Monday, November 23, 2015

Something Old

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. 

This week, in keeping with our theme of war, DAVID EGGLETON, poet, essayist and editor of Landfall, very generously agreed to write a “Something Old” essay on two books he particularly admires – two books, concerning war and its aftermath, written by “Robin Hyde” (1906-1939).

“PASSPORT TO HELL” and “NOR THE YEARS CONDEMN” by “Robin Hyde” (first published 1936 and 1938). Reviewed by guest-reviewer DAVID EGGLETON  
            Passport to Hell by Robin Hyde is a book I have been languidly circling for years, always biting my knuckle to read but never quite grasping the nettle and actually reading. Now I have, prompted amongst other things by the hoop-la surrounding a new reprint in June 2015. I acquired my copy about fifteen years ago from a long-vanished second-hand bookshop as a dog-eared 1986 Auckland University Press reprint of the Revised Edition published in 1937. I stuck it on a bookshelf and it gradually disappeared from sight beneath a teetering, avalanche-imminent cairn of other impulse acquisitions.
            The full title of the book is Passport to Hell, the Story of James Douglas Stark, Bomber, Fifth Reinforcement, New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and is about the early life and times of a World War One soldier, and it was first published in Britain in 1936 to considerable acclaim —recognised by reviewers as an exceptional chronicle — so much so that that edition sold out almost immediately, with only a few arriving in New Zealand.
            Actually, the story of James Stark — or 'Starkie' — is told by Robin Hyde in two books. The sequel, Nor the Years Condemn, was published in 1938 and deals with the long aftermath to World War One, the period after Starkie returned to New Zealand, up to and including the Great Depression of the 1930s. I consequently fished out a copy of that book from the waters of Lethe, where it had lain undisturbed these many years, and devoured it whole.
            Starkie is an epic figure by any measure, a man alone, amongst men alone, when that was a dominant trope in New Zealand writing. John Mulgan, Frank Sargeson, John A. Lee were busy producing  'man alone' novels in the Thirties; but arguably Hyde's version was more emblematic than any of them: a mythic New Zealand narrative closely based on a true story. Robin Hyde (Iris Wilkinson) herself was a kind of honorary 'man alone': a 'woman alone' in a very masculinist, conformist society. Certainly she was a marginalised figure — a disabled, drug-addicted, solo mother of piercing verbal eloquence and stunning literary virtuosity. John A. Lee wrote in his diary at the time, that she was: 'A girl without a sanctified contract to breed. Poor girl, worth a dozen corpulent priests or parsons to New Zealand. Within five years she'll be in a madhouse or dead.'
            As a misfit with a gift for writing she proved the ideal amanuensis for the story of Starkie, whose outsider exploits made him notorious as 'The Bronze Outlaw': a kind of flickering, elusive, silent-movie anti-hero. A Lone Ranger or Tonto character, he was, curiously enough, part Red Indian — his American father, of Native American and African heritage, migrated to New Zealand in the gold-rush years of the nineteenth century and ended up running a hotel in Invercargill, where Starkie was born in 1898.
            Although Passport to Hell began as a kind of oral history — Starkie was a notorious folkloric legend, one who had been trying to interest various journalists into telling his story for some years — when Hyde got hold of it, she transformed it. Passport to Hell is a memoir packed with dozens if not hundreds of novelistic incidents and images. It's a recasting, a re-imagining, wittily sympathetic to its undoubtedly unreliable narrator. There's the pattern of a distinctive personality that emerges from the truths, half-truths and untruths of his story — an intimate picture of a flawed hero — but along with this teleological configuration of a single life there is the most vivid recreation of the War Myth that we have in our literature. It's represented here as sublimation of the aspired-to national character, told at a tremendous speed.
            This rapid unreeling owes something to motion-picture editing, as well as Zane Grey-type adventure stories, but she also reaches back to Roman and Greek literature, to the Iliad — Starkie is a do-or-die gladiator — ultimately producing a representative concentration of the co-mingling of ecstasy and violence that was the unacknowledged dream life of the nation in a time of War. Familiar with the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche and with Sigmund Freud's work, Hyde delivers both the Nietzschean Übermensch and the subterranean impulses of consciousness in the form of her larger-than-life action man, whose survival against the odds seems in a way supernatural.
            Hyde faithfully delineates Starkie's exploits, but links them intuitively to Modernity, to the truth of early twentieth century human experience, where technology had undermined the stability of nature. As the Futurists, the Vorticists, the Expressionists understood, time had been revolutionised: there was no single reality, no absolute space, instead there was the simultaneity of experience, expressed in post-War literature through the writings of T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce. Hyde was not a sophisticated innovator in the manner of such writers, but she did have an emblematic early-twentieth century figure, one who embodied that psychological understanding.
            The beginning of Passport to Hell establishes that New Zealand in the 1900s, while still in thrall to the British Imperial world-view, had as a society grown remote, myopic, punitively padlocked into insularity by rigid Christian precepts, the temperance movement, suburban gentility and wowserism in general, following on from the closing-off of the wide-open frontier colonial society. Starkie, in Hyde's telling, represents a throwback to this earlier time. Ridden from childhood's hour by a sense of indignation and anger at the bullying and callous behaviour that he experiences, he resorts to either fleeing or fighting back, and consequently is constantly being punished. Really, he was just hell-bent on survival as an outsider, a non-Māori who looked Māori in a place where there were few Māori.
            While his elderly father remained aloof from his youngest son as 'a mahogany Moses', Starkie junior 'had two choices, to be trodden underfoot or to give battle. From the time he could walk he preferred to give battle'. Hyperactive, his escapades saw him wind up at Burnham Industrial School, a reformatory institution in Christchurch. At the age of twelve he dropped out of school and worked on a coal boat, where he was tormented until he finally hit back, and so on. So the tyranny of his father, his big brothers and random authority figures, is replaced by the constraints of society, and from this repressive environment he became a serial escaper, a survivor who developed sharp reflexes. Labouring under harsh conditions, he gained valuable training in the art of trench warfare by digging up flax swamps around Invercargill.
            Eventually, he escaped into the army, enlisting underage and then embarking on a troopship for Egypt, Gallipoli and ultimately the killing fields of France. If his early life has echoes of Bigger Thomas's in Richard Wright's autobiographical novel Native Son, Starkie's experiences in the theatres of war seem less like those recounted in Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front and more like those encountered in Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22, in that the goal is not merely to stay alive to but to dodge — by luck, by happenstance, by quick wits — being caught up and pulped in War's obsessively malevolent machinery.
            Where he had once struggled in the triple-buckled straitjacket of Victorian decorum, class repression and racial discrimination, now all the feelings of vengeance, of personal initiative — his inner warrior — are encouraged to blossom and at the same time he finds acceptance by fellow soldiers. Hyde places strong emphasis on camaraderie, on mateship. The surrealistic strangeness of trench warfare rapidly turns gruesome and grotesque. With both sides bogged down, the collective madness of the enterprise is revealed. Starkie becomes colonial cannon fodder that stands up and answers back.
            Thus, by refusing to accept dumb slaughter, he calls out the War's illogic, its nihilism, its Death worship. While all about him are dying like flies, he reveals exceptional resilience: he seems faster than a speeding bullet, faster than volleys of speeding bullets. He flirts with annihilation by charging towards it, but with such kinetic virtuosity he usually takes the enemy by surprise. Here, his violence of movement encapsulates stillness of thought. The wild child's survivalist strategies produce a superbly fit wild man, drafted into his squad's most dangerous work and thriving on it. His instincts as a lone wolf, deftly traversing the chaos, the inferno, the abattoirs of the battlegrounds, allow him to keep one step ahead of mortal danger, until seventeen days before the Armistice he is badly wounded by shellfire. Evacuated to a hospital in England he refuses to have one arm amputated, and he is eventually shipped back to the military hospital at Trentham near Wellington to recover.
            Starkie emerges from the weird paradoxes of wartime — being sunk deep in the slough of the Somme, contending with bloody muck, the stench of gangrene, the taste of contaminated water, followed by sweet moments of rest and recreation — by being both rational and pragmatic. Yet Hyde also positions him as kind of Romantic poet, like the youthful death-haunted Keats, Shelley and Byron — only one whose lyricism takes the form of valorous deeds, which in turn earn him a recommendation for the Victoria Cross, rescinded because he is also an escapee from a military prison, where he had been locked up for insubordination.
            Passport to Hell is principally narrated in the third person, occasionally shifting into Starkie's laconic vernacular. Nor the Years Condemn is more stylistically adventurous, more self-consciously intricate, more deliberately fictional, partly to compensate for the sudden disappearance of thrilling incident happening at incandescent speed. Hyde's techniques in it have some parallels with those of the experimental writer John Dos Passos in his 1925 novel Manhattan Transfer.
            The latter-day Starkie, though remaining restless and driven, is also more cautious, more studied, matching his rhythm to that of a New Zealand wrapped up in a kind of reverie: a denial of trauma in favour of triumphalist glory and florid sentiment. Gallipoli is not acknowledged as needless deaths caused by incompetent management but as an assertion of masculine honour. In the face of this, Hyde quotes the disillusioned war poet Wilfred Owen.
            And, the truth is, as one character observes: 'Easy enough to say that one was done with war, not so easy to keep away from its aftermath. The sick people, the nervous and the futile, were always drifting in and out of her range, and half the time, the substance of what they said was, "The war, the war."'
            So, in Nor the Years Condemn, the post-War saga of wounded and shell-shocked twenty-something war veterans plays out. They were 'neither knights, nor machine soldiers. They were that most unknown of soldiers, the ordinary man'. These men 'shuffle about, ill at ease, slightly ashamed'. Outwardly and inwardly scarred, they form drinking schools and fend off anomie by drowning their sorrows: 'a gang, twenty strong, all returned men. If any citizen in the bar couldn't drink a full handle, he was manhandled or went out'.
            To this grim assertion of the new Kiwi way of life, Hyde adds a modicum of droll humour: 'She could hear her sister, Vida, strumming on the sitting room piano. Three notes were woolly, and one stuck together. Vida was training to be a pianist at the pictures. The men at the boarding-house were casuals, except for a few cautious moth-eaten old bachelors, who had crawled in and taken refuge from life, like strange, furtive insects.'
            Starkie becomes emblematic of the 'rank-and-file soldier' who cannot settle down, thwarted by the demands of respectability. They were the legacy of Wartime values, where, to be a man was to be sent 'to die young, clean, ardent  . . . in perfect health, saving others from death.' Starkie's hair-trigger reflexes, his scepticism and stubbornness, have become burdens. In Passport to Hell there is a Keystone Kops aspect to Starkie's fugitive-like status, running off pursued by the Law, and a waif-like Charlie Chaplinesque comedy to his sly misdemeanours. In Nor the Years Condemn he becomes a fully-fledged, displaced, existential figure: wired, nervous, springy still, but also in shadow, in a kind of twilight as an odd-jobbing tramp whose zig-zag travels take him from building hydro-electricity dams in the backblocks to road-gang labouring in the new suburbs of Auckland.
            Like other returned servicemen, he is now a tragic figure, struggling to cope: a doomed warrior who came back, almost a ghost who walks. Soldiers Starkie saved from death have walk-on parts — for example, one as a Cabinet Minister, one as the Prime Minister: they give him small sums of money or arrange casual work.
            Starkie remains footloose through marriage, divorce, remarriage, spells in prison, time down and out in Sydney and Melbourne. He represents, perhaps, the celebration of the human spirit against the odds, against forgetting; and meanwhile Hyde sketches out the spirit-cramping institutions — hospitals, prisons, pubs — and the class system preferences, in the manner of George Orwell, while gesturing towards a utopian socialist politics. She also foreshadows the Nationalist turn in new New Zealand writing, the emergence of a home-grown literary culture, as represented by Denis Glover, Allen Curnow, A.R.D. Fairburn. (Though they snubbed her.) She introduces a fictional character, Macnamara, part-returned soldier, part-philanthropist, part-philosopher, —a can-do leader and wholly a New Zealander, a kind of ideal composite. The book ends with the Queen Street Riots, where John Mulgan served as a special constable. Robin Hyde of course supports the underdog, the unemployed and the unemployable.
            Mulgan's Man Alone is a kind of forerunner of a right-wing, conservative post-Great Britain heritage. Mulgan's Johnson is resourceful but he exploits those he encounters.  Hyde's Starkie is a Man Alone who marries a Māori solo mother, then continues looking after five children after she dies of pneumonia — with the help of his ad-hoc community. Really, he's just muddling through, and in real life Starkie died at 45, worn-out. He outlived Hyde, however, who died at 33, thus fulfilling John A. Lee's pessimistic prophecy. 

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