Monday, March 31, 2014

Something New

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

 “MOTHER OF GOD” by Paul Rosolie  (Bantam Press / Random House, $NZ37:99) ; “AFTERNOONS IN ITHAKA” by Spiri Tsintziras (ABC Books / Harper-Collins, $NZ 29:99)

            As I have remarked on this blog before, travel books come in many types and yet there is one iron-cast rule. It is no longer adequate for real travel writers (i.e. those outside the tourist industry-sponsored “Travel” sections of newspapers) to simply give an account of where they have been and what they have seen. Real travel writers have to have a personal angle and perspective, and some literary skill. Worthwhile travel writing is, in effect, a series of experiences and reflections fired by the foreign place – not just descriptions of that foreign place. (Look up my essay “On the Beaten Track” via the index at right).
As if to illustrate my thesis I have before me this week two books of travel as different from each other as chalk and cheese – or rather as different as raw survival and fine peasant cuisine. Each has a very personal perspective.
The rough, tough one first.
The title of Paul Rosolie’s Mother of God does not signify that his is a religious book.
Rather it is a book about the western-most area of the Amazon rain forest which early Spanish explorers called “Madre de Dios” – Mother of God. Straddling the borders of Peru and Brazil, and with the Andes in sight, the Madre de Dios is an area of incredible biodiversity. As Rosolie reckons it up early in the piece:
The rough tallies for the entire Andes/Amazon region: 1,666 birds, 414 mammals, 479 reptiles, 834 amphibians and a large portion of the Amazon’s 9,000 fish species. In the Madre de Dios alone there are more than 1,400 butterfly species.” (pp.12-13)
And this does not account for the even more incredible variety of plants and trees. Speaking of being lost in the jungle in a storm, Rosolie writes:
If the storm intensified, there was little chance I’d survive the resulting carpet bombing of shed tree limbs. Some of the great explorers have claimed that snake or piranhas or jaguars present the gravest threat in the Amazon, but these declarations betray inexperience. The trees themselves, in their dizzying innumerability, isolate and disorient you, and in a storm prove the most deadly. Some of the true giants are so interlaced with vines and strangler tentacles that when they fall, their weight tears down almost an acre of jungle. There is no way to escape.” (p.6)
Rosolie is cautious about using such terms as “pristine” or “unspoiled”, as he is aware that human beings are already having a major impact on the Madre de Dios and it is gravely threatened. Even so, he cannot resist telling us every so often that he has witnessed what is in effect raw nature acting out the same dramas that have been acted out for tens of thousands of years.
The first half of the book is entitled “The Age of Innocence” and chronicles Rosolie’s earlier travels in the region, very much in the form of a series of encounters with wild animal species. The second half has the title “The Battle of the Amazon”, and concentrates more on the ecological concerns his experiences aroused in him.
As he tells it, he was an 18-year-old student in New Jersey, bored with his studies, longing for an outdoor life and already concerned about saving animals, when he wangled his first trip to the Madre de Dios. While there he heard stories of the region’s unexplored areas of rain forest from an English conservationist whom he calls Emma and her Peruvian boyfriend Juan Julio. He was fired with the idea of doing some lone trekking; and on return visits, in his early twenties, he proceeded to do just that.
By his own account, he had mixed qualities of naivete and complete fearlessness, always being more intrigued and delighted by wild animals than he was scared of them.
He climbed up into the rain forest’s canopy to discover the high-living wildlife there, and was delighted to observe ants that had the capacity to “hang-glide” onto other branches if the wind knocked them off their perches. He gloried in the sight of macaws with their brilliant plumage. The first time he and some comrades encountered a caiman (large black Amazonian crocodile) he tried to restrain it by grabbing its tail and just missed having his face ripped off as the beast swiftly swung around to snap at him with its great jaws (p.44). He avoided rampaging peccaries (wild pigs) when they were quarrelling with howler monkeys over a waterhole, but he did stay around to see how the two species interacted. He was awe-struck by the “strangler fig”, which parasitically envelops trees and gradually sucks the life out of them, almost the same way the region’s anacondas crush the life out of animals.
He was happy to have some of his preconceptions modified. Expecting the water of the Amazon’s tributaries to be always filled with piranhas or caiman and to be undrinkable, he was surprised to find his conservationist companions happily drinking it and bathing in it.
He nursed an orphaned baby anteater he called Lulu, which got used to riding around on his back the way baby anteaters ride on their mothers. But he warns that full-grown anteaters are not as cute as they might look and are perfectly capable of standing their ground against bigger beasts with the help of their formidable claws. Of Lulu he writes:
If you bred a hyper baby black bear with Edward Scissorhands, the result would be something similar to what we were dealing with. Though she was small, her claws were already three-inch long black sickles that could tear through denim and skin with ease…” (p.67)
At a certain point in his travels, he contracted a horrible infection, his face swelled up with dozens of pus-filled spots (there’s a particularly grisly shot of him in this condition in the selection of colour photographs) and he had to be taken back to New York for hospitalization. Ironically, he was carried out of the jungle by his enemies, the poachers who shoot and kill all Amazon species regardless of their endangered status.
I admit that I was at first a little suspicious of some of his animal stories and wondered if he wasn’t fantasising. When he first encountered a 12-foot anaconda, for example, he tells us that he was so eager to observe it that he wrestled with it to keep it in sight (pp.133-36). Yet he is insistent that he did such things, and later when he meets an even larger specimen of the species, he tells us:
My brain fired a hundred thoughts all at once as her coils exploded into action, rapidly entering the water and disappearing. Propelled by an irrational urge to restrain the snake and get photographic evidence of her size, I dived onto her back like a shortstop catching a line drive. My presence did nothing to impede her progress, and my arms could not close around her, such was her circumference. I was carried more than seven feet on the anaconda, my arms clinging to her trunk, legs dragging along beside.” (p.151)
I will just have to accept the veracity of these tales, as I accept this charming tale involving a giant snake:
Climbing down to get a photo, I was beside the stream when I heard a muffled pop. Just three feet to my left, in the stream, a female anaconda more than fourteen feet long lay coiled around the body of a peccary. The herd had come through here, and the anaconda had grabbed one by the cheek as it passed and wrestled it into the water. The pop I heard was the pig’s spine breaking in half. Gowri [the author’s Indian fiancée] almost lost her mind at the sight of such a massive snake, but was still able to snap a stunning photo of the scene.” (p.223)
The snap is reproduced in the book. The amazing thing is that this ferocious reptile was scared away by the human attention, leaving her kill behind her. The human beings took the crushed peccary back to their camp and roasted and ate it.
To strip away the last shreds of my scepticism, I find that you can go on Youtube, look up “Paul Rosalie”, and find ample film of him interacting with ferocious snakes in a fearless way.
By now you have rumbled that all I am doing in this book review is presenting you with a summary of the book’s highlights. That is because I am holding back on making a few negative comments on the book’s style. It is fully understandable, and commendable of him, that Rosolie adopts a rather impassioned tone in the book’s second half as he deals with the poachers, the loggers who chop down centuries-old mahogany groves to service wealthy markets, the developers who want to rip up virgin rainforest to mine, and the Trans-Amazonian highway pushing through the region, which he describes as “the most environmentally devastating single project in the history of the world.” (p.185). This, I guess, is anger in a good cause.
But as a whole, the book’s style can be cliché–ridden journalese. Yes, there is the occasional felicitous phrase, as when Rosolie declares “To walk the Amazon by night is to enter a world where you are gravely disadvantaged compared to millions of sensory savants.”(p.84) I love that “sensory savants” bit, as he thinks of all the acutely seeing and hearing and smelling animals surrounding him in the darkness. But this is an exception to the book’s undistinguished reportage.
In an autobiographical chapter (Chapter 2), Rosolie tells us that he is dyslexic and got low grades at school in New Jersey and was regarded as a simpleton. Clearly he is no simpleton, but this does lead me to wonder if Mother of God was ghost-written, or perhaps very heavily edited and re-written for him before publication. In this, I could be quite wrong, and I am sorry to be churlish in my suggestion, as the book tells such a good story. There are, however, times when Rosolie overdoes his sympathetic tears at the destruction of animals. There is one episode (p.286) where he pictures himself, as poachers close in, communing with a wounded jaguar and saying “Please live!” like the hero of a staged Hollywood eco-drama.
Oh dear. Rotten–hearted old cynic me. Maybe I’m just saying that Rosolie’s style can be rather melodramatic. But I enjoyed the things this book told me about so much, that perhaps I should just stop quibbling about the way it is written.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   * 
“Spiri” (Spirithoula) Tsintziras’ Afternoons in Ithaka is, as a travel book, the most
extreme contrast with Paul Rosalie’s adventures in the wild places of the earth.
This is a story contrasting one relatively-newly settled country with one country of very ancient civilization. Spiri is a Greek Australian, an experienced journalist and co-author of a popular children’s book. Her story is as much autobiography and confession as it is travel book. Its 350-odd pages divide into three parts, ”The Seed”, “The Sapling” and “The Fruit”, as she charts her own growth and growing confidence in her cultural identity.
As a working class kid growing up in Melbourne, Spiri was partly intrigued and partly embarrassed by her parents’ Greek culture. The district was fairly rough-house. Dad was sometimes on the unemployment benefit when he couldn’t get factory work, sometimes drank too much and sometimes got nasty when drunk. His most stable period appears to have been when he ran a fish ‘n chips shop. Mum struggled to earn something as a seamstress. The neighbours always seemed to be fighting. Kids in the playground weren’t always sympathetic to “wog” ways and food, and they moved away from Spiri smartly when she produced such odiferous delicacies as squid sandwiches. So young Spiri was very self-conscious about who she was and where she came from and went through a mildly rebellious teenage phase where she refused to eat meat and did other things that baffled her parents.
Childhood visits to grandparents in Greece could be daunting. The ancient, evil-smelling long-drop the village used. The lack of amenities. But then there was grandma’s home-baked Greek bread, drenched in olive oil and cooked with tomatoes. In fact it is Greek grandma’s home-baked bread that greets us on the first page of this book before the autobiographical background is painted, and this points to another aspect of Afternoons in Ithaka.
It is a book about food.
The imperative to eat, overcoming other circumstances, is well caught in one childhood memory, which is recorded thus:
I try not to look at the lamb’s eyes, or at the mouth clamped shut with wire, the sharp teeth still visible as it turns around, slowly, slowly. The lamb’s body has been secured to the spit so that it doesn’t move, metal skewers pushed through the flesh and clamped on. I feel sorry for the animal, but it know I will not be able to resist eating it – it smells delicious”. (p.77)
Even childhood tenderness about baa-lambs is overcome by the smell of roasting lamb.
Nearly every chapter is followed by a recipe for mainly ethnic Greek dishes. The opening chapter on grandma’s bread is followed by a recipe for said bread. A chapter on meeting other kids in Greece is followed by a recipe for chicken stew. When Mum’s struggles as a seamstress are described, there follows the recipe for Greek coffee. When expatriate Greeks discuss Greek politics and the right way to preserve cucumbers, we are given advice on how to dry seeds. So, in afterword after afterword, we run through spinach pie and moussaka and sundry other delicacies. In some cases, the recipes give way to recorded accounts from elders on how they conduct their kitchen life, and occasionally there is testimony on other aspects of Greek culture and peasant superstitions, such as the advice Spiri’s mother gives on the evil eye.
Afternoons in Ithaka takes us through Spiri’s adolescence and young adulthood, student years and backpacking trips around the Mediterranean (Greece, Italy, southern France) with a student pal, but all the time leading to her greater identification with her ethnic roots when at last she finds a husband, has children and gets to visit Ithaka. Symbolically, it ends with the building of a Greek-style peasant oven.
In the end, this is a sunnily optimistic story of the genre that entices readers with exotic food. I have not always responded favourably to this genre in the past, but in this case the author’s sweet earnestness is seductive.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "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. 

“LES JEUNES FILLES”/ “PITIE POUR LES FEMMES” (“The Girls” / “Pity for Women”) a tetralogy of novels by Henry de Montherlant (first published in French 1936-39; English translation of the first two novels, 1937; Terence Kilmartin’s new translation of the whole tetralogy 1968)

            Some time ago on this blog, I promised that I would one day get around to dealing with Henry de Montherlant’s simultaneously great and repellent tetralogy Les Jeunes Filles. [Look up my comments on de Montherlant’s Chaos and Night on the index.]
I now have the time to do so.
A while back, I read a recent novel, and wrote a review of it that greatly displeased the novelist in question. Among other things, I had made negative comments about the novel’s social judgments, condescending attitude towards people in general and other implicit values. In high dudgeon, the novelist wrote to me, telling me what a brilliant piece of work the novel was and saying as an ultimate put-down “You’re not a critic – you’re a moralist! 
I took this to mean that I should have concentrated on aesthetic matters only - the novel’s style and structure and quality of prose - and left aside matters of values and morality.
Now in an odd sort of way, I have some sympathy for this view. I resist vigorously the notion that fiction should be praised or blamed solely in terms of the values it expresses. The sort of criticism that concentrates on morality and values alone will rapidly become the sort of criticism that is really promoting propaganda. I am a socialist or feminist or agnostic or Christian. Therefore I endorse literature that advances the cause of socialism or feminism or agnosticism or Christianity. Should I adopt this approach, I will end up praising the second-rate because it confirms those values which I already profess; and decrying much worthwhile work because it does not share my world view. I sometimes think of this approach to literature as the high school approach, because the main emphasis of many high school English teachers is to give their classes novels that will promote healthy attitudes, “improving” novels that teach tolerance and gender equity and justice and so forth. A good scheme for advancing a peaceable society, perhaps, but a very bad way to approach literature if you have got beyond the classroom.
You can see an example of this approach in Jim Flynn’s The Torchlight List (Awa Press, 2010), in which he recommends a list of books, which he thinks will broaden young people’s minds. Result? He produces a book promoting good, right-thinking middlebrow fiction and steering clear of anything more challenging in a literary way. It’s the propaganda approach, even if the man’s heart is in the right place.
And yet, having said all this, I am as wary of the approach which concentrates solely on aesthetics. Let us look at Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s dense prose, let us consider how he piles detail on detail, let us analyse his fascinating mixture of classical and demotic phraseology – oh, and let’s just not happen to notice his nihilism, the frankly loopy ideas he endorses and his rampant anti-Semitism. If the values-fixated approach to criticism leads to the endorsement of propaganda, the aesthetics-fixated approach leads to a sterile art-for-art’s-sake mindset, which detaches literature from the world around it. It is the talent, skill or genius of the writer as a writer that makes the writing competent, very good or brilliant. We should always be responding to, and judging, the words on the page. But what the writer is promoting, advancing, criticising, in sympathy with or satirising in fiction also has to be considered.
As a critic or reviewer, I should be able to say sometimes that, while I approve of a novel’s outlook, it is nevertheless a very bad piece of writing.  Conversely, I might sometimes have to say that something is outstandingly good as a piece of writing, but that its implicit moral values are defective.  The fact is that both the moral (in the broadest sense of the word) and the aesthetic have to be taken into account, or criticism becomes very unbalanced. (I should note, by the way, that one very familiar dodge of academic critics is to harp on a novel’s aesthetic defects when it is really the novelist’s values that they can’t stand.)
I have now tried your patience for far too long and if you have bothered to read this far you are wondering why I’ve given this tedious prologue to a consideration of de Montherlant’s tetralogy.
Elementary. I am rubbing in the fact that I regard de Montherlant as an outstandingly good writer. Concurrently, I regard his worldview in the tetralogy as repellent to the point of being disgusting. This is the challenge of literature, isn’t it? At its best, it can make us consider things in a way we are reluctant to consider them.
Some facts first. Three versions of de Montherlant’s tetralogy sit on my shelves. I have four Livre de Poche paperbacks in the original French, which I ploughed through some years back: Les Jeunes Filles (1936), Pitie Pour Les Femmes (1936), Le Demon du Bien (1937) and Les Lepreuses (1939). Next to them sits, in one volume, an anonymous English translation of the first two novels, published under the title Pity for Women in 1937. And then there is a very fat one-volume translation by Terence Kilmartin of all four novels, under the title The Girls, which was published in 1968. It is this version that I have read most recently.
All four novels concern a novelist, Pierre Costals. All four, though written in the mid-1930s, are set in the late 1920s. Costals is represented as being in his mid-30s, just as de Montherlant (1895-1972) would have been in the late 1920s. The narrative voice is generally third-person-limited, meaning that things are seen from Costals’ viewpoint but de Montherlant does not entirely identify with him. There are also many exchanges of letters between characters in some of the novels, meaning that the narrative technique sometimes goes epistolary. This is important. Costals is such a self-absorbed egotist, that it would be hard for us to hear the viewpoints of other characters unless they were expressed explicitly in letters.
The central concept of the tetralogy is very simple. It is about the relationship of men and women – the “battle of the sexes”.
Costals is a very successful novelist. He is unmarried. He is besieged by female fans, some of whom write to him passionately, imagining that they could be his soul-mate. One such fan is Therese Pantevin, who believes her attachment to Costals’ writing amounts to a religious experience. Costals is a rake – a libertine (in his introduction to the Kilmartin translation, Peter Quennell aptly alludes to Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons Dangereueses, and to the memoirs of Casanova). He has had many affairs with many women. A number of cast-off mistresses are mentioned in passing in the course of the tetralogy (such as his old pal Rachel Guigui, who occasionally writes to him, expecting nothing in return).  Costals has few male friends (an amiable chap, Armand Pathes, occasionally crosses his path) but he does have an illegitimate teenage son, Philippe (nicknamed ‘Brunet’) who appears to be the only other human being with whom he feels a real fellowship. In the last volume of the Tetralogy he becomes involved intimately with a teenage mistress Rhadidja ben Ali, whom he meets in the Atlas Mountains while visiting North Africa.
However, throughout most of the novel sequence, Costals is poised between two women.
On the one hand, there is the intellectual woman, Andree Harquebaut, who sees herself as Costals’ equal because her wit is as quick as Costals and, she believes, she would be just the person to support him and share culture with him when he is writing highbrows novels. (Rather quaintly, Peter Quennell refers to Andree Harquebaut as a “bluestocking” – and there is a strong sense that de Montherlant is ridiculing the pretensions of intellectual women just as Moliere did in Les Femmes Savantes). On the other hand, there is the good Catholic middle-class girl, from a wealthy family, Solange Dandillot. She is far more sexually attractive than Andree, but she is determined to have a family.
So will Costals go for intellectual companionship in a woman? Or will he go for sexual satisfaction, wealth and domestic comfort?
Of course the dice are loaded by de Monthelant from the very beginning. We have known him for only a few pages when we are aware that the caustic Costals will not submit easily to either of these temptations. We might also find ourselves asking why there has to be such a dichotomy in the first place. Why can’t the intellectual woman also be sexually attractive and a comfortable bourgeoise? Why can’t the sexually-attractive bourgeoise also be an intellectual?
Peu importe!
This is the way it plays out.
In Les Jeunes Filles / The Girls  (1936), Costals basically disengages from the annoying Therese Pantevin by telling her to consult a priest and stop bothering him. (In the second novel we hear that she has succumbed to religious mania and gone insane.) He is mainly concerned with the intellectual Andree. She comes to Paris from the provinces, hoping to woo him. He doesn’t mind her intellectual company, even if she clearly isn’t his intellectual equal, but he doesn’t feel any sexual attraction for her. All the while Andree is upset that Costals is able to give his sexual favours to less ‘worthy’ women than she. She finally says she’d be happy to have a sexual experience with him, even if he doesn’t love her. Costals cruelly puts her off by describing in detail the sexual experience he has already had with other women, and showing that she simply wouldn’t fit the bill. Meanwhile, he is able to win the attention of the pretty, young, naïve, wealthy non-intellectual Solange Dandillot. The novel ends with nothing resolved.
In Pitie Pour Les Femmes /  Pity for Women (1936) Costals really puts the boot into Andree. When she comes to Paris yet again he sits her down and confronts her with all her weaknesses, telling her that all he feels for her is pity (hence the novel’s title), and pity is a trap for men and the road to illusion. Andree flounces back to the provinces. When she next writes to Costals, it is to say that she has figured out why he has rejected her advances – Costals must be homosexual! Meanwhile, we are given a more detailed account of Solange Dandillot’s bourgeois Catholic family. Costals finds to his surprise that he has some sympathy for Solange’s old and dying father – the poor old beggar has clearly been destroyed by his life-long commitment to domestic duty. Costals is now extremely attracted to Solange and a long-term commitment to her, and is she ready to accept him…. But by the end of the novel, he is still writing to an old mistress arranging a one-night stand.
Le Demon du Bien / The Hippogriff (1937) is in some respects the cruellest book in the sequence. Despite her conventionally Catholic and bourgeois values, Solange’s doting mother proves to be a formidably astute woman as Costals begins to negotiate what form a marriage to Solange should take. De Montherlant briefly acknowledges (even if Costals doesn’t) that there might be something to be said for protective mother-love after all. But when he discusses with Solange how they should be married, Costals lays down some basic ground rules – they are to have no children, complete freedom of action, a yearly “holiday” from each other, and instantaneous, uncontested divorce should he so desire it. Reluctantly, Solange agrees, and she follows Costals to Genoa, whither he has fled when the intensity of Solange’s attachment to him became too much. In Genoa, Costals gives her the same line that he gave Andree – if he were to marry her, it would be out of pity. But the sexual attraction between them is so strong that they at last make love – whereupon Costals tries to get Solange to agree that she will have an abortion if she gets pregnant. She leaves for Paris. He at once, being a novelist, goes into a creative frenzy, writing a novel is which he writes Solange out of his system by turning her into three or four different women.
Les Lepreuses / The Lepers (1939) has Costals back in Paris, once again besieged
with letters from Andree who says she just wants to “be friends”. He hears that Solange has sunk into deep depression since their split. He resumes contact with her and outings, feeling some responsibility. Again there is talk of marriage. But that demon Pity rears its head again. She will weaken him. He flees to North Africa, and takes up with the teenage mistress Rhadidja ben Ali. For a while, she satisfies all his sensual desires. She isn’t an intellectual. She doesn’t expect domestic commitment. In other words, she is an attractive, nubile young woman whom he can fuck without afterthought. The snare is that she has contracted leprosy. Has he contracted it too? After consulting a doctor he discovers that he might have the disease. When he returns to Paris, Solange has such strong feelings for him that she agrees she might marry a man who is a leper. But when she tries to combine her sensual appeal with intrusions into Costals’ intellectual life he ditches her for once and for all. He doesn’t want a woman who is both a “bluestocking” and domestically clingy.
The whole novel sequence ends on a note of farce. Andree attempts to renew her liaison with Costals. They make a rendezvous but both fail to keep it. Goodbye intellectual companionship with women. Goodbye romanticism. Solange ends up marrying a perfectly respectable bourgeois chap. Costals writes to her to say that at least her existence was justified by allowing him an invigorating sensual experience. Goodbye domesticity. Costals ends up walking the streets of Paris cursing the inadequacies of humanity, and yet desiring to sleep with all women.
Like Tolstoy at the end of War and Peace, de Montherlant ends his tetralogy with an essay spelling out some of his themes – although de Montherlant pretends the essay is written by Costals. The essay spits out contempt for the Western habit of putting women on a pedestal and hence deforming the upbringing of men by getting men to look up to women. De Montherlant / Costals expresses admiration for the Oriental habit of strictly subordinating women. Mingled with this, there is a desire for women too to be freed from romanticism. But there is a final irony. This essay of Costals is being read by yet another of Costals’ mistresses. In reading it, she laughs at different things from the things that make Costals laugh. The final implication is that the minds of men and women can never meet.
Having given you this fairly exhaustive summary, do I (as a monogamous, heterosexual, married, philoprogenitive male) have to spell out that I find de Montherlant’s world view repellent in many ways?
I could, if I wished to adopt the purely “propagandist” approach to literature, point out many defects in the sequence’s worldview. I could note the element of masculine fantasy there is in it. After all, isn’t it the daydream of many men to be successful novelists, besieged with fan mail from female admirers, having independent means permitting frequent travel (Paris, Genoa, North Africa etc.) and able to pick up mistresses when and as desired?
I could note the sequence’s dated map of sexual politics. De Montherlant / Costals basically sees women as either tiresome would-be intellectuals or dreaded domesticating agents who drag men down, by trying to commit them to conventional marriage and child-rearing. What he wants is sensuality (i.e. sex), friendship and complete “freedom” – that is, the ethics of the casual affair. But eighty years on, and after the huge impact of easy contraception, how much is this now a map of available heterosexual relationships? In fact, isn’t de Montherlant’s desired state now the norm for many people of both sexes who screw around without material consequences? Perhaps (just perhaps) de Montherlant’s perceptions of the wide gap between men’s and women’s views of sexuality are still valid. But I do have the sense that some elements of the sexual battleground are not as permanent as de Montherlant might have imagined.
To condemn the novel’s values, I could also draw on de Montherlant’s own biography (which is another way of belittling writers when their values offend us). De Montherlant never married, so he viewed the married state strictly from the outside. (As did the more benign Henry James, who saw marriage as an “avoidable catastrophe”.) More to the point, not only was de Montherlant homosexual by inclination, but for much of his life (as posthumous biographies of him made clear) he was an active paedophile. (This apparently was one of the reasons he was beaten up in the streets in 1968, at the age of 73). How much, I ask, is this dyspeptic, negative and essentially destructive view of women in fact the revenge of a man who never felt any sexual desire for women anyway, and who hid behind the persona of a world-weary heterosexual rake to express his contempt for women? How much does it express the frustrations of a homosexual in an age when there were social pressures for all men to marry? When Andree, in the second volume, suggests that Costals is homosexual, is this in fact de Montherlant trying to ridicule, and hence deflect, a truthful criticism of both himself and Costals? (Side issue, which I won’t pursue – it has often been argued that men who have many brief affairs with women are probably homosexual by inclination – the Byron/Don Juan phenomenon.)
Finally, I could argue that the sequence is defective because there is not enough distance between the author de Montherlant and the central figure Costals. Admittedly de Montherlant has both the subtlety and intelligence to suggest sometimes a distance and imply the defectiveness of Costals’ views. There is an early scene in Les Jeunes Filles where Costals is making negative and patronising judgements on war veterans who are drawing their pensions, before he realizes that one man whom he has mentally criticised is lacking an arm. He admits that he has assumed too much. Some of Andree’s criticisms of Costals are right on the button; and Solange’s mother is not the bourgeoise nitwit that Costals at first takes her for. The author is therefore noting the psychological and perceptual defects of his main character. Even so, much of the sequence’s raw energy comes from the very fact that de Montherlant himself heartily endorses Costals’ condemnation of women. When Costals eventually walks the Paris streets raging against humanity, it is hard not to feel that the author himself is talking.
At this point, I should note that more than one feminist has ripped shreds off de Montherlant. Most notoriously, in her The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir made a detailed and angry attack on The Girls / Pity for Women, singling it out as representing everything that was belittling and defective in the way male writers regarded women. (She was angered at least in part by the fact that the tetralogy had been a big bestseller and still was at the time she was writing.) There are actually parts of de Beauvoir’s critique with which I can easily agree, much as I hate to range myself on the side of the jeune fille derangee whose own worldview was at least as destructive and limited as de Montherlant’s. (For a very good defence of de Montherlant, with some incidental well-aimed slaps at de Beauvoir, look up on line B.R.Myers’ article “Monster of Marriage” from The Atlantic.)
So you can see, a purely propagandist critique of de Montherlant’s tetralogy would cast it on the dust-heap and advise readers to steer clear of it.
BUT…. The tetralogy is extremely well written by a master stylist.
Unless you are a complete dullard, you will appreciate the classical precision of de Montherlant’s style. The novels deliberately confine themselves to the matter of men and women and their relationships, leaving out much contingent detail. Who hears how other characters earn a living or who the other significant people in their lives are? Does it matter? In this respect de Montherlant is the heir to that French tradition which insisted on the classical unities in tragedies (Corneille, Racine) and which produced precise, analytical tales of love rather than rambling romances (Mme de Lafayette, Constant, Radiguet etc.)
Notice de Monterlant’s symbolic use of setting – the many aimless walks through the streets, which Costals has with Andree in Les Jeunes Filles, suggesting a relationship that will go nowhere. Conversely, the crucial scene set in a kitchen in Pitie Pour Les Femmes, suggesting the ordered domesticity that Costals almost accepts from Solange. And the scene in Les Lepreuses where the Dandillot apartment is being re-decorated once Solange’s father is dead, suggesting how quickly the influence of a male is eliminated in a house which women rule.
Notice, too, the combination of narrative voices – third-person limited and epistolary – so that the Costals’ persona is challenged and set in dialectic with other voices.
I cannot help but regret de Montherlant’s outlook. If men and women are not made to complement each other, mate and have children, then why are there two sexes? Short term “sensuality”, serial “friendship” – from my point of view these are ways of avoiding real intimacy, of sleeping around, of keeping your precious ego intact while holding the rest of humanity at arm’s length. It is a pitiable code. And yet…how well-written the sequence is! How many incidental and truthful insights there are into mental habits that really do separate men and women! How true many scenes ring!
I do not in any way endorse de Montherlant’s / Costals’ views, but there are times when even well-balanced, thoughtful, considerate men, who get on well with women, enjoy their company and are happy to marry and have children ARE NEVERTHELESS exasperated with the whole female gender, wish only for the company of other men and spit at and scorn feminine tricks designed to cajole and manipulate men. Of course the mood soon passes and sanity returns. But to such moods de Montherlant’s volumes speak cogently.
So this is what real literature can be – the extremely good expression of views and ideas which we may find repugnant, but which still illuminate a corner of the human psyche. If I rejected de Montherlant’s tetralogy because of its expressed values, I would be succumbing to the Jim Flynn propagandist Torchlight List approach. If I praised it for its style while neglecting to mention what it was saying, I would be endorsing the angry (and self-interested) novelist who said “You’re not a critic – you’re a moralist!
Real criticism flies on two wings.

Something Thoughtful

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

            I was not an habitual truant from school. In fact, I was more the sort of goodie who would go to school dutifully even if I felt slightly sick, and I would stress over any homework that I had not been able to do. But one morning, when I was about fourteen, something inside me turned mildly rebellious. It was the last week of term, we had already done, and been given the results for, our internal school exams, and it was clear that this last week was going to be a great waste of time as the teachers found things to keep us busy before the holidays began.
            So, with the sun shining when I should have been mounting my bike and riding to school, I decided to take a walk in the bucolic wilderness. I put on casual clothes and walking boots and donned a cast-off Aussie-style military slouch hat, which had once belonged to my elder brother Piers. I cut a lunch and tossed it into a tramping pack, together with as many apples as I could carry and a water bottle. And I began to walk east.
            This was the mid-1960s
            We lived in the more settled part of the east Auckland suburb of Panmure. At the bottom of our road was what was still the main bridge crossing the Tamaki estuary – or “river”, as everyone called it. And beyond the river was a narrow ribbon of houses, and then the green farming fields of Pakuranga.
            I walked over the bridge. I walked past the narrow ribbon of houses on the other side. I walked past the solitary supermarket that was a just a little beyond them. The morning sun shone benignly and I began to climb the hill that went past St Kentigern’s College, the Presbyterian boys’ boarding school. I might have been whistling. I might have been singing. I did these things when I was on my own.
Suddenly a bus swept past me going in the opposite direction, and I heard whoops and jeers and my name being called out. It was the wealthier boys who lived all the way out in snobby Howick and who were bussed every day to the school I attended. I had been rumbled. They had recognized me and realized I was taking the day off illegally.
The bus disappeared and I kept walking, only momentarily troubled by the questions I would face when I got to school the following day.
I communed with dairy cows. I communed with green fields. I walked past the old Pakuranga community hall which must have been built for the farmers in the 1920s or earlier, and which had a wooden “rising sun” motif over its front entrance. I was way out in the country and smelling the country air. I had passed the turn-off to “Pigeon Mountain” – a small hill, half of which had been quarried away, with pine trees on it.
Then began the long, gentle climb up the slope towards the country town of Howick. It had taken me a couple of hours walking from home to reach its small main shopping street, to plod past the Catholic church near the hill with the flagpost on it, and the small, picturesque nineteenth century Anglican church where, even then, couples chose to get married simply because it looked so quaint. My mother told me that I was born in a nursing home in Howick, so I had some sort of connection with the village.
I was tired, but I did not stop. I kept walking until the village ended and I was among green fields once again. I pressed on past the farms, past the mooing cows, past the windbreaks and the barbed-wire fences. I was now in deep country, a completely different world from the fringe suburb where I lived. And then came the sharp dip into the deep valley where the little country hamlet of Whitford sat. Only when I reached Whitford, the best part of four hours walk from my home, did I sit down and drink my water and eat my lunch.
It was now early afternoon and a horrible thought occurred to me. I had no money. I was faced with the daunting prospect of spending at least four hours trudging back home. It began with the long, painful plod back up the Whitford hill. Then a small miracle happened. It was halfway up the climb when a maroon-coloured bus, belonging to the old Howick Bus Company, drew level with me. I waved tiredly to the driver. He stopped. His bus was empty. He asked me where I was going. I told him. “Hop on”, he said. I said I had no money. He shrugged and said it didn’t matter, and in 25 minutes he had driven me back home, free of charge. I’ve sometimes wondered if, in a more commercially competitive age, any bus driver would be willing to give a kid a free ride like this now.
Anyway, I had taken my bucolic walk and I had been far from the city and I had communed at least with that part of nature that farmers had tamed.
Flash forward about twenty years to the mid-1980s.
I was now a young married man with a growing family of young children. I lived across the harbour bridge on the North Shore. My widowed mother still lived in the family home out in Panmure. I visited her most Sundays, usually with wife and small children. One Sunday I took it into my head to take her for a country drive. I had images of the green fields between Pakuranga and Howick, past which I had trudged as a schoolboy. Mum seemed a bit dubious about this, but we all squeezed into the car and away we went over the bridge crossing the Tamaki “River”. And I discovered in a matter of moments that the country wasn’t there any more. It was solid suburbia and malls and supermarkets from Panmure to Howick. Pakuranga was just another big dormitory suburb with not a green field in sight. Pigeon Mountain was even smaller and more bulldozed than it had been when I was a kid, with houses abutting it. There was no gap in the housing between Buckland’s Beach and Eastern Beach, and Howick was no longer a little village.
I sighed. My image of the open country evaporated. My wife wondered why I came back from the drive rather grumpy. She didn’t come from this part of Auckland, so she didn’t know what my mind’s eye still saw.
For various reasons, I’ve made many visits to that side of Auckland in the 30-odd years since I took my mother for that Sunday spin. I have seen large chunks of Howick become streets of obscenely ostentatious mansions for Asian dentists. I have seen the motorways and bypasses become even bigger and more dominant and noisy as they drive out east. I have seen the suburbs creep out so far that there now is scarcely a green field between Howick and Whitford. Most of the new suburbs’ inhabitants are not aware that there ever was. Maraetai, which used to be the very fringe of civilization, is now drawn into the urban Auckland orbit.
Let me give you the lesser moral to my story. Urban sprawl in some form is inevitable, even if I am always bemused by the phenomenon of so much good farm land so near the city being successively swallowed up. I am aware that the settled suburban street on which I lived as a child had been there for only a few years. When my parents built there in 1948, they and their neighbours were settling on what had been horse paddocks. I am aware that the well-settled North Shore suburb on which I now live was farmland fifty years ago. Old archival black-and-white aerial photos, from about 1960, show me grass-covered fields, with a creek running through them, where my street now is. So I am not writing this to condemn the new inhabitants of Pakuranga and Howick and Whitford. I am part of the same process as they are.
But the more important moral of the story is this. In spite of my subsequent knowledge, in spite of what my rational mind tells me, the first thing I think of when I think of Pakuranga is green fields and the countryside. The image was so firmly imprinted on my young brain that, though I know it is irrational, whenever I visit the area and look at the suburbia now, I think: “This is a ghost landscape. This shouldn’t really be here. This isn’t the real Pakuranga.”
I do not attach this feeling solely to the area in which I grew up. Only recently I, for the first time in years, visited the west Auckland suburb of Henderson. I almost shudder to use the word “suburb” for again, when I was a child, it was a separate little town of its own, with farmland cutting it off from the older suburbs and with a certain romantic ring to it, as it had Auckland’s first big commercial vineyards in an age when wine was still a foreign eccentricity. And again, at the sight of its same-as-all-the-others malls, a part of my mind struck up with “This isn’t the real Henderson.” Then there is the allied phenomenon, upon which I will not enlarge, of visiting the central city, looking at the newer buildings and saying “By rights, these shouldn’t really be here. They are not the real Auckland.”
I am playing you the same tune that I played recently when I talked about sound recordings. Just as all technology is transient, so are all our impressions of the world we live in. The sunny country road I once trudged isn’t there any more. But it lives in my mind and colours the way I see what is now external reality. And it reminds me of one eternal truth.
This too will pass.”

Monday, March 24, 2014

Something New

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

 “THE NEWS – A USER’S MANUAL” by Alain de Botton    (Hamish Hamilton / Penguin Books, $NZ37)

            Before I begin my gimlet-eyed analysis of the latest tome by pop-philosopher Alain de Botton let me pause, gentle reader, and do what I do very rarely. Let me consider the book as material artefact.
The News – A User’s Manual is a small square hardback volume with a tasteful art deco design on its dust jacket, and equally tasteful art deco (or are they art noveau?) endpapers. Under the dust jacket, the cover is green with a gold inlaid art deco design on the spine. The text of each of the volume’s 250-odd small square pages is set in tasteful Adobe Garamond typeface, except for the news stories that are quoted at the beginning of each section.  They are set in Brandon Grotesque. In de Botton’s text, some key words and titles are printed in red type to stand out among the black type of the rest of the text. This, gentle reader, is (probably deliberately) reminiscent of antique fine editions, like those nineteenth century printings of the New Testament, which would set the ipsissima verba of Jesus in red type. As for the photographs, they are all printed in tasteful grainy black-and-white, as in the better art books.
So what, dear reader, does this physical object announce clearly, even before a single word of the text has been ingested?
It proclaims tastefulness. It tells you that this is a book for the quiet, thoughtful, cultured book-lover who, having read it, will deposit it reverentially on his or her shelf. It also tells you that it will be restrained, inoffensive, thoughtful, analgesic and will not upset your digestion or raise your blood pressure. In short, it warns you that it will be a bit of a pompous bore, and in so warning it announces quite accurately what the book’s contents are.
But let me not get ahead of myself.
Alain de Botton, familiar on the British telly, has spent the last decade explaining philosophy to the masses in a series of brief and best-selling tomes, and that is a noble and admirable task. Alas, though, whenever de Botton attempts to grapple with the really big questions, he becomes Mr Waffle. I do remember the TV series in which he examined Life’s Big Questions and ended by telling us to try to live “creatively” like the Bloomsbury Set. Ah yes. The life of the trust-funded flaneur, forsooth.
Oops. I am getting ad hominem. Let me get back to the book.
In The News – A User’s Manual De Botton’s theme is, obviously, the news as conveyed by the modern mass media, although he does quote almost exclusively from newspapers to make his points. Early in the piece, De Botton declares, with considerable justice, that the news has taken on canonical status:
In the developed economies, the news now occupies a position of power at least equal to that formerly occupied by the faiths. Dispatches track the canonical hours with uncanny precision: matins have been transubstantiated [sic] into the breakfast bulletin, vespers into the evening report. But the news doesn’t just follow a quasi-religious timetable. It also demands that we approach it with some of the same deferential expectations we would once have harboured of the faiths. Here, too, we hope to receive revelations, learn what is good and bad, fathom suffering and understand the unfolding logic of existence. And here too, if we refuse to take part in the rituals, there could be imputations of heresy.” (p.11)
Further, the news is now the chief moulder of what most people’s conception of reality is:
Once our formal education is finished, the news is the teacher. It is the single most significant force setting the tone of public life and shaping our impressions of the community beyond our own walls. It is the prime creator of political and social reality.” (p.12)
Given this sturdy set-up, then, one expects an analysis of the news media, an attempt to fathom how they work, what their economic bases are, what they do to attract their mass audience and how one can profitably de-construct them. In other words, a methodical critique. But alas, this is not what de Botton offers. Instead this volume is a collection of “life lessons” in which de Botton wants us to reflect on how the news can be used for self improvement and solace, regardless of its defects as commodity or intellectual matter. It does sound like a weekend “life skills” seminar, doesn’t it?
Each of the book’s brief essays is preceded by a news story from the different genres on offer. Political story. Natural disaster story. Celebrity gossip story. Weather story. War story etc. After each such article, de Botton first considers how the story has been artificially constructed from factual material, to mould it into the expected shape. Then he tries to tell us how we can learn from the story if only we decode it properly; and how we can apply those lessons to our lives.
Now I would be very dishonest if I did not admit that de Botton can come up with the odd, interesting apercu. There is, for example, his suggestion that news of dreadful things feeds that frustration created by the assumption of human perfection:
In its thwarted optimism, the news is the disillusioned progeny of the Enlightenment. Refusing to square with human nature, it allows our hopes to smash constantly against the same shoals; it greets every new day with faux cherubic innocence, only to stoke up rage and disillusionment at our condition by nightfall. It posits the potential existence of a perfect world, which is forever almost within reach but then curiously slips out of grasp at every step of the political process. It doesn’t do us the favour of conceding that in many respects we are a fundamentally – rather than incidentally – incorrigible species and that we would at key moments be wise to forgo hysterical annoyance for deep and quiet melancholy.” (p.56)
Once or twice, de Botton does tiptoe up to the matter of how uniform the mass media are in covering the same events (had he pushed his investigation further in this matter, he would have come close to the heart of what is wrong with the news media):
We should at least be somewhat suspicious of the way that news sources, which otherwise expend considerable energy advertising their originality and independence of mind, seem so often to be in complete agreement on the momentous question of what happened today.” (p.73)
He is interesting when he considers the work of editors in choosing photographs for newspapers, where there is a clear distinction between images designed merely to confirm what the text is saying and images designed to tell a story of their own. He is enjoyable when he notes the decontextualization of facts in so many news stories and (quoting many sensational headlines from the Daily Mail) how easy it is to create a sense of insecurity or unease in readers and viewers by such decontextualization. Again, he touches upon, but does not develop, a sound idea when he notes how the plethora of facts we are now given by the news media work better than any censorship could in completely disorienting readers and viewers and preventing them from ever being able to conceptualise essential issues. I found de Botton to be at his best in the section headed “Baddies and the Bad”, where he speaks of journalists still operating on the “Watergate paradigm” and imagining they are fearless investigators bringing the powerful and corrupt to account; BUT in fact by concentrating on the failings of individual politicians and other wielders of power, journalists usually fail to address what is systemically wrong with society and its political systems.  The worst form of such political reporting is what de Botton calls “gaffe” journalism, where much ink is spilt and air time devoted to publicising politicians’ misstatements or slips of the tongue or minor misdemeanours as if these are matters of huge import. This is merely a form of ritual humiliation.
Thus, you can see, in my spirit of impeccable fairness, I have noted de Botton’s ability to say some things worth saying. But then I, literary amateur that I am, also note de Botton’s alienating frames of reference.
His little book quotes the likes of Flaubert and George Eliot and William Carlos Williams and Auden and Aristotle and Dostoievsky, as if de Botton is afraid that we will not take him seriously without such cultural heavyweights. And when he suggests “remedies” for the defects of the news, his solutions are high-minded and idealistic to the point of being quite unrealistic.
Item – when he discusses World News, de Botton asks why most news sites gain many times more readers or viewers for local trivia stories (footballer’s affair with model; royal baby born etc.) than they do for grave and weighty foreign news stories (famines, wars etc.). He answers that it is because we do not know or identify with the people involved in the foreign news, as the news services do not engagingly serve us the “normality” of foreign lives. So what is de Botton’s solution to this problem? He says that there should be more writing in the press like the lush nineteenth century travel writing that raised people’s sense of wonder at foreign places and the exotic things they had to offer. And to experience the “normality” of a culture alien to him, he then travels to Uganda to soak up its everyday life.
Somehow, I do not see these stratagems as solving the problem.
Or again, after admitting that most Economic News is either incomprehensible to the average reader, or is really tips for investors, he offers this rather utopian argument:
Businesses should be honoured as among the most humanly important organizations on the planet which deserve to have their adventures, prevarications, deceits, passions and sufferings carefully described and powerfully evoked with all the intensity and aesthetic skill that might accompany the narration of a love affair. It is only an accident of culture that still leads us to expect that ‘human interest’ is something best found in someone’s private life rather than at the factory line, the supply chain or the office cubicle.” (p.144)
So we will understand economies if they are written up in terms of “human interest” stories?
Again, I say “Really!?” And add a fervent “Yeah, right.
De Botton uses the much-criticised genre of the “celebrity interview” to remind us that there is a deep human impulse to admire, and emulate, the deeds of exemplary human beings. He proves this (his High Culture ostentatiously on display again) by discussing the civic heroes who were admired by the ancient Greek city-states or the saints who are set up as models of virtue by the Catholic Church. So, he asks, could not celebrity interviews be re-cast to emphasize civic virtues? (pp.157-166)
Again, dear reader, I murmur a fervent “Yeah, right”.
Then, when talking of the fundamental envy of celebrities, which most readers harbour, de Botton he goes all contemptus mundi on us by telling us what we should really think of media-publicised celebrities and their “achievements”:
 In contrast to what the news suggests, most businesses in fact fail, most films don’t get made, most careers are not stellar, most people’s faces and bodies are less than perfectly beautiful and almost everyone is sad and worried  a lot of the time. We shouldn’t lament our own condition just because it doesn’t measure up against a deeply unrealistic benchmark, or hate ourselves solely for our inability to defy some breathtaking odds.” (p.174)
As for sensational stories of murder, sexual violence, sudden and violent death etc., the mainstay of both tabloids and broadsheets, de Botton speaks of making such coarse tragedies edifying and morally improving like the classic Greek tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides et al (pp.192 ff.). His reflections get briefer, more superficial and more platitudinous as we get passages on weather reports and the “culture” pages of newspapers. And on the last page of his text (p.255) he is literally counselling us to “rise above” it all by looking down on the news and the world in general as matters of little ultimate concern.
Believe me, I do not necessarily disagree with all of de Botton’s perspective, and his admonitions that we not accept unthinkingly the news, as it is presented to us, on its own terms. But throughout this book I hear too often that quietism, which is intended to place the reader hors de combat as if he or she is not part of the same culture that produces the news. OF COURSE our news media are superficial, given to the promotion of stereotypes and clichés, filled with editorial agendas posing as impartiality, distracting from essential issues by their insistence on trivia, gossip and “celebrity” stories; and constantly “band-wagoning” – that is, playing up the same stories and issues in unison at the same time for lack of a really critical sense of proportion.
I hoped (naively?) that all thinking readers and viewers already understood this. 
But to tell us to stand back from it all, in Olympian fashion, is really to place us at a distance from that vulgar herd who ingest the news. It is also to avoid the hard work of analysing WHY the (despicable, vulgar and generally superficial) news media nevertheless have such huge mass appeal.
When de Botton tells us to respond to the news media by thinking of nineteenth century travel writing, of Flaubert’s ironical dictionary of received wisdom, or of the civic heroes of the ancient Greek city-states, I am reminded of Alexei Sayle’s comedy sketch alluding to intellectuals who thought they could “improve” the working class by getting them to like the art of William Morris. And I am reminded of de Botton’s admiration for the Bloomsberries. And I am thinking of the huge implied distance between us, my dear, and hoi polloi.  And I am thinking of tastefulness and wishing I had read a more robust book about the news media.