Monday, April 30, 2012

Something New

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

“LETTERS OF FRANK SARGESON” Selected and edited by Sarah Shieff (Vintage/Random House, $NZ 49:99)

Dr Sarah Shieff, of the University of Waikato in Hamilton, has edited a selection of letters by Hamilton’s best-known literary son, Norris Davey dit Frank Sargeson (1903-1982).

The volume is judiciously entitled Letters of Frank Sargeson, not The Letters… because even an expansive 600-plus pages like this can represent only a fraction of Sargeson’s letter-writing. For most of his adult life he worked at his own writing in the morning and then answered letters in the afternoon – to friends, publishers, fellow writers, protégés, family etc.  So, as Shieff explains in her introduction, there are in this volume “just under 500 letters to 107 recipients, drawn from an archive of nearly 6000 letters to around 450 people.” The letters published here span 54 years, from 1927 to 1981.

Sarah Shieff speaks of the selection process in which she whittled the original 6000 letters down to a chosen 2000, her selection criteria being “biographical interest, historical interest, literary interest in terms of Sargeson’s career, general literary interest and liveliness.” She then, multa gemens, made her final selection of 500. I can only assume that these are the most lively and most interesting letters, and that among those not selected were more routine letters and purely business ones.

Of Shieff’s editorial work, apart from the selection itself, I must note what a very exacting piece of scholarship it must have been. To make many letters comprehensible to the reader, she has had to provide very precise explanations of things referred to in the text of the letters – especially obscure, ephemeral things like book reviews and topical quarrels that have long since been forgotten. In many cases, this must have required considerable and lengthy detective work.

So how do you make critical comment on a volume of personal correspondence?

I read Letters of Frank Sargeson over many weeks, dipping in and out of it, alternately amused and annoyed by the egotistical, touchy, manipulative and sometimes dishonest man they reveal. It goes without saying that this book will be a regular port of call for NZ Lit scholars from now on. At the very least, it presents half a century of opinion, news, gossip and rumour about New Zealand’s literary scene. Sargeson wrote to (or about) nearly every New Zealand writer who mattered. (There is, however, an odd distortion that Sarah Shieff notes. Living in Auckland, Sargeson hardly ever wrote to those Auckanders with whom he often met and conversed – so there are virtually no letters to acquaintances or friends like Allen Curnow, R.A.K.Mason or Kendrick Smithyman).

As a general comment, I’d say that these are workaday, gossipy letters. They are not finely-styled pieces of prose and they are not really the place to look for witticisms and bons mots, unless you mistake Sargeson’s laboured (and often dead-obvious) literary jokes for such.

Over so many years, the variety of the letters is real.

Some of the earlier ones (when he was still getting established and was not yet in a position to lord it over other people) are endearing. A letter he drafted in 1935 to Sherwood Anderson is a giddy fan letter – and why not? In both the style and the attitudes of his short stories, young Sargeson obviously learned much from the author of Winesburg, Ohio. So he gushes “Why should the words you have written come into my life as they have, come right deep into my life, & why should the words of other writers never have come so deep?

Earlier on he has a blokey, matey correspondence with Denis Glover (with whom he tended not to associate in later years), and uses it as a platform for one of his most consistent pastimes – slagging off other people’s writing. In a  January 1937 letter to Glover, Sargeson complains that Robin Hyde’s Passport to Hell is an “obscene” book and accuses her of “bad prose” and of lacking the ability to give her book resonance. In a later letter he calls her a “silly bitch”. Glover actually brings out the grubby schoolboy in Sargeson – in a rare late letter to Glover (August 1973), Sargeson is having the sort of snicker that we all had in the 6th Form about the long “s” in earlier editions of Shakespeare (“where the bee fucks there fuck I” etc.).

The tone is quite different with other correspondents. He is more matter-of-fact and earnest to the short-story writer Alec Pickard (“A.P.Gaskell”), to whom he offers much advice.  He is sometimes heart-on-sleeve, and as frank as the times allowed, in his camp remarks to his lesbian friend E.P.(“Peter”) Dawson. Chatty and catty rather than blokey and jokey. When it comes to Important Overseas People, like John Lehmann, he tends to be friendly but more businesslike, sticking to publishing and writing news. After all, Important Overseas People are less likely to be impressed with him. He can go positively obsequious to the likes of William Plomer and E.M.Forster. They had their homosexuality in common, but Sargeson didn’t make it a matter for their correspondence and there’s only a little of the coded ponce talk between them.

Some of Sargeson’s judgements and interests are peculiar. There’s an odd letter to Glover in which he describes Joyce’s Ulysses as “a powerful argument for Catholicism.” There’s the genuine eccentricity of his exchanges with Ralph Bodle (struggling to collate editions of The Swiss Family Robinson). And there’s the rashness of a 1973 letter in which he presumes to offer Arthur Allan Thomas’s defence lawyer advice on how to present evidence.

Obviously there are changes of focus in these letters as Sargeson’s circumstances change. From the 1950s on, there’s plenty of Machiavellian angling-for-literary-grants stuff, often accompanied by sneers when other people get the grants. At the same time, there are accounts of Sargeson’s attempts (and ultimate failure) to become a real playwright. There are agonising letters from the middle 1950s about Janet Frame and the state of her mental health. There is much fussing about Bill Pearson at the time his one novel, Coal Flat, was published.

You do have to take breaks for fresh air in reading all this, though. So much of it is the gossip of a small literary community and inevitably much of that gossip is malicious. Sargeson prided himself on picking and nurturing new literary talent (see his comments in 1944 on young Maurice Duggan); but he often soured on people he expected either to be his protégés or to defer to him. And the catty comments on other writers are fairly relentless.

In a bitchy 1957 letter to the playwright manqué John Graham, he describes Bruce Mason’s The Pohutukawa Tree as a pioneering play and says “nobody else will have to do that sort of thing now” – in other words, The Pohutukawa Tree is not up to the standard of the great theatrical works that the likes of Sargeson will presumably produce.There’s much bollixing of Maurice Shadbolt in Sargeson’s letters in the 1960s (well, fair enough – I kind of agree with him on that one). In 1971, Sargeson says James McNeish wrote his Mackenzie with the novels of Patrick White “propped open in front of him.” (Miaouw! Miaouw!). His attitude towards James K.Baxter  (with whom he sometimes corresponded) moves from early puzzlement to later contempt. In a 1952 letter to Dan Davin, he says of Baxter “that drunken young Calvinist is a genius compounded of obscenity and religious mania.” By 1971, writing to Fr John Weir (who had just written a short book about Baxter’s poetry), Sargeson says “I don’t much go along with these Celtic talents which throw off masterpieces between pub-crawls…. There is and always has been something dismayingly provincial about Baxter.

I think that word “provincial” is a giveaway to many of Sargeson’s ingrained attitudes. He pictured himself as the great writer of international repute, camped among these lesser talents who did not have his lordly breadth of vision. Yet, as an autodidact, he nursed ongoing resentment towards anybody who might have more intellectual clout than he. His venom towards university people was severe, and there are amusing evidences in these letters of his attempts to turn young C.K.Stead away from pursuing an academic career.

I could witter on at considerably more length. But having said all the above, it would be thoroughly dishonest of me if I did not declare a personal interest in this collection of letters.

Speaking of her editorial procedures, Sarah Shieff says in her introduction that “I have been tempted to censor Sargeson’s opinions where they are obviously cruel or unfair, but in the end decided to leave them in the interest of presenting a full sense of his character. I apologise for any offence they might give.

I approve of this editorial procedure and congratulate her on her delicacy of feeling. Nevertheless, there are at least some letters here that I find distressing.

            It is well-known to the literati (and will be plain to anybody who reads Michael King’s biography of Sargeson) that Frank Sargeson loathed and detested my father, Professor John Cowie Reid (1916-72) of the University of Auckland. It all began with a brief review of Sargeson’s work which my father, as a young man, included in a general survey of New Zealand literature, in 1946. Dad said Sargeson’s early short stories lacked “health”. For reasons too complex to go into here, I would endorse  this judgement. (In November 2010, reviewing in the Sunday Star-Times the latest edition of Sargeson’s collected short stories, edited by Janet Wilson, I noted how many of them had a smirking, sardonic tone which reminded me of nothing so much as a series of Tui ads all saying “Yeah, right”.) However, from 1946 on, my father was targeted by Sargeson for nasty comment in his letters and elsewhere. Speaking of people who didn’t review his work enthusiastically, he wrote of “stinkers like J.C.Reid”.

I am not claiming that my father was a major preoccupation of Frank Sargeson, but the tone Sargeson adopted was always negative and sometimes close to paranoid. What is sometimes grimly amusing (from my perspective) is Sargeson’s tendency to put the worst possible construction even on statements by my father that were meant to be complimentary.

In Sargeson’s novel Memoirs of a Peon, some minor characters are “revenge” versions of people Sargeson knew. One such is a puerile caricature of my father (presented in the novel as a wife-beater). A lot seems to have been invested in this by Sargeson. Not only did he resent, and consistently display envy of, people with a university education and an academic post; but as a closeted homosexual, whose stories often present women as domineering and controlling bitches, he had little in common with a married Catholic academic who had a larger-than-average family. Showing great forbearance, and fully aware of the caricature, my father broadcast a positive review of the novel, praising its “delicious ironies”. In this collection of letters, I find a letter to H.Winston Rhodes dated 19 February 1966  in which Sargeson says J. C. Reid “went to town” on radio about Memoirs of a Peon and adds “I suspect what he said was one way of dealing with a book in which one finds oneself figuring.” Later that same year, Sargeson expresses annoyance that my father signed a public tribute to Charles Brasch upon his retirement from Landfall. (Apparently Dad wasn’t worthy to be admitted into the exclusive boys’ club of serious NZ Lit.). In a letter of 14 April 1968 he bitches that J. C. Reid is raising money for an Auckland theatre (what was to become the Mercury Theatre) when he (Sargeson) believes that he himself and others should really get the credit for introducing theatre to Auckland. (Damned if I can see why.) The most vindictive (and factually inaccurate) letter is one Sargeson wrote to C.K.Stead on 30 April 1972 , after my father had just had a heart-attack. This was one month before my father died.

Naturally,  I do not expect other people to react in the same way that I do. I know that the essence of private correspondence is its privacy. It’s the place where we can say to trusted friends and correspondents things that we wouldn’t care or dare to say in public. This includes the cheerful belittling of third parties and the trashing of their reputations. In the highly unlikely event that anyone wanted to collect and publish my own private correspondence (or your’s) they would find much of this sort of  jocular nastiness in play.

Having noted these truisms, however, I still feel I’m making an objective statement when I note that this selection of letters confirms what I already suspected about Sargeson.

When he chose to be, he could be a real arsehole.

There is another letter in which I have a personal interest, but only because its viewpoint amuses me. On 26 September 1965 Sargeson wrote to Bill Pearson:  For hours the other day Ronald Holloway and I continued our Great Debate which has been going on for more than 30 years. The question? – how can one sanctify one’s personal and private life in these times of religious breakdown? Ronald said only by adhering to the Church, and I said only by a private invocation of Charity. Many things have kept this Debate going, many things in common such as periods of grotesque poverty – and we still go our different ways. For Ronald when we continue to debate, it is like the relief of a holiday off from heaven – my hell is very attractive to him still – and so is his heaven to me. Is is strange that we both recognize clearly how certainly we both in a sense missed our vocations – we should have been priests. Anyhow he went off back to a wife and six surviving children (out of 8) holiday-happy on a bottle and a half of wine….”

The craft printer Ronald Holloway (1909-2003) was my next-door neighbour for the first 22 years of my life (before I got married and moved out of my parents’ home). My parents had in fact bought the land on which they built the family home from the Holloways; and for years Reid offspring and Holloway offspring played together and wandered in and out of one another’s houses. Though they were over 40 years older than me, I regarded Ron and his wife Kay as personal friends and visited them often for long afternoon chats (and some free-loading) up to the time they died. I spoke at both Kay’s and Ron’s funerals and wrote two obituaries for Ron – one for the NZ Herald (from whose website you can easily retrieve it) and one for NZ Books.

Apart from his devout medievalism, one of Ron’s most endearing characteristics was his refusal to gossip, even though he had crossed the paths of most of Auckland’s literary figures between the 1920s and the 1970s. More than once, eager young doctoral students, armed with tape-recorders, were turned away empty-handed when they came expecting to get anecdote-filled interviews about Bob Lowry or R.A.K.Mason or Robin Hyde or Frank Sargeson.  Ron didn’t want to play that game and preferred to let the dead bury their dead. Yet, inevitably, over so many years I heard, piecemeal, some of his stories and many of his opinions.

More than once, at the mention of Frank Sargeson’s name, I recall Ron shaking his head, heaving a sigh, and saying “Sarge could be difficult.” Their relationship was often cordial enough – and apparently pretty much as Sargeson’s letter suggests – but Ron tired of Sargeson’s tantrums, and was particularly repulsed by Sargeson’s attempts to jolly conversations along by smutty stories laced with four-lettered words. Ron was no prude (I heard more than one bawdy story from him), but there’s smut and there’s smut and Sargeson’s variety didn’t appeal.

Yep. “Sarge could be difficult.”

This well-edited selection of his letters proves it.

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.

“PAMELA – Or Virtue Rewarded” by Samuel Richardson (first part first published 1740; second part  - the sequel or continuation - first published 1741 )

Reading a volume of Frank Sargeson’s letters puts me in the mood to set down my thoughts on a classic novel written in the form of letters (the almost-defunct epistolary style). But I’m also drawn to comment on it by the fact that Samuel Richardson’s Pamela was exactly the sort of literature that Sargeson liked to read when he wasn’t reading the work of his contemporaries or doing his own writing. His letters are peppered with references to his 18th and 19th century preferred reading.

So what can I say about Samuel Richardson’s Pamela? To presume to lecture you on it would be a bit like presuming to lecture you on Hamlet. The outline of the novel (or at least the first volume of it) is so well known.

Pamela Andrews is the young maidservant of Lady B. When the old noblewoman dies, Pamela is inherited by Lady B.’s son Mr.B. He has wicked and immoral designs on her. He wishes to seduce and debauch her. He contrives to meet her when they are unobserved, to force himself upon her, to make lewd suggestions and nudges and winks and threats, again and again. He tries to snare her into a mock marriage.

Virtuously, Pamela resists his advances. She rejects Mr.B.’s proposal to make her his mistress with a consideration of marriage later. All this Pamela narrates in long letters to her distant, virtuous and humble parents John and Elizabeth Andrews, and to various other favoured correspondents.

Time passes.

Pamela ages some years.

The persistent Mr.B’s tactics become more violent. He has Pamela locked up and supervised by the wicked Mrs.Jewkes, who urges the girl’s forcible seduction (i.e. rape). Injured in an escape attempt, weakened by a fever, Pamela almost suffers a Fate Worse Than Death when suddenly [almost exactly halfway through the first volume of this long novel] Mr.B.has a miraculous change of heart. He realises he has gone too far. He is now fully convinced of Pamela’s real goodness and purity, and vows that he loves her truly. He forswears seduction or mock marriages. He is ready to marry her.

 Will she accept him?

There are some hurdles to be overcome, not least the fact that she is low-born and he is an aristocrat. Will his gentry friends accept her?

Of course they will!

They are all struck by her beauty and her accomplishments, from carving a joint to singing and playing the spinnet. The poems she wrote in her forced confinement, in which she adapted the psalms to her condition, are read and admired. So Mr B. the aristocrat marries the poor-but-honest girl who protected her virtue.

I’ve simplified the plot outrageously in this summary, ignoring the cast of benign fellow-servants who sympathise with Pamela when she is threatened, but can’t do anything to help her, and the nice young clergyman Williams who ditto. There is also Mr.B’s flighty sister Lady Davers who livens up the last part of Volume One by her fits of hysterics and refusal to accept Pamela as her sister-in-law until (like everybody else) she bows down before the young woman’s virtue.

Pamela gets to forgive Mr.B. completely for his previous rakish ways, forgives him for the bastard child he had by another woman, and settles down as the loving and charitable wife of a country gentleman. The novel, as published in 1740, ends with “the editor” of these letters pointing the moral which he intends his readers to draw from the tale i.e. Providence will reward the virtuous.

This novel was popular enough to encourage Richardson to write a continuation of it, which appeared in the following year, 1741. While the first part of Pamela can be something of a chore, I must confess that I really struggled to even finish the second volume. Having definitively proven to us that Pamela is the picture of virtue, Richardson can do little more than contrive scenes to show off her virtue.

Like the continuation of Don Quixote, this second volume is very self-conscious in its self-referencing – and in places Richardson appears to be archly and rather ham-fistedly answering those who criticized the first volume. Human reality almost butts in for about fifty pages. There is an episode where Mr B. seems to be having an affair with another woman, a countess. This would seem a reasonable reaction to being married to a sexless paragon such as Pamela. But Richardson lets the episode fizzle out with another “improving” sermon and we are soon getting a long discourse on John Locke’s theories on child-rearing. The final insult is Pamela’s lectures to her children and women friends. They are, quite simply, smug, self-righteous and assume a God who very readily hands out punishments to the wicked.

So, having at least acknowledged its existence, kindly let me ignore this sequel in my comments on Pamela. Let me pretend that the whole novel is simply the first part – where I think Richardson should have left it.

Notoriously the original (1740) Pamela set off a quarrel that is known to every Eng.Lit. graduate. Henry Fielding proclaimed Richardson’s virtuous heroine to be a sham. Richardson may have thought he was showing a young woman whose virtue was (eventually) suitably rewarded. But Fielding said she was simply an artful minx. In protecting her virtue, said Fielding, all Pamela was doing was raising her price. She will not give in to a seducer, but she will give in to the very same man when he offers marriage and wealth. Her “virtue” is merely prudential and a piece of mercenary self-interest.

Fielding proceeded to write a parody in the form of a pamphlet (Shamela); and then expanded the idea into his novel Joseph Andrews which begins with the ludicrous situation of Pamela’s “brother”, the manservant Joseph Andrews, resisting the attempted seductions of a Lady Booby. (Personally I rate Joseph Andrews Fielding’s most delightful novel – I enjoyed it more than Tom Jones – but I digress.) Eng.Lit. graduates are also invariably told that Richardson and Fielding, those eighteenth century pioneers, proceeded to father two different streams in the English novel. From Richardson the leisurely, introspective, pains-taking psychological study (roll on George Eliot, George Meredith and Henry James). From Fielding the boisterous, laddish, event-filled social panorama (roll on Thackeray and Dickens)

Fielding’s argument against Pamela is a good one, and it’s hard not to think of it in those later sections of the novel where Pamela takes possession of Mr.B’s house as his wife, and itemises the jewels (formerly belonging to his mother) which her husband now gives her; or when she describes exactly what clothes she and her husband wear to church. Such an off-putting conjunction of the pious and the materialistic!

But this novel can make no sense at all unless we take Richardson at his word and assume we are reading what was intended as the story of a truly virtuous person whose goodness protects her from sin and ultimately brings her a justifiable reward. To read the whole novel is to encounter somebody too artless to be a calculating minx. So in a major sense Fielding is wrong. The keynote is naivete, but it is hard to tell if the naivete belongs to the character of Pamela or to the author Richardson. Constantly, it is Pamela who tells us of her own virtue, beauty and moral goodness, even when she is supposedly reporting the words of other characters. Indeed in some scenes (as when Mr.B. eavesdrops in the “closet” while Pamela tells Mrs. Jervis why she will not give in to his enticements), the whole situation is so artificially arranged that modern readers might begin to suspect an “unreliable narrator” – Pamela telling us things to enhance our admiration for her.

And yet this is simply not the case. WE see her as praising herself, but RICHARDSON, I think, thought he was giving us a convincing account of virtue, perhaps not noticing that his intended portrait was compromised by the very nature of the first-person voice in Pamela’s letters. The effect is even more complex than this. Perhaps it is her naivete and artless self-praise that help us to believe in the reality of this character. How could anyone but a real person be so naïve as to give so much self-praise?

There are, however, other difficulties to be negotiated in the novel, apart from the main narrative voice. The chief unreality, where disbelief cannot be suspended easily, is in the sudden moral reversal of so many characters. Mr.B. suddenly, at mid-point of the novel, goes from being the calculating rake and would-be rapist to being the affectionate, generous, moral suitor. His confederates Mrs.Jewkes and M.Colbrand are suddenly transformed from pandar and brutish jailer to Pamela’s obedient and worshipful servants. Remember, Pamela is agreeing to marry the man who mistreated her for years, imprisoned her and was on the point of raping her. There is an odd ambiguity about other characters in the novel, too. I think Richardson wants the servant Mrs. Jervis to be seen as Pamela’s protector and friend – in fact, she is listed as one of the virtuous in “the editor’s” closing remarks. But in the early parts of the novel, before the worse Mrs.Jewkes is introduced, Mrs. Jervis’s behaviour (putting Pamela in B.’s way) makes her come close to being a pandar herself.

There is also the problem of the novel’s insistence on the physical existence of the letters and long journal that Pamela writes. Willing to accept the epistolary syle as a mere convention to facilitate self-revelation or interior monologue (as acceptable as Shakespearean solilioquies), I was confounded by the way the novel lays such emphasis on the hiding and secreting and smuggling of Pamela’s letters, and later on her sewing her voluminous writings into her dress so that no possible hiding places may be found. This conjures up some ludicrous images, as do the hasty explanations of how Pamela found time to write so much. And then there is the matter of both Mr.B. and his sister Lady Davers asking to read Pamela’s journal and being impressed by the virtue and purity revealed therein.

Another objection arises, especially as the first volume reaches its midpoint. How prurient is all this? Ostensibly, this is the tale of a young woman heroically protecting her virtue. But as it is built on the suspense of her possibly losing her virginity, we are also being teased into waiting (and, of course, half hoping) for her knickers to fall. The scene of attempted rape comes as close to pornography as a book can, without actually being pornography.

Here, though, is the oddity. Despite all these objections, something about this overlong, naïve, prurient and morally-questionable novel undoubtedly lives. Is it simply the intensity of Richardson’s “writing to the moment” and following the main character’s feelings in such detail, despite the huge improbabilities involved? A sense of gravitas and importance is built up. This is a very “enclosed” and self-contained world we are getting – the characters and their personal lives and feelings are all-absorbing. Unlike Fielding, Richardson gives us nothing of politics, opinions on religion or foreign races (except for the caricatured foreign villain Colbrand) or the great world at large. It is a private, domestic novel, not a public one. I am not surprised that modern-day lovers of Pamela (and Clarissa) tend also to be lovers of the hothouse psycho-drama of Jean Cocteau and Tennessee Williams. This is another thing to which Richardson is the distant ancestor.

How curious that some scenes, such as Lady Davers browbeating and abusing Pamela when she does not yet know that she is married, work so well as drama – even though they are contrived. Again, the revelation towards the end that Mr.B. has an illegitimate child raises all sorts of psychological possibilities, as does his extracting from Pamela a promise that she will never marry the clergyman Williams.

This is a great naïve novel.

Yes, of course my pen (which I have so often told you about) was busy noting down choice quotations into my notebooks.

There’s a typical piece of self-proclaimed virtue early in the first volume when Pamela writes: “I can so contentedly return to my poverty again, and think it a less disgrace to be obliged to wear rags, and live upon rye-bread and water, as I used to do, than to be a harlot to the greatest man in the world.”

Later, when she is offered the role of mistress, she writes: “What should I think, when I looked upon my finger, or saw, in the glass, those diamonds on my neck, and in my ears, but that they were the price of my honesty, and that I wore those jewels outwardly, because I had none inwardly?” My crude mind read this and immediately thought of the floozie in the musical Guys and Dolls who sings “Take back your mink. Take back your poils. What made you think… made you think I was one of those goils?”

There’s some kittenish fun when, after his reform, Mr.B. tells Pamela “You chop logic very prettily. What the deuce do we men go to school for? If our wits were equal to women’s we might spare much time and pains in our education, for nature teaches your sex what, in a long course of nature and study, ours can hardly attain to. But indeed every lady is not a Pamela.

And then there are awful moments when Pamela becomes the patronising lady of the manor offering good advice to the lower orders. One such moment has her writing to her mother: “As Farmer Jones has been kind to you, as I have heard you say, pray when you take leave of them, present them with three guineas worth of good books; such as a Family Bible, a Common Prayer, a Whole Duty of Man, or any other you think will be acceptable; for they live a great way from church; and in winter the ways from their farm thither are impassable.” This passage led me to write a poem on how Farmer Jones would regard this bargain. He would be unimpressed, I suspect.

Pamela’s haughty strain becomes even more unbearable in the second volume where she writes of stage-plays “nothing more convinces me of the truth of the common observation, that the best things corrupted, prove the worst, than these representations…”And she writes of opera “When one finds good sense and instruction, and propriety, sacrificed to the charms of sound, what an unedifying, what a mere temporary delight does it afford.”

Yet I pull my reproving head in a little when, late in the second volume, she proclaims: “I am convinced, and always was, that Platonic love is Platonic nonsense: ‘tis the fly buzzing about the blaze, till its wings are scorched; or, to speak still stronger, it is a bait of the devil to catch the unexperienced, and thoughtless: nor ought such notions to be pretended to, till the parties are five or ten years on the other side of their grand climacteric: for age, old age, and nothing else, must establish the barriers of Platonic love.”

On this one, I think naïve, patronising Pamela might have a point.

Something Thoughtful

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


Okay. You’re homosexual, you’re living in a society that doesn’t tolerate that sort of thing, and you’re bursting to write. But you can’t write about the thing that most directly concerns you, unless you want your books banned or confined to a covert under-the-counter readership. You could go all coy and not mention your sexuality at all (like Osbert Sitwell in his voluminous memoirs). You could write an openly homosexual novel but leave it unpublished (like E.M.Forster’s Maurice). But really, you do want to write about intimate relationships and you do want a mass audience to read your work.

So what do you do when you write for the general public?

You write in code. Or you write evasively. Or you devise cunning ways of dealing with personal pronouns, sometimes leaving them indeterminate so that a mass readership will assume you mean “she” when you know you mean “he”.

Of course sophisticates can see through your stratagems. Yes of course they smile knowingly at the way the main (male) character just happens to be “visiting” the horrible Mr Norris all the time in Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains. Yes of course they twig that Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is more likely to have been based on a male pick-up that on a fey gamine. Yes of course they recognise what sort of man Blanche DuBois is really talking about when she reminisces in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Yes, they can see that the “straight” couple in Brigid Brophy’s King of a Rainy Country isn’t really straight at all. And, by George yes, they notice what’s really going on in all that mateship stuff in Frank Sargeson’s short stories.

But on the whole the great unwashed doesn’t notice. They take all these stories at their apparent and face value, as stories of heterosexuals having peculiar experiences.

What has been created is the language of camp, and for the authors and sophisticates a heady sense of superiority.

They (nudge and wink) know something that the great unwashed don’t know. It may have begun as a necessary survival strategy for its times, but it’s delightful to have put something over the masses like this. And delightful to feel you’re part of a special in-group.

The historical value of camp literary language is obvious. It tells us about a certain time when frankness was not permitted. But does it serve any purpose now, when gays can be as loud and proud as they like and when any sort of verbal expression of sexuality is permissible?

When I read old camp books of the sort I mention above, I feel impatience more than anything else. So Frank Sargeson’s novella That Summer has a guy not realizing that a “woman” is in fact a transvestite, and it’s supposed to be a big revelation when at last it’s made plain. Forgive me if I stifle a yawn. I feel as unedified as I am by the weaker detective stories in which information is concealed solely to make the conclusion look ingenious. Okay, it was a big deal in the 1940s when it was written. Okay, E.M.Forster praised it. But what, if anything, does it say to us now? That people were sexually less knowing then? Or that the story’s main character is particularly naïve? Is there really any enduring human value here? Or is it of historical interest only?

I suppose you can enjoy yourself reconstructing the time in which it was written, and imagining how challenging it would once have been. But this quickly becomes as sterile a game as finding all the “naughty” bits in Hollywood movies from the 1930s to the 1950s, that covertly bucked the old censorship codes. (Look! Humphrey Bogart in The Big Sleep is really talking about sex when he’s pretending to talk about horse-racing. Wow! Weren’t we sophisticated to notice!).

It also means a lot of time is spent “talking up” things that are fairly trite.

Recently, I looked up Roger Ebert’s review of Douglas Sirk’s glossy 1950s soap-opera Written on the Wind. Ebert remarked – quite truly – that this is the sort of film that appealed to high-brows and to low-brows, but not to middle-brows. The low-brows thought it was serious drama. The high-brows picked up all the covert camp references and realized how much piss-take was involved. And the middle-brows? Well, they just saw it as trashy soap-opera and moved on.

I’m not sure which category I fit into. I readily recognize all the camp nudges and winks, but in a matter of minutes I’m over them. Soap-opera is still soap-opera, even if it’s dressed up in this way. The camp stuff is just an irritating stylistic ornament.

What’s the killer image I’m looking for here?

Years ago, Ronnie Barker on The Two Ronnies had a sketch in which he read the weather forecast. It went: “It will be dull in Hull, cool in Goule, dry in Rye, choking in Woking and the people living in Lissingdown are advised to carry an umbrella.” Gales of laughter at the expected, but unspoken, rhyme.

A few years later another English comedy show (it may have been the Monty Python boys, but I think it was Mel Smith and Griff Rhys-Jones ) deflated the sketch simply by reciting it thus: “It will be dull in Hull, cool in Goule, dry in Rye, choking in Woking and pissing down in Lissingdowe.” No laughter because (as intended) when actually spoken, the naughty words were painfully unfunny. The bluff of nudge-and-wink innuendo had been called.

Literary camp is nudge-and-wink innuendo, and really serves no purpose now. When stated plainly, the things that were hinted at in old camp works are things that are commonplace. They no longer have to be dug out from a code which was mistaken for subtlety or regarded as clever subtext.

So some people are gay? Jolly good. I’m interested in reading about them if the writing is good. It is good, for example, in the works of the current English out-and-open gay writer Philip Hensher. He says what he means, and doesn’t patronise readers with nudge and wink. So we get clearly gay and straight characters, some nice, some nasty, some sympathetic, some bloody awful, but clearly identified as who and what they are. The reader is respected.

It’s pissing down in Lissingdown.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Something New

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

“ECHOES FROM A DISTANT LAND” by Frank Coates (Harper/Collins, $NZ39:99)
As a reviewer, I am always bound to consider books according to their genre and their intended audience before I dive in and give my personal and subjective reaction. I have never been under the delusion that all books are designed to appeal to my tastes. Likewise, I accept that competent judges can come to conclusions quite different from my own.

This throat-clearing is a delicate way of saying that, while I am sure there will be a large and appreciative audience for Echoes from a Distant Land, I know that I am not part of that audience.

Plot. On safari in Kenya in the very early twentieth century, a young Kikuyu man, Sam Wingaru, saves a rich American photographer from attack by a wild animal. In gratitude (and partly because he has repressed homosexual feelings for Sam), the rich American gives Sam pots of money and an American education. Sam returns to Kenya from the USA wealthy enough to be a businessman and horse-dealer, but not acceptable enough to penetrate the British colonial society that still rules Kenya as part of the empire.

Sam does, however, penetrate the sexually-promiscuous Lady Dana Northcote, who dallies alternately with him and with her dopey husband.

Result? By a gynaecological freak, Lady Dana gives birth to twins  - a black son, Jelani, and a white daughter, Emerald. Through various complications (I’m giving you only the barest of outlines here), Jelani gets to experience the growing independence movement in Kenya in the 1940s and 1950s, while Emerald experiences Mayfair, New York and increasing unease with her life of privilege.

They know nothing of each other’s existence until a Fateful Meeting.

Noting that I have not ruined the novel by giving this outline (there are plenty of twists and key events I haven’t mentioned), I hope you can see what is being offered to readers here – an incident-filled panorama of half a century of Kenyan history, from the high imperial age to independence.

It begins in 1906. It ends in 1963. It takes in the White Highlands of the 1920s (White Mischief-country), with wealthy British ranchers wife-swapping and snorting cocaine. It glances at Mau Mau and its initiation ceremonies and atrocities. It introduces Jomo Kenyatta as a minor character. It tells us about the differences between Kikuyu and Maasai. In other words, it gives us exactly those things that we’d expect to find in a bestseller about Kenya.

There is a string of exciting page-turning incidents, some of which seem to have strayed from a very antique school of bestseller-dom indeed. Not only a triumphant prize-winning horse-race, not only bloodshed and the last-minute dash that sustains the closing pages, but also - would you believe -  a scene with a gypsy fortune-teller and a scene where a talisman helps a mother to recognize her long lost son. And of course, especially in the central section of the story where Lady Dana gets preggers, there are four or five explicit bonking scenes just to show that it’s all thoroughly up-to-date and adult stuff.

Forgive my facetious tone. I never underestimate the power of a yarn and the skill it takes to spin one. While it has pretensions to be something more, the 500-plus pages of  Echoes from a Distant Land  are essentially a page-turning yarn which works competently on its own level and will doubtless please audiences who liked the same author’s six previous novels. An Australian by background and an engineer by training, Frank Coates has been a writer since 2004 and he specialises in pop novels with East African settings. He has a following.

Thus far I go discharging my duty in a sort of ‘book club” fashion. You now know what sort of novel Echoes from a Distant Land is and whether you’d be inclined to buy it or read it.

That task done, here is my own personal verdict.

As in so many airport-lounge novels, characters in this novel are psychologically-unconvincing and thin to the point of being stereotypes. They are really roles waiting for movie stars to flesh them out. The author may even have written them with movie stars in mind. Lady Dana seems intended to be a sympathetic character; but she is basically an air-head, who switches from rampant nympho to responsible and demure mother only because the melodramatic plot needs her to.

Given that it deals in part with race relations, colonial snobbery, Kenya’s struggle for independence, Mau Mau atrocities, British retaliation, and those Kenyans who hoped to forge a non-violent path, a part of the middlebrow audience may read Echoes from a Distant Land as a “serious” novel. After all, it deals with serious issues doesn’t it? (This would probably be the same audience that believes “You can learn more history from a novel than from a history book.”)

My problem here is that the form subverts the supposed content. Characters and dialogue neatly spell out the rather obvious themes.

            It was the institutionalised discrimination by the banks that got me angry” says Sam (Pg.211) after we’ve just been shown institutionalised discrimination by banks; and just in case we missed the message.

            You can’t imagine what it’s like to feel animosity aimed at you simply because of the colour of your skin” he says a few pages later (Pg.215), just in case we didn’t get that one either.

And so the dialogue patters on, improbably and self-expositorially, throughout the novel. The author is playing the familiar game of putting later historical judgements into the mouths of his characters and pretending they are credible dialogue for the story’s time and place. Interesting historical questions may be raised, but they are resolved in terms of melodrama.

In the end, the ethos of this novel (heck –  the ethos of most airport-lounge novels) is the ethos of those glossy 1950s Hollywood movies directed by Douglas Sirk or some such. Written on the Wind and its ilk. Expensive soaps in exotic locations in which glamorous people suffered while leading exciting and event-filled lives. Sophisticates snickered at their camp subtexts and the way they slyly subverted their own stories; but the masses took them at face value as grown-up drama. As it has no subtext, this novel does only the soap part of the deal.

But in terms of its political “message”, Echoes from a Distant Land  reminds me of another movie from the 1950s, Something of Value (I’ve never read the Robert Ruark bestseller on which that one was based). That, too, purported to deal with the Mau Mau uprising, but did so in a glib way intended not to offend anybody – and especially not to offend white and British viewers. If we are meant to see, in Echoes from a Distant Land, some sort of symbolism in the one mother having both black and white children, then it backfires very badly. The result is no more nor less than patronising to the novel’s (thin) African characters, and suggests that the attitudes of some writers haven’t moved on since the 1950s. The novel’s snarky and negative portrayal of Jomo Kenyatta confirms my view.

Footnote: The above comments are about a novel, not a work of history. I do know the difference. However, to restore some sense of reality about Kenya’s past, look up the very brief note on Histories of the Hanged on the index to the right of this  posting.