Monday, September 22, 2014

Something New


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

“REACH” by Laurence Fearnley (Penguin, $NZ38)
 
            I sometimes wish that I could read a novel without suspecting that I am meant to decode a web of symbols, or look for subtleties underneath the overt narrative. But some novels make it very hard to enjoy the obvious. The symbolism lies heavy on them. Events do not happen because of naturalistic necessity, but because the author wants to deploy imagery in a particular way, or construct a symbolic picture. The novel clogs and ends up seeming “posed”.
            With the deepest of regret, because it is a novel of many merits, this is how Laurence Fearnley’s latest novel Reach strikes me.  When I say “regret” I mean it. Reach is a novel with a very interesting and plausible premise, and with three main characters who are worth caring about. When she is dramatizing their stresses, anxieties and hopes, Laurence Fearnley draws us into the little world she has created. The way she resolves her story is, however, more problematic and left me wondering why and how it had misfired. The weight of the symbolism is part of the answer.
The interesting premise first. Quinn, a woman with an androgynous name something like the author’s, is an artist who is living in a seaside town with a veterinary surgeon, Marcus. Marcus has deserted his wife Vivienne, and his teenaged daughter Audrey, to live with Quinn. When their affair first began, Quinn wasn’t aware that Marcus was married, as Marcus didn’t tell her, so there has always been an element of deceit in the man. From the very opening sentence, we understand that all does not run smoothly in Quinn’s and Marcus’s relationship. As they lie in bed at night, the (symbolic!) creaking of a gate brings out different reactions in them.
Marcus still feels a mixture of self-justification and guilt over his desertion of a wife and a daughter who now live far away. He still wishes that he could go on runs with Audrey as he used to, but he is in danger of becoming completely estranged from her. When the possibility arises of taking an overseas trip with his daughter, he jumps at it. And that is one strand of the plot – Marcus’s complex of guilt fighting with his commitment to Quinn as he plans to bond with his daughter.
Quinn, meanwhile, is fully aware that she is sometimes too absorbed in her art. She has had two miscarriages in the past, and makes the experiences the subject for artworks. She holds an exhibition of ultrascan images of the womb, empty or full. When, in the opening chapter, Quinn and Marcus see a forest fire in the distance threatening houses, Marcus worries about the people who will be hurt, while Quinn simply notes what a spectacular image it makes. In a way, this is a probing of the familiar problem that, no matter how broad their vision may be, artists have to play the long-legged fly and be very egotistical and self-absorbed in order to produce their art. Life is demoted to being “material” for the art.
Quinn herself is fully aware of this problem and aware of her sometime insensitivity. After offending a woman at the supermarket with a thoughtless comment, she reflects:
The woman had clearly been hurt by Quinn’s insensitivity, and Quinn spent the day feeling bad about her tactless behaviour. The thing was, she was often so absorbed in her own world, and by her own thoughts, that she forgot about other people. She didn’t mean to be cruel. In fact, knowing she had a tendency to be thoughtless made her self-conscious and anxious in social situations. She tried to pay more attention to what she said and keep her thoughts to herself. After all, she wasn’t a child.” (p.37)
Then comes the major change. Quinn finds she is pregnant by Marcus. In the earlier stages of pregnancy, she is still looking at the experience as “material”, or as something detached from herself:
Prior to her pregnancy she had spent hours examining her body in a mirror, drawing hundreds of self-portraits and nudes. She knew her body. But more than that, she had been complete, as one. Yet once her pregnancy had started to show, she had found it difficult to recognise her self in the mirror. Her face, her breasts, her belly and legs – all features that she had studied and copied onto paper – were not transformed by pregnancy, but distorted by it. It wasn’t that she was ugly or ungainly, simply that she suddenly felt like an onlooker to a spectacle over which she had no power. To become a participant, she had had to retrain her eye in order to recognise herself through her art. Essentially, she had refashioned herself as a new subject.” (pp.137-138)
The pregnancy develops with two particular anxieties for Quinn. One is her fear that the baby might not survive until birth because Quinn might miscarry a third time. The other is her planning of a new exhibition on the sensitive topic of marriage, a condition which she has never tried. And added to these is her complex, uncertain relationship with Marcus – the fear (which Marcus shares) that having lost one child to divorce, he might be unaccepting of another.
Quinn and Marcus are the heart of the novel. Laurence Fearnley chooses to narrate the novel – and hence convey their thoughts – in the third person, which gives her greater freedom to dissect them. The characters are both self-absorbed. For a couple who live together, Quinn and Marcus do not share much vital emotional information in their conversations. They hold back. They are reluctant to reveal much of themselves and hence to make themselves vulnerable. They are emotionally isolated. It’s as if each is in an individual bubble.
The third major character of the novel does not drive the narrative along in any major sense, but functions more as a symbolic counterpart to Quinn and Marcus. This is the deep-sea-diver Callum, a loner who lives in a house-truck near the beach. Like Quinn with her miscarriages and Marcus with his divorce, he is dominated by a tragic event in his past – in his case, the death of a fellow diver whom he could not save. Callum is as much absorbed in his own thoughts, as much isolated and confined to his own head, as Quinn and Marcus are. He thinks:  
He could have explained why he liked saturation diving. That spending a month living beside six men in a space not much bigger than a bathroom wasn’t a problem to him. She might understand when he said that being in a large city, like Hong Kong, was far more claustrophobic than being in a diving chamber. He had always been drawn to the simplicity of being a saturation diver. The reduction of life to a few essentials gave the whole experience a certain existential bent. It was a good way to live – pure. Most people didn’t understand that space and privacy had nothing to do with the size of a place – it was all about what went on in your head.” (pp.84-85)
Marcus’s profession as a vet, specialising in small domestic animals, brings to the novel a train of images concerning animals and their suffering. Quinn, being an artist, is always consciously in search of images and is always evaluating them. But as soon as Callum, hanging isolated in the darkness of the sea, entered the novel, I saw the symbolic connection with the baby swimming in the amniotic fluid of the womb. The precariousness of the diver’s life links with the precariousness of the baby’s position in the mother who has twice miscarried. No, I am not straining at interpretation here. Late in the novel (p.232 to be precise), specific images connect deep sea diving with the womb, sperm, the umbilical cord and so forth.
As I’ve remarked before, it’s not my intention on this blog to spike the effects of newly-published novels by giving away all the developments of their plots. Readers have to discover things for themselves and authors can reasonably expect their intended surprises to be respected. But, without offering any “spoilers”, I can say that I felt cheated by the way one major strand of the plot simply petered out.
When she depicts the society in which Quinn, Marcus and Callum move, Laurence Fearnley can verge on the satirical. When Quinn decides not to fix her creaking gate, there are intimations of the creeping gentrification of the beach community: “It was as if she was playing a part: trying to turn an old, dilapidated gate into some political protest – a defiant ‘up yours’ to all the rich people who had moved in and gentrified what was once a ramshackle but authentic beach community” (p.9). Of course Quinn’s impulse here is itself ripe for satire. How many affluent bohemians are there (including artists) who delude themselves with the thought that they are more “authentic” than their wealthier neighbours? I suspect there is also some subsumed satire in Quinn’s occasional asides on the changing nature of art exhibitions when she converses with the gallery owner Iris; and in her memories of the aggressive ultra-feminism of a few decades ago; and in her awareness of the new  “professionalization” of galleries and the commerce side of art and the filling out of forms. There are also her fears about the artistic clichés to which images are often reduced: “Besides, the world was already full of clichéd images. A photograph of graffiti, no matter how interesting, reminded her of art student work. Pictures of warehouse doors or old wooden piers reminded her of images found in tasteful Mediterranean cookbooks, decorating the pages between rustic seafood recipes.” (p.93). When, on pony-club days, Marcus is besieged by parents wanting free veterinary advice about their kiddies’ mounts, there is mild satire of the horsey set.
But Reach is not dominantly a work of satire. It is a rather self-consciously earnest novel about the relationship of Art to Life. And the symbols keep on coming. The rock by the sea where Quinn rests – an anchor for her artistic vision.  The silent death underwater which Callum recalls – objective correlative to the ego-driven silences of the cohabiting couple. The long episode where Callum struggles to free a trapped and dying seabird – symbol of …. God knows what really, but surely something to do with the pain and psychic suffering of the trapped main characters.
Given that the novel is about an artist who is fully aware of the constructed nature of images and their symbolic force, it may seem churlish of me to criticise the novel’s symbolism. After all, isn’t Reach specifically and intentionally about images and symbols? I reply that they lie so heavily on the characters and their lives that they threaten to drown them. I say this in the full awareness that Laurence Fearnley has created believable characters and at least the beginnings of an engaging story.

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. 

THIS WEEK”S ‘SOMETHING OLD’ REVIEW IS BY GUEST REVIEWER CHRISTOPHER REID

“A FROZEN HELL: THE RUSSO-FINNISH WINTER WAR OF 1939-40” by William R. Trotter (Algonquin Books of Chappell Hill 1991) Reviewed by CHRISTOPHER REID
 
Even a few years after publication, an historical account can remain significant because few other English-language studies have appeared on the topic. By chance I bought a copy of William R. Trotter’s A Frozen Hell: The Russo-Finnish Winter War of 1939-40 in a second hand bookshop. The proprietor told me that interest in this work remains high and he rapidly sold the few copies he had in stock.
From the outset Trotter explains why accounts of the diplomatic and political aspects of the Winter War have fared much better in English than its military aspects have. Finland was remote and did not figure as highly in accounts of events during the Phoney War period of World War II, which was when the Winter War occurred. It became ‘forgotten’ when subsequent conflicts took place.
Stalin was furious at the humiliation of Russian defeat after a few weeks’ campaign. Victory would have been part of his 60th birthday celebrations, so Soviet records cover only the subsequent war against the Soviet Union (June 1941-September 1944) which Finns call the “Continuation War”. All Russian prisoners of war who had been returned by the Finns, and many commanders, were packed off to NKVD camps near the White Sea to be “re-educated” and/or shot. The only Soviet account of the Winter War is a brief reference in Nikita Krushchev’s memoirs as part of his criticism of the Stalin era. Even post-Soviet Russian accounts remain sparse for lack of contemporary Russian documentation.
So the most detailed accounts of the war have appeared in Finnish, which is admittedly a most difficult language. William Trotter has a reading knowledge of the language and supplemented his study with interviews with veteran combatants and others.     
Though Trotter discusses diplomacy briefly, the implications for foreign relations and the subsequent “Continuation War”, the bulk of his account follows much the same approach that Anthony Beevor takes in his books Stalingrad, Berlin and D-Day of recounting campaigns in detail and chronological order. 
As background he explains that under tsarist rule the Russians “left the Finns to their own
devices " and “military service for the tsars was a favourite route for ambitious young Finns … and until the revolution of 1917 Finland supplied more than 400 generals and admirals for the imperial forces, not least of whom was the hero of the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5 named Gustav Mannerheim”. Another Swedish-Finn who profited from Russian military training was General Harold Öhquist who was to become Mannerheim’s second in command during the Winter War
Count Carl Gustav Mannerheim to this day is regarded as the great national hero of Finland. Mannerheim’s own memoirs are essential yet Trotter found them “disappointingly flat and reticent; reading them was a duty not a pleasure.” However Trotter supplemented the information with interviews and his own “demonic struggles with written Finnish”. He suggests that a fuller biography of this paradoxical figure, who is probably “one of the greatest generals of recent times”, has yet to appear in English
At that time of the war, already in his 70s and a member of Finland’s large population of Swedish descent, Mannerheim had inherited a noble title that was awarded to his ancestors centuries before. He was fluent not only in Swedish, but in German, French, English, and Russian, yet only late in life did he learn Finnish, the language that most foreigners find difficult, and his grammar and pronunciation, as revealed in recordings, were apparently not good.
Mannerheim believed in absolute monarchy, had received Russian noble honours, and to the end of his life displayed prominently a portrait of Tsar Nicholas. He greatly admired the traditional cultures of Germany and Russia yet loathed equally the totalitarianism of Nazism and the Soviets. He had no illusions whatsoever about Hitler and Mussolini, describing them as “little men with little minds swollen by undeserved self grandeur”.
During the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, when the Soviets tried to export Bolshevism to his homeland, he returned to Finland and in the civil war between the Whites and the Reds, he took command of the Whites, and was victorious with some help from the Imperial German army during the final stages of the First World War. Trotter does not gloss over the fact that Mannerheim was ruthless in the treatment of captured Finnish Reds, imprisoning them and having them executed.
After centuries of being a fiefdom of Sweden and tsarist Russia, the Finns valued obtaining in 1919 a democratic constitution that permitted the election of a president, a prime minister and a single-chamber parliament. Most of all, the Finns it seems, would not yield lightly a long-sought self-rule free from totalitarianism.
Despite his distrust of democracy, Mannerheim abided by all its processes, being a Minister of Defence in a Finnish government and eventually accepting the Presidency of Finland. I did not realise until I read this that Mannerheim counselled against entering a war against the Soviet Union, and from knowing his country’s much smaller population and limited and non-existent military resources, he surmised correctly that in the long run Stalin would conquer all or some of Finland. Yet he bowed to the decision of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Though proud of his aristocratic origins, he understood well that in this war of desperation, where every participant had to fight to the utmost, there was no point in insisting on rigid military protocol and hierarchy. He agreed that all combatants could address each other by first name and not by military rank. He could be autocratic in his decisions, yet commanded strong loyalty because he was truthful about situations not given to making completely impossible requests.
Trotter suggests some of the reasons why the achievements of the Winter War, and initial foreign admiration for the courage and fortitude of the Finns, became forgotten:
      “That Finland should fight the Soviet Union again, only fifteen months after the Winter War- and that in doing so should compromise its national image if not its honour – seems a cruel twist of history. That Finland fought at the side of Nazi Germany, officially as a “co-belligerent” but in every practical aspect as a close ally, seems tragic. There was a disturbing aspect to the Continuation War in that only fifteen months before a nation that had been held up as a shining example of freedom and democracy should now make aggressive war on the side of one of history’s most ruthless totalitarian regimes.”
Also, although fascist parties were banned in Finland during this period, strong criticism lingers that some Finns, admittedly few in numbers, were permitted to volunteer for the Waffen SS and there is scepticism about their claims that they did not take part in any atrocities against civilians.
What was new to me was the account of the strong part Swedish diplomacy played in the outcome of the Winter War and the Continuation War.
With the other Scandinavian countries occupied by Germany, neutral Sweden, already anxious about possible Nazi invasion, but desiring German trade, feared that Finland could turn into a Nazi ally, and target for counter occupation by the Soviets, thus making Sweden vulnerable to attack from the East or West. Sweden almost permitted volunteers to join Finnish combatants in the Winter War, but withdrew consent and closed its border to Finland at the last moment. As Trotter puts it, Swedish diplomacy strongly urged “Finland to make peace with Russia in order to preserve its independence, which would leave the nation of Finland in place as an armed buffer between Sweden and the Soviet giant.”
Ultimately, too, with the loss of almost half a million killed out of a population of four million and 420, 000 homes destroyed Finland may have preserved its democracy and independence but it could not prevail.  Thus, forced to make an armistice with the Soviet Union the Finns lost everything they had gained in the Winter War. They lost the Karelian Isthmus, which to this day is the Republic of Karelia and, until the fall of the Soviet Union, they remained economically and politically dependent upon the USSR. 
Also in exchange for remaining independent and not suffering further Soviet incursions they agreed to drive German troops from Northern Finland which was achieved but the retreating Germans inflicted considerable scorched earth destruction.
However, the bulk of the book is devoted to the Winter War in battle by battle detail. Trotter not only gives harrowing details but his unalloyed admiration. 
Against the better-armed and equipped Russians, the Finns could only exhibit boundless courage and ability to survive in the rigours of extreme conditions, and employed great ingenuity with limited ammunition and resources. The undersides of the Russian T-28 tanks were not well plated and were vulnerable, and the fuel easily froze, so the Finns built low stone barricades that tilted the tanks back and stalled their engines.
“They used a hair-raising tactic of working in close, where the tanks’ machine guns could not depress sufficiently to hit them  . . . and disabled several vehicles with[Molotov cocktails}  hand grenades and by plying treads off [tanks]with a crowbar.”
When Russian convoys of tanks and trucks, already unsuitable for the extreme winter conditions, were bogged down the Finns attacked and disabled the first and final vehicles forcing the vehicles to halt and be vulnerable to further attack. While the Finns ensured that their own troops had frontline dugouts, well heated, sheltered and providing hot food, the Russians had above ground canteens with unarmed catering staff, who were vulnerable to attack. As happened with Napoleon’s Grand Army retreating from Moscow and Hitler’s army invading Russia pinned down by guerrilla tactics, many Soviets perished in the extreme conditions of winter. The ‘frozen hell’ pinned down, without food, heating or adequate shelter many Soviet troops. Russian morale was low but deserters fared no better from the cold and Finnish snipers.
Trotter does not spare on some of the grimmer details. A Finnish soldier who had spent three days without sleep and little food who had shot 500 Russian troops, “either wearied or out of his mind” wandered out to be brought down by enemy fire.
 A Frozen Hell remains a useful account of what has been overlooked in accounts of the larger conflict.

Two Footnotes

(a.) Although the swastika was the emblem of the Nazi flag throughout the Second World War, no Nazi aircraft were identified by it whereas the Finnish aircraft were. Long before Nazism came into being, Finland had the used the ancient Sanskrit emblem as a symbol of good fortune. The swastika inscribed on some of Finland’s orders of honour is not related to Nazism.
  
(b.) This is not part of Trotter’s book but lodged in Finnish archives is a recording made in 1942 when Hitler visited Finland. Mannerheim arranged for them to have lunch in a railway carriage and unbeknown to Hitler had their conversation secretly recorded. Although some commentators have cast doubt on the authenticity of the recording, Finland stands by its claim and has about 11 minutes of the conversation on disc. It is intriguing to hear Hitler speaking in a different tone from that of his mobile rousing oratory familiar from newsreels and radio broadcast recordings. In usual Hitler fashion he turns the luncheon conversation into a monologue in which one can hear the occasional aside from Mannerheim.  One can hear it with an on-screen English translation on Hitler meets Mannerheim monologue (with subtitles) YouTube

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.
 
POLITICAL LOYALTY MEANS FORCED LAUGHTER  

By the time you read this, New Zealand will have voted in a general election and the Scots will have voted over whether or not they wish to be independent. You will already have had a day or two to adjust to the new situation, shrug your shoulders and realise that the world has not changed in any essential way. Political commentary, political satire, songs proclaiming “John Key is a Dick” or decrying “Planet Key” will no longer have any effect upon you. They will already be the rags of history, fading into the time, which you will soon forget, in which the issues seemed important to you. You will set aside your political engagement and think of other things until the next election threatens.
I, however, am writing this on the dark side of the election, when the media are still awash with opinion polls, guesses, speculations, nose-thumbing, satire, gossip, predictions and all the other things that are part of the run-up to an election.
This dismal interlude puts me in mind of the dire subject of political humour.
Political satire is one thing – the vigorous jests against policies and personalities; the ridiculing of pomposity; the lampooning of party leaders. All good fun, I suppose, and a necessary part of the democratic process. But I have noticed that those who laugh loudest at political satire are those who are already predisposed to agree with the satirist’s viewpoint. Be honest with yourself over this one. How often and how loudly do you laugh at the political satirist who is attacking what you want to attack? And how sullen and unamused do you become when the satirist, with equal skill, attacks those things you support? Suddenly you see what an unfair thing satire is and how wide of the mark the satirist’s jokes are. Be honest now – you do, don’t you?
But I’m not thinking of straight political satire. I’m thinking of partisan political humour. And partisan political humour makes me think of three separate examples, which seem to mean something.
At least I think they do.
First example: Some years ago, a major New Zealand political party hired some comedians as a warm up act for their election campaign launch. The comedians performed for about five minutes before the “serious” stuff started. Television coverage included the comedians’ gig. The comedians’ jokes were all partisan, all tuned to ridicule another political party and all unfunny as hell. The reaction of the live audience in the hall was interesting. At first there were few laughs. Then, when it was realised that this sorry stuff was being seen on national television, the laughter got louder. But it was all forced laughter. The message was “We have to laugh at this stuff because it’s in support of our party. The loudness of our laughs proves not that we are amused, but that we are loyal to our party.” This was political humour at its worst, where the politics took precedence over the humour.
Second example: Building on the same idea. Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 film The Great Dictator is still talked up in some books as a great political satire, the film that blew Hitler away with gales of laughter and so forth. You will even find some old buffers who say that the bombastic and sentimental speech at the end is a great piece of oratory. I dissent from these views. Having seen The Great Dictator a number of times, I judge it flat, a clumsy piece of film-making and largely a succession of obvious sight gags whose only merit is that they are designed to ridicule Nazis. If you think this judgment is harsh, all I can suggest is that you see the film itself (or re-see it if you last saw it in childhood) and decide what you think.
Of course I can understand why wartime audiences might have loved it, because it’s comforting to see a powerful enemy reduced to ridicule. But I am bemused about its continuing reputation. My suggestion is that many assume a satire on Nazism must be a good thing, and therefore overpraise this flat, repetitive and poorly-scripted comedy because it is on the side of the angels. At a film festival a decade or so back, I saw a very good feature-length documentary about Chaplin and his films in which many interviewees fronted camera to hail Chaplin’s genius. But there was one prominent dissenter. Woody Allen said how unamused he was by the famous scene (often reproduced in stills) in The Great Dictator where Chaplin’s version of Hitler plays with a globe, tossing it up in the air and dancing balletically with it. “That’s a metaphor’” said Allen “but that’s all it is. And a metaphor is not funny.” I agree. I can watch The Great Dictator as interesting historical datum, but laughter at it is the forced laughter of dutifully applauding in political agreement.
Third example: Quite the opposite message from this one. Has it ever occurred to you that some political humour is funny in spite of its political message? I look no further than the English political cartoons of Gillray and Rowlandson that were produced – usually with the full approval of Pitt’s government – at the time of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. They were, in effect, a species of official propaganda, designed to belittle or ridicule the French and political enemies of Pitt’s government such as Charles James Fox. I look at their political intent with distaste. Two hundred years away from their partisanship, I still see them as satirical defences of a conservative oligarchy in the face of a rising democracy. But – dammit – they are funny. Gillray’s “The Plum Pudding in Danger”, where Pitt and Buonaparte carve up the globe, is funny where Chaplin’s deployment of the globe is not, because of its gross caricatures. Ditto Rowlandson’s sarcastic response to the birth of Buonaparte’s heir. Maybe the passage of time has done this. Set aside the political intent and we are left with expert buffoonery. In the end, something is funny because it is funny, and political humour is not humour at all if it is only political.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Something New


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

“RICHARD SEDDON, KING OF GOD’S OWN” by Tom Brooking (Penguin, $NZ65)

            It’s quite easy to summarise the legend of Richard John Seddon and the Liberal Party, which used to be standard issue in school textbooks and popular histories. It said that after a sort of ill-defined thing called the “continuous ministry”, the Liberals were New Zealand’s first properly organised political party and achieved power with a clearly-defined platform; and that after the brief premiership of John Ballance, the party hit its stride with “King Dick” Seddon, New Zealand’s longest-serving prime minister (1893-1906). So roll on votes for women, old age pensions, harmonious industrial relations thanks to the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act and a wise policy of busting up big estates and opening up the land to hundreds of cockies. This was the standard legend of “King Dick” – the bluff, plain-spoken forward-thinking man who laid the foundations for a more egalitarian New Zealand and presided over the “social laboratory” as it pioneered the welfare state.
But alas! It is in the nature of History to be always re-written and revised. Revisionists came along to tarnish this received image of Seddon. It was argued that Seddon was only a reluctant supporter of women’s suffrage, might have been in the pockets of the booze interests in opposing Temperance, was certainly racist in his attitudes towards Chinese, did not necessarily help Maori interests in the land policies he endorsed, and was an imperialist in calling enthusiastically for New Zealand’s participation in the Boer War. In other words, said the revisionists, he was more a man of his own age than the harbinger of anything better.
Further to this I must note that, when I once taught at Otago a summer school paper on the Liberals, the book I most frequently cribbed was David Hamer’s The New Zealand Liberals – The Years of Power 1891-1912 (published 1988) – still an indispensible book, by the way – which argued that the Liberals were a very diverse bunch, far from the cohesive force of schoolbook legend, and that the diverse social interests the party attempted to represent inevitably dragged the party apart.
In writing his authoritative and capacious biography Richard Seddon, King of God’s Own, Professor Tom Brooking makes it plain that he has to contend both with the legend and with a revisionism that has sometimes got out of hand.
Let it be clear that we are dealing here with very serious scholarship. Following its 427 large and closely-printed pages of text, Richard Seddon, King of God’s Own has nearly 150 pages of apparatus criticus, comprising 102 pages of end notes, a whacking 36 pages of Bibliography, and nearly 20 pages of Index, all tightly printed. This book is the product of years of research by a scholar who has long immersed himself in 19th century New Zealand history and who is already the author of the definitive biography of one of Seddon’s lieutenants, the Scots Minister of Lands, John McKenzie.
Brooking’s preface reminds us that it is over half a century since there was a full-length biography of Seddon, and that was R.M.Burdon’s book which Brooking calls “so infused with purple prose and quaint archaisms as to be almost incomprehensible to a modern reader” (p.8). Brooking wishes, as he puts it, to “rebunk” Seddon after the revisionist versions of King Dick that have presented him as “a demagogue, a racist, a cunning misogynist, a bully and a jingoist”. He declares his purpose to see Seddon’s relationship with Maori with greater nuance than the revisionists have allowed; and to accommodate the various legends that have accrued about the man as part of understanding his broad appeal.
I’ll cut to the chase with this one. Richard Seddon, King of God’s Own is a magnificent piece of work, both scholarly and readable, and certainly meeting Brooking’s aim of answering the revisionists without succumbing to hagiography. Seddon is seen warts and all, but we are still allowed to understand why he should be remembered – indeed why it’s valid to see him as great. And it is a great pleasure to see Brooking, gently but persuasively, engaging with and correcting historians who have chosen to see Seddon more harshly. (This is where the expansive end-notes are a particular boon.)
I can see no clearer way of dealing with this book than by considering, issue by issue, how it deals with those things that have been cause for comment by revisionists.
Take first the issue of Seddon’s relationship with women’s suffrage. Brooking is able to point out (p.71) that early in his career as Member of the House of Representatives (MHR), Seddon already supported a Married Women’s Property Act, which gave women a measure of economic independence. In Chapter 6, when he deals directly with women’s suffrage, he refutes the view that Seddon, as prime minister, delayed the measure, by examining the records of voting and the position of the upper house with which Seddon had to contend. Brooking’s verdict is that Seddon fully supported women’s suffrage once he was assured that it was a popular move, and this was in line with his lifelong habit of not legislating in ways that went beyond popular opinion.
On the related matter of Seddon’s connections with the “liquor interest” (the push for women’s suffrage was largely sponsored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union), Brooking argues that Seddon has often been misrepresented as in the pay of the beer barons and was thus caricatured by Conrad Bollinger and others when they came to write their populist histories of liquor licensing in New Zealand. But Brooking presents an alternative view of Temperance people as in fact not promoting “temperance” at all, but pushing for the same sort of prohibition that later proved such a failure in the USA. Thus in Brooking’s view, Seddon’s “ wisdom, moderation and statesmanship saved the colony from extremist solutions to the liquor trade.” (p.120-121)
Necessarily the most nuanced chapters in this book are those relating to Maori. At the time of the Liberal government, the attitudes of Pakeha towards Maori were very much intertwined with the issue of land ownership, and the matter of wresting land from Maori for use and ownership by Pakeha farmers. The Liberal party has sometimes been misrepresented as a predominantly urban, or even “working men’s” party, but it was as much involved in the interests of the small farmer. I am pleased to see that, with regard to the “opening up” of land by the Liberals, Brooking chooses to quote W.H.Oliver’s witticism “if men of money… heard a tramp of boots it was not the hobnails of a proletariat in the way to a socialist utopia, but the gumboots of cow-cockies entering a capitalist society.” (p.146)
Chapter 9, carefully called “Paternalist: Seddon and Maori”, balances Seddon’s desire to open Maori land for Pakeha small-farmer settlement with Seddon’s genuine understanding of the past injustices that had been done to Maori. There is no whitewash here but (in the complexities of negotiations and land laws that Brooking reports) a balance presented between the reformer who could relate to and speak with Maori, and the man who made a particularly inept appearance at Parihaka when he met Te Whiti. Brooking gives the same sort of mixed report in the longer Chapter 10 where he considers the much-resented Dog Tax and the attempts to establish Maori Councils. One thing he makes very plain, however – Seddon had a major asset in his relationship with Maori with his loyal Maori lieutenant, the sophisticated Sir James Carroll, who fully understood the duality of Seddon’s attitudes to his race. True to his determination not to write a hagiography, Brooking ends his consideration of Seddon’s attitudes to Maori thus:
Overall, a careful consideration of Seddon’s relations with Maori suggests that his record was at worst mixed. The representation of Seddon given by some historians as a rapacious, land-grabbing racist, and conniving colonialist, is little more than caricature….. Just as Anne Salmond has shown that Maori and Polynesians changed Captain Cook, so did Maori change Seddon. He spent so much time with Carroll meeting Maori deputations in Wellington, and on marae throughout the colony, that he developed an empathy far beyond that of contemporary Pakeha who mostly lived quite separate from Maori.” (p.256)
In the matter of industrial relations (largely covered in Chapter 11), over Brooking’s assessment of Seddon’s record as Minister of Labour hangs on the reality – diagnosed in detail in David Hamer’s classic history of the Liberal Party – that the Liberals were a broad-based party representative of cockies and small shopkeepers as much as of the urban proletariat. There is also the reality of the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act coming under attack from the “left” of the working class, while at the same time lower-middle-class shopkeepers resented legislation relating to conditions of employment and hours of trade. In the latter part of Seddon’s premiership, the ”Lib-Lab” alliance, and attempts to keep the party’s real radicals in check, worked effectively. Brooking’s conclusion on this issue is that later revisionist historians exaggerated Seddon’s inability to hold on to the party’s labour wing. Brooking makes it clear that the real fissure with labour didn’t really develop until after Seddon’s death. He also notes that in after years, when it had got to the point of appealing to the electorate at large rather than pushing more doctrinaire Marxism, the young Labour Party would frequently look back to Seddon as the wise sympathiser with labour.
On women’s suffrage, liquor, land ownership, Maori and labour relations, then, Brooking’s documented account presents Seddon more favourably than debunkers have allowed.
Other elements of Seddon’s worldview and modus operandi are, however, impossible to justify to a modern reader and Brooking naturally doesn’t try. The intense anti-Asian and anti-Chinese racism cannot be wished away. As Brooking notes of Seddon’s performance as a young MHR: “His relentless irrational attacks upon the Chinese in late 1887 and throughout the 1888 session added further to his kudos with the mining community, even is they appear embarrassingly racist to the modern reader. After condemning statistics which showed a decrease in Chinese numbers as ‘fallacious and unreliable’ ” Seddon moved unsuccessfully for the quota of Chinese immigrants to be decreased even further from the small fraction that it already was. (p.76). More examples of Seddon’s extreme measures against Chinese are given at pp.163-164. We could note that Seddon’s rhetoric never became as shrill on the issue as that of the respected Fabian socialist minister William Pember Reeves, but even so, it is an element of a defunct world view which we can now only regard with distaste.
Seddon’s intense jingoism, his desire for an enlarged role for New Zealand in the British Empire, and his vision of New Zealand dominance in the south-west Pacific also have to be taken on board. Chapter 12 deals largely with Seddon the imperialist – much of this about his glad-handing while on a tour of England – and Chapter 13 with a carefully stage-managed royal tour of New Zealand and with the jingoism of the Boer War. Says Brooking:
Involvement in the Boer War brought out the worst and the best in Seddon. The Premier interfered rather too much in strictly military and diplomatic matters, and, at times, appeared to promote personal agendas ahead of the colony’s interests, or colonial interests ahead of the broader imperial good. He also dealt harshly with opponents of the war, seemed rather intolerant of free speech, and gloried in exaggerated and jingoistic reporting of New Zealand’s achievements at the front… On the other hand, his genuine personal interest in the soldiers, preparedness to champion them against the British authorities, and willingness to criticise the bungling of British health services provided support at the highest level in a more direct manner than ever occurred during the First World War.” (pp.324-325)
Because he is neither mythmaker nor hagiographer, Brooking is careful to note that the Liberals (under John Ballance) did not originally come to power with high expectations from the whole community. Among the colony’s opinion-makers, there was a general lack of awareness that major changes were afoot when the Liberals were elected: “Most papers seemed unaware of the deeper changes unleashed by the introduction of universal manhood suffrage and labour’s increased organisation. Indeed [Premier] Atkinson and the conservative press thought until late January 1891 that he had the numbers to form a new government. All the major metropolitan papers appeared uninterested until they became alarmed at the prospect of Ballance unleashing radical reforms.” (p.86)
He also (in Chapter 5) frankly acknowledges that as a minister in the first three years of Ballance’s Liberal government, Seddon was no great shakes. In terms of legislative initiative John McKenzie, William Pember Reeves and even Joseph Ward made more impact than Seddon did. So why was it Seddon who became acting PM when Ballance was sick? Brooking answers this one by referring Seddon’s powerful and effective speaking style in the House (p.100).
            All of which brings us to the question of Seddon’s greatness. If he was not the great innovator and if he shared many of the common prejudices of Pakeha of his day, then how can he be called a great prime minister? Implicitly, Brooking’s biography tells us that it had to do with class and with Seddon’s ability to communicate the aspirations of most of the population.
            On the matter of social class, the opening chapters (on Seddon’s mixed Lancashire-Scots background; on his days in Australia and as a West Coast miner etc.) also deal with the matter of the snobbery that sometimes greeted him in political circles. Brooking (Chapter 3) rejects the revisionist notion that there was an “oligarchy” running New Zealand, but he does note the class feeling in government and the class prejudice expressed against Seddon who, in his early days in parliament, was often ridiculed for his want of education and his coarse accent. Yet this very “coarseness” bonded Seddon with much of the voting populace.
            It is interesting to see two people in particular emerging as ideological foes against Seddon among the Liberals themselves.
One was the mercurial and faddish Sir Robert Stout who, as presented by Brooking, never got over his pique at not having succeeded Ballance as Liberal leader and who (as a secularist freethinker and Temperance man) had little either temperamentally or ideologically in common with (Anglican, alcohol-drinking) Seddon. There is a clear element of snobbery in Stout’s reactions to Seddon, as presented by Brooking.
            The other was William Pember Reeves (a rather uncritical biography of whom was one of the early works of Keith Sinclair). Reeves did not scorn Seddon in the way Stout did. But the Fabian was more the “gentleman” than either Seddon or John McKenzie, both of whom he would sometimes belittle for their lack of class refinement. When he deals with Reeves’ resignation from the cabinet in 1896, Brooking asks “Did Reeves fall or was he pushed? The correct answer, of course, is both. Seddon, with his uncanny antennae for public opinion, increasingly found Reeves’s determination to push reform ahead of what the electorate wanted to be a political liability, so he allowed his party and public opinion to manoeuvre overseas a politician seemingly set upon revolutionary rather than gradualist change.” (p.160)
This does not mean, however, that Seddon was unappreciative of Reeves’ hard work. Later in his narrative, Brooking shows Seddon visiting London and seeing just exactly what Reeves had to do as New Zealand’s high commissioner there: “Seddon soon came to realise just what a difficult and demanding job confronted Reeves…. Persuading Colonial Office officials, bankers, shippers, the press, and the magnates of Smithfield Market and Tooley Street who controlled the destinies of the frozen meat and dairy industries to give more consideration to the trading needs of a small and distant colony involved continual struggle and constant advocacy..” (p.300)
Seddon’s relationship with Reeves points up one of Brooking’s most consistent themes - Seddon was a man who knew the “art of the possible” by never pushing legislation ahead of what the electorate wanted. This is the second basis of his greatness.
On more incidental matters, Brooking  (Chapter 8) refutes the revisionist view that Seddon’s Old Age Pension Scheme was parsimonious and miserly. He also notes Seddon’s political shrewdness in introducing this measure after divisions in his party over alcohol and women’s suffrage. Even more essentially, the introduction of pensions smoothed over the incipient divisions between rural and urban tendencies within the Liberal Party. Old Age Pensions seem one reason Seddon’s party won a complete landslide in 1899 and Seddon really did become known popularly as “King Dick”. It is also part of Brooking’s agenda to show (Chapters 14 and 15) that after his electoral victory in 1902, Seddon did not step back from reformist policies in order to placate the increasingly vocal “country” element in the Liberal Party. Instead, he points to the greater access to secondary education that Seddon promoted in 1902-03 and the setting up of a state fire insurance office and the beginnings of state housing and childcare.
From this biography, then, Seddon emerges as a man with many of the prejudices of his age but also as a man who genuinely did represent the electorate, who was genuinely forward-thinking, and who genuinely set in place things that bettered New Zealand and that later governments knew not to reverse.
Naturally a book as long and well-documented as this one has many anecdotes among its analysis. I haven’t given myself the space to note them all, but there are three that particularly appealed.
One is Brooking’s version (p.103) of the story about Seddon giving a dressing-down to a haughty aristocratic official who ridiculed his horsemanship once when Seddon fell off his horse in difficult terrain. Seddon’s response to the aristocrat was the type of thing that could only enhance his popularity with the democratic electorate.
The others, showing what a shrewd chap Seddon could be when it came to courting votes, concern his opportunistic courting of old Sir George Grey (Chapter 6) when he badly needed the Auckland vote, and later (Chapter 12) Seddon’s self-conscious burnishing of his own image when he made a carefully-planned and publicised visit to the ancient Grey to suggest he was the heir to anything “liberal” that the doddery old governor had done.
Seddon was a politician, 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. 

“SON EXCELLENCE EUGENE ROUGON” by Emile Zola (first published in 1876; sometimes translated into English as “HIS EXCELLENCY”)

            My long-laid plan to read all of Emile Zola’s 20-volume series of novels, the Rougon-Macquart, is still far from complete. I have managed to read about half of them in the original French, and then a couple of the more famous ones (Germinal, La Bete Humaine) in English translations. It is, believe me, quite a haul to read in their original language 20 novels each of which, in the Livre de Poche paperback editions that sit on my shelves, runs to about 500 pages. That totals, in case your Maths is almost as feeble as mine, about 10,000 pages. I will get there one day. Promise. But I’m afraid other reading will distract me until I am able to take a very, very long holiday.
            Anyway, I often wonder what the attraction of Emile Zola (1840-1902) is to me when
I find his determinist conception of human nature and his reductionist representation of human institutions almost totally repugnant. Partly it comes from my being a Balzacian, interested in that dogged French attempt, begun by Honore de Balzac in La Comedie Humaine, to summarise the whole range of a given society in one big roman fleuve. Even in his lifetime, Zola was seen by French critics as somebody who was trying to outdo Balzac [see accompanying cartoon]. Partly my interest comes from the sheer melodrama into which Zola nearly always descends – the man who documented scrupulously the external and material details of life was definitely not capable of subtle psychology, and there usually comes a point in his novels where, to round things off and bring his tale to a neat conclusion, he suddenly jerks his characters into the most improbable of events so that he can reach an explosive finale. And partly my interest comes from the way Zola reflects a certain period in history. Maybe this last attraction is, to the historian in me, the strongest. Zola’s very imperfect novels are ersatz historical documents.
            This is certainly the case with one of the most obscure and least-read of the series, Son Excellence Eugene Rougon. Zola, writing in the 1870s after the Third Republic had been established, dissected in his whole roman fleuve the Second Empire of Napoleon III. In this particular novel, he focuses on the upper reaches of the regime’s political system. Son Excellence Eugene Rougon is the story of a high official in Napoleon III’s government and his many flaws. The story specifically unfolds between 1856 and 1861. The clearest aim of the novel is to expose the undemocratic nature of the Second Empire and the sham of “democracy” when the regime claimed to be “liberalising” in the 1860s. Zola is attacking the special interest groups that had the ear of the non-democratic government (especially provincial bourgeois entrepreneurs – all of whom seek to be honoured with imperial titles). As usual, he is likewise attacking the church, which sought to bring Napoleon III’s regime into the defence of the Papal States in Italy. At the same time, Zola wishes to expose patterns of patronage when there is no real popular voice. Very incidentally, he also enjoys depicting the sheer tackiness of imperial ceremonial, as if Napoleon III’s court and its hangers-on are at best play-acting at being the masters of the nation and do not have the real sense of style of the first Napoleon or even of the old royal courts.
            His protagonist, Eugene Rougon, comes from a humble background and has made his way into high office by sheer cheek and graft. He hails from Plassans, the fictional town which Zola based on his hometown of Aix-en-Provence and often used to represent provincial France. Eugene is regularly besieged by people from Plassans who ask him for special favours. Near the beginning of the novel’s fourteen long chapters, Eugene has just lost his position as president of the Conseil d‘Etat, Napoleon III’s inner circle of ministers. Much of the action that follows concerns his attempts to regain a position as a member of the emperor’s cabinet and to outmanoeuvre a powerful political rival, the Comte de Marsy.
Eugene falls in with the intrigues of an influential Italian woman, Clorinde Balbi, whom he hopes to make his mistress. She marries another politician, Delestang, and Eugene Rougon himself makes an advantageous marriage with one Veronique Beulin d’Orchere, whom he treats mainly as a domestic convenience to help him host his political soirees. Eugene continues to think of power without actually finding a way to exercise it. He dabbles in political science by planning to write a study comparing the English and French constitutions, but he never gets on with it. He thinks of abandoning national politics for schemes of public works in the provinces. He is a dilettante and a schemer rather than a real thinker. He still hopes that Clorinde Balbi, who has been the mistress of many influential men, will help him attain greater power.
After an assassination attempt on the emperor, Eugene Rougon does indeed gain great power, becoming Minister of the Interior responsible for the political repression which sees hundreds of the emperor’s political opponents either imprisoned or exiled. But his grasp on power is fatally damaged when he makes the mistake of being patron to a family who hope to get control of property taken from them by the church. To further this client family’s interests Eugene, as Minister of the Interior, offends the church, and hence much of France’s political elite, by having a convent searched. Regarding Eugene’s political prospects after this mistake, one minor character crudely remarks (in Chapter 12) “Il a touché au bon Dieu. Il est foutu” (“He’s messed with God. He’s stuffed.”)
Eugene believes the machination of Clorinde Balbi will help him to regain his position. The arc of the novel has him gradually coming to understand that her main purpose is not to help him, but to advance her rather gormless husband. Clorinde ends up with so much influence because she becomes the mistress of the emperor himself. Her husband ends up as Minister of the Interior.
So, by the novel’s second-to-last chapter, we seem set up for Eugene’s final defeat. Having lost power and influence, no longer courted by his former clients, he disconsolately wanders the muddy streets of Paris, seeing people more powerful and influential than he riding past in carriages.
But there is an ironic conclusion, for three years later there is a scene in the Legislative Assembly where de Marsy now presides and Delestang is an important minister. The empire has been partially “liberalised”, so that opposition members are able to make speeches and there are an increased number of ministers without portfolio, of whom Rougon is one. An opposition member makes a speech protesting against the restrictions on freedom and especially freedom of expression. In reply, Rougon rises and, as de Marsy and Clorinde and others look on, gives a long speech on the glories of the empire as the inspiration and envy of all Europe and as a system that grants enough freedom to allow the country to prosper without falling into licence. This draws a standing ovation and the clamour that Eugene Rougon is still a great man. The novel ends with Clorinde saying to him “Vous etes tout de meme d’une jolie force, vous!” (“After all, you are still a force to be reckoned with!”).
The implication is that what Eugene cannot achieve by intrigue, he might achieve by hypocritical oratory. And indeed we know that his oratory is hypocritical, for by this stage he is fully aware of how corrupt Napoleon III’s ramshackle state his. His hope now is simply to use that corruption to his own advantage.
There is one thing to be said in favour of this lesser instalment of the Rougon-Macquart series. It is one of Zola’s novels which (untypically) does not descend into melodrama. The final irony might be crude, but it is in character and consistent with what has gone before.
There is here the usual Zolaesque love of set pieces. I think of the opening scene in parliament (Chapter 1), where he shows that the chief business of the day is simply rubber-stamping money orders requested by the emperor. The practical impotence of the parliament is thus dramatized. In Chapter 4 there is the set piece of the vast procession for the baptism of the Prince Imperial, which gives Zola the opportunity to use all the details he mugged up from the Moniteur describing the event. In the crowd, some people still shout “Vive la Republique!” showing how shaky Napoleon III”s hold on power still is. In Chapter 7, a detailed account of an imperial reception at the palace at Compiegne includes Rougon seeing the silhouette of the emperor conferring with one of his secret policemen, and thinking “Sa bande l’a fait, lui.” (“His gang have made him what he is.”). An attempted assassination of the emperor (based on a real one) is recounted in Chapter 8 and there are details of the ensuing repression in Chapter 9. In Chapter 10 there is Rougon presiding at the beginning of work on a new railway tunnel in a provincial town. Zola is able to satirise the interests of competing capitalists who are attempting to get contracts for this public work.
As well as these set pieces, there is also the intertwining of sexual opportunism with public corruption, a common trope chez Zola. When (in Chapter 11) Clorinde playfully suggests to Rougon that she has slept with a lot of influential men in order to advance Rougon’s career, he brutally asks her “Why not with me then?” and attempts, without success, to jump on her. By Chapter 13, Clorinde is presiding over a salon in alluring garb, selling drinks and selling a kiss to a millionaire for a huge sum. Around her neck she wears an expensive collar proclaiming herself somebody’s pet dog. It is now well known that she is Napoleon III’s mistress – people talk of the way she has methodically slept her way to power. And yet nobles and their wives court her and flatter her.
It has to be said that (even more than with Zola’s other novels), one would have to know the specific details of French history to really get the force of this political novel. It contains things that would doubtless have been still topical when it was first published and would therefore have resonated, for its first French readers, with nuances that are now hard for us to detect. The action very specifically takes place over five or six years and refers to well-known public events – the baptism of the Prince Imperial in 1856; the attempted assassination of Napoleon III by Orsini in 1858; the ensuing repression; the assistance given by France to Piedmont in Italian unification; and then the concessions made to the clerical party when it seemed likely that the pope would be threatened; and the “liberalisation” of the empire in the early 1860s. Further to the specific historical events, there is the fact that some leading characters are obviously based on real people. Eugene Rougon himself is apparently – in the public things that are ascribed to him – a combination of a number of real politicians and ministers. Clorinde Balbi is very specifically based on the emperor’s Italian mistress the Countess of Castiglione. De Marsy is based on the Duc de Morny and so on. It would appear to be Zola’s intention to show the petty politicking between self-interested rivals at court and in the ministries, and the sham nature of the empire’s “liberalisation”. Zola may think he is showing us something shocking in the way personal antagonisms and power-plays are acted out in the imperial government; but a study of history suggests that Napoleon III’s government, tacky and ostentatious though aspects of it were, was no worse in this respect than other nineteenth century European governments.
            But what does the novel mean to us, apart from being a series of historical footnotes? Eugene Rougon himself is almost as uninteresting a character as Balzac’s Cesar Birotteau – essentially an unimaginative country politician who thinks mainly in terms of serving his clients, particularly in his provincial power base. The thinness of Rougon as a character is revealed, for example, in how we scarcely learn anything about his wife or his reaction to her after she is introduced and then ignored as a character. Does Eugene Rougon think no more of her?
This may, of course, be the novel’s point – Eugene Rougon is a mediocrity with power. Son Excellence Eugene Rougon may be a time-specific work, but mediocrities with power we will always have with us.