Monday, August 12, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“PEAT” by Lynn Jenner (Otago University Press, $NZ35); “EVERY MORNING, SO FAR, I’M ALIVE – a Memoir” by Wendy Parkins (Otago University Press, $NZ35)
When I say that I have never read a book quite like Lynn Jenner’s Peat, I am neither praising nor denigrating it. I am simply stating an objective fact. Like her earlier book, Lost and Gone Away (2015), Peat is something of a mosaic. But while Lost and Gone Away used different styles to weave together different stories, Peat uses completely different genres. Reportage, memoir, criticism and biography. Is it sui generis? Perhaps somebody better read than I could tell me.
And this strange and compelling book tells what at first glance seem to be two quite separate stories.
One is the author’s reaction to the building of the Kapiti Expressway, the 18 kilometres of roading, constructed between 2013 and 2018, which zips up the Kapiti Coast and was designed to bypass an inadequate and clogged section of State Highway 1. The other is the author’s engagement with the work of Charles Brasch.
Lynn Jenner lives not far from the Kapiti Expressway. She explains in a sort of preface: “As the Expressway showed itself, arriving like an army in each location along the route, I knew I needed the close company of a writer as a bulwark against all the enacted power and concrete. I needed to gather up pages and pages of words and take them inside with me, to a place where machines could not follow. I needed to make a word-nest, to read beauty as a form of psychic acceleration.” (p.9) The “word-nest” was the work of Brasch, which Jenner diligently researched over five years (as she tells us on p.251) in Brasch’s published writings, in visits to what was once his home in Dunedin, and in the holdings of both the Hocken Library and the Otago University Library.
In my fussy, pedantic, bibliographical way, I point out that Peat consists of about 140 pages of text followed by 115 pages of what are called “Glossaries” – long and explanatory paragraphs, all an essential part of reading Peat.
The text moves between Jenner’s engagement with the expressway and her engagement with Brasch. In the building of the expressway, she tells us (in her Glossaries, pp.215-216), there was “lots to be impressed by… the volume of sand and peat moved, the number of workers, the 18 bridges, the Brutalist-style concrete pillars that hold up the bridges, the height of the diggers, the size of their buckets, the massive capacity of the trucks, the size of the cut, the $630 million it was estimated to cost.” Jenner is a fair and reasonable person and lets the voices of the road-builders and the archaeologists hired by the New Zealand Transport Agency be heard. She chats with some of the workers and listens patiently to the local body politicians. She attends consultative community meetings about the project. She understands the difficulties of transport in New Zealand and (given that she is fully conversant with NZTA leaflets and publicity and explanations of the project) she knows why the expressway is being built and how.
But she is mainly concerned with the ecological impact – how the expressway traverses (and in part destroys) wetlands; how ancient sites important to ancestral Maori have been disturbed; how the local community is affected; how business is down since people no longer travel through the centre of the town as they used to do when they went by State Highway 1 – and worst of all, how, now that the expressway is in full operation, the community is plagued with noise, noise, noise and sleeplessness. Of course property values have decreased. As for the birds, the trees, the local flora and fauna – as Jenner relates it, they have been been badly affected by the expressway, and the general area has been degraded.
Most humiliating of all, the NZTA’s general consultation with the community seems to have been more a PR exercise than real consultation, often with a contemptuous undertone. She cites a memo in which it is suggested that unhappy locals will be allowed to “vent” at public meetings. (p.88)
The ecological aspect is central to the book, and is carried in part by the imagery of peat itself. Peat is presented here as the topmost layer of earth scraped away by the diggers (the three other levels are Holocene dune sand, Pleistocene sand and a bedrock of Rakaia Terrane greywacke). Peat is like a palimpsest in which traces of the past are preserved – and it is the past that the expressway wipes out.
And why is it Charles Brasch who bears the burden of the rest of the text?
Could it be, as her preface says, that engaging with his work and memory was a relief from the noise and public arguments of building the Expressway – a retreat into converse with a calm and civilised voice? But Jenner begins on Brasch in earnest by quoting his letters to the Otago Daily Times, letters advocating for more trees, for a better Dunedin art gallery, for the Careys’ play productions at Dunedin’s Globe, for better architecture in the parts of the university that were being rebuilt; and opposing New Zealand participation in the Vietnam War, the destruction of historical buildings, and the construction of the Aramoana smelter. In other words, the letters that show Brasch as an activist concerned with civic issues and their impact on his community. This chimes with Jenner’s own activism in calling into question the Expressway and its impact.
There are also ways in which Brasch shares some of the author’s own identity. Dunedin was her former home. She describes herself as “a Pakeha woman of Jewish and Celtic origin” (p.19). In the Glossaries, she spends some time teasing out matters of Charles Brasch’s Jewishness and of what it means to be a Jew in New Zealand (pp.187-191) She also mentions a couple of times that she worked as a psychologist. Brasch gives her ample opportunity to psychoanalyse his somewhat cryptic poems such as “The Clear”, which she sees as giving spiritual value to what is local ; and “Lady Engine”, which digs deep into the formation of Brasch’s psyche when he was a child. She thanks Brasch for attempting to create a literary culture in New Zealand. She gives her account of Brasch’s memoir Indirections which she says most people don’t read because it requires patience. This signals the sort of thoughtfulness and self-analysis that Jenner admires. She says she likes Indirections “more than most of his poems” (p.96).
Yet the main point is Brasch’s connection with nature, trees, streams, clouds – and, in both his poetry and his prose, his construction of a personal spirituality about these things. This most clearly chimes with Jenner’s own ecological perspective.
There are, however, some ironies here, as Jenner knows. The grandfather whom Brasch loved, Willi Fels, was a rich man who made collections of many things – including priceless antique treasures. Though it helped create the sort of civilised environment in which Brasch throve, it often involved practices that would now be frowned upon (basically looting what came from other cultures). The same goes for the account Jenner gives of early archaeological digs around Dunedin, disclosing ancient human bones that would now be seen more respectfully as Maori taonga. Our Pakeha past is relentless. In an age when we (Pakeha) are respectful enough of Maori culture not to scoff at belief in taniwha when we build bridges, we must also accept that Brasch and his beloved relatives lived in an age with different values.
What Jenner has to say is clear and in beautiful prose, direct and informative when she is reporting, lyrical when she wishes it, analytical when she expresses ideas. But there is another more difficult aspect to the book. It concerns those 115 pages of “Glossaries” that follow her main text. They are in effect lengthy and informative notes on Charles Brasch and on the Expressway. Embedded in them is much interesting information, some of which is essential to the vision Jenner articulates. (My vagrant mind conjured up an image of the Encyclopedia of Denis Diderot, which buried essential - and contentious - information in places where censors wouldn’t look. But that’s just me…) Given that the Glossaries are referred to frequently in the text, I began by consulting them each time they were mentioned – but I found this to-and-fro-ing between text and glossaries very distracting. It detracted from Jenner’s narratives. So I ended up reading the text straight through, and then the glossaries straight through, which was a more satisfactory arrangement.
The Glossary that deals with Charles Brasch (all 72 pages of it) examines scrupulously many things - the physical state of Brasch’s surviving manuscripts or the fact (a surprise to me) that “aunt” was old slang for “lavatory” or many other oddities. I was interested by Jenner’s verdict on Brasch’s memoir Indirections – that it was as an “aesthetic project, for which he was the primary reader.” (p.186) Jenner’s admiration for Brasch is clear throughout. But, read closely, you discover that Jenner does not endorse uncritically all of Brasch’s world-view. She does point out the sometimes condescending tone he could have. (On this I agree. See on this blog postings on Charles Brasch Selected Poems, Charles Brasch Journals 1938-57, and Charles Brasch Journals 1958-1973) She also sees him as not fully engaging with what others were saying and as perhaps being too blind to trends in world affairs. In these matter she sometimes casts Brasch in opposition to George Orwell (see the notes on “Orwell, George” “politics”, and “prose”). In the note “Reasons for writing” she strikes a kind of balance between Brasch’s aestheticised views and Orwell’s politicised ones.
As for the 43 pages of Glossary that deals with the Kapiti Expressway, while giving much information on the project, they can sometimes be mildly satirical – for example one reads the note on the word “Sorry” and finds it defined thus: “Meme: frequent in utterances by local body politicians concerning Expressway noise problems for residents” (p.250)
I hope I have conveyed the variety of this book and the uniqueness of its structure. Though its discourse takes many unexpected turns, it is engaging, readable and is a great model for literary activism in public affairs.
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Generous publishers send me many books to review on this blog, and I sometimes have to be apologetic to them. I cannot review everything I am sent and therefore I overlook some books. But in the case of Wendy Parkins’ intelligent and often moving memoir, I have a different apology to make. Given that Every morning, so far, I’m alive was first published four months ago, I am sorry that I am only now getting around to reviewing it.
Australian born-and-raised, New Zealander by choice, sometimes resident in England and formerly Professor of English Literature, Wendy Parkins has written the most perilous form of memoir. Every morning, so far, I’m alive is a memoir of self-analysis and an account of the author’s painful history of phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and frequent deep depression. Why is such a memoir perilous? Because, as a sort of psychological confession, it could easily become self-indulgent, or degenerate into a cautionary tale and “self-help” book telling us how we should navigate psychological difficulties. A great strength of this book is that it falls into neither of these traps. Parkins is matter-of-fact about her mental difficulties, aware that other people are affected by them (there are, necessarily discreet, references to her husband and two children), lyrical when she describes things that had a positive impact on her, and never self-pitying.
We are early made aware of her family’s history of depression, her childhood phobias and panic attacks, and a fear of the world that made her obsessively clean her hands and clean everything about her, in any new environment, to avoid contagion. She had two episodes of what would once have been called “nervous breakdowns” and as a younger adult she says she “self-medicated” with Chardonnay. The big crack-up or crisis came when, pursuing her academic career, she moved to England, felt a huge homesickness for the New Zealand in which she had comfortably settled, and fell into very deep depression. It was enervating, disabling her, making everyday activities a battle and turning her academic work into a long, lonely struggle.
Charting her life, both in England and in New Zealand, Parkins sometimes cites literature – perhaps inevitably in view of her profession – and gives the example of Virginia Woolf, who believed that writing was living more consciously; or of Mary Ursula Bethell, in her vivid responses to the New Zealand scene. She occasionally makes passing references to canonical works (Middlemarch, Bleak House etc.). But these citations do not overwhelm her personal story.
Parkins also chroncles some of the things that lifted her spirits, or at least drew her back from the deepest of depression and made for a sort of provisional “cure”. A sense of “mindfulness” (though she is hesitant in using a term that has now become hackneyed). Simple physical activities like knitting. Taking delight in New Zealand birds. The therapeutic quality of looking after goats. Things that allow space for self-forgiveness and reflection. Yoga seems to have been of some help, although Parkins gives examples both of healing and of unsatisfactory experiences with yoga. She also gives a detailed account of trying to find her way out of depression at a retreat centre, which proved to be no help at all. And I hope I am not wrong in interpreting her eventual visit to Virgina Woolf’s home as a kind of “exorcism” of that depressive writer’s influence.
As Parkins knows, depression is a complex phenomenon. It cannot be pinned down to one specific cause. It is polymorphous (or polyphonic if you want to get metaphorical). There are, however, strong hints about things that might have, early in her life, exacerbated Parkins’ phobias and depression. She speaks of her parents as being too strictly religious: “To my Evangelical parents the world was full of dangers and temptations” (p.32) “Growing up, everything I read, watched or listened to was closely scrutinised by my fundamentalist parents and my choices often earned their disappoval in ways that confused me.” (p.69) She also suggests that, as a child, she sensed her mother (who had a number of miscarriages) at some stage withdrew her love from her, especially when her younger sister was born. The importance of her mother is clear when she devotes three chapters to the death of her mother. Somehow, she feels, something went wrong early in her life. Not that, as an adult, she denigrates her parents, who may perhaps have been less strict than she recalls their being in her childhood (she mentions in passing her mother’s favourite movies and her liking the Beatles).
At this point I must do the forbidden thing and put in a personal note. Knowing from experience, at various points in my life, what clinical depression is, I found myself nodding with recognition at the way Parkins describes the beast. I recognised the sleeplessness, the inability to concentrate on, or follow, texts; the sense of separation from the “real” world or the physical world that surrounds us. In England, Parkins expresses the true Romantic Agony (as Mario Praz called it), when she sees beauty in nature, knows it is beautiful, but doesn’t feel it as such: “I didn’t feel it in the same way as I responded to the antipodean bush or the beach” (p.27) She understands that depression is not just intense sadness, but is a disintegration of meaning. “After a year on medication I no longer felt weighed down by a depressive sense of meaninglessness…” (p.102) She knows that, irrationally or otherwise, depression raises a sense of guilt , and sets the mind turning over and over again the same destructive thoughts: “The guilt associated with depression taints every negative feeling. One is never simply sad or disappointed or hurt or angry; negative feeling amplify in the echo chamber of depression.” (p.103) In the depressive state, one also positions oneself as a sort of zombie, going through the motions of relating to others while being emotionally dead to them. At the time of her mother’s dying, she reflects “All the time I was thinking, What am I feeling? What should I be feeling?” (p.189)
To her accurate descriptions of the depressive experience, she adds one major merit to this memoir. She never reaches an epiphany - the “Eureka!” or “Aha!” moment (found in many “inspirational" works) where all her problems are solved and where depression is definitively conquered. The memoir’s very conclusion suggests that she has reached a workable truce with life, a means of functioning in a fairly happy way, but with the awareness that the beast could come back to trouble her. So “Every morning, so far, I’m alive”, as the title says.
Minor criticism: Parkins notes that, when she was in the hospice where she later died, her mother had specifically requested she not be put on a respirator and that she wanted to be sedated. Parkins asks “how a lifelong, devout Evangelical Christian had come to express what sounded to me like her right to die? And why my equally devout father had not challenged this? I knew they both opposed euthanasia on principle but we had apparently all entered a twilight zone where the usual rules no longer applied, where Dad wept freely and Mum asserted herself.” (p.182) To take her mother’s request as an endorsement of euthanasia is misleading. All major church groups agree that to withdraw treatment when it will provide no medical benefit, and when it will simply prolong the process of dying, is quite legitimate. The plug can be pulled. But euthanasia is not pulling the plug. It is the deliberate act of killing by intervening with a lethal injection or some such. Her parents’ attitude would not have in any way contradicted their beliefs.
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 BETROTHED” by Alessandro Manzoni (“I PROMESSI SPOSI” first published 1827; final revised version 1840. The final revised version is the basis for Archibald Colquhoun’s 1951 translation)
Do you know or understand the power of an unread book? It can weigh on your mind like a guilty conscience.
My shelves groan with books that “one day, when I get the time,” I intend to read. Some of them are quite obscure books – in no way “classics” – that for years I have been meaning to read out of sheer curiosity. But a considerable proportion are indeed “classics”, and I will not embarrass myself publicly by noting all those illustrious and well-known books that I have not yet read.
One problem with an unread “classic” is that you get to know, or think you know, things about it without having read it, because “classics” make their way into conversations, or are mentioned in passing by historians, critics and other novelists. So, without having yet read Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) here are the things I “knew” about it before reading it: That it was considered the great Italian novel, regarded by Italians as Don Quixote is regarded by Spaniards or War and Peace by Russians. That it was the book which, before Italy was unified and when the peninisular contained many discrete dialects, established the Tuscan dialect as the standard form of the Italian language. That, although Manzoni was a retiring man and eventually a devout Catholic, he was regarded as a hero by the revolutionary nationalists who achieved the Risorgimento; and that, consequently, Verdi wrote an eloquent Requiem for him when he died. Also that, apparently, Italian schoolchildren are still made to read I Promessi Sposi and it has often been turned into Italian movies that have had no impact on the rest of the world. In other words, I knew the things that can easily be found in a history book.
As for the novel’s substance, I had heard here and there comments that it concerned a pair of lovers who wanted to marry but who were thwarted by circumstance, that it involved a great plague, and (to the more critical people who mentioned it) that it was very sentimental.
There now. That is what I already carried in my head before I recently sat down and, over a week-and-a-half, read my way through the nearly 600 closely-printed pages of Archibald Colquhoun’s 1951 translation of I Promessi Sposi.
Here is what I found.
Writing in the early 19th century, Manzoni sets his historical novel in and around Milan in the early 17th century - the late 1620s, when the Thirty Years War was in progress.
The humble young silk-weaver Renzo (Lorenzo) Tramaglino and Lucia Modella wish to marry and have arranged a date for their wedding. But the pusillanimous local parish priest Don Abbondio will not marry them as he is threatened by the “bravos” (i.e. hired thugs) of the local squire Don Rodrigo, who wishes to seduce Lucia himself. At first the devoted lovers attempt to trick the priest into marrying them, but when this doesn’t work, they are helped to flee from their village by the saintly friar Fra Cristoforo. They become separated. Lucia and her mother Agnese are deposited in a convent in Monza. Renzo goes on to Milan, hoping to find refuge in a Capuchin monastery. But he finds Milan (at this stage still ruled by the Spanish) beginning to suffer from famine, with riots over the price of bread. In a moment of drunken indiscretion, the naïve young Renzo spouts a speech about the injustice of the ruling classes and the oppression of the poor. He is therefore marked as a dangerous revolutionary by the authorities. He has to flee to territory beyond the control of Milan, where his generous cousin Bortolo finds him work as a weaver.
So the betrothed lovers are separated, and this sets the pattern for all their following experiences in the novel. He has to hide from the power of the Milanese state and cannot easily re-join Lucia. She is taken under the protection of an aristocrat called only (in this translation) “the Unnamed”, who was once a notorious rake and criminal, but who has had a miraculous conversion and has become a compassionate and charitable man. At one point, in what amounts to her captivity, Lucia vows to the Virgin Mary that she will give up Renzo and become a vowed virgin (i.e. nun) if she is freed. This creates a complication before the novel’s denouement. After other alarums and excursions, after famine and war (the incursion of German and Austrian troops in Italy), when a great plague hits Milan, Renzo and Lucia at last reunite. They have both miraculously made it through the plague. Conveniently, the state is no longer hunting for Renzo, and the young couple’s worst enemies have died. But what about Lucia’s vow? Manzoni contrives a happy ending for the lovers, partly relying on the generosity of the new squire who now rules their village, and partly on the commonsense argument that Lucia’s prior vow to marry overrides her later vow. And besides, the Virgin Mary will forgive her if she becomes a good wife.
Compressing 600 pages of novel into two paragraphs like this may create the impression that the novel is filled with action and subtle turns of plot. In reality, it isn’t. What should be the central narrative thread (lovers separated; lovers seeking to reunite) is overlaid with so much historical material and so many self-contained stories, concerning other characters, that it often gets quite lost. Renzo and Lucia disappear completely from the story for many chapters at a time.
Manzoni deserves credit for the acuteness of his psychology in at least some sections of the novel. The depiction of Gertrude, “the Signora”, a domineering nun in the convent at Monza, is a case in point. Manzoni in two chapters (Chapters 9 and 10) shows “the Signora” as torn between her desires and her sense of duty to her father in becoming a nun in the first place – and how her embittered mind has turned her into a shrew, or worse. But “the Signora’s” story is a self-contained episode (apparently based on historical fact).
Elsewhere the thinness of characters is all too evident. They are strictly one-dimensional. The naïve and upright would-be groom. The pious, prayerful, virginal would-be bride. The villainous and the heroic and the comic-relief characters. Indicative of this one-dimensionality are the sudden transformations Manzoni has to invent, for lack of a more cumulative view of the way people change. It is at least possible to accept the backstory of how Fra Cristoforo ceased to be a youthful hellraiser and became saintly after being repelled by his own displays of violence. This story is acceptable because it is merely backstory, confined to one chapter (Chapter 4). But what of the miraculous conversion of “the Unnamed”? He has been presented to us as a master criminal of titanic wickedness. Then suddenly, after he converses, in Chapters 22 and 23, with an historical figure, the saintly cardinal-archbishop of Milan, Federigo Borromeo (cousin of St Charles Borromeo), “the Unnamed” becomes a pillar of patient rectitude and generosity. Likewise the naïve Renzo early in the novel rather too readily becomes the competent young man he is towards the end. It could be argued that experience has changed him, but we see no real evidence of his cumulative change. First he is this, then he is that – from being one flat character to being another.
Some of the novel’s social satire is attractive. If Manzoni attacks the boorishness and uncaring attitudes of the ruling classes, he is also aware of the irrationality and violence of the mob, in scenes of rioting and in their busy spreading of wild rumours during the plague – especially the fiction that evil “anointers” are causing the plague by smearing poisoned substances on buildings. In his satire, Manzoni takes a special poke at fake scholarship in the form of the pompous astrologer and pedant Don Ferrante, who uses ingenious arguments to deny that the plague even exists (latter part of Chapter 28).
Manzoni’s attitude towards the church and religion is a little more complex. In the character of Don Abbondio we have a lazy, self-interested and essentially cowardly parish priest who puts his own interests ahead of his duty and his parishioners. Though she is eventually a malign person, the self-contained account of Gertrude, “the Signora”, could be taken as criticism of the tendency among wealthier families to force some of their children into religious lives for which they have no real vocation. But overwhelmingly, Manzoni is on the side of the church. Fra Cristoforo is an heroic figure who dies of the plague after ministering patiently to the afflicted. Cardinal-Archbishop Federigo Borromeo is the voice of reasoned and measured authority, seen at his best in the chapters (Chapters 25 and 26) where he shames Don Abbondio for failing to live up to his vows. Manzoni takes Lucia’s vows seriously, and his own implicit attitudes are those of a believer. In the face of famine, war, plague (and underperforming priests), Manzoni’s chief message is that we should bear God’s will patiently, and trust that in the end God knows what is best for us. Apparently, despite all their admiration for Manzoni, there were some Italian patriots at the time of the Risorgimento who took this message very badly, and said it was encouraging passivity in the face of those foreign powers who still ruled parts of Italy. [In the age of Cavour, Mazzini and Garibaldi, Manzoni’s depiction of the Spanish rule of Milan was taken to be referring covertly to the continuing Austrian rule of Venetia.]
I admit that what became my trudge through this novel was lightened by some good moments of farcical physical humour, as in Chapter 8, when the lovers’ attempt to trick the priest into marrying them goes chaotically wrong. There is also a kind of grotesque and sour humour in the episodes where Don Abbondio rushes around in panic as enemy armies approach (Chapter 29); and when he and his housekeeper Perpetua come back to their looted house and lament their losses (Chapter 30). Lucia’s garrulous and sometimes indiscreet mother Agnese is the novel’s most constant figure of comic relief. More often, however, Manzoni’s humour is in the tone of voice he adopts as omniscient narrator. In direct first-person address, he cajoles us with kittenish teasing. Much of this is in the same “Dear Reader” mode that was common in 19th century novels (Thackeray et al), but there are times when it comes close to what postmodernists, who imagine they invented the technique, would call deconstruction. Manzoni more than once “subverts” his narrative by asking us if we are getting bored. (To which I often felt like replying “Yes, I am.”) The novel also follows the convention that its plot is founded on an old manuscript which the author has discovered. This allows him to commently slyly on parts of the story he wishes to elide.
Much of this novel displays historical realism. Manzoni’s descriptions of the poor harvests that led to famine in Milan (Chapter 12) are persuasive and credible, as are his accounts of the “invasion” of north Italy by foraging and looting Germanic troops. Most vivid of all are Chapters 31 and 32, where Manzoni depicts the plague, the overcrowded lazzaretto, the carts for the dead, the desperation of the living, their hysterical rumours as they seek for scapegoats, and the ministrations of the charitable in spite of everything. In fact, as a depiction of the miseries of plague, this is at least as persuasive and nightmarish as Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. But this historical realism is, like the flat characterisation and the frequent melodrama, also part of this novel’s undoing. Manzoni diligently researched history and he fills the novel with many footnotes to tell us so. But the documentary historical parts often overwhelm the narrative. In the end, the story itself is not compelling enough. Often the impression is not of history being seen through the travails of these characters – as is the case in War and Peace - but of these thin characters having been lightly pasted onto historical events.
I finished The Betrothed thinking this was an interesting book, but under the weight of historical detail, under the thinness of its central narrative thread, and under its simplistic psychology and lapses into sentimentality, it is easy to see why this Italian classic has not gained the international iconic status of other “great books”. It is not Don Quixote, War and Peace or Moby Dick. Some moments engaged me, but in the end I found myself reading The Betrothed as an interesting historical artefact, and lamenting that it wasn’t better.
New Zealand Footnote: While reading Charles Brasch’s journals to review on this blog, I found on page 500 of CharlesBrasch Journals 1938-1957 (entry for Wednesday 27 June 1956) the poet-editor’s opinion of The Betrothed. Given the date of this entry, I assume that Brasch read the same (1951) Archibald Colquhoun translation that I read, as a different translation (for Penguin Classics) was made only years later. I have sometimes criticised Brasch for his mandarin snobbery, but on this novel I agree with him. He complains that historical details hold up the novel for too long; that despite the historical figures that are brought into it, it doesn’t have the same scale or sweep as Dostoievsky or Tolstoy; that “it resembles a series of distinct scenes linked by the single thread of central story” and that it lacks social complexity. With all this I agree, though, surprisingly, Brasch concludes that it is “a wonderful, unforgettable book” and he is especially impressed by the story of the nun of Monza. His final comment is that “Manzoni puts Scott in the shade.” Again I have to agree. For all the novel’s stiffness, and for all the negative things I have said about it, The Betrothed is a livelier, less pompous, less circumlocutious novel than anything Sir Walter penned, and it has a greater grasp of history.
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.
LET’S ALL SNEER IN UNISON
I’ll just reconstruct a little of 1969 for you.
I was in my last year at high school.
The Apollo 11 mission had succeeded. As Michael Collins guided the return vessel around and around the moon (becoming the first man to see the dark side of the moon with his own eyes), Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the pod, stepped out of it and walked on the moon’s surface. For the first time we saw men bouncing about in limited gravity, and pictures of what Earthrise looked like from the moon and what a small cloudy-blue thing our planet was. I was not totally starry-eyed (or moonstruck) about the moon-landing. Even as it was playing out, I was sceptical of Neil Armstrong’s “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” statement as he stepped off the ladder. To me it sounded, and still sounds, suspiciously like something he had been briefed to say – a sententious piece of scripting designed to get into the history books, but actually playing as bad Hollywood dialogue. To Armstrong’s credit, he looked distinctly embarrassed in later interviews when the statement came up, and usually wanted to rush on to other things. In other words, he himself clearly knew the sententious statement was bogus.
But apart from this small, jarring detail, the news of the moon-landing was a wondrous thing and we teenagers were all giddy with delight over it. I was acting in a school production of King Lear at the time of the moon-landing, and I remember that when Lear swears “Now by Apollo!”, some schoolroom wits said the line should be amended to “Now by Apollo Eleven!” More important, though, I remember how different the moon looked to me. In Form 7, I was studying German, but we had no German teacher at our school, so three days a week I was allowed to walk down to another nearby school and join their German class. A few days after the moon-landing, I was trotting past the school’s chapel, on my way to the other school, when I looked up and saw the large moon (I cannot remember if it was full or gibbous) right above me in the daytime sky. I thought what an incredible thing it was that men were walking on this great rock, hundreds of thousands of miles away. Am I allowed to call this moment a religious experience? It felt like that.
And that was fifty years ago and of course, as a very old Buzz Aldrin said not too long ago, after all the high hopes raised in 1969, since then the further exploration of the moon has been a paltry thing.
Recently, there were commemorations of this first moon-landing, as there properly should have been. But with them came what are now the ritual sneers about the whole project. (I’ll ignore the conspiracy theorists who say the moon-landing never happened. They’re not worth arguing with.)
The sneers focus on saying “It was just about the Cold War”, belittling the great achievement that the moon-landing was. Well of course it was played out in an era of intense rivalry between the USA and the USSR. And although I have heard a Russian deny the fact (“We weren’t interested in getting to the moon. We were exploring other things in space”), the reality was that both that USSR and the USA hoped to win the prestige of being the first on the moon. The recent release of a cache of Soviet posters from this era includes images of the hammer-and-sickle being planted on the moon, which was clearly the Soviet government’s hope.
But the obvious point here is that rivalry between nations, or between individuals, has stimulated many great achievements throughout history. In the space of less than twenty years, aircraft developed with remarkable speed from the canvas-and-wood contraption that took off at Kittyhawk to the sleek and efficient machines that were already flying by the 1920s. Like it or not, the great stimulant in this case was the First World War, with enemies month by month racing each other to improve aircraft armament, manouevrability, stalling speed, angle of dive and so forth. Saying that the moon-landing was the result of national rivalries, is simply saying that it was played out in a certain time in history. “It was just about the Cold War” says nothing more than “It happened at a particular historical moment.” As all things do.
The other avenue for sneers is the “conspicuous consumption” argument. Why were so many millions of dollars spent on the space progamme when they could have been spent on improving the world?
The phrase “conspicuous comsumption” was first used by the Norwegian-American sociologist (and – frankly – satirist) Thorsten Veblen in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class, which was designed to ridicule plutocrats and their idle families. Veblen was not a Marxist, but his handy phrase has often been taken up by Marxists to belittle the more ostentatious aspects of capitalist life. It is “conspicuous consumption” when decadent Westerners raise skyscrapers or manufacture non-essential consumer goods. (But it apparently is not “conspicuous consumption” when huge Motherland statues are raised, or when ostentatious mausolea are constructed for Lenin, Mao etc.). I grant that in many societies, much money is wasted on non-essentials, but the logical endpoint of this line of thought is Thoreau’s fatuous idea that we don’t need houses – we could all live in simple wooden boxes that protected us from the rain.
The fact is, the “non-essential” things – the things that deliver more than just the basics for staying alive – are often the things that make life worth living, like great works of art, space for intellectual discussion, sports and so on. Sure, millions of people spend millions of dollars on utter trivia. Not all “non-essentials” are of any merit. But to put things into perspective, the whole Apollo moon mission cost LESS than the USA was spending per month on the Vietnam War (or, as a documentary pointed out, the whole space programme cost less that American men and women spent each year on cosmetics). Can we always say, as Judas did “the money should have gone to the poor”? The “conspcuous consumption” argument really implies a completely utilitarian view of society in which no great building or public statue would ever be raised, no “non-essential” research would be pursued, and no space programme would be undertaken.
The Apollo mission was undertaken during the Cold War? True. All things happen in an historical context. The Apollo misssion cost a lot of money? True – and so do many far less worthwhile things that are taken for granted.
Neither of these objections can negate the fact that the Apollo mission was a great and wonderful thing. The sneers add up to very little.
Monday, July 29, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“ALL THE JUICY PASTURES – Greville Texidor and New Zealand” by Margot Schwass (Victoria University Press, $NZ40)
When I finished reading Margot Schwass’s All the Juicy Pastures, my main thought was “Is this the study of an author or is it the study of a ‘case’?” The blurb tells us that Greville Texidor wrote “dazzling” stories, produced “a small but essential body of work” and is “an essential New Zealand writer.” Having read all Texidor’s published work (her short stories and her novella These Dark Glasses), I’m not sure that this description holds up. But I am sure that Texidor led an interesting life. And even if the biographer’s intention is to celebrate the work, it is the life that holds most attention in All the Juicy Pastures. A superficial reading might find this life adventurous and somehow exciting. A bit more attention reveals most of it to have been intensely unsettled and unhappy.
I’ll elucidate by summarising.
Margaret Greville Foster (who later had various noms de guerre) was born in 1902 to a wealthy middle-class English family. Her father was a solicitor, her mother had the leisure to be an amateur artist and the household employed servants. This privileged life meant Margaret got a private-school education, but she disliked it, resisted being taught and was, lifelong, a poor speller. In the 1920s, like many of her refined background, she became a real flapper, throwing herself into the hedonism of the era, partying, posing for artists (the Augustus John crowd), winning a beauty contest, playing a bit part in a film, and finally becoming a chorus girl, which led to some international touring. Any connections she might have had with literati or the Bloomsbury set were simply as a hanger-on. She also had numerous affairs, dabbled in drugs, and went through a period of being hooked on heroin. Tiring of London, she moved to Spain in the early 1930s, and continued to live the hedonistic life in the seaside town Tossa de Mar, although now, in her thirties, she was getting bored with it and wanted something more substantial in her life. She was briefly married to, and had a daughter with, the Spaniard Manolo Texidor, and ever afterwards styled herself Greville Texidor.
In Spain in 1933, she met (and later married) Werner Droescher, nine years her junior, and a refugee from Nazi Germany. With Droescher, Texidor became politicised… sort of. Droescher’s politics were anarchist. The couple were involved in anarchist causes, particularly with regard to education and welfare and including radical ideas on the rearing of children. Droescher was suspicious of (Stalinist) Communists and other dogmatic Marxists. But as the civil war began in Spain, Droescher also proved to be something of a political naif. He imagined – as did many others – that the Left would be united in fighting Franco (see p.66 and p.71). As it turned out, the disunity of the Left was one of the main causes of Franco’s victory. It lead to “the civil war within the civil war” in which well-organised Communists spent as much time taking over the Spanish Republican government, and putting down their non-Communist “allies”, as they did in fighting Franco.
At the outbreak of the war, the Droeschers enrolled, not in an anarchist militia but, as George Orwell did, in the POUM i.e. the militia of the anti-Stalin Marxists, which the Stalinists regarded as “Trotskyite”. The Droeschers did not see much direct fighting, but they were involved in at least one armed skirmish (pp.76-77). And then the Left started eating itself. Disillusion with the war now dominated Texidor’s thoughts. According to Margot Schwass, Texidor was later stressed not only by the failure of the Left and Franco’s victory, but also by the thought that she had ever taken up arms in the first place. She was evacuated to England as the civil war drew to a close, classified in England as an “enemy alien” and very briefly served time in Holloway prison. Then, with the help of Quakers, she and Droescher emigrated to New Zealand.
And here we come to what Margot Schwass intends to be the heart of the book. Note that All the Juicy Pastures is subtitled “Greville Texidor and New Zealand”. Of the 219 pages of text [after the Foreword], 82 pages concern her time in New Zealand, even though she spent only eight of her 62 years here, from 1940 to 1948.
Greville and Werner at first settled in the remote rural area Paparoa and tried to make a go of farming a small plot. This lasted only a year or so. The isolation increased Greville’s chronic depression and her views of rural New Zealanders, which influenced many of her stories, were unsympathetic. Werner then got a job in Auckland, and they relocated to Auckland’s North Shore. Approaching her mid-forties Greville had a second daughter.
On the North Shore, Greville was closer to the (mainly male) group of writers that had Frank Sargeson as its nucleus and that approximated the “culture” which Greville missed in the backblocks. Margot Schwass admits, but I think underplays, Sargeson’s ingrained misogyny. Apparently Sargeson is to be forgiven because – as all his circle were aware – he was homosexual so, apparently, his anti-women bile was just protective “camouflage” that allowed him to fit into a dominantly macho world, where slagging off women was common pub talk (p.130). Even so, it was under Sargeson’s mentorship that Greville turned to writing and produced in New Zealand all her publishable work. This included a number of short stories set in New Zealand and taking a dim view of parochial, “puritan”, culture-less Kiwi philistinism – an attitude very similar to Sargeson’s own in the mainly sardonic stories he had been writing since the early 1930s. Some of these stories were, thanks to Sargeson’s championing of them, published in prestigious journals, and some have continued to appear in anthologies of New Zealand short stories. (Surveying the books on my shelves I note that one story by Greville Texidor appears in Dan Davin’s 1953 Oxford New Zealand Short Stories, and another appears in Owen Marshall’s 2002 Essential New Zealand Short Stories).
Texidor also worked on the novella These Dark Glasses, which drew on her experience in Spain. Set in 1938, it had as its central character a disillusioned Communist (specifically identified as such), reaching despair as she sees that the war in Spain is lost and realises she is now sinking back into the company of vain poseurs and wastrels whose political ideals are skin-deep. It ends (or by implication ends) in a suicide. The novella’s setting is a seaside town in France, though some of the characters are based on people Texidor knew (and came to despise) in London and in Tossa de Mar. These Dark Glasses was finished in 1944 but was not published until 1949. There is the awkward question of how far Sargeson’s mentorship of Texidor’s writing went. Margot Schwass quotes the testimony of Texidor’s daughter that “Sargeson sat literally at her mother’s shoulder as she wrote, ransacking her storehouse of pre-war European stories, coaxing them onto the page sentence by sentence.” (p.133) Later, though, Schwass tells us that Texidor sometimes ignored his advice.
Schwass analyses this novella (at pp.190-195) in terms of its modernism, its existentialism and how much it is and is not autobiographical. Sargeson, of course, loved it, called it a “masterpiece” and claimed that it marked a turning point in New Zealand literature. But – with great understatement – Schloss notes that the print run was small (300 copies) and “Sargeson perhaps overstates the book’s impact on domestic readers” (p.195). It received tepid and largely negative reviews in New Zealand, including one detailed dissection in Landfall, to which both Sargeson and Texidor objected. Meanwhile some of Texidor’s erstwhile English friends hated what they recognised as caricatures of themselves, and a few even bought up copies to destroy them. (p.198)
Before the novella was published, however, in 1948 the Droeschers had already relocated to Australia. Werner was following work and Greville was happy to go with him as by this stage she was bored with New Zealand. She found Queensland as dull and provincial as she found New Zealand. The Droeschers shifted to more cosmopolitan New South Wales, where they were sometimes in reach of the culturally-interesting city of Sydney. For a while they worked in a camp for “Displaced Persons” (refugees from post-war Europe). Greville tried to write longer works. She toiled over, and often re-wrote passages of, drafts of two novels, one about a militia woman in Spain and one about a DP camp. But neither was ever finished. She did write two radio plays that were broadcast, and she did attempt some journalism, but basically her writing career was over once she left New Zealand. In her Foreword, after telling us how much Texidor left unpublished, Schwass admits “most of the unpublished material is apprentice work… there are no unpublished masterpieces” (p.9).
In Australia, Texidor’s depression increased. Her first attempt at suicide was in 1953, when her mother died. Mrs Foster followed Greville on most of her travels, and is an unseen presence in much of this book. She seems to have been a force for some sort of quiet stability in her daughter’s erratic life. Finally bored with Australia, Greville relocated to Franco’s Spain in 1955, tried her hand at running a café for tourists, and attempted, without success, to recapture the vitality she had once experienced there. Werner Droescher finally separated from her in 1960 to take up lectureship in the University of Auckland’s German department. Still seeking an elusive peace of mind, Texidor returned to Australia in 1962. But she found no peace. She committed suicide in 1964.
Schwass sees many of the mental crises of Texidor’s later life as arising from what amounted to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, after her experiences in Spain. She designates some of Texidor’s writing as “therapy”. There may be some truth to this, but it is clear that there was a strong strain of depression in her family. Her father committed suicide in 1919 when Texidor was a teenager. She was restless and found it difficult to settle to things before she ever saw Spain. She was constantly attempting to remake herself and frequently harboured the delusion that merely by shifting to a new place she would find a new self. I cannot help wondering, too, how much her early drug-use disoriented her. Clearly the isolation of Paparoa added to her distress and by the mid-1940s her fragile mental health led to injections to control her “delusions” (p.160). Her two early marriages and her many affairs were also destabilising. Before she married Manolo Texidor, there was apparently a very brief marriage to a “Mr Wilson” (p.52.) upon whom Schwass cannot find much information. Once married to Werner Droescher, says Schwass “the Droeschers had always considered their marriage an open one, reflecting the mores of the Catalan anarchist world of the 1930s in which it had begun.” (p.157) Okay, but the many affairs (including one with Maurice Duggan) were also destabilising and certainly didn’t make for enduring relationships or peace of mind.
In themselves, none of these mental conditions call into question Greville Texidor’s ability as a writer. (Compile a list of very good writers who had psychological problems, and you will be compiling a very long list). But considering how meaningful and important her writing is, is another matter.
In both her Foreword and her coda, which she calls “The secret of her unsuccess?”, Margot Schwass discusses the issue some have raised about whether Greville Texidor was a really “New Zealand writer”, given that she lived here for only eight years and given that only some of her published writing is about New Zealand. Personally, like Schwass, I see this as a silly non-issue, redolent of the old adherence to “nationalism” in New Zealand literary criticism from the 1930s to the 1960s. The only significant things Texidor ever wrote were written in New Zealand and sometimes about New Zealand, so a New Zealand writer she is. As to how important a writer she was, that’s another question. At one point Schwass says her New Zealand stories “register moments when an insular New Zealand sensibility is disturbed by tremors from the world beyond.” (p.115) Perhaps she herself was one of those tremors and perhaps her exotic background was what made her interesting in 1940s New Zealand – stimulating because presenting another perspective.
But she was not able to build a literary career. As Schwass says: “What she lacked most was application, the discipline, perseverance and confidence that’s needed to keep going as a writer, regardless of the outcome.” (p.245) Schwass then argues that the length of a writer’s career does not not necessarily signal that writer’s worth. True enough, I suppose – but while I found this an interesting and well-researched book, I cannot endorse the claims for Texidor’s ongoing significance that are made in All the Juicy Pastures.
Personal Coda: I have just given you a fair and balanced account of Margot Schwass’s book of the sort I always try to give. But in this case I do have some skin in the game. I formed my own views of Greville Texidor’s work about twelve years ago while researching an article on New Zealand writers who had left-wing persuasions. In my reseach, I read all her published work. First I read These Dark Glasses in its original 1949 edition. I see that in my reading diary, as well as extensively synopsising it, I regarded it as “episodic and hard to follow”. I also read all her stories (including These Dark Glasses) gathered together and edited by Kendrick Smithyman in 1987 under the title In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say a Lot. Some were unfinished pieces that had never been published before. Most of them (whether set in Spain or New Zealand) were interesting, but I would be hard pressed to call any of them outstanding.
What I have not mentioned, of course, and what I slid past in the review above, is that it was my father J.C. Reid who wrote the long, critical Landfall review of These Dark Glasses to which both Sargeson and Texidor took exception. Margot Schwass covers the review on pp.196ff. and makes the extraordinary claim that “Reid’s review… helped confirm Greville’s exclusion from the New Zealand canon” (p.197) I find this hard to believe. Texidor was excluded from the “canon” because she was little read, except in the few stories that were anthologised, and did not make a great impact outside her immediate group of supporters.
Texidor replied to the review in a long letter in the next issue of Landfall. She ridiculed the review for comparing her novella (unfavourably) with the well-established formula, best known in Cyril Connolly’s 1936 novel The Rock Pool, of stories about people pretending to intellecualise while living rather pointless and trivial lives. Interestingly, Kendrick Smithyman (a friend and colleague of my father) agreed, in his introduction to In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say a Lot, that These Dark Glasses does have a touch of The Rock Pool. My father also said that this [mid-1940s] novella seemed to reflect a pre-war mood. Ruefully, Schwass has to admit that Texidor was aware this was true: “Despite her crisp demolition [really?] of J.C.Reid’s review, she could not help but agree that the novel was dated.” (p.200) Where I would fault my father’s review is that it is simply too long (the novella could have been analysed and evaluated at half the length) and it makes too many comparisons with other works.
Sargeson’s private reaction to the review, in letters to Texidor and others, was his usual venom, referring to “that Reid swine”, that “stinker” etc. etc. As I noted on this blog seven years ago, while reviewing Sarah Shieff’s excellent edition of Letters of Frank Sargeson, Sargeson liked to think of himself as the Grand Cham and arbiter of New Zealand literature, and resented a younger man challenging what he thought were now his firmly-canonised opinions. His bile against my father was extreme, sometimes to the point of hysteria.
One final comment. Schwass says “Few in Sargeson’s circle regarded [Reid] as a supporter of New Zealand literature…”(p.196). Later (p.241) she notes how much Texidor realised she had fallen behind Maurice Duggan when she saw a copy of his acclaimed short story collection Immanuel’s Land. This mention made me take off my shelves a copy of the original, 1956, Pilgrim Press edition of Immanuel’s Land. In praise of the collection, the blurb quotes, at length, only one local critic, J.C.Reid… but apparently he wasn’t a supporter on New Zealand literature.
Dear me. Ancient literary squabbles are fairly tedious, aren’t they? Especially ones seventy years old. But cantankerous men like Sargeson do still have to be called out, especially when they have been so often mythologised.