Monday, June 11, 2018

Something New


We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE EXPATRIATE MYTH” by Helen Bones (Otago University Press, $NZ35)

In the second century AD, the usually-reasonable Roman emperor Hadrian banished the poet Juvenal from Rome because Juvenal had dared to write a lampoon of one of the emperor’s favourite actors. This was real exile. If Juvenal returned to Rome before his time of banishment was up, he could be put to death. In the 20th and 21st centuries, many writers have been exiles from totalitarian regimes – Hitler’s, Stalin’s, Mao’s etc. Their life or liberty would be in danger should they return to their home country. These people were real exiles. But what of those writers who leave their country of origin simply because they want to gain new experiences or advance their writing careers? Can they, in any meaningful sense, really be called exiles?

Okay, I know the term “exile” can be used metaphorically and I know Jimmy Joyce spoke of using “silence, exile and cunning” as stratagems when he wished to leave Ireland. Even so, I think the word has now been overused in this metaphorical sense, to the point where it has become almost meaningless. Would any New Zealand writer have faced death or jail had he or she remained in New Zealand? Nope. Therefore none were ever exiles in any real sense. This is why I bridled 14 years ago when the late James McNeish produced his typically myth-promoting volume Dance of the Peacocks, pretentiously subtitled “New Zealanders in exile at the time of Hitler and Mao Tse-Tung”. Not one of the writers with whom McNeish dealt was genuinely in exile, and one or two (like Charles Brasch) returned easily to New Zealand when what amounted to their extended OE was over. Okay, there have been New Zealand writers like Katherine Mansfield, Dan Davin and James Courage who left New Zealand and never returned (apart from brief visits in one case). And there have been even more writers who have felt that New Zealand (or at least New Zealand some decades ago) was stifling, limited and isolated from the real centres of culture, and who yearned for the bigger picture. But my point about none of this being true exile still stands.

You may imagine my delight, therefore, when I first caught sight of Helen Bones’ The Expatriate Myth, written as her doctoral thesis and subtitled “New Zealand writers and the colonial world”. At last, I thought, someone will take down this New Zealand myth of “exile”. And indeed there are places in The Expatriate Myth where Bones does just that. Bones notes in her introduction:

The term ‘expatriate’ is often commingled with the category of ‘exile’, a character or idea that occurs frequently within the field of literary criticism. Such criticism represents literary exiles as grappling with dislocation and loss, focusing on the creative inspiration or hindrance that this provides. A common assumption arising from the perceived necessity of expatriation is that expatriate writers were overseas against their will: they were compelled to leave their ‘home’ place, resulting in dislocation and exile.” (Introduction, p.14)

Much later, she suggests that many literary ‘exiles’ were poseurs, acting out a drama to make themselves seem more interesting:

If the idea of a writer was automatically equated with the idea of exile… it is not too difficult to imagine that some people played up to this trope. There were those who chose to reject colonial ties and emphasise the cultural deprivation they had overcome. The idea of literary exile was a part of European modernism to the extent that it might have been seen as a desirable situation… The usual persona of an exile, however, involved conscious ‘self-fashioning’, and living out the life of a tortured artist, which was a fashionable pursuit in Europe.” She then instances the fashionable ‘lost generation’ of Americans in Paris after the First World War. (Chapter 5, p.110)

Most forcefully, she differentiates real exile from self-chosen expatriation, and shows how the term has become diluted:

The term ‘exile’ originally meant ‘banishment to a foreign country’, often as a kind of punishment. It is commonly used much more broadly than this: according to the Oxford English Dictionary’s longer definition, it can mean ‘prolonged absence from one’s native country or a place regarded as home, endured by force of circumstances or voluntarily undergone… for some purpose’. The term gets even more diluted when applied to literary exiles, to refer to anyone writing from a marginalised perspective, rendering the term somewhat meaningless… Thus the writing industry of London was people heavily with ‘exiles’. Virtually everyone was marginalised – if not foreign, they were the wrong class or the wrong gender.”  (Chapter 7, pp.148-149)

Yet, while it is clearly rejected, the myth of ‘exile’ is not Bones’ main focus. She is most concerned to counter what she sees as a falsehood that was propounded by New Zealand’s literary “nationalists” in the 1930s (the generation of Curnow, Fairburn, Mason, Sargeson, Glover et al) and that has been repeated frequently since. This was the idea that there was no real literary culture in New Zealand before the 1930s and no networks of writers, and that therefore writers were compelled to flee overseas (meaning mainly to Britain) to find circles of like-minded literary people. The “nationalists” saw themselves as the first generation to be grounded in New Zealand and capable of reflecting this country in worthwhile literature. Therefore they tended to despise the ‘exiles’ (even Katherine Mansfield) as people who had succumbed to a British rather than a New Zealand viewpoint and therefore could not be counted as truly representing this country. They also tended to see New Zealand writers before their time as producing an ureal, romanticised “Maoriland” image of New Zealand, designed to tickle the British taste for the exotic.

As Bones says in her introduction:

This book will examine the expatriate myth from two main angles. The first is the widely accepted idea that expatriation was necessary for New Zealand writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because of the country’s supposed dearth of opportunities, a result of both the perceived lack of publishing outlets and the absence of a community of like-minded artistic people” … “The second focus… is an investigation into the nature and effects of New Zealand expatriatism when it did occur.” (Introduction, pp.11-12)

Bones’ method is to argue, often with the help of tabulated statistics, that there was a literary culture in New Zealand before the literary “nationalists” came along; that there were literary networks; and that only a minority of New Zealand writers settled permanently overseas. Most of those who did go overseas did so for a short time only.

The distinction between “nationalist” writing and “Maoriland” (or “colonial”) writing is, she says (Chapter 1) artificial. There were continuities. Most immigrants to New Zealand in the 19th century were literate, giving New Zealand higher rates of (Pakeha) literacy than any other British colony with, per capita, more theatrical groups and music societies than in any other colony. There were strong international links with the rest of the Anglo-world and New Zealand readers were more au fait with modern literary trends than is often assumed. Before the 1930s crowd came along, it was no contradiction in New Zealand to be both “nationalist” and “imperialist”, given continuing strong links with the imperial centre. (Making this point, Bones frequently references Felicity Barnes’ New Zealand’s London – A Colony and Its Metropolis, reviewed on this blog six years ago; and Stafford and Williams’ Maoriland, also noticed on this blog.)

Before the 1930s, there was a thriving literary culture in terms of much poetry being printed in newspapers and some (short-lived) literary magazines.(Chapter 2). Here Bones sometimes references Chris Hilliard’s The Bookmen’s Dominion (reviewed in Landfall magazine, November 2006), and herself sides with the “bookmen” (Alan Mulgan, O. N. Gillespie, Charles Marris, Pat Lawlor) in the way they encouraged local writers, did not sneer at expatriates like Katherine Mansfield, and addressed a wide audience. The new “nationalists” regarded the “bookmen” as dictating popular taste, but Bones sides with the “bookmen” for their accessibility, noting:

The earlier group of bookmen were no more tyrannical than their successors, and had broader interests over several genres. The newspaper-based literary culture was more democratic and accessible, particularly for women, than later literary circles, which tended to be based in universities. This division caused genre to be more of an issue, as the university-based scholars favoured realist and modernist modes of expression (excluding genres like popular writing). The contribution of newspapers to local writing was not acknowledged because they became less popular as the medium for ‘serious’ writing as time went on: later writers were not so interested in this kind of exposure.” (Chapter 2, p.53)

Denying that pre-1930s New Zealand writers were linked slavishly to England, Bones chronicles the strong Trans-Tasman connections (Chapter 3) and the importance of the Australian Bulletin as a site for publication by New Zealand authors in the early 20th century. She gives many examples of writers who moved from New Zealand to Australia – or vice versa – and notes how often both groups were happy to identify themselves as “Australasians”. Next, she notes (Chapter 4) that, between 1890 and 1935, while most poetry by New Zealanders was published in New Zealand, the great majority of novels by New Zealanders, most of whom stayed in New Zealand, were published in Britain. In other words, it was not necessary to become an ‘exile’ in order to write.

However, the 1930s literary nationalists built up the legend that becoming an expatriate meant lacking “authenticity” as a New Zealand writer, and they saw publication overseas as a sort of betrayal. (Chapter 5) Bones counters this by saying (a.) Permanent expatriates like Mansfield were the exception rather than the rule for pre-1930s New Zealand writers. (b.) There was a “cultural cringe” assumption in New Zealand that literary work published overseas was more worthy of respect than literary work published in New Zealand. BUT (c.) There was much self-interest in the “nationalists” decrying overseas publication, as some of them (like Denis Glover) were intent on promoting their own New Zealand-based printing and publishing enterprises.

Furthermore (Chapter 6) New Zealand writers who stayed overseas (Mansfield, John Mulgan) did not cease to be authentically New Zealanders and wrote much about this country. Besides which, as a recently-settled colony, considerable numbers of New Zealand’s general population were always travelling to and fro between New Zealand and Britain, and not just writers. There were many writers who, like other New Zealanders, simply made a brief trip to Britain and returned (e.g. Jessie Mackay). Others initially went overseas to study, not to write (Dan Davin, John Mulgan, J.C.Beaglehole, James Courage). In the case of New Zealand journalists, travelling overseas was an inevitable part of their trade.

As for the great metropolis of London (Chapter 7), some who left New Zealand believed naïvely that literary success would be more easily attainable there than in New Zealand – in which assumption they were sorely mistaken. Few were able to get “introductions” to publishers and many noted the sordor and unpleasantness of London. Monte Holcroft, A.R.D. Fairburn and Frank Sargeson all made brief forays into England before realising they were better off as writers in New Zealand and heading home. In the end, opines Bones (Chapter 8), it did not matter where New Zealand writers wrote. While a few New Zealand writers made it into British literary circles, and many were themselves “insiders” in England, others were snubbed as “colonials”. She remarks that “talent, tenacity and good luck” (p.158) were required for New Zealand authors to succeed in both New Zealand and Britain.

So far, I have simply stated Helen Bones’ case. On the whole it is a good one, but it is not watertight. Not only are “nationalists” rebuked in nearly every chapter, but there is a great deal of repetition (as there is in this overlong review), with the same examples being cited numerous times in the text. The case could have been stated more concisely. There is also often a scolding tone. Katherine Mansfield is roundly upbraided for not being more grateful to New Zealand:

 “Katherine Mansfield enjoyed every material and educational advantage available to her in New Zealand but preferred to emphasise the deprivations of colonial life. Widely accepted without question, these attitudes further reinforced ideas about New Zealand as a cultural desert.” (Chapter 5, p.111) [Emphasis added]. This sounds like a grumpy parent saying “After everything I’ve done for you…”

Sometimes, too, Bones seems to undercut her own case, although these may be seen as intentional “concessions” for the sake of balance. Thus, after just having referenced the homosexuals Hector Bolitho, D’Arcy Cresswell, James Courage and Charles Brasch, she remarks:

 “The ‘strictures of society’ did inspire some people to go overseas, but this is often wrongly confused with literary reasons for leaving. The two are entirely separate issues, as the social constraints did not necessarily prevent people from writing.” (Chapter 6, p.131)

Entirely separate issues”? Possibly. But the experiences of these people do suggest that they felt happier writing outside New Zealand (even if Brasch returned).

Similarly, speaking of good postal systems and personal networks of writers in New Zealand, she says: “Although numbers were too few to allow a fringe or bohemian subculture to form and encourage avant-garde literary innovation, there were fledgling literary networks.” (Chapter 2, p.48) [Emphasis added]

Again, this suggests the real need to leave the country which some writers felt.

Bones’ presentation and style are logical, orderly and more than a little bloodless, perhaps because this is a doctoral thesis meeting academic requirements. I did delight, however, at a few amusing exempla, such as the story of the Aussie Bulletin editor who sent the following curt replies to New Zealand authors “[Your story] creaks like a cattle truck.” “Your effort is not worth the blow it strikes at the national ink supply” “As your poem was neatly typewritten we restrain our wrath.” (all quoted Chapter 3, p.61). Them wuz the days when editors spoke their minds.

Yet my main criticism of The Expatriate Myth is this. Even if she is to be applauded for challenging the myth of “exile”, isn’t Bones in fact flogging a dead horse when she attacks the “nationalists”? For at least the past forty years, it has been one of the great indoor sports of Academe to point out the shortcomings of our old literary nationalists. Indeed this has become the new orthodoxy. We’ve already read Stuart Murray’s Never a Soul at Home (VUP 1998) and Lawrence Jones’ Picking Up the Traces (VUP 2003) and have seen New Zealand literary nationalism dissected by modern sensibilities. We have looked at the left-wing side of things with Rachel Barrowman’s A Popular Vision (VUP 1991) and have heard Fairburn’s and Glover’s generation being scolded for their misogyny and homophobia in Kai Jensen’s Whole Men (AUP 1996). Then there is John Newton’s recent A Hard Frost (VUP 2017), my review of which may be found on Landfall-Review-on-Line, December 2017, at this link https://www.landfallreview.com/a-language-of-subterfuge/#more-3452

My chief impression was that Newton was executing a sort of push-back against the current orthodoxy by noting that, for all their perceived masculinism, mysogyny and (possibly) parochialism, the nationalists did bring about some sort of literary renewal in New Zealand. It remains true, after all, that more New Zealand poetry and prose after the 1920s can still be read as living statements and live literature than the poetry and prose before that time, most of which reads as period pieces.

Perhaps the modernists exaggerated the concept of necessary ‘exile’ before their time, but it also remains true (as Bones’ own evidence shows) that many New Zealand writers felt uncomfortable in New Zealand and wanted to at least taste the wider world. And perhaps we should be reminded how much smaller New Zealand’s population was back then (less than one third as large in the 1920s as it is now) and how much longer overseas travel (exclusively by ship) took then than it does now. It was not a case of easily accessing metropolitan culture by instant electronic links, and it was not a case of hopping over to London in a day or two. To leave New Zealand promised a long absence – perhaps permanent – and to stay in New Zealand meant the prospect of missing much international literary culture. The modernists exaggerated and mythologised – but perhaps there is something to be said for their case after all.

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.

“THE ODD WOMEN” by George Gissing (first published in 1893)

            If you are a regular reader of this blog, you might know of the interest I have taken in the late-nineteenth century English realist novelist George Gissing (1857-1903). His novels may be dour, sometimes even plodding, and certainly depressing in parts as he examines working class people in complete poverty and middle-class or lower-middle-class people struggling to survive and keep up appearances. Thus I have had posts on The Nether World (1889), reflecting the despair of slum dwellers; New Grub Street (1891), presenting the struggles of hack writers and often regarded as his best book; Born in Exile (1892), a piece of inspired literary self-pity, very much echoing Gissing’s own distress at being dealt a cruel hand by life; and Will Warburton(published posthumously in 1905), about the class anxiety of a professional man who is forced to go into “trade”. And by way of relief from all this I’ve also posted on the last of his works published in his lifetime, The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), being a fantasia of the life he would like to have led as a retired literary gentleman in the country.
Many negative things can and have been said about the narrow focus of Gissing’s work, and the tricks of long hack-writing he himself practised to make his novels saleable to publishers who expected three-deckers. (Unnecessary conversations as page-fillers; dips into melodrama after grimly realistic scene-setting etc.). One quality you can never take away from him, however, is his sheer readability – the clarity of his prose.
The Odd Woman is not the best of Gissing’s work, but it is an interesting attempt to take on what he saw as an urgent social problem.
Its short synopsis would read like this: A young woman of no fortune marries an older man of some substance, but the marriage falls apart under the pressure of the husband’s possessiveness. Meanwhile an independent man attempts to woo a feminist, but they are never able to negotiate exactly what the nature of their relationship should be, and so they never marry.
And here is my longer synopsis: Dr Elkanah Madden, a widower, dies in the first chapter, leaving his family of daughters with only a modest annuity and no real education or professional training. Some years later, Alice Madden and Virginia Madden are living hand-to-mouth in London. Their younger sister Monica Madden earns a living in a sweatshop. She wishes to raise herself. She gets to know the philanthropic feminist Miss Mary Barfoot and her more zealous feminist assistant Rhoda Nunn, who make it their mission in life to raise young women to independence by giving them secretarial skills. 21-year-old Monica seems set on this path, when she meets and marries the wealthy Edmund Widdowson (aged 44).
            One major strand of the plot thus concerns the marriage of Edmund Widdowson and Monica Madden. He wants his wife to be submissive, obedient, a companion and housekeeper for his quiet life, whereas she wants social independence and her circle of friends. The strain grows. Monica was aware, even upon marrying Edmund, that she was “selling” herself for social ease.
The other major strand of the plot concerns Rhoda Nunn and her relationship with Mary Barfoot’s brother Everard Barfoot. Everard woos Rhoda. Rhoda is at first absolutely convinced that she will never marry, so she accepts Everard’s courtship as an elaborate means of asserting her independnce, when she will eventually refuse him. Everard at first thinks of her in terms of an amusing conquest (he has been around a bit), but gradually the relationship becomes more intense. They are negotiating their relationship and on the pont of working out their own form of marriage.
However, the denouement comes from a meshing of these two strands of plot. As her marriage has become more restrictive and intolerable, Monica has fantasised about running away with a young bounder called Mr Bevis (who, having flirted with her, deserts her and runs away at the first sign of trouble). By confusions and mistaken identity, Rhoda Nunn comes to believe that Everard Barfoot was the object of Monica’s adulterous desires. So Rhoda and Everard part. Edmund Widdowson discovers his wife’s intrigue with Bevis. So Monica and Edmund part.
Months later, the confusions are sorted out, but Rhoda and Everard are unable to rekindle the sort of trust that could lead to marriage. Monica dies shortly after giving birth to Edmund’s daughter. Edmund now knows of her innocence – she did not actually commit adultery -  and leaves his baby daughter in the care of Alice Madden as he returns to comfortble bookish celibacy. Rhoda returns to her vigorous feminist concerns.
Subplots concern Virginia Madden becoming an alcoholic and having to dry out; Everard Barfoot’s scholarly mathematician friend Thomas Micklethwaite, who marries only after years of scrimping and saving to afford marriage; and one of Monica’s sweatshop companions Miss Eade who (if one can decipher the novel’s 1890s euphemisms) appears to become a prostitute.
As is always the case with Gissing, this novel would be a happy hunting ground for those who see literature as a form of historical sociology. The “odd women” of the title are, as the novel explicitly tells us, that surplus female population that will never marry and yet are scarcely trained or educated to earn their own way in the world. So this is one of Gissing’s 1890s works of lower-middle-class anxiety (as opposed to his 1880s novels of slum-dwelling subsistence). The Odd Women seems designed to give a variety of perspectives on marriage and on the prospect of women’s independence: – the man (Micklethwaite) who wears himself out earning enough to afford a wife; the complete pragmatist (Edmund Widdowson’s widowed sister-in-law who plays the marriage market to her own advantage); and of course the feminist (Rhoda) and the forward-thinking man (Everard), who believe they can work out their own substitute for marriage, respecting each other’s independence, but in fact fail to do this as they find their own jealousies intruding. Is Gissing implying that human nature is not as strictly rational as reformers (in this case feminists) would like it to be?
There are naturally many connections with similar interests in other novels by Gissing. His next novel In the Year of Jubilee (which I have so far not dissected on this blog) also has three sisters and a fourth woman trying to re-negotate the concept of marriage. Curiously, though, despite the apparently “progressive” tendency of Gissing’s theme, I constantly detect the “Henry Ryecroft” bookish side of Gissing peeping through. Edmund Widdowson’s bafflement that his wife will not submit to him and become a domestic helpmeet is quite sympatheticaly observed; and given that Edmund Widdowson’s ideal life is the quiet reading of books he is in some respects one side of Gissing himself.
Is this novel, then, the product of a conservative forcing himself to write sympathetically about feminism? I wonder, too, how conscious Gissing was of the irony of having his feminist characters (Mary Barfoot and Rhoda Nunn) explicitly disavowing any interest in working-class women?
Mary Barfoot explains why they do not train working-class girls: “The odious fault of working class girls, in town and country alike, is that they are absorbed in preoccupation with their animal nature. We, thanks to our education and the tone of our society, manage to keep that in the backgroun. Don’t interfere with this satisfactory state of things.” (Chapter 6)
They seem mainly interested in helping middle-class girls – and how ironical it now seems to us that their highroad to independence is seen to be by becoming typists. There is an unintentionally amusing moment when the zealous Rhoda Nunn inveighs against romantic novels: “If every novelist could be strangled and thrown into the sea, we should have some chance of reforming women….. [of reading novels] The result is that women imagine themselves noble and glorious when they are most near the animals.” (Chapter 6)
So much for the sociology – unavoidable though it is in any book by Gissing. As literature, The Odd Women is flatter than other Gissing novels of the same period. Reading it, one is even more conscious of abstract conversations going nowhere in particular. I was irritated by the 1890s euphemisms for pregnancy (when Monica is pregnant) and I felt some complications were tedious plot-spinning. The quality of “readability” is not to be sneezed at, however. Gissing is very adept at neatly filling in a character’s background in an introductory paragraph. But this as not as spirited a book as New Grub Street or Born in Exile.
Pehaps it lacks the vivid involvement of self-pity that fired others of his novels? Even so, there is a moment when Gissing appears to be thinking of himself as Everard says to Rhoda: “We fall in love, it is true, but do we really deceive ourselves about the future? A very young man may; but we know of young men who are so frantic as to marry girls of the working class – mere lumps of human flesh. But most of us know that our marriage is a pis aller. At first we are sad about it; then we grow cynical and snap our fingers at moral obligation.” (Chapter 10)

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.

There is a tendency in much unbuttoned debate for people to misuse words that have real and precise meanings. I am thinking here of words that are proper to the study of psychology and feature in genuine clinical studies. How often one hears such words reduced to serving as mere insults.
Let’s give an obvious example.
I’m aware that the term phobia comes from the general Greek word for fear, but it is now used in the sense of an irrational, an unreasonable, fear. There are, of course, such things as perfectly rational fears. If I were seated with my bare bum hanging over over a long-drop in the Aussie outback, it would be perfectly reasonable to experience fear of being bitten by a redback spider. Such a bite would cause extreme pain and discomfort to say the least. If I were in the rainforest and a tarantula dropped from the foliage onto my shoulder, it would be perfectly reasonable to fear its bite. It could be lethal. Only if I were quaking in fear at the sight of a harmless house-spider, spinning webs to catch flies, could you say legitimately that I was suffering from arachnophobia, for such a fear would be quite irrational. Yet how often this term phobia is now used to stigmatise anyone who raises legitimate concerns on various topics.
I do not suffer from homophobia. I do not quake in fear at the thought of gays and lesbians and I do not imagine that they pose any threat to me. Without wishing to sound corny, I know and get along well with a number of gays and lesbians. But then I do have misgivings about the tendency and direction of some current legislation concerning homosexuals. For example, will the legalisation of gay marriage mean that, in future legislation, churches will be compelled to perform gay weddings on pain of prosecution? And will church-run adoption agencies be similarly forced to adopt children out to homosexual couples, on pain of closure if they do not comply? (This has already happened in England.) Is it irrational or phobic to have such misgivings?
Similarly, I do not quake in irrational fear at the existence of the Muslim religion and (as every current apologist is now ultra-ready to tell us) I am fully aware that the great majority of the world’s millions of Muslims are peaceable people. But I do have perfectly reasonable concerns about the agenda-setting of radical Muslims, their tendency to violence, and the difficulty (or reluctance) many Muslims have in adjusting to, and assimilating to, secular pluralistic society in Western countries. So do these legitimate and rational concerns amount to a phobia – because so often, expression of such concerns is labelled Islamophobia by apologists, who will follow it up with the taunt “racist”, apparently unaware that Islam is not a race.
Phobia is the prime term currently misused and abused in debate, but other psychological terms are also used as terms of general abuse. Do you have a legitimate and reasonable worry about something important? Well obviously you are paranoid. Are you capable of entertaining more than one line of thought? Do you have mixed feelings about some things? Then clearly you are schizophrenic. Are you a clean and tidy person who likes to keep things orderly and in place? You must be anal retentive. And of course if your behaviour is sometimes a little inconsistent, if – in small things - you like to behave in a particular way different from some of your friends, if you are concerned about things that don’t concern everybody, then you can be labelled with the catch-all term neurotic. (When somebody loosely tells me that a third person is “neurotic”, my standard response now is to ask “Who isn’t?”).
Quite apart from their inappropriateness outside a genuinely clinical context, these words, when used loosely, are the equivalent of small children saying nyah-na-nyah-na-nyah-nyah when they have no rational answer to something they do not like. They also create diminishing returns. If you use “neurotic”, “phobic” or “schizophrenic” for people who do not clinically suffer from these ailments, then what terms do you have left when you encounter real neurotics, phobics and schizophrenes? The currency of language itself is debased.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“DICTATORLAND – The Men Who Stole Africa” by Paul Kenyon (Harper-Collins, $NZ37:99)

            Sometime ago I took the opportunity to review, in the “Something Old” section of this blog, Chinua Achebe’s famous novel Things Fall Apart. I remarked then that nearly all the books I’d ever read about Africa were not written by Africans. That included Martin Meredith’s very depressing The State of Africa [also reviewed on this blog], published in 2005. Meredith chroncled in awful detail the dictatorial regimes that have dominated and oppressed most Africans in the last fifty years. So appalling was much of the detail that, I said, I ended Meredith’s book being grateful that I lived in a country where at least the rubbish is collected.

            Paul Kenyon’s Dictatorland covers similar territory, but it is not as inclusive as Meredith’s history. A British journalist, Kenyon joins general history with anecdotes based on his own travels in Africa. Dictatorland therefore veers in style from pages based on earnest historical research to more chatty and personal observations, sometimes with slightly jarring results. Kenyon has also decided to organise his text thematically, rather than giving a general survey of the state of the whole continent. His theme is the resources of Africa, and how they have been exploited (or squandered). In his introduction, he considers what he regards as the most significant natural resources of Africa. So he divides his text accordingly into three parts: (1.) Gold and Diamonds; (2) Oil; (3) Chocolate…. with an uneasily added fourth part about the slave trade. This means that he deals only with those dictators who have been related to these commodities, so readers should not be surprised that some of Africa’s most notorious tyrants figure only in footnotes or not at all.

There is a major problem when a European broaches the topic of indigenous African tyranny. It can easily encourage the racist view that Africans are not capable of ruling themselves. Although he is dealing with grotesque misrule by Africans, Kenyon nowhere encourages such an idea. He prefaces each chapter with a backstory showing how African resources and African peoples were exploited by the old European colonial powers (Britain, France, Germany, Portugal et al.). Those powers left a legacy of unstable states which often yoked together incompatible tribes, and therefore set the conditions for strife and power struggles once independence came half a century ago. Kenyon also shows how international corporations have been happy to make profitable deals with Africa’s own tyrants.

Even so, the focus is on African despots.

We begin with Joseph-Desire Mobutu (or “Mobutu Sese Seko”, as he later rebranded himself). For thirty years he controlled what has now reverted to being the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but which Mobutu insisted on giving the artificial name “Zaire” (a name not accepted by the mass of Congolese any more than the junta-imposed name “Myanmar” is now accepted by the mass of Burmese). Having, with CIA and Belgian support, overthrown Patrice Lumumba, who was clearly the more popular figure at the time of independence, Mobutu set about ruling a state based entirely on cronyism and self-enrichment. International corporations paid Mobutu fabulous sums to get the rights to the country’s mines, but none of the proceeds trickled down to the population. Instead Mobutu’s Swiss bank accounts became incredibly fat. Mobutu’s much-touted “authenticity” (supposedly emphasising Africanness as opposed to Europeanness) was always a fraud, and his attempts to articulate a coherent ideology came to nothing. As Kenyon remarks:

He demanded complete obedience to the official ideology of his newly created party…. But what was his political philosophy? It was difficult to pin down: generally liberal in economic matters but almost Maoist in his social control. Anti-communist, but at the same time anti-capitalist. There were bits and pieces of everything in there, a political stew into which Mobutu tossed whatever ingredient he chose. He welcomed the continued support of the US, while at the same time travelling to Beijing for inspiration. Why not call it Mobutism and be done with it? And so it was, and just like other personality cults, he needed to strip the country of all that went before in order to start rebuilding it in his own image…” (p.35)

This entailed bankrolling such prestige projects as his own version of the palace of Versailles, while the country’s infrastructure degenerated to a level worse than it had been under Belgian colonial rule. And, of course, thousands of political enemies, or perceived political enemies, were imprisoned, tortured and killed. When the economy of the Congo eventually hit rock bottom, Mobutu attempted to bolster his international profile by intervening in the war that was then going on in Angola.

I couldn’t help feeling a huge wave of Schadenfreude when I at last reached the page where Mobutu, sitting in front of his TV screen, watched footage of the Rumanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu being overthrown and shot by his own people; and Mobutu at last realised he could face the same fate. His subsequent attempts at a charm offensive, to win over his own people, were a miserable failure. To everybody’s relief, he was overthrown and died in 1997.

Mining wealth also comes into the next chapter with its story of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and his systematic destruction of that country’s economy – not to mention his strong-arm tactics to suppress or intimidate any legitimate political opposition. Comparing the post-independence histories of the Congo and Zimbabwe, I am very struck by the fact that both despots began as close friends and comrades of people whom they later spurned or destroyed – Patrice Lumumba in Mobutu’s case and Joshua Nkomo in Mugabe’s case. Both also continued, during their respective tyrannies, to live off the myth that they were genuine freedom fighters, thwarted only by capitalist imperialism.

When Paul Kenyon turns to the matter of oil, he first devotes a chapter to the shabby deals that British, Dutch and American companies (BP, Shell, Esso, Caltex) made in the 1950s with Libya’s King Idris, to get as much oil as possible at the minimum cost. Naturally Idris and his ministers were all hopelessly corrupt. When finally, in the 1960s, Idris was overthrown by the handsome young army officer Muammar Gaddafi, there was real hope (as there had been when Nassar unseated King Farouk in Egypt) that his regime would be a humane and reformist one. Kenyon notes an iconic photo that was taken of Gaddafi, just after he had taken over, standing with Nasser in the back of a Land Rover. He remarks:

And if the clocks had stopped there, in the winter of 1969, that image might have adorned a generation of students’ walls. There could have been silk-screen prints by Andy Warhol, Gaddafi ballads from Joan Baez, revolutionary anthems from John Lennon. He had driven out the imperialists and begun redistributing the country’s oil money. There were promises of modern hospitals and schools for all. But, for those who watched events more closely, there were already clues as to where all this was heading.” (p.167)

Where it headed was, of course, to another closed dictatorship, which in this case took to sponsoring terrorist movements abroad. The sordid details of Gaddafi’s regime are notorious enough (mass imprisonment, torture, public executions etc.). So is evidence of his psychological instability – witnessed in the corps (or harem?) of young women whom he kept as his personal bodyguard. But once again some details are so grotesque that they can be greeted only as sick humour. Take the story of his sons. One paid for a degree at the London School of Economics, which gave him a doctorate on the strength of a thesis that somebody else wrote for him. Another fancied himself as a football star. His father therefore made him captain of the national team. When he performed dismally, the crowd booed him. So he had the national football stadium bulldozed to the ground. You can do that if your father has unlimited power.

The other oil-rich countries with whose dictators Kenyon deals are Nigeria and tiny Equatorial Guinea. 

It is quite clear that Francisco Macias Nguema, the dictator of Equatorial Guinea, was literally and clinically insane. He suffered from drug-induced hallucinations and real paranoia. He was the man who organised a synchronised execution, in the national stadium, of 150 of his perceived enemies. They were hanged as the pop song “Those Were the Days” was piped through the loudspeaker system. During his reign, nearly half Equatorial Guinea’s population fled in terror to safer countries. Macias was overthrown and succeeded by his nephew, the equally corrupt Obianga, who is still in power. Kenyon notes that both West (America, Europe) and East (China) court him for access to his oil.

Nigeria is a far larger and more complex country. Like Zimbabwe (back when it was “Rhodesia”), Nigeria was an artificial creation of the British Empire. In Zimbabwe, the Shona and Ndebele peoples were pushed into one state by the imperial power. In Nigeria the Hausa-Fulani, Yoruba and Igbo people were forced together. Independence led to civil wars and a revolving door of coups and dictators through twenty years. Every dictator looted the oil revenue which mainly came from the Igbo region (which had vainly sought to win independence as “Biafra”). The longest lasting dictator was Sani Abacha who (cue for sick laugh, please) died of a heart attack after taking three Viagra pills when trying to service three prostitutes.

As always, Kenyon draws no racist conclusions from this mess, noting how much Abacha throve on deals with international corporations who were not in the least worried by violations of human rights – so long as they could extract the precious black stuff. Nigeria’s most outspoken advocate for human rights was an internationally-respected intellectual, Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was eventually hanged by Abacha’s goons. Kenyon quotes Saro-Wiwa’s caustic comment on foreign investors:

We are face to face with a modern slave trade similar to the Atlantic slave trade in which European merchants armed African middlemen to decimate their people and destroy their societies… As in the Atlantic slave trade, the multinational companies reap huge profits.” (quoted p. 249)

Compared with mineral wealth – gold, diamonds and oil – cocoa may seem a small element in this saga. Perhaps it is. I can’t help feeling that Kenyon included his “Chocolate” section so that he could tell, in a chapter of its own, the woeful tale of a scandal back in the old imperialist days. In the very early 20th century, the colonial power Portugal harvested the cocoa crop in its equatorial possession by what amounted to slave labour. Chief beneficiaries of this were the British companies Cadbury’s, Rowntree’s and Fry’s, all of which were run by morally-righteous Quakers who were loudly opposed to the slave trade and noted for their humanitarian enterprises. But when investigating reporters (one of whom was hired by the chocolate companies themselves) exposed the conditions of slavery under which the cocoa harvesters laboured, the British companies were very reluctant to admit the fact, fearing a boycott of their products. They successfully sued a newspaper which reported the facts.

Having got this tale out of the way, Kenyon moves on to consider the dictator of cocoa-rich Cote d’Ivoire, the Francophone and basically Francophile Felix Houphouet-Boigny. Compared to other dictators, Houphouet-Boigny (who died in 1992) was relatively benign – at least his form of oppression didn’t amount to full-scale genocide. He is most notorious for spending billions on having built a basilica near his home village, vaguely modelled on St Peter’s in Rome, but far larger. This sort of pointless conspicuous consumption is a feature of most of the dictators covered here.

The final chapter of Dictatorland is poorly integrated into the book. Kenyon switches to Eritrea, to tell the story of Isias Afwerki, who is still regarded as a nationalist hero by some, because he fought (successfully) to extract his country fron Ethiopia. But in doing so, Afwerki militarised his small state to the point where there is universal conscription and a massive slave trade as young men are, in effect, kidnapped for sale to the armed forces.

While this book is filled with enlightening information, I closed it with the sense that Kenyon has foxed himself in the framework he has chosen. By dealing, in all but the last chapter, only with those African dictators whose power rests on marketable natural resources, Kenyon misses out other equally notorious dictators and self-appointed strongmen (Idi Amin, “Emperor” Bokassa etc.). The picture is a skewed and partial one. Even so, Kenyon  does prove how irrelevant declared ideologies are to the history of oppression. Outside the megalomaniac designs of the dictators themselves, the finger can very easily be pointed at international capitalism, for bankrolling dictators in the interests of controlling resources. But recently the rival ideology of Marxism has been just as destructive in Africa, witnessed in the ultra-Marxist slogans both Afwerki and his Ethiopian enemy Mengistu adopted. The old Soviet Union, the new Russian Federation and China have been just as eager to get a share of the African loot as any corporation plutocrat, and have sponsored regimes as brutal as those bonded to neocolonialism.

As for the high-sounding ideological manifestos which so many dictators produced upon taking over their unhappy countries,  they proved to be little more than smoke to cover the ancient vices of greed and a lust for power.

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.

“MEMOIRS OF HADRIAN” by Marguerite Yourcenar (Memoires d’Hadrien first published in French in 1951; English translation, by Grace Frick in collaboration with Marguerite Yourcenar, first published 1955)

The matter of first-person narrative voice in fiction is always a problem. When we are children, we read adventure stories told by their main characters and simply assume that we are meant to take the narrator’s word as the truth. But as adults, we are quickly made aware of the “unreliable narrator”. There is a distinction between author and narrator, and there is therefore always the possiblity that the author does not want us to take the truthfulness of the narrator for granted. So we enter the realm of irony; we understand that events and their interpretation in the novel are subject to the narrator’s perspective, which could be skewed and untruthful in various ways. We learn to distrust the narrator.
I am pondering this problem because only recently did I get around to reading Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, which had hitherto sat unread on my shelves for many years. It is a first-person memoir as told by the second century Roman emperor Hadrian. After one reading, I think the author intends us to see Hadrian as a wise, insightful man of a philosophic cast of mind; non-belligerent, moderate and balanced in his moods; a promoter of civilisation and an excellent administrator. In other words, somebody to be admired. And yet frequently I found myself judging (Yourcenar’s version of) Hadrian as self-deluded, self-regarding and pompous – and hence less likely to be totally reliable in what he says. Is this simply my interpretation of a character whom the author sees as a paragon? Or has she intentionally created an “unreliable narrator”? This matter of voice bothered me throughout my reading of Memoirs of Hadrian.
As usual, let me first say something about the author. Marguerite Yourcenar (1903-1987) was a formidable intellectual. Of minor-aristocratic French-Belgian parentage, her family name was de Crayencour which she and her father re-jumbled into “Yourcenar” when, in her teens, she took to writing and her father financed the publication of her first books. She was (in old age – when she was 77) the first woman appointed to the Academie Francaise in its 346 years of existence up to that time. Though she always wrote in French, she was fluent in English. Among other things, she translated some of Virginia Woolf’s novels into French.  She spent years as an academic in the United States, to which she had moved at the beginning of the Second World War, and she lectured in comparative literature. She wrote many novels and essays, but Memoirs of Hadrian, upon which she had worked on and off for over two decades, was a bestseller when first published and is still the novel for which she is best known. I make it a rule to judge the book and not the person of the author, but I think it is very relevant to Memoirs of Hadrian to note that Marguerite Yourcenar was a lesbian who lived with her American partner Grace Frick for nearly forty years. She collaborated with Frick in producing the English translation of this novel.
Memoirs of Hadrian takes the form of a long letter written by the emperor Hadrian to the young Marcus Aurelius, the adoptive son of Antoninus Pius whom Hadrian had chosen as his successor. In creating this fictitious, confessional letter, Yourcenar is banking on our knowledge that, after Antoninus Pius’s 23-year-reign as emperor, Marcus Aurelius himself was to reign for nineteen years and is generally (if not entirely rightly) regarded as a moderate and philosophic man. Both Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius are among the emperors given a tick of approval by Gibbon. There is a problem with having Hadrian addressing young “Mark” however – usually the novelist simply ignores that this is supposed to be a letter to Marcus Aurelius. After many pages with no specific address to young “Mark”, it is quite a shock when late in novel (Part 5, p.181 – all page numbers in this notice are according to my old Penguin paperback of the novel) the narrator mentions “your father Antoninus”. There is also the problem that Yourcenar’s Hadrian often tells the supposed recipient of his letter many things that the younger man would already have known anyway.
If you read this novel to find out the external facts of Hadrian’s active and public life, you will find them. Hadrian is a Spaniard from a family that had been settled in Spain for over four generations. His grandfather (according to Yourcenar) had many peasant virtues, and his father was an imperial administrator and bureaucrat. Young Hadrian gets training in soldiery as an officer in legions commanded by Trajan. He earns merit as a soldier and is given command of the First Legion Minerva. A clever chap, he ghost-writes speeches for Trajan once Trajan is emperor and he is unofficially named Trajan’s successor. At the age of 28, he enters into an arranged marriage with Sabina, a marriage that has been arranged by Trajan’s wife Plotina. Hadrian admires Trajan’s skills as a military leader, but he thinks some of Trajan’s triumphs are hollow such as his triumph over the Dacians (from what is now Romania) which is no triumph at all. Hadrian regards Trajan’s proficiency in war as something that ultimately makes the empire more vulnerable by over-extending its borders and creating unnecessary enemies. Nevertheless, he keeps his opinions to himself and Trajan makes him a consul.
After Trajan’s death, and after some court intrigue, Hadrian at last becomes emperor. He stops the empire’s war in Mesopotamia. He does not wish to be seen as a tyrant, so he acts leniently when his deputy in Rome kills senators for corruption. Because he himself makes Rome’s bureaucracy so efficient, he is able to be absent from Rome frequently and spends much of his life travelling his empire. “In my twenty years of rule, I have passed twelve without fixed abode” he says at one stage. After the massacre of the 9th Legion by Caledonians, he goes to Britain (being the first reigning emperor to do so since Claudius nearly a century before), organises native auxiliaries as reinforcements and supervises the building of the protective wall that now bears his name. As often as possible he avoids wasteful wars and makes treaties with vassal states, but he does prosecute a ferocious war against the Jews in the land he officially calls Palestine. In Rome itself, he has the Coliseum rebuilt and all signs of the decadent emperor Nero removed from it. He has Trajan’s column raised to glorify the conquests of his predecessor and he also has the Pantheon built, displaying his view that all gods should be worshipped together and that essentially all gods may be merged into one.
Marguerite Yourcenar was not the only novelist to produce a fictitious first-person “confession” by a Roman emperor. Probably the best-known examples of this curious sub-genre of historical fiction are Robert Graves’ racy, gossipy first-person Claudius novels I, Claudius (first published 1934) and Claudius the God (1935). Some years back I also recall reading and enjoying Gore Vidal’s first-person Julian (1964), concerning the apostate emperor who turned against the Christianisation of the Roman empire. Vidal basically used his novel as a vehicle for his anti-Christian views, but it is sharp and witty and was produced before Vidal descended into the inane bitcheries of his later writing career.
Even more that Graves or Vidal, however, Yourcenar is determined to emphasise the intellectual side of her protagonist. For while the public events and achievements of Hadrian’s life are there, Hadrian’s “confession” is mainly an exposition of the emperor’s philosophical ideas, so that the public events become background music.  The letter to Marcus Aurelius is being written in the shadow of death. It is a kind of confessional last will and testament, or the “written meditations of a sick man who holds audience with his memories” (Part 1, p.23) as Hadrian says. Each of the novel’s six sections is named after an abstract or philosophical concept related to Hadrian. Inevitably, then, the first section is named after the three most famous words from a poem Hadrian is purported to have written - “Animula Vagula Blandula” (“little wandering soul”). This is also the novel’s epigraph and the closing words of the novel are the whole poem in translation.
At once warning us what sort of novel this will be, the whole first part resolves itself into a series of philosophical essays, in which Hadrian discourses on the limits of sensual pleasure, the nature of love, the reality of death and the passage of time, the benefits of sleep, and how one writes autobiography. As the novel progresses he says much about the nature of the self and of the soul (that “animula”), and the slim possibility of immortality after death or of the transmigration of the soul (i.e. reincarnation). Ultimately he comes to no definitive answer on these matters, although it is clear that an anxious questioning of the possibility of immortality and his later contemplation of suicide are consistent with a man who knows that his time is nearly up. Some have interpreted the passage and effect of time as the main theme of this novel.
While Yourcenar’s Hadrian sometimes inclines to mysticism and joins at least one mystery cult (Mithraism), he has a pragamatic attitude towards public religion. Like other Roman emperors, he believes conquered peoples can keep their local gods, which can be absorbed into the cults of traditional Roman gods – and by such benign means, subject peoples can thus be gradually Romanised.  Personally he sees all gods (Roman or otherwise) as equals, a merging of the gods that is put into concrete form by his building of the Pantheon in Rome.
As befits an emperor, governance, or the proper way to rule, is also a major part of his philosophical reflexions. Hadrian credits himself with inventing Imperial Discipline – that is, a standardised code of military conduct something like the British “King’s Regulations”. He also credits himself with reorganizing and making more efficient the bureaucracy of Rome and setting up the Perpetual Edict on how Italy itself (as distinct from the rest of the empire) is to be governed. In the last pages, as death nears, he has thoughts on the future of Rome and how long his reforms will endure. Naturally Hadrian sees himself as a spreader of civilisation and culture, noting: “The founding of libraries was like constructing more public granaries, amassing reserves against a spiritual winter which by certain signs, in spite of myself, I see ahead.” (Part 3, p.106) This civilisation can endure only if there is peace, order and uniformity in the empire. For this reason, Hadrian hates Jews. He claims “During the Jewish War  the rabbi Joshua translated literally for me some texts from Hebrew, that language of sectarians so obsessed by their god that they have neglected the human.” (Part 2, p.34). Jews, with their strict and transcendent monotheism, are set in opposition to the Hellenistic religion which Hadrian cultivates – a religion with many gods and much room for sensuality. In the novel’s account of the prolonged and brutal war against Simon Bar-Kochba (in Part 5), Hadrian’s contempt for Jews is even more firmly expressed. They are fanatics who will not let their god join the pantheon of the empire’s many gods. Their strict monotheism threatens the whole foundation of the empire. There are only very rare references to Christians, those offshoots of Judaism. With patrician disdain, Yourcenar’s Hadrian sees Christians as preaching something that is philosophically incoherent, but harmless for uneducated peasants and other people of the lower classes.
Marguerite Youncenar once described most historical novels, accurately, as “fancy dress balls” – modern writers pretending, with all their modern values, to express the thoughts and vision of people from past ages. Clearly she saw herself as not falling into that category of writer. Even so, for all her scupulous historical research, there are moments in Memoirs of Hadrian where the narrator shows a remarkable prescience. In the novel’s third part (“Tellus Tabilita” = the genius of the pacified earth), much of what Hadrian says about the art of ruling sounds like a post-Enlightenment agenda. He discourses on wars (there should be fewer); women (they shouldn’t be forced into marriage); slaves (they should be treated humanely and their families should be recognised) and bureaucracy (the importance of choosing the right people). He also just happens to side with those few “daring philosophers” who believe that the Earth itself might move and not be the fixed centre of everything. In the closing pages of the novel, he says the empire will have its ups and downs and may finally fall , but he still holds out for “humanity, liberty and justice”. All historical novels, even the best, end up betraying the age in which they were written – and in these moments of unlikely prescience, I can’t help hearing the voice of someone who was finishing her novel just after the Second World War and placing much hope in sane internationalism guided by the new United Nations.
I might temper this criticism, however, by noting that, having recently read Robin Campbell’s translation of a selection of the letters of Seneca (who flourished some time before Hadrian), I am aware that some Roman intellectuals really did express the “advanced” ideas that Yourcenar attributes to Hadrian. So perhaps her attribution might be historically accurate after all.
So far, I have said nothing about what may be the chief emotional matter of what is generally a dry and cerebrotonic piece of writing – I mean the emotional matter that may have made the historical figure of Hadrian attractive to Marguerite Yourcenar. This is of course the theme of homosexuality. Hadrian has a wife, but has no children with her. She is a mere background figure, rarely mentioned in the novel. Hadrian admits that he had casual mistresses in younger years, but none is important enough to be even named. The only woman he appears genuinely to like is Plotina, Trajan’s widow, who arranged his marriage and has a sharp analytical mind like his own.
As Yourcenar’s Hadrian presents himself, he is in search of an ideal of beauty, not a brief erotic thrill. He wants a love that lasts. Early on, he says: “The technique of the great seducer requires a facility and an indifference in passing from one object of affection to another which I could never have; however that may be, my loves have left me more often than I have left them, for I have never been able to understand how one could have enough of any beloved.” (Part 1, p.19)
Hadrian’s ideal of beauty means attractive young men. In his twenties, he almost loses Trajan’s favour when they both fall for the same boy. He much admires the culture of Greece and its homoerotic mythology with the story of Achilles and Patroclus and “the heroic friendships of the Sacred Battalion” (Part 2, p.64). Late in his life he is attracted to his young male assistant Celer and the beautiful Greek slaveboy Gadara, although he does not have any sexual play with them.

But most important, and the centrepiece of the novel, is his love for the Greek youth Antinous, which is recounted in the fourth part of the novel, appropriately called “Saeculum Aureum” - the age of gold. The title refers to Hadrian’s love of Greece in general but also to the chief satisfaction of his emotional life. Antinous is 13 or 14 when Hadrian, a grown man, first encounters him. Hadrian sees Antinous as the embodiment of godlike beauty, a gift from the gods, an ideal. But Antinous commits suicide at the age of 20 or thereabouts. Hadrian’s grief is overwhelming. He has a temple built in honour of Antinous. He attempts to start a religious cult centring on the young man and his beauty.
I make it clear that MargueriteYourcenar has made none of this up. Hadrian’s obsession with Antinous is a matter of historical record, inasmuch as we have historical records of it. Appended to the novel is a closely-printed 13-page essay in which author carefully enumerates her sources, which are many. For later reprintings of the novel she added an essay on how she wrote Memoirs of Hadrian.  But, to recur to what I said about the author near the beginning of this notice, it is hard to see her choice to write about this particular emperor as anything other than a reflection of her own sexual impulses.
So at last to the matter with which I began this notice. How much is Hadrian intended by Yourcenar to be a paragon, held up for our admiration? Or how much is there a screen of irony through which we recognise an unreliable narrator?
I often feel the icy hand of Hadrian’s pomposity and self-regard when, early in the novel, he tells us how clever he is in wooing only women who will not cause scandal, and how tactful he is in order to gain favour and power. In these moments he is, to me, like that “cold fish” Prince Hal, early in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, who thinks (i.e. soliloquises) that he will cast off his tavern mates as soon as he has power.
I perceive in Hadrian an Olympian view of things when he becomes emperor, as if he is a god looking down on ants. Possibly this was the way many Roman emperors – masters of the world as they knew it – felt about their role, but it is still something to make us wary of his views, as in: “I was thankful to the gods, for they had allowed me to live in a period when my allotted task consisted of prudent reorganization of a world, and not of extracting matter, still unformed, from chaos, or of lying upon a corpse in the effort to revive it.” (Part 3, p.94)
When he assesses his relationship with both his wife and with Antinous, he couches it in Olympian mythology, the better to magnify himself and make his love affair seem something grand and noble: “For a long time, already, I had been more inclined towards the fable of love and quarrels of the gods than to the clumsy commentaries of philosophers upon the nature of divinity; I was willing to be the terrestial image of Jupiter, who is the more god in that he is also man, who supports the world, incarnating justice and giving order to the universe, but who is at the same time the lover of Ganymedes and Europas, the negligent husband of a bitter Juno.” (Part 4, pp.139-140)
Indeed, reading Hadrian as an unreliable narrator, I see much delusion in his declared love for Antinous. Note that he has proclaimed his quest for a fixed, committed, unchanging and pure love. But, by his own account, he tries to introduce Antinous to new sexual pleasures in brothels and the like, as if he is in search of quick erotic thrills after all. This all calls into question his initial high-sounding rhetoric about the perfect object of his love. On the one hand, he philosophises about the soul and the body; on the other he finds pretexts to wallow in the sensual cultures of Greece and Rome.
Even more tellingly, despite his infatuation with the boy and young man, Hadrian never really seems to understand Antinous or connect with who he is. He is aware that Antinous is afraid of ageing and losing his beauty. Perhaps the word “narcissist” would be appropriate here, although it is never used in novel. It is apparently this fear of age that causes Antinous to commit suicide. But there is another possibility that to me seems equally plausible. Did Hadrian not notice what a huge psychological burden it would be for a boy to be the centre of a powerful ruler’s attention? After all, there is nothing here to suggest that the boy is anything other than a handsome, immature young guy with an average brain and very little resilience.
Quite apart from the matter of Antinous, there are other matters in which I detect Hadrian’s lack of self-awareness. Does he not notice his personal malice in banishing from Rome the poet Juvenal for satirising a male actor whom Hadrian fancies? And in the same pages he looks with equanimity upon a show of 300 criminals being pulled apart by wild beasts (Part 5, pp.187-88). When he adopts young Lucius as one of his heirs, is he not aware of how ridiculous he sounds? He says : “I had the impudence to mention that this fair-haired prince would be admirably handsome clad in the purple; the ill-willed hastened to assert that I was giving an empire in return for a voluptuous intimacy of earlier days.” (Part 5, p.210)
At this point, you are free to suggest that I am simply giving negative constructions to things said by a character whom the author wants us, on the whole, to admire. I concede that, by being as true to the historical record as a novelist can be, Marguerite Yourcenar could have included some of Hadrian’s foibles without intending us to see him as generally untruthful. But for the sake of her own integrity, I hope she really meant Hadrian to be an unreliable narrator. Of course an emperor would have a god-like view of his lowly subjects, but Hadrian’s self-regard, self-praise and lordly manner come close to delusion. And so does his interpretation of his relationship with Antinous. I am aware that Greeks and Romans had different sexual mores from our’s, but frankly this relationship would now be called paedophilia, with all the pejorative connotations that word now has.
Cheeky and presumptuous footnote: Twice Marguerite Yourcenar makes the mistake of assuming that the Mithraic cult required initiation by immersion in bull’s blood (Part 2, p.48, when young Hadrian himself is initiated into the cult in Germany; Part 4, pp.147-8 when Antinous is inducted). More recent research and archaeology suggest that this was never the case, although the cult’s hero Mithras was said to have bathed in bull’s blood. We can’t blame Yourcenar for accepting what was, seventy years ago, the common belief of historians; but this is one matter in which time has caught up with the novel.
Disrespectful footnote: As is my wont after reading and writing my own reflections on older books, I went on line and looked up what various other people had had to say about Memoirs of Hadrian. Most gave it a huge thumbs up as a modern classic, took it for granted that it had really got into the late classical mind, and accepted unconditionally the wisdom of Hadrian’s sayings, as conveyed (or invented) by Marguerite Yourcenar. However, I was surprised – and in a way felt vindicated – to find one genuine review on a site called unappetisingly “Bookslut” wherein the reviewer criticised the novel for having no real drama – there is no true interaction between characters, simply Hadrian’s reflections thereupon.  Worse, said this reviewer, while Yourcenar tells us what (she purports) Hadrian would have had to say about the soul, beauty, immortality etc., she hardly ever gives his detailed reflections on what would have been the workaday concerns of an emperor – how taxes could be raised, how inefficient bureaucrats could be got rid of etc. These things are dealt with in one-line statements along the lines of “I got rid of inefficient bureaucrats”, without going into detail. This bias very much skews the author’s view of the historical figure and limits its plausibility as history. The reviewer concluded that Yourcenar was more an essayist than a true novelist – more the heir of Montaigne than of Flaubert. Fair enough.