Monday, January 30, 2012

Something New

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

“OLD BUCKY AND ME – Dispatches from the Christchurch Earthquake” by Jane Bowron (Awa Press, $33)
It’s ironical that I’m writing this, and you’re reading it, nearly a year after the big and horrible event that I’m discussing – the Christchurch earthquake of 22 February 2011. As I write, I’m aware that tremors and aftershocks are ongoing and that they might yet do something dramatic before you read these words on your screen. Anything written about the earthquake has to be a provisional report, but the disaster has so far yielded some good writing.

Nearly two months ago, in the blog posting of 5 December, I discussed Fiona Farrell’s The Broken Book. [You can find my comments via the index to the right]. I said then that Farrell’s was probably the best literary response to the earthquakes we would get. I stand by that verdict, but I don’t underestimate the journalistic response to the quakes either. Now that I’m at last catching up with Jane Bowron’s Old Bucky and Me – Dispatches from the Christchurch Earthquake [published in November 2011], I see there’s a lot to be said for a more immediate reporter’s-eye-view.

To those of us who don’t receive Wellington newspapers, it should probably be explained that Jane Bowron is a Christchurch-based freelance journalist and TV reviewer. “Old Bucky” is her  jocular and rather defensive name for the earthquake and its aftershocks. Old Bucky and Me consists of 41 short articles she filed in the Wellington Dominion-Post and the Christchurch Press between February and August 2011. They are not a day-by-day account of events, but they are a week-by-week set of personal impressions.

From the very first dispatch, two days after the big quake, we are aware that the tone will be under-emphatic, sometimes playful, sometimes ironic, with no histrionics but still taking in the scale of the tragedy. Occasionally it’s “just-the-facts-ma’am” as she observes and records which streets are condoned off, which heritage buildings have taken a pounding, where lives were lost and how rescue and demolition teams set about their work.

There’s the stunned effect of the big shake – our correspondent is left standing in the middle of the street holding the baby of a woman who has dashed off frantically to get something out of her car. Later she discovers that her own car has been smacked by falling masonry. When she can get around in it, she is driving a wreck on four wheels. More often necessity makes her use her “blue pony” – her bicycle.

In the small events of her immediate neighbourhood and the wider events of her city, she chronicles the changing mood of people. At first, Cantabrians have a sense that they’re all in it together and there is some hearty camaraderie and the relief of having survived. Then people begin to count the cost and surliness sets in. There is real post-traumatic stress disorder. There are also painful discoveries about people. Some don’t reciprocate when they are offered help, and they are the ones you learn to shrug off. Being in material distress means having to make some hard decisions about people.

Sometimes class asserts itself. In one bleak dispatch, Bowron recalls receiving a phone call from a “drama-queen” in an expensive suburb, who complains of being cut off from friends but who has apparently done nothing to help other people. Grimly, Bowron comments: “My friend lives in a rich part of the city where there is no spontaneous community going on. Christchurch has always been a class-ridden city – a game of two halves, one half having huge tickets on itself about issues of breeding and entitlement, and the other half bashing whores and making racist attacks – fight stuff. But gosh, I’ve met some brilliant people in all of this. When it’s all stripped back, when the mask falls down with the bricks, you find out what people are really like.”

At the time of Christchurch’s tragedy, and despite the final affirmation in this quotation, no non-Christchurchian would dare to say something like that. But Bowron has no stomach for euphemism; and a dodgy society is still a dodgy society even when it’s suffering.

Naturally Bowron sometimes cracks wise. She says she has learnt the opposite of the three little pigs’ message – don’t build your house of bricks. She says the thing she missed most in the early days after the big one was washing. The supply of water was so uncertain. She notes a local return to a limited form of  barter when banks and eftpos are unavailable.

But always we come back to the mood of the community.

After the trauma, after the jokes, after the camaraderie, there is a gradual descent into tired normality, and the awful realization that the city will never be the same. There are fears about compensation, fears about insurance companies not paying out, fears about real estate agents making a killing out of people’s distress. Don’t expect profiteers to go out of business.  Then there are the rumours about looting and about what is happening inside the forbidden and cordoned-off CBD. There is the curfew and the discomforts of negotiating around the Red Zone and forbidden streets. There is a certain hilarity about the city’s prostitutes moving to more upmarket areas when their usual stamping grounds are off limits.

As a life-long cat-lover I was surprised that I didn’t connect much with Bowron’s chronicle of concern for her cat Benecio. The heretic in me wonders about somebody who can afford $3000 to fix up a damaged puss. Much as I love my own moggy, I’d have her put down promptly if the vet was asking that much. Maybe this is because, should I be caught in an earthquake, my first concern would be for children and family. Other people might react differently.

Old Bucky and Me is a vivid and readable set of impressions, at its very best when Jane Bowron expresses mixed feelings about the way things are unfolding. You can see this in her description of a demolition team taking the roof off a damaged church. At one and the same time, she admires their great skill and deplores the loss of the building.

Pauline O’Regan’s generous introduction compares Old Bucky and Me with Samuel Pepys’ writing about the fire of London, and says it’s the kind of book future generations will look at, to see how the disaster felt at the time. I’m inclined to agree.

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 JOURNAL OF A VOYAGE TO LISBON” by Henry Fielding  (first published 1755)
Reading Jane Bowron’s vivid dispatches from an earthquake puts me in mind of somebody else writing vividly about uncomfortable things. An earthquake doesn’t come into it, but that was only because of hair’s-breadth timing.

About six years ago I decided I had neglected one of the eighteenth century masters, Henry Fielding (1707-1754), so I set about reading my way methodically through all of his works that are still regularly in print – the three novels Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones and Amelia; the satire Jonathan Wild the Great; the mock-heroic play Tom Thumb or The Tragedy of Tragedies; and the travel book (really worked up from Fielding’s diary notes) Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon. This travel-book was first published posthumously in 1755. Fielding died in Lisbon in 1754 and is buried there. Ironically, this was just the year before Lisbon was struck by the huge earthquake that set Voltaire and others thinking about the nature of divine providence, and whether God’s will can be read into physical events. Fiona Farrell references it in her The Broken Book.

In 1753 Fielding, a chief magistrate, was exhausted from the strenuous business of putting down criminal gangs in London. He was suffering from gout and the dropsy (for which he was often “tapped” by surgeons to relieve him of fluid) and from other ailments as well. He was advised to seek warmer climes for his health.

In mid-1754 (summer), he and his (second) wife and some servants paid passage to Lisbon on board the Queen of Portugal commanded by Captain Veal. This short travel book is exactly what its title says – the journal of a voyage TO Lisbon, for, after the slow journey down the Thames, the ship was “wind-bound” for many weeks and so confined to English waters and ports. The captain was certain he was somehow “bewitched”, but as Fielding remarks “the most absolute power of a captain of a ship is very contemptible in the wind’s eye”.

Fielding narrates what happened on this part of the voyage and what thoughts occurred to him. Only in the last few pages does the wind pick up and push the ship across the Bay of Biscay to reach Portugal. The book could more properly be called Journal of A Voyage off the South Coast of England. The whole experience was very uncomfortable for Fielding, who was a very sick man, and he notes that “some of the most amusing pages, if, indeed, there be any that deserve that name, were possibly the production of the most disagreeable hours that ever haunted the author.”

In his preface, Fielding sets out what his idea of a travel book is. It cannot be a mere description of places visited and things seen, for these are usually already known to readers and have been often described. Likewise, it cannot be a chronicle of all the things that happen to travellers, most of which are trivial and commonplace. Rather, it should concentrate on the thoughts and reflections that occur to the traveller on his journey; and it should aim to instruct while entertaining.

It is clear that, while it may have been “worked up” afterwards with publication in view, this book really did begin as daily jottings. Fielding discourses on the best means of dealing with organised crime in London, on trade, on the eating habits of city and country people, on how the poor could be fed, on the story of Circe and Ulysses as a fable of men turned swinish in pubs etc. etc. Indeed, these reflections make up the greatest part of the book and can be difficult reading –in some cases because of their topicality and in other cases because of Fielding’s circumlocutious style.

But there are the anecdotes of things that happened and, as always, these are far and away more memorable than the reflections. Mrs.Fielding suffers horribly from toothache. She is given laudanum as a palliative and they have extreme difficulty finding a surgeon to draw the tooth. By his own account, Fielding’s own humour is often sour – probably the result of his ill health. He grumbles at length about the awful landlady Mrs.Francis at Rye, and the very poor hospitality she offers, and the inflated prices she charges, at her hostelry. He takes a disliking to the captain’s youngish relative, an undistinguished military officer who makes a visit aboard. At one point he argues with the captain himself over the use of his cabin, and threatens to quit the ship. In the last pages there are complaints about the officiousness of Portuguese customs men. Clearly the dropsy and gout weren’t conducive to good humour.

Offsetting this, though, there are some delightful tales – the wonderful meal they arranged for themselves and ate with gusto when Mrs.Francis supplied them with nothing worthwhile. How sublime it was, in the Bay of Biscay, to see the sun on one side sinking into the sea and a full moon arising on the other. The story of  how the captain made the ship halt, and got a sailor to swim to the rescue, when one of his pet kittens fell overboard. (Alas, the story has a sad sequel - the kitten is accidentally suffocated under cushions in the captain’s cabin, and the captain, though he is a rough and hearty fellow, is inconsolable with grief.)

In the end, the book is not particularly instructive; but it does amuse, and my pen was kept busy jotting down some of Fielding’s wittier observation in my notebook.

From Fielding’s preface there is his dismissal of the idea that travel-books should concern themselves with physical descriptions of places:-  If the customs and manners of men were everywhere the same, there would be no office so dull as that of a traveller, for the difference of hills, valleys, rivers, in short the various views in which we may see the face of the earth, would scarce afford him a pleasure worthy of his labour; and surely it would give him very little opportunity of communicating any kind of entertainment or improvement to others.”

From the entry of 26 June 1754 there is his pained reflection on being carried, sick, aboard the ship:  In this condition I ran the gauntlope (so I think I may justly call it) through rows of sailors and watermen, few of whom failed to pay their compliments to me by all manner of insults and jests on my misery. No man who knew me will think I conceived any personal resentment at this behaviour; but it was a lively picture of that cruelty and inhumanity in the nature of men which I have often contemplated with concern, and which leads the mind into a train of very uncomfortable and melancholy thoughts.

On 3 July 1754 he gives his views on those scavengers who pick up flotsam and jetsam from the shore without considering the fate of those who have been shipwrecked or drowned:  “To say the truth, whether it be that men who live on the seashore are of an amphibious kind, and do not entirely partake of human nature, or whatever else may be the reason, they are so far from taking any share in the distresses of mankind, or of being moved with any compassion for them, that they look upon them as blessings showered down upon them from above, and which the more they improve to their own use, the greater is their gratitude and piety.”

His unimpressed description of the captain’s military nephew is a serious put-down for any fool who laughs at his own lame jokes: “The character to which he had an indisputable title was that of a merry fellow; so very merry was he that he laughed at everything he said, and always before he spoke. Possibly, indeed, he often laughed at what he did not utter, for every speech began with a laugh, though it did not always end with a jest.”

Then there is a grave, almost sermonic, consideration of the matter of income: 
Men do not become rich by what they get but by what they keep. He who is worth no more than his annual wages or salary, spends the whole; he will be always a beggar let his income be what it will, and so will be his family when he dies. This we see daily to be the case of ecclesiastics, who during their lives are extremely well provided for, only because they desire to maintain the honour of the cloth by living like gentlemen, which would, perhaps, be better maintained by living unlike them.”

Fielding could be crotchety and certainly gives vent to some of his insular prejudices, particularly when dealing with funny foreigners and Catholics. But his writing rises above this and Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon is one of those books that comforts us at least a little by its account of somebody else’s discomfort. Dare I invoke Schadenfreude?

Something Thoughtful


Charles Dickens was born on 7 February 1812, exactly 200 years ago this month.
He’s been dead for 142 years, as he made it only to the age of 58 before dying, at least in part from exhaustion, in 1870.

Normally, I would write, in great detail, a post about the Greatest Novelist in the English Language. But instead, I will simply issue an invitation, for those of you lucky enough to live in New Zealand.

On the 200th Birthday of Charles Dickens, Tuesday 7 February 2012, in the Auckland Central public library, I will be proposing a toast to Charles Dickens by means of an illustrated talk, which I hope is as entertaining as I have tried to make it informative. My good friend Iain Sharp will be assisting me with readings from the great Dickens, and the whole affair will be preceded by a Dickens Quiz. We begin with drinks at 5pm, proceed to the quiz and some jollities at 5;30 pm and will be into the presentation itself by 6 pm.

It will be a pleasure to see you there. 

Monday, January 23, 2012

Something New

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

“11.22.63” Stephen King (Hodder and Stoughton/Hachette $39:99)

“11.22.63” as Americans would say.

Or as most of the world would say “22.11.63”.

It’s that curious American habit of putting the month before the day, instead of working logically from the smallest to the greatest unit – day then month then year. That’s why they say “9/11” (which I read as the 9th of November) when what they mean is the 11th of September.

Anyway, “11.22.63” refers to the 22nd of November, 1963, the day JFK was assassinated. This massively long novel (738 pages before the author’s six-page Afterword) is a time-travel story. To summarise in a sentence, a man travels back from 2011 to try to prevent Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. But there’s much more to it than this. There has to be, because it was written by Stephen King, and he is a master at spinning a yarn.

Let me make clear what I mean by a yarn. “Yarn”. It’s one of the deep metaphors of the English language. So deep that we hardly think of it as a metaphor when we use if to refer to a story. Like the yarn spun from wool (or spun by a spider) the story yarn is judged by its length and strength. How long can it be spun and how strong is it? i.e. how long can it be spun while continuing to hold the reader’s attention? The literary yarn is concerned with driving events along by suspense, foreshadowing and any other device that will keep readers turning pages. Characterisation needn’t be too detailed and probability can sometimes be set aside, so long as those pages keep turning.  This is not intended as a haughty put-down. It takes incredible skill to write a good yarn and King has that skill. I do not know whether to thank him or to curse him for the three full days he took out of my life while I read this blockbuster and kept turning the pages, just as he hoped I would.

Anyway, being a yarn-spinner, King was never going to whisk his time-travelling hero back to the scene of the Kennedy assassination and get it over with. There had to be complications, twists, false trails and ominous portents.

Jake Epping, high-school teacher separated from an alcoholic wife in 2011, is introduced by an old coot to a “portal” that takes him back to 1958. At least the first 300 pages or so have nothing to do with JFK. Instead Jake is attempting to forestall another more obscure tragedy, in order to test whether altering the past will actually have beneficial effects. This allows King to deal with some of the more obvious questions that spring to mind once we think of past-altering time travel. Will altering the past necessarily improve things for the better? If the past were altered before the date of the hero’s birth, isn’t there the possibility that the hero may never be born – in which case altering the past becomes doubly impossible? What about unforeseen consequences, the “butterfly effect” etc etc? King tests out all these ideas in the form of suspense thriller as Jake Epping – who adopts the name George Amberson in the past (magnificent!) – makes two separate journeys back through his portal to 1958. In effect, King is setting up the “rules” for time travel in his fictional universe, so that we can accept what follows.

Please note that in attempting to prevent the Kennedy assassination Jake/George is “95% sure” that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, just as is the old coot who advises him on what to look for in the past. Note too that by landing in 1958 he has to live through five years of the past before the date of the assassination comes around. From these premises come two consequences.

The first is Jake/George’s obsession with removing his 5% of doubt about Oswald acting alone. He has to stalk Oswald for months just to ensure that Oswald is not in cahoots with others.

The second is the long tale of Jake/George’s life in the past – finding a job, having to live as if he knows nothing about the future, and falling in love. This last complication troubles me a bit because it becomes a major focus of the book and leads the hero to do things that really defy probability. But then who am I to complain about improbability if I’m willing to accept the premise of past-altering time travel?

And that is a much as I’ll say about the plot because it is of the essence of a yarn that it surprises readers with its twists. To give away any more would be as unmannerly as revealing the culprit in a whodunit.

King has worked hard to get the period details right. There are times when the novel feels like the pretext for a story about the feel of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

King revels in big-finned cars; and milkshakes that really taste like dairy-milk; and the fact that nobody has to count calories when they buy a steak or hamburger and order additional fries and just love that taste; and the fact that people tend to be polite to one another; and the fact that the things high-school kids get up to are just the mildest delinquency in comparison with the tsunami of surliness and sense of “entitlement” that were to become the high-school norms after the 1960s.

On the other hand, King is aware that fifty years ago nobody gave a stuff about pollution in industrial towns where the skies were acid. In parts of the USA there was still routine racial segregation with “Coloureds Only” public lavatories consisting of a hole in the ground. Racist jokes didn’t cause an eyelid to be batted. Many men mistreated women as a matter of course. Once he has his hero stalking Lee Harvey Oswald, the urban Texan setting is appropriately seedy and disgusting. Oswald himself, by the way, is presented as a pathetic loser and fantasist. His marriage and impoverished family circumstances are dramatised in detail.

I have established that this is a “yarn” which I will not ruin by giving away too much of the plot. But I am allowed to say that Stephen King apparently believes in some concept of the Zeitgeist (not that he ever uses the term) – a “spirit of the age” which objects to being altered. As Jake/George attempts to forestall the assassination of JFK, he is constantly hindered by happenstance, and comes to the conclusion that the past resists being changed. I guess this is as close as we can come to the concept of predestination in a secular age.

Stephen King is a very clever popular novelist. His sales figures show his appeal (I believe he is currently the best-selling American novelist of all time). I knew what I was getting into when I picked up a novel with his name on the cover, and I’m not going to pretend I was disappointed. He spins a very good yarn.

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.

“BRING THE JUBILEE” by Ward Moore (first published 1953)

So what would have happened if John F. Kennedy had never been assassinated?

My first answer is the commonsensical one that we’ll never know as he was assassinated and that’s that.

My more devious answer is this:- there’s no guarantee that all that much would have changed in the general course of events. Perhaps we are too prone to consider some incidents as turning-points in history when they were nothing of the sort. Science-fiction writers have hammered away at the “butterfly effect” – the concept of one tiny and apparently insignificant event causing massive change to the whole fabric of history. As an alternative I suggest the “elephant effect” – when an elephant crashes down dead in the jungle, it doesn’t change the general nature of the jungle. Maybe Kennedy’s assassination changed the course of American history. Or maybe it just meant that a few American presidents had different names from what they would have had, while the larger forces that move history ticked on as they were going to anyway. Nobody can know. Counter-factual versions of history are not entirely rational modes of thought as they are not capable of falsification.

Anyway, regardless of my misgivings, counter-factual questions continue to tease writers of science fiction and “alternative histories”.

Among American writers the most popular seem to be “What if the Axis had won the Second World War?” (Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle and many others by various authors) and “What if the South had won the American Civil War?” This latter question has fuelled literally hundreds of American alternative histories, up to and including Spike Lee’s “documentary” film C.S.A.

But the great original, and maybe still the best of them, is Bring the Jubilee by the otherwise obscure science-fiction writer Ward Moore (1903-78). It was first published in the Ballantine sci-fi series in 1953. It was in that edition that I first accessed it, as a teenager, from my father’s shelves, where it sat alongside dozens of other Ballentine sci-fi offerings.

The novel’s hero Hodgins Backmaker is a not-very-bright chap who lives, in the 1950s, in the truncated United States of America that would have existed if the South had won the civil war. The United States are weak, have limited technology and a social system that is almost feudal. There is no outright slavery, but the poorer classes often make a living by becoming “indentured” to the wealthier. After generations, the USA still seethes with resentment over its defeat by the South. A secret society called the “Grand Army” commits terrorist acts, persecutes blacks (seen as having embroiled the USA in its war and defeat) and dreams of recovering the USA’s lost pre-eminence. (This is obviously the mirror image of the Ku Klux Klan that, in reality, was vomited up in the defeated South).

Meanwhile, the victorious South has becomes a world power by conquering most of Central and South America. It shares the world with the British Empire and a German Empire that emerged after an alternative version of the First World War known as the Emperors’ War. It is the thriving South that has cities with skyscrapers. In the North, New York is a big city, but it is a backwater compared with the Southern metropolises.

Hodgins Backmaker becomes an historian and, like so many others in the defeated United States, obsesses about how the North came to be defeated. Eventually he is part of a secret experiment in physics. A time machine is invented that takes him back to what is seen as the decisive moment of the South’s victory – the Battle of Gettysburg.

It has to be emphasised that over two thirds of Bring the Jubilee concerns itself with a simple exposition of Backmaker’s world.

Much of it is plausible – the South’s conquest of a large empire is logical, given the Southern military tradition and the long-term ambitions of Confederate politicians. So is the sullen revanchism of the defeated North.

Other parts are a bit more questionable. Ward Moore assumes that the North’s defeat would have meant a major retardation of technological advances in the world, with no internal combustion engine or heavier-than-air aircraft having been invented. The alternative world of the 1950s is still one of railways, dirigibles, literal horsepower and telegraph as the speediest form of communication. This presupposes the technology we know being perfected only in the America we know, and not having been able to develop in Europe and elsewhere (where, in historical fact, much of it did develop).

Only in the last third of the novel does Bring the Jubilee become a time-travel tale. Hodgins Backmaker is transported back to the Battle of Gettysburg  with important consequences.

The strongest point of Bring the Jubilee is that it develops its alternative history in such detail, and only then gives us the option of rejoining true history. That way, we are not left wondering what the consequences of altered events would be (as we are in a book that moves towards JFK not being assassinated).

I will not talk Bring the Jubilee up as a great work of literature. It is not that but, understandably, it has often been re-published. It is often recommended to American students when they do basic historiography courses, so that they get some inkling of what “counter-factual” means. It is a well-written and thoughtful work of science-fiction. And, as a special recommendation, it has the distinct advantage of being quite trim and short. Unlike other more pretentious alternative histories that have followed in its footsteps, it runs to fewer than 200 pages.

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. 


Here’s a little reflection that fails to keep me awake at night.

Why is it that in popular fiction and genre writing, characters seem to know nothing about the popular culture that surrounds them?

Reading Stephen King’s novel “11.22.63”, about time-travel, I ask how come the hero has to be educated in time paradoxes that are common knowledge in pop fiction. Maybe this is one key difference between pop fiction and literary novels. In pop fiction characters apparently have not heard of most pop fiction.

For example if King’s 35-year-old time-travelling hero was really somebody of average intelligence living in the USA in 2011, then he would have felt the cultural impact of Back to the Future, 12 Monkeys, The Butterfly Effect, that episode of The Simpsons where Homer Simpson travels back to the dinosaur age and manages to wreck everything in the present, not to mention at least a couple of hundred novels, movies and TV shows that have played with time travel and dissected all possible time paradoxes. He would have known about the danger of unforeseen consequences; the possibility of self-duplication in a time loop; and how perilous it is to bet on things you “know” are going to happen in the future.

But we have to pretend he knows none of this. By experience, and by conversations with others, he has to find out all the things that we readers know from all the other time-travel stories we have encountered.

I’m not criticising Stephen King for a particular defect in his hero. Indeed, I note that the hero of “11.22.63” is fairly clever and does actually get to discuss Ray Bradbury’s story The Sound of Thunder, one of the key time-travel-paradox stories of science fiction (and the story that was parodied in that The Simpsons episode.). I am simply taking King as a fairly typical example of a pop novel strategy.

To win a mass audience, you have to persuade them that they are smart and are in some ways one step ahead of a novel’s hero. What better way to do this than by not allowing the hero to know some things that are common knowledge to readers?

This phenomenon of “playing dumb” with characters is not confined to science fiction or fantasy novels. How often in thrillers, police procedurals, detective novels etc. do you want to shake the dozy characters and remind them of how much trouble they could avoid, if they only remembered all the other novels and movies that featured the same situations as those they are facing?

But then if pop fiction became too self-referencing, it would not only spoil readers’ happy suspension of disbelief. It would come to resemble highbrow fiction which is currently a jangling echo-box of pop culture references.          

Monday, January 16, 2012

Something New,

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

“THE PRAGUE CEMETERY” Umberto Eco (Harvill Secker – Random House, $38:99)
Umberto Eco’s latest bestseller The Prague Cemetery (Il cimitero di Praga) crept through its New Zealand release in October of last year with very little reaction from our press. I heard it reviewed on National Radio and saw some reprints of overseas reviews, but that was about it. As I noted some weeks back on this blog, when I reviewed Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, longer books are sometimes not taken up for review in our press, as reviewers apparently fear they might actually have to read them. Much easier to resort to such stratagems as celebrity interviews with the author, or recycled overseas reviews.

Anyway here, a little belatedly, is my own mixed report on the novel, the 430 pages of which I read easily enough, as it is mainly written in thriller-style, filled with lurid and sensational details.

Eco is still best known for the tricky literary games of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. He has a huge readership because he tells far-fetched and action-filled yarns. But he is also the darling of post-modernists as his novels always self-consciously and ironically draw attention to their own form. In this matter he has inspired a large number of imitators. The Prague Cemetery mainly takes the form of a diary supposedly written by one (or possibly two) people in 1897. But there is also an omniscient Narrator who pumps out such sentences as:  “The papers your Narrator is browsing are full of surprises, and might perhaps be worth using one day as the basis for a novel.”  Nudge-nudge wink-wink, and here we are in the land of twee post-modern self-referencing.

Anyway, the 1897 diary is being kept by one Simone Simonini, an Italian spy, forger and fabulist who has had a hand in some of the most notorious literary productions of the 19th century.

Simonini had a conservative Catholic monarchist grandfather who constantly warned him against the conspiracies of Freemasons, who were trying to overthrow the rightful order of church and throne. Conversely, Simonini had a republican Italian father who constantly warned him against conspiracies by Jesuits who were trying to build up the power of the church. And of course on all sides there were conspiracy theories about Jews.

So were Freemasons or Jesuits or Jews or combinations of all three plotting to overthrow all that was good and decent? Simonini’s own reading (especially of conspiracy-filled novels by Alexandre Dumas and Eugene Sue) soon showed him that all conspiracy theories were alike.  They all required a grand narrative of something demonic and world-encompassing, preferably involving secret oaths taken in melodramatic settings and grand schemes to pervert and upset the existing order.

Skilled at devising false documents, Simonini sells himself to whomsoever will pay him, but this usually means government agents looking to find excuses for their government’s shortcomings or looking to divert popular unrest towards a scapegoat. It is through the consciousness of the perverse opportunist Simonini that we see some of key events of the 19th century. The crushing of the Roman Republic. Garibaldi’s expedition to Sicily and Naples and the unification of Italy. Napoleon III’s dictatorial rule and the Franco-Prussian war.

Behind all of these matters, dark, sinister and hidden forces are supposedly at work, be they Freemasons, Jesuits or Jews. At least that is the way these events are recorded by Simonini and by rumour, gossip, government spies, pamphleteers, and writers of newspaper serials. One paradox is that while Simonini is fully aware that he is peddling lies, he himself actually believes those lies. We also get the point that the popular press and mass literacy in the nineteenth century sometimes had the same effect as the new technologies of our own age. The dissemination of conspiracy theories and crank extremism was as rife as it is in the age of the internet, chat-groups, Facebook, Twitter etc.

Simonini’s main obsessions prove to be anti-Jewish. The novel moves into an account of the large anti-Semitic lobby in France and the Dreyfus Affair. By mid-point, Simonini is drawing on other people’s fables to make up a lie about a demonic group of rabbis meeting together in Prague’s Jewish cemetery to plot world domination. This in turn feeds into the anti-Semitic novel Biarritz by the German Hermann Goedsch and it is finally turned (by the Tsarist secret police) into the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The final page of this book (after the novel itself really ends) reminds us how much Hitler endorsed this fraudulent document.

The ultimate outcome of Simonini’s fraud, says The Prague Cemetery, was genocide. This is what happened when somebody with power actually believed nineteenth-century conspiracy theorists.

What is Eco doing writing this novel? On one level, the novel is simply historical reconstruction. Many mad and destructive conspiracy theories were believed by a mass audience in the nineteenth century, and new nation states had secret services which didn’t hesitate to forge documents to discredit their enemies. As Eco correctly notes, the taste for tales of master-criminals conspiring at world domination was fed in the mass-circulation novels of Dumas (anti-Freemason) and Eugene Sue (anti-Jesuit). The great majority of characters named in the novel actually existed.

But I have a major objection to this novel.

Simonini himself is a fictitious character and all his personal dealings are fictitious. His diary is sometimes taken over by a priest called Dalla Piccola, who seems to be (and indeed proves to be) a projection of his own unbalanced mind. Simonini tells us that he is partly inspired to write his diary as an act of purgation and catharsis, following the techniques of an Austrian Jewish doctor whom he calls “Froide”. (Gosh! Sigmund Freud! Weren’t we readers clever to pick up the reference!). We know that, no matter how sane he sometimes appears to be, Simonini is in fact an hysteric and neurotic trying to self-administer a psychological cure. And of course his conspiracy theories are the product of a diseased mind.

So this is a tale in the tradition of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It is classic “unreliable narrator” stuff. I am forcefully reminded of Michael Moorcock’s Pyat tetralogy of novels, written in the 1980s, and beginning with Byzantium Endures and  The Laughter of Carthage. They are a cockeyed history of the 20th century as written by an obsessive Russian anti-Semite. As sophisticated readers, we are meant to realize how wrong his world view is. And that is how it works in The Prague Cemetery. We are meant to see that Simonini’s theories are madness and hence to see him as a symbol of the madness of his age.

But I am not happy with this.

Apart from the character of Simonini himself, Eco gives us an historically-accurate account of the fabrication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. So why insert a fictitious character into this sequence of events? And why give him such a central role? Doesn’t it mean that Eco himself is simply adding a layer of mystification to something that can and should be elucidated? Indeed, isn’t Eco presenting us with exactly the sort of demonic super villain who figured in so much of the conspiracy literature that the novel supposedly exposes?

Okay. I can see this is a great post-modernist joke, self-referencing and playing with the nature of text itself. Part of the joke is the way 19th century prints and images (many from Eco’s personal collection) are scattered through the text, illustrating the story. All are genuine 19th century images, but they have been wrenched out of their original contexts and made to serve fictional purposes. In other words, they are “genuine fakes”, like this fictitious conspiracy story about people who believed in fictitious conspiracy stories. I am supposed to sit back and admire Eco’s skill in fitting one Russian doll of deception inside another.

But – silly old literal-minded historian me – I find I can’t do this. In end The Prague Cemetery itself is like a bad Sue or Dumas melodrama, and it feeds exactly those tastes that it is ostensibly criticising. When we get pages of pornography (Eco’s account of a Black Mass of Satanists) we have part of the explanation for Eco’s best-seller-dom. I doubt if The Prague Cemetery will re-fire the old hatreds that it chronicles. But, while it might be more intellectual than drek like The Da Vinci Code, there is always the possibility that some idiots, like Dan Brown’s devotees, will take it as unadulterated history.

Important footnote – I read and came to my own conclusions about The Prague Cemetery before I went on a search to see what other (overseas) reviewers had to say about it. I find myself in almost complete agreement with Peter Conrad’s review in the Observer (27 November 2011) and  Theo Tait’s in the Guardian (4 November 2011). They can be found on-line. Both draw parallels with Dan Brown’s trash and both point out the element of smug game-playing in Eco’s approach. Great minds think alike, etc.

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.

“Q” Luther Blissett  (first published in Italian 1999; English translation 2003)
“54” Wu Ming (first published in Italian 2002; English translation 2005)

As you may be aware by now, I usually use this “Something Old” slot to recommend older books that are still worth reading. But not always. Sometimes I comment on books that are of some historical interest only or on books that reveal a particular trend. Such is the case with the two books examined this week. If you like cheap thrills and a pacey, if highly improbable and overlong, narrative, then go ahead and read them. If you like something more substantial, do avoid. But the two books seem very relevant after considering something by Umberto Eco.

Allow me to explain.

Despite what their title pages say, both books were written by a bunch of  hip Italian practical jokers. In the 1990s, Roberto Bui, Giovanni Catabriga, Federico Gugliemi and Luca di Meo formed a consortium under the collective name “Luther Blissett”. Purely as a joke, they borrowed this name from an English soccer star. They proceeded to perpetrate cyber-jokes and provocations over the internet, often aimed at proving how gullible the mainstream media were in accepting as factual their fabrications. All very post-modern and very ”death of the author”. In 1999 they collectively produced the historical novel Q, attributed to “Luther Blissett”. However, fearing that the punch had gone out of the pseudonym, they abandoned it. When a fifth joker, Riccardo Pedrini, joined the group, they changed their collective pseudonym to “Wu Ming”, reputedly Chinese for “Anonymous”. It was as “Wu Ming” that in 2002 they brought out another fat historical novel, 54.

The 600-odd pages of Q ostensibly take place over 40 years of the 16th century in Reformation Europe. The loose picaresque plot has a radical Protestant revolutionary (actually more revolutionary than Protestant) pursued across time and many countries by the most fiendish, devious and Machiavellian of papal agents, who simply signs himself Q. It is Q who provokes rebelling German Protestant peasants to great excesses, which cause the German Lutheran princes to turn on them and slaughter them. It is Q who eggs on the crazy Anabaptists to become so totalitarian that Dutch Calvinists are willing to help the Catholic bishop put them down. Finally Q and the novel’s hero (whose name keeps changing) square off in Venice, supporting respectively the conservative and liberal wings of the Catholic church as it goes through the messy business of reforming itself. Q is on the side of the Inquisition, of course.

Like Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery (and other of his works) this is essentially a conspiracy story set in the past, which attempts to have modern resonance. The collective authors make some simplistic modern equations.  Counter-Reformation Catholic power is like United States-led global capitalism. The printing press is like the Internet, spearheading cultural subversion. Radical Protestant revolutionaries are like anti-globalism campaigners. (And they do an awful lot of bonking and swearing). Calvin and Luther are the smug revolutionary leaders who sell out for power.

When I reviewed this novel for the Dominion-Post (on 12 July 2003, to be precise) I noted that it had more than a smidgeon of Stalinist fantasy to it. Blaming the excesses of historical Protestantism (Anabaptism; Lutheran-led slaughters etc.) on a devilishly cunning papal agent is a bit like blaming the famines and inefficiencies of the 1930s Soviet Union on (non-existent) Trotskyite wreckers and saboteurs. It saves the collective authors the bother of investigating the fissiparous nature of Reformation Protestantism and its failures. As history, its conspiracy theory is nonsense.

But (sorry about giving myself a pat on the back here) my review also anticipated Umberto Eco by noting how much the story resembled the 19th century ‘historical’ novels of Alexandre Dumas. Same superficial resemblance to history. Same fondness for conspiracy theories. Same vivid melodrama with action taking precedence over subtlety of character. Same anarchic schoolboy sense of fun. In all but the last feature, the “Luther Blissett” collective were also very like Umberto Eco. Furthermore, the collective resembled Dumas in writing as a team. (It is well-documented that Dumas sometimes signed his name to works that he had supervised rather than actually writing in toto himself.)

Two years later (Dominion-Post, 2 July 2005) I got to review the 540 pages of  54, the Italian team’s first outing as “Wu Ming”. If Q is formed about conspiracy theories, then 54 is formed about another post-modern hobby-horse, the fabrication of identity. It is set in 1954 and the Cold War. In the background, the Korean War and the McCarthy hearings are winding down, the United States invades Guatemala and Stalin is dead but his successors don’t know which way to jump in dealing with that heretic Tito in Yugoslavia.

There are numerous plotlines. One has a young Italian Communist trying to find the father he hasn’t seen since he deserted Mussolini’s army and joined Tito’s partisans. Another has the Mafia boss “Lucky” Luciano proving the benefits of free enterprise by developing the heroin trade. Yet another has the British secret service, in Hollywood, attempting to persuade Cary Grant to appear in a movie glorifying Tito so that Tito will align with the West. There is also a strand of plot involving a television set called a “McGuffin”. As film followers know, a “McGuffin” was the name Alfred Hitchcock (who also appears in this novel) gave to any silly pretext for getting a thriller rolling. It is a signal that we are not meant to take it all too seriously.

54 ends with us being introduced to Fidel Castro, as if his arrival heralds a new dawn for humanity. Its left-wing sympathies are clear enough, but its real preoccupation is with this matter of identity. After all, Cary Grant is really the Englishman Archie Leach, who only pretends to be a Hollywood star. Josip Broz only pretends to be Tito. Josef Dzujashvili only pretends to be Stalin. Identity is merely a fabrication for public consumption, just as (according to post-modern dogma) reality is merely representation and reception.
I repeat, both these books can be read for the sheer fun of an incident-filled romp, just as Umberto Eco’s can. But, like Umberto Eco’s, they eventually become tiresome in their mixing of fiction with verifiable historical fact, and in their pretence that a distinction between the two doesn’t matter.

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. 


Some weeks back I wrote a “Something Thoughtful” on the various conspiracy theories that surround the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. A Baconian wrote in to say that it was merely “Stratfordist” propaganda to refer to alternative authorship theories as “conspiracy theories”…. but he then went on to declare that conspiracies happen much more often than most people realize. He even called in George Bernard Shaw’s famous light-hearted quip that “all professions are conspiracies against the laity” as part of his evidence. Apparently he saw no contradiction between, on the one hand, denying that he supported a conspiracy theory and, on the other hand, lecturing me on the ubiquity of conspiracies.

Oh dear. You could go cross-eyed if you attempted to argue logically with a dedicated conspiracy theorist. I must make it plain from the outset that examining conspiracy theories interests me about as much as watching paint dry. But after criticising Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery and some works by Italian post-modernist cyber-punks - all of them fictions involving conspiracies - it seems appropriate to make a few points about the wretched things.

First point – yes, there have been real conspiracies in history, and doubtless there have been some successful ones that were never detected – the type that conspiracy theorists would like to see everywhere. But most real conspiracies that I know of had short-term and very specific goals, such as political assassination. Brutus and his mates really did conspire to kill Caesar. John Wilkes Booth had accomplices in his assassination of Lincoln. Ditto Klaus von Stauffenberg in his (regrettably unsuccessful) attempt on Hitler. At this point a conspiracy theorist steps in and says “Therefore Lee Harvey Oswald must have been part of a conspiracy too.” No. It doesn’t necessarily follow. Look up Captain Felton, Charlotte Corday or Leon Czolgosz. Nobody doubts that these assassins acted entirely on their own. Assassination may be one aim of conspiracy, but conspiracy is not necessary for assassination. As for ideas of long-standing super-criminal conspiracies lasting centuries -  they belong to romantic fiction, or worse.

Second pointthe existence of “secret societies”, or societies with secretive habits, does not automatically argue for some conspiracy unknown to the general public. I won’t elaborate on this point or I will be committed to writing many pages on Freemasons, the Orange Lodge, Jesuits and God knows what else. Yes, there are criminal conspiracies aimed at committing common crimes. (Isn’t that what criminal association is all about?). Yes, there are terrorist networks and Mafia-like entities. But the people who aim to dominate the whole of society by coercive means tend to do so openly, and without hidden conspiracy. Fascists, Communists, Nazis and others often used secretive means to attain their ends, but by and large their intentions were plain to see and the wider society could easily know what they were up to if it had bothered to watch.

Third pointMost conspiracy theories are violations of the truth, but only some are really harmful. Others are harmless crackpottery. Nobody will die if we are led to believe that Bacon or Oxford or Southampton wrote Shakespeare’s plays, nonsense though these propositions are. Nobody will die if some people believe that the Mafia or Cubans were firing from the grassy knoll. But many people did die because others accepted the fictitious conspiracy in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion as if it were a fact. Those who believe in harmless conspiracy theories are harmless cranks. Those who believe in harmful ones are fanatics.

Fourth pointConspiracy theories appeal to people who want to be “in the know”. There’s nothing more satisfying than imagining you are part of an elite group which knows more than the general public knows. Therefore the constant appeal of conspiracy theories which say that most of us have been deceived; and that something occult and hidden is at work which is accessible only to those clever ones who have cracked its code. They’re oddly elitist things, conspiracy theories. They allow their believers to imagine that they are Sherlock Holmes while the rest of us are Dr Watson or Inspector Lestrade.

Fifth point – Despite appealing to people who see themselves as an in-group, conspiracy theories are often the revenge of the powerless on the powerful. This means they are often the revenge of the uneducated or the semi-educated on the educated. For those who do not understand how a society works, and especially how social change works, (in other words, the uneducated), any unwelcome social change must be the result of deliberate planning by malignant people. That is, a conspiracy. Naturally, there have been powerful people who manipulated and exploited the credulity of the uneducated, especially when scapegoats were wanted (hello Black Hundreds). But conspiracy theories still allow the uneducated and powerless to imagine they have cracked the code of the powerful.

Sixth point - Retrospective conspiracy theories depend on confusing consequences with intent. At this point I was going to quote from a recently-published book in which an author asserts that Europe’s rulers in 1914 deliberately sent young men off to die in their millions, as a cynical means of culling excess population. There is an evil result – the death of millions in the First World War – so the writer assumes there was an evil intention. A conspiracy. But this reads intent into consequence. No matter how alien or repugnant the process may now seem to us, the fact is that Europe’s rulers in 1914 thought they were acting from high patriotic motives and were sending young men off to do a noble duty. There was no conspiracy. [ I have not quoted the book as it is mainly an admirable piece of work; the author made her comment as a brief aside; and I don’t wish to quarrel publicly with her. You can start a conspiracy theory about this if you like.]

Seventh point. I could, of course, be quite wrong in everything I’ve said here, and especially in the second point above, that I made so shakily. I believe Freud is credited with saying that even a man with a persecution complex really can be persecuted. Perhaps some conspiracy theorists are right about the conspiracies they claim to have uncovered. Perhaps some of the wackier conspiracy theories I’ve heard will one day be proven – by as-yet-undisclosed evidence – to be perfectly true. But I’m not holding my breath.

I shall just sit here quietly in the TV studio where they faked the Apollo moon landings, reading the collected plays of Francis Bacon as I fondle the rifle with which the CIA-trained Cuban Mafia took out JFK. (It was all planned by the Jesuits and the Freemasons, you know.)