Monday, March 27, 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.

“THE YIELD” by Sue Wootton (Otago University Press, $NZ25); “THE INTERNET OF THINGS” by Kate Camp (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)

            Reviewers are supposed to ruminate, chew things over and gradually work their way towards a punchline giving their considered opinion of a book. With Sue Wootton’s sixth collection of poems, I am too impatient to do this. I want to begin with my conclusion and here it is: The Yield is one of the most satisfying, intelligent, well-crafted and involving volumes of New Zealand poetry I have read in the last decade. This is a poet who really knows her craft, has a wonderful sense of form, and isn’t afraid to front up to big questions without getting sententious about it. Nature, time and a nagging spiritual sense are all part of The Yield, but so too is a strong understanding of family life and the local. The poet is engaged in the quotidian world and not sitting isolated on a mountaintop.
In the opening poem, “Wild”, Wootton takes the artistic gamble of having nature, personified, addressing us. The poem is a kind of invocation, implicitly asking for human understanding and restraint (“Scaffold me with metal, cage me in glass, tube me, needle me, fill me, flush me.”) in the face of the wild. But it is not conservation propaganda. It is carried by its lyricism and its piling on of images.
Nature as such is one of Wootton’s preoccupations in this volume. She delights in the oddities of nature in a poem about breast-shaped clouds (“Mammatus”) In her poem “Wasp” the whole scale of human engagement with nature is seen in a small domestic incident - a man killing wasp is the peer of a prehistoric hunter. There are many poems about the sea and many references to fishing in her imagery. “Sea Foam at Gemstone Beach” sees death in small foaming bubbles. “Every Hunter and Forager” takes a more primal approach to the sea, linking us with other predators since the beginning of time. And then there is a poem like “Wintersight” a deceptively “pure” winter poem about deciduous trees in winter, but carrying beyond that to a real notion of tragedy. It begins flirtatiously:
The sycamore hoists last-leaf yellow parasols
against a clean blue sky. Paper thin they sun-wink, spin,
twirled as if by flirting girls commanding an admiring eye.”
            But the poem moves on to “the silent, dark and necessary forces” that strip a tree bare.
It is inevitable that observation of the cycles of nature leads to a strong consciousness of transience and death, certainly in “Graveyard poem”, but also in “At Hawea”, where rain falls and bubbles die on the surface of a lake; and in “Black Lake”, introducing a destructive, unforgiving side of nature. “Daffodils” appears to be an elegy. “A day trip to the peninsula” is a five-part sequence, which at first seems in a holiday mood until its progression of birds (kingfisher, pukeko, hawk) upsets it with images of predatory nature. The sequence ends with a shiver. On the back of this sense of transience and lost time, there are also some retro (perhaps nostalgic?) representations of time past and time lost. There is the creation of a vanished world in the imagery of “Barrel organ out of order’; childhood recall in “Three poems at the well”; and an intuition that children are untameable in “Of animals”.
Is there more to nature than decay? The spiritual nags at the poet, occasionally emerging as a guess that there might be something more than the physical universe. This is manifested in the odd religious image, sometimes ironical, sometimes almost sardonic, but there nevertheless – not quite “the God-sized hole” in the modern psyche, but something near it. In “The needlework, the polishing” she ambiguously “likes an empty church” i.e. an old church is a purely (and apparently godless) aesthetic experience; but “Autumn voltage” suggests that mystery, even in nature, might somehow be connected to religion; the poem “Priest in a coffee shop” is in a similar vein; and while “Pray” is ironic it again calls on church imagery (putting something in the plate) to make its points.
Yet the final poem of the volume – the title poem “The Yield” [about a scrappy tree nevertheless managing to set down roots in its own way and flower] -seems to affirm, if anything, the fact of life itself, blind but surviving.
Thus much for trotting my way through what this volume is “about”. Of course this tells you virtually nothing about the quality and worth of the poems themselves.
One of the most attractive things about Sue Wootton’s work is her attention to form. Her shape poem, “Jar”, has a conclusion neatly echoing and transforming its beginning. Similarly “Under / Over” is shaped to replicate the descent and the rise of a diver under ice. Her “little shanty” has exactly the (mainly rhyming) form of a sea shanty, tho’ ‘tis evidently all an extended metaphor where the ship is the solidity of love.
More important than these frolics is the strong sense of the value of onomatopoeic sound. Many of Wootton’s poems sing and bounce. Take a look at the poem “Luthier”; or at the central section of “Abandoned stable, Matanaka”, replicating the experience of a horse-ride in childhood:
Misted morning rides on horse-wide tracks
on board the felted ribcage of a breathing beast.
Seed heads swashed our knees. We parted leaves.
The passing world itched flesh to snort and snicker.
Ears flick-flacked and swivelled: nets set to catch
the pitch of tremors set off by a distant barking dog.
The bite, the bit, the spit, the froth, the foam.
The lips that curled back rubbery to show
the sea-slug tongue, the yellow chomping bones…:
The emphases of sound here play out the rhythm of the horse, the accelerating tempo of its pace, and the swift brushing-past of the foliage.
I do not aim to be the uncritical admirer of every poem in this book. A prose poem like “Picnic” is good and precise reportage of a family picnic with young children, but I am not sure that it is anything more than that. Yet this book has some great poems. The greatest may be Lingua Incognita – about both the limits of language and how language does not rise to the occasion of emotional stress. Fittingly, it is quoted in the blurb, drawing attention to one of the poet’s major preoccupations. Then there is “Strange Monster” – a genuinely heroic poem, with references to Marianne Moore, wherein the nature of poetry itself is explored in an extended image of a kitchen. Sue Wootton’s fine sense of form shines here as the poem is written (mainly) in iambic triplets.
A personal favourite, though, is “Ice Diver”, a poem almost in the grand manner, but with strong sense of modernity. I quote it here in full.

O feed more salt to that deepest heart –
blind, propulsive, without a shell, at
each squeeze pushed hard into the net.

Not you, fisherboy, winding in your reel,
sticking to your quota. But you, off-duty,
shoreless, out of your depth, taking your soul

for a freshwater swim under ice, who’ll
ascend your bubblebreath trail
in holy isolation. You in a dazzle

of danger, drifting with the light-struck
dead. You, hooded, sealed in your drysuit
habit. Monk, sprinkle the salt.

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

Comparisons are odious. Of course they are, so I will not make them. Kate Camp is a different sort of poet from Sue Wootton, and there’s an end of it.
In her sixth collection The Internet of Things, Kate Camp emerges mostly as a miniaturist working on a smaller stage than the grandness of nature. Her poems are filled with ironic, and usually housebound, observations and anecdotes.
The Internet of Things has as its cover image the preserved kitchen of the Spartan working-lass house in which John Lennon was raised. This signals that there will be pop culture references, as well as learned ones, in Kate Camp’s poetry – as indeed there are. At the more High Culture end of the scale, there’s a poem that begins with an epigraph from Heraclitus.
In Camp’s poems we encounter the neighbours’ guinea pig; a party with adult males playing harmless but boisterous games; a settlers’ museum; a three-part poem which seems fired by the fact that the poet’s mother eventually threw her childhood toys away (although an endnote says the sequence was inspired by a ceramics exhibition). This is a domesticated and enclosed human scale.
Also in the housebound mode, there is a very effective and sad poem called “Artist” about being the companion to an artist; and a poem called “The biology of loneliness”.  Both strike me as really being about alienation; about being cocooned and overcome by things. I think they are the best poems in the book.
I admit to finding some poems impenetrable. What exactly is “Life on Mars” about? I do know the TV series called “Life on Mars” about a cop living in the wrong era, but that has nothing to do with this poem any more than the planet Mars has. What really is it saying? The two poems about St Jerome in his cell – via Rembrandt’s painting thereof – are genre fun, though the conclusion of the second (the saint gets eaten by his lion) seems to me a glib sign-off. I also find it disconcerting to see how often the poet writes “you” when she probably means “I”.
In sum, I found The Internet of Things an interesting collection with a couple of highlights.

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.


A keen-eyed reader has pointed out to me that this year, I have broken one of the customs I have observed ever since I started this blog nearly six years ago. On the week which includes St Patrick’s Day, it has always been my custom to have something Irish in this “Something Old” slot. Thus in past years I have considered James Joyce’s Ulysses, Darran McCann’s After the Lockout, Liam O’Flaherty’s The Informer and The Black Soul, and Terence de Vere White’s The Distance and the Dark. I’ve also posted such bits of Irishry as Me and James Joyce in That Order and Seamus Heaney 1939-2013 RIP and The Wearing of the Green and so forth and Yeats the Art of Being a Fool.
St Patrick’s Day 2017 was the week before last and, said my observant reader, I had ignored my own custom.
To atone, I therefore present, two weeks late, three outstanding pieces of Irish poetry by three very different Irishmen. First is “Epic” by Patrick Kavanagh (1904-1967) who, more than anyone else, captured in great poetry both the loneliness and the inspiration of the Irish countryside. In many ways, this twentieth-century poet was heir to the soul of Irish Catholic peasants from an earlier age. Kavanagh’s masterpiece is “The Great Hunger” – not a poem about the Famine, but a poem about the lovelessness of an isolated life. Unfortunately it is too long for me to reproduce here, as is Kavanagh’s “Prelude” (which can be found in Brendan Kennelly’s Penguin Book of Irish Verse), one of the sanest apologia yet written for the craft of a poet. Length, by the way, was one reason I did not include in this week’s bouquet two of my favourite Irish poems – James Clarence Mangan’s translation of the Gaelic “Dark Rosaleen”, and John Montague’s thoughts of a deracinated priest “Soliloquy on a Southern Strand” (which can be found in Paul Muldoon’s anthology The Faber Book of Contemporary Irish Poetry).
So here is “Epic”, a loose sonnet by Patrick Kavanagh, with its true perception that real epics grow from the small and the local:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided, who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man's land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting "Damn your soul!"
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel -
"Here is the march along these iron stones."
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer's ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

The blasphemous, railing doctor and raconteur Oliver St.John Gogarty (1878-1957), sometime pal of James Joyce until the two of them fell out, was a very different kettle of cockles from Patrick Kavanagh. He was urban rather than rural (spending most of his life in Dublin and then New York). He wasn’t interested in tragedy and he fancied himself as a wit. Nor was he a prolific poet. Yet one of his poems turns up in nearly every anthology of Irish verse and for good reason. “Ringsend” manages at one and the same time to be a roistering kick in the pants to romanticised concepts of urban bohemia, and yet a sly justification for such bohemianism. The last two lines are an amazing reversal of sentiment:

                  RINGSEND (After reading Tolstoi)

I will live in Ringsend
With a red-headed whore,
And the fan-light gone in
Where it lights the hall-door;
And listen each night
For her querulous shout,
As at last she streels in
And the pubs empty out.
To soothe that wild breast
With my old-fangled songs,
Till she feels it redressed
From inordinate wrongs,
Imagined, outrageous,
Preposterous wrongs,
Till peace at last comes,
Shall be all I will do,
Where the little lamp blooms
Like a rose in the stew;
And up the back-garden
The sound comes to me
Of the lapsing, unsoilable,
Whispering sea.

And finally, the great unignorable voice of late 20th and early 21st century Irish poetry, Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), Nobel Prize-winner and “famous Seamus”. Heaney was a Catholic from the North, a man who wrote about the urban (Irish, English and American) scene as often as he wrote about the rural scene. I could dip into any collection of his verse and find something I’d be happy to reproduce here, but I have chosen one of his earlier and more rural poems “The Outlaw”, primarily because I remember once the giggles and titters it aroused when I discussed it with a senior form at a girls’ school where I once taught.

            THE OUTLAW
Kellys kept an unlicensed bull, well away
From the road: one risked a fine, but had to pay 
The normal fee if cows were serviced there.
Once I dragged a nervous Friesian on a tether
Down a lane of alder, shaggy with catkin,
Down to the shed the bull was kept in. 
I gave Old Kelly the clammy silver, though why
I could not guess. He grunted a curt "Go by.
Get up on that gate." and from my lofty station
I watched the businesslike conception.
The door, unbolted, whacked back against the wall.
The illegal sire fumbled from his stall 
Unhurried as an old steam engine shunting.
He circled, snored, and nosed. No hectic panting,
Just the unfussy ease of a good tradesman;
Then an awkward unexpected jump, and
His knobbled forelegs straddling her flank,
He slammed life home, impassive as a tank.
Dropping off like a tipped-up load of sand.
“She‟ll do,” said Kelly and tapped his ash-plant
Across her hindquarters. “If not, bring her back.”
I walked ahead of her, the rope now slack
While Kelly whooped and prodded his outlaw
Who, in his own time, resumed the dark, the straw.

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.  


 Some weeks back, an Australian conservation and wildlife lobby announced the patently idiotic idea that the Australian rock group Hunters and Collectors should change its name, because 300,000 waterfowl (i.e. ducks) are shot for sport in Australia each year. To call oneself Hunters and Collectors is, said the conservation lobby, to encourage such ornithological slaughter.
Most people could see that the idea was a silly one, and there were a few choice jokes about how, in the interests of natural ecology, the band Midnight Oil should change its name to Midnight Solar Power and in the interests of promoting peace, Guns and Roses should become Gluten-Free Scones and Roses.
Perceptive people realised at once that the lobby’s suggestion was no more than a practical joke to gain publicity. And, had such a thing as honest journalism existed, there the matter would have ended.
But journos are desperate for beat-ups and space-filling material so, lo, I heard a pundit on National Radio one Sunday morning earnestly questioning a lobby spokeswoman about the propriety of seeking to rename the band, as if he wasn’t in on the publicity stunt. And of course, giggling and pretending to be really nonplussed that some people didn’t take it seriously, the spokeswoman got exactly the publicity her lobby had craved and gave her spiel on the iniquity of shooting birds.
Let me make it clear that I am not a duck-hunter. Indeed I am not a huntin’, fishin’ shootin’ guy of any sort; and while I understand the skill of marksmanship, I’ve never understood why people get a thrill from shooting animals. But I am concerned at the way that flashy stunts are now the means of getting attention in the media. It’s a variant of the “if it bleeds, it leads” mentality that dominates television news. We get lots of violence up front because there’s juicy footage of it. We get lots of lobbyists rabbiting on about their cause on radio and television, not because it is necessarily the cause most worthy of attention, but because the lobbyist has cunningly devised an attention-getting stunt.
This is naturally only a small part of the current media malaise. When Donald Trump and his cohorts talk of “fake news” (and then generate much of their own), their opponents virtuously claim that there is a difference between real, fact-checked news and partisan fantasy. But alas, even on the most respectable and anti-Trumpian of media, what is presented as news is often driven by how loudly lobbyists and partisans can shout, and who is able to come up with the wackiest of attention-grabbing stunts. Why else do people now don crazy costumes in what are ostensibly protest marches, or strive to devise slangy and/or comical protest signs?
I long for day when newspapers run (as very minor story on, say, Page 7) such headlines as “Lobby Pulls Lame Practical Joke to Get Publicity” and leave it at that.
It’s not going to happen, though.

Monday, March 20, 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.

“THE DOLL-MASTER and other tales of terror” by Joyce Carol Oates (Mysterious Press / Head of Zeus – Harper/Collins, $NZ24:99)

            Recently I read a profile of the American novelist and short-story writer Joyce Carol Oates (born 1938). It began by saying that, when reviewers deal with her, they always have to admit that they have read only a fraction of her work. There is a reason for this. Since the early 1960s, Oates has produced over 90 books, including fifty novels. She averages nearly two books a year and it would take a couple of years to read her complete works.
Her productivity drives some people wild.
The late neurotic and insecure scribbler Gore Vidal, who spent his public life posing as a world-weary patrician, was big on bitchy one-liners and put-downs. The story goes that when asked what the three most dispiriting words in the English language were, he replied “Joyce Carol Oates”. For those who have read none of her work, this is a good enough excuse to ignore her. For myself, I have, like most people, read only a few of her books, but at the very least I have found them entertaining, even if they do sometimes go on a bit. (Find elsewhere on this blog reviews of Joyce Carol Oates’ Gothic vampire novel The Accursed and her short-story collection Black Dahlia& White Rose).
            Oates’ latest production The Doll-Master and other tales of terror comprises six longish short stories (all about forty or fifty pages in length). All are more or less in the thriller or suspense mode, though I think it’s stretching it a bit to call then “tales of terror”. I would say that only one of them really terrified me. The rest gave a slight frisson of impending doom, but no real terror. All were previously published in magazines, as is the way with Oates’ story collections, with fully half of them first appearing in the venerable Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.
            The title story “The Doll-Master” is told in the first-person by Robbie who, when he was a little boy, was separated from the little girl he liked who owned a doll. Robbie became obsessed with dolls, hiding his obsession from his macho father who wanted him to play with action men. The story develops with his collecting and hiding dolls he has found, until he is of college student age. His voice is the voice of a psychopath. This is creepy up to a point, but regrettably, the story comes to a punch-line which reveals too much and shows much of the story to have been trickery at the reader’s expense. I am surprised that it is the weakest entry that gives the volume its title.
            “Soldier” is once again told in the first-person voice of a disturbed male, 30-year-old Brandon who is awaiting trial for what some characterise as a race-hate-crime. He shot dead a black teenager, but he seems to sincerely believe that he was being threatened by a gang and acted in self-defence. In part, Joyce Carol Oates is satirising both the hysteria of social media and those who promote racial violence. Awaiting trial, Brandon gets hate mail but also mail telling him that he is a hero. A wealthy gun manufacturer pays for his defence and a TV company offers big money to dramatise his life story. Because this is in the first-person, we believe we are privileged to see how Brandon’s mind really works. It is clear that his upbringing (fundamentalist Protestant church; gun-toting ex-cop uncle) has influenced the way he thinks. It is also clear that he has limited intelligence. When shown a large denomination banknote he says “It is the first time I have seen and touched a hundred-dollar bill with the face of Benjamin Franklin on it – I think he is one of the U. S. presidents of a long time ago.” He puts common phrases, unfamiliar to himself, in inverted commas (“defence team” etc) the way the semi-literate sometimes do, and at one point he admits that he has never travelled further than the next county. We tend to pity him rather than despise him. But Oates pulls a switch in the last few pages of this 40-page story which so totally changes the psychological landscape that it is hard not to think we have suffered a prolonged confidence trick. I am left wondering if Joyce Carol Oates set out to explore in detail the mind of a killer, but than backed out into a compromise ending.
            “Gun Accident – An Investigation” is yet again in the first-person, but this time it is a woman’s voice. This is an ambitious story. The middle-aged woman Hanna, married with children, conveys the sense of trauma that still shakes her when she comes back to the neighbourhood she grew up in. She always recalls an awful event that happened to her as a teenager. There is a great and long (possibly over-long) build-up to the revelation that when she was house-sitting for a neighbour, burglars broke in on her and mistreated her intimately. I think Oates’ purpose here is to deal with the life-long psychological after-effects of such an event rather than with the brutal event itself. Yet, coming as the story’s late climax, the event is still a sensational shocker and that is probably a good description of the story’s effect
            “Equatorial” is told in the third person, but it is the third-person-limited in which we see the thoughts of only one character, Audrey. She is the wife of an academic, Henry, accompanying him on a guided tour to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands. She feels inadequate. She is not an academic as most of the tour party is. She is Henry’s third wife and he is her second husband. Could it be that their marriage is falling apart? Could it be that Henry has found another woman? Indeed could it be that Henry is trying to kill her? Was he actually tying to knock her off balance when they came down that steep mountain path in Ecuador? Did he want to push her into the sea from the “moon deck” of their cruise ship? And is that sleek, young Asian woman academic in their tour party Henry’s new lover, because Audrey thinks she’s seen the woman with Henry before? As a suspense story, this one reminds me very much of the ancient Hitchcock film Suspicion, in which a wife spends the whole movie fearing that her husband intends to kill her, and we are not sure if she is right or simply too imaginative. Given that premise, it works reasonably well as suspense (and of course I am not the sort of cad to tell you how it turns out). But Joyce Carol Oates seems to want it to say something more. Henry is usually called “the husband” and Audrey “the wife”, as if they are types of marital insecurity. And in the Galapagos Islands section there’s a lot of talk about natural selection (it’s Darwin country, folks) and whether the fittest really do survive – which Audrey relates to her own fraught situation. But while it’s a good time-passer, I see it as a suspense story with pretensions.
            For me, “Big Momma” is the one real tale of terror in the book, with suspense built up slowly to a grisly ending. Again, it is written in the third-person-limited voice, with us sharing the thoughts and viewpoint of Violet. She is an awkward only child, friendless at school and neglected by her mother who is often out late.  But a nice man takes an interest in Violet and often drives her to his home, where she enjoys the company of other children, especially as the man is the father of one of her classmates. Gosh, the man is nice to her. He strokes the nape of her neck affectionately… and if you at this point think you know where this unsettling story is going, you are quite wrong. At about midway point it introduces us to something bizarre and horrifying, taking us down quite a different path. I can’t spike its surprise by saying anything further. It works very well as a horror story. There is nothing more that need be said about it.
            “Mystery Inc.”, on the other hand, dips into a rather more genteel form of horror – indeed a somewhat retro one. The first-person narrator is the disgruntled owner of a chain of failing second-hand bookshops. He plans to murder the owner of an upmarket antiquarian bookstore, which he hopes to take over. His voice is fussy, pedantic and self-justifying and we lose much confidence in him when, less than a third of the way through the story, we learn that he has disguised himself from his intended murder victim by donning a red wig and false glasses. Surely the owner of a shop specialising in murder-mystery books would rapidly see through such a disguise?! It is not only the antique bookstore setting, but also the story’s development that makes it appear most like the old-fashioned “cosy” variety of murder story – like those which appeared in the very same antique novels and mystery magazines that line the bookshop’s shelves and are referenced in the text.  This cosiness is reinforced by the  way so much of the story is conveyed in a long conversation between the would-be murderer and his intended victim.
            Is there any distinctive voice of Joyce Carol Oates in these stories?
            Not really. They are the work of an author who knows how to adapt herself to the requirements of publications that accept her work, and proof that she can turn her hand to mystery and murder stories, some with odd psychological kinks. Cornell Woolrich and Patricia Highsmith did the kinks better than she does, but she is entertaining.
            Which is no less than I expected of her.

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. 

“A MUMMER’S WIFE” by George Moore (first published in 1884)

More than once on this blog I have dealt with the Irish-turned-English author George Moore (1852-1933). So far, I have discussed those of his books that are most often reprinted, and regarded as his best work, the novels EstherWaters (1894) and The Lake (1902); and the three-volume autobiography Hailand Farewell (1911-1914). These were all written when George Moore was well-established as a literary figure.
But it is sometimes interesting to consider what an author was like nearer the beginning of his career. Written when he was in his early 30s, A Mummer’s Wife was only Moore’s second novel, coming after the mediocre A Modern Lover. Up to that time, Moore had mainly written (now forgotten) poetry or had tried to make himself a painter. There are moments of vigour in A Mummer’s Wife, and some of the action is vivid. But it is also a rocky ride of melodrama harnessed to social comment and some heavy-duty moralising.
The action of the novel takes place over four years.
In the Staffordshire potteries town of Hanley, 27-year-old Kate Ede is married to asthmatic Ralph Ede the linen-draper. Her mother-in-law, Mrs Ede, is a severe Wesleyan and strongly disapproves of all things theatrical. Ralph requires Kate’s constant nursing.
Kate finds the town where she lives oppressive and nasty, and George Moore piles on the figurative language to express her disgust, as in “The crescent-shaped suburb slept like a scaly reptile just crawled from out of its bed of slime.” (Chapter 10) Or as in “There were long lines of coal-wagons… These were covered with black tarpaulin, and the impression produced was that of a funeral procession marching through a desert whose colour was red.” (Chapter 11)
Kate, a furtive reader of romantic novels, dreams of escape and secretly admires their shop-assistant Miss Hender, who frequently goes off to the theatre.
Straitened circumstances means the Edes have to take in lodgers. They take in the corpulent travelling actor Dick Lennox. His bedroom is just across from Kate’s and Ralph’s. It is relatively easy for Kate to allow herself to be attracted to him, even though her church-bred conscience occasionally troubles her.  She finds excuses to meet the fat actor while pretending to make business calls…. And eventually she runs away with him.
It takes Kate some time to get used to the bohemian amorality of the acting company of which Dick Lennox is part. It is clear that the company’s leading lady, Miss Leslie, was once Dick Lennox’s mistress, and there is much backbiting and easy morality in the chorus. Kate is soon aware that Dick has a roving eye. Eventually, however, she is accepted grudgingly as a member of the company and begins to make a modest name for herself singing and dancing. She is cast in supporting roles in the light operettas that the company performs as it tours the provinces. George Moore remarks “Kate had not become an actress; she was merely a middle-class woman veneered with Bohemianism.” (Chapter 17)
Then, about the time that her divorce from Ralph Ede is granted, she discovers that she is what the novel tactfully calls “enceinte”. At about this same time she has formed a platonic attachment to the company’s sentimental musical director Montgomery, with whom she has many long conversations when Dick is too busy to engage with her.
Up to this point, the touring theatrical company is reasonably prosperous. Dick and Kate are married. But Kate’s baby dies within hours of his birth and, coincidentally, the company’s fortunes begin to decline in economic hard times until the management (in London) decides to break it up and the chorus is paid off. For a short time Dick, Kate, Montgomery and a few other actors call themselves the “Constellation Company” and tour tiny industrial settlements, attracting tiny audiences. But even this comes to an end and Kate and Dick head for cheap lodgings in London.
Now Kate begins to drink seriously. She feels some remorse for her infant child’s death. More poignantly, she regrets the settled domestic life she abandoned and she becomes obsessed with her husband’s fidelity. Her husband becomes involved with a wealthy dilettante Mrs Forest (in which character George Moore ridicules fashionable Oriental mysticism) who has said she is willing to bankroll a production of an opera Montgomery has written.
 Kate sinks lower and lower into gin-swilling. She makes some fearful, violent scenes. At one stage, she is committed briefly for possible insanity. Dick arranges a formal separation from her. Kate dries out and tries to reconcile with Dick, but she discovers that he is already cohabiting with another woman. It is at this point that Kate happens to meet Ralph Ede, who has married their shop-assistant Miss Hender. So Kate feels sharply the fact that she no longer has either the excitement of the theatre or the satisfactions of settled domesticity.
In one last massive binge, and sometimes funding her drinking habit by prostituting herself, she proceeds to drink herself to death.
The novel whose plot I have just synopsised has been reprinted many times but is not as well known as Moore’s other works. When I read it, I had to retrieve it from the stacks of a university library. The very early edition I read had an inserted slip of paper declaring: “This book has been placed on the Index Expurgatorius of the ‘Select’ Circulating Libraries of Messrs. Mudie and W. H. Smith and Son”.
Clearly there was much in the narrative to offend the sensibilities of Victorians and their circulating libraries – the wife’s adulterous affair with the actor; the backstage nudity that George Moore describes; the child born out of wedlock; the divorce; the “boozing” (so called in the novel) and the prostitution. In Chapter 29, in a passage beginning “Prostitution had for the moment monopolised the town”, George Moore gives a detailed and comprehensive description of all the types of women selling themselves in the seamier London streets. There is also the fact that the sinful Dick is in no way punished for his sins at the novel’s end. Indeed, on the very last page of the novel, Dick signs off with a note of complete indifference. On her deathbed, Kate is delirious and raves in a mixture of the Wesleyan hymns of her youth and the show tunes she had more recently learned, expressive of her “double life”. But when she eventually dies, Dick merely turns to Mrs Forest, who has dropped in to visit the dying woman, and asks casually “Have you finished the second act, dear?
Worse than this (as far as Victorian sensibilities are concerned), there is Kate’s reaction to her baby’s death. Moore suggests that her wailing and grief are strictly for public display, as if she is playing a role that is expected of her, when her feelings are zero:
There was a want of naturalness in this sorrow. It was too vehement and it came too much in jerks to be considered a spontaneous expression of true grief. It was not sustained, there were times when she forgot herself and relapsed into indifference. And yet she was perfectly sincere. Knowing what a mother should feel, she strove to force these feelings upon herself, but the truest sentiment in her heart was a hatred of herself for having got drunk and neglected her child… We have, therefore, arrived at the period of decadence in Kate’s character. Her want of motherly instincts and her forced hysterical grief… As the funeral approached the cemetery, her sobbing was so boisterous that one of the mutes looked round….” (Chapter 24)
And yet, despite all these offences against Victorians and their lending libraries, Moore himself is essentially Victorian in his attitudes in this novel. Indeed, his attitude towards theatrical people is really as reproving as that of the puritanical Mrs Ede. I can imagine the whole novel playing as a Victorian melodrama under some such title as RUINED! The Downfall of a Plain Woman. The overall structure is what Leslie Halliwell in his fat film guide so often calls “the road to ruin.”
From first to last, the influence of French naturalism upon young George Moore is clear. A Mummer’s Wife begins as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (or Guy de Maupassant’s Une Vie, which was published the year before A Mummer’s Wife) with a bored woman dreaming of escape from a limiting life. It ends up as Emile Zola’s condemnation of booze and alcoholism L’Assommoir, which was published in 1877, seven years before A Mummer’s Wife. George Moore was a lifelong admirer of Zola, and records a visit he made to Zola in the Confessions of a Young Man, which he wrote a few years after A Mummer’s Wife appeared.
In A Mummer’s Wife there is both ripe melodrama and much piling-on of documentary detail, just as there is in Zola. When Kate and Dick make a visit to a Staffordshire pottery, we get a full description of how the place works. When a Dr Hooper ministers to Kate in her last pathetic days, we are given the pathology of alcoholism and all its symptoms (at which point Moore really is copying L’Assommoir). The effect is much as it often is in Zola – the effect of having been “mugged up” and producing a detachable essay.
There are, however, scenes where Moore’s scrupulous pursuit of physical detail pays dividends. The best single scene in the novel – or at least the one that stays longest in my mind – is in Chapter 12, where the theatrical touring company make a brief stop at a railway station on their route; and manage to scoff a meal laid out by the station’s caterers, without paying for it before their train departs. The narrative of anxious waiters running up and down, trying to find who is responsible for paying for the meal, would not work as well if we had not first been given a full account of the station itself and its practices in catering for visitors who are passing through only briefly. Likewise the scene in which simple Lancashire folk are so impressed by the tatty “Constellation Company” that they give the mummers a bed for the night – this works because we are first given a set-up to what sort of people the Lancashire audience is.
            In spite of these merits, A Mummer’s Wife has the same essential flaw as de Maupassant’s Une Vie. Its central character is a puppet. Moore himself appears to despise Kate as a brainless woman, easily duped by tinselly illusions, which are rapidly shown to be only illusions. The literary “pretext” of using her ignorance of the theatre to introduce us to the theatrical life makes her appear doubly naïve. Moore’s fundamental contempt for Kate is made explicit:
            She was the woman that nature turns out of her workshop by the million, all of whom are capable of fulfilling the duties of life, provided the conditions in which they are placed, that have produced them, remain unaltered. They are like plants that grow well so long as they are not transplanted from the original soil. They are like cheap Tottenham Court Road furniture, equal to an ordinary amount of wear and tear so long as the original atmosphere in which they were glued together is preserved. Change this, and they go to pieces. This was precisely what had happened in the case of Kate Ede.” (Chapter 27).
I closed A Mummer’s Wife feeling that George Moore had much talent that had not yet matured. Where he stands morally is at best ambiguous, but the “road to ruin” structure harnesses him to received opinions. He can be vivid when writing of sordor or the scallywaggery of travelling actors, but he can also pile on the moralising. He has read his French masters, but he has not the freedom to speak as frankly as they do. This is a very imperfect novel showing promise. A young man’s novel forsooth.