Monday, April 16, 2018

Something New

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

“THE NEW SHIPS” by Kate Duignan (Victoria University Press, $NZ30); “FEVERISH – A MEMOIR” by Gigi Fenster (Victoria University Press, $NZ30).

            Is it a sign of the Zeitgeist or is it pure coincidence that for the second time in a fortnight I find myself reviewing a novel whose plot turns, in part, on an anxious parent seeking an adult child, who has apparently gone missing in Europe?

Charlotte Grimshaw’s Mazarine [reviewed on my last post] had a mother looking for a daughter, and was set just after the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015 when the world was a-jitter about terrorism. Kate Duignan’s complex and intriguing novel The New Ships has a father seeking a son, from whom he last parted company on bad terms. It is set in 2001, when the world had similar jitters after the destruction of the Twin Towers. Both novels are narrated in the first person by the questing parent. Here, however, it would be prudent to end these odious comparisons. Grimshaw’s novel sends many overt signals that her narrator misconceives and misreports things, and it becomes in part an essay on the whole concept of the “unreliable narrator”. More subtly, Duignan’s novel allows us to see all the flaws of her narrator, but does not so blatantly question his veracity. He is telling the truth as best he can, but there are gaps in what he knows. Being stuck in his head for the length of the novel, however, we can question his values and ask how honest he is being with himself.

The narrator is the affluent, middle-aged, Wellington lawyer Peter Collie. His wife Moira has just died of cancer and he is deep in grief. But there is tension between him and his 25-year-old son, the aspiring actor Aaron. We know very early in the piece that Aaron is not his biological son. Aaron knows this too. Peter married Moira when she was pregnant by another man, whose identity she never fully disclosed to him. Not knowing who the biological father was clearly distresses Peter and he is still anxious to know. And then his son goes missing.

Grieving for his wife and then looking for his son, Peter is forced into settling accounts and taking stock of his life. As a lawyer, wishing all things were based on evidence, Peter sees himself as setting out to discover forensically the truth about his late wife, his son’s biological father and his son’s whereabouts. In the process he has to ask questions about his own identity as a husband and father and what he has achieved in life. This might seem a [relatively] straightforward and even honourable agenda, a sort of rational “accounting”. But, as we again learn very early in the novel, there is a complicating factor.

Years previously, when he was a hippie-ish young man in Amsterdam in the early 1970s, Peter impregnated a young Frenchwoman, Genevieve, who gave birth to a daughter, Abigail. Genevieve left him and later told him that Abigail had died in infancy. But, at the same time he is grieving for his wife’s death, Peter gets a message from Rob, an old pal now settled in Europe, who says he has seen a young woman the spitting image of Genevieve and who wonders if she could in fact be the young adult Abigail. So in some sense Peter is involved in seeking both a son and a daughter.    

For aught I know, at this point some cheap wit might be waiting to quote [a modified version of] Lady Bracknell’s jibe: “To lose one [child], Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Let me make it clear then, that I find this scenario both plausible and persuasive as Kate Duignan presents it. But it also adds nuance to Peter Collie’s exploration of himself. After all, in questing after his lost daughter Abigail, he is in a way in search of his lost youth, a psychological compulsion common enough in middle-aged and elderly men. And seeking one’s lost youth often involves a degree of self-mythologisation.

In a complex, but always comprehensible, narrative The New Ships interweaves events from Amsterdam in 1970s with events in the “present”.

            Speaking as a late middle-aged male, I’m impressed by how convincing Kate Duignan has made the male voice that tells this story. Peter Collie’s perspective, his priorities and his values are male ones, and they are also indicative of his flaws. He is painfully aware of social class and he sees himself as deserving praise for coming up the hard way. He began as a boy from Wanganui whose father earned a living fixing washing machines. Even if he is apparently well-read in the classics and has become an upper-middle-class professional, is there the hint of a chip on his shoulder? His haughty and snobbish mother-in-law Laura often implies that he is not from the top drawer.

Looking back on his own youth, Peter is aware that many of the extreme radicals of his youth were well-off kids merely sojourning in radicalism. His mate Rob’s wife Clare used to advocate for the Angry Brigade when she was a student in the ‘70s, but Peter notes that she comes from a family of “liberal intellectuals, deeply enmeshed with the ruling class of England” and despite having married colonial Rob she now lives in a mansion. (p.114) When he considers his partners in his Wellington law practice, Peter remarks: “I don’t forget, ever, unlike some of my colleagues who were born into the professional class, that much of what has made my life sound and comfortable is the effect of a good career: on the psyche, on the body, how it holds you together, and income, the way the money keeps coming in, ending the late-night anxiety attacks, the humiliation of pretending you have in reach many things you do not have in reach, the constant figuring and figuring…” (p.96)

And on the same page, this idea spills over into his annoyance that his late wife – an amateur painter - and son have taken for granted the life that his hard-earned income has given them:  “for every day of joy her painting gave her, the doubt [about how much he worked] made her miserable for three. I often thought she just didn’t have enough to do. And she, of course, ate well while she painted, our house was warm while she painted, our son wanted for nothing while she painted.” (p.96)

A similar sentiment surfaces when he recalls taking Aaron on holiday to Venice when Aaron was a teenager and complained about having to see “the whole art and famous oldy things crap”. Peter immediately thinks “Our horribly spoiled boy. The arithmetic was on me before I could stop it: the two-thousand dollar airfare, the train tickets, the upgrade to two-bedroom hotel rooms so he could have his privacy and we ours.” (p.153)

Many fathers literally count the cost this way, although most learn not to say so out loud.

But how much self-deception is there in Peter Collie? How often does his narrative make excuses for past bad behaviour, or simply slide over such behaviour? He conceives of himself as an honest, hard-working husband and father, but when we learn that the boy Aaron twice got lost when the family were holidaying, we wonder how solicitous he really was. Apart from Moira and Genevieve, he mentions in passing some other women he slept with when he was young, but dismisses them as unimportant and irrelevant to his life. Reading between the lines and decoding his own partial interpretation, it is clear that they were not unimportant to Genevieve. Some of the dodgy things he did in Amsterdam come into the criminal category. As a lawyer, he sees himself as the wise mentor of younger colleagues, but his mentoring of the trainee Dylan shows a haughty dismissiveness and the same attitude comes into view when he does some pro bono work for a young man who has got into trouble in a political protest.

I do not wish to give the impression that this novel is only about its flawed narrator, and the arc of Kate Duignan’s narrative really shows Peter learning things and in a way becoming wiser – redeemed, if you like. We are certainly not invited to look down on him. But there are insistent strains of symbolism in The New Ships which underline Peter Collie’s mental state. He often refers to Orpheus, who grieved for the woman he loved but who was also killed by women – as Peter is sometimes tempted to see himself being destroyed. Peter repeatedly thinks of Mozart’s Requiem, which is appropriate to funereal thoughts about his wife, but which also includes the Miserere asking for forgiveness and the Dies Irae warning of judgment. Peter is aware of mortality, craves some sort of moral forgiveness and knows moral judgment might find him out.

Then there is the way he often thinks of the legend of Daphnis and Chloe, an image of untrammelled, youthful sensual love and sex, without adult consciousness or any sense of adult responsibility. When he meets with Genevieve in 1989, years after the birth and [apparent]] death of their daughter, he says “I kissed her, lips, mouth, tongue, I put my hand beneath her skirt, across the skin of her thigh, skimmimg over her, I wanted everything back, I wanted to be innocent, I wanted to be inside her for the first time, I wanted to be Daphnis with Chloe. I wanted to fuck her in her own place, in her own bed, I wanted to feel her skin.” (p.172) This really is, with a vengeance, the illusion of being able to find “lost youth”.

I should also note that there is a subplot of Peter, after Moira’s death, attempting to sell the bach he owns at Castlepoint. This takes on a sort of symbolic value, pointing to the more pleasurable parts of life he has now lost. That Moira once painted an unglamourised, nude portrait of her husband might also indicate her desire to denude Peter of his conceits about himself. “O wad some Power the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us! as Burns said. She is the Power. As for the novel's title, reflected in the cover design of a yacht's unfurled sails, as well as deriving from a canonical poem, "the new ships" refers literally to Peter's desire to buy a sailing boat and symbolically to his setting out in a new direction in life.

And now I face a familiar problem in reviewing a new novel. With tiresome frequency on this blog, I have proclaimed my own virtue by telling you how I do not  provide “spoilers” when I review new novels, because I believe it is unmannerly to reveal elements of the narrative that the author intends to come as a surprise to readers. This is especially true of The New Ships. Part Two of The New Ships (about the last third of the novel) suddenly gives us new information which completely alters both our and Peter Collie’s view of his late wife and of his relationship with his son. In doing so this elaborates many themes about race, about culture and about the nature of family that have been implicit earlier in the novel, but have not been fully articulated.

In passing I can note, however, that Peter Collie at one point expresses the pragmatic desire not to know about Moira’s family background and his own. What do details of family add up to, after all? “Data, anecdotes, false nostalgia. Mostly, in these parts, we forget about the past and get on with it here and now. Which seems sensible and for this I am basically grateful.” (pp.125-126). But the arc of the narrative, including the parts I have scrupulously not revealed here, shows a man reconciling with the truth and the past, for all his flaws and blindnesses. In this matter at least, The New Ships has something thematic in common with Vincent O’Sullivan’s novel All This By Chance. Ignoring or suppressing the past is no way to arrive at the truth about oneself.

I am in admiration of Kate Duignan’s ability to tell such a complex tale, with  a large cast of characters and shifting time-frames, but without ever making her narrative opaque or hard to follow. This is a considerable and very readable novel, a great analysis of a complex character and an arresting commentary on both parenthood and the nature of family. And – not the least of its virtues – it does not cheat readers by leaving its initial elements of mystery unexplained.

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Six years ago (15 April 2012, to be precise) I had the great pleasure of reviewing Gigi Fenster’s debut novel The Intentions Book for the Sunday Star-Times. In the copy of that review, which I have pasted into one of my books of press clippings, I see that I called The Intentions Bookincredibly well written and an altogether stunning debut” in its tale of a father waiting anxiously for news of his adult daughter, who has gone missing on a tramping trip in the New Zealand bush. Every so often in the last six years, I have wondered when I was going to see another book by the same author. Was she suffering some form of writer’s block?

Feverish, her second book, at last gives me my answer. Feverish is a personal memoir, and not a novel, in which Gigi Fenster does indeed say that her writing impulse seemed to have dried up and that she was looking for some way of reviving her creative powers. I have to be very careful about what I say here, as I do not wish to misrepresent her intentions. Before I read Feverish, I had already heard on Radio New Zealand the half-hour interview Kim Hill had with the author, and the impression that interview gave me was that the book focused entirely on the issue of fever itself. Gigi Fenster explained – as she does in the book – that after reading much (especially nineteenth-century) fiction, and being aware of much of the psychiatric literature, she understood that fever – in the true medical sense – could be associated with creativity and hence could impel her once more to write, after too long a hiatus. So she set out (a.) to understand more fully what fever was; and (b.) to induce a real fever in herself and hence to get back on track as an author.

These matters are indeed a major part of Feverish. Fenster discusses whether or not “fever” was simply a convenient plot device in 19th century novels; how much “brain fever” or GPI (“general paresis of the insane”) were more primitve designations for ailments that would now be diagnosed differently; and whether ancient attempts to induce fever actually worked.  She remarks: “I learned about First World War soldiers chewing cordite and school children putting onions under their armpits. I read about long steam baths and ancient Egyptian healers covering their patients in hot sand. I thought those techniques for inducing fever didn’t sound too bad.” (p.104) She also seeks to find out what modern drugs could induce a real fever, and what medically-credible “cures” have been devised.

How her quest resolves itself, and whether she does actually undergo a genuine, creativity-inducing fever, are matters that I should not reveal. But I can say that Feverish ends with a really enlightening discussion between Fenster and her (psychiatrist) father on the nature of both “fever” and its care as depicted in the novel Wuthering Heights. Part of the reason I cheer this discussion is Fenster’s argument that the real hero of that passionate novel – the only genuinely empathetic character – is the much-ridiculed Edgar Linton. Dare I say that that has long been my own opinion?

But (one of my favourite words as a reviewer, remember) I have said all this only by way of pointing out that, despite its importance, fever itself is not really the only concern of this memoir, and may not really be the most important concern. Feverish is as much about family, about guilt, about the nature of empathy and about curious happenstances in life. Indeed to some extent the subject of fever could be called a hook on which to hang the exposition of a life and a reflection on how human beings best relate to one another.

Let’s give some context here. Gigi Fenster, her husband and her two young adult daughters have lived in New Zealand for quite a number of years, but the author was born and raised in South Africa and did not leave that country until she was a young adult. Furthermore, Fenster and her family are Jewish – apparently secular and not relgiously-observant, but fully aware of their family’s ancestry in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. So there is in this memoir much remembrance of other societies, their traditions and their constraints.

Some of Fenster’s memories of South Africa are almost idyllic, as in pages about holidays in Swaziland and family and adolescent activities. But this is the South Africa of apartheid, so there is an undertone of guilt about being privileged white people, albeit ones of liberal attitudes. In fact the opening chapters have some white South African students in the 1980s refusing to do national service, while others dislike the system, don’t really do anything about it, but feel good that “their hearts are in the right place”. Later, there is agonising about what should be done after the police murder Steve Biko.

Does Feverish incite us to despise those whose “hearts [only] are in the right place”? No – for much of Fenster’s purpose is to encourage the virtue of empathy; that is, of trying to understand other people’s motives and why they act as they do. Isn’t it too easy to imagine that we would all be heroes in a morally-fraught situation? In similar vein, Fenster’s daughters are rather too ready to see their Eastern European Jewish forebears as being too craven, too ready to submit to authority, and they criticise their mother for not proclaiming her own Jewishness enough. This matter is related thematically to a story Fenster tells of a Dutch woman who, discovering that Fenster’s family were Jewish, was a little over-eager to tell her that her own family had sheltered a Jewish girl and saved her life in the Second World War. Her residual guilt about Gentiles who didn’t do enough to prevent the Shoah mirrors the guilt of white liberals in apartheid South Africa. Fully understanding what is going on in the Dutchwoman’s mind, Fenster nevertheless understands the woman’s situation and falls in with her version of events.

More than anything, though, this matter of empathy is played out in Fenster’s memories of a boy she knew when she was an adolescent. Simon was an eccentric loner who became fully schizophrenic, but who was capable of long, lucid conversations. In one long conversation with Fenster’s psychiatrist father, Simon suggests that psychiatry (medicated and perhaps compromised by its association with pharmaceuticals) is too clinical and impersonal, and lacks the empathy and personal relationships encouraged by psychoanalysis. Again, Fenster does not encourage us to endorse this view uncritically – she has too much respect for her father’s profession. But her survey of the (in retrospect) horrendous career of the “alienist” Julius Wagner-Jauregg does suggest how psychiatry, divorced from personal concern for the patient, could become a form of torture.

If fever is the frame, then empathy is the heart of Feverish.

It would be foolish not to note, too, that in the midst of these weighty matters, much of Feverish is dead funny, even if in a macabre sort of way. Consider some of Fenster’s family anecdotes. There’s the excruciatingly painful account of the family going on a shared holiday with the family of a couple who were clearly deep into the process of their marriage breaking up, and all the tensions and whispers and suppressed aggressions that that entailed. There’s the horrific tale of one of her baby daughters nearly being grabbed by a marauding bunch of baboons. And most pervasively, there is the helter-skelter of Gigi’s four siblings sometimes squabbling, sometimes verbally jousting, always communicating in family codes and in-jokes, getting in one another’s way and anticipating the punch-lines of their formidably intelligent parents’ best anecdotes and jokes. In fact behaving like any other kids in a decent family.

Having dealt with this memoir in such a po-faced fashion, however, I’m almost in danger of not conveying its real flavour. The prose of Feverish is itself feverish, being jittery, jumping from staccato sentence to staccato sentence and from idea to idea in a manner similar to the random associations encouraged on a psychoanalyst’s couch. It is the very eccentricity of this book and its odd structure and its apparent digressions that make it what it is. Yet it is not a random collection of anecdotes, memories and research. Its ideas unify it and the author’s vision is a sane one. A memorable memoir of a sort I have rarely encountered.

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