Monday, March 30, 2020

Something New

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


“COLIN McCAHON: IS THIS THE PROMISED LAND? Vol.2 1960-1987” by Peter Simpson (Auckland University Press, $NZ 79:99)

When I reviewed on this blog the first volume of Peter Simpson’s authoritative survey of the work of Colin McCahon, Colin McCahon: There is Only One Direction. VolumeOne, I made some obvious points that are worth repeating for the second volume, Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land?: Volume 2. Peter Simpson is concerned primarily with the artist’s work, not with the minutiae of his life. This is not a biography, but an appreciation. In the same format as the first volume, Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? is a robust hardback with wide pages allowing text to be in double columns but, more importantly, allowing for the very many coloured reproductions of McCahon’s work to be displayed in large size. It in no way belittles Simpson’s words to say that this book is a gallery as much as a text, to be viewed as much as read. And, as was true of the first volume, Simpson’s clear prose is informed, his analyses of individual works are detailed, and he nowhere strays into the sort of artspeak that would alienate informed, but non-specialist, readers.

Despite the non-biographical intention of this book, it is nevertheless worth giving a summary of Colin McCahon’s life from 1960 to his death in 1987. (Here I largely cannibalise Peter Simpson’s Introduction). In 1960, McCahon, his wife Anne and their four children moved to inner-city Auckland and were to stay there for the rest of McCahon’s life. But McCahon also for some years had a studio on the wild west-coast Auckland beach of Muriwai. McCahon became deputy director of the Auckland Art Gallery and remained so until 1964. He then accepted a post as lecturer at the Elam School of Art and held that position until 1971. As Simpson tells us later  (in Chapter 2) McCahon got on well with some colleagues, especially Garth Tapper, and was esteemed by many students. But he was hard on those who did not take their art seriously and was rough on students, like the very talented Don Binney, who came from upper-middle-class backgrounds. At this time, he also found more supportive art-dealers. In 1971, he resigned from his Elam lectureship and devoted himself full-time to his painting.

His approach had changed markedly in the early 1960s, with a starker simplified angularity signalled in “Here I Give Homage to Mondrian” in 1961, though there were elements in his paintings consistent with earlier work. For example, he never entirely lost his affinity for landscape. The 16 frames of “landscape theme and variations” (reproduced on pp.60-61) and his series of stylised waterfalls, from the late 1960s, prove this. Despite “text” canvases, landscape dominates his “South Canterbury” (reproduced on p.123) from 1968. In commissioned works commemorating Parihaka, “Monuments to Te Whiti and to Tohu” (reproduced on p.191) there is some form of representationalism with Mt. Taranaki in the background.

In his Introduction, Simpson makes some general comments on the direction in which McCahon’s art was now moving: “In a sense, his paintings only began to take off and become airborne when he moved away from recording direct perception and allowed memory, thinking, belief and imagination to come more fully into play”. (p.13) Visiting the South Head of the Kaipara Harbour had a huge impact on him; he painted many landscapes from memory; he rejected the idea of “pure” abstractionism, saying his art was “impure” art as it always pointed to something beyond itself. Hence he headed towards what Simpson calls a “variable mix of abstraction, landscape, text, number, symbolism and signification” (pp.14-15)

As I have noted, Simpson’s survey keeps many aspects of McCahon’s private life in the background, as his main focus in on the art. We do hear of colleagues, fellow-artists and art dealers and of some fractious relationships. As Simpson records in Chapter 3, McCahon admired much about James K. Baxter, but had a serious falling-out with him when Baxter criticised him for being too “bourgeois” in accepting a university position (p.161). Nevertheless, Baxter’s premature death in October 1972 shocked him and he made many artistic memorials to Baxter. Only late in the text are we told “Increasing ill health resulting from alcoholism meant that McCahon was no longer able to drive himself to Muriwai and painting there was gradually phased out. A new studio was built behind the house at Crummer Road [in Grey Lynn] where many of his later works were painted.” (p.287) Shortly thereafter we learn more about boozy parties with the younger artists “Philip Clairmont”, Tony Fomison and Allen Maddox (pp.297-298), which led McCahon deeper into drink. The Epilogue to Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? tells us of McCahon’s last years when he had stopped painting and dementia, exacerbated by alcoholism, led to episodes where he got lost and didn’t recognise familiar places.

Also only towards the end of the text are we told much about the artist’s wife:  “Anne McCahon died in 1993. As time has passed, there has been increasing recognition of the sacrifices she made to support her husband’s career” After noting a 2017 exhibition of Anne McCahon’s work, Peter Simpson continues “McCahon valued her critical intelligence highly and regularly consulted her about his work.” (p.350) Occasionally I wondered if, without compromising the emphasis on the art itself, Simpson could have told us more about the domestic situation which is, after all, a major factor in every artist’s inspiration.

How McCahon’s works were received is a major theme of this book. His style was often ridiculed or reviled. Just before the period that Volume 2 covers, McCahon was alarmed and depressed by negative reviews of his “Painting” (1958). The negative reaction to his “Gate” series almost drove him back into representationalism. In the early 1970s, the director of the Dunedin Public Gallery ridiculed McCahon’s work and set up the crass stunt of inviting visitors to “paint your own McCahon”. In 1978, when one of his paintings appeared in the Dowse Art Gallery in Lower Hutt, a city councillor said it could have been knocked up in a meal break. That same year, when “Victory Over Death 2” was gifted to the Australian government, there was much public derision. Publicly McCahon ignored all this. Privately he was very depressed. And a failure to connect with what McCahon’s work was about continued after his death. Simpson points out the irony that the very anti-materialist painting “Storm Warning”, which McCahon donated to Victoria University of Wellington, was later (in 1999) cynically sold by the university, for profit, to the private sector (p.330).

One of Simpson’s most painstaking accounts of a controversy surrounding McCahon’s work is his narrative (in Chapter 5) of the contested Urewera mural, which was commissioned by the board of the Aniwaniwa Visitors Centre. They hoped McCahon would simply celebrate the picturesqueness of the Urewera – but McCahon chose to celebrate the Tuhoe people. In telling this story, Simpson helpfully gives detailed background information on both Rua Kenana Hepetipa and Te Kooti Arikiranga Te Turuki, whom McCahon’s mural recalled. After having trouble with the (mainly Pakeha) board which had commissioned the mural for touristic purposes, McCahon then ran into trouble with the Tuhoe people, who thought his mural was inappropriately honouring one person. Only after lengthy negotiations did McCahon alter his mural to their satisfaction. (The mural is reproduced at pp.268-269) There is the coda to this story (on p.350) when, in 1997, years after McCahon’s death, the mural was “kidnapped” by Maori activists and returned only after negotiations with an art-lover as go-between.

As well as focusing on the artist’s work, Simpson chronicles the rise in McCahon’s reputation, in spite of the attacks upon him. There were a growing number of retrospective exhbitions of his work in his lifetime, and growing respect from serious art critics. By the late 1960s, he was becoming the dominant contemporary New Zealand painter. Simpson notes that in 1969, when Gordon Brown’s and Hamish Keith’s New Zealand Painting – An Introduction was published, McCahon was one of only three artists awarded a full chapter and “The choice of McCahon to design the book’s cover – a waterfall motif – emphasised his increasing domination of the contemporary scene; it implies that in a sense the history of New Zealand painting was viewed through the lens of his work, a point made by Francis Pound and other critics.” (p.103)

Only rarely was McCahon’s work “protest” art or directly related to political causes. His “Gate” series in the 1960s referred to nuclear weapons and he joined the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). When some of his work was part of a group exhibition in 1971, McCahon commented on his recent painting of Muriwai:

My paintings in this exhibition are all about the view from the top of the cliff at Ahipara and Muriwai. I am not painting protest pictures. I am painting what is still there and what I can see before the sky turns black with soot and the sea becomes a slowly heaving rubbish tip. I am painting what we have got now and will never get again. This in one shape or form has been the subject of my painting for a very long time.” (p.151)

If his art was only rarely political, however, this does not suggest artistic quietism. McCahon was, as he had been since the late 1940s, engaged in a certain sort of spirituality which always implied a critique of accepted values. Religious belief, and a questioning of religious belief, were major parts of this critique. The very title Peter Simpson has chosen for this volume, Is This the Promised Land? points to the centrality of such concepts in McCahon’s later work. The Biblical journey to a promised land was often suggested in McCahon’s earlier landscapes and was alluded to in his letters. He had produced a painting called “The Promised Land” in 1948,  and the very last multi-panel sequence he painted included “The Flight from Egypt” – the Hebrews heading for the promised land.

In the later 1960s, when he was freed to paint full-time as he was no longer lecturing at Elam, McCahon accepted a commission to paint glass windows for a Catholic chapel in Auckland. This, says Simpson, “had a profound impact on his imagery, which was increasingly informed by the iconography of Catholicism” (p.75). At about the same time, he was impressed by the Protestant-sponsored New English Bible, a new translation which rendered the text with “dynamic equivalence”, making it more colloquial and accessible. From this point on, all the written Biblical texts that appear in McCahon’s work were taken from the New English Bible. Even so, Catholic imagery prevailed. The “Visible mysteries” series was informed by Catholic liturgical works and McCahon often adopted an image of the heart influenced by the traditional Catholic image of the Sacred Heart.  There were renderings of the Stations of the Cross, sometimes reduced to Roman numerals counting from I to XIV. Rosary-like beads appeared. And very often the Cross, even if sometimes a Tau cross. Specifically Catholic imagery persisted right up to “Five Wounds of Christ” in the late 1970s, by which time “text” paintings had become dominant in McCahon’s work.

In the earlier 1960s, in a letter to a friend who was also a painter, McCahon wrote: “You see I don’t paint places. I paint “thinking about God”. But I hope he knows it & likes it. You, my dear, do this too & sometimes I feel place overcomes his beauty.’ ” (p.13) By the late 1970s, in another letter, he wrote “Beauty is only looking for God. And as a lot of us find He can be a real SCARE” (p.286). This last phrase suggests there was much ambiguity in McCahon’s belief, as Simpson points out when commenting on McCahon’s “Victory over Death 2” with its (AM I) / I AM “It is far from being a clear, unambiguous affirmation of faith. On the contrary the prevailing tone of the work is as much conveyed by the expression ‘now my soul is in turmoil’… [it] dramatises existential conflict and uncertainty…” (p.147) In a biographical note for an exhibition in 1981, McCahon wrote “I think I am a Christian – perhaps I am. I think I am a good guy – but I’m not…” (p.328). Ambiguous or not, faith remains a major element in McCahon’s work. As a personal comment, I think the degree to which Chistianity influenced him is evidenced best in the photograph (on p.342) of McCahon in the mid-1980s, ravaged by alcohol and dementia, sitting with a young granddaughter under the Chi-Rho Christogram over his fireplace.

Simpson refutes the claim [made in a catalogue for an exhibition in Sweden in 2002] that McCahon’s very last paintings, quoting Ecclesiastes, were yielding to despair and therefore rejecting faith. Putting the Ecclesiastes quotations in context, Simpson concludes “Truer to the shape of McCahon’s career than to give Ecclesiastes the last despairing word, is to see the final burst of activity as an artist in 1979-82 as articulating a never-ending dialogue between Ecclesiastes and St Paul, despair and hope, doubt and faith.” (p.333) Backhanded proof of the religious intent of much of McCahon’s work comes in Simpson’s account of an exhibition of McCahon’s work in the Netherlands, which  clashed with that country’s very secularist sensibilities. (I also speculate mischievously how much English-language-text-loaded canvases could have been a barrier to non-English-speaking people). While noting that McCahon’s high reputation now is largely limited to New Zealand and Australia, Simpson remarks in the very last page of his text: “A further factor in constraining the spread of McCahon’s reputation is the challenge his religion-inflected work presents to a largely secular Western world.” (p.359)

Here, however, is a great defect in the review you have just been reading. Peter Simpson’s two volumes are as much about the artist’s style as they are about the artist’s beliefs or intentions. In detailed but accessible prose, they examine how the paintings are conceived and constructed, what materials are used, what type of paint applied and what effects are achieved. For all but the specialist, this is the definitive publication on the subject.

Personal Note:

My review of Colin McCahon: Is This the Promised Land? ends above. What follows is a purely personal reaction to McCabon’s later phases. Without wishing to be decried as a philistine, I am not greatly drawn to the period of texts, numerals and signification. I am not necessarily in bad company. Peter Simpson notes that Charles Brasch stopped collecting McCahon’s work post-1958 (p.103). When he considers the “Numerals” series, Simpson also notes that they require of the viewer “patience and faith” (p.78). Indeed they do – and maybe faith more than anything.

Why my resistance to much [not all] of McCahon’s later work, with which this second volume deals? I am not opposed to non-representational painting, but too often I sense that whatever meaning many of McCahon’s later paintings have derives from things outside the painting itself. I stop long and linger over the reproduction of McCahon’s “Easter Landscape Triptych” (1966 - reproduced at p.111). I more-or-less get the deliberate contrasts of darkness and light, suggesting the emergence into daylight of the Risen Christ; I see the contrast of straight lines (horizontal and diagonal) with the more organic curved lines in each of the three panels. The curved lines are reminiscent of both the hills that McCahon had painted in his earlier phase and the stylised waterfalls he had painted more recently. And of the stone rolled away from the tomb. Of course I recognise that the three panels take us from Good Friday to Easter Sunday – with the strong diagonal line in the centre panel suggesting death. The overall composition is reminiscent of a cross… But am I reading all of this into the painting because of the title? Would it actually have these meanings for us at all if it were presented “cold”, with no title to tell us that it was related to Easter?  Read the painting without the prior cue and it would be an interesting design. [As soon as I think this, I of course have to acknowledge that it would take many viewers a long time to associate Broadway with Mondrian’s “Broadway Boogie Woogie” without the title to tell them.]

I could raise the same objection with so many other canvases, for example “Walk Series C” from 1973. You would have to have prior knowledge of the Stations of the Cross to understand what the Roman numerals from I to XIV meant.

As for so many of the text paintings – doesn’t the text itself get read first to make meaning? In fact, wouldn’t the text itself have largely the same meaning if it were read in a Bible? “A Letter to the Hebrews (Rain in Northland)” (1979) appears on six sheets of Steinbach paper and presents most of the letter’s Chapter 11 (almost 1000 words).  One could argue that placing this text on paper isolates it and heightens it. But, assuming that we read the text on the canvas, we have a literary experience and not an artistic one.

I’m sure there are McCahon-ists who could answer my objections… but I am not sure that I would be persuaded by them. I am saying none of this in a reaction against McCahon’s religious purpose or beliefs – certainly not – even if they have apparently annoyed some commentators and alienated them from his work. Perhaps in the end I am saying that McCahon’s texts and numbers are attempting to depict metaphysics that simply can’t be depicted in this form.

I’ll leave it there before I start stumbling over my own tongue.

None of my comments in this coda reflect on Peter Simpson’s excellent work. De gustibus non disputandum est.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

“MARY OLIVIER – A Life” by May Sinclair (first published 1919)


I am going to write this commentary in two parts. I will begin by considering May Sinclair’s novel Mary Olivier – A Life as it struck me when I read it and before I looked up what any academic or commentator had to say about it. This is what I think real criticism should always do – give a considered personal response to the text itself. Only then, in reflections outside the text, will I talk about the novel’s context and genesis, as well as noting what others have had to say about it.

For years, two copies of Mary Olivier – A Life had sat, unread, on my shelves. One was a first edition from 1919 and the other a reprint from 1949, the blurb of which described the novel as “the late May Sinclair’s masterpiece”. I was already aware that May Sinclair (pseudonym of Mary Amelia St Clair, 1863-1946) was a prolific novelist, most active between the 1890s and 1920s, that she was much admired by intellectuals, and that she was a very active first-wave feminist. It was this last fact that made me take the novel off the shelf and read it. I had recently read and reviewed for this blog another novel by a first-wave feminist, Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm, and had found that, in its melodrama and overt didacticism, it did not live up to its (former?) reputation. Did Mary Olivier live up to its reputation? I had heard that it was May Sinclair’s best-known work (I have other of her novels on my shelves). But was it, as I had read somewhere, a “forgotten masterpiece”?

So this is the novel I read and this is how I reacted to it.

Beginnning in 1865 and ending in 1910, Mary Olivier covers the life of a woman from the age of two to the age of 47. The text is divided into five sections, being Infancy (1865-1869); Childhood (1869-1875); Adolescence (1876-1879); Maturity (1879-1900) and Middle-age (1900-1910). We note at once that the eponymous Mary was born in the same year as the author and has the same (real) first name as the author, and we suspect there might be an autobiographical element to this novel. We also note that the author’s dating of “Adolescence” might now seem a little strange, as “Adolescence” takes Mary only from the ages of 13 to 16, so perhaps the author really means early adolescence, or even puberty.

In one sense, the novel is plotless. It simply takes the events of Mary’s life in the order in which they happen, and in the process depicts a particular family. Mary Olivier is the youngest of four siblings, having three older brothers, Mark, Dan and Roddy. The family is middle-class, ostensibly headed by Papa with Mama as his helpmeet, and with a small staff of servants. Papa sells ship insurance. As readers in 1919 would have been aware, and as we are now even more aware, Mary’s formation takes place in a very Victorian world.  When Mary is an infant, the grown-ups are talking about John Bright and Mr Gladstone. When she is a child, the Franco-Prussian war is going on. In this world, it is assumed, even in middle-class families, that young women do not need a formal education beyond the most elementary levels. When Mary, as a young adult, goes to a dance, she is, like all the other young women, chaperoned and obliged to fill in a dance card committing her to dancing with young men in a set order.

So the period details are noted, but they are not the focus of the novel and they do not overwhlem it.

Many things happen in Mary’s family over the novel’s 45 year span, but they are always presented in terms of how they affect Mary’s consciousness and mental formation. In infancy and younger childhood, Mary hears bits of whispered conversations between adults, not understanding them and not knowing why her parents are concerned about poor Aunt Charlotte. Instead, the emphasis is on childish quarrels over who owns the cat and on games and on physical sensations. Mary looks up to the males in her family, especially Mark, whom she hero-worships. But by the time she is nine, she is aware that her mother does not want her to read too many books or to become an intellectual.

When Mary is an adolescent, she begins to be more critical of adults and of her elder brothers. The admired Mark goes off to be a soldier, Mary has romantic ideas of him serving in the army in India, and right up to adulthood he remains the family member to whom she can most relate. But her brother Dan gets turned out of his office job for reasons that the adolescent Mary does not understand. Also, at the age of 14, Mary is sent away to a girl’s school, again for reasons she does not understand.

As the novel progresses, Mary is constantly re-assessing her views on her elders and piecing together what was really happening when she was too young to understand. The whispered conversations about Aunt Charlotte turn out to relate to aunt’s mental instability and her paranoid fear that people are plotting against her. There is the suggestion (delicately hinted at by the author) that much of this has to do with Charlotte’s sexual frustration, or even sexual abuse. Charlotte eventually goes mad and has to be incarcerated. Mary’s brother Dan turns out to be totally unsuited to the bureaucratic life that was planned for him, longs to be a farmer, never gets the chance, and becomes a sot. Her other brother Roddy emigrates to Canada, isn’t able to make a go of things, returns home very sick, and dies. There is the drumbeat of death in this novel, as even the admired Mark dies of an accident before the novel is over.

Yet the most important influences on Mary’s life continue to be her parents.  Although she is sometimes afraid of her father, the child Mary sees him as the unquestioned authority figure, with all the powers of paterfamilias. As she says:

 Papa walked in the garden in the cool of the evening , like the Lord God. And he was always alone. When you thought of him you thought of Jehovah.”(Chapter 7, section 4). Yet in her early twenties, Mary notes her father’s ageing and weakness and psychological flaws: “Papa stood in the doorway. He looked round the small dining-room as if he were still puzzled by its strangeness. Papa was not what he used to be. A streak of grey hair showed above each ear. Grey patches in his brown beard. Scarlet smears in the veined sallow of his eyes. His bursting, violent life had gone. He went stooping and shuffling The house was too small for Papa. He turned in it as a dog turns in its kennel, feeling for a place to stretch himself.” (Chapter 20, section 4)

This stern father figure has faltered in his career, causing the family to leave London and settle in the country. He has become an alcoholic, and he dies of apoplexy a little over halfway through the novel. But, such is the primal formation of childhood, Mary has a persistent sense of her father’s influence even after he is dead. She dreams that at “the foot of the bed she saw her father standing… He looked at her with a mocking, ironic animosity, so that she knew he was alive…” (Chapter 21, section 8). The “mocking, ironic animosity” seems in part the father’s contempt for the young woman’s intellectual aspirations.

Apart from Mark, the males in Mary’s family prove to have feet of clay, yet they have more power given to them than Mary has. However, the influence of her controlling Mama proves to be more persistent than the influence of her father. At first Mama is simply the anxious mother telling her little girl to be obedient, accept her place in the world, and observe accepted social norms. But as Mary grows, Mama becomes more controlling and more manipulative, constantly attempting to negate Mary’s desire to develop her mind and seek intellectual company. Part of this, it would seem, relates to Mama’s awareness of her own lack of power in a male world and hence her envy of Mary’s intellect. To Mary, Mama confesses as she is dying, towards the end of the novel: “I suppose I – I didn’t like your being clever. It was the boys I wanted to do things – not you… I was jealous of you, Mary. And I was afraid for my life that you would find it out.” (Chapter 30, section 4) Yet Mary comes to realise that her mother has been the most important person in her life – for good or ill. It is assumed that Mary, as the only daughter of the family, will take on the role of nurse whenever somebody is sick. She nursed the ailing Roddy when he returned from Canada – and when her widowed Mama is dying, she has to nurse her. In fact, when she is in her 30s, choosing to nurse her mother costs her the opportunity to marry a man, which she had long desired to do.

There are men in Mary’s life, but they turn out not to be the people Mary at first thought they were. There is the Frenchman Maurice Jourdain, more than a decade her senior, who fires her intellect when she is a young adolescent. Only years later does Mary learn that she had been sent to school at the age of 14 because her parents were wary of Jourdain’s influence on her, and thought his interest in her was unhealthy (read – almost pedophilia). When Jourdain comes back into her life years later, Mary finds he is not the great intellectual she thought him to be. She thinks “There had been two Maurice Jourdains, the one who said, ‘I’ll understand. I’ll never lose my temper’; the one with the crystal mind, shining and flashing, the mind like a big room filled from end to end with light. But he had never existed.”   (Chapter 24, section 3)

There is the avuncular Mr Sutcliffe who lent her books when she was in her teens. Again, it is only years later that she learns he had a romantic interest in her adolescent self which almost threatened his marriage. For some twenty pages, in the last section of the novel, May Sinclair dangles before us the prospect that Mary will find happiness with an intellectual soul mate, Richard Nicholson, who admires her poetry, helps to get some of it published, and shares her interest in Greek drama. But the happiness is illusory, Mama has to be nursed and Richard wanders off to marry somebody else.

No love for Mary, then… but in the closing pages she reaches the conclusion that happiness comes from within her, and not from other people. This may be intended as an assertion of a woman’s autonomy – very much a theme of some feminism -  but it sounds painfully like a consolation prize, or even self-justification.

Counterpointing everything I have so far discussed, however, is the novel’s account of Mary’s intellectual, as distinct from emotional, formation. If she is subjected to social and familial conditions over which she has little control, she does at least rebel in her ideas. As a child she has a child’s conception of Christianity: “When you were frightened in the big dark room you thought about God and Jesus and the Holy Ghost. They didn’t leave you alone a single minute. God and Jesus stood beside the bed, and Jesus kept God in a good temper, and the Holy Ghost flew about the room and perched on top of the linen cupboard, and bowed and bowed, and said ‘Rook-ke-heroo-oo!  Rook-ke-heroo-oo!  (Chapter 6, section 2)

But her youthful reading about classical gods leads her to reflect : “There were such a lot of gods and goddesses that at first they were hard to remember. But you couldn’t forget Apollo and Hermes and Aphrodite and Pallas Athene and Diana. They were not like Jehovah. They quarrelled sometimes, but they didn’t hate each other; not as Jehovah hated all the other gods. They fitted in somehow. They cared for all the things you liked best: trees and animals and poetry and music and running races and playing games. Even Zeus was nicer than Jehovah, though he reminded you of him now and then. He liked sacrifices. But then he was honest about it. He didn’t pretend that he was good and that he had to have them because of your sins. That was the nicest thing of all.”    (Chapter 9, section 3)

From this point on, she has a running battle with her parents about religion. At the age of 13 she defies her father when he is shouting at his sister Lavinia for being a Unitarian. When she is 14, she is expelled from the girls’ school to which she has been sent because of her “infidelty” (i.e. being an unbeliever or “infidel”) in refusing to say Christian prayers. So it continues.

Mary has that late adolescent sense that real life is somewhere else: “Nothing could take from her her belief in happiness hiding behind certain unknown doors.” (Chapter 20, section 6) In her case, however, this means seeking for the ideal. So she dreams of her ideal intellectual companion who “had the soul of Shelley and the mind of Spinoza and Immanual Kant” (Chapter 24, section 4) and she follows a regime of reading “Heine… Goethe’s Faust…Sappho…Darwin’s Origin of Species… Schopenhauer… Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung…” (Chapter 24, section 7). She declares to her brother Mark “I want the thing. Reality, Substance, the Thing-in-itself,” which she relates to some form of idealism [that is, philosophical rationalism] (Chapter 25, section 4). Certainly Mary’s intellectual quest is a sign of her intellectual strength, even if her reading list contains things that were the standard and expected reading of nineteenth century agnostics. But the idealism, the separation from concrete, physical realities, has its negative side. In her late 20s Mary, for the first time, begins to understand that much of her philosophising has been evasion “She had spent most of her time in the passionate pursuit of things under the form of eternity, regardless of their actual behaviour in time. She had kept on for fifteen years trying to find out the reality – if there was any reality -  that hid behind appearances themselves. She had cared for nothing in them but their beauty, and its exciting play on her emotions. When life had brought ugly things before her she faced them with a show of courage, but inwardly she was sick with fear.”    (Chapter 27, section 11)

After reading this novel, I was left with the sense of a life thwarted. There is much ratiocination. Mary thinks about religion and philosophy and poetry and reads the appropriate books for a budding intellectual of her time. But so often this seems a way of covering over an emotional void. Apart from hero-worship of her brother Mark; apart from some late adolescent “crushes” and relationships with men that go nowhere; Mary has no real emotional connection with anybody except her mother. Her life is circumscribed. She grows to middle-age unfulfilled, uncertain, still questing and with no firm ground to stand on.

And perhaps it was May Sinclair’s intention for us to see Mary this way. Perhaps her aim was to show the effects on an intelligent woman of a patriarchal society in which women could not get a higher education and had few opportunities to travel on their own. (Mary spends almost the whole of her life in the London, then the country, residences of her family.) Mary Olivier could be read as a “case” and the novel’s schema (infancy – childhood – adolescence – maturity – middle-age) is intended to show the unfulfilled potential of a woman who is not permitted to exploit her talents to the full. And yet the particulars of Mary’s life are so specific that it is hard to see her in these generic terms.

One thing I am certain of, though. Even if there are consciously intellectual conversations in Mary Olivier, the author does not preach. Whatever social messages there may be, they are implied. In this respect Mary Olivier is far superior to Olive Schreiner’s The Story of an African Farm. Schreiner TELLS. Sinclair SHOWS.

At which point I switch to what background research tells me, and what others have said about this novel.

Reflections outside the text:

I read Mary Olivier in my copy of a dust-jacket-less first (1919) edition, in which I found a small slip of paper, obviously part of the original publisher’s blurb, which described the novel as “A woman’s life, her thoughts, sensations and emotions directly presented, without artificial narrative or analysis, without autobiography.” [Emphasis added].

Although the novel is written in the third-person, this last claim is quite simply untrue.

Only after reading this novel did I consult literary manuals (and the internet!) and discover that Mary Olivier is indeed highly autobiographical. May Sinclair was the only daughter in a family with three boys, all older than her, and two of whom died relatively young. One of the deceased was the brother she hero-worshipped. She had a feckless father and a dominant and possessive mother. In her early 40s, she had a chance to marry – which she really wanted to do – but felt she had to continue caring for her sick, widowed mother, so the marriage never took place. All this squares with the life of Mary in the novel. Also the author’s family moved, as the Olivier family in the novel does, from London to the country (Devon in the case of May Sinclair’s family). Might I add that the resigned and, dare I say, self-justifying, tone that I detected in the final pages of the novel probably reflected Sinclair’s own resignation when, at the age of 56, she wrote this novel?

Additional information tells me that May Sinclair was influenced in writing Mary Olivier by having read and reviewed early works by Dorothy Richardson, and the two of them were among the first to popularise William James’ term “stream-of-consciousness”. Also Sinclair latched on to the early writings of Sigmund Freud. So some stream-of-consciousness fed into the novel (though, I must say, not as much as in later practitioners of this form!) as did some Freudian ideas on the persistence of primal childhood formation in adult experience. For the record, Sinclair, an ardent first-wave feminist and friend of the Pankhursts, increasingly took up ideas that would now be considered rather cranky, with an intense interest in psychics and the paranormal. Some of her later writings deal with these things, but her writing career was cut short in the later 1920s when she began to suffer from Parkinson’s disease, and she wrote nothing in the last 15 years of her life. She died, aged 83, in 1946.

In his much-admired survey The English Novel (published in 1954), Walter Allen tartly dismisses May Sinclair in one line as “a pioneer in a kind of psychological fiction later women novelists were to do better.” When I looked up Paul West’s survey The Modern Novel (published 1963), I found West gave Sinclair more consideration. He said “she had the intelligence to write a masterpiece”, but concluded that she never did so, because  her novels “always seem to be on the edge of revelation, but never quite fulfil themselves.” I would endorse this view on the evidence of Mary Olivier alone. But I think Paul West overdoes it when he describes Mary Olivier as “a game of Beggar-My-Neighbour played with cards marked Incest, Oedipus, Infantilism, Drink, Rapture and Madness”. This suggests that the novel is nothing more than a schematic, fictionalised collection of Freudian concepts. Some of the things West lists do indeed make their appearance in the novel, but it is far more nuanced than West suggests and does present us with believable characters, not just walking ideas.

In contrast with Allen and West, some postings refer to May Sinclair as the most significant English woman novelist between George Eliot and Virginia Woolf. Again, having read of her works only Mary Olivier, I think this is probably true – and in a way I feel more affinity for Sinclair than for Woolf; for unlike Woolf, she did not suffer the dreaded infection of Bloomsbury social snobbery.

Forgotten masterpiece? Yes, quite possibly Mary Olivier is.

Something Thoughtful

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


There is a very old folk-tale which has often been passed off as historical fact, and has sometimes been attached to historical figures such as King Henri IV of France. But it is, in truth, a fiction.

A wretched man is hauled before the king. He is accused of stealing a loaf of bread. As the king has to pass judgement on the poor man, he asks him “Why did you steal the loaf?

The poor man answers “Well, your majesty, I have to live.”

To which the king replies “I don’t see the need for that.”

The old tale often gets a laugh because of the king’s callous wit. Surely we all know that human life is valuable and the poor man wants to preserve his life, as we all do. The story is funny because the king hasn’t even considered such an obvious thing as the value of human life. Unless he is consciously joking, his judgement is based entirely on his own indifference. And after all, if you don’t begin with the premise that human life is valuable, you will be quite justified in making the same judgement as the king. What the king says would be perfectly reasonable.

I often think of this story when I hear people making lofty claims for reason alone as the arbiter of what is right and wrong.

Some years back, I reviewed for a national magazine a foolish little potboiler which purported to expose all sorts of bullshit (this was the author’s preferred word) – religious bullshit, political bullshit, academic bullshit, advertising bullshit etc. The author told us, sometimes with a simple and crude wit, anecdotes about the foolishness of all these things, and gave some convincing examples, because of course there is much bullshit in all these fields. But in the end, his collection of anecdotes seemed like the scrawlings of a cynical adolescent. He was enjoying an extended sneer.

And what was the author’s antidote for misleading bullshit?

Apparently, it was pure reason.

But here’s the problem. Reason is a method of thinking. But, in itself, it is not a value or virtue.

Reason - which includes the ability to judge things empirically, to size up the odds of success, and to make a judgement – can easily be harnessed to the most reprehensible of causes. The people who designed nuclear and chemical weapons were perfectly reasonable people. They were highly-qualified scientists and they were judging that these weapons were necessary. The people who devised Zyklon-B for death camps, who worked out the timetables for the cattle trucks that would take people to the death camps, who decided which people should be killed immediately and which should be worked to death – they too were reasonable people, using their reason to plan and execute all these things efficiently. The people who worked out how best to starve to death Ukranian peasants to make room for collective farms and build the great Soviet state, these too were reasonable people. It took so much planning, so much organization, so much use of reason to bring these things about.

Please let us not delude ourselves that all these people were self-evidently evil madmen. Certainly Hitler's cohorts contained many pseudo-scientists with cranky and untenable ideas about race. But among Hitler’s scientific advisers were Nobel Prize winners and internationally-esteemed chemists, biologists and physicists. Certainly people of great reason. That what they were doing caused millions of deaths was – as far as pure reason is concerned – beside the point.

In our language we have a verb which immediately signals that we know when reason alone is not sufficient. The verb is “to rationalise”. (There are equivalents to this word in other languages too.) When we say somebody is rationalising, we mean that person is genuinely using reason, but using it for corrupt, dishonest or self-interested purposes. “Why shouldn’t I shoplift? The company makes millions every year and they won’t miss what I take.”  “Of course I take things from the office. Everybody else does.” Etc. etc. etc. These are examples of true reason – empirical evidence is used and a clear conclusion is reached. If you don’t begin with the axiom that is it wrong to steal or embezzle, then they are perfectly reasonable statements. Pure reason, in fact.

Reasoning is only as good as its premises. The real arbiter of what is right or wrong, good or evil, ethical or unethical, is not reason itself, but the assumptions, premises and axioms that we have before we begin our reasoning. Where these assumptions, premises and axioms come from is matter for a much longer discussion than I’m prepared to write here. (Is morality the general consensus of society or does it come from God? If it is the consensus of society, can’t it easily be altered with enough public persuasion? If it is from God, which conception of God is being used? etc. etc.) But it remains true that an immoral or plain evil conclusion can be reached by the use of real reason, if the premises themselves are false.

None of this is written to denigrate the very necessary and important tool that reason is. I am not anti-reason. We need the reasoning of planners, doctors making diagnoses, engineers working out stress points, lawyers gathering evidence etc. etc.

But reason is only one of our necessary mental abilites. We also require imagination, faith (in the sense of holding certain axioms and premises to be necessary), sympathy for others, and an awareness of our own self-interest and how it can corrupt our thinking. Reason is a great help in judging the rightness of things – but only a help.

If I didn’t accept this fact, then I would agree with the fictional king’s judgement.

Footnote: This “Something Thoughtful” is a re-working of an argument that I have already made on this blog. But a good argument is worth repeating.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Something New

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

“WHAT SORT OF MAN – and other stories” by Breton Dukes (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ 30) 

You never judge a book by its cover, but it’s worth stopping to consider Keely O’Shannessy’s cover design for Breton Dukes’ third collection of short stories What Sort of Man and other stories . Although no stories in this collection have anything to do with deer-hunting, the cover image is of a deer’s antlers and on both front and back covers are images of bloody fingerprints. At least for an older generation of readers, the cultural reference is clear. It harks back to Barry Crump’s best-known blokey, hunting, shooting, deer-culling romp A Good Keen Man, which was first published with a prominent image of deer’s antlers on the cover. But the bloody fingerprints on What Sort of Man and other stories suggest something more brutal and more complicated than the world as seen by Barry Crump. O’Shannessy’s cover design is more relevant to Breton Dukes’ world than the cartoonish images by Dylan Horrocks which were on the covers of Breton Dukes’ first two collections.

When I reviewed Dukes’ first collection BirdNorth and other stories on this blog back in 2011 (a review for which the author mildly rebuked me over some inconsequential inaccuracies), I said one of his stories was “not the blokey world of a Barry Crump anecdote” and another was “like a collision of  A Good Keen Man and the Slacker”. When I reviewed Dukes’ second collection Empty Bones and other stories for Landfall-Review-on-Line (September 2014), I noted that “a sense of sickened machismo hung over the collection, as if these young men ached to be Good Keen Men but had somehow been damaged before reaching that goal.” At the very least, many of Breton Dukes’ stories suggest that his male characters are struggling to find their place in the world; or, as the back-cover blurb to What Sort of Man and other stories puts it more sententiously, these “stories go head to head with the crisis of contemporary masculinity”. Now that pioneer days are over, now that rugby-racing-and-beer is no longer so firmly the national religion, what are young Pakeha New Zealand men now, and what exactly is their role? With stories specifically set in either Dunedin or Auckland, Breton Dukes examines various states and habits associated with received ideas of masculinity.

Apparently one male tendency is competitivness (although I’d suggest that women are as prone to this as men are.) In the story “Stone vs Cog and Rabbits”, three boys play beach-rugby on Cheltenham Beach, and it gradually becomes apparent that, for one of them, it is so important to win because of what is going on a home. (Where style is concerned, the real craft of this story is the way Breton Dukes is able to give a full account of the game despite its complexity.) For masculine competitveness at the other end of the age spectrum, there is the collection’s final story “The Swimmers” wherein two octogenarian men (both middle class, one a former school principal, the other an academic) compete fiercely in a swimming race. Their competitiveness in sport is fuelled partly by another sort of competitiveness. One of them is incensed that the other has made advances to his wife.

As prominent in this collection as it was in the two earlier ones is the matter of parenthood – more specifically fatherhood – and yet even this is tainted. Some fathers are clearly unbalanced. “Kid and the Tiger” has a father who thinks he has found Jesus and wants to be a good father, but he is so high and buzzy on a prescription drug that he suffers paranoid delusions and attempts crazy, dangerous stunts. The opening story “Ross Creek” has a father who is not fully self-aware. The senior school teacher Gary is alienated from his wife and his teenaged daughter because he was caught, at school, with files of teen pornography on his computer. He is under investigation and has been stood down from his job. His wife is disgusted with him. His daughter is shocked and depressed. Gauchely, Gary tries to reconnect with his daughter, but the story implies that his self-justifications mask his failure to understand his daughter’s angst. Only at the last moment does he realise that she is now in a position to judge him.

Other fathers are more balanced and have good intentions, but still have debilitating doubts about themselves. Told in the first-person, “Malcolm” is a sketch of a father in his 40s attempting to protect his 2-year-old son from a fierce dog, but also worrying that he doesn’t have the right sort of masculine courage. He thinks: “Even with all the drinking I’ve done, I’ve never been in a fight. Never stood up for myself or someone else, or broken up some beastly act by, say, wrapping my arms around an offender, or crash-tackling some dick. I don’t like violence. That’s part of it. But the main part is cowardice. When the thing happens and the brain is charged with the chemical that imposes either fight or flight, I’ll fly. But not if the thing was a person drowning in a river, or if a bedroom was burning up; then, I think, I’d go in. But not fighting. I mean, I’d defend [my son and wife]” (p.165)

A much more extreme, and probably less justified, form of this doubt is found in “Meat Pack”. In this first-person story we know that the narrator is a domesticated and caring father. He is looking after his sick young son. But as he does so, he is caught up in memories of his attempt, and failure, to be a macho hero in a pub fight years before. In memory he berates himself: “From birth I’d been released only into safe zones. School, Moana Pool, the movies, friends’ houses. University was more of the same. Flatting, attending lectures, flocking to the pub with others from the same background. But the building site was a new plane. Like TV prison, where hard-bitten inmates endlessly monitor for signs of weakness.” (p.47) Part of this seems to reflect how physically abashed men with middle-class manners are when they mix with tougher working-class men – a condition which always makes me think of Stephen Spender’s poem “My parents kept me from children who were rough”. But even without the class element, there is that deep-seated male sense that you’re not a real man if you don’t have physical courage or can’t use violence effectively against an enemy.  Two hundred-plus years ago, Samuel Johnson said  “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea.” This statement has often been ridiculed, or attempts have been made to discredit it – especially by men begging to explain that they’ve never wanted to be a soldier. But essentially Johnson was right. Even part of the most peaceable man’s mind thinks that virility is best expressed in winning a fight, and that is the condition that is addressed in “Meat Pack”.

Competitveness, fatherhood, and men’s lingering doubts about themselves are somehow addressed in all the above stories, but the most complex story (and the longest) is the eponymous one. The title “What Sort of Man” could as well be written with a question mark, as we are asked to work out what exactly the main character, Evan, is and what his values are. Evan is a young father, solicitous for his son’s welfare, who has taken on the job of caring for Carl, a severely autistic man who is apparently also a danger to children. (Interestingly, in his first collection Bird North and other stories, Breton Dukes also had a story, “Maniatoto”, about a man looking after a mentally-impaired man.) “What Sort of Man” has many explicit excremental details when Carl soils himself messily and copiously and Evan has to deal with it. In the course of doing so, he does something mean and a little selfish, more to salvage his own dignity than to help his charge. Yet later he finds a more genuine self-respect when he helps somebody out. This is a complex mix – Evan’s concern for his child, his official position as “carer” of the dependent man, his moment of callousness and his act of altruism. So what sort of man is this? A credible one, I think.

One story only focuses on a woman, “Being Sonya”. In an earlier review, I suggested that Breton Dukes’ novella “Empty Bones” showed greater interest in the way women think and that this might lead Dukes in a new direction in his writing. But apparently not. It is hard to see “Being Sonya” as anything other than the story of a self-deluded woman, a little drug-addled, in a failing relationship which isn’t helped by her chronic lying.

            Even more resistent to arousing my sympathy is the story “Bullfighter”. In the same disgusting hell-hole of a Dunedin flat live Lance and Michelle. Lance stacks shelves at Countdown. Michelle sells Lotto tickets. Their jobs stink. They stink. They eat junk food. They chill out on Friday evenings by smoking weed. They’re on the bones of their bums. Sometimes Lance suggests, only half-jokingly, they do a robbery to get funds. He steals some money. She gambles it away. A long section of the story covers her gambling and her mistaken idea that she’s going to win big. With no money, no food and the power cut off in their flat, they mug a man carrying parcels of food. They race home and eat the (junk) food, well pleased that they have fed themselves another day. We have no indication that their lives will ever change. They will go on living in the same way.

This is not a story that questions masculinity. Lance and Michelle are equal partners in their way of life and in the assumptions they make. But I do question what the story’s purpose is. I am aware that “Bullfighter” could be seen simply as documentary reportage or a slice-of-life. No doubt there are people who live like Lance and Michelle. But I simply cannot  fathom what the author’s own attitude is. Could “Bullfighter” be a subtle critique of addiction, given that Michelle’s gambling is virtually an addiction and given that it takes up so much of the story? I do not expect or want Aesop’s-fable-like “morals” at the end of stories, neatly telling us what to think, but I would have been helped by some indication of the author’s own attitude. As it stands – and doubtless not the intention of the author – “Bullfighter” is one of those stories which allows middle-class readers (like me; like you who are reading this review) to feel superior to a pair of desperate losers. So does it have anything to offer above its sordor?

I am sorry to end on this negative note. Most of the stories in What Sort of Man and other stories are well-crafted and certainly show much skill in their close observation of physical details. Breton Dukes can tell a story well and, after three collections with much focus on the topic, he said much about male behaviour that is worth listening to. But is he going to beat the same drum in future?