Monday, August 26, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE STORIES OF EILEEN DUGGAN” edited by Helen J. O’Neill (Victoria University Press, $NZ35); “EILEEN DUGGAN SELECTED POEMS” edited by Peter Whiteford (REPRINT – first published 1994; Victoria University Press, $NZ30); “DENIS GLOVER SELECTED POEMS” edited by Bill Manhire (REPRINT – first published 1995; Victoria University Press, $NZ30)
This first section of my blog postings, “Something New”, always deals with new books. This week I more-or-less break my own rule. The Stories of Eileen Duggan consists of stories written in the 1920s and 1930s – but only now are they being published for the first time. As for the new reprintings of selected poems by Eileen Duggan and Denis Glover, I note them here because they are related to The Stories of Eileen Duggan. So here we go.
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In the commendably detailed 45 pages of his Introduction to The Stories of Eileen Duggan, John Weir tells a story much of which is now familiar in many surveys of New Zealand poetry. Eileen Duggan (1894-1972), of Irish parentage and dedicated to a rather idealised vision of her parents’ country of birth, was essentially a very good Georgian poet whose style and tastes were overtaken by Modernism. Both nationally and internationally, her poetry was highly praised in the 1920s and 1930s, and she was awarded an OBE in 1937. But by then, the generation of A.R.D. Fairburn, Allen Curnow and Denis Glover had come along. They helped redefine tastes in New Zealand poetry (in most cases from a very masculine perspective), and Duggan’s verse was either denigrated or ignored. Duggan was academically gifted (she won a First in History at Victoria University College and would have had a career as an academic if not for ill health). But as a “spinster” (is that word still used?) and a devout Catholic, much of whose poetry was originally published in Catholic magazines, she was an easy target for ridicule from some quarters. Perhaps as damagingly for her reputation, she was over-praised by conservative critics, and the verse she wrote for children tended to be a staple in the junior classes of Catholic schools. As John Weir correctly remarks “much of Eileen’s life work was to be admired for non-literary reasons” (pp.19-20) and “it is unfortunate that her poetry was adopted by others to fight extra-literary crusades.” (p.27) . She appears to have stopped writing poetry in 1951, over twenty years before her death. Eileen Duggan never disappeared completely from New Zealand anthologies of poetry, but she was not included in some of the more influential ones. Only in the last thirty years or so has she been reappraised and her poetry more often printed – frequently by women editors and anthologists who see her as a victim of “masculinist” bias.
It will be noted that everything said so far in John Weir’s introduction relates to Eileen Duggan as poet. It is only in the last three pages of his Introduction that Weir turns to the matter of her short stories. Duggan earned a frugal living by journalism, mainly in Catholic publications, and most of her prose was jobbing articles on Ireland and New Zealand, with less frequent comments on poetry and literature. Only a few of her short stories were published (in newspapers) in her lifetime. The rest remained in manuscript, in which form that were handed over to the young John Weir in 1970. With Weir’s encouragement, they were edited by Helen Josephine O’Neill (Sister Leonie of the Sisters of Mercy). They add up to 41 short stories and make a very full volume of over 300 pages. Weir remarks on the probable influence of Katherine Mansfield on the earlier stories, but adds “Because [Frank] Sargeson’s social realism reinvented the New Zealand short story and took it in a new direction, Eileen Duggan’s personalist narratives and historical episodes may seem irrelevant. Nonetheless they should be read for what they are rather than for what they are not.” (p.46) This seems to be fair warning that we should be prepared to read the collection as period pieces.
The first nineteen stories are gathered together under the title The Wish of His Heart and other stories. Most of them were written in the 1920s. They are mainly set in “Waihoi”, a version of the rural Tuamarina area in the northern part of the South Island where Duggan was raised; or in Wellington, to which Duggan moved and where she spent most of her life. All of the stories are short (five or six pages), being of a length that would have been acceptable in popular magazines. Most are about simple domestic or personal problems.
It is interesting to see how large looms social class and the social pecking order. Duggan usually deals with people who are just making a living – the farmer and his scrimping-and-saving wife just managing to get by (in “The Closed Fist”); or the poverty-stricken seamstress justifying her life by making a quilt (“The Patchwork Quilt”). Only a few stories concern people of a wealthier or upper-middle class (“Her Ways”, “The Bride”, “Changed Circumstances”); and there are a clutch of stories concerning (women) stenographers and other office workers (“Old Madame”, “The Riddle of Sara”, “The Mimic”). Snobbery and a clash of social classes is central in a few cases – for example in “The Bond”, there is the shame of man socialising with a young woman who is “only a shopgirl.” All these are credible situations for the age in which the stories were written.
For an unmarried woman with a reputation for living a quiet and retiring life, Duggan sometimes takes on very confronting situations, such as the death of a baby (“The Gardener”) or the corrosive effects of gossip by men (“His Son”) and gossip by women (“The Lie”). Note, too, that some stories centre on women thwarted in musical careers, one by a bullying husband (“Her Ways”) and one by social pressure (“Her Creed”). If you wish to refer to an oppressive patriarchy (not the sort of language Duggan herself would have used), you might refer to the sad story “Relief”, where a young woman, passed over by men at public dances, removes what she calls her “sale ticket” and refuses to take part any more. She is asserting that she is not property.
It would be foolish to criticise the dated slang that is used in many of the stories – that is simply evidence of the times in which the stories were written. But, for all Duggan’s clear social observation, there is a big problem hanging over these stories. It sabotages nearly all of them. This is Duggan’s habit of “end-stopping” each tale by concluding with a punchline, or a paragraph or two of moralising. This is not quite the O. Henry twist or “sting-in-the-tale”; it is more a case of the author telling us what to think in a neat tidying-up, like the Moral of an Aesop’s fable, leaving no afterglow or subtext. The story “The Solvent”, about two adults who missed the opportunity to find love, had the potential to be a great story (and is one of the very few in this 1920s collection to reference the Great War). But it collapses into appalling sentimentality in its glib conclusion. Ditto “Her Creed”. It is an excellent character study, set in a gossipy boarding-house, until we come to the last two paragraphs, in which Duggan spells out her message of faith being rewarded. Again, there is an implausible collapse into sentimentality. Thus it is in story after story. The title tale, “The Wish of His Heart”, concerns a little boy wanting a pet dog with a neat, cosy conclusion in which his wish is rewarded. One suspects that it might have found its place in an old School Journal.
I run the risk here of being labelled one of those insensitive male chauvinists, often denounced as misogynists in feminist writing, who refuse to see or understand the viewpoint of a woman writer. But I would be very surprised if any woman writer now wanted to moralise and sentimentalise the way Duggan does. Noting the skill with which Duggan sets up many scenes, her awareness of physical realities, and her attempts to grapple with real-life situations, I still see the stories of The Wish of His Heart and other stories as magazine stories of a very old-fashioned sort, leaving readers with a comforting, unplifting message. They are historically interesting, but basically unrevivable.
Written in the 1930s, the 22 stories of The Reason and other stories are a different matter. Apparently Duggan hoped that they would be published in time for New Zealand’s Centennial celebrations (of the Treaty of Waitangi) in 1940. Each story is a dramatic episode in the life of a person significant in New Zealand history, beginning with the legendary Maori explorer Kupe, working through Tasman and Cook, and ending with people from Duggan’s own time. Her Catholic interests are not too much to the fore. Only three of the 22 stories are about Catholic figures. “The Reason” (perhaps significantly, the title-tale of the collection) presents the Catholic Bishop Pompallier as a wise and temperate man who is in New Zealand to spread the faith, not to spread French interests. “Fulfilment” deals with Mother Mary Aubert and “Reconciliation” with the Catholic missionary Fr. O’Reilly. At the same time, the story “Incident” gives a sympathetic view of the Anglican Bishop Selwyn as a man trying to take aristocratic patronage out of his church, and also struggling to keep the peace between Maori and Pakeha. “A Matter of Principle” is about the Prebyterian minister who championed the eight-hour working day. The final story concerns the Labour Party leader Harry Holland, whose sense of social justice was formed in part by his early association with the Salvation Army.
Reading these stories nearly ninety years after they were written, we might be surprised by what they do not include. Mother Aubert features in “Fulfilment” and Katherine Mansfield in “Karori Air”, but none of the other stories focuses on a woman – and as each story is supposed to deal with a significant turning-point in New Zealand history, it is odd that there is no reference to the movement for women’s suffrage. There are moments of patriotic tub-thumping. “Crossroads”, the story about Ernest Rutherford, tells us that he learnt his sense of wonder about the physical world by observing New Zealand landscape, and has him declaring to an English colleague that New Zealand “gives better air and better food, even to its poor, than any land on earth.” There are also moments of icky sentiment. Lt.-Governor Hobson rescues a Maori boy from slavery. Dr. Truby King responds to personal tragedies to set up the Plunket Society.
Yet, unlike the tales in The Wish of His Heart and other stories, some of these historical stories have an interesting oddball tone to them. “Give Balm to Giants” gives a fruitfully ambiguous view of Governor George Grey’s attitude to Maori. There is a very odd vignette of Alfred Domett, caught between poetry and a failing political career. The story about Samuel Butler, “Illumination”, comes – unless I am misreading it – very close to declaring Butler’s sexual proclivities.
The interpretations of history may now be regarded as superseded ones, but given the sources that would have been available to her, Eileen Duggan had a formidable knowledge of (Pakeha) New Zealand history. One barrier for us now may be that, in many stories, she assumes we already know who her cast of characters are. I admit that one or two of her protagonists made me go scuttling to reference books to find out who they were (such as the New Zealand botanist Leonard Cockayne). When she tells a story about Thomas Bracken, she has him saying in the last paragraph “They don’t understand” – a line which would have made all New Zealand readers of her vintage remember that Bracken wrote “Not Understood”. Even so, there is a lot of shrewd observation in these stories, Duggan is not always starry-eyed about New Zealand’s past, and I rate the stories of The Reason and other stories more highly than the earlier collection.
I take on board John Weir’s warning that all the stories in this book “should be read for what they are rather than for what they are not.” They are from an earlier age, they are written by somebody whose metier was poetry, and they are not works of hard Modernist realism. I never expected them to be. But while they do show a writer who was developing in the medium of the short story, they do not include any hitherto undiscovered “classics”. I wonder if any of them will now be anthologised in one of those collections of New Zealand short stories that pop up evey few years. I think not, but I don’t claim to be a prophet in matters of taste.
Annoying Footnote from Nitpickers Incorporated: The table of contents of The Stories of Eileen Duggan places some titles of stories in the wrong order. More amusingly, each story on eminent New Zealand historical persons ends by giving the dates of birth and death of the person depicted. The final story in the book is clearly about Harry Holland, the left-wing Labour Party Leader of the Opposition, who was born in 1868 and died in 1933. But the dates given at the end of the story are “1893-1961”. Why? Because, presumably, the editor has confused Harry Holland with Sid Holland, the right-wing National Party prime minister of the 1950s, whose dates these are.
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I am delighted that Victoria University Press have chosen to republish Peter Whiteford’s selection of Eileen Duggan’s poems; and Bill Manhire’s selection of Denis Glover’s poems. These two editions were originally published in 1994 and 1995 respectively. In some ways it is an odd conjunction. After all, Glover was one of the blokey-bloke poets and he attacked Eileen Duggan (and Gloria Rawlinson, and the Australian Eve Langley) in his “The Arraignment of Paris”, lampooning what he saw as their pallid and outdated pastoral poetry. Bill Manhire includes “The Arraignment of Paris” in his selection. It now reads as a rather silly, laddish exercise.
One strength of Whiteford’s selection of Duggan is that he includes fifty pages of her prose essays – including (surprisingly?) a generous assessment of the poetry of Fairburn and some general comments on New Zealand literature as it appeared in her day. To read her poetry is to see a poet who did not stand still in her chosen style. Certainly most of her poems are more-or-less “Georgian” in their choice of vocabulary and their, often pastoral, subject matter – trees, landscapes, rivers, birds. But read some of her later poems (especially the concluding poem “Dit L’Ecrivisse Mere”) and you see somebody creeping towards a more modernist style.
As for Manhire’s selection of Glover, Manhire’s introduction admits that Glover’s verse is variable in quality (so which poet’s isn’t?), but also knows that in his colloquial lyricism Glover remains one of the country’s best. Read once again the “Sings Harry” sequence and “Arawata Bill” and see why he is essential New Zealand reading. There is that awkwardness in tone in much of Glover – the times where he seems to go jokey to avoid getting too emotional – but the best of Glover flies. Still great stuff.
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.
“SUTTREE” by Cormac McCarthy (first published 1979)
As I’ve often remarked on this blog, not even the most dedicated bibliophile (such as I) can possibly read everything that is worth reading. And sometimes my conscience is pricked when I hear the praises sung of a contemporary author, none of whose works I have ever read. For me, one such author was Cormac McCarthy (born in 1933, as Charles McCarthy). He is rated by some as one of the USA’s greatest living novelists. Sure, I knew of the man from seeing some of the films that have been made from his work ( No Country for Old Men and The Road) but I had never opened any of his novels.
So on a recent holiday, I cracked what I’d heard called McCarthy’s masterpiece, Suttree, first published 40 years ago in 1979. I decided to read it “cold”, without referring first to anything that has been written about it – not even the blurb of the hardback I was reading.
Suttree has a virtuoso opening. It begins with four pages of nothing but descriptive scene-setting. We are presented with what seems to be a nightmare world, a little like Hell (or perhaps Purgatory) with a river running through it. Only when we are some pages in do we understand that a real place is being described – Knoxville, Tennessee, through which runs the Tennessee River. Put the Southern setting together with the nightmarish description and at once we reach for that tired term “Southern Gothic” to explain the effect – but that is underestimating what McCarthy is up to, even if he does touch on the genre. Little indicators here and there tell us that the time is somewhere in the early 1950s – the type of cars that are mentioned, the prices given, the lack of TV when it was on the point of becoming ubiquitous etc etc..
We are in the world of bums and vagrants, hoboes and tramps and petty criminals, but the story is set before first the Beats of the ‘40s and ‘50s and then the Hippies of the ‘60s made being a vagrant or drifter a fashionable pose. McCarthy’s characters are real outcasts, and not middle-class kids playing at being poor before they go back to the suburbs. To describe them as “eccentrics” would be to soften them and make them sound like something out of Saroyan. These people are the desperate dregs. They live in tin shacks along the river, or sleep rough under bridges and viaducts, and they hang around in pool-rooms, bars, pawn-shops, one-night-cheap hotels, brothels and boarding houses. I have read few books that so often mention vomit, excrement (like the “beard of shit” seen in an unflushed outhouse), ripe pimples waiting to burst, smashed-up blood-soaked bodies and the like. Refusing to be PC (because Suttree was written before there was such a thing), the supporting cast includes “niggers” (so called), “whores” (so called), “catamites”, “fairies” and “faggots” (so called).
Suttree (only well into the novel do we learn that his first name is Cornelius) earns a meagre living by fishing in the Tennessee River. Early in the novel, it is made clear that he came from a well-off family, that he went to university, and that he had a young son who died – but he was so alienated from his family that he could only spy on the boy’s funeral from a distance. His family hates him. So what went wrong and who is Suttree really? This is one strand of narrative that keeps us reading.
The novel is not all told in chronological order, so there are some jumps backwards and forwards in Suttree’s life. It is also very, very episodic – picaresque, in fact. Suttree meets many people, and in a world of aimless bums he is a steadying figure.
He acts as mentor to some younger and stupider bums, such as the 18-year-old Gene Harrogate, who has a perverse sex-drive and is introduced into the novel when he is caught copulating (literally) with watermelons in a watermelon patch. Gene drifts in and out of jail a number of times and frequently cooks up ridiculous schemes. Without a farmer’s permission he slaughters a pig to sell the meat (McCarthy being the author he is, we get all the oozing, steaming guts as the pig is killed). When he hears there is a bounty being paid for eliminating bats, Gene finds a way of killing bats by throwing them poisoned meat from a flipper. He tries to blow up Knoxville’s underground tunnels to get into the town’s treasury. Later, he has a system for stealing coins from parking meters. Most of his adventures read like that most American of prose forms, the tall story, with shades of the Southerner Mark Twain; all of them end badly, and it is often Suttree who has to pick up the pieces. Elsewhere in the novel, Suttree has to solve problems created by another youngster, Larry, who has to dispose of the unwanted and decaying corpse of his father.
There are other, more stable characters in Suttree’s life, such as Joe, a steady-minded “nigger” (though in his case he is more often called “black”) who has the same sort of quiet maturity as Suttree himself.
With all the male vagrants and bums, this is a very homosocial world. The women encountered most often are prostitutes, ogled by, and used by, and discarded by, those bums who (momentarily) have a little money. Only late in the novel does Suttree get involved in any way with women. One is an under-aged girl, whose sexual attraction is described in explicit detail (although the sexual act itself is not). Another is Joyce, a brisk and experienced prostitute from up North. Whether she is just stringing Suttree along, or aiming to make him her pimp, is never made quite clear. Anyway, both entanglements end badly (and in one case a little too conveniently, if I can say as much without spoiling the plot).
Being a Southern novel, Suttree comes complete with Bible-bashing patriarchs, crazy booze-drenched street preachers and that Old Time Religion as bellowed by Protestant fundamentalists. All this makes Suttree himself a bit of an anomaly in the Baptist Bible Belt. For if you are sensitive to such things (as I am) you note little details here and there that suggest Suttree comes from a Catholic background. Purgatory is mentioned here. The Madonna and the Pieta are mentioned there. The Rosary is mentioned elsewhere. It becomes explicit when Suttree describes himself as a “resigned Catholic”. While helping Larry bury the unwanted, decaying corpse, Suttree suggests that it might be appropriate to say a prayer. Larry says his father had no time for religion and Suttree says he knows only the Catholic prayers. Larry says whatever his father was, he certainly wasn’t a Catholic, and there the matter rests. Only about three-quarters of the way through the novel is there a long sequence where Suttree sits in Knoxville’s Catholic Church of the Immaculate Conception, giving his disenchanted memories of having been an altar-boy, surveying the statues half-regretfully, but nevertheless dismissing Catholicism as “Christian witchcraft”. And yet… and yet… oh well, I’ll deal with the “and yets” later.
Towards the end of the novel, Suttree is hospitalised with typhoid fever and hallucinates with apocalyptic images. As he is dragged, in his hallucination, into a hell of bums and whores, a nun grabs him by the elbow and begs him to get away from such company. Later, in real life, a priest turns up at the hospital and attempts to give Suttree the last rites. “Do you want to confess?” asks the priest. Jokingly, Suttree replies “I did it!” But later he says to the priest “You don’t understand. There’s only one Suttree.” And that, it seems to me, is both Suttree’s vindication of himself and Suttree’s weakness. He is asserting his indivduality, uniqueness and self-reliance without a religion or imposed code of conduct. But he is also admitting his separation from the rest of humanity, his aloneness, his lack of solidarity.
This, I think, gives you the substance of the novel’s ideas. But how are they conveyed? What of the prose style? The dialogue of Suttree alternates between the terse and the wild, crazy, often obscene idioms and metaphors of “poor white trash”. But when the authorial third-person voice takes over, as in the opening pages, the prose is elaborate, majestic and poetic, often giving a mythic colourimg to the doings of bums and hoboes. I understand how this could easily be accused of being overblown and bombastic (as, indeed, it sometimes is). It is very much language in the American grain, big-scale, inclusive, addressing the universe like Walt Whitman. But I think the style works. Implicitly the style says that these people see their own lives as epic. To scrabble for fish in an urban river; to attempt to profit by selling worthless “pearls”; to try to make an impression in order to attract whores – for the novel’s people, these things are heroic deeds. The language, in effect, gives them dignity. It strikes just the right tone for a wonderful scene where Suttree interacts with an old aunt, looking at an ancient photograph album of faded images and understanding the destructiveness of time. Here McCarthy writes like a poet.
And what about the after-match function, after I’d read the novel and made my own judgements and when I did a little background research and discovered what other people thought? I discovered that the novel has a large autobiographical element. Though born up North, Cormac McCarthy was brought up, from a young age, in Knoxville, Tennessee, attended a Catholic school there, and was an altar-boy at the Church of the Immaculate Conception before going on to lead a church-less and sometimes turbulent adult life (three marriages, three divorces).
Not that this means the rest of Suttree’s experience was anything like McCarthy’s.
Apparently, too, McCarthy laboured long over this novel, taking about twenty years, from the late 1950s to publication in 1979, writing and re-writing it even as he was already producing other novels. I’m interested to find that, with Suttree’s stoic attitude to life and with the wild shenanigans of Gene, Larry and others, some critics have interpreted it as a great comic novel – a long tall story. There have also been the inevitable comparisons with other Southern writers – Faulkner with his inspired idiots; or down-and-dirty Erskine Caldwell, though its hard to see how his demotic style has anything in common with McCarthy’s.
Most interesting, however, (and here we come to the “and yet” matter that I mentioned earlier) was an article I found, on-line, in a Jesuit magazine. The critic noted that half-a-century back there were Southern writers who were committed Catholics ( Walker Percy and especially Flannery O’Connor). But now American novelists of Catholic background tend to be ex-Catholics (Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo). Nevertheless, said the article, intentionally or otherwise, Suttree is saturated with Catholic tropes and concepts, and in its main character, the novel shows somebody searching desperately for meaning in a world from which God has been removed. It is, in effect, a picaresque examination of the “God-sized hole” in post-Christian consciousness.
You’re free to disagree, but frankly, I think this is a perfectly valid interpretation.
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.
THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY
When you hear nonsense stated in a popular phrase or slogan, it is time to call that phrase or slogan out.
I expressed this view before on this blog when I considered the statement “We’re just starting a conversation”. The only people I have ever heard using this phrase are people who are really saying “we’re just starting a propaganda initiative” as in “No, we’re not saying we’re in favour of eugenics. We’re just starting a conversation”. As soon as the phrase is spoken, you can be sure that the propaganda campaign will follow.
If “starting a conversation” has become a little threadbare and transparent, there is now another, equally iniquitous, phrase which seems to be taking its place. It’s the one about being on “the right side of history”. I have heard this slogan being used whenever there is a very contentious issue. While pushing for relaxed abortion laws, sloganeers declare “we must be on the right side of history” – meaning “we must support this change because it will be majority opinion in a few years, and we don’t want to be left out, do we?” Most recently, a television interview with one of the leaders of the Ihumatao protest in South Auckland had her declaring that to follow her cause was to be “on the right side of history”. (NB – I am disputing the use of this phrase – not of the rights and wrongs of her cause, on which I am not qualified to comment.)
Why do I find this phrase and its use objectionable?
First, if “the right side of history” means “the direction in which history is heading”, it is a fatuous phrase because we can never really know where history is taking us. At best we can make an informed guess, which may well prove to be wrong. As an historian, I have often quoted T. S. Eliot’s statement, put in the mouth of Thomas Becket at the end of Part One of Murder in the Cathedral, that “history at all times draws / The strangest consequence from remotest cause.” In other words, we can’t be sure where history is going, and outcomes in history can be produced by things of which we, in our own era, are completely unaware. I have also often quoted the four lines which begin Allen Curnow’s sonnet “Sailing or Drowning”: “In terms of some green myth, sailing or drowning, / Each day makes clear a statement to the next; / But to make out tomorrow from its motives / Is pure guessing, yesterday’s were so mixed.” Only in a “green myth” – that is, an immature fiction – can we imagine that what happens today announces clearly what is going to happen tomorrow; besides there are so many different opinions and factors in every era (“motives… yesterday’s were so mixed”) that we can never know which will prevail. If you wish to verify what I have just said, study the history of confident predictions, made by apparently informed people, which did not materialise. Study also the history of confident majority opinions which we have discarded. Current trends do not necessarily tell us the future.
Second, even in the unlikely case that we are right about “the direction in which history is heading”, an appeal to “the right side of history” is essentially an immoral appeal. How dare I say this? Because the appeal to an overwhleming and inevitable trend is really telling us that a (current) majority opinion is always the right one. In effect, you are foolish to stand up for your own values, even ones that you have come to after long and well-informed consideration, because you are in a minority. Need I point out how often in history the majority opinion has proven to be (ethically, morally and in every other way) the wrong one?
When I think of the phrase “the right side of history”, I immediately think of a phrase with a similar meaning, “the wave of the future”. I used to think that this phrase was made up by the Nazis, especially as it has been associated with them in retrospective histories. The Nazis did speak of their “New Order” (“Neuordnung”), meaning something simlar – the inevitable future as we predict it. But the phrase “wave of the future” was not their’s. It was popularised by a pamphlet called The Wave of the Future written by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of Charles Lindbergh, in 1940. Like her husband, Anne Morrow Lindbergh was opposed to America’s becoming involved in Europe’s war and they both became spokespeople for the “America First” isolationist movement. Because Anne Morrow Lindbergh was a talented, and sometimes poetic, writer, there have been attempts to interpret her pamphlet as a noble call for peace. But this misses what she was really saying. Like her husband, Anne was a great admirer of Nazi power and strength, and in her pamphlet she wrote: “They have felt the wave of the future and they have leaped on it. The evils that we deplore in their systems are not in themselves the future. They are the scum on the wave of the future.” In other words, don’t worry about the messy and disturbing things you hear about totalitarian regimes. They’re just unpleasant realities – these people (Stalin, Hitler et al.) are going where history is going, so just sit back and watch it happen. This is the “right side of history” appeal in its most naked form.
To accept the “right side of history” argument is to abandon any considered morality of your own, to yield to majority pressure, no matter how wrong it may be, and to believe in something unprovable and likely to be factually wrong. It is simply telling you to join a big gang because it is a big gang. It should be a mere irrelevance to the matter of formulating your own views.
Monday, August 12, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“PEAT” by Lynn Jenner (Otago University Press, $NZ35); “EVERY MORNING, SO FAR, I’M ALIVE – a Memoir” by Wendy Parkins (Otago University Press, $NZ35)
When I say that I have never read a book quite like Lynn Jenner’s Peat, I am neither praising nor denigrating it. I am simply stating an objective fact. Like her earlier book, Lost and Gone Away (2015), Peat is something of a mosaic. But while Lost and Gone Away used different styles to weave together different stories, Peat uses completely different genres. Reportage, memoir, criticism and biography. Is it sui generis? Perhaps somebody better read than I could tell me.
And this strange and compelling book tells what at first glance seem to be two quite separate stories.
One is the author’s reaction to the building of the Kapiti Expressway, the 18 kilometres of roading, constructed between 2013 and 2018, which zips up the Kapiti Coast and was designed to bypass an inadequate and clogged section of State Highway 1. The other is the author’s engagement with the work of Charles Brasch.
Lynn Jenner lives not far from the Kapiti Expressway. She explains in a sort of preface: “As the Expressway showed itself, arriving like an army in each location along the route, I knew I needed the close company of a writer as a bulwark against all the enacted power and concrete. I needed to gather up pages and pages of words and take them inside with me, to a place where machines could not follow. I needed to make a word-nest, to read beauty as a form of psychic acceleration.” (p.9) The “word-nest” was the work of Brasch, which Jenner diligently researched over five years (as she tells us on p.251) in Brasch’s published writings, in visits to what was once his home in Dunedin, and in the holdings of both the Hocken Library and the Otago University Library.
In my fussy, pedantic, bibliographical way, I point out that Peat consists of about 140 pages of text followed by 115 pages of what are called “Glossaries” – long and explanatory paragraphs, all an essential part of reading Peat.
The text moves between Jenner’s engagement with the expressway and her engagement with Brasch. In the building of the expressway, she tells us (in her Glossaries, pp.215-216), there was “lots to be impressed by… the volume of sand and peat moved, the number of workers, the 18 bridges, the Brutalist-style concrete pillars that hold up the bridges, the height of the diggers, the size of their buckets, the massive capacity of the trucks, the size of the cut, the $630 million it was estimated to cost.” Jenner is a fair and reasonable person and lets the voices of the road-builders and the archaeologists hired by the New Zealand Transport Agency be heard. She chats with some of the workers and listens patiently to the local body politicians. She attends consultative community meetings about the project. She understands the difficulties of transport in New Zealand and (given that she is fully conversant with NZTA leaflets and publicity and explanations of the project) she knows why the expressway is being built and how.
But she is mainly concerned with the ecological impact – how the expressway traverses (and in part destroys) wetlands; how ancient sites important to ancestral Maori have been disturbed; how the local community is affected; how business is down since people no longer travel through the centre of the town as they used to do when they went by State Highway 1 – and worst of all, how, now that the expressway is in full operation, the community is plagued with noise, noise, noise and sleeplessness. Of course property values have decreased. As for the birds, the trees, the local flora and fauna – as Jenner relates it, they have been been badly affected by the expressway, and the general area has been degraded.
Most humiliating of all, the NZTA’s general consultation with the community seems to have been more a PR exercise than real consultation, often with a contemptuous undertone. She cites a memo in which it is suggested that unhappy locals will be allowed to “vent” at public meetings. (p.88)
The ecological aspect is central to the book, and is carried in part by the imagery of peat itself. Peat is presented here as the topmost layer of earth scraped away by the diggers (the three other levels are Holocene dune sand, Pleistocene sand and a bedrock of Rakaia Terrane greywacke). Peat is like a palimpsest in which traces of the past are preserved – and it is the past that the expressway wipes out.
And why is it Charles Brasch who bears the burden of the rest of the text?
Could it be, as her preface says, that engaging with his work and memory was a relief from the noise and public arguments of building the Expressway – a retreat into converse with a calm and civilised voice? But Jenner begins on Brasch in earnest by quoting his letters to the Otago Daily Times, letters advocating for more trees, for a better Dunedin art gallery, for the Careys’ play productions at Dunedin’s Globe, for better architecture in the parts of the university that were being rebuilt; and opposing New Zealand participation in the Vietnam War, the destruction of historical buildings, and the construction of the Aramoana smelter. In other words, the letters that show Brasch as an activist concerned with civic issues and their impact on his community. This chimes with Jenner’s own activism in calling into question the Expressway and its impact.
There are also ways in which Brasch shares some of the author’s own identity. Dunedin was her former home. She describes herself as “a Pakeha woman of Jewish and Celtic origin” (p.19). In the Glossaries, she spends some time teasing out matters of Charles Brasch’s Jewishness and of what it means to be a Jew in New Zealand (pp.187-191) She also mentions a couple of times that she worked as a psychologist. Brasch gives her ample opportunity to psychoanalyse his somewhat cryptic poems such as “The Clear”, which she sees as giving spiritual value to what is local ; and “Lady Engine”, which digs deep into the formation of Brasch’s psyche when he was a child. She thanks Brasch for attempting to create a literary culture in New Zealand. She gives her account of Brasch’s memoir Indirections which she says most people don’t read because it requires patience. This signals the sort of thoughtfulness and self-analysis that Jenner admires. She says she likes Indirections “more than most of his poems” (p.96).
Yet the main point is Brasch’s connection with nature, trees, streams, clouds – and, in both his poetry and his prose, his construction of a personal spirituality about these things. This most clearly chimes with Jenner’s own ecological perspective.
There are, however, some ironies here, as Jenner knows. The grandfather whom Brasch loved, Willi Fels, was a rich man who made collections of many things – including priceless antique treasures. Though it helped create the sort of civilised environment in which Brasch throve, it often involved practices that would now be frowned upon (basically looting what came from other cultures). The same goes for the account Jenner gives of early archaeological digs around Dunedin, disclosing ancient human bones that would now be seen more respectfully as Maori taonga. Our Pakeha past is relentless. In an age when we (Pakeha) are respectful enough of Maori culture not to scoff at belief in taniwha when we build bridges, we must also accept that Brasch and his beloved relatives lived in an age with different values.
What Jenner has to say is clear and in beautiful prose, direct and informative when she is reporting, lyrical when she wishes it, analytical when she expresses ideas. But there is another more difficult aspect to the book. It concerns those 115 pages of “Glossaries” that follow her main text. They are in effect lengthy and informative notes on Charles Brasch and on the Expressway. Embedded in them is much interesting information, some of which is essential to the vision Jenner articulates. (My vagrant mind conjured up an image of the Encyclopedia of Denis Diderot, which buried essential - and contentious - information in places where censors wouldn’t look. But that’s just me…) Given that the Glossaries are referred to frequently in the text, I began by consulting them each time they were mentioned – but I found this to-and-fro-ing between text and glossaries very distracting. It detracted from Jenner’s narratives. So I ended up reading the text straight through, and then the glossaries straight through, which was a more satisfactory arrangement.
The Glossary that deals with Charles Brasch (all 72 pages of it) examines scrupulously many things - the physical state of Brasch’s surviving manuscripts or the fact (a surprise to me) that “aunt” was old slang for “lavatory” or many other oddities. I was interested by Jenner’s verdict on Brasch’s memoir Indirections – that it was as an “aesthetic project, for which he was the primary reader.” (p.186) Jenner’s admiration for Brasch is clear throughout. But, read closely, you discover that Jenner does not endorse uncritically all of Brasch’s world-view. She does point out the sometimes condescending tone he could have. (On this I agree. See on this blog postings on Charles Brasch Selected Poems, Charles Brasch Journals 1938-57, and Charles Brasch Journals 1958-1973) She also sees him as not fully engaging with what others were saying and as perhaps being too blind to trends in world affairs. In these matter she sometimes casts Brasch in opposition to George Orwell (see the notes on “Orwell, George” “politics”, and “prose”). In the note “Reasons for writing” she strikes a kind of balance between Brasch’s aestheticised views and Orwell’s politicised ones.
As for the 43 pages of Glossary that deals with the Kapiti Expressway, while giving much information on the project, they can sometimes be mildly satirical – for example one reads the note on the word “Sorry” and finds it defined thus: “Meme: frequent in utterances by local body politicians concerning Expressway noise problems for residents” (p.250)
I hope I have conveyed the variety of this book and the uniqueness of its structure. Though its discourse takes many unexpected turns, it is engaging, readable and is a great model for literary activism in public affairs.
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Generous publishers send me many books to review on this blog, and I sometimes have to be apologetic to them. I cannot review everything I am sent and therefore I overlook some books. But in the case of Wendy Parkins’ intelligent and often moving memoir, I have a different apology to make. Given that Every morning, so far, I’m alive was first published four months ago, I am sorry that I am only now getting around to reviewing it.
Australian born-and-raised, New Zealander by choice, sometimes resident in England and formerly Professor of English Literature, Wendy Parkins has written the most perilous form of memoir. Every morning, so far, I’m alive is a memoir of self-analysis and an account of the author’s painful history of phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and frequent deep depression. Why is such a memoir perilous? Because, as a sort of psychological confession, it could easily become self-indulgent, or degenerate into a cautionary tale and “self-help” book telling us how we should navigate psychological difficulties. A great strength of this book is that it falls into neither of these traps. Parkins is matter-of-fact about her mental difficulties, aware that other people are affected by them (there are, necessarily discreet, references to her husband and two children), lyrical when she describes things that had a positive impact on her, and never self-pitying.
We are early made aware of her family’s history of depression, her childhood phobias and panic attacks, and a fear of the world that made her obsessively clean her hands and clean everything about her, in any new environment, to avoid contagion. She had two episodes of what would once have been called “nervous breakdowns” and as a younger adult she says she “self-medicated” with Chardonnay. The big crack-up or crisis came when, pursuing her academic career, she moved to England, felt a huge homesickness for the New Zealand in which she had comfortably settled, and fell into very deep depression. It was enervating, disabling her, making everyday activities a battle and turning her academic work into a long, lonely struggle.
Charting her life, both in England and in New Zealand, Parkins sometimes cites literature – perhaps inevitably in view of her profession – and gives the example of Virginia Woolf, who believed that writing was living more consciously; or of Mary Ursula Bethell, in her vivid responses to the New Zealand scene. She occasionally makes passing references to canonical works (Middlemarch, Bleak House etc.). But these citations do not overwhelm her personal story.
Parkins also chroncles some of the things that lifted her spirits, or at least drew her back from the deepest of depression and made for a sort of provisional “cure”. A sense of “mindfulness” (though she is hesitant in using a term that has now become hackneyed). Simple physical activities like knitting. Taking delight in New Zealand birds. The therapeutic quality of looking after goats. Things that allow space for self-forgiveness and reflection. Yoga seems to have been of some help, although Parkins gives examples both of healing and of unsatisfactory experiences with yoga. She also gives a detailed account of trying to find her way out of depression at a retreat centre, which proved to be no help at all. And I hope I am not wrong in interpreting her eventual visit to Virgina Woolf’s home as a kind of “exorcism” of that depressive writer’s influence.
As Parkins knows, depression is a complex phenomenon. It cannot be pinned down to one specific cause. It is polymorphous (or polyphonic if you want to get metaphorical). There are, however, strong hints about things that might have, early in her life, exacerbated Parkins’ phobias and depression. She speaks of her parents as being too strictly religious: “To my Evangelical parents the world was full of dangers and temptations” (p.32) “Growing up, everything I read, watched or listened to was closely scrutinised by my fundamentalist parents and my choices often earned their disappoval in ways that confused me.” (p.69) She also suggests that, as a child, she sensed her mother (who had a number of miscarriages) at some stage withdrew her love from her, especially when her younger sister was born. The importance of her mother is clear when she devotes three chapters to the death of her mother. Somehow, she feels, something went wrong early in her life. Not that, as an adult, she denigrates her parents, who may perhaps have been less strict than she recalls their being in her childhood (she mentions in passing her mother’s favourite movies and her liking the Beatles).
At this point I must do the forbidden thing and put in a personal note. Knowing from experience, at various points in my life, what clinical depression is, I found myself nodding with recognition at the way Parkins describes the beast. I recognised the sleeplessness, the inability to concentrate on, or follow, texts; the sense of separation from the “real” world or the physical world that surrounds us. In England, Parkins expresses the true Romantic Agony (as Mario Praz called it), when she sees beauty in nature, knows it is beautiful, but doesn’t feel it as such: “I didn’t feel it in the same way as I responded to the antipodean bush or the beach” (p.27) She understands that depression is not just intense sadness, but is a disintegration of meaning. “After a year on medication I no longer felt weighed down by a depressive sense of meaninglessness…” (p.102) She knows that, irrationally or otherwise, depression raises a sense of guilt , and sets the mind turning over and over again the same destructive thoughts: “The guilt associated with depression taints every negative feeling. One is never simply sad or disappointed or hurt or angry; negative feeling amplify in the echo chamber of depression.” (p.103) In the depressive state, one also positions oneself as a sort of zombie, going through the motions of relating to others while being emotionally dead to them. At the time of her mother’s dying, she reflects “All the time I was thinking, What am I feeling? What should I be feeling?” (p.189)
To her accurate descriptions of the depressive experience, she adds one major merit to this memoir. She never reaches an epiphany - the “Eureka!” or “Aha!” moment (found in many “inspirational" works) where all her problems are solved and where depression is definitively conquered. The memoir’s very conclusion suggests that she has reached a workable truce with life, a means of functioning in a fairly happy way, but with the awareness that the beast could come back to trouble her. So “Every morning, so far, I’m alive”, as the title says.
Minor criticism: Parkins notes that, when she was in the hospice where she later died, her mother had specifically requested she not be put on a respirator and that she wanted to be sedated. Parkins asks “how a lifelong, devout Evangelical Christian had come to express what sounded to me like her right to die? And why my equally devout father had not challenged this? I knew they both opposed euthanasia on principle but we had apparently all entered a twilight zone where the usual rules no longer applied, where Dad wept freely and Mum asserted herself.” (p.182) To take her mother’s request as an endorsement of euthanasia is misleading. All major church groups agree that to withdraw treatment when it will provide no medical benefit, and when it will simply prolong the process of dying, is quite legitimate. The plug can be pulled. But euthanasia is not pulling the plug. It is the deliberate act of killing by intervening with a lethal injection or some such. Her parents’ attitude would not have in any way contradicted their beliefs.
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 BETROTHED” by Alessandro Manzoni (“I PROMESSI SPOSI” first published 1827; final revised version 1840. The final revised version is the basis for Archibald Colquhoun’s 1951 translation)
Do you know or understand the power of an unread book? It can weigh on your mind like a guilty conscience.
My shelves groan with books that “one day, when I get the time,” I intend to read. Some of them are quite obscure books – in no way “classics” – that for years I have been meaning to read out of sheer curiosity. But a considerable proportion are indeed “classics”, and I will not embarrass myself publicly by noting all those illustrious and well-known books that I have not yet read.
One problem with an unread “classic” is that you get to know, or think you know, things about it without having read it, because “classics” make their way into conversations, or are mentioned in passing by historians, critics and other novelists. So, without having yet read Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed (I Promessi Sposi) here are the things I “knew” about it before reading it: That it was considered the great Italian novel, regarded by Italians as Don Quixote is regarded by Spaniards or War and Peace by Russians. That it was the book which, before Italy was unified and when the peninisular contained many discrete dialects, established the Tuscan dialect as the standard form of the Italian language. That, although Manzoni was a retiring man and eventually a devout Catholic, he was regarded as a hero by the revolutionary nationalists who achieved the Risorgimento; and that, consequently, Verdi wrote an eloquent Requiem for him when he died. Also that, apparently, Italian schoolchildren are still made to read I Promessi Sposi and it has often been turned into Italian movies that have had no impact on the rest of the world. In other words, I knew the things that can easily be found in a history book.
As for the novel’s substance, I had heard here and there comments that it concerned a pair of lovers who wanted to marry but who were thwarted by circumstance, that it involved a great plague, and (to the more critical people who mentioned it) that it was very sentimental.
There now. That is what I already carried in my head before I recently sat down and, over a week-and-a-half, read my way through the nearly 600 closely-printed pages of Archibald Colquhoun’s 1951 translation of I Promessi Sposi.
Here is what I found.
Writing in the early 19th century, Manzoni sets his historical novel in and around Milan in the early 17th century - the late 1620s, when the Thirty Years War was in progress.
The humble young silk-weaver Renzo (Lorenzo) Tramaglino and Lucia Modella wish to marry and have arranged a date for their wedding. But the pusillanimous local parish priest Don Abbondio will not marry them as he is threatened by the “bravos” (i.e. hired thugs) of the local squire Don Rodrigo, who wishes to seduce Lucia himself. At first the devoted lovers attempt to trick the priest into marrying them, but when this doesn’t work, they are helped to flee from their village by the saintly friar Fra Cristoforo. They become separated. Lucia and her mother Agnese are deposited in a convent in Monza. Renzo goes on to Milan, hoping to find refuge in a Capuchin monastery. But he finds Milan (at this stage still ruled by the Spanish) beginning to suffer from famine, with riots over the price of bread. In a moment of drunken indiscretion, the naïve young Renzo spouts a speech about the injustice of the ruling classes and the oppression of the poor. He is therefore marked as a dangerous revolutionary by the authorities. He has to flee to territory beyond the control of Milan, where his generous cousin Bortolo finds him work as a weaver.
So the betrothed lovers are separated, and this sets the pattern for all their following experiences in the novel. He has to hide from the power of the Milanese state and cannot easily re-join Lucia. She is taken under the protection of an aristocrat called only (in this translation) “the Unnamed”, who was once a notorious rake and criminal, but who has had a miraculous conversion and has become a compassionate and charitable man. At one point, in what amounts to her captivity, Lucia vows to the Virgin Mary that she will give up Renzo and become a vowed virgin (i.e. nun) if she is freed. This creates a complication before the novel’s denouement. After other alarums and excursions, after famine and war (the incursion of German and Austrian troops in Italy), when a great plague hits Milan, Renzo and Lucia at last reunite. They have both miraculously made it through the plague. Conveniently, the state is no longer hunting for Renzo, and the young couple’s worst enemies have died. But what about Lucia’s vow? Manzoni contrives a happy ending for the lovers, partly relying on the generosity of the new squire who now rules their village, and partly on the commonsense argument that Lucia’s prior vow to marry overrides her later vow. And besides, the Virgin Mary will forgive her if she becomes a good wife.
Compressing 600 pages of novel into two paragraphs like this may create the impression that the novel is filled with action and subtle turns of plot. In reality, it isn’t. What should be the central narrative thread (lovers separated; lovers seeking to reunite) is overlaid with so much historical material and so many self-contained stories, concerning other characters, that it often gets quite lost. Renzo and Lucia disappear completely from the story for many chapters at a time.
Manzoni deserves credit for the acuteness of his psychology in at least some sections of the novel. The depiction of Gertrude, “the Signora”, a domineering nun in the convent at Monza, is a case in point. Manzoni in two chapters (Chapters 9 and 10) shows “the Signora” as torn between her desires and her sense of duty to her father in becoming a nun in the first place – and how her embittered mind has turned her into a shrew, or worse. But “the Signora’s” story is a self-contained episode (apparently based on historical fact).
Elsewhere the thinness of characters is all too evident. They are strictly one-dimensional. The naïve and upright would-be groom. The pious, prayerful, virginal would-be bride. The villainous and the heroic and the comic-relief characters. Indicative of this one-dimensionality are the sudden transformations Manzoni has to invent, for lack of a more cumulative view of the way people change. It is at least possible to accept the backstory of how Fra Cristoforo ceased to be a youthful hellraiser and became saintly after being repelled by his own displays of violence. This story is acceptable because it is merely backstory, confined to one chapter (Chapter 4). But what of the miraculous conversion of “the Unnamed”? He has been presented to us as a master criminal of titanic wickedness. Then suddenly, after he converses, in Chapters 22 and 23, with an historical figure, the saintly cardinal-archbishop of Milan, Federigo Borromeo (cousin of St Charles Borromeo), “the Unnamed” becomes a pillar of patient rectitude and generosity. Likewise the naïve Renzo early in the novel rather too readily becomes the competent young man he is towards the end. It could be argued that experience has changed him, but we see no real evidence of his cumulative change. First he is this, then he is that – from being one flat character to being another.
Some of the novel’s social satire is attractive. If Manzoni attacks the boorishness and uncaring attitudes of the ruling classes, he is also aware of the irrationality and violence of the mob, in scenes of rioting and in their busy spreading of wild rumours during the plague – especially the fiction that evil “anointers” are causing the plague by smearing poisoned substances on buildings. In his satire, Manzoni takes a special poke at fake scholarship in the form of the pompous astrologer and pedant Don Ferrante, who uses ingenious arguments to deny that the plague even exists (latter part of Chapter 28).
Manzoni’s attitude towards the church and religion is a little more complex. In the character of Don Abbondio we have a lazy, self-interested and essentially cowardly parish priest who puts his own interests ahead of his duty and his parishioners. Though she is eventually a malign person, the self-contained account of Gertrude, “the Signora”, could be taken as criticism of the tendency among wealthier families to force some of their children into religious lives for which they have no real vocation. But overwhelmingly, Manzoni is on the side of the church. Fra Cristoforo is an heroic figure who dies of the plague after ministering patiently to the afflicted. Cardinal-Archbishop Federigo Borromeo is the voice of reasoned and measured authority, seen at his best in the chapters (Chapters 25 and 26) where he shames Don Abbondio for failing to live up to his vows. Manzoni takes Lucia’s vows seriously, and his own implicit attitudes are those of a believer. In the face of famine, war, plague (and underperforming priests), Manzoni’s chief message is that we should bear God’s will patiently, and trust that in the end God knows what is best for us. Apparently, despite all their admiration for Manzoni, there were some Italian patriots at the time of the Risorgimento who took this message very badly, and said it was encouraging passivity in the face of those foreign powers who still ruled parts of Italy. [In the age of Cavour, Mazzini and Garibaldi, Manzoni’s depiction of the Spanish rule of Milan was taken to be referring covertly to the continuing Austrian rule of Venetia.]
I admit that what became my trudge through this novel was lightened by some good moments of farcical physical humour, as in Chapter 8, when the lovers’ attempt to trick the priest into marrying them goes chaotically wrong. There is also a kind of grotesque and sour humour in the episodes where Don Abbondio rushes around in panic as enemy armies approach (Chapter 29); and when he and his housekeeper Perpetua come back to their looted house and lament their losses (Chapter 30). Lucia’s garrulous and sometimes indiscreet mother Agnese is the novel’s most constant figure of comic relief. More often, however, Manzoni’s humour is in the tone of voice he adopts as omniscient narrator. In direct first-person address, he cajoles us with kittenish teasing. Much of this is in the same “Dear Reader” mode that was common in 19th century novels (Thackeray et al), but there are times when it comes close to what postmodernists, who imagine they invented the technique, would call deconstruction. Manzoni more than once “subverts” his narrative by asking us if we are getting bored. (To which I often felt like replying “Yes, I am.”) The novel also follows the convention that its plot is founded on an old manuscript which the author has discovered. This allows him to commently slyly on parts of the story he wishes to elide.
Much of this novel displays historical realism. Manzoni’s descriptions of the poor harvests that led to famine in Milan (Chapter 12) are persuasive and credible, as are his accounts of the “invasion” of north Italy by foraging and looting Germanic troops. Most vivid of all are Chapters 31 and 32, where Manzoni depicts the plague, the overcrowded lazzaretto, the carts for the dead, the desperation of the living, their hysterical rumours as they seek for scapegoats, and the ministrations of the charitable in spite of everything. In fact, as a depiction of the miseries of plague, this is at least as persuasive and nightmarish as Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. But this historical realism is, like the flat characterisation and the frequent melodrama, also part of this novel’s undoing. Manzoni diligently researched history and he fills the novel with many footnotes to tell us so. But the documentary historical parts often overwhelm the narrative. In the end, the story itself is not compelling enough. Often the impression is not of history being seen through the travails of these characters – as is the case in War and Peace - but of these thin characters having been lightly pasted onto historical events.
I finished The Betrothed thinking this was an interesting book, but under the weight of historical detail, under the thinness of its central narrative thread, and under its simplistic psychology and lapses into sentimentality, it is easy to see why this Italian classic has not gained the international iconic status of other “great books”. It is not Don Quixote, War and Peace or Moby Dick. Some moments engaged me, but in the end I found myself reading The Betrothed as an interesting historical artefact, and lamenting that it wasn’t better.
New Zealand Footnote: While reading Charles Brasch’s journals to review on this blog, I found on page 500 of CharlesBrasch Journals 1938-1957 (entry for Wednesday 27 June 1956) the poet-editor’s opinion of The Betrothed. Given the date of this entry, I assume that Brasch read the same (1951) Archibald Colquhoun translation that I read, as a different translation (for Penguin Classics) was made only years later. I have sometimes criticised Brasch for his mandarin snobbery, but on this novel I agree with him. He complains that historical details hold up the novel for too long; that despite the historical figures that are brought into it, it doesn’t have the same scale or sweep as Dostoievsky or Tolstoy; that “it resembles a series of distinct scenes linked by the single thread of central story” and that it lacks social complexity. With all this I agree, though, surprisingly, Brasch concludes that it is “a wonderful, unforgettable book” and he is especially impressed by the story of the nun of Monza. His final comment is that “Manzoni puts Scott in the shade.” Again I have to agree. For all the novel’s stiffness, and for all the negative things I have said about it, The Betrothed is a livelier, less pompous, less circumlocutious novel than anything Sir Walter penned, and it has a greater grasp of history.