Monday, August 31, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“TRIFECTA” by Ian Wedde (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)
I know that poet and novelist Ian Wedde, now nearing 70, has long been a respected presence in NZ Lit. But as I have admitted before on this blog, I have only recently come to his work. I enjoyed reading and reviewing his novel The Viewing Platform, a deft satirical swipe at the cult of tourism, when it came out in 2006. More recently, on this blog I’ve reviewed his novel The Catastrophe (2011), which meshed First World gourmet lifestyles with the travails of Palestinians; and his most recent collection of poetry TheLifeguard (2013), which put specifically New Zealand landscapes and concerns into the imagistic context of cosmopolitan culture.
On this very meagre sampling of his extensive output, I’m not sure how to categorise him – probably a good thing, as writers prefer not to be categorised. He’s a satirist. Sometimes the strange situations he puts characters in make him a surrealist. He’s a man of considerable life experience, looking with a certain dry irony at things that were once fashionable and things that still are. He knows a lot about art – art history and art curatorship are also part of his CV. And he is always concerned with how New Zealand culture relates to that of the rest of the world.
All these elements have their place in his latest novel Trifecta, a trim piece of work structured as three separate narratives told by three siblings.
Now all in their sixties, Mick, Veronica and Sandy (once, late in the novel, Sandy is called Alistair) are the three children of the German architect Martin Klepka, who fled Nazi Germany to settle in Wellington, where he worked producing modernist, post-Bauhaus-type houses. The fictitious Martin Klepka is clearly a wink at the world of the real Ernst Plischke, whose career followed a similar path but who otherwise had little in common with the novel’s character. At any rate, Klepka (like Plischke) was apparently one of those sophisticated refugee continental Europeans, who taught uncouth New Zealanders (especially in Wellington and Auckland) how to drink coffee and enjoy modernist art from the 1930s to the 1950s.
Martin Klepka has been dead for about forty years. His three offspring live very separate lives. They don’t get on with each other, and there is a bone of contention concerning the Wellington house that Mick occupies on his own. This “red house” is considered by students of architecture to be some sort of modernist masterpiece. As such, it could be worth a lot of money.
Mick narrates the first section. He is clearly a self-made larrikin; a man partly in revolt from the pretentious things that have been said about his father’s work. He is addicted to smoking and gambling on horses and generally bumming around. He has a highly cynical streak, fuelled by his knowledge that his architect father was a bit of a fraud, plagiarising other people’s design ideas. But then, as father’s favourite, he is aware that his father didn’t take himself as seriously as his admirers did, and was a contemptuous of high-falutin art theory as Mick is. Mick is therefore more than a little contemptuous of his academic brother Sandy, who lectures on modern art and architecture at the University of Auckland.
You get the tone of both Mick’s cynicism and his contempt for his brother as, early in the novel, he watches a group of mentally-impaired people going to the dairy:
“My …. boring brother Sandy would haul out his tattered lecture notes at this point and bore me with the doctrine of, quoting someone, ‘man as an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun’. He means culture but what I see are spurts of endorphic excitement firing up the neurotransmitters all the way around the block, and then back to the crooning catatonia of the halfway house where the liberated-from-culture zombies get re-zonked.” (p.11)
Obviously Mike’s contempt is applied to a great part of the human race.
When Veronica takes up the narrative (speaking, as all three narrators do, in the present tense), a very different personality emerges. She is proper and respectably middle-class, living in Napier, a “volunteer” who guides tourists around the city’s art deco buildings, but at the same time struggles with problems of her own – a husband on the verge of alcoholism and a grand-daughter who may be pregnant. Brisk and a little unforgiving (God! I smell the blue rinse!), Veronica is still a sharp observer and the section she narrates is easily the novel’s funniest, in a noir-ish way, with its bizarre conversation in an ambulance and some wry comments about tourists that may be close to Ian Wedde’s own perspective. Like Mick, however, Veronica has no time for Sandy and his academic pretentiousness. He has, she says “a fruity voice that makes you feel talked down to” (p.74), and later she remarks:
“What pisses me off about Sandy is that his work at the university up in Auckland’s all about different cultures and what makes them tick, as he never tires of reminding us, but the furthest he ever gets with that in the real world is the scenic bits of his female foreign students.” (p.87)
It’s never my intention to spike the surprises of new novels, so I won’t go into how these three separate siblings are brought together in the novel’s final section, narrated by Sandy. What we do find in his narration, however, is somebody who at least confirms in part his brother’s and sister’s negative image of him, but who is far more vulnerable (and pitiable) than they suspect. His backstory involves betrayal in marriage, an affair in Germany that went nowhere, and divorce; but mainly the greyness of finding himself slipping down the academic ladder as his lecturing job at Auckland becomes more and more precarious and his hours get cut.
Of course sibling rivalry is one concern of the novel – the way childhood resentments can continue well into adulthood. (Sandy still resents the fact that Mick was their father’s favourite, and Sandy’s immersion in the world of Bauhaus art could be read as an ongoing attempt to win his deceased father’s approval.) Of course ageing is another major concern – all the characters are past their prime and dimly aware that the art they grew up with and the cultural signposts they knew are fading away. And of course we can have fun talking about three “unreliable narrators”, knowing that none of the separate narratives of Mick, Veronica and Sandy is “objective” or definitive as a replication of reality, but the ensemble does give a roundedness to the novel’s characters. I might also note that any novel which has a conflict over a house with aesthetic qualities lives in the shadow of The Spoils of Poynton.
What most strikes me about Trifecta, however, are its undertones and hints about the state of New Zealand culture now.
Although the novel doesn’t labour the point or discuss it overtly, Sandy’s university is clearly now a neo-liberal institution where money and commerce rule over the humanities and therefore art is given low priority. Hence Sandy does not find the respect and security that an academic in the humanities might once have expected. The myth of High Art has untangled a bit in the age of post-post-modernism, and (for all the coffee-table books that are produced about them) modernist artists and architects no longer have the cachet they once had. Most of us would prefer to have a liveable house than a house that is a “work of art”; just as most of us would prefer to have chairs that can actually be sat on rather than neat, geometrical and uncomfortable Bauhaus chairs. Besides which, houses of the Plischke variety tend to be owned only by the very affluent, so willy-nilly they come to represent art as tradeable upper-middle-class commodity. And as people get older (Mick, Veronica, Sandy and you and me), they tend to be less awed by the art fashions that once seemed ground-breaking.
Maybe I’m quite wrong to read these things into Trifecta. May this wasn’t what Ian Wedde was saying at all. But these are the things that this short novel makes me think about. Which could make me the fourth “unreliable narrator”.
Sensible footnote: The cover photograph of Trifecta is “Table Leg”, taken by Bill Cuthbert in 1982. It shows a broken table with only three surviving legs, being propped up by a long piece of wood. This could have to do with the memory and inheritance of the long-dead Martin Klepka still propping up his three children. Or it could be a wry comment on unusable furniture. I really don’t know.
Extremely silly and carping footnote: I am a little annoyed that twice in the novel, a tough-romantic German song that Brigitte Horney sang in the 1930s is called “So oder ist das Leben”. The correct title is “So oder so ist das Leben” (“Life’s either this thing or that”). A misprint maybe?