Monday, December 2, 2019

Something New

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

“STRONG WORDS – The Best of the Landfall Essay Competition” Edited by Emma Neale (Otago University Press, $NZ35); “CATCH AND KILL” by Ronan Farrow (Little-Brown / Hachette, $NZ 37:99); “MY PENGUIN YEAR” by Lindsay McCrae (Hodder and Stoughton / Hachette, $NZ34:99)

What is an essay? When we were in the first years of secondary school, an essay was a little narrative of personal experience, in the notorious “What I Did in My Holidays” mould: so basically a first-person story. Call it confessional. Then in the senior years of secondary school, an essay was meant to argue a case like a lawyer, on such topics as “Was King Lear the author of his own misfortunes?”, to be written with a neat introduction, a neat final paragraph drawing a conclusion, and in between these, five or six paragraphs, each making a point, each beginning with a “topic sentence”, and each using evidence, usually in the form of quotations from the text. Call it forensic.

But as soon as we were free of school, and free of undergraduate essays on Eng. Lit., we discovered essays that were neither confessional nor forensic, though some were. Essays could move in many directions, and didn’t have any firm template. Personal experience, sure. Arguing a case, sure. But also reflecting or reconstructing the past; or trying to get a handle on personal relationships; or venting dyspeptic or euphoric feelings; or imagining a possible society; or God wot. Trying to define what an essay is, the best I can come up with is “a, usually short, piece of non-fiction prose, reflecting personal experience, personal convictions or personal interpretations of the world.” Clumsy, but at least comprehensive.

The difficulty of defining an essay is reflected in Emma Neale’s Introduction to Strong Words - The Best of the Landfall Essay Competition. She quotes with approval Virginia Woolf’s statement that whatever it deals with, anything “from the immortality of the soul to the rheumatism  in your left shoulder”, an essay “is primarily an expression of personal opinion.” Having quoted this, Neale herself describes the essay form as “protean”. 

As judge of the Landfall Essay Competition in 2018, Neale had the unenviable task of reading her way through the 90 essays submitted, and choosing three winners – 1st, 2nd and 3rd place. But she knew that many which were not so awarded were also interesting, intelligent and engaging pieces of work. Hence this anthology, which gives us fully 21 of the essays that were submitted, with the three winning essays as the opening items in the book.

On the very rare occasions when I have been called on to judge writing like this, I know (once the real duds are set aside) that there is a final wrench when winners have to be decided on. There is always that nagging thought that you might have made the wrong decision, or that you are not honouring work which other experienced judges might have considered the best. As I read Strong Words, I found a few essays which I might have given the top spots instead of the three winners, but this is not to denigrate anything in this anthology. In their own very different ways, each essay is engaging in the real sense of the word – involving the reader by getting and holding the reader’s attention.

Of the three winning essays, Alice Miller’s “The Great Ending” is a lively reconstruction of how it felt, at the time, to be in New Zealand at the end of the First World War. Its sense of immediacy strips away later interpretations we may have imposed upon that time. But Susan Wardell’s “Shining Through the Skull” and Sam Keenan’s “Bad Girls” are both in the more confessional mode. Wardell deals with having been misled in the most personal and embarrassing way. Keenan deals with the brutal death of a teenage friend. Both are inevitably led to reflect on the way young women are seen in a defective world.

As I read the other eighteen essays, I found some that had a similar intention to the three winners. Louise Slocombe’s “The Thorndon Esplanade”, for example, essays the same effect as Alice Miller’s “The Great Ending”. It attempts to reconstruct a vanished past – though in Slocombe’s case, the past is part of the Wellington of Katherine Mansfield.

Just as essays are idiosyncratic, so is the reader’s response. I was attracted by some essays here simply because I shared experiences with the authors. Why was I so interested in Bryan Walpert’s “One Eye Open”, his painful account of having Bell’s Palsy? Because it’s an affliction I had never heard of, until I was rushed to hospital two years ago, and found myself lying on a gurney with two doctors standing over me and making preliminary diagnoses. They speculated that I might have Bell’s Palsy, and described it as something that has the apparent symptoms of a stroke, but isn’t one. As it happened, I was suffering from Miller-Fisher Syndrome, which had me on my back in hospital for a month, and then about three months recuperating at home. But at least I’d learnt what Bell’s Palsy was!

Why was I attracted to Jocelyn Prasad’s essay “Uncut Cloth”? Because she has written a charming reflection on saris (or “sarees” as she writes it). Married to a man of Indian parentage, my eldest daughter has adopted the sari as wear for formal occasions, and we have heard many tales like those Prasad tells of the complexities of donning a sari correctly.

Cait Kneller gives a fragmentary, mildly surreal, sketch of (the North Shore Auckland suburb of) Glenfield, which is the suburb in the next valley from where I live; and Kneller apparently went to the same secondary school as my three youngest daughters. And oddly enough Kirstten Ure’s essay “Puriri Moth”, wherein she sees the ephemeral life of the “adult” moth as an image of loss, rang bells for me. I regularly guide tourists around the bird-sanctuary island Tiritiri Matangi and stop to examine a stately puriri tree and discuss the puriri moth’s life-cycle to explain the black blotches that they leave on the trunk.

You see, there are personal as well as literary reasons for being interested in an essay.

The most directly confessional essays in this collection are Toby Buck’s “Aquae Populus” giving a wry view of the habitues of a small community sauna; John Allison’s “The Way it Is”, a sketch about being old; and P.J.Stanley’s very sad “Anatomy of Belief”, about being cut off by her father when she ceased to be a Scientologist. The essay that comes closest to being poetry is Madeleine Child’s “Loess”, with its evocation of the windy heights of Otago as experienced by her father.

There are what amount to polemics in this collection, but none of them are strident. There is nothing that is overtly political, and even versions given of the battle of the sexes are muted.

Those essays that are closest to (good) polemic are by Mikaela Nyman and Jane Blaikie. In  “Language Means Belonging” the Swedish-speaking, Finnish-born New Zealander Mikaela Nyman weaves in much personal experience of minority languages, their uniqueness and ultimate untranslatability, before arguing strongly for their conservation, especially in promoting the teaching of Maori. Jane Blaikie’s “Mrs Wakefield Unknown” concerns the caddish, deceitful  Edward Gibbon Wakefield and his opportunistic scheme to kidnap and marry a rich young heiress. Much of this story is already familiar to a wide readership, but Blaikie emphasises the fate of the young woman, largely disregarded by history. From this she segues, not too convincingly, into an argument that Wakefield’s name should be expunged from all public places.

In line with the general “linguistic turn” that much philosophy (and poetry) has taken in the last half century, language itself is the essence of two essays: Building on her own experience of suffering, Tracey Slaughter, in “Notes on a Scale of Silence”, elaborates on the idea that language is simply inadequate to convey the sense of pain. She quotes many sources to reinforce her insights here (I am surprised that, among others, she didn’t quote Robert Graves’ “The Cool Web”), though her ending, asserting the need to write about the experience of pain, somehow compromises her premise.  And in an odd way Tim Upperton’s “A Lifted Stone” also turns on the matter of language itself. He first plays variations on the unknowability of other creatures; then on the unknowability of other people; and ends up considering the limits of language in connecting with the world. Somewhere in the same ballpark  - language and its impact on the world – is Fiona Clark’s “Off By Heart”, on the therapeutic power of poetry.

So here I am once again name-checking just about every item in a collection and being careful not to make glib or dismissive comments. But I do admit misgivings about, and a disconnection from, some selections. Derek Schulz’s “Not a Maori Name” seems to me to examine too minutely (i.e. over-think) the texts he quotes as he considers the meaning of a story, written about New Zealand, by an author (Penelope Fitzgerald) who had never been here. Justine Whitfield’s reflection on the sense of touch, “The Klimt Bubbles”  is a bit nebulous and unnecessarily circumlocutious in some of its expression. The essay that first excited me, but ended up baffling me, was Jessica Maclean’s “Strange Harbours”. Articulate and replete with erudite, sophisticated vocabulary, “Strange Harbours” seems to be calling for some sort of radical re-alignment of New Zealand spirituality with a mix of Maori and Christian references and theologies. But it becomes a rant, shooting off in all directions. I tried very hard to find a crowning coherence here, but was foiled.

And the positive conclusion to this essay of my own? The real stunner in Strong Words is Becky Manawatu’s “#Mothersday”. It is so powerful because its memoir of family tragedies is written in a deadpan, sometimes almost ironical style: un-demonstrative and with no self-pity, and therefore convincing us more fully of the traumas being reported.

One little footnote to this brief assessment of varied and interesting essays: For the record, of the 21 essays, 16 are by women and only 5 by men. I won’t complain about gender bias or some such. I’m sure that Emma Neale isn’t the type of judge who would make selections by any such criterion – so this means nothing more than that more women submitted essays. This does, of course, reflect a big cultural turn-around. Once upon a time, anthlologies of essays tended to be all-male affairs. (To check this, I pull off my shelf a copy of W.E.Williams’ Pelican Original A Book of English Essays  dating from the 1950s, and find that the 25 authors represented are all blokes.) But the dominance of women writer does seem to have one effect – there’s much quoting of Virginia Woolf in many of these Strong Words.

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Very clumsily I move from a New Zealand book to two books from elsewhere. First, Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill.

            You have to wait until over three-quarters of the way through this 400-page book (page 347 to be precise) before you discover what exactly the title Catch and Kill means, although the idea behind it has appeared often enough. “Catch and kill” is a phrase used by the grubbier and more dishonest news outlets. They buy, as an exclusive, a story that has been filed, but do not ever publish it and find ways of gagging the author, who is prevented from publishing elsewhere. Usually this means that the news outlet has been either threatened or bribed by some powerful person to bury the story, because it contains negative things about them.

            Ronan Farrow (who, for what it’s worth, is the son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen) is the dogged journalist who bit by bit, in 2017, uncovered the whole Harvey Weinstein mess. The powerful Hollywood producer had for decades sexually harrassed, violated and blackmailed women – especially actressses who appeared in the films of his company Miramax. The blackmail meant threats (often carried out) to ruin the women’s careers if they ever reported what he had done, or if they refused his (sometimes violent) advances. Farrow gives all the details relating to the many women who trusted him enough to go on the record and be interviewed. There were dozens of them, and most of them had indeed had their careers destroyed by Weinstein and his confederates.

            As a film reviewer for many years before 2004, I remember seeing some actresses (Mira Sorvino, for example) making a big splash in a couple of films, seeming on the verge of a major career, and then suddenly disappearing from the screen. At the time I thought this was just standard Hollywood ruthlessness – it chews ‘em up and spits ‘em out – but now I understand what was really going on for some of them.

            And yet while this whole horrible scandal is properly detailed for us, it is not the major focus of Farrow’s book. Farrow is really concerned with how his attempts to get his story published were constantly blocked by the higher executives of the TV network that employed him, NBC. This is not so much a book about Weinstein’s crimes as a book about how Weinstein was able to twist influential people’s arms and keep his sordid affairs unreported.

            There was a paper trail of “non-disclosure” agreements whereby aggrieved women could be threatened by the law if they made public what had happened to them. America’s sleaziest publication, the National Enquirer, not only kept “kill” files of stories they had never published, but was complicit in publishing negative stories about many of Weinstein’s victims, the better to damage their credibility. In this they were helped by the Black Cube company of “private investigators” who had been hired by Weinstein and his lawyers, who spied on people, dug up as much dirt as they possibly could on Weinstein’s accusers, and tried to infiltrate Farrow’s investigation.

            Farrow was repeatedly prevented from presenting his findings on NBC, so he finally went elsewhere and got the story published in The New Yorker.

            Farrow is, of course, on the side of the angels and the detail given here is necessary. Yet I admit I did not like this book as much as I wanted to, for all its worthiness. It is not just the (inevitable) breathless, journalistic style, but it is a matter of its sheer length. Names are named, as they should be in a legal submission, but in such profusion that it is easy to forget which informant, which executive or which lawyer is being referred to at any given time. To be blunt, Catch and Kill would have been punchier, and could have said as much, at half the lengtth.

            Just a few closing remarks: Hillary Clinton is mentioned three or four times, usually in a negative context. It is not simply because Harvey Weinstein was a prime donor to her campaign for the presidency, but because she had clearly heard of his repeated crimes long before the story broke, but chose not to distance herself from him.

            There is also the obvious, but daunting thought, that the Harvey Weinstein story is neither unique nor new in the history of Hollywood. Once upon a time the “casting couch” was both a joke and standard operational procedure. All that is happening now is that it is being challenged. Look, for example, at the story of Harry Cohn, head of Columbia Pictures in the 1940s and 1950s, and see that Weinstein is no aberration.

            Very briefly, Farrow refers to Jeffrey Epstein, who is the current best-known villain in stories of sexual abuse – so much so, in fact, that the Weinstein story is beginning to pass out of the collective consciousness. Sad but true - but don’t worry. Other scandals of sexual abuse will doubtless obliterate thoughts of Jeffrey Epstein, and we will forget the days when the jolly exploits of Prince “Randy Andy” were as much a joke as the “casting couch.”

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            I enjoyed Lindsay McCrae’s My Penguin Year more than Catch and Kill, probably because of its subject matter. It’s equally journalistic in style, but written by a man with real enthusiasm and therefore conveying some of the excitement that he himself must have experienced.

            As a schoolboy in the north of England, says Lindsay McCrae, he was fascinated by wildlife and was a compulsive photographer of animals. Over many months he photographed the lives and habits of badgers, and submitted some of his work to producers of wildlife documentaries. He was readily accepted as an emerging talent. So, avoiding university and formal tertiary education, he went straight from school to a position with the BBC’s wildlife department. He gradually became a skilled cameraman.

            He was addicted to David Attenborough’s Planet Earth series and, he says, as soon as he saw emperor penguins in a sequence of one of Attenborough’s documentaries, he knew that he wanted to see them for himself. His dream job turned up. He was commissioned to stay in the Antarctic for eleven months, observing and filming emperor penguins to record their entire life cycle. One problem – he had just married and his wife was pregnant; so there was a wrench in parting; but off he went to a German base in the Antarctic, where he shared his eleven months with German colleagues, he himself being kitted out with German equipment.

            One major strain of My Penguin Year has to do with the difficulties of shooting the desired footage. Before the emperor penguins came back from their months at sea, McCrae had to wait through weeks of endless, and often sleepless, Antarctic daylight. The penguins marched onto the ice in late March, in the Antarctic autumn. Extreme temperatures had effects on even the most advanced cameras; weather (such as long autumn and winter storms) made much filming impossible. There are two months (62 days) when the sun is always beneath the horizon, and sometimes there is complete darkness although, as this book’s many illustrations show, interesting shots can be recorded in the bright moonlight. McCrae wanted to create intimate images of the emperor penguins’ lives, but there was the difficulty of getting at close quarters with them. He tells stories of his perilous climb down from the ice shelf, where his base was, to the sheet of sea ice, where penguins gathered and mated.

            In the midst of this tale, there are the family moments. His son was born when most of his mission was completed. McCrae tried to be in daily contact with his wife and son, and he recorded for his son his readings of all the Beatrix Potter stories.

            But in the end, the most engaging element of this book is his interaction with the emperor penguins themselves, and his verbal record of their life cycle.

            It begins with courtship rituals when the males and females come ashore.

Even before the females are impregnated, the males practise how to incubate eggs by holding balls of ice on their feet and under their feathery bellies. McCrae found it difficult to film the most intimate detail – the actual laying of the eggs. Transferring the eggs from female to male is a delicate process. If the male is too slow in getting the egg safely to the top of his feet, the egg could quickly be frozen on the ice.

            As soon as the transfer is done, the females head out to sea to fish and live for some months, fattening themselves up while the males exclusively do the incubation of the eggs. They brood for about 64 days during the winter months. Even in good weather, the temperature is usually minus 40 degrees Celsius. For mutual warmth, there is the well-organised and tight tribal huddle of the males until the chicks break out of their eggs. By the time the plump and now well-fed females return, the males, having not fed for two months, are emaciated and near starvation, and now it is their turn to go out to sea and fatten up.

            Not too surprisingly, McCrae finds that emperor penguins suffer a high infant mortality rate. He tells many sad tales of observing eggs mishandled in the transfer from female to male, or prematurely cracked open, or frozen on the ice. Some penguins are trapped in a deep gully where, as a last resort, they have to abandon their chicks before they themselves freeze to death. Nature is prodigal, the mass production of offspring is the obvious strategy to ensure the survival of a species, and such deaths are to be expected. Still, for the individual, nature is cruel.

            There are no frills to the style of My Penguin Year. It is good journalism, an easy read, informative, and well illustrated, as well as having the human factor. Can’t ask more of it really.

Siomething 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.

“TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG” by Peter Carey (first published in 2000)

            Five years back, while reviewing Peter Carey’s novel Amnesia on this blog, I remarked that I was unpatriotic enough to think that in 1985, Carey’s novel Illywhacker should have won the Booker Prize rather than the New Zealander Keri Hulme’s the bone people. In his overlong memoir JosephAnton (2012), Salman Rushdie claims that the bone people won only “in a compromise decision” (Pg.119) when the Booker judges couldn’t decide between Illywhacker and Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist. I can well believe this. Illywhacker is so clearly the greater novel.
Peter Carey (born 1943) was, however, later honoured by the Booker people, being one of only three writers so far who have won the award twice – in his case for Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 and for True History of the Kelly Gang in 2001.
I find that over the years, I have read about half of Carey’s literary output, from Illywhacker to Parrot and Olivier in America (2010) and Amnesia (2014). I have never been bored by a Carey novel, although some of them have puzzled me and his relationship with America (where he now resides) is a bit of an enigma. Love-hate? Not exactly, but somewhere in that ballpark. Parrot and Olivier in America is the novel where this is most evident as Carey revisits the nineteenth-century observations on America of Alexis de Toqueville and contrasts them with English views on the same subject.

I enjoyed also Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, but remembering it always draws to my mind an odd experience. Back in the early 2000s, I attended a history conference on Australian and New Zealand topics, which was held in Galway in Ireland. One of the advertised speakers was the veteran Aussie feminist Germaine Greer, who was going to give a presentation on Ned Kelly. Naïvely, I thought Greer would launch a feminist attack upon the macho myths that have gathered around Kelly. I imagined her ironically decontructing the Kelly myth. Not a bit of it! When she spoke, Greer positively chortled with approval over Kelly’s exploits, seeing him as the ingenious underdog who fought against the colonial possessing class. She even chortled over Kelly’s stunt of sending a bull’s testicles to a woman whose husband was apparently unable to give her children. (This particular story – and Kelly’s role in it – is much disputed). I was forced to recall that Greer herself has much of the Aussie larrikin in her – and she claimed a personal kinship with Ned Kelly by saying that he had been much misreported in the press, just as she said she had been.
I will not linger long over Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, save to say that when I read it and reviewed it, it had not yet been honoured with a Booker.
            Unaltered from its first appearance, and being brief as all newspaper reviews are, here is my review of the novel as it was published in the old Dominion on 7 October 2000.

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            As Australia’s best-known living novelist, Peter Carey clearly has a taste for 19th century myths. His Oscar and Lucinda suggested how fragile were some English immigrant hopes when brought Down Under. His Jack Maggs more or less re-worked Dickens’ Great Expectations – except from the transported convict’s point of view. With immigrants and convicts taken care of, it was somewhat inevitable that Carey should now get around to Ned Kelly.
            The achetypal wild colonial boy is firmly embedded in the Aussie national psyche. Film reference books tell me the first ever Australian feature film was a silent epic of the outlaw’s exploits, and mere weeks ago [remember this review was written in 2000], we saw hordes of dancers opening the Olympics by jumping about in Ned Kelly costumes copied from the famous Sidney Nolan paintings.
Think Aussie Larrikin and you think of Kelly in his homemade armour, going down under police gunfire. Carey opens with this dramatic scene, but then switches to his chief narrative conceit. In Carey’s version, Kelly leaves a bundle of manuscripts telling his whole life’s history. So, for most of its 400 pages, True History of the Kelly Gang (apparently the title doesn’t merit a definite article) is a first-person narrative wherein Kelly unburdens his soul to his infant daughter.
Much of the traditional and historical tale is here. How his widowed Irish mother runs a shebeen. How, from his early teenage years, he had to defend his mother’s honour from a series of suitors (parts of the tale go quite Oedipal about this). His apprenticeship to the bushranger Harry Power and his deteriorating relationship with the police. And so to the hold-ups of squatter and magistrate, the shoot-outs with pursuing posses, the fording of the Murray River in full flood.
But most distinctive is that narrative voice. Half-literate Kelly stumbles over sentences and runs them together. He follows the 19th century convention of writing “adjectival” instead of “bloody” when his characters are cussing, and he is full of self-justifications. Yet his social perspective is utterly convincing. His gang are sons of dirt-poor deracinated Irish Catholic peasants, constantly feeling victimised by the wealthy Anglo squatters who have bagged the best farming land, frequently harrassed by a police force that is basically there to protect the squirearchy’s interests.
Carey never falls into the trap of seeing these circumstances alone as justifications for murder. But he does show the processes by which the alienated Irish became, in the second generation, alienated Australians. Kelly looks at his gang and remarks “They were Australians. They knew full well the terror of the unyielding law. The historical memory of UNFAIRNESS was in their blood.”
No wonder the larrikin has become a national icon.

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.


            Not to put too fine a point on it, but hitting the nail on the head, I think that, moving forward, we should all be aware of cliché.
            It’s an insidious thing, innit? No sooner is a phrase coined than it becomes, first a commonplace, and then a tiresome, space-filling tag for lazy journalists and the people who mimic them. Consider “moving forward”, for example, now used by people who don’t know how to say “in the future” or some such.
            The war on cliché should be unending, because cliché does indeed cloud and dull thought. Just a month or two back, I had a go at one current and perfidious cliché in the post The Right Side of History (which also took a swipe at the disingenuous “starting a conversation”). Now another of the little blighters gnaws at me. It’s the one, beloved by journalists, about losing one’s innocence.
            Recently I saw a news item about a crime that had been committed in Tauranga. The report said that the crime meant the city of Tauranga had “lost its innocence”. Really? Does this mean that all the adult inhabitants of Tauranga were hitherto naïve people who did not know that serious crimes can happen in both small and large cities – not to mention rural areas? Did they really “lose their innocence”?
            In my mind, I started reviewing all the times I have heard this phrase about losing innocence. According to some of its publicity, the film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood told us that with the Manson murders, 1960s hippiedom and the age of flower power “lost its innocence”. But half a mo. Did the (American) 1960s reallylose their innocence” with Manson? I thought the 1960s had already “lost their innocence” with nightly news reports on TV about race riots and how the Vietnam War was going. At least so I was told by a number of pop historians. But then again, others said that America “lost its innocence” when JFK was shot. Or could it have been in the McCarthy era? Or maybe when the first atomic bomb was dropped? Or whenever, because each of these events or eras has been designated by somebody as a loss of innocence.
            And let’s forget about America for a while. Didn’t the British army “lose its innocence” on the Somme in 1916? In the same war, didn’t readers of British newspapers “lose their innocence” when they stopped believing the cheery things war correspondents were writing, and scanned the lists of the dead instead? As for Australians and New Zealanders, apparently they “lost their innocence” at Gallipoli. Or maybe they lost it when they first encountered barbed wire used to foil cavalry attacks in the Boer War. Again, I have heard the cliché phrase used in relation to all these things.
            So, to your obvious exasperation, I could going on banging away at this very simple point. When something overwhelming, reprehensible or shocking occurs, in comes the cliché–monger to tell us that an age of innocence is over. Surely, by this stage, all thinking adults are aware that the world is a potentially dangerous place; that people are capable of doing monstrous things; that while we may be shocked, we should not really be surprised when we hear of crime, deceit and abuse.
            I suppose if there was really a time when human beings lost their innocence, it would have been in the Garden of Eden – or if you do not like the Biblical image, it would have been when homo sapiens first enmerged as such, and became aware of human limitations. I’m happy to use the term Original Sin. Perhaps you’re not, but when I unpack the term you might agree with me. As I see it, Original Sin means our human capacity to do wrong or mess things up or finds excuses for our bad behaviour and then go ahead and do it.
            None of which is new and none of which should surprise us. As for “losing innocence” – it will be experienced by children as they grow-up, and perhaps by those teenagers who think that the world can be improved in one easy and immediate step. But if you are a functioning adult, real innocence should have gone with adolescence.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Something New

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

“VINCENT O’SULLIVAN: SELECTED STORIES” Selected by Stephen Stratford (Victoria University Press, $NZ 40)

A wise person recently remarked to me that short stories “should never be read in bulk without medical advice.” I endorse this view. For many evenings over the last four weeks, I have worked my way through the 35 short stories, in about 600 pages, that make up Vincent O’Sullivan: Selected Stories. They have been selected by Stephen Stratford from the seven collections of short stories that O’Sullivan has so far produced, beginning with The Boy, The Bridge, The River in 1978 and ending with The Families [reviewed on this blog] in 2014. So this is a selection based on the best part of forty years’ work.

But why should “medical advice” be required in reading such a book?

Because reading too many short stories in a short space of time can often cause one story to blur into another. Like a good poem, a good short story will be dense with detail, and will have its own unique and individual impact. Read one after another, that impact will lessen. As a reader, you end up thinking of the stories as one thing, and reducing them to generalisations about the author’s aims and methods.

I’ll try to compensate for this effect in what follows, but at the same time I will avoid the dire mistake I made earlier this year, when I synopsised slavishly every single story in analysing D.H.Lawrence’s collections The Prussian Officer and England, My England. In considering a collection of short stories, at least some generalisations are inevitable.

            Born in 1937, so now aged 82, Vincent O’Sullivan was already in his early 40s when The Boy, The Bridge, The River was published. It’s obvious, therefore, that all his published stories are the work of a mature man who has had wide experience of life. And the same is true of most of his protagonists. The great majority of the Selected Stories deal with people who are either middle-aged or old – such as the old people in a home in “Closing the File”; the sad story “Recital” about a pianist who didn’t go anywhere; the physical embarrassments of ageing in “Fainting and the Fat Man”; or adult children contesting memories of their father in both “Daddy Drops a Line” and “Getting It Right”. There are some stories about younger people here, like the teenage daughter and pre-pubescent son in “Family Unit”, or the protagonist in this selection’s very last story “Luce”. But they are the minority. In the Selected Stories we are in the world of older, and mainly middle-class, people, most of them articulate but many of them stuck in a rut.

            For a few of these older people, there is a Catholic upbringing somewhere in their past and references to it, but this does not loom large in Selected Stories. What does loom large are marriage and sexual matters, often presented in terms of deception, regret, or dissatisfaction. Mature women remember a libidinous artist in “The Last of Freddie”. There is double adultery in “Survivors”. A man, worried about his wife, talks it out to a counsellor in “On a Clear Day”. A marriage cracks up spectacularly in “Pieces”.

            Perhaps the majority of stories are set in New Zealand, but there are a few stories set in the U.S.A. (sordid vignettes of New York in “The Corner” and “That’s the Big Apple for You”) and a few set in Oz (such as “Coasting”). More important, there are a number of stories set in New Zealand in which memories of, or imaginings about, Europe come into play. “The Boy, The Bridge, The River” itself, for example; and the imagined Europe in “Photos, to Begin With”, where the illusions about Europe have to be measured against the reality. This is very much like what I diagnosed as “the Pakeha condition” when I reviewed O’Sullivan’s novel All This by Chance on this blog. We know that we are fully New Zealanders, but we also know that our roots, our deepest mythology and much of our cultural formation still comes from Europe.

            In the main, O’Sullivan’s stories offer little in the way of overt experimentalism. “Billy Joel Her Bird” is written in youthful patois and “the snow in spain” is written without capital letters. But there are none of those tiresome postmodernist literary games, found in the works of at least one other New Zealand story-teller, in which we are supposed to congratulate ourselves for understanding that a story is a literary construct. Also O’Sullivan tells stories - he does not spin anecdotes. So there is none of the antiquated O’Henry sting-in-the-tail stuff. The only stories I found with something like a final, unexpected twist were “The Club” and “Photos, to Begin With”, but in both cases the “twist” has to do with character development.

            The Selected Stories are mainly slow-burn stories – revelations of character, not anecdotes. Engagements with real (or realistic) people, not technical literary exercises. But the mode of narration is important. At a rough count, there are as many stories written in the first person as there are stories giving multiple perspectives in the third person. As a male writer, O’Sullivan doesn’t hesitate to have women as his narrators in  “Picture Window”,“Photos, to Begin With” ,“Pictures of Goya”, “Waiting for Rongo” and some other tales. Nowadays, discussions of narrative voice seem to lead inevitably to comments on the “unreliable narrator”, with the assumption that we are not meant to take at face value what any narrator says. But in a story like “Palms and Minarets”, it is hard to see the narration as anything other than honest testimony in a study in alienation, the apparent unreality of things and the power of childhood memories.

            Yet there are at least some genuinely unreliable first-person narrators. The smug advertising man who narrates “Dandy Edison for Lunch”; the rage-filled narrator of “Terminus”; and the particularly obnoxious narrator of “Waiting for Rongo”, a nosy-parker, curtain-twitching woman who spies on her neighbours, makes denigratory comments about them and only slowly learns a hard lesson about what other people think of her [or does she?]. There is a suprising pathos in the way the story ends.

            Have I given the impression that Vincent O’Sullivan’s world view is a melancholy one? I hope not. A better term would be mellow. The author, in his maturity, does chart the faults and shortcomings of many of his characters, but he does not look down on them. Reading Selected Stories is not like reading all those Frank Sargeson stories in which, implicitly, we middle-class readers were invited to feel condescending towards those unaware drongos who make up so many of Sargeson’s narrators. In O’Sullivan’s universe, people are flawed, but they are not irredeebably flawed and – even if sometmies self-deluded - they are not any stupider than we are. When I reviewed The Families five years ago, I concluded that the best word for O’Sullivan’s fiction was “compassionate,” meaning feeling alongside people without sentimentalising them.

            Against the idea that these stories are overwhelmingly melancholy, I would also note a strain of robust wit and satire. One of the most likeable stories, “Putting Bob Down”, is both sad and funny as two mistresses of the same man get know and like each other. “Hims Ancient and Modern” is a lighter, almost whimsical account of tourists in Italy. As for satire, there is “Coasting”, in which small-town Oz commemorates the arrival of James Cook, with their efforts set ironically against fragments of Cook’s diaries and what two rather pompous academics have to say about it. And there is “Still Life” – partly satire on art criticism and partly concerning the delusions people have about artists.

            If I have not fallen into the trap of synopsising every story in this large selection, I have perhaps fallen into the trap of name-checking most of them. Sorry. I hope I have conveyed that this is essential New Zealand reading.

            I’ll conclude clumsily by noting some stories that had a powerful effect oin me:

            * “The Witness Man” I recall first reading when I was in my twenties and it came out in the March 1980 issue of Landfall. I read most of it on a ‘bus journey when I was being bounced along to work in an inner-city Auckland school, which I didn’t like. This third-person-limited story stuck in my mind for the ingenious way it was told, getting into the mind of an older man who has to give witness about something nasty that has happened between younger people. Even if I could not remember all the details of the story, the old man’s hesitation, sense of intimidation, and irrational guilt, all stayed with me. It did not disappoint when I rediscovered it in the Selected Stories.

            * “One Ordinary Thursday” concerns adultery and a deadness of feeling. Some people aestheticise the world and nature and appear to be very “reasonable” about human relationships. But the sort of reason they embrace may in fact mean that they have ceased to be fully human, underplaying what could, among more demonstrative people, be raw tragedy. This may be one of O’Sullivan’s melancholy stories, but if so, it is only because of its ordinariness and credibility.

            * “Family Unit” is not written in the first-person, but conveys a holiday as experienced in the minds of grumpy Dad; Mum wanting to have some space to herself; teenaged daughter very needy for connections [be they with Jesus or with a local Goth]; and the younger son who is just on the cusp of randy puberty. Again, fully credible and nobody is caricatured.

            Then of course, there is “The Families” itself, a longer short-story with some of the complexity of a novel. But as I have already sung its praises elsewhere, I will not repeat myself.

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.

“1606 – WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE AND THE YEAR OF LEAR” by James Shapiro (first published in 2015);  “HOW SHAKESPEARE CHANGED EVERYTHING” by Stephen Marche (first published in 2011); “THE FINAL ACT OF MR SHAKESPEARE” by Robert Winder (first published 2010)

            I cannot remember exctly how it happened, but for some years I was the go-to person on both the Listener and the Sunday Star-Times when it came to William Shakespeare. Whenever a book about Shakespeare passed across the books editor’s desk, he would pass it on to me to review. In the process, I augmented my own Shakespeare collection with quite a few books.
            Sometimes the books about Shakespeare were excellent scholarship, sometimes they were popular rip-offs, and sometimes they were cranky nonsense. I well remember, back in 2005, having the pleasure, in one long article in the Listener, of taking down Brenda James’ nonsensical piece of bogus scholarship The Truth Will Out, which asserted that the obscure Sir Henry Neville was the “real” author of Shakespeare’s plays. In the same article I dealt with Clare Asquith’s more reasonable Shadowplay, which argued that Shakespeare was a Catholic. This is a plausible theory, but regrettably Asquith overstated it, to the point where we were meant to believe that nearly everything Shakespeare wrote was a coded sectarian statement.
            At the more scholarly end of the spectrum, in 2010 I enjoyed reviewing at length, for the Sunday Star-Times, James Shapiro’s Contested Will – Who Wrote Shakespeare (a review which I reproduced on this blog). It is an excellent refutation of all “alternative authorship” theories about Shakespeare’s plays.
            Some of my reviews of books about Shakespeare were relatively brief and jocular, especially when the book in hand was clearly intended to be a piece of fun.
So here, simply for your amusement, is a selection of three such reviews. The first, by James Shapiro, can be taken seriously, but with some reservations. The second, by Stephen Marche, is basically designed for light amusement. And the third, a piece of fiction by Robert Winder, is a rollicking fantasia. All three reviews are presented here unaltered from their original appearance in newspaper or magazine.

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[The following review appeared in the Listener, 23 January 2016]

            James Shapiro, professor of English at Columbia University, has the knack of keeping it scholarly while also making it accessible. His Contested Will is still the best one-volume squelch to conspiracy theorists who want to believe that somebody other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays. You don’t have to be a palaeographer, cryptanalyst or textual expert to get his drift, but he covers all the main areas of scholarly debate. The same goes for his 1599, in which he takes one fruitful year in Shakespeare’s writing life and relates it to the public events that would (probably) have influenced Shakespeare.
            1606 follows the pattern of 1599, but it is in no sense a mere follow-up. As far as publishing history and surviving theatre records can confirm, 1606 was the year when Shakespeare wrote three of his greatest – King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.
            Shapiro rightly asserts that Shakespeare was as much a Jacobean dramatist as an Elizabethan one. The company to which he was attached performed far more often before King James 1 than it had done before Queen Elizabeth 1, and playwrights were very responsive to public events. So, examining changing theatrical conventions, the fortunes of acting companies, and the contemporaneous work of many writers as well as Shakespeare, Shapiro sets out to show how much King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra were products of their historical moment.
            In King Lear, with its story of a kingdom divided, he sees close reference to the tensions attending James 1’s attempts to unite England and Scotland, and resistance to such a plan. In Macbeth he finds far more echoes of the fears aroused by the “Gunpowder Plot” of late 1605 than have hitherto been publicised. In Antony and Cleopatra he detects a growing nostalgia for the reign of Elizabeth (and perhaps the character of the Earl of Essex) once the original bright promise of King James’ reign had worn off. The text is detailed, densely end-noted, and plunges us into fascinating issues such as reasons for the popularity of masques as royal entertainments, the effects of outbreaks of plague on theatregoing, the decline of acting troupes of children and the scrambling of playwrights for patronage and preferment.
            Once again, Shapiro plays fair, telling us when he is speculating (as any biographer of Shakespeare often must). He reminds us that nobody can say for sure what Shakespeare’s personal beliefs were, nor can anyone pin down the fine details of his everyday life. Shapiro is also aware that the “Gunpowder Plot” was to some extent the Jacobean Reichstag Fire. There really was a plot, but the received version of the story was as much government invention as historical fact, justifying a crackdown on a group (dissident Catholics) which the government intended to penalise anyway.
            Are there any minuses to this erudite, readable and thoroughly absorbing book?  Only one – but it may be a biggie. By so closely relating three of Shakespeare’s masterworks to specific political and cultural events, Shapiro might mislead some readers into thinking that they now know the “real” meaning of each play. This sort of reductionism is not Shapiro’s intention, but it could be inferred from the text. And surely one reason for Shakespeare’s durability is the fact that his best plays outsoar their age. King Lear might in part relate to obscure or forgotten manoeuvres involving the first Stuart king. But it continues to speak to us by what it says about old age, fatherhood, families, the provenance of evil and the thin hold civilisation has over howling wilderness.

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[The following review appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 10 July 2011]


            In 1890 Eugene Schieffelin, a New York businessman and amateur Shakespearean, cooked up an eccentric idea. He would introduce into the United States all those species of bird that are mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. With the help and approval of various acclimatization societies, he imported live thrushes and nightingales from England. But they did not thrive in the Yankee climate and quickly died out. Only one type of bird imported by Schieffelin went forth and multiplied and multiplied and multiplied - to the point where it became an ecological disaster. This was the starling, which happens to be mentioned once in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One.
            So why are starlings swarming cities and parks, crapping, squabbling, chasing native birds away, threatening crops and being as much of a damned nuisance in America as they are everywhere else?
            It’s because somebody liked Shakespeare.
            Canadian freelance critic, and Esquire columnist, Stephen Marche spends half a chapter telling this tale in his brief canter through some of the stranger ways Shakespeare has influenced the modern world.
            How Shakespeare Changed Everything is really a sequence of ten short essays more-or-less on Shakespeare. They are at their most likeable when they have the weirdness of the Schieffelin story. Creepier is the account of John Wilkes Booth’s obsession with Shakespeare, which led him to model himself quite consciously on the bard’s noble Brutus as he set about assassinating Abraham Lincoln. More inclusive is the chapter on how Shakespeare has been appropriated by every political persuasion imaginable. More stirring is the chapter on the black American actor Ira Aldridge, who practiced an interesting reverse racism in the nineteenth century by playing Shakespeare’s white tragic heroes (Lear, Shylock) in whiteface. This made up for some of the blackface Othellos of white actors.
            While most of this is harmless fun it has its downside. Marche is one of those pop savants who desperately wants to sell Shakespeare to the kids. This means chapters in which he strains to show how hip Shakespeare is. There’s a woeful chapter on Shakespeare and sex (“Look, kids, here are all the dirty bits from the plays!”) and an even more woeful chapter on how Shakespeare invented the idea of the teenager (“Look, kids, Romeo is almost as good as Justin Bieber!”). They have the patronizing tone of a teacher talking down to school-kids in the hope of interesting them in something boring.
            Mustn’t grumble, though. This is an engaging little bedside book. C.J.Sisson’s classic essay The Mythical Sorrows of Shakespeare is better than Marche in showing how foolish it is to identify the playwright with characters in his plays. James Shapiro’s masterly Contested Will is better than Marche in dismissing the folly of crank theories about people other than Shakespeare writing Shakespeare’s plays. But in these matters Marche is on the side of the angels, and he manages to be fun with it.

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[The following review appeared in the Sunday Star-Times on 18 April 2010]


            I strongly suspect this boisterous historical novel grew out of three well-known historical facts.
            Fact No. 1. Any sane historiian would now agree that the version of King Richard the Third popularised by Shakespeare is largely fiction. The real Richard was no better and nor worse than other kings. The image of the hunch-backed monster murdering his way to power was the propaganda invention of the Tudors, the line of monarchs who grabbed the throne off Richard. Because they had virtually no legitimate claim to the throne themselves, in was in the Tudors’ interest to invent the legend of Richard as villain.
            Fact No. 2. The only one of Shakespeare’s plays that appears to support unequivocally the newfangled and Protestant Church of England is the very dull chronicle play Henry the Eighth. It’s generally regarded as Shakespeare’s very last play. But for a long time serious critics suspected that this is not really Sakespeare’s work at all. It seems to have been written mainly by the playwright John Fletcher, with Shakespeare contributing at most a few touches.
            Fact No. 3. It was during a performance of the toadying Henry the Eighth that the Globe theatre burned down in 1613.
            Out of these three circumstances, journalist, Granta sub-editor and sometime literary editor of the Independent Robert Winder had woven a cheerful historical fantasia. This is the tale of how Will Shakespeare, towards the end of his writing career, repents of the lies he put on stage in Richard the Third. Shakespeare in this version is a crypto-Catholic, or at least has Catholic sympathies, a theory that has found support from some reputable literary historians. Anyway, he comes to London determined to set the record straight.
            He rounds up his old mates the King’s Men. Together they plan to write a play showing what a greasy chap Henry the Seventh, the first of the Tudor kings, really was. Trouble is, while this potentially treasonous enterprise is in progress, Shakespeare is threatened and blackmailed by the chief justice Sir Edwards Coke into producing an admiring play about Henry the Eighth. Shakespeare sub-contracts this tiresome job to John Fletcher while he himself gets on with writing the play he really wants to write.
            Winder is cunning in setting this fiction towards the end of Shakespeare’s writing life. It means that Shakespeare and his mates can quote freely from nearly the whole Shakespearean canon whenever they want. The effect is like the famous spoof novel No Bed for Bacon or the tongue-in-cheek film Shakespeare in Love, where we were invited to groan at the way familiar Shakespearean quotations were mangled and dropped into conversations.
            Then there’s Winder’s additional cunning in having Shakespeare write his play atelier-style. His mates Richard Burbage, Edward Alleyn and others gather around him and improvise scenes of dialogue in chatty conversations. This spares us the potentially boring image of the writer at solitary work, toiling away silently at his desk or perhaps talking to himself. To me the scenes of play-writing come across as the most jolly-jolly version of theatrical life since Dickens did his Vincent Crummles scenes is Nicholas Nickleby, or since J.B.Priestley sent his Pierrot review troop on tour in his bestseller The Good Companions. It’s pure tosh but great fun.
            There are, of course, some moments that are so silly and outrageous in their anachronisms that Winder seems to be thumbing his nose at us.
            Will Shakespeare contributing to the Protestant Authorised Version of the Bible? Pull the other one. The Authorised Version gets called the King James Version, a term that was invented [for it] by Americans only in the last century.
            Will Shakespeare and his mates dreaming up the plots of both Don Giovanni and Dracula? As the Tui ads say, “Yeah, right.” But then you forgive Winder this sort of thing because you can see he is quite consciously messing around. As his introduction shows, he knows how much foolery goes into this sort of enterprise and is not like dumber historical novelists who don’t realise they are writing anachronisms.
            Winder’s main joke is to eventually to give us the whole script of Shakespeare’s non-existent play Henry the Seventh. OK, it lacks a really strong arc of dramatic action. Its language abounds in words that didn’t exist in the early 17th century. But it bounces along in such well-trimmed cod blank-verse iambic pentameters that you can’t help admiring Winder’s sheer cheek.
            I thoroughly enjoyed this extremely silly, historically inaccurate, fantastical and jolly piece of fluff, even if it does meander past 400 pages. Does it present a convincing view of Jacobean London? As much as some reputedly serious studies have. Does it reflect the way Shakespeare really was? It would be nice to think it’s somewhere near the truth.