Monday, August 29, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE HUT BUILDER” Laurence Fearnley (Penguin $40)

Yes, I know this is a cheat. Strictly speaking Laurence Fearnley’s The Hut Builder is not “Something New”. It was published late last year and was extensively reviewed then. But as I admitted three weeks ago, when I covered the New Zealand Post Book Awards, it was the only one of the three finalists in the Fiction section that I hadn’t read. The other two finalists were Tim Wilson’s Their Faces Were Shining and Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Night Book, both of which I had read and admired.

And then, blow me down, it was the one I hadn’t read that won the prize. I said then that I would catch up with The Hut Builder as soon as I could, so here I now am, having done just that.

Laurence Fearnley has been much praised for her Edwin and Matilda, which I still haven’t read. Indeed the only two of her novels I had read prior to The Hut Builder were her first, Room (2000), set in an abortion clinic; and the more recent Mother’s Day (2009), about the everyday heroism of a woman struggling through low-paying jobs to keep her family together. It’s really a hymn to the Kiwi sheila as battler.

At least in part, The Hut Builder is also about low-key fortitude and forbearance which might amount to everyday heroism. Its protagonist Boden Black is the son of a butcher in Fairlie, who goes into the family trade. But he has greater things in mind than the constricted small-town existence this might imply.

First, when he was young, he took an interest in tramping and mountaineering and spent some weeks helping more experienced mountaineers build an alpine hut. That was in the early 1950s. The highpoint of the period was meeting Ed Hillary, already the conqueror of Everest, and climbing part of Mt Cook with him. This brief episode is the thing Boden’s Dad spends his lifetime boasting about to customers in his butcher-shop.

Second, responding to the wider South Island landscape of alps and Mackenzie Basin, and encouraged by at least one of his climbing companions, Boden Black discovers a talent for poetry, and tentatively submits some of it for publication.

This is a relatively new novel, so I’m loath to say more about its development beyond this basic set-up. It introduces as minor characters, or mentions in passing, some historical figures - not only Ed Hillary, but also the climbers Harry Ayres and Harry Scott, and the poet-and-editor Charles Brasch. In fact fictitious letters from the real Brasch are quoted, a technique which makes the historian in me feel a little uneasy.

The Hut Builder is narrated in the first person by Boden Black himself, and for most of its length this is one of its greatest stylistic assets. Laurence Fearnley mimics convincingly the voice of a diffident man, uncertain of his own talent and frequently abashed by the contrast between his status as a butcher and his poetic impulse. “You don’t seem the poetry type”, he is told by a girl in a Christchurch bookstore. Outwardly he is such a conformist.

The first-person narration also stays appropriate to a man who was born in the mid-1930s and grows to old age and its reminiscences. Boden has the reticence of his age and upbringing. There is much in his emotional life that he does not tell us. When, late in the novel, he makes one (fleeting and quite mild) sexual reference, it is almost shocking.

The Hut Builder does well in suggesting the toll of time, and the way the older man’s views on places he loves have changed from the views of his younger self. Fearnley also avoids the cliché of depicting an artistic young man thwarted by unsympathetic parents and family. Boden’s old Dad is puzzled, but quite sympathetic, about his son’s writing.

At the risk of seeming to carp, though, there are some things in this novel that don’t work for me. Without giving away later plot developments, I found some of the revelations about Boden’s family and background a little pat. You can feel the author’s thumb pressing characters to do and say things, so that they will fit in with her themes about broken and enduring family relationships.

The less appealing parts of the narrative are where Fearnley comes close to preaching. One influential person in Boden’s life is a man who was a conscientious objector during the Second World War. Boden learns from him to question values he had once taken for granted. But isn’t this simply asking us to admire what it is now commonplace to admire? Peace-mongers are pop icons in nuclear-free NZ. I wondered if it wouldn’t have been more interesting to have, as Boden’s mentor, a sympathetic chap who went through agonies of conscience before deciding that it was right to fight against Hitler. (There were such people). I admit, however, that this would have made it difficult to introduce into the action Ed Hillary’s conscientious objector brother.

More problematic is something The Hut Builder has in common with a number of novels about fictitious artists. We have to take it on trust that the main character is a good poet. At one stage we are told Boden Black wrote the third-most-often-anthologised New Zealand poem, beating out Baxter’s High Country Weather. The novel leads up to his being invited to write and read a poem on a public occasion, and his confidence is bolstered when people tell him how good it is.

Whenever I see that sort of claim made for a fictitious character, I recall how the naughty GBS, in one of his plays, presented his hero as a writer of genius…. and then for the printed version of the play GBS wrote some of his hero’s works to prove how true this claim was! I am very, very sorry, but for me there is a very false note in telling us that a fictitious character is a very good poet, and making so much in the novel depend on it. It comes close to Mr Holland’s Opus territory. I want to see the poems and judge for myself!

What I’m really giving here, then, is a mixed report. I enjoyed reading The Hut Builder very much, but I was not astounded by it.

The overwhelming question is – had I been a judge, would I have given it the NZ Post award for Fiction?

The answer is a definite maybe.

Footnote. By way of comparison with my reaction, you could check out Ruth Nichol’s review of The Hut Builder in the Winter 2011 issue of New Zealand Books. On the whole, Nichol seems only half-hearted about the novel, although she says some positive things. She does comment on the “formal, rather stuffy” prose of the narrator. Siobhan Harvey conducts an interview with Laurence Fearnley in the 16 July issue of the NZ Listener which you can find at the Listener site on-line. Fearnley explains how her own experiences of the South Island shaped the novel. This does not amount to a review, however.

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.
 “WILL WARBURTON” George Gissing (first published in 1905)
Reading and commenting on Laurence Fearnley’s The Hut Builder reminded me of another novel in which there is a tension between the main character’s apparently ordinary and non-prestigious trade, and his aspirations and image of himself.

Fearnley’s alliterative Boden Black is a butcher who is also a poet and who remembers climbing a mountain with Ed Hillary. George Gissing’s alliterative Will Warburton is a rentier capitalist who becomes a grocer and is aware of how much his new trade has taken him down the social scale.

A little bit of background. George Gissing (1857-1903) was an English social realist novelist, a little Zolaesque but without the Naturalism, published between the 1880s and 1900s. His masterpiece is usually – and correctly – considered to be New Grub Street (1891), an account of the hack-writing trade, but I think it is run a close second by The Nether World (1889), a real shocker about London slum life, and Born in Exile (1892), a fictionalised account of Gissing’s own descent into poverty.

I admit that Gissing is very much an acquired taste. Nearly all his novels are dour and a little depressing as they focus on the grind of trying to earn a living in difficult circumstances. Although Gissing was no socialist, and aspired to be a literary gentleman of leisure, it has tended to be socialists who have most admired him. He showed unsparingly how dehumanising real poverty is in an industrialised society.

A lot of aesthetes hate him, and he is now little read. But I’m interested to note that Virginia Woolf thought highly of him (there’s a sympathetic essay about Gissing in her Common Reader series). Peter Ackroyd made Gissing a leading character in his novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem. I also know that the New Zealand novelist David Ballantyne was a great fan. (I know this in part because I was told it by David Ballantyne’s son Stephen, with whom I once shared the task of writing film reviews for the New Zealand Woman’s Weekly. Stephen said his Dad and I were the only Gissing fans he knew).

There is one of Gissing’s books that the aesthetes and bibliophiles do like. That’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903), published in the year of his death, which is really a loose collection of essays and observations on all the books that Gissing liked, taking the form of a diary written by a retired writer living in the country. A bit like a pre-internet blog, it is very “dippable” and selections from it are often anthologised.

So after all this prologue, what has this to do with Will Warburton and class-feeling?

Will Warburton was one of Gissing’s last novels and was first published posthumously. Truth to tell, it is not one of his best works. But then you know me well enough by now to know that when I recommend “Something Old”, I’m often recommending something that I find fascinating for its social attitudes and its revelation of the times in which it was written. This is certainly the case with Will Warburton. And let me not overstate its lack-of-excellence. All Gissing’s novels are very readable, written in a very clear prose, and this is no exception.

Plot – Will Warburton is a bachelor residing in fashionable Chelsea,  who lives off the dividends of his investments. He likes to travel, talk literary talk and mingle with affluent high society. But a broker’s bad management suddenly makes him bankrupt. He has no income and has both an aged mother and an unmarried sister to support.

Nothing daunted, and having no illusions about his marketable skills, he sets himself up as a grocer in a less fashionable part of London. Those were the days when upper-middle-class women at home did not look into a man’s source of income or visit his place of business. So Will’s mother and sister have no idea that he has gone into ‘trade’ and ceased to be a gentleman, as his earnings still support them in the manner to which they are accustomed.

Will himself his quite happy with his new life. Basically, he enjoys being a grocer. Gissing paints him as a more positive and optimistic chap than the protagonists of most of his novels. In fact, there is a sub-text implying that doing a useful job and actually earning his way, instead of living off dividends, has made Will both a happier and a more perceptive person.

But Will is haunted by the fear that his “double life” will be revealed if one of his fashionable friends should walk into his store. Another sub-text is that the fashionable and wealthy like to romanticise real poverty and the proletariat, but they invariably patronise the classes more immediately below them.

This is really the heart of the novel – the tension between having an elevated image of oneself and actually pursuing a humdrum job that lacks prestige. Something as lower-middle-class as grocery is not acceptable to the literati.

I will not spoil the ending. This one is worth searching out. But I can say that Will Warburton develops enough to understand that “grocerdom with a clear conscience” is preferable to “grocerdom surreptitiously embraced”. He realizes that friends who would look down on him for his work are not friends worth having. In one crucial scene, the long-dreaded happens and society people see him in his place of business. At the end of that scene, Gissing writes:-

 “His hands upon the counter, Warburton stared at the door by which [his former friends] had disappeared. His nerves were a-tremble; his eyes were hot. Of a sudden he felt himself shaken with irresistible mirth; from the diaphragm it mounted to his throat, and only by a great effort did he save himself from exploding in laughter. The orgasm possessed him for several minutes. It was followed by a sense of light-heartedness, which set him walking about, rubbing his hands together, and humming tunes.”

To me, this is one of the best accounts of a sense of relief - brought on by “coming clean”-  ever written.

From my old notebooks I see that when I first read Will Warburton, I thought it hopelessly dated. How, I asked, could anybody take seriously a story about somebody ashamed of being a grocer? I opined that the situation belonged more to the farcical world of P.G.Wodehouse – the horrible humiliating secret to be hidden from Aunt Agatha! – than to a serious novel for grown-ups.

Now, I’m much less certain of this judgment.

Gissing brought a lot of himself to the novel, as he did to all his novels. He was fully aware that he was a writer who had to scrape for a living, while many of his literary friends had “private incomes” and never really thought about the economic system that sustained them. He knew how unreasonable it was for toil and “trade” to be looked down upon.

More to the point, however, the type of social snobberies that fuel the novel are really still with us, even if their targets have shifted a little. If you take an honest walk through your mind, you might ask how you instinctively react to such terms as process worker, check-out operator, car groomer, insurance salesman, security staff, or cleaner. If stereotypical images rise for each of these occupations, you probably join me in being one of Will Warburton’s rationalising, fair-weather friends

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. 

He gets up at a reasonable hour in the morning and catches the bus to work, enjoying the sight of other passengers yawning themselves out of sleep, and looking forward to his day in the office.

The first hour there is a little slow – basically a matter of tidying up things left over from yesterday. Morning tea always provides some interesting, harmless gossip and he’s occasionally able to provide some himself.

The really busy time is between morning tea and lunch, when the phone rings a lot, new contracts are set up and enquiries made.

After a couple of hours of this, lunch is most welcome, taken either in the staff canteen or at a nearby café. Among his colleagues, there are always some who are available to have lunch with him, unless he’s out with a client. Some of his colleagues have interesting tastes. He’s learnt a lot about dining over the years, and one thing he knows is to avoid the overlong lunch. It’s fatal to a productive afternoon.

Back in the office, the pace of things slows down in the afternoon, but there is the occasional crisis. He can handle this and he is interested enough in his work not to be a fanatical clock-watcher. If he has to stay late, he rings his wife and then stays late.

Usually, however, he’s back on the bus by about 5:20 and he’s arriving home at the same time that his wife is returning from her workplace. They share the task of making dinner and eat it while watching the evening news, blipping the sound of the ads so they can discuss both work and world affairs. (Often fairly sardonic comments for the latter.)
He reads a lot. He likes good novels. He likes history. He sometimes reads a little poetry. He is well-informed. His work is useful and fulfilling. He likes his life. He loves his wife. They’re proud of their children and enjoy the regular weekends visits with grandchildren. She plays the piano. He takes walks and sometimes flies a kite.

He is not complacent. He has strong opinions on some ethical and political matters, but he knows no argument was ever won by battering people with words. Reasonable discussion is more his thing, when he can find it.

Given what life can throw at people, he knows he is a happy man.

And guess what? Though he exists in tens of thousands, nobody will ever, ever, ever write a convincing novel about him.

Now why is this?

The obvious answer would appear to be that happiness is undramatic and even scrupulously realistic novels require crisis and conflict. A happy, fulfilled life, even if it is lived by a reflective and thoughtful person, can so easily seem smug and boring. But there is also the problem that reality, as lived by most people whether they are happy or unhappy, does not engage us.

I won’t say this situation troubles me, but it does bemuse me. It means, after all, that most novels we read are not about “ordinary” people, but are about extraordinary and unrepresentative people doing unusual things. This is so obviously true of formula and genre writing – thrillers etc. – that I don’t have to elaborate on them. We know they exist for their escapist sensations and thrills, and their very appeal is the fact that they take us out of the ordinary.

But what about “literary novels”, which are rumoured to present something like the real world to which grow-ups can relate? Even here, no story can be made out of the ordinary.

The best nineteenth century novelists tried to present whole panoramas of society, with all classes, professions and trades represented. But the panorama played out in complex and melodramatic plots, often involving crime, murder, dark secrets etc.

Dickens might well represent a drunken nurse (in Martin Chuzzlewit), a schoolmaster (in The Old Curiosity Shop) or a policeman (in Our Mutual Friend). But he always wrapped them in caricature (wonderful , glorious caricature of genius, of course) so that they ended up larger-than-life. The same was true of Balzac.

I’ve been called a vulgarian because I like the novels of Emile Zola. He made it his life’s vocation to describe in scrupulous and documented detail how people lived and worked – train-driver, prostitute, coal miner etc. Readers get all the physical details of their places of work, how they dressed and amused themselves, the type of people they worked with and so on. But his train-driver is a psychotic killer (La Bete Humaine – perversely, my favourite Zola); his prostitute (Nana) works the high end of the market and involves all society in her fall; and as for his coal-miners (Germinal), I’ve rarely felt such a sense of let-down as in the way the novel veers off from credible reality into the far-fetched details of rival lovers slugging it out in a flooding mine, in the novel’s climax. In short, even Zola pegs his “realism” on outrageous melodrama.

As for the Modernists, they thought they could catch everyday reality through the stream-of-consciousness thoughts of their characters. But what characters! A Dublin Jew with a flamboyantly adulterous wife (Joyce’s Ulysses). The society-hostess wife of a Tory MP (Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway).  Ordinary people representative of their time and place? I think not. And even with such unrepresentative characters, the Modernists knew that an unvarnished individual life was rather boring. So Joyce gives us a journey through all of Dublin on one day in 1904. Woolf claimed she was writing “the thoughts of an ordinary mind on an ordinary day”. But she has to rev up her novel with the quite detachable story of a shell-shocked soldier committing suicide. Even the ordinary life of a non-representative person does not carry a novel.

Where are we now in this particular problem? Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary is what many novels now attempt to do, but I am aware of what I would call “the higher escapism”. Have you noticed the number of literary novels which now concern “ordinary” modern characters discovering extraordinary or dramatic things about their parents and ancestors? Indeed, I’ve lost count of the number of novels I’ve read in the past ten years that turn on some young character finding a document or photo or archive or letter that reveals Mum, Dad, Grandpa, Uncle Harry or Great-Aunt Millie having been a rebellious Victorian-era wife, a member of the IRA in the 1920s, party to a massacre in the Korean War etc. etc. etc.

Usually this set up allows the author to introduce details of the dramatic past in the form of diary entries, or by contrasting a “present” voice with a “past” voice. Very unreliable narrator. Very post-modern. Very escapist from dull quotidian reality.

Many years ago, Professor Joan Stevens declared that David Ballantyne’s The Cunninghams, about an ordinary hard-luck family in Depression-era New Zealand, had not solved the problem of making dull, everyday suburban characters interesting.

But has anybody ever solved that problem?

Ignoring the thrillers and genre stuff, even the literary novels caricature, melodramatise, find excuses to deal with other things or escape into the more interesting past when they run up against workaday reality.

Sometimes I think the most honest novelistic representation of ordinary life and work was in the infancy of the modern novel. Then, the likes of Sir Walter Scott would halt a flowery romantic tale for a page or two, to give a free-standing description of a gypsy or a factor or a peasant at work. Perhaps only in such bland, self-contained description can the everyday life of most people be caught.

Meanwhile our butchers are poets and our grocers have a taste for literary gossip.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE FAT YEARS” Chan Koonchung (translated by Michael S. Duke) (Doubleday/Random House $39:99)

In the very near future, China has reached its Golden Age of Ascendancy. At a point of crisis, the American economy has collapsed and other Western economies have rapidly followed suit. But China has continued to prosper and stands on the verge of world economic hegemony. Soon China will have resumed the position it had before the rise of the West five hundred years ago. It will once again be the Earth’s most advanced nation, and a template for the world to emulate.

In the cities, China’s middle-classes live comfortably and enjoy life. The whole population is incredibly happy. China’s measurable happiness quotient is higher than that of any other nation. In fact it is suspiciously high. There is an element of brainlessness to it.

And that is what troubles the hero of Chan Koonchung’s The Fat Years, Old Chen, a novelist and sometime journalist. Not only is the population incredibly happy, but they appear to have completely forgotten the conditions of chaos that triggered China’s ascendancy. When Old Chen checks, he finds that no records, files or archives contain any reference to the one chaotic month he remembers so well. In fact, the month has been expunged from public and official memory. It never existed.

So Old Chen sets out to find what became of the missing month, and why nobody remembers it. And this is the wisp of plot upon which The Fat Years hangs its satirical and sometimes scary account of the direction in which China is heading.

Old Chen meets compromised Communist Party officials who know something is wrong, but prefer the comforts of conformity. He meets entrepreneurs and a high-class call-girl who are concerned only that prosperity continues and don’t want to ask questions. He meets a young man in the state bureaucracy whose notions of Chinese superiority amount to fanatical nationalism. He meets a few people like himself who remember the past, but are beginning to wonder whether this means they are having delusions. And when he moves to the country, he meets some of the disgruntled peasant masses, and even members of China’s large and growing underground Christian churches. He more clearly understands the big disparity between the Party’s official image of urban happiness and the continuing tensions of a vast, largely rural, nation.

The novel is not just a series of encounters. I don’t want to underrate Koonchung’s skills as a story-teller. There is a ‘thriller’ element to it as Old Chen probes the mystery of the missing month. This includes the clandestine manoeuvres of a tiny resistance movement, and eventually the kidnapping and interrogation of He Dongsheng, a high government official. But the aims of the novel are more didactic and satirical than they are sensational.

The Fat Years is a dystopia,  but a very immediate one. It is set just the day after tomorrow. In fact it was written in 2009 and is set in 2011. Shanghai-born Chan Koonchung has a Hong Kong background, but now chooses to live in Beijing. His novel is, of course, banned in China, but as Julia Lovell’s scholarly introduction to this translation makes clear, it is nevertheless widely and clandestinely circulated there. The translator Michael Duke’s endnote enlarges on these circumstances.

The novel has one unmissable thing in common with some famous dystopias. It ends with a long interview scene, in which the mystery of the missing month is explained and He Dongsheng gives to the hero the rationale for an oppressive government’s behaviour. This immediately put me in mind of Bernard having everything explained to him by the “World Controller” Mustapha Mond in Brave New World; or Winston Smith getting the state’s creed of brutality from O’Brien of the Inner Party in 1984. Koonchung specifically references such Western works in his novel.

More than anything, though, it is the satire that sustains it. Koonchung is taking current Chinese trends and extending them just a little. China is now a state-controlled market economy. The state is still officially Communist, but the Communist Party has long since abandoned anything like Maoist or Marxist precepts. As a party, its main aim is to hold on to power. It therefore resents any attempts to interrogate the past too closely, as they would compromise the party’s legitimacy. Not only are human rights disregarded, but the media and internet are supervised and censored. Much of the recent past may simply not be discussed. While some of the middle class prosper, they have to practise a collective amnesia.

This is the point of Koonchung’s “missing month”. To maintain the happiness of prosperity, wealthier Chinese must ignore Mao’s engineered famine in the late 1950s (the largest in world history), the chaos of the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the first crack-down after economic liberalisation in 1983 and the bigger crack-down against pro-democracy movements – with their demonstrations in Tienanmen Square – in 1989, not to mention the suppression of Falun Gong a decade ago. To discuss any of these things honestly would be to question the authority of a party that still claims a mandate from heaven.

The Fat Years references all these things explicitly, and takes aim at even edgier things. Koonchung invokes the spectre of home-grown Chinese fascism, growing out of the Communist Party itself in the nationalist fanaticism of its younger members. In this version, economic world hegemony is another terms for a new imperialism.

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.

“WE” Yevgeny Zamyatin (first published in English in 1924)
This week’s “Something New” The Fat Years is a dystopia set in the very immediate future, the merest tick away from present reality. As this week’s “Something Old”, I choose a really long-range forecast – a dystopia set about six hundred years hence.

It isn’t only the matter of contrast that brings it to mind, however. There’s also the fact that both dystopias were written by insiders.

The Fat Years is not a foreigner’s vision of a dubious Chinese future. It was written by a Chinese man who chooses now to live in mainland China, who is a part (albeit a suspected part) of the country’s intellectual elite, and who knows China’s current socio-political scene intimately.

Similarly, We was written by a Russian, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937), who had been briefly imprisoned for dissent by the old Tsarist regime; who had at first welcomed the Bolshevik Revolution and was at one time secretary of the Soviet writers’ union; but who fell out of love with the new Communist regime’s repressiveness, terror and censorship. He was imprisoned briefly by the new regime too, then coerced into leaving Russia in 1930. He spent his last years in exile, dying in Paris in 1937.

The dystopia of We was created in protest against the regimented, rationalised society which destroyed the individual, the “I”, and insisted only on the identity of the collective, the “we” of the title.

In the 26th century, after a catastrophic long-term war, the perfect world state has been created. It is overseen by a “Benefactor” who is unanimously, and mindlessly, elected. People are valued only as constructive units, not as individuals. To delete individuality, men and women are no longer identified by personal names, but by combinations of letters and numbers. The population live in transparent glass-walled buildings so that their private activities may always be observed by the state’s security apparatus, known as the “Guardians”. The concepts of love, marriage and the family have been abolished. Sexual intercourse is rationed, and occurs between men and women who sign and countersign short-term contracts for the use of each other’s body. Such intercourse is permitted for one standard hour each day, the only hour when the blinds are drawn down in the glass-walled buildings.

The novel has a minimalist plot. Its hero and first-person narrator is a mathematician, D-503, engaged by the state to help design a spacecraft that will carry the world state’s ideas to the rest of the universe. The very conformist D-503 meets and is disturbingly attracted to a woman, I-330, who does not behave as members of the state are supposed to behave. She is outspoken, she employs seductive techniques that are far removed from coldly contractual sex, and she seems to know something about the defunct idea of love.

 Gradually D-503 discovers that I-330 is part of a resistance movement against the state, who do more subversive things than having sexual intercourse when the blinds are down. He also discovers that there is a world outside the walls of the perfect state, a primitive world of hair-covered human beings who pose a threat to the planned city D-503 knows. (At this point, I wonder if Zamyatin wasn’t acquainted with the two species descended from humanity – the gutless, civilized Eloi and the brutal, animalistic Morlocks – in H. G. Wells’ The Time Machine.)

As We is a novel worth hunting out and reading, I won’t give away the specifics of the ending, except to say that it is both depressing and ambiguous. Zamyatin leaves it uncertain whether the regimented, conformist, planned society will prevail over wild, rebellious, instinctive, atavistic humanity or not. But his plot does include some nightmarish ideas on enforced conformity. Among other things, there is a sort of lobotomy, using “x-rays” to cut out the faculty of imagination, practised by the “Guardians” to ensure the unquestioning obedience of potentially dissident citizens.

The simple, schematic plot has sexually-attracted individuals destroyed by a future conformist slate. This immediately makes us think of the two best-known English-language dystopias - the thwarted love and destruction of “the Savage” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and the doomed affair of Winston Smith and Julia in George Orwell’s 1984 (1948). There is a good reason for this. Huxley specifically denied that he had been influenced by Zamyatin’s novel, but it is quite clear that he knew We. Orwell first read and reviewed We in the same year that he started writing 1984. (He read We in a French-language translation called Nous Les Autres as the book then had such limited circulation that he couldn’t find an English-language one).

Orwell made no secret of the novel’s influence on him, but later hostile  critics of Orwell (especially those on that part of the Left who resented his anti-Stalinism) used the similarities between We and 1984 to imply plagiarism. They had some things to work with. The concept of the “Benefactor” is very similar to Orwell’s “Big Brother” and the general trajectory of the story is the same, including the shocking ending.

Yet they are very different novels. We is more speculative, and set much further in the future, than 1984. Orwell emphasizes the physical brutality of the totalitarian state. Zamyatin emphasizes the mindlessness of a conformist state. The authors’ styles have little in common. 1984 is more densely written, more consistently dour, and frankly the more finished literary work. We is sometimes almost playful or sardonic in tone (like one of Kafka’s fables – or sections of Brave New World). It is also, truth to tell, a little messy, being rather episodic and inconsistent in narration.

Critics have been quite right to point out the many targets of Zamyatin’s satire. We seems to have been influenced in part by Zamyatin’s time in England, where he acted as a ship-builder and first saw industrial labour regimented according to the time-and-motion principles of what was once called “Taylorism”. This clearly fed into his satire on mindless conformity. General tendencies to conformity brought about by industrialisation are a clear target. In We, the desire of the world state to conquer the universe could be read as jaded comment on imperialism.

Yet, more than anything, it was the early phases of the Bolshevik regime that set Zamyatin writing. We was written between 1919 and 1921. This was years before Stalin took over, but it was already clear to Zamyatin that Communism was heading towards a monolithic control of society, rationalised by scientific positivism, in which the individual had little role. The new state fully understood that it was being got at. This can be seen in the history of the book’s suppression. We remained banned in the Soviet Union until 1988, in the last phases of glasnost, as the Soviet regime was about to tumble. Zamyatin could not find a publisher for his Russian-language original, so We was first published in a French translation in 1923 and then in an English translation in 1924. Only in 1952 was it first published in Russian, and that was by an émigré press outside the Soviet Union.

To the best of my knowledge, We now exists in three or four different English translations. The one I know is the Penguin Classics one, translated by Clarence Brown. That is probably the most accessible version too.

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 have dystopia on my mind this week, and that makes me think about the word itself. I had it explained to me once that “dystopia” developed by an odd route from “utopia”.

Apparently it happened like this.

Five hundred years ago, Thomas More wrote, in Latin, his satirical Utopia about an imagined perfect society. I have absolutely no Greek at my command, but I do know that the name More invented was formed by putting together the two Greek words for “no place” (a bit like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon). In emulation of More’s original, there has been written a whole genre of books dealing with imagined perfect societies. They include such items as Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), which had an immense influence on early social democrats, and some of the works of H.G.Wells, such as his clean, hygienic and, I personally think, absolutely revolting version of a perfect society at the end of The Shape of Things to Come. (In fairness to Wells, he also wrote books about futures that he intended to be negative or terrifying, as in The Time Machine and The Sleeper Wakes).

Here’s the odd thing about that word “utopia”, however. It soon came to mean “perfect and wonderful place” rather than “no place”. This was partly because the Greek “u”, meaning “no”, was confused with the Greek “eu” meaning “joyful and positive”, as in euphoria, Eucharist, eulogy and eupeptic. By extension, the adjective “utopian” came to mean “so impossibly perfect as to be unrealistic and unrealisable”. It was used with appropriate degrees of scorn by anyone seeking to batter down ideas that sounded unworkable and too good to be true. Marxists in particular would condemn as “utopian” revolutionaries more radical than they – anarchists, syndicalists and others.

Utopian fiction is still written, especially by the few remaining proponents of hard-core science-fiction with its promises of endless bounty built on advanced technology. But sometime in the twentieth century utopia was overtaken in literature by its mirror image, dystopia, the depiction of dark, negative or terrifying future societies.

The “dys” came, naturally, from the Greek particle for “sad, bad and negative”, as in dysfunctional and dyspeptic. So “dys” was the opposite of “eu” rather than the opposite of “u”.

Why dystopia took over has been the subject of considerable debate. Generally, it’s attributed to the loss of faith in the notion of Progress that came with the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, positivism said that science would solve all our problems and build a glowing future. In the twentieth century, it was realized that science could invent high explosives, Zyklon-B, nuclear weapons and WMDs, could facilitate greater surveillance by the state, could allow for the more efficient running of Auschwitz and the gulag, could automate people out of jobs, could numb and lobotomise people with brainless mass entertainments and could impose far greater conformity. The imponderables of human nature meant applied science was stumped as a means of achieving human happiness; and any attempt to plan happiness ran contrary to human freedom. We weren’t necessarily marching to the bright, shining euphoric future. In fact, utopias now seemed singularly dodgy places, and the more practicable they became, the more intelligent people would strive to prevent them. This point is made by the Russian philosopher Berdiaeff in the epigraph that Huxley chose for Brave New World.

So on came the novels warning us how horrible the future might really be.

The obvious point to be made here is that dystopias, like so-called historical novels, are really about the time in which they are written. If historical novels have a tendency to impose the attitudes and values of the present age onto the past, dystopian novels project the fears, possibilities and anxieties of the present into the future. Current trends are extended onto the eternal plane. The durability of a dystopian novel will depend on how lasting those expressed fears, trends and anxieties are.

To prove the point, I’ll consider just the ones I’ve read over the years, though I know it’s easy to compile a much longer list of dystopian novels than this.

From 1909, E.M.Forster’s The Machine Stops, a direct swipe at H.G.Well’s perfect machine-run utopias, written at a time when Europe was arming for war.

From 1921, Zamyatin’s We, clearly reacting to the early phases of the Bolshevik revolution in its image of a controlled, over-organized, conformist society.

From 1932, Huxley’s Brave New World, with its vision of brainless, soulless, hedonistic sex and soporific drugs to control society, drawn from Huxley’s experience of the jazz-and-booze-fuelled 1920s. (More than one recent critic has urged us to read the novel “counter-intuitively” and see that Huxley is as much attracted to the society depicted as he is deploring it. You can prove this point by seeing how close the social structure in his last, and lousy, “utopian” novel Island is to the social structure in his “dystopian” Brave New World.)

From 1948, Orwell’s 1984, the world of totalitarianism based on images of the Second World War and Stalinism.

From 1952, Kurt Vonnegut’s Player Piano, where automation destroys both creativity and the dignity of labour, apparently inspired by Vonnegut’s witnessing the first phases of applied computer technology in a wartime aircraft factory.

From 1953, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where literacy is actively stamped out and “firemen” are people who burn books. Some attempts have been made to interpret this as an attack on the censorship of books. But Bradbury was writing in the first years of American network television and the book’s chief satiric target is the brainlessness of mass media entertainments that wipe out literacy.

From 1960 L.P.Hartley’s Facial Justice. This one is almost forgotten now (though quite prolific, Hartley tends to be remembered only for The Go-Between), but I do have a copy sitting on my shelf. It depicts a future world in which the notion of equality is pushed so far that personal names are standardised and everyone has mandatory plastic surgery so that nobody is advantaged by exceptional good looks. A conservative novelist reacts to standardised ideas of beauty peddled by mass circulation magazines and cosmetics companies.

From 1970, Ira Levin’s This Perfect Day, probably the least worthwhile book on this list and so shamelessly ripped off from Brave New World that Levin seems to be cashing in on the dystopian genre rather than really expressing fears or giving a warning. For what it’s worth, it’s a drug-controlled dystopia where people are convinced they are perfectly happy but creative sexual drives are suppressed.

From 1985, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which fundamentalist Christians have taken over the United States and imposed a theocracy upon it. In other words, a feminist writer reacts to the resurgence of conservative Protestantism in America in the Reagan era.

There have been many other novels that have presented their readers with “dire warnings”. Some do it in the form of pure fantasy or fable (Ernst Junger’s On the Marble Cliffs,1939 – sometimes interpreted as an anti-Nazi allegory). Some do it in the form of an immediate political possibility, without depicting a society notably changed from the present. Constantine Fitzgibbon’s now-forgotten best-selling shocker from 1960, When the Kissing Had to Stop, has Britain subjected to a Communist coup because of the weak-kneed attitudes of anti-nuke protesters and a feeble government. But this is more conservative political thriller than real dystopia.

I’d reserve the word dystopia for those novels that outline the whole working and nature of an unpleasant future society. For this reason I don’t think all nasty alternative realities (like Kafka’s fables, or China Mieville’s 2009 novel The City and the City) can be classified as dystopias. Nor can all those science-fiction novels that have incidental elements of nastiness in them.

Which brings me to this question.

What are the uses that writers put their future hells to?

Most obviously, dystopias are both satires and warnings. Less commonly are they intended as serious predictions. Their tone is like that of the Old Testament prophets. “Unless we mend our ways – or reverse this current trend in society – these dreadful things could happen to us.” In the Old Testament, the dreadful thing would be the wrath and punishment of God. But dystopias are their own punishment, their own hell.

But there’s the reverse side to this. If a dystopian novel is a good one, we finish it with a sense of relief that society isn’t like that yet. We might consider a current social trend more critically, but we are also likely to be more reconciled to present reality. This reaction is one that was sometimes been exploited by critics – especially the older Marxist ones who damned the likes of We and 1984. Writers of such dystopias, they insisted, were merely reactionaries who wanted to frighten readers away from the ideal of a rational, planned society. They were smug comfortable bourgeois, aiming to stifle the revolutionary impulse in others and make people uncritical of present reality.

I don’t accept this argument, which misses the many levels of meaning in the various dystopias I have listed. But I do have to admit that after the satire and the warning, at least one of the uses of dystopia is as dark escapism.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Something New

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

“HONE TUWHARE – SMALL HOLES IN THE SILENCE (Collected Works)” Hone Tuwhare (Godwit/Random House $44:99)

When people of my generation think of Hone Tuwhare, the first words that come to mind are still No Ordinary Sun, the title of his first published collection in 1964. It’s also the title of the most famous poem in that collection, a very subtle and lyrical protest at the Bomb.

For me, the next thoughts are memories of being present twice when Hone Tuwhare was reading his own works. He had the knack of reading what was appropriate to his audience, and reading with vigour and a sense of enjoyment. So I was one of the university students who rocked with laughter at his slightly bawdy poem “To a Maori figure cast in bronze outside the chief post office, Auckland” (from his 1972 collection Sap-Wood & Milk). Later, I was with a group of teachers listening to him entertaining schoolkids with his “Study in Black and White”, the one about a penguin in a fridge (also from Sap-Wood & Milk). Tuwhare was happy to share the idea of poetry with schoolkids as much as with adults. At one time poetry-reading school visits were a big part of is life.

The good humour of these readings is what I chiefly recall – and the separate audiences’ real appreciation of them. But then I remember that a good case could be made for Tuwhare as the best Maori poet ever to write in the English language. There’s a lot more to him than an engaging way with readings.

He was born in 1922. He died in 2008. A good collected edition of his work was overdue, and here it now is.

The title Small Holes in the Silence comes from the poem “Rain” in Tuwhare’s second collection Come Rain Hail (1970). But we must be careful about the subtitle Collected Works. As Janet Hunt’s introduction makes clear, this is a “collected” works, but it is not a “complete” works.

There are almost all the poems from every collection Tuwhare published between 1964 and 2005, and the book ends with twelve hitherto unpublished poems. But the editors have decided not to publish variant versions of the same poem as it appeared in different collections. They have not included a play and some short stories he wrote, and (wisely I think) they have avoided the juvenilia. I know, from looking at archived copies of the old communist paper the People’s Voice, that when Tuwhare was a young communist boilermaker he occasionally wrote ranty pieces of poetic agitprop. He remained alive to social issues all his life, and was generally on the Left in his attitudes. But I’m sure his ghost is perfectly happy that his kidstuff has been left in oblivion.

Though he used much Maori imagery and some Maori phrases, Tuwhare almost always wrote in English. In accordance with his wishes, a small number of his poems have been translated into Maori for this edition. The Maori language version of each is placed on the page opposite its English original. The translators were Selwyn Muru, Patu Hohepa, and Waihoroi Shortland. As a non-speaker of Maori, I’m in no position to comment on the translations.

What I can comment on, however, is the sheer pleasure of reading this collection whole.

If I say Tuwhare is an uneven poet, I’m only saying what is true of every poet. No poet is always on form and inevitably a large collection like this one will contain at least some poems that seem hasty or that don’t ring true. Tuwhare was aware that it was wrong to be tempted to write poems when ideas and inspiration were lacking. In his collection Making a Fist of It (1978), his poem “Aroha – Thoughts for a Tainui Lady” begins “A long time back in Time, you asked for a poem. I’m not / a machine, you know. I can’t turn them out like sausages.”

He didn’t turn them out like sausages, but he did sometimes write perishable protest poems that are now historical period pieces. Not that a protest poem was necessarily just a piece of graffiti. While his poem on the death of Martin Luther King just goes through the motions, the poem “Speak to Me, Brother” (addressed to a Maori soldier en route to Vietnam) is still a heart-wrencher. So too is the title poem of Making a Fist of It, a protest at South African apartheid, and a late poem like “Who are the real infidels?” from Deep River Talk (1994)

Reading from the beginning to Page 333, it was the evolution of Tuwhare’s perspective and style that was clearest to me. In his early collections, he is very much influenced by a traditional Romantic conception of the universe. There are overtones of Maori chant and of Biblical cadences, but (side-by-side with a colloquial and proletarian piece like “Monologue”) there is also much evocation of the moon, wind, cliffs and the sea, and the lonely heart contemplating death. You have to remind yourself that Tuwhare was in his forties when his first books appeared, and not in his twenties, as these are very much a young man’s poems.

As he develops, there is more gregarious geniality in his poetry, more openness to other people, less Romantic self-isolation. A poem like “Bus Journey, South” expresses how bewildered a Maori writer is in a largely Maori-less part of the South Island; but it still implies a community. Community is expressed in many poems written to friends and comrades (Ron Mason, Ralph Hotere, James K Baxter, Whina Cooper etc.) while “Walker”, from the 1974 collection Something Nothing, puts a wry adult construction on the moon-raging, shadow-fearful Romanticism of a child. Tuwhare now designates himself “a middle-of-the-road man”.

By the time you get to a poem like “Status Seeker’ (from the 1982 collection Year of the Dog) you have a mature, rich expression of the self which manages still to be lyrical.

I’m not pretending that I was familiar with all of Tuwhare’s poetry before reading Small Holes in the Silence. Much came as a surprise to me, but a welcome surprise. This is a great collection.

Footnote – it is usually thought very silly to comment on a book’s physical production when writing a review, but I must add that Small Holes in the Silence is a lovely piece of book production. It is a “soft hard-back” with a sturdy spine, good wide margins and a discreet number of illustrations, including reproductions of the original covers of each of Tuwhare’s collections. It does the poems proud.

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 FALLEN HOUSE” James K Baxter  (first published in 1953)
Looking at a new volume of collected poems for this week’s “Something New” made me think long and hard about what older volume of poems I could recommend to anybody with a clear conscience. Not to a poetry specialist, who wouldn’t need my advice anyway. Not to a teacher, who would want to dissect and kill the poems. But to a literate, non-specialist reader, who hasn’t read much poetry lately and simply wants to read, reflect, and see if there really is anything much to this poetry business.

Anthologies and Collected Poems of a well-known poet would be cheating. What is needed is one slim volume, written at a particular phase of a poet’s development, rather than a whole life’s work.

A sense of literary respectability tempts me to tell you to trot after some Modernist work, proving that I’m not stuck in the age of rhyming couplets and Late Romantic prettiness. I could dutifully tell you to take another look at T.S.Eliot’s  Prufrock or The Waste Land (originally published 1917 and 1922 respectively). If you had a feel for Modernist fun, I would tell you to check out Marianne Moore’s Selected Poems (1935)

For the sake of sheer infantile nostalgia, another part of me wants to nominate A.E.Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896) with all its despairing, “dying fall” poems that appeal particularly to moody adolescents. Or, trying to recapture childhood magic, I’d steer you towards Walter de la Mare’s Peacock Pie (1913) especially if it was the Faber edition (published 1958) that had wonderful, mysterious line illustrations by Edward Ardizzone.

But in the end, as a New Zealander, I find that the specifically English and American imagery in all these volumes now puts a barrier between the poet’s experience and me. Anyway, they were all written long ago and, at least in Housman’s and de la Mare’s cases, there is much rhetoric and vocabulary that clearly belongs to another age.

Something both accessible and from New Zealand is required.

Surprisingly, there’s a lot to choose from, even when that “accessible” bit is taken into account. Yet experience makes me wary of recommending something Postmodernist, or indeed anything published in the last thirty years. As poet and poetry-editor, I read much poetry by my contemporaries, and I’m aware that current techniques take some getting-used-to for those who aren’t regular poetry readers.

So I go back nearly sixty years, to a New Zealander who was heavily influenced by the Late Romanticism of Yeats and Hardy, but who could also write like a Modernist when he chose and, in his later poems, went into something more terse and colloquial.

I’m talking about James K Baxter.

The volume I’m picking is his third collection, The Fallen House, first published in 1953.

Among other things, I have a personal reason for making this particular choice. The Fallen House was the first book of grown-up poems I picked up and read as a teenager, without being told to by some teacher. That was in the late 1960s, when Baxter had already moved on to other styles. But it was fresh to me and it was a pleasure to read it without having somebody telling me how much I was supposed to like it. A lingering nostalgia informs my choice, though The Fallen House stood up to my recent re-reading of it.

Baxter was 27 when The Fallen House was first published, and was still regarded as the Wunderkind of New Zealand poetry, even if some of his early admirers (like Allen Curnow and Denis Glover) were later to change their minds and become quite hostile to him. (One day, I might write a blog on how Baxter has recently been de-canonised by New Zealand Academe, while Curnow has been set up as the Unassailable Bard.)

Why did this book of poems appeal to me as a teenager? Why, in an odd sort of way, does it appeal to me now?

The Fallen House was written when Baxter was still in thrall to British Late Romantic models, before he had made his trip to India, become a Catholic or found the counter-culture. He was still the boozer and the copious rhetorician. He loaded his poems with Classical and European historical allusions. The title poem – still my favourite – compares the fall of a derelict South Island farm house to the “Atridean Doom” of Greek tragedy. The poem Wild Bees, about schoolboys raiding a colony of bees for their honey, compares the smoking-out of the bees to the destruction of Carthage and Troy. The more mature and erotic poem Rocket Show is an extended metaphor, where the growth and decay of love (and perhaps of the male member) is compared with the rise and fall of a rocket in a fireworks display. But even here the heart is a “blind Rosetta Stone”.

So far, so Great European Tradition.

Yet to my continuing pleasure, the settings are firmly New Zealand ones. A Dunedin beach, the back country of Otago, the farmlands further north, and so on. The sixteen lines of the poem Wellington tell us of a city which is the “sterile whore of a thousand bureaucrats” – certainly a young man’s over-the-top metaphor. But the poem also closes on the appropriately forlorn image of “the radio mast’s huge harp of the wind’s grief”. It pops into my mind whenever I sight the hills around Wellington.

I’d be the joy-killing schoolteacher if I gave all the details on Baxter’s use of rhyme, half-rhyme and recognizable patterns of rhythm when he was a young man. Suffice it to say that he was still very much a traditionalist in style, and a very adept one. It is in part this quality in his early poetry that makes me confident in recommending The Fallen House. If you wish to move into poetry gradually, it’s advisable to begin by reading poems that have a clear framework of stanza form and sound-pattern. More recent poetry might tax you in these areas.

At the same time, I’m not blind to the faults of this old volume. Poems in The Fallen House often strikes poses that are not fully justified by their subject matter. There is an element of the young poet showing off. Some of the vocabulary is over-blown and “poetic” in a fustian sense. In short, young Baxter was still finding his way. I do have good friends who can’t stand the young poet’s windy self-dramatization, and who comment that Baxter’s word-choice belongs to a tradition that was already becoming dated even as the young man was writing.

But as a fusion of an inherited British tradition and a specifically New Zealand scene, The Fallen House is still real honey, if smoke-soiled. Read it. Respect its age. Enjoy it. And know that the young man who wrote it was simply passing through its style on his way to somewhere else. Only dead poets never change their style.