Monday, September 28, 2015

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For over four years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“R.H.I. – Two Novellas” by Tim Corballis  (Victoria University Press, $NZ30)

In his preface and author’s note, Tim Corballis explains the somewhat daunting title given to this volume, which comprises two separate, but thematically compatible, novellas.
The “R.” stands for Joan Riviere, one of the early British disciples of Freud and psychoanalysis, who is the subject of the first novella. The “H.” stands for Hermann Henselmann, who is the subject of the second novella. He was a modernist German architect who lived through the Nazi regime and wound up helping re-design East Berlin when it was part of the Communist statelet of East Germany.
 And the “I.”? Well that stands for the author, Tim Corballis, who is writing his imaginative versions of these two real people on the basis of his archival research in Britain and in Berlin. Corballis is aware that he himself is as much a character in these two novellas as their two ostensible protagonists are. He intervenes with paragraphs on his experiences in doing his research, or on the ethics of deploying guesswork in depicting real people. His is fully aware of what a sticky business it is to claim to represent real people in fictional form. In the second novella, when he presumes to tell us what a real character thought, instead of simply writing “he thought”, Corballis uses the formula “he thought, I wrote”, reminding us that all “thoughts” that appear in fiction are the products of the author’s imagination.
“I” could also mean the reader who, like the reader of any book, adds his/her interpretations of the characters and their world as he/she reads.
Thus for the author’s own explanation of the title “R.H.I.” But I’m sure an author as culturally literate and media savvy as Tim Corballis would be aware that “RHI” is a common internet abbreviation for “Rumour Has It” – one of those abbreviations with almost as much currency as the ubiquitous “LOL”. And “R.H.I.” is indeed a book about things half-known, guessed at, intuited, and always slightly out of either reach or verification. Like a rumour. Like most of the “history” that we think we know.
These two novellas could conceivably be read separately. But they are presented to us together in the one volume, they complement each other and they have things to say in common. They are both imaginative leaps into the mindsets of progressive thinkers from the early and mid-20th century. They deal with the female and the male. The psychoanalyst and Marxist. The inner world and the outer world. The critic and the creator. The passive and the active. And yes, this formula, especially the last part of it, is very reductive and imprecise. Corballis himself is apologetic that his female protagonist is so passive and hopes that “gender… is in these books… in more complicated ways.” (p.9)
To deal with “R.” first.
It begins with a First World War soldier who has suffered from gas penetrating his lungs and who was thus unable to take part in an attack. He felt helpless and passive. The woman who tends to him suggests his passivity is close to a fear of rape. He is somebody who has been acted upon rather than acting.
Thus into the fictionalised account of some of the early life of Joan Riviere. It is the minutely-observed account of a very self-conscious and nervous young woman. There is her awkward courtship with an equally tentative and perceptive young man, the lawyer Evelyn Riviere who gives her her married name. When they marry, Joan feels that she is being formed rather than willing herself into psychic existence. Thus:
 The ritual was something to perform, to savour, to be gotten through with. She didn’t think this but felt it. Was it her, taking part? Stupid question of course it was. But the question, at least, was asked, even if she didn’t ask it consciously of herself. What was this HER, this SHE, this JOAN R that was coming into existence, while JOAN V passed away – a new person, a stranger? Oh all these thoughts and questions here in the one calm space in the world, the one space not tainted by the smell of an impending avalanche.” (p.38)
This is in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1908, Joan has a daughter with Evelyn. Suffragettes are calling for change. Then war approaches in 1914. But suffering great tension with her husband, having a very ambiguous attitude towards her infant daughter, Joan remains frozen and helpless to do anything. She reflects, as the newspapers shriek war:
 The violence – Joan was afraid of what she felt about it – was meant to clear things away in order to build something new. It was meant to make people – people walking past, people caught in their lives – to make them stop. Joan’s own desire for violence (was that it?) was the same: she wanted to clear something away. But what was her object, her target? If she clenched her fists to strike, she had no option but to keep them clenched and still.” (p.60)
Later she discovers psychoanalysis. She comes into contact with Freud’s first major British follower, the Welshman Dr Ernest Jones. And as she herself is psychoanalysed, she discovers the unconscious, which (as well as history; as well as the patriarchy) is another thing that drives her along will-lessly. In the following passage (whose main indications of passivity I have underlined), Tim Corballis breaks the fourth wall and reflects on how we regard her passivity, and if we have a right to judge her negatively for it:
And this horse, this ‘unconscious’, was it somewhere deep inside her, a secret, a part of her? Or would a better metaphor for her lack of control be something not inside her but something external: the amber she was encased in? This amber was the amber of history, something that preserves but colours what it encases, something that fills every crevice, something through which it is impossible to touch the object. Why else has Joan seemed to us so passive, so constrained, so distant and incapable of action, as if she were hardly a person at all? For us here, now, perhaps this is only a difficulty of perspective. For us, there is the fact that she did this or that, all in the past and set once and for all, so how can she really ‘do’ anything? Isn’t she swept along, every word comfortably in its historical place, set firm in the invisible record? But of course, we ourselves are inside our own history, one reflected back to us on television screens. How often are we ourselves the actors in the world reflected to us? Was time and history the amber that constrained and preserved Joan for the future, at the same time as it was the horse that dragged her onwards? And what kind of question is that?” (pp.68-69)
This novella is not a simplistic tract, but Joan’s neuroses clearly have much to do with the dominance of males. She comes to understand the immense and continuing hold her deceased father still has over her. Real letters concerning Joan, exchanged between Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones, are quoted towards the end of this novella. They give us a whiff of patronising chaps who, for all their psychoanalytic sophistication, made all sorts of simplistic assumptions about the proper role of women. Added to this there are the references to Jones’ marriage and the simple wife whom he chose.
How can I sum up this odd, allusive novella?
More than anything, I am reminded of the modernism of Virginia Woolf – the floating consciousness and free associations of her Mrs Dalloway period, where the mind is led, but does not lead; where images of physical things are almost detached from physical reality; where there is an odd absence of solidity, and linear time vanishes. Far from being either content or elated, the soul is weighted with uncertainty, and bearings are lost. Neurosis rises.
Some passages are like modernist experimentalism. For eight pages, in double columns, Corballis presents us with both the conversation going on between psychoanalyst and analysand, and the imagined conversation inside the analysand’s head. It is an interesting attempt at simultaneity, but unfortunately it is impossible to read the two conversations simultaneously.
Perhaps, with its self-references, “R” could be called a post-modernist modernist novella.
“R” is about 100 pages long.
So is “H”.
In many ways, I found “H” much easier to read, perhaps because the state of mind of its protagonist is not as complex as that of Joan Riviere. The architect Hermann Henselmann is under great psychological stress and is battered by the forces of history, just as Joan is, but the stresses have not been internalised as neuroses. Henselmann knows they come from the history that is going on outside him.
Like “R”, “H” begins with a scene involving a soldier – the meeting of a German woman and a Red Army soldier in the ruins of Berlin in 1945. Foreboding is here, but also the sense that history is both personal and public.
Nurtured in the Weimar years, designing in the internationalist style (severity, simplicity, steel, glass walls etc), Henselmann, partly of Jewish descent, endures Berlin in the Nazi years where internationalist architecture is condemned as “cultural Bolshevism”. As the bombs fall, he survives by making functional buildings on commission, but the net grows tight. Unlike Joan Riviere, he has a spouse in whom he can confide, and his wife bounces back his misgivings on how pusillanimous he is being in face of the totalitarian state.
Corballis brings in the idea that the destructiveness of modern warfare is a form of spacial creativity, as when one of Henselmann’s colleagues remarks of the Allied bombing that it recreates imagination:
A city cannot, says Friedrich, be blown up – it must be burned down. The point of such a campaign was to transform the whole environment. Everything familiar would be reduced to nothing, and so the life experience, the reality of the survivors, reduced to an illusion, and so also to nothing. The change in the city would be absolutely incomprehensible to its survivors, and it would mean that the survivors also died by virtue of having nothing remaining of themselves. The familiar moral relationship between individual acts and their punishment would be destroyed, as punishment was visited arbitrarily from the sky on everyone, irrespective of their deeds. This, thought H, was the nature of the physical world, which knew nothing of  the moral balance between acts and rewards….” (pp.139-140)
Ironically, with the Nazis gone and the new Communist statelet in place, Henselmann’s preferred internationalist and modernist style is still out of favour. Stalinism insists first on decorativeness, and then makes the claim that the older German classical style of architecture is most beloved by the workers.
A more subtle temptation is presented to Henselmann in these post-war years than in the Nazi years, when he was surviving a hostile regime. As a Marxist, he is on the side of the workers, so in Communist East Berlin he gradually comes to rationalise his lack of artistic integrity in terms of serving the workers’ interests.
Much of this second novella concerns his vacillation and the quarrel he has with himself as he helps the new regime rebuild its half of the old bombed-out city. Bertolt Brecht plays a small role as somebody who subtly dissuades defection to West Berlin (the Wall is not yet built). He is also seen apparently listening attentively to East Berlin workers in 1954, when they attempted to protest against the Communist regime; but then, notoriously, doing nothing to help. I assume (or rather, I hope) that Corballis was being ironical when he has Brecht saying that the workers’ protests have energised him to write a poem.
Is it because I’m more acquainted with historical and political matters than I am with psychoanalysis, that I found “H.” easier to read than “R”? Possibly. Or maybe it’s because my male mind tunes in more easily to Henselmann than to Riviere?
I must end with a confession. Reading the blurb of this book before reading the book itself, I feared I was in for a self-indulgent literary exercise – perhaps indeed an exercise in preciosity. I am happy to have been proven so wrong. Convincingly creating two quite different people – for all the author’s misgivings – “R.H.I.” is a subtle piece of work, a careful probing of two quite different mentalities, and certainly a very provocative reflection on the nature of history.

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.

“HISTORY: A Novel” by Elsa Morante (“LA STORIA” first published in Italian 1974; English translation by William Weaver first published 1977)

            Sometimes a novel can stay in your head for years, even if you were never fully satisfied with it in the first place. This has been my experience with Elsa Morante’s History. (The original Italian title La Storia means both “story” and “history”, just like l’histoire in French.)
When it was first published in Italy in 1974, it was a huge bestseller, although the critical reaction to it was mixed. It was translated into most European languages, made it into English in 1977 and earned high praise from at least some highbrow reviewers. It has been placed on a few of those tedious “100 Best Novels of the 20th Century” lists, although it was never in any other country the bestseller that it was in Italy. History is a blockbuster, being the best part of 800 pages long in the hardback version I read nearly thirty years ago. Looking at it again years later in the Penguin Modern Classics edition (the same translation by William Weaver), I find some of the judgments I made on it then still seem valid, while others I would modify.
Despite its length, its central storyline can be synopsised briefly. Spanning the years from 1941 to 1947, it deals with a poor woman’s dogged attempts to survive and to protect her two children in Italy during the Second World War and its immediate sombre aftermath.
Ida Mancuso (sometimes known as Ramundo) is a partly-Jewish working-class schoolteacher in the San Lorenzo quarter of Rome. She is widowed and has an unruly pubescent son Antonio (usually known as Nino and sometimes as Ninnuzzu). Ida is raped by the German soldier Gunther, who proceeds to be killed in the war. Ida gives birth to the rapist’s son Giuseppe (usually known as Useppe). From this point on, the focus of her life is protecting Useppe.
The war years are bleak. Ida is bombed out of her home and evacuated to a crowded room, which she has to share with a large and rowdy Neapolitan mob nicknamed ironically “the Thousand”. In a spirit of pure devilry and adventurousness, the thuggish teenager Nino, who was once an ardently Fascist youth, now joins the partisans. Ida has to worry about whether he will be killed in action, just as she fears that a pogrom will be unleashed against people of her ancestry. Her fears are shared by Davide Segre, an Italian Jew who has escaped from a round-up in the north and who travels under the alias “Carlo Vivaldi”. Davide, who is something of an intellectual, becomes as important as Ida in the latter part of the novel. Davide joins the loutish Nino in the partisans toward the end of the war (they are hailed as heroes by the Communist tavern-keeper Remo, but the novel takes a more ironical view of their exploits).
The war ends. Nino’s visits to his mother become rarer. Ida is frequently sick as is the little boy Useppe. There are suggestions that wartime malnutrition has weakened them. On top of this, Useppe shows signs of being an epileptic. Nino (who is hero-worshipped by his little brother) becomes a black marketeer. He dies in a road crash. Davide the intellectual, having no cause to serve, sinks into lethargic despair. He moves in with the ugly old whore Santina to have a place to sleep, but she is murdered by her pimp. Submitting to complete despair, Davide commits suicide by overdosing on painkillers. Useppe, now aged six, is subject to nightmares and convulsions. He dies in a fit.
After all her deprivations, Ida’s mind cracks. She goes raving mad and, we are told, spends the last nine years of her life in a madhouse.
Over 800 pages, the brute forces of history have destroyed the Wretched of the Earth - Davide the hunted intellectual; Ida and the two sons she tried to protect; not to mention the hordes of bombed-out and displaced refugees who figure greatly in supporting roles. I said the novel was long but, as you can see, the concept is essentially a simple one. Apparently Elsa Morante’s first inspiration for the novel was a newspaper story, just after the war, about a bereaved working-class woman found raving mad over the corpse of her child in a bombed-out Roman apartment.
According to my reading diaries, when I first read this novel I called it “long-winded” and “overlong” and I resented some of the author’s stylistic mannerisms. There are some direct addresses to the reader in the otherwise third-person narrative, as if the narrator is an historian conveying historical records to us. (“As far as I have been able to discover, Ida was at this time….” etc. etc.). These come across as very arch.
Given that most of her main characters are not very conscious of the forces that create their historical circumstances, and are not following in detail the huge world war of which their Italian experience is just a small part, Morante precedes each of the novel’s seven parts with a summary of historical events, newspaper style. Some critics have compared this technique with the newspaper cut-up style of John Dos Passos in his USA trilogy. While it is not the author’s intention, this does make the experience of her main characters look a small thing in comparison with the death camps, the bombing of Coventry, the Battle of Stalingrad and so forth.
More than anything, though, I found the novel too loaded with physical descriptions of places and circumstances, often leaving the characters as small and redundant figures on a large and over-elaborated stage. The urge to document and record takes precedence over characterization. Ida herself is, after all, not a very complex character. The author herself says early on that Ida has a childish and immature mind – and she sinks into the background once Davide comes to dominate the pages. In the latter half of the novel, little Useppe also becomes a centre of attention, with his poetic mind and his attraction to animals (the dogs Blitz and Bella, and the cat who lives in the crowded cellar with “the Thousand”). The author is in effect attempting to make the child a representative of all the privations that war wreaks on the helpless – spiritual privations as well as physical ones.
The trouble here, though, is that nobody in the novel, apart from the omniscient narrator, appears to have a thinking adult mind. Even Davide, the novel’s representative of intellectuals, produces no more than thirty pages of semi-coherent drunken ravings shortly before his death. Things happen to characters. In an odd way, amid all their experiences, they are passive creatures. Puppets.
The author’s position is summed up in a sentence before the death of Useppe: “All History and all the nations of the earth had agreed on this end: the slaughter of the child Useppe Ramundo”. History is a blind force in which power squashes weakness and poor people are passive and helpless victims. Useppe’s whole young existence has been the progressive stripping from him of everything that could give his life colour and meaning – the dog Blitz, his brother Nino whom he idolises, Davide, the kid Pietro Scimo (who is hauled off to reform school and away from Useppe once the war is over).
This passivity – and essential brainlessness – of the main characters, places us and the author-narrator in an odd position. We are in effect forced to look down on the characters rather than to see them as our fellow human beings. In this respect, much of History has the same effect as the worst tendencies of Emile Zola. Here is the author ostensibly asking us the see the realities of deprived lives and to sympathise with them; but in effect making us see them as a species quite different from us literary and reading people. On first reading this book, I found myself using the word “patronising”.
And yet, coming back to History for a second time, I do find that it has a major strength, too. It is that very documentary tendency which has such a negative effect on characterization. It is the asides of the novel – the vignettes of things that are not essential to the arc of the main narrative – that are most memorable. These I held in my mind longest between my two readings of the novel. I would include such scenes as Ida chancing on a rail-truck crammed with Jews in wartime Rome and obviously bound for a death camp; or the horrible and minute description of Nazis murdering the family of one of Nino’s girlfriends, deemed to be partisans; or the account, quite unconnected with the rest of the novel, of an Italian soldier dying on the Eastern Front. I do not think History works as a novel, but as documentary it has some very arresting moments.
To round things off, a few words about the author.
Elsa Morante (1912-84) was for twenty years married to AlbertoMoravia, Italy’s best-known novelist of the mid-20th century; but obviously she, as a writer, resented being known to the general public mainly as another novelist’s wife. Feminist critics have adopted her own view of herself and “talked her up”. Her marriage was very stormy (both spouses had multiple affairs and arguments) and ended in divorce. Morante and Moravia had something in common, however, which was important to the genesis of History. They both had some Jewish forebears and for some of the Second World War, they chose to hide out among south Italian peasants for fear of a round-up. Clearly some of the things Morante records in History came from her observations in those years.
History took Morante many years to write, and she regarded it as her magnum opus. But, despite its being a huge bestseller in Italy, she was wounded by the critical response. The Left were irked that she tended to see history as a blind, irrational force, even if early passages denounced capitalists and big business for promoting war. This led to negative reviews from Morante’s left-wing friends, who ridiculed Morante for ignoring ideology and seeing working-class people as so helpless and passive. The Marxist film director Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote a particularly stinging review, which led Morante to break off her long friendship with him.
From just a little searching around the ‘net, I am interested to find that scholarly articles are still written about History in publish-or-perish academic journals. But, amidst the praise, there is often an undertone suggesting that the novel has not survived all that well as a literary work and is not held in the same esteem as it was originally. It is mainly analysed as an historical document.

Redundant cinematic footnote: I have not seen the 1986 Italian film La Storia based on the novel and starring Claudia Cardinale in the leading role. Apparently filmed as a TV series, it was cut down to make a feature film, but was not successful internationally.

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 like opera.
I like what is miscalled “classical” music, meaning European orchestral music and chamber music by established and canonical composers. (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Post-Romantic, Modernist – you see, it isn’t all “classical”). Everything from Gregorian Chant to Bartok.
I like jazz in most of its forms, from the ODJB to Wynton Marsalis. Soak me in a hot Bix, a swinging Henderson, a driving Django, a sophisticated Ellington or a cool Modern Jazz Quartet and I come over all funny.
And  - yes – I like some of the pop music of a few generations ago – Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Rodgers and company (and collaborators). Top stuff.
But present me with country-and-western, and nearly all rock and most pop of the last forty years or so, and the inanities of the generations who think the visuals are more important than the music – and I say “No thanks”.
I won’t be a hypocrite about this. I’ve occasionally tapped my toes along with the rock, metal, faux blues, bubblegum stuff, but in very short order it bores me and I tune out. It’s musically unimaginative crap in the main and I have better things to do.

So I’m an ELITIST and a SNOB and I think I’m SUPERIOR to other people because EVERYBODY I KNOW likes rock and pop music so I MUST JUST BE PUTTING IT ON when I say I like that boring old stuff.

I like old novels and poetry written fifty, one hundred, two, three, or four hundred years ago. A well-turned sonnet by Sidney or Baudelaire knocks me out. I’m happy to read a narrative poem by Byron or a polemic by Andre Chenier. You know those big, collected editions of poets gathering dust in the second-hand bookshops? Well I’m the guy who actually dips into them with pleasure and admires the fecundity of poems back then and their respect for metrical forms….
I like the solidity of a novel by Fielding, Balzac, Dickens. The generosity of spirit. The lack of neuroses. I like the clear rationalism of eighteenth century novels and the broad social panoramas of nineteenth century ones. I like a bit of wallowing in the Decadence, too, with Huysmans and Wilde and Musil, and I like some of the asperity of the Modernists. Kafka, some of Joyce, some of Huxley. Oh, I do read a lot of contemporary novels – probably far more than the great majority of readers do.  But I struggle to see merit in some of them.

So I’m an ELITIST and I’m TURNING MY BACK ON THE PRESENT and I’m one of those GATEKEEPERS who prevent women and gays and the oppressed classes from being represented and I’m probably a RACIST because the whole canon I’m talking about was produced by DEAD WHITE MEN.

Oh Elitist! Elitist!
What a fun word to throw around when rational argument runs out. It has an immediate emotional impact. The elitist is a snob sniffing at the lower orders, not one of us democratic plain folks, somebody who thinks he’s superior to us.
But, like “rebel”, like “establishment” (see the post Rebellious Establishment), “elitist” is one of those words that is usually misused.
Once upon a time, an elite in society was an unassailable and powerful aristocratic class. The lord in his chateau looking down on the ignorant peasants.
Now the word is co-opted by those who wish to rebuke or ridicule anyone who has tastes or interests running contrary to the mass-produced ones. It is interesting that in America now, “elitist” is the insult word of choice for those who wish to woo the working-class Right, to condemn those who ask for gun control or a more humane foreign policy, and to belittle those who have more than an elementary education. Apparently Barak Obama is an elitist. I know this, because I’ve seen it on innumerable Tea Party-oriented postings.
Regrettably, too, the word is sometimes introduced into academic circles, especially in humanities departments, where people should know better. You are elitist if you go for the best literary models rather than for rap or performance poetry. You are elitist if you are sceptical of media studies and other fashionable “discourses”. You should learn that the study of literature is really just a form of sociology. If the masses are reading it, then it is more important than what a little group of connoisseurs are reading…..
So, being a middle-class person of little income, of absolutely no power, and certainly not living in a chateau, I propose another meaning for elitist.
An elitist is one who seeks for, and admires, what is best. An elitist is one with the perception to know that, while the crowd is often right, it is not always right. An elitist is not in the least anti-democratic, especially not in the political sense. It is open to all people of all social classes to be an elitist. But an elitist has the perspective to know that what is wildly popular today will not necessarily have any lasting merit. An elitist has read enough to know that this year’s best-seller is most often next year’s back number.
In this sense, and in no other, I am happy to be called an elitist.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Something New

[NOTICE TO READERS: For over four years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]

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

“JAMES HECTOR – Explorer, Scientist, Leader” by Simon Nathan (Geoscience Society of New Zealand, distributed by Potton and Burton $NZ45)

The photograph on the cover of Simon Nathan’s James Hector – Explorer, Scientist, Leader is very striking and has often been reproduced. Taken in about 1874, it shows James Hector and his staff at the Colonial Museum, in Wellington, gathered around the skeleton of a pygmy right whale. It’s a very evocative photograph, with most of the ten males in view (but not Hector) be-hatted and still looking somewhat formal as they pursue the natural sciences. At once we get a whiff of an exciting age for science, when it was still practised as much by enthusiastic amateurs as by professionals, and when the professionals didn’t hesitate to explore more than one branch of science.
But it might have been a mistake to choose this striking image for the cover. James Hector is now remembered mainly for giving his name to the small Hector’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori), which has led some to assume that Hector was primarily a naturalist. The cover could reinforce this view. In fact, as Simon Nathan’s sprightly and readable biography makes clear, while Hector did make contributions to botany, zoology, astronomy and other sciences, he was always, by both training and interest, primarily a geologist.
The publication of James Hector – Explorer, Scientist, Leader is timed for the 150th anniversary of Hector’s becoming (in 1865) the first professional scientist employed by the New Zealand government. As Nathan says in his introduction, this is not a book for specialists, but is deliberately “a relatively short biography, concentrating on the main events in Hector’s life and his place in late nineteenth-century New Zealand”(p.12). In other words, the target audience is the general, non-scientist reader, like this reviewer. The book’s 240-odd pages of texts are extensively illustrated, and many of the illustrations are reproductions of Hector’s own sketches of land which he explored and surveyed. It is clear that, along with his other accomplishments, Hector had considerable artistic skills.  One of the book’s many pleasures consists of comparing, on p.60, Hector’s sober sketch of Milford sound with the more dramatic and stylised image, made from the same viewpoint, by Hector’s fellow-scientist, the artist John Buchanan.

So who was this James Hector and why should we remember him?
Scots-born James Hector (1834-1907) was the man who, in the later nineteenth century, came to dominate science in New Zealand as both an administrator and the editor of scientific journals. One historian of New Zealand science refers to the years from 1865 to 1903 as the “Hector hegemony” (p.10). When Hector became Chancellor of the University of New Zealand, a Wellington newspaper referred to him as “a man who knows everything” (p.12). In his time he had been the head of New Zealand’s first Geological Survey, conductor and supervisor of the Colonial Museum, the Colonial (now Wellington) Botanical Gardens, the Colonial Observatory, and the New Zealand Institute which he was instrumental in founding and whose voluminous Transactions he edited. He was knighted in 1887. It is interesting to learn that when the young Scot took his degree at the University of Edinburgh, the only way to gain entry into scientific studies was to qualify first in medicine – so Hector was also a doctor of medicine as well as a geologist.
This extra skill came in handy to him on a number of occasions. To be a geologist in the field was evidently a perilous business in the nineteenth century, when geological parties ventured into the wilderness far beyond lines of communication.
Young Hector’s first venture outside Scotland was as part of a geological survey of what we would now call western Canada (it was then still called British North America). Led by John Palliser, the expedition was tasked to survey the Canadian Rockies with the aim of finding a suitable pass over which a railway could be built to the Pacific coast. At one point in the journey, a pack-horse panicked at a river crossing and kicked Hector in the chest, throwing him to the ground where he was knocked so deeply unconscious that his companions thought he was dead. They began digging his grave and ceased only when feeble groans told them he was still alive. Hector himself had to direct the others on how to care for him in his wounded state. The geologists immediately called the river where the incident happened Kicking Horse River and the pass they were surveying Kicking Horse Pass. The names are still used. They are names which many visitors probably assume were invented by Native Americans.
Before he was 30, on the back of his scientific report on this Canadian expedition, Hector was elected to both the Royal Geological Society and the Royal Geographical Society.
Later in this book, Simon Nathan gives other examples of serious mishaps Hector had to endure. Hector first came to New Zealand in 1862, commissioned by the Otago provincial government to do a systematic geological survey of the province. Part of his brief was to find a pass to the west coast through Fiordland. (At this time, the Otago provincial government still dreamed of having access for exports to a port on the Tasman Sea). On an exploration of Fiordland aboard the Matilda Hayes in 1863:
“attempts to leave Chalky Inlet for Dusky Sound were thwarted by bad weather. In one incident the ship rolled unexpectedly and the main boom struck Hector, dislocating his left shoulder joint. He recorded briefly in his journal that he managed to reset it with the aid of a seaman who had suffered a similar mishap – undoubtedly an agonising process – and he was partly disabled with his arm in a sling for several weeks. It was an injury which was to trouble him in later years.” (p.57)
Later still (Chapter 5) there is the story of Hector having to take a long journey overland, through the trackless mountains, to get help when a ship on which he was travelling with Governor Bowen hit a rock and was in danger of sinking.
Perhaps fortunately for Hector’s health, after he married a wealthy young woman in 1868, he settled down in Wellington and tended more to supervise fieldwork rather than participate in it.
If the physical hardships of working geologists make one implicit theme in this book, another is the developing state of science in the Victorian age. Innovator though he was in many ways, Hector could be quite conservative in others. Hector took a long time to accept that there had been extensive prehistoric glaciation (in ice ages) shaping the land and carrying boulders to incongruous places. In this matter, he was behind the man who became his great rival in New Zealand science, Julius Haast.
 Where there are differences in scientific thought, there are often rivalries between scientists. Hector’s relationship with Haast began cordially enough. Unbeknown to each other, they were both engaged at the same time in the fruitless task of trying to find a pass through Fiordland (Hector’s party working from Otago and Haast’s from South Canterbury). Haast became the big scientific identity in Christchurch at the same time that Hector was establishing himself in Dunedin. It was Hector, however, who won the government’s nod of approval when they wanted the administration of scientific endeavour to be centralised in Wellington.
The sharpest exchanges between the two men came in the “Sumner Cave Controversy”, centring on moa bones found at the site. Haast insisted that moa had been rendered extinct by an ancient race far predating Maori. Hector and some of his associates took the view (still supported by scientific orthodoxy) that moa were indeed rendered extinct by Maori in relatively recent times. Haast’s anger over this difference was fired by his suspicion that one of his subordinates in the exploration of the cave, Alexander McKay, had been encouraged by Hector to undermine Haast’s views in public.
Simon Nathan judges Haast to have been a more volatile and flamboyant figure than the quiet and methodical Hector, and notes that until very recently it was Haast who gained the attention of biographers rather than Hector. In his summary, he says
Perhaps the main reason for Hector’s supposed anonymity is the fact that he lacked obvious character defects.  There is not a whiff of scandal associated with his name. He appears to have been a genuinely nice person, respected and liked by most. Being ambitious, he achieved his dominance in late nineteenth century science largely by hard work and obvious competence, aided by the lack of scientific rivals in Wellington, the seat of government, who could challenge him.” (p.233)
This seems a just judgment.
In some obvious ways, we can see that Hector was a man of his times – a Victorian. On one journey:
Hector and his crew were embarrassed by what they felt was the inadequate dress of the Maori family. Once the Matilda Hayes was secured on the lower Hollyford River, Hector instructed the crew to unpack some old tents and make skirts for the women.” (p.58)
Later, Hector was called up to give his views on an industrial dispute on the west coast, and to write a report on the Brunner mining disaster. In both cases, his attitudes seemed to show him siding with management and the bosses, and therefore against the miners. By the 1880s he was, as Nathan says, an “establishment” figure.
At the same time, Hector represents the collaborative nature of scientific research, often corresponding with, endorsing and sometimes collaborating with such figures as the ornithologist Walter Buller, the director of Kew Gardens in London, Joseph Hooker, and talented scientific amateurs like the missionaries Richard Davis and William Colenso. There is also the polymath nature of his work. He used the expanding telegraph network to help establish the reliable recording of the intensity of earthquakes, and to set up a system of meteorological reporting. His interest in fossils and in ornithology led him to do much work as a naturalist. He set up a temporary observatory to write a report on a transit of Venus. But it was his grounding in geology that led him to be commissioned to look for gold reefs in the North Island; and inevitably it was to Hector that the government turned when it needed a scientific report on the eruption of Tarawera in 1886.
James Hector – Explorer, Scientist, Leader does give some details of Hector’s domestic life – a long and happy marriage with many children; the family home which was for years in the house attached to the Colonial Museum in Wellington, before the Hectors moved out to a house in the Hutt valley; the death by appendicitis of Hector’s most promising academic son, when the elderly Hector was on a return visit to Canada.
But the book’s focus is on the scientist and his achievements. As Simon Nathan remarks, a “generalist” like Hector tends to be underrated or even dismissed as a dabbler in our own times, when scientific specialisation reigns. But you cannot close James Hector – Explorer, Scientist, Leader without feeling at least some envy for a time when one man could embrace with enthusiasm so many branches of science, and contribute fruitfully to many of them.

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. 

 “THE SCARLET LETTER” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (first published 1850)

            Here, in its barest outline, is the plot of what is often regarded as America’s first symbolist novel:
In the Puritan colony of Boston, Massachusetts, in the 1640s, Hester Prynne is forced to wear the scarlet letter “A” (for “Adulteress”) on her breast because, her husband having never arrived in the colony, she has borne a child out of wedlock and refuses to reveal the identity of the father. On the very day she is being humiliated publicly on the scaffold, her husband arrives in the colony incognito. Not wishing to be associated with her shame, he swears her to secrecy about his identity and their relationship, and he establishes himself as a doctor in the colony, under the name Roger Chillingworth.
            The years go by.
            Ostracised by society, Hester raises her wilful little daughter Pearl and gains a reputation for the goodness and charity she displays. Meanwhile Roger Chillingworth has guessed correctly that the father of her child is the conscientious and scholarly young clergyman Arthur Dimmesdale. Established as Dimmesdale’s physician, Chillingworth proceeds to torment the clergyman with subtle reminders of his sin. Dimmesdale is torn with remorse. When Dimmesdale meets Hester in the woods, their old flame revives and they determine to flee the colony and find happiness outside it. But their escape is blocked for, coincidentally, Chillingworth has booked passage on the very ship they intend to take.
            Finally, on a day of public thanksgiving, Dimmesdale mounts the same scaffold where Hester was first humiliated, and declares his sin publicly before falling down dead. Many on the onlooking crowd swear they see the letter “A” cut into his flesh.
            Hester’s goodness and charity continue to be a byword in the colony.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
            Now how does one react to this odd story?
Long ago on this blog, I commented on two novels by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64), his well-known TheHouse of the Seven Gables and his lesser-read The Blithedale Romance. It is The Scarlet Letter, however, on which his fame as a novelist (as opposed to short-story writer) mainly rests. Amazing as it seems to us, this book was once set regularly as a text in American high schools, in much the same way that Eliot’s Silas Marner was set in English schools. It was seen as an improving and morally-uplifting story, with students encouraged to admire Hester’s forbearance and purity of heart.
In reading it, one first has to negotiate one of those early 19th century conventions of novel-writing. The first 50-odd pages (of the 290-page edition I own) are a long introduction by Hawthorne called “The Custom House”, quite a jolly and often satirical affair, in which the author pretends to have “found” the story he is about to relate among the papers of a deceased Surveyor of Customs in Salem, the better to attune us to its New England setting. Apparently, scholars say, Hawthorne’s first idea was to use papers “found” in the custom house as a pretext for a series of long short stories, but The Scarlet Letter grew until it was the sole story.
            This preliminary over, one plunges in and quickly discovers that there is no way The Scarlet Letter can be judged by the standards of naturalistic fiction. Weighed against probability, the story rapidly disintegrates. Why should Chillingworth just happen to arrive at the very moment that Hester is being ritually humiliated? In seven years of dwelling together (Pearl is seven at the novel’s end) is Dimmesdale so dim that he never picks up a hint of Chillingworth’s relationship with Hester? And to be particularly crass, given the nature of Hester and Dimmesdale as they are described, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe in their original (and later rekindled) sexual passion.
            So we rapidly have to abandon verisimilitude and look at The Scarlet Letter as a completely different order of literature – as a symbolic novel. Or rather, as an allegory, for everything in the novel is a symbol. The scarlet letter itself. The young Pearl, like the scarlet letter personified, asking all the right [artless] questions at the right time to torture Hester’s conscience. Dimmesdale constantly holding his hand over his tortured heart. The dark hints of witchcraft [sexual passion?] lurking in the dark woods, with Governor Bellingham’s sister, the witch Mistress Hibbins, repeatedly accusing Dimmesdale of wishing to commune with the Black Man; the old and deformed nature of Chillingworth.
In this spirit, the novel does not proceed forward with a “plot” as such, but is like a series of symbolic tableaux – a tableau of maternal care as Hester petitions Governor Bellingham to keep her child; a tableau of unresolved remorse when Dimmesdale mounts the scaffold at midnight, when nobody is there to hear him, and cries out his sin to the air – and a comet shaped like unto the letter “A” flashes in the sky; a tableau of amoral innocence as Pearl weaves, Eden-like, a letter “A” out of green rushes.
Hawthorne here (as in The House of the Seven Gables) seems to have “coloured in” a general conception he had, describing rather than dramatizing. I would also agree with Henry James’ comment that Hawthorne did not so much create characters as personified ideas.
And moving away from comments on style and literary conception, we are left with the biggest question – what does it all mean?
In one sense, I see it as a purely fantastic story (like Balzac’s Wild Ass’s Skin; like Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray), in which Hester’s scarlet letter is the outward and physical manifestation of a hidden sin. The letter often takes on a life of its own (sometimes described as glowing, smouldering, smoking etc.).
But Hawthorne, the Puritan, keeps “justifying” his symbols as psychosomatic delusion and has a heavy moral seriousness. Throughout reading this novel, I had in my mind Shakespeare’s phrase (from Twelfth Night) about “concealment like the worm in the bud”. There is something gnawing away at people secretly, hidden from public gaze. In the novel itself, Hester tells little Pearl “We must not always talk in the market place of what happens to us in the forest”. (Chapter 22). This could be the novel’s epigraph. It seems to me that it isn’t so much his sexual sin which tortures Dimmesdale, as his hypocrisy. His integrity and sense of self dissolve in his awareness that he has himself transgressed the very code, for the upkeep of which he is admired.
The easiest option for the modern reader is to see The Scarlet Letter as an attack on the repressive Puritan approach to sexuality; but I do not think this is Hawthorne’s intention. Hawthorne is fully aware of the connection between religion and sex – Hester’s “purity” is part of her attractiveness and Hawthorne at once tells us how the young women of the colony particularly adore the righteous Arthur Dimmesdale. Never emphasised, a degree of sexual frustration could be inferred in Hester from the age gap separating her from her old (and deformed) husband Chillingworth. But even if Hawthorne satirises the censorious dames who scorn Hester, he still observes the proprieties. Reproof of adultery is seen as a proper thing by Hawthorne, but the manner of the reproof is something else.
On my second reading of The Scarlet Letter, I concluded that Hawthorne is in fact compromised in his viewpoint – he has a general idea of sin and its expiation in charity, he has a general sense of the oppressiveness of guilt and conscience; but he is never sure if he is on the sinner’s side. For, by just the most minor adjustment of the tale, this could become a fable of Edenic naturalness oppressed by an unnatural society.
This is the feeble best I can do in interpreting a novel, which shares the values of the Puritans while at the same time acknowledging the crushing legalism of their society and their failure to forgive.
There are a few minor things that strike me about this still-puzzling novel. One is the way in which Hawthorne goes into hyperbolic ecstasies over Hester’s beauty, purity and goodness, but then (as a Protestant) is abashed by such feelings and so has to more-or-less ascribe them to somebody else. In Chapter 2, as Hester stands before her accusers, Hawthorne says “her beauty shone out, and made a halo of the misfortune and ignominy in which she was developed.” He is saying, in affect, that she is like a saint. But then he draws back a couple of pages later and declares “had there been a Papist among the crowd of Puritans” he would have seen Hester cradling her baby as being like the Blessed Virgin Mary. So you see, superstitious Catholics have these exaggerated feelings…. but not us Protestants… even if it is a Protestant who writes the hyperbolic formula in the first place. Later, in Chapter 11, it is clear that Dimmesdale, in his solitary and undeclared remorse, wishes he had somebody to confess to, as those Papists have. Hawthorne severely remarks that the clergyman’s solitary penance involved “practices more in accordance with the old, corrupted faith of Rome.” There is also the odd declaration (in Chapter 13) that in moving Hester to acts of charity “the scarlet letter had the effect of the cross on a nun’s bosom.” Oh how those Puritans ache for the colour, ritual and order that their text-based religion denies them!
I am not surprised that the nineteenth century French artist Hugues Merle depicted Hester Prynne and her baby virtually as a version of the Madonna and Child.
The other incidental matter that strikes me is Hawthorne’s frank realization that repression breeds its opposite – rebellion. Of Hester he remarks “It is remarkable that persons who speculate the most boldly often conform with the most perfect quietude to the external regulations of society.” (Chapter 13). Later he says of her “the tendency of her fate and fortunes had been to set her free. The scarlet letter was her passport into regions where other women dared not tread. Shame! Despair! Solitude! These had been her teachers – stern and wild ones – and they had made her strong, but taught her much amiss” (Chapter 18). Meaning, one assumes, that she now thinks much that gainsays Puritan mores. More remarkably, there is in Chapter 20 a wonderfully vivid description of Dimmesdale, having talked with Hester of their sin, wanting to shout out uncontrollable blasphemies and obscenities at the community.
The bursting-pressure-cooker effect of moral repression is as acute in The Scarlet Letter as the Puritan’s underlying suspicion that there is something badly wrong with Puritanism and that it may not necessarily be the most desirable form of Christianity.

Cinematic footnote: Being the symbolic work it is, moving from tableau to tableau, one would assume that The Scarlet Letter would be fiendishly difficult to dramatise.  Surprisingly, though, it has been adapted frequently as operas, musicals and films. A check with Wikipedia tells me that it was filmed numerous times in the silent era and has a number of times become film and television dramas since then. Let’s not forget that it was, in effect, a bestseller in Hawthorne’s own day, and has been a standard students’ set text since then. Even people who hate Puritanism see it as necessary to have some literary work depicting the early colonial era of America’s past.
I haven’t seen any of the American television adaptations that have been made – viewing guides suggest they are plodding, worthy and literal-minded. Nor have I seen the 1973 German language version of the story directed by Wim Wenders which, coming from that director, would have at least an even chance of being interesting.
Three mainstream American film versions I can, however, comment on.
The best-known of the silent versions was made in 1926 and starred Lillian Gish as Hester Prynne. As I remarked before on this blog (see the footnote to the post on George Eliot’s Romola), Lillian Gish was the silent cinema’s reigning ethereal virgin. Apparently this film survives now only in archives. But as with Gish’s silent version of Romola, one has to assume that it presents its heroine as high-minded, saintly, pure and not in the least associated with sex. Stills suggest this interpretation (and lead to impish speculation on how such a woman could have got pregnant in the first place).
Oddly enough, and thanks to Youtube, I have seen Hollywood’s first talkie feature film of the novel (a mere 70 minutes long), made in 1934. It is extremely primitive in technique, though it has a couple of powerful sequences – especially two in which Dimmesdale has to publicly defend Hester without revealing his connection to her. Allowing for a then-acceptable melodramatic style of acting, Colleen Moore, a silent star who just made it into the talkies, does quite a good turn as Hester. She suggests, legitimately enough, that Hester’s refusal to name the father of her child is not just a matter of defending Dimmesdale, but is also a matter of pride. She wants to be her own woman, and looking after her child on her own defines her status as such. Unfortunately, this film version is rendered unwatchable by the extremely foolish decision of its producers to supplement its reasonably accurate rendition of the main story with completely incongruous and buffoonish low-comedy slapstick, as “comic relief”. As an adaptation of Hawthorne, it quickly loses credibility.
Speaking of a lack of credibility, we come to the disaster that was the 1995 film called The Scarlet Letter, but having only a passing resemblance to Hawthorne’s story. I saw this one, as a film-reviewer, at an advance preview screening with other reviewers. I remember that the screening room rocked with our mocking laughter at how bad the film was. (It is consoling to know that it bombed at the box-office and lost its backers millions.) Apparently made as a vanity project for its star, Demi Moore, the film wound a few elements of Hawthorne’s novel into a tale of the settlers’ wars with neighbouring Indians and provided a happy ending in which Hester (Demi Moore) and Dimmesdale (played, in another waste of his talent, by Gary Oldman) ride off into the sunset.  It also featured a sequence of Hester Prynne wanking in sweaty close-up. So, folks, the whole meaning of the story is that all Hester needs is a damned good bonk. Saves you pondering on such matters as sin, remorse, guilt and redemption, which that tiresome Hawthorne fellow banged on about for some reason.
Speaking of the all-they-need-is-sex approaches to The Scarlet Letter, I’m aware that the novel has inspired rude dramatic ripostes such as a musical called Fucking A (Hester is an abortionist) and I have seen the smart-arse 2010 film called Easy A, a high-school rom-com in which the modern equivalent of Hester is a girl telling the world that whether she bonks around or not is nobody else’s business.
Ho hum. I won’t say that Hawthorne is rolling in his grave. I think he must have been worn away years ago from doing that.