Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THERE ARE NO HORSES IN HEAVEN” by Frankie McMillan (Canterbury University Press, $NZ25); “THIS PAPER BOAT” by Gregory Kan (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99); “THE LIVES OF COAT HANGERS” by Sudesh Mishra (Otago University Press, $NZ25); “THUDS UNDERNEATH” by Brent Kininmont (Victoria University Press, $25)

This week I look at four separate and distinct new volumes of poetry. The four volumes have little in common except that they were all published by university presses and that I am reviewing them.

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There have at various times been controversies over the concept of a poet’s “voice”. What – if anything – is it that makes a poet unique, or distinctive from other poets? When we are reading this poet, how do we know that this was written uniquely by him / her and not by somebody else?
In reading the Christchurch-based Frankie McMillan’s There Are No Horses in Heaven, I find two very distinctive things. The first is the way McMillan likes to centre each poem on an individual character. The second is the quality of her imagery. In poem after poem, Frankie McMillan’s imagery is very nineteenth century. In her world we encounter a pointless treadmill in a prison, evoking all sorts of grim woodcuts depicting barbarous Victorian penal conditions; men standing in whales they have stripped of blubber; a glass-blower, then a corset-maker making whale-bone corset; and a cathedral and its steeple keeper. Granted, the cathedral in one poem may be Gaudi’s modernistic masterpiece, but to read many of the poems in this volume is still like seeing annotated sepia photographs from long ago.
The poems do not stand single but fold into one another, comment upon one another, and much of the volume is like a commentary on a former century. Images of a past age are more likely to take on an iconic (perhaps mythic or fairy-tale) quality than imagery drawn from our own times. It is surely intentional that when we read a poem like “He reads the welcome of swans” (p.39) we are meant to feel the mythic weight of the ferryman crossing the Styx (or Lethe) to the land of the dead:
He reads the welcome of swans
the ferryman knows his own life
is rich with incident
his paper boat, creased and folded
and he at the helm
cockeyed from staring at lovers
their haul of picnic baskets
his own palms worn thin
with the exchange of coins
his oar all dip and pull, the sweet
drag of water and  always
returning, the bare- footed ones
who miss nothing
who no longer expect
the arrival of others
the ferryman rubs his eyes
a penny for each of them 
the swan unfolds
the huge breathing of water
Many of the themes of this collection do coalesce in the title poem “There are no horses in heaven” (p.45) which has bits of Catholicism (a nun as the focus), children in a classroom, a child’s view of animals and the will to escape from the constraints of adult reason.
A new strain of imagery emerges in the volume’s third section, which moves into medical and biological terminology as we are introduced to optometrists, taxidermists, heart surgeons and (possibly) an obstetrician – yet again the imagery is of yesterday and largely of European cities. These are exercises in squaring humanity with its physicality, connected with poems about the travails of animals (horses, deer, mistreated gorillas, elephants on the Titanic). Once again, it is rare to find images of the present, such as in poem “Fowl, announcing an egg” (p.63) where is “their cry shrill / enough to interrupt the radio waves - / ad men with cut-throat deals on cars.”
Given the self-contained characters who dominate each poem, and given the retro imagery, there emerges as a subtext a certain alienation from intimate personal relationships. People are on their own and locked in the past. The prose-poem “In the nick of time, a deer” is a piece of childhood confessionalism, which suggests some real or imagined domestic violence. The irrational behaviour of adults emerges in “The perpetual visitor”; the two-page story “The year I lived with Lucky” gives us a couple in a derelict house scraping by on drugs; the barely-punctuated page “We three” could be a nightmare of, or fantasia of, attempted rape. The most intense feeling between two human beings is recorded in “Observing the ankles of a stranger”, being the momentary encounter of two strangers during the Christchurch earthquake. Of course there are poems about father and forebears, but they are framed in the past, icon-ised, capable of being seen somewhat ironically.
The term “whimsical” is demeaning and I would not wish to burden Frankie McMillan with it. Perhaps quirky or eccentric would be more accurate terms. The vision of There Are No Horses in Heaven is a very personal one and yet opening onto a world that is alien both to the poet’s experience and to ours.

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Charon steers “his paper boat” in one of Frankie McMillan’s poems in There Are No Horses in Heaven, and it is a strong image of something fragile where sturdiness is required. Apart from its title, however, Gregory Kan’s This Paper Boat has little in common with McMillan’s work.
This Paper Boat is the type of volume I am inclined to call a collage – or perhaps a collation. It mixes poetry with prose and with generous quotations from, and extracts from, another writer. Gregory Kan, Chinese, New Zealand-resident, immigrant from Singapore, weaves together in this diverse book childhood memories, stories told by his forebears and extended family, stories of his parents’ courtship and early marriage, stories of his own adjustment to New Zealand and memories of his compulsory military service in Singapore. In a central section, he incorporates private correspondence about looking for a missing, and apparently psychologically damaged, friend in Wellington. There is a10-page sequence called “The Sea of Cora”, which seems to draw on memories of childhood dreams with its references to bed and pyjamas and a caring female hand. Most appropriately, as the volume ends, there are details of traditional Chinese festivals for the dead, including “releasing paper / boats and lanterns on water / to ensure / that the ghosts find their way / back” (p.77). The book’s title is thus explained, for the book itself is a “paper boat”, an offering to the spirits of the dead. When writing of his father’s cultural dislocation, the poet invokes “Yuan Gui – a ghost who has died a wrongful death. He roams the world of the living, waiting for his grievances to be redressed.” (p.26) This seems to be very much the role of the poet himself, as is “Wu Tou Gui – a headless ghost who roams / aimlessly, who has gone missing for himself / in the way of missing something / he has never known.” (p.50) Other traditional figures are conjured up.
One of the ghosts haunting this book is Iris Wilkinson (aka “Robin Hyde”), the New Zealand author who flourished in the 1930s. Her writings are sampled in the text, juxtaposed with Kan’s own observations. The samplings are signalled by the use of “I.” meaning, presumably, “Iris”. Why should this New Zealand figure interest a young man of Chinese ethnicity? Because Iris Wilkinson travelled in China and wrote about it with an intelligent, but inevitably foreign, eye. Kan is in a way returning the compliment, writing his own comparisons of Chinese culture with New Zealand, but courteously admitting that he too is sometimes an outsider and may be missing some cultural nuances.
There is a tension in this book between the strong sense that the past is the past and will never return; and the awareness that the past shapes us whether we acknowledge it or not. Thus “I don’t know anything about / the past except / for what the past has left me.” (p.3). Thus “All dirt tracks look the same to me, at night. The gradual accumulation of sediment.” (p.5) And thus “I know nothing of death / except for what the dead / have left me.” (p.17) Our forebears did not know exactly where their families would end up, or where exactly their own destinies would lead, as in “My mother used to make up stories in the dark that no one knew the endings to.” (p.13) And yet every movement and decision of our forebears has had an impact on us, and on the wider world, for “The impact of each raindrop creates a small / crater in the soil, ejecting / soil particles up to five feet away.” (p.35)
Kan’s own free verse and prose are deceptively simple and straightforward – one would almost say declarative. But like the sediment on the jungle track, it is the build-up or accumulation of detail in the volume’s different styles that creates the major effect of This Paper Boat.  It echoes the cumulative build-up of detail that the past itself gives us.
I must conclude with a reference that does not strictly belong to this volume. On the website The Pantograph Punch, I read Gregory Kan’s memoir “Borrowed Lungs: My Life as a Conscript” concerning his compulsory military service in Singapore. It explains many things about the imagery deployed in This Paper Boat – the references to his platoon, to pencil-sharpeners, to the insult term “potato-eater” and so forth. Some of these I would not have understood without having read Kan’s brief memoir. I would, however, have understood the strong sense of the past as a shaping force, the questions about personal cultural identity, and the ambiguous feelings about both Singapore and New Zealand that This Paper Boat so sharply conveys.

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Sudesh Mishra is Fiji-born and currently head of humanities at the University of the South Pacific in Suva. When I open his The Lives of Coat Hangers, my eye at once tells me that this is a radically different sort of collection from either Frankie McMillan’s There Are No Horses in Heaven or Gregory Kan’s This Paper Boat. One obvious difference is that there are no outbreaks of prose in The Lives of Coat Hangers. The 90 odd pages of text carry 77 poems, most of them no longer than one page in length and some much shorter than that. Further, we are invited to read them as individual poems. There is no division of the collection into separate parts, and it takes careful reading to see any thematic collections between “runs” of poems. Even so, such “runs” are there.
The opening five poems of the collection amount to a poetic manifesto. The very opening poem “The Capacious Muse” tells us “The muse of poetry will not prescribe” (p.8) and proceeds to list all the things poetry should allow – anachronisms, illogicalities, apostrophes [i.e. directed declamations], odd juxtapositions, matter-of-fact statements and of course metaphor. But then the poem “A Rose is a Rose” (p.11) has an inbuilt ambiguity. On the surface it is lauding the poetry of simple factual statement, but a second look at its opening lines reveal that this is only true “in the simple poem composed simply” – and who ever said that all poems should be that? The same ambiguity (i.e. a questioning of apparently matter-of-fact statements) is found in “The Secret of Tautologies”(p.13) and in the beautifully satirical “The Government Gazette” (p.21) where “Miracles, irony, lightning rods, starvation, the easy laughter of children” are forbidden and “All news must aspire to the condition of spindrift found on Facebook or Twitter.”
In this book, therefore, there is a tension between a hard and rational adult intelligence, aware of the material reality of the world and the respect we should pay to literal truth; and the poet aware of the power of imagination and the necessity of the non-literal, the fantastic and the metaphorical to the life of poetry. The poem “This Life” (p.76) is like an admission of the limitations of poetry. In its entirety it reads:
Let the gift not to write
Be the greatest of gifts;

Stand, poet, on the verge of grasping
What you shall never grasp –

This life, evening light,
Falling leaves in their fury.”
Similarly, “Ant Poem” (p.42) asserts that there are some things poetry shouldn’t try to do. It reads:
An ant is not a poem
and neither is a bee.
So let the ant ant along
And let the bee be.
 “Butterfly” (p.43) is an exercise in onomatopoeia, reducing the butterfly to noise and movement, and implying that words are not sufficient to the task. Similarly  “Perspective” (p.72) implies that much poetic description is mere fiddle.
Yet in contradistinction to all this, the title poem “The Lives of Coat Hangers” (p.15) works as a celebration of the anthropomorphic imagination. It reads:

Unable to shake off the chill in their shoulders
They walk into closets and shut the door on us.

Some wait in the still-dark for days, ages.

They wait for a latch to raise an eyebrow,
For a shadow to step in from the light.

They long to be held in the arms of a coat:

Coarsely, hotly, and ever so falsely.

            So anthropomorphism is allowed by Sudesh Mishra’s capacious (and non-literal!) muse. But it is not the anthropomorphism so often attached to animals. It is the far more powerful anthropomorphism of inanimate objects, resonant of childhood, whose chief practitioner was Hans Christian Andersen. Thus there is a poem on a scarecrow and another on an armchair. “Winter Theology”(p.20) has as its central image a claw-footed bath. In “A High Court Judge” (p.18) the judge is reduced to his wig. In “Chimneys” (p.30), the chimney from the story of the Three Little Pigs transmutes into a chimney at Auschwitz. Later come poems about a primus stove, an old-fashioned sewing machine and a “gust-proof’ door
            Sudesh Mishra digs sometimes into ancient texts. The poems “The Half-wit” and “The Last Supper” reference New Testament imagery but what they have to say is far from clear. A clutch of poems is based on Homer. A very reductionist “Odysseus”(p.27) – apparently narrated by Telemachus - reduces the wanderer’s story to modern demotic. In similar vein, the poem “The Sibyl”(p.35) is about the pointlessness – or perhaps impossibility – of prophecy. Other thematic “runs” are poems referencing Indian mythology and poems referencing the sea (although always in such a way that the sea might as well be a metaphor) and, late in the volume, poems of personal regret and reminiscence. “Elegy” (pp.53-55) is the second longest poem in book and appears to be for poet’s sister, although perhaps much of its meaning is simply inaccessible to outsiders.
            These, then, are the main concerns of Sudesh Mishra – the status and nature of poetry itself, and the admission of the fantastic.
In quite a different key, however, is the volume’s longest poem, the second-to-last in the book. “Page” is eight pages of quatrains in protest at colonialism, seen through the lens of slavery and exploitation in South America and elsewhere. Its control and richness of imagery make it the special treasure of The Lives of Coat Hangers.

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Brent Kininmont’s Thuds Underneath is also a volume of separate poems unmixed with prose, although the poems are divided discreetly into three section, each signalled by a forward slash, thus /. And in each section there is a change of emphasis and locale. Geographical space is important to Brent Kininmont, as is travel.
The volume’s title comes from the opening poem “Spotter”:

The man on the wing is looking for holes
where the rivets should be.
He doesn’t lift his gaze
from lines of ellipses, from spotting
what might be omitted.
How can he keep an eye out for me
and not see my face
filling the window seat?
When he climbs down the ladder
I am grateful for thuds
where someone is stacking
all those theories about ourselves
and what we need to rise.
            This is a complex and interesting poem, and of course it plays with ambiguity. The man on the wing of the aircraft is presumably a spot welder, but the poem’s first-person voice belongs to somebody who spots the welder and is therefore also a “spotter”. This is a poem about perception and subjectivity. But then nobody would be seated in a window seat when maintenance (or construction) work was being done on an aircraft – so perhaps the welder is being imagined by the passenger. Or perhaps the passenger is reconstructing (as we sometimes all do when flying at many thousands of feet) how the aircraft was put together. Being “grateful for thuds underneath” could be a literal statement of confidence in the ground-crew who keep our aircraft safe by their diligent work. But it could reference the subconscious jolts and thuds out of which poetry is born. Also “theories about ourselves / and what we need to rise” suggests more than literal flight, even if it is (literally) the shape of the wing that makes the aircraft rise. We “rise” when our consciousness grows, when our imagination is exercised, when we become fully human. So the whole poem could be read as a metaphor. “I”, as an individual, am grateful for the cumulative work of others, which allows me to develop. This is a statement about human solidarity.
            That this poem should be chosen both as the opening of Thuds Underneath, and is the source of its title, is very apt. Brent Kininmont is indeed concerned with perception, solidarity and the extraction of metaphor from literal experience. But “Spotter” also introduces a strain of aviation imagery that runs through a number of the poems of Thuds Underneath, such as “The Crop Duster’s Daughter” (p.12), “Superphosphate” (p.30), “Nineteen” (p.13) which references an illegal flight which a young German aviator made into the Soviet Union, “Small Revolutions” (p.22) and especially one of Brent Kininmont’s best “Sweet Talk” (p.29), an ironical commentary on the unease passengers feel as they fly at high altitude over the most inhospitable places of the earth. In “Sweet Talk”, as in “Spotter”, “trust is the best flotation device” and again we have the theme of human solidarity and the extent to which we have to put ourselves in the hands of others.
Kininmont is not fixated on aviation, however. The first section of Thuds Underneath is as generous with images of sea voyages and of the remains of classical antiquity, perhaps as seen by a tourist. As for the second section, it moves into imagery drawn from a farming childhood in Canterbury, together with the (benign) influence of parents, the movement of the stars and comets, and the mountains. But over such large country distances the noise of aircraft is still heard. “What Boys Who Sleep Near Airports Know” (p.48) cheekily applies the different sounds made by propellers to human behaviour “Some don’t stop roaring / till their motions are carried… /…Some whine like bandsaws / when they talk of revolutions…”)
Finally, the third section takes us far from New Zealand to Japan, Kininmont’s current place of residence, and adopts a more pithy style as the poet cover distances in that other triad of islands. The collection ends with ten “Speech Balloons” – short poems reflecting on domestic life in Japan and the oddities of language.
There is a strong tone of irony in many of these poems, but the overall effect is of delight in what can be literally seen in the many places recalled.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.   

 “GASPARD HAUSER – THE ORPHAN OF EUROPE” by Octave Aubry (first published 1928; English translation from the French 1930); and “CASPAR HAUSER – THE ENIGMA OF A CENTURY” by Jakob Wassermann (first published 1908; English translation from the German 1928)

I will be quite honest with you from the beginning. Although it has inspired much interesting German-language literature, I am very sceptical about the story of Kaspar Hauser.
The received story goes thus – one day in 1828, a bumbling youth walked into the town of Nuremberg in Bavaria. He appeared to be in his teens – perhaps about 16 years old – but he could barely speak and moved in an inept way. He carried a letter, supposedly written by somebody else, identifying him as Kaspar Hauser and asking that he be trained as a soldier. Gradually, under care of a schoolmaster and others, he began to speak and was taught to write. He claimed that from his earliest childhood he had been kept in a dark place, that he had never been schooled, and that a mysterious person whom he could never see had somehow fed and cared for him without ever allowing him to learn anything.
            Later, Kaspar Hauser claimed that evil people were trying to kill him. He became a celebrity of sorts, with many ideas advanced about his origins. The English aristocrat Lord Stanhope took an interest in him, as did other notables. Kaspar’s tales of death threats led to the theory that he was somehow associated with a powerful, perhaps aristocratic, family who wished to get rid of him. In turn, this led to suspicions that he was the inconvenient and unwanted heir of such a family. Twice Kaspar was wounded by somebody who was never seen by anybody else. The second time, he died of the wound. His origins were never discovered, so he remained a tantalising mystery.
This in barest outline (I’ve left out many details) is the story of Kaspar Hauser.
While I wish the story of “the orphan of Europe” really were mysterious, I’m afraid I do not believe there is any real mystery. Romanticised accounts of the historical facts fail to point out that the two people who cared for Kaspar longest came to the conclusion that he was in fact a “rogue” and impostor – in other words a young con-man. Medical evidence suggests that the wound which killed him was self-inflicted – the inept faking of an assassination attempt (to substantiate the stories he had been making up) which accidentally went too far. Kaspar Hauser was caught out in lies a number of times. One’s confidence in his veracity is not strengthened by knowing that supposedly anonymous letters, which he said were threatening him, were in his own handwriting. If I were to reconstruct his life as a work of fiction, I would depict Kaspar Hauser as a shrewd young man, probably from the peasant or lower-middle-class background, who attempted to live the easy life off more affluent and gullible people who were intrigued by his supposed “mystery”. As to why nobody came forward to expose his fraud – given mortality rates then, it is quite possible that his parents and siblings were all dead. And remember, this was long before there were newspapers with photographs in them, allowing people outside an immediate area to identify who some unknown stranger was.
Yet the (romanticised) version of Kaspar’s story has inspired many capable writers. Stories of wild – perhaps feral – children hold a fascination for those who want to speculate on how the human mind would develop without conventional forms of socialisation. My first encounter with the Kaspar Hauser story was when I saw, nearly 40 years ago, Werner Herzog’s excellent film released in English as The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Its original German title was Jeder fur sich und Gott gegen alle [Every man for himself and God against everybody]. It was made in 1974. It did not attempt to “solve” the “mystery” of Kaspar’s background, but used Kaspar as a case study in a radically innocent mind, never socialised, and encountering the strangeness of the world for the first time. Herzog cast in the leading role an actor billed as “Bruno S.” (real name – Bruno Schleinstein) who had a history of mental illness and who played Kaspar as a sort of overgrown autistic child. Even if it was (probably) a complete fiction, it was a very interesting reflection on what an unsocialised mind in an adult body could be like.  It bore many comparisons with one of Francois Truffaut’s best films, L’Enfant Sauvage (The Wild Child), made in 1970 and dramatising the historical case of a doctor trying to educate a feral child.
As a legend, then, rather than as an historical fact, Kaspar Hauser has become an interesting figure in European culture and literature, with many poems, novels and plays written about him.

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All of which brings me, at long last, to two fictional works about Kaspar Hauser. One I regard as pure moonshine (a polite and old-fashioned word for bullshit). The other is an intriguing and worthwhile work of literature.
The bullshit first.
Octave Aubry (1881-1946) was essentially a French hack with some intellectual credentials. In the last year of his life, he made it into the Academie Francaise. He wrote a string of popular historical studies and quite a number of historical novels, most of which are now forgotten. His L’Orphelin d’Europe, Gaspard Hauser (note the French spelling of the name) was first published in 1928. This was the centenary of Kaspar Hauser’s first appearance in Nuremberg.  In 1934, Octave Aubry wrote another novel about Hauser called Une Tragedie de Palais (A Palace Tragedy), which shows how much the subject intrigued him. Given that Aubry was French, you will soon see why this was so.
I read L’Orphelin d’Europe, Gaspard Hauser in an English translation of 1930, wherein the title was transposed to Gaspard Hauser, the Orphan of Europe.
Plot – an intrepid young Frenchman Andre Furstel, son of the old steward to Her Imperial Highness Stephanie de Beauharnais (Napoleon’s adoptive daughter), goes to a small German state and discovers that Gaspard Hauser is the legitimate heir to the throne of Baden. Stephanie de Beauharnais, former countess of Baden, had given birth to a son; but before she died, her infant was snatched from her, by a member of the family that usurped the throne of Baden, and was hidden away to be used as a bargaining chip in later intrigues within the usurping family. However, Gaspard Hauser is murdered when Andre Furstel gets close to revealing this truth; and then Andre Furstel himself is murdered. The historical Lord Stanhope is part of the story, but given that this novel was written by a patriotic Frenchman, the aristocratic Englishman is naturally depicted as a conniving villain who is part of the plot to cover up Gaspard’s true identity. Trust the English to help snuff out a flicker of Napoleonic glory!
Let it be noted that Octave Aubry did not originate this theory about Kaspar Hauser’s “true” identity. Simply because Stephanie de Beauharnais and her infant son both died about the time that Kaspar would have been born, the idea that Kaspar Hauser was the “true” heir to Baden was one of the theories circulated in the nineteenth century. Needless to add, no historian gives it the least credence, as there is absolutely no evidence to support it. This hasn’t stopped sensationalist variations on the same theme appearing from time to time, including Peter Sehr’s 1993 German film Kaspar Hauser.
When I first read Octave Aubry’s novel, I thought it a pleasant and sprightly time-waster as conspiracy yarns go, but I also couldn’t help reflecting on how many French tales there are of noble French children done out of their royal inheritance – check out Alexandre Dumas’ (fictitious) version of who the Man in the Iron Mask was; the pitiful story of how Louis XVI’s young son (“Louis XVII”) died in a revolutionary jail; the youthful death of Napoleon’s designated heir (“Napoleon II”); and the death of Napoleon III’s son (“the Prince Imperial”) while serving the British (of course!) in the Zulu wars. Even as a confessed Francophile, I think Aubry’s novel is merely another example of the self-pitying conspiracy-theorist strain in conservative French historical fiction. And complete fiction it is.
Now for the second novel, which is a very fine piece of work and is apparently often regarded as the best fictitious rendering of Kaspar Hauser.
Jakob Wassermann (1873-1934) was a German Jew, highly regarded in literary circles and having the good fortune to die just before the Hitler era really kicked in. His Caspar Hauser oder Der Tragheit des Herzens (Caspar Hauser or the Sloth [or Inertia] of the Heart) was first published in 1908. I note that the English translation (by Caroline Newton) which I read was retitled Casper Hauser, the Enigma of a Century and was first published in 1928 – this again being the centenary of Kaspar Hauser’s first appearance in Nuremberg.
In the background of Wassermann’s fine novel there is a similar sort of conspiracy story to the one Aubry was to narrate. Caspar Hauser is apparently the heir to nobility who has been cheated out of his inheritance by being deprived of all education and being kept in a dark place by somebody he calls only “the Thee” (i.e. the person who called him only “du” – the familiar German form of “you”). There are real assassins out to kill him and to whom he eventually succumbs. The historical Lord Stanhope comes into the story, but in this novel he is not so much villainous as negligent, promising to make the boy his ward and building up the boy’s hope only to desert him when his interests change. In other words, Wassermann seems to have accepted as historical fact many of the fictitious trimmings to the story of the historical Kaspar Hauser.
Yet all this conspiracy stuff is merely the background to Wassermann’s novel, which, elaborating on the idea that Hauser was a genuine intellectual innocent, sets out to give a tale of psychological development. The real subject of Caspar Hauser oder Der Tragheit des Herzens is the development of a mind, with didactic asides on what is the most effective form of teaching the innocent.
The first part of the novel has Caspar being taught by a sympathetic teacher, Friedrich Daumier, who is fascinated by the simplicity and purity of Caspar’s soul and introduces him gently and lovingly into the ways of the world.  But the world can be a harsh place. Innocent Caspar is first mystified, then shocked and horrified, when the wife of a magistrate tries to seduce him. As Caspar himself grows in worldliness, and even in the power to deceive, the gentle Friedrich Daumier reluctantly relinquishes his care of him.
The second part of the novel has Caspar being cared for by a very different sort of teacher, the authoritarian Quandt, who is small-minded, disciplinarian, suspicious and dismissive of all Caspar’s claims to noble origins. Quandt allows Caspar no privacy, repeatedly denounces him as a swindler, and finally tries to confiscate Caspar’s private diary – Caspar destroys it rather than giving it up.
Wassermann’s implication is that Caspar is being spiritually “murdered” by Quandt before real murderers turn up and murder him literally. A minor character, Frau von Kannewurf, closes the novel by denouncing as “murderers” even those who believed they were doing Caspar good. The German subtitle “the Sloth [Inertia]of the Heart” seems to refer to the intellectual laziness of human beings in interpreting the world only in conventional ways, and not in the fresh ways of an untutored mind like Caspar’s. I should add that this novel was much admired by the disciples of Rudolf Steiner, who saw it as illustrating their favourite theories of pedagogy, and who much appreciated the scenes where Caspar dreams of a nurturing Mother Figure. (The 1973 reprint I read was produced by “Rudolf Steiner Publications”.) In the opening chapter, the sympathetic teacher Daumier says of Caspar:
I shall show the jaded world a mirror of untainted humanity; then people will see that there are valid proofs for the existence of the soul which all the idolators of today deny with base vehemence.”
This sort of statement is highly congenial to Steiner’s disciples who seek what is spiritual in the right upbringing of children.
One doesn’t have to be a devotee of the suspect creed of “anthroposophy”, however, to appreciate much of the novel’s psychological insight. Like Baudelaire, Wassermann sees the sensual connection between sounds and concepts as Caspar gets used to language:
Out of hollow sounds, the word arose. A form came to have a meaning because of the unforgettable word. Caspar rolls a word on this tongue, it tastes bitter or sweet, it contents him or it leaves him dissatisfied. Then, too, many words had faces, or they sounded like the chimes of a bell out of the night, or they stood out like flames in a mist.” (Chapter 4).
Like many writers on childhood, Wassermann understands the talismanic significance the moon can acquire in a young mind:
When the moon was full, he was frequently unwell, his whole body shivered, and only the sight of the moon itself relieved the pressure in his breast. He knew from which roof, or between what gables the clear orb would rise; he conjured it forth as if with his own hands from the depth of the sky, and when there were clouds he trembled lest they touch the moon, because he thought that the radiant disk would be sullied.” (Chapter 10)
And there is a strong scene in Chapter 18 where Caspar sees Frau Quandt give birth and has to face the traumatic fact that human life is born out of suffering.
Here, then, is one of those paradoxes of literature. Out of an historical falsehood (the received, largely fictional, story of a young man who was probably a fraud) there can be made a story telling many psychological truths. To hold a good novelist to strict historical truth, however, would be a bit like rebuking Shakespeare for not making King Lear reflect the real, non-legendary, history of ancient England.
One final comment on Wassermann’s absorbing novel. It throws up one phrase that I have not been able to forget since I first read it. As Caspar gets used to a modern (1820s) house at night, he reflects: “During the night the dark sits on the lamp and howls.” (Chapter 5).

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 

Standing on the front edge of my suburban property, I have a very strange device. It
is called a letterbox.
Once upon a time, its narrow slot used to swallow real personal letters. People wrote letters in those days. That is why it is called a letterbox.
Now there is the very occasional personal letter, and a burst of personal messages wrapped in greetings cards around Christmas time. But the custom of sending personal messages by surface mail has died. People now tend to send them by e-mail or text or (if they want to share them with the whole wide world) Facebook. The electronic has overtaken the material and handwritten.
These days, my letterbox tends to ingest bills, fines, one weekly newspaper, a couple of magazines to which I have subscriptions, publicity material from publishers and sundry other things.
It also ingests a prodigious amount of junk advertising.
And thereby hangs my tale.
This week, checking my letterbox as I am wont to do a number of times per day when I have too much time on my hands, I found, delivered all at one time, over 200 pages – count ‘em, over 200 - of advertising material.
Let me catalogue them like a bibliographer.
There were three separate touts for three separate real estate agents, Barfoot and Thompson, Harcourt’s and L.J.Hooker (well, I do live in Auckland). They all wanted me either to sell my house or to buy another, neither of which I have the least intention of doing
There were 24 pages of newsprint advertising Bunnings, a handyman franchise and trader in tools, building equipment and the like - blissfully unaware that my idea of being a handyman is limited to mowing the lawn and occasionally clearing the gutters or mending a fuse. The same futile appeal was made by a 12-page glossy from Repco.
There was a tout for a gym – an establishment of a sort which I never have used and probably never will use
There were glossy flyers for Domino Pizzas, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King, eateries which I do not patronise (although I am happy to be patronising towards the people who do). Presumably they are in league with the gym as their fat-saturated products would generate some of the gym’s needy clientele.
A 16-page brochure from JB HI-FI wanted me to upgrade my phone, computer, television, headphones, remote, household appliances etc. etc. But then a 24-page glossy from Noel Leeming was trying to induce me to do exactly the same thing.
A 26-page throwaway from K-Mart tried to sell me children’s clothing (sorry, I don’t wear it).
A 24-page brochure from The Warehouse said I could get super summer savings, apparently not understanding that pre-Christmas and immediately post-Christmas are when we do such miscellaneous bargain shopping
A 12-page glossy from Warehouse Stationery (yes, quite a different business form The Warehouse) wanted to prepare me for going “back to school”. But then so did an 8-page brochure from Office Max. And so did 24 pages from Harvey Norman before it moved on to selling electronic equipment. 16 pages worth of Whitcoull’s advertising tried to sell me books and stationery and children’s games.
The only piece of junk that vaguely interested me were the 12 pages of newsprint listing “specials” at the supermarket where I do the family shopping every Saturday morning. But even that held my attention for all of about 30 seconds. After all, I already know what’s on the shopping list when I set out, and I find the “specials” for myself if they are things I have already determined to buy.
I remind you that this huge and redundant pile of glossy and matte paper was all delivered at the same time into the same letterbox.
A number of obvious thoughts spring to mind.
First, isn’t this an incredibly inefficient way of advertising anything? What potential consumer would possibly want to wade through all this? Surely, at best and at any time, any recipient of this mass of paper might be interested in one or two of the advertised products and services. Yet I can only assume that (like the equally unsolicited, irrelevant, bulky, glossy Property Press, which comes through my letterbox each week) this form of advertising has some effect, or printers wouldn’t continue to be paid for churning it out. All but the most incompetent entrepreneur can spot an unnecessary overhead, after all.
Second, what a tremendous waste of paper such a delivery is. People say that forests are depleted to produce books and newspapers, but what huge square miles of trees must going into producing this rubbish.
Wiseacres have sometimes told me that I could avoid such unwelcome visitations if I put one of those “No Circulars” or “No Junk Mail” signs on my letterbox. But I have rarely heard of delivery boys and girls paying the slightest notice to them. (The low-paid delivery people are mainly concerned to get their run over with as soon as possibly without examining the niceties of signage.)
So I sighed as I always sigh when hundreds of pages of bilge are delivered to me. Naturally I did what you probably do, and consigned it as once to the wastepaper box. In a couple of weeks it will be collected with other paper for recycling; and doubtless in due course the paper will be resurrected as further redundant and unread flyers which will follow the same route.