Monday, May 29, 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 SUICIDE CLUB”” by Sarah Quigley  (Penguin / Random House, $NZ 38)

            Sarah Quigley’s latest novel is called The Suicide Club and the blurb on the back tells us sententiously that it deals with “the last taboo”, which presumably means suicide. So it’s fitting that it begins with a failed suicide attempt and ends with a successful one.

            On the opening page, 20-year-old “Bright” (Brian) O’Connor plunges (or was he pushed?) 19 storeys, falling symbolically past a huge billboard of a sexy and half-naked woman, as his life flashes before him. But, miraculously (and, dare I say, very improbably) his fall is broken, and his life preserved, by a trundler full of newspapers.

            The trundler is pushed about the city by 20-year-old Gibby Lux (his parents were going to call him “Digby”, but they couldn’t spell).

            Both Bright and Gibby are oddballs – or perhaps geniuses. Bright  doesn’t get on with his pompous father and his stepmother. He is a compulsive reader and writer. He appears to live in a stationery cupboard. He has had one book published and is on the verge of becoming famous. So what motivated his suicide attempt? Could it be writer’s block – or the fear that he will not be able to follow up his first book? “Every time he opens his notebook,” we are told much later, “he’s back on the ledge, with the pair of hands at his back. Then he feels nauseous and faint. The blank white page is the inverse of empty darkness; both hold the terror of limitless possibility.” (p.150)

            Gibby is working towards being some sort of inventor, always coming up with ideas for a new or modified gadget. But he’s socially awkward, still lives with his parents, has no friends and is cursed with a special hypersensitivity: “Other people’s lives have always been a mystery to him. It’s the other things, the more hidden things, that he can see astoundingly clearly. For instance, standing under a tree, he sees the sap pulsing under the bark, pushing buds out into the wind. He can hear the tiny crack  of a root six feet under asphalt. And if you stand beside him now, and look up the way he is, you might start to see the separate componenets of the clouds, each one and intricate woven ball of water vapour….” (p.173)

Then there’s 20-year-old Lace (her parents called her Grace, but she chose a sexier name). Gentle reader, let me make it clear at once that I regard Lace as something of a fantasy figure, as improbable as the trundler breaking Bright’s fall. Lace has: “her extraordinary beauty, which knocks men sideways and dents their hearts and confidence; her cat-like detachment, coupled with her deeply caring nature…” (p.45) But sexy young Lace is “hurtling down the lift-shaft to escape love.” (p.28) She beds men one by one and moves on as soon as any of them look like becoming emotionally attached to her. Lace, we soon understand, is suffering from long-term deprivation and bereavement and is reacting by making nothing permanent in her life. Her loveless bed-hopping is a means of avoiding real intimacy.

About halfway through this longish novel we learn that for Lace: “Life is a long losing process. (She runs, cries, runs.) Losing keys, losing wallets, losing coats slung over radiators in cafes while the snow drops in thick flaky pieces from the sky. Losing your virginity, losing your idealism, losing belief that there’s someone out there who is looking for you. Losing your parents, sister, home. Losing faith, losing hear. Losing your mind.” (p.202) And much nearer the novel’s end we get the full, childhood, details of how such an attitude was implanted in her.

So here are three lost and unhappy souls. I will not try your patience by saying how or why, but these three characters become entangled. In the novel’s second half, Bright’s father sends him to a psychiatric facility in Bavaria called The Palace. Gibby, who has taken on the role of Lace’s protector, takes Lace to the same facility. So they are involved in group discussions with the kindly Dr Geoffrey and do much soul-searching. Also, a romantic triangle forms. Gauche Gibby regards Lace as his enterprise and feels jealousy when Lace seems to be attracted to the more flamboyant Bright.

I told you it ends in a suicide, but I will not be so crass as to say of whom. The author deserves not to have all her surprises and twists of plot revealed so soon after a novel is first published.

There are some good things in The Suicide Club. The incidental comedy works in places – such as Bright’s strained attempts to talk to his father’s chauffeur, Lewis, as he is driven to the sanatorium. Sarah Quigley does, page for page, fill her tale with incident. But at a certain point, some of this seems more like stretching out – or padding – a fairly simple idea, rather than really illuminating the characters or telling us more about them than we knew within the first hundred pages. At 400 pages, this is a tale that could have been told more concisely. More rigorous editing would have helped.

Worse, as I read The Suicide Club, I kept having mental flashbacks to the 60-year-old movie Rebel Without a Cause. Bright, Gibby and Lace are really James Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood building their special relationship in the face of horrible adults who just don’t “understand”. It doesn’t help that Bright’s Dad is a one-dimensional stereotype (a hypocritical clergyman) and, of course, when Gibby takes Lace to a party put on by his father’s business, all the grown-ups are crass and repulsive.  The three main characters are all aged 20, but this is very much in the mode of teen lit that strokes self-pity. Are there young people with emotional problems as severe as those depicted in this novel? I’m sure there are, But Sarah Quigley’s resolution is pure Hollywood.

The publisher’s flyer included a high-minded statement by Sarah Quigley about how her novel was intended to encourage a more compassionate attitude towards suicide. I think the attitude towards suicide which it really encourages is the romantic one often embraced by teenagers.

See the posting on A. Alvarez’s The SavageGod for a detailed discussion of this phenomenon.

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 TRAGIC COMEDIANS - A Study in a Well-Known Story ” by George Meredith (first published in 1880)

            George Meredith (1828-1909) began his novel-writing career with an Arabian Nights fantasy called The Shaving of Shagpat, and he did write a two-novel sequence (Sandra Belloni and Vittoria) part of which dealt with a singer involved in the Italian wars of unification. But nearly all his novels are set among the British gentry, aristocracy and intellectual chattering classes. You might already know this from earlier postings on this blog about Meredith’s The Ordeal of Richard Feverel and Beauchamp’s Career and TheEgoist and Diana of the Crossways. Therefore The Tragic Comedians is something of an aberration in his work. It is set entirely in continental Europe, none of its characters is British and it touches on radical or revolutionary politics, even though nearly all of its main characters are upper-crust. It is also much shorter than all Meredith’s other novels – just a little shy of 200 pages in my old battered Penguin copy.

The novel is very loosely based on a real case – hence Meredith’s subtitle “A Study in a Well-Known Story.” But of that more later.

To give a short synopsis – a Jewish socialist intellectual is loved by the Gentile daughter of a wealthy military man. But he is killed in a duel with the aristocrat her parents have chosen for her to marry.

The longer synopsis would go thus: General von Rudiger’s daughter Clotilde in engaged to be married to the amiable, impressionable young Prince Marko Romaris. She has heard of the handsome, eloquent Jewish socialist leader Sigismund Alvan. But she has never met him. When, in Switzerland, she does at last meet him, she is at first struck by his Jewishness, but then she is rapidly swept up in passionate love for him. He reciprocates her feelings.

He tells her to ignore the calumnies that have been spread about him, especially the rumour that he has had an affair with Baroness Lucie von Crefeldt. He has simply been sympathetic to her after her husband had mistreated her. Starry-eyed, Clotilde accepts his version of events. She would be quite prepared to elope with Alvan, but Alvan does not want society to think he took advantage of her.

 So he goes to General von Rudiger to get approval for their marriage.

Outraged at this Jewish upstart’s request, the general removes his daughter from the scene and has her locked up. She is made to write a letter repudiating Alvan. Alvan is shocked to receive the letter, but then reflects that it must have been written under duress. Using his friend Colonel von Tresten as a go-between, Alvan gets access to General von Rudiger, and pleads to see Clotilde, if only to hear her repudiation from her own lips. But by this stage, Clotilde has been unimpressed by the cold reception she received when she turned to Baroness Lucie von Crefeldt for advice. Part of her mind believes there might have been some truth in the rumour of Alvan’s affair with Lucie after all. She is also unimpressed by the stiff formality of Alvan’s go-between Colonel von Tresten.  So she now does tell Alvan to his face that she repudiates him.

Callow Prince Marko Romanis, who has remained pathetically devoted to Clotilde throughout the narrative, receives a letter from Alvan challenging him to a duel.

In the duel Marko shoots Alvan dead.

Clotilde, unable to believe Providence could let Alvan die, finds that the only way she can escape from her parents’ oppressive home is to marry Marko. This she does.

At which point you are doubtless thinking “What a contrived, artificial, melodramatic story!

Except that, as its subtitle says, The Tragic Comedians was based on a true story. Meredith wrote it after having read the memoirs of the aristocratic Helene von Donniges, who had had a tragic love affair with the German-Jewish Social Democrat leader Ferdinand Lassalle. Lassalle was killed (in 1864, at the age of 39) in a duel with Helene’s betrothed Prince Yanko Racowotza. Obviously Helene, Lassalle and Yanko are the novel’s Clotilde, Alvan and Marko. In real life Helene von Donniges really was locked up by her father to prevent her from seeing Lassalle, and Lassalle sent challenges to a duel not only to Helene’s fiance but also to Helene’s father. Helene von Donniges did end up marrying Prince Yanko Racowotza.

The fact that it is based on a true story provides Meredith with a warrant to make his story more melodramatic than was his wont.

Conversations in this novel often have the qualities of operatic arias – they are florid, overwrought and poetic, presumably intended by Meredith to give us the essence of the characters’ feelings without pretending to be naturalistic. Alvan habitually makes such declarations to Clotilde as “I know we must meet. It is no true day so long as the goddess of the morning and the sun-god are kept asunder.” (Chapter 4)

As in The Egoist, the novel Meredith wrote just before The Tragic Comedians, the small cast of characters leaves the impression of an hermetically-sealed society, even though there is the odd reference to larger historical forces. Alvan is, after all, a socialist leader who idolises Garibaldi and has conferred with “Ironsides” (meaning Bismarck). For modern readers it may seem odd, given that the story is so patently based on episodes in the life of Ferdinand Lassalle, that there appear to be no references to a character based on Karl Marx. Lassalle was an occasional collaborator with, but more often a polemical sparring partner against, Marx. But bear in mind that in 1880, to Meredith’s English readers, Karl Marx was just another European political philosopher, of whom there were many.

What does that title “tragic comedians” mean? As I read it, it is consonant with a theme that is common in Meredith’s work, and that was especially prominent in The Egoist. The fate of Alvan and Clotilde may be tragic, but they are also like play-sctors, conforming to roles that they feel have been assigned to them. Alvan is (as Lassalle was at the time of his death) about 40. Clotilde is considerably younger than he. Alvan’s love for Clotilde is strong, but there is a wide streak of egotism and play-acting to it. He expects Clotilde to be both an asset to him and an admirer of him – which she is.

Speaking of Clotilde to Baroness Lucie von Crefeldt, Alvan orates  egotistically:

I give her a soul!... I am the wine and she the crystal cup. She has avowed it again and again. You read her as she is when away from me. Then she is a reed, a weed, what you will; she is unfit to contend when she stands alone. But when I am beside her, when we are together – the moments I have her at arms’ length she will be part of me by the magic I have seen each time we encountered…” (Chapter 14)

 Clotilde (in pointedly repudiating Alvan) and Alvan (in fighting a duel) both do things that they are not really inclined to do, but that they feel compelled to do by the public roles they are expected to play. They are “comedians” in the European sense of “actors”. As far as my own reading is concerned, the novel by another author that comes closest in this theme to Meredith’s The Tragic Comedians is Jean Cocteau’s novella Thomas, l’Imposteur, in which a young First World War-era impostor, by acting out the role being an heroic young soldier ends up literally being one. Alvan and Clotilde act out the roles of being tragic lovers – and that is what they become.

Of course Meredith also touches on the idea of antisemitism in European society. When Clotilde first sights Alvan, Meredith remarks:

The Jew was to Clotilde as flesh of the swine to the Jew. Her parents had the same abhorrence of Jewry. One of the favourite similes of the family for whatsoever grunted in grossness, wriggled with meaness, was Jew…” (Chapter 2)

Later, however, we are told that she overcomes her inherited prejudice. She had expected:

an Esau of the cities.. [but] … seeing superb manly beauty in the place of the thick-featured sodden satyr of her miscreating fancy, the irresistible was revealed to her on its divinest whirlwind.” (Chapter 4)

Even this urgent theme, however, is not the novel’s essence. What moves Meredith is his ironical impulse to see his characters as play actors.

Political footnote: For the record, the small tribe of ardent Marxists now despise Ferdinand Lassalle, and see him as the originator of the damnable heresy of “reformism”. I have just come from reading “Marx and the Lassalleans” a modern attack on Lassalle on the International Socialists Organisation of Aotearoa / New Zealand website. Among other things, the article accuses Lassalle of shameless self-promotion, histrionics and profound egotism. Oddly enough, this comes close to the way George Meredith presents his fictionalised version of Lassalle.

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. 


An old saw says that there is nothing new under the sun, and in the realm of ideas for fiction it is doubtless true.

I recently had vivid proof of this idea.

A couple of years back, a good friend of mine sang the praises of Woody Allen’s light comedy Midnight in Paris (made in 2011), which he had just seen. He said it had a most original idea.

We recently got around to seeing this souffle on Netflix. Midnight in Paris is a very simple and frothy affair. A blocked American writer (played by Owen Wilson) is visiting Paris with his fiancee and her unpleasant parents. It is clear that fiancee is tiring of writer and their relationship is slowly deflating. Blocked writer really wants to get on with his novel, while fiancee and parents want him to stick with profitable hackwork as a scriptwriter.

Then one midnight something magical happens. Mooching around the backstreets of Paris on his own, the writer is whisked back to Paris in the 1920s, and rubs shoulders with the “lost generation” of deracinated American writers. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Stein et al. They give him advice on how to write. He also gets to meet deracinated Spaniards like Picasso and Dali and Luis Bunuel. In fact in one scene, he suggests to Bunuel that he make a movie about people trapped in a room from which they cannot escape – and when you get to such lines, you appreciate that the film is made in part for smartarses like me and you, who will at once congratulate themselves on getting the reference and knowing what film is being referred to (oh very well, unlettered one – its Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel). Man Ray, Cole Porter, T.S.Eliot and others have briefer walk-on bits.

This is the romantic American tourist version of Paris through and through, with golden-filtered shots of the city in both the present and the 1920s past. Of course blocked writer (in the present) gets to meet a soulmate – a young Frenchwoman who is as obsessed with 1920s Paris as he is and who in the end wanders off with him to a romantic finish under romantic Parisian rain.

But what was this very original idea that my friend perceived in the film?

Well, despite its being a wallow in nostalgia for a past age, Midnight in Paris contains at least one discreet warning against the folly of indulging in nostalgia. When he is in the 1920s, the film’s hero meets an attractive Frenchwoman who says how bored she is in the 1920s, and how she wishes she were living in the more interesting Belle Epoque (the 1890s or thereabouts). So there is a sequence in which the hero and said woman are whisked back even further to a café where they meet Toulouse-Lautrec and company.

Moral? In every age, some people will always find an imagined past preferable to the real present.

My trouble was, I would have found this idea more ingenious if I hadn’t met it before.

Back in 2006 I had a temporary lectureship at the University of Otago and – separated from wife and family – I whiled away a lot of my evenings by plundering the university’s film library and watching “classics” which I had not hitherto seen. My preferences were for old Italian, German and especially French films.

So one evening I got to see Rene Clair’s Les Belles de Nuit (made in 1952).

It too is a souffle-light and frothy piece of nonsense. Gerard Philipe plays a piano-teacher who aspires to be a composer; but every time he wants to get down to business, he is distracted by noises from the street (a jackhammer, a motorbike being revved up etc.) How he wishes he lived in a more leisurely era. One day, while teaching piano stiudents, he falls asleep and dreams he is in the Belle Epoque, where the delightful Martine Carol witnesses his great success as a composer. Later he dreams himself back into the earlier era of Louis Philippe, where he is part of the army conquering Algeria and he gets to meet the delightful Gina  Lollobrigida. And later he goes back to the French Revolution and gets to meet the delightful Magali Vendeuil. And so on and so on.

And in each and every age there is an old codger who insists that life used to be more attractive and gracious “back in the good old days” – which always leads the hero to regress back to yet another ultimately disappointing earlier era. The film has a darker strain in it too – in each age, twists of the plot turn the idealised imagined past into a place of terror. The hero’s musical composition is booed in the Belle Epoque, he faces the firing squad in the age of Louis Philippe and the guillotine in the French Revolution.

Moral? Daydreaming about the past varnishes over the negative realities of the past. Nostalgia is a process by which we pick out only those parts of the past that we find attractive, ignoring the complex grind of everyday life that exists in every age.
I do wonder if Woody Allen saw this film before he made Midnight in Paris.

Monday, May 22, 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.

“LANDFALL #233 – 70th Anniversary Issue” edited by David Eggleton (Otago University Press, $NZ 30); “FULLY CLOTHED AND SO FORGETFUL” by Hannah Mettner (Victoria University Press, $NZ 25)


What surprises me about the 70th anniversary issue of Landfall is how modest it is. A literary periodical which has managed to survive (sometimes just barely) since 1947 might be expected to blow its trumpet a bit. But then Landfall did quite a bit of trumpet-blowing on its 50th anniversary. This time editor David Eggleton appears to have opted to keep it low-key. The special anniversary feature of this issue consists of four short essays giving a retrospective. They occupy just the first 14 pages of text. They are interesting for their contrasting viewpoints.

Peter Simpson (as he proved in his BloomsburySouth) is the cultural historian, providing a brief but handy view of how Charles Brasch came to set up the magazine in the 1940s, but how the unreliability (and failure to keep deadlines) of printer and poet Denis Glover almost managed to scupper it before it at last achieved  a respectable readership.

Philip Temple, whose involvement with Landfall was in the 1970s, gives a dry, but rather angry, account of the firing of Robin Dudding as editor. Temple assisted the new editor who took over – and he comes very close to saying that Dudding fully deserved to be fired. He notes how Dudding absconded with submissions (intended for Landfall) to use in the new magazine, Islands, which he set about editiing. Temple is still annoyed by the “odious literary politics” surrounding the state’s funding of the two publications and the formation of literary cliques supporting one publication or the other. (Founding editor Brasch saw things Dudding’s way.) It is interesting to read Temple’s contribution in conjunction with Chris Else’s review, in this issue’s review section, of My Father’s Island, the memoir written by Robin Dudding’s son Adam Dudding. Else (like Adam Dudding) naturally sees Robin Dudding as the innocent party in the break-up.

The third retrospective essayist is my old mate Iain Sharp, who was involved in Landfall in the late 1980s and early 1990s as fiction editor. Sharpo decides to be a bit iconoclastic and laddish as he recounts his days as a pub poet, with raucous peers who saw Landfall as too earnest and stuffy and prone to “laughless pomposity.” In other words, Landfall was the conservative enemy to young men who saw themselves as the radical future – or at any rate who saw poetry and getting pissed as one and the same thing. And then he became part of Landfall for some years and found his viewpoint changed somewhat – though he still gets some further digs into his account.

Finally there is Chris Price, who gives a busy, straightforward version of her part in producing Landfall’s 50th anniversary issue in 1997.

This isn’t quite the end of this issue’s anniversary celebration. There is also the report, by David Eggleton, on the Charles Brasch Young Writers’ Essay Competition – and the publication of the winner, Andy Xie’s essay “The Great New Zealand Myth”, which uses mythology to reflect on the condition of being an immigrant in New Zealand.

So much for the celebration of an anniversary.

This issue of Landfall gives, as always, generous space to creative prose and poetry.

In the review section, I enjoyed Jeffrey Paparoa Holman’s nuanced critique of The Collected Poems of Alistair Te ArikiCampbell, but I am surprised that, apart from referring to this edition as  “Campbell’s chosen legacy”, Holman does not consider which of Campbell’s published works are not in this edition.

Considering how blurred the margin between poetry and prose can become, I began reading Michele Leggott’s “New Moon in the Old Moon’s Arms” as if it were a prose story, but soon realised that its six vignettes are really prose poems and variations on a theme.

Stephen Higginson’s story  “Chinaman Flats Road” is a sustained, and very descriptive narrative where, eventually, the horrific intrudes upon what at first seemed idyllic. Its pictorial markers of the bush, the ruined church and a gin-trap give it an oddly retrospective tone – the ruin of a country that once was. Claire Baylis’s story “The Boy Next Door” is on one level every young parent’s nightmare – involving a toddler being taken and possibly abused – but it passes subtly into the realm of social critique related to social class. Tracey Slaughter’s story “Ladybirds” implies, as much of her work does, something extreme and unsettling in domestic situations.

In the area of poetry, I found myself enjoying the forthright polemic of Stephanie Christie’s “Poverty Mentality”; Bob Orr’s aestheticisation of the chipping of weeds; Victoria Broome’s lovely poem “The Vogue Theatre” about  a child’s first encounter with cinema; Robert McLean’s “Lines on Tarkovsky”, showing McLean’s continuing absorption in high culture and his mastery of verse form; and especially Emma Neale’s “Morning Song”, tackling a familiar theme – an adult child coming to realise the worth of an elder (in this case a grandfather) only when the child has acquired an adult perspective herself.

But you understand what I am doing in singling out these pieces for comment, don’t you? I am shamelessly cherry-picking from all that is available in Landfall #233. This is the hell of reviewing anthologies and literary periodicals. There is simply no possibility of giving attention to everything that is worthy of comment.

The portfolio of photos by Chris Corson-Scott is impressive – the images are mainly of the decay of human constructions in rural setings – but whether or not the (accidental?) cross on the cover of this issue has any particular significance, I do not know.

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

Some time back, I had the great pleasure of reviewing Sue Wootton’s The Yield on this blog, and called it one of the most satisfying New Zealand poetry collections I had encountered in a decade. It was not only the intelligence and perception of the poet that impressed me, but her ability to deal with form – knowing how to shape a poem, how to use appropriately assonance and stretched rhythm.

I am now considering a very different collection, the debut volume of Hannah Mettner Fully Clothed and So Forgetful. These too are poem that are intelligent and perceptive. They are written by somebody who is as happy in prose poems as in verse forms, and who can draw on a range of cultural references. And yet, after spending a couple of days wrestling with them, they are poems that I found very difficult to engage with. I’m now stuck with the problem of trying to explain why this should be so.

Much of the tone of this collection is established in the opening poem, “Higher Ground”, which also gives the volume its title. In a conceit, life is seen as climbing a ladder, painfully, with broken relationships on the way (“you never meet anyone on the way up”), and with us being drawn upwards only by an illusion (“We tell / our children and then our / grandchildren about the cool / pond at the top…”) until we arrive at the top “fully clothed and so forgetful”. I read this as a statement about life being arduous, a struggle and yet one to which there is little ultimate point, especially as we forget most of which we could have learned on the way up.

Much of this collection is written in the (singular or plural) first person or the implicit first person. It therefore hands us all the dificulties of decoding what are clearly personal and autobiographical details. Much concerns family relationships. The poems “Father in the garden” and “A history” present detailed imagery of mother and father, but become metaphorical as they point to something else. “Sisters” is really about the experience of daughterhood. “Every day is a fright” recalls experiences of school. “First and last” concerns memories of teenagerhood, experimenting with (but mainly talking about) sex. “Clifford Street” is a memory of “the ghost in my grandmother’s house” – in other words, a reconstruction of childhood impressions.

So far, so universal.

But the personal intimacy of some of these poems is such that I often feel I am prying into somebody else’s very private life by reading them.

 “Baking a maybe” is very much in the confessional mode, and is a rejection of facile sympathy after (apparently) a miscarriage or other gyneacological problem. The poem “Motuoroi Island, Anaura Bay” is childhood memory connected with adult experience. It reminded me at once of the conjunction and contrast of innocence and experience that were William Blake’s specialty. Whereupon I discover that the very next poem in the collection has the Blakean title “In the forest of the night” and deals in part with a child’s reaction to being fatherless “ever since I left your father”. The poems “Girl talk” and “Having a smoke with my uncles”, and the prose poem “All tall women”, all imply strongly the experience of coming out as lesbian.

Am I being churlish in finding it hard to relate to these poems? Will I be accused by at least one poetry publicist of gross male insensitivity?  All I am saying is that I can see the skill with which Hannah Mettner is writing, but I am not drawn into her mindscape.

Some poems are built on a very interesting idea, but perhaps are not fully worked through as poems. In “The invisible mother”, Hannah Mettner works with the image of a Victorian photographic convention, whereby photographs of infants would be taken, with the mothers who were holding them made invisible by hiding behind blankets. From this image, Mettner works through the idea of the work of a mother itself as being invisible or unseen.

There are prose poems that are witty, such as “An argument for reincarnation illustrated by cars”, or the catalogue that is “Cult”, which is followed by a cod questionnaire, poking fun at people like me who get too academic and analytical about poems. “Alone in the woods” seems to be a hip prose variant on Robert Frost’s two roads poem.

Having given too much faint praise in this brief notice, I should end by mentioning the two poems in Fully Clothed and So Forgetful with which I connected most fully.

There is an interesting ambiguity about the poem “On not seeing ghosts”. On one level it is a straightforward disavowal of any belief in an afterlife or in the supernatural, including ghosts. But on the other hand it has an unsettling spooikiness to it.

Then there is “Another failed sea battle”, in which Hannah Mettner boldly takes on the theme of the untameability of the sea, and our foolish human habit of imagining that our ships have somehow “conquered” it.

Is it just the male in me that responds to the thematic coherence of these poems? I hope not. I think their themes are open to all. But for this reader, many of this collection's other referents were not.

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 OUTCRY” by Henry James (first published in 1911)

Three or four years ago, I was trawling through a second-hand bookshop in Wellington, when my eye was caught by a novel of which I had never heard before. And yet the author was a canonical writer, the list of whose novels I thought I knew fairly well. Was this a newly-discovered treasure? I wondered. So I bought it. It was The Outcry, by Henry James (1843-1916), first published in 1911 and apparently the last novel James completed. (When he died, he left behind three or four uncompleted novels, as well as many unpublished essays.)

            How had this novel flown under my radar?

When I got home, I checked two or three critical studies of James on my shelves, and was none the wiser. I found no mention of The Outcry in their texts, though one of them did list The Outcry in its bibliography.

It was only recently, when I got around to reading the novel (in Penguin Classics, with an extensive introduction Toby Litt), that I found out why The Outcry is so little known. As I have said too often on this blog (look up my postings on Roderick Hudson, WashingtonSquare and The Portrait of a Lady), later James does not appeal to me, but here I was reading James’ very last novel out of sheer curiosity.

And my goodness it was bad.

Before I elucidate the mystery of the novel’s obscurity, let me offer you one of my notorious synopses.

The Outcry is an upper-class comedy.

Grumpy old Lord Theyne has a major problem. His elder daughter Kitty (who never appears in the novel) is addicted to gambling and has run up formidable debts. To pay her debts and keep her from scandal, Lord Theyne decides that he might try to sell off some of his more valuable paintings. The millionaire American art-collector Breckinridge Bender is in England. His main criterion is that a painting be worth a lot of money. He visits Lord Theyne’s stately home. He has his eye on an invaluable portrait by Sir Joshua Reynolds. Fortuitously, Lord Theyne’s younger daughter Lady Grace introduces into the house an amiable middle-class chap, Hugh Crimble, who actually knows about art. Hugh Crimble persuades Bender, Lord Theyne and others that one of Lord Theyne’s Italian paintings might be even more valuable than the Sir Joshua Reynolds, although he will have to get it valued first by an expert. Of course Bender is interested.

But there are complications. One is that Lady Grace had been romantically attached to an inane upper-class twit called Sir John. As the story progresses, she drops Sir John and becomes more attached to Hugh Crimble, whom she seems inclined to marry. This is not at all to the liking of Lord Theyne who wonders if middle-class bounders are quite the thing. Then there is the fact that Lord Theyne doesn’t like people telling him what to do with his own property. If he chooses to sell a painting it’s his business and nobody else’s. He is even more confirmed in this view when an “outcry” is raised once Hugh Crimble does get the Italian painting valued and it proves to be priceless. The newspapers are saying that it is wrong for great works of art hanging in England to be sold out of the country. A subscription is begun to match anything that Breckinridge Bender may have to offer and to keep the painting in England.

Lord Theyne is furious that public pressure is being put on him, and he is furious that his daughter Lady Grace is on the side of the “outcry”.

Fear not. As a story it has a happy ending for all concerned, because it is a comedy after all. In fact, in conception, it has the makings of a jolly (if rather twee) upper-class farce. Lord Theyne the grumpy red-faced squire, and Bertie Wooster-ish Lord John could well be figures out of P. G. Wodehouse, while Beckinridge Bender is your British caricature of the fabulously wealthy American philistine. (My, how the American Henry James loved to suck up to English tastes in his mature years!)

But you forget that it was written by Late Period Henry (“pile on those redundant, prolix, subordinate clauses”) James, guaranteed to stultify comedy whenever it rears its head by over-explaining, over-rationalising and not allowing situations to speak for themselves. The Outcry is burdened in its opening stages by awful self-expository dialogue in which minor characters (Lady Sandgate and others) explain the premise of the lord, the paintings and the gambling debts. The Outcry develops as a series of conversations between two characters, who are regularly replaced in the same location by two other characters who have their own conversation, and so on and so on. The Outcry has really odd descriptions of place, where James is precise in telling us what is on the left-hand side and what is on the right-hand side. And The Outcry is divided into three “books”, each of which ends with a dramatic crisis.

So at last, we come to the mystery of what The Outcry really is. It is not a true novel. It is Henry James’ novelisation of the play The Outcry, which he had written two years earlier in 1909. All the phenomena I have given in the preceding paragraph are really surviving evidence of dramatic exposition, the stage convention of having two characters alone on stage discussing things, stage directions (what’s on stage left and stage right etc.) and a clear three-act structure. Henry James’ novelisation merely burdens a playscript with unnecessary authorial commentary on the characters.

Sometimes, in reading this pseudo-novel, I thought it sounded better to skip the authorial comments and just read the dialogue, and sometimes this dodge worked; although even in this ruin-of-a-play, Henry James can’t help having his characters talk allusively in a kind of code, as if they are avoiding saying essential (and obvious) things.

The Penguin Classics edition’s introduction tells me that Henry James himself came to have a low regard for this novel, saying that about it “hangs the inferiority, the comparative triviality, of its primal origin” in “the unutterable Theatre”. James had no luck as a dramatist. The failure of his play Guy Domville is the stuff of literary legend. But the failure of the play version of The Outcry was not really James’ fault. The play was just about to open in London when King Edward VII had the bad taste to die and all London theatres had to close down at a time of official (and imposed) mourning. So no theatre audience ever got to see The Outcry. Cutting his losses, Henry James decided to make some money by refashioning it as a novel.

Surprisingly, as a novel The Outcry at first sold quite well. But there was a topical reason for this. The novel’s first readers understood that the plot was based on a real case. In 1909, the Duke of Norfolk announced that he was going to sell to an American collector a valuable Hans Holbein portrait which he owned, but which hung in the National Gallery on long-term loan. There was a real outcry in the newspapers about English art treasures being sold abroad. Subscriptions raised almost enough to retain the painting, and finally it got to stay in the National Gallery when an anonymous benefactor outbid the American collector’s chequebook. So the first readers of The Outcry were (perhaps) chuckling over a recent news story.

But what happens once the topicality is gone? The Outcry is left as a poor, ineptly told, novel with artificial characters. After 1911, many decades went by before anybody bothered to republish it. In fact only in the 1990s was it reprinted for the first time. The mystery of its obscurity is thus solved.

Puerile and Gossipy Footnote: Toby Litt’s notes tell me that Henry James quite clearly based the character of the genial Hugh Crimble on the young popular novelist Hugh Walpole, thus nurturing the quaint fiction that Hugh Walpole was heterosexual. (See my post on Mr Perrin and Mr Traill, which was first published the same year that The Outcry was published). Walpole very much wanted to be identified with highbrow and culturally-esteemed writers like James. He spent much of his time paying court to James, who responded with kittenish letters to Walpole. Walpole also wrote a glowing newspaper review of The Outcry, for which James thanked him fulsomely. Thus do inward-turning literary cliques operate.