Monday, October 5, 2015

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.  
“THE BACK OF HIS HEAD” by Patrick Evans  (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

I think I was still a teenager when I first read Anthony Powell’s early novel What’s Become of Waring? (first published in 1939). That’s the one where a London publishing company gets all in a tizz because its bestselling author, the travel writer T.T.Waring, has gone missing and has apparently died. Since nobody seems ever to have met him, this sets off enquiries into his adventurous globetrotting life. The denouement (sorry for the spoiler – but the novel is nearly eighty years old) reveals that Waring, who wrote purple prose about such places as the Arabian Desert and darkest Borneo, never in fact left his English home. He concocted his travel books by banging together bits from older and forgotten travel books by other writers, and then padding them out with platitudes, which his middlebrow readers took for serious adult philosophy.
That was the first book I can recall reading which satirised the literary and publishing worlds, but I (and probably you) have read many other such books since then. Usually they have the theme of exposing the feet-of-clay of a famous (fictitious) author. Powell’s novel was a jolly jape for literary types. At least part of its fun came from its brevity. In the old Penguin edition on my shelf, What’s Become of Waring? runs to a trim 200 pages.
This is how I begin a considered review of Professor Patrick Evans’ novel The Back of His Head because, alas, one thing it lacks is the wit of brevity. Even allowing for a slightly large typeface, it runs on for about 370 pages. Yet at heart, I believe, it is intended as a jolly jape for literary types. Much laughter in the English Department common room, chaps.
Raymond Thomas Lawrence, the Nobel Prize-winning New Zealand novelist, is dead. He was known for his evocative novels about his life in North Africa, and his heroic role in the Algerian war of independence against the French. He died in mysterious circumstances, and there were rumours that he had been “hit” by a foreign spy service. As well as poetic descriptions of landscape, his novels also featured scenes of weird violence, some of a sexual nature, some directed against boys. Though he’s been dead for seven years, Lawrence’s spirit lingers around his fusty Residence on the hills outside Christchurch, which tourists are welcome to visit. Some members of the Trust that runs the Residence refer to Lawrence, in hushed tones, as “the Master”.
Most worshipful of the trustees is the novel’s narrator, Peter Orr, who was also Lawrence’s nephew and adoptive son. In its set-up, The Back of His Head has fun satirising the expected inward-turning bitcheries of a small coterie, like the trustees, on the fringes of the literary life and clearly trying to preserve something that has now died. Peter Orr has a fussy self-regarding voice, filled with arch literary quotations (“submit to the destructive element”, “bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”, “a two-dimensional Ozymandias”, “golden lads and lasses” etc. etc.). The other trustees are the bluff, hearty Robert Semple, who delights in making rude piss-and-fart type jokes to wind up Peter Orr and to show how he’s not cowed by High Culture; the novelist Marjorie Swindells, who is somewhat romantic and sentimental; and the fey Julian Yuile who (ultimately) turns out to be no fool. In this monetarist age, and as shrines to Great Writers are less esteemed than they once were, there are anxious discussions among the trustees about whether they should flog off some of “the Master’s” effects to raise cash and modernise the place.
Mainspring of the “plot” (such as it is) is the threat posed by an academic called Geneva Trott, who claims to have copies of hitherto-unknown taped interviews concerning Lawrence that will destroy the public’s perception of him. Trustees particularly dislike Trott for her unauthorised biography of the great novelist and for interpretations of his work that they consider less than worshipful. So how will the trustees deal with this threat to Lawrence’s reputation? What damage will be done if the taped interviews are released? Read on…. and find at least some farcical outcomes.
That, of course, is as far as I will go with plot summary, it never being my intention to provide spoilers of new novels.
I can say, however, that from early in the novel The Back of His Head has a second narrator in the form of one Thom Ham, whom Peter Orr rudely calls “Gradus”. Ham was Lawrence’s male nurse in the years of his last infirmities and he got to know many of the man’s personal – and often distasteful – quirks. We soon twig that the voice of Thom Ham is the voice on those troublesome taped interviews, and every so often he addresses as “Patrick” the literary sleuth who is interviewing him (so there’s another jolly self-referencing jape for you). In contrast with the voice of prim, literary Peter Orr, Patrick Evans tries his hardest to make Thom Ham’s voice the voice of a non-literary, half-educated plain man-in-the-street who doesn’t understand all this literary flapdoodle. Regrettably, the voice doesn’t come off and doesn’t sound authentic. It is an awkward literary contrivance. The satirical intention seems to be somewhere along the lines of Voltaire’s cynical “no man is a hero to his valet” as Thom Ham becomes intimately acquainted with the great novelist’s corporeal being, showering him, wiping up his messes, feeding him, taking him out etc. And we wait to find out what the big compromising revelation will be – the one that the trustees so fear.
Continuing literary in-jokes, The Back of His Head includes a cod academic entry at the end, listing and commenting on all Lawrence’s works and written in bleached academic-speak. At the end of his acknowledgements, Patrick Evans remarks that the novel:
“…. is not a roman a clef and all its characters are fully imagined … Had the author intended to refer to actual people past or present he would have made it evident that he was doing so. Those who think they see themselves in the novel’s pages can be assured that they are taking themselves too seriously.” (pp.373-374)
Fair enough. I didn’t spot any notable New Zealand literary figures in disguise here. But I do wonder about the names of some of the characters. Why has the loudmouth trustee got the same name as the bellicose Minister of Works in the First Labour Government, Robert Semple? And as for calling the great novelist Lawrence – is this a nod to T.E. Lawrence-of-Arabia (desert settings; boys) or maybe to Lawrence Durrell (sybaritic North African settings; unorthodox sex)? Or maybe it means nothing at all, just as the gag about Raymond Lawrence’s staff (Peter Orr; Mrs A.Round; the pair called Butt) having names that are prepositions seems to mean nothing at all.
Okay, then, in form and general conception, The Back of His Head is a donnish jape. But Patrick Evans apparently intends to fry bigger thematic fish in this pan. Perhaps he even intends to say something significant about the state of literature.
Take the novel’s title. It refers literally to an eccentric portrait of the novelist, which hangs in Lawrence’s Residence and which looks at the back of his head rather than the front. The title implies, however, that fiction is woven from the “back” of an author’s head – all the subconscious stuff and all the half-remembered or misremembered stuff – as much as from the “front”, the conscious mind. So Lawrence’s writings are often things which impel him, rather than things which he impels. Lawrence has obsessions, and his obsessions lead him to abuse and mistreat people.
In short, he is a bit of a shit.
In order to imagine and visualise the characters he creates for his novels, he gets people in his employ (including Peter Orr when he is a vulnerable adolescent) to dress in women’s clothes and perform for him. He tells young Orr that he is his “bumboy” and that he must suppress any of his own creativity. Apart from the implicitly kinky sexual desires, how much does even Nobel Prize-winning literature justify such exploitation? (Obvious answer – not at all.) To what extent can novelists “steal” other people’s lives for material? Elsewhere, the novel raises the questions – To what extent can a novelist’s “borrowing” from other writers be justified before the charge of plagiarism kicks in? And does it matter that a novelist mythologises and falsifies details of his own life, so long as good literature is created?
On the wider scene, The Back of His Head takes on the whole cult of celebrity authorship.
Why do we have these “shrines” or “residences” to well-known authors anyway? Don’t they encourage a tourist approach to literature rather than a real appreciation of literary works? (The philistine part of my mind now has happy visions of a bulldozer demolishing a fibrolite bach on Auckland’s North Shore and the residence of Miss Beauchamp in Wellington and whatever frame-up there is in Dunedin – to the general improvement of real New Zealand culture.) Is any real purpose served by all the writing schools that have sprung up in New Zealand tertiary institutions in the last three or four decades? “Teach writing? What do you fucking mean teach it? They don’t teach you to shit, do they?” says Raymond Lawrence contemptuously on p.27. Don’t writing schools encourage mediocrity and conformity to current literary fashions? (Hmmm. I believe Professor Evans has argued this case before in non-fictional form.) In The Back of His Head a major irony is that the novelist who rages against writing schools ends up having one named after him.
And has the age of serious novel-reading passed anyway? The Back of His Head contains a really grisly scene where poor Peter Orr is invited to give an address to writing students about the late, great Raymond Lawrence, and finds that they yawn, check their cell-phones and ask only questions about how they can get published. They are not in the least interested in the Great Writer.
So there are all these serious cultural and literary matters fluttering around in this novel. And yet, are they not as editorials in a farce? I read The Back of His Head with pleasure and superior amusement up to a point, and then my interest drooped. I don’t necessarily disagree with Patrick Evans viewpoint on the literary life (or rather the viewpoint of his dyspeptic fictional novelist). But I do expect my farces and japes to move faster than this. Let’s say 200 pages max.

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