Monday, November 18, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“VINCENT O’SULLIVAN: SELECTED STORIES” Selected by Stephen Stratford (Victoria University Press, $NZ 40)
A wise person recently remarked to me that short stories “should never be read in bulk without medical advice.” I endorse this view. For many evenings over the last four weeks, I have worked my way through the 35 short stories, in about 600 pages, that make up Vincent O’Sullivan: Selected Stories. They have been selected by Stephen Stratford from the seven collections of short stories that O’Sullivan has so far produced, beginning with The Boy, The Bridge, The River in 1978 and ending with The Families [reviewed on this blog] in 2014. So this is a selection based on the best part of forty years’ work.
But why should “medical advice” be required in reading such a book?
Because reading too many short stories in a short space of time can often cause one story to blur into another. Like a good poem, a good short story will be dense with detail, and will have its own unique and individual impact. Read one after another, that impact will lessen. As a reader, you end up thinking of the stories as one thing, and reducing them to generalisations about the author’s aims and methods.
I’ll try to compensate for this effect in what follows, but at the same time I will avoid the dire mistake I made earlier this year, when I synopsised slavishly every single story in analysing D.H.Lawrence’s collections The Prussian Officer and England, My England. In considering a collection of short stories, at least some generalisations are inevitable.
Born in 1937, so now aged 82, Vincent O’Sullivan was already in his early 40s when The Boy, The Bridge, The River was published. It’s obvious, therefore, that all his published stories are the work of a mature man who has had wide experience of life. And the same is true of most of his protagonists. The great majority of the Selected Stories deal with people who are either middle-aged or old – such as the old people in a home in “Closing the File”; the sad story “Recital” about a pianist who didn’t go anywhere; the physical embarrassments of ageing in “Fainting and the Fat Man”; or adult children contesting memories of their father in both “Daddy Drops a Line” and “Getting It Right”. There are some stories about younger people here, like the teenage daughter and pre-pubescent son in “Family Unit”, or the protagonist in this selection’s very last story “Luce”. But they are the minority. In the Selected Stories we are in the world of older, and mainly middle-class, people, most of them articulate but many of them stuck in a rut.
For a few of these older people, there is a Catholic upbringing somewhere in their past and references to it, but this does not loom large in Selected Stories. What does loom large are marriage and sexual matters, often presented in terms of deception, regret, or dissatisfaction. Mature women remember a libidinous artist in “The Last of Freddie”. There is double adultery in “Survivors”. A man, worried about his wife, talks it out to a counsellor in “On a Clear Day”. A marriage cracks up spectacularly in “Pieces”.
Perhaps the majority of stories are set in New Zealand, but there are a few stories set in the U.S.A. (sordid vignettes of New York in “The Corner” and “That’s the Big Apple for You”) and a few set in Oz (such as “Coasting”). More important, there are a number of stories set in New Zealand in which memories of, or imaginings about, Europe come into play. “The Boy, The Bridge, The River” itself, for example; and the imagined Europe in “Photos, to Begin With”, where the illusions about Europe have to be measured against the reality. This is very much like what I diagnosed as “the Pakeha condition” when I reviewed O’Sullivan’s novel All This by Chance on this blog. We know that we are fully New Zealanders, but we also know that our roots, our deepest mythology and much of our cultural formation still comes from Europe.
In the main, O’Sullivan’s stories offer little in the way of overt experimentalism. “Billy Joel Her Bird” is written in youthful patois and “the snow in spain” is written without capital letters. But there are none of those tiresome postmodernist literary games, found in the works of at least one other New Zealand story-teller, in which we are supposed to congratulate ourselves for understanding that a story is a literary construct. Also O’Sullivan tells stories - he does not spin anecdotes. So there is none of the antiquated O’Henry sting-in-the-tail stuff. The only stories I found with something like a final, unexpected twist were “The Club” and “Photos, to Begin With”, but in both cases the “twist” has to do with character development.
The Selected Stories are mainly slow-burn stories – revelations of character, not anecdotes. Engagements with real (or realistic) people, not technical literary exercises. But the mode of narration is important. At a rough count, there are as many stories written in the first person as there are stories giving multiple perspectives in the third person. As a male writer, O’Sullivan doesn’t hesitate to have women as his narrators in “Picture Window”,“Photos, to Begin With” ,“Pictures of Goya”, “Waiting for Rongo” and some other tales. Nowadays, discussions of narrative voice seem to lead inevitably to comments on the “unreliable narrator”, with the assumption that we are not meant to take at face value what any narrator says. But in a story like “Palms and Minarets”, it is hard to see the narration as anything other than honest testimony in a study in alienation, the apparent unreality of things and the power of childhood memories.
Yet there are at least some genuinely unreliable first-person narrators. The smug advertising man who narrates “Dandy Edison for Lunch”; the rage-filled narrator of “Terminus”; and the particularly obnoxious narrator of “Waiting for Rongo”, a nosy-parker, curtain-twitching woman who spies on her neighbours, makes denigratory comments about them and only slowly learns a hard lesson about what other people think of her [or does she?]. There is a suprising pathos in the way the story ends.
Have I given the impression that Vincent O’Sullivan’s world view is a melancholy one? I hope not. A better term would be mellow. The author, in his maturity, does chart the faults and shortcomings of many of his characters, but he does not look down on them. Reading Selected Stories is not like reading all those Frank Sargeson stories in which, implicitly, we middle-class readers were invited to feel condescending towards those unaware drongos who make up so many of Sargeson’s narrators. In O’Sullivan’s universe, people are flawed, but they are not irredeebably flawed and – even if sometmies self-deluded - they are not any stupider than we are. When I reviewed The Families five years ago, I concluded that the best word for O’Sullivan’s fiction was “compassionate,” meaning feeling alongside people without sentimentalising them.
Against the idea that these stories are overwhelmingly melancholy, I would also note a strain of robust wit and satire. One of the most likeable stories, “Putting Bob Down”, is both sad and funny as two mistresses of the same man get know and like each other. “Hims Ancient and Modern” is a lighter, almost whimsical account of tourists in Italy. As for satire, there is “Coasting”, in which small-town Oz commemorates the arrival of James Cook, with their efforts set ironically against fragments of Cook’s diaries and what two rather pompous academics have to say about it. And there is “Still Life” – partly satire on art criticism and partly concerning the delusions people have about artists.
If I have not fallen into the trap of synopsising every story in this large selection, I have perhaps fallen into the trap of name-checking most of them. Sorry. I hope I have conveyed that this is essential New Zealand reading.
I’ll conclude clumsily by noting some stories that had a powerful effect oin me:
* “The Witness Man” I recall first reading when I was in my twenties and it came out in the March 1980 issue of Landfall. I read most of it on a ‘bus journey when I was being bounced along to work in an inner-city Auckland school, which I didn’t like. This third-person-limited story stuck in my mind for the ingenious way it was told, getting into the mind of an older man who has to give witness about something nasty that has happened between younger people. Even if I could not remember all the details of the story, the old man’s hesitation, sense of intimidation, and irrational guilt, all stayed with me. It did not disappoint when I rediscovered it in the Selected Stories.
* “One Ordinary Thursday” concerns adultery and a deadness of feeling. Some people aestheticise the world and nature and appear to be very “reasonable” about human relationships. But the sort of reason they embrace may in fact mean that they have ceased to be fully human, underplaying what could, among more demonstrative people, be raw tragedy. This may be one of O’Sullivan’s melancholy stories, but if so, it is only because of its ordinariness and credibility.
* “Family Unit” is not written in the first-person, but conveys a holiday as experienced in the minds of grumpy Dad; Mum wanting to have some space to herself; teenaged daughter very needy for connections [be they with Jesus or with a local Goth]; and the younger son who is just on the cusp of randy puberty. Again, fully credible and nobody is caricatured.
Then of course, there is “The Families” itself, a longer short-story with some of the complexity of a novel. But as I have already sung its praises elsewhere, I will not repeat myself.
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.
“1606 – WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE AND THE YEAR OF LEAR” by James Shapiro (first published in 2015); “HOW SHAKESPEARE CHANGED EVERYTHING” by Stephen Marche (first published in 2011); “THE FINAL ACT OF MR SHAKESPEARE” by Robert Winder (first published 2010)
I cannot remember exctly how it happened, but for some years I was the go-to person on both the Listener and the Sunday Star-Times when it came to William Shakespeare. Whenever a book about Shakespeare passed across the books editor’s desk, he would pass it on to me to review. In the process, I augmented my own Shakespeare collection with quite a few books.
Sometimes the books about Shakespeare were excellent scholarship, sometimes they were popular rip-offs, and sometimes they were cranky nonsense. I well remember, back in 2005, having the pleasure, in one long article in the Listener, of taking down Brenda James’ nonsensical piece of bogus scholarship The Truth Will Out, which asserted that the obscure Sir Henry Neville was the “real” author of Shakespeare’s plays. In the same article I dealt with Clare Asquith’s more reasonable Shadowplay, which argued that Shakespeare was a Catholic. This is a plausible theory, but regrettably Asquith overstated it, to the point where we were meant to believe that nearly everything Shakespeare wrote was a coded sectarian statement.
At the more scholarly end of the spectrum, in 2010 I enjoyed reviewing at length, for the Sunday Star-Times, James Shapiro’s Contested Will – Who Wrote Shakespeare (a review which I reproduced on this blog). It is an excellent refutation of all “alternative authorship” theories about Shakespeare’s plays.
Some of my reviews of books about Shakespeare were relatively brief and jocular, especially when the book in hand was clearly intended to be a piece of fun.
So here, simply for your amusement, is a selection of three such reviews. The first, by James Shapiro, can be taken seriously, but with some reservations. The second, by Stephen Marche, is basically designed for light amusement. And the third, a piece of fiction by Robert Winder, is a rollicking fantasia. All three reviews are presented here unaltered from their original appearance in newspaper or magazine.
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[The following review appeared in the Listener, 23 January 2016]
“1606 – WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE AND THE YEAR OF LEAR” by James Shapiro
James Shapiro, professor of English at Columbia University, has the knack of keeping it scholarly while also making it accessible. His Contested Will is still the best one-volume squelch to conspiracy theorists who want to believe that somebody other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare’s plays. You don’t have to be a palaeographer, cryptanalyst or textual expert to get his drift, but he covers all the main areas of scholarly debate. The same goes for his 1599, in which he takes one fruitful year in Shakespeare’s writing life and relates it to the public events that would (probably) have influenced Shakespeare.
1606 follows the pattern of 1599, but it is in no sense a mere follow-up. As far as publishing history and surviving theatre records can confirm, 1606 was the year when Shakespeare wrote three of his greatest – King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra.
Shapiro rightly asserts that Shakespeare was as much a Jacobean dramatist as an Elizabethan one. The company to which he was attached performed far more often before King James 1 than it had done before Queen Elizabeth 1, and playwrights were very responsive to public events. So, examining changing theatrical conventions, the fortunes of acting companies, and the contemporaneous work of many writers as well as Shakespeare, Shapiro sets out to show how much King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra were products of their historical moment.
In King Lear, with its story of a kingdom divided, he sees close reference to the tensions attending James 1’s attempts to unite England and Scotland, and resistance to such a plan. In Macbeth he finds far more echoes of the fears aroused by the “Gunpowder Plot” of late 1605 than have hitherto been publicised. In Antony and Cleopatra he detects a growing nostalgia for the reign of Elizabeth (and perhaps the character of the Earl of Essex) once the original bright promise of King James’ reign had worn off. The text is detailed, densely end-noted, and plunges us into fascinating issues such as reasons for the popularity of masques as royal entertainments, the effects of outbreaks of plague on theatregoing, the decline of acting troupes of children and the scrambling of playwrights for patronage and preferment.
Once again, Shapiro plays fair, telling us when he is speculating (as any biographer of Shakespeare often must). He reminds us that nobody can say for sure what Shakespeare’s personal beliefs were, nor can anyone pin down the fine details of his everyday life. Shapiro is also aware that the “Gunpowder Plot” was to some extent the Jacobean Reichstag Fire. There really was a plot, but the received version of the story was as much government invention as historical fact, justifying a crackdown on a group (dissident Catholics) which the government intended to penalise anyway.
Are there any minuses to this erudite, readable and thoroughly absorbing book? Only one – but it may be a biggie. By so closely relating three of Shakespeare’s masterworks to specific political and cultural events, Shapiro might mislead some readers into thinking that they now know the “real” meaning of each play. This sort of reductionism is not Shapiro’s intention, but it could be inferred from the text. And surely one reason for Shakespeare’s durability is the fact that his best plays outsoar their age. King Lear might in part relate to obscure or forgotten manoeuvres involving the first Stuart king. But it continues to speak to us by what it says about old age, fatherhood, families, the provenance of evil and the thin hold civilisation has over howling wilderness.
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[The following review appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 10 July 2011]
“HOW SHAKESPEARE CHANGED EVERYTHING” by Stephen Marche
In 1890 Eugene Schieffelin, a New York businessman and amateur Shakespearean, cooked up an eccentric idea. He would introduce into the United States all those species of bird that are mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. With the help and approval of various acclimatization societies, he imported live thrushes and nightingales from England. But they did not thrive in the Yankee climate and quickly died out. Only one type of bird imported by Schieffelin went forth and multiplied and multiplied and multiplied - to the point where it became an ecological disaster. This was the starling, which happens to be mentioned once in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part One.
So why are starlings swarming cities and parks, crapping, squabbling, chasing native birds away, threatening crops and being as much of a damned nuisance in America as they are everywhere else?
It’s because somebody liked Shakespeare.
Canadian freelance critic, and Esquire columnist, Stephen Marche spends half a chapter telling this tale in his brief canter through some of the stranger ways Shakespeare has influenced the modern world.
How Shakespeare Changed Everything is really a sequence of ten short essays more-or-less on Shakespeare. They are at their most likeable when they have the weirdness of the Schieffelin story. Creepier is the account of John Wilkes Booth’s obsession with Shakespeare, which led him to model himself quite consciously on the bard’s noble Brutus as he set about assassinating Abraham Lincoln. More inclusive is the chapter on how Shakespeare has been appropriated by every political persuasion imaginable. More stirring is the chapter on the black American actor Ira Aldridge, who practiced an interesting reverse racism in the nineteenth century by playing Shakespeare’s white tragic heroes (Lear, Shylock) in whiteface. This made up for some of the blackface Othellos of white actors.
While most of this is harmless fun it has its downside. Marche is one of those pop savants who desperately wants to sell Shakespeare to the kids. This means chapters in which he strains to show how hip Shakespeare is. There’s a woeful chapter on Shakespeare and sex (“Look, kids, here are all the dirty bits from the plays!”) and an even more woeful chapter on how Shakespeare invented the idea of the teenager (“Look, kids, Romeo is almost as good as Justin Bieber!”). They have the patronizing tone of a teacher talking down to school-kids in the hope of interesting them in something boring.
Mustn’t grumble, though. This is an engaging little bedside book. C.J.Sisson’s classic essay The Mythical Sorrows of Shakespeare is better than Marche in showing how foolish it is to identify the playwright with characters in his plays. James Shapiro’s masterly Contested Will is better than Marche in dismissing the folly of crank theories about people other than Shakespeare writing Shakespeare’s plays. But in these matters Marche is on the side of the angels, and he manages to be fun with it.
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[The following review appeared in the Sunday Star-Times on 18 April 2010]
“THE FINAL ACT OF MR SHAKESPEARE” by Robert Winder
Fact No. 1. Any sane historiian would now agree that the version of King Richard the Third popularised by Shakespeare is largely fiction. The real Richard was no better and nor worse than other kings. The image of the hunch-backed monster murdering his way to power was the propaganda invention of the Tudors, the line of monarchs who grabbed the throne off Richard. Because they had virtually no legitimate claim to the throne themselves, in was in the Tudors’ interest to invent the legend of Richard as villain.
Fact No. 2. The only one of Shakespeare’s plays that appears to support unequivocally the newfangled and Protestant Church of England is the very dull chronicle play Henry the Eighth. It’s generally regarded as Shakespeare’s very last play. But for a long time serious critics suspected that this is not really Sakespeare’s work at all. It seems to have been written mainly by the playwright John Fletcher, with Shakespeare contributing at most a few touches.
Fact No. 3. It was during a performance of the toadying Henry the Eighth that the Globe theatre burned down in 1613.
Out of these three circumstances, journalist, Granta sub-editor and sometime literary editor of the Independent Robert Winder had woven a cheerful historical fantasia. This is the tale of how Will Shakespeare, towards the end of his writing career, repents of the lies he put on stage in Richard the Third. Shakespeare in this version is a crypto-Catholic, or at least has Catholic sympathies, a theory that has found support from some reputable literary historians. Anyway, he comes to London determined to set the record straight.
He rounds up his old mates the King’s Men. Together they plan to write a play showing what a greasy chap Henry the Seventh, the first of the Tudor kings, really was. Trouble is, while this potentially treasonous enterprise is in progress, Shakespeare is threatened and blackmailed by the chief justice Sir Edwards Coke into producing an admiring play about Henry the Eighth. Shakespeare sub-contracts this tiresome job to John Fletcher while he himself gets on with writing the play he really wants to write.
Winder is cunning in setting this fiction towards the end of Shakespeare’s writing life. It means that Shakespeare and his mates can quote freely from nearly the whole Shakespearean canon whenever they want. The effect is like the famous spoof novel No Bed for Bacon or the tongue-in-cheek film Shakespeare in Love, where we were invited to groan at the way familiar Shakespearean quotations were mangled and dropped into conversations.
Then there’s Winder’s additional cunning in having Shakespeare write his play atelier-style. His mates Richard Burbage, Edward Alleyn and others gather around him and improvise scenes of dialogue in chatty conversations. This spares us the potentially boring image of the writer at solitary work, toiling away silently at his desk or perhaps talking to himself. To me the scenes of play-writing come across as the most jolly-jolly version of theatrical life since Dickens did his Vincent Crummles scenes is Nicholas Nickleby, or since J.B.Priestley sent his Pierrot review troop on tour in his bestseller The Good Companions. It’s pure tosh but great fun.
There are, of course, some moments that are so silly and outrageous in their anachronisms that Winder seems to be thumbing his nose at us.
Will Shakespeare contributing to the Protestant Authorised Version of the Bible? Pull the other one. The Authorised Version gets called the King James Version, a term that was invented [for it] by Americans only in the last century.
Will Shakespeare and his mates dreaming up the plots of both Don Giovanni and Dracula? As the Tui ads say, “Yeah, right.” But then you forgive Winder this sort of thing because you can see he is quite consciously messing around. As his introduction shows, he knows how much foolery goes into this sort of enterprise and is not like dumber historical novelists who don’t realise they are writing anachronisms.
Winder’s main joke is to eventually to give us the whole script of Shakespeare’s non-existent play Henry the Seventh. OK, it lacks a really strong arc of dramatic action. Its language abounds in words that didn’t exist in the early 17th century. But it bounces along in such well-trimmed cod blank-verse iambic pentameters that you can’t help admiring Winder’s sheer cheek.
I thoroughly enjoyed this extremely silly, historically inaccurate, fantastical and jolly piece of fluff, even if it does meander past 400 pages. Does it present a convincing view of Jacobean London? As much as some reputedly serious studies have. Does it reflect the way Shakespeare really was? It would be nice to think it’s somewhere near the truth.
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 don’t think this comes into the “great minds think alike” category, because the idea itself is a fairly commonplace one. I, and probably you, have often thought it. But earlier this year, when I reviewed, for the Listener, American novelist Siri Hustvedt’s Memories of the Future, this paragraph jumped out at me as a well-crafted statement of the idea:
“Dead at 29, Shelley became a literary martyr because the world loves poets and actors and some novelists who die young and never become jowly, dumpy, and arthritic, and they love them even more when they are tormented, hallucinating, and suicidal because the calm, reasonable artist, of which there are many, doesn’t deliver the same frisson. And so we gild their young corpses, hold them up to the light, and watch them glow.” (Memories of the Future p.87)
I like the way she mentions calm, reasonable artists and she could have added that there have been poets and novelists who lived a full, long life and were still producing great work towards the end (Tolstoy, Yeats etc.).
But the subject here is the glamourisation of those who die young.
Let me consider first the more ephemeral end of this phenomenon - those showbiz figures whose youthful death sometimes triggered an hysterical, but short-lived, cult. People like James Dean (killed in a car crash at 24) or Buddy Holly (killed in a ‘plane crash at 22). Dean appeared in only three feature-length films, but some critics have noted that the last of these (Giant) suggested that he was already settling down to mediocre, conventional Hollywood roles and his “rebel” image was already waning. Without his youthful death, there would have been no legend. As for Buddy Holly, certainly as songwriter and performer he was a more genuinely creative figure. But even a sympathetic biography I once read about him suggested that, with the inclusion of lush, orchestral backing to his later work, he was heading towards a career in bland middle-of-the-road music. Imagine Buddy Holly at 50 and you imagine a well-heeled guy whose inspired rockabilly style is a backnumber with no legend attached to it. Singer-songwriter Hank Williams (dead at 29) was at least as creative as Holly, but the odds are that a longer life would have seen him remain a leading figure in his durable Country genre.
I won’t linger over the more obviously self-destructive victims of youthful excess like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix – both dead at 27 of drug-abuse. Flaming-out was where they always intended to go anyway. I lament a little more for the equally self-destructive Amy Winehouse (dead at 28), who was the only singer of her generation to have a genuinely Blues-capable voice. Even so, the cynic (i.e. realist) in me says that Joplin, Hendrix and Winehouse were going, artistically, nowhere in particular. “Better to burn out than to die of rust” goes a version of Neil Young’s nihilistic rock lyric, so Hendrix, Joplin and Winehouse got their wish.
Now for the more considerable literary figures who went down young.
My problem with Thomas Chatterton (probable suicide at 17, though it may have been a medical accident) is my suspicion that he may have been a one-trick pony, who was already written out. Isn’t he really remembered mainly for the very fact of his death itself? It was perniciously glamourised in Henry Wallis’ 1856 painting The Death of Chatterton, which doubtless encouraged many unhappy teenagers to think that suicide was a wonderful thing. I wonder how many people now actually read Chatterton’s fake-medieval “Thomas Rowley” poems – certainly impressive productions from a teenager, but this is really like saying “good for a kid”. The poems are curiosities more than anything, for all the Romantic talk of a “marvellous boy”. Poor Chatterton.
John Keats (dead of tuberculosis at 25) was certainly a much greater loss, though the undoubted masterpieces we have are still the voice of an idealistic young man. Without this early death, could he (like Wordsworth) have lived on, to write, in late middle-age, reams of uninspired, dull poetry after his real flame had gone out? The same thought occurs to me when I think of Sylvia Plath (suicide at 28). Wildred Owen (killed at 25 towards the end of the First World War) had a forceful voice, but his theme really was “war, and the pity of war”. Would he have had anything to say once the war was done? I keep comparing him with his long-lived friend and fellow-soldier Siegfried Sassoon, who wrote equally forceful (and much more angry) war poetry. It is for this that Sassoon is mainly remembered, though the autobiographies he wrote are still read (the three-volume factual ones; and the three-volume fictionalised “George Sherston” ones). Something similar could have been Owen’s fate.
I am much less ambiguous about Alain-Fournier (killed at 27 early in the First World War). Given that he was no child at the time of his death, I think it is likely that Le Grand Meaulnes – which appeared a year before he died – was all he had to offer the world, beautful thing though it is. I suggest that had he lived, his fate would have been like J.D.Salinger’s viz. producing one resonant novel about adolescence, and thereafter producing nothing much of note.
Of all the literary figures who died young, the one who I think held the greatest promise of all was Raymond Radiguet (dead at 20 of tuberculosis). He had already written three collections of poetry, one play, and two short novels, his best-known work being Le Diable au Corps. (Most of his work was published posthumously.) This was a young man who was beginning a very busy literary career. Perhaps the positive thing about his death was that he did not live to be completely absorbed into the coterie headed by Jean Cocteau, who was cultivating the younger man in all manner of ways.
There is one fiery teenage literary genius who did NOT die young (he died aged 39) and who developed the maturity to turn his back on the work that had made him famous. This, of course, is Arthur Rimbaud, all of whose poetic work was written between the ages of 16 and 19. I have expressed my views on him before on this blog (see both Arthur Rimbaud Twice Over and my review of Charles Nicholl’s SomebodyElse). In many ways I see Rimbaud as a rebuke to the glamourisation of those who died young, much as, regrettably, his own youthful bohemianism has been glamourised by wistful older men. Among other things, the arc of Rimbaud’s life shows that a great literary beginning was not necessary the prologue to a great literary life.
As you will have already noticed, dear perceptive reader, this week’s reflection has done little more than amplify the Siri Hustvedt paragraph quoted at the beginning. Even so, I am happy to have concurred with her. Youthful death is sad, but, in terms of art and culture at least, of itself it does not necessarily mean a great loss to the world. The “might have been” is as likely to be the “never would have been”. And in the end the “might have been” is only speculation. Perhaps the glamourisation of the youthful dead is really just nostalgia for our own dead youth.
Monday, November 4, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“COLIN McCAHON: THERE IS ONLY ONE DIRECTION. Volume 1, 1919-1959” by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, $NZ 75); “MOPHEAD” by Selins Tusitala Marsh (Auckland University Press, $NZ 27:99)
2019 is the centenary of the birth of Colin McCahon (1919-1987), regarded by many as New Zealand’s most iconic painter. The most significant event related to this is likely to be the publication of Peter Simpson’s two-volume survey of McCahon’s life and work. The first volume is Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction. 1919-1959. The second volume, Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? 1960-1987, is scheduled to appear in May 2020.
With this publication, Peter Simpson again confirms his position as one of the most distinguished chroniclers of our artistic and literary history, as already evidenced in his Bloomsbury South and his editing of the Charles Brasch Journals1958-1973 (both reviewed on this blog). His author’s preface to Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction gives a detailed account of his long connection with McCahon’s work, as both curator and author of catalogues and explanatory books about the artist. He tells us that the book’s title comes from McCahon’s comment that a poet or artist needs “one direction” – a clear vision or concept to guide his work, even if the subject of that vision changes.
To make one clear bibliographic comment, this is a large and capacious book, just shy of 360 pages (including index, bibliography and scrupulous notes and references). I’m sure Simpson wouldn’t take offence at the remark that, while his text is excellent, among the book’s chief attractions are the large reproductions of McCahon’s work, often spread over two broad pages. In effect, the book itself becomes an accessible gallery of McCahon’s major paintings. Spending time with them is as important as spending time with the text.
Simpson’s prose style is clear, clean and unambiguous. Unlike some writers on the fine arts, who appear to be addressing a coterie or in-group, Simpson is aware that he is writing for a wide audience. As he says in his Introduction, “this book is intended not only for the already knowledgeable but also for those reading about McCahon for the first time.” (p.21) As well as glossing some art-related terms in his text, he does not hestitate to explain who certain well-known artists and writers were. This does not mean writing down to the reader. It means that there are none of the wilful mystifications one finds in some works on art (especially postmodern ones), which seem designed to put up barriers against the hoi-polloi.
Simpson is at pains to note that Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction is not really a biography. Though it is arranged in chronological order, and though it does give an account of the artist’s life, its focus is on the man’s career and it is primarily an exploration of his work and development as an artist. Simpson reiterates this sentiment in his “Conclusion”. This volume finishes when we are almost two-thirds of the way through Colin McCahon’s life, because that is almost exactly halfway through his career as an artist. Hence the second volume will explore just as much artistic ground as the first.
Nevertheless, the biographical contents are important. Born in Timaru, Colin McCahon spent most of his younger life in Dunedin and Oamaru. He hated being a pupil at Otago Boys’ High School and managed to persuade his parents to send him to the Dunedin School of Art instead. Although Dunedin was where his parents lived, and although he visited them often, in later life he came to loathe Dunedin. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, he moved between Nelson, Dunedin and Wellington, often following seasonal labouring jobs, as painting in itself did not provide an income to support a family. In 1942, when he was 23, he married fellow-artist Anne Humblett, and they settled in Christchurch for a number of years. In the 1950s he made the major shift to Auckland’s westernmost, semi-rural suburb of Titirangi, in the Waitakere Ranges. He held an important position at the Auckland Art Gallery. He did not become the gallery’s director (although he considered applying for the post) but he did deputise before the arrival of the new director Peter Tomory. Simpson notes all the various residences that McCahon and his family occupied, and notes the worries they often had about making rent. But McCahon’s wife and children are left very much in the background and are the subject of passing comments only. The biographical narrative fades out in 1960, when McCahon and family relocated to the inner-city Auckland suburb of Newton.
What is more dominant is Simpson’s careful account of how McCahon’s style changed, and the way different artists influenced him at various stages of his career. Toss Woollaston was an important early influence, when McCahon was almost exclusively a landscape painter, interested in geomorphology (the basic shape and structure of the land) and stripping landscapes down to unpopulated and treeless images. At that stage there was the strong influence of Cezanne and the earlier impressionists. A major change in McCahon’s artistic focus came when in he was in Nelson in 1948-49. In place of the people-less landscapes, he painted New Testament scenes of the Crucifixion, the Annunciation and the Resurrection, all placed in recognisably New Zealand settings. He now claimed as his masters the (religious) painters of Renaissance Italy. Simpson is very careful to note this was no sudden religious “conversion”, as McCahon had always had some sort of religious sensibility. After his move to Auckland, and after visits to Australia where he received some tuition, McCahon had greater awareness of cubism and a new way of conceiving of physical forms. There followed his Titirangi paintings of kauri and of French Bay and his move into abstraction. His paintings had always been “symbolic” rather than “representational”, but this was a major change.
Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction ends at the point when he had been for four months in the United States in 1958, and had seen art with which he was previously unfamiliar. He was moving to the greater use of words and script as part of his artistic expression. This was to lead into those stark black, white and grey canvases with verbal statements – but wording was not entirely new in his paintings as he had already made much use of speech bubbles in his earlier religious art.
As Simpson documents it, McCahon was very reliant on a close circle of friends and correspondents when he needed moral support, especially as his work was so often controversial and attracted much loud, and public, negative criticism. The first such controversy was in 1939, when the Otago Arts Society rejected the 20-year-old McCahon’s first well-known painting, “Harbour Cone from Penny’s Hill”. In solidarity with him, some other artists withdrew their work from the OAS exhibition. Later, A.R.D. Fairburn and Denis Glover loathed his religious paintings, and wrote barbs against them. McCahon’s sometime mentor and patron Charles Brasch was, at first, also very negative about the overtly religious works, but he later changed his mind. Most condemned of all were the text-dominated canvases that came later.
It is hard to explore McCahon without at some stage discussing the religious element in his work. In his Introduction, Simpson considers McCahon’s religious art and the matter of whether he was, or was not, a Christian. McCahon had a conventional Presbyterian upbringing and was for a while associated with the Quakers. A crucial point in his life was when, as a young man he “found his own god”. As Simpson notes “Landscape and religion were never entirely separate in McCahon’s imagination.” (p.39). God, or belief of some sort, was implicit in landscape itself. Yet this could suggest a vague sort of pantheism, and the obvious fact is that, in two major phases of his career, McCahon’s terms of reference were specifically Christian ones. This is apparently an embarrassment to some commentators; and non-believers who wish to see McCahon’s work in purely aesthetic terms can point to a few letters and comments where the artist disavowed any specific form of belief. This rather ignores the fact that doubt is, and has always been, an essential part of religious faith. Few thinking believers have “blind faith”, and questioning God or dogma has always been part of the religious experience (check out sometime “dark nights of the soul” from Augustine to John of the Cross to Therese of Lisieux and others). Simpson says “Such questions of belief and disbelief were never finally settled for McCahon, but – to the undoubted benefit of his painting – were matters of continuous ongoing self-exploration and struggle.” (p.57) Quite so. If all the Elias paintings (there is a generous display of them at pp.308-313) are about “misunderstanding” and “doubt”, they are still firmly in the religious tradition.
Both visually and in terms of its commentary, Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction is a rich and rewarding book. I hope this judgment is implicit in all the above comments. I’ll conclude with a couple of minor matters.
First, as a barbarous philistine, I found it endearing that McCahon apparently loved watching Westerns when he went to the movies (Chapter 3) – their horses and sweeping plains and music. Without being precious about it, I would say this chimes with the man who loved landscapes – and especially naked and underpopulated landscapes waiting for some human imprint.
Second, a little gulp of sorrow comes to the throat in reading this statement early in the book: “Throughout much of his life, McCahon was an indefatigable letter writer, a practice that with the advent of personal conmputers has virtually disappeared.” (p.20) Simpson isn’t the first to note this, but it does at once suggest how hard it will be for future biographers to get at the intimate thoughts of people from our own era.
Some purely personal responses:
I’ve already finished my review of Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction; but I thought I’d add a few purely subjective remarks.
In his Introduction, Simpson notes, correctly, that people who like one phase of McCahon’s artistic development often do not like another. He sees the great divide in opinion relating to the change in McCahon’s techniques after his 4-month trip to the USA in 1958. In other words, people who like the earlier McCahon landscapes and (more-or-less “representational”) religious paintings, tend not to like the later abstractions, cubism and text paintings – and vice versa. Personally, the text paintings interest me, as do the Titirangi kauri paintings. But irremovably embedded in my mind are the early landscapes, and I think it has to do with my early exposure to them in childhood. McCahon’s masterly “Otago Peninsula 1946-49” slapped me in the eye as soon as I first saw it on display in Otago, and for years a postcard reproduction of it has been pinned, by a thumb-tack, to my study wall. It’s a masterpiece. I saw “On Building Bridges – triptych” (painted in 1952) on dsplay in the Auckland City Art Gallery as a child, and of course, having a logical child’s mind, couldn’t figure out why the three pieces did not neatly fit together. Now I think I get it. But the really iconic painting for me (and I’m sorry that it comes so early in McCahon’s career) is “Takaka, night and day”, painted in 1948. Again, this was a childhood encounter in the Auckland City Art Gallery. I recall an adult saying that the hills looked like upraised knees, and ever since, I’ve detected an implicit anthropomorphism in much of McCahon’s early, people-less, landscapes. Even more mysterious was the concept of night and day in one canvas. This is still the painting I first think of when I think of McCahon. All three of these paintings are reproduced in Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction.
Here’s a second, unrelated, comment. I’m surprised Simpson does not make more of the French artist Georges Rouault. I grew up in a house where there was a framed print of Rouault’s “The Old King” hung at the entrance to our playroom – a very daunting image which I remember thinking was a representation of King Herod. When I looked at “Fifteen Drawings for Charles Brasch” (pp.174-175 of Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction) they struck me as being in exactly the same style as Rouault’s work on similar themes. I viewed a gallery of Rouault’s work, in a side-room of the church of Saint Severin, when I was on a trip to Paris 2017; and McCahon immediately popped into my mind. The similarity is unignorable. But Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction has only one passing mention of Rouault (p.129).
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I’m dealing very briefly with Selina Tusitala Marsh’s enjoyable picture-book Mophead not because I’m giving it the flick, but because I can say very briefly what it is and who its prime auduence is.
Mophead is a sturdily bound hardback telling an inspirational story in pictures as much as in words. It was both written and illustrated by Samoan-Palagi poet Selina Tusitala Marsh, New Zealand’s first Pasifika Poet Laureate. As a kid, she was often ridiculed by others at school for her huge mop of frizzy hair, and she earned the nickname “mophead”. Embarrassed, she tried to tie up and control her hair until a talk at school by Sam Hunt told her that it was best to be herself. So now she rejoices in her mop of hair as an expression of who she is (a bit like Cyrano de Bergerac and his proud nose). And she has carried her trademark mop confidently into the various adventures of her adult life.
The pictures are lively and expressive, the text is bold and the message is clear. I can see Mophead going down very well with schoolchildren who need a bit of encouragement and confidence, and that is the book’s target audience. I am happily passing it on to one of my teenage grand-daughters.Any misgivings? Much of it is self-promotion (I sang before the Queen, I met President Obama etc.). But I guess that’s part of the self-confidence the book is promoting.