Monday, April 25, 2016

Something New

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

“FIRST DAY OF THE SOMME” by Andrew Macdonald (Harper-Collins, $NZ39:99) ; “DARK JOURNEY” by Glyn Harper [paperback reprint of book first published in hardback in 2007] (Penguin-Random House, $NZ39:99)
It’s the week with Anzac Day in it and we are once again reminded of the First World War, with plenty of cues from the media about the Gallipoli campaign and all its overstated nationalist trimmings. I’m pleased, therefore, to look at a book which has nothing to do with Gallipoli, even if it was written by a New Zealander.
Andrew Macdonald is a youngish military historian, now residing in London, who specialises in the Western Front in the First World War. First Day of the Somme is his third book in this field. It is a comprehensive account of a single day, probably the most notorious and certainly the most lethal day in the history of the British Army. This was 1 July 1916, the first day of the Somme offensive, in which the British suffered 57,540 casualties, comprising 19,240 dead, 35,493 wounded and 2737 “others” (missing or p.o.ws.). The German total casualties in the same day’s fighting were about 12, 000 including approximately 3,000 dead. Notoriously, on this day the whole Newfoundland Army Corps ceased to exist.
This single day has been covered before by many other writers, but usually only from the British point of view. In his introduction, Andrew Macdonald remarks that this was the case with the last major scholarly book on the subject, Martin Middlebrook’s “soldier-centric” The First Day on the Somme, published in 1971. Macdonald’s aim is to restore balance by giving as much of the German perspective as the archives permit, as well as the British one. And this he proceeds to do, with methodical accounts of preparations on both sides of the lines, and the sufferings of ordinary soldiers.
He begins (Chapter 1) with British high command and its ambitions. General Sir Douglas Haig believed that he could mount a major attack, which would punch through German lines and resume a war of movement as opposed to the trench warfare in which the conflict had become bogged down. In some respects the French supremo General Joseph Joffre supported this strategy, but was modifying his opinions somewhat as the prolonged meat-grinder that was the Battle of Verdun was going on. The subordinate generals of Haig and Joffre - Generals Rawlinson, Allenby, Foch and Petain - were very sceptical of this grand strategy and were more in favour of the “bite-and-hold” technique, knowing that a war of attrition would follow but that it was unavoidable. Before Britain’s Somme offensive began, the French general Fayolle wrote presciently:
We have understood that we cannot run around like madmen in the successive enemy positions. Doctrine is taking shape. If there are so many defensive positions, there will need to be as many battles, succeeding each other as rapidly as possible. Each one needs to be organised anew, with a new artillery preparation. If one goes too quickly, one risks a check. If one goes too slowly, the enemy has time to construct successive defensive lines. That is the problem and it is extremely difficult.” (quoted p.18).
Macdonald argues that were many changes of commitment to the offensive by the French (who were preoccupied with Verdun) and the British. “In short, the British army’s final attack orders were the laboured sum of the shifting sands of coalition warfare.” (p.38) His introduction to high command all suggests a mighty mess in the making.
Whereupon (Chapter 2) Macdonald takes us to the lower ranks and gives a more worms’-eye-view of the prelude to battle. Of Haig’s 19 divisions, a high number were new to Picardy and under-trained. Conditions in trench life were already dreadful but by all objective measures, the morale of the troops had been rising in the months before the offensive. Tommies had picked up the idea that there really would be a major breakthrough that would hasten the war’s end. There was less insubordination and there were far fewer field courts-martial. Logically Macdonald then (Chapter 3) gives us the view from the German side of the lines, both officers and other ranks. The preparations for the British offensive were open and observable enough for the Germans to understand that a major attack was in the offing, especially when their binoculars saw thousands of lorries bringing up materiel to the British front lines and when they observed large changes of personnel in certain sectors. The German Commander-in-Chief Falkenhayn had the worry of having to send off a considerable part of his forces to the Eastern Front to counter a major Russian offensive. Germans in the trenches were regularly harassed by Allied air power which was numerically much superior to German air power. Even so, Germans had learnt in 1915 to dig much deeper defensive positions than either the French or the British, as often as possible capable of withstanding prolonged artillery bombardment.
So we come (Chapter 4) to the British bombardment of 26-30 June. This was intended to shatter German morale, kill most German front-line troops and cut the heavy barbed wire entanglements that stood before the German trenches, making it easier for British infantry to pass through. The bombardment was meant to last three days only, but went on for five full days as weather was bad and on some days, poor visibility meant difficulties with ranging. Even so, hundreds of thousands of shells rained down on German positions. Macdonald notes that there were pockets of scepticism about the effectiveness of this. Some shrewd Tommies realized that the whole bombardment would put the Germans in a state of high preparedness for the coming attack. British patrols observed that in most places, German wire was not cut at all, and British infantry trying to pass through would be easy targets for German machine-guns and riflemen. Also, piles of rubble in the nine villages that were completely destroyed in the British bombardment still made excellent defensive positions for German infantry. Says Macdonald: “German soldiers were, overall, well prepared to meet the British attack when it eventually came, and many were motivated by a desire to exact bloody payback for their ordeal by shellfire.” (p.122) Furthermore: “Senior British intelligence officers… ignored the abundance of available warning signs that the shellfire-torn German positions remained not only defensible, but also defended.” (p.129). Germans had had to remain in their deep dug-outs when the shells were falling, but only a very small proportion were in fact killed or wounded by the preliminary bombardment.
And so, from Chapters 5 to 10, there follows the detailed, scrupulously-documented, agonising tale of the day’s disaster in each sector.
It begins (Chapter 5) with VIII Corps’ failure at Serre and Beaumont Hamel. A huge British mine detonation was set off ten minutes before it should have been, giving Germans a clear warning that the attack was immanent. “German infantrymen raced up from dugouts and into the shellfire-torn trenches, propping rifles and machine-guns on broken parapets and shell-crater rims; they were ready and waiting 5-10 minutes before the British attack even began.” (p.147)

Macdonald is merciless in documenting the incompetence, or unfounded optimism, of many British field commanders. Chapter 6, chronicling X Corps’ bloody failure at Thiepval, is very personal in condemning Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Morland. A large British force – many of them Ulstermen – did manage to push through German forward trenches after the bombardment ceased, and pressed hundreds of yards into German-held territory, making what amounted to a mini-salient. But Morland kept insisting on more full-frontal attacks on German forward trenches, rather than taking the many opportunities he was given to out-flank German strongholds. Result? By the end of the first day X Corps, for all its valour, was rolled up by vigorous and well-organised German counter-attacks, no ground was gained, and the pile of British corpses was as big as it was anywhere else on the battlefield. Says Macdonald “Tenth Corps’ failure was the result of Morland’s bungled corps command. This included his artillery’s failure to neutralise German defensive obstacles and mechanisms, his deployment of the 49th too far back, and his myopic planning. All these factors were decided before a single X Corps soldier stepped into no-man’s-land on 1 July. Morland had handed the pre-battle tactical advantage to [his German opposite number] Soden.” (p.206)
A similar scenario played out (Chapter 7) where III Corps had their lives squandered in an attempt to charge into Ovillers and La Boisselle under the incompetent field commander Lieutenant-General Sir William Pulteney. Macdonald depicts him as promoted beyond his level of competence and totally unprepared for the conditions of battle that the men under his command would have to face. Some tactical British successes are recorded in Chapter 8, but they are not properly exploited for the intended capture of much more German-held territory. In this case, Macdonald is fairly merciless about both the competence and the moral character of the field commander:
The job of busting this defensive network fell to 55-year-old details man Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Horne. Before the war, Horne had served in India and South Africa, where he burned Afrikaner farms in a failed attempt to quell resistance. His previously non-descript career bloomed in 1914-16. Being a Haig protégé helped, as did the fact that both men were deeply religious. Horne sometimes went to church twice on a Sunday. But his rise to corps command in 1916 had more to do with Haig’s and Fourth Army commander General Sir Henry Rawlinson’s appreciation of his scientific, open-minded approach to warfare and a ‘meticulous and indefatigable personal attention to details of organisation and execution.’  Colleagues thought Horne courteous, charming, modest, honest and unpretentious, but Afrikaner families probably still saw him as a war criminal. While artilleryman Horne was said to be sociable and even humorous among friends, outsiders thought him sparing of words. He possessed a ‘wise, kindly look, with a suspicion of a smile coming through his seriousness.’ He liked horse-riding, hunting and fishing, found coarse language distasteful and later hypocritically raged against German scorched-earth tactics.” (p.250)
The climax of stupidity is the account (Chapter 10) of VII Corps’ assault on Gommecourt, this time under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas D’Oyly Snow who “habitually talked a better game than he delivered” (p.325). The assault was intended as a diversionary attack, which Snow mistook for a mere “feint” – and after all his men had been duly slaughtered in a pointless assault on a strong position, Snow comforted himself with the thought that at least they had tied down some of the enemy troops for a while. Macdonald’s comment on this particular sector could describe most of the others:
The 46th’s failure was the result of mostly intact German wire, numerous defenders who sat out the preparatory bombardment in shell-proof dugouts, and large numbers of operational enemy artillery batteries that intervened when the attack began and ultimately decided the outcome of the battle.” (p.353)
In his summing up (Chapter 11), Macdonald is at pains to explain that the outcome of the first day of the Somme was not just the result of poor British planning, incompetent British field commanders and the over-confidence of British high command. It should also be credited to the greater skill of German troops in trench warfare and the greater professionalism, and ability to adapt to changing conditions, of German field commanders. Macdonald concurs with the judgment (pp.380-381) of the French supremo General Joffre that British artillery and infantry were at this point simply less skilled than either German or French artillery and infantry. On the first day of the Somme, the French contribution was the only part of the allied offensive that succeeded and met all its objectives.
            Instead of the knockout blow and the breakthrough to open country that Haig had expected, the first day of the 4-month battle of the Somme led merely to a long campaign of attrition. The Western Front war became, as it remained until 1918, slow-motion, grinding-down slaughter. There were no marvellous breakthroughs.
There are some miscellaneous things that I should note about Macdonald’s book. More than once, in post-conflict analysis, he uses the term “butcher’s bill” for the statistics of dead and wounded. This might sound cynical and callous, but regrettably it is justified by his unflattering accounts of field commanders and their attitudes. Just occasionally I wish there was a glossary of specialist military terms (okay, I know it’s some sort of entrenchment, but what exactly is a “Russian Sap”?). I admire Macdonald’s habit, in each chapter on operations, of first giving us the view of the top brass, then cutting to the experiences of the ordinary soldiers in the front line – and then switching to the German perspective, which is the key novelty of this book. And as a sideline, it is interesting to find vignettes of people who much later became well-known – Cecil Lewis (later the author of the flying classic Sagittarius Rising) flies overhead with the RFC. The soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon, to one side of this battle, gets a long shot of the action. Later famous as a theorist on military strategy, Captain Basil Liddell Hart [his middle name for some reason misspelt “Liddle” in this book] gives his soldier’s-eye view of action at close quarters (pp.257-258 and p.275). Sergeant Richard Tawney (later the illustrious economic historian R.H.Tawney) is knocked over by rifle fire and spends 30 hours lying wounded in no-man’s-land before he is rescued (p.264).
Of course the story this book tells is large-scale tragedy. Of course words like “futility” come to mind. Of course the horrors pile up, as does the sense of the pointlessness of it all. There are tears, curses, remorse, the honeyed self-justifications of officers, and slaughter, slaughter, slaughter reported in all its grisly detail. For some readers, Macdonald’s approach may seem a little clinical as he works methodically through the different sectors of this one day. But this is how military history should be written – giving us both the big picture and the individual experience. First Day of the Somme is a wrenching experience but also a documented one. True history in other words, and a great book.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *  

The only reason that I do not spend as much time on Glyn Harper’s excellent Dark Journey is because it is the paperback reprint of a book first published in 2007. Dark Journey includes the text of two of Harper’s earlier military histories, Massacre at Passchendaele: The New Zealand Story and Spring Offensive: New Zealand and the Second Battle of the Somme. These make up the first two parts of Dark Journey, to which has been added the third part “Bloody Bapaume”. The original edition bore on its cover the subtitle “Three key New Zealand battles of the Western Front”. The new paperback reprint alters this to “Passchendaele, the Somme and the New Zealand experience of the Western Front”.
Like his fellow military historian Chris Pugsley, Harper is performing the valuable service of reminding New Zealanders that the greatest number of casualties this nation sustained in the First World

War were not in the Gallipoli campaign, about which we talk so much, but on the Western Front. The October 1917 attack at Passchendaele was the most lethal phase for New Zealanders (yes, I have a great-uncle buried somewhere there – but then thousands of New Zealanders of my generation could say the same thing.) But countering the German Spring Offensive of March and April 1918 was no picnic either; nor was the New Zealanders’ action in Bapaume in the last stages of the war (August-September 1918). At least one can say, however, that these two latter actions contributed to final victory. As Harper notes, they were hard fought, but casualties were fairly even on both sides and the German army was dislodged and pushed back. There is tragedy, but there is not that awful sense of futility one gets from reading about Passchendaele (or the first day of the Somme).
Dark Journey is well-illustrated, lucid in its prose, and very clear about unearthing memories of individual soldiers and their battlefield experiences. It is good and accessible military history.

Foolish Footnote: I cannot hear the name Bapaume without at once remembering Siegfried Sassoon’s bitter poem “Blighters” about idiotic civilians who turned the war into a cheap joke even as it was being fought. The poem was written in 1917, a year before New Zealanders were involved in action near Bapaume, and of course has no place in Glyn Harper’s history of the New Zealanders’ action. But here it is anyway:

The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin 
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks 
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din; 
“We’re sure the Kaiser loves the dear old Tanks!”

I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls, 
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or “Home, sweet Home,” 
And there'd be no more jokes in Music-halls 
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.

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.

 “LA-BAS” by Joris-Karl Huysmans (first published 1891). (English translations usually titled “DOWN THERE”, but Penguin Classics call it “THE DAMNED”)
Well over a year ago, on this blog, I discussed A Rebours, the essential book of late-nineteenth-century Decadence, written by the Frenchman of Dutch parentage Charles-Marie-Georges Huysmans (1848-1907), who signed himself, Dutch-style, Joris-Karl Huysmans.
I told Huysmans’ story quite simply. As a novelist, Huysmans was at first a disciple of Emile Zola, turning out Naturalist novels on the proletariat and petite bourgeoisie. But he came to see this as a literary dead end and moved to Aestheticism in A Rebours, the tale of the solitary, aristocratic aesthete des Esseintes trying, and failing, to find ultimate truths through sensual satisfaction. For British decadents (Oscar Wilde and company) A Rebours became the seminal text – the “yellow book” mentioned in The Picture of Dorian Gray – and they took it as a guide to the way a proper aesthete should behave. But for Huysmans himself, A Rebours was no such thing. It was merely a staging post on his journey away from materialism towards religious belief. In A Rebours he was attempting – through des Esseintes – to see whether one could have spiritual experiences dependent wholly on the senses. His conclusion – in des Esseintes’ final defeat – was that one could not, and that pure aestheticism was also a dead end.
I still regard A Rebours as the most important thing Huysmans wrote – the real point of change in his life – but he had some way to go before he found fulfilment, and his next stop was a system of belief that could be seen as either preposterous nonsense or pure evil.
In La-Bas (serialised in a magazine before first being published in book form in 1891) he explored Satanism. The novel’s title is best translated as Down There, and clearly refers to Hell, but for no reason in particular Penguin Modern Classics have chosen unimaginatively to call it The Damned.
Like A Rebours, La-Bas is essentially a literary discussion, although its main character Durtal (read Huysmans) is not the solitary that des Esseintes is. Durtal does socialise and converse with many people. Indeed conversing at great length is what everybody does in this novel, so that events tend to be reported in dialogue rather than dramatised.
Durtal is researching a book on the medieval paedophile, rapist and mass-murderer of children Gilles de Rais, probably one of the inspirations for the folktale of “Bluebeard”, who was widely believed to have been a Satanist. Durtal’s research leads him to converse at great length with the doctor Des Hermies about Satanism and sympathetic magic; with the pious Carhaix, bell-ringer of Saint-Sulpice, about bells; and with the astrologer Gevingey.
Reading and conversing and moving between his apartment and Carhaix’s bell-tower are the main things that “happen” to Durtal. Most of what is conveyed (Gilles de Rais’ abominations; the Satanism of the modern priest Canon Docre and the “miraculous” cures of the defrocked Abbe Johannes) are experienced by Durtal (and us) at second hand. Once again, as in A Rebours, this gives Huymans’ work the double-textured, self-referencing quality, which was later picked up more clumsily by postmodernists, where our attention is directed to the strings that move the puppets.
However, there is an external narrative of events.
Durtal receives admiring letters from Hyacinthe Chantelouve, the wife of a Catholic historian and author of pious hagiographies. Durtal and Mme Chantelouve have an affair, though Durtal is soon disgusted by the cold calculation of the woman. It is she who takes him, late in the novel, to a luridly-described black mass, after which she seduces him into swyving her on a bed covered with consecrated hosts.
Then she disappears from the novel.
In the context of this novel, it is easy to talk about “objective correlatives”. The symbolism is loud and clear. Durtal’s narrow apartment and the streets of Paris are the modern world, especially as, at the time the narrative unfolds, the mob are howling democratically for the demagogic soldier Boulanger to lead them. This makes a stark contrast with the splendour and the piety of the Middle Ages, when the medieval crowd sang psalms when Gilles de Rais had repented of his crimes. The bell-ringing tower of Carhaix, the pious Catholic, is a refuge from the modern world, very vividly evoked with its bells and stones and the weather beating about it, and attractively cosy with the (fully-described) delicious meals that Mme. Carhaix keeps serving the four people who converse there. But Durtal (Huysmans) is not yet sure how he responds to this apparent refuge. Carhaix’s simple faith is admirable, but he is the novel’s simpleton, lacking the wit and learning of Durtal, Des Hermies and Gevingey. Perhaps Carhaix is the holy innocent. As for Hyacinthe Chantelouve, she is in some sense the novel’s “objective correlative” of Huysmans’ confused feelings about Catholicism – cuckolding her smug bourgeois Catholic husband seems to be the erotic equivalent of violating the Eucharist. That Huysmans chooses to depict such a woman in the bosom of the Catholic establishment is part of the novel’s implicit dualism, which evokes Manicheanism in its opening pages.
On the theological level, I find La-Bas to be even more of a work of literary dandyism than A Rebours is. By the time he wrote La-Bas, Huysmans already knew full well that his choice lay between materialism and religious belief, and his evocation of Satan seems more lurid and sensationalist than passionate and heartfelt. In a word, it is forced, as if by excess and artificiality he is trying to ward off his inevitable conversion.
Of course I note that these blasphemies flourish only in the context of what they deny. Without a high theology of the Eucharist, there would be no point in holding black masses and violating the Eucharist. Blasphemy always assumes belief, as Huysmans knew full well before he wrote this novel. In our current climate of neo-atheism, violent polemics against religion often read as anger against God rather than real denial of God. (Why be so angry about something that isn’t there?) But evocations of Satan nowadays are more in the nature of childish taunts than full-blooded blasphemy – Heavy Metal rockers giving the two-finger “horn” sign to piss off the parents of their younger fans; idiot polemicists saying they’re going to put up a monument to Satan if somebody puts the Ten Commandments in a public place etc. etc. This may have much to do with the fact that the Devil plays very little part in the theology of mainstream Christian churches now.
As a piece of writing, La-Bas has of course (as always with the later Huysmans) a vocabulary so filled with recherché words that I had to resort to an English translation to find my way through it. Surprisingly, there are some light touches, such as the detail of the messy and intrusive concierge Rateau, who cleans Durtal’s apartment. But the novel ends as its precursor did, with a sense of nausea and disgust at the triumph of the materialistic mass culture of the modern world. Just as des Esseintes could not yet be drawn to Catholicism by art, so can Durtal not yet be pushed to Catholicism by what Huysmans was later to call “the hooked claw of Satan.
And yet Huysmans’ journey was not finished by La-Bas. I have easily equated Durtal with Huysmans throughout this notice for the simple reason that La-Bas, despite some elements of pure fiction, is in many respects a work of thinly-disguised autobiography. There has apparently been some controversy over the originals of some characters. It is fairly well-established that the blasphemous Canon Docre is based on a real priest, as is the defrocked Abbe Johannes; and Hyacinthe Chantelouve is apparently the amalgam of two women whom Huysmans knew. Then as now, there was a tiny subculture of Satanists holding black masses. More to the point, the path that Durtal follows in Huysmans next three novels - En Route, La Cathedrale and L’Oblat – was exactly the path that Huysmans followed: first admiration for medieval Gothic Catholic architecture, then conversion and formal reception into the Catholic Church, and finally becoming an “oblate”, or lay member of a Catholic religious order.
Huysmans did not come from a Catholic family and all his formal education had been in secular schools. He was not (like Baudelaire and possibly like Rimbaud) a “cradle” Catholic who eventually returned to the church. He was a complete stranger to the church, meaning that when he was finally converted, he had to make a first confession of his sins.  This raises another interesting point. In La Cathedrale, Huysmans has Durtal confessing to having once attended a black mass. There has been some debate about whether Huysmans ever attended the type of black mass described in La-Bas. The confession which he has Durtal make would seem to suggest that he had.
Which brings me to one last but important point. A number of years ago, the late, great craft printer Ronald Holloway gave me a copy of La-Bas, basically telling me that he was happy to get rid of it as he regarded it as “trash”. Ron was a Catholic convert of a rather old-fashioned sort (he still went to mass but he resented the modernisation of liturgy in the 1960s). Clearly Ron found the ropier parts of La-Bas offensive and upsetting, and I don’t blame him. As Durtal researches the history of Gilles de Rais, we are given many explicit details of the paedophile-murderer’s hideous career. Then there is that black mass. It begins with a long, blasphemous invocation and (inevitably) ends up as an orgy of barking, howling, writhing and copulation in various orifices of both sexes. It reads as half pornographic and half infantile. This, in the end, is what all pornography does – it strips people of both their mature reason and their personhood. The dualist revolt against God becomes a revolt against reason, and the pushing of sensuality becomes the torture of excess.
This was doubtless Huysmans’ point and it is well taken. But after even 120 years, it is still hard to read the relevant sections of La-Bas.

Something Thoughtful

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.  
            There’s a poem by the soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon, written towards the end of the First World War,  which I’ve always admired both for its anger and for its subversive irony. It concerns the treatment given to maimed and damaged soldiers and it goes thus:

DOES it matter?—losing your legs?...

For people will always be kind,

And you need not show that you mind

When the others come in after hunting

To gobble their muffins and eggs.

Does it matter?—losing your sight?...

There’s such splendid work for the blind;

And people will always be kind,

As you sit on the terrace remembering

And turning your face to the light.

Do they matter?—those dreams from the pit?...

You can drink and forget and be glad,

And people won’t say that you’re mad;

For they’ll know you’ve fought for your country

And no one will worry a bit.

The line that most captures me, and that has captured other people, is the most chilling in the poem. “People will always be kind”. In fact, this line was taken as the title of a very good political novel by Wilfrid Sheed, first published in 1973. Sheed’s People Will Always Be Kind isn’t up there with the very best American political novels (Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men; Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah etc.); but it does the business pretty well in its tale of a polio-afflicted paraplegic politician.

The point, as seen by Siegfried Sassoon (and Wilfrid Sheed), is that to be “kind” is not to be truly charitable, just and loving. It is to be somewhat patronising and perhaps looking down on the object of your kindness as somebody to be pitied rather than accepted as your fellow adult and human being. We are – quite rightly and justly – “kind” to small children, to hurt animals, to the aged and the infirm, to the mentally afflicted and perhaps sometimes, but only sometimes, to the physically afflicted. These are people than whom we are physically stronger and therefore over whom we have some power. But if we are “kind” to those who are mentally and physically our equals, then we are not really treating them as our equals but as our subordinates.

I am aware that the connotations of words change over the centuries. Yes, “kind” once upon a time meant acting in a truly human way towards others – as part of humankind (and centuries ago Mother Nature was called Dame Kind). Yes, “kind” once meant polite and civil and considerate. But, like the honourable word “charity”, “kind” has suffered a lexical shift in the past century or so, and it has become the patronising thing that I have outlined above. Even Siegfried Sassoon knew this in 1918.

I have a personal reason for now discussing all this. About a month ago, there was an extraordinary and intemperate attack on me on a blogsite run by a publicist and promoter of New Zealand poetry. I was accused, as a frequent book reviewer, of being an “ultra toxic”, “smart alec” bully who had an “ego-driven” compulsion to attack and belittle people in print. This was apparently my habitual modus operandi. The charge was and is laughably inaccurate (you may check out my degree of habitual toxicity by browsing some of my reviews on the index at right). I suspected –and in a later development had my suspicion confirmed – that the publicist had taken exception to a particular review of mine and so decided, rather thoughtlessly, to launch a general personal attack on me.

I protested, not directly to the perpetrator of this nonsense, because I did not know how to contact her directly, but to various people whom I know in the publishing, writing and reviewing communities. I got many messages of support and refutation of the publicist’s rant. I suspect (but in this case cannot prove) that one of my contacts might have advised the publicist to publicly modify her views a little – perhaps because I had asked whether her statements were actionable. On the following day the publicist’s blogsite had another post saying that perhaps she had shown “unkindness” to me in her blanket condemnation of me. But there was no other word of retraction from her original statement. Instead, in her new posting, she went into a piece of self-promotion about how she shows “kindness” and consideration to anyone she is reviewing and how “kindness” should be the yardstick of all reviewing as it challenges patriarchal ideas of relative merit. There was plenty more in the same vein, the gist being that robust reviewing is “unkind” and that no value judgments on the worth of given books should ever be passed.

To me this sounds like a formula for publicity rather than for genuine reviewing and criticism – in other words, the type of “reviews” that appear on the websites of booksellers and publishers, who are naturally in the business of promoting their wares.

More to the point I am making, though, I do not wish to be shown “kindness” by anyone until such time as I am senile and dribbling into my soup. Consideration, yes; truthfulness, yes; civility, yes. But not “kindness”, which is by now an irretrievably patronising concept. Nor have I the least intention of showing “kindness” to anyone I review. I will continue to show the thoughtfulness, consideration and fair judgment that I already show. But I will also always make the assumption that any author I review is an adult, my intellectual equal, who can take robust criticism and does not need to be patted on the head with “kindness.”

Monday, April 18, 2016

Something New

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

“THIS IS WHERE THE WORLD ENDS” by Amy Zhang (Harper-Collins, $NZ22:99) ; “IN ORDER TO LIVE – A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom” by Yeonmi Park (Penguin-Random House, $NZ37)

            This week I am looking at two books by young women of Asian ethnicity. Apart from this fact, the two books have nothing in common and are of completely different genres and intent. The first is a work of fiction, the second a personal memoir. Call this the serendipity moment in reviewing, when different books happen to come my way at the same time.

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            Okay, I admit it. In reading Amy Zhang’s This Is Where The World Ends, I was stepping outside my usual interest area. Chinese-born, but American resident and completely American in outlook, Amy Zhang is a young woman, only about 20 years old, still in college and just a year or two away from high school. Her first novel, Falling into Place (which I have not read) was apparently a “Young Adult” novel – that is, one aimed at teenagers. It was a big seller. This Is Where The World Ends has thriller elements, but with its senior high-school characters it too seems aimed mainly at adolescents.
What interests me is how and why it is intended to appeal to them and what, if anything, it says about the state of current teen lit and of American teens.
Micah Carter and Janie Vivian are in their last year at high school in a non-descript town called Waldo in the Midwest.  Micah and Janie narrate alternate chapters, in the first person and in the present tense – which seems de rigueur in books aimed at teenagers. Micah is badly injured somehow and in hospital and his memory is impaired, so that he cannot fully recall something very bad that has happened. The chapters he narrates are called “After”, obviously meaning after the aforesaid bad thing. In conversation with his friend Dewey, Micah tries to reconstruct what has happened to him. But Dewey is not very helpful. In fact Micah describes him thus:
Dewey is an asshole. Some people are musicians or dreamers; Dewey is an asshole. He smokes a pack of cigarettes a day and wears his collars popped up and he does shit like play video games with the volume all the way up while you’re in the hospital. He’s my best friend because we are the only two inhabitants of the ninth circle of social hell. We didn’t have options.” (p.5)
The chapters Janie narrates are set a few months earlier and are called “Before”. They are about Janie’s relationship with her parents, and her soul-mateship with Micah. The two of them are loners, would-be artists, haters of high school and of jock culture. They have special places they go together to brood and drink alcohol and play games of dare. Their most special place is a pile of pebbles, which they call “The Metaphor”, on the shore of an old abandoned and flooded quarry. Many people have drowned in the quarry. Janie likes to quote Virginia Woolf, and when we remember how Virginia Woolf died, we have a clue about where this novel is going. The respective families and parents of Janie and Micah are shadowy figures who barely enter the story, but they are somehow malign or uncaring (especially Janie’s).
We know from early in the novel that there has been a big fire connected with a teen party, that the cops are asking questions and that, in the “After” sections, Janie has disappeared, leaving Micah wondering if she really has gone of on that trip to Nepal she was talking about. Far be it from me to provide “spoilers”, because many bad things happen to these two teens before the novel is over; and it is, after all, supposed to be a big climax when Micah at last remembers what has happened. But I can say that at least part of the trouble has to do with Janie being sexually attracted to a big and brutish jock called Ander Cameron, despite her professed preference for arty and nerdy types. This leaves Micah thinking he has been “used” and Janie buying a lot of trouble for herself.
I should note that the “Before” and “After” chapters are not the only mode of narration in this novel. We are also given extracts from Janie’s creative-writing journal, in which she recasts herself as a princess in a fairy tale, and all those mean and troublesome adults and jocks as the ogres and witches.
In one early soliloquy by Janie, we can see that there is a mixture of feyness and paranoia to this troubled teen:
            Like I said, the world isn’t always fair and sometimes we have to help it along. Bad things should happen to bad people… It’s easier like this to see how beautiful the earth and life and we are. We are stars and the purple-red-blue sky is the background. We are streamers and ribbons tied to trees and balloons that dance in the wind….” (p.22)
            There are the pretty streamers, ribbons and balloons, but there is also the conviction that bad things should happen to bad people  - and Janie is going to “help this along”.
So how is this intended to appeal to teenagers and what does it say about the state of current teen lit and of American teens?
There’s star-crossed love, of course – always a popular theme. Micah’s feeling for Janie isn’t requited. Janie’s attraction for the jock goes horribly wrong. There’s the conviction that adults and parents are up to no good. There’s the creation of a fantasy world as a refuge from the real world of adulthood that is encroaching. (Janie’s fairy-tale journal reminded me of nothing so much as the fantasy world that the matricidal Hulme and Parker invented for themselves). And yet there is some ambiguity to the way Amy Zhang plays all this. Teenagers might be attracted to all the above, but Zhang leaves it open for us to see, first that Janie’s fantasy world is unrealistic, and then that Janie might genuinely be mentally unbalanced. After many travails, Janie herself draws the sour moral:
We fall asleep to fairy tales, and the world rotates and revolves and time passes, and we grow up and we understand that they are false. There are no heroes and princesses and villains. It’s not that easy. But I think I unlearned that too well. There are no wicked queens or vengeful sorcerers, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad people. There are. There are some truly, truly shitty people out there.” (pp. 226-227)
Later, it is clear that this fey, poetic, soulful, abused teenage girl is vindictive and has been highly manipulative of Micah. On the moral compass, it is interesting that the young woman who wrote the novel is far harsher on her main female character than on her main male character.
How does it reflect American teens? Of course there is a lot of self-absorption. There’s also a lot of effing and blinding in the dialogue, like Dewey’s typical reaction when Micah throws an apple at him: “Oh fuck it, Micah they were right about you. Goddam, goddam, you actual fucking ass, what the hell? You’re going goddam crazy, man. You’re one seriously fucked-up little son of a bitch, and – screw you, Micah….” (p.116)  Etc. Etc. Etc. Okay, teens do swear and I’m not saying that this is an inauthentic depiction of some teenspeak, but a lot of this sort of thing does become tiresome in a novel. And then of course there is the promiscuous sex indulged in and the vast quantities of beer and vodka and whisky consumed and the general impression that these are affluent kids who don’t know how to fill in their time meaningfully.
Oops. I’m getting grandfatherly and old codger-ish and reproving. I suppose all I’m really saying is that this is a book for which I am not the intended audience. Or could it be that I’m ahead of the kids who will read it because (in my former life as a film reviewer) I’ve seen all the teen movies that it resembles? Remember that 1980s hymn to teen self-pity, John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club, in which a jock and a nerd and a kook and a party girl get together and decide that grown-ups just don’t understand? Or remember that 1995 Drew Barrymore vehicle Mad Love, in which the straight guy is at first beguiled and intrigued by the playful, whimsical, kooky, rebellious girl until he realizes that she is literally insane and in need of psychiatric help? Yep, This Is Where The World Ends is somewhere in that territory.
Gosh, I feel old.

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            In America, some teenagers have the leisure to build fantasy worlds, engage in considerable self-pity, drink, screw around etc.
            Then there are teenagers who have to live in North Korea.
Okay, that’s a low blow. It’s unfair to compare two books which have such different purposes as Amy Zhang’s This Is Where The World Ends and Yeonmi Park’s memoir In Order to Live. Still, reading them one after the other did give me the odd ironic jolt. Far be it from me to belittle the angst of American teenagers, but the phrase “First World Problems” did keep surfacing in my mind when I considered Amy Zhang’s effort.
Briefly, In Order to Live is Yeonmi Park’s account of growing up as a child in North Korea, escaping with her mother across the Yalu River into China when she was a young teenager, and eventually making it to South Korea, via Mongolia, after many horrific experiences. She states clearly her present situation in her introduction:
Like tens of thousands of North Koreans, I escaped my homeland and settled in South Korea, where we are still considered citizens, as if a sealed border and nearly seventy years of conflict and tension never divided us. North and South Koreans have the same ethnic backgrounds, and we speak the same language – except in the North where there are no words for things like ‘shopping malls’, ‘liberty’, or even ‘love’, at least as the rest of the world knows it. The only true love we can express is worship for the Kims, a dynasty of dictators who have ruled North Korea for three generations. The regime blocks all outside information, all videos and movies, and jams radio signals. There is no World Wide Web and no Wikipedia. The only books are propaganda telling us that we live in the greatest country in the world, even though at least half of North Koreans live in extreme poverty and many are chronically malnourished. My former country doesn’t even call itself North Korea – it claims to be Chosun, the true Korea, a perfect socialist paradise where 25 million people live only to serve the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un. Many of us who have escaped call ourselves “defectors” because by refusing to accept our fate and die for the Leader, we have deserted our duty. The regime calls us traitors. If I tried to return, I would be executed.” (pp.3-4)
Yeonmi Park, born in 1993, is only 22. She explains:
The country I grew up in was not like the one my parents had known as children in the 1960s and 1970s. When they were young, the state took care of everyone’s basic needs: clothes, medical care, food. After the Cold War ended, the Communist countries that had been propping up the North Korean regime all but abandoned it, and our state-controlled economy collapsed.” (p.15)
The 1990s were therefore the years of famine, disguised by the pervasive propaganda of the state. The propaganda is so relentless that “my mother…. sincerely believed that North Korea was the centre of the universe and that Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il had supernatural powers.” (p.34) We are told of the relentless surveillance by the bo-wi-bu (“National Security Agency”). We are told of the starvation and official brutality. We are told of the young Yeonmi Park’s appendectomy in a North Korean hospital where corpses are piled for days in the courtyard until there are enough for the removal men to cart away. But - despite the surveillance – we are also told of a thriving black market and of corrupt officials who will turn a blind eye to people smuggling.
When Yeonmi is 13, her big sister Eunmi disappears, having apparently escaped to China. When Yeonmi’s father is convicted of smuggling and his family is victimised, Yeonmi and her mother make their escape. At first China seems a big improvement on North Korea. Spartan though the lives of Chinese peasants are, at least they have food and are not in danger of starving. But China is no paradise. As Yeonmi notes:
Virtually all defectors in China live in constant fear. The men who manage to get across often hire themselves to farmers for slave wages. They don’t dare complain because all the farmer has to do is notify the police and they will be arrested and repatriated. The Chinese government doesn’t want a flood of immigrants, nor does it want to upset the leadership in Pyongyang. Not only is North Korea a trading partner, but it’s a nuclear power perched right on its border, and an important buffer between China and the American presence in the South. Beijing refuses to grant refugee status to escapees from North Korea, instead labelling them ‘economic migrants’ and sipping them home.” (p.131)
Many North Korean women refugees in China end up in the sex trade. Some are sold as “wives” to peasant farmers. Yeonmi’s mother is twice raped by a people smuggler and Yeonmi is almost enticed to work in a brothel. She and her mother spend some time working for a gangster in a video-linked “chat room” for men who want to talk dirty. Yeonmi also does not disguise the fact that (still aged 14, remember) she at one time helped to groom other girls for this trade.
Finally, the lives of mother and daughter are turned around when they meet Han Chinese Christian evangelists, who help to smuggle them across the Gobi Desert and into Mongolia whence, after some delays, they are finally able to fly to South Korea. There Yeonmi Park now lives. The book does not end with a yelp of triumph. Though grateful to now be living in a free society, Yeonmi does note some of the difficulties of integrating as a Northerner into the South, and some of the snobberies of South Koreans towards the (massively less-educated and less worldly-aware) North Koreans.
Yeonmi now conducts a television show for refugees in South Korean, and she does some globe-trotting advocating human rights are various forums. She has, indeed, become a celebrity, and you may easily go on Youtube and see her, with her halting English, delivering speeches, including one very tearful one at a Youth Summit in Dublin.
Now how do I review a book like this?
As I noted once before on this blog, personal memoirs have to be read as testimonies. We are in the author’s hands and we have to trust the author to be telling us the truth. Some of the usual critical faculties have to be suspended. This work is confessional, so to judge it is in some sense to judge the author’s life and veracity. (I also note that this work was written with the help of a professional journalist, who doubtless polished up Yeonmi’s English).
I do not think that any reasonable person can doubt that Yeonmi Park’s general portrayal of North Korea - the closed, paranoid, totalitarian “hermit state” - is an accurate one. Her accounts of its privations and its mistreatment of its people can be confirmed from many other sources. There have, however, been some quibbles about the accuracy of Yeonmi’s personal story. Some inconsistencies have been found in various versions of herself and her family that she has given in interviews. (You can easily find such quibbling articles on the internet). Of course North Korean media have denounced the author, but that was to be expected. It is the scepticism of a few Western readers that is more troubling. Are we reading a truthful account or a fabrication?
I think I will go along with Yeonmi Park’s own statement that there may be a few things that she has misremembered, and a few incidents that she has not reported accurately, but that these do not compromise the truthfulness of her general account.