Monday, September 28, 2015

Something New

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

“R.H.I. – Two Novellas” by Tim Corballis  (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

In his preface and author’s note, Tim Corballis explains the somewhat daunting title given to this volume, which comprises two separate, but thematically compatible, novellas.
The “R.” stands for Joan Riviere, one of the early British disciples of Freud and psychoanalysis, who is the subject of the first novella. The “H.” stands for Hermann Henselmann, who is the subject of the second novella. He was a modernist German architect who lived through the Nazi regime and wound up helping re-design East Berlin when it was part of the Communist statelet of East Germany.
 And the “I.”? Well that stands for the author, Tim Corballis, who is writing his imaginative versions of these two real people on the basis of his archival research in Britain and in Berlin. Corballis is aware that he himself is as much a character in these two novellas as their two ostensible protagonists are. He intervenes with paragraphs on his experiences in doing his research, or on the ethics of deploying guesswork in depicting real people. His is fully aware of what a sticky business it is to claim to represent real people in fictional form. In the second novella, when he presumes to tell us what a real character thought, instead of simply writing “he thought”, Corballis uses the formula “he thought, I wrote”, reminding us that all “thoughts” that appear in fiction are the products of the author’s imagination.
“I” could also mean the reader who, like the reader of any book, adds his/her interpretations of the characters and their world as he/she reads.
Thus for the author’s own explanation of the title “R.H.I.” But I’m sure an author as culturally literate and media savvy as Tim Corballis would be aware that “RHI” is a common internet abbreviation for “Rumour Has It” – one of those abbreviations with almost as much currency as the ubiquitous “LOL”. And “R.H.I.” is indeed a book about things half-known, guessed at, intuited, and always slightly out of either reach or verification. Like a rumour. Like most of the “history” that we think we know.
These two novellas could conceivably be read separately. But they are presented to us together in the one volume, they complement each other and they have things to say in common. They are both imaginative leaps into the mindsets of progressive thinkers from the early and mid-20th century. They deal with the female and the male. The psychoanalyst and Marxist. The inner world and the outer world. The critic and the creator. The passive and the active. And yes, this formula, especially the last part of it, is very reductive and imprecise. Corballis himself is apologetic that his female protagonist is so passive and hopes that “gender… is in these books… in more complicated ways.” (p.9)
To deal with “R.” first.
It begins with a First World War soldier who has suffered from gas penetrating his lungs and who was thus unable to take part in an attack. He felt helpless and passive. The woman who tends to him suggests his passivity is close to a fear of rape. He is somebody who has been acted upon rather than acting.
Thus into the fictionalised account of some of the early life of Joan Riviere. It is the minutely-observed account of a very self-conscious and nervous young woman. There is her awkward courtship with an equally tentative and perceptive young man, the lawyer Evelyn Riviere who gives her her married name. When they marry, Joan feels that she is being formed rather than willing herself into psychic existence. Thus:
 The ritual was something to perform, to savour, to be gotten through with. She didn’t think this but felt it. Was it her, taking part? Stupid question of course it was. But the question, at least, was asked, even if she didn’t ask it consciously of herself. What was this HER, this SHE, this JOAN R that was coming into existence, while JOAN V passed away – a new person, a stranger? Oh all these thoughts and questions here in the one calm space in the world, the one space not tainted by the smell of an impending avalanche.” (p.38)
This is in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1908, Joan has a daughter with Evelyn. Suffragettes are calling for change. Then war approaches in 1914. But suffering great tension with her husband, having a very ambiguous attitude towards her infant daughter, Joan remains frozen and helpless to do anything. She reflects, as the newspapers shriek war:
 The violence – Joan was afraid of what she felt about it – was meant to clear things away in order to build something new. It was meant to make people – people walking past, people caught in their lives – to make them stop. Joan’s own desire for violence (was that it?) was the same: she wanted to clear something away. But what was her object, her target? If she clenched her fists to strike, she had no option but to keep them clenched and still.” (p.60)
Later she discovers psychoanalysis. She comes into contact with Freud’s first major British follower, the Welshman Dr Ernest Jones. And as she herself is psychoanalysed, she discovers the unconscious, which (as well as history; as well as the patriarchy) is another thing that drives her along will-lessly. In the following passage (whose main indications of passivity I have underlined), Tim Corballis breaks the fourth wall and reflects on how we regard her passivity, and if we have a right to judge her negatively for it:
And this horse, this ‘unconscious’, was it somewhere deep inside her, a secret, a part of her? Or would a better metaphor for her lack of control be something not inside her but something external: the amber she was encased in? This amber was the amber of history, something that preserves but colours what it encases, something that fills every crevice, something through which it is impossible to touch the object. Why else has Joan seemed to us so passive, so constrained, so distant and incapable of action, as if she were hardly a person at all? For us here, now, perhaps this is only a difficulty of perspective. For us, there is the fact that she did this or that, all in the past and set once and for all, so how can she really ‘do’ anything? Isn’t she swept along, every word comfortably in its historical place, set firm in the invisible record? But of course, we ourselves are inside our own history, one reflected back to us on television screens. How often are we ourselves the actors in the world reflected to us? Was time and history the amber that constrained and preserved Joan for the future, at the same time as it was the horse that dragged her onwards? And what kind of question is that?” (pp.68-69)
This novella is not a simplistic tract, but Joan’s neuroses clearly have much to do with the dominance of males. She comes to understand the immense and continuing hold her deceased father still has over her. Real letters concerning Joan, exchanged between Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones, are quoted towards the end of this novella. They give us a whiff of patronising chaps who, for all their psychoanalytic sophistication, made all sorts of simplistic assumptions about the proper role of women. Added to this there are the references to Jones’ marriage and the simple wife whom he chose.
How can I sum up this odd, allusive novella?
More than anything, I am reminded of the modernism of Virginia Woolf – the floating consciousness and free associations of her Mrs Dalloway period, where the mind is led, but does not lead; where images of physical things are almost detached from physical reality; where there is an odd absence of solidity, and linear time vanishes. Far from being either content or elated, the soul is weighted with uncertainty, and bearings are lost. Neurosis rises.
Some passages are like modernist experimentalism. For eight pages, in double columns, Corballis presents us with both the conversation going on between psychoanalyst and analysand, and the imagined conversation inside the analysand’s head. It is an interesting attempt at simultaneity, but unfortunately it is impossible to read the two conversations simultaneously.
Perhaps, with its self-references, “R” could be called a post-modernist modernist novella.
“R” is about 100 pages long.
So is “H”.
In many ways, I found “H” much easier to read, perhaps because the state of mind of its protagonist is not as complex as that of Joan Riviere. The architect Hermann Henselmann is under great psychological stress and is battered by the forces of history, just as Joan is, but the stresses have not been internalised as neuroses. Henselmann knows they come from the history that is going on outside him.
Like “R”, “H” begins with a scene involving a soldier – the meeting of a German woman and a Red Army soldier in the ruins of Berlin in 1945. Foreboding is here, but also the sense that history is both personal and public.
Nurtured in the Weimar years, designing in the internationalist style (severity, simplicity, steel, glass walls etc), Henselmann, partly of Jewish descent, endures Berlin in the Nazi years where internationalist architecture is condemned as “cultural Bolshevism”. As the bombs fall, he survives by making functional buildings on commission, but the net grows tight. Unlike Joan Riviere, he has a spouse in whom he can confide, and his wife bounces back his misgivings on how pusillanimous he is being in face of the totalitarian state.
Corballis brings in the idea that the destructiveness of modern warfare is a form of spacial creativity, as when one of Henselmann’s colleagues remarks of the Allied bombing that it recreates imagination:
A city cannot, says Friedrich, be blown up – it must be burned down. The point of such a campaign was to transform the whole environment. Everything familiar would be reduced to nothing, and so the life experience, the reality of the survivors, reduced to an illusion, and so also to nothing. The change in the city would be absolutely incomprehensible to its survivors, and it would mean that the survivors also died by virtue of having nothing remaining of themselves. The familiar moral relationship between individual acts and their punishment would be destroyed, as punishment was visited arbitrarily from the sky on everyone, irrespective of their deeds. This, thought H, was the nature of the physical world, which knew nothing of  the moral balance between acts and rewards….” (pp.139-140)
Ironically, with the Nazis gone and the new Communist statelet in place, Henselmann’s preferred internationalist and modernist style is still out of favour. Stalinism insists first on decorativeness, and then makes the claim that the older German classical style of architecture is most beloved by the workers.
A more subtle temptation is presented to Henselmann in these post-war years than in the Nazi years, when he was surviving a hostile regime. As a Marxist, he is on the side of the workers, so in Communist East Berlin he gradually comes to rationalise his lack of artistic integrity in terms of serving the workers’ interests.
Much of this second novella concerns his vacillation and the quarrel he has with himself as he helps the new regime rebuild its half of the old bombed-out city. Bertolt Brecht plays a small role as somebody who subtly dissuades defection to West Berlin (the Wall is not yet built). He is also seen apparently listening attentively to East Berlin workers in 1954, when they attempted to protest against the Communist regime; but then, notoriously, doing nothing to help. I assume (or rather, I hope) that Corballis was being ironical when he has Brecht saying that the workers’ protests have energised him to write a poem.
Is it because I’m more acquainted with historical and political matters than I am with psychoanalysis, that I found “H.” easier to read than “R”? Possibly. Or maybe it’s because my male mind tunes in more easily to Henselmann than to Riviere?
I must end with a confession. Reading the blurb of this book before reading the book itself, I feared I was in for a self-indulgent literary exercise – perhaps indeed an exercise in preciosity. I am happy to have been proven so wrong. Convincingly creating two quite different people – for all the author’s misgivings – “R.H.I.” is a subtle piece of work, a careful probing of two quite different mentalities, and certainly a very provocative reflection on the nature of history.

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