Monday, July 20, 2020

Something New

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

“DANCE PRONE” by David Coventry (Victoria University of Wellington Press,  $NZ35)

            Do you have to be an expert in punk-rock music to appreciate David Coventry’s second novel Dance Prone? If so, then I would be totally excluded. All I know of punk-rock comes from seeing films such as Sid and Nancy and The Great Rock and Roll Swindle back in the 1980s when I was a film reviewer; and they dealt with the British variety of punk, not the American variety that concerns Dance Prone. David Coventry makes some references to real punk-rock groups about which I know nothing. The novel probably has some in-references that I don’t get. Even so, I don’t feel excluded. After all, I don’t know much about cycling as a sport, but I had no difficulty reading and admiring Coventry’s first novel The Invisible Mile [see review below] concerning the Tour de France in the 1920s. In both, it’s the author’s skill and ability to create a sense of immediacy that makes for readability, and Dance Prone is not only about punk-rock any more than The Invisible Mile was only about cycle racing.

The two novels have much in common. Both are told in the first-person. In both, the narrator is a man who has to spend much time trying to come to terms with traumatic things in his past. In both, the narrator is somebody whose mind is often disoriented by the ingestion of drugs and alcohol. Both also feature gruelling journeys – in this case, the punk-rock band travelling from gig to gig, mainly in the south-west of the USA, in 1985; and then, in later years, the journeys of the main character to out-of-the-way places like New Zealand and North Africa. Across its 400–odd pages, Dance Prone disrupts linear time and jumps between 1985 and the early 21st century, with chapters ranging from 2002 to 2020. In other words, we see the main characters in their 20s and then ageing into their 40s and 50s. Ageing and memory are key preoccupations of this novel, as they fittingly are for an author who is now in his fifties and who, reportedly, was himself once part of the punk scene.

In 1985, the narrator Con (Conrad Wells) plays in a punk-rock band called Neues Bauen which sometimes shares gigs with other groups called Spurn Cock and Rhinosaur. He’s frontman, guitarist and vocalist. Others in the group are Spence (Spencer Finchman), Tone (Tony Seburg), Angel, and sometimes a Leo Brodkey. All are apparently American except for the New Zealander Tone. All are of college age, with some of them dropped out of degree courses, and some trying to keep up with study; so there’s a bit of intellectual conversation when they’re not drunk, doped or hung-over. As Con says  “we’re nerds practising like retards, so we can be as loose as the shits” (p.12).  These punks are more middle-class than the earlier British working-class kids who kicked off the original punk-rock. Tone’s sister Sonya and occasionally a girl called Vicki follow the band and its fortunes – sort of groupies, but sharp enough to be not only that.

The punk-rock lifestyle is not varnished for us. The novel’s opening eight pages give us the grunt and sweat and loud and provocative performance and destructive stunts of the band on stage, and the Dionysian fever and violence of the audience. The band plays to  “students and badass scene kids crazed on trucker speed and bourbon” (p.43). Fights routinely break out as people smash bottles and try to jump on stage. Blood, sweat and snot fly around. Grot and dirt are trademarks of the milieu. Between gigs, the band travel in a cramped van which, we are told, reeks of pizza, unwashed clothes, rust and the smell of semen left over from casual sex or masturbation. Sex is usually confrontational at least, and often verging on the violent. Sometimes there’s the suggestion that this environment adds up to a collective madness. Very late in the novel Tone declares, of the bad things that have happened in their lives, that “Everything happens when we’re all together” (p.353). Folie-a-deux multiplied a bit. Some conventional critiques of the music (of any genre of music!) crop up. In later years, Tone has moved from indie recording and is for a while commercially successful when the others aren’t – suggesting some sort of sell-out. As in all human groups, there are pecking orders and pretensions (a sort of inverse snobbery) in the punk scene. Vicki tells Con “You despise everyone who’s not listening to whatever record, then you hate them for uncooling it if they do.” (p.14) Yep, even I have crossed paths with this sort of snobbery and superiority among devotees of pop, rock, punk, funk, rap, cult movies or whatever.

A novel has to have a narrative thread – and Dance Prone assuredly has one. As we learn in the opening chapters, one night when he is doped and drugged and out of it, Con is raped anally in the group’s van. On the same night Tone shoots himself (outwards) through his cheek, mutilating his face but not killing himself. Who raped Con? Why did Tone shoot? As the novel develops we also learn of the multiple rape of a girl called Miriam, what appears to have been a suicide and other things not resolved. Unsavoury things happen to, or are perpetrated by, Tone, Angel and Spence. Con’s attempts to find out who raped him, and what actually happened to the others, are the novel’s narrative thread, compounded later when Con has to search for Tone, who has gone missing.

But this is not primarily a mystery story. Dance Prone is as concerned to analyse punk as a cultural and intellectual phenomenon. Somehow punk rock is a search for either an ultimate experience or for oblivion, which could be the same thing. Often Con tries to articulate what exactly punk seeks to achieve, with generalised statements about the genre such as:

This is the thing about punk rock, it can have intellectuals and mental defects, criminal, upper-class toffs and working class pugilists on the same stage, hunting down that one elusive spark amongst the violence. That one thing said out loud and right into the world’s face: there is a way beyond this. (p.140)

Even when he deplores those who come to gigs just to smash things up, he still tries to place punk in an historical-cultural context:

You can tell a prick by the way they dress, the way they show up at a gig and they’re all in your face because they believe punk’s about smashing someone for the sake of a brawl. But punk has nothing to do with fighting. I mean. Look at us. Nerds lost on the way to class, scoundrels with fast fingers. Skinny butts and weak arms. But we’re also liable to fuck anyone who will have us. Punk was never about destruction, it was about reconstruction. The destruction had already taken place. It was all around us. This was us in the aftermath, conforming in the way that seemed right.” (p.147)

But in later years, as he listens to new music the reunified group has recorded, he wonders whether punk ever reached the status of a true critique, or whether it merely compounded chaos:

I always wanted to make music that was as confused as I was. As fucked. You know. I only know that now. Not as confused, that enacted how confused I was. Like I didn’t want to make music that sounded like sex; I wanted to make music as an abstract of how confusing sex is. But now, I don’t know: this record sounds like rutting and I don’t know.” (p.184)

Was punk of this middle-class, college-boy variety reaching for a new sort of religion? Did it have a theological content? The evidence is ambiguous. The sheer noise was there to exclude the wider world, to reduce everything to the immediate moment – all the past, all the cultural baggage, obliterated in movement and a collective howl. In Chapter 29, someone expresses the view that getting tattooed – as Con and others do - and fighting at punk gigs are really a cult means of accepting performed pain to block out the real pain of the world. Isn’t this what many religions do? In Dance Prone there are long episodes where members of Neues Bauen mingle with the exlusivist, alternative-lifestyle group headed by the older woman Joan George-Warren, with her ideas of repeated archetypes where we have no free will and we are locked into endless repetition of the same forms, a concept very like Nietzsche’s “eternal return”.  Joan George-Warren encourages her acolytes to act out the rituals of worship from all religions. Is this an attempt to reach an ultimate form of religion? Or is it merely an attempt to get a physical kick like a chemical high – a short cut to ecstasy? Similar ambiguity hangs over the later sections of the novel, where a huge art-work in the Atlas Mountains in North Africa could be seen as atonement or as an expression of hubristic egotism.

Whatever theories there may be about forms endlessly repeating, for the individual there is the relentless march of linear time, no matter how much this novel defies it. We get older. Memory fades or becomes jumbled and deceptive. Legends are created. Con becomes more aware of his age. In 2019, when he’s in his 50s,  Con is accosted by some young toughs in Wellington and describes them as “these people not yet born the last time I was willing to get a tooth knocked out.” (p.199) Con also knows that his memory is damaged. Is this the result of trauma? Has he wilfully blotted out things he doesn’t want to think about? [Iconoclastically, I also wonder if all the punk-lifestyle consumption of drugs and booze has had something to do with it.] So memory can’t be trusted.

In 2019, Con sees videos of himself performing in 1985 and is shocked at the disparity between the event as he has remembered it and the event as coldly and objectively recorded. He stresses over whether he was, back then, as good a musician as he thought he was. Perhaps Tone or Spence knew more about musical technique than he did. Tone’s sister Sonya, who gradually becomes more important in Con’s life, quotes Vicki on the topic of memory: “She said how all memories, they’re always on the go…. They’re always subject to incessant adjustment… We don’t ever notice that a memory’s altered, cos it always looks the same to us… The good news about this is that memory can’t ever signify reality, not with any degree of precision. It’s ridiculous, but I find this such a relief…” (p.249)

I hope I am not carping when I suggest that there is an over-long spinning-out of dark secrets in the last quarter of the novel. We understand that all the sorry testimony Con eventually hears could, in fact, be as flawed as his own memories. Even so, this could have been conveyed more concisely. But that’s the one major negative I can say about Dance Prone. This is as complex and complete a novel as David Coventry’s debut was. It’s one thing to hold together a large cast of characters, as Coventry does. It’s even more of an achievement to engage readers who have no particular interest in punk-rock and its consequences, and to make the musicianship of punk-rock vivid and interesting. Coventry does this too, and in the process reveals the ambiguity of the genre. Ambiguity hangs over even the domestic peace that Con eventually seems to have found. Definitive peace of mind remains elusive.

Footnotes: Here are a few incidental little things that I wondered about in Dance Prone.

The word “adultescent” (on p.61) was a new one on me, but if it means what I think it means – being an adult but acting or thinking like a teenager – then I might appropriate it in future. Or does it mean being a teenager and acting or thinking like an adult? Tell me please.
Does the cover photo of a cactus also suggests a raised middle-finger - like punk-rock gesturing to the world?

            The title of the book. What exactly does Dance Prone mean? I know from the text that it’s the title of a number Con’s group performs. Beyond that, it could signal the way punk-rock makes people prone to dancing (or fighting) rather than reflecting passively. Or could it have a more sinister meaning? In the early episode when Tone shoots himself and is crawling, wounded, on the ground, Con describes him as “jerking… his prone, haemorrhaging figure” (p.18). If you “dance prone” could it mean you’re playing with death? Or is this one of the occasions where I’ve missed an in-reference? Please inform me if I have.

Then, inevitably, there are the names characters are given. Possibly Con is a wilfully unreliable narrator – in which case Con is a con. Is Tone called Tone because he sets the tone of the music? And did the author choose the name Joan George-Warren for his older cultish guru because he was inspired by Holly George-Warren, who wrote the biography of Janis Joplin? Probably not. Reviewers and critics can often over-think things and seek clues to the author’s meaning in unlikely places. Sometimes a cigar is only a cigar, and sometimes a name in a novel is only a name.

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To round things off, I reproduce below the review I wrote, for the NZ Listener, of David Coventry’s first novel The Invisible Mile when it appeared in 2015. Reviews for general-interest magazines tend to be brief, terse and lacking in nuance. If I had had more space I would have analysed The Invisible Mile in more detail, but I present the review unaltered from the form in which it appeared in the Listener (in the issue of 13 June 2015, to be precise).

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            The Tour de France in 1928, with most riders on fixed-wheel cycles that lack modern gearing systems. 5,476 bone-shaking kilometres around the map of France, south-west from Paris down through Brest and Bordeaux, over the unsealed and perilous mountain roads of the Pyrenees, along the Mediterranean coast and back north near the edge of the French Alps.

            There are punctures, crashes, spills, cracked wheels, non-functioning brakes, handle-bars and whole cycles twisted out of shape, bruises, abrasions, open wounds, broken bones, fights between cranky and overwrought riders and frequently the peril of death on the open road.  There is exhaustion, nausea, sleeplessness, rivalry between teams, and some cheating.

            If David Coventry’s vivid debut novel were only about the sport of cycling, it would be one of the most gruelling novels about a sport ever written in New Zealand. But it is quite a bit more than this. 1928 was the year the first-ever English-speaking team competed in the Tour de France. They were three Australians and one New Zealander. To this (historical) team, Coventry adds a (fictitious) fifth member, the novel’s first-person narrator, a bloke from Taranaki.

            The novel is as much about the narrator’s consciousness as it is about the great sports event.

            The narrator reflects on “Frenchmen who believed our presence to be an amusement of some cruel kind.” He reflects on money matters and sponsorship and how teams are arranged and the inequity of it all. He reflects wistfully on churches and cathedrals at various stops, and how they offer a kind of security he wishes he could feel. But most of all, he reflects on his own troubled family background.

            Note, it’s exactly ten years after the Great War. The narrator’s elder brother served in the war and was psychologically damaged by it. At the time, the narrator was comfortably in New Zealand. There’s another family trauma that emerges. Guilt is a huge theme in the narrator’s thoughts. And it gets worse as the Tour approaches its final stages through France’s north-east, where villages still lie in ruins from the war. The very sight of them clangs on the narrator’s nervous system. We sense a grand metaphor in this novel. Participation in the Tour de France is, for the main character, an act of atonement. It is about endurance and survival rather than winning, just as the war was.

            How the narrator expresses himself is often poetic, occasionally almost surreal. But then this is in an age before drug testing. Coaches routinely give cyclists cocaine to pick them up before the day’s cycling begins. The hero, via a mysterious woman who floats in and out of the novel, relaxes with opium in the evenings, as well as downing huge quantities of red wine. One could say that it’s no wonder he gets poetic as exhaustion wrenches at his brain. But this would be to underrate the deftness of David Coventry’s way with words, the pungency of his images, the visceral sense of historical reality.
            A truly extraordinary first novel.

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.


            Last “Something Old” posting, Everything You Need to Know About the Novels of Dan Davin Part One, I vented my views on the first four published novels of Dan Davin (1913-1990) viz. Cliffs of Fall (1945), For the Rest of Our Lives (1947), Roads From Home (1949) and The Sullen Bell (1956). I made it clear that I was reacting against much academic criticism, which tends to over-think and over-analyse texts. This is not a wholesale assault on academe – there are, after all, a few members of humanities departments who know what a valid assessment of a novel really entails. But it is an assault on the publish-or-perish culture which sees the scramble to produce redundant, sterile analytical critiques, written in the pursuit of tenure and published in small-circulation, subsidised academic journals. And so often such critiques express themselves in a mandarin vocabulary that renders them largely unreadable. I have given my view that the best critics are more concise, and lead readers back to reading the book in question… or wisely advise readers against wasting their time with a book. So, with my truthful blunt hammer approach, I continue with my opinionated views, in line with the arrogant heading I have given to this posting.

            Here are my views on Dan Davin’s last three novels.

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            First published in 1959, No Remittance is a departure for Davin in a number of ways. It is his first novel to be written in the first-person, being the memoirs of an old man looking back on over half a century of his life. In the process he ticks off, as background, the influence on New Zealand of such historical moments as the Boer War, the rivalry of the Liberal and Reform parties, the First World War, the “Spanish” influenza epidemic, the economic slump in the early 1920s, the Great Depression, the rise of the Labour Party and the Second World War. No Remittance is picaresque in what is now the generally-accepted sense: a series of events, very episodic and connected mainly by one character. But it is picaresque in the older sense, too – the main character is a “picaro”, or rogue, whose first-person narration often consists of very questionable self-justifications for the dodgy things he has done. The classic “unreliable narrator”. At least, that is how the novel begins, but the tone of voice is very inconsistent, for in some central sections the narrator makes many observations which (judging from all his other works) the author Dan Davin would have approved.

            As a young man in about 1900, the Englishman Richard Kane is kicked out of an architect’s firm in London after he has embezzled money. He is sent to New Zealand, and proceeds to try to seduce both the wife and the daughter of the Auckland architect who tries to mentor him. Again dismissed, he moves to Wellington and is once again discredited when he is involved in a shady political scheme. He scarpers to Dunedin, and puts his hopes on a company which crashes and deprives him of the little money he had. All the while, he blames his misfortunes solely on “bad luck” and on other people’s censorious decisions. And, well-coiffed and well-dressed he, as an Englishman, continues to regard himself as a notch above the uncouth colonials.

            About a quarter of the way through the novel, he meets the Irish-Catholic chambermaid Norah O’Connor, a forthright and practical young woman who nurses him when he is sick. They fall in love (even though Richard Kane is having an affair with another woman) and they plan to marry. Richard is a man of no particular religious beliefs but he vaguely identifies as Protestant, so he is very wary of Norah’s Catholicism. And Norah’s mother is very wary of him, seeing all Englishmen and Black Protestants as the enemy of the Irish race. Still, marry they do, and they take on a small and not very promising farm… and here we are again in the same territory as in Cliffs of Fall and Roads from Home – a version of the tight, Irish-Catholic community of Southland, near Invercargill. It is Dan Davin’s point of origin, although the novel is mainly set a generation or so before his time.

            Most of No Remittance chronicles Norah and Richard’s marriage over the best part of thirty years, and it is here that the tone of narration changes. Richard is a rather negligent farmer. He does go to the pub a little too often, he loafs sometimes and he has the occasional daydream about the great and important man he should have been. For his superior English ways, it is Norah who calls him “a remittance man without a remittance”. But for all his faults, he does nothing particularly rascally in the long central sections of the novel. Only very late in the text does he cheat (once) on his wife and become an angry and (sometimes) violent man when the booze really grips him.

It is in this middle section that the narrator often says things about New Zealand’s Irish-Catholic community which Davin would have endorsed – on the fervent religiosity of the women (not the men); on the gossip of the rural community and the way one is always being watched and judged; on the Catholic education that Norah insists on the children having; on the destructive side of the booze culture (personified in a character known as “Mad” Tim Mannion); and, perhaps especially, on the issue of birth control. As a Catholic, Norah will not countenance using it, while Richard chafes at the fact that they therefore have an increasing number of children to feed. Dan Davin may be waxing a tiny bit autobiographical when he gives the name Dan to a returned Irish-Catholic soldier who has given up on all this religious stuff.

And yet… and yet. Like Norah Hogan in Roads from Home, Norah O’Connor is a strong and resilient woman who (as we can see even through Richard’s obfuscating narrative) is the real force keeping the family together and doing all the hard work that needs to be done. The narrator dislikes all the keening and praying and lamentations that Irish-Catholics indulge in, in the face of misfortune or death. But (like Ned Hogan at the funeral in in Roads from Home) he comes to realize how this sustains the deprived and often impoverished community. He also notes how ready members of this tribe are to help one another. And in the end, Richard is resigned to being part of this community himself. In short, through this ambiguous narration, Davin also suggests what was positive in his own background.

The novel also satirises the pomposity of the self-deceiving Englishman who tells the story. Dan Davin might have rejected the tribe he came from, but he wasn’t going to have a snotty Pommie making fun of it. It’s the old story. I’m allowed to criticise my own family – but I’ll defend them if an outsider tries to do the same thing.

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In the fourteen years between 1945 and 1959, Dan Davin had produced five novels (even if the first one had been written years earlier), a volume of short stories and New Zealand’s official history of the Crete campaign. This was quite an impressive literary output, given that he was not a full-time writer but spent most of his working life as a publisher and editor for Oxford University Press. But after 1959, his literary output dried up. It was over a decade after No Remittance before his next novel Not Here, Not Now appeared in 1970, and most commentators see this, and the novel that was to follow, as a postscript to Davin’s best work.

Not Here, Not Now is a fictionalised version of Davin’s student years at the University of Otago in the mid-1930s. Martin Cody, Southlander, from an Irish-Catholic family, with a working-class Dad, is a bright, hard-working and prize-winning student who hopes to gain a Rhodes Scholarship. But obstacles stand in his way. He is sometimes distracted in his studies by his love life with various women, but mainly with Delia Egan who, at least in the earlier parts of the novel, is more sophisticated than he is. It takes him some time to realize how he must cultivate the right people – generally meaning people from a higher social class than he – if he is to win the big prize. Most damagingly, he is caught up in a scandal which derails his first nomination for the Rhodes. A neurotic young woman writes lurid things about him in her diary, and her mother has some influence with the university board. Only a year later, on his second nomination, does Martin win the award and the novel ends with him sailing off to Oxford. The title Not Here, Not Now has an obvious double meaning. The phrase is used more that once when Delia Egan is telling Martin that now is not the time to canoodle or make love; but it also refers to Martin’s first rebuff by the committee which chooses Rhodes scholars.

Dan Davin was an unsuccessful candidate for the Rhodes in 1934, but was successful in 1935. Like Martin Cody, his strong suit was Classics and his first shot at the Rhodes was blocked by scandalous gossip about him. It’s interesting to note, too, that as a student he wrote a short story called “Prometheus”, published in an Otago university magazine in 1935, which was partly about working on the wharves. (The story is republished in Janet Wilson’s edition of The Gorse Blooms Pale – Dan Davin’sSouthland Stories.) In Not Here, Not Now, this same story is reworked in a late chapter where Martin Cody does holiday work on the wharves.

Like For the Rest of Our Lives and The Sullen Bell, this novel is a mine of documentary detail. It presents clearly an era when university students were under firm discipline. There is an official student censor to remove controversial items from the student magazine (Martin Cody is one of the editors, as Dan Davin was). This is just post-Depression, when there is still fear of “red” radicalism on campus. Professors do not hesitate to give students advice on morality and how they should live their lives. The love lives of students tend to be closely monitored and those students, like Martin Cody, who are determined to lose their virginity have a hard time finding out about the taboo subject of contraception. There is also a very strong sense of hierarchy and propriety – hence all the wealthier and more upper-middle-class members of society whom Martin has to smooth down in order to gain support for his Rhodes nomination. A specifically Dunedin aspect of the novel is the Presbyterian influence, with the theological students of Knox College having a strong presence. Martin’s own original tribe are the Catholic students and their social clubs, although he only goes through the motions of being religious. Near the end, there is a scene where conservative and left-wing students react differently to the 1935 election of the first Labour government.

Regrettably, the historically-interesting documentary detail does not, of itself, make for an interesting novel. The style of Not Here, Not Now is flat, plodding and self-expository. The text is padded out with redundant conversations.The novel has none of the sharp concision of Roads From Home or even No Remittance. It is as if Davin is determined to chronicle every detail of his student life, every idea that students discussed, every erotic impulse he felt (even if most came to nothing) and every rebuff he suffered. The blurb of Davin’s next (and final) novel Brides of Price says that Davin had been intending to write Not Here, Not Now, as part of a “trilogy”, since 1939. While this might possibly be true, Not Here, Not Now is a man in his late 50s settling the score over things that happened 35 years earlier. Davin had lived far from New Zealand for nearly all those 35 years, and it was clear that his set image of New Zealand belonged to an age that was long past.

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And so to Davin’s last novel, Brides of Price, published in 1972. It is the only novel Davin wrote that is largely set where he spent over half his life, Oxford University. Like No Remittance it is written in the first person. Adam Mahon is a professor of anthropology, in his late fifties (as Davin was at time of writing) and struggling to complete a book, but also trying to avoid being promoted to head of department. He does not want the burden of extra administrative duties. Some of the novel concerns academic manouevres about who will take the department over; and who backs which candidate. In this respect, it is the professor’s-eye-view of how a university works, as opposed to the student’s-eye-view chronicled in Not Here, Not Now.

But Adam Mahon spends most of his time thinking about other matters – meaning all the woman he has loved or bedded, he having been a very active Lothario. His marriage to the efficient and officious publisher Amy is breaking up, even if they are cordial about it and equally concerned for their grown daughter Isabel. He is having an ongoing affair with Ruth, a much younger academic. Often he thinks of Mary, now dead, whom he might have married in the long ago and sometimes considers wistfully to have been his one true love, even if he never agreed with her immature leftist ideas (yet again Davin takes a crack at Marxism as a substitute religion). And then, on a trip to Auckland, he meets an old flame called Daphne, and finds he is connected to her more than he realised.

How Davin knits all these characters together is both glib and convenient to his plot, with an incredibly neat conclusion in which children are reconciled, motives are explained, and there is a marriage. It reads like the wrap-up of a novel that has been meandering.

The first-person narration is a bit of a problem. As with No Remittance, we are unsure how much this narrator is meant to be interpreted as unreliable, and how much he is Davin’s mouthpiece. Making Adam Mahon an anthropologist allows him to comment on kinship systems and marriage customs and how they relate to his own messy love-life; and in the process, much of this comes across as pompous self-justification. Adam is also able to dissect Amy’s wealthy Australian family and Mary’s landed-gentry Scottish family in terms of their tribalism and traditions. How much does Davin know about anthropology? Perhaps not much, as he has Adam Mahon going to Australia to write a paper on Aborginies and then hopping over to New Zealand to write a paper on Maori, making the assumption that anthropologists base their conclusions on fleeting visits and superficial field-work. At other times, however, Adam Mahon’s “grumpy old man” persona seems aligned to Davin’s own views. He spends an awful lot of time in the pub mulling over what is wrong with the younger generation, in terms that (fifty years after the novel’s publication) now seem quaint. In fact, though Davin hadn’t yet hit 60, this reads very much like an old man’s book, sometimes musing on death.

As always with Davin there is an element of autobiography. Adam Mahon comes from Southland NZ and fought at Monte Cassino. How much Adam’s love-life echoes Davin’s, I do not know. Some years ago I read Keith Ovenden’s biography of Davin A Fighting Withdrawal, but I do not have it with me to check the details. What I do know is that Davin was happily married to Winifred (Winnie) Gonley from 1939 to his death in 1990 and they had three daughters; but during the war Davin also had an affair with Elizabeth Bernt, which produced another daughter. Winnie magnanimously accepted this other daughter into the family. Just possibly the child born out of wedlock inspired one major plot-point in Brides of Price. And just possibly Dan Davin had had as varied a sex life as Adam Mahon (or Martin Cody in Not Here, Not Now). But spend too long on such speculations and you reduce any novel to psychiatric notes about the author.

Judging Brides of Price itself, regardless of its inspiration, it is, like Not Here, Not Now, heavy-handed and too obviously expository in its prose. But at least it was Davin’s attempt to deal with an environment – Oxford – that was far from New Zealanders, even if there are some scenes set in Auckland and even if some nostalgia creeps in.

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And that, 18 years before he died, was the end of Davin’s career as novelist. In 1975, he did produce his memoir Closing Times, about literary figures he had known; and he did gather together a second collection of short stories, Breathing Spaces. But it is well documented that the last decade of his life, punctuated by the occasional short story, was consumed in depression and ill health.

Reviewing Keith Ovenden’s biography of Davin, Vincent O’Sullivan wrote of him (in New Zealand Books, Autumn 1996). “Once the war concluded, he believed himself obliged to play over and over the events of his New Zealand years, while his day-to-day life was vastly committed to other things, in other places. As time went by, he overvalued his ear for an increasingly distant vernacular, assumed nostalgia was perhaps closer to creativity than it is and surely restricted himself as a novelist as a consequence of that.” This seems a just estimate of Davin’s novels. Rather more dismissively, Lawrence Jones (in the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature) took Davin as an example of “the inherent limitation of the expatriate drawing on a diminishing capital of youthful experience”. Although all Davin’s novels were written far from New Zealand, fully four of them (Cliffs of Fall, Roads From Home, No Remittance and Not Here, Not Now) are set in New Zealand and are increasingly detached from the New Zealand that actually existed at the time Davin was writing. Two others concern New Zealanders in other countries, at war (For the Rest of Our Lives) and in London (The Sullen Bell). Only one (Brides of Price) tries, clumsily, to break the mould.

In the end, how do I rate Davin’s novels? Cliffs of Fall is botched apprentice work. For the Rest of Our Lives and The Sullen Bell survive on their documentary detail. Of interest to historians, they tell us much about New Zealanders as they once were, but are clumsy as narratives. Not Here, Not Now and Brides of Price are the limp ending to Davin as novelist. The only two novels that still hold up very well stylistically and as narrative, are Roads From Home, Davin’s very best novel, and No Remittance, even if it repeats much of the material of Roads From Home. These two alone sustain Dan Davin’s reputation as novelist… but on balance I think he will continue to be remembered most for his short stories, many of which are among the best New Zealand has produced.

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.


A few weeks back, my wife and I did something that we had not done for nearly 16 years, when I was still a film reviewer and we sometimes spent whole days watching movies at the International Film Festival. We went to the local art house and watched three movies one after the other. In part, this was our knee-jerk reaction now that lock-down is (apparently) over and cinemas are open once again.

 One was the documentary Water Lilies of Monet – The Magic of Water and Light. We enjoyed it, but found parts of it (ironically) a little too “arty”, especially when it went into re-enactments, with voice-over, of Monet’s life. There’s that odd phenomenon, too, that such documentaries, with their shots of real locations that inspired works of art, often have the perverse effect of belittling the art itself. Let me not be churlish, however. It was a delight to see so many images of Monet’s work about the Seine, even before he began specialising in water lilies; and I admit to being enlightened by the film’s account of Monet’s close friendship with the politician Clemenceau, a relationship of which I had been quite ignorant. Another non-French film with a French theme was Resistance, purporting to dramatise the life of Marcel Marceau during the Second World War. Regrettably it was rubbish. Marceau, destined to become the world’s most famous mime artist, was a genuine hero and humanitarian who did work in the French Resistance and did save the lives of many Jewish children who were in danger of deportation to death camps. Certainly his life deserves celebrating. But the film was hyped up with Hollywood tropes and sensationalism, melodramatic scenes that never happened (such as Marceau’s confrontation with Klaus Barbie) and ridiculous dialogue. A story that could have made a good documentary was instead turned into formulaic nonsense.

But the third movie was the real subject of this editorial, which I have delayed mentioning because of my discursive (read – waffling) ways. 

D.W. Young’s documentary The Booksellers consists largely of interviews with mainly American and mainly New York (but also a few British) second-hand booksellers – or as they prefer to be known, antiquarian booksellers. In part, it was about the eccentricity of these (overwhelmingly elderly) people, many of whom drifted into the trade either because they inherited it or simply because they loved the sight and the feel and the smell of old books. One or two  - included a man who must be a multi-millionaire – inherited huge libraries of valuable first editions and there was much talk about their monentary value. Information was given about the hundreds of thousands – and in some cases millions – of dollars that have been paid at auctions for Shakespeare folios, early editions of Don Quixote, and signed copies of other classics. There were also the dealers with niche markets in books on geography or cartography or science fiction or Beat poets or what have you.

An interesting point made by one interviewee (there were no subtitles to identify any of them) was that, no matter how monetarily valuable many books are, they never earn the tens-of-millions of dollars that are paid for some paintings. An artwork is a unique thing, while even a valuable book (unless it is a codex or manuscript) has been replicated in the print-run that produced it.

Yet, apart from the enthusiasm of one or two youngsters in the trade, there was an undertone of anxiety to this film. Many of New York’s well-established and once well-patronised second-hand booksellers have closed down and the whole trade model is shrinking. Some of the interviewees say that what once sustained their business were the browsers who simply came to look and might perhaps discover something that interested them. There also used to be the joy of the hunt. Some buyers would be in search of a rare book that had eluded them for years; and the joy of finding that rare book was what motivated them. Now all manner of rare books are sold on the internet. Hello Amazon. Those who seek a particular rare book can now find it at the press of a key. The joy of the hunt has gone and antiquarian bookshops are dying.

I know at first hand the allure of second-hand-bookshops here in New Zealand, because it was once my regular weekend pastime to trawl through them. I have never been in search of rare or valuable books – partly because I have never had the money to buy such items, but mainly because I was always in search of things I actually wanted to read, regardless of the tattered or cheap-edition form in which I bought them. For me, it is the contents of books that are paramount, not the presentation, much as I like viewing and handling old books with their firm board covers and marbled end-papers and deckled edges and superseded typefaces.

I was well-acquainted with the type of mileu that was made into such good comedy in the British sitcom Black Books 20-odd years ago. Many of the proprietors really were people who seemed more interested in reading at their desk than in selling books, and who could be grumpy with buying customers for disturbing their peace. But many of the shops I used to visit have disappeared. There used to be five second-hand bookshops in central Auckland. There are now only two, and one of them is exclusively for those seeking very expensive editions (so not for me). The massive Hard-to-Find-But-Worth-the-Effort bookshop that used to be in Onehunga has now down-sized and moved to the inner-city suburb of Newton. There used to be three second-hand bookshops in Devonport. There is now one, and it is half the size it used to be. Selling second-hand books was always a precarious way of making a living, but I can only assume that New Zealand second-hand booksellers are now facing the same pressures as American ones.

Yet, despite some predictions, the enemy is not Kindle or other forms of reading whole books on line. In the last twenty years it has been proven repeatedly that people still prefer to read physically-existing printed books instead of books on a screen.

As I argued in an earlier posting, AnxietyAbout Books, there is now a widespread anxiety about the whole traditional concept of reading. Rather than reading whole books (in any form), more functionally-literate people prefer to read bite-sized information, which is indeed seen online. The slow demise of second-hand bookshops is only a small part of a wider cultural shift in which television, podcasts, websites and blogs like the one you are now reading have moved to the centre of culture, while those of us who know how to read at length become a smaller proportion of society.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Something New

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

“THE MIRROR STEAMED OVER – Love and Pop in London, 1962” by Anthony Byrt (Auckland University Press,  $NZ45)

It is probably true that books about art should be reviewed by people who have expertise in art, so I begin this review with one clear warning. I admire, appreciate, and could call myself an informed amateur of, much art; but I am no expert, and I am certainly not an expert on either 1950s Abstract Expressionism or 1960s Pop Art. In reading Anthony Byrt’s The Mirror Steamed Over, however, I do not believe that this puts me at too much of a disadvantage. Although he is deeply immersed in his subject, Byrt writes in an excellent, limpid prose, totally devoid of the mandarin-speak that befouls many of the publications on art that I have encountered. Byrt is not in the business of mystifying his readers. He is in the business of celebrating his subject and enlightening a large readership, including both experts and non-experts, who are interested in art.

So I begin by giving my verdict on this book. Byrt’s prose is exemplary, clear and vivid. Although his story takes us down many side paths, he does not lose his esssential narrative thread. Byrt has consulted many archives and sources. The odd comment here and there suggests he is either a friend of, or confidant of, one of his central characters, Billy Apple; and he has conducted interviews with him. But his prose is not weighted down by the research. To put it simply, this book reads well, and I spent two very happy days reading it closely and with great pleasure.

At its core, The Mirror Steamed Over is a celebration of the making of two artists with, perhaps, a slightly deflating coda.

Aucklander Barrie Bates went on a scholarship to art school in England – the Royal College of Art (RCA) -  to study graphic design. This book deals with his work and interactions with others there in the early 1960s until, on 22 November 1962, Bates rebranded himself as “Billy Apple” and has remained Billy Apple ever since. A very minor confusion is caused in some sentences where Anthony Byrt says “Apple” has told him something about “Bates”, as if they were two separate people; but for clarity in this review I will refer to the book’s hero as Barrie Bates.

At the RCA, Bates associated most closely with two people – David Hockney, a student of painting and therefore in different classes from Barrie Bates’ graphic design classes; and Ann Quin, who was not a student but had an administrative role at the RCA . Why were Bates and Hockney attracted to each other? Sometimes Byrt suggests that Bates the New Zealander and Hockney the Northerner had in common the status of being outsiders among the London crowd that made up most RCA students. There is some delicate to-ing and fro-ing early in this book as to whether Bates was sexually attracted to the openly-gay Hockney. Ann Quin, Bates’ sometime lover, teased Bates about this. But, for all the journeys Bates and Hockney made together, their friendship was apparently not sexual and apparently Bates/Apple does not regard himself as gay.

In much of Byrt’s narrative we get a chronicle of student rebelliousness and misbehaviour. Bates was almost expelled from the RCA a number of times for his violation of regulations. Both Bates and Hockney failed their diplomas at RCA, mainly because both of them baulked at the General Studies papers they were required to do, but which they both saw as a distraction from their art. Later, however, the books were cooked so that Hockney could get his diploma, because he was already the RCA’s most visible and praised artist and it would have been embarrassing to fail him.

The third character in this tale is Ann Quin the experimental novelist who, despite her talent, was mentally unstable and eventually suicidal. She ghost-wrote Bates’ “thesis” for a part of the course he wished to avoid. She also provides this book with its otherwise opaque title The Mirror Steamed Over. As is explained late in the text (p.175 to be precise) Ann Quin’s first published novel Berg has a man who recreates himself as his own double, a sort of mirror image, which steams over when he sees connections with his former self. This Byrt interprets as a metaphor for Barrie Bates re-making himself as Billy Apple, his own mirror image. Byrt also discusses the apple in relation to Adam and Eve and how much apples had figured in Bates’ work up to this point as symbols of both temptation and sensual pleasure. Personally, though Byrt doesn’t consider it, I can’t help wondering how much Bates’ choice of moniker might have also been related to the Big Apple – the New York he so often visited, sometimes with Hockney. Both became acquainted with New York’s jazz and drug cultures. Hockney hit the gay bars while Bates hit Madison Avenue to learn advertising agencies’ latest graphic techniques.

So much for the purely biographical details, which are only part of Byrt’s design.

In his Prologue, Byrt declares: “Beyond the surface effects and pop potentials of mass consumerism, both [Hockney] and Bates intuited a much larger cultural revolution underway, namely, that the liberated individual, acting in his or her self-interest – sexually, creatively, politically, economically – was becoming the new unit around which British and American society would be organised.” (p.9)

Byrt is very concerned to see this moment, the early 1960s, as a real turning point in art, but he situates it in the context of wider social change. Homosexuality was becoming more acceptable and was nearer to being decriminalised in Britain, so Byrt gives us details on the Wolfenden Report and its consequences. This relates very much to the flamboyance of Hockney and the themes he chose to present in his work. Censorship was loosening up, so there is an account of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial and the phenomenon of porn publishers in the USA fighting censorship in the courts - a fight which, over half a cantury later, doesn’t look all that beneficial, given the subsequent growth of porn, and its inherent misogyny, to a multi-billion dollar industry. The advent of hip minority-audience plays and movies, seen by both Bates and Hockney, leads Byrt to dissect in some detail the play (and film) The Connection and the film Pull My Daisy (amusingly Byrt has to apologise for the sexism of the latter – much avant-garde material of the time now looks distinctly arriere-garde).

The bubbling cultural cauldron of the early 1960s, and the figures who influenced Bates and Hockney, also mean pages on Marshall McLuhan and his perceptions on advertising, media, and the global village; R.D. Laing with his now-largely-discredited diagnosis that mental illness was caused by the traditional family structure; and Norman Mailer with his hipster and “White Negro” schtick. Mercifully Byrt also gives us James Baldwin’s stinging riposte to Mailer, which argued that in many ways Mailer was in thrall to the very racial stereotypes he claimed to refute.

Then there was the American artist Larry Rivers. Byrt sees American Abstract Expressionism (the school of de Kooning, Jackson Pollock etc.) as having become an oppressive norm by the end of the 1950s. A younger generation of artists was looking for ways to break with it. Larry Rivers, promoted by his acolyte Frank O’Hara, seemed to show the way with his return to a sort of representationalism. This had a strong influence on Hockney, whose work became more representational. In his own way, Bates was equally impressed by Larry Rivers.

But the painter Hockney and the graphic designer Bates began to diverge in theory and in practice. Despite failing to get his diploma, Bates was “the RCA’s graphic design star – the young man learning how to make image, text and typography work together to maximum effect.” (p.53) Putting together image, text and typography was the stock-in-trade of advertising, but Bates used advertising’s techniques to become a conceptual artist. Text, typography and chosen image could undercut, or make ironical comment on, commercial advertising. Yet here there was a problem. How much did Bates’ conceptual art really move from being advertising itself? How much was it just another form of advertising?

At this time there was much McLuhanesque critique of the (American) advertising industry, with British artists like Derek Boshier attempting to push back against it. As Hockney embraced representationalism, some of his artwork at this time implicitly criticised Bates for surrendering to pure commercialism. One of Hockney’s student paintings depicted Madison Avenue spewing out the words “Lie$, Lie$, Lie$”. Says Byrt: “The moralising tone in his drawing for Bates – lies, lies, lies – was clearly part of a wider concern Hockney had about art’s commodification and the impact of advertising and consumerism on society, but also about his own potential to get lost in the attractions and promises of American life.” (pp.109-110)

Hockney was at least aware that he himself was in danger of being absorbed into superficial American culture. The two students bonded in many playful ways, including at one point both bleaching their hair. But Byrt remarks: “The hair bleaching had been a point of connection between the two men, but it was also arguably the last meaningful one. Both were beginning to manifest new ideas of what an artist could be, but in opposite ways. Bates now relentlessly driven by ideas and looking towards new technologies and the future; Hockney more interested in grappling with, and conquering, the shadows of art history.” (p.118)

So the scene is set for what will be Hockney’s best-known representational works of muscular young men leaping into Californian swimming pools; and Billy Apple’s brash advertising-influenced designs selling… something. Perhaps selling himself. Among other ways in which Larry Rivers influenced Bates was, says Byrt,  “a contrarian attitude to art world orthodoxies; the sense that you didn’t have to love your subject matter to make great art from it; a committed individualism ; and a capacity for personal branding and self-mythologising.” (p.148) Much of The Mirror Steamed Over is the story of artists learning that they had to have a public profile to get noticed. This seems to be part of their “performivity”.

We are also told that “the emergence of Billy Apple was unquestionably informed by Bates’s experiences on Madison Avenue: his deep awareness of the power of branding on the way we perceive and desire products, and the notion that the best visiual expression of an idea is often the most stripped down. Apple became all three – the brand, the product and the idea – starkly realised, with no embellishment, just a shock of blonde hair and the eyebrows to match.” (p.207)

So Billy Apple became a saleable commodity, first in Pop Art, then in Conceptual Art.

Do I have any quarrels with The Mirror Steamed Over? As a piece of writing, certainly not. It is an engaging, informative, lively and well-written book. My mild quibble would only be with the author’s determination to see Bates and Hockney as at the centre of a major cultural change. They might have been symptomatic of the way the 1960s were developing, but they were not major driving forces of cultural shift.

And what of that “slightly deflating coda” that I mentioned early in this review? On p.225 of The Mirror Steamed Over, there is, in effect, an admission, too long for me to quote in full, that Bates’ and Hockney’s views, in the early 1960s, of the way society was developing, did not come to pass. Byrt asserts that in the 1960s “the sexual revolution” and psychotherapy took “new and monstrous forms” and that there was the rise of a “new, conservative individualism” which would become neoliberalism and the era of Reagan, Thatcher, Roger Douglas etc. To put it more bluntly, the art movements that Hockney and Apple came to represent were not the dawn of a new, enduring perspective or consciousness. And after all, if you bang on about “the liberated individual, acting in his or her self-interest – sexually, creatively, politically, economically”, then what can you expect as an outcome but the “me” generation, self-absorption and neoliberalism? Doing your own thing easily morphs into not giving a stuff about society at large. There’s the added problem that what was once the avant-garde and rebellious often ends as pure Establishment. David Hockney, the student rebel breaking taboos, is now David Hockney, Californian resident, loaded with civic honours, and with his paintings selling for millions. (One of his works went for $US90 million at auction).

Art has always been in some way enmeshed with commerce, and The Mirror Steamed Over obviously cannot avoid the implications of this fact. Anthony Byrt deals with it honestly.

Minor footnote: The Mirror Steamed Over has a generous selection of (mainly) black-and-white photographs of the youthful Barrie Bates and the youthful David Hockney and some of their respective works. I ached to see more images of the many works which Byrt discusses in detail. But perhaps I am asking too much here, having been spoilt by recently reading my way through Peter Simpson’s well-illustrated Colin McCahon volumes.