Monday, September 17, 2018

Something New


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

“POETA – Selected and New Poetry” by Cilla McQueen (Otago University Press, $NZ39:95); “THAT DERRIDA WHOM I DERIDED DIED – Poems 2013-2017” by C.K.Stead (Auckland University Press, $NZ29:99); “POEMS FROM HOTEL MIDDLEMORE by Michael Morrissey (Cold Hub Press, $NZ19:50); “LAST OF THE HALCYON DAYS” by Julie Ryan (Steele Roberts, $NZ19:95)

            Two-and-a-half years ago, I had the pleasure of reviewing on this blog Cilla McQueen’s poetic memoir Ina Slant Light, taking her life from her birth in 1949 to the 1980s, when she felt she had established herself as an independent voice in poetry.

Now that she is nearly 70, McQueen is rewarded with a large (nearly 300 pages), handsome hardback selection (with ribbon bookmark) of her work. As her preface says, Poeta selects poems from her 14 previous collections, but they are only loosely arranged in chronological order of publication. The eleven sections that make up Poeta are organised thematically, so that poems from earlier in her writing career sometimes appear side-by-side with poems from much later. At the foot of each page, however, the date of first publication or composition of each poem is noted. And this arrangement does allow us to see what Priscilla Muriel McQueen’s most consistent preoccupations have been. Each section is prefaced with a line drawing by the poet, reminding us that McQueen – long associated with Ralph Hotere and other southern artists – is artist as well as poet. McQueen tells us that her selection was made with the help of another very good poet from the Deep South, Richard Reeve.

            Now that I’ve given you the bibliographic orientation, let’s consider the poems themselves, the earliest, as far as I can discern, dating from 1982 and the most recent from 2017, so covering 35 years.

            There is great difficulty in “reviewing” what amounts to the life work of a poet. For earlier ham-fisted attempts by me to do so, see on this blog reviews of Collected Poems ofAlistair Te Ariki Campbell and CharlesBrasch Selected Poems and Being Here (Vincent O’Sullivan’s selected poems from 1973 to 2013). A poet’s style changes over the years and, as a reviewer, it is hard to corral his or her meaning and style into one neat formula.

            Reading McQueen’s earlier poems, we at first think the poet is matter-of-fact and giving us snapshots of landscape and domestic life. But we quickly discover that McQueen has strong strains of playfulness and genuine surrealism in poems such as ”Living Here” (sheep turn into hedgehogs and vice versa) and “Timepiece” (time stops still, just like a science fiction story) and she can express angst about identity in lines such as “there’s a point past which I must suppose / the world exists, but I’ve no guarantee” (“Listen”) because “The hardest thing is seeing / straight and saying plainly” (from “Vegetable Garden Poem”).

            As an artist, she also gives us studio scenes of the artist at work, and hence poems about fellow artists and poets such as Hone Tuwhare.  But there is that strong rationalist (as opposed to empirical) awareness that everything is processed by the brain and that all friends are known through perception. Recalling friends in “Evocations”, she concludes “They appear as a radiance in my nerves”. McQueen favours loose stanzaic forms and much (perhaps most) of her poetry is written in the  first person as direct address to the reader.

            The section called in this collection “Quark Dances” has its moments of surrealism (a poem about the whole world becoming naked and experiencing Dionysan joy; a poem about a bishop being pulled underground) but some of it has – dare I say it – a touch of the Edith Sitwells and verges on whimsy, especially in the performance poem “Lady Alice the Incredible Lady Gymnast” who, according to the opening lines “constructed a flying machine / of surpassing grace and lightness / out of shells and feathers and fishing line / which made a fitting carriage” even if she is defeated with a clump by gravity. It is in this section of Poeta that McQueen asserts ironically her own poetics, satirising “male” ideas of what poetry should be (“Wacky Language”) and current poetic norms that run against her natural exuberance (“Soapy Water”). One gets a mental impression of a very lively person waving her arms, declaiming with a laugh in her tone and not caring too much where the chips fall.

With an extract from her poem “Bump and Grind”, her predilection for onomatopoeia and non-verbal utterances comes to the fore: “Heavy and hot after rain the crossing bells ring, / tangtangtangtangtangtangtangtang  (bird whistle) and here / comes the train, a big one, grinding along all on one note, / tooooooooot / the train is present (a close bird sings) and past, a red light / shift, clung, clung, clung, clung, over the / sleepers (a close bird sings) and brakes, wheeeee wheeeee, / /till the bell stop, the bird continues, low rumble, fade out, fade out.” Of course it is illustrative of the fluidity and constant movement of reality, but it is the noises themselves that most beguile the poet. And for its equal as a cheerful nonsense concatenation of sound, look out for “Dogwobble” later in this volume, or her 2018 poem “Bird Text” which is simply a series of notated bird sounds.

            To judge from this volume, it was a trip to (still-divided) Berlin and other parts of Europe in 1990 that first sent McQueen on the path of historical recollection and reconstruction. Here the Berlin poem is linked to poems written much later in the 2000s, like the long discursive poem “Ynys Elen” (Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel), written in stricter stanzaic form than is her wont and reflecting on her Celtic heritage. Or “The Spectre” about colonising English admiral Sir Richard Grenville. Or “The Fuse” about Te Whiti’s followers being imprisoned in Dunedin after the suppression of the Parihaka community.  Later in the volume “The Glory Track” links New Zealand coast with earlier historic memories; and there is a whole sequence on the island of St Kilda in the Outer Hebrides, whence the poet’s forebears came.

I do not think anyone would ever accuse Cilla McQueen of being wilfully obscure (remember, this is the woman who wrote in the early poem “Kids on the Road” that “I would like to kick / t.s.eliot in the head / because you shouldn’t have to pass / english exams to love poetry” – a manifesto for accessability and simplicity). But I would judge the least obscure, most accessible poems in this volume to be those in the section titled “Foveaux Express”, mainly written in the 2000s, stately and affecting poems about Bluff,  Southland, and animals (cat and sheep dominate some poems) written with real lyrical flair. This is maintained in the following section “Notes for Moths”, where there is often the chillier side of the south reflected in high winds and a tragedy at sea.

            Inevitably aging creeps into later poems. The nearest McQueen comes to a protest poem is the long discursive poem “Tiwai Sequence” (dating from 2000), which brings in scientific and historical knowledge and minute detail to paint an unflattering picture of the smelter not far from McQueen’s Bluff home. In this and in other poems from the 2000s, the ecological concerns are more overt. Consider the opening lines of the poem “Frogs”: “The atmophere is thinning - / the world is getting dirty / as the outer epidermis eats itself.” Sheer autobiography is featured in three sections from In a Slant Light. Many of McQueen’s most recent poems are cast in a quizzical mode and the whole volume concludes with that most opaque form of writing – a response to works of art which the poet has seen but we haven’t.

            I’ve really messed up this review, haven’t I? By giving a once-over-lightly of the contents, I’ve done no real analysis. I enjoyed reading Poeta very much and note that on the whole, Cilla McQueen is more oriented to things that are to be celebrated rather than to things that are to be deplored. There’s a joyful buzz to most of this representative collection, despite the moments of satire and angst. I think McQueen is at her best when referring most closely to her own southern region and its [domesticated] beasts and I do think that her active aesthetic is one that sees poetry mainly as a form of play.

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Goodness but some alliterations are dead obvious, aren’t they? For years, whenever I heard the name Derrida my brain automatically said “deride”, which is how I felt about the chap. I’m sure legions of others did the same. (We had equally obvious alliterations for Foucault). So let me make it clear that I enjoyed the title poem of C.K.Stead’s latest collection That Derrida Whom I Derided Died.  The poem begins “Derrida, enemy of plain sense, my enemy too / determined not to be grasped since understanding / was the first step on the road to control”. This is indeed a fair summary of the French literary theorist and his approach. And now, of course, being dead, Derrida is himself “deconstructing” literally, leaving only a faint stink, as the last line of the poems implies.

I don’t think I’m being unpleasant if I state the bleeding obvious: That Derrida Whom I Derided Died is an old man’s book. Stead is now in his 86th year and the chimes at midnight are clanging furiously. The last of this collection’s six sections is titled “Nocturnes” and is quite specific about the nearness of closing time. “Death was everywhere” says the first poem in this section. There’s a “knock on the door of death” in the second. The poet dreams of his long-gone father in the third while the poem “Those difficult Russians” appears to be a reverie mixing in youthful elements and babbling o’ green fields. “Unusual obsequies” concerns the death of Prof. Nicholas Tarling and in case you don’t get the general drift, the last poem in the book is “Ten minutes to midnight”.

            The nearness of the Big Sleep evokes various responses in Stead. It sometimes leads him to affectionate or wistful memories of people living and dead, so there’s an Horatian ode to Fleur Adcock, poems about Kevin Ireland and the widow of Allan Curnow, not to mention a couple referencing Peter Porter and others from Oz. “The year was ‘69” is basically a nostalgic recreation of friends and associates from fifty years ago. It has good lines (“the inner Manukau stillness / sliced by cicadas”) and reproving ones, like David Mitchell’s “scent of the dope that would drain / his Keatsy brain”. When he recalls lost loves (adolescent or student days or later on), Stead sometimes puts on his Catullus persona.  With the help of a spirit medium and a ouija board, I spoke to the shade of Catullus the other night, and he said he thought it’s an awkward fit when a nearly-nonagenerian pretends to be a poet who died when he was 30, but there it is.

The sheer skill of Stead at his best is found in the section labelled “Laureate 2015-2017”, where he shows that he can turn an assumption upside-down if necessary. Commissioned to write a poem celebrating a significant anniversary for the New Zealand Navy, Stead, a committed non-militarist, produces a poem which navigates the topic very cleverly by being a salute to all the sailing and seafaring, military of otherwise, that made New Zealand what it is. “WW100”, on the centenary of the First World War, decries war and the pity of war as Owen did, but with specific New Zealand references. Catullus pops into this one too, presumably countering Horace’s “dulce et decorum est” line.

I’m cherry-picking what I write here, of course. All reviews of collections of poetry do this. If a serious collection were analysed as it should be, then each poem would have to be scrutinised closely and at length, and this would produce a very long review. So, regrettably, generalisations are inevitable.

It is quite predictable that Stead bares his claws and lashes his tail over religion, with various poems telling us that the people of Genoa are superstitious and that the laws of physics bring a spacecraft back to earth and not people’s prayers. God's "divine and eternal love" is questioned in a poem about a funeral. Okay, I prefer Stead's honest atheism to the watery agnosticism of another poet who opted for a funeral at Holy Trinity Cathedral, so this is to be expected. But, as daylight fades, Stead’s hit-backs and point-scoring over literary opponents or rivals can become oppressive. These attempted last words on old quarrels are the least lovely part of this opus. Parthian shots from aging fingers. Pre-emptive epitaphs before his own epitaph is written. Some nice chatty things are said about “intolerable Lauris [Edmond]” but Stead’s verdict is that, for her, “when backs were to the wall and guns blazing / truth was a stranger”. “My contemporaries across the Ditch” works its way through five Aussies of Stead’s vintage [mainly poets, but including Barry Humphries] concluding with Ern Malley who would “kill and give life to two pedestrian pens.” Really? This revives the argument Stead made in his review of Michael Heyward’s The Ern Malley Affair, and it’s still a wonky argument. In “A flash in the pan” Stead hits back at an easily-identifiable author and critic who reviewed him negatively. I suppose I should admit that I gave an approving snigger to some of Stead’s hit jobs. Of course C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” deserves a kick (the poem “A Matter of Time”). Stead is probably right to see Janet Frame’s novel The Memorial Room as being a product of  “her own / inner / culture of complaint” and to ask “is this ingratitude / or only / the solipsist’s / sad and solo canto? ” But, for all my approving sniggers, there’s an awful lot of dyspepsia in this book.

And does Stead, being cerebrotonic, sometimes censor or rope in his feelings, for fear of being seen as a sentimentalist? Watching sunrise in Christchurch he says

 “I see the sun truly is / that boring old / ball of bullshit fire / in all its gold glory.” The lines give and take away at the same time, don’t they? “See,” they say “I’m admitting the sun’s glory, but I’ve also got to tell you it’s bullshit and boring, otherwise you might think I’m a romantic dullard. Oh and by the way – it’s ironic, so I have an out-clause in all contingencies.”

            Ah yes, irony. That’s the word I forgot to use in this review. It’s all over the place in That Derrida Whom I Derided Died, poised, baited and ready to snap at the reader. Walk carefully through this volume. It has much intellectual meat and quite a bit of snark. It’s entertaining, it’s engaging, it has a nice poem about being treated by women doctors and other felicitous things. How contradictory. Going gently into that good night is not on its agenda.

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            My scrapbook tells me that a bit over seven years ago (5 June 2011, to be precise) I reviewed for the Sunday Star-Times Michael Morrissey’s Taming the Tiger, his autobiographical account of the time he was hospitalised when his bipolar affliction turned into paranoia and complete madness. What made that book work so well was Morrissey’s complete candour about his madness and yet the rational way he wrote about it – lucid prose delineating the experience he had been through. Morrissey sane was writing about Morrissey insane.

            Poems from Hotel Middlemore, a modest, stapled volume of poems, revisits the same experiences in another literary form. Here is Morrissey in the psychiatric ward on the 5th floor of  Block 35E of Auckland’s Middlemore Hospital. Some poems report on the company he keeps. Psychiatrists drug patients and act like God. Most patients don’t know why they are there, or firmly believe that are sane. One Kurdish fellow inmate can hardly speak English. Another is a guilt-torn woman who thinks she’s let everyone down. Another urinates copiously and craps his pants. There are fights over who controls the television set. Morrissey stays awake all night when he and another inmate are in the mania phase of their affliction. There is similar straightforward (and sane) reportage, in one of the opening poems, where Morrissey outlines his hard life as a child in a transit camp and his mother’s being committed to a mental hospital while he was sent to a boarding school.

But the dominant tone of this collection is not reportage. I am tempted once again to use the term “surreal” as Morrissey’s wild imagination gushes out demented, but oddly fruitful, images. He compares the place of his incarceration to the land-locked Kurdistan or declares “cosy in my psychiatric ward / I felt safe from savannah lions and marauding golfers / composed as a patient can be / they call them clients now.” (“Savannah Lions”). A poem like “Chilly Theology” is at once mad and compelling – maybe God has been dethroned by the Devil? The poem modestly titled “Unwell’ begins “I’m in the best hotel in the world / grandest view / hot and cold running / but it’s a psychiatric ward / everyone mad except me / and I am mad too / as a butchered snake / ram-raided by delusion / I have bipolar delusion which comes / and goes / of its own free will”. It’s even bleaker in the poem “I’m crazy and I can prove it”, which includes “darker than indigo a mood arrives / my mnd devouring itself / a corpse in an acid bath”.

I have rarely come across a New Zealand poet who so completely acts out Roy Fuller’s description of poetic inspiration as “fertile lack of balance”. The poems reflect bouts of insanity, but they are sane themselves. Join the train of exalted madhouse poets – Smart, Collins, Blake. All aboard!

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            Karl Stead is 86. Michael Morrissey is 76. Cilla McQueen is 70. Old farts all (like the only-slightly-younger reviewer whom you are now reading); but all experienced poets, each with a long back-catalogue. Julie Ryan is also a senior citizen, but Last of the Halcyon Days is her debut collection of poetry. As the back-cover blurb tells us, she is the widow of the late Frank Ryan, who was mayor of the Auckland suburb of Mt Albert, and some of her poems reflect their travels and life together. She is also the mother of actress Lucy (“Xena the Warrior Princess”) Lawless, who has made enthusiastic Facebook posts about her mum’s poetry.

Now that I’ve got this gossip out of the way, may I say how much I enjoyed this unpretentious and delightful collection? Julie Ryan may be approaching old age, but her poetry is neither quaint nor old fashioned. Certainly she chooses traditional metres and regular rhyme in a few of her poems, like the opening jocular survey of Doubtless Bay. She even gives us one regular sonnet, concluding Shakespeare-style with a rhyming couplet. But these poems are the exceptions. In style, Julie Ryan shows she is completely au fait with current poetics and she is not squeamish about the imagery she uses. I note here the incredibly violent imagery of her poem “Dr Tom in the Red Shed”, the meaning of which I cannot quite grasp. She can also do what the best poets do – create memorable images in the form of metaphors. I love her characterisation of passing vineyards as “green corduroy for miles” in the poem “Poetry homework on the train, Picton to Rangiora”. And, to turn my praise in a different direction, I like the straightforwardness of some of her statements, as when she closes the poem “The pay-off”, a  paean to family, with the words “we / luxuriate in progeny, / all beautiful, / all good.”

As I often do when reviewing poetry collections, I try to work out why the work has been divided into distinct sections. As I read Last of the Halcyon Days, its three sections run thus:

The first, called “Haul Another Anchor”, is like a ramble through Oz and Europe and parts of New Zealand which the poet visited with her late husband. It contains an ingenious poem about ‘Alice’ [the huge machine which dug the Avondale tunnel], connecting it with the psychiatric hospital that was once in that area. There is some nice satire in this section, on the new internationalised eating habits of Aucklanders (the poem “Word of mouth”) and on the way indigenous fauna itself changes (the poem “Tui at four o’clock”).

Ironically titled “Homesickness”, the second part has at least some focus on the sickness of home – that is, what ails Auckland. Do not be surprised to meet a poem about homeless people; a poem about the annihilation of old houses by the building of the University of Auckland’s business school; and a poem about the travails of an Iraqi refugee hairdresser. More than one poem references godwits (a well-established New Zealand poetic image fo the restlessness and wanderlust of our population); and there is an ironical reference to war in Iraq in “Aunt Daisy, 2010” which reads in its forceful entirety: “Bricks sundried from mud / of any country with two rivers / make an excellent base for soup, / well saturated as they are with blood / and bone fragment shrapnel.” All I query about this perfect little jab of conscience is how many New Zealanders – apart from us old farts – would now know who Aunt Daisy was.

Finally, and more tenderly and personally, there is the third section “Secret Women’s Business” – not a feminist rant but poems mainly about friendship, motherhood and memories - a jingle about learning science at school ; reflections on a durable alligator-hide handbag ; imagery of children in the poems “Adora – mouth to mouth” and “Out of her element”; a sequence on women playing tennis; a couple of poems about visiting old women in hospital; and, of course, in the poem “Dust” an image of death itself in the form of a dying bird. With great self-deprecation, Julie Ryan acknowledges her own old age in the poem “On visiting old ladies”, which concludes “I’m limited now to those over ninety / or better, over a hundred, but / I notice young ladies are visiting me / to borrow old hats and bobbins.”

I say of this volume what I thought when reading Cilla McQueen – it is mainly engaging and fun, for all its satire and sombre moments. Last of the Halcyon Days is so well pointed that, unless you were told otherwise, you would not know this was the poet’s first collection. It’s the work of a very capable poet.

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 SIN OF FATHER AMARO” by Eca de Queiroz (“O Crime do Padre Amaro” first published in 1875, but later twice revised by the author; first published in English translation by Nan Flanagan as “The Sin of Father Amaro” in 1962; later translation by Margaret Jull Costa as “The Crime of Father Amaro”)

            Anti-clerical novels come in many varieties. At the very lowest level there is pornography (the orgies-in-the-convent variety). A step up from these is crude secularist propaganda (Diderot’s La Religieuse, for example, or that old warhorse Ethel Voynich’s The Gadfly, which was much-reprinted in the old Soviet Union). Then there are the ones produced by authors with real literary talent, but written when they were in a propagandistic mood. On this blog you will find critiques of two such – Emile Zola’s La Conquete de Plassans (an attack on the church’s political influence in France) and his La Faute del’Abbe Mouret (celibate priest discovers erotic love).
Finally, at the top, there are the ones with great literary merit in their own right. The best I had so far encountered was George Moore’s TheLake, a relatively subtle account of an Irish priest losing faith in the church.
Now, however, I believe I have found a much better anti-clerical novel and certainly the best to come my way. This is The Sin of Father Amaro (also known as The Crime of Father Amaro), which I read as part of my ongoing project of reading my way through the novels of the Portuguese Jose Maria Eca de Queiroz (1845-1900). So far on this blog you may have encountered what I have had to say about his Cousin Bazilio, The Relic, The City and the Mountains and TheIllustrious House of Ramires. It is odd that I have taken my time in getting to The Sin of Father Amaro as, a step or two behind Cousin Bazilio, it is probably one of Eca de Queiroz’s best-known novels in his native country. Cousin Bazilio had been filmed and turned into a TV drama many times in both Portugal and Brazil, while The Sin of Father Amaro has been filmed at least twice. Why I was reluctant to read it I will explain at the end of this review.
Both The Sin of Father Amaro and Cousin Bazilio were written near the beginning of Eca de Queiroz’s writing career, and are far more piquant in their satire than the more mellow novels he wrote later. Coincidentally, The Sin of Father Amaro was first published in the same year (1875) as Zola’s La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret. Eca de Queiroz was a Francophile (and an Anglophile) who knew modern French literature well, and some Lucophone critics accused him of having simply plagiarised Zola’s work, especially when Eca de Queiroz revised his novel a number of times for later publications. (It is the last revised version that we now have). He was also charged with having plagiarised Cousin Bazilio from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Neither charge stands real scrutiny, but it is true that La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret does deal with the same general theme as The Sin of Father Amaro – the disaster that follows when a celibate priest acts out his sexual desires.
The fat-gutted and unlovely priest of the cathedral town of Lieira has died. In his place comes young, handsome and relatively naïve Father Amaro Vieira. In flashback we learn of his repressed sexual impulses when he was a seminarian and we learn that his very first appointment was to an isolated, woebegone, mountain parish where he had virtually no congregation. But he had made such a good impression at the seminary that when he tells the bishop of his plight, he is transferred to the cushier parish of Lieira.
It is arranged for him to board at the house of a pious mass-going woman Senhore Johanneira. But Johanneira has a beautful adolescent daughter Amelia. We know trouble is on the way when Father Amaro first hears the creaking of Amelia’s bed in the next room and harbours erotic thoughts about her. Matters are not helped when Amaro attempts to distract himself by reading a popular prayerbook: “It was a pious little work written in an ambiguous lyrical style, almost obscene, which gave to the prayer the language of lust. Jesus was invoked in the terms of the avid, eager desires of sexual appetite: ‘Oh! come, beloved of my heart, adorable body, my impatient soul desires Thee! I love Thee passionately, madly! Embrace me! Inflame me! Come! Crush me!’ ” (Chapter 5) This is one of many times that the novel notes how much religious desires and ecstasy can be just a step away from (or a substitute for) sexual desires and ecstasy.
It is not my intention to recount the whole plot of this novel. It is too well-wrought to be subjected to my clumsy reductionism and besides, you might enjoy reading it and discovering it for yourself. But a few general points can be made. Obviously Amaro’s carnal longings are going to lead to tragedy, especially when Amelia responds to them willingly and when (about halfway through the novel) she becomes pregnant. Amaro gives in to his desires in part because he finds that a canon – his immediate ecclesiastical superior – is having a long-running affair with his pious landlady, Amelia’s mother Johanneira. Indeed a number of priests in the area are sexually active.
Amaro has a rival in the young clerk Joao Eduardo, who was engaged to be married to Amelia and was approved of by Amelia’s mother because he seemed a steady and polite churchgoer. But in private Joao Eduardo is a secularist and sceptic. When he suspects that Amaro has seduced his fiancee, he heads for the local liberal and anti-clerical newspaper and writes (anonymously) an article damning the immorality of Lieira’s clergy. A good part of the novel concerns the intrigues of the local clergy to find out who the anonymous author was and to devise ways of punishing him. Meanwhile, events get more and more out of control for Amaro. Without spiking the plot, I can mention that abortion is mentioned as are “baby farmers” with lethal intentions. Indeed The Sin of Father Amaro is far more frank about sexual matters than most (mainstream) novels written in the nineteenth century and it is little surprise that it didn’t receive its first English translation until 1962, fully 87 years after it appeared in Portuguese.
Why is this much superior to purely propagandistic anti-clerical works? Among much else, it is because, as he always does, Eca de Queiroz sets his story in a credible community which he carefully delineates – a smallish town where people tend to know too much of one another’s business, where there are rival secular and clerical cliques (neither of which is idealised), where the church-going women too often idolise priests or see them as saints but are only too willing to gossip about one another’s faults, and where it is clear that social tensions have much to do with a major shift in power in the country. Eca de Queiroz was writing at the time when the Catholic Church still had much power in Portugal, but its power was waning and it was no longer unchallenged. Although its early democracy was still weak, the country was officially a constitutional monarchy, not an absolute one, and there were liberal, sceptical and anti-clerical newspapers as well as clerical and conservative ones. We are convinced that Eca de Queiroz is writing about a real time and place and we note the close detail he deploys in sequences such as the ones where groups of priests settle comfortably into homes and enjoy the hospitality and good food they are offered.
Contrast this with Zola’s La Faute de l’Abbe Mouret. In order to set the strictures of the church against the impulse to carnal love, Zola creates a story in which his priest couples with the woman he loves in what amounts to a Garden of Eden setting, idyllic and separated from the modern world. Despite Zola’s documented naturalism, this borders on fantasy. More damagingly to his purpose, Zola would have us believe that his naïve (and, arguably, feeble-minded) Abbe Mouret is a complete innocent and pure of soul before carnal love touches him. Eca de Queiroz, perhaps more aware of the reality of original sin than Zola was, shows us a priest who is already very flawed before he arrives in Lieira and whose affair with Amelia is not romantic love but in part opportunistic and merely lustful. (It is rather a shock, and perhaps a flaw in the novel, when we are suddenly told in Chapter 16 that before he was ordained, Amaro virtually raped a young woman.) The circumstances in which Amaro and Amelia conduct their affair are also sordid and far from the Garden of Eden. They hold their rendezvous in a house where Amelia is supposed to be offering elementary education to a mentally-impaired paralytic, “Toto”, who turns out to be perceptive enough to understand what is going on and whose accusatory cries counterpoint the couple’s hasty lovemaking.
Eca de Queiroz, near the beginning of the novel, characterises Amelia thus:
 She already knew her catechism and her doctrine; and by her teacher, and in the house, for the least trifle, she was threatened with the punishments of the heavens; so much so that God appeared to her as a Being who only knew how to deal out suffering and death, whom it was necessary to appease with prayers and fasting, reciting novenas and fawning to the priests. Because of this, if when she went to bed she forgot a Hail Mary, she did penance the next day, as she feared that God would send her malaria or cause her to fall down stairs.” (Chapter 4)
She is genuinely pious and innocent and, in that confusion of the sacred with the erotic, she is genuinely confused and psychologically tormented when she starts coupling with Amaro. By contrast, as soon as he is in a jam, Amaro starts calculating how quickly he can disentagle from Amelia. In this respect, Amelia and Amaro are very much like the bored wife who thinks she has found true love and the cynical rake (Bazilio) who seduces her in Cousin Bazilio.
The most cutting satire in the novel, however, is the way Eca de Queiroz, bit by bit, exposes the weakness of Amaro’s position and his psychological disposition. Eca de Queiroz is aware that in his time, many delinquent priests were made by being sent to seminaries when they were still too young and immature (and in some cases pre-pubescent) to fully understand what they were taking on in vowing themselves to celibacy. Amaro entered the seminary at the age of fifteen, under the influence of a wealthy marqueza who was his patron. The novelist comments:
No one consulted either his inclination or his vocation. They pushed him into a surplice, and with his passive, easily dominated nature, he accepted it as one accepts a uniform. On the other hand he didn’t find the idea of being a priest a disagreeable one. He had given up the perpetual praying practised in Carcavelos; but he kept his fear of hell, though he lost his fervour for the saints. However, he thought of the priests who came to the senhora marqueza’s house as clean, fine people, well treated, who ate with the gentry and took snuff from gold snuff-boxes; and that profession would suit him, in which one spoke softly to the women and received presents from them on silver trays.” (Chapter 3)
The matter of self-deceit is plumbed.  Apart from his worldy pride in excercising power, Amaro persuades himself that he is doing a pardonable deed in pursuing Amelia. When first responding to Joao Eduardo’s anti-clerical article, Amaro reasons thus when he plots to break up her relationship with her fiance: “[it] wasn’t an intrigue to separate her from her sweetheart: his motives (he said this aloud, in order to convince himself better) were very honest, very pure: it was a holy work to save her from the devil: he didn’t want her for himself, he wanted her for God! Incidentally, yes, his interests as a lover coincided with his duty as a priest. But if she were squint-eyed, ugly and a fool, he would go just the same to the Rua da Misericordia, in the service of heaven, to tear the mask from Senhor Joao Eduardo, that defamer and atheist!” (Chapter 10)
The worst of Amaro’s self-justifications comes when he perverts theology to make his case to himself. As a guard against any congregation’s confusing a priest with a magician or a god, the church has long taught that sacraments, properly performed, depend on God’s grace, not on the moral character of the priest. In pursuing his sex life, Amaro interprets such teaching as a free pass to transgress, and argues thus:
He was a priest, it was true. But for that he had his great argument; it was that the conduct of the priest, as long as it didn’t cause scandal among the faithful, in no way prejudiced the utility, the efficacy, the dignity of religion. All the theologians taught that the office of the priesthood was instituted to administer the sacraments, and that the essential thing is that the people receive the interior supernatural holiness which the sacraments contain; and providing the sacraments were dispensed according to the sacred formulas, what does it matter whether the priest be a sinner or a saint? In both cases the sacrament gives the same grace. It is not through the merits of the priest that they operate, but through the merits of Jesus Christ.” (Chapter 16)
What is really being built up here is a convincing case against hypocrisy, and the main thrust of this novel is a protest against a corrupt, complacent, over-powerful church.
It takes nothing away from this to point out that, not being a Utopian, Eca de Queiroz does not believe that radical change to the existing order would necessarily be an improvement. The novel shows its anti-clerical and radical characters to be about as devious as the clergy. Joao, the aggrieved fiance of Amelia, earns our sympathy but is clearly a bit of a sneak. When Joao consults an atheist doctor looking for help, the doctor gives this cynical advice:
‘Ah!’ said the doctor,’what a beautiful and wonderful thing is love! Love is one of the greatest forces of civilization. Well directed it could lift up the whole world and be sufficient to cause a moral revolution.’ Then changing his tone: ‘But listen. Be well aware that sometimes this is not love, this is not in the heart. The heart is a term which usually serves us, for decency’s sake, to designate another organ. It is precisely this other organ which is the only one interested, in the majority of cases, in affairs of sentiment. In those cases the grief doesn’t last. Goodbye, I hope it is so with you!’ ” (Chapter 12)
In the very last chapter, the year is 1871 and people are reacting to news of the revolutionary commune in Paris, which is attacking the church. One character remarks that “…a torpid set of people hope with the help of a few police, to keep back a social revolution; and some youths with a smattering of learning decided, with a few sheets of foolscap, to destroy a social system of eighteen hundred years.” (Chapter 25) This impartial and somewhat sceptical opinion appears to be Eca de Queiroz’s own. I might also note that, to balance things a little, the novelist gives us late in this work the character of a tolerant and charitable priest, Abbot Ferrao, who observes his vows fully and tries to lead Amelia to a more loving, forgiving image of God than the vengeful and punishing God she entertains.
Having noted this, though, The Sin of Father Amaro remains a real classic of anti-clerical literature.

Footnote: Now why, as I said early in this review, was I reluctant to read this novel and why did I delay reading it until I had read most of the rest of Eca de Queiroz’s oeuvre? It is because, some years ago at a film festival, I saw the Mexican, Spanish-language film adaptation of this novel (El Crimen del Padre Amaro) made in 2002. Updated to modern day Mexico, it had very few of the nuances and subtleties of the novel and was, understandably, disliked intensely by reviewers in Portugal. They said it completely betrayed Eca de Queiroz’s intentions, and had nothing to do with the novel’s specific time, place and social commentary. It was, in effect, very crude anti-church propaganda, not helped by the decidedly wimpy performance of the lead actor, Gael Garcia Bernal. His Padre Amaro was nothing but an innocent and almost admirable figure discovering the delights of sex. Fearing the novel was the same sort of product, I put off reading it. I am glad that my fears were misconceived.

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.


            It is curious how you can misremember things that you read with pleasure years ago. I must have been a teenager when I read an essay which impressed me and which stayed with me. It concerned food and how it is appreciated. As I remembered it, the essay was an argument against the over-elaboration of food and in favour of a healthy plainness in eating. I tracked the essay down recently and re-read it; and – oh! – it was not as I remembered it.

Called simply “Food”, the essay was written by the cultured, but also extremely snobbish and class-conscious, fringe member of the Bloomsbury group, the English diplomat, biographer and belle-lettrist Harold Nicolson (1886-1968). Apparently it first appeared in his book Small Talk in 1937. Far from calling for plainness in food, most of it was calling upon English people to give up their insular prejudices when it came to experiencing foreign (meaning Continental European) food. It was written with many of those sly references that members of Nicolson’s set often used to show that they were a cut above other mortals – things designed to signal how well-travelled and how widely-experienced in haute cuisine the author was.

But my memory had not completely deceived me, for an argument against the over-elaboration of food could be inferred from the essay’s opening pages. Here Nicolson tells the story of an over-indulgent millionaire whom he claims to have known. Apparently the fellow employed a very expensive chef from Dijon, and made a precious ceremony out of the food he served in his mansion. His piece de resistance was a soup he shared with his more privileged guests in the middle of the day. It contained the choicest and rarest ingredients from across Europe but, says Nicolson, when consumed it tastedlike some very hot cough-mixture drunk with shrimp paste.” In effect, the anecdote illustrated the pointless pretentiousness of some haute cuisine, and how unappetising (not to mention unhealthy) much of it can be.

It was from this anecdote that I carried away my impression of what the essay was arguing, and it still strikes me as a good lesson. Food should be nutritious. It is good for food to be appetising and tasty and varied; and it is interesting to experience food that takes you away from your usual diet. But turning food into a cult is pretentious, pointless and generally the sign of somebody with nothing better to do.

I’ve been thinking along these lines a lot recently because I am reacting to the whole television-driven trend towards food snobbery.

It has taken my patient wife (who is a much better cook than I am) many years to train me to produce even a moderately palatable evening meal, a feat which I undertake more regularly as it is now she who is away working until the early evening. When I was new to the game, a decade or so ago, there was a modest British show called Master Chef which, as it then appeared, had two English chaps devising and preparing relatively simple meals and getting other people to compete in producing them too. At that time, the show was run just before the evening news, which was fine because that was when I was preparing the evening meal and I could move easily between kitchen and television screen to keep up with what was going on as I worked. As a very amateur cook, I often explained to my wife that I found the programme encouraging, because it showed me that good meals could be made out of simple ingredients. It also reinforced my long-held idea that, in the end, an expensive restaurant meal is rarely more palatable and nutritious that what can be devised at home even by such as I. In going to a restaurant, one is really paying for the occasion and the service, which experience is indeed often delightful.

Now flash forward a decade and Master Chef (as seen by us in Master Chef Australia) has mutated into something quite different. Instead of appearing on simple studio sets, its participants are on display in an elaborate auditorium-sized hall. Instead of polite, modest competiton, there is now frantic, aggressive, hyped-up competiton, with the camera swooping overhead to create an atmosphere of tension. The show is now geared not to good simple meals that you can make in your kitchen at home, but to cordon bleu meals that might be served with all the trimming in an expensive resturant. This, indeed, is very much the trend on current cookery shows. Time was, the tele-chef would be somebody in a television studio instructing viewers on how to prepare meals for home consumption. Now cookery shows are often set or staged in the hot-house atmosphere of a restaurant kitchen, where participants are working against the clock and orders are being barked aggressively by the likes of Gordon Ramsay – or said a bit more politely by Jamie Oliver, who at least has championed the cause of simple meals for the masses. (If your thing is chocolate-filled, sugar-filled indulgence, then you might be watching Nigella Lawson flashing her big dark eyes at you.)

It isn’t only the changed nature of cookery shows that concerns me here. It is the fact that they are now so ubiquitous, and fill up so much of broadcast schedules, that they signal a major shift in culture. Cooking has become a cult – something to give prestige rather than something to enjoy. Something to compete in rather than something to share. Boasting about the unique meals one has experienced (“divine filet mignon”, “superb Barbaresco”, “best Shieldzini ever” etc.) is the same sort of currency as boasting about the exotic and out-of-the-way places one has been able to visit. It is an easy way of appearing “cultured” without having to do much brainwork.

I’m not writing this to denigrate people who enjoy being well-informed about food, have shelves of the best recipe books to guide them, and like to experiment with exotic flavours. (I would be lynched if I did denigrate such people, as I have two close in-laws who fall into this category.) If your hobby is creating great meals at home, good for you.

But I am running against the notion, which chef shows now encourage, that somewhere out there, there is the perfect meal, the imagined best dish of all time which would satisfy all our culinary desires if only these frantically competing contestants could devise it. There is no such thing, any more than there is the ultimate and perfect orgasm that the sex addict craves. Self-indulgence is never satisfied, and leads only to further cravings. Shows that incite culinary indulgence ultimately lead back to the truism that food is, after all, only food.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Something New


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

“NAVIGATING EVERYDAY LIFE” by Peter J. Adams (Lexington Books, Maryland, USA. No New Zealand retail price available.)

Peter J. Adams is professor of population health at the University of Auckland. He trained as a clinical psychologist and has previously written books on gambling, addiction, the use of domestic violence by men and the corrupting effect wrought when charities and government-approved organisations accept money from the gambling, alcohol and tobacco industries. In Navigating Everyday Life, he takes on the topic of how we conduct our everyday – and especially domestic – lives. The title may seem to signal a “self-help” book, but you will be aware that it is a different sort of beast when you spot its subtitle “Exploring the Tension Between Finitude and Transcendence”.

Navigating Everyday Life follows a particular thesis, which is illustrated throughout by events in the life of a fictitious family. I will deliberately postpone comments on this narrative device until late in this review.

As Adams posits in his preface and introduction, there are “fissures” in everyday reality as we experience it – those sudden moments where everything seems to fall away or be questioned, and we see our lives from a radically different perspective. We are lifted beyond the limitations of our physical bodies and our immediate physical circumstances. In part, we can gain a new perspective on ourselves by purely intellectual and aesthetic means - recording history, painting portraits or taking photographs, all of which “conquer time” and make us aware of a context much greater than our immediate circumstances. However, Adams is concerned with how these moments occur, what challenges they pose, and how they can be beneficial or harmful, in the context of everyday family life and not in the context of intellectual and aesthetic endeavour.

And to understand what he means, you have to read carefully his two opening chapters on the concepts of “finitude” and “transcendence”. “Finitude” as used in this book is “a catch-all concept that refers to both specific and general forms of awareness of the boundaries or limits that constrain our existence.” (p.2) This includes such boundaries and limits as embodiment – our physical and biological being and the fact of death – our immediate circumstances in the physical and social sense, our inheritance in terms of ideas and belief systems and the fact that we all have personalities that are relatively stable through life. Though Adams never uses the term, “finitude” could be closely related to the idea of determinism. “Transcendence”, however, is “stepping over the limits that confine us”. (p.19) Adams does consider more exalted uses of this term, but says he uses it even for everyday situations in which we are lifted out of ourselves by, for example, watching weather forecasts, telling stories, testing the limits of our bodies by running and vigorous physical exercise,  attempting to get beyond ourselves by meditation, religious practices or the use of drugs; and discovering empathy for others in caring and intimate relationships.

Developing these concepts in his third chapter, Adams  says “finitude is intimated and transcendence is imaginatively constructed”. (p.39) Furthermore,  “whereas finitude operates on the level of immediacy and particularity, transcendence operates at the level of concept and representation”. (p.52) Despite the “situationality” of the individual,  signals in our lives make us aware that time is passing. We have intimations of mortality, and by the power of metaphor and our belief systems we have images of transcendence. (At certain points in this stage of his thesis, Adams comes close to the untenable postmodernist idea that all reality is merely “constructed”.) Tensions arise (Chapter 4) from the energy caused in a “fissure”, when the two counterbalancing forces of finitude and transcendence meet. This could be quite fortuitous, like the spontaneous buzz we get from contemplating nature or from the exertion and elation of sport. Or it can be purposive (that is, planned and expected) as in arranging a dinner; or having sexual intercourse; or undertaking safari tourism, white-water rafting or meditation; or in appreciating art in all its forms. Social tensions can be bridged in a purposive way too. By consciously showing sympathy, empathy and care for others, and “being there", there is the sense of fully engaging

But how are we “called” into these moments of transcendence? (Chapter 5) The really transformative experiences are not usually rational or willed. Young men sometimes move beyond their mundane reality by hooning in cars while getting drunk or taking drugs. The activities are purposive (i.e. planned), but the impulse to undertake these activities is not. Deliberately creating life-threatening dangers like this is part of the impulse to transcend themselves, to prove they are either immortal (“I’ll never die”) or invulnerable (“I’ll never get caught or injured”). Similarly, the middle-aged woman who undergoes facelifts or botox injections is impelled, whether she is consciously aware of it or not, by a sense of aging and mortality. Adams describes one such woman as “tossed around by the interplay between the markers of aging and transcendent image of her modified younger body.” (p.89) And yet, of course, none of this really overcomes finitude. Aging and death are inevitable.

What can prevent us from really reaching a balance between “finitude” and “transcendence”, as Professor Adams uses those terms? (Chapter 6) What causes “the blocking of those existential aspects of life that run parallel to the content of everyday experience”. (p.98) We can become “lost in transcendence”, being so caught up in an imagined world that we lose contact with material reality. This is like the multi-millionaire rock star who is able to buy all his fantasies but is really satisfied by none and ends up self-destructive. (Cue images of rock star drug-use and suicides etc.). Or on a more humble level, it is like the daydreamer who is lost in unrealistic scenarios of the future or the possible, while neglecting his/her existing situation. Conversely, one can become “lost in finitude”, like the man overwhelmed by the banality of his work or the woman overwhlemed by having to run house and keep up with her husband’s ambition while stifling her own talents. In both cases there is little time or opportunity for them to gain a broader perspective on their lives. Finally, says Adam, one may be “doubly blocked”, as in situations of extreme suffering, chronic pain, a bullying work environment or having had an unsympathetic upbringing. Not only are these all largely situations beyond our control, but they so dominate our views and feelings that they block both the “transcendence” of imagining other things and the “finitude” of existing easily in our material situation. At this point Adams says that so far the book has dealt with “blocks, both voluntary and involuntary, to obtaining entry into these fissure-enabling zones of tension” but that  “what now demands attention is what happens when we step over the threshold and consider what is going on within these zones, particularly during those times when fissures are active.” (p.110)

In translation, how do we deal with those situations – sometimes crises – when we completely reassess our lives? Adams says (Chapter 7) he is cautious about discussing such matters because of “the highly ethereal and speculative nature of what such a discussion would entail” (p.113). To ground us about the nature of such crises, he gives the example of a husband who is lifted out of himself by meeting an attractive woman, constructing his own image of her and then beginning an affair with her - but paradoxically, this makes him realise more than ever the constraints of his position (deceit, guilt about his infidelity, the reality of his family etc.). A crisis between the conceived/imagined and the existing situation is not necessarily a liberating experience. And yet Adams also gives the example of a stressed student who meets a crisis with a spontaneous feeling of uplift.

What should be plain from all the book’s argument so far is that Adams is NOT saying that finitude is negative and transcendence is positive. To prove this point he discusses (Chapter 8) the darker side of transcendence. Stepping out of your everyday situation may be the product of long-held resentment about matters in the past. Somebody thinks obsessively about wrongs for which there is now no remedy, and imagines scenarios of revenge or compensation, all of which are indeed exercises of imagination but which contribute nothing fruitful or healthy to a life. The exercise of violence may be transcendent – getting revenge on the world by exercising physical power, imposing boundaries on others and stepping outside one’s usual role. Addictions to gambling or drugs or other things are also “transcendent” in the way Adams uses the term.

Proving that Navigating Everyday Life is not a “self-help” book, it is only in the last four chapters (Chapters 9-12) that Professor Adams turns to the matter of how we are to cope with these polarities in our lives. He argues that we have to reach equilibrium by extending forgiveness to others and to ourselves, and getting used to body change and disease. We are all embodied and “any significant changes to our body will have consequences for how the world is experienced” (p.164) Often changes, such as a sudden death in the family, can bring us up against these realities, but we also have to cope with our own mortality. Inevitably our minds will turn to “otherness” – that is, a state of being [or not-being] totally different from our state of living. For many the default setting is to focus on thoughts of heaven or some sort of afterlife, even if it is simply being absorbed into the energy of the universe. When dealing with matters of separation from others, or other people’s suicide, we have to understand that we constantly re-negotiate relationships within families. Long-nurtured resentments will poison our relationships with ALL the people we know. As for attempts to escape into “transcendence” by drugs, it merely leads to more confinement – more “finitude” – as our bodies become more dependent.

Changes for the better are not always brief or spontaneous. Adams conclude by discussing the benefits of consultation and talking matters out with others, “letting go’ in order to breaking the cycle of resentment which traps us in endless thoughts of an unalterable past and a non-realisable future  and generally restoring balance and real relationships with others.

I think I have conveyed truthfully the essence of what Professor Adams book is about, but (as I did when I reviewed Stephen Pinker’s Enlightenment Now on this blog) I will now balance up the positives and negatives of Navigating Everyday Life, which will include some serious misgivings about it.

Once one gets used to some jargon – which Adams politely explains for us – the book reads well, is not obscurantist and gives some lively examples to illustrate Adams’ overall thesis. In other words, it can be read by the general public and not only by specialists in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy. Adams’ outlook is a humane one – he is primarily in the business of healing ruptures in human life, and not simply observing them. He makes a good case for the polarity of mundane, everyday, physical, lived experience; and the conceptual and imaginative power which can take us out of ourselves.

I hope that most of these positives are evident in the long summary I have given of this book.

Unfortunately I also have some objections.

First, there is the issue of that term “transcendence” itself. Professor Adams is the expert in how this term is used by psychologists, not me. Even so, as a non-expert, it seems to me that the term is debased when it comes to mean little more than to be “taken out of yourself”. (“Come on love, let’s go and see a movie. It’ll take you out of yourself” etc.) Adams uses it for anything that distracts your attention from your immediate circumstances – the powers of conceptualising or imagining, even at their most banal level. It is “transcendence” when I am thinking about how tasty will be that meal I’m going to have in three hours time etc. Adams acknowledges at various points that this term can be used, in quite a different sense from his own, for intense spiritual or aesthetic or religious experiences. But my own view is that the ego-effacing sense of connectedness with something much bigger than ourselves, be it the Universe or Nature or God, is so different from most of the experiences Adams dissects that it deserves a separate name. When, in the Ode to a Nightingale, Keats comes down from an intense sense of identification with the singing bird, it is simply a different order of experience from my looking forward to a good meal.

Second, there is the matter that I have deliberately postponed to a late stage in this review. To illustrate everyday human dilemmas,  Adams invents the Nelson family “living in a two-storey home situated close the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in a middle income suburb about a half-hour drive from a city.” (p.xvi) The father Jeremy, an architect in his mid-forties; his mother Beth who has moved in with his family; the wife Rachael who is at first resentful of this and who is in part driven by her sense of aging; the daughter Sophie, a 22-year-old student of business studies, frequently stressed and depressed; and the teenage son Hayden, caught up in sex, drugs and fast cars.

I understand that this book is not a novel and cannot be criticised as one would criticise a work of fiction. Professor Adams has created this family and their lives to illustrate and make clear to us non-specialist common readers the situations he is discussing. They are exemplary “cases”. Nevertheless, the Nelson family are with us in every chapter and we can’t help noticing their unreality. They have apparently been designed only to illustrate points and problems – grandmother’s fear of dying, rheumatoid arthritis and her gambling addiction; mother’s sense that she is losing sexual attractiveness and her resentment at her own mother for undervaluing her; over-controlling father’s attempts to escape his dull, constrained life by adultery; daughter’s stresses as a student and experience of discouragement, depression and diabetes; teenage son’s extreme disconnectedness from mundane reality and his attraction to hooning, drugs, violence and wild living. Into this, there is also thrown an attempted suicide.

Okay – all families have many problems, but these problems have been neatly devised to illustrate the author’s arguments. Worse, the conversations the Nelson family have are very stilted, self-expository and show a far greater sense of self-awareness and ability to articulate it than most people would have. They are far more adept at diagnosing themselves than non-specialists would be. ( For a particularly bad example, see grandmother Beth in Chapter 8 neatly analysing why she has become a compulsive gambler.) And – dare one say it – at a certain point we begin to question how credible their collective problems are. I am in no position to say how representative this family is of people whom Professor Adams has encountered in his practice as a clinical psychologist. But I can say that, given their materially comfortable middle-class position, one is sometimes tempted to use the insulting taunt “First World Problems”.

Finally, there is the very big problem of how Adams conveys the healing process. Wife gets over her resentment at husband’s infidelity and sensibly moves on after he moves out … yeah, but we don’t see enough of the rage beforehand and we are not allowed to see how she has worked through her hurt. Probably Adams has encountered examples of sudden, life-changing epiphanies, but the redemption of tearaway teenage Hayden comes only in such a moment of truth: “A vitality then erupted and spread across his consciousness. It was a feeling of connectedness, a sense of unity, with his parents, with people in general, and with the world around and it conveyed to him that he was not alone and that he could trust in the direction he was heading.” (p.216) How often do such things happen? I hope more often than I suspect they do.

I do not wish to denigrate Adams’ purpose in this book, but I do feel there are great flaws in the way he has conveyed it. Getting us to recognise the difference between our actual and our self-perceived selves is, however, always a worthwhile enterprise.