Monday, November 6, 2017
SPECIAL NOTICE TO READERS: CONSTRAINTS ON MY TIME, PLUS MY RECENT VISUAL IMPAIRMENT, MEAN THAT I HAVE DECIDED HENCEFORTH TO PRODUCE THESE BLOG POSTINGS FORTNIGHTLY RATHER THAN WEEKLY.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“SALT PICNIC” by Patrick Evans (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)
This is a very odd way to begin a review of a novel by the erudite Patrick Evans, but as I read Salt Picnic, I couldn’t help feeling how easily it could be turned into a conventional thriller. Very naïve young woman comes to Spanish island in 1956. Mysterious Jewish-American photographer persuades her to look into the affairs of a German doctor, who lives in the same boarding house as she does. She snoops and fossicks through the doctor’s effects. “Aha!” we immediately think. It’s only eleven years since the Second World War ended and the photographer must be after some Nazi war criminal, especially as Franco’s Spain is one place where such a person could well be hiding out. We await some horrible revelation in the denouement.
Actually there is an eventual horrible revelation and the story does (more or less) take the form of an investigation. But all is not as we might have at first assumed and the doctor is not German, even if he is a dodgy person.
More to the point, Salt Picnic is definitely not a thriller. In his author’s note, Evans explains “This novel concludes a trilogy that reflects the influence of the writing of Janet Frame (1924-2004) on my creative imagination and my understanding of the world”. The “trilogy” began with Gifted (2010), which was specifically about Janet Frame, and went on with The Back of His Head (2015 – reviewed on this blog), which deals with completely fictitious characters in the New Zealand literary world. Evans now calls The Back of His Head the conclusion of his “trilogy” and Salt Picnic the second book thereof. He goes on to explain that the protagonist of Salt Picnic, Iola Farmer, despite sharing some of the history and outward characteristics of Janet Frame, is not Janet Frame but is a fictitious character. One on-line reviewer has already suggested that Evans is possibly being especially tactful to avoid the wrath of the people who control Janet Frame’s estate.
This all requires a little unpacking.
Like Janet Frame, Iola is, to English people, a “colonial” (presumably New Zealander). Like Frame, she spends some months of 1956-57 living on the island of Ibiza. In her past she has had some traumatic experience – for Janet Frame time in a psychiatric hospital; for Iola Farmer, a story she wrote which might have led a woman to commit suicide. Like Frame, Iola gets pregnant but aborts the child … or does she? How Iola loses the child is unclear in the novel, and at one point we are told “all the time the child still inside her that she’d thought of killing but in the end, in the end she hadn’t, had she, not at all: she’d brought him back with her. She didn’t kill him after all.” (p.211) Like Frame, Iola remembers something dreadful that happened to a sibling (Frame’s sister Myrtle drowned when Frame was an adolescent; Iola remembers something happening to “Douglas”). She is intensely interested in language and the meanings of words, and the novel is in some sense an account of “the making of a novelist” as Iola digests experience and gains confidence as a writer, so that “Here they come, here come the words, here come the stories”, as the concluding words of the novel say triumphantly.
One could go further, and point out that much of the way Evans sets up the psychological disposition of Iola Farmer is very like the received image of Janet Frame. There is, for example, her fear of being lost in a crowd, or caught up in the system bigger than herself, as when Iola recalls her journey to Spain:
“Everything had been different from what she expected, that was what she remembered – the ferry, of course, but before that the Channel crossing, and Paris with its vast, hideous marketplace, and then the train journey south and to the border and the wait to change to the new gauge, the long, terrifying city walks when she hadn’t known how to get onto trams and buses. Worst of all were the times when she found herself caught up in a system she didn’t understand – any system, anything controlled by someone else, anything controlled by them.” (p.15)
There is her desire for a low profile and, if possible, anonymity, as when Iola tries to explain to a Spanish railway official how some of her luggage is missing: “How to get across to him the fact that one of the bags had someone else’s name on it, and that she’d kept it that way because she’d preferred the anonymity? How to explain that she liked the idea of someone else’s life story travelling around the world with her? It sounded so irresponsible, so potty.” (p.32)
And there is her sense that other people are more practical than she is, and more at ease with the way the world runs: “How was it that people seemed so easily to know what to do in this world, as if everybody knew everything there was to be known – except her?” (p.33)
So I could go on, picking out more Frame-like characteristics in the novel’s protagonist. Yet, forsooth, Iola Farmer is not Janet Frame, says Patrick Evans. Iola is a fictitious character; the people among whom she moves are fictional; and much of what happens to her is fiction.
So let’s imagine we’ve never heard of Janet Frame.
Let’s consider what the novel itself appears to be saying.
On the simplest level it deals with Europe as the inevitable lure for earlier generations of “colonials” doing their OE. Iola remarks: “What else was there to do in this Old World where everything was finished, everything had already taken place, all the work had been done? What else but to look at it, what else but to see.” (p.23) Worn out or not, Europe is still an essential destination for an aspiring New Zealand writer. Just as she is – at the novel’s opening – literally a virgin in sexual matters, so is Iola metaphorically a virgin where European culture is concerned. But perhaps European culture is not what she needs in order to develop? Symbolically, when she visited the Louvre, the Mona Lisa had been removed and the blank space it left on the wall appeared more numinous than the painting would be. This is the blank page on which she will write.
Quite apart from the untutored antipodean’s reaction to Europe, however, there are the objective facts of what Europe was in the 1950s, and especially what Spain was. Nearly twenty years after the civil war, Spain in 1956 is still - officially at any rate – a reined-in and somewhat puritanical society. As Daniel Bernard, Iola’s American photographer friend, explains, modesty in public is enforced, people are supposed to cover up on the beach and couples are meant to have a chaperone (p.148). But tourists are beginning to pour into the Baleraric islands and mores are slowly changing even if, paradoxically, it is still a suspicious society in which it remains important to know which side one fought on in the civil war. Again it is Daniel Bernard who says: “No one ever forgets around here, there’s no forgiveness. Even now the Caudillo’s starting to relax things a bit – well, so the word goes out there, they say the old man’s relaxing the rules to get money from overseas, tourists, y’know the kinda thing. And even now he’s, y’know, takin’ his boot off of the floor, there’s no forgiveness. It’ll last as long as the people from the guerra last. Unto the third generation.” (p.122)
This is a culture in which civil war atrocities are still not spoken of. One such is exposed in the denouement.
Because it is so specifically set in this place and time, Salt Picnic is rich in description - in the sights and sounds and smells of the locals. But recreating a past age and place is less important than the novel’s most insistent theme, which is the development of a writer. How does the writer’s mind evolve? Iola (who had the draft of a novel in her lost luggage) sees things, and then they disappear; waking reality is contorted and elaborated in dreams; she is often unsure of what she is seeing and consciously offers alternative explanations; in other words, in some sense her imagination is always at work, even as she tries to sound the depths of hard material reality. She is always quizzing what she sees. She admires a painting, but then the painting dissolves into its material constituents: “But had it ever been there in the first place? The painting had died in front of her, and finally become oil and wax and lead and resin, the charcoal sketch beneath that and the canvas beneath the sketch, the contrivance and work that had enabled them, the tricks and wheezes the artist had brought to the canvas each day…. As a painting, it had disappeared.” (p.23)
Before the writer can produce anything, she must first read the world that is before her.
Iola often misreads the world.
There are matters of mistaken identity. She is given somebody else’s luggage. The reputed German doctor is really an English doctor. Other people are mistaken in things, too, but Iola has a special sort of naïvete. She admires the handyman and gofer of the boarding house Antonio, and speaks with him. Then she begins to have exalted ideas of him: “But poetry – that was what he couldn’t speak about – that was what she couldn’t reach in him. Slugs and snails and puppy dogs’ tails: fine. But not poetry. It must be there - no one has no poetry in him at all, she was sure of that. It was just a matter of finding where it was. The romance of him, that’s what it was. To find things about him that had happened, the colour of him, his taste. Those things about other people that suddenly made them your own so that they never really left you and were always part of the story you told yourself about you-and-the-world.” (p.103) But the Antonio she eventually comes to know is nothing like this poetic figure. Nor is the little boy Vicente the impish innocent she at first thinks he is. The two “sisters” Magdalena and Concepcion do the cooking and cleaning up at the boarding house. Iola interprets them as hardy peasant sorts. She later discovers their more sinister backstories, related to the civil war.
In all these cases, the real person who is exposed hardly resembles Iola’s imaginings. And yet (a writer’s paradox) often the imagined person is more precious to the aspiring writer than the real person.
Iola’s greatest misreadings concern Daniel Bernard and the English Dr Almond. For the New Zealand innocent, Daniel Bernard has all the exciting alienness of an American, feeding her with delicious Hershey bars, pointing his Leica in all directions and apparently aiming to be a great photo-journalist like his hero Robert Capa and (clearly a left-winger) eulogising Ernest Hemingway. Bedazzled by images she has seen in romantic movies ( Roman Holiday et al), Iola is seduced by him and sees him as a romantic partner. Yet it is he who sends her on a spying mission, breaking into the doctor’s room to find information on him. And he in the end he does not conform to her romantic image of him.
As for Dr Almond, he seems an old-fashioned tweedy sort of English gent, with a slightly military air and a peremptory speaking style, doing Times crossword puzzles and listening to classical music. But there is a nasty history lesson attached to him too. He is more extremely right-wing than Daniel Bernard is left-wing.
As well as reading the world clearly, the writer has to find an appropriate language. Her own language. This is another insistence of the novel, as it so often focuses on language itself. There is much mention of Ibiza as more a Catalan island than a (Castilian) Spanish one, with characters often speaking Ibicenco rather than Castellano. There is much evidence of characters talking across one another, with no real understanding. However, Iola is aware that her difficulties are not only with the local languages, but with English itself. She is quick with word games and crossword puzzles. But there are episodes in which she says something utterly conventional and dull, and realizes that she is channelling her mother and saying what her mother would have said, rather than expressing her own thoughts and feelings. She is looking for a language that will express not only her own viewpoint, but her sense of alienness in the Ibiza she is slowly discovering. At one point she battens on a book purloined from the suspect doctor’s room, Charles Doughty’s Victorian classic Travels in Arabia Deserta. Its made-up, pseudo-Elizabethan locutions seem to her a language entirely fitting for Doughty’s purpose of expressing how foreign the desert is to him. But then how does she convey in writing the foreign colloquial chatter she hears all around her?
“There was nothing between all this and herself, they just were. The bank of dead, stiff books in the doctor’s bookshelves – how could they compete with voices like this? How was she to write anything – where were the words, where was the language that could tell more than this, the truth of the world?” (p.164)
Quite apart from the Castellano- or Ibicenco-speaking people, there are the languages of the two men who have the greatest impact on Iola. Daniel Bernard (often called just “the American”) speaks racy American-English. Dr Almond speaks (or affects to speak) upper-middle-class English-English. The novel makes much play of how odd their pronunciation sounds to Iola’s Kiwi ears.
When the American refers to Carl Jung, Iola hears him say “this guy Young” and assumes there is somebody called Guy Young. She rankles at the Amercan’s pronunciations “turdle” (=turtle), “toytoys” (= tortoise) and so forth, and when he speaks of “movies”, she still wants to call them “films”. In the 1950s, New Zealanders were already used to watching American films (think of all those romantic movies Iola has seen); but these moments remind as that, back then, New Zealand was not as thoroughly saturated with American idioms as it is now, thanks to 24/7 multi-channel TV, the internet etc.
As for the Englishman, he has the proprietary attitude towards the English language and its pronunciation that many Englishmen still assume. He pronounces salt as “sault” and corrects the colonial Iola when she refers to the PallMall brand of cigarettes. He insists it be said as “PellMell”. (Most non-English people, including New Zealanders, would probably pronounce it “PaulMaul”).
Iola is either baffled or intimidated by these two variants of the English language. When with the Englishman there is (at first) an element of cultural cringe. When with the American, there is excitement and attraction. But is it going too far to suggest that both these non-New Zealand varieties of language are temptations that Iola has to overcome before she can speak comfortably in her own voice?
I have dealt with Salt Picnic as dealing with Europe and Spain as they were once; with the attraction of the old OE; and with the development of a writer in terms of gaining a clearer vision of reality and finding her own voice. Of course ticking off ideas and themes like this tells you nothing about the novel’s quality or impact.
There is a major down side to the novel. Put simply, Iola’s (initial) naïvete often becomes oppressive. Given that she is a young adult and not a child, does she have to be so ignorant of the Spanish Civil War when she comes to Ibiza? Or were most tourists to that part of the world then completely uninterested in politics and history? Possibly so, but we do sometimes have Iola discovering the bleeding obvious as if it is a great revelation.
Again, given that Iola is established as both shy and poor at socialising, how credible is it that she could be persuaded to play the role of snooping detective? [Iola knows she is entering foreign territory when she breaks into doctor’s room, and there are sly references to Alice-in-Wonderland’s “drink me” as she feels small and a little overwhelmed.]
I might be told that Janet Frame had both her naïvetes and her venturesome side. But then Patrick Evans has told us that this is not a novel about Janet Frame. It’s about a fictitious character called Iola Farmer doing fictitious things. So the burdens of credibility and verisimilitude still rest with the author.