Monday, September 26, 2011

Something New

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

“BIRD NORTH – AND OTHER STORIES” by Breton Dukes (Victoria University Press, $35)

When it comes to literature, it’s important sometimes to draw a distinction between respecting a work as genuine, and actually liking the work. Worthwhile criticism isn’t just the child’s tantrum of saying “I like” and “I don’t like.” It has to recognise that something can be well-written and insightful, succeed on its own terms and properly be praised without necessarily appealing to everybody, including the critic. I’m not bound to like all the classics, for example, but I am bound to understand why they are regarded as classics and why other people commend them.

I’m carefully establishing this to begin with because I think Breton Dukes’ first collection of short stories (and first book) is the genuine article – sharp, hard and allusive stories, very skilfully written, that convey certain male mentalities. But I also found myself squirming at much of the sordid detail, actively disliking many characters for their insensitivity or dumb brutality, disliking the deadpan, hopeless tone of many of the tales, and wondering whether I really needed to know everything I was being told.

The cover blurb places Dukes in “the great tradition of New Zealand writers – Frank Sargeson, Maurice Duggan, Owen Marshall – who have looked at men’s lives.” The blurb also quotes Damien Wilkins (apparently one of Breton Dukes’ mentors) saying Dukes has “zeroed in on his subject and delivered an intense, necessary book.” I take “his subject” to mean the idea of masculinity, and “necessary” to mean that Wilkins believes Dukes has diagnosed accurately in his stories what is wrong with New Zealand men.

But has he?

Asking this question is part of what makes me distance myself from this book, even as I admire its literary skill.

The brief bio of Dukes suggests he is still a young man. One of his stories (Other People’s Houses) has a woman narrator. But protagonists of the seventeen stories of Bird North and Other Stories are mainly young men – of student or first-employment age, usually hanging out with other young men, sometimes shacked up with women, but not really being committed to women and certainly not interested in settled domesticity. There’s a story about an unhappy honeymoon (Three Bikes), another about a dysfunctional marriage (Racquet) and one where a guy breaks up with his girlfriend and goes to live with his married brother who has a pregnant wife (Soup). When this is noted, however, it remains true that all the significant psychological and physical events in these stories are man-to-man.

The collection begins and ends in what could be called traditional Kiwi macho settings. The opening tale Shark’s Tooth Rock has two young men out on a diving-fishing expedition. The closing tale Thinking About Stopping  has a bunch of jokers pig-hunting in the bush. But this is not the blokey world of a Barry Crump anecdote. As much as anything, in its tragic and literally chilling outcome, Shark’s Tooth Rock  is about the limits of male bonding and boastfulness, and the defeat of kiwi machismo. The protagonist of Thinking About Stopping is more concerned with where he’ll get his next drug fix than with outdoorsy activities. It’s like a collision of  A Good Keen Man and the Slacker.

For whatever reason, the old male paradise of New Zealand mateship is poisoned. Dukes has chosen the second story in the collection, Bird North, for his book’s title, so presumably it’s meant to highlight this theme of Paradise Stuffed. In Bird North there are again activities traditionally associated with healthy outdoors living (tramping and running) but again undermined by a piece of new-style nastiness  - the sexual violation of a younger man by an older man.

I won’t list all the stories and their contents, but they do include unhappy young men failing to connect with their fathers, or worrying about whether the girl they picked up on holiday is going to go off with another guy, or hanging out hopelessly in cheap motels and grotty student flats, or wondering where they’re going to score their next drugs, or thinking about sex, or having sex in a disconnected, uncertain way, or failing to decide whether they can move on from the dead-end jobs they’re in.

One or two stories come close to deadpan reportage. Orderly is a slice-of-life of the miserable, harassed experience of a male orderly in a hospital. Johnsonville is like a 6-page sociological report on the typical activities of a bunch of boozing, TV-watching, time-filling womanless blokes. But Breton Dukes is not essentially an “I-am-a-camera” man who just looks and reports. These stories are crafted and shaped.
Often, a closing paragraph or two is added to a story. At first it seems to have nothing to do with the story itself, but closer reading shows it has some sort of symbolic value. This technique is most blatant in the story Pontoon. A young man who loves swimming is thwarted by a boring job at a call-centre. The final paragraph has a pod of dolphins stranding and drowning. The reader can easily make the symbolic connection. Elsewhere, however, the technique is more opaque, and in typical explain-nothing Postmodern fashion, the reader has to work harder to connect the dots.

I think I have described this book accurately. Sometimes, I was tempted to moralise and ask such questions as :- Is the story The Moon saying that bad parenting will lead to a life without commitment? But I don’t think moral questions or social improvement are really Breton Dukes’ intention. He wants to convey vividly how some young men think, feel and act. If his brief bio is any guide, he seems to be drawing (at least in part) on life experience. His stories dump a lot of behavioural problems in our lap, but it’s up to us to draw conclusions or moralise.

To return to my original misgiving – is this an accurate diagnosis of New Zealand men?

I don’t doubt that Dukes has caught accurately certain types of young Kiwi men. But, asking “Where are their brains? Where are their loves?”, part of me is glad that I don’t know many of those young men.         

Semi-relevant footnote: Dylan Horrocks is a very good artist and his image of a sweating runner (illustrating the title story) graces the cover of this book. But I’m not sure it was the appropriate choice as a cover. It’s too cheerfully cartoonic. I was halfway through reading Bird North when one of my kids asked “Is that a children’s book you’re reading?” Nope. It isn’t.  

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.

“MORTAL COILS” Aldous Huxley (first published 1922)

For the sake of perversity as much as anything, I choose as this week’s “Something Old” a volume of short stories which face aesthetically about 180 degrees away from Breton Dukes’ Bird North.

If the young New Zealand writer in 2011 has the Postmodern allusiveness, grot and refusal to provide neat endings, Aldous Huxley in 1922 had the brittleness and dazzle of intellectual Modernism. Dukes’ Kiwi characters are slackers and losers who are taciturn and can’t quite put what they mean into words. Huxley’s English characters are frightfully articulate upper-middle-class types who chatter and chatter. And so does the author.

Mortal Coils came early in Huxley’s literary career. He’d written only one novel (Crome Yellow) and one earlier, unsatisfactory collection of stories (Limbo) and he was weaning himself off trying to be a Decadent poet. This was years before the heavy-duty novels, including Brave New World, and even more years before Huxley’s descent into being an addle-headed, doped-up California sage.

Even in 1922, Huxley was a man who thought with his brain, not with his heart. His prose it always commendably lucid; but at his worst he can sound like a clever chap scoring points at an Oxford Union debate. In some ways, his work resembles the plays of George Bernard Shaw. Overt intellectualism turns many of his characters into mouthpieces for his ideas, or the walking embodiments of other people’s ideas which he wishes to knock down. Moral and social lessons are drawn explicitly.

Mortal Coils consists of four longish short stories and one playscript.

The playscript, Permutations Among the Nightingales, is a tiresome affair from its self-conscious title on. Various national stereotypes (Italian, French, Jewish, American etc.) converse in attempted aphorisms about the nature of Love. The cynical conclusion is that Love is merely sensual pleasure, delusion or wooing for material gain.

Two of the short stories are only so-so. Green Tunnels has a daydreaming girl caught between a hard-headed strike-breaking Fascist, and an aesthete who keeps chattering about Art rather than life. She learns neat lessons from her situation. Nuns at Luncheon is a bit of a cliché about a nun being seduced by the man she was attempting to convert to religion. Huxley has his cake and eats it by making his narrator a cynical woman who remarks on which elements of the story are clichés. Presumably this is meant to ward off the obvious criticism.

So why am I drawing to your attention this apprentice work of a well-known writer?

Because the other two stories of Mortal Coils are very accomplished and very readable. And because I am puzzled that it is what I see as the lesser of these two that has become the more famous.

The Giaconda Smile is the best-known piece in Mortal Coils. Huxley later turned it into a play, and he wrote the screenplay (its ending adjusted to meet censorship requirements)  of the now-forgotten 1948 film adaptation A Woman’s Vengeance, which had Charles Boyer in the lead. The story is often anthologised. As a representative of Huxley’s work it is almost as well-known as Brave New World.

If you don’t know The Giaconda Smile, I won’t spoil the plot, but it involves a thwarted love affair among the country gentry, a murder, and a male writer’s idea of the inscrutability of women. One moral is that a man cannot tell what a woman is thinking by the smile on her face – the Mona Lisa smile of the title. As Shakespeare put it, “there’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face.” Throughout, the tone is sardonic, verging on the cynical, with a view of human nature that assumes self-interest as the most powerful motive.

After ninety years it still reads well (Huxley’s lucid prose!), though I think the edge may have been taken off it by the fact that its tone has so often been imitated, in films and TV shows as much as short stories. Perhaps cynicism of the possessing classes and nastiness in the horsey set no longer surprise us.

The story that really appeals to me in this collection is The Tillotson Banquet, a bright work of wit and real social satire. A young art critic finds out for a wealthy aristocratic patron that an ancient and forgotten pre-Raphaelite painter, long since thought dead, is still alive in wretched circumstances. A benefit banquet is arranged for him. But time has reduced the old man, a genuine artist, to caricature. He repeats over and over again the same few phrases that were the epitome of High Culture in his heyday fifty years previously. The rambling speech he gives at his benefit banquet causes his young admirers to slip away, one by one. They are embarrassed as much by the realization that all taste is transitory, even their own, as by the old man’s near senility.

As you can see, this is an “ideas” piece. In this case I don’t mind giving the plot away, as the force of the story depends on its observation of the art scene, of cultural snobberies, of the self-consciousness (and over-intellectualisation) of art critics and especially of the fact that fashion is a slippery beast and is no grounding for a real aesthetic. It’s also one of those rare cases where Huxley gets in some self-criticism. The story’s enthusiastic young art critic is clearly an unflattering self-portrait.

I repeat, The Tillotson Banquet still appeals to me more than the more-feted Giaconda Smile. Despite its time-and-place-specific setting, it has worn well and still has relevance. But the only way you will find whether you agree with me is by getting  copy of Mortal Coils and comparing the two stories for yourself.

Unless you are a Huxley completist, you can forget the other stuff in the volume.

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.


Schoolteachers love short stories, because a short story can be read in the time of an average teaching period, can be discussed and can be dissected in follow-up periods. Read two short stories and you’ve planned one class’s week of English lessons.

As this is true, I’m sure somebody lined you up when you were at school and told you about short stories. And I’m sure their spiel went something like this:-

There are two sorts of short story. There is the short story driven by plot and there is the short story driven by the observation of character. Go down the plot-driven path, and you have Sherlock Holmes detective stories, Somerset Maugham’s cynical anecdotes, the sting-in-the-tail of Guy de Maupassant’s La Parure (The Necklace) and the endless stings-in-the-tail of a volume of  O.Henry or Roald Dahl.  Go down the character-observation path and you have slices-of-life, ‘life’s enormous trivialities’ and ironic observations of character by Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield and Frank Sargeson. Don’t look for neat beginning, middle and end in their stories. Look for revelation of character in everyday actions. Now class, what sort of short story is the one I just read with you?

As a teacherly generalisation, this one isn’t bad – so long as you haven’t opened a volume of stories published more recently than the 1950s.

But it has its limitations.

To begin with, close observation of character isn’t exclusive of a well-wrought plot (check out Ambrose Bierce’s point-of-death tale An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge).

To go on with, often the same writer is capable of writing different styles of short story. The trickiness of de Maupassant’s ending to La Parure is in no way indicative of the man’s whole work, much of which was slice-of-life and observational. Earlier this year I reviewed Craig Cliff’s excellent debut collection A Man Melting, and noted that the young New Zealand writer preferred observational character tales, but he could produce an honest-to-God sting-in-the-tail when he chose. The same was true of Graham Greene’s short stories.

Then there’s the fact that successful observational stories are as firmly structured and focused as stories that lead us on by the complexities of their plot. They are not formless and un-wrought. Nadine Gordimer is predominantly concerned with place and person rather than with the trickiness of plot;  but open any collection of her stories and note how each one ends exactly at the point where its irony will sink in most deeply.

The distinction between plot-driven story and character-observational story is not as rigid as the teacher generalisation suggests. Regrettably, too, the old generalisation has had the effect of suggesting to schoolkids that a well-wrought plot is unimportant or unnecessary or not as highbrow, and therefore not as prestigious, as the tales of Mansfield, Joyce etc. It is no defence of formulaic shock- surprise- or suspense-driven plots to note the great literary skill in many plot-dominated narratives.

Matters have moved on in the area of short stories, as in all types of literature, since the dichotomy of plot and observation was first established in teachers’ minds. We are aware of interesting experiments in short-story writing, like Charlotte Grimshaw’s two recent volumes Opportunity and Singularity, where the stories can be detached and appreciated as separate units, or read all together so that connections between them emerge and they become what their author once called “a novel with a large cast of characters”.

There have been more outré experiments in short-story writing than this, too, but there is one trend that causes me some difficulty.

Writing School advice often insists on discarding beginnings and endings and concentrating on middles. Don’t explain, allude. Don’t neatly tie off the action, leave it open-ended. Let cultural referents speak for themselves. Make the reader work a bit. Be opaque.

The result is many short stories where characters float weightlessly in a situation rather than in a plot, and there is no sense of development, let alone epiphany.

I think this approach once led to a fresh and stimulating sort of short-story. But it has now become the expected template for young writers. I am oppressed by tales which have some immediacy, but which simply do not tell me enough to know where their characters have been, where they are going or why I should care.

I feel no sense of completion when I put down such tales. Perhaps this is the point. Perhaps I am supposed to see that life is detachable moments rather than ongoing story. But, little reactionary me, I still crave to be taken on a journey, not to see only a snapshot.

I have found a way of coping, however. I have learnt to read such stories as I read poetry - for their imagery and allusions rather than for their revelations or onward march.

It helps. But I still dive back regularly into my de Maupassant, Gordimer and Greene for relief.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“A GREAT NEW ZEALAND PRIME MINISTER? – Reappraising William Ferguson Massey” edited by James Watson and Lachy Paterson (Otago University Press, $40)

I have a deep-seated belief that real historians have to be spoilsports.
If there is a popular legend or misconception that has no foundation in historical fact, then it’s the historian’s duty to say so, no matter how popular the legend may be. This does not mean that historians should approach their work cynically, attempting deliberately to destroy all tales of  personal heroism, virtue or wisdom that have found their way into public consciousness. Many such tales survive the severest scrutiny, and there’s a big difference between being a real historian and being a wilful iconoclast. But it does mean that historians have to begin by scraping away the legends, and looking closely at the best primary sources, before they reach their conclusions. And sometimes this will mean turning on its head what is commonly believed about the past. It might also mean rehabilitating the reputation of someone who has too often been depicted negatively.

Take the case of William Ferguson Massey, New Zealand’s prime minister from 1912 to 1925 and therefore the country’s political leader during the First World War.

On the whole, Bill Massey has got a rough ride in general histories of New Zealand (Sinclair, Oliver, King, Belich etc.).  He’s perceived as the voice of conservative, rural reaction after the years of progressive Liberal government under Ballance, Seddon and Ward. Massey’s government put the boot in hard to striking watersiders and miners in 1912-13, showing that it was the mouthpiece of the farmers and hostile to organised labour. Add to this the fact that Massey was a Protestant Ulsterman and one-time member of the Orange Lodge, and you have the framework for an image of Massey as a small-minded, sectarian, anti-labour, anti-Catholic British imperialist. The image gets a boost from the fact that New Zealand went through its most pronounced period of religious bigotry towards the end of the First World War.

But there’s one catch to this image. It’s no secret that, until quite recently, New Zealand’s university History departments were very much dominated by people of centre-left political views. The great turning point of  our political history was supposed to be the election of the first Labour government in 1935 and the creation of the welfare state. Political history prior to 1935 was basically seen as prologue to this. The political opposition to Labour was classed as reactionary. As the prime founder of the old Reform Party, Massey was a sitting duck for negative assessments by centre-left historians. So far, no academic and balanced biography of Massey has been written (although I understand that one is currently in progress).

Into the breach, then, comes this stimulating and gently revisionist set of essays, A Great New Zealand Prime Minister?, which began, as so many collections of academic essays do, as a set of conference papers. One by one the authors pick apart or greatly modify the received image of Massey, and a good job they make of it too.

After James Watson and Lachy Paterson define the territory, Erik Olssen launches into the most revisionist of the essays. It is also the most unexpected. Olssen freely admits that he himself has generally been on the centre-left. He began his career as an historian accepting uncritically the received image of Massey. He says only gradually did he realize “that much of the historical portrait was little better than recycled Labour propaganda”. Massey, he notes was far more in tune with the great majority of New Zealanders than the original (pre-1930s) Labour Party was. His emphasis on home ownership was the template for a social system to which New Zealanders aspired for most of the following century. He pioneered the managed (wartime) economy in ways that later Labour governments only slightly modified. He ensured that New Zealand gained more economic spoils from the Pacific after the war than it would at first have been allocated. And if his government’s treatment of organised labour was confrontational, the labour legislation his government brought in was never repealed by later Labour governments. In fact, the Labour prime minister Peter Fraser found it very handy when he had his own problems with strikers and bolshie unions.

There are some essays here that deal with hitherto unexplored aspects of Massey’s personal life. The medical historian Linda Bryder’s essay on his wife’s patronage and hard work for the Plunket Society. The demographer Jock Phillips on Massey’s background and how “typical” an Ulster immigrant he was.

Others, however, take head-on the Massey legend.

Military historian Glyn Harper refutes the tale that Bill Massey and his (Liberal) deputy Joe Ward were disliked and jeered at by Kiwi soldiers when they made their wartime visits to the front. From soldiers’ diaries and letters, he shows how much the soldiers appreciated the official visits and enjoyed the two politicians’ skylarking. If there was some grumbling, it had more to do with the soldiers’ discomforts and distress after hard campaigning than it had to do with distaste for Massey personally.

Rory Sweetman doesn’t exactly refute the notion of Massey’s involvement in his age’s sectarianism, but he does greatly modify it. As I can confirm from my own researches, Massey got on well with the Catholic Bishop Cleary and he eventually came to regard Howard Elliott’s vociferous anti-Catholic pressure group, the Protestant Political Association, as a liability. There may have been bigots in the Reform government, but Massey wasn’t one of them.

Ashley Gould shows most emphatically that, contrary to a legend much-repeated in general history book (which he gleefully quotes), Massey’s government did not exclude Maori soldiers from post-war rehabilitation loans and farm settlement schemes.

James Watson’s essay isn’t exactly revisionist. We already knew that Massey pushed hard for “imperial preference” to benefit New Zealand’s trade with Britain. But Watson does show how much this did benefit New Zealand.

I do admit that some of these essays  are specialist and therefore hard work for the general reader. In a dense statistical analysis of electoral results, Miles Fairburn and S.J.Haslitt demolish the idea that the Reform Party was supported only by farmers and the affluent middle classes. Their conclusion is that Massey’s party was repeatedly re-elected because it had wide support across classes, including a sizeable chunk of the urban working class.

I admit, too, that one essay left me a little stumped. Brad Patterson discusses the importance of “freehold tenure” of farmlands to Massey’s rural policies, and how appealing this was to much of the electorate. But his conclusion is that there wasn’t a rush to take up such tenure once Reform was in power.

When I read a book of essays like this, I know that some historians are doing what they should be doing – looking at the real evidence and penetrating pseudo-historical legends.

Even so, I’m glad the title of this collection has a question mark. Collectively, the ten contributors show me that Bill Massey was a very astute politician, a man who consistently worked in New Zealand’s best interests, and a man of much wider sympathies than he has been given credit for. But I would still find it hard to attach the epithet “great” to him. He and his British imperialism were of their age and time and should fairly be judged in the context of their age and time. But there is little in his ideology to inspire us now. Massey is never going to be remembered with affection by New Zealanders the way Dick Seddon and Mickey Joe Savage, for all their many faults, still are. 

For all that, this is one of those symposia that fairly puts the received image of an historical figure to the test. It does show fairly conclusively that there is a lot more to Bill Massey than we’ve been led to believe. 

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.

“GEORGE’S GHOSTS” Brenda Maddox (Picador/Macmillan, first published 1999)

The reappraisal of one Protestant Irishman puts me in mind of the reappraisal of another, although in spirit and achievement W.B.Yeats is a world away from the New Zealand prime minister.

There’s a part of me that shouldn’t really enjoy the various books that have been written by Brenda Maddox.

Maddox is a new-style feminist literary biographer. Theoretically, there’s nothing wrong with that. The most illustrious people can stand being scrutinised over matters of how they responded to men, women and sex. But a certain sameness creeps into some of Maddox’s output. You soon start tripping over passages that suggest such-and-such a noted writer wasn’t all that hot after all, because he didn’t treat his wife well or (more commonly) because in fact the woman in his life was the really creative person.

Sometimes this comes close to forgetting that the only reason we recall writers is because they wrote well – not because of what pleasant or unpleasant people they were, or how well-adjusted their sex lives were or, for that matter, who inspired them.

Thus it is in Brenda Maddox’s A Married Man (about D.H.Lawrence) and in her Nora (about the wife of James Joyce).

I love the gossip Maddox uncovers but feel a little queasy about what seems a covert belittling of the writer in her sights. A modern feminist judges them and finds them wanting because their social perspective isn’t hers. Lawrence was a wimp, obsessed with sex but scared of his own homosexual impulses, who found stability only by putting himself under a domineering wife. Joyce lacked a backbone until he found the lusty West-of-Ireland peasant girl Nora Barnacle who let him defy convention and whom he married. Thus speaks Maddox.

But the malicious reader in me has no misgivings about Maddox’s delightful George’s Ghosts, if only because parts of it are so dotty.

It is subtitled A New Life of W.B.Yeats, but the subtitle is a little misleading. This is really an account of Willie Yeats’ late marriage to Georgina Hyde-Lees, whom he called “George” or “Georgie”. Yeats married her when he was 51 and she was 25. He had recently begun to get over his long and rather pointless crush on the more glamorous Maud Gonne.

Willie was well into being the famous poet. “George” was a spirit medium. They were both deeply enmeshed in the occult, séances, automatic writing, table-rapping, various odd forms or Masonry and other cultish and somewhat elite forms of belief.

These were perfect forms of escapism for people who fancied themselves as aristocrats, especially at a time when the rough and rude Irishry were grabbing back their country from the likes of Yeats’ Anglo-Irish gentry friends. Join hands in a Magic Circle, listen to voices from Beyond, and you could see yourself as infinitely superior to those grubby people outside your windows who were now in the driver’s seat.

None of this is new. Yeats’ mystical crankiness has long been known, as has the assumption of aristocratic airs which led him, in the 1930s, to cuddle up to Fascism. What is new is the intimacy with which (drawing on diaries and other previously unpublished material) Maddox shows Yeats being manipulated by a very canny young wife.
 Maddox reveals “George” as an astute woman whose spirit voices just happened to tell Willie when she had a headache and when the astral spirits said it wasn’t propitious for them to sleep together. And Yeats dutifully obeyed the astral spirits. Some such details of superb hoodwinking are at once sad and extremely funny.

There is nowhere in this book any suggestion that Yeats was anything other than a very great poet – one of the 20th century’s greatest. There is also the clear suggestion that he was gullible and fell for more than one ridiculous political scheme. In one scene Maddox has him trying to talk high philosophy with the dull “bachelor cop” O’Duffy, who headed Ireland’s tiny home-grown “Blues Shirts” Fascist movement and who didn’t have the faintest idea what Yeats was talking about.

When I first read George’s Ghosts ten years ago, I didn’t lose any of my respect and admiration for the great poet who wrote Sailing to Byzantium and Easter 1916 and the Crazy Jane poems and even that melting, sweet Late Romantic “Celtic Twilight” stuff that he began with. But I was forcefully reminded that literary genius can live in the same body as plain silliness. And a literary genius may be the veriest dolt when it comes to recognizing what is going on in his own house and bedroom.

It’s a lesson worth remembering whenever admirers make the mistake of elevating literary giants to the status of universal sages.

Helpful hint to get another viewpoint: Type the words “George’s Ghosts Maddox” into your search engine, and the first thing to come up will be a thoughtful review by Ann Skea. It is worth reading. Like me she basically admires the book, but she is a little more sceptical about Maddox’s tendency to psychoanalyse her subjects.

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.

This is the second week in a row that I’ve considered works of biography, and I must admit there’s something personal to it.

I myself am guilty of committing biography a number of times. My James Michael Liston – A Life (Victoria University Press, 2006) was a biography of Auckland’s Archbishop Liston. My Cardinal – The Life and Work of Reginald John Delargey (Pindar Publishers, 2008) was a biography of one of Liston’s colleagues. This year appears my Founders and Keepers (CPC Press 2011), a series of long biographical essays on, and interviews with, people who built up one diocese. Perhaps I should add that I also once ghost-wrote the autobiography of a local-body politician.

It’s for other people to say how good or bad my efforts are. I might indulge in a little self-publicity here, but I’m not going to stoop to self-praise. However, given that the three books I list are substantial works – approx. 400 pages each – and given that each at least aspires to be scholarly, I think I’m entitled to say that I know, from the inside, what researching and writing a biography entails.

Here are some of the tasks I have now undertaken on a number of occasions.

First, establishing the basic chronological facts of a person’s life – ferreting out birth and death certificates of family members; marriage certificates of parents; official documents related to appointments made and positions achieved; and wills related to property matters. All this entails trips to National Archives and other agencies where official documents are stored. I am talking quite a few weeks of work.

Then a general trawl through the secondary literature relating to the biography’s subject. Neither of the two clerics upon whom I wrote full-length biographies had yet had a whole book devoted to his life, although there was a detailed book about one short episode in Liston’s life – his trial for sedition in the 1920s. However, there were many church histories in which both men figured, not to mention the published memoirs of others and general history books. Trawling the secondary literature also entailed looking at works about the general state of the country – politically and socially – in the times these men lived, in order to place them in their context. It also meant finding specialist articles in refereed journals and unpublished theses and dissertations. I am talking many months of work.

Then there was what should be the central part of any real biographical research – the examination of essential primary materials, including the private and public papers of the person whose life was being written. Everything including memoranda, appointment diaries, personal diaries, drafts of articles and talks, private letters, contracts, official correspondence, directions to colleagues and subordinates and financial accounts. This part of research often involves great patience in deciphering difficult or faded handwriting. For both the men whose lives I undertook, there was a central core of private and public papers kept in one particular archive, but much more had to be found by travelling both this country and overseas to other archives and repositories. I am talking many, many months of work.

Then a survey of contemporaneous newspapers and other media to see how this person’s life was recorded or interpreted when he was alive, and how well this interpretation matched the life revealed in official correspondence and private papers. More months.

Then, given that my subjects survived into living memory, a series of interviews with friends and colleagues and known critics of the subjects to include an “oral history” component as well as gaining the immediacy of personal anecdote and reminiscence. Yet more months.

All this is listing only part of the biographical process, and not necessarily in order. One task will overlap another and basic documentation may still be unearthed when you’re well into reading the primary and secondary sources.

Research is not merely finding things out.

It is also about making copious notes, cross-referencing the notes that have been made, organizing them into some coherent system (usually in reference to significant aspects of the subject’s life), and producing a framework or skeleton outline of each chapter upon which the text will hang.

It is producing drafts of each chapter of the biography, and having them read and commented upon by trusted and qualified people. It is re-writing and modifying drafts already written, in the light of both readers’ comments and new material that has been found since the chapters were first written. It is dreading that something really important might turn up just after the final version has been submitted to the publishers.

It is also a process of frequent backing-and-filling. You complete, shall we say, a chapter on your subject’s childhood, and think you have finished with it. Then, halfway through researching some later part of your subject’s life, new materials about the childhood come to light. So back you go and recast parts of your opening chapter.

At a rough estimate, I would say that one year of full-time work is the barest minimum to produce anything like a genuine full-length documented biography of anybody. A more detailed biography will entail more time than this.

I repeat – I am not boasting that I did all this well. I am simply stating that I did it.           

It has given me much clearer criteria to judge the worth of other people’s biographies. I distrust, for example, any biography that is light on primary source material and that seems to have been put together largely from secondary sources. Secondary sources are an essential part of the process. But the more they are relied on, the more likely an author is simply to repeat the mistakes and judgements of earlier writers. An absence of documentation – in the form of notes – is another reason to regard a biography as thin.

Everything I’ve said here is partly intended as a rebuke to those who think a “biography” means a one-page Wikipedia entry on somebody’s life. I’m also taking aim at those (a growing tribe among tertiary students) who think “research” means looking something up on-line. By all means look things up on-line, where much of value can be found, but only the feeblest of biographies will rely exclusively on what can be downloaded electronically. The real search for primary sources requires much physical tramping from place to place, much handling of physical documents.

But my main point reiterates something I took up in last week’s blog. There is so much toil involved in writing a true, detailed, documented biography, that the task should be one really worth doing. Is it worth doing if a detailed biography of the subject has already been written? Only if there are genuinely new things to say and only if new evidence has come to light of the sort that justifies more than a brief article.

Biographies of living persons are always partial and perishable things, because the life examined has not yet been fully lived. Biographies of the dead can, theoretically at any rate, be complete. Is the toil of documentation and research worth doing more than once if there is not some radical new viewpoint to express? I think not, especially if so much of that toil will lead merely to establishing material facts that have already been established.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Something New

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

“BLIGH – William Bligh in the South Seas” Anne Salmond (Penguin/Viking , $65)

Here is a problem for reviewers. When they are faced with something flawed, it is easy to write a review, as the review will consist of a clever comments at the expense of the book being reviewed.

But when reviewers are faced with high quality, they can do little more than list a book’s contents and explain the author’s perspective. This makes for dull and not particularly clever criticism.

It means that this week I am going to indulge in dull and not very clever criticism, because I find little to criticise in the hefty 500-plus pages of Dame Anne Salmond’s Bligh - William Bligh in the South Seas. It is a fascinating, detailed book, illuminating aspects of a famous story that have hitherto been left unchronicled.

Anne Salmond’s reputation rests as much on her work as an anthropologist as on her work as an historian. In a series of detailed books (Two Worlds, Between Worlds, Aphrodite’s Island etc.) she has given accounts of European “first contact” with the peoples of the Pacific, and the impact of European civilization and settlement. Her focus has most often been on the eighteenth century, the age when Spanish and French and especially British expeditions first encountered Tahiti, Hawaii, New Zealand and other such exotic places.

Salmond’s specialty is the interface of different cultures, their mutual borrowings and mutual misunderstandings. As much as she can (in the absence of written indigenous records), she tries to reconstruct what the French Annalist school of historians would call the “mentalites” of the pre-contact and early-contact Pacific peoples. Some speculation is inevitably involved, and much depends on trying to interpret, from an indigenous point of view, events that have been recorded only by European observers.

Salmond is aware of the hugely negative impact that much European contact had on the islands. But she does not succumb to any afterglow of the “Noble Savage” myth. She is fully aware that if Europeans brought firearms, syphilis, alcohol and exploitation, then the islanders already lived in radically unequal societies, often ravaged by clan warfare, routinely taking slaves and sometimes practising human sacrifice. With the climate, the abundance of food and the sexual complaisance of Pacific women, it is easy to see why French and British sailors thought they had discovered Paradise in the Pacific. But they thought wrong. Basically, Salmond remembers that as a modern historian and anthropologist, she has to treat both Pacific society and European society dispassionately. Both societies had mores radically different from our own. Salmond does not set Pacific innocence neatly against European corruption. Power plays, faction and human weaknesses are on display in both polities.

All of this informs her new, detailed biography of one of the most controversial figures of eighteenth century Pacific exploration.

William Bligh is doomed to be remembered as the commander of the Bounty whose crew mutinied. The few who know anything more about him will probably next recall that he became a harsh Governor of New South Wales, who again suffered mutiny when he tried to control the rum trade.

Salmond wants to set Bligh in the context of his times and particularly in the context of the Pacific, as the book’s subtitle suggests. She gives him high marks as an early ethnographer, coming to study and understand Pacific communities much better than most of his European contemporaries did, and leaving valuable accounts of Pacific customs. He did not exploit Pacific communities anywhere near as grossly as some of his rivals and subordinates did.

Inevitably, Salmond also has to recount much of Bligh’s life outside the Pacific, including his earlier career working merchant ships to the West Indies, his later career as a trusted and capable officer under Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen, and the more distressing events in New South Wales.

Of Bligh’s superb seamanship and skills as a navigator there is no doubt. This is proven not only in his later voyages to gather breadfruit seedlings, but also in his open-boat voyage across the ocean to Timor, with those who had been turned off the Bounty with him. There is also no doubt of Bligh’s skills as a cartographer. His original charts of parts of the Pacific, often made under distressing circumstances, became the standard charts in naval publications. Unusual in the often rakish and brutal society of naval officers, Bligh was apparently also an exemplary family man, happily married, devoted to his wife Betsy and to their 6 children.

Yet while establishing all this clearly, Salmond also has to explain why the legend of Bligh as a sadistic disciplinarian arose.

All records and evidence show that Bligh was no harsher a disciplinarian than any other Royal Navy commander of his day. He was a lot more lenient than many. In his fateful Bounty voyage, Bligh was responsible for having 10% of his crew flogged for misdemeanours.  Compare this with the 25% of his crew that James Cook had flogged on his third Pacific expedition, and the 45% of his crew that the genuinely sadistic George Vancouver had flogged in his explorations of the American Pacific coast. Bligh did a better job than most in attempting to protect his men from scurvy. Fletcher Christian, who led the mutiny, was a man whose career Bligh had mentored in his merchant navy years.

So what went wrong on the Bounty?

Salmond really comes up with a three-part answer.

First, despite his genuinely humanitarian impulses, Bligh was a stocky, unimposing man who lacked the charisma of  James Cook, who found it hard to assert his authority and who was filled with justified resentments. Bligh had, on numerous occasions, been passed over for prestigious commands which he had merited, because he did not have the right aristocratic connections. The original chart surveys he undertook on Cook’s last voyage were attributed to others who had more influence than he. (Salmond begins her book with an account of Cook’s last voyage, ten years before the Bounty mutiny, detailing Bligh’s role and the messy recriminations surrounding Cook’s murder in Hawaii.) All this bred a suspicious streak in Bligh.

Second, for all his good qualities, Bligh clearly had a foul temper. His contemporaries called him “passionate”. He got offside not only with the Bounty mutineers, but with those who chose not to mutiny and to accompany him in the long boat. Sailors did not like being flogged, but they knew it was part of naval discipline and on the whole accepted it. What they did not like was a being bawled out and belittled, sometimes in front of their subordinates, on very little provocation. This trait in Bligh angered even the men who admired him.

Third, Salmond notes there was something quite beyond Bligh’s control in the whole Bounty expedition. The ship Bligh was assigned was too small a craft for such a long expedition. Men lived cheek-by-jowl with their commander, who had no privacy and whose authority was inevitably undermined.

Lack of authority, a foul temper and the conditions of the ship became intolerable for those officers and sailors who had formed relationships with women in Tahiti, where the Bounty had had to stay for longer than Bligh wanted it to. And so the mutiny happened.

Salmond does not whitewash Bligh. His character flaws and inconsistencies are clear. But at the same time she does not whitewash the mutineers. Fletcher Christian was no common man rebelling against the officer class (the Hollywood legend), but was of higher social rank and had better social connections than Bligh himself. In many respects he was the “gentleman ranker” who resented legitimate authority. Some of his fellow mutineers were very unsavoury types and were far more exploitative of indigenous Pacific women than their officers were.

Of those mutineers who did not accompany Fletcher Christian to Pitcairn Island, some were rounded up by HMS Pandora, and transported back to England. Some drowned when the Pandora struck the Great Barrier Reef and sank. Three were hanged after court-martial in England. We can make our own judgements about the harshness of British justice in this matter. But there is no doubt that Fletcher’s closest followers did a very good job of destroying themselves, without official intervention. Within a very few years nearly all the mutineers on Pitcairn had murdered one another, basically in a series of fights over the Tahitian women they had taken with them. Only one mutineer, John Adams, survived, to be discovered twenty years later as the mellowed patriarch of his own tribe of women and children.

True historian that she is, Salmond does not bother to mention persistent romantic fictions about Fletcher Christian, which claim that he returned secretly to England and provided part of the inspiration for Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In hard reality, there was no such happy ending for Fletcher Christian, who was murdered on Pitcairn. Yet in England, Bligh lost a battle of pamphlets when Fletcher Christian’s brother Edward Christian, a Professor of Law, wrote an account of the mutiny which caught the public imagination. It gave a fanciful version of a harsh disciplinarian Blight harassing a cowed crew. It is from this pamphlet that subsequent romanticisations developed.

I finished this long, detailed book with a strong sense that Bligh was a man whose true talents were never fully developed, and who never achieved the reputation he could have won if he did not have such a foul temper.

As an account of his life, this is certainly the most comprehensive to appear so far. Its anthropological detail of the Pacific is impressive.

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.

 “HUEY LONG” T. Harry Williams (first published in 1969)
Anne Salmond’s detailed and documented biography of the very flawed William Bligh encourages me to recommend, as Something Old, a detailed and documented biography of a very different kettle of fish. Or Kingfish.

I was surprised at the rapt attention with which I read my way through the hefty 877 pages of T. Harry Williams’ 1969 biography of the very flawed Huey Long.

I know why I took this book out of the library. I had just read Robert Penn Warren’s famous 1946 novel All the King’s Men, as well as having seen (a number of times) Robert Rossen’s Academy Award-winning 1949 movie based on it. They concern the rise, moral corruption and eventual assassination of the fictitious Southern governor Willie Stark (played by Broderick Crawford in the movie). I had also read John Dos Passos’s less impressive 1943 novel Number One, about the fictitious and very cynical Southern governor Homer T. Crawford.

Robert Penn Warren’s novel is rightly regarded as an American classic. Dos Passos’s cruder effort is quite justifiably forgotten. But both Willie Stark and Homer T. Crawford are generally understood to be fictionalised versions of Huey Long, governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and U.S. senator from 1932 to his assassination in 1935.

When Americans now think of Huey Long, they see him through the lens of Penn Warren’s famous fiction – in the same way that William Randolph Hearst cannot now be separated from Herman Mankiewicz’s and Orson Welles’ fictitious Charles Foster Kane. Knowing this, I wanted to find out the historical truth that lay behind the fictions, and I think Williams’ huge, fully-researched biography gave it to me.

I at once admit that the technicalities of Southern state politics in the 1920s and 1930s do not sound the most enticing subject, especially when the star of the show is a bullying, aggressive politician whose main political principle was gaining and holding on to power.

What came through, though, was a truly Machiavellian scenario.

Like so many demagogues, Huey Long had a genuinely populist streak. He was able to appeal to hicks, hillbillies and poor white trash by talking to them in their own language, hooking into their culture and promising them the things they wanted at the time of the Depression. He himself promoted his nickname “Kingfish”, plucking it from a popular radio sitcom. Although it was essentially self-promotion, Long’s “Every Man a King” programme was only a tweak away from the work-creation New Deal schemes of his fellow Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. Long put public money into showy public works (charity hospitals and an expanded state university) to prove his largesse. In a sectarian age, he was canny enough not to play the religion card and to butter up both the more Protestant northern counties of his state and the more Catholic southern ones. There wasn’t the least likelihood that Long would get the Democrat nomination, but he had at least some credibility in positioning himself as a possible presidential candidate.

Behind this, however, there was a massive programme of arm-twisting and blackmail. Long insisted that all his state employees sign and give him an undated letter of resignation which he would immediately action if they stepped out of line. As a matter of course, his stooges dug up as much dirt as they could on his political enemies, for use at need. Corruption was routine. A “deduct box” meant Long built a personal war chest out of state revenues. Violence became routine too. There were stand-offs between the armed state troopers, whom Long controlled, and the armed city police of New Orleans, controlled by a conservative city administration that refused to carry out some of the governor’s ordinances.

All this sounds very much like the career path of a potential dictator, but Williams’ book makes a number of interesting points that modify this view.

The first – as he shows in copious detail – is that Long’s political opponents were at least as unscrupulous as Long himself. They generally represented older, more moneyed and more privileged elements in society who resented Long, not because they upheld democracy, but because they saw him as horning in on their territory. They wanted to get the kickbacks from contractors and the oil industry that Huey Long was now getting. They were as guilty as Long was of hiring goons to steal or smash up ballot-boxes when local body elections weren’t going their way.

A little reluctantly, Williams is forced to note that those who opposed Long on real democratic principles appeared only late in his career and were not particularly influential. He remarks

While Huey was moving to strengthen his base of power, some of his enemies were organising to destroy him. They were the most sincere and idealistic of his opponents, and hence the most inept and least dangerous ones.” (pg.422).

The second point is that Long was quite unabashed about his pursuit of personal power. Williams notes

He was completely frank in admitting his desire for power. On two different occasions interviewers asked him why, with his radical ideas, he did not affiliate with the Socialists. He gave them almost identical answers. First of all, he said, he did not agree with the tenets of Socialism. But even if he did, he would not run for office as a Socialist because he would be defeated. ‘Hell, I want to be in office,’ he said. ‘that’s where I can do good.’ There was no point to be right only to be defeated, he emphasized: ‘First you must come into power – POWER – and then you can do things.’ ” (pg. 750)

Both these points are at least similar to the situation of Robert Penn Warren’s fictitious Willie Stark. Throughout the novel All the King’s Men, Stark has the philosophy that “good can only be made out of evil”, and that the only way to do good is to gain power. The novel’s morose narrator, Jack Burden, is almost the embodiment of liberal middle-class guilt. He realizes that the overbearing governor would never have had a power base in the first place if the state’s traditional leaders hadn’t been so self-serving. It is also fair to note that, in Williams’ biography as in Penn Warren’s fiction, the eventual assassination of the governor was carried out by a disappointed office-seeker who was motivated as much by a personal grudge as by political ideals.

As a general comment, when I first read Williams’ biography of Long, I noted that it was like being locked in a cigar-smoke-filled backroom for a couple of days, watching deals being brokered. It has that awful atmosphere of raw power politics.

But there are two absences that really interest me.

As in Penn Warren’s novel, and the film that was made from it, African-Americans are virtually non-existent. This is very strange given that approximately one third of the population of Louisiana is black. But, as Williams makes clear, before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Louisiana’s blacks were disenfranchised by poll-taxes and were prevented from voting. Like his political opponents, Huey Long could simply ignore them when he made his political calculations, knowing they had no voice. For political purposes, they did not exist.

The second absence is one of those things that can show the age of a biography. For many years, Huey Long’s secretary was a woman called Alice Lee Grossjean. She was widely rumoured to be his mistress, and it is clearly upon this woman that Robert Penn Warren based the important character of Sadie Burke in All the King’s Men (memorably played by Mercedes McCambridge in the film version.). But when Williams comes to this matter in his biography, he whizzes past it with one brief footnote and doesn’t elaborate. Really this was the way with biographies of public and political figures up until the 1960s. Discretion ruled in referring to sexual and private matters, and the focus was more firmly on the public life.

Since then, even scholarly biographers have come to see it as their duty to give us all the scandalous details.

I’m not sure that it necessarily makes for better biographies.