Monday, July 29, 2019

Something New

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

“ALL THE JUICY PASTURES – Greville Texidor and New Zealand” by Margot Schwass (Victoria University Press, $NZ40)

When I finished reading Margot Schwass’s All the Juicy Pastures, my main thought was “Is this the study of an author or is it the study of a ‘case’?” The blurb tells us that Greville Texidor wrote “dazzling” stories, produced “a small but essential body of work” and is “an essential New Zealand writer.” Having read all Texidor’s published work (her short stories and her novella These Dark Glasses), I’m not sure that this description holds up. But I am sure that Texidor led an interesting life. And even if the biographer’s intention is to celebrate the work, it is the life that holds most attention in All the Juicy Pastures. A superficial reading might find this life adventurous and somehow exciting. A bit more attention reveals most of it to have been intensely unsettled and unhappy.

I’ll elucidate by summarising.

Margaret Greville Foster (who later had various noms de guerre) was born in 1902 to a wealthy middle-class English family. Her father was a solicitor, her mother had the leisure to be an amateur artist and the household employed servants. This privileged life meant Margaret got a private-school education, but she disliked it, resisted being taught and was, lifelong, a poor speller. In the 1920s, like many of her refined background, she became a real flapper, throwing herself into the hedonism of the era, partying, posing for artists (the Augustus John crowd), winning a beauty contest, playing a bit part in a film, and finally becoming a chorus girl, which led to some international touring. Any connections she might have had with literati or the Bloomsbury set were simply as a hanger-on. She also had numerous affairs, dabbled in drugs, and went through a period of being hooked on heroin. Tiring of London, she moved to Spain in the early 1930s, and continued to live the hedonistic life in the seaside town Tossa de Mar, although now, in her thirties, she was getting bored with it and wanted something more substantial in her life. She was briefly married to, and had a daughter with, the Spaniard Manolo Texidor, and ever afterwards styled herself Greville Texidor.

In Spain in 1933, she met (and later married) Werner Droescher, nine years her junior, and a refugee from Nazi Germany. With Droescher, Texidor became politicised… sort of. Droescher’s politics were anarchist. The couple were involved in anarchist causes, particularly with regard to education and welfare and including radical ideas on the rearing of children. Droescher was suspicious of (Stalinist) Communists and other dogmatic Marxists. But as the civil war began in Spain, Droescher also proved to be something of a political naif. He imagined – as did many others – that the Left would be united in fighting Franco (see p.66 and p.71). As it turned out, the disunity of the Left was one of the main causes of Franco’s victory. It lead to “the civil war within the civil war” in which well-organised Communists spent as much time taking over the Spanish Republican government, and putting down their non-Communist “allies”, as they did in fighting Franco.

At the outbreak of the war, the Droeschers enrolled, not in an anarchist militia but, as George Orwell did, in the POUM i.e. the militia of the anti-Stalin Marxists, which the Stalinists regarded as “Trotskyite”. The Droeschers did not see much direct fighting, but they were involved in at least one armed skirmish (pp.76-77). And then the Left started eating itself. Disillusion with the war now dominated Texidor’s thoughts. According to Margot Schwass, Texidor was later stressed not only by the failure of the Left and Franco’s victory, but also by the thought that she had ever taken up arms in the first place. She was evacuated to England as the civil war drew to a close, classified in England as an “enemy alien” and very briefly served time in Holloway prison. Then, with the help of Quakers, she and Droescher emigrated to New Zealand.

And here we come to what Margot Schwass intends to be the heart of the book. Note that All the Juicy Pastures is subtitled “Greville Texidor and New Zealand”. Of the 219 pages of text [after the Foreword], 82 pages concern her time in New Zealand, even though she spent only eight of her 62 years here, from 1940 to 1948.

Greville and Werner at first settled in the remote rural area Paparoa and tried to make a go of farming a small plot. This lasted only a year or so. The isolation increased Greville’s chronic depression and her views of rural New Zealanders, which influenced many of her stories, were unsympathetic. Werner then got a job in Auckland, and they relocated to Auckland’s North Shore. Approaching her mid-forties Greville had a second daughter.

 On the North Shore, Greville was closer to the (mainly male) group of writers that had Frank Sargeson as its nucleus and that approximated the “culture” which Greville missed in the backblocks. Margot Schwass admits, but I think underplays, Sargeson’s ingrained misogyny. Apparently Sargeson is to be forgiven because – as all his circle were aware – he was homosexual so, apparently, his anti-women bile was just protective “camouflage” that allowed him to fit into a dominantly macho world, where slagging off women was common pub talk (p.130). Even so, it was under Sargeson’s mentorship that Greville turned to writing and produced in New Zealand all her publishable work. This included a number of short stories set in New Zealand and taking a dim view of parochial, “puritan”, culture-less Kiwi philistinism – an attitude very similar to Sargeson’s own in the mainly sardonic stories he had been writing since the early 1930s. Some of these stories were, thanks to Sargeson’s championing of them, published in prestigious journals, and some have continued to appear in anthologies of New Zealand short stories. (Surveying the books on my shelves I note that one story by Greville Texidor appears in Dan Davin’s 1953 Oxford New Zealand Short Stories, and another appears in Owen Marshall’s 2002 Essential New Zealand Short Stories).

Texidor also worked on the novella These Dark Glasses, which drew on her experience in Spain. Set in 1938, it had as its central character a disillusioned Communist (specifically identified as such), reaching despair as she sees that the war in Spain is lost and realises she is now sinking back into the company of vain poseurs and wastrels whose political ideals are skin-deep. It ends (or by implication ends) in a suicide. The novella’s setting is a seaside town in France, though some of the characters are based on people Texidor knew (and came to despise) in London and in Tossa de Mar. These Dark Glasses was finished in 1944 but was not published until 1949. There is the awkward question of how far Sargeson’s mentorship of Texidor’s writing went. Margot Schwass quotes the testimony of Texidor’s daughter that “Sargeson sat literally at her mother’s shoulder as she wrote, ransacking her storehouse of pre-war European stories, coaxing them onto the page sentence by sentence.” (p.133) Later, though, Schwass tells us that Texidor sometimes ignored his advice.

Schwass analyses this novella (at pp.190-195) in terms of its modernism, its  existentialism and how much it is and is not autobiographical. Sargeson, of course, loved it, called it a “masterpiece” and claimed that it marked a turning point in New Zealand literature. But – with great understatement – Schloss notes that the print run was small (300 copies) and “Sargeson perhaps overstates the book’s impact on domestic readers” (p.195). It received tepid and largely negative reviews in New Zealand, including one detailed dissection in Landfall, to which both Sargeson and Texidor objected.  Meanwhile some of Texidor’s erstwhile English friends hated what they recognised as caricatures of themselves, and a few even bought up copies to destroy them. (p.198)

Before the novella was published, however, in 1948 the Droeschers had already relocated to Australia. Werner was following work and Greville was happy to go with him as by this stage she was bored with New Zealand. She found Queensland as dull and provincial as she found New Zealand. The Droeschers shifted to more cosmopolitan New South Wales, where they were sometimes in reach of the culturally-interesting city of Sydney. For a while they worked in a camp for “Displaced Persons” (refugees from post-war Europe). Greville tried to write longer works. She toiled over, and often re-wrote passages of, drafts of two novels, one about a militia woman in Spain and one about a DP camp. But neither was ever finished. She did write two radio plays that were broadcast, and she did attempt some journalism, but basically her writing career was over once she left New Zealand. In her Foreword, after telling us how much Texidor left unpublished, Schwass admits “most of the unpublished material is apprentice work… there are no unpublished masterpieces” (p.9).

In Australia, Texidor’s depression increased. Her first attempt at suicide was in 1953, when her mother died. Mrs Foster followed Greville on most of her travels, and is an unseen presence in much of this book. She seems to have been a force for some sort of quiet stability in her daughter’s erratic life. Finally bored with Australia, Greville relocated to Franco’s Spain in 1955, tried her hand at running a café for tourists, and attempted, without success, to recapture the vitality she had once experienced there. Werner Droescher finally separated from her in 1960 to take up lectureship in the University of Auckland’s German department. Still seeking an elusive peace of mind, Texidor returned to Australia in 1962. But she found no peace. She committed suicide in 1964.

Schwass sees many of the mental crises of Texidor’s later life as arising from what amounted to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, after her experiences in Spain. She designates some of Texidor’s writing as “therapy”. There may be some truth to this, but it is clear that there was a strong strain of depression in her family. Her father committed suicide in 1919 when Texidor was a teenager. She was restless and found it difficult to settle to things before she ever saw Spain. She was constantly attempting to remake herself and frequently harboured the delusion that merely by shifting to a new place she would find a new self. I cannot help wondering, too, how much her early drug-use disoriented her. Clearly the isolation of Paparoa added to her distress and by the mid-1940s her fragile mental health led to injections to control her “delusions” (p.160). Her two early marriages and her many affairs were also destabilising. Before she married Manolo Texidor, there was apparently a very brief marriage to a “Mr Wilson” (p.52.) upon whom Schwass cannot find much information. Once married to Werner Droescher, says Schwass “the Droeschers had always considered their marriage an open one, reflecting the mores of the Catalan anarchist world of the 1930s in which it had begun.” (p.157) Okay, but the many affairs (including one with Maurice Duggan) were also destabilising and certainly didn’t make for enduring relationships or peace of mind.

In themselves, none of these mental conditions call into question Greville Texidor’s ability as a writer. (Compile a list of very good writers who had psychological problems, and you will be compiling a very long list). But considering how meaningful and important her writing is, is another matter.

            In both her Foreword and her coda, which she calls “The secret of her unsuccess?”, Margot Schwass discusses the issue some have raised about whether Greville Texidor was a really “New Zealand writer”, given that she lived here for only eight years and given that only some of her published writing is about New Zealand. Personally, like Schwass, I see this as a silly non-issue, redolent of the old adherence to “nationalism” in New Zealand literary criticism from the 1930s to the 1960s. The only significant things Texidor ever wrote were written in New Zealand and sometimes about New Zealand, so a New Zealand writer she is. As to how important a writer she was, that’s another question. At one point Schwass says her New Zealand stories “register moments when an insular New Zealand sensibility is disturbed by tremors from the world beyond.” (p.115) Perhaps she herself was one of those tremors and perhaps her exotic background was what made her interesting in 1940s New Zealand – stimulating because presenting another perspective.

But she was not able to build a literary career. As Schwass says: “What she lacked most was application, the discipline, perseverance and confidence that’s needed to keep going as a writer, regardless of the outcome.” (p.245) Schwass then argues that the length of a writer’s career does not not necessarily signal that writer’s worth. True enough, I suppose – but while I found this an interesting and well-researched book, I cannot endorse the claims for Texidor’s ongoing significance that are made in All the Juicy Pastures.

            Personal Coda: I have just given you a fair and balanced account of  Margot Schwass’s book of the sort I always try to give. But in this case I do have some skin in the game. I formed my own views of  Greville Texidor’s work about twelve years ago while researching an article on New Zealand writers who had left-wing persuasions. In my reseach, I read all her published work. First I read These Dark Glasses in its original 1949 edition. I see that in my reading diary, as well as extensively synopsising it, I regarded it as “episodic and hard to follow”. I also read all her stories (including These Dark Glasses) gathered together and edited by Kendrick Smithyman in 1987 under the title In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say a Lot. Some were unfinished pieces that had never been published before. Most of them (whether set in Spain or New Zealand) were interesting, but I would be hard pressed to call any of them outstanding.

What I have not mentioned, of course, and what I slid past in the review above, is that it was my father J.C. Reid who wrote the long, critical Landfall review of These Dark Glasses to which both Sargeson and Texidor took exception. Margot Schwass covers the review on pp.196ff. and makes the extraordinary claim that “Reid’s review… helped confirm Greville’s exclusion from the New Zealand canon” (p.197) I find this hard to believe. Texidor was excluded from the “canon” because she was little read, except in the few stories that were anthologised, and did not make a great impact outside her immediate group of supporters.

Texidor replied to the review in a long letter in the next issue of Landfall. She ridiculed the review for comparing her novella (unfavourably) with the well-established formula, best known in Cyril Connolly’s 1936 novel The Rock Pool, of stories about people pretending to intellecualise while living rather pointless and trivial lives. Interestingly, Kendrick Smithyman (a friend and colleague of my father) agreed, in his introduction to In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say a Lot, that These Dark Glasses does have a touch of The Rock Pool. My father also said that this [mid-1940s] novella seemed to reflect a pre-war mood. Ruefully, Schwass has to admit that Texidor was aware this was true: “Despite her crisp demolition [really?] of J.C.Reid’s review, she could not help but agree that the novel was dated.” (p.200) Where I would fault my father’s review is that it is simply too long (the novella could have been analysed and evaluated at half the length) and it makes too many comparisons with other works.

Sargeson’s private reaction to the review, in letters to Texidor and others, was his usual venom, referring to “that Reid swine”, that “stinker” etc. etc. As I noted on this blog seven years ago, while reviewing Sarah Shieff’s excellent edition of Letters of Frank Sargeson, Sargeson liked to think of himself as the Grand Cham and arbiter of New Zealand literature, and resented a younger man challenging what he thought were now his firmly-canonised opinions. His bile against my father was extreme, sometimes to the point of hysteria.

One final comment. Schwass says “Few in Sargeson’s circle regarded [Reid] as a supporter of New Zealand literature…”(p.196). Later (p.241) she notes how much Texidor realised she had fallen behind Maurice Duggan when she saw a copy of his acclaimed short story collection Immanuel’s Land. This mention made me take off my shelves a copy of the original, 1956, Pilgrim Press edition of Immanuel’s Land. In praise of the collection, the blurb quotes, at length, only one local critic, J.C.Reid… but apparently he wasn’t a supporter on New Zealand literature.

Dear me. Ancient literary squabbles are fairly tedious, aren’t they? Especially ones seventy years old. But cantankerous men like Sargeson do still have to be called out, especially when they have been so often mythologised.

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. 

“L’ORDRE DU JOUR” by Eric Vuillard (first published 2017)

            In my last posting, I devoted the “Something Old” section to Anna Burns’ 2018 Booker Prize-winning novel Milkman. Dear reader, let me tell you how I came to buy that novel. I was in Bordeaux for some weeks, attempting (with mixed success) to improve my spoken French and trying to read nothing but French-language texts and newspapers. But at a certain point, I found myself craving for something in the English language, so I made my way to a huge Bordelais bookshop which trades mainly in French-language books, but which also has a decent English-language section. And there I bought Anna Burns’ novel.

Having bought what won England’s most prestigious literary prize, I then thought I’d also buy a winner of France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Prix Goncourt. The most recent they had was the Prix Goncourt winner of 2017, Eric Vuillard’s L’Ordre du Jour, so here I am reviewing it. Vuillard, well-known in France as much for being a movie-maker as a writer, was apparently a surprise winner of the prize.

Just a few warnings to begin with. L’Ordre du Jour is very short (c.150 large-ish print pages in the Actes Sud edition I read). Despite this, it has quite a lot of recherche vocabulary – I found myself resorting to a French-English dictionary more often than I usually do when reading French texts. More important, L’Ordre du Jour announces itself as a “recit” rather than a “roman” – in other words, it is an “account” rather than a true “novel”, because it is not a work of fiction. All its characters are real characters. All its events are real events. It is, in effect, a colourful evocation of, and commentary upon, a particular historical event. The event in question is the Anschluss of 1938 – the process by which Hitler’s Nazi Germany took over Austria and incorporated it into the Third Reich, while the rest of Europe looked on and basically did nothing.

This “recit” resolves itself into a series of vignettes. 

It opens with a scene in which 24 leaders of Germany’s top business corporations (Krupp, von Siemens, Opel, IG Farben etc.) meet in Herman Goering’s palatial residence in 1933 near the German parliament, and pledge their support for the policies of the new chancellor who has just been weaselled into power, Adolf Hitler. They are depicted as “lobbying” (Eric Vuillard uses the English word) for their own interests and the author sees them as assuming that Hitler’s regime will simply be “business as usual” – after all, they have always collaborated with political parties that will advance their own interests. From the very beginning of this “recit”, we know the first-person omniscient narrator will be commenting on events from the eye-of-history, noting as the businessmen gather in 1933: “Dans quelques annees, il n’y aura meme plus de Parlement, seulement un amas de decombres fumants” (pp.10-11) [“In the few years there won’t even be a parliament – only a pile of smoking ruins.”] Doom lies ahead.

We then move to a vignette of the English diplomat Lord Halifax appeasing Hitler. (This French writer can’t forbear to tell us that Halifax’s grandfather was one of the men whose policies helped starve Ireland during the Great Famine of the 1840s). Not that Vuillard lets French diplomacy off the hook. Another vignette depicts the French President Albert Lebrun idly signing off trivial bills concerning French wine while Hitler’s forces gather for invasion of Austria. Complacency is the target for much of the author’s implicit satire. In 1938, in Downing Street, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain is seen hosting a farewell party for Hitler’s ambassador to Britain, von Ribbentrop, who has just been promoted to be the Reich’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. The party is all very chummy and cosy and courteous, with chatter about tennis and other sporting pastimes. (Vuillard notes, inter alia, that Chamberlain was von Ribbentrop’s landlord while Ribbentrop was in London, drawing handsome rents from his residency.) This is at the very time when Nazi troops are entering Austria. The suave, oily servility of von Ribbentrop is emphasised: “L’ambassadeur du Reich semblait tout a son aise. Il avait d’ailleurs ete remarque par Adolf Hitler pour son aisance, son elegance old fashion et sa courtoisie, au milieu de ce qu’etait le parti nazi, un ramassis de bandits et criminels. Son attitude hautaine, accorde a un fonds de servilite parfaite, l’avait propulse jusqu’au poste de ministre des Affaires etrangeres, poste envie…” (p.89) [“The Reich’s ambassador seemed completely at ease. He had already been noticed by Adolf Hitler for being so easy in company, his old-fashioned elegance and his courtesy, even among what the Nazi party really was, a bunch of bandits and criminals. His haughty attitude, built on a foundation of complete servility, had pushed him into that most desirable post, Minister of Foreign Affairs…”] Hitler later decribes him, behind his back, as “a champagne salesman” – the type of chap who can deceive English and French diplomats and ministers by his apparently civilised demeanour.

Other vignettes show the Austrian chancellor Schuschnigg (who, after the Second World War, had a comfortable post lecturing in political science at an American university) being bullied into submission by Hitler. But Schuschnigg is no hero, for his own regime, supported by the church, is very much clerical-fascism. When this petit dictator is forced, by Hitler, to take on the Austrian Nazi Seyss-Inquart as his foreign minister, he retreats into vague reveries inspired by classical music, but is impotent to do anything. As for the Austrian people, on the whole they greet the Nazi invasion with delirious joy, and for them Hitler is a popular idol, the way Tino Rossi is in France and Benny Goodman in America: “Les chars, les camions, l’artillerie lourde, tout le tralala, avancent lentement vers Vienne, pour la grande parade nuptiale. La mariee est consentante, ce n’est pas un viol, comme on l’a pretendu, c’est une noce.” (p.100) [“The tanks, the trucks, the heavy artillery, the whole shebang, advanced slowly towards Vienna, for a great wedding march. The bride consented. It wasn’t rape, as people have claimed. It was a wedding.”] Once the Nazis are in power, Austrians gleefully join in pogroms against Jews. Only one Austrian newspaper dissents – its editor is promptly arrested.

What is Vuillard’s purpose in telling, so dramatically, this familiar historical story?

Obviously L’ordre du jour is a condemnation of pre-war appeasement of Hitler, and the diplomatic complacency of France, Britain and other powers who might have been able to stop the Fuhrer in his tracks. (Interestingly, Vuillard never once mentions the Soviet Union, whose underhanded diplomatic dealings were also part of the European scene in the 1930s – but that’s another story.) The “recit” is also a refutation of the “victim theory” of Austria whereby, after the war, the Austrian state was able to claim that it had been invaded by a foreign power and was not in any way complicit in Nazi crimes. The record shows how fully Austrians participated in the Third Reich (given that the Fuhrer was one of their own), how eagerly they accepted much Nazi legislation, and how many of them took leading positions in the Nazi regime. Vuillard is also pushing the left-wing view that corporation capitalism was the backbone of Nazism. Not only does he begin his “recit” with a malign gathering of capitalist pluotcrats, but he ends with a reminder that many of these same corporations were happy to use slave labour under the Nazi regime and do the Fuhrer’s bidding. And, post-war, they were able to whitewash their past actions and fit comfortably into the new Federal Republic.

These ideas are not what make the book distinctive, however. After all, they have all been bruited before often enough. Vuillard’s most pervasive interpretation is about the power of spectacle in shaping both history and our view of history. History is often play-acting and charade. This idea is pushed especially in the chapter “Le Magasin des Accessoires” about a Hollywood costumier, a refugee from Nazi Europe, who is capable of staging, with his vast array of costumes, any event in history. Bluff is a part of such play-acting and, as Vuillard tells it, the Nazi threats to Austria were pure bluff. Far from being the formidable, efficient war-machine that German newsreels depicted, the German army in 1938 was a stumbling and under-prepared thing. Tanks and trucks break down and have to be dragged off the road as Hitler’s army crosses the Austrian border. The advance to Vienna is delayed for most of a day as the mechanised troops bumble along. Hitler is furious. Krupp is embarrassed that his prototypes don’t work as well as he expected. But the bluff was enough to daunt Europe. And then there is retrospective bluff. As Vuillard reminds us, the Viennese really did welcome Hitler deliriously. BUT all the newsreels we have of this are images approved by Dr Goebbels’ propaganda machine – so how much do we have to modify our historical judgements when we take this into account?

I have, with my usual diligence, given you a full and fair account of what this book is about and how the author handles things. But there are some problems. While not denying that “spectacle” is a part of history. Vuillard’s emphasis tends very much towards the postmodernist dogma that “nothing is real” – there is no objective fact to history, only “narratives”, perceptions and opinions. Much as I enjoyed reading L’ordre du jour, I found its facility irritating. Vuillard makes such quick and easy judgements on people and events – and they are usually familiar ones that few people have denied for years.

I have not read Mark Polizzotti’s English-language translation of this “recit” The Order of the Day, but I have read on-line reviews of it, and they are a very mixed bunch. The Observer, the Guardian and the New Yorker loved the book uncritically, but in some cases it sounded as if their reviewers had never heard of the basic – and well-known – historical facts that Vuillard dramatises, and therefore this little book was a “revelation” to them. Not much of a basis on which to write a review of it. By contrast, Max Fletcher in the Spectator gave it a roasting as a caricature of people and events, which was too ready to shove glib opinions at us. And Eileen Eattersby in the Financial Times judged it to be “fact mixed with opinionated bombast”. I am not partisan enough to support either camp wholeheartedly, but I can say that while L’ordre du jour engaged me, it is no masterpiece. Its winning of the Prix Goncourt does make me wonder what the quality of the others finalists must have been. 

Snarky footnote proving how trivial I can be: On p.130 of the French text, Vuillard tells us that the Emperor Nero made his troops gather seashells to prove he had won a great victory over the ocean. Actually, Vuillard got his emperors wrong. This ancient tale refers to Caligula, not Nero.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I’ll try to be brief, because I have a simple point to make.

One of the most lamentable features of our current culture is the Disneyfication of Nature. I am referring to the way the animal kingdom is depicted, for children, in exclusively sentimental and human terms, ignoring the realities of what Tennyson accurately called  “Nature red in tooth and claw”.

Anthropomorphising animals is as old as human story-telling and has informed many great works of literature and art, from Aesop's fables to Chaucer's Chaunticleer to Orwell's Animal Farm to Art Spiegelman’s Maus. In oral story telling, on the printed page and in cartoons this was acceptable, because these media never pretended to be realistic. Besides, it was always understood that “animal fables” were really comments on human behaviour, not on wildlife.The fox who said "Sour grapes" when he couldn't reach them? That's us. The animals whose farmyard utopia turned into a totalitarian nightmare? That's us.

It was understandable that little children thought of nature in terms of bunny-rabbits trespassing in Mr MacGregor’s garden, wise bears and she-wolves nurturing Mowgli, baby Bambi avoiding forest fires and so forth. This was healthy as story-telling for small children.

The downside was that at least some children never modified their views of nature, even when they had grown to be adults.

Think, in New Zealand, of the emperor penguin dubbed “Happy Feet” (after a character in a cartoon, of course). Washed ashore half-starving in 2011, thousands of miles from its Antarctic home, it was cared for by specialists at Wellington Zoo, fed well and restored to a healthy state. And then, with much fanfare, it was released back into the ocean with a tracking device attached to it.

There was nothing reprehensible in all this, of course, and those who attempt to help suffering animals are much to be praised.

But what was bizarre, to the point of stupidity, was the reaction when “Happy Feet’s” tracking device went dead after a couple of days, obviously because some bigger creature in the oceans – probably a shark – had made a meal of it. Oh the grief! As if grown people were not aware that predation is built into nature, big sea creatures eat smaller sea creatures, sharks eat penguins and of course penguins eat fish (just as we do).

I wouldn’t make an issue of this if only little children lamented, but some editorials reacted as if this banality of nature were a tragedy.

I find myself wondering if such sentimentality doesn’t arise from the way most of us now are quarantined from the realities of nature. After all, the great majority of us human beings are now housed in cities, far even from the realities of farm life, let alone wild nature.

I am not suggesting that small children be deprived of their pleasant daydreams; but I am saying that at some point, a more realistic view of nature has to be instilled. I suppose a good diet of the better wildife programmes (David Attenborough et al.), served to older children and teenagers, would make an excellent antidote to the Disney view of nature.

I have my dander up about this because, in the age of CGI,  we are now being assailed with apparently “realistic” images of animal life which present the cartoon daydream.

Latest offender is the Disney CGI remake of The Lion King.

The lions look like real lions, the lion cub looks like a real lion cub, the assembled monkeys and zebras look like real monkeys and zebras etc. etc. And so children are further encouraged to see this as all being true to nature.

            So allow me to make a few obvious statements about the real communal life of lions.

Little baby lions are not held up by wise old primates to be proclaimed as heirs to the pride before a throng of all the animals. Reality: when the alpha male lion is getting too old, two younger lions will challenge him, harrass him and chase him away (so that he becomes a solitary "rogue male" - and fair game to all other lions who wish to kill him). They will then fight each other to see who becomes the new alpha male of the pride. The first action of the new alpha male is to KILL ALL THE CUBS (to which the lionesses do not object - in fact they are by this stage all on heat and ready to mate with the new alpha male).

Why does the new alpha male do this?

Because nature / evolution has arranged it so that the alpha male is not wasting his time helping to raise the product of another male's DNA. Or, to put it another way, so that the pride does not get too inbred (remember, alpha male will readily mate with his own mother and / or daughter). Of course none of this reality can be suitably conveyed to children; but quarantined in cartoon form (as in the first version of The Lion King), the fantasy-version is acceptable. Transferred to CGI, however, it becomes deception - a pretence that an American-devised fantasy is reality. (Incidentally the story is NOT a traditional African folktale, but there are persistent and credible rumours that much of it was plagiarised from a Japanese cartoon series.)

In reality, if a variety of the animals gathered to honour the new heir to the "lion king", half of them would at once be pounced upon and devoured by all the carnivores present. And in reality, the fate of the little lion cub would be to be summarily killed by the new male leader of the pride – unless its father managed to stay in charge for a few more mating seasons.

Grumpy old curmudgeon, aren’t I? Truth-tellers often are.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Something New

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

“A PLACE TO RETURN TO” by John Allison (Cold Hub Press, NZ$30);  “NIGHT AS DAY” by Nikki-Lee Birdsey (Victoria University Press, $NZ30); “LAY STUDIES” by Steven Toussaint (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)

            It was happenstance and the order in which publishers sent review copies to me that brought me to review these three new collections. But as I read them, I thought they could be ranged in an order from most accessible to most mandarin. See what you think.

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John Allison is an experienced poet and A Place to Return To is his fifth published collection. New Zealand–born, longtime resident of Australia, and now once again resident of New Zealand, Allison (born in 1950) is not too much older than I am. This may be the reason that I feel very much at home in his poetry, despite not sharing his “anthroposophist” philosophy. Most of his cultural references are ones with which I can identify and (apparently) most of the books he’s read are ones I’ve read. Many poems in A Place to Return To nod at High Culture. Allison reads the obits. of poets in the Guardian while listening to Mozart; he still has a thing for Ezra Pound and takes in vistas of Provence and gives a dawn poem (“alba”) while quoting the old langue d’oc and examining landscape via mentioning Cezanne and visiting Cezanne’s atelier. There is a somewhat broken-backed poem about Alfred Sisley; and Charles Trenet and Charles Baudelaire both get a look in.

Subtitled “new and uncollected poems”, A Place to Return To comprises 29 new poems and 22 previously uncollected poems. Poems in the “new” section are called “Telling Stories” and were written between 2013 and 2019. Poems in the “uncollected” section are called “Another Way of Looking” and date from between 1998 and 2005.

You get a taste of Allison’s style and typical themes as soon as you read this collection’s opening poems. The poems “you  elsewhere” and the sequence “backing into silence” are composed neatly in couplets. More alluringly, they are written in a very straightforward, declaratory style – being ostensibly about seascape and landscape – but they have the trick of implying much more about human beings. The same is true of the later poem “Native Country”, where the true country becomes the body of the beloved.

There is, then, a double vision – in these cases, human beings are read into the land.

The poem “A question raised by archaeology” is another example of the poet’s double vision. A cursory reading give us a simple story of “backyard archaeology” i.e. something being dug up in the back garden for fun – in this case a fragment of china with part of the “Willow Pattern” on it. The child-observer for the first time understands there is tension between his parents. But read more carefully, the poem really turns on the idea of what is authentic and what is fake (with, I suspect, the poet knowing full-well that the whole “Willow Pattern” legend is not truly Chinese, but is a European example of Chinoiserie, or Chinese-style fakery). In other words, there is a complex philosophical concept presented in the form of a simple story.

Much of what Allison writes is elegaic, as perhaps befits an older man. One of the best poems in this collection is the wistful and beautifully-crafted “Elegy Eutrapelos”. It references especially Paul Valery’s Le Cimitiere Marin as well as other scraps of shared 20th century culture. Valery’s great poem has inspired other New Zealand poets. (Look up on this blog the review of Robert McLean’s A Graveyard by the Sea.) But in its effect, Allison’s poem has more in common with the tradition of crepuscular 18th century poems (Gray, Collins, Thompson etc.)

Another of Allison’s very best is “Theatre Piece”, which might quote Oscar Wilde as its epigraph, but which is in a tone more like a painting by Paul Delvaux or like Rene Magritte’s “The Lovers”, sounding the idea of isolated souls never meeting. And when Allison is not being literally elegaic, he is often saying goodbye (“At the departure gate”) or lamenting distances (“As it is”) and very last poem of the “new” poems part of this collection is an “envoi” telling us “living seems more / complicated now than dying” and “poetry is all there is / when nothing else makes sense.

There is in Allison’s work an admirable recognition of “nature red in tooth and claw”, as found in the poem “why we fish” with one “trying anything to coax / a wily, insolent brown trout / to deviate from its lakeshore beat / and suck it up, strike, sink / down to the bottom, doggo as a snag – or else smashed by / the impetuous rush of a rainbow, never / delicate in its fierce arc”. Perhaps in this fine poem we get close to Ted Hughes’ “Pike” territory. But like much of Allison’s work, it segues into an elegy.

I have deliberately lingered more in the “new” poems than I will in the “uncollected” ones of this book, as I think I have already given you the measure of this poet. The “uncollected” one also reference High Culture in the form of Plato, Plotinus, Buddha, Blake, Rilke, Leonardo da Vinci, Gerald Manley Hopkins et al. (I am definitely not denigrating this tendency in Allison’s work – I am simply noting it).

It will suffice to say that there are three stand-out poems in the “uncollected’ section. “The Way Down” is a very vivid and touching recollection of childhood encounters with aviation, warm without being sentimental. “This Side” appears to be an elegy for the poet’s father. And in the cycle “Rilke at Duino”, the finale gives us a persuasive combination of death and love in the lines  “A hunter leans into his shotgun’s stock / as though against the cheek / of his beloved in the village tavern.”

In this whole volume there is only one poem which strikes me as off-key. “Dead Reckoning” concerns an adult man’s remorse for having thoughtlessly shot a bird when he was a child. The poem’s moralising is just a little too pat.

            Allison belongs to the school of well-crafted poems, but he does break out into prose-poems, fragmented poems such as “sounding off” where Nietzsche faces David Bowie, and “found” poems like quotations from the notebooks of da Vinci and the diary of Hopkins.

            This is an agreeable, mature and thoughtful collection.

            Just one curious footnote: One endnote at the back refers to a poem that doesn’t appear to be in the book, “Last Songs of Gustav Mahler”. I assume this is a typo.

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            I spent much of two days reading and pondering over the debut poetry collection of Nikki-Lee Birdsey, Night as Day. At the end of this careful reading, I find myself in a quandary.

The sensibility Nikki-Lee Birdsey expresses is one with which I can easily sympathise. Much of her imagery is impressive and memorable. In many poems, she is open about her perceptions and feelings. But the collection is haunted and, I think, dampened, as many debut volumes are, by being just a little too eager to wear its learning on its sleeve, or to bewilder us with obscure references. Significantly, the poems are followed by fully 20 pages of endnotes (or “Commentary”, as they are designated), either explaining such references or, in some cases, telling us why the poet wrote a given poem. Sometimes this come close to telling us what to think about the poems, which is regrettable.

Why is the collection called Night as Day? So many of these poems refer to the difference between New Zealand and the United States (especially New York and New Jersey) in both of which Birdsey has been a long-term resident. The title has something to do with the fact that it is day in one when it is night in the other, and the poet is often thinking of one while living in the other.

Allow me to do my familiar bibliographic trick of first walking through the book’s contents.

Night as Day is divided into three sections.

Section 1, “Naturalisation”, comprises seven longish poems, all of which are somehow related to the dual identity of the poet as inhabitant of both New Zealand and the USA. (BTW, the endnotes helpfully tell us which location every poem is set in, NZ or NY etc.). In this section, the poem that most clearly expresses this dual identity is the last one, “Foreign & Domestic”. Essentially, it is a poem (within both NY and NZ) of a major sense of dislocation in an alien city – although many very personal references tend to shut the reader out.

Section 2, “Objects” is a sequence of twelve shorter poems, again suggestive of a fragile consciousness wavering between New York and New Zealand, each poem fired by objects or things.

Finally Section 3, “Cartographic Life”, comprises twelve poems, again on the general theme of mixed identity, but now with a tendency to focus on the New Zealand end of things. 

I’ll declare openly my difficulty with some of this by considering the very first poem of the collection “Cette Terre Homicide” (This Murderous Land). It is a poem in triplets, playing on the clash of identities poised between New Zealand and New York, with “the bright destruction of / my thought process hanging / in the imbalance”. As much as anything, this poem is a lament for a sensibility so overwhelmed by its literary training that it finds it hard to react to the immediate moment. There is much quoting of texts (“intertextuality” is very much the thing now) moving almost into the Stephane Mallarme territory of cryptic, self-referencing incomprehensibility. Hence in reading this poem, I felt joyful release in its clear, colloquial conclusion  “I’m writing this / to say it was / the easiest thing / I have ever done.” One line I thought perfectly summed up an aspect of New Zealand landscape, but then it may in fact be referring to New York, viz. “the shorn / mountains full of nothing dangerous.

You can see where I am here, can’t you? The ideas are interesting, the images are often arresting, the poet is holding my attention, but there is much confusion.

Thus too with “Augustland”, in essence a simple poem with its reflections on New York, partly viewed through an apartment window, intertwined with memories of a poet and of music, but again so self-referencing as to mystify the  uninitiated; and it walks on the crutches of nearly three closely-printed pages of endnote. With regard to those endnotes, would one easily understand that “The Long Nineteenth Century” is meant to evoke the poet’s ingestion of nineteenth century literature without an endnote to tell us so? Likewise, only the endnote allows us to understand that the poem “Dream Baby Dream” refers to unversity students committing suicide in a time of economic recession. It is a relief to come across the poem “Green Ray”, which has no endnote telling us what to think of it.

But let me not overemphasise this, as I do not wish to pillory a poet who clearly says much that is worth listening to. I delight in the clarity of such poems as 

“Mutuwhenua”, on the fragility of memory as related to childhood events. Or “The Great Western Hotel”, recalling a specific time and place (Auckland’s west coast Piha), but at one remove as it concerns people from before the poet’s time. (There is an odd “distancing” in many poems – consider “The Undergraduate” – a tentative self-portrait but presented in the second person). “Objects 5” makes a lucid statement as the poet views young girls playing in a park… but then there is that long endnote to tell me how thick I am and what literary references I’ve missed. “Objects 7” contains the exquisitely intelligible lines “We never look at just one thing. / I throw my phone in the / bin, too many images -  / it’s just a piece of junk aglint / in the plastic folds of the liner.” Brava! Not that clarity in and of itself is always a virtue. It can lead to the deadpan, and often banal, observationism of Frank O’Hara, who seems to be pushed very much at rookie poets in writing schools. So I shudder a little when “Objects 4” contains the lines “This is another ‘I do this. I do that’ poem / I learnt in New York from O’Hara. / This is a New York poem set in a garden / styled in colonial civics on an island / that is not Manhattan.”

But enough of my dithering over these matters. “War Song” has much hard and memorable imagery creating a mental picture, and such imagery (one of Nikki-Lee Birdsey’s strengths) therefore makes poetic sense even without the endnote giving us a back-story. Similarly, “The Blue Hour”, the most affecting poem in the collection, is, au fond, a statement about loneliness and love, with the pellucid statement “You need a human to love in this awful / human endeavour. You look at all the / sad, dark things I can write long after his death…. You are reading this introduction / to my life now, I wish it were closer / to happiness …

The front-flap  blurb to this collection describes it as “balancing artistic experimentation with frank expression”. Yes. I agree with that. But if experimentation requires obscure references that have to be explained in overlong notes, then I hope it is reined in a bit in the poet’s next collection.

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This is a rather confronting way to begin my notice on Steven Toussaint’s Lay

Studies, but begin thus I must.

Reviewers are not supposed to say this, but I, theologically-literate, well-attuned to poetry and its conventions even in its most modern guise, read and re-read and attempted to analyse and squeeze meaning from the first four poems in this volume (“The New Laity”, “Acts”, “Pound” [presumably Ezra] and “St. Francis “) and found myself baffled. I paused, had a cup of tea, and tried again – with the same result. Sometimes I wish I was like the type of “critic” who habitually provides blurbs for volumes of poetry, and who speaks in broad generalities without actually elucidating what any given poem is about. You, dear poetry-reader, must know the type of thing I mean: “Poet XYZ cuts deep into the perplexities of life and politics with a sharp and telling wit, erudite and engaging while not neglecting the complexities of inter-personal relationships” etc. etc. etc. One can easily fill pages with such general assertions – none of which ever prove that said critic has read deeply the volume in hand. Thus I struggled with “The New Laity”, “Acts”, “Pound” and “St. Francis”, discovering isolated images that meant something, but never finding them knitting into a coherent whole. I think (perhaps “intuit” would be the better word) that the “St Francis” poem acts as a sort of antidote to the “brother son, sister moon” hippie-ish interpretation of St Francis [of Assisi] by suggesting the less comfortable aspects of nature, but that is the best I can do with it.

American-born (in 1986), but settled in New Zealand for the last decade, Steven Toussaint has studied theology. So I begin on the back foot, genuinely wanting to like a poet who views reality within a philosophical and theological framework and who attempts to interpret things sub specie aeternitatis. But the opening of this collection of poems still daunts me.

Mercifully, I move on and find myself in more limpid space after the baffling quartet. “Yes or No” is not only a parody of simplistic questionnaires, but also a satirical comment on the cheapening of spiritualty in the quick-fire, one-liner, on-line computer age. “Kettle’s Yard” mocks (I think) the pretension that art in itself is a spiritual experience. The long sequence “Aevum Measures” deals with theological matters in terms of music – the dissonant “tritone” becomes the odd measure of the distance between material perception and eternity. The images are piquant, suggesting the degeneration of a physical environment even where angels were once supposed to fly. I let myself ride on the imagery in this one and enjoyed it.

Encountering a poem like “Bubbles”, I wondered if the poet works best in short gnomic statements. I reproduce the first section of “Bubbles” in full:

At home with contingency

breeze arrives like a first

principle. Autumn.

Red leaves welcomed, one

by one, into the yawning

corridor. A season’s calm

demolitions, diminishing


imaginary saturations

of foliage on the threshold. ”

The poem’s epigraph refers to Lent, the time of self-denial before Passion Week and Easter, so it is autumnal before the winter of Christ’s passion and death and the spring of his resurrection. If “contingency”  - or flux – is accepted as a “first principle”, then it is an embrace of chaos. But as autumn is part of a cycle, there is the paradox of constancy in change, so the “contingency” really points to what is eternal. At least that is the best reading I can give of it. And it appears to be confirmed by the following stanzas of “Bubbles”, where images of ordinary suburban existence knock against the eternal pattern.

The sequence “Chicago Sketches” is more in the realm of mild social satire of the poet’s hometown, with flashes of annoyance at passing fads. The sequence “Sts Peter and Paul” is the most lucid in the book, once one has grasped the historical events that are involved – and its emotional heart is the section in which St Peter, the denier, questions his own pusillanimity (quo vadis? etc). The poems “Agnus Dei” and “The Nuptial Yes” come closest to articulating a traditional theology.

I end this review profoundly and deeply troubled. What I think Toussaint (“All Saints” – what an apt name) is reaching for is the deepest of profundities, though sometimes with the mildest of ironies (see the poem “St. Mary the Less”). What he is doing is totally out of tune with what is currently fashionable. How could it not be so when it so often references St Thomas Aquinas, St Francis, Neoplatonism, Messiaen’s religious music, Jacques Maritain, Simone Weil, T.S.Eliot? (The roll-call, apart from Eliot, suggests either a Catholic, or at least a man with a Catholic upbringing). I also note that Toussaint has evidently immersed himself in the thoughts and ideas of the canonical thinkers here referenced. He is not wearing their names simply as a badge of his “culture” which is, regrettably, a common feature in many contemporary poets.

I salute Toussaint’s aspiration, but I warn that this is difficult reading.