Monday, April 27, 2020

Something New

We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“ENDURING LOVE – Collected Poems” by Robert McLean (Cold Hub Press, $NZ 40); “WALKING HOME” by Michele Amas (Victoria University Press, $NZ25; “TWO OR MORE ISLANDS” by Diana Bridge (Otago University Press,  $NZ27:95); “HERE WE ARE” by Graham Swift (Scribner, $NZ32:99)

Nearly seven years ago in late 2013, I reviewed on this blog under the heading The Poetry of Robert McLean, three collections of the poet’s work, For Renato Curcio ( first published 2010), Goat Songs (2011) and A Graveyard by the Sea (2012). Later, in 2018, I more briefly reviewed McLean’s collection Figure and Ground.

Enduring Love is subtitled “Collected Poems” of Robert McLean, but the word “collected” does not mean complete. Enduring Love gives a selection from McLean’s works, but with the addition of 30 new poems under the heading Postcards from Atlantis. Presumably McLean has gathered here what he now considers the best from his earlier collections. For example Enduring Love includes only 5 of the 17 poems in For Renato Curcio, only 5 of the poems from Goat Songs, and a more generous 19 of the 26 poems in Figure and Ground. If you wish to see my views on these collections, look up my earlier postings.

A Graveyard by the Sea is published in Enduring Love in its entirety, except that McLean has revised the earlier version, rewording some sections and dropping four of the original 62 stanzas. Reading this recension, I am even more impressed than I was in my reading of the first edition, and I herewith withdraw a few slightly carping comments I made in my 2013 review. A tour de force, at once an hommage to Paul Valery’s Le Cimetiere Marin and a very New Zealand poem, written strictly in the same metrical form that Valery used – sestets (six-line stanzas) with a regular a-a-b-c-c-b rhyme scheme – but more discursive than Valery. McLean’s A Graveyard by the Sea is now 58 stanzas compared with Valery’s 24. The sheer compositional skill impresses as much as the sentiments and the wide-ranging imagery.

So in this review, I will look only at those of McLean’s works which I am encountering for the first time in Enduring Love.

To begin with, one very obvious point has to be made, as it is always made when McLean’s poetry is discussed. McLean, running against current fashion, is a Modernist. He may, as I said in an earlier posting, be fully au fait with Postmodernist theory and practice; but he takes it for granted that his readership is literate and will be comfortable with the many cultural references he makes, and with his many allusions to canonical (or non-canonical) writers and their work. There are no end-notes or footnotes to help the reader along. As the back-cover blurb of Enduring Love correctly puts it “Robert McLean is a defiantly modernist poet who often uses traditional metres and rhyme to explore the complexities of history and selfhood.” It is appropriate that David Howard provides a back-cover endorsement to Mclean’s work. Howard (whose The Ones Who Keep Quiet I reviewed on this blog and whose In-Complete Poems I reviewed for Landfall Review Online in August 2012) is one of the few New Zealand poets who writes with the same intellectual intensity as McLean, although their philosophical stances and choice of thematic matter are quite distinct.

So to those sections of Enduring Love which I have not reviewed previously.

For the Coalition Dead was one of McLean’s earliest productions, appearing in 2009, before all the later collections mentioned above. Nine poems from For the Coalition Dead are included in Enduring Love. Some of McLean’s persistent preoccupations are already here – his admiration of another modernist poet (“A Valediction for C.N. Sisson”); love and the course of a relationship read in the sky and harsh weather (“Appassionata”); a very stark and pared-back poem confronting mortality in the carcass of a dead seal (“Inexorable, Thus”); and mental disorientation (“Lunatic”). Written in nine neat quatrains, “The Second Life” is one of McLean’s stateliest poems, distinguished in its brilliant opening:

Animated by wisps of zephyr,

wind-chimes clatter pentatonic Zen.

My presence is de-emphasised: just

a plastic chair on the veranda

contrived to hold opinions

Superficially, it is little more than reveries while seated in a backyard (“My universe is shrivelled - / it’s compacted into my backyard”). But the inevitable, slow tread of nature, the flourishing of weeds, entwines the present moment with a vaster time-scheme. It becomes a genuinely philosophical piece. Time and eternity are here together.

It is clear that much of For the Coalition Dead was a response to current events at the time it was written. McLean dwells on war and some of its horrors in a number of poems. For a soldier, killing can become a numbing, boring, perfectly routine job (“A Norse Assassin Struggles with Ennui”). A captive in a torture chamber is mentally as well as physically tormented, in a poem whose hysterical insistence is underlined by its drum-beat rhyming scheme, with just one rhyme for each of its nine-line stanzas. (“The Patriot”).

What war has inspired such poems? The six sections of this collection’s title poem, “For the Coalition Dead”, give us the answer. This is a response to the war in Iraq which the United States was then waging together with some allies. Rather than being a direct critique of the conduct of that war, “For the Coalition Dead” is an analysis of the American psyche, or at least the psyche of American elites that seek self-aggrandizement on the world stage. It is hard to believe that McLean was not at least in part inspired by Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead”, which is similarly written in quatrains and offers a critique of American mores.

And what of the 30 poems collected together for the first time in Enduring Love under the collective title Postcards from Atlantis?

I admire the persistence of McLean’s thematic interests – his dedication to a particular vision and a particular version of what poetry is. He will always deal with history, Western culture, and poetry itself in a critical voice redolent of Modernism, even if his techniques sometimes revert to other styles. In a set of “Epigrams” given here, he declares his aesthetic with one called “On Conceptual Art”:

Its imposition fades on second-thought –

I’ll take the urn: cold, empty and well-wrought”.

Consider the poems here on ancient wars and violence. “Three Views of Agincourt” is a poetic tryptich which gives a very un-Shakespearean view of the late medieval battle, stripped of rhetoric and seen in a wider perspective. “Terror” indicts terror both Biblical and revolutionary. In “Marmont Dying”, one of Napoleon’s marshals takes a pragmatic, resigned look as his own life as a warrior, speaking (as some others of McLean’s personages do) very much like a dramatic monologue of Browning.

Consider other eminent persons from the past. “Machiavelli in Hell” again has a resigned, world-weary tone like a Browning monologue. “Schweitzer’s Progress” uses the term “progress” with a degree of irony, given that motives of the Alsatian philosopher-missionary are held up to severe scrutiny. “Nijinsky’s Last Dance” has the ballet dancer torn between impulse and social constraint. Some eminent – or notorious – figures from the past take some time to declare themselves. Who is the subject of “A walk around the world”? Only an O. Henry-like punchline tells us at the end of a long poem.

Consider poems on art and architecture. “Failure” gives only two cheers for Andrea del Sarto (a reprodction of whose “Head of a Woman” adorns the front cover of Enduring Love). “On Carolingian Sculpture” senses cultural decay in its view of early medieval Europe.

And, of course, consider all the poems about poets. “The Afterlife of Drummond Allison”, about a promising young English poet killed in the Second World War. “Sapience Angelical”, with the Earl of Rochester poised between libertinism and repentance. “Exiles”, which yokes together Ford Madox Ford, Ezra Pound and Henry James.

“Last Visit to Mallarme” captures perfectly the detached, non-materialist, linguistic idea of that poet in this stanza:

Flooding back into my mind

came all those precious evenings,

soirees during which I ceased

entirely to believe in things,

even in ideas. Qualm and scruple

were Pentecost to this Priest

of the Absolute.”

In matters of both history and High Culture, however, McLean often digs deepest when he is looking at New Zealand. It is fitting that this volume ends with “At the Sign of the Packhorse I Stand Like a Tree and Sing My Song of Joy”, a discursive poem on the history of Akaroa, its settlement and its French connection. There is a ten-part sequence of poems “The Passion of William Colenso”, viewing from many perspectives the Anglican clergyman, printer, explorer and controversialist, with his initial loyalties, demeanour and faith undermined by the call of the erotic. In a way, I wish this sequence had more to say about Colenso’s ripe crankiness (well documented in his letters to the press – see Give Your Thoughts Life, reviewed on this blog), but at least McLean does give us some disaffected witnesses who describe the older Colenso (in section 9) as “a testy gadfly in minor office” and “tactless, prolix and obscure”.

As for New Zealand poets, “Here and Now” is an elegy for the late Allen Curnow, with a final line that could be a fitting epitaph. Rather more recherche is “The Apotheosis of Charles Spear” with its decorative vocabulary to present a poet whose thoughts were always in Europe. It is in some sense a jeu d’esprit.

Speaking of jeux d’esprit, and wondering if at least some of it is tongue-in-cheek, there is “A Fantasia in the Voice of D’Arcy Cresswell”. Presumably from the grave, Cresswell bemoans his soiled reputation, he being an eogtistical chap who, in the judgement of his poetic New Zealand contemporaries (Curnow, Fairburn et al.), had a much more modest talent than he thought he had. More recently (see the writings of the late Peter Wells) he is the gay poet who is hated by gays because, in the 1920s, he dobbed in the covertly-gay Mayor of Wanganui. McLean’s Cresswell says “my efforts got disparaged as claptrap, / charlatan doggerel” and “my verse earned brickbats from the status quo”. Again, McLean displays a complete mastery of traditional form. “A Fantasia in the Voice of D’Arcy Cresswell” is a sequence of 15 sonnets in the Shakespearean form (i.e. ending in a rhyming couplet), but sometimes borrowing Samuel Daniel’s trick of linking the last line of one sonnet to the first line of the next.

You have by now, I hope, read enough to know that Enduring Love is an outstanding collection, the best single-volume of a poet who runs vigorously against current fashion and scores more hits than misses.

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            You are probably aware that in the midst of the Coronavirus lock-down, the German-based Bauer Media Company decided to pull the plug on those very many New Zealand magazines which it owned. Among other worthwhile publications thus killed was the New Zealand Listener, for which I had been a frequent freelance contributor for well over 15 years. For the last two-and-a-half years, I had added to my other book-reviewing a column called Poetry Picks where, every three or four weeks, I would choose, as worth reading, a new collection of New Zealand poetry. I was allotted only 250 words for each of these columns, so I could do little more than signal my  pleasure for each collection in very general terms. When the Listener ceased to exist, there were two Poetry Picks columns I had submitted that had not yet run. So, in all their brevity and inadequacy, here they are:


FIRST, Michel Amas’ Walking Home:

This collection might sadden you, but not because the poems are sad. It’s the circumstances of their publication. Still relatively young, Michele Amas died of cancer in 2016. Her second collection, Walking Home, has been assembled from her papers by her husband, playwright Ken Duncum. In his foreword he suggests that Amas might have edited or altered some poems had she lived to see them published.

In the poem “Standing”, another poet tells her “You can disguise the autobiographical / in the third person”. This is advice that she resolutely ignores.

Her poems are first-person and unashamedly confessional. They read like good spoken monologues, fittingly as Amas was an actor. Some are lightly ironical, like her view of the city where she lived, “Wellington’s Running Late”. Some recall childhood, as when she notes you really can’t go home again in “Home Town”.

            But her main interest is the immediate family. The excellent monologue, “Morning Noon and Night” has an anxious wife telling her husband she’s not perfect. “Oestrogen Makes a Break for it on Thursday” is a wildly comical vignette of a mother running after a daughter who is developing too quickly. The centrepiece is the loose cycle in three parts, “The Tender Years”, which gradually becomes a reflection on Amas’ relationship with her own daughter.

Then comes the sad part – the cycle “Walking Home”, where she confronts her cancer. “I want to read this disease / backwards / to get back to the top” she writes. But there was no going backwards, and going home meant something quite different.

THEN, Diana Bridge’s Two or More Islands:

            When some poets make references to mythology or high culture, I feel they are faking. Their erudition means they’ve looked up a Wikipedia entry or two. Not so with Diana Bridge. In her seventh collection Two or more islands, she shows that she knows intimately Chinese and Indian mythology and culture as well as Classical western mythology. Not only that, but she can make meaning of these things. Two or more islands is not a display of learning, but a book of poems that show us how ancient concepts still have resonance for us.

            Poems take in the I Ching; women from Greek legend like Antigone, Penelope, Ariadne and Demeter; the bloody mess of Shakespeare’s history plays; and, in a closing eight-part sequence The Way a Stone Falls, a long reflection on Angkor Wat and Hindu sites in India. We are enlightened, uplifted and feel solidarity with ancient times.

But there is another side to Bridge’s achievement. In a section of pithier, shorter, specifically New Zealand poems, she gives more colloquial motherly and grandmotherly advice, especially in Pierced Ears and the delicate balance of A pounamu paperweight.

Any future anthologist if this decade’s great New Zealand poems would have to include Among the stacks, about the obsessions of bibliophiles; Light came from the other side, almost a philosophical warning against taking a superficial tourist’s view of things; and Was there ever an Avernus?, which modernises Virgil’s underworld and becomes a lament for the great Seamus Heaney.

I can only give superlatives to this sane and satisfying collection.

There now. That is what I wrote for the Listener. To Diana Bridge and (the estate of) Michele Amas, I can only apologise for the brevity and terseness of these notices. There is much more than could be said about each collection.

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And now for something more bizarre. A couple of months back, a publisher generously sent me a copy of the English novelist Graham Swift’s new novel Here We Are. For a number of reasons I was not able to read it until very recently, which is why I am only now considering it on this blog. I am fully aware that it has already been reviewed by every other reviewer in this country, with particularly perceptive reviews by Siobhan Harvey for the Stuff network and Anna Rogers in the (now gone) Listener. So here I am coming up the rear and I will say only a few things.

Here We Are is about magic, time, getting old and regret.

At the end of the 1950s, Ronnie and Evie, a magician and his “lovely” assistant, are the star attractions on the Brighton pier during the summer season. Ronnie and Evie are engaged to be married. Compere of the show which they headline is Jack, or “Jack Robinson” as he bills himself, with his well-rehearsed cheery patter and singalongs and eye for the girls. More than one reviewer has already noted that he and his style of entertainment are very reminiscent of John Osborne’s Archie Rice in The Entertainer, and that is part of Graham Swift’s design. The tawdry glamour of the Brighton pier and cheekie-chappie comperes were forms of entertainment that were already dying in the late 1950s as television moved in and the little box at home killed variety shows and magic acts.

We’re not far into this short novel (Graham Swift’s novels tend to be lean) when we learn that Ronnie’s and Evie’s engagement goes wrong, and Jack moves in on Evie. Indeed the events of 1958-1959 are only one part of a complex story, for much of it has the aged Evie looking back with regret fifty years later in the 2000s, and much of it concerns Ronnie’s formation as a young magician. As a Cockney kid he was evacuated from the Blitz, taken out of an awful East End home and boarded with a loving middle-class couple in rural Oxfordshire. His life was changed. His loyalties were changed. He discovered the power of magic. Like many evacuees lifted out of the slums, he didn’t want to go back home.

I could dig for all sorts of profundities in this novel, even though I enjoyed it mainly for its power as a story, its ability to make us wonder what will happen next, its clear and clean prose and Graham Swift’s pitch-perfect dialogue, appropriate to the times and places where the story is set. This is a story about retrospection and regret. It is about the social disruption in Britain, and for some, shifts in class-consciousness, brought about by the Second World War. It is about a dead world and about nostalgia and about the delusions of nostalgia that are exposed when the past is truthfully examined. And it is also about love and how it can be derailed. I flinch a little at the denouement, which I think pushes credibility near breaking point and strives to make magic a metaphor for the mystery of life itself, but I’m not the chap to provide spoilers about this.

The tone is elegaic, as it often is in Swift’s work. Swift is now in his 70s, but this tone cannot solely be a sign of his age. Remember, he was only in his 40s when he wrote his best-known (and Booker Prize-winning) novel Last Orders, which is about old men looking back on their imperfect lives. As for that title Here We Are – as is pointed out a number of times in the novel, it’s a standard English colloquialism, uttered when something is proferred (“Here we are – your tea”, that sort of thing). But as a title, Here We Are points to the human condition. Here we are, here we end up, here we can’t help being, after all our experience of life.

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.

“THREE SOLDIERS” by John Dos Passos (first published 1921)

            Only once before on this blog have I dealt with the works of John Roderigo Dos Passos (1896-1970) (See posting on Number One). He was a highly-esteemed American writer in the first part of the 20th century, but his name has tended to be eclipsed by other American writers of his generation (Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Steinbeck etc.). Author of 88 books, best known for his USA trilogy, Dos Passos probably wrote too much that had immediate topical appeal, but that now looks like dated journalism. More worrying for some readers (and for his reputation in academe) was his gradual shift from left-wing positions to a very firm conservatism.

Published in 1921, when he was 25, his second novel Three Soldiers was the book that first gained him a large readership. It is a direct reaction to America’s role in what we now call the First World War, in the last year of which Dos Passos served in the medical corps in France as an ambulance driver. Overwhelmed as we often are by British (and to a lesser extent French and German) works written during or after that war, we often forget the pivotal role of America. The French Army was always the major force on the Western Front, with Britain as its chief ally; but it is clear that the war would not have been won without American intervention in the last crucial year 1917-18. With Russia knocked out of the war by revolution, Germany no longer had to fight on two fronts and was able able to rush more troops into France and Belgium, in the hope of striking a decisive blow against the Allies. But this was countered by the fact that, by early 1918, over one million American troops had arrived in France, the balance of forces was radically altered, and Germany’s last major offensive was stopped dead.

Three Soldiers deals exclusively with America’s Great War experience, but it is not what might be considered a conventional “war novel”. There are a few brief scenes of battle, but the focus is on the training and discipline imposed upon ordinary soldiers by the army. The Armistice occurs almost exactly halfway through the novel, so the second half is post-war. Dos Passos’ aim is always to show the army as a fearful machine which crushes individuality out of men and alters their thinking, even in peacetime.

The title Three Soldiers is a little misleading, as one character alone comes to dominate the novel. We are introduced to three privates early in the novel. They are all in their early twenties. Daniel Fuselli is an Italian-American clerk from San Francisco, always angling for promotion and having the ambition to become a corporal or even a sergeant. His attitude towards the war is purely opportunistic, but he is singularly inept in reaching his goals and gradually becomes the enemy of the officer class that harrasses him. Chrisfield is the more naïve hayseed from Indiana, with simplistic patriotic views that are gradually knocked out of him. He becomes insubordinate in the most extreme way. Then there is John Andrews, the college-educated New Yorker, whose well-off family came from Virginia. Andrews is the intellectual who reads high-brow literature and hopes to become a composer. He is also clearly the character with whom Dos Passos most fully identifies, and whose experience (especially his post-Armistice life in Paris) has a strong autobiographical element. The fact is that Andrews takes over the novel, and the other two privates become minor characters in the background. Indeed, other troopers sometimes have more importance in the narrative than either Fuselli or Chrisfield. There is, for example, the soldier Henslowe, who influences Andrews in the later parts of the novel when he is trying to find means of escape from military servitude.

Three Soldiers is very much a grunts’-eye-view of the army. (Maybe “doughboy” would be the more era-appropriate word for American soldiers than the later “grunt”; but to my surprise I found the word “doughboy” used only twice in this 383-page novel). Apart from one sympathetic sergeant, officers and NCOs are seen as officious or threatening or effete. There are scenes of unnecessary punishments for small misdeameanour and scenes of well-turned-out officers enjoying better meals than the troopers, swanning around in staff cars and casually breaking rules for which the rankers would be put on a charge (absenting themselves, getting drunk etc.) It is interesting that in this environment, even the naïve Chrisfield dreams of being court-martialled or fighting with the sergeant.

The first thing that strikes you in reading this novel is its documentary realism. The army is deglamourised from its earliest chapters. Still in America before embarkation for France, John Andrews has to clean windows around a military camp.

The repetitive rhythm of his work makes him think of army life thus: “It expressed the vast, dusty dullness, the men waiting in rows on drill fields, standing at attention, the monotony of feet tramping in unison, of the dust rising from the battalions going back and forth over the dusty drill fields.” (Part 1, Chapter 2) The journey across the Atlantic is particularly vivid. As men descend into the stinking hold of the troopship to find their sleeping quarters, and squabble over who will get the best bunks, a disgruntled private remarks: “It’s part of the system. You’ve got to turn men into beasts before you can get ‘em to act that way.” (Part 1, Chapter 4) And once in France, there is the grind, grind, grind of five weary months drilling and training before the troops are sent anywhere near the battle front. Typical is a route march described thus: “Men’s feet seemed as lead, as if all the weight of the pack hung on them. Shoulders, worn callous, began to grow tender and sore under the constant sweating. Heads drooped.  Each man’s eyes were on the heels of the man ahead of him that rose and fell, rose and fell endlessly. Marching became for each man a personal struggle with his pack, that seemed to have come alive, that seemed something malicious and overpowering, wrestling to throw him.” (Part 3, Chapter 1)

            Given that army life is so deglamourised, there is much in this book which would doubtless have shocked many of its first American readers. There is the fact that many soldiers are very sceptical about the war and some (such as the minor character Eisenstein) harbour very radical, anti-establishment ideas. There are examples of loudmouth, boastful soldiers, such as a doughboy nicknamed “Wild Dan Cohen”, who build up heroic stories about themselves which clearly have no basis in fact. There is a frank admission that soldiers readily resort to whorehouses – not that Dos Passos dwells on this in any salacious way. It is simply one of the realities he ticks off. In one sad episode, Private Fuselli, despite his sentimental memories of his girlfriend back home, foolishly believes he’s in love with a French girl, but she proves to be on the make and willing to sell her assets elsewhere.

Perhaps most shocking (for the novel’s first readers) is the way Dos Passos debunks wartime propaganda. In training camps in America, fresh recruits are shown (staged) films of spike-helmeted German troops bayonetting babies, raping women and shooting children and old people. Some of the more naïve soldiers take this to be documentary truth. But in France, such illusions dissolve. New soldiers get annoyed when a more experienced man says the Germans dropped leaflets, warning in advance of the bombing of a civilian area. They do not want to believe their enemies could be so considerate. The more experienced man also introduces the innocent ones to a nasty aspect of the war when he goes on to say: “It was where we took the shell-shock cases, fellows who were roarin’ mad, and tremblin’ all over, and some of ‘em paralysed like… There was a man in the wing opposite where we slept who kept laughin’  ”  (Part 2, Chapter 3)

Trying to keep up the morale of soldiers who are tired or becoming disillusioned, there are what the novel calls “Y” men – meaning men from the YMCA, attached to back-area units, who distribute chocolate and cigarettes and offer advice. But as the novel sees it, their advice rings hollow as they attempt to instill propaganda. When he is resting and out of uniform, Andrews says what he thinks about the prospect of resuming army duties: “I feel so clean and free. It’s like voluntarily taking up filth and slavery again… I think I’ll just walk off naked across the fields.” A “Y” man sternly rebukes him, saying “Do you call serving your country slavery, my friend?...You must remember you are a voluntary worker in the cause of democracy… your women folks, your sisters and sweethearts and mothers, are praying for you at this instant.” (Part 3, Chapter 3)

It is almost exactly halfway through the novel, when a “Y” man is trying to ginger him up, that Andrews makes what may be the novel’s key statement. He is responding to the “Y” man’s patriotic take on the war: “How these people enjoyed hating! At that rate it was better to be at the front. Men were more humane when they were killing each other than when they were talking about it. So was civilization nothing but a vast edifice of sham, and the war, instead of crumbling, was its fullest and most ultimate expression.” (Part 4, Chapter 1) The sentence I have underlined has very much the same sentiment as Siegfried Sassoon’s poem “Blighters”. It represents the disgust a soldier feels towards civilians who make big patriotic statements, and jeer at the enemy, without ever having experienced the reality of a killing ground.

There are other moments that could have shocked readers in 1921. An officer tells troops directly not to take prisoners – the army can move faster if it doesn’t have to look after enemy soldiers who have surrendered or are wounded. (Part 3, Chapter 4). Soldiers often slow to a reluctant dawdle as they near the battle front, and there is much insubordination. Private Chrisfield has trouble with a Private Anderson, with whom he once brawled. Anderson is later promoted to sergeant, and bullies Chrisfield. In Part 3, Chapter 5, it is implied, without being directly stated, that under cover of the chaos of battle, Chrisfield takes the opportunity to kill the sergeant.

Moments of battle do occur in this novel, but they take second place to the grinding routine of army life. John Andrews’ encounter with battle ends swiftly when a shell explodes near him, knocking him unconscious and landing him (after an uncomfortable, bumpy ambulance ride) in hospital with damaged legs and suffering from delirium. The hospital is a large, old, re-purposed Renaissance hall. It is here that he has ideas of writing a great piece of music, inspired by reading Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine and conceiving sensuous images of the Queen of Sheba. He tries to realise his inspiration when he manages, after the Armistice, to wangle admission into a student course in Paris and is granted leave from the army.

Post-war, however, there comes the big let-down of expectations, chronicled in the second half of the novel. Dos Passos ultimately attributes this to the long reach of the army and the mentality war has instilled in both soldiers and civilians. In Paris, even the officers are on the booze; soldiers are chasing whores or talking about Prohibition back in America and the possibilities of the Russian revolution. Some are being drafted into the Army of Occupation in Germany. Others are trying to desert. There is a brief glimpse of Private Fuselli, who has achieved none of the promotion he sought and who appears to be on permanent KP. As for Andrews himself, his hopes for personal freedom are trumped in various ways. He thinks he has found love with a French woman. He mixes briefly with French and American intellectuals, lovers of literature and of the type of music he aspires to write; but they turn out to be superficial chatterers and dilettantes, many of them with conventional views about patriotism and the war. When he is caught by the military police without identity papers, he is forced into a work battalion for some months. He deserts and for a few weeks he thinks he has found, in the country, freedom to compose. But he is finally thwarted as he is grabbed back by the army and the last image of the novel is of his composition papers being scattered by the wind. Against the Juggernaut, you cannot win.

A couple of obvious things occurred to me as I read the second half of the novel. One is that Dos Passos anticipated, by a number of years, Hemingway and the self-pitying “lost generation” American crowd, who went to Paris in the mid-1920s and claimed to be suffering existential angst. Note that Three Soldiers appeared in 1921, five years before Hemingway’s “lost generation” novel The Sun Also Rises (1926). I also noted that Three Soldiers contains a scene where its main character escapes authority by jumping into a river and swimming for it. A similar scene occurs in Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms (1929) and I can’t help wondering if Hemingway didn’t get the idea from Dos Passos’ novel.

That said, there is an almost monotonous emphasis in Three Soldiers on the dehumanisation of men under military orders. The novel’s six parts have titles suggesting men as machines – “Making the Mould” (dealing with training in America); “The Metal Cools” (boredom and routine in army life in France); “Machines” (how the soldiers act in war); “Rust” (Armistice and weariness of war); “The World Outside” (glimpses of post-Armistice life outside the army); and “Under the Wheels” (which is where John Andrews eventually goes). Again and again the novel speaks of men as either slaves or machines.

Early on, Andrews reflects of the army: “It was only slavery that he had not foreseen. His race had dominated for too many centuries for that. And yet the world was made of various slaveries.”(Part 1, Chapter 3) When Andrews is in hospital in a Renaissance hall: “He felt at home in that spacious hall, built for wild gestures and stately steps, in which all the little routine of the army seemed unreal, and the wounded men discarded automatons, broken toys laid away in rows.” (Part 4, Chapter 1) When he thinks he has found freedom: “The exhilaration of leaving the hospital and walking free through wine-tinted streets in the sparkling evening air gave way gradually to despair. His life would continue to be this slavery of unclean bodies packed together in places where the air had been breathed over and over, cogs in the great slow-moving Juggernaut of armies. What did it matter if the fighting had stopped? The armies would go on grounding out lives with lives, crushing flesh with flesh.”  (Part 4, Chapter 2)

At the very moment that he is about to make love to the French girl Jeanne, and when he is about to take off his uniform: “Andrews thought suddenly of all the tingling bodies constrained into the rigid attitudes of automatons in uniforms like this one; of all the hideous farce of making men into machines. Oh, if some gesture of his could only free them all for life and freedom and joy.” (Part 5, Chapter 3) When sitting opposite a chateau, he thinks of the glories of the Renaissance and asks himself “…would the strong figures of men ever so dominate the world again? Today, everything was congestion, the scurrying of crowds; men had become ant-like. Perhaps it was inevitable that the crowds should sink deeper and deeper into slavery. Whichever won, tyranny above, or spontaneous organization from below, there could be no individuals.” (Part 5, Chapter 4)

In the end, his views become fatalistic. He comes to see himself as “A toad hopping across a road in front of a steam roller.” (Part 6, Chapter 4) He says to Genevieve, one of his French intellectual friends: “It seems to me… that human society has always [been]…and perhaps will always [be] organizations growing and stifling individuals, and individuals revolting hopelessly against them, and at last forming new societies to crush the old societies and becoming slaves again in their turn…” (Part 6, Chapter 4)

In the end, it is individualism and the freedom to be one’s self that Dos Passos most cherishes. In the 1930s, with Fascism and Nazism as the most obvious enemies, it was inevitable that Dos Passos would have stood with the Left, which seemed to align itself with liberal freedoms… but after exposure to Stalinism in the Spanish Civil War, Dos Passos turned Right and lost the friendship of those who took the “Popular Front” at face value. (See postings on this blog about Paul Reynolds’ Writer, Sailor,Soldier, Spy and  Stephen Koch’s Double Lives). As Paul West put it in his 1960s survey The Modern Novel, Dos Passos “gradually proves that the unaided, unscheming individual has little chance against any collectivity.” I do not think Dos Passos’ final, very conservative, political stances were an aberration. They were in direct line of descent from John Andrews’ rebellion against the crushing military machine.

I could say many negative things about Three Soldiers. It is repetitive and very insistent about its guiding ideas. Compared with what other novels have told us about horrors endured by soldiers and civilians in both World Wars, the trials and problems of John Andrews and his buddies seem light. Even so, this novel was for me a great corrective to the ancient, jerky black-and-white newsreels of marching doughboys, usually accompanied by an added soundtrack of “Over There”, which we have so often seen in documentaries about the First World War. Reading Three Soldiers, I felt the hard realities of these soldier’s lives, rescuing them from historical oblivion. Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is often cited as the best-known American novel of the First World War. But Three Soldiers is a far more historically-honest account of the American experience in that war than the tough-guy romanticism of Hemingway’s novel.

One final point – Three Soldiers was a “first” in many ways. With its initial attempt to show a group of soldiers coming from different backgrounds (even if it fades into the story of one soldier), it is the ancestor of all those American war novels – such as Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead – which present a mixed company of soldiers from different parts of the USA. And how many Hollywood movies were made in the Second World War in which every company seemed to have an obligatory hilllbilly, an obligatory Jew, a rich boy, an Irish kid , a Hispanic and somebody from Brooklyn…? (No blacks, of course, because the US Army wasn’t desegregated until 1948.)

Three Soldiers also came most of a decade before the rush of novels and memoirs that debunked the war or were sceptical about it or even pacifistic. Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War (1928), Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (1929), Remarque’s Im Western Nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front) (1929), Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero (1929) etc.etc. In his attitudes, Dos Passos was ahead of them all.

Two irrelevant and silly footnotes: (a.) Here is the best deadpan joke in Three Soldiers: When John Andrews is in hospital and says he wants to read Flaubert’s La Tentation de Saint Antoine, another soldier at first thinks it’s a spicy French novel, and then asks what it’s about . Andrews replies “Oh, it’s about a man who wants everything so badly that he decides there’s nothing worth wanting.” To which the other fellow replies “I guess youse had a college education.” (Part 4, Chapter 1). Sounds like the perfect response to me.

(b.) Elsewhere in the novel, the soldier Henslowe dreams of going to various exotic places and suggests to Andrews “What do you say you and I go out to New Zealand and raise sheep?” (Part 4, Chapter 3) I guess this means that in the First World War, American doughboys saw New Zealand as a distant paradise, far from armies and battles.

Something Thoughtful

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


I recently read a book in which an idealistic person claimed to have felt “at one with nature” when recovering from a series of traumatic events, and to have been solaced by the seashore, the waves, the birds and other delightful things of nature. Who but a very insensitive person would be cynical about this? Surely we have all often been solaced by some things in nature. Surely we have all felt those moments of exultation at a beautiful sunrise or sunset; at the brillance of the stars on a fine or frosty night; at the majesty of a calm sea or the delight of sharing the universe with animals – in my case the delight of watching seals and primates who are so like us in many ways; or stately birds like the kereru; or companions like my pet cat.

But are these wonderful moments really a matter of being “at one with nature”? If nature means everything that physically exists, or even everything that we have encountered or are aware of, then surely we can make statements about being “at one with nature” only if we are very selective about those parts of nature we choose to notice – those attractive, beautiful, positive things.

For the hard fact is that nature also includes cancer, coronavirus, malaria, leprosy, diptheria, cholera, bubonic plague, ringworm, hookworm, tapeworm; natural disasters like destructive storms, volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunami, and ferocious human-eating animals. Human beings’ own actions add to what is negative, painful and destructuve in life, but none of the things I’ve listed are human-made. They are nature. Often cited as one of the nastiest phenomena in nature is that variety of ichneumon wasp that lays its eggs inside the living grasshopper which is then paralysed and, in its helplessness, slowly eaten alive by the wasp’s hatching offspring, its vital organs being eaten last of all so that the wasp spawn are not eating dead meat.

If you are really “at one with nature” when you feel exulted, calmed and healed, then you must be “at one” with all these things too.

There is nothing new in what I am saying here. Previously on this blog I have sounded off about the Disneyficationof Nature and the tendency of popular culture to varnish over the negative aspects of nature, especially when popular culture so often anthropomorphises animals. More to the point, well-known is that oft-reprinted essay Aldous Huxley wrote in 1929, “Wordsworth in the Tropics” in which he argued that William Wordsworth would have had a less benign view of nature if he had not been contemplating the dales, hills, mountains and lakes of the Lake District; but had rather confronted the tropical jungle with its leech-infested rivers, predatory crocodiles and other daunting life forms. Huxley wrote: “A voyage through the tropics would have cured him of his too easy and comfortable pantheism. A few months in the jungle would have convinced him that the diversity and utter strangeness of Nature are at least as real and significant as its intellectually discovered unity.” The “nature” that Wordsworth loved was nature that had already, at least in part, been tamed and subdued by human beings.

The harsh reality is that nature as a whole is indifferent to us, concerned neither to nurture or to destroy us. More than one commentator has noted that this was understood by ancient poets, like Homer [whoever he, she or they might have been] when he frequently repeated the same epithets such as “the wine-dark sea”, again and again, implying that nature rolls on in the same way without particularly regarding us.

The comforting idea of a benign Mother Nature – or a Gaia if you are into neo-paganism – can be accepted only if you adopt an Olympian view of human beings, regarding them [us] as being of little importance. Thus one sometimes hears cold, haughty statements such as “Coronavirus is Nature’s way of cleaning up the environment by forcing us to pollute less”, which always assumes that we are of no more importance than an amoeba.

Against the concept of benign Nature, and of being “at one” with nature, I have basically used the same argument that atheists often use against the concept of God. (I immediately think of Bertram Russell’s assertion “A visit to a children’s hospital will destroy any notions of a benign God.”) To be benign, something has to have a conscious personality. Nature does not. The idea of pantheism – that all things are God – works only if we assume that all things, put together, have a conscious personality. They do not. Besides which, if all things are God, then nothing is God.

Given all this, the concept of a transcendent God – a God above and over nature – makes far more sense than the dead end of pantheism. We human beings are part of nature, but our consciousness and awareness set us apart from nature. We are in nature, but not “at one” with it.

Some might protest “But I have experienced the wonders and joy of Nature!” I would answer “So have I – but this proves only that nature can provide us with some wonders and joys, along with much misery”.

The choice is between theism or atheism. Pantheism is merely a diversion from this choice.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Something New

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


“RIPIRO BEACH – A Memoir of Life After Near Death” by Caroline Barron  (Bateman Books, $NZ 34:99)

In 2011, Caroline Barron nearly died while giving birth to her second daughter. She haemorrhaged so copiously that she lost consciousness and had to have an emergency hysterectomy. As she kept haemorrhaging, more blood was pumped into her, and bled out of her, than her body could carry. It took a long time for the situation to stabilise and she only just survived the crisis.

The event altered her life in many ways – not only in terms of the long recovery from the physical danger, but also in terms of the way Caroline Barron saw herself. Despite having a stable home with a caring husband and two healthy young daughters, she went through periods of deep depression and of behaving in erratic ways, losing her temper and, later in her story, forgetting things. The situation worsened years after the first medical crisis when she experienced severe pain in her back and underwent an operation for a pinched nerve.

Was there something genetically wrong with her? And if so, had she inherited this defect from her forebears? But she did not know who all her forebears were. Years before her father, David Barley, had died of a heart attack when he was only fifty. Her mother had already told her that her father had been adopted, but she did not know who her biological paternal grandparents were. So she set out searching in archives and seeking out people who might know. She discovered that her biological grandmother, Linette, had given her father away to adoption when she was eighteen. Linette had apparently then lived a turbulent and promiscuous life and had later committed suicide. Medical records revealed she had a tumour in her frontal lobe. Writing throughout in the present tense, Caroline Barron says:  “I begin to wonder if some of Linette’s traits have hurled themselves down the generations to Dad and me.” (p.48) She began to feel weighted down by this information, and re-considered how much control she had over her own life – indeed how much control any of us have over our own lives – in the face of our genetic inheritance:

When I stand back I can see, logically, how circumstance and trauma impacted on Linette’s life – the root, perhaps, of the depression for which she’d begun taking pills, surely exacerbated by the unknown tumour in her brain. But where does that leave choice? Where does that leave a person’s decency, their knowledge of what is good and right? If I’m truthful, the more I find out about Linette, the more undone I become. If that was Linette, and there is a quarter of her in me, what does that make me?” (p.52)

When she further searches her father’s genealogy, matters become even bleaker. Her biological grandfather, Montague Stanaway, the man who seduced her unmarried biological grandmother, also led a turbulent life. When he died, Monty Stanaway was serving time in Mt. Eden jail for a vicious assault. The cause of his death was a congenital heart problem and, like Caroline Barron’s father, he had died relatively young. Barron feels some sympathy for this unhappy and bullying man, because he had clearly gone through a very rough time as a soldier in the Second World War, and may have been suffering a variety of long-term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Again, he had a medical condition which she might have inherited. But there is another matter that interests her when she traces out Monty Stanaway’s ancestry and she comes across a particular name: “I take a breath and sink into my chair. Witaparene Minarapa, I whisper. That’s a Maori name. There is a rippling low in my stomach, as if a river stone has been skimmed across the surface.” (p.56) She has discovered for the first time that she has some Maori ancestry, even if it was four generations away. Witaparene Minarapa was one of her eight great-great-grandmothers.

At certain points in this “Memoir of a Life After Near Death”, Caroline Barron pauses to take stock of the things that have shaken her, both her medical afflictions and the things she has learnt about her forebears. Mourning the death of her best friend Caro, suffering from deep depression, fatigue and a general malaise, she writes: “If someone had asked me at that moment what was wrong, what caused me to be this way, I’d reel off a list, the layers of earth and sand and clay that are burying me: losing a friend; losing a uterus and a piece of my back; nearly bleeding out on the operating table; finding out that in my bloodline there is suicide, brain tumours, heart disease, early death and violence; being Maori but not knowing what the hell to do with that. There are too many things to process so it is easier to remain buried beneath, digging out a pocket of air around my mouth and nose so that I can breathe, but only just.” (p.139) Later she writes: “Suicide, heart disease, violence, a jail sentence, mental illness – all of these, my birth grandparents’ stories, had become laid in tracing paper over my own life. Somehow that external journal had melded with the internal pain and fear I’d been feeling.” (p.165)

Yet this memoir refuses to be a tale of woe. Among other things, Barron is aware that what we are is not only the result of genetic inheritance. In a way, she raises the old conundrum of “nature versus nurture” as she compares her biological grandfather with her adoptive grandfather (i.e. her father’s adoptive father): “I feel around my mind and heart to see how much of Montague’s is inside me, and it makes me uneasy to think this man – this broken veteran, this criminal – is my blood grandfather. I know he’s in me – his genes a drop of cochineal in water – but there is someone else, an antidote, bleaching away the red. It is Grandpa, my lovely Grandpa, I think. George Colin Barley. It is he who has influenced me and who is part of the person I have become.” (p.102)

Ripiro Beach also follows her recovery and reconciliation with herself, partly through medical science and partly through finding a new way of looking at life. She finds it a relief to be told that she is suffering from PTSD – that, in effect, all her anxieties and malaise spring from her traumatic experience in the maternity hospital. She finds, and benefits from, a sympathetic therapist. She agonises over whether she should or should not take a course of anti-depressants. She learns te reo and she joins a writing class. Throughout all this, too, there is the support of her husband and of her two young daughters.

In the last third of this memoir, however, it is her search to connect with her distant Maori ancestry and its culture that dominates. This involves finding a bach up north, getting to know Ripiro Beach and the Hokianga Harbour, conversing with local people, and finding whatever traces she can of the life of her great-great-grandmother Witaparene Minarapa by hearing oral histories and searching gravestones.

Ripiro Beach is a sincere, well-written and very savvy memoir. It is her own experience that Caroline Barron is recording, so a reader cannot quarrel with her testimony that she found peace in contemplating nature, in walking Ripiro Beach and in searching out the Maori part of her ancestry, though logic says that only one of her 16 great-great-grandparents was Maori. Presumably the othef 15 were not. Whatever ancestral traces there are in her are overwhlemingly not Maori. Why, then, is this part of her genetic line so important to her? Was it the fact that she had to search for it to discover it in the first place? Or does she connect Maoritanga to a special sort of “spirituality”? I really don’t know, although I do know that I found some of her lyricism in the later parts of this memoir, and some of her spiritual discoveries, a little over-written.

 But if I raise this minor criticism, I fully endorse Barron’s sense of perspective.  Before and after her major painful experience, she enjoyed a relatively affluent life (she had run a model-agency and her husband was in advertising) and lived in one of the more desirable parts of Auckland. She is fully aware  that her suffering was neither unique nor the worst that anybody could suffer, but it was real suffering neverthelss. She writes: : “Attaching the PTSD label to my experience legitimised what I had been through. I realise I cannot compare my experience of trauma to that of Montague on the battlefield, or of Holocaust survivors, but it is legitimate, and it almost unmade me in the same way it would have them. Everyone’s pain is valid, but not comparable. Hers over there is no less painful than his, or hjers, or mine. Trauma doesn’t take into consideration your family, or job, or household income.” (p.267)

Well said. And the voice of wisdom from experience.