Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "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 five or more years ago.
“BELIEF” Stephanie Johnson (Vintage, 2000)

“THE COLOUR OF DISTANCE – New Zealand Writers in France/ French Writers in New Zealand” edited by Jenny Bornholdt and Gregory O’Brien (Victoria University Press, 2005)

Thinking of New Zealand books winning and not winning prizes, this week’s “Something New” has put me in mind of two New Zealand books of the 2000s that, as far as I know, won no prizes, although one of them came close.

Stephanie Johnson’s novel Belief was short-listed for what were then called the Montana Book Awards in 2000, it but did not win. (Johnson had to wait three years for a big prize when her novel  The Shag Incident took the Deutz Award for Fiction at the 2003 Montanas.)

As far as I know, Jenny Bornholdt and Gregory O’Brien’s anthology The Colour of Distance won no prizes.

Completely different books though they are, I still want to commend them both, because I think they appeared without getting as much attention as they deserved

Johnson’s novel is essentially a dark and tragic affair, but it is informed by an acute awareness of how different earlier times and values were from our own. For that reason alone it earns my immense esteem.

Set in the 1890s and early 1900s, Belief concerns a man who believes he has had a vision of God, and under that belief puts his family through immense trials.             Walking off his farm, he deserts his wife (a preacher’s daughter) and their children and heads for the United States. He tries to recapture the purity of his vision of God first in Mormonism, which is presented in its Salt Lake City setting in a not very flattering light. Then he moves on to a series of separatist sects on the loonier fringes of Protestantism. The action covers about twenty years, shifting from Auckland to Utah to Illinois to Vancouver and back again. It focuses as much on the wife and on their brood of children as on the quester after God.

Of course the novel’s title is ambiguous.

How much are we meant to see the quest as a real manifestation of “belief” and how much as a disordered obsession? Is the quester’s belief in God actually destructive, like the travailled wife’s “belief” in her husband?

When I first read and reviewed this novel back in 2000, I noted that “on one level, Belief pulls apart the notion of a dominant father and subjects it to a steely woman’s gaze.” I compared it with Christina Stead’s classic The Man Who Loved Children.

I still hold to that interpretation. Stephanie Johnson is at least partly interested in the sexual politics of the patriarchal family and her views, as an early 21st century novelist, can’t help being informed by Second Wave feminism.

But what lodges this novel most firmly in my mind is Stephanie Johnson’s convincing rendition of time and place. Belief gives us the smug comfort of late nineteenth century middle-class Parnell, the primitiveness of old backblocks New Zealand, the straightened circumstances of a working-class family in pre-gentrified Ponsonby and various attempts to create a Protestant Utopia in the American wilderness.

The author is not overtly judgemental about any of this. Her judgements are implicit ones. She is therefore more successful in making us believe that once people really did live this way and believe the things she is concerned with.

This is a novel worth hunting out in second-hand book-shops.

Unashamedly I have to say that re-visiting The Colour of Distance functioned for me as light relief after re-visiting the brilliant, but heavy and dark, Belief.

The Colour of Distance is an anthology of things French people have said about New Zealand and things New Zealand people have said about France. It was published to coincide with the 60th anniversary of  France and New Zealand’s first establishing diplomatic relations in 1945.

The contents range from a woeful report, by a French sports-writer, of a French side getting slaughtered by the All Blacks, to the High Culture of various New Zealand literary worthies responding to Menton, where the Katherine Mansfield fellowship is held.

Okay, I admit that one or two of the contents verge on the twee. One author’s macaronic tendencies (mixing French and English languages as a stylistic gag) irritated me. Apart from that, though, I found this a delightful bedside book, taking it a chapter at a time and enjoying, among other things, the way intelligent people from one culture will find ways of slightly misunderstanding another culture. And particularly loving a chapter from a novel in which a New Zealand writer imagines what the South Island would have been like if the French really had got around to colonising it first.

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