Monday, December 19, 2011

Something New

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

“DIGGING UP THE PAST – ARCHAEOLOGY FOR THE YOUNG AND CURIOUS” David Veart  (Auckland University Press – in association with Auckland Council,  $39:99)

“PLANET WORD” J.P.Davidson (Michael Joseph/ Penguin Books, $50)
It’s nearly Christmas, and I’m thinking of new books that I’d really like to give people for the fun of it. Books that would bring them both harmless pleasure and some solid instruction. Sorry to sound so right-thinking about it, but in the end pleasure and instruction really are my two essential criteria for good non-fiction books.

I think I’ve found two books that fit the bill, and conveniently one is aimed at intelligent teenagers while one is aimed at adults.

David Veart’s Digging Up the Past is the one for teenagers and it’s to be hoped that school libraries will snap up copies of it. It is a simple and sprightly introduction to archaeology in 104 large, accessible and well-illustrated pages. As this is a specifically New Zealand production (Veart is a DOC archaeologist), all its examples of digs, discoveries and forms of evidence are New Zealand ones.

Veart takes his young readers through carbon-dating and how it was part of the technique used in disproving Andrew Sharp’s “drift” theory of Maori navigation. He shows what can be deduced from the footprints (caught in ancient volcanic ash) on Motutapu. He considers how earlier archaeologists were often mistaken in their attempts to reconstruct moa, and he gives a vivid account of the moa bones on the Wairau Bar.

For young readers, new concepts are introduced with suggestions for hands-on experiments. Veart cheerfully advises kids to go through the week’s rubbish bag to work out the order in which rubbish was discarded. This leads into a discussion on the importance to archaeologists of middens and coprolites (fossilised poo). Reconstructing the complex engineering of Maori pa leads naturally into the uses of aerial photography in archaeology. How many kumara pits, ancient walls and terraces would have remained undetected if not seen from the air?

Veart also covers archaeology in urban sites (the uncovering of Dunedin’s ‘corduroy’ street) and includes a stirring account of the wild-goose-chase for the early  sea-planes that were supposedly hidden in Auckland’s North Head. Veart’s definitive solution (he was one of the archaeologists on the case) is that the planes were never stored there. They were destroyed, and some parts dispersed and sold-off, in the 1920s.

Digging Up the Past may not have the most original title in the world. (When I was a teenager, I read Sir Leonard Woolley’s venerable introduction to archaeology which has the same title). But it doesn’t matter. Veart’s book has an intelligent and engaging text and the images are 50% of its worth, from those huge kauri logs jammed in an ancient race, to the shots of a nineteenth century Chinese gold-diggers’ settlement.

Planet Word is a different kettle of fish – over 400 pages of text, with a lot of illustrations, in a very bulky hardback.

Even though I’m happily recommending it as a Christmas present, I’m going to begin by saying some negative things. This is the “book of the BBC TV series”, which I haven’t seen. On the cover there’s a cartoon image of series’ presenter Stephen Fry, who provides an introduction; but this is a bit of a marketing ploy as the book was written entirely by the series’ producer John-Paul Davidson. I assume the five chapters correspond to five TV episodes, and I have to admit that sometimes there are anecdotes (about things Stephen Fry gets up to) which must relate to things filmed for the series. In effect, this book is the tarting-up of scripts for a documentary series. Also (and here I’m going to be insufferably snooty), some of the book’s research is a bit defective – the type of thing that would go down okay on TV, but wouldn’t survive scholarly scrutiny. Davidson’s chatty and generally informative text occasionally says things that simply aren’t true.

Okay, now I’ve got all that off my chest, here is why I still gladly recommend Planet Word as a Christmas present for adults seeking diversion.

It is very dippable.

I read it from beginning to end, and enjoyed its intelligent structure. Five (long) chapters take us through five general topics viz.

- where language comes from and how it makes human beings unique

- how each language (including dialects) reveals something about a distinct cultural identity

- acceptable and unacceptable language, including euphemism, swearing, jargon, slang and the changing nature of linguistic taboo

- the difference that having and storing a written language makes, including an account of printing and more recent technologies

- language at its highest pitch, in literature but also in advertising, propaganda and persuasion.
Naturally, all of this is broken down into sub-sections and examples, and this is where the dippability comes in. It is great fun to lose yourself in tales of how the Turkana people in Kenya struggle to retain their own language. Or how deaf-mutes can also suffer from Tourette’s Syndrome and show it in the type of sign-language they use. Or what exactly the list of banned words on the BBC used to include – and now includes. Or how Champillion set to work on the Rosetta Stone. Or what good actors feel like when they’re going to play Hamlet and know half the audience will be testing them against other performances of the same role.

In other words, it’s the type of book you can safely put on your bedside table for those last ten minutes before lights out.

[Reid’s Reader will be taking a three-week holiday break. The next posting will be on Monday 16 January]

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "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 five or more years ago.
“CHRISTMAS BOOKS” Charles Dickens (first published 1843-48)

It’s the Christmas season, so a question I asked myself a couple of years ago is relevant.

I knew that between 1843 and 1848, when he was in his thirties, Charles Dickens produced five “Christmas Books” in the following order: A Christmas Carol; The Chimes; The Cricket on the Hearth; The Battle of Life and The Haunted Man. Each is a novella – somewhere between fifty and eighty ordinary pages in length. Each was specifically written and published for the Christmas market. Collectively they help explain why Dickens’ hearty, family-celebration concept of Christmas has become the secular British and American template for what Christmas is.

I knew that A Christmas Carol was and is immensely popular – so much so that it has been filmed more than any other work by Dickens, with adaptations ranging from the best of them (Alistair Sim’s definitive turn in the 1951 version called Scrooge) to the musical starring Albert Finney and to parodies and variants starring everybody from The Muppets to Jim Carrey. I venture to suggest that, at Christmas, the miser reformed by ghostly visitations has sometimes loomed as large in Anglophone consciousness as the baby born in the manger.

In the light of all this, then, I formulated my question:- Given the huge impact of A Christmas Carol, how come Dickens’ other four  “Christmas Books” are scarcely known at all nowadays?

They were all dramatised for the stage and were reasonably popular in the Victorian age. Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens – A Life (Viking/Penguin 2011), the most recent biography of Dickens, tells me that The Chimes was the little book Dickens  is seen reading to an enraptured circle of friends in a famous drawing. But by the early 21st century, the four “Christmas Books” that are not A Christmas Carol (1843) have passed from public consciousness.

How curious.

Naturally, I proceeded to read all five “Christmas Books” to see why.

I will not insult you by doing a critique of the one you know, but here is my report on the other four.

The Chimes (1844), subtitled A Goblin Story of Some Bells that Rang an Old Year Out and a New Year In, has a basic concept similar to A Christmas Carol. A redemptive dream makes a man change his whole attitude to life. In this case the good-hearted porter Toby (“Trotty”) Veck comes to believe, from reading dismal newspaper reports of crime and poverty, that some people are naturally bad. But in his dream, the “goblins” who control New Year bells show him that people’s “badness” is caused only by the absence of good people to provide support and charitable works to the needy and despairing. “Trotty” sees what would happen to his own daughter and to the niece of a friend if he were not there to guide them – one is tempted to suicide and the other becomes a prostitute. “Trotty” wakes from his dream resolved to continue his life of charity and to judge people less harshly.

“Trotty” is himself a good comic character (I remember once, as a kid, seeing a schoolboy in a speech competition doing a good comic turn with one of “Trotty’s” monologues). But his reform is neither as dramatic nor as necessary as Scrooge’s and his dream takes up less than a third of the narrative, which is loaded with rather time-specific social satire. As always, some of the things Dickens says are perennially true. I felt some modern resonance in his portraits of liberal social reformers who gratify themselves while blaming the poor for their poverty. The concept of people’s lives being ruined by the absence of good charitable people is a potent one too. Some film-critics have seen The Chimes as the ancestor of Frank Capra’s famous sentimental Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Maybe so, but it simply does not have the narrative coherence of A Christmas Carol.

I find it hard to be even that positive about the next two in the “Christmas Books” series, however. Both The Cricket on the Hearth (1845) subtitled A Fairy Tale of Home, and The Battle of Life (1846) subtitled A Love Story, are sentimental love stories without any supernatural or dream element.

In The Cricket on the Hearth, an honest workman is perturbed to see his innocent young wife apparently making up to a handsome young man. But it turns out that she is merely contriving to bring two lovers together in marriage. There is an arbitrarily-introduced Scrooge-like character who is arbitrarily reformed, and throughout the story there is the intrusive image of a cricket chirping on the hearth as a symbol of domestic bliss. I discover that the sentimental D.W.Griffith once filmed this in the days of silent cinema. It figures.

In The Battle of Life a young woman nobly gives up the young man to whom she is engaged because she can see that her sister really loves him and the feeling is mutual. The “battle” of the title is the unseen and unsuspected battle going on in her heart. Dickens reminds us that such emotional struggles are the stuff of everyday life.

Dickens never wrote anything devoid of some interest, and there are admirable moments in both these tales. The best of The Cricket on the Hearth is a sadly-comic detail in which a pauper describes his wretched hovel to his blind daughter in such terms that she imagines it’s a palace. If he were in another mood, Dickens could have developed this into a great piece of comic grotesquerie. The Battle of Life has a great set-piece description of a dance by the light of a winter fire, a pair of lawyers called Snitchley and Craggs and some comic proletarians, including one called Benjamin Britain (!). I love the jolly Daniel Maclise frontispiece (of the two sisters dancing) to the edition of The Battle of Life that I own. But the net effect of both stories is very lavender-and-lace, like a bad Christmas card. I detect Dickens straining for the Christmas market with something contrived and vapid.

Dickens returned to the essential structure of his first two “Christmas Books” in his last one, The Haunted Man (1848), which once again has redemption coming through a dream or supernatural intervention. The full title is The Haunted Man and the Ghost’s Bargain – A Fancy for Christmas Time. Much to my surprise, this proves to be the strongest of the series after A Christmas Carol, and I wonder if Dickens ended the “Christmas Books” here because he wanted to quit while he was ahead.

The teacher of chemistry Redlaw  has painful memories of bad things that have happened to him in the past. A ‘ghost’ (it is heavily implied that this is simply part of his own consciousness) gives him the gift not only of forgetting evils from the past, but of passing on this gift to others. When Redlaw does so, however, people who were once cheerful and charitable become nasty and misanthropic. It has a happy ending, of course, but the moral is that remembering even the negative things in life is a necessary part of maturing and finding forgiveness. We can sympathise with other people’s sorrows only when we know and recall sorrows of our own. The story’s repeated motto is “Lord, keep my memory green.”

Like “Trotty” Veck’s reformation in The Chimes, the reformation of Redlaw in The Haunted Man is neither as necessary nor as dramatic as the reformation of Scrooge. But this is still a powerful story. Dickens’ image of a feral, uncared-for child is quite terrifying and I think the Tetterby family he creates – impoverished but loving – is more convincing than Bob Cratchit’s family in A Christmas Carol. There are moments of that same demonic imagination that led Dickens to create Fagin and Quilp. One is the Tetterby baby, unsentimentally described as “Moloch” because she sacrifices the life of a child – her elder brother, who has to look after her. Of course there is the harmonious bustle of a loving family in the depiction of the Tetterbys, but the image of a baby trying everybody’s patience by crying and demanding attention is ferociously real.

In the end, how do I rate these stories? The Battle of Life and The Cricket on the Hearth are nowhere. The Chimes and The Haunted Man are very good but not as good as A Christmas Carol.

So what does this all mean? It means that, as so often, popular taste is correct. A Christmas Carol is the one of the “Christmas Books” that is still remembered and loved quite simply because it is the best. Now I know why it is endlessly revived and dramatised while the others are read only to specialists.

[Reid’s Reader will be taking a three-week holiday break. The next posting will be on Monday 16 January]

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 

I read all five of Dickens’ “Christmas Books” and I discovered that the one everybody knows, A Christmas Carol, really is the best of them. And this sets my mind galloping off on one of its favourite hobby-horses.

Here’s to the Common Reader!!

Here’s to Popular Taste!!

In the short run the Common Reader is often dead wrong, and gives her vote to trashy bestsellers and tosh. But in the long run, she’s usually dead right.

Why are Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth better known than his Cymbeline and Love’s Labours Lost? Because they’re better plays, that’s why. The Common Reader has said so for four hundred years. Why do we still read Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale and not his Endymion? Same reason, over two hundred years. Why is it that that vulgarian Dickens is still gobbled up in dozens of new editions, while George Meredith, whom late Victorian intellectuals thought the tops, is now for Eng Lit specialists only? Same reason, over one hundred and fifty years. And didn’t all the highbrows say in the 1920s and 1930s that Charles Morgan was the sine qua non of highbrow novel writing, while that Evelyn Waugh bounder was a cheap sardonic joker? Guess which one still gets read.

Over the long run, it’s Popular Taste that makes the classics. Academic critics can direct their students to read texts and keep the memory of certain books alive longer than might be the case without such an academic push. But even in Academe, students are soon aware of which texts are being studied for the sake of historical interest or academic critics and which because they still live and speak to us.

Literary classics are the books and poems that literate people read by choice fifty or more years after they were first published – not the books and poems they are told to read. So I steal the term that Virginia Woolf used for her series of engaging literary essays and speak of the Common Reader.

She usually knows what’s what.

I will illustrate all these propositions in typically eccentric fashion.

A while back I took it into my head to read all the poems of the eighteenth century poet William Collins (1721-59). I had read and re-read his famous Ode to Evening and had decided it was one of my favourite poems, for all its antique and formal vocabulary. The “short shrill shriek” of the bat and the hailing of evening’s “genial lov’d return” and the mention of “Winter yelling thro’ the troublous air” are my favourite lines. It’s one of those twilight poems, like Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard, and in a way I’m inclined to think it’s better than Gray.

Often enough I’d encountered a handful of Collins’ poems in the standard anthologies, where the Ode to Evening always starred, together with the short verses which begin  “How sleep the brave who sink to rest/ By all their country’s wishes blest” and sometimes accompanied by bits of his verses on Scottish Highland scenery.

I was partly stimulated to read Collins’ collected poems by Kay Redfield Jamison’s Touched with Fire – Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament (1993), a book about the effects of mental unbalance on artistic creativity. Knowing virtually nothing about  Collins before I read Redfield, I was surprised to find that he was “melancholy-mad”, that is, a severe depressive. I then read Oswald Doughty’s British Council pamphlet about him (1964), which gave a full account of his life, and found myself even more intrigued. Collins clearly was a wounded man – a reasonably good student at Oxford, and expected to do great things, but “indolent”, which seems to have been indicative of his depression and the torpor and lack of focus that it brings. He left Oxford to seek literary fame in London, but did not achieve much there, although he did become acquainted with major literary figures. In his lifetime, his highest point of fame may have been when his ode The Passions was performed to music at Oxford.

When reduced to a very low financial ebb, he survived because he came into a modest legacy from his uncle, which kept him to the end of his days.

It’s not hard to read all his surviving poems. Shorn of critical commentary, they take up about 45 pages in the edition I got hold of, including his juvenilia. Collins had written all he would write by his early 30s. He was eventually quite insane and was locked up. Apparently he destroyed many poems that others had heard him read aloud, thinking they were not good enough. Apparently his sister – who had the same melancholy temperament – destroyed more of his poems after his death at the age of 38.

I read his collected poems carefully and what did I find?

First there were poems written when he was 17, in iambic pentameters and rhyming couplets, pointing morals in picturesquely exotic settings and with a few felicitous lines. (His adolescent description of Chastity for example - “Cold is her breast, like flowers that drink the dew, /A silken veil conceals her from the view.”).

Then there were more mature works, Odes, most of them addressed to personifications of abstractions – to Mercy, to Fear, to Pity, to the Poetic Character, to Simplicity. Their syntax is nearly always complicated, the allegorical machinery confused, and the imagery conventional Classicism. Once again there are a few good lines here and there. I happily buy Collins’ description of Aeschylus, the patriotic Greek tragedian, in his Ode to Fear:-

 “Yet he, the bard who first invok’d thy name,
Disdain’d in Marathon its power to feel:
For not alone he nurs’d the poet’s flame,
But reach’d from Virtue’s hand the patriot’s steel

Stirring Augustan stuff.

I am loath to fit poets into a slot. Collins has been teamed with Thomas Gray, Christopher Smart, William Cowper, Thomas Chatterton and others as types of the proto-Romantic 18th. century poet driven mad as he strained at the bounds of Classicism. I genuinely admire (I would almost say - revere) any poet who can write even one or two poems that are still worth reading over 250 years after his death; especially a poet whose mind was clogged by habitual depression.

But having read carefully all of Collins’ poems, the best I can say for most of them is that they are quite predictable early eighteenth century stuff. And they do not live.

So what does all this have to do with the Common Reader and Popular Taste?

After diligently reading all of Collins I conclude that, as so often, the anthologists prove to be annoyingly accurate.

Collins’ greatest poem really is the much-anthologised Ode to Evening, with not much else coming anywhere near it. Of his collected works, the poem I most regret is the long Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland, because I think it contains some of his best writing and is on a theme where he could describe physical realities rather than straining at abstractions. The regret is that it is incomplete, was never published in his lifetime, and is filled with gaps which he once intended to fill out.

But even here, I find the anthologists have got it right. In the New Oxford Book of English Verse, Helen Gardner reprints two stanzas from the Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands of Scotland and gives them a title of her own devising, The Stormy Hebrides. They include one of Collins’ best stanzas :-

 “Unbounded is thy range; with varied stile
Thy muse may, like those feath’ry tribes that spring
From their rude rocks, extend her skirting wing
Round the moist marge of each cold Hebrid isle,
To that hoar pile which still its ruin shows:
In whose small vaults a pigmy-folk is found,
Whose bones the delver with his spade upthrows,
And culls them, wondr’ing, from the hallow’d ground.

If I had wanted to read the best of Collins, I could have stuck with the anthologies and the selections that are frequently reprinted. The Common Reader triumphs once again. The bits that are worth reading are the bits that are most often read.

Here’s to William Collins, stuffy, depressed and finally mad as a meat-axe, but still writing a couple of great poems.

And here’s to the Common Reader, who knows what’s worth reading when she reads it.

The anthologies prove it.

[Reid’s Reader will be taking a three-week holiday break. The next posting will be on Monday 16 January]

Monday, December 12, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE WINE OF SOLITUDE” Irene Nemirovsky (Sandra Smith trans.) (Chatto and Windus/Random House $34:99)

Here is a new book which is 76 years old – first published in France in 1935 as Le Vin de Solitude, but “new” because only now does it get an English translation.

A little explanation is in order.

Irene Nemirovsky was born in 1903 in Kiev in the Ukraine. Her father was a Russian-Jewish banker and entrepreneur who thrived in late Tsarist Russia. The family often holidayed in France and spoke French fluently, as most cultured Russians then did. During the First World War the family moved to the capital, St Petersburg. When the October Revolution came they fled to Finland, and finally made it to France.

Always written in French, Irene’s first novels were published in France in the mid-1920s, when she was in her early twenties. She rapidly became a best-seller with her vivid (and sometimes lurid) tales of Russian émigrés in France, high finance and fraught family relations. She was a literary high-flyer. Some of her novels were made into movies. But she never took out French citizenship. When the Nazis occupied France in 1940, she was classified as a “stateless Jew” and (despite having judiciously converted to Catholicism a few years before), she was carted off to Auschwitz where she was murdered in 1942, at the age of 39.

Irene Nemirovsky would have been forgotten, like many best-sellers of former days, except for one extraordinary circumstance. In the late 1990s, one of her surviving daughters found among her papers the manuscript of two unpublished novellas, which Irene wrote in the first months of the Nazi occupation. They were published under the title Suite Francaise in 2004, caused a sensation in France, were hailed by some as the best-ever fictional reaction to the Fall of France and led to an international revival of interest in Nemirovsky.

There has been some controversy in this. Nemirovsky’s merciless and unflattering portraits of some Jewish characters has led to the charge that she was a “self-hating Jew”, especially as, in the last phases of trying to stave off the death camp, she tried to win favour by sucking up to anti-Semitic writers in France. But it is hard to justify this charge on the evidence of the novels themselves.

Sandra Smith’s translations have introduced all Nemirovsky’s novels to English readers. They have been appearing steadily for the last seven years and The Wine of Solitude , written when Nemirovsky was about 30, is the latest to appear.

You can spot at once that it is heavily autobiographical, as the family and historical circumstances of its main character, Helene Karol, are the circumstances of Irene Nemirovsky . Helene’s father Boris is a Russian-Jewish businessman. Her mother Bella is a spoilt Russian Gentile who comes from the Safronov family and seems to have married Boris only for his money. The novel spans most of twenty years, from Helene’s early childhood to her young adulthood in her early twenties.

The four sections of the novel chronicle four phases in the family’s life. In the first, before the First World War, the family live in a dull provincial Ukrainian town near the river Dneiper. In the second they move to St Petersburg as the war is in progress and Russia’s two revolutions (February and October) rumble past their windows. In the third, they are in exile in Finland and in the fourth they are settled in France.

Nemirovsky’s writing about time and place – much of it presumably drawn from memory – is vivid. The boredom of the provincial town and its snobberies, with card-playing nobodies pretending they are cultured society and just a genteel whiff of anti-Semitism here and there. The fears of a Russian  entrepreneurial middle-class as its stocks and shares shoot up to incredible and unsustainable values during the war. The inconveniences of revolution, where power is cut off and aristocrats are giving away heirlooms at knock-down prices and businesspeople are making feverish plans to scarper. In exile in Finland, huddled in a hut with people of different persuasions and trying not to notice flames in the night sky as the Finnish Civil War draws nearer and Finnish Whites take bloody revenge on Finnish Reds. And a sharp evocative scene as the ship taking them to France travels down La Manche on the night the Treaty of Versailles is signed. Its passengers see on both the French and the English coasts fireworks displays celebrating Victory, and yet they all look very dispiriting as everybody already knows that The Peace won’t be much fun.

Told like this, The Wine of Solitude may sound like an “historical” novel concerned mainly with public events.  But this is not the case. Remember, the public events it reflects were recent memory when Irene Nemirovsky wrote it (it would be like us writing about the 1980s and 1990s). More important, the focus really is on the family and on the development of Helene Karol, who is always centre-stage. Big public events are largely “noises off”.

And here we come to one of the most embarrassing things about this novel. The main themes of The Wine of Solitude are Helene’s growing hatred of her mother and her growing awareness that in the end even one’s family is no substitute for the individual conscience and consciousness. “The wine of solitude” is what you drink once you reach this bitter conclusion.

In detail, the novel shows little Helene, an only child, admiring her father Boris, despite his buccaneering business ways, but despising her flighty, selfish and self-indulgent mother Bella. The only real solace the little girl has is her kindly French nursemaid, Mademoiselle Rose, who reinforces her love of things French. But her mother cruelly sends the nursemaid away and Helene has to find other stratagems to counter her mother’s enmity. Once she discovers that her mother routinely cheats on her father and takes lovers, Helene is ready to use her own budding sexual powers and become her mother’s rival. Towards the novel’s end, as Helene is young and ripe, Bella is being described as a “hag” (the word is used often) in her mid-40s, desperately trying to prolong her youth by buying the favours of men much younger than herself. In its French scenes, the novel reminded me of the corrupt world of Colette, but without Colette’s charm.

Our knowledge of Irene Nemirovsky’s murder by the Nazis will of course incline us to sympathise with her and see things her way. But this really is a bitter and harsh story. Enmity of mother and daughter must equal enmity of father and son as one of the perennial themes in novels about growing-up, but it rarely reaches the acid levels it does here. Helene hates her mother and the feeling is mutual. The girl’s alienation from family is only heightened by being played out in a land foreign to her.

I was readying myself to make one crushing criticism of this novel. I thought the child’s awareness and judgements often seemed far too mature. Perhaps, I thought, the adult Nemirovsky was attributing more maturity to her younger self than she actually possessed. On reflection, though, I think she gets it right. Children often do see and intuit quite complex things about their parents, even if they lack the words to express them. Even more to the author’s credit, she repeatedly shows Helene having pangs of guilt about her hatred of her mother, though she can never rescind it.

One warning – beautifully translated by Sandra Smith, The Wine of Solitude is still a novel of its age, and it has some stylistic features that belong more to the 1930s than they do to us. Often there are big melodramatic gestures in scenes between mother and daughter; or mother spurned by young lover. Certainly there is a big, overblown rhetorical flourish to finish it off as Helene marches boldly into life.

That said, it is still a compelling read, and a vivid and moving story, repugnant though some of the main characters’ feeling may be.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "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 five or more years ago.

“THE LAST OF THE JUST” Andre Schwartz-Bart  (first published in French in 1959;  Stephen Becker’s English translation first published in 1961)

To read a French novel written by a woman who died in Auschwitz inevitably reminds me of what is still the best French-language literary response to the Shoah (Holocaust).

Andre Schwartz-Bart’s The Last of the Just (Le Dernier des Justes) won France’s highest literary award, the Prix Goncourt, in 1959 and is sometimes cited as the best Prix Goncourt-winner ever (in much the same way that Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is often called the “Booker of Bookers”). It is really the only novel by Andre Schwartz-Bart (1928-2006) that made any impact. After its publication, he basically retired from literary life, having said everything he wanted to say. He produced a few minor things but took a back seat to his novelist wife.

The Last of the Just took him many years to write. In making the Shoah his theme, he knew what he was writing about. Schwartz-Bart’s Polish-Jewish family settled in France. The young teenager Andre was the only one to survive when, during the German Occupation, his parents and brothers and sisters were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Though only a kid, Andre was already active in the Resistance at the time of the round-up and he saw the war through. But, as I deduce from the novel itself, with his survival came what has often been designated “survivor guilt”. Among groups who were targeted by Nazis, those who survived often suffered extremes of guilt at the thought that they still lived while people they loved had been murdered. For some, a sense of shame was coupled with a sense of responsibility and questions such as  “Why did God choose me to survive?” or “Why did God allow this to happen at all?”

These sorts of questions seem to me to inform The Last of the Just. The novel has as its central character a Polish Jew, Ernie Levy. But in telling Ernie’s story, it takes on the whole history of anti-Jewish persecution in Europe and uses the framework of an ancient Jewish legend. In every age, says the legend, there exist the “Lamed-Waf” or the “Just”, those righteous Jews whose business it is to take the sufferings of the Jewish people upon themselves and to remind God of this suffering.

 Through many generations of the Levy family, the early part of the novel takes us from a pogrom in medieval York to a ghettoised village in Poland in the 1920s, where Benjamin Levy finally decides to go to one of the more civilised Western European countries where pogroms never happen – Germany.

The inevitable happens when the Nazis come to power. Benjamin’s elder son Moritz tries to fight the Nazis with head-on violence, and fails. Benjamin’s younger son Ernie gradually comes to realize that he is one of the “Lamed-Waf” for his generation. The family manage to flee to France after the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938.

Many of the scenes set in Nazi Germany are vivid and horrible – the rising tone of hysteria as neighbouring families, who had not previously shown any anti-Semitism, accept the government’s propaganda. The pitiful account of a German schoolteacher who attempts to look after his Jewish pupils and gets dismissed from his post as a result.

In a way, though, all this is prelude to what must have been the most personal sections of the novel for Andre Schwartz-Bart. These are the scenes set in France – first with Ernie Levy in the French army as it suffers its collapse on the Ardennes front; then Ernie on the run in the Unoccupied (Vichy) Zone, where he encounters various degrees of sympathy, prejudice and exploitation before the big round-up. Much of this would have hit post-war 1950s France with guilt, as the novel explores levels of French complicity in the round-up.

When I first read this novel, I twitched with impatience as the best part of one hundred pages went by on generational history before the focus fell on Ernie. Then I realized that this was necessary for Ernie to be able to bear the weight and significance of Jewish history.

In its denouement Ernie, as one of the “Just”, willingly accepts his own extermination by turning himself in and comforting children on the cattle truck in which they are being taken to be gassed. The idea, as I read it, is that God’s goodness can only be shown by the good that people do in extreme situations.

But there are a whole lot of problems with this reading, as there are with the novel itself for many readers.

Can such a religious concept really explain massive suffering on the scale the novel acknowledges? Doesn’t God Himself fail the test when He is once again asked (as Job asked) “Why is there suffering in the world?” In the great scheme of things, does one considerate and loving man on a cattle truck really balance six million horrible deaths? Ernie may fulfil his destiny as one of the “Just” and become most authentically himself by completely identifying with the suffering of the Jewish people, even unto death.  But could this just be  an existential affirmation of self? Or could it be a mystique of suffering pointlessly accepted? And isn’t Schwarz-Bart himself aware of these awkward questions? After all, Ernie Levy is the LAST of the Just, and maybe that means the whole concept of atonement by personal suffering is rendered defunct by Auschwitz. As for the “survivor guilt” element, the Kaddish of the very last page has the omniscient narrator saying “I cannot help thinking Ernie Levy, dead six million times, is still alive, somewhere, I don’t know where.

Oh if only, if only….

How acceptable would it have been for a non-Jewish writer to suggest that, for a conscientious man,  a proper moral response to the Holocaust would be to submit to it?

Yet you cannot shake off the religious element in this novel. It is firmly rooted in the whole Isaiah tradition of the “suffering servant” which, paradoxically, was developed by Christians as the image of Christ dying for our sins. Paradoxically, because the burdensome weight of Christian anti-Semitism is felt throughout this novel.

When I read this novel, my pen was kept busy copying pungent passages into my notebook.

Consider Ernie’s words as he explains Christian anti-Semitism to a woman he loves: - “They don’t exactly know why themselves. I’ve been to their churches and I’ve read their gospels. Do you know who Christ was? A simple Jew like your father. A kind of Hasid…. He was a really good Jew, you know, sort of like the Baal Shem Tov; a merciful man and gentle. The Christians say they love him, but I think they hate him without knowing it; so they take the cross by the other end and make a sword out of it , and strike us with it.

Then there’s Ernie’s riposte to the impatient Parisian concierge when all her Jewish tenants are forcibly kicked out of her building and she is therefore losing income: “Don’t worry about it, madame, all your Jews will be back. All of them… and if they don’t come back, you’ll still have the Negroes or the Algerians… or the hunchbacks.

And for philosophy, there are the words of the doctor, a Christian-convert Jew, who speaks to Ernie en route to extermination; “Do I still believe?... it depends on the times. When I was a gentleman, as you put it, one of my friends used to tease me by asking if God, in his omnipotence, could create a stone so heavy that he couldn’t lift it. Which is more or less my position: I believe in God, and I believe in the stone.

Believing in God but believing in the stone could be the epigraph of The Last of the Just. It is still a great novel.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 

You are perfectly entitled to ask what the poncy Latin words of this week’s heading mean.

Literally and word-for-word they mean “Reading without pen sleep”. The Latin language was pithy when it came to devising mottoes without main verbs in them, so you have to unpack it a bit. When you do, you get something like “If you read without a pen in your hand [to take notes] then you might as well be asleep.”

I read this motto somewhere and jotted it down but (oh cruel irony!) I forgot to take a note of who said it. I think it was a medieval scholar. It might have been Thomas Aquinas. Anyway, I rewrite the four Latin words each month on my desk-pad and they are among my guiding principles.

Lectio sine stylum somnium.

You may have noticed that sometimes, when I mention an older book (as in this week’s ”Something Old”), I refer to my notebooks.

Let me explain.

About twenty years ago, I began the habit of writing in a notebook something about every book I read, from the weightiest and most considerable tome to the veriest piece of formula junk. As I do a lot of reviewing for various publications, I of course keep a copy of every review I write. However I also take notes on what I don’t review, but read for pleasure or for study. So I have a pile of notebooks filled with comments on everything I’ve read for the last twenty years.

This might seem an odd or eccentric habit of mine, and it can be time-consuming. When I read some things, I write quite a lot about them in my notebooks. I might even copy out passages that appeal to me. But I know why I began the habit and I know why I continue it. I simply got sick of the fact that years or even months after reading something, all I would retain of it in my brain would be a vague sense of its meaning and a vague recollection of how I felt about it.

Unless you have an extraordinarily retentive memory, you will find the same is true of you.

I was goaded, too, by a phrase I found in the autobiography of the poet Siegfried Sassoon. He said that turning back in a book serves only to remind us of how much we’ve forgotten.

So even before I’d found the Latin motto, I had a similar insight. If you read without jotting some things down, you will retain nothing much. You might as well be asleep when you read.

There is one obvious disadvantage with this approach, mind. Rather than surrendering to a book, you might find yourself looking instead for things to write about it. Indeed, you might not appreciate it so much as dissect it.

I can remember this same feeling bugging me in the thirty years I was a film reviewer. Sitting in the dark with a pen and pad on my knee, I would jot down things while watching a movie and come home feeling very dissatisfied, as if I had captured fragments of it rather than enjoying the whole. Gradually, I discovered it was better to jot down a whole lot of notes towards a review immediately after seeing a film, rather than while the film was running. That way pleasure was followed by analysis, rather than analysis impairing pleasure.

I think this is the way I now tend to play it with books, though I can’t resist noting page numbers (for interesting quotations) as I read. And if this analytical habit occasionally interrupts the narrative flow of a book, it’s a trade-off I’m willing to make for the certainty of not forgetting the things I read.

Lectio sine stylum somnium.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Something New,

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

“THE BROKEN BOOK” Fiona Farrell (Auckland University Press, $34:99)
A couple of years back, a publisher suggested to Fiona Farrell that she write a meditative, reflective book about walks she had taken. This seemed a good idea to the Canterbury-based writer. But she was only part of the way through the task when her home province was struck by two earthquakes – first the jolt of September 2010, which caused a scare but killed nobody; then the horror of February 2011, which killed many people, smashed up Christchurch’s CBD and some of its suburbs, and continues to be followed by thousands of after-shocks.

Fiona Farrell’s The Broken Book is broken in two senses. It is broken because it is not the book she began to write. And it is broken because it has to reflect on broken people and things. After a “Preamble” (the amble that comes before the walks themselves, I guess) this is indeed a reflective account of four walks, but they are interspersed with 21 post-quake poems on a shattered home, on crockery shifting and smashing, on people panicking on the seventh floor, on sleeping under temporary tarpaulin, on more subtle unease. Indeed on all the things that remind us tectonic plates grind together and the earth beneath our feet shifts and is unstable. It is not the solid earth in which walkers often think they are delighting.

Whenever one of Farrell’s serene and reflective accounts begins to seduce us with a vision of sweet bucolic nature, in comes a terse poem to knock us off our feet a little.

In each of Fiona Farrell’s four walks, I note she finds objects of sympathy, empathy or solidarity - but not of pity, which implies a sort of condescension.
First there is a walk she took in 2009 in the Cevennes, in France. Spurning the religious pilgrimage track to Compostella (she doesn’t believe in concepts of sin, redemption or afterlife, and is no pilgrim),  Farrell briefly follows the trail of Robert Louis Stevenson, who, as a young writer, made a best-seller out of his travels there with the hired donkey Modestine. As she moves, Farrell deplores the way Stevenson beat his little female donkey mercilessly to keep her going. This walk turns into a reflection on the imperious nature of human beings as they exploit animals.

Then there’s the walk she took near Menton when she was Mansfield Fellow there. At first she has thoughts on limestone and on the ancientness of crustaceans, similar to what provided the imagery underpinning her novel Limestone (published in 2009). But as she thinks of Katherine Mansfield, the subject of  “consumption” (tuberculosis) leads to a whole train of thoughts on old sanatoria, the health tourism of the rich one hundred years ago, and the death of her tubercular uncle. She puzzles over whether or not it is true (as was once believed) that those afflicted with TB had heightened periods of perception and creativity.

As you can see from these first two walks, this is unashamedly a book of reflections, not of topographical or landscape descriptions like a guide-book. Farrell can certainly do description when she wants to, but any walk is as much a pretext as a subject.

This is most true of the third walk, the longest in the book. It begins with Farrell and her little grand-daughter in the Dunedin botanic gardens, but it segues into a long reflection on motherhood, grandmotherhood, wife-hood, woman-writer-hood and womanhood itself, sometimes throwing darts at male and misogynistic writers, sometimes reflecting ironically on the more strident feminist fashions of Farrell’s own youth, and definitely giving much autobiography. The tone is forgiving and tolerant. Parents and upbringing are forgiven. So is the young self.

And then to the last one, followed by an epilogue. The impact of Canterbury’s two earthquakes. The odd buoyancy of the first one. Disorientation, a fallen chimney, and emerging from a darkened house to see with curiosity how others were getting on. The horror of the second one, which struck when Farrell was driving south and far from Christchurch’s CBD. In both, there is a sense of reality shaken and reactions being other than expected. Farrell tells us of her fleeing up a nearby hill when her home was threatened by a tsunami – and then being oddly disappointed when the tsunami didn’t come.

The Broken Book is a book of lovely limpid prose. It is a pleasure to read and evidence of a fine mind which is self-aware without being self-absorbed. In fact it is so good that there are parts I want to argue with, as I always do with a good book.

Farrell is well-read but does occasionally come close to literary smart-arsery, especially when she has her woman-writer hat on and wants to take illustrious male writers down a peg. Thus with wisecracks about the probable smell of T.S.Eliot’s farts. She admires Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries d’un Promeneur Solitaire (Reflections of a Solitary Walker) as a sort of template for her own habit of writing about the things that occur to her as she rambles. Partly for this reason, she forgives Rousseau for his self-evident male chauvinism and hypocrisy in abandoning his own children while presuming to tell others how to raise their children.

Given that she acknowledges these notorious aspects of Rousseau, it’s odd that she is so indulgent to him and so merciless about poor Robert Louis Stevenson. While admitting that she hasn’t read much of RLS’s work, she takes big swipes at his presumption and colonialism and lustily sets about demolishing the image of Tusitala, the benign story-teller in Samoa. I note her main source is the biography of Stevenson by Claire Harman, which I reviewed for the NZ Listener on 1 July 2006 (you can find the review on the Listener’s website) and which, on balance, is a lot more positive about RLS than Farrell is. Whatever you think of his works, RLS was a relatively harmless chap while Rousseau’s ideas did infinite harm in the public arena, so I’m genuinely puzzled about Farrell’s preference.

On the other hand, when Farrell first philosophizes about earthquakes, after Christchurch’s first jolt, I am pleased to see that she dives at once for Voltaire’s long poem on the Lisbon earthquake. That is exactly what I would do, ever since I first read it as an appendix to the edition of Candide we used in undergraduate French.

So I quibble about some of the fine details, but I still enjoy taking these strolls with Farrell. Yes, this is the best literary response to the Christchurch earthquakes that we have so far had. 

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "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 five or more years ago. 

“RUNAWAY” Alice Munro (first published 2004)
A good book by one woman leads me to recall a very good book by another. This is part of the liberal conscience that sometimes pesters me and reminds me that I shouldn’t overload this blog with male writers only. On the other hand, I would never be so patronising as to recommend a second-rate book by a woman simply because it was by a woman. And the book I am recommending here is not second-rate. It is the type of book you should search out in your library, borrow, re-new and re-new again so that you can savour slowly its stories and their skills.

A little bit of background. A couple of years ago I was commissioned to interview the New Zealand novelist and short-story writer Charlotte Grimshaw for a book of author-interviews called Words Chosen Carefully (edited by Siobhan Harvey, Cape Catley publishers 2010). Charlotte has a number of times used the interesting form of linked short stories – that is, short stories which are complete in themselves, but in which there are characters who recur in other stories, so that the significance of each story sometimes shifts subtly once one has read the whole collection. Among much else, I asked her what her influences were. One name that kept coming up was Alice Munro.

I hastened to acquaint myself with Munro’s work.

This fact will at once condemn me as an ignoramus in some readers’ eyes, as I should have known who Alice Munro was in the first place. As I now know, she is one of Canada’s most distinguished authors and certainly Canada’s best-known writer of short stories -  a Booker Prize-winner and sometimes suggested as a possible for the Nobel Prize.

She was born in 1931 in Southwestern Ontario, where many of her tales are set, so she turned eighty this year. Stories of family, love, personal relationships and work are her forte, often with a melancholic overlay. She is rarely as overtly political or as concerned to make social comment as my favourite late 20th century woman writer, the South African Nadine Gordimer. Munro fits distantly into the literary pedigree of Joyce, Chekhov and Mansfield. In her earlier work, she was concerned with the moment when the truth is made clear, the Joycean ‘epiphany’. But as she has grown older, her characters have typically grown older too, and her stories now tend to concern the middle-aged and the elderly. These are people who realize, as Munro herself does, that the truth about an event can sometimes emerge only long after the event itself – maybe even years. When and if they are ‘epiphanies’, they are very delayed ones.

First published in 2004, when Munro was in her seventies, Runaway is the most impressive of the Munro collections I’ve read. It comprises eight stories (five of them first published in the New Yorker) all of which have single-word titles – ‘Runaway’, ‘Chance”, ‘Soon’, ‘Silence’, ‘Passion’, ‘Trespasses’. ‘Tricks’ and ‘Power’. All these stories stand on their own feet, but three are linked by their characters (a possible influence on Charlotte Grimshaw’s technique in her collections Opportunity and Singularity).

One of the stories, ‘Tricks’, has what amounts to a sting-in-the-tale, but it is the long psychological effect of this twist that concerns us, not the twist itself. The concluding story ‘Power’ concerns in part a woman who claims psychic powers, and is the most demanding for readers. We are soon aware that it is being filtered through two very unreliable narrators and our grasp of the ‘truth’ is very tenuous indeed.

I will not trouble you with a set of plot summaries. You will more-or-less understand the territory Munro inhabits if I simply list the situations that serve as premise to some of the stories: A woman misjudging the status of somebody else’s marriage. A mother losing her adult daughter to a cult. A young woman misreading a situation and hence failing to connect with the man she could have loved. A biological mother mistaking a girl for the child she gave up for adoption. A woman attempting to manipulate other peoples’ lives and seeing them go wrong anyway.

As you can see, Munro’s protagonists are always women, the voice is third-person and omniscient, and usually the theme is loss or some emotional connection not made.

Munro favours an elliptical structure. A number of stories set up a “present-day” situation, then explore the background and genesis of this situation (sometimes from years before)  before returning to the “present”. I am reminded of Shakespeare’s  The Winter’s Tale where, notoriously, sixteen years pass between Acts Three and Four  and the play’s denouement depends on characters being much older and wiser than they were at the beginning, and seeing their actions in earlier Acts from a more  mature perspective. This trick is hard to pull off on stage, but it can be done within the conventions of a longish short story. What Munro conveys, in effect, is the long, slow burn of lived experience.

I must warn that these are Canadian stories in many senses. They often play out in large, empty, cold landscapes. There is room for people to be isolated in small provincial settings and to brood about themselves. But if this sounds a little forbidding, the sheer craft of Munro’s telling makes them a pleasure to read.

Don’t hurry as you read them. Savour each phrase, each perception, each deft ironical shift.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


I had my 60th birthday last weekend, and I suddenly remembered something foolish I did twenty years ago, when I was forty.

I headed up a page with the words “Books I Must Read Before I am 60” and wrote a list of all the great and formidable books I intended to read.

At the age of 40, I apparently thought that I would be well into my dotage by the age of 60, probably dribbling and incontinent and certainly beyond the powers of reading and reasoning. So I had to read these books before I was too old and feeble-minded.

I don’t have the same perspective now, of course. I’m still chipper and alert, even if considerably fatter and greyer, and I’m hoping I’ve got another twenty years or so of reading and reasoning ahead of me. Time enough to read the classics.

Looking at the list now, I smugly pat myself on the back because I have gobbled up at least part of it, as I said I should.  I have read Don Quixote in a couple of translations (having no Spanish). I have read all the novels and satires of Henry Fielding. I haven’t yet managed the four Everyman volumes of Richardson’s Clarissa, but I have read the two Everyman volumes of his Pamela. Most of the novels of George Meredith and George Gissing, George Moore and George Eliot are under my belt. I’ve polished off most of Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine in English translations and a few in the original French and I’ve read half of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series in French. I’ve read Carlyle’s History of the French Revolution too.

So I could twitter on, doubtless to the immense irritation of anyone who reads this. But I am more abashed than elated at my rediscovery of my old list, as it reminds me of all the things I still haven’t got around to.

Sorry, but I’ve still not read Dostoievsky’s Brothers Karamazov. I can plead that I have read his Crime and Punishment, Notes from the House of the Dead and The Idiot, but I know this doesn’t make up for the unread masterpiece. Likewise, I never got to the end of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Something interrupted me in mid-reading and I never got back to it, despite having read War and Peace, Resurrection and the Master and Man parables. Then – and I’m very sorry about this – I’ve never read either Moby Dick or The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Obtusely,  Little Dorrit remains the only Dickens I’ve never cracked, even if it and the other books mentioned here all take up space on my shelves. As for books that aren’t on my shelves, William Faulkner remains foreign territory to me and so do many modernists who are often touted to me as essential reading.

There are actually more of the Unread than of the Read on my old list.

 This would once have been a source of some embarrassment and annoyance to me, but I think my attitude is subtly changing.

Often in my life I’ve had to answer in the negative when somebody asked me if I had read a certain well-known book. Now, I know that whoever my interlocutor may be, there will be some books I have read that he or she hasn’t. I’ve read only the much-anthologised bits of Lord Byron’s Don Juan. If I have to admit that I’ve never made it through the whole thing, I can nevertheless declare that I have made it through all of Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book. And, believe me, for formidability, opacity of language and obscurity of historical reference, there is little to beat The Ring and the Book. Truly a teeth-gritting endurance feat for which I deserve a medal.

More to the point, all reading programmes have the habit of breaking down. I read many books for study and for review. When and if I read purely for pleasure, choices tend to be serendipitous, and one thing leads to another, rather than following a prescribed order. An interesting-looking book is plucked from the library shelf. It leads to other books by the same author or on a similar theme. The mapped-out route is forgotten in the face of new discoveries.

Then there’s that matter of sheer abundance. You can’t read everything, even if you’re an avid reader. Go into a library or good bookshop and, if you’re susceptible to such feelings, be overwhelmed by how much there is. You’ll never experience every book that has been highly praised or canonised. No point in making reading a treadmill, with classic titles as the steps. When you pool your partial reading experience with other people’s partial reading experiences, you can make an interesting conversation out of recommendations and warnings.

Or at least so I now rationalise to myself.

I do suggest a therapeutic measure for residual feelings of guilt about Great Books Unread.

Write out a list of the five books you think you should have read by now, but haven’t. Post it on Reid’s Reader underneath this rant. No commentary is needed. But collectively, and if you sign your own name, we will all feel a lot better when we publicly expiate our sins of omission.