Monday, December 16, 2013

Something New

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

“ONE NIGHT IN WINTER” by Simon Sebag Montefiore  (Century / Random House $NZ37:99)

            The review you are about to read will be one of the most conceited and prattish that you have ever read on this blog – and that’s saying something as you know how conceited and prattish I can be when I’m in the wrong mood.

Basically, I’m going to say I’m happy that a lot of people will read Simon Sebag Montefiore’s novel One Night in Winter, because it will give them a good page-turning read and, if they don’t already know the details from other sources, it will also give them an accurate version of a particularly horrible portion of history. But, I will sneer, it doesn’t teach me anything because I already know its historical details from other, factual, sources. Besides, it really is a pop novel and not up to the level of my refined literary tastes. The masses will get much joy from it and good for them.

So be warned.

It you can stomach this patronising, elitist tone in me, read on.

Factual details first. Simon Sebag Montefiore is a very good popular historian whose action-packed history of Jerusalem, Jerusalem: The Biography, I enjoyed when I reviewed it for the Listener back in 2011. Montefiore is a member of a very distinguished Jewish family with Russian connections, so he has also written extensively about Russia and the old Soviet Union. Among historians his best known factual books are Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar in which he gives an account of the dictator’s servile (and terrorised) entourage; and Young Stalin, in which he details the dictator’s youth as a terrorist.

Knowing that not everybody reads detailed history books, however, Montefiore has also decided to spin popular fiction out of Stalinism. His Sashenka (I reviewed it for the Listener in 2008) was a generational saga about a sincerely convinced Bolshevik woman who falls foul of Stalin’s Terror in the 1930s. One Night in Winter is not a sequel to Sashenka, but it pursues a similar theme.

Scene: Moscow, 1945, just after the genius of General Secretary Stalin has managed to defeat the Fascist Beast and win the Great Patriotic War. A huge victory parade is in progress, in which Soviet troops will throw captured Nazi standards at the feet of the Generalissimo as if he were a Roman emperor. All is joy and patriotism. But there is a sour note. Two schoolchildren – a teenage boy and a teenage girl – are found shot dead. They went to School 801, the school for the children of the Soviet elite, the school where even Stalin’s children went. This is a job to be investigated by the NKVD, not by the ordinary police who investigate unimportant murders. It involves Beria’s lot. After all, anything so closely touching the Soviet leadership must affect the security of the state.

As readers, we know the teenagers were part of a circle who, reacting against Soviet austerity and Bolshevik materialism, idolised Romantic poets and had cloudy teenage ideas about Love being the only thing worth dying for. They called themselves the Fatal Romantics Club. They liked to dress up in nineteenth century costumes and recite Pushkin while acting out bits of Eugene Onegin, especially the duel scene where Onegin kills Lensky. But to the investigating NKVD men – and to Stalin – their adolescent game-playing is a sign of subversive bourgeois sentimentality, and their fantasising diary scribblings suggest a plot to overthrow the government. So schoolkids – most of them the sons and daughters of Stalin’s ministers and Politburo members – are dragged off to the Lubyanka to be interrogated and intimidated and terrorised and forced to sign confessions. Most wrenching are the scenes where the 6-year-old Mariko and the 10-year-old Senka are asked to tell everything they know about what mummy and daddy have been saying, with frequent reminders that in just a few years they will be eligible for the death penalty.

In Stalin’s Soviet Union, 12-year-olds could be executed.

Nothing is exactly as it seems, however. It never is in a totalitarian state. The “case” involving the schoolchildren is intertwined with three weighty matters. There is a scandal about aircraft production (Soviet fighter planes keep crashing because of defective design, but somebody has to be blamed for sabotage). Just after the Potsdam Conference, there is Stalin’s growing suspicion of foreigners and the USA, especially at this time when America still has a monopoly on nuclear weapons. And there is Stalin’s smouldering anti-Semitism, which will soon break out in the so-called “Doctor’s Plot”.

As the kids are imprisoned, punished and interrogated, strenuous attempts are made to connect their silly games with all these matters. Stalin uses the case to discredit those of the children’s parents whom he wishes to liquidate or exile. The situation is summed up by Abakumov, one of the novel’s real historical characters, head of the counter-intelligence agency SMERSH:

A play-acting club, which was a front to conceal passions of adolescence, had led to the death of two kids. The investigation had uncovered a puerile game. If they hadn’t been elite brats, Stalin would never have heard about it. But now that he had, he would use the children in any way that suited his manoeuvres of the moment.” (p.252)

Montefiore’s endnote tells us that his fictitious Fatal Romantics Club and its doings are based loosely on a real case, the “Children’s Case” of 1943, in which children of the Soviet inner circle were tried and imprisoned for light-hearted joking about overthrowing the government.

As in Sashenka, Montefiore’s level of historical accuracy is high. I am allowed to make this pompous statement because I spent a year researching a book – which I still have yet to write – about Communism in New Zealand; and I immersed myself in the detailed histories of Orlando Figes, Robert Service, Sheila Fitzpatrick, Anne Applebaum and other respected historians to get to know the Stalin era.

I found myself nodding approvingly when Montefiore deployed details, which I recognized from other sources. There are, for example, these reflections of the boy Andrei, son of a liquidated dissident father, who has unexpectedly gained a place at the elite school. As he comes into class for his first day, he is jostled by one of the bigwigs’ children:

“ ‘Hey, don’t push me’, he said, but then he remembered that no one in the Soviet Union respected personal space. Everyone existed in a state of neurotic anxiety, but as his mother always told him: The key to survival is to be calm and save yourself. Never ask anyone what they did before and what they’re doing next. Never speak your mind. And make friends wherever you can.” (pp.28-29)

There are the references to the sexual sadism of Beria, who used his position to seduce or rape young female prisoners. Montefiore describes the disgusting creature after his congress with a 14-year-old girl:

Beria collapsed wheezily by the side of his new girl, his green-grey man-breasts hanging pendulously like a camel’s buttocks. What a session!” (p.148)

The novel naughtily reminds us that Nikita Khrushchev, later regarded more-or-less affectionately by the West as the post-Stalin reformer, was for years one of Stalin’s hacks. One of the novel’s main characters describes Khrushchev as  “this squat confection, the warts on his face, teeth like a horse, his suit as baggy as a sack. He was a real peasant.” (p.168)

We are given the detail of a paddy-wagon, trundling kids to prison, disguised as a grocery van with “Eggs. Milk. Groceries” painted on the side (p.257). This is reminiscent of the bitter final sentence of Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece The First Circle, where a naïve liberal Western journalist sees a similar paddy-wagon with “Meat” painted on the side, and imagines it shows who well supplied with meat Moscow is. Such camouflage was standard for Stalin-era Soviet political police.

In a flashback sequence, Montefiore has Red Army soldiers advancing through Prussia in the closing months of the war, envious, shocked and outraged at what they saw:

Even Germany’s humblest cottages had larders filled with sugar, bread, eggs and meat, soft beds and white pillows. Most farmers had fled from the Russians, but the few who stayed were ruddy-cheeked and well dressed. They even wore wristwatches.” (p.267)

Such shock – among Russia’s peasant soldiers who had been led to believe that their collective farms delivered then a good standard of living – has been verified in numerous history books.

There is also the fact that Stalin’s inner circle has to remain exquisitely and painfully polite in the dictator’s presence, even when they are agonising about the fate of their children.

So I could rattle on with many other details, which show that Montefiore really has researched the era he is writing about and brings many of its customs and fears alive for us.

But here’s the problem. Historical verisimilitude or not, this is still a pop novel with all the infelicities thereof. There’s the heavy-handed irony. The scene of a kid, vomiting with fear while under interrogation, is followed by a scene of Stalin’s cronies vomiting from too much banqueting and vodka. There is the strained and declarative dialogue, often sounding like a TV miniseries spelling things out. The10-year-old who matches wits with the NKVD interrogator strikes me as a highly improbable creature, although Montefiore may have based him on some factual original. There is a long, romantic flashback when one of the main characters remembers his wartime affair with a woman doctor. There is even what amounts to a  “happy ending” in the novel’s thirty or so last pages. And (a chronic defect of too many historical novels) there are moments where readers are offered the luxury of feeling superior to the characters in the novel who, naturally, don’t know as much about the outcome of their historical situation as we do. For example, the following is not untypical. The high-ranking Central Committee member Sartinov is reflecting on his arrested children, and he thinks:

 “It seems unlikely… but what if Lenin’s state, built on the graves of millions, is one day overturned?.... They might even rename the towns and streets that bear my name. What is all that truly matters is my children, my beloved wife…. What if only love will justify ever having lived at all?” (p.397).

And we purr with approval, knowing that the Soviet state has indeed disappeared, its streets and towns have been renamed, and Leningrad has reverted to being St Petersburg.

Now you see my dilemma. I approve of a mass audience getting a history lesson from somebody who knows his history. I would much prefer the readers of bestsellers to be reading One Night in Winter rather than rampantly unhistorical fantasias posing as dramatized history. But I’m still aware that this is one for the airport lounge and the long flight, with its formulaic writing and its un-nuanced characters. 

I really am an elitist prat, aren’t I?
            Pardon me for living.

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.

“WITNESSES OF THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION” by Harvey Pitcher (first published 1994; revised edition 2001)
            Isn’t hindsight a lovely faculty? You can look back on the dreams and hopes and predictions of people nearly 100 years ago and you can see just how dead wrong they were about so many things. And then you’re tempted to feel superior. Surely you wouldn’t make the same mistakes in their circumstances, would you?
I found plenty of opportunities for that smug exercise of hindsight when I first read Harvey Pitcher’s Witnesses of the Russian Revolution twelve years ago.
A revised edition of the book Pitcher produced in the early 1990s, Witnesses of the Russian Revolution is a compendium, with commentary, of all the things that foreign journalists were writing about the two Russian revolutions (February and October 1917) while they were actually in progress - and not years later, when greater perspective was possible, but also when myth-making was well under way.
So we are treated to newspaper accounts of the chaotic downfall of tsarism in February and March, the shaky existence of the Provisional Government, the dominance of Kerensky, the manoeuvres of foreign diplomats to keep Russia fighting in the European war, the failed Bolshevik attempt to seize power in the “July Days”, the failed right-wing coup of Kornilov, the Bolshevik coup in October/November and (after democratic elections had been held), the Bolshevik closure of the Constituent Assembly, establishment of a dictatorship and stamping-out of anything resembling democracy.
The book chronicles what the likes of Arthur Ransome and Morgan Philips Price and the New Zealander Harold Williams sent to their British and American newspapers from Moscow and Petrograd in 1917. Some of these journalists were surprising beasts. Ransome is now best known for his delightful, and delightfully English middle-class, series of children’s books Swallows and Amazons. But in 1917 he was a dedicated and idealistic left-winger who cheered the revolution on and later married one of Trotsky’s secretaries. By contrast, Williams was opposed to the Bolsheviks from the first, realizing (correctly as it turned out) that, once in control, they would establish a dictatorship rather than sharing power with other left-wing parties.
Naturally some heroic revolutionary myths come tumbling down as one reads this book and sees how things were reported, before they were air-bushed in later propaganda and mythology.
Numerous film documentaries would have us believe that Lenin’s return to the Finland Station was a great popular catharsis, like the storming of the Winter Palace. In fact at the time when Lenin returned, hardly anybody noticed, apart from a small band of his hard-core Bolshevik supporters. There was no major popular demonstration and no gaping crowds to listen to the man’s words of wisdom.
As for the so-called “storming” of the Winter Palace, it really is a fiction, promoted by the unreliable journalism of the American radical John Reed in his colourful, but often mendacious, book Ten Days That Shook the World, and by the film “reconstruction” which Sergei Eisenstein organised for his film October, made ten years after the event. Bolsheviks walked into the place virtually unopposed, with scarcely a shot fired. The Provisional Government had already collapsed along with its military strong points. This is one of those places where the legend still seems unable to be dislodged, however, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Too many millions of people have seen Eisenstein’s fiction (hordes of heroic armed proletarians rushing in against volleys of gunfire) for it to be removed from the collective psyche. Look up Orlando Figes’ masterly history of the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy, and you will discover that the Winter Palace suffered more damage from Eisenstein’s film crew than it did from the historical event they were supposedly reconstructing.
Our smug hindsight comes most into play when we read the silly despatches of Robert Wilton, the London Times correspondent who kept trying to promote the Russian war effort when it had clearly collapsed, and then tried to make a hero of the reactionary General Kornilov. Or the equally undiscerning despatches of Arthur Ransome, who fondly imagined that Lenin would form a nice coalition government with the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. Or Harold Williams clinging to his belief that the middle-class Kadets, who had already been overwhelmed by the February Revolution, were going to somehow revive and lead a government.
What most surprises in this compendium is the way Alexander Kerensky was popularly conceived of as the strong socialist centrist who would save Russia. It is simply not true, as many subsequent history books claim, that Kerensky was seen as a theatrical, bungling poser from the first. In 1917 itself, even his enemies respected him, he had a strong and effective oratorical style and a much larger popular following that Lenin ever did.
And then, just when our smug hindsight is getting out of hand in reading this book, something draws us up short. There was, for example, the hard-headed British military attaché Alfred Knox, who actually counted the guns and gave a realistic assessment of Russia’s fighting capacity in the war when more idealistic journalists were still applauding the revolution of brotherly love. Or the peasant interviewed by the American correspondent Ernest Poole at the end of 1917. With fearful accuracy, the peasant predicted that the new Bolshevik government would be quite willing to starve the peasants in order to feed the small urban working class that supported it. The peasant understood that years of civil war and terror would follow. Sadly, he was dead right.
In their predictions, these two people were more prescient than any of the theorising editorials that are quoted.
Journalists are sometimes prone to patting themselves on the back and referring to their news stories as “the first draft of history”. In reality, the real historian’s task is much more exacting than the journalist’s, involving more extensive combing of archives and comparison of sources. But journalism – even factually inaccurate journalism – can give us a strong sense of what people were feeling and believing at a given time. Witnesses of the Russian Revolution is one of those books that forcefully remind us of this.
Interesting footnote: When Harvey Pitcher was first putting this book together in the 1990s, the post-Soviet Russian government was still very shaky, and there was still the possibility of a coup to reimpose Communism. When Pitcher discusses how Kerensky dealt with various crises in 1917, he therefore often makes comparisons with how Gorbachev and Yeltsin and others dealt with similar threats after 1989-90. Journalism is highly topical, but history books are also written in specific historical circumstances, and they too have their freight of topicality. In this case, however, the comparisons add to the piquancy of Pitcher’s interpretations.   

Something Thoughtful

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


I was reading a copy of Stephen Oliver’s excellent book-length poem Intercolonial, which I was reviewing for Poetry New Zealand, when I looked at the pre-publication commendations of the work that filled the back cover. And I saw my name there. Nicholas Reid was saying what a wonderful work this poem was.

That same week, I was reading Damien Wilkins’ entertaining novel Max Gate, which I was reviewing for Landfall Review-on-Line. On the pre-title page were printed commendations of Wilkins’ earlier works by various reviewers. There was Nicholas Reid saying how good Wilkins’ novel Somebody Loves Us All is.

It’s always a little odd to see your name in print when you haven’t put it there, but there is an added oddity about these two citations. The Nicholas Reid who commended Wilkins’ novel is indeed me. The Nicholas Reid who commended Oliver’s poem isn’t.

Allow me to explain, as this confusion has arisen before.

If I choose to be pompous (which is often enough), I am entitled to sign myself Dr Nicholas Reid, MA, MTheol, PhD. My BA was a double major in English and French literature. My MA was in English. My BTheol was a double major in the Hebrew Bible and in Church History. My MTheol was in Church History. My doctorate was in History. All my degrees were conferred by the University of Auckland (except for the BTheol, which came from Melbourne). I’m the author of three biographies, two general histories, a book of film criticism, a couple of volumes of poetry and various bits and pieces. I’d give you all the details, except that this whole exercise is already irritating you by its rampant egotism. I have never held a tenured academic position although I have four times had short-term lectureships in various New Zealand universities.

Confusingly, the “other” Nicholas Reid (no relation of mine), whom I believe to be some years younger than me, is also entitled to sign himself Dr Nicholas Reid, MA, PhD. I believe he is also a graduate of Auckland, but this may not be the case. Unlike me, he has a distinguished academic career. He was a senior lecturer at the University of Otago, where he taught for twelve years. He now holds a senior position at an Australian university. He has an international reputation as a scholar of Romantic-era poets, with a special interest in the beliefs and interests of Coleridge. He is the author of Coleridge, Form and Symbol, or The Ascertaining Vision.

He is not me; and as far as I can recall we have never met, although I’m sure he would be an interesting chap to meet. If he ever gets to read this, he is most welcome to comment and correct any errors I might inadvertently have made about him.

I am making heavy weather of this because, New Zealand having such a miniscule literary (and book-reviewing) community, the two of us are every so often confused.

The late Michael King (one of the assessors of my doctoral thesis) once told me that he baffled the “other” Nicholas Reid, when he was teaching down at Otago, by congratulating him on his film reviews. Actually I’m the one with a lot of film-reviewing on my CV.

When I was lecturing in History down at Otago, for two semesters, I got in touch with the poet Richard Reeve for the first time by e-mail. He assumed at first that I was the “other” Nicholas Reid, as apparently the other chap was one of his thesis supervisors.

I have checked the University of Auckland Library's catalogue and I discover that the silly beggars catalogue my books and the other guy's books together, presumably assuming we're the same person. As I have guest-edited Poetry New Zealand four times now, I suspect there may be some readers who think I am the other guy who is, after all, a critic of poetry.

Now try a little game. Type your own name into a search engine. Unless you have a very unusual name, you will find that there are dozens of people with the same name as you. I’ve tried this and found Nicholas Reids who are sportsmen, marine biologists, doctors, real estate agents etc. etc. in various parts of the world; and doubtless, if such things existed on Google, I’d find some who were in jail for various crimes. The same would be true of people with the same name as you.

A few years ago, there was the asinine proposal that a football stadium be built on the Auckland waterfront. Apparently somebody called Nicholas Reid wrote to the New Zealand Herald saying what a good idea this was. A Distinguished Auckland Literary Figure wrote to the Herald disagreeing vigorously. As I do not subscribe to the Herald, I heard about this at second hand. I at once rang the Distinguished Auckland Literary Figure (with whom I have a nodding acquaintance), agreeing with his viewpoint and dissociating myself from the chap with my name. I do not believe this was the Dr Nicholas Reid who has written about Coleridge, so you see how easily your name can get into print in ways you neither want nor expect.

At this point I was going to go into a whimsical excursus upon Doppelgangers, but I think I will spare you this. Still, there are times when I feel like the Student of Prague.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Something New

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

“STUFF I’VE BEEN READING” by Nick Hornby  (Viking / Penguin $NZ37)

            Okay, here’s one for the books. You’re reading a blog, which is going to complain about something sounding too much like a blog. Not very cool, eh? But then there are blogs and there are blogs.
I don’t want to get stuck into Nick Hornby too hard, mind, because I know part of the problem is the way I’ve read his latest collection of bits and pieces. In one gulp, as if it was a real book. And I’ve come increasingly to think that that’s not the way you should read collections of bits and pieces which “name” authors (or their agents) decide to bring out between novels and real books, as a way of keeping their names in front of the public. Collections of real essays – or of loose blog-like observations – are better read one item at a time and therefore best kept as long-term bedside books. They’re better not galloped through in a day or two as I have just galloped through Hornby’s lucubrations. Read ‘em all together, instead of in monthly servings, and you end up getting too familiar with the author’s mannerisms and jokey tricks.
Stuff I’ve Been Reading is a selection of the columns which Nick Hornby wrote for Believer magazine between 2006 and 2011. He’s brought out at least one other selection from his Believer columns before. In case you’ve never heard of it, Believer magazine is a publication for ageing American hipsters trying desperately hard to pretend they’re younger than they are. Middle-aged baby-boomers who would still like to be twenty or thirty. Because it’s American, the Englishman Hornby every so often has to explain English references for his readership. Hornby’s particular schtick is pretending to be the ordinary, non-intellectual football (i.e. soccer)-following bloke who doesn’t approve of these arty and intellectual types who take literature too seriously. Remember, this is the guy whose fame rests on High Fidelity (about fanatical fans of rock music), Fever Pitch (about fanatical fans of soccer), About a Boy (about reluctantly accepting parental responsibility) and the movies based upon them. His persona is doggedly, obsessively (and tiresomely) laddish, though as he’s also a dad now, you don’t get much of the sex stuff in his columns. There’s a bit of parental responsibility in the mix.
Am I allowed to call Hornby’s persona a pose? As you read, it’s quite clear that he’s a guy who’s actually read quite a lot of serious stuff, but he can’t let the fans down, so his columns are written in an offhanded way as a kind of diary of what he’s been reading. And this is part of what I find too damned bloggy. He rarely settles down long enough to tell you enough about any individual book. His laddish-ness also has a habit of turning into luvvy-ness as he (casually and offhandedly, of course) boasts about being a member of BAFTA and attending the Academy Awards and swapping ideas with movie directors and lounging about poolside in California and so on.
At which points I feel like screaming “Age is catching up with you, you twerp!” Hornby is now in his late fifties (i.e. he’s six years younger than me). Give him just a few more years and he will be an Old Fart who can’t pretend to be anything else. He will then have to ditch the soccer-and-rock-music-obsessed-kid mask, unless he wants all the world to understand he’s like that guy who buys a Harley-Davidson when he can’t get it up any more.
Alright, enough of my intemperate ad hominem rant, but as Hornby writes in an ab homino style (I just made that phrase up) I think he’s invited it.
How does this laddish luvvy-ness play out in purported columns reviewing books? Here’s a typical Hornby introduction:
Last month I read nothing much at all, because of the World Cup, and this month I read a ton of stuff. I am usually able to convince myself that televised sport can provide everything literature offers and more, but my faith in my theory has been shaken a little by this control experiment. Who in the World Cup was offering the sophisticated, acutely observed analysis of the parent-child relationship to be found in….” etc. etc. I won’t bother offering more of what Nick Hornby says here (pp.26-27) as it’s an introduction to a notice on a “graphic novel”; and though I do appreciate real artistry in graphic novels, I also see enthusiasm for them (like enthusiasm for YA books, which Hornby touts in another column) as another part of his agenda of pretending he doesn’t read the arty, wordy stuff.
Luvvy-ness, did I say? Its absolutely worst symptom is the way Hornby provides too much bloody puffery for the novels of his brother-in-law Robert Harris, as in “I have been writing this column for so long that I am now forced to consider a novel by my brother-in-law for the third time. Irritatingly, it’s just as good as the other two….” etc. etc. (p.88) One wonders if his wife would be annoyed if he didn’t praise her brother’s novels.
You also too frequently get wilful put-downs of literary classics for the benefit of semi-literates who want to feel good about not having read them. Here is Hornby speaking of The Simpsons Movie: “From what I saw, the movie was as good as, but no better than, three average Simpsons episodes bolted together – an average Simpsons episode being, of course, smarter than an average Flaubert novel.” (p.106)
Yeah, so take that in the eye all you arty blokes who think you’re smart ‘cos you read Flaubert!
Hornby also stoops to a number of patently unfair reviewer’s tricks. When he compares a memoir about the horrors of life in Russia under gangsters with a novel set among the English middle classes, he concludes: “Politkovskaya is writing about the agonies of a nation plagued by corruption, terrorism and despotism: the highly regarded literary figure is writing about some middle class people who are bored of their marriage. My case rests.” (p.46)
Well actually his case doesn’t rest at all. He’s simply put down the novel by “a highly regarded literary figure” by comparing it with a totally different sort of book.
By now (if you have read thus far), you will see that I am not particularly enamoured of Hornby’s style, which is more than a teensy bit smug. But then he is part of the celebrity culture – and of course he (correctly, but very defensively) reminds us that Charles Dickens was in the celebrity culture too, and William Shakespeare wrote for money (both of which factlets I already knew, luvvy). Anyway, this puts him into some silly situations not entirely of his own making. He tells us he’s asked to write an introduction to a new edition of Our Mutual Friend. He reads it. He doesn’t like it. He for the first time reads some criticism on it (you know – the stuff written by those serious critics whom he frequently slags off) and discovers it’s one of Dickens’ less esteemed novels, considered by many to be a dud. “So how am I going to write this introduction, when I’m supposed to be positive about it?” he wails. Now oddly, in this situation I don’t think badly of him. But I do think badly of trendy publishers who get “names” to write introductions to books rather than people who actually know what they’re writing about. Think of it. Nick Hornby writes an intro to Our Mutual Friend not ‘cos he knows anything about it, not ‘cos he’s expressed any enthusiasm for it (he hasn’t yet read it) but because some agent somewhere says it’ll drag in the punters to have Nick Hornby’s name attached to it.
Okay, enough, enough. I can now generously cut to the good stuff and say there are times when Hornby lapses into sense. The mask slips and he shows he can get caught up in the good stuff. He develops a taste for Muriel Spark, reads everything of her’s he can get his hands on, and writes: “But what a writer Spark is – dry, odd, funny, aphoristic, wise, technically brilliant. I can’t remember the last time I read a book by a well-established writer previously unknown to me that resulted in me devouring an entire oeuvre…” (p.147)
It would be rude, ungrateful and unjust of me not to admit that there were other times when I thoroughly endorsed Hornby’s judgements. Take this one on Cormac McCarthy’s unrelievedly bleak and horrible dystopian novel The Road:
It is important to remember that The Road is a product of one man’s imagination: the literary world has a tendency to believe that the least consoling world view is The Truth. (How many times have you read somebody describe a novel as ‘unflinching’, in approving terms. What’s wrong with a little flinch every once in a while?) McCarthy is true to his own vision, which is what gives his novel its awesome power. But maybe when Judgement Day does come, we’ll surprise each other by sharing our sandwiches and singing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, rather than by scooping out our children’s brains with spoons. Yes, it’s the job of artists to force us to stare at the horror until we’re on the verge of passing out. But it’s also the job of artists to offer warmth and hope and maybe even an escape from our lives that occasionally seem unendurably drab. I wouldn’t want to pick one job over the other – they both seem pretty important to me. And it’s quite legitimate, I think, not to want to read The Road. There are some images now embedded in my memory that I don’t especially want there. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have a duty to read it.” (p.63)
Also, bravo for this crusher on a piece of trendiness that was doing the rounds a few seasons back:
The French book about reading that’s been getting a lot of attention recently is Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which should surely be retitled You Need Some New Friends Because the Ones You’ve Got Are Jerks: literary editors seem to think it’s zeitgeisty, but out in the world, grown-ups no longer feel the need to bullshit about literature, thank God.” (pp.95-96)
I have to admit that Hornby provided for me at least one moment with real food for thought. He is writing about a non-fiction work by David Knyaston on Austerity Britain, and he remarks:
 “If you read and write fiction, you may be gratified to see how Kynaston relies on the contemporary stuff to add colour and authenticity to his portrait of the times. The received wisdom is that novels too much of the moment won’t last; but what else do we have that delves into what we were thinking and feeling at any given period? In fifty or one hundred years’ time, we are, I suspect, unlikely to want to know what someone writing in 2010 had to say about the American Civil War. I don’t want to put you off, if you’re just writing the last page of a 700-page epic novel about Gettysburg  - I’m sure you’ll win loads of prizes, and so on. But after that, you’ve had it.” (p.128)
As you may have noticed, I’m an admirer of historical novels that give a real sense of the times in which they are set (very few do). But I think Hornby is right here. In the main, after a few years have gone by, most historical novels tell us more about the age in which they were written than they do about the age in which they are supposedly set.
You see what I’ve done in this notice, don’t you? I’ve just praised Hornby when he says something I agree with, and rudely shoved him away when he says something I find offensive or stupid. Ruddy book reviewers commenting on other book reviewers, eh? Soon you’ll reach the conclusion that criticism is just a matter of taste, and we wouldn’t want you thinking that, would we?

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 BEGGARS” by Louis-Rene des Forets (“Les Mendiants”, first published in French in 1943; English translation by Helen Beauclerk published 1948)
            Here’s a story for connoisseurs and bibliophiles. When I was a small boy, I grew up in a house full of books. I became very familiar with the spines and cover illustrations of many books which I never actually read, as well as a number that I did read. In some cases, I also became familiar with the cover-blurbs of books I didn’t read.
            When my mother died, I took, and now have on my own shelves, a considerable number of my father’s books. In some cases, those familiar spines of unread books still look at me. Sometimes, when I don’t have other more pressing reading to do, I take off the shelf a book I have known for years by sight, and actually read it. In some cases, it is exactly the type of book that the blurb lead me to believe it would be. In other cases, it is completely different from what I imagined it would be.
            Sometimes, when I have finished reading such a book, the impression of the non-existent-and-unread book is still stronger in me than the impression of the existent-and-read book. In such cases, I have the idea (probably fuelled by too much coffee) that the book has existed to ridicule me. Imagine all those years when I was a small boy, crawling around on the carpet; and there it was on an upper shelf, hiding its unread contents between its covers, looking at me down below and knowing how wrong I was.
            Here is a case in point.
            Louis-Rene des Forets’ The Beggars sat on an upper shelf in my father’s house for all of my childhood. In my mind’s eye, I can see exactly where it sat back then. It has lived on a lower shelf in my own home for about twenty years. I see it was published in 1948, so that’s three years before I was born. Probably Dad got it as a review copy.          
            On its (now fly-specked) dust-jacket is a very attractive line illustration of people on
a very traditional-looking quay, leaning over and looking at old-fashioned sailing boats. There is a variant of the image across the title pages. Something on the blurb told me that it was a sort of intellectual adventure story, and comparable with Le Grand Meaulnes. I don’t know why, but I have for years imagined it to be a Joseph Conrad-ish affair, or maybe something like Graham Greene’s first novel The Man Within. Intellectual and connected with the sea.
            Anyway, I finally got around to reading it, and it’s nothing like that at all. Set in a non-specific, but vaguely-Mediterranean-ish (or maybe South American) country, it takes place in an old-fashioned sea-port and has a number of discrete and inter-locking stories. There’s a teenage gang involved in petty theft. One member of the gang seems the natural “leader”, but other members of the gang are thinking of challenging him. There’s a group of professional adult smugglers. A lot of it takes place on the waterfront with either the boys, or the adult crims, dodging cops. There’s also the story of an actress in the local theatre – incidentally performing in a production of Othello – wanting to do something about the infidelity of her lover. All relationships seem thwarted or strained. None of the teenage boys seem to have two parents. One of the chief narrators spends his time fending off a brutal grandfather.
            There are many first-person narrators, switching from voice to voice and with the narrator here being a background character in somebody else’s narration there.
            And, frankly, I found it an almost complete bore.
            There is no momentum to it. Individual scenes are vivid, but the whole thing simply doesn’t cohere. I found it difficult to distinguish one narrating voice from the other, although they are meant to be as different as teenagers, a murderer escaped from prison, a woman running an inn, the actress etc. They all sounded the same to me, although in fairness this could have at least something to do with the English translation. I was also irritated by its non-specific setting. Noting that it was written in 1942-43 and first published in France in 1943, I kept seeing in my mind’s eye one of those Occupation-era French movies (“L’Assassin Habite au 21”, “L’Eternel Retour” etc.) which are supposedly set in contemporary France but which are really set in a non-specific fantasy-land because there is no way that French film-makers would be allowed to look at current realities at the time of the German occupation.
            Not a book for me, then.
            But after I’d read it and reached this conclusion, I did some Googling and discovered a few interesting things.
            Louis-Rene des Forets (1918-2000) began to write this novel when he was twenty, in 1938, but he set it aside for war service, was a prisoner of war and was later active in the Resistance. He finished it in six months when he was 24. It was very highly regarded by some critics of the day (including Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus), although the perceptive Raymond Queneau said (and I agree with him) that its multiple narrators were hard to distinguish from one another, and it was “too American” in the sense of being too obviously influenced by the multiple-narrator techniques of William Faulkner. (Queneau was a good friend of des Forests, and did not make the criticism lightly.) Three years later (in 1946) des Forets produced a second and very short novel, Le Buvard, a monologue narrated by a drunkard, apparently something like the monologue novels of Samuel Beckett. He seemed set to be a big literary noise.
But it didn’t happen.
In the 50-plus years of his remaining literary life he produced no more novels, but only one collection of short stories, a book of verse, a book of personal aphorisms and a translation of the correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Apparently his reputation in France is that of the sparsely-published novelist, very highly regarded by highbrow critics but hardly known to the public. A bit like a French Richard Hughes, maybe. Or maybe that underrates the profile of Richard Hughes. Should I say Henry Green?
            Louis-Rene des Forets also (God help him) has a reputation as a precursor of the “New Novel”. Marguerite Duras and Nathalie Serrault both admired his two novels. I came across some pretentious articles that told me his real theme is “silence” and the inability of real communication between individuals. Hence the multiple narrators.
            Personally, I wish The Beggars had been an intellectual adventure story of the Joseph Conrad type rather than the evasive thing it is.
            It is now back on my shelf, where it will remain unread unless some crazed admirer of obscure French novels happens to be visiting.

Something Thoughtful


I recently finished the task of guest-editing Poetry New Zealand for the fourth time (the relevant issue, Number 48, will be available in March 2014) and, as it always does, the task forced me to consider how I stand with poetry.  I won’t tell you here what conclusions I came to, as it would take too long and I don’t have the energy. But I will tell you one thought that occurred. I wish more poets could write pithily. Could say things meaningfully in fewer words than the rambling rant.
So I decided to devote this week’s “Something Thoughtful” to a few choice pieces of pithiness, not all of them serious. I’ll add minimal comment and just let you enjoy.
First specimen – the 12 lines (less than the length of a sonnet) which Ben Jonson wrote four hundred years ago when his seven-year-old son died. It is a beautiful epitaph. I’ve heard one foolish critic complain that Jonson is an egotistical male chauvinist because he calls his little boy “his best piece of poetry” as if the boy is merely a possession. But – dammit – surely what the professional poet is saying is that the boy outweighs all his work.

On My First Son
Ben Jonson

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.

            Second specimen – also on the death of a child (real or imagined – I don’t remember), William Wordsworth two hundred years ago puts his pantheism into a human frame in the best of the Lucy poems. Eight lines:

“A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal”
William Wordsworth
A slumber did my spirit seal;
         I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
         The touch of earthly years.

No motion has she now, no force;
         She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
         With rocks, and stones, and trees.

Third specimen – a bit of a cheat this one, as Emily Dickinson takes 24 lines, but when she says something pithily she really says it pithily. It’s not just the unexpected anthropomorphism of calling a snake “a narrow fellow in the grass”, but that line “zero at the bone’ which puts terror into four words.

“A Narrow Fellow in the Grass”
Emily Dickinson
A narrow fellow in the grass

Occasionally rides;

You may have met him,--did you not,

His notice sudden is.

The grass divides as with a comb,

A spotted shaft is seen;

And then it closes at your feet

And opens further on.

He likes a boggy acre,

A floor too cool for corn.

Yet when a child, and barefoot,

I more than once, at morn,

Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash

Unbraiding in the sun,--

When, stooping to secure it,

It wrinkled, and was gone.

Several of nature's people

I know, and they know me;

I feel for them a transport

Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,

Attended or alone,

Without a tighter breathing,

And zero at the bone.
Fourth Specimen – also on a wild animal. Andrew Young’s eight paradoxical lines about a mole.
A Dead Mole
Andrew Young
Strong-shouldered mole, 
That so much lived below the ground, 
Dug, fought and loved, hunted and fed, 
For you to raise a mound 
Was as for us to make a hole; 
What wonder now that being dead 
Your body lies here stout and square 
Buried within the blue vault of the air? 
 Now after such thoughtful lyrics, it might seem frivolous of me to present you with the 
following, but you might as well get the full blast of Dorothy Parker’s sarcastic eight-line 
refusal of suicide.

Dorothy Parker
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

And similarly flippant, but just as much fun, W.H.Auden’s rude eight-line assertion of his personal space:

A “Short”
Some thirty inches from my nose
the frontier of my Person goes,
And all the untilled air between
Is private pagus or demesne.
Stranger, unless with bedroom eyes
I beckon you to fraternize,
Beware of rudely crossing it:
I have no gun, but I can spit.
            Okay, that’s your lot for this week, but if you’re serious about your poetry, see if you can say something as worthwhile in eight lines or fewer.