Monday, November 24, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“PEWHAIRANGI – Bay of Islands Missions and Maori, 1814 to 1845” by Angela Middleton (Otago University Press, $NZ50)
My first cursory glance at the publishers’ description of this book led me to wonder if the author could possibly have anything new to say about the subject.
Pewhairangi concerns, as its subtitle indicates, the interaction of Maori with Anglican CMS (Church Missionary Society) missionaries in the Bay of Islands from the very first permanent English settlers in 1814 to the winding-down of the Anglican mission in that area in the so-called “Northern War” of the 1840s. (“Pewhairangi” is the Maori transliteration of the English phrase “Bay of Islands” and not the original name that Maori gave to that area.)
But hasn’t this subject already been covered in numerous history books – not just popular general histories, but also more recent scholarly studies? Was there really anything of significance that readers would not already know from other published sources?
As it happens, my misgivings were quite unfounded. Pewhairangi has much that is new to reveal to us, because Angela Middleton is primarily an archaeologist rather than an historian. Her book appears on the second centenary of the first permanent European settlement in New Zealand. It was, as she told a Radio New Zealand interviewer, over a decade in the making, as many of its key findings are based on a series of archaeological digs at the sites of old mission stations. Consequently Pewhairangi gives us not only the general history of the missions in those years, but also the intimate details of how people lived at the mission stations as revealed in the material artefacts uncovered by the archaeologists’ spades.
Middleton includes three general chapters on the development of the Anglican missions. “Into the Maori World” concerns the ways in which missionaries did or (more often) did not adjust to the Maori worldview and customs. “Maori Gardens and European Arms” considers how the missionaries inevitably became involved in trade with their hosts the Ngapuhi, and how this led, via the growing musket trade, to Hongi Hika’s first “musket wars” and his slaughter of the Ngati Whatua at Tamaki-makau-rau (Auckland). “The Escalation of War, 1845” outlines the period in which, with the influx of European settlers after the Treaty of Waitangi, the Anglican church in New Zealand was becoming more a settler church than a mission church, Auckland became the country’s capital, and the Ngapuhi took up arms as they saw the promises made in the Treaty not being kept. There is also a brief final chapter, “What Hath God Wrought?”, giving the author’s (mainly negative) view of what the missions achieved.
These chapters are, however, necessary mainly to give the book narrative and chronological coherence.
The originality of Pewhairangi lies in the other five substantial chapters in which Middleton examines each of five mission stations, one by one. Her method is to give the full history of each station in turn, from its first settlement to its decline and closure, with an account of its inhabitants and their success or failure in the missionary field, buttressed by detailed comments on the geographical site of the mission station and its archaeological remains. The stations are Hohi (founded in 1814), near Rangihoua Pa on the northern side of the bay; Kerikeri (founded 1819) up the river; Paihia (founded 1823); Te Waimate (founded 1830) far inland; and Te Puna (founded 1832).
Every so often, there are words that could be interpreted as expressing the archaeologist’s frustration at what is no longer accessible, such as this opening to the chapter concerning Paihia:
“Visitors to Paihia today have to search for clues to any trace of the mission and its lost structures. Little archaeological investigation has been carried out, as development has taken place over the years with scant regard to this heritage.” (p.134)
There are indeed passages in which Angela Middleton assumes an audience not acquainted with any of this early New Zealand history, as when her introductory remarks discuss the mutual misapprehension of two cultures:
“Evangelical missionary doctrine described a binary world, divided into good and evil. Thus, Maori cultural practices and beliefs were seen as the work of Satan or the Devil, often personified as the ‘Prince of Darkness’ in the reports and daily journals of the New Zealand missionaries sent back to the CMS in London. Missionaries saw themselves as fighting a holy battle against Maori practices related to mana and tapu. These concepts affected the missionaries’ everyday lives as Maori inflicted punishments for infringement of tapu by ransacking mission houses, taking goods or even physically attacking people. The Europeans did not understand that these were actually lesser forms of punishment, that they were being exempted from normal practices, such as the infliction of death, for similar infringements by Maori. When the missionaries responded to Maori transgressions by exacting European ‘justice’ or revenge, Maori were similarly confounded.” (Chapter One, pp.19-20)
Later, when she makes much the same point, she tends to cultural equivalence:
“The work of the mission, seen as a battle between good and evil, personified through the Christian God and the devil, Satan, was further exemplified by the missionaries at Paihia through the repudiation of tapu and the unforeseen consequences of offences against Maori cultural practices. This view was reciprocal, since some Maori considered European practices in a similar way, seeing the preaching of the Gospel as witchcraft.” (Chapter Five, p.144)
This, in turn, paves the way for her closing suggestion that the Bay of Islands missions achieved little in the way of real conversion to Christianity.
Some elements of the general story are familiar, as when Middleton explains the original CMS strategy, authorised by Samuel Marsden, to “civilise, then Christianise” Maori:
“None of the first missionaries were ordained ministers. They were artisans chosen according to Marsden’s belief that nothing could ‘pave the way for the introduction of the Gospel but civilization’, through the ‘civilized arts’. The missionaries and their wives were to teach Maori to read and write, how to grow wheat and other European crops, and such skills as shoemaking, carpentry, ropemaking, needlework and housekeeping.” (Chapter Three, p.69)
This was the fate of the Hall, King and Kendall families. Naturally, we are told of the choleric and bullying nature of Thomas Kendall as he became more attuned to the Maori world than his fellow lay catechists and shifted into trading. Equally familiar is the story of how the arrival of Henry Williams, an ordained Anglican minister, in 1823 changed the nature of the mission and changed the whole strategy for making converts. Williams insisted on “direct conversion through preaching”. However, Williams’ arrival also accentuated class divisions between the ordained clergy and the lay catechists who had preceded them. Says Middleton:
“As an ordained minister, Henry Williams held a superior position, as did his brother, William. With his shift to ‘direct conversion through preaching’, rather than teaching practical skills and literacy, divisions between the old catechists and ordained ministers grew, along with parochial interests.” She instances the treatment by Henry Williams of James Kemp, and says such divisions hardened once Bishop Selwyn arrived, noting that “the (few extant) letters and journals of missionary women” present “a world where some of the mission families, in particular the lay catechists and mission labourers, were considered less desirable social companions.” (Chapter 4, p.108)
Even more tensions within the mission came with the arrival of Bishop Selwyn, who had “high church” inclinations quite different from the more evangelical Anglicanism of earlier Anglican missionaries. By the time Selwyn arrived, however, the church’s focus was shifting away from the Bay of Islands:
“The significance of Selwyn’s occupation of Waimate was that it was synchronous with the arrival of settlers after the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi, British annexation and the development of the ‘colonial church’. With the departure of St John’s College, the bishop joined the list of those Pakeha, including government officials and settlers, who abandoned Ngapuhi and Pewhairangi for Tamaki-makau-rau, the seat of the old Ngapuhi enemy, Ngati Whatua.” (Chapter 6, p.205)
If I found myself greeting some stories told in this book as familiar from other books (the sins of William Yate, for example), I was nevertheless beguiled by the unfamiliarity of others. I would instance the detailed history Middleton gives of the stone store at Kerikeri and its various uses and modifications. Or the sad rearguard action of James Kemp in trying to maintain an active mission in Kerikeri in the 1840s when the church was letting the mission there run down. Or Selwyn’s pretentious (and brief) attempt to turn the Waimate station into a seminary before he moved St John’s College to Auckland. Or the frankly hilarious account (pp.216-219) of the urbane German visitor Karl von Huegel attempting to visit and socialise with sour-faced and unsympathetic missionaries.
If I regret anything in this book, it is the lack of detail about how the Anglican missionaries reacted to missionaries of other Christian denominations in the area at this time. There are only a few fleeting references to the contemporaneous Wesleyan (Methodist) missionaries in Ngapuhi territory, and even fewer to the Catholic missionaries who arrived in 1838 and who (in history) provoked outraged reactions from Anglican and Methodist alike. However, Middleton’s avowed purpose is to deal systematically with the Anglican mission stations and this she does handsomely. And I find it hard to resist a book which is so well documented and so thoroughly illustrated with appropriate images of places and sites.
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.
“FURY” by Salman Rushdie (first published 2001)
Two years ago, there arrived on my desk Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton [look up my take of it via the index at right], his over-long third-person account of his years dodging the fatwa. I reviewed it with mixed feelings. Acknowledging that Rushdie’s cause – essentially freedom of speech – was a just one, sympathising completely with the man who had been threatened with death and forced into hiding, I nevertheless found the man’s attitudes and outlook egotistical, preening, gushy about friends, often smug and superficial about pop culture. Of course much could be forgiven a man who had suffered a decade under real threat. But – like somebody babbling hysterically after a near-death experience – Rushdie burbled on for over 600 pages, with amazingly little self-awareness, settling scores against former wives and lovers, and in bad need of an editor to tell him to cut it back a bit.
I admit that I have long had mixed feelings about Rushdie’s work. It all began back in 1981, when I first read what is still his most famous – and best – novel Midnight’s Children (the one that was much later judged “the Booker of Bookers”). I was then new to “magical realism” – which is what Midnight’s Children really is, even if Rushdie rejects the term – and I was stimulated and delighted by the novelist’s take on early Indian independence, his celebratory tone about all of India’s various cultures and his lament for the way things turned out in terms of partition and sectarian violence. His next novel, Shame, was almost as good, drawing on Rushdie’s Indian Muslim background for a less-than-starry-eyed view of the origins of Pakistan. But thereafter, for me as a reader, things went downhill. I have not read The Satanic Verses (which gave Rushdie’s Islamic accusers their excuse for the fatwa). But when I read The Moor’s Last Sigh I felt that Rushdie was recycling the literary ploys which he had used better in his earlier novels. The magical realism had become a sterile game, a bag of stylistic tricks. The characters were artificial constructs, not people with whom one could engage. The tone was more often sardonic and condescending than celebratory. A big part of Rushdie, the Western secular liberal, was now looking down on the exotic societies which were his heritage. Rushdie as Mr Smug had arrived; and Mr Smug seems to have stayed in control of the man’s literary output.
The Moor’s Last Sigh was written during the years of the fatwa.
Fury was written a few years after the fatwa was lifted. Unhesitatingly I call it Rushdie’s very worst book to date, which is my only reason for giving it a spot here.
So overwhelmed by clearly autobiographic details, so determined to be hip in topical pop culture references, Fury simply does not fly.
Malik Solanka (born in Bombay like Rushdie) and aged 55 (like Rushdie at the time novel was written) teaches at King’s College, Cambridge (where Rushdie was a student). A professor of philosophy, he has grown rich on the proceeds of something he created for television (perhaps a sly reference to Rushdie’s early career as an advertising copywriter). Malik Solanka created a puppet show called “Little Brain” in which philosophers were discussed in accessible pop terms. But he is now disgusted with himself for being involved in the world of television, where he is now being muscled by the producers to “sex up” the format of his show.
Suffering a sort of breakdown, and raging against the inanities of pop culture, he de-camps to New York deserting his (second) wife and small son (just as Rushdie did). In New York he is beguiled and disgusted by both pop culture and the money culture. He has blackouts and forgets things. One plot has him wondering if, during his blackouts, he could have become the serial killer who goes around beating up and killing rich young women – but the serial killer turns out to be three perverted and wealthy young men who also kill a reporter friend of the protagonist. Another strand of plot – which gradually takes over as the main one – has Malik Solanka succumbing to the suggestion of a beautiful model girl; and creating the franchise for an on-line computer game. (Rushdie was involved with a beautiful model girl at the time.)
But this is a postmodern world. When “perception is everything”, people take media inventions for reality. Malik Solanka’s invented characters in the computer game are appropriated as inspiring symbols by ethnically-Indian rebels who topple the government in a Pacific state which bears more than a passing resemblance to Fiji. By this stage the protagonist is involved with an Indian woman who befriends the rebel leader but becomes disillusioned with him and helps topple him.
She dies in the process, reaffirming that the fictional world which absorbs those who play computer games is not the real one.
The novel ends with the main character, having worked through his fascination with New York and its fantasies, wistfully stalking the wife and son he had deserted.
This is a thoroughly confused and ultimately annoying novel. It is very topical, which means that, thirteen years after it was first published, its hip pop cultural references are already dated ones. Like the novels of Zadie Smith, it will in a few years time – if it is still being reprinted – require footnotes to be understood. It has very much what I would call the “Dennis Potter effect”. You may remember that Potter scripted TV series (Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective, Lipstick on Your Collar) built around placing recordings of old pop songs in incongruous contexts for dead obvious ironical effect. Potter repeatedly told interviewers how much he regarded the old pop songs as trash – yet they were the very things that made his teleplays popular and gave them point. Like Potter’s TV series, Rushdie’s Fury feeds upon the very thing it affects to despise. Rushdie (and his main character) are fully aware of this paradox. Pop culture is attractive and absorbing, but it is also superficial and corrupting.
The novel suffers from cheapjack psychology – the professor, it transpires, is filled with rage because he was sexually abused as a child. The first model girl he has in New York is trying to re-enact an incestuous relationship with her father. Translation? Rushdie wants to spice up his limp and scrappy tale with soapy sensation.
After the very knowing depiction of New York, the episodes set in the state resembling Fiji are jarringly different in tone – a fantasy world. Had Salman Rushdie ever been to Fiji? I do not know. But on the evidence of this novel he clearly understands little about the place and maybe that is why he does not identify his fictitious state with any real state.
All the time I was reading this woeful production, the word I kept reaching for, deprecatingly, was “clever”. Rushdie knows about, and can quote at length, pop culture references. He does incidentally say some wise things about the blurred line between fantasy and reality in a media-saturated age. But the novel adds up to little more than a clever conceit and a rave. To give a really recherché pair of comparisons, much of it reminded me of the in-group shriekings of Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero and Wyndham Lewis’s The Apes of God.
Yes, great writers can turn their private lives into great literature; but in Fury Rushdie merely turns his private life into gossip and a series of op.ed.pieces.
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.
AWARENESS OF LANGUAGE AND HOW TO DIMINISH IT
I do not inhabit a linguistic bunker. I read widely in books that are published in my own times. I am exposed as much to everyday conversation as you are. My encounters with the mass media in all their forms are as frequent as your own and (pardon me) with my extensive background in film reviewing, television reviewing and book reviewing, it is at least possible that I have reflected consciously more than you have on the type of language used in all these contexts.
I am, therefore, fully aware that language is always changing. I know that neologisms are being coined constantly. I know that the meaning and applications of words change and, out of the few hundred examples I could have chosen, I know that we would no longer use “suffer” to mean “allow” or “permit” (as in “suffer the little children to come unto me”) and that “sophisticated” has now come to mean “informed, educated, aware, fashionable” rather than its old primary meaning “corrupted”.
I do not think dictionary definitions are immutable and for all time.
I am, further, fully aware that “rules” as to what is and is not acceptable usage are also always changing. I would not advocate a return, in all its recommendations, to the first edition of H.W.Fowler’s Modern English Usage (in the 1920s) although, be it noted, Fowler was remarkably “permissive” in his recommendations and mocked the pedants of his day.
So why is it that I groan whenever I hear yet another academic nitwit or bore come on air to tell us that “rules” of grammar are basically things of the past?
Nearly always the nitwit or bore will precede his/her remarks by making the obvious points I’ve made here – that language is always changing and so are ideas about acceptable usage. Nitwit or bore will make these points stridently as if nobody has thought of them before. Nitwit or bore will then proceed to the non sequitur that, therefore, we can say goodbye to grammar and to the idea that there are any “rules” thereof. Often nitwit or bore will throw in the (historically-inaccurate) canard that older English grammar schemes were merely aping Latin and attempting to force English into a Latin pattern. Fun will be had by quoting illustrious writers to show how often they broke the “rules”, so therefore we all should.
` Latest nitwit and bore I have heard performing all the above familiar feats was Steven Pinker, psychologist and cognitive scientist best known for his popularising books aimed at the general public (and, according to one cognitive neuroscientist of my ken, regarded with caution by many of his professional peers because of the gross simplifications he makes in many of his popularisations). [You can check out my views on Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature via the index at right.]
Pinker has just produced a book about language called The Sense of Style. He was publicising it via a celebrity interview on Kim Hill’s radio show. What ridiculous things style guides were, he said. How absurd grammatical rules were. What he argued for was verbal “impact”. If we can be understood in a particular context, who cares what sort of grammar we use? Of course he told us how silly it was to worry about beginning sentences with conjunctions and splitting infinitives. (But then Fowler ridiculed the same preoccupations ninety years ago. And personally I am inclined to frequently split infinitives.) Why should we worry about ending sentences with a preposition? he asked. After all, Shakespeare wrote “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”
And so on and so (tiresomely and predictably) on.
As a counter-blast to Pinker, I could refer you to a very good (and witty) op.ed. piece Nathan Heller wrote in the New Yorker (3 November 2014 – you can find it easily on line) entitled “Steven Pinker’s Bad Grammar”, wherein he notes how self-contradictory Pinker is and how his scheme always leads to inexactness. Steven Pinker gets annoyed that people make a [correct and helpful] distinction between “less” and “fewer”, but then has to concede that sometimes one is more appropriate than the other. Steven Pinker gets annoyed that people say you should not use “like” [rather than “as” or “as if”] to introduce a clause, as in “Steven Pinker rabbited on like he knew what he was talking about.” Steven Pinker would like to abolish “whom” as a piece of pedantry, but then is aware of its valid uses.
In these particulars, Steven Pinker is egregiously an ass.
But my groan at the familiarity of his spiel comes from something more essential than Pinker’s particular faults. It comes from my sense that those who attack style guides and “rules” of grammar, self-evidently fallible though these things are, are really advocating less awareness of how language is organised, and less thought about how we use it.
I know that a modern linguist would challenge easily the traditional meanings of terms such as noun, pronoun, verb, main verb, auxiliary verb, participle, adverb, epithet, adjective, conjunction, preposition, main clause, dependent clause, subordinate clause and so forth. To teach things such as these to schoolchildren is now regarded as passé. I remember, forty-odd years ago, when I was a trainee English teacher, the notion of teaching systematic grammar as part of English was beginning to be ridiculed. In the New Zealand context, I believe the rot really set in among English teachers with a poisonous and redundant book called English Grammar: A Linguistic Study of its Classes and Structures (first published 1968), produced by a collective of linguistic malefactors called Scott, Bowley, Brockett, Brown and Goddard. As trainee teachers we had this dreadful publication thrust into our hands and were told that it was just the thing to displace pedantic, traditional grammar. Bowley, Brockett, Sprocket, Knocket and Socket gave us a post-Chomsky-ite “transformative grammar” where we no longer talked about adjectives and adverbs but talked about “pre-modifiers’ and “post-modifiers”. But – guess what? – this “transformative grammar” proved to be far more opaque and confusing to schoolchildren than the traditional version of grammar had been. In a very short time – and with a collective sigh of relief – teachers dropped the book. But gradually they dropped the idea of teaching grammar too. The decline in the teaching of foreign languages helped.
And what is the collective result?
Not a brave new world in which everybody, instinctively, speaks and writes well and clearly – but a world in which there is simply less awareness of how language works and functions.
The systematic learning of grammar never guaranteed that everybody would be a great stylist. But it did at least ensure that more people would understand the nature of the beast they deployed daily.
Monday, November 17, 2014
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“AMNESIA” by Peter Carey (Penguin / Hamish Hamilton, $NZ40)
In many of his thirteen novels so far, American-resident Peter Carey (now aged 71) has reflected on his native Australia in ways that mix realism with myth (or magical realism) the better to bring out major themes in Australian history. I’m one of those unpatriotic New Zealanders who think that Carey’s Illywhacker (1985) was a much stronger novel than the New Zealand contestant the bone people, which won the Booker Prize in the same year that Illywhacker was short-listed. Carey, however, has subsequently won the Booker twice with novels that have nineteenth century Australian settings, Oscar and Lucinda (1988) and (my favourite Carey to date) True History of the Kelly Gang (2000). The first of them deals, in mythic terms, with the “gamble” that Anglo-Australians took in coming to Australia; the second with the rebellious and “larrikin” Irish contribution. Then there was another strong Carey, Jack Maggs (1997), which took Dickens’ convict hero Magwich and told his story without the Dickensian euphemisms and in a way that made his Australian experience more central.
Given that Carey has lived in New York for the last two decades (and has dual Australian-American citizenship), I’m surprised that he hasn’t reflected more often on America in his novels. The last Carey I read was Parrot and Olivier in America (2010), which is essentially a fictionalised version of Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th century observations of the United States. Otherwise, Australia is Peter Carey’s mental and imaginative home.
In Amnesia, however, Carey puts Australia and America in collision. He takes a big and imaginative swipe at the matter of Australian-American relations in a style that is part satire and part allegory, and relevant to the age of cyber-hacking.
Pardon one of my inevitable part-synopses to set things up.
Rumpled old left-wing Australian journalist Felix Moore has just been dumped on by the courts for libel and has been ordered to have his latest book pulped. Financially ruined, he is ready to accept any project that will pay, so long as it accords with his political beliefs. And he is handed a beaut. His old wide-boy and property-developer chum Woody Townes, who rolls in money, commissions him to write a biography of a young woman called Gaby (Gabrielle) Baillieux. She is charged with releasing a virus, the Angel Worm, into the federal computer system, which controls Australia’s jails. Hence jail doors have sprung open all over the country and prisoners have walked free. But the security systems of Aussie jails depend on American technology, which the computer virus has also affected – so American jail doors also spring open. Gaby is now denounced as a secret-spilling traitor by both Australian and American security services, and has been whisked into hiding by supporters. (Think Australian Julian Assange… or American Edward Snowden).
Woody Townes (a very ambiguous character, because we are never sure if he is really Felix’s friend or foe) says he wants Felix to write a book that will make Gaby look good and swing public opinion her way.
Of himself and his commission, Felix Moore remarks:
“I had not, previously, been thought of as the kind of writer who might make a difficult character loveable… As a journalist it was my talent to be a shit-stirrer, a truffle hound for cheats and liars and crooks among the ruling classes. These pugnacious habits had served me well for a whole career…” (p.134)
Felix has a backstory with Gaby’s mother the actress Celine Baillieux, who is the daughter of an Aussie woman raped by an American soldier during the Second World War. (Historical brawls between Aussie and Yank soldiers are referenced). Here’s a clear symbol of the Australian love-hate for America as the country that saved Australia during war, but that has subsequently sought to dominate its destiny. And there’s a second big symbol. Celine gave birth to Gaby in 1975, on the very day of the “coup” that took Gough Whitlam out of power. Many on the left in Australia (including Carey) believe Gough Whitlam’s removal to have been a CIA-organised plot, for which the Murdoch and Packer press acted as cheerleaders.
“Everything we knew from life suggested that America could do what it liked and Australia would behave like the client state it always was”, remarks Felix Moore (p.50), who also characterises Australia’s security service ASIO as “the CIA’s bum boys”. He knows that the young woman whose life he is researching will as likely, if caught, end up in an American jail as an Australian one.
Amnesia. The very title suggests a reminder not to forget what has happened in the recent past to shape Australia. So, as Felix Moore sets about researching, and as he recalls episodes in his past relationship with Gaby’s mother Celine, and as he is hustled for results by the ambiguous and sinister Woody, we think we are in for a highly political novel satirising Australian-American relations.
And so we are – but not quite in the manner we expect.
Carey is a master of the unexpected switch, after all. The first third Amnesia is narrated in the first person by Felix Moore, ever ready to spout his political views. Thereafter, it switches into a different mode, with an omniscient narrator mingling with the voices of mother Celine and daughter Gaby as they emerge through the documents and recorded interviews that are Felix’s research materials.
Having set up the issue of American cultural colonialism in Australia, Carey warns against a different sort of amnesia – the sort that would forget what political Australia is really made of in the first place. For in Gaby’s parents, radical leftie actress Celine and middle-of-the-road Labor Party hack Sandy Quinn, Carey ruthlessly dramatises the disunity and political impotence of the Australian left (a bit like the New Zealand left at the moment). Celine is almost “radical chic”, resenting the fact that she has to live among real working class people in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg. “She would rather die than have a backyard, or a Hills Hoist or a barbecue or a privet hedge” remarks the omniscient narrator (p.171). She rows endlessly with her husband Sandy; and Sandy in turn is appalled that their daughter Gaby is sucked in by utopian greenies who don’t know the reality of politics. Alienated from both parents much of the time, Gaby draws closer to the guy who teaches her how powerful a tool computer hacking can be.
And as Gaby’s fate unravels (with a couple of powerful twists en route), Carey paints a hard, bitter picture of a hellish life in the poorer Australian suburbs, sometimes mingled with the rage of the daughter who feels both her parents have let her down. Her thoughts turn apocalyptic and destructive as when she observes:
“The stupid magpies went on carolling and the stupid sky was a cloudless blue and the stupid Sydney Road continued to carry its trucks and cars north across the dreary bluestone plains made in days when volcanoes vomited across the future suburbs, and streams of lava ran like toffee, pooling in the hollows up to sixty metres deep. Liquid basalt spewed from her chest and rolled down the Merri Creek, boiling eels, and sending blazing wallabies to spread fire through bush.” (p.211)
It is characteristic of Carey to start at one point and proceed to take you somewhere quite unexpected. In Amnesia, having registered his protest at Australia’s inability to control its own fate on the world stage, he proceeds to pick apart the weaknesses of Australians themselves.
This is one of his best novels, as funny as it is tragic (especially in the figure of dogged and put-upon Felix Moore), surprising, and hard-nosed in its details even when it is taking the piss.
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.
“THE KNIGHT’S TALE” by Geoffrey Chaucer (written probably some time in the 1380s)
As an undergraduate taking English in the early 1970s, I of course had to read some of the works of Geoffrey Chaucer. We read the general prologue to The Canterbury Tales and the delightful Nuns’ Priest’s Tale of Chaunticleer and the fox; and The Wife of Bath’s Prologue and Tale (the prologue being far more fun than the tale); and The Clerk’s Tale of patient Griselda, which nowadays angers not only militant feminists; and my favourite, The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale about misbehaving alchemists. Some of us, on our own initiative, also read The Miller’s Tale just for the fun of a good fart joke. Then, as an honours student, I remember being dragged through Chaucer’s epic-length Troilus and Criseyde by a professor whose idea of a lecture was simply to read the text and offer us footnotes by way of commentary. Most of us preferred simply to read the text and the footnotes on our own, from the scholarly editions that we had anyway. If the lectures weren’t very edifying, at least I can say that I found Troilus and Criseyde a more satisfactory work of art than Bill Shakespeare’s wonky, satirical handling of the same story as Troilus and Cressida, even if Bill does give us some great lines and speeches (especially Ulysses’ “alms for oblivion” speech).
But, while I had ploughed through these works in the original Middle English, it always niggled with me that I had never read the whole of The Canterbury Tales in the original. Instead, when I made a dash through Chaucer’s unfinished masterpiece, I relied on the jokey modernised version by Nevill Coghill in the Penguin Classics.
So, years later, in an idle moment, I decided to amend at least some of this defect.
I approached it obliquely.
First I read John Dryden’s Palamon and Arcite, his “translation” of Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale published in 1700 – almost exactly midway between Chaucer’s time and ours. I read through its 50-odd pages, enjoying its subtly-varied rhythms in the rhyming couplet form. I appreciated the general courtliness of the whole thing. But on occasion I was surprised by some of the theological reflections, which, in their vocabulary, seemed more of the 17th century than of the 14th century.
Next evening, therefore, I sat down and read The Knight’s Tale in the original. To my surprise I discovered that in some ways the original is more easy to read than Dryden’s much more recent version. I found Chaucer’s vocabulary more restricted, more direct and simpler – although occasionally not having the nobler rhetorical effects that Dryden had added. And, by reading Chaucer’s original, I found that Dryden had sometimes elaborated on, or paraphrased, the original, so that what he had produced was more a “version” than a true translation. Indeed, in Dryden’s (circa 1700) version, there was much post-Reformation language about predestination and sundry other matters that were discussed quite differently in the late Middle Ages.
The basic story (in both Chaucer’s and Dryden’s words) is a very simple one. Palamon and Arcite are two knights, who have been imprisoned by Theseus. (Here – as in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Theseus is the wise and benevolent ruler of Athens, seen in distinctly medieval terms, rather than the hero of Greek legend.) As the two imprisoned knights gaze through the bars of their prison, they both fall in love with Theseus’s kinswoman Emyle (Emily). Theseus, after some complications, permits a tournament in which the two young knights will fight for Emyle’s hand. Before battle, Arcite dedicates himself to Mars. Palamon dedicates himself to Venus. Arcite, devotee of Mars, wins the joust – but then dies by accident. After a suitable time, Palamon is allowed to marry Emyle. During the conflict between the two knights, Emyle prays to Diana to preserve her virgin state, but eventually she happily accepts noble marriage to Palamon.
In this simple, chivalric tale, the poet’s real attention is directed to the elaborate descriptions of the bowers of the different gods – Mars and Venus – and the rival lovers’ prayers to them; the tourney area that Theseus sets up; the funeral rites of Arcite; and the sententious wisdom of Theseus.
In short, the story’s characters and plot are like something seen on a tapestry, and are very fitting for the “verray parfit gentil knyghte” (“truly perfect noble knight”) who tells the tale as the first story-teller in The Canterbury Tales.
Having read the story in these two versions, I agree with the critics who say that the poem, while presenting two equally noble and admirable rivals, is contrasting desire and devotion as the mechanisms of love. Arcite desires Emyle, and would have her by conquest. Hence his dedication to Mars. Palamon is devoted to Emyle, approaching love as a religious cult. Hence his dedication to Venus. We cannot read too much psychological complexity into the poem, but it does say that love is different things to different people. For the record – Chaucer (who borrowed the story from Boccaccio) has made some concessions to the fact that the tale takes place in pre-Christian times, even if it drips with medieval courtly love and chivalry. Saturn plays the role of malicious fortune, deciding between the rivals and striking down Arcite when he appears to have won his bride.
I must settle one recent, and quite inane, controversy in discussing this stately work. In 1980 Terry Jones, ex-Monty Python, produced a singularly silly book called Chaucer’s Knight – The Portrait of a Medieval Mercenary, which argued that we should really see Chaucer’s knight as a devious, bloodthirsty hired killer because (in Jones’ view) this is what all medieval knights were anyway.
Now so long as we are prepared to use evidence very selectively, Jones’ view of historical medieval knights who really existed is possibly tenable. But, as most astute critics have already pointed out, you can only promote this view of Chaucer’s knight if you blithely ignore the words that Chaucer actually wrote. For there is no suggestion anywhere in either the general prologue to The Canterbury Tales, or in The Knight’s Tale itself, that Chaucer sees the knight as anything other than the “verray parfit gentil knyghte” which he calls him. Had Jones been prepared to weigh up the words on the page, rather than imposing his pre-existing ideas, he could not have been able to make his case at all. It’s one thing to say Chaucer’s view of knighthood is unrealistic. It is quite another to say, as Jones does, that we are meant to see the knight of The Canterbury Tales as anything other than noble.
Okay. Enough of the type of snide smart-arsery that ex-Monty Python members have tended to move into, once they abandoned pure comedy.
Getting back to Chaucer’s poem, there were some passages that stood out for me as still being highly resonant. Consider Arcite’s justification for ignoring Palamon’s prior claims to Emyle:
“Wostow nat wel the olde clerkes sawe
That ‘who shal yeve a lover any lawe?’
Love is a gretter lawe, by my pan
Than may be yeve to any erthly man.
And therefore positif lawe and swich decree
Is broke al-day for love, in ech degree.
A man moot nedes love, maugre his heed.
He may nat fleen it, thogh he sholde be deed
Al be she mayde, or widwe, or ells wyf.
And ekk it is nat lykly, al thy lyf,
To stond in his grace….”
Translation? “L’amour est enfant de Boheme, qui n’a jamais connu de loi”, as Carmen sang. This is the creed of those who think the stirring of their loins is a moral imperative.
There is also a strong predestination theme when Theseus just happens on the two knights when they are about to fight without any courtly preliminaries:
“The destinee, ministre general,
That executeth in the world over-al
The purveyaunce, that God hath seyn biforn,
So strong it is, that, though the world had sworn
The contrarie of a thing, by ye or nay,
Yet somtyme it shal fallen on a day
That falleth nat eft with-inne a thousand yere.”
Later, equally fatalistic, Theseus’s father reacts to the accident that kills Arcite by saying:
“This world nis but a thurghfare ful of wo
And we ben pilgrims, passinge to and fro;
Death is an ende of every worldly sore.”
It is intriguing that the description of the temple of Venus commences with an account of the woes of the lovers depicted:
“First in the temple of Venus maystow see
wroght on the wal, ful piteous to beholde,
The broken slepes, and the sykes cold;
The sacred teres, and the waymenting;
The fyry strokes of the desiring,
That loves servaunts in this lyf endure.”
This is really “tears on my pillow and pain in my heart” territory.
It is equally intriguing to see how the acts of violence depicted in the temple of Mars include both overt and subtle ones:
“The smyler with the knyf under the cloke;
The shepne brenning with the blacke smoke;
The treson of the mordring in the bedde;
The open were, with woundes al bibledde.”
The phrase “the smiler with the knife” leapt out at me, because I already knew that “Nicholas Blake” (pseudonym of donnish poet Cecil Day-Lewis) used the phrase as the title for one of his thrillers. More to the point, though, I thought what a wonderfully concise way Chaucer had of expressing himself. “The smiler with the knife under the cloak”. Doesn’t that say as much about the bland deceptions of the would-be violent as Shakespeare’s “There is no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”? And, come to think of it, Shakespeare’s phrase occurs in the very play in which there is “the treson of the mordring in the bedde”.
The Knight’s Tale may be a long narrative poem, and it may be courtly and noble in ways that are quite alien to us. Whoever first organised Chaucer’s work presumably placed it first in The Canterbury Tales to signal that he was doing something serious, before he got to the crude tomfoolery of the miller and others. Elevated and lengthy though the poem may be, however, the language itself displays those key virtues of Chaucer that translations and “versions” often don’t catch. He is concise and pithy.