Monday, November 11, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“THE EMBASSY OF CAMBODIA” by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton - Penguin, $NZ17:99); “ENOUGH” by Louise Wallace (Victoria University Press, $NZ25); “LIFE & CUSTOMS” by Bernadette Hall (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)
Zadie Smith (born 1975) is now a novelist who has considerable clout with publishers. She has written four novels, two of which have been especially praised by reviewers – her first, White Teeth and her fourth N.W. [a review of which you can find on this blog via the index at right]. Still under 40, she often appears on those “best young novelists” lists that some magazines persist in compiling towards the end of the publishing year. Cambridge-educated, the daughter of a Jamaican mother and an English father, she writes with authority and experience about the racially-mixed communities of her original stamping ground, North-West London (although, like so many British literary bright sparks, she now spends half her time in the USA).
So she has a lot of bargaining power when her stuff gets published.
Now why am I labouring this point?
Because I think not many novelists would be given the privilege of having what is essentially a long short story published by a major publisher as a little hardback book.
To be specific, The Embassy of Cambodia originally appeared in The New Yorker, and is now published in book form. Its 69 small pages are on typical Zadie Smith themes.
Fatou is a nanny from West Africa, working in Willesden (London) for a mean-spirited Pakistani family who withhold both her passport and her salary, which they say they are spending on her food and board. Fatou does not perform any acts of overt rebellion but, when they are not looking, she does make use of her employers’ membership card to swim at the local health club. She also has earnest conversations with Andrew, an African Christian man who is deeply concerned about the treatment of Africans and matters such as genocide. Zadie Smith has the courtesy to assume that her readers will understand that many of the things Andrew says are inaccurate, but are typical of the way people (of any ethnicity) often discuss world issues. In fact, they suggest one major idea in The Embassy of Cambodia – the idea that most people do not know exactly how the world runs, or what the specifics of other cultures are, even if they can talk reasonably intelligently about them.
The story’s dominant symbol is the walled embassy of Cambodia, which Fatou sees each day when she is waiting at the bus stop. Neither she nor we know what exactly goes on inside the walls of the embassy, and indeed we are never told. But Fatou hears the sounds of badminton being played there, sometimes sees a shuttlecock flying above the high wall, and imagines what the scene is like inside. This, as I read it, is an image of how we use pure imagination to fill in the gaps in our knowledge of other cultures. We do not know all Fatou’s immigrant experience; she does not know all her Pakistani employers’ immigrant experience; neither of us know the immigrant experiences of the embassy’s inhabitants, and so on. Given this, it is a little disconcerting that Zadie Smith sometimes cuts into her third-person narrative with a collective first-person narration (“we”) presuming to speak on behalf of the whole community of Willesden.
Not being a badminton player, I had to have pointed out to me that the short story’s “chapter” headings are in the form of the way a game of badminton is scored, running from 1 to 21. But who are the players of this scored game? Fatou and her employers, I would guess, if I am to judge from the story’s outcome. However, I won’t give that away.
This is an interesting short story, but do remember that it is a short story.
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Why call a collection of poems Enough?
For purposes of ambiguity, I would guess. That expressive word “enough” could mean satisfaction as in “I have enough and need no more”. Or it could mean intense dissatisfaction as in “Enough is enough!” Louise Wallace’s second collection of poetry seems to me to be balanced between these two emotions, even if the title poem “Enough” is about a father irritated by his son’s cough and lacking rest of spirit.
I emphasize that I do not use the word “satisfaction” here to mean complacency, but to mean a situation in which the soul is able to respond to its environment with purpose, clarity of thought and a certain exaltation. These things are very satisfying. This form of “enough” is what I get out of Wallace’s poems in this collection that concern her shift to the South Island, in some of which her husband Rory is mentioned by name and in some of which the poet is “I” while in others she is more objectively “she”.
“I pull the other island towards me, / hand over hand till I jump ship” declares the opening of the poem “This new place”, showing that the personal response to the new setting is paramount. So there are themes about settling in to, and becoming used to, living in a new place; about making food out of feijoas; about worrying over home security (the poem “We need to put new batteries in our smoke alarms”); and about adjusting to a very busy sort of domestic contentment (“The happy poem”)
Wallace is, in my judgement, at her best as a minimalist. For me, the collection’s most perfect poem is the direct statement of “Getting better”, which I quote in its entirety:
“Today the sun shone
through my cat’s ears.
I could see a web – a map
of tiny veins, red
on his thin pink skin.”
The sun, the cat and a map – that is, a largeness of experience encapsulated in five spare lines.
Yet there is the other “enough” in this volume – the “Enough!” of dissatisfaction or exasperation with the conditions of life.
Come jolting poems about death (“Jolt”, “Personal poem” “Ghost”) and what appear to be poems about the sickness of elderly relatives (“In the study”; “With her”) or about an elderly relative infantilised (“You wouldn’t cry about that”) and the awkward sense of being a younger person, and therefore risking being thought patronising when you set out to help infirm older people (“A hand”).
More pervasively, there are poems of uncertainty about the value of writing poems (“The feathered hat”) or arising from teaching writing courses (“The lonely girls”, “There are people better than you or I”, “What we’ll have to do”) and the difficulty of writing a book of poems (“I feel like I am having the world’s heaviest baby”) and the sickness of desperately wanting to make a literary splash (the poem “The thing” ends with lines about wanting to make “Something that makes normal people / feel worse about their lives”). “At the airport” seems an apologia for the randomness of much verse.
I admit to limited tolerance for too much of this sort of self-consciousness. Reading too many such poems is like hearing a performer cough and clear her throat repeatedly rather than getting on and reading. I am sure that the writing class situations are real but I am not sure that they make real poems. At least, though, there is the admission that literature and good advice can be limiting. I quote in its entirety the bracing poem “I’m always telling people”:
“I’m always telling people
not to use words
like ‘beauty’ or ‘sad’
because they are too vague,
of an abstraction –
they don’t give us a picture, I say.
But when I say ‘love’ I see
your face, and your full heart
sailing towards me.”
Thus far, I have given a personal reaction and spoken about the collection’s ideas. I know this is not very proper of me. I should be weighing the language and the sounds – in other words dealing with the poetry as poetry. Wallace mixes free-form poems and prose poems. Inevitably, the prose poems, by their brevity, have to concentrate on a moment of perception or revelation or epiphany. In this respect they either work or they don’t, and I refrain from making critical comment on them, apart from noting that the one called “the millennium” is a wry comment on the nonsense of first-to-see-the-sun in Gisborne in 2000.
An interesting collection, which works best when the poet looks outwards.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Comparisons are odious, so I do not compare Bernadette Hall’s latest collection Life & Customs with Louise Wallace’s Enough.
Bernadette Hall can do the minimalist statement. If I quote her poem “How lovely to see you” in full, it goes thus:
“I went happily on the bus to Putney
over the beautiful Putney Bridge
I discovered Bishop’s Park
and a huge stand of oak trees
and an alms-house from the seventeenth century.”
Bernadette Hall also does prose poems, such as “The favour” and “How they ran into each other again at the Old Girls’ reunion”, both in the form of conversational dialogue; and the strange fusion of the Latin language and suicide that is “Millennia of silence and no rain”.
In the main, however, she more often favours the reflective, expansive, and developed poem than many of her contemporaries do.
The first section of this volume offers poems of childhood and recall and foreign journeys - if they are more than imagined (Rome, Ireland, the Antarctic, Asia). In such poems as “The much vaunted map of holiness and truth”, “The angel of perfection” there is a seeking for the numinous in landscape and memory, even if antique attempts to convey the numinous are rejected.
The volume’s second section, “Sul: a ballet that awaits performance”, is like an eleven-part prose fairy-story, wherein a young woman retreats into a fantasy concerning an Ice King and a chilly winter world of non-growth, before being returned to the world of life and procreation. This story made most sense to me only when I looked at Bernadette Hall’s endnote. She says she was inspired by seeing anorexic young women, who were trying to remain children and not to grow up. In a way, “Sul” works as a critique of all adolescent fantasies of self-dramatization and separation from humanity; those fantasies in which adolescents see themselves as unique and heroic in their withdrawal (why do I immediately think of Romantic self-mythologization like Shelley’s “Alastor” when I note this?). But there is a sting in the tail – for the last suggestion suggests an adult nostalgia for such fantasy, even when the adult mind knows it is destructive.
I do not belittle this interesting work when I say it is like a fairy-tale. Any reader of Hans Andersen knows that fairy-tales often encode profound psychological truth. In its symbolic way, so does this prose poem.
It is the volume’s third section, however, which most justifies the volume’s title “Life & Customs”, it being essentially poems of many lands and cultures – Native American; Aboriginal; Death met on a beach in Maori guise; ancient Rome (the poem “Life & Customs” itself) and Antarctica (“Door”).
“Footnotes to the Oresteia” is a most ambitious cycle, partly modernising Aeschylus, but it does risk banalizing those ancient myths in the modernization (like Cocteau’s “The Infernal Machine”).
I have already admitted that I have difficulty assessing prose poems as works of literature. In spite of this, I see the jewel of this volume as being the generous prose poem “There’s something I want to tell you” which is, as I read it, the sensual stream-of-consciousness of an old woman. It works so well because it flows easily, by association, from thought to thought, and suits Bernadette Hall’s discursive temperament.
Life & Customs is a civilised and agreeable volume.