processing the grief surrounding the deaths of four of her closest climbing companions on Everest and she was separated from the man with whom she had formed a relationship overseas. On top of that, her New Zealand boyfriend, Leo, was killed in a paragliding accident only a few months into their relationship.” (pp.9-10)
Like a true epic, Going Up Is Easy begins in medias res with an account of theEverest climb. Admitting that she got on better with the Czech members than the New Zealand members of the (otherwise all-male) Czech-New Zealand climbing team of which she was a part, Bradey confesses how inexperienced she was about some things on that climb. Nevertheless, she managed to reach the summit on her own. Unfortunately, her frozen camera denied her the ability to give physical proof of her achievement. To her distress, the New Zealand members of the team, under Rob Hall, had packed up and left base camp before she descended; and on returning to New Zealand, Rob Hall disputed Bradey’s claim that she had ever reached the summit….
At which point, with the matter unresolved, Going Up Is Easy proceeds to a more chronological account of Bradey’s life in ten or so brisk chapters. Bought up by a strictly logical but emotionally-distant single mother, Bradey took to climbing early, made her first big climb on Mount Aspiring and reached the summit of Aoraki /Mt Cook when she was 18. But when, at the age of 19, she failed to reach the summit of Denali / Mt McKinley, the highest peak in North America, Bradey decided she needed to learn more of the technical skills of climbing. She managed to talk her way into doing three seasons of vertical rock-climbing in Yosemite national park in the USA, and then moved on to high altitude work in the Himalayas, climbing (but not summiting) Cho Oyu on the border of Tibet and Nepal, and then conquering one hitherto unclimbed peak. In 1987-88 she was with Rob Hall and a New Zealand team on the notorious K2. Here (in what reads as her best story) she was almost dragged into a crevasse and killed when another climber fell and was dangling on the rope she had to secure. Bradey admits that there were strong tensions between herself and Rob Hall on that expedition as he (and other male members of the New Zealand team) accused her of fraternising too much with members of a rival American team.
And so (in Chapter 12), Going Up Is Easy gets back to the matter of her Everest climb in October 1988. In more detail we are told of her summiting alone on Everest, of the controversy when Rob Hall denied her achievement and when she was not supported in her claim by the New Zealand Alpine Club, and then of her vindication by other climbers who were on Everest at the time. Bradey strongly suggests (without stating in so many words) that Rob Hall was suffering from sour grapes in that his team was the only one of many teams that failed to summit on Everest in that climbing season.
So, having given you my dry outline of this book’s contents, I revert to the question suggested by the opening paragraph of this review.
What makes mountaineers and other such adventurers tick?
Nearly everything in Lydia Bradey’s narrative suggests that her success is underpinned by a single-minded, tightly-focused determination bordering on obsession. There are light-hearted and funny anecdotes in this book. (The most delightfully silly is the one about a team Bradey was in having only Lord of the Rings as reading matter on one climbing expedition – and so ripping up the bulky book and sharing it out for the separate parts to be read in rotation by the individual climbers.) There are accounts of many affairs with male colleagues and companions over the years, but none seems to supplant Bradey’s first priority, which is climbing itself. In one of Laurence Fearnley’s asides (in Chapter 7), we are told that when Bradey once fell pregnant she immediately had an abortion and then had herself sterilised, family and children not being on her radar. One goad to her determination was the feminism of a woman who sometimes found climbing culture dominated by men who tended to regard women as auxiliaries only to “real” climbers.
If this sounds rather severe, though, there is another side to Bradey’s obsession. It is expressed most eloquently when she gives her account of vertical rock-climbing in Yosemite park:
“Spending several days on walls is very much like encapsulating a short part of your life in a vertical world of total commitment, concentration – and fun. I can think of no other pursuit that is so otherworldly, in that you’re still in contact with a solid, hard surface – unlike flying or swimming for example – but the ‘ground’ is no longer beneath your feet so much as in front of your nose. The overall sensation is of being in the landscape, becoming part of it, because everything is so close, and detailed – almost as if you are looking at the earth through a magnifying glass. Every feature is condensed into its smallest elements and this makes the transitions from one rockscape to another remarkable because you’re aware of every fine line, crack, fissure, bump or texture in the rock. Climbing is completely absorbing. That’s what it’s like – being absorbed in the landscape while, behind you, at your back, is unlimited open sky and space.” (pp.71-73)
The obsession is not cold-blooded. It has this aesthetic side to it, this fascination with the physical world and the obstacles it presents.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I’m a bit tardy in reviewing Bill Browder’s Red Notice, which was released internationally earlier this year, and I have to begin by stating the obvious. If I were to review Red Notice as a piece of literary prose, I would award it a very low grade. It is written with the tricks – and often the verbal clichés – of average journalism. Further, if I were to consider the author as a human being, I might have some negative things to say about him. And yet I still think this is an important book, for all its shortcomings. It tells a wrenching and horrible story of how oligarchical terror now controls post-Soviet Russia – Vladimir Putin’s Russia – and how human rights are routinely violated there with the full approval of the highest authorities.
Let’s consider these statements in more detail, starting with the author.
One has to accept that Bill Browder himself is something of a buccaneer and not guiltless of the faults of which all determined investment capitalists can be accused. By his own account he, the scion of a left-wing American family (his grandfather Earl Browder was the secretary of the American Communist Party), deliberately immersed himself as deeply as possible in capitalism as a form of rebellion from his background. He had a shaky start, first being sent (after time at a business school) to just-post-Communist Poland (described miserably) to advise on privatising a run-down bus company. This wasn’t much of a success. He got a job at Robert Maxwell’s firm, just before it went bottom-up with Maxwell’s suicide and the exposure of multi-million-pound fraud. Unable to get a job anywhere else, he was then taken on by Salomon Brothers, the dodgiest finance company on Wall Street, already crippled by repeated investigations into its practices. They had a policy with newcomers. In your first year, you make five-times the worth of your salary for the company or you get fired.
For a tiny retainer, Browder was sent to former Soviet Union to advise on the privatisation of a fishing fleet. But it was here he got his brainwave. He seems to have been the first Western venture capitalist to realize how huge bucks could be made trading in Russian stocks before the emerging oligarchs got the hang of capitalism. Not to put it too crudely, then, Browder himself, in the prologue to how he clashed with Putin, is revealed as an enterprising exploiter.
But (and this is the crucial point in understanding what follows), however dodgy Browder’s business practices might appear to you and me, he always played within the law.
Browder notes some crucial things about Putin’s domain, such as:
“Instead of 150 million Russians sharing the spoils of mass privatisation, Russia wound up with 22 oligarchs owning 39 per cent of the economy and everybody else living in poverty. To make ends meet, professors had to become taxi drivers, nurses became prostitutes and art museums sold paintings right off their walls.” (Chapter 9)
He finds it hard at first to recruit efficient Russian staff:
“Once I had the office, I needed people to help me run it. While tens of millions of Russians were desperate to make a living, hiring a good English-speaking employee in Moscow was almost impossible. Seventy years of communism had destroyed the work ethic of an entire nation. Millions of Russians had been sent to the gulags for showing the slightest hint of personal initiative. The Soviets severely penalised independent thinkers, so the natural self-preservation was to do as little as possible and hope nobody would notice you. This had been fed into the psyches of ordinary Russians from the moment they were on their mother’s breast. To run a Western-style business, therefore, you had to either completely brainwash a fresh young Russian about the virtues of efficiency and clear thinking or find some miraculous person whose natural psychology had somehow defied the pressures of communism.” (Chapter 10)
He also notes how much the country is now controlled by the super-rich:
“I had stumbled upon one of the most important cultural phenomena of post-Soviet Russia – the exploding wealth gap. In Soviet times, the richest person in Russia was about six times richer than the poorest. Members of the Politburo might have had a bigger apartment, a car and a nice dacha, but not much more than that. However, by the year 2000 the richest person had become 250,000 times richer than the poorest person. This wealth disparity was created in such a short period of time that it poisoned the psychology of the nation.” (Chapter 17)
Becoming CEO of the Hermitage Fund, he made a huge fortune for himself and his backers by buying shares in Russian companies for the knockdown prices that were offered only to the privileged. In the process, he managed to face down some of the oligarchs controlling such companies when they resorted to “diluting” the value of shares by artificially increasing the number of shares available for sale after shares had already been purchased (i.e. you buy, say, 20% of shares available, the shares are “diluted”, and you find you now own only 5% of shares, rendering your investment comparatively worthless.) As Browder explains in Chapter 16, “asset stripping, dilutions, transfer pricing and embezzlement”, as well as the use of security forces and police for thuggery, and a suborned and bribed judiciary, are the preferred methods of Russian oligarchs when they wish to control, take over, or destroy companies which others have made profitable.
In his Russian dealings, the crisis came for Browder when he publicly exposed a massive fraud involving the huge Gazprom company, where powerful Russian insiders were stealing profits with the full knowledge of Putin and of the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Bureau, which acts much like the old KGB and has much the same staff). Browder had his visa revoked for exposing this fraud.
When he publicly reapplied for his visa, the FSB and its oligarch controllers, got really rough. They proceeded to raid, smash up the offices of, steal all the available assets of, and terrorise the staffs of, all companies in which Browder was involved and all that had had dealings with him. Says Browder:
“We had become victims of something called a ‘Russian raider attack’. These typically involved corrupt police officers fabricating criminal cases, corrupt judges approving the seizure of assets, and organized criminals hurting anyone who stood in the way. The practice was so common that ‘Vedomosti’, the independent Russian newspaper, had even published a menu of ‘Raider’ services with prices: freezing assets - $50,000; opening a criminal case - $50,000; securing a court order - $300,000; etc.” (Chapter 24)
Having shown that oligarch-controlled companies were committing massive tax fraud, Browder was, in retaliation, himself accused (on fabricated evidence) of tax fraud. To defend himself, he hired a number of Russian lawyers. The lawyers were threatened by the FSB and its operatives. Browder too was threatened. Three of his lawyers managed to get out of the country while they still had passports. Browder did the same. But one of the lawyers stayed behind. This was the 35-year-old attorney Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested and imprisoned simply because he had agreed to act for Browder. Magnitsky was beaten, starved and tortured over a long period as attempts were made to get him to agree to testify against Browder. Magnitsky refused to give false testimony. He was beaten and tortured some more, and eventually was killed.
From England and America, Browder made sure that he kept the case in the public eye. In a long process, in conjunction first with human rights campaigners and then with American legislators, he managed to have framed what became known as the Magnitsky Act.
“The language of the act was simple and direct – anyone involved in the false arrest, torture or death of Sergei Magnitsky, or the crimes he uncovered, would be publicly named, banned from entering the United States and have any of their US assets frozen.” (Chapter 37)
It took some persuading to get this act passed by the US Congress and signed by President Obama, but finally it was passed, with its terms expanded to include others who had been so mistreated.
The story Browder tells has by now been verified in many reliable sources. It is commonplace for apologists for Putin to claim that he has won popularity by reining in the oligarchs. This is complete nonsense. The only oligarchs with whom Putin has clashed have been those who refused to give him a substantial part of their take. His reaction to the passage of the Magnitsky Act was rage and predictably retaliatory acts.
This book is not gracefully written. But it is a good chronicle of dealings in a country that lurched from communism to kleptocracy.