Monday, March 19, 2018

Something New


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

“ALL THIS BY CHANCE” by Vincent O’Sullvan (Victoria University Press, NZ35)

It is rare for an author to announce as clearly as Vincent O’Sullivan does, in the opening paragraph of All This by Chance, what sort of novel he is writing. I quote the opening paragraph in full:

 “When as a youngster David asked his father what it was like then, when they had met, what did she tell him about the train for instance, or before the train, his answers, as his grown-up son would tell him, slipped away as though he were the one being looked for, hunted down. And as the boy grew to the man who demanded more aggressively, Stephen told him how so little of the past was there, could he not see that? It was not a tide that went out and then returned. It became a sea that did not exist. But at the time he had used an image that he thought the boy with his grasping for what had gone might understand. He said you must imagine what it would be like if you took fragments chipped from a mosaic and handed them to someone, and expected him to know what it was, the picture it has been taken from.” (p.9)

We know at once that this will be a novel about the irreversibility of time; about memory, its importance, its fallibility and the difficulty of reconstructing the past accurately; about history; about families and their intergenerational differences; and perhaps about the persistence of family traits.

The blurb calls it a “moving multigenerational family saga” which is more-or-less true, but that word “saga” is likely to arouse the wrong sort of expectations. Nowadays, the idea of a novel as “saga” tends to bring to mind the sort of fat American pop novel that trades in soap opera. Obviously All This by Chance is not that sort of novel. With very close attention to detail (both physical and historical), with clear-sightedness about how different generations think, this novel is serious and considered in what it says about the coalescence of past and present.

In 1947, the young New Zealander Stephen Ross goes to London to train as a pharmacist. He meets and marries Eva, and brings her back to New Zealand to raise a family. We are soon made aware that though she has been brought up by an English family, and though she thinks of herself as English, Eva is of European Jewish parentage and was apparently one of those who, years before, escaped Hitler via something like the Kindertransport. But the key point is that she has no desire to know anything about her Jewish heritage, preferring to keep her early past forgotten and buried and to live in the present. Stephen tacitly goes along with this arrangement. In coming to New Zealand, however, they are joined by Eva’s aunt “Babcia” (Ruth) who is only too willing to recall Eva’s and her own past. So there is a tension between mental repression on the one hand and being willing to confront a disquieting past on the other.

How Eva and Stephen deal with the past produces opposite reactions in their two children Lisa and David. As they grow, Lisa appears to show no interest in her mother’s background, while David chooses to identify, rather zealously, with his Jewish forbears.

A really good novel cannot be reduced to a synopsis, especially a synopsis as inadequate as this, in which I have said little more than the blurb says. All This by Chance consists of nine long chapters (most of them almost the length of a novella) which progress from the 1940s to the 21st century before doubling back into earlier history. This takes us through three generations - Eva and Stephen, their grown children and grown grandchildren - with quite a number of important additional characters. In this respect, it is a novel that has to be read with close attention as we remind ourselves who has what relationship with whom. Perhaps because the profusion of names could be confusing, a list of ten major characters is given at the beginning, with the birthdates of each.

I stick to my credo that it is unmannerly to give away too much of the “plot” of a new novel in a review, as the author has the right to expect that readers are not forewarned of twists and surprises. I can, however, indicate the novel’s implicit ideas, even if a novel as closely written as this one is not a string of simple “messages”.

In the most general possible sense, this is a “Holocaust” novel. A friend of Aunt Babcia, a Jehovah’s Witness called Ellen McGovern, gives Stephen a version of how they just managed to exist in Ravensbruck concentration camp in the later stages of the war. That Vincent O’Sullivan has put this narrative into the mouth of a Gentile may indicate his desire not to presume, as a Gentile, to speak in a Jewish voice. That Eva, who was spared such horrors, prefers not to know about these things may indicate a form of “survivor guilt”. Such repression has lethal consequences.

At least one major thread of the novel is the idea that the past is inescapable, and as soon as we recognise our connection with the past, it becomes part of our present, part of our being. Late in the novel, a character searches for the site of her forbears’ home and concludes that it “was” probably in a location that she is examining. She adds “to say so much as ‘was’ is surely to say it in the present: the past is here or not at all” (p.303). This could be the novel’s epigraph.

Our connections with the past are usually family connections. Whether we accept it or not, we are part of the stream of history simply because we have family. All manner of cues and conditionings and types of behaviour and modes of thought are handed on to us by parents and others, even if we are not conscious of the fact. In All This by Chance, we see the persistence of family traits, and similarities in the way different generations of the same family handle situations. The initial love of Stephen and Eva is the love of two people from different cultural backgrounds. There is a similar cross-cultural attraction in the novel’s penultimate chapters, involving their grand-daughter. Stephen is a studious pharmacist. His daughter Lisa is a studious medical student. David accuses his father of his insensitivity regarding the past, and acts the bloodhound in trying to pump him for information. Regarding a quite different set of facts, David’s daughter Esther acts the bloodhound trying to get the truth out of an important character called Fergus. There is also what is almost a repetition of a Kindertransport situation, in which an attempt is made to smuggle a refugee child from one country to another. (I carefully avoid giving the plot details here.)

I do not believe Vincent O’Sullivan is giving us L’Eternel Retour or the simple mythical notion of history as an ever-repeating cycle; but he is indicating how much we are shaped by all those family legends, insinuations, attitudes and covert references to the past, which will somehow percolate through generations of any family.

In turn, this suggests the necessity of family, of community and of awareness of the past for true, balanced adult mental health.  The absence of such solidarity can lead to a crushing sense of loneliness and alienation, as expressed most fully in the chapter where a character finds herself doing medical work in a Catholic mission in Africa, far from her roots and familiar culture. (Again, I strive not to give away plot details here.) For some, fulfilling solidarity can be found in religious belief. In this novel, there is an unresolved jostle between those who find meaning and fulfilment as agnostics (“brought up without sin” as one character puts it – p.54) and those who find meaning only in religious belief – the Jewish religion that skips one generation and returns in another; the nuns at the Catholic mission; the devout Jehovah’s Witness who maintains her belief through Ravensbruck.

Like the matter of the recurrence of family traits, the religious element (which is not foregrounded in the novel) could suggest a discernible “pattern” in history, a teleological view of things moving to a predetermined end. But this is denied by the novel’s title – All This by Chance. Or is it? I’m still undecided about how ironical O’Sullivan intended his title to be.

If these weighty matters seem to me to be the main things the novel addresses, there are other, and more specifically New Zealand, issues. Remember, we begin with a callow young New Zealander going off to do his London OE in 1947. Escaping from a country he sees as bland, boring and uneventful, Stephen has his “first proof that there was somewhere else” when he passes through the Panama Canal. In England, Stephen has a sense of his own unimportance, recalling “the emptiness of standing in the last paddock before the sea” (p.48) on his parents’ New Zealand farm. Comparing himself with a woman raised in Europe, he reflects “how packed Eva’s early life seemed when… compared with what little he offered in return.” (p.49) This is in part cultural cringe, but it is also typical of an earlier generation of young New Zealanders, who saw a journey to Europe as a big and possibly daunting adventure, and who believed that “real” history always happened elsewhere.

By contrast, in the late 1960s, Stephen’s daughter Lisa is holidaying in Greece with her sometime boyfriend, the very dodgy Fergus. Even though the colonels’ coup is going on in the background, Lisa and Fergus have an almost flippant attitude to Europe and its culture, a tourists’ view centred on beaches and restaurants and bars rather than ancient cultural glories. Fergus has a flippant attitude to New Zealand, too, coming up with the tiresome cliché line that New Zealanders are  “puritans all over.” (p.79) The contrast between these two generations of kiwi travellers says something about cultural shift in New Zealand, perhaps growing cultural confidence, perhaps simply that air travel by the late 1960s had made Europe more cheaply accessible and hence less mysterious and daunting.

In a larger sense, there is a more all-embracing critique of (Pakeha) New Zealanders implicit in this novel. Much of the "myth" of New Zealand has depended on the idea of a society that was built without importing the anxieties and class distinctions of old Britain or old Europe - a blank slate on which could be founded a secular society which would successively become "the social laboratory of the world", "the first to grant women the vote", and would have "the best race relations in the world" - an easy-going, egalitarian, tolerant society not haunted by the anxieties of deeper history. All This by Chance reminds that everybody who immigrated here carried a shadow of the past . Our ethnic, religious, social and class heritage was in our genes. There are no societies that are blank slates.

Denoting change as if he is taking soundings of the Zeitgeist, O’Sullivan writes with great precision of detail. In the opening chapters, the “stink” and straitened mores of austerity, post-war 1940s England; later the comforting delusions of tourists in Greece in the 1960s, seeing themselves as rebels when they are simply playing out hedonism ; fine details such as Auckland’s Ponsonby as it was before it was massively gentrified, and the changing décor of Ponsonby’s coffee bars and tea rooms; even something like the detailed description of an Australian apiarist rebuilding a beehive after first pacifying the bees. Both the density of the prose and the author’s close attention to physical detail suggest a poetic sensibility (of course!), but also draw us more closely into the characters and the dilemmas they face in their particular times and places. I’m intrigued, too, by the shifting use of tenses in the novel, sometimes past, sometimes present, especially in the second-to-last chapter where the use of the present sense shows how much a character has come to identifying with a buried past.

One final thought – this three-generations-spanning novel coheres as a single narrative but, as the novel’s very opening paragraph puts it, the past can be seen as “fragments chipped from a mosaic.” Some chapters could, with few modifications, almost be read as self-contained narratives, but always with that concern for family and solidarity that put me in mind of O’Sullivan’s last collection of short stories The Families (2014, reviewed on this blog).

Structure and style combine to let us feel for these characters, empathise with them in the large historical processes in which their individual lives are caught. This is a great novel – a masterly weaving together of different stories that have the same focal point. It can’t all be by chance.

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