Monday, March 30, 2015

Something New

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

“AT THE MARGIN OF EMPIRE” by Jennifer Ashton (Auckland University Press, $NZ49:99)

By one of those odd coincidences, this is the second time in the last month that I have found myself reviewing a book about a forceful Scotsman who had an impact on New Zealand in the nineteenth century. Three weeks ago, it was Matthew Wright’s Man of Secrets (look it up on the index at right), his account of the controversial Donald McLean. This week, it is a book about a rather more obscure figure.
Jennifer Ashton’s At the Margin of Empire (which began life as her doctoral thesis) is subtitled John Webster and the Hokianga, 1841-1900. Unlike Donald McLean, a sometime government minister who features in every history of nineteenth century New Zealand, John Webster (1818-1912) has been at best the type of person who has received a few fleeting mentions when historians deal with early Pakeha days on the Hokianga and in the Bay of Islands. Webster never achieved national political status (though he went through a phase of desiring it) and was never a national figure. After youthful adventures, he spent most of his working life as a timber merchant on the Hokianga before retiring to Auckland in old age and dying there.
So why should this obscure figure merit a whole thesis – or book?
Basically because Jennifer Ashton wants to use him to argue a case.
The book opens with a vignette of the author seeing the impressive, but now run-down, house John Webster had built in Opononi. At once a theme is suggested, as Ashton asserts:
Webster’s life on the Hokianga over the more than 60 years he lived there was characterised by commercial success, but it was also shaped by accommodation and compromise. The economic influence that he enjoyed and the political power that he wanted to claim were both circumscribed by the daily realities of the area in which he lived. Unlike settlers in some other parts of New Zealand, Webster found that Maori were a constant presence in his life right up until the time he finally left to live in Auckland, making him a useful window through which to view shifting relationships and social boundaries between Maori and Pakeha in Hokianga during the second half of the nineteenth century.” (p.2)
Throughout Webster’s long sojourn there, the Hokianga (divided between Nga Puhi and Te Rarawa hapu) was an area where Maori remained numerically dominant for longer than in other areas of Pakeha settlement, and hence more capable of showing the persistence of cultural interdependence.
Clearly this is not going to be a book about an heroic Pakeha pioneer, but about the interaction of Maori and Pakeha, and the patterns of interracial patronage and co-dependency. Once upon a time, says Ashton, the likes of Webster would have been presented as an “old identity” who formed the New Zealand we now enjoy. But since the 1980s especially, such Pakeha settlers are more likely to be seen in a negative light as people who inflated their own importance (especially when they wrote their own memoirs, as Webster did) and underestimated the agency of the people they were colonising. Therefore, this biography presents Webster not as an heroic figure, but as part of the social and economic force that changed the relationship and power bases between the races:
Webster was one of the untold thousands of Britons who went into the world as the foot soldiers of empire, determined to spread its influence across the face of the earth. His personal experience can illuminate the ways that the empire shaped individuals, but also how those individuals and the empire itself, were in turn reshaped by their experiences at the far corners of the world. As an imperial man, Webster confidently viewed himself as someone who ought to enjoy ascendancy over the indigenous peoples with whom his travels brought him into contact. The counter to this was an identity formed in Hokianga which served the economic and social demands of his day-to-day dealings with Maori, and which undermined his expectations of superiority. The interplay and tension between these two identities are central to the portrayal of Webster offered here, and are used to trace the shifting relationships between Maori and Pakeha.” (p.8)
            Thus the thesis that the rest of the book argues. Webster, far from illustrating early Pakeha overlordship of Maori, really represents a world of endless compromise and accommodation to Maori customs and imperatives.
            At the Margin of Empire presents this argument so emphatically (and repetitively) that we realise we are dealing with a case study rather than a true biography. Jennifer Ashton is quite frank about this in her introduction. She tells us she has deliberately left out many aspects of the man’s life (especially domestic and family matters) so that she can concentrate on Webster as an exemplar of a certain sort of race relations.
This is evident in all the book’s eight chapters.
John Webster was born in Montrose in Scotland in 1818 to a comfortable merchant family (Chapter One, “The Making of an Imperial Man”). Educated in mercantile Glasgow, he was trained to the view that imperial expansion offered personal opportunities for betterment. Aged 20, he emigrated to Sydney in 1838. As he recorded in the diaries he edited much later, he undertook a trek in Australia in which he and his party skirmished with, and killed, Aborigines. His account is interpreted by Jennifer Ashton as evidence of a shift in his thinking, from seeing Aborigines has a harmless element of the landscape to seeing them as a force to be subdued. She sees him as bringing this attitude towards indigenous peoples to New Zealand (Chapter Two - “Hokianga and the River Trade) when he arrived here 1841, joining some of his brothers and establishing himself in the timber trade. But in 1841 there were a mere 104 Pakeha as compared with 3,600 Maori on the Hokianga. Hence, slowly and with some false starts, Webster had to learn how dependent he was on Maori goodwill and on a rangatira’s willingness to gain prestige through Pakeha enterprise. Webster formed a client-patron relationship with the prosperous George Russell. It is clear from his diary entries that he was involved in back-breaking work in the early phases of his involvement in the timber trade (a dawn-to-late night schedule is laid out at p.34). It is also clear that he looked down on Maori traditional customs as in his reaction (p.42) to hahunga ceremonies, where the bones of a recently-deceased chief were reinterred.
How does the author situate Webster in relation to the Maori world?
Webster could speak te reo and formed strong and sometimes equitable working relationships with many Maori, such as Papahurihia (Te Atua Wera) who had founded a synchronistic sect and acted as Hone Heke’s tohunga. But Webster was in no way a “Pakeha-Maori” like those of a slightly earlier generation who were absorbed into Maori tribes and survived there at the rangatira’s pleasure. He saw clear boundaries between his European and their Maori culture, even if his trading activities often put him on a footing of affability with Maori. Ashton gives an account of Webster’s role in a potentially violent dispute between two rival Maori parties who arrived at his house, seeking satisfaction for goods one group had stolen from the other. In the way Webster dealt with this situation, Ashton claims to see him treating Maori quite differently from the way he treated Aborigines in Australia – that is, knowing he had to negotiate tactfully.
Webster joined the forces of Tamati Waka Nene, fighting against (his fellow Nga Pui) Hone Heke (Chapter Three - “Among the Queen’s People: The Northern War 1845-46”). Pakeha like Webster interpreted Nene as being for the Queen and protecting the idea of a British colony as opposed to a reversion to traditional tribal rule. For Nene, however, it was a matter of protecting his mana and of hoping to revert to the situation in which land was not pre-empted to the Crown but was the iwi’s to dispose of. Webster was directly involved in the fighting when Heke’s men attacked one of Nene’s positions. Says Ashton of the “battle” of Te Ahuahu: “His role as one of Nene’s fighters took him into the midst of one of the most significant and desperate engagements of the war, and arguably the only battle in which Heke and Kawiti were clearly defeated” (p.70). But Ashton insists that Webster and a few other Pkeha acted as mere foot soldiers for Nene, on the understanding that Nene was acting in settler interests. She once again presents the Pakeha settlers as being the ones taking commands, not dominating the scene.
For three years (Chapter Four - “A Voyage Through the Pacific, 1848-1851”) there was a break in Webster’s New Zealand sojourn when he was involved in an unsuccessful business enterprise with a commercial voyage to California. As he voyaged around the islands of the Pacific, Ashton accuses him of cultural misperception: “He became part of the anthropological attempt to classify the peoples of the world and measure their perceived degree of ‘civilisation’ against Northern Europeans, placing them within the developing Eurocentric, intellectual context of the time” (p.84). She is most reproving of Webster’s part in a retribution attack on a village in Guadalcanal, where the crew of the ship Webster was on destroyed a village, killed some villagers and ripped up their plantation. Some of the ship’s crew had been attacked and “Webster [without considering local taboos] took the suddenness and ferocity of the attack as signs of barbarity” [p.89]. Further,  Without a clear understanding of the environment in which he was operating, and genuinely frightened by the events that had taken place, he ended up telling a one-sided story of technologically superior Europeans ultimately meting out justice to savages. This was similar to what had taken place in Australia, where threat had turned to violence and where distance and lack of interaction meant that Aboriginals had remained shadowy figures” (p.90]. Webster had grandiose imperial schemes for thr colonisation and exploitation of Pacific Islands, but they all came to nothing and he returned to New Zealand permanently.
He still had some extraneous activities. He was involved in having the distinguished artist Angas help him produce a version of his sketches from nature, which he got published. This allowed him to have an audience with Queen Victoria when he was visiting England. But (Chapter Five, “Hokianga’s Timber Baron, 1855-1870”) by his mid-thirties he was settling down in Hokianga. He married his prosperous patron George Russell’s daughter Emily. He now had some Maori relations by marriage. Yet he deliberately chose not to become immersed in Maori society and was careful to have all his many children educated in the English style. By the 1860s, in early middle age, he had become dominant in Hokianga’s timber trade. He ran his own small fleet of timber-carrying ships between the Hokianga and Sydney. Ashton undercuts any sense of achievement in this, however, by remarking: “He may have wanted to distinguish himself socially from those Maori who provided the bulk of his labour force during this period, but by deriving his wealth from the timber trade, he virtually guaranteed that such separation was in some ways unachievable” (p.110). For example, Webster had to resign himself to the fact that the cutting and dragging of timber came to a virtual standstill during the tribal planting season. Webster was one of those who sought the individualisation of Maori land titles, to ensure that it was easier to break up tribal ownership of land and also to break his own dependence on Maori patrons. He was also one of those who were happy to see Maori go into debt in order to make them more ready to sell land. And yet his relationship with old Nene still remained one of dependence.
Like those of his sometime friend and colleague Frederick Maning, Webster’s attitudes during the 1860s wars (Chapter Six - “War and Politics in the 1860s”) were that the country would only be at peace if Maori submitted to Pakeha government. However, in the history of an intertribal set-to in the north, in which both Webster and Maning both claimed to have major roles as conciliators and peacemakers, Ashton deduces that the decisive factor in settling the dispute was the mana of some rangatira. She remarks: “Instead of relying on men such as Webster, political collaboration between Maori and Pakeha, and particularly between Maori and the Crown, was a matter of negotiation, as Maori chose on some occasions to engage with Pakeha institutions and officials, while the Crown admitted the limits of its powers on others.” (p.150)
Webster managed to sell his timber business in the mid-1870s when he believed Hokianga’s timber resources are running out (Chapter Seven - “Hokianga Old and New, 1870-1890”). By now, the older Maori figures upon whom he had once relied are dying out. At this stage, Pakeha were the great majority of New Zealand’s population, but the Hokianga still had a Maori majority and therefore did not have the type of European-dominant “civilization” which Webster craved. Webster settled in his house (or mansion) in Opononi, and travelled much (Chapter Eight - “Unquiet Retirement 1880s-1900”). In recounting the trader’s old age, Jennifer Ashton still insists on Maori agency in Hokianga affairs. In this northern region, the “Dog Tax” was greatly resented by Maori, especially in 1898. Once again, when there was a real possibility of armed conflict between and the constabulary and those Maori who protested at the tax. An account furnished by Webster (and endorsed by the popular historian James Cowan) presented Webster as the active and wise peacemaker who prevented a pitched battle. But Ashton’s view is that there was no fighting because of the fortuitous arrival of the prestigious MP (“MHR”) Hone Heke.
To the very end, then, Ashton gives us a man whose ideas of imperial and Pakeha dominance were always trumped by the reality of Maori power and numbers. Webster was able to extend his (and Pakeha) influence only by commerce in which he had endlessly to negotiate and compromise with his Maori neighbours. Before her brief re-capping epilogue, Jennifer Ashton concludes: “The incremental extension of empire through commerce, rather than tall tales of courage in the face of savagery and a collection of interesting artefacts stored in an imperial showcase, was Webster’s real legacy.” (p.204)
So this is how John Webster stood “at the margin of empire” – as somebody who had to relinquish his youthful heroic self-image and admit to his frequent dependence on a non-European people.
Does Ashton make her case? I think she does, but I am still troubled that a man is reduced to a case like this. It may have been necessary for her argument, but I have the abiding impression that much of the man has been lost in the (largely reproving) case.

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 four or more years ago.   

“LA CUREE” by Emile Zola (first published 1871-72; variously translated into English as The Spoils or The Kill)

Three times before on this blog I have given you accounts of novels in Emile Zola’s 20-volume series Les Rougon-Macquart [look up Emile Zola on the index at right and find my reviews of Le Ventre de Paris, La Conquete de Plassans and Son Excellence Eugene Rougon]. Three times I have told you of my long-term project to read all the Rougon-Macquart in the original French and how I am still only halfway through that project. So this time, as I deal with what may possibly be Zola’s most paradoxical novel, I will not repeat myself, nor will I give you my standard judgement on Zola as the purveyor of melodrama and an inadequate Naturalist philosophy, but nevertheless as a great descriptive writer and somebody who could keep a narrative moving. And I will try not to give you one of my notoriously overlong plot summaries.
This time, I’ll stick to the point.
First, the title of this second entry in the Rougon-Macquart series. La Curee means “quarry” in the sense of the quarry in a hunt – the animal that is slaughtered. Specifically, it refers to that part of the dead prey that is thrown to the hunting dogs. Understandably, therefore, the novel has never been translated into English with that title, as to most English-speakers the word “quarry” at once means the place where rocks and gravel are dug up. Instead it has been translated as The Spoils, in the sense of loot being shared out, or The Kill, in the sense of a “killing” on the stock exchange.
The novel has this title because it is set in Paris at the time in Napoleon III’s Second Empire (the 1850s) when the old city is being systematically torn down and rebuilt under the direction of Baron Haussmann. The city swarms with property speculators and investors hoping to make a “killing” in the process of buying up properties, demolishing buildings and then having them rebuilt for profitable sale.
Zola’s plot concerns one such fabulously wealthy speculator, Aristide Saccard (a member of the series’ Rougon family), who lives in palatial style in a Paris mansion with a huge hothouse attached. As we might expect in a Zola novel, he has made his fortune in a very devious way. He is fawned upon by people who wish to use his influence with corrupt government ministers. He has grandiose plans to redesign Paris. His wife Renee, who is about 30, is much younger than he is, and he has married her for her very large dowry, which is in fact one of the things that sustains his business career. She is the source of much of his investment capital. She is his second wife, and he has children by his first marriage. His son Maxime is in his early 20s.
Maxime lives with his father and his stepmother. Repeatedly described as feline and feminine in his manners, Maxime is nevertheless a rascal with women who once got a girl pregnant and had her discreetly sent away. Both father and son pleasure themselves with various women in fashionable brothels. But, partly because of her husband’s neglect, Renee falls into an incestuous relationship with her stepson, who is much nearer to her own age than her husband is. Renee sleeps repeatedly with Maxime. Zola attempts to make this both exotic and animalistic by describing to us in great detail the soft, luxurious settings of her bedroom and bathroom after they first slip into such a relationship and also by staging much of their liaison in the hothouse attached to Aristide’s mansion, where the imagery of wild jungle plants is presumably meant to function as a metaphor for hot jungle passions.
It all unravels in the last three of the novel’s seven very long chapters. Aristide’s business affairs go bung. Needing more of money from his wife, he suddenly becomes a solicitous and apparently loving husband to Renee. She, believing him to be sincere, rejoices that she has a real marriage at last and she breaks off her secret liaison with Maxime. Her conscience has already been pricked anyway, after she has been to the theatre with Maxime and seen a performance of Racine’s Phedre, with its tragic depiction of an incestuous relationship of stepmother and stepson. Maxime, meanwhile, willingly enters into a wealthy marriage.
Renee is psychologically tormented when (by various plot twists which I won’t bother recounting) she discovers how purely mercenary her husband’s interest in her is, and how easily Maxime has left her behind. In effect, she realizes that she has been used as a convenience by both father and son. The last straw is when her maid Celeste, whom she thought her faithful servant, leaves her and goes back to the country, saying that she only stayed around long enough to save the wages that she had always intended to save. She had no other motive for being there, and certainly not loyalty to her employer. Renee consoles herself by going to the Bois de Boulogne, driving in the places where she once drove with Maxime – but here she happens to overhear, unseen, Aristide and Maxime as they walk arm-in-arm and Aristide tries to convince Maxime to use the money he now has (through his marriage of convenience) in ways Aristide wants. The clear implication is that the incest (about which Aristide now knows) has not in any way lessened the relationship between father and son, and Aristide is less concerned with it than he is with making more money. Renee was always just a bargaining chip in this game. Perhaps she ultimately was the “quarry” – the tormented animal killed and thrown to the dogs after being hunted.
It is at this point that the emperor’s carriage drives through the Bois and he is applauded by the wealthy people there – Napoleon III being symbolically the focus of the skewed morality Zola is condemning. In the very final scene, Renee returns to her childhood home, filled with nostalgia for the simplicity of childhood and for what had seemed certain before she encountered the corruptions of Paris. The final paragraph tells us she died the following winter and her debts were paid off by her father.
Thus the raw plot (greatly simplified by me) of La Curee. I should add that, rubbing in the theme of a corrupt private morality, Zola includes a scene in which Renee’s sister-in-law Sidonie speaks of her in such adoring terms that a lesbian attraction seems implied. Sidonie later attempts to persuade Renee to take a wealthy lover to cover her husband’s debts. At another point, Renee’s maid Celeste hints that the apparently haughty footman Baptiste was having a homosexual affair with Maxime during the time of Maxime’s affair with Renee. At all times, sex is simply a diversion or a means of controlling others in the households of these arriviste capitalist venturers.
As always in Zola, many of the most impressive moments are not plot-developing activity, but descriptive set-pieces often of heavily-symbolic intent. In the sixth chapter, Zola presents a ball and entertainment at Aristide Saccard’s mansion. Renee and Maxime appear in a series of tableaux vivants, with fashionable women supporting them, as Narcissus (Maxime) and Echo (Renee), with the feminine passivity of the self-loving Maxime emphasised in his costumes and make-up. In the seventh and final chapter, there’s a scene where Aristide is walking through the streets of Paris with members of an official commission charged with working out compensation payments to people whose homes have been demolished in the city’s restructuring. There is an elegiac tone as they view the shells of demolished houses, their open walls, the bits of what were once either mansions or lowlier dwellings, with one member of the commission looking nostalgically for his own old home and with all of them stopping for quite some time in what was once a palace where grand parties were held. Symbolically, the new merchant speculators are now in a position to usurp the old nobility.
Now why, after giving you all this data, do I say this may be “possibly Zola’s most paradoxical novel”?
Zola’s targets and social perspective are fairly obvious. He detests the pushy bourgeois speculators who have made money out of demolishing and rebuilding Paris in the Second Empire. They are crass and vulgar people, whose marriages and personal relationships are sham because they are built solely on the profit motive. The flashiness and vacuity of their wealth is on display in the parties and balls that Zola describes in such detail – the gossip, the gorging of food etc. The purpose of attaching this to a reworking of the Phedre story (incest of stepmother with stepson) is again obvious enough. Personal relations are skewed in a false morality that worships money before all else. People are corrupted. The additional details on brothels, extra-marital affairs and homosexuality seem intended to emphasise the point. Yet, as so often in Zola, it is hard to see what, if anything, the author himself is affirming. If only because we get more internal analysis of her than of the other characters, Renee is the most sympathetic character in the novel. But she never develops as anything more than a victim with a longing for childhood simplicity. Zola’s symbolism (Phedre; the masque of Echo and Narcissus; the jungle atmosphere of the hothouse plants; Aristide Saccard re-designing the city in his mind from the viewpoint of Montmartre; the two appearances of Napoleon III) is heavy-handed to say the least.
The big paradox in all this is Zola’s inadvertent self-revelation. As more than one commentator has noted, his account of pushy capitalist enterprise is in fact half-admiring. They are bourgeois arrivistes, they are morally corrupt, they destroy things – but look how lovingly Zola lingers on their ambitious plans. Look how much he suggests their forcefulness and the fact that they alone, surrounded by faded gentryfolk and minor aristocrats, actually have ambition and know what they are doing. Look, in effect, how they are changing the world while others are stagnating.
A few quotations to close, simply because they amuse me.
Here, from Chapter One (and with my word processor not allowing me to insert accents) is Zola’s overheated description of the hothouse, to which he will return later in the novel when the incestuous couple bonk there:
            “Mais ce qui, de tous les detours des allees, frappait les regards, c’etait un grand Hibiscus de la Chine, dont l’immense nappe de verdure et de fleurs couvrait tout le flanc de l’hotel, auquel la serre etait scellee. Les larges fleurs pourpres de cette mauve gigantesque, sans cesse renaissantes, ne vivent que quelques heures. On eut dit des bouches sensuelles de femme qui s’ouvraient, les levres rouges, molles at humides, de quelque Messaline geante, que des baisers meurtrissaient, et qui toujours renaissaient avec leur sourire avide et saignant.”
Here is Aristide’s grandiose ambition, as he stands on Montmartre in Chapter Three, telling his first wife how he means to transform Paris:
Son cerveau bouillait. Il eut proposer sans rire de metre Paris sous une immense cloche, pour le changer en serre chaude, et y cultiver les ananas et la canne a sucre.”
And here, from Chapter Five, is Renee, considering her incestuous behaviour as if it is simply a fashion statement for superior people:
 “Alors, l’incestueuse s’habituait a sa faute, comme a une robe de gala, dont les roideurs l’auraient d’abord genee. Elle suivait les modes de l’epoque, elle s’habillait et se deshabillait a l’exemple des autres. Elle finissait par croire qu’elle vivait au milieu d’un monde superieure a la morale commune, ou les sens s’affinaient et se developpaient, ou il etait permis de se metre nue pour la joie de l’Olympe entire. Le mal devenait un luxe, une fleur piquee dans les cheveux, un diamant attaché sur le front.”
Just thought this would amuse you.

Fatuous Footnote: To the best of my knowledge, La Curee has only once been turned into a film (apart from an ancient film of the silent era, now lost). This was the version made in 1966 by Roger Vadim, purveyor of soft porn to habitués of art houses. Known in its English-language release as The Game is Over, Vadim’s La Curee updated Zola’s story to the (1960s) present, and thus deleted all the social commentary that was Zola’s focus when he created the story in the first place. It starred Vadim’s then-wife the young Jane Fonda, who was at the time an aspiring commercial sex-symbol and had not yet developed into the Hollywood activist for fashionable causes and (later) the physical fitness freak. Much of it consisted of Fonda as Renee, in semi-nude poses (daring for 1966) circling around Peter McEnery (as Maxime), with Michel Piccoli (as Aristide) making noises off. In short, it was arty sensationalism, exploiting the incest theme. Hunt it out if you want, but don’t expect to find Zola there. And don’t say you haven’t been warned.

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.


Somewhere in the middle of the night you wake up.
Is it bad digestion? The need to relieve yourself? A nightmare? An over-charged mind, which keeps telling you that you have some duty to perform? An over-stimulated imagination? All of these things or none of them?
Anyway, the fact is that you wake up in the middle of the night, and you cannot go back to sleep.
It is pitch black. The street lamps have long since been put out. Your village is far from any other.
You lie there in the dark for a while, thinking and wishing you could go back to sleep. But you can’t.
You pray.
It doesn’t help.
You light the candle you keep near your bed. You try to read. Your mind will not focus. You keep getting distracted by the shadows the candle throws on the walls and ceiling. Your mind works on them fantastically. You relate them to the odd creaks you can hear in other parts of the house. It is easy to imagine ghosts. It is easy to imagine some night creature hiding in the dark.
This will never do,” you think. “I will use my Reason. I will get up and face the night.”
Taking your lighted candle, you move into your study. You pull aside the thick drapes, draw your chair to the window and blow out the candle. You let your eyes adjust. It is not pitch black after all. It is night’s particular kingdom. There is a lean crescent moon low on the horizon. There is no wind. The sky is clear. There are many stars. They move slowly, but they move. You sit there long enough to see a constellation rise and establish itself over a tree. It is completely silent – except for a sheep’s bleat from a near field, and once the incongruous squawk of a night bird.
You become acquainted with the night. You listen to its silence. You know its physical presence. It is at your elbow. You think night thoughts. The world of day is far away. You rise to this other enfolding reality. Night, the silent witness, the silent watcher, the other world, the other reality. Silence and starlight and you communing with them.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Somewhere in the middle of the night you wake up.
Is it bad digestion? The need to relieve yourself? A nightmare? An over-charged mind, which keeps telling you that you have some duty to perform? An over-stimulated imagination? All of these things or none of them?
Anyway, the fact is that you wake up in the middle of the night, and you cannot go back to sleep.
Bugger”, you say, as you want your sleep and you know you will be unduly grumpy and tired when afternoon comes.
The orange light of the nearby city hangs over your suburb and penetrates your bedroom curtains. The streetlights are on all night. There is never real darkness. There is never real quiet, either. Every so often a car hushes past. There is the distant hum of a motorway. Be grateful for small mercies, though. At least it is quieter than at full day.
You go into your study and pull aside the drapes. Moon, stars, but too much light pollution here to see many of them. They are notional.
Reading is not an option. Your mind is too unfocused, too tired.
You wake up the computer. You check your e-mails. Touts, publicity, free offers. You delete most of them. You check out Facebook. Trivia, chatter, holiday snaps, gossip. You’ve had enough. You watch the BBC news on live feed. A scandal. A political shuffle. Terrorism. Deaths. An air crash. A piece of showbiz puffery. The world moves.
It is always day somewhere. It’s always day here in your study. Day can’t be turned off.
We have killed the night. We have killed night thoughts.
You write a poem about it.

The old parish stretching
from candle to candle
in bucolic darkness

had Death walk its acres
to gather its children
in uncured diseases.

The physick they fed then,
the leeching,  bloodletting
stocked churchyards with corpses.

Death was a companion
familiar as toothache
and scrofulous ague.

And after Death,  Judgement
when Night Thoughts were mortal
and ghosts walked the copses.

Digestion ruined by small beer,
the cotter falls down on rammed earth
at 2 a.m. in penitence
to ask God’s mercy on his soul.

A nightmare spiked him in the dark.
The Devil leered from unmown fields.
Sin was a snake spilling its seed
from pouches like his itching crotch.

Up in the parqueted vicarage
the parson’s wife groans in her sleep.
Her husband’s left the bed again
to force Church Fathers in his skull.

Jerome, Aquinas, Chrysostom
console him for his poor degree
and ease his pain by candlelight
when nightmares touch his heart with fear.

And nearer dawn, when fear’s subdued,
he turns to Moderns for relief -
Joseph Butler or Tillotson
to help him turn a polished phrase.

His sermons are all curative.
Their urbane chat takes him from where
pure evil is a tactile force
and something’s moving in the dark.

Who cares for nightmares now? At 2 a.m.
a law of physics is the creaking wood,
the shifting tiles, a pusscat on the prowl
and voices, partygoers going home.

Graves never yawn. The dead lie still and rot.
Ghosts are engravings in foxed storybooks
and childhood’s monster underneath the bed
is promptly killed by flicking a light switch.

Why stress on Death? Kill headaches with a pill.
There’s nothing fruitful that can compete with
the all-night telecast and foreign news.
Night Thoughts are nerve ends. Please go back to sleep.

            (From the collection The Little Enemy, published by Steele Roberts, 2011)

Monday, March 23, 2015

Something New

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

“IN THE NEIGHBOURHOOD OF FAME” by Bridget van der Zijpp (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

I have repeated two principles so often on this blog that they have virtually become mantras and you are probably sick of hearing them.
They go like this:
Principle A: Never underestimate or sneer at the power of good storytelling. Even if a novel is not the most subtle or profound piece of work, the ability to tell a story well is a thing to be prized, and the term “page-turner” should be reserved only for those novels that have nothing to offer but a jaded plot ingenuity.
Principle B: It is unmannerly to spike all the surprises that new novels have to offer. If major twists in the plot are central to a new novel’s impact, then reviewers should not deploy “spoilers”. [On the other hand, it’s perfectly okay for critics to give away twists in the plots of novels that have been available to the public for years – as I do frequently in this blog’s “Something Old” section.]
Both of these principles come into play with Bridget van der Zijpp’s second novel In the Neighbourhood of Fame.
The title has a double meaning.
Evie, with slightly surly teenage son Dylan in tow, has come back home from Oz for her father’s funeral, and is settling things up as she stays in her father’s home. The house is just across the back fence from the large and leafy property of Jed Jordan, who once made a splash as a Kiwi rock-star but whose career has subsequently gone nowhere is particular. He apparently spends his days pottering around growing peppers in his greenhouses and occasionally doodling with his guitar. But he’s still kind of famous among the middle-aged nostalgia crowd and Evie is in his neighbourhood. So they’re both in the neighbourhood of fame.
Something niggles in Evie’s mind. Her son Dylan was the result of a casual teenage sexual encounter and she never has been sure if Jed Jordan or another boy was Dylan’s father. She wants to find out. So she starts going through her back fence and being friendly to Jed as she circles nearer the topic of his possible paternity. Not that Jed is exactly the boy she once knew. As she remarks: “The missing years between us contained both his rise to fame and also, apparently, a large decline in scope.” (p.59)
Of course there’s another woman in Jed’s life – his wife Lauren, who is apparently admired for her chic and her model-girl looks. Lauren works in showbiz promotion and publicity. She, too, niggles at something about Jed. When they first met, he treated her like a mere groupie. Now she wonders if he is sometimes unfaithful to her. And, truth to tell, she’s also a little bored with him. So she embarks on an affair, which seems to have overtones of mommy-porn fifty-shades-of-blah crassness about it. (She has anonymous sex with a creep she meets at a revival screening of Last Tango in Paris.) It at once makes Lauren feel guilty.
As for the third female in Jed’s life, she’s a naive teenager, Haley, who has heard Jed’s music played by an old rock-music-journalist geezer. Haley has set her heart on doing an interview with Jed as part of a school project.
So there’s the set-up. Three women taking an interest in an over-the-hill rocker. The inquisitive neighbour who possibly bore his son. The bored and guilty wife. And the little kid who thinks she is growing up fast by exploring sex. Evie, Haley and Lauren tell the whole story in alternating chapters and in the first person. Or at least Evie and Haley speak in the first person while Lauren, for some reason, speaks in the second person (“you”). I’m not quite sure why Bridget van der Zijpp chooses this voice for Lauren, unless it’s a way of suggesting her hauteur or her attempts to distance herself from her own guilt. I did note that, possibly for the same reason, young Haley switches to the second person at the point (pp.116-118) when she joylessly surrenders her virginity.
Van der Zijpp tells the story skilfully. She suggests the exact social milieu with precision when Evie meets Jed for the first time in years and comments: “His clothes were so artfully unkempt as to be an announcement that he was above caring what anybody thought of him” (p.10) – an apt description of the “dressing down” that is part of any rocker’s contrived public image (even a has-been rocker). A little further on Evie notes of Jed and his wife: “They had a big outdoor wedding at his place and his father paid a team of professional landscapers to work for six months to ensure the garden was worthy. This news had been in a House and Garden magazine….” (p.11) We know at once that we are in the world of trust-funded music-making where “rebellious” music aimed primarily at teenagers is really a rich kid’s commercial indulgence.
From Lauren, when she isn’t rethinking the wisdom of her sleazy affair, there are some apt comments on the tiny fish-pond that is New Zealand criticism of all genres. Thinking [in the second person] of how her husband’s second album tanked, she reflects on the power of just one negative review:
            “On the walk home you begin about the reviews Jed got for his second album. Is it possible to say that they were unfair? People had been excited about it pre-release, its originality, but somehow he struck a public mood that wasn’t inclined to see it favourably. It essentially came down to one big review in one of the major dailies, one reviewer who set the tone that others followed. That’s the problem with being notable in New Zealand – it’s different from being noticeable elsewhere in the world. The population is so small, an the opportunity for over-familiarity so great, and really, it only takes one unbeliever…” (p.34)
There is also the waspishness of the following when Lauren does a post-mortem on an unsuccessful play that was produced by her theatre-promoter millionaire father-in-law’s company. She says:
You have always known that this theatre complex was originally conceived by Jed’s father as an appeasement to the local council, to smooth the way for the construction of his ten-storey hotel above the site. Some experimentalism pleases the arts advocates on the council, who like to regard the city as having a vibrant cultural centre. And the populist theatre pleases the council’s tourism team, who use it as a tool to draw audiences from outside the city….” (p.63)
Central Auckland and its council in a nutshell.
But you will notice that I have merely given you the scene-setting and told you that these three women have an interest in Jed.
The point is that the first half of this novel is really the set-up, the rest is the pay-off, and I run up against my rule about not giving spoilers while reviewing a new novel. Obviously the entanglement of Jed, Evie, Lauren and Haley is going to go badly awry somehow. It has to do with accusations made on Facebook and Twitter, who turns out to be blood relation to whom, how social media can damage people’s lives and how the public too easily assume that the private lives of even half-famous people are public property.
It is a neat piece of storytelling; but then that may be its problem. It is too neat. The way characters’ back-stories are contrived in the first half of the novel is only to justify some of the implausibility of how they are related in the second half. (Sorry - my non-disclosure rule kicks in here). In short, I think it becomes well-written soap and something for the glossies rather than a novel that exploits all the possibilities of the characters the author has created. A neatly dove-tailed piece of narrative carpentry, however.

Dyspeptic footnote : On p.93 the author (or her narrator) uses that redundant and semi-literate term “evolvement”. Perhaps she should have a word with her copy-editor. Or perhaps she isn’t a believer in evolution.