Monday, December 5, 2011

Something New,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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