Monday, February 27, 2017

Something New

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

“THE COLLECTED POEMS OF KATHERINE MANSFIELD” Edited by Gerri Kimber and Claire Davison (Otago University Press, $NZ35)
Let me begin this review with an embarrassing admission.
Like every other New Zealander, I know that Katherine Mansfield (pseudonym of Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp 1888-1923) is one of our greatest literary luminaries. But I have never studied her diligently and methodically, and my knowledge of her work is largely limited to reading my way through the 34 of her short stories that were selected by Elizabeth Bowen for a Collins edition many years ago. Sorry, but I do not have on my shelves the capacious volume of her complete short stories that every literate New Zealander is supposed to have.
I do know, however, that her fame rests on her short stories, and not on poetry. Therefore I approached this volume with considerable interest. 156 large pages of poems by Katherine Mansfield – at least as large a collection as the complete works of some canonical poets – preceded by an introduction and followed by informative notes on nearly every poem. They are presented handsomely here in a sturdy hardback with a flowery cover design, which immediately suggests something fin de siecle (actually it’s taken from the decorations of a Polish church by Stanislaw Wyspianski). To complete the period feel, there is a violet-coloured (or is that mauve- or lavender-coloured?) ribbon bookmark. The presentation is, dare I say it, reverent.
As an edition, there is much to say in favour of this volume.
Let’s begin with the intelligent and jargon-free Introduction by the editors Gerri Kimber and Claire Davison. They remind us that the collection really is the complete poems of Katherine Mansfield – it contains absolutely every poem that she wrote (the majority unpublished in her lifetime) from 1903, when she was a 14-year-old schoolgirl, to 1922, mere months before he death at the age of 34. They take pride in the fact that this volume publishes for the first time all of Mansfield’s 1910 collection The Earth Child, which is not included in its entirety even in the otherwise definitive Edinburgh Edition of her works. The Introduction also stresses both the sheer bulk of Mansfield’s poetry – she wrote poetry at every stage of her writing life, but rarely submitted poems for publication – and the fact that her style changed and developed. The younger Mansfield was besotted by the verse of Oscar Wilde and the “decadents”. But later she was well-read in European and modernist poetry and this had major effects on her own verse.
Wisely, however, the editors do not “talk up” her poetry too much. Amid much praise for Mansfield’s poetry, they also note:
Many poems will… seem to linger on the borders of prose, as if they were short stories in some more condensed form, deliberately constrained in the tighter rhythmic patterns of verse. Others may read like the denouements of stories…” (p.17). They declare that “diction and form are often simple and traditional: floating trochees, sing-song iambics, a certain sentimental sweetness that might just appear too cloying.” (p.21)
One of the best aspects of this edition is the simplest. The poems are printed in as chronological an order as the editors can arrange them. You may recall that some months back, when I reviewed the CollectedPoems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, I expressed my frustration that that (incomplete) volume of Campbell’s verse was arranged thematically and not chronologically, and therefore deprived us of the opportunity to see the poet’s style and preoccupations developing.
No such problem here.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
And now for the poems.
We begin in 1903 with the collection Little Fronds. They are the poems of a talented and clever fourteen-year-old girl, filled with rather clichéd romantic conceits, running close to doggerel and really pastiches of what the girl has been reading. It is not unusual to find the likes of:
Day took off her azure mantle
She laid down her golden crown
And she sank to her rest on the cloudlets
On pillows of rosy down” (“The Three Monarchs” p.28)
A benign teacher would probably praise and encourage a girl who wrote this sort of thing, while recognising that she had a long way to go. And yet the girl was herself aware of this fact. The last words of Little Fronds admit that she is penning “childish thoughts”:
Dear little book, farewell
I have loved thee long
With thee, my childish thoughts
Are ever gone”. (last words of “Farewell” p.37)
As she becomes an older teenager, Katherine Mansfield is no Chatterton, Rimbaud or even Dylan Thomas – in other words, no ground-breaking teenage genius. Her verse is still conventional although her reading is wide (the editors note the probable influence of Heinrich Heine’s ballads on some of her efforts). At seventeen, she is looking back to childhood by producing her Children’s Book of Verse which, as an end-note quoting Claire Tomalin says, is transparently an imitation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses. Many of the verses in this collection presuppose a comfy middle-class home with Mummy and Daddy bathing and powdering baby (see “The Bath Baby” pp.52-54) and at least some are cloying to read. Yet the teenaged Mansfield doesn’t provoke in me the “Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up” response that Dorothy Parker awarded to the verse of A. A. Milne. As the editors correctly note, even in these childhood-oriented poems there is sometimes a sly and mocking undertone. A poem like “Opposites” (pp.66-67) dares to introduce the fact of class distinctions into what is ostensibly a children’s poem about shoes.
There are, however, also poems that jolt us a little with their dated attitudes. “Grown Up Talks” has a group of children discussing the question of where babies come from, and ends with the awkward lines:
Half-past-six said – he’s so clever –
Cleverer than me – I mean
“ ‘I suppose God makes the black ones
When the saucepan isn’t clean!’ ” (“Grown Up Talks” p.71)
By the time Mansfield is approaching the age of twenty and, in 1908, leaving New
Zealand for the last time (see the poem “In the Tropics” pp.87-88), she is still in the grip of Edgar Allan Poe’s musical romanticism, but she is beginning to shake it off as she turns more frequently to blank verse and vers libre. Her verse more frequently has urban (specifically London) settings, some of them verging on the grim, as in the poem “October” which she dedicated to her eldest sister:
Dim mist of a fog-bound day…
From the lilac trees that droop in St Mary’s Square
The dead leaves fall, a silent, shivering cloud.
Through the grey haze the carts loom heavy, gigantic
Down the dull street. Children at play in the gutter
Quarrel and cry; their voices sound flat and toneless…”
                                                            (“October” p.90)
The long poem in blank verse “The Winter Fire” (pp.92-93) – the best thing in this collection up to this point - is edging its way towards being a short story. It ends dispiritingly with “The drunken, bestial, hiccoughing voice of London.” The little-girl lyricism is gone and we are now hearing the voice of an adult.
In her twenties, Katherine Mansfield’s voice is often openly confessional and first-person.
Poems like “In the Church” and “The Lilac Tree” (p.94) show her going through a phase of melancholic bewilderment, very heavily influenced by the desolate winter landscapes that appear in Thomas Hardy’s poems. Only when she is approaching 21 (the poems of 1909) do we begin to hear what could be characterised as erotic, as in “Sleeping Together” (pp.98-99), apparently addressed to an early lover, and other poems which suggest intense personal relationships.
The 35 poems of The Earth Child (pp.109-131) are published here as a collection for the first time (Mansfield submitted the whole collection for publication… but only some sections appeared as individual poems in “little magazines” of the time). The editors rightly notice the influence of Walt Whitman in the sequence – the free-flowing loose form of each poem, the confessional style, which also suggests a personal mythology, and so forth. Most of the poems are played out in rural settings (alternately sylvan and desolate), which seem archetypal. Indeed, they are the type of poems that one wants to psychoanalyse. What are they really saying about Katherine Mansfield’s emotional life? Sometimes a hesitant and critical self-portrait is implied:
Why are you smiling so?
Girl face in the shadow
Your open brow, your smoothly banded hair
The painful shadow under your eyes,
These do not speak of joy  -
Yet your mouth is tremulously smiling,
Is it a dream that makes you so happy?...” (The Earth Child Part XV, p.116)

Elsewhere, an emotional connection with a lover (or lovers) is implied:
There are days when the longing for you
Floods my heart – my veins are full of tears,
My hair seems to hold something of your wild scent,
I fancy my voice becomes as your voice,
And my slightest gesture shows my dependence on you…” (The Earth Child Part XVIII, p.118)
Fairy-tale becomes code becomes autobiography. Fittingly it ends with another self-portrait (“To K.M.” pp.130-131). Like much else in this volume, however, it does leave me saying that this is very interesting for somebody who wishes to write a biography of Katherine Mansfield; but that too often it reads like a form of self-therapy rather than finished poetry.
It is interesting that in most of the years that follow (1911 to 1922), the poems are fewer. Having already admitted that I am no expert in either Katherine Mansfield’s life or her work, my guess is that by this time she was well launched into her short-story-writing career, and poetry was a less frequent resort. She writes poems either mocking or affectionately parodying London literary figures of the day. She tells a silly anecdote (scarcely a poem) about house-hunting with John Middleton Murry (“The Deaf House Agent” p.145). She laments the death of her brother during the war by submitting to the discipline of more conventional metre and rhyme in two poems (p.147). Often the scene of her poems is domestic and close – yet there is an odd pull against domesticity, a facility to at once enjoy hearth-and-home and yet mildly ridicule them. (See the poem – one of her most finished – “Camomile Tea” p.149). One would have to be in on the joke to know (without resort to the helpful endnotes) that the playful “Night-Scented Stock” (pp.156-157) was gently mocking the knees-ups for Bloomsbury intellectuals that were held as Lady Ottoline Morrell’s home.
While the poems of later years are fewer, there is a new poignancy to them when the circumstances of their composition are known. Given that it was written towards the end of the First World War, Mansfield’s translation of a ballad by Heine (“A Version of Heine”, p.160), a German poem with its references to the dead, can only have evoked, for her, her own losses to the war (especially of her brother). The four lines of “Verses Writ in a Foreign Bed” (p.166) are flippant and a little silly, until we learn that they were written a little after she had been diagnosed as having tuberculosis:
Almighty Father of all and Most Celestial Giver
Who has granted to us thy children a Heart and Lungs and a Liver;
If upon me should descend thy beautiful gift of tongues
Incline not thine Omnipotent ear to my remarks on Lungs.”

Indeed the few poems of her very last years very much reference the discomforts of disease and the shadow of impending death. The very last poem in the book, “The Wounded Bird” (pp.182-183), is self-mythologisation in the face of death, with lines such as:
The hunter threw his dart
And hit her breast,
Hit her, but did not kill.
O my wings, lift me – lift me
I am not dreadfully hurt!
Down she dropped and was still.”
Yet having noted the changes in her circumstances and in her preoccupations, there is little real development in her style. Poems like “The New Husband” (pp.174-175) and “He Wrote” (pp.176-177) speak of her personal situation, confined to beds in sanatoria and rarely visited by her husband Middleton Murry. But their form is the sing-song of very conventional verse.
I enjoyed the week I spent working my way through The Collected Poems of Katherine Mansfield and once again thank the editors for their clear, informative and jargon-free notes and introduction. Certainly I learnt much about Katherine Mansfield by reading this book. But, as a confessed non-expert on the subject, I still have the nagging suspicion that these poems are an adjunct to the real work the writer did in another literary form. Would they have been so handsomely presented to us now if Katherine Mansfield were not the famed short-story writer?

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. 

“APPOINTMENT IN SAMARRA” by John O’Hara (first published in 1934)

            One of the hardest things to do, with any sort of critical impartiality, is to read for the first time a book by an author whose reputation you already know well. The reputation of American novelist John O’Hara (1905-1970) was already firmly embedded in my head before I read Appointment in Samarra, the only one of his books that I’ve ever read.

            O’Hara, said repute, was the sharp young writer of tough, realist stories in the late 1920s, who had more short stories accepted by the New Yorker than any other writer ever. When he was 29 he produced his best book, Appointment in Samarra, which was immediately a critical and popular success. People like Dorothy Parker, John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway raved about it, and saw O’Hara as the coming man of hard-nosed realist fiction. But thereafter, as far as the critics were concerned, O’Hara’s career went downhill. He did win literary awards and was often a bestseller. But with novels like BUtterfield 8, A Rage to Live, Ten North Frederick and From the Terrace, what he produced were fat, overblown soap-operas, which sometimes attracted readers by what was then regarded as sexual explicitness. (Ironically, the fate of most of them was to be filmed by old Hollywood in the 1950s and early 1960s, when censorship was still such that the sex stuff was largely glossed out and only the soap remained.) Apparently O’Hara’s personality (a boastful heavy-drinker) didn’t help his reputation. But the main thing was that, by the 1960s and ever since, if you said you admired O’Hara, you were labelling yourself as an out-of-date middlebrow.

            There now. I have just skewered a writer’s reputation without having read his books, because that is what every reference I’d seen said about him. So I carried this baggage in my head before I opened Appointment in Samarra.

Now that I’ve read it, I think I can see both why it was once such a critical success, and why O’Hara subsequently went nowhere in particular.

Appointment in Samarra is set in “Gibbsville – 24,032 population estimated 1930”, apparently based on O’Hara’s hometown, the small city of Pottsville, Pennsylvania, near the coal-mining country. Somewhere in the novel it is mentioned that Herbert Hoover is president so the story, though published in 1934, is obviously set before 1932 (when Roosevelt was elected) and therefore before prohibition was repealed. Illegal booze, drunk copiously and openly, is a major part of the story.

Julian English, son of a wealthy father but now struggling to make a living, runs a franchise selling expensive cars. As far as most people are concerned, his marriage to Caroline is stable and happy. But Julian is nagged at by the sense that his life is meaningless. The story follows Julian English through three or four days around Christmastime in which he makes enemies, makes sexual passes at women, drinks heavily, fights, feels self-pity, and finally self-destructs.

At a country-club Christmas party, he throws a drink in the face of a garrulous raconteur, Harry Reilly, just for the hell of it, and a fight ensues.  Harry has enough influence and pull to make a sizeable part of the town turn against Julian English and this threatens custom to his franchise. Julian begins to bicker with his wife. At another seasonal gathering he circulates around the room making such boorish and offensive remarks that people figure he is already drunk. Then, knowing full well that his wife is watching, he twice dances with the mistress of a small-time local gangster and bootlegger, and then takes the woman outside for a sexual assignation in his car. In another club, again sloshed, he gets into a fight with a whole bunch of men when his brother-in-law calls him out for his sexual infidelity.

His wife Caroline had been planning a Christmas party, but she cancels it when it’s clear that nobody would want to come to Julian’s place. Caroline walks out on him, moves in with her mother, and starts talking about divorce. Now chronically boozed, Julian’s last misdemeanour is when he attempts to seduce a young woman reporter who comes calling. “Is there anything I haven’t done? Anybody I haven’t insulted at least indirectly?” he asks himself in the second-to-last chapter. Blotto, and swathed in self-pity, he turns on the engine of his car, climbs in the back seat and passes out. Carbon monoxide does its stuff.

It is a long, depressing downward slide to this suicide. But in a way the final chapter, after Julian English’s death, is the most devastating, for it is the most nihilistic. It tells us that the man is soon forgotten, that his death is rapidly accommodated by those closest to him and nobody really mourns.

I am aware that the novel’s setting (1930 or 1931) was not the Jazz Age and not the Roaring Twenties. The Depression had already struck. Even so, much of the novel reads like a farewell to the whole vacuity of the wild, boozing, partying 1920s What did all those parties and dances and alcohol and jazz and country clubs and flashy cars amount to? A corpse in a garage.

There are many things that would have marked the novel out as daring and risqué when it was first published. Chapter One opens with a minor character wondering if he should have sex with his wife and whether her diaphragm is in. There are plenty of fumbled, drunken sexual encounters and propositions by Julian English. In Chapter 7, Julian English’s wife Caroline, in bed, has a soliloquy in which she wonders about the probability of Julian having slept with another man’s mistress. (This “woman soliloquising in bed” thing - had O’Hara read Molly Bloom?). So this is a frank novel for its day and age, and hard and sceptical in its view of life.

But some things deaden it. Basically, we have to take Julian English’s will to self-destruction on trust. There are a few references to his surgeon-father’s disapproval of him, leading us to infer that perhaps, under his salesman bluster, he suffers from a big inferiority complex. And yet that is about it for motivation. He does what he does in an overheated atmosphere of partying, drinking and macho competition, and that is all there is to it. We pity the poor, lost idiot for taking his downward path, but it doesn’t amount to tragedy.

More distancing, though, there is John O’Hara’s will to chronicle everything, like a reporter afraid of missing something in the background. In Chapter Four, when Julian and Caroline go to a country club, we are given all the sociological details of such an institution, as if O’Hara is unsure whether he is a novelist or an anthropologist – there are orderly (and editorial-like) paragraphs on how Protestants (who are Freemasons) relate to Catholics (who are Knights of Columbus) in this town and we are told about the locals’ mating habits and the way dances and socials are arranged so that plain girls are included. When Chapter 5 appears, O’Hara gives us the whole background of Caroline English’s relationships with men. The Bryn Mawr girl never lost her virginity before she married Julian, but sometimes came as close as the morality of the 1920s would allow. One almost feels the chapter should be called “Sexuality and Courtships Rituals of Young American Women, 1921 to 1928” or some such.

Then there is O’Hara’s addiction to what I can only call information-loading. When a character is introduced, we always get a couple of paragraphs of character-sketch, noting the appropriate sociological details, regardless of how important or unimportant that character is to the tale’s development. Here is O’Hara in Chapter 2,

introducing the small-time crim who goes by the nickname “Al Grecco”:

Al usually had breakfast at this time if he was up. He ate eggs and bacon for breakfast, had a small steak or something like that at seven in the evening, and then after midnight he usually ate what he called his big meal: a thick steak with boiled potatoes, piece of pie and many cups of coffee. He was about five feet six with his high heels, and weighed about 130 pounds with his suit on. He had been with Ed Charney [a more important gangster] and eating regularly for four years, but he did not gain much weight. Stayed about the same. His bones were small, and he was a thin little man in every part of him. He was born in Gibbsville, the son of Italian parents. His father worked on a navvy gang and supported six children, of whom Al was the third. Al’s name was not Al, and it was not Grecco. His real name was Anthony Joseph Murascho….”

And so the paragraph trundles on and on.

O’Hara has a fascination for physical details, but it can lead him close to what appears to be padding. At the opening of Chapter 8, for example, his main dramatic purpose is to show us that Julian English is financially in trouble, but instead of merely telling us, he has to convey all the contents of English’s accounts, thus:

Mary Klein [the office help] had gone to lunch and Julian was alone in the office, with a small array of sheets of paper on which were rows of figures, names, technical words: Number of cars sold in 1930; our cut on new cars sold; gas and oil profit 1930; tires and accessories profit 1930; profit on resale of cars taken in trade; other profit; insurance on building; ins. on equipment; ins. on rolling stock; interest on bldg. ; taxes; advertising; graft; expenses; light; other elec. outlay; heat; tool replacement; licenses; office stuff incl. stationery; workmen’s compensation; protective association; telephones; bad debts; stamps; trade-in losses; lawyer &accountant fees; building repairs; losses not covered by ins.;  plumber; depreciation on bldg.; deprc. on equipment; deprc. on trade-in jobs;  deprc. on new cars not moved; contributions to charity; cash advance to self; notes due at bank; cash needed for payroll…. As a result of his figuring, Julian announced to the empty room: ‘I have to have five thousand dollars.’ ”

[Interesting to note the payoff for “graft” there, by the way].

We are, in effect, swamped by the externals – all the things O’Hara feels he has to tell us about what people wore, what they drank and ate, what sort of cars they drove, where they had been raised and what schools they went to, their preferred brands of booze, how often they had sex, the contents of their account books, and so forth. As reportage, it is often historically interesting. But as for the characters – they remain “types”.

In one of his author-caricatures for the New York Review of Books, David Levine once depicted John O’Hara as a racing punter with binoculars at the ready. This captures the problem perfectly. O’Hara sees people from a great distance as if he is observing categories rather than real people. He watches. He documents. He does not engage.

Perversely, I enjoyed reading much of Appointment in Samarra, and I would never dismiss a novel that is still readable after over 80 years. Even so, my enjoyment was more the historical one of learning about the habits of a defunct society than the literary one of engaging with people and style.

Nit-Picking Footnote: When I reviewed Ernest Hemingway’s egotistical memoir A Moveable Feast on this blog, I noted that one of the things that irritated me about Hemingway was his lazy over-use of the adjective “fine” to suggest approbation. About two-thirds of the way through Chapter 4 of Appointment in Samarra, I find Julian English reflecting “It was a fine night. (Fine had been a romantic word in his vocabulary ever since he read A Farewell to Arms, but this was one time he felt justified in using it.) The fine snow was still there, covering almost everything as far as the eye could see.” I think John O’Hara spotted this irritating mannerism too, so score one to John O’Hara.

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.    


            Right now.
It’s 5pm and I have some serious work to do.
I should be able to get some of it done in the hour before dinner and then I’ll get back to it after I’ve finished the dishes.
            But first I’ll check my e-mails.
            Yep, I can delete that one.
Yep, I can delete that one.
Yep, I can delete that one too.
I find it annoying to be invited to cultural events in cities, which I cannot possibly reach. I’m not interested in special travel deals to places I don’t want to visit, but the airlines keep sending the blasted things because they have my contact details since I’ve travelled with them a couple of times. No, I am not interested in signing somebody’s petition over an issue about which I know nothing. Then there are all those bloody e-mails linked to Facebook postings. Into the trash they all go to be deleted permanently.
And the Spam folder. Yep, that can all be deleted.
Ah – here are one or two personal messages, which I’ll save, and there’s this reviewing commission, which I’ll deal with later.
There – that took only about five minutes. I still have 55 minutes to dinnertime.
I’ll just quickly catch up with Facebook.
Yes, pictures of cats.
Yes, pictures of dogs.
Yes, pictures of cute toddlers and the clever things they can do.
Yes, New Zealand holiday snaps from some dear friends of mine.
Yes, messages from younger women in the extended family, about how they love drinking wine and partying.
Yes, re-postings of ready-made witticisms, some of them purporting to be political commentary, for people who have no wit of their own.
Yes, posts from somebody travelling overseas, with selfies and other indicators of all the places she’s been to.
Oh well.
I can’t be snobby about this as I’ve made the same sort of postings whenever I’ve travelled.
I’ll click the “Like” button for some of her photos and show I’ve got her posts. That’s at least a bit more gracious than one snotty person I know who admits that he looks at Facebook to keep up with family news, but then adds that he never makes a comment because “I have better things to do than respond to many fatuous comments and postings.” Well nobody’s asking you to respond to fatuous comments, dearie, but if you’re looking at light social chatter you can at least acknowledge your presence on line. All it requires are a few harmless pleasantries. I mean, it’s a little voyeuristic to lurk about looking without occasionally showing you’re there.
Well, that about covers it for Facebook except…
Ooo! Look here. Somebody’s posted a link to the Guardian about the forthcoming French presidential elections.
Looks interesting. I’ll read it.
It seems the two major mainstream parties are trailing in the polls. Francois Hollande’s anointed centre-left Socialist candidate Benoit Hamon is getting nowhere with the public, and the same is true of the centre-right mainstream candidate Francois Fillon.
Instead, two candidates from the margins are taking the lead and drawing the crowds and seem to be set to go head-to-head in the elections. There’s the very right-wing Front National leader Marine Le Pen. And there’s Emmanuel Macron, the leader of a neo-liberal deregulation party, which trendily calls itself En Marche! (Forward!)
Strewth! What a choice!
Somebody’s put a link to footage of their opening rallies. I watch her’s for five minutes. I watch his for five minutes. How smooth the rhetoric of politicians on the make. How depressing. It’s like watching Hillary Clinton versus Donald Trump. Two ridiculous candidates, but the public are lapping them up.
Back I go to the main Facebook feed.
Look, there’s one of those clickbait things that are often hard to resist. Ten Top Movie Flops at the Box-Office and Why They Flopped.
I start watching when…
It’s now five minutes to dinnertime.
Where has this planned hour of serious hard work gone to?
I’ve just wasted it on Facebook and Youtube clips.
I must not let this happen again.
I will not let this happen again.
Never. Never. Never.
Until tomorrow night probably.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Something New

NOTICE TO READERS: For six 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.

“THE ART OF EXILE – A Vagabond Life” by John Freely (Published in 2016 by I.B. Tauris Publishers, London and New York. No New Zealand price known)

I do not know if you have ever had the experience of wanting very much to like a book because you like the revealed personality of the author and most of his attitudes and you know that he has much to say but - alas – you find the style of the book so unsatisfactory that in the end you are disappointed in it.
This has been my experience with the Irish-American author John Freely’s The Art of Exile, which is subtitled “A Vagabond Life”. [To the best of my knowledge, this newly-published book is not available in New Zealand and I have been able to read it only thanks to an American friend who lent me a copy.]
Born in 1926, John Freely wrote The Art of Exile to appear near his ninetieth birthday. It is clearly intended to sum up his life, and that life has been a most interesting one. Freely’s family were very poor people from Kerry in the underdeveloped south-west of Ireland. His parents emigrated to New York when Freely was an infant, but they did not find riches in the New World and they were once or twice so disheartened that they returned to Ireland for brief spells. Nevertheless, New York finally became their permanent home. Even so, life was hardscrabble, especially as Freely’s father was frequently out of work, and even when he was in work he was capable only of unskilled and lowly-paid labouring jobs such as digging ditches or being a gravedigger. Freely’s mother of course produced a very large brood - eleven children.
This scenario could be the set-up for a piece of “misery lit” like John McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. But The Art of Exile is no such book as it is clear that despite poverty, despite having to survive the Depression years, and despite the father’s heavy drinking, this was a happy and cohesive family. The boy John Freely did not do well at school. His only love was reading, he flunked most subjects and he dropped out of high school with no qualifications to his name. In the Second World War, and at the age of eighteen, he joined the US Navy and saw service as part of the force that provided some assistance to China as it sought to repel Japanese invaders. When Freely quit the navy at the end of the war, he was twenty, unskilled and not sure what to do with himself.
But then he received some life-changing advice from a priest:
            I asked Father Ryan for advice on what I might read to educate myself after I left the Navy, for there was little chance that I would go back to school. He looked through his desk and handed me the catalogue for the Great Books programme… The curriculum began with Homer’s Odyssey and ended with James Joyce’s Ulysses, and included not only the Great Books but also works about the authors themselves and the times in which they lived.” (pp.38-39)
Before he found real work, the young ex-navy man decided to goof off for a year, living off the modest pension for which former servicemen were eligible. He says:
During the 52 weeks that followed I read through the entire curriculum of the Great Books programme, starting with Homer in Chapman’s translation of 1595, and ending with James Joyce’s Ulysses.” (p.64)
It was only when he was near the end of this programme that he learnt he was eligible for a free college education thanks to the generous G. I. Bill, which was then having the effect of lifting many American working-class former soldiers and sailors into middle-class lives. Not even able to boast of a high-school diploma, and never having shone in mathematics or the sciences, Freely was still able to get into NYU and study what most people would regard as the most daunting pure science – Physics. Amazingly, he shone. He gained a PhD, had articles published in prestigious scientific journals and was offered a research position at Princeton. He was now qualified to teach Physics at university level and, for the rest of his working life, teaching Physics and courses on the history of science became his basic livelihood.
But this was not the focus of his life. His Navy days led him to love travel and his particular interest was the civilisations of the old eastern Mediterranean. He met his wife Dolores – always nicknamed Toots – in the late 1940s, and they made a “pact” (pp.65-66) that they would spend their life travelling together. They were to have three children who were all given distinctively Irish names - Maureen, Eileen and Brendan. (Maureen Freely is now herself a novelist and noted translator of Turkish literature.) But even with children in tow, they now began to live the “vagabond” life of the subtitle.
John Freely took up teaching positions in English-language colleges in Istanbul and this city was to be his base for most of the years that followed, with occasional visiting fellowships at English and American universities. From Istanbul he and Toots – sometimes alone, sometimes with the children – made yearly trips to the Greek isles, to Anatolia, to Romania, to Venice, to Spain and Southern Italy. Thus their life continued from the 1950s to the 1990s, and as it did so, Freely wrote, or collaborated in writing, dozens of travel books, travel guides and historical studies of the places in which he sojourned for long periods. Nearly forty books are credited to him – most published by major firms such as Penguin.
All this, you have to admit, is pretty good for a high school drop-out who, at the age of twenty, had little idea what he wanted to do with his life.
Freely’s tone throughout this memoir is optimistic and cheerful. He clearly loved what he was able to do for fifty or sixty years, and when he visits some ancient gods-haunted temple or other historical site, he is always ready to quote appropriate verses by Pindar or Alcaeus or Homer or Anacreon. He is very discreet. When mentioning various friends and university colleagues, he speaks no scandal (save when remarking on one administrator who was fired for incompetence). Without elaborating – he can (p.89) tell us of a friend in Istanbul associating with “somewhat scary young men with whom he would then disappear into the night.” (Hmmm). In one sentence only, he notes that his son attempted suicide and he brushes quickly over his daughter’s divorce.
Likewise it is to his credit that he indulges in very little name-dropping. In Chapter 4 he tells us that, when his daughter was a tot, she danced with an unknown Egyptian fighter-pilot called Hosni Murbarak – later president of Egypt. He had an interesting encounter in a restaurant with the famed Turkish novelist Yasar Kemal (author of Memed, My Hawk), where Kemal plucked a red hair out of Freely’s Irish beard to show his friends, and Freely plucked a hair from Kemal’s bared chest to show his friends. There are also a couple brief anecdotes about visits from the American novelist James Baldwin. But that’s it for name-dropping.
If there is a theme to be discerned – apart from Freely’s pride in his achievements – it is to be found in the elegiac note he often strikes. He is fully aware that his best travelling days were before easy air-travel and mass tourism began to crowd hitherto obscure places around the Mediterranean, which he once haunted. Of first visiting the reputed site of the fabled Troy he observes (p.99): “Tourism had not yet begun in Turkey, and so we had the site all to ourselves except for a Turkish gendarme who was guarding the ruins.” Of another site, he remarks:
I still have a photo of the temple that I took that day, and it remains as the enduring image of our early trips through Anatolia…. By the time [one of my books was published] the modern world had discovered this lost arcadia, spoiling it forever, but not in my memory, where it remains the same as it was when I first saw it in what now seems a golden age.” (p.126)
There are many other such statements in The Art of Exile, even some relating to his sense of a “lost world” when he revisited Ireland for the first time in eighty years and discovered people now have televisions and don’t go barefoot; or when he went to the New York neighbourhoods where he grew up. But I find much unintended irony in this sort of talk. He recalls researching and writing a guide book of the island of Naxos and then calls it “an evocation of the place as we first knew it, before it had lost its innocence to the modern commercial world.” (p.175) This shows no awareness that guide books, such as his own, would be one of the reasons that such places are now swarming for tourists. Indeed, the type of books Freely habitually wrote are largely marketed to potential tourists. A grimmer sort of irony is to be found now in his reference to halcyon days (in the early 1960s) in places like Damascus and Aleppo.
I won’t criticise Freely for indulging in one habit that some might find arch. This is his habit of picturing himself frequently as Odysseus the voyager and his wife (who died in 2015 after 64 years of marriage) as the faithful Penelope. But I guess I can indulge an old man on that one.
As you can, I hope, see, I have nothing against John Freely’s worldview, or his attitude to life, and I find his achievements admirable.
Why, then, did I find this book so disappointing and in the end (sorry) so dull?
It is because it reads like a bare chronicle, or perhaps even like diary notes that have been gracelessly worked up into an autobiography. From my summary, you might well assume that The Art of Exile is a book that bustles with events and anecdotes and the liveliness of a traveller’s life. It isn’t. It is a book that trudges year by year through the chronicle of where Freely held academic appointments, where he travelled with members of his family, which books he wrote and who published them and so forth. Repeatedly he seems to be “doing justice” to his life rather than letting us share its sights, sounds, smells and (above all) people. Indeed it is like an “account rendered”. I have the impression that Freely has already said at length what he has to say about the places he has visited in the many travel books he has written. The Art of Exile might be intended to give us the big picture, but it is a picture with all the colour drained out of it.