Monday, July 4, 2016

Something New

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

“SHELF LIFE: REVIEWS, REPLIES AND REMINISCENCES” by C.K.Stead (Auckland University Press, $NZ45)

            The 440-odd pages of Shelf Life: Reviews, Replies and Reminiscences are the third (or is it the fourth?) time C. K. Stead, now in his 84th year, has produced a collection of his reviews, longer critical pieces, magazine and newspaper articles and general public controversy.
            They at once present me with a dilemma as a reviewer.
            I had already read (or heard) between a third and a half of the contents of this book before it came into my hands. This collection of Stead’s critical work over the last decade includes his essay “World War I – Close Up from a Distance”. It appeared in the collection of essays How We Remember, which I reviewed on this blog. The long interview he gave to Lawrence Jones was part of the 2010 collection of author interviews Words Chosen Carefully, edited by my esteemed friend Siobhan Harvey, in which I was the interviewer of Stead’s novelist daughter Charlotte Grimshaw. I was part of the audience when Stead delivered his autobiographical talk “One Thing Leads to Another”, at the Maidment Theatre in 2008. Many other pieces in Shelf Life I read in the various publications in which they first appeared. On top of this, as I have already noted elsewhere (when I reviewed, for Landfall,#220, November 2010, Judith Dell Panny’s once-over-lightly 2009 “literary biography” of Stead, Plume of Bees), I once had the slightest of nodding acquaintances with Stead. Forty years ago he was, for two years, my tutor when I was an undergraduate student of English at the University of Auckland. I remember him as an excellent teacher who emphasised the importance of reading a text closely (“the words on the page” etc.).
            So where’s the dilemma for this reviewer?
Just this – should I take much of this book as already read, and then read only those pieces I have not met before? Or should I read it whole, as all its parts are now presented to the public? I chose the latter course and over a week read (or re-read) all 49 articles. I read with pleasure, amusement, enlightenment and only occasionally with mild annoyance.
            Stead divides his work here into four sections: articles and reviews pertaining to Katherine Mansfield and her circle; reviews of specific books; what could be called “confessional” pieces, being public controversy, interviews to which he has submitted and bits of autobiography; and finally opinion pieces about writers, which he has contributed to the Poet Laureate blog. Of this last section I will say that I enjoyed the more unbuttoned tone in which Stead discusses people with whom he has dealt in more scholarly terms elsewhere. He gives pointed views on major twentieth century poets and his verdicts go something like this: Ezra Pound? Potentially a brilliant poet but ruined by the idiotic ideas he embraced and stifling his own best poetic instincts by too much reading. Ted Hughes? A tireless self-promoter who, whether he liked it or not, was overshadowed by the intensity of the verse of his first wife Sylvia Plath. (In this I think he grossly underrates Hughes.) W. H. Auden? Genial, skilful and thoroughly good guy – but how dare he re-edit his poems to take out their original political colouring!! (Goodness! I remember Stead expressing exactly the same sentiments in tutorials forty-odd years ago.) Stephen Spender? Ah, well here Stead goes into personal gossip and “as I remember him” mode, as he does in other pieces where he records his personal acquaitance with remnants of Modernism.
            As an overview of this book, I think there are too many interviews with Stead (four of them), which inevitably have some overlap and replication. An earnest postgrad student asks questions (pp.360-366) that have already been answered elsewhere in the book, and gets appropriately clipped replies. Answers to the New Zealand Herald’s “Twelve Questions” (pp.367-369), on the occasion of Stead’s 80th birthday, are not particularly enlightening. I am amused, however, that – at p.339 – one Hawke’s Bay student interviews Stead with the opening gambit “I had the impression that you were the grumpy old man of New Zealand literature.” Stead rapidly refutes this notion and good for him. I also note a few oddities. Why did Stead include the interview he conducted with Sylvia Ashton-Warner’s American editor, Robert Gottlieb (pp.273-286)? It is Gottlieb who does all the talking and provides all the interview’s interest. Also, there is the obvious fact that articles were written for very different audiences. Unlike more detailed essays, Stead’s short piece “Poetry: Formalists and Freedom Fighters” (pp.292-295) seems to have been written for people who are not au fait with the very rudiments of modern poetry.
            Thus much for a general overview.
The strengths of Stead’s writing are obvious. In discussing literature, he always writes clearly, and specifically rejects the type of specialised, mandarin vocabulary affected by many Postmodernists. (Is the word “Postmodernism” used even once in this collection? I don’t think so. Stead is insistently a Modernist.) In praising the critic Hugh Kenner, he could be describing his own method: “His criticism is demanding, yet it is also open and available, without needless and pretentious obscurity.” (p.124). In “World War I – Close Up from a Distance”, he suggests that as a student he was attracted first to the study of History and “I might have become one of those narrative historians who are enjoyable to read and who are often derided by the unreadable ones.” (p.328) The emphasis on readability means that if you disagree with Stead, you at least know what you are disagreeing with.
This emphasis goes with Stead’s rejection of literary theory.  His introduction claims that his “robust and undisguised scepticism in religious matters” was one of the reasons for his once arousing controversy, but so also his “rejection of French (and consequently Anglophone) literary theory as pointless obscurantism brought grumbles from the groves of academe while its fashion lasted.” (p.5) This, he says, was because “I affirmed both Virginia Woolf’s ‘common reader’, which recent critical theory had declared a meaningless term, and insisted on the life of the author in the text, also denied by the theorists.” (p.5)
He goes to town on this in the interview with Lawrence Jones, saying of literary theory: “There was a period here in New Zealand when it washed over us. If you were young you proved your Eng. Lit. credentials by writing in a professional argot that no one but other like-minded academic pros could understand; and since I always insisted that there was no excuse for critics who couldn’t make themselves understood, this put me at odds with some highfliers who have since vanished into the sun, or Australia. Critical fashions come and go, like fashions in anything. In the end the writing survives if it’s intelligible and contains real intelligence.” (pp.240-241)
(“Vanished into the sun, or Australia”? Apart from saying “Miaow! Miaow!” this suggests academic squabbles to which I am not privy.)
There is the admission in the Takahe interview: “Literary criticism is partly a matter of persuasion. If you are a real writer rather than just an academic, you write more persuasively, readers enjoy what you have to say and are more inclined to listen. Reading academic writing can sometimes feel like eating blotting paper: and there was a recent fashion for literary theory which substituted wallboard for blotting paper.” (p.319)
As he rejects academic gobbledegook and theory (and explicitly presents himself as a "real writer" as opposed to those academics), Stead also repeatedly advocates respect for the “canon” and the importance of writers studying, and learning from, what has gone before.
While praising Alan Roddick, he remarks “I’m reminded of the best qualities of our poetry in the 1950s and early ‘60s, the discipline that went into it then, the care and attention to form that became almost unfashionable as the 1960s rushed on into the ‘70s and ‘80s, when so much of poetry was given over to (or perhaps flower-powered into) self-expression, confession and even self therapy.” (pp.134-135)
In his short Listener piece on the critic James Wood (pp.145-147), he seems to admire Wood most for liking the “Great Tradition” and rejecting the all-style-and-no-subject of French experimentalists like Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute and others.
In his little article for Booknotes he shows (p.295) his respect for tradition thus: “Poetry is an art with a history, and the poet needs to tap into that without being overborne by it. You are on your own; but it’s best if the poets who have gone before you are looking over your shoulder.”
So the critic is a Modernist who insists on a grounding in good earlier writers before younger writers launch into experimentalism. He is also – apparently - allergic to the culture of promoting literature by mean of prizes. In the Takahe interview he declares:
The literary prizes and awards culture is almost totally geared to commerce; it distorts literary values, creates false reputations and is pernicious – here and overseas. Judge Time….will sort it out; but meanwhile too many readers let the literary judges (always a mixed bag) do their thinking for them. If there had been a Booker Prize in the first half of the twentieth century, would Henry James or D. H. Lawrence or James Joyce have won it. I doubt it. Yet the winner would by now have been forgotten.” (p.321)
There are similar comments elsewhere.
I think I have fairly indicated how Stead approaches literature and the style he chooses, but this is not the same as my personal response to this collection. Whether critics or reviewers openly acknowledge it or not, the hard fact is that we respond most warmly to those things that support or vindicate our own judgments. There are times in this collection, then, when I applaud simply because Stead reaches conclusions that I had already reached myself.
 In the field of public controversy unconnected with literature, “The case of David Bain” (pp.302-307), Stead’s letter to the New Zealand Herald in 2013, argues that David Bain’s innocence has not been proven, that there is much real evidence pointing to his role as murderer, and that all the Privy Council appeal demonstrated was that the police investigation had botched certain elements of the case for the prosecution. I agree. In “Only Connect…” (pp.370-378), Stead refutes a foolish misinterpretation of Honore de Balzac’s great story Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu in a way which I can only applaud because it is how I interpret the story too. (See my comments on Le Chef-d’oeuvre inconnu in my recent post on Balzac’sSelected Short Stories).
I was surprised by some things I found here. Given how I have hitherto heard him speak respectfully of Janet Frame, it is a surprise that Stead rejects most vigorously Frame’s posthumously published (and clearly unpolished) novel In the Memorial Room. But it is soon evident that Stead believes the novel was published only to keep the Frame industry going and “the claims made for the novel are grossly exaggerated. It arouses interest because anything by Frame does. It certainly deserved preservation, and attention by scholars and critics. But I seriously doubt it was wise, or will serve her public reputation well, to have put it in the commercial marketplace promoted in these extravagant terms.” (p.92) Further, he says, In the Memorial Room is a work of malice (a term Stead has used elsewhere as in “Such malice, such malice” etc.) because Frame was lampooning real people and showing complete ingratitude to all who helped her, as she habitually did: “… there is too much unfiltered resentment and malice, too much self-pity, unevenness of tone and uncertainty of direction – and in the end, no shape.” (p.99)
In this case, then, Stead’s negative judgment is justified by his reasoning. Another apparent surprise was what seemed at first like a hard blow at his longtime friend and colleague Allen Curnow. In a generous and largely affectionate piece on Kevin Ireland (“Kiwi Kevin” pp.125-133), there is what seems a sniff and a biff thus: “Curnow’s literary nationalism, though ‘of its time’, was something of a mistake, especially in his later years when he clung to it like a dog with a favourite stick. Nationalism is tribal – something genetic which, in the world as it is now, we need to unlearn, or at the very least to confine to sport and other non-lethal areas.” (p.132)
When read in the larger context of this book, however, Stead fully justifies this comment. The blog-piece “Allen Curnow – ‘Poet Laureate’ ” (pp.381-388) argues, cogently and accurately I think, that much of Curnow’s youthful New Zealand “nationalism” was melancholy because it was really disguised longing for the comforting arms of Mother England.
Throughout my reading of Shelf Life, I was, as a reviewer, looking at Stead’s style as a reviewer and noting some of the dodges and tricks of the trade. In “A Note on Larkin on Mansfield’ (pp.84-88), Stead discusses what Philip Larkin had to say about Katherine Mansfield simply by presenting long quotations – much as I am doing with Stead in the review you are now reading.
After what amounts to a sober resume of the novel, with critical asides, Stead concludes his piece on William Golding’s Rites of Passage [which won the Booker in 1980] with this: “To me it is not a novel that has any one of the qualities – great originality, exceptional vision, stylistic purity, intellectual brilliance, dangerous political integrity, risk – that one feels ought to define the winner of such a global prize.  But the works of only a few Nobel laureates do. Literary prizes are for the most part a nonsense, at one level a critical distraction and at another simply a distortion of the market.” (p.154) In a way, this review reassures me, as I often find myself, as reviewer, simply giving a resume raisonne when I am reviewing, and then concluding with a verdict of some sort. But I realise this is not a very elegant thing to do.
Then there is the case where a recommendation at the conclusion seems to be at odds with a damning criticism in mid-review. Of Patrick Evans’ Gifted, Evans' Janet Frame and Frank Sargeson novel, Stead writes: “The problem for me is that the book is neither consistently fact nor fiction; and there’s a feeling that the novelist himself is uncertain where the boundary lies between them, and when and whether he has crossed it.” (p.156) (Naughtily I think that this same criticism could surely be levelled at Stead’s own novel Mansfield). Nevertheless, Stead goes on to recommend Gifted to his readers. Incidentally, in the review following this, Stead is not so positive about Patrick Evans’ later novel The Back of His Head. Fair enough. Neither was I when I reviewed it on this blog, again demonstrating that we approve most of critics when they concur with our own prior judgments.
Stead’s New Zealand Listener review of “The Letters of T.S.Eliot” (“T.S.Eliot as Letter-writer” pp.188-193) simply summarises (with a somewhat sardonic tone) what was happening to T.S., his then-wife Vivienne et alia when the letters were written. When he reviews for New Zealand Books Rachel Barrowman’s biography of Maurice Gee (“Moss”, pp.170-177), he does spend most of his space talking about his own impressions of Gee before he gets on to the book. The personal observation in the guise of a review? Yes, we’ve all done that.
I said near the beginning of this notice that I read Shelf Life with pleasure, amusement, enlightenment and only occasionally with mild annoyance.
I suppose I should now account for the mild annoyance.
In his 2008 address “One Thing Leads to Another”, Stead throws out an aside, about one of his own fictional characters, that her research “is somewhat between scholarship and gossip (always a fine line!)” (p,261.) In the opening pieces about Katherine Mansfield and related Modernists, I found much of the “gossip” aspect oppressive, even as it was both informative and informed. When he calls one piece “Tom & Viv and Murry & Mansfield”, I wonder if Stead isn’t alluding to the long-ago movie about sexual mores Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Stead charts the muddled relationships of T.S.Eliot, his first wife Vivienne, Katherine Mansfield and her husband John Middleton Murry. Murry comes out as a poseur, Eliot as a fussbudget, Vivienne as a problem and Mansfield as relatively sane. Such interesting gossip. But then I draw back and think – in spite of what Stead says elsewhere about the relevance of the life of the author in the text ” – does any of this really illuminate what these literary figures were writing? Or does it reduce their works – the only things that make them worth remembering, after all – to notes for the psychoanalyst’s couch?
One case where Stead is spectacularly wrong-headed is his London newspaper review of Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries. Basically he rebukes Catton for not writing a work of Modernist fiction. After taking the author to task for her pastiche Victorian prose, he goes on:
The history of literary fiction in the twentieth century was a struggle, never entirely successful, to escape from this kind of writing. It is the mode of the novel in its Victorian heyday, with something also of the twentieth-century murder mystery, which was always indifferent to literary Modernism. It is, you might say, Virginia Woolf’s nightmare of how many steps back a woman might take the form if given her head and a room of her own.” (p.141)
At which point I say: “So is there some Grand Cham who dictates that novels now have to be written as Virginia Woolf would have written them?” Eleanor Catton consciously chose to write in this style, superimposing a clearly modern sensibility on her characters and the situations they find themselves in. I think the technique achieves admirably what Catton set out to achieve. (See my more extensive review of The Luminaries in Landfall #226, November 2013 - where I do pay attention to Catton's language and do note the points where she inadvertently lapses into anachronisitc idioms).
Finally, there are a few moments where Stead’s prejudices are on his sleeve. His 2010 Landfall piece “At the Molino a Sesta, Gaiole, in Chianti” – basically reminiscences of a residency in Italy -  has Stead reflecting on the ancient monuments and history surrounding him thus:
There is the thought, inevitable here, where sheer ancientness presses upon one’s consciousness, that the claim to special status as ‘indigenous’ doesn’t mean much more than ‘we got here a bit before you’. Pakeha roots may be shallow; but Maori roots are hardly deep. In New Zealand we are all, Maori and Pakeha, inheritors of the gains and losses of dislocation.” (p.345)
I would not call this a prejudice, but certainly it is squeezing the occasion to make it reveal a view of New Zealand that Stead wants it to reveal.
Then there is his visit to the duomo in Siena. He is wandering around as a tourist enjoying the art and deprecating religion when he sees people praying and bursts out thus:
Such structures built on ancient and now discredited tenets are anthropologically interesting and often artistically wonderful in their consequences; but to see people fervently crossing themselves and putting themselves on the rack of prayer is, I think, to a clear mind, sad and even deplorable – like a bad habit, sucking the thumb.” (p.355)
Yes, peasants, your places of worship are “anthropologically interesting”, but you do not have “clear minds” and you are clearly children to my adult. After all, you are “sucking your thumbs”. And fancy using a church as a church instead of as an art gallery! Have you no culture at all!
This passage reminds me of a moment in Henry James’ early novel Roderick Hudson. Mrs Hudson and her wealthy tourist friends are at St Peter’s in the Vatican when James observes:
During this little discussion our four friends were standing near the venerable image of Saint Peter, and a squalid, savage looking peasant, a tattered ruffian of the most orthodox Italian aspect, had been performing his devotions before it. He turned away crossing himself, and Mrs Hudson gave a little shudder of horror. ‘After that’, she murmured, ‘I suppose he thinks he’s as good as anyone.” (Chapter 17)
Fancy a praying Italian peasant imagining he is as good as wealthy Americans! 
And fancy people not realising that they must bow to cultured agnostics rather than doing all this silly praying stuff!
There are moments when Stead can be dismissive in a superior, lordly and disdainful manner like this, and speak as if he really has appointed himself the Grand Cham of Culture. Fortunately these moments are rare in this volume. As I hope this review has made clear, Shelf Life is mainly a compendium of sane thinking and clear prose which is worth the week of evenings it takes to read.

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