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Monday, May 22, 2017

Something New


NOTICE TO READERS: For six years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
 
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.


“LANDFALL #233 – 70th Anniversary Issue” edited by David Eggleton (Otago University Press, $NZ 30); “FULLY CLOTHED AND SO FORGETFUL” by Hannah Mettner (Victoria University Press, $NZ 25)

 

What surprises me about the 70th anniversary issue of Landfall is how modest it is. A literary periodical which has managed to survive (sometimes just barely) since 1947 might be expected to blow its trumpet a bit. But then Landfall did quite a bit of trumpet-blowing on its 50th anniversary. This time editor David Eggleton appears to have opted to keep it low-key. The special anniversary feature of this issue consists of four short essays giving a retrospective. They occupy just the first 14 pages of text. They are interesting for their contrasting viewpoints.

Peter Simpson (as he proved in his BloomsburySouth) is the cultural historian, providing a brief but handy view of how Charles Brasch came to set up the magazine in the 1940s, but how the unreliability (and failure to keep deadlines) of printer and poet Denis Glover almost managed to scupper it before it at last achieved  a respectable readership.

Philip Temple, whose involvement with Landfall was in the 1970s, gives a dry, but rather angry, account of the firing of Robin Dudding as editor. Temple assisted the new editor who took over – and he comes very close to saying that Dudding fully deserved to be fired. He notes how Dudding absconded with submissions (intended for Landfall) to use in the new magazine, Islands, which he set about editiing. Temple is still annoyed by the “odious literary politics” surrounding the state’s funding of the two publications and the formation of literary cliques supporting one publication or the other. (Founding editor Brasch saw things Dudding’s way.) It is interesting to read Temple’s contribution in conjunction with Chris Else’s review, in this issue’s review section, of My Father’s Island, the memoir written by Robin Dudding’s son Adam Dudding. Else (like Adam Dudding) naturally sees Robin Dudding as the innocent party in the break-up.

The third retrospective essayist is my old mate Iain Sharp, who was involved in Landfall in the late 1980s and early 1990s as fiction editor. Sharpo decides to be a bit iconoclastic and laddish as he recounts his days as a pub poet, with raucous peers who saw Landfall as too earnest and stuffy and prone to “laughless pomposity.” In other words, Landfall was the conservative enemy to young men who saw themselves as the radical future – or at any rate who saw poetry and getting pissed as one and the same thing. And then he became part of Landfall for some years and found his viewpoint changed somewhat – though he still gets some further digs into his account.

Finally there is Chris Price, who gives a busy, straightforward version of her part in producing Landfall’s 50th anniversary issue in 1997.

This isn’t quite the end of this issue’s anniversary celebration. There is also the report, by David Eggleton, on the Charles Brasch Young Writers’ Essay Competition – and the publication of the winner, Andy Xie’s essay “The Great New Zealand Myth”, which uses mythology to reflect on the condition of being an immigrant in New Zealand.

So much for the celebration of an anniversary.

This issue of Landfall gives, as always, generous space to creative prose and poetry.

In the review section, I enjoyed Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s nuanced critique of The Collected Poems of Alistair Te ArikiCampbell, but I am surprised that, apart from referring to this edition as  “Campbell’s chosen legacy”, Holman does not consider which of Campbell’s published works are not in this edition.

Considering how blurred the margin between poetry and prose can become, I began reading Michele Leggott’s “New Moon in the Old Moon’s Arms” as if it were a prose story, but soon realised that its six vignettes are really prose poems and variations on a theme.

Stephen Higginson’s story  “Chinaman Flats Road” is a sustained, and very descriptive narrative where, eventually, the horrific intrudes upon what at first seemed idyllic. Its pictorial markers of the bush, the ruined church and a gin-trap give it an oddly retrospective tone – the ruin of a country that once was. Claire Baylis’s story “The Boy Next Door” is on one level every young parent’s nightmare – involving a toddler being taken and possibly abused – but it passes subtly into the realm of social critique related to social class. Tracey Slaughter’s story “Ladybirds” implies, as much of her work does, something extreme and unsettling in domestic situations.

In the area of poetry, I found myself enjoying the forthright polemic of Stephanie Christie’s “Poverty Mentality”; Bob Orr’s aestheticisation of the chipping of weeds; Victoria Broome’s lovely poem “The Vogue Theatre” about  a child’s first encounter with cinema; Robert McLean’s “Lines on Tarkovsky”, showing McLean’s continuing absorption in high culture and his mastery of verse form; and especially Emma Neale’s “Morning Song”, tackling a familiar theme – an adult child coming to realise the worth of an elder (in this case a grandfather) only when the child has acquired an adult perspective herself.

But you understand what I am doing in singling out these pieces for comment, don’t you? I am shamelessly cherry-picking from all that is available in Landfall #233. This is the hell of reviewing anthologies and literary periodicals. There is simply no possibility of giving attention to everything that is worthy of comment.

The portfolio of photos by Chris Corson-Scott is impressive – the images are mainly of the decay of human constructions in rural setings – but whether or not the (accidental?) cross on the cover of this issue has any particular significance, I do not know.



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



Some time back, I had the great pleasure of reviewing Sue Wootton’s The Yield on this blog, and called it one of the most satisfying New Zealand poetry collections I had encountered in a decade. It was not only the intelligence and perception of the poet that impressed me, but her ability to deal with form – knowing how to shape a poem, how to use appropriately assonance and stretched rhythm.

I am now considering a very different collection, the debut volume of Hannah Mettner Fully Clothed and So Forgetful. These too are poem that are intelligent and perceptive. They are written by somebody who is as happy in prose poems as in verse forms, and who can draw on a range of cultural references. And yet, after spending a couple of days wrestling with them, they are poems that I found very difficult to engage with. I’m now stuck with the problem of trying to explain why this should be so.

Much of the tone of this collection is established in the opening poem, “Higher Ground”, which also gives the volume its title. In a conceit, life is seen as climbing a ladder, painfully, with broken relationships on the way (“you never meet anyone on the way up”), and with us being drawn upwards only by an illusion (“We tell / our children and then our / grandchildren about the cool / pond at the top…”) until we arrive at the top “fully clothed and so forgetful”. I read this as a statement about life being arduous, a struggle and yet one to which there is little ultimate point, especially as we forget most of which we could have learned on the way up.

Much of this collection is written in the (singular or plural) first person or the implicit first person. It therefore hands us all the dificulties of decoding what are clearly personal and autobiographical details. Much concerns family relationships. The poems “Father in the garden” and “A history” present detailed imagery of mother and father, but become metaphorical as they point to something else. “Sisters” is really about the experience of daughterhood. “Every day is a fright” recalls experiences of school. “First and last” concerns memories of teenagerhood, experimenting with (but mainly talking about) sex. “Clifford Street” is a memory of “the ghost in my grandmother’s house” – in other words, a reconstruction of childhood impressions.

So far, so universal.

But the personal intimacy of some of these poems is such that I often feel I am prying into somebody else’s very private life by reading them.

 “Baking a maybe” is very much in the confessional mode, and is a rejection of facile sympathy after (apparently) a miscarriage or other gyneacological problem. The poem “Motuoroi Island, Anaura Bay” is childhood memory connected with adult experience. It reminded me at once of the conjunction and contrast of innocence and experience that were William Blake’s specialty. Whereupon I discover that the very next poem in the collection has the Blakean title “In the forest of the night” and deals in part with a child’s reaction to being fatherless “ever since I left your father”. The poems “Girl talk” and “Having a smoke with my uncles”, and the prose poem “All tall women”, all imply strongly the experience of coming out as lesbian.

Am I being churlish in finding it hard to relate to these poems? Will I be accused by at least one poetry publicist of gross male insensitivity?  All I am saying is that I can see the skill with which Hannah Mettner is writing, but I am not drawn into her mindscape.

Some poems are built on a very interesting idea, but perhaps are not fully worked through as poems. In “The invisible mother”, Hannah Mettner works with the image of a Victorian photographic convention, whereby photographs of infants would be taken, with the mothers who were holding them made invisible by hiding behind blankets. From this image, Mettner works through the idea of the work of a mother itself as being invisible or unseen.

There are prose poems that are witty, such as “An argument for reincarnation illustrated by cars”, or the catalogue that is “Cult”, which is followed by a cod questionnaire, poking fun at people like me who get too academic and analytical about poems. “Alone in the woods” seems to be a hip prose variant on Robert Frost’s two roads poem.

Having given too much faint praise in this brief notice, I should end by mentioning the two poems in Fully Clothed and So Forgetful with which I connected most fully.

There is an interesting ambiguity about the poem “On not seeing ghosts”. On one level it is a straightforward disavowal of any belief in an afterlife or in the supernatural, including ghosts. But on the other hand it has an unsettling spooikiness to it.

Then there is “Another failed sea battle”, in which Hannah Mettner boldly takes on the theme of the untameability of the sea, and our foolish human habit of imagining that our ships have somehow “conquered” it.

Is it just the male in me that responds to the thematic coherence of these poems? I hope not. I think their themes are open to all. But for this reader, many of this collection's other referents were not.


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.

“THE OUTCRY” by Henry James (first published in 1911)



Three or four years ago, I was trawling through a second-hand bookshop in Wellington, when my eye was caught by a novel of which I had never heard before. And yet the author was a canonical writer, the list of whose novels I thought I knew fairly well. Was this a newly-discovered treasure? I wondered. So I bought it. It was The Outcry, by Henry James (1843-1916), first published in 1911 and apparently the last novel James completed. (When he died, he left behind three or four uncompleted novels, as well as many unpublished essays.)

            How had this novel flown under my radar?

When I got home, I checked two or three critical studies of James on my shelves, and was none the wiser. I found no mention of The Outcry in their texts, though one of them did list The Outcry in its bibliography.

It was only recently, when I got around to reading the novel (in Penguin Classics, with an extensive introduction Toby Litt), that I found out why The Outcry is so little known. As I have said too often on this blog (look up my postings on Roderick Hudson, WashingtonSquare and The Portrait of a Lady), later James does not appeal to me, but here I was reading James’ very last novel out of sheer curiosity.

And my goodness it was bad.

Before I elucidate the mystery of the novel’s obscurity, let me offer you one of my notorious synopses.

The Outcry is an upper-class comedy.

Grumpy old Lord Theyne has a major problem. His elder daughter Kitty (who never appears in the novel) is addicted to gambling and has run up formidable debts. To pay her debts and keep her from scandal, Lord Theyne decides that he might try to sell off some of his more valuable paintings. The millionaire American art-collector Breckinridge Bender is in England. His main criterion is that a painting be worth a lot of money. He visits Lord Theyne’s stately home. He has his eye on an invaluable portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Fortuitously, Lord Theyne’s younger daughter Lady Grace introduces into the house an amiable middle-class chap, Hugh Crimble, who actually knows about art. Hugh Crimble persuades Bender, Lord Theyne and others that one of Lord Theyne’s Italian paintings might be even more valuable than the Sir Joshua Reynolds, although he will have to get it valued first by an expert. Of course Bender is interested.

But there are complications. One is that Lady Grace had been romantically attached to an inane upper-class twit called Sir John. As the story progresses, she drops Sir John and becomes more attached to Hugh Crimble, whom she seems inclined to marry. This is not at all to the liking of Lord Theyne who wonders if middle-class bounders are quite the thing. Then there is the fact that Lord Theyne doesn’t like people telling him what to do with his own property. If he chooses to sell a painting it’s his business and nobody else’s. He is even more confirmed in this view when an “outcry” is raised once Hugh Crimble does get the Italian painting valued and it proves to be priceless. The newspapers are saying that it is wrong for great works of art hanging in England to be sold out of the country. A subscription is begun to match anything that Breckinridge Bender may have to offer and to keep the painting in England.

Lord Theyne is furious that public pressure is being put on him, and he is furious that his daughter Lady Grace is on the side of the “outcry”.

Fear not. As a story it has a happy ending for all concerned, because it is a comedy after all. In fact, in conception, it has the makings of a jolly (if rather twee) upper-class farce. Lord Theyne the grumpy red-faced squire, and Bertie Wooster-ish Lord John could well be figures out of P. G. Wodehouse, while Beckinridge Bender is your British caricature of the fabulously wealthy American philistine. (My, how the American Henry James loved to suck up to English tastes in his mature years!)

But you forget that it was written by Late Period Henry (“pile on those redundant, prolix, subordinate clauses”) James, guaranteed to stultify comedy whenever it rears its head by over-explaining, over-rationalising and not allowing situations to speak for themselves. The Outcry is burdened in its opening stages by awful self-expository dialogue in which minor characters (Lady Sandgate and others) explain the premise of the lord, the paintings and the gambling debts. The Outcry develops as a series of conversations between two characters, who are regularly replaced in the same location by two other characters who have their own conversation, and so on and so on. The Outcry has really odd descriptions of place, where James is precise in telling us what is on the left-hand side and what is on the right-hand side. And The Outcry is divided into three “books”, each of which ends with a dramatic crisis.

So at last, we come to the mystery of what The Outcry really is. It is not a true novel. It is Henry James’ novelisation of the play The Outcry, which he had written two years earlier in 1909. All the phenomena I have given in the preceding paragraph are really surviving evidence of dramatic exposition, the stage convention of having two characters alone on stage discussing things, stage directions (what’s on stage left and stage right etc.) and a clear three-act structure. Henry James’ novelisation merely burdens a playscript with unnecessary authorial commentary on the characters.

Sometimes, in reading this pseudo-novel, I thought it sounded better to skip the authorial comments and just read the dialogue, and sometimes this dodge worked; although even in this ruin-of-a-play, Henry James can’t help having his characters talk allusively in a kind of code, as if they are avoiding saying essential (and obvious) things.

The Penguin Classics edition’s introduction tells me that Henry James himself came to have a low regard for this novel, saying that about it “hangs the inferiority, the comparative triviality, of its primal origin” in “the unutterable Theatre”. James had no luck as a dramatist. The failure of his play Guy Domville is the stuff of literary legend. But the failure of the play version of The Outcry was not really James’ fault. The play was just about to open in London when King Edward VII had the bad taste to die and all London theatres had to close down at a time of official (and imposed) mourning. So no theatre audience ever got to see The Outcry. Cutting his losses, Henry James decided to make some money by refashioning it as a novel.

Surprisingly, as a novel The Outcry at first sold quite well. But there was a topical reason for this. The novel’s first readers understood that the plot was based on a real case. In 1909, the Duke of Norfolk announced that he was going to sell to an American collector a valuable Hans Holbein portrait which he owned, but which hung in the National Gallery on long-term loan. There was a real outcry in the newspapers about English art treasures being sold abroad. Subscriptions raised almost enough to retain the painting, and finally it got to stay in the National Gallery when an anonymous benefactor outbid the American collector’s chequebook. So the first readers of The Outcry were (perhaps) chuckling over a recent news story.

But what happens once the topicality is gone? The Outcry is left as a poor, ineptly told, novel with artificial characters. After 1911, many decades went by before anybody bothered to republish it. In fact only in the 1990s was it reprinted for the first time. The mystery of its obscurity is thus solved.

Puerile and Gossipy Footnote: Toby Litt’s notes tell me that Henry James quite clearly based the character of the genial Hugh Crimble on the young popular novelist Hugh Walpole, thus nurturing the quaint fiction that Hugh Walpole was heterosexual. (See my post on Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, which was first published the same year that The Outcry was published). Walpole very much wanted to be identified with highbrow and culturally-esteemed writers like James. He spent much of his time paying court to James, who responded with kittenish letters to Walpole. Walpole also wrote a glowing newspaper review of The Outcry, for which James thanked him fulsomely. Thus do inward-turning literary cliques operate.

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.   



MAKING IT RELEVANT


Very well, we said, we enjoyed the Pop-Up Globe’s rendition of Henry V, even if it coarsened up the comic scenes somewhat and laid on the crudities. So let’s see what they can do with As You Like It, especially as it had the same cast.

So along we trotted.

We were quite comfortable with the fact that, as in Shakespeare’s time, all roles were played by men. Rosalind and Celia were men playing women who disguise themeselves as men, and this transvestite thing was part of Shakespeare’s original gag anyway.

We knew that the fun and games would be played up and we admitted that most of the audience lapped it up.

But – oh dear! – how far so much of it drifted from Shakespeare. There was even one point where an actor, having indulged in much slapstick with men disguised as a herd of sheep, said “Alright, now back to Shakespeare”.

And – oh dear! – how coarsened it all became. Orlando does not go about the forest pinning love sonnets to the trees. Instead he goes about reciting bits of current pop songs, so that the young audience can sing along. As often as Shakespeare had some subtle sally of wit, so often would it be replaced by a bum or cock joke and some physical business. To include the obligatory gay element, the peasant William does not pine for Phoebe but for Phoebus. Hymen, God of Marriage, did descend at the end (very camped-up), but in this production, love was not the prelude to marriage. It was at best the prelude to sex. In fine, this wasn’t Shakespeare’s courtly romantic comedy, but a late-evening sitcom with some echoes of Shakespreare therein.

I repeat, much of the audience loved it. As they have been taught to do by American sitcoms, a claque of teenage girls near the apron stage went “Woo-woo-woo” hysterically whenever something “transgressive” (like a kiss between two men) happened. And as we were leaving, we overheard one of their number say “I can’t really follow the plot. I just came for the comedy.” By which she clearly meant the slapstick interpolations.

Okay – I know what you’re thinking. I sound like a retrograde grumpy old man who isn’t up with the latest theatrical practice. Why, I must be so dense as not to understand that productions like this are trying to win a new and younger audience. They are trying to make Shakespeare “relevant” to a new generation.

To which I reply – Bollocks and poppycock.

Productions like this, far from making youngsters love Shakespeare, make youngsters think Shakespeare is another purveyor of low comedy and nothing more. Should said youngsters proceed to real Shakespeare, they would be more baffled than they would be without such productions.

Taking the long view, I say this sort of shananigans will, in a few centuries, be remembered the same way that we now remember the 18th century re-writes of Shakespreare by the likes of Nahum Tate – as a crude attempt to make a great dramatist reflect the prjudices and tastes of a coarsened generation.

I know. I know. I’ve said similar things about trendy opera productions (see the post Murder at the Opera). But I am cursed with this habit of reporting realities.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Something New



NOTICE TO READERS: For six years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
 
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“MANIFESTO AOTEAROA – 101 Political Poems” edited by Philip Temple and Emma Neale (Otago University Press, $NZ 35)



What is a manifesto?

As usually understood, it is a declared position, a call to arms, a plan of action, a public statement promoting a particular political party, ideology or world view.

And what is a political poem?

Once upon a time, a political poem was expected to be a poem about ideologies or political parties; or vigorous topical satire and the lampooning of specific politicians.

There are some examples of these things in Manifesto Aotearoa – 101 Political Poems, but they are not the norm of the collection. The two editors tell us that they put out a call for political poems, published or unpublished. They received over 500 poems submitted by over 200 poets, and whittled them down to the chosen 101. Only three poets are represented by more than one poem, so here are the works of 98 poets. From this scupulous mathematics, what I am saying is that this inevitably makes for a collection with a great diversity of viewpoints and “political” perspectives – not by any means a manifesto, except in the sense that it manifests the democratic process.

There are no poems of the call-to-arms variety, and few of the demotic type that would once have dominated a collection of political verse. I rate the merry ironic jingle of Kevin Ireland’s “A song for happy voters” as the most old-fashioned poem in terms of style, and Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s “Check Inspector 29” (a protest at the lack of safety standards that allowed the Pike River Mine disaster to happen) as the poem most like a traditional folk ballad. But the majority of poets represented here write with the more ubiquitous current brand of cool, and sometimes sardonic, irony. It goes without saying that, where specific political issues are engaged with, the poets’ views are of the liberal-left. Given what the poetic community is, you wouldn’t seriously expect poems in favour of neo-liberalism or racism or environmental irresponsibility, would you?

There is a joint introduction by the two editors, but each writes a separate introduction as well. Philip Temple’s introduction embraces enthusiastically Shelley’s familiar line that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”. According to Temple, political poetry arouses us, makes us more aware of the world we live in, and changes our attitudes. Emma Neale’s introduction is rather more nuanced. She notices that politicians and poets are both “sweet-talkers”, but that they use language in different ways, the poet by making us more reflective. Her text is Auden’s equally familiar line that “poetry makes nothing happen”, but she parses this to mean that poetry makes nothing impulsive and foolish happen, unlike the utterances of politicians. Poetry, she says, makes us more empathetic with our fellow human beings and so in that sense it does make much happen.

After these preliminaries come the poems themselves, which have been arranged into four very broad sections.

First there is Politics itself. This section includes poems on, among other things, the loss of state houses; the unlovely social habits of New Zealand  politicians in general; the unaffordability of real-estate; and student debt (the poem “Enlightenment” by Beverly Martens). David Eggleton’s poem “The (Andrew) Little Things”, being a jeremiad against named politicians, is the most “political” poem in the book in the old partisan sense of that term. David Howard’s impressive “A Display Case in the Museum of Communism” is a surreal version of its collapse. There are a surprising number of poems with a desolate Eastern European ambience (Chris Else, Ian Wedde, Koenraad Kuiper, Stephen Oliver); and Liang Yujing attacks the “great firewall of China” – the Chinese regime’s system of internet censorship.

The second section Rights deals, more or less, with specific groups in society. So there are poems advocating for mine workers and factory toilers; for people who have to work during holidays (Peter Olds); for women selling cheap veges on the roadside (Series Barford); for equal pay for women (Benita H. Kape); about trying to keep the kids warm when you’re poor (Nell Barnard); about lesbians (Heather Avis McPherson); about rape (Ruth Hanover); about the Treaty of Waitangi seen as an imperialst trick (Kani Te Manukura’s “tricks of a treaty”); about Pakeha and Palagi horning in on Pasfika and Maori culture (Mere Taito; Anahera Gildea); and quite a few bilingual poems drawing on Maori discontents.

In Environment, the third section, come laments at the colonisation and anglicisation of Maori animal names (Bridget Auchmuty); the homogenisation of landscape by New Zealand farming practice (Gail Ingram); the quality of water (Anthonie Tonnon); a post-earthquake Christchurch poem (Doc Drumheller); and the global climate crisis which could lead to the melting of the poles (Harvey Molloy)

When it comes to Conflict, the final section, the focus is much broader than New Zealand. Thus there is a reflection on the hoplessness of writing about Gaza (Tusiata Avia); there are two very different takes on the Middle East (Elizabeth Brooke-Carr and Peter Bland); there are many poems on refugees (Louise Wallace, Mercedes Webb-Pullman, Sarah Paterson, Victor Billot, Majella Cullinane); a few on war in general and disarmament (Catherine Amey, Emma Neale); and one on gang violence (Michael Steven).

In rushing superficially through the contents like this, I have of course name-checked only some of the poets in this book and only some of the themes taken up. I enjoyed the week I spent sauntering through Manifesto Aotearoa and found only one or two cases (which I will not shame the poets by naming) of soap-box rant. This is a good and wide sampling of current concerned opinions, in poetic form, on matters of moment.

Inevitably, though, an anthology tempts me to play favourites and name the selections I found really striking.

Let me begin with Helen Watson White’s apocalyptic poem “Water” (p.128), which I quote here in full. Deceptively simple, it works so well because of its device of ambiguity in a lack of conventional punctuation:



For want of a few

nails the proclamation

was not raised



on a dry post in

a desert where

sheep once safely



roamed nibbling

green food fattening

themselves for soup



and the dead left no

article of faith in the

future just excrement



and frozen soup they

died as it were leaving

no political will.



Should I be surprised that Vincent O’Sullivan delves deeper into what ails New Zealand than most poets do? His “To miss the point entirely” (p.24), begins “It isn’t good for a writer to live in a country / where a cut-price banker with his next-door smile / is all we have to throw stones at.” It concludes that in New Zealand we die “of being ourselves.” There is an implicit warning here that it is too easy in a political poem to blame others for the state we are in, rather than to examine our own failures or question the culture to which we contribute.

Should I be surprised that Richard Reeve (in his poem “Boom” (p.33 ) has the wit to see how High Culture can be suborned to the wealthy? Liberal mouthings are not necessarily accompanied by a hand-over of cash to those who really need it.

It was really to my surprise, however, that Diane Brown cut deepest into the assumptions of the liberal readership of this book. Her poem “Every Day My Name is Out There” (p.117) basically says that there are many good causes that should be supported, but that it’s too easy to turn support into mere perfunctory virtue-signalling.

A poem that really shook me was Ivy Alvarez’s “Manufacture” (p.65) about the crushing and wearing nature of working on the factory floor ; and close to it was the raw anger of  Nigel Brown’s “Abrasion” (p.66), which opens “The crude process of grinding down / invented by clever dicks / where you work longer hours for less / in the damp and fetid room / of inequality…” Them’s fighting words, thank goodness.

The most self-effacing poem in the book is Alison Denham’s “Occupy Dunedin”(p.113), about the small-scale of a political event, and its probable lack of impact. Nicola Thorstensen’s “Protection Order” (p.166), about violence both domestic and on the street, creates a remarkable sense of dread, yet ends with another line that will chasten those who overrate poetry’s reach: “This poem cannot save you.”

Another good poem that manages a major shift of tone is Carolyn McCurdie’s “Ends” (p.139) which is, quite credibly, at once horrified about major climate change, and optimistic about the human qualities that can confront it.

Finally the poem that I found myself reading and re-reading - Janis Freegard’s “Arohata” (p.87). It is a tough and unvarnished poem about the real physical experience of visiting a friend in prison. The first reading said this was simply reportage. The re-readings said it was much more – a work of compassion held together by its choice of detail.

Other readers will of course come up with other favourites. I hope all will find this as good a sampling of what upsets and moves poets in the public sphere as I did.


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.

“LE FEU FOLLET” by Pierre Drieu La Rochelle (first published in 1931; two English translations in the 1960s, one called The Fire Within, the other called Will o’ the Wisp)



            Last December, when I was visiting Paris, I indulged my usual habit of trawling second-hand bookshops, including the lockable book booths found on both sides of the Seine. It was in a Right Bank booth that I found a copy of a novel I had been wanting to read for some years, Pierre Drieu La Rochelle’s Le Feu Follet.  What’s more it was a first edition – an NRF (Nouvelle Revue Francaise) paperback published by Gallimard in 1931. But, costing me only a couple of euros, it certainly was not a copy of any great monetary value. It was simply a mass-produced paperback, with its rough 86-year-old pages turning brown with age, of which there are doubtless hundreds of identical copies still in circulation.

Pierre Eugene Drieu La Rochelle (1893-1945) is such a controversial writer, and so despised in many quarters, that, in case you know nothing about him, I will save comment on him until later in this notice.

Let’s begin by concentrating on this extraordinary novel itself.

First, an explanation of its title.

“Le feu follet” is the French term for the ignis fatuus – the drifting “false fire” that sometimes hangs over swamps, caused by rotting vegetation giving off methane gas. Apparently there were two rival English translations of this novel in the 1960s, neither of which I have seen. One translated the title robustly but inaccurately as The Fire Within. The other translated the title as Will o’ the Wisp. But unfortunately Will o’ the Wisp, while an accurate literal rendering of “le feu follet”, sounds rather silly and frivolous in English. Drieu La Rochelle gave the novel its title because he wanted to evoke the idea of moral and intellectual rot, like the fumes from a swamp.

Le Feu Follet is a novel about decadence, about drug addiction, about cultural anomie and finally about suicide. Specifically, it is about the last days in Paris of a drug-addict before he commits suicide. The novel is structured as a series of encounters the drug-addict has with other people, none of whom provide him with a convincing reason to live. Drieu La Rochelle was not himself a drug-addict or alcoholic. It is often pointed out that external details of the suicide of his protagonist, Alain Leroy, were based on the suicide of the surrealist poet Jacques Rigaut in 1929, who had often talked and written of suicide.

Alain Leroy is aged 30. He was in a teenage soldier in the First World War, but for the last ten years or so he has been living by sponging off wealthy American women as he feeds his drug habit. At the time the novel takes place, he is making his third attempt to detoxify. He was married to an American called Dorothy, with whom he lounged about the Cote d’Azur. In fact he is still officially married to Dorothy and is half hoping she will send him some money. But the novel opens with him sharing a bed in a seedy hotel with another American, Lydia, who has already been married and divorced twice. She clearly thinks of Alain as her piece of rough, her French gigolo. She declares on Page 17 (given that the novel is not divided into numbered chapters, I refer to the page numbers of the first edition):

 “J’aime bien ces sales hotels… ce sont les seuls endroits que je trouve intime dans le monde, parce que je n’y suis jamais qu’avec vous.”

I love these dirty hotels… they’re the only places on earth that I find intimate, because I’m never in them unless I’m with you.” (Pardon my clumsy translations in this notice.)

Lydia gives Alain a generous sum of money on condition that he dries out, joins her in New York, and marries her. Alain is non-committal. But he takes the money, knowing full well that he will eventually spend it on drugs.

Alain returns to the residential sanatorium outside Paris where Doctor Barbinais is attempting to dry him out. Alain is disgusted at other residents, whom he sees as being all neurotics, fanatics and monomaniacs, including the doctor’s wife. He is equally unimpressed, in a long conversation, by Doctor Barbinais’s attempts to reason him out of his addiction. He sees Doctor Barbinais as having interested motives in retaining him as paying patient and he tells the doctor frankly that he will probably return to taking heroin.

He goes back to Paris and the rest of novel is a series of conversational episodes as he visits various friends in the course of a long November evening.

Dubourg, an antiquarian married with two children, tries to persuade Alain that his life is worth living and that he is talented. But Alain is alienated from Dubourg’s comfy bourgeois life.

Leaving Dubourg he walks through the cold, wintry Paris night and hooks up with the old gang who supply him with drugs. As he watches a fashionable and foolish Englishman smoking opium with his old pals, Alain shoots up on heroin.

He moves on to the louche salon of a woman called Praline and drinks alcohol while Praline and her friends smoke opium and hashish. This group are completely into drugs as a recreational culture. They wax sardonic over Alain’s attempts to get himself clean. One of the group, Urcel, is a dandyish opium-smoker and aesthete, who claims that his habit is an enlightening mystical experience. (At this point I wonder if Drieu La Rochelle isn’t taking a smack at the dandyish Jean Cocteau, whose book Opium, Diary of a Cure was published in 1930, the year before Le Feu Follet.) Alain is unimpressed. He knows drug-taking is a physical dependence with diminishing returns in terms of the kick it gives.

Alain’s last social call is a dinner-date where very wealthy hedonists, Cyrille and Solange Lavaux, are hosting a party for a celebrated he-man explorer. Once again, Alain is uncomfortable among them, makes a remark that annoys the guest of honour, and departs. These fashionable people disgust him as much as the others he has met. He sees them as artificial poseurs. In a long conversation he admits that (much as he understands the physical beauty of the hostess Solange), he no longer takes real delight in women.

He stumbles back into the night streets, trolling through the shabby bars around Montmartre, pouring out his self-pity to Milou, a rough customer he has known through his drug connections. He has never been successful with women, he has never retained friends, people desert him….

This self-pity is all we are left with after all the ratiocination the novel has given us. Progressively, we have seen Alain’s mind reject the arguments of medicine (Doctor Barbinais), the lure of bourgeois comfort (Dubourg), the self-justifications of drug-taking aesthetes (Urcel and Praline), and the hedonism of the wealthy (the Lavaux couple and their guests).

Throughout the novel Alain has promised friends that he will see them the following day. Instead he goes back to his hotel room, sleeps, wakes in the morning, looks in the mirror, realises his life is one big nothingness and shoots himself.

On the most obvious level, Le Feu Follet is a novel about the pathology of drug addiction. In the section where Alain is interviewed by Dr Barbinais, there is a long, vivid account of Alain’s history of drug-taking, beginning when a few intoxicating sniffs of cocaine when he was a teenager; moving into habitual heavy drinking; then settling on heroin. Two previous attempts at detoxification are chronicled, with their awful withdrawal symptoms. Outside drugs, there is addictive, compulsive behaviour in other aspects of Alain’s life. He smokes three packets of cigarettes a day. He has so little control over the larger aspects of his life, that he is reduced to making order out of the smaller and more trivial aspects of life. For me, one of the saddest evidences of this pathetic compulsion to make order is the description of how he has set out hotel room:

Les choses sur la table et la cheminee etaient parfaitement ranges. Dans le cercle de plus en plus restraint ou il vivait, tout comptait. Sur la table il y avait des lettres, des factures classes en deux paquets. Puis, une pile de boites de cigarettes, une pile de boites d’allumettes. Un stylo. Un grand portefeuille a serrures. Sur la table de nuit, des romans policiers ou pornographiques, des illustres americains et des revues d’avant-garde. Sur la cheminee, deux objects: l’un, une mecanique tres subtile, un chronometre de platine partfaitement plat, l’autre, une affreuse petite statuette de platre coloree, d’une vulgarite atroce, achetee dans une foire, qu’il transpotrtait partout, et qui representait une femme nue. Il la disait jolie, mais il etait content qu’elle enlaidit sa vie.” (p.35)

The things on the table and mantelpiece were set out in a perfectly orderly fashion. Everything counted in the circle, closing more and more tightly, in which he lived. On the table there were letters, with bills organised into two bundles. Then a pile of cigarette packets and a pile of matchboxes. A pen. A big lockable briefcase. On the night table, detective novels and pornographic novels, American illustrated magazines and avant-garde reviews. On the mantelpiece, two things: one, a very subtle mechanism, a plate chronometer which was perfectly flat; the other, a ghastly little coloured-plaster statuette, of disgusting vulgarity, which he had bought at a flea-market and which he took with him wherever he went. It was of a naked woman. He said it was pretty, but he was happy that it made his life uglier.”

As drugs make Alain’s world more and more restricted, that world diminishes to the drug itself. As he finally rejects detoxification and goes back on the stuff, Alain reflects:

Il n’avait que la drogue, il n’y avait pas a essayer d’en sortir, le monde etait le drogue meme… Il remplit la seringue d’heroine, retroussa sa manche et se piqua.” (p.131)

He had only the drug. He didn’t have to try to free himself from it. The world was the drug itself… He filled the syringe with heroin, rolled back his sleeve and injected himself.”

There is clear evidence of the physical toll that drug abuse has taken on Alain. At the age of thirty, he every so often ruminates on how he is no longer the handsome young man, attractive to women, that he was just a few years before. His looks are going. Frequently he feels tiredness, lassitude, a loss of will. The reader often infers that he is prematurely losing sexual potency. He has difficulty rousing himself to make love to Lydia in the novel’s opening section. In talking to Dubourg he admits “je fais mal l’amour”. Visiting a bar he looks at the faces of bohemians he used to know and sees that, like him, they are suddenly all old and weary. He admits his dependency on women, not just in terms of money, but in emotional terms, like a little child who is not yet sexually active. At the Lavaux household, speaking to a third-person of the society beauty Solange Lavaux, he admits:

Je ne peux pas vouloir, je ne peux pas meme desirer. Par exemple, toutes les femmes qui sont ici, je ne peux pas les desirer, ells me font peur, peur. J’ai aussi peur devant les femmes qu’au front pendant la guerre. Par exemple, Solange, si je restais seul cinq minutes avec elle, eh bien, je me ferait rat, je disparaitrais dans le mur.” (p.186)

            “I not able to wish for anything, I not able even to desire anything. Look, for example, at all the women who are here. I am not able to desire them. I’m scared of them. Scared. I’m as scared when I face women as I was when I was at the front in the war. Take Solange. If I was with her for just five minutes I’d shrivel up like a little rat and disappear into the woodwork.”

            But is reproducing the pathology of drug-taking Drieu La Rochelle’s main purpose in this novel? Le Feu Follet represents, after all, a sick and decadent society as much as a sick and decadent Alain. This society and this individual are going nowhere – except to death. The novel never presents, as positive things, religious, philosophical or political alternatives to Alain’s self-destructiveness. It is, in effect, a nihilistic and decadent novel – and as perfect an expression of nihilism, or belief in absolutely nothing, as I have read.

Is Drieu La Rochelle endorsing this nihilism? I think not. I think he is simply analysing it, and seeing that it leaves no firm ground on which to stand.

So where can you positively go when you have seen your society and culture as decadent, and representative figures in your society as embracing nothingness?

To explain where Pierre Drieu La Rochelle himself went in the years after he wrote this novel will help to explain why he is so controversial a figure who is still loathed by many.

Like his fictional Alain Leroy, Drieu La Rochelle fought in the First World War and was three times seriously wounded. The war had a strong effect on him, leading him to distrust the delusions of military leadership and the officer class, while still seeing heroism in the soldier’s trade. I first encountered his writing when I read an English translation of his collection The Comedy of Charleroi (first published in French in 1934). It is a series of ironical short stories, based on Drieu La Rochelle’s own experiences, in which the French army at the front is depicted as playing a great, monstrous game, but a game in which men can become ennobled by their actions.

In the 1920s, as he wrote poems and novellas and political commentaries, Drieu La Rochelle did the things that would stereotypically be expected of a French intellectual of his generation. He mixed with Dadaists and Surrealists and Communists. Along with Andre Breton, he was one of the first to sign the Surrealist Manifesto. The Communist poet Louis Aragon was a pal. So was the left-wing novelist Andre Malraux. Like so many intellectuals of that era, Drieu La Rochelle saw parliamentary democracy as weak, corrupt, divided and incapable of providing good leadership. (The “revolving door” governments of the French Republic between the wars would have reinforced this view.) Politically, Drieu La Rochelle could have jumped either way, as both the extreme left (Communists) and the extreme right (Fascists) made the same criticisms of “bourgeois” democracy.

In the early 1930s, he was still writing articles decrying Hitler. But after the big Paris riots of February 1934 (when right-wing soldiers’ leagues took on the police and called for a Fascist-style government), Drieu La Rochelle turned right. In 1936 he joined Jacques Doriot’s militant French Fascist party the PPI. (Point of interest - Jacques Doriot had formerly been a rising star in the French Communist Party, a Communist mayor of the working-class Parisian suburb St Denis, and a Communist member of parliament – which shows how easily one extremism can become another.) Drieu La Rochelle spent some years editing Doriot’s Fascist magazine. During the German Occupation (1940-44), Drieu La Rochelle was an enthusiastic intellectual collaborator, writing articles in praise of Hitler. When Jean Paulhan, the left-wing editor of the prestigious literary magazine, the Nouvelle Revue Francaise (NRF), was unacceptable to the Nazi occupiers, Drieu La Rochelle took the magazine over and ensured that nothing appeared in it that would offend the German authorities.

Came the Liberation in 1944, and obviously Drieu La Rochelle was now a marked man. His protectors were gone, resisters were now routing out collaborators, and retribution was on the way. Aged 52, Drieu La Rochelle committed suicide early in 1945.

The situation was a little more complex than I have presented it here. Twice, Drieu La Rochelle protected Jean Paulhan, the displaced editor of the NRF, from arrest by the Gestapo. Paulhan survived the war, resumed editorship of the NRF and lived to a ripe old age. After the Liberation, Andre Malraux, now a Gaullist who had borne arms against the Nazis, sought to protect Drieu La Rochelle from arrest and possible execution. Thus do writers often look after one another, despite great political differences.

Even so, it should now be easy for you to see why Drieu La Rochelle, Fascist, collaborator and sometime admirer of Hitler, now has such a negative reputation.

How do I relate all this to the excellent analysis of nihilism that is Le Feu Follet? Simply thus. People who gaze into the deep well of nihilism often react by looking for something solid to cling to. I can imagine Drieu La Rochelle, after having depicted Alain Leroy and his world, seeking that something. Another person might have turned to religion or a programme of social justice. Drieu La Rochelle, being a materialist and an atheist, turned to the worship of power as an organizing force. He had not embraced nihilism  - as I said, he analysed it rather than celebrated it – but he looked at it long enough to himself be morally destroyed by it.



Curious footnote: Despite the opprobrium his life earned him, Drieu La Rochelle’s reputation revived a little some years after the Second World War. In 1961 Louis Malle, then one of the young nouvelle vague directors, made a well-received film version of Le Feu Follet (updated to the Paris of 1961), starring Maurice Ronet as Alain. Among other things, the film changes Alain’s addiction to alcoholism rather than heroin. Looking at clips of this film on Youtube, I would also have to say that the milieu Alain inhabits is more chic and less seedy than the milieu of much of the novel. Apparently the novel has also been adapted into other film versions. It has continued to be republished frequently. Some guides say Drieu La Rochelle’s best novel is Gilles (first published in 1938), also still in print, which I have not read. It is an account of how a young man learns to love the political Right, fights for Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and embraces Fascism. The fact that these two titles still get praise must say something for Drieu La Rochelle’s literary skill. Subsequent to writing this notice, I was able to find on Youtube a very good French documentary comparing the three writers Drieu La Rochelle, Aragon, Malraux: D’une guerre a l’autre. I must warn you, however, that it has no English subtitles.