Monday, September 29, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“WORKING LIVES c.1900 – A Photographic Essay” by Erik Olssen (Otago University Press, $NZ50)
Nearly three years ago, I had the great pleasure of reviewing on this blog An Accidental Utopia? (look it up on the index at right), written by Professor Erik Olssen, Clyde Griffen and Frank Jones of the University of Otago. It was the last major publication arising from the “Caversham Project”. This was a careful historical and sociological study, undertaken by a team of Otago researchers and historians over about thirty years. The aim of their study was to examine as fully as possible the (largely working-class and lower-middle-class) south Dunedin borough of Caversham between the 1880s and the 1920s, charting the material lives of men and women, workers and schoolchildren, the married and the single, by means of all the available documentation. This particular borough was chosen because, until Auckland became New Zealand’s most industrialised city, Dunedin was the centre of industry and therefore the possible centre of working class culture. But, as was carefully explained in An Accidental Utopia?, the notion of class was a very fluid one, and at least one aim of that study was to test whether class solidarity was any match for New Zealand’s social mobility and notions of egalitarianism.
As I said in my review, remarkable work of documented social history though it is, An Accidental Utopia? is not a book for the casual browser, but a work of serious theory and documentation, dense with statistics and other data. It references everything from voting registers, census rolls and school enrolments to drainage reports, private diaries and electioneering propaganda.
This is where Working Lives c.1900 comes in.
As Erik Olssen explains:
“When [the publisher] Wendy Harrex and I decided at the last minute to exclude from An Accidental Utopia? the photographs I had spent months collecting and researching, the idea of this book was born. Like all ideas, it has taken on a life of its own. Although the larger transformations of the landscape and the polity remain of interest, the primary focus is on workplaces, workers, and work.” (p.11)
Working Lives c.1900 is in effect the visual supplement to An Accidental Utopia?
This belittles it as a work in its own right, however. On its own, this is both a window into a past world and – often enough – a reminder that the past was as diverse as the present. Not always quaint and pretty, but not a wasteland either.
It is also a book that is eminently browse-able.
Most often, the phrase “photographic essay” tends to designate publications that are short on text and long on images. This term doesn’t quite fit Working Lives c.1900 as it remains a serious piece of historical sociology and Olssen has arranged his five chapters thematically. Chapter One looks at the geographical development of Caversham – the growth from small rural settlement to industrialised suburb and borough. Chapter Two documents the physical realities of factories, shops and offices. Chapter Three covers the workers themselves – not only posed photographs of the staff of factories and workshops, but also images of workers at work and the tools and machinery they used. Chapter Four (called “A Less Unequal Society?”) faces the matter of social class in terms of images of different social classes at play, disparities in housing between the working class bungalow and the more spacious homes that aspired to be mansions, and photographs of weddings which sometimes showed a degree of social mobility. Finally, given the historical period that this book covers, Chapter Five looks directly at the workers’ own movements – trade unions and political parties prior to the formation of the Labour Party.
Every chapter has a generous amount of analytical and explanatory text by Olssen and every one of the book’s many photographs has a long and detailed caption. On Page 48, for example, the top half of the large page is taken up with a 1900s photograph of Rutherford’s General Store, in Caversham Village, with its staff in white aprons posed before it. But the lower half of the page is three columns of caption, giving the history of Rutherford’s store and its rival McCracken’s store, and amounting to a short essay on local grocery.
In reading this book, I did follow Olssen’s arguments about class and culture, but inevitably I found myself spending more time admiring and looking closely at the fine details of the photographs. And wool-gathering. And speculating about what exactly they meant.
That photograph on Page 23, showing a semi-urban landscape with a line of cottages built near a railway line. Each cottage has its own privy out the back, reminding us of a time when night excretion meant either a chamber pot or a walk over wet grass.
The panoramic photo on Page 35 of St Clair’s Beach in 1912. How very modern the high-rise accommodation house looks – as if it has been transported there from the 1940s by a time machine.
And speaking of housing, the double-spread photo at pp.45-46 is another panoramic one, taken in 1898, of the Dunedin City Corporation gasworks. But, in the background, how rusty so many of the corrugated iron roofs of the workers’ houses look. Even when it was a relatively new building material, was corrugated iron never maintained or re-painted, or were the workers’ wages too meagre for such maintenance?
Two photographs gave me unhappy thoughts about industrial accidents waiting to happen in the days before there were strict Health and Safety regulations. On pages 76-77 there is a worker – bearded and arms folded – posing for the camera in the Hillside Railway Workshops some time in the 1890s. He stands in front of belt-driven lathes. Another double spread on pages 102-103 shows women at work in 1910 in the Hosiery Workroom of Ross & Glendining’s Woollen Mill c.1910. Again it is a huge room with belt-driven lathes and women with long hair and long skirts and aprons just begging to be caught up in the open machinery.
As for masculine working class culture, it is hard to beat the wonderful photo at page 86-87. In a factory yard when the sun is high – presumably on a lunch break – a ring of workers are spectators to an amateur boxing match between two of their fellow workers – or perhaps it is a genuine fight? Clearly another worker has been given the role of referee. Just as the row of privies reminds us of other material realities from a past world, so does this image show vividly a defunct culture in which ritualised fights were not only acceptable but were positively honourable.
There is a similar oddity to the shot (pp.114-115) of the uniformed delivery staff of the Dunedin Chief Post Office. They look more like policemen than postmen, reminding us of that society’s respect for uniforms and its degree of regimentation.
Obviously I could extend this review for many pages by simply noting the realities that are revealed by these century-old photographs. But I think you’ve got the point. This is a lesson in images where An Accidental Utopia? was a lesson in statistics and prose.
One final image to part with – and probably my favourite for no reason that has anything to do with sociological history. It’s the double spread (pp.28-29) of a snowball fight in the streets of Caversham, during the particularly hard winter of 1901. The snow lies thick on the roadway. As a pampered Aucklander, I was not prepared for the shudders and shivers I was given by an ordinary Dunedin winter one year when I was sojourning down there – black ice on the pavements, heavy frosts and a general freeze that the locals seemed to take for granted. I dread to think what the winter of 1901 must have been like. The thickness of the show in the photograph gives me some idea.
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.
“IN A GLASS DARKLY” by Sheridan Le Fanu (first published as a collection in 1872, but incorporating stories written earlier)
When I was a teenager in the late 1960s, I saw on late Friday evening television the 1947 British film Uncle Silas based on the novel by Sheridan Le Fanu. I loved it. Pure Gothic melodrama in good old black-and-white with a menaced heroine and a sinister foreign servant and a creepy old uncle and much skittering around in the candlelight and shadows of a large mansion. Came Saturday morning and I hastened down to the local library and checked out Le Fanu’s novel (first published in 1864). Oh the disappointment! Instead of the creepy Gothic frissons I was hoping for, I had to trudge through pages of plot-spinning and circumstantial detail and literal-minded descriptions before reaching something even vaguely resembling a shudder. I wanted goosebumps and I got the matter-of-fact expository tread of mid-Victorian prose.
I was a game lad, though, so every so often in my reading life I would try another nineteenth century novel in the hope of finding that desired Gothic buzz. I read Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White because I was told that, with its menaced heroine, it had much in common with Uncle Silas. (It has.) Some years after that, I went further back than the Victorians and read Lewis’ The Monk and E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Devil’s Elixirs (see my comments on the latter via the index at right) in the hope of enjoying Gothic neat. In all cases my hope was frustrated, for all these works are similarly overloaded with plot-spinning detail – much of it absurd - at the expense of atmosphere. (At this point, to be really dismal, I should note that I recently re-saw the 1947 film of Uncle Silas on Youtube and found it derivative and less than impressive. Don’t trust your teenage impressions…).
And then, at last, I found the book that I was looking for. It wasn’t a novel and it turned out to be by Sheridan Le Fanu, the man who had sent me on this silly quest in the first place.
To deal with the man first, Joseph Thomas Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) was an Irish Protestant partly of French Huguenot descent. He was also the grand-nephew of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Son of a Protestant clergyman, he trained as a lawyer but gave it up for journalism and editorship and tried to make his name with historical novels imitating Scott. From this he turned to thrillers many (but not all) with an occult or supernatural element. His two best known novels are Uncle Silas and
The House by the Churchyard (1863), the latter of which I know only by repute. He spent most of his life in Dublin.
In a Glass Darkly was published the year before Le Fanu died, although some of its contents had earlier appeared in magazines. It comprises three shortish stories and two novellas.
The short stories are as follows:
“Green Tea”, in which a mild-mannered clergyman is hounded to suicide by the apparition of a mischievous ape, which keeps him from his prayers.
“The Familiar” (originally entitled “The Watcher”) in which a former sea-captain is hounded to death by the ghost of a man he unjustly had flogged to death.
“Mr Justice Harbottle” in which an 18th century hanging judge commits suicide after being hounded by the ghost of a man he unjustly had hanged and whose widow he made his mistress.
There are two obvious points that can be made about these stories. First, they are all essentially the same story – each involves an apparition, a sense of guilt and eventual death. Second, like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, they could all be read as stories of repression and conscience and the unconscious mind bubbling up to confound the rational mind, without any supernatural element whatsoever. “Green Tea” is far and away the best of them, because the cause of the prayerful Reverend Mr Jennings’ haunting is not fully elucidated – it is left to us to perceive that he has repressed his “ape-side”, his libido, which is now taking revenge upon him. Of course Le Fanu has the skill and wit not to explain this to us. Of course if he had deployed an explanation, he would have used Victorian terms for his characters’ psychological ailments because he was writing before Freud was thought of. The stories (especially “Green Tea”) work so well because they sit on that cusp of the supernatural and the psychologically disordered.
Of the two novellas in In a Glass Darkly, the longest story in the collection (100 pages in the edition I have) is also the least interesting. This is “The Room in the Dragon Volant”. Le Fanu works hard to build the atmosphere of a mysterious inn, a moonlit cemetery and an old chateau, but the narrator Mr Beckett, travelling in post-Napoleonic France, ends up seeming an imperceptive twit. We, as readers, are well ahead of him in realising that there is nothing supernatural here – only a group of confidence tricksters trying to get his money by means of drugs, secret passages and an empty coffin. This could be seen as an example of the “tease” Gothic, like Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (or for that matter J.B.Priestley’s Benighted [The Old Dark House]) in which apparently supernatural and uncanny events all prove to be trickery. “The Room in the Dragon Volant” does, however, have one genuinely scary episode of premature burial, even if that was a subject which Poe had handled earlier (and better).
In fact in the whole collection only the other novella “Carmilla” (about 70 pages long) definitely has a supernatural element, which we cannot psychologise or rationalise away. It is a vampire story set in Styria in the Austrian Empire, and told by the young woman Laura who is one of the victims of the beautiful “languid” vampire Carmilla. Like Mr Beckett in “The Room in the Dragon Volant”, the narrator is incredibly stupid and doesn’t realise that her Carmilla is a vampire, even when other characters have given her very broad hints and when she has been given a full account of an identical vampiric infestation.
“Carmilla” has been filmed or adapted or plagiarised more often than any other work by Le Fanu because (in the most discreet and roundabout and Victorian of ways), Le Fanu suggests that there is a lesbian relationship between Carmilla and her female victims. This has led to reprints of the story with erotically charged covers; and the likes of Roger Vadim and Hammer Horror making movies of it, which emphasize bared breasts and blood and Sapphic fondling. Anyone attracted to the original story by such images will, however, be sorely disappointed. Le Fanu’s tale is a delicate thing. As I read it, the images that came to my mind were ones derived from Universal’s Dracula movies of the early 1930s, wherein the count is sometimes accompanied by wanly-beautiful vampirised women like Helen Chandler’s Mina Harker. Young Helen Chandler – if she were still young and still alive, which she isn’t – would be my choice for the role ofLaura if I were to film “Carmilla”. By the way, it is appropriate that images from Dracula came to my mind, as Le Fanu’s story was clearly a big influence on another Protestant Irishman, Bram Stoker, when he wrote Dracula 24 years after Le Fanu’s death.
Now what did this encounter with a book of good shorter fictions teach me? I think I have had reinforced my conviction that the best uncanny or ghostly or supernatural tales are found in shorter works such as these, and not in full-length novels, where the reader has time to rationalise and probably to re-ground disbelief. If you want a Gothic shudder, read the short stories of Hoffman at his best, Poe at his best, Sheridan Le Fanu or brilliant one-offs like Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Thrawn Janet”.
Gothic neat has to be drunk like whisky neat – in small glasses.
Sensible Footnote: My copy of In a Glass Darkly was bought second-hand some years back. It was issued by the Chiltern Library in 1947 and has a very good introduction by V.S.Pritchett explaining why Le Fanu succeeds as a writer of short fiction but not as a novelist. Pritchett also nominates “Green Tea” as his favourite of the stories. I concur. This edition is worth seeking out for its introduction.
Entirely Speculative Footnote: You, Sheridan Le Fanu, are an Anglo-Irish Protestant person living in a largely Celtic-Irish Catholic country filled with peasants whose land you, or your ancestors, have expropriated from them. You cannot visit the country, or even walk the back streets of Dublin, without being aware that people were here before your people, and that bloody things were done to take their property from them. Deep in your heart, although you claim that this is your land, you know you are really a coloniser. Your conscience pricks. Something jangles in the back of your mind. Any wonder that you write so many ghost-haunted stories in which the irrational past comes to bite the rationalising present? Your ghosts are born of the history of your own people. Just a thought. Just a thought.
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.
MISREADING A POEM – TENNYSON’S ‘ULYSSES’
I have always thought that asking what an author meant and how an author writes outside a given work are different questions from asking what an author has actually written and how the author writes in a specific work.
I am not here referring to the obvious matter of intentionality. As I’ve remarked before, interviews with authors (such as happen in newspaper columns or at reader-writer festivals) tell us virtually nothing about what the writer has achieved – only what the writer intended to achieve, and that is quite a different matter. What I am referring to is the way critics sometimes attempt to solve controversies about a work of literature by comparing that work with others by the same author, to see if they can explain what given words mean in the work under review. This can function as a form of evasion – that is, not seeing the work as a thing in its own right, but only as a comparative in the continuum of the author’s whole oeuvre.
I’m taking as my example of this phenomenon the Ulysses of Alfred Tennyson (1809-92), written in 1833 and first published in 1842 – that is, written when the poet was still a beardless young man of 24, and not yet the sombrero-ed, bearded, respectable Victorian poetic sage familiar in photographs. I could go all biographical at this point, and note that Ulysses is therefore a young man’s poem about an old man – but that would be to divert me from my purpose of looking at the words on the page.
Here’s the problem. Ulysses is a very fine poem, eminently quotable and cohering as a whole. We are long past the days when Modernists dismissed Tennyson as “Alfred Lawn-Tennis-on” (thank you, James Joyce) and saw him as a fusty back number. Tennyson has regained his prestige as a great poet worthy of close critical scrutiny. Ulysses is universally recognised as a great poem. But there is still a controversy about what Ulysses actually means.
For most of the century after its first publication, most readers and critics took it as asimple affirmation of heroic virtues. Old Ulysses is the heroic wanderer who is going to leave Ithaca in the safe hands of his son and go off on more fruitful voyages of exploration and discovery. In the days of Britain’s empire-building, the poem was taken as inspirational and, isolated on its own, the last line, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”, was used as the motto for public schools or the epitaph of polar explorers.
In short, the poem’s speaker, Ulysses, was taken entirely at his own estimation.
But then along came a new generation of critics who, while recognising Tennyson’s greatness, urged us to read the poem as a work of irony. After all, Ulysses is the narrator. He is not the poet. The poem is a dramatic monologue, like those of Browning, and there is therefore an ironical distance between Ulysses, the character who is speaking, and Tennyson, the poet who has created this character. We cannot and should not take Ulysses at his own word and we cannot and should not take him as expressing the poet’s own views.
I must admit I first came across this reading of the poem when I was still at school. I got it from a little book called Twelve Poems Considered (Methuen, London, 1963) by one L.E.W. Smith, in which he subjected twelve poems, including Ulysses, to a particularly close reading.
His argument, which was a revelation to me at the time, was that Ulysses is meant to be seen as an egotistical, vain and irreponsible man, damned by his own words for his lack of fellow feeling with other human beings. This exegete made much of phrases (in the poem) such as ”roaming with a hungry heart”, which suggests somebody who wishes only to satisfy himself; and “drunk delight of battle”, which suggests somebody careless of the consequences even of lethal actions; and especially the oft-quoted “all experience is an arch wherethro' /Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades /For ever and forever when I move”, which suggests the ultimate futility of Ulysses’ quest anyway, given that it is centred on an insatiable ego. Further to this, it was argued, Ulysses’ declared attitude towards other human beings is patronising. The faithful Penelope is dismissed with the phrase “match’d with an aged wife”. The verse paragraph on his son Telemachus is not only dismissive but shows no human warmth by using formal terms such as “blameless”, like a schoolmaster’s report on a pupil. So Ulysses becomes a poem about the irresponsible man who cannot handle his real domestic and political duties, and who runs away to self-gratifying adventure. In short, even though Ulysses is old, it is a poem about somebody with the mind of an adolescent.
Only subsequent to reading this account by L.E.W.Smith have I discovered that many others had made this case before him. Indeed, by the time Smith was writing, it had become the critical orthodoxy. Tennyson was saved from being an imperialist drum-beater by being canonised as a master ironist.
And now, of course, the wheel has turned again, with critics who claim that this is all being too clever by half (as most academic criticism is). Replying to the first group of revisionists, they appeal to other works by Tennyson and point out that he frequently used words such as “blameless” in a fully approbatory sense, and that, writing as a young man, he fully endorsed the notion of heroic quest and the search for knowledge. So Ulysses really is the poet’s other self and the first person voice is not ironical. Note, of course, that this argument relies on looking at other works to interpret what this particular work is saying.
Reading and re-reading the poem, I still cannot decide which view is more valid. I am primed to reject the heroic and (implicitly) imperialist quest. I think that “not to yield” is a very foolish strategy in life. There are times when one absolutely has to yield and to surrender one’s first objective. I value the domestic virtues and therefore think that family should not be set aside easily for self-gratification. So I would like to believe that an ironical reading of the poem is the correct one.
But we once again hit our heads against that problem of intentionality. If Tennyson were alive in the age of the writers’ festival celebrity interview, it is quite possible that he would explain he simply intended a poem about the heroic spirit of the indefatigable adventurer. And I concede that the poem can be read that way.
Could it be, then, that the poem is read ironically not because it is either intentionally or intrinsically ironical, but because history has rendered it ironical? We no longer endorse empire-building heroics. Therefore we interpret Ulysses’ ongoing quest as futile. Therefore we say the poem must be ironical.
So we move into the realm of “reception analysis”, wherein what a poem says is what the reader understands it to say.
My head begins to spin at this point. Let me now do what Ulysses suggests and “push off”. Here is the poem in its entirety. Read it for yourself and decide if it is an heroic quest, or the egotistical soliloquy of a superannuated adolescent.
It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match'd with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees: All times I have enjoy'd
Greatly, have suffer'd greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro' scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour'd of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethro'
Gleams that untravell'd world whose margin fades
For ever and forever when I move.
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish'd, not to shine in use!
As tho' to breathe were life! Life piled on life
Were all too little, and of one to me
Little remains: but every hour is saved
From that eternal silence, something more,
A bringer of new things; and vile it were
For some three suns to store and hoard myself,
And this gray spirit yearning in desire
To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.
This is my son, mine own Telemachus,
To whom I leave the sceptre and the isle,—
Well-loved of me, discerning to fulfil
This labour, by slow prudence to make mild
A rugged people, and thro' soft degrees
Subdue them to the useful and the good.
Most blameless is he, centred in the sphere
Of common duties, decent not to fail
In offices of tenderness, and pay
Meet adoration to my household gods,
When I am gone. He works his work, I mine.
There lies the port; the vessel puffs her sail:
There gloom the dark, broad seas. My mariners,
Souls that have toil'd, and wrought, and thought with me—
That ever with a frolic welcome took
The thunder and the sunshine, and opposed
Free hearts, free foreheads—you and I are old;
Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'T is not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Monday, September 22, 2014
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.