Monday, October 26, 2020

Something New

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

“MAP FOR THE HEART – Ida Valley Essays” by Jillian Sullivan (Otago University Press, $NZ35); ”BILL & SHIRLEY – A Memoir” (Massey University Press, $NZ35)

Late autumn, and once again it’s time for the firewood we gathered through summer – jaunts across the paddock to the old willows, cracked and split in storms, for the branches they delivered on top of fence lines and into the damp gullies. Fire crackles and brightens the room at night, though in Auckland perhaps, warm still rules. Here the wind presses up to the windows, whoos and blusters around the house. The clouds foretell a time soon to come when snow will lie on the hills and rocks and, if the wind is from the north, on my boots on the verandah and the twigs for the fire.”(p.19)

These are the opening words of the opening essay, “Becoming Something Other” in Map for the Heart, Jillian Sullivan’s collection of eighteen essays and a poem. At once it tells us where we are. This is the cold south of New Zealand – in fact the Ida Valley in Central Otago - because “in Auckland perhaps” it’s still warm. We also know at once that the essays will have much evocation of landscape and weather, and it is an isolated and perhaps low-tech way of life that is observed. After all, it’s a crackling fire that “brightens the room”. And maybe there will be some self-consciously elevated vocabulary. Clouds “foretell” the coming of snow – they don’t warn of it.

I admit that I am a newcomer to the work of Jillian Sullivan. Poet, teacher of creative writing, essayist and author of chilldren’s novels, Jillian Sullivan has already written extensively about the part of New Zealand she chose to settle in.

In these essays she writes candidly about four things.

Some essays are confessional autobiography, concerning her family circumstances and the life she now chooses to live. In the opening essay “Becoming Something Other”  she touches briefly on the breakup of her marriage and other personal troubles that gradually persuaded her that she needed to radically alter her life. “Between Lands” talks of visiting a granddaughter in Auckland and remembering her own earlier days in the North Island. “Running Barefoot”, the most personal of all her essays, is a kind of apologia for her life – her parents’ breakup, her being a solo mum with four children after her own marriage breakup, and how all this has shaped both her and her children’s lives and made her see the world in a new way, so that she eventually found her “true life” as a writer. While mainly about her strawbale house and her life in the Ida Valley, the essay “A Privileged Job” notes how she supplemented the benefit she received by working in a country hospital. “The Art and the Adventure of Subsistence” gives another view of trying to live on a benefit,  and finally discovering that all the bureaucracy involved got in the way of her writing.

Then there are the essays about the strawbale house she now inhabits in the remote Ida Valley and her commitment to the use of “vernacular” materials in the construction of houses – that is, materials provided by nature and drawn from the locality of the house. (In 2016, Sullivan wrote A Way Home, a whole book about her strawbale house.) In the essay “A Roof Over Our Heads”, she declares “We desire shelter, protection from the elements. But a shelter can stifle our awareness of where we live – the sky, the terrain, the weather, the plants, animals and birds that live alongside us in their own place. Our place – that something that watches over us, lasts beyond us and participates in our moments.” (p.54)  The opening essay “Becoming Something Other” describes her domicile made of natural and accessible components – mud, straw, clay and lime – and she expands upon these themes in the essays “In the Midst of My True Life” “The Primitive Hut” and even “Lifting Walls”, about building a mudbrick wall with the help of her friend Graeme Male. While all this suggests a “getting back to nature” outlook, it does not mean the abandonment of available modern technology – Jillian Sullivan writes on a laptop, after all.

More important than either autobiography and commitment to simple nature-formed housing, however, are the essays that focus on the environment, nature and the natural world inasmuch as they can be perceived or saved by us. These are her most impassioned essays, revealing a very committed environmentalist. The essay “Ancient Land” is her lament about those who wish to “use” and monetise Central Otago, rather than allowing it to flourish as a natural environment. (Her tone here reminds me very much of the environmentalist poetry of Richard Reeve , in which he ridicules the impulse to “call in” land to make it “useful”.) Jillian Sullivan is a member of the Central Otago Environmental Society along with Brian Turner, Michael Harlow and other literary luminaries. She speaks of her vegetarianism and the way indigenous small plants – including indigenous grasses – are being muscled out by invasive species. The essay “The Hawkdun Range” becomes a reflection on the ancientness of what was sea-bed millions of years ago and makes it clear that some plants we barely notice are essential to biodoversity. She writes of human intervention that has led to ecological disruption – as in overgrazing. “Growing Closer” takes Goethe’s theories of becoming aware of nature, not just by observing and noting characteristics of plants and animals, but by cultivating feeling – and hence becoming more aware of animals’ sentience. As she narrates in “What if a River Wants to Sing?”, she joined a party of freshwater ecologists and a hydrologist, to explore the length of the Manuherekia River (which feeds into the Clutha) to note all habitats en route that were in danger of being destroyed by irrigation schemes,  fertiliser etc.

Inevitably, thoughts on the environment overlap with a sort of social critique. You cannot discuss the impact of human beings on the land without discussing the human beings, and here Sullivan’s tone is not always accusatory. In “Love, Loss and the Fraser Basin”, a long walk becomes a reflection on injustices done to 19th century workers, such as gold-stampers and others underpaid for their labour and exploited in various ways. In this she perceives the foundation of New Zealand’s economic and social structure: “What I’m looking at here is a history of subjugation. I begin to see that the foundations of our society and culture were laid within a framework that saw wealth as taking precedence over the rights of others, land included.” (p.109). Similarly,“Blackstone Hill” considers the human past of the land she now identifies with. She does not look at (Pakeha) pioneers negatively, knowing they had to make their way in their own time by the means they had to hand. This is not one of those smug exercises in assuming that people in the past were wilfully ignorant of their environment, but it is still a reasoned view of their imprint on the land. Speaking of people who are dead and gone, it is fitting that the last essay in the collection, “Across the Whited Fields” is focused on a graveyard and a consideration of the dead, especially a much-abused young woman who tried to make her way in the community but died of an overdose.

It is quite clear from these essays that Jillian Sullivan is friends, not only with fellow writers and environmentalists in Central Otago, but also with farmers, whose industry and needs she understands. Her environmentalism does not come with a prejudice against farming, but an awareness of some of the negative environmental impacts of farming.

You will note that, as is my wont, I have so far neatly noted the contents of this collection of essays without making any critical comment upon it. So here are a few personal reflections.

I identified with some of the moments when Sullivan had to teach herself about local botany. In “The Hawkdun Range”, she remarks “But I don’t know the names of the plants on the mountains where I live. I walk through their beauty in a state of ignorance” (p.37) May I say that I know the feeling? When I’ve taken bush walks or guided tourists around Tiritiri Matangi, I’ve often had to rack my brains to remember the names of certain plants.

In parts of Map for the Heart, I found a kind of Thoreauvian echo – the outlook of a town-and-city dweller who has decided on a more isolated life. In “A Roof Over Our Heads”, Sullivan writes “Mud walls surrounded me, and as the firelight and candle flames flickered over them, creating small shadows and gleams of light, I had the distinct feeling of being inside a living, breathing structure.” (p.54). This reminds me strongly of the moment in Walden (reviewed on this blog) where Thoreau, looking at shadows in his rafters, remarks Should not every apartment in which man dwells be lofty enough to create some obscurity overhead, where flickering shadows may play at evening about the rafters?

There are moments in this collection where I agree with Jillian Sullivan’s agenda, but might take issue with her underlying assumptions. Take this passage from the essay “What if a River Wants to Sing?”: I have seen how humans stand apart from the natural world and say: this is not us but for us. To say the river has rights and needs, to say the river deserves our responsibility to further generations, to say the river is one being from mountain torrent to the wide, luminous stretch between shingled banks, is to go against those who have the voice of power, against those who say we need ‘the courage to dam the rivers.’ I have lost my faith with those in power…”(p.165) Very well, I accept the need to clean up rivers and respect the natural environment, but I reject the anthropomorphism. To assert a river has “rights and needs” is to give it a consciousness and a personhood it does not have; and such anthropomorphism often leads to a downgrading of respect for real human beings. Clean up the river but don’t assume it is a person.

Enough of my grumpiness. Reading much description and evocation of place can clog the mind. It is hard to form mental patterns from the profusion of precise and specific details of the landscape that Sullivan gives. Perhaps for this reason, I warmed most to one of the longest essays in the book “Cycling With Bartali: a Year in the valley”, because it gives a narrative covering a year when Sullivan and her cycling partner explored and rode up and down the hills of the Ida Valley. This means the essay is enlivened by the interaction of the two cyclists in their conversations as the seasons turn and conditions change. There are conversations and interaction with other people in the valley too. The valley is realised for us in more than evocation and description only.


Footnote: Two very small matters which have nothing to do with the high quality of Jillian Sullivan’s essays. By a small editorial glitch, the page numbers given on the table of contents do not quite correspond to the pages on which each essay begins. Also – and others might disagree with me – I find the term “village” rather quaint and forced when describing small New Zealand settlements; but apparently that’s the term some people use in Central Otago.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

            If I were to write a memoir of my family, how would I approach it? To the best of my knowledge, there have been no great scandals connected with my family, but there have been the arguments and clashes of personality that every family experiences. Even so, I think I would write with great tact and caution.

Keith Ovenden often writes with tact and caution in Bill & Shirley – a memoir, especially when it comes to controversial matters. And sometimes he glosses over, or strains to put a particular construction on, things that he finds unpalatable. Ovenden, now in his late 70s, is the son-in-law of the late Bill (William Ball) Sutch and Shirley Smith. His wife Helen Sutch is the only child of the Sutches. Bill and Shirley were, in effect, family to Ovenden. As Ovenden says, he knew Sutch  personally only in the last four years of his life; but he knew Shirley Smith as his mother-in-law and as the grandmother of his and Helen’s children for decades before her death in 2007. He admires Sutch as the outspoken economist, civil servant and author of many books, who advanced to being Permanent Secretary of Industries and Commerce under various governments. He finds much to admire in Shirley Smith’s many careers too. But he had a bumpy start with both his parents-in-law.

Ovenden stresses that Bill & Shirley – a memoir is a memoir and not a biography. Titled “Between memoir & biography”, an overlong and rather pompous essay near the end of the book tells us the difference between the two genres, separating this work from such productions as Ovenden’s biography of Dan Davin. So Bill & Shirley is Ovenden’s memories and a personal view of his experience and interactions with Bill Sutch and Shirley Smith.

Or is it?

For there is a very big elephant in the room.  Ovenden says he had considered writing this memoir for some decades. Last year there appeared Sarah Gaitanos’ detailed biography Shirley Smith – An Examined Life (reviewed on this blog 1 July 2019). There is no bibliography in Bill & Shirley, but there are a number of end-notes. It is interesting to see, in both text and end-notes, how scrupulously Ovenden avoids naming or referring in any way to Gaitanos’ book, which reaches radically different conclusions about the Sutches and  “the Sutch case” from Ovenden’s conclusions. Even if he considered writing it for years, was Ovenden finally spurred to produce Bill & Shirley now as a riposte to Gaitanos? This is pure, undocumented speculation on my part, but much of Bill & Shirley reads like damage control.

Three chapters, called “The Lion and the Weasel”, deal with Bill Sutch and three chapters, called “If only, if only…” deal with Shirley Smith.

Purely for my own convenience, I’ll deal with the Shirey Smith chapters first. Ovenden notes Shirley’s privileged upbringing and her commendable academic career, studying at Oxford and being a lecturer in Classics before, some years later, becoming a highly-esteemed lawyer who took up many social causes. Ovenden notes her feminism, driven by the desirability of equality between the sexes. Says Ovenden: “It was this sense of equality that dominated her understanding of feminism. She had no truck with the radical cutting-up-men mobsters. The point was to achieve equality and to ensure that men could enjoy it too. She detested discrimination.” (p.107) She joined the Communist Party when she was a student at Oxford, but eventually gave it up in the 1950s. Ovenden makes an ambiguous statement about this when discussing the memories Shirley shared with him in later years: “In the deep crevasses of these recollections I detected Shirley re-examining her commitment to communism as an intellectual choice she now understood to be unrelated to her social upbringing, but each a form of hypocrsiy, and each feeding off the other to leave her embarrassed and ashamed of both.” (p.123) I wish readers well in trying to unpick the full meaning of this tangled sentence.

Much of what Ovenden writes about Shirley sounds like a polite euology, such as might have been delivered at a funeral. He does, however, have to deal with the fact that in her later years, she had many regrets, which is why this section is called “If only, if only…”.

He suggests that in old age, Shirley regretted three things.

One was her oppostion to Helen’s marriage to Ovenden, when Ovenden first came into the Sutch family orbit. Shirley’s reasons for disapproving so much of the young Ovenden are not clear, but Ovenden confirms some bizarre details that have already been made public in the Gaitanos book – that when Helen Sutch and Keith Ovenden were courting and newly married, they regularly took tranquillisers (Ovenden is not sure whether it was lithium or valium) to calm them down when they went to fractious family dinners with Bill and Shirley. In later years, Shirley regretted her hostility to Ovenden as she gradually befriended him. Another regret had to do with some unpleasant dealings Shirley had with her brother over property they shared. And she seems to have also regrettted her youthful enthusiasm for Communism.

However, it appears that, years after Bill Sutch died, Shirley also reassessed her relationship with Bill and, now being aware of a number of untruths Bill had told,  may even have come to believe that he was guilty as charged in the matter of his trial for espionage when, in 1974, he had possibly passed on information to Dimitri Razgovorov, the “rezident” (i.e. KGB man) at the Russian Embassy. This, at any rate, is the conclusion reached in Sarah Gaitaonos’ biography of Shirley. Ovenden, however, chooses to smoothly glide over this when, in what I can only interpret as a slap back at the unmentioned Gaitanos, he declares that only prejudiced people of ill will would draw such a conclusion from things Shirley wrote and said late in life. “It could be made to fit their case,” asserts Ovenden. “At the end of her life, they might say, she had seen [Bill] for what he was. What they might also be saying… is that she was taken for a fool.” (p.140). I’m taking a shrewd guess here as to whom the pronoun “they” might be designating. This really is damage control at its slippery-est.

Turning to the three chapters on Bill Sutch, Ovenden declares in his preface  It is not my purpose, as others have felt free to do, to root among his remains” (p.12). But root among the remains he does to make his case. While praising Sutch in detail for his eminent career, many achievements as a senior civil servant and many influential published works, Ovenden does frankly deal with the negative side of the man. This includes Sutch’s huge ego, his tendency to speak in monologues rather than actually engaging people in conversation, domineering aspects of his relationship with Shirley and, sometimes, his economy with the truth. On p.42, Ovenden affirms (as Gaitanos did) that Sutch for years spun a yarn about having trekked his way across the Soviet Union when he was a young man. This proved to be a lie. But, calling this untruth a “brag”, rather than really calling Sutch to account for his foolish dishonesty, Ovenden uses Endnote 20 (p.191) to massage this into “proof” that Sutch could never have been recruited by NKVD (KGB) agents in the 1930s as some have suspected.

Ovenden assumes, without proof, that the SIS (New Zealand’s security service) leaked negative information about Sutch to the right-wing populist newspaper Truth when Sutch’s trial (and acquittal) were over (p.50). Again, of course, he scrupulously declines to engage with Sarah Gaitanos’ very different account of this matter. As for Sutch’s repeated meetings with the Soviet Rezident, Ovenden says that Sutch “had been naïve” (p.53) and goes on to spin the suggestion that Sutch’s meetings with Razgovorov could not have been clandestine because Sutch noted them in his diary and met Razgovorov in the street and out in the open. (I wonder, wouldn’t they have been more conspicuous if they had met in a pub or café?)

It is in his second chapter on Sutch that Ovenden is at pains to nail in his argument that Sutch was merely “naïve” in his actions. He goes on to discuss Sutch’s mental deterioration and lack of judgement in his later years. He surmises that Sutch might have had some sort of breakdown (not that Ovenden uses that word) when he discovered, late in life, that his sister was a lesbian; and not only that, but that she had had an affair with a woman with whom Bill Sutch himself had had an affair. (Discreetly, but nevertheless perceptibly, Ovenden suggests that Sutch was a philanderer).

The third chapter on Sutch is about his trial in which, following the advice of his defence team, Sutch declined to take the stand, which was his right. He therefore never faced a searching cross-examination on his actions. In this third chapter, Ovenden shows what a good debater he could be – but if a debater is in a tight corner, a handy skill is to deflect attention away from the matter on hand. Like an octopus squirting its ink, Ovenden deflects attention away from the material facts of the Sutch case by rhetorical trickery. First (pp.68-70) he launches into a tirade on how spy services achieved nothing during the Cold War (and therefore, presumably, even if Sutch did “spy” in any way, it didn’t really matter). Then (pp.74-77) he tells us how unreliable the Mitrokhin archives are, and of dubious provenance, in order to dismiss a negative piece of evidence about Sutch. He moves on (pp.77-81) to telling us once again how unreliable all information given by spies is. Finally (p.83) he presumes to psychoanalyse those who saw Sutch and his activities in a negative way. He asserts “the reasons for Bill’s value to a certain kind of opinion as ‘spy’ seem to me psychological. Here he can serve as a relief valve for that sense of semi-educated bourgeois propriety that, stuffed with rectitude and right thinking, impervious to the nuance and ambiguity of others’ circumstances, fuels its daily life with the stale fodder of received opinion.” So please note, people are obviously not up to Ovenden’s high standards if they think there was something at least very fishy in Sutch’s (repeated) meetings with a KGB man. Such people are merely “semi-educated” and have “bourgeois” propriety and thrive on “received opinion”… so let us ignore the hard facts of the case.

All of this, I believe, is what experienced debaters call “poisoning the well”. Without actually addressing the matter on hand, you set up a barricade of assumptions and innuendo to create a prejudice against any contrary evidence or views.

Yet in considering this there is a major factor which I neither deny nor belittle. Keith Ovenden is, after all, married to Bill Sutch’s daughter, and I am sure that having the Sutch trial raked over again and again must be distressing for the couple. Says Ovenden: “No one has suffered more from this than Helen, my wife of all these years, who knew of her father’s love and has responded to it with poised and eloquent loyalty throughout her life” (p.87) It is both understandable and commendable that Ovenden stands by his wife and is attentive to her feelings. But understandable feelings do not get us any nearer to the truth of the Sutch case.

In her biography of Shirley, Sarah Gaitanos notes that Bill Sutch’s papers have been promised to, and are embargoed by, Sutch’s designated biographer Rosslyn Noonan. Perhaps one day Noonan will produce a book about Bill Sutch which plausibly exonerates him of all charges. Meanwhile, Keith Ovenden’s Bill & Shirley – a memoir is not a book that achieves this goal.

Or maybe I’m only saying that because I’m semi-educated, bourgeois and filled with received opinion.

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 posting on this blog I dealt with the short stories of Angus Wilson (1913-1991) and asked if they had stood the test of time. This posting, boldly under my own arrogant and egotistical heading, I deal with his novels.

 It was only after Wilson’s first novel Hemlock and After (already reviewed on this blog) was published in 1952 that he became better known as a novelist than as a writer of short stories. His second novel. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes was first published in 1956. Even more than Hemlock and After, it is clearly an attempt at a “Dickensian” novel. It is long (c.400 pages); it has a very large cast of characters and like many nineteenth-century novels it has a list of these characters at the beginning to prevent us getting confused. The fate of each character is neatly chronicled at the end of the novel to give a satisfying conclusion; and there are grotesque minor characters (usually lower-class or working-class) to provide a sort of comic relief. One such is a Mrs Salad, who seems modelled on something like Dickens’ Sarah Gamp, a garrulous, gossipy and totally unreliable rogue.

The dominant thread of “plot” is very simple. The protagonist Gerald Middleton, emeritus professor of early medieval history, is at the centre of a fractious academic debate. Over forty years previously (before the First World War), an archeological dig uncovered the grave of an early Christian bishop, credited with converting the pagan Saxons. But found in the bishop’s grave was a priapic pagan statue. Did this mean that the bishop himself was a covert pagan? And if so, did this also mean that early Christianity in England was therefore syncretic and a fraud? But there are doubts. Could it be that the statue was actually planted in the grave in modern times as a hoax? (Shades of the Piltdown hoax, which also predated the First World War). This controversy sets up a long-running academic comedy in which Angus Wilson enjoys himself by portraying the partisan, and in some cases fanatical, views of different academics. Pettiness and pomposity in academe are satirised, and to round things off, at the end of the novel Wilson presents us with cod academic papers, in tone-perfect academic-speak, arguing various views on the case.

As in both the earlier Hemlock and After and the later The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot, the general arc of the story has the protagonist having to face up to his-or-her own intellectual weaknesses and “come clean” about his-or-her motives – for, as we learn early in the novel, the priapic figure in the grave was indeed a hoax and Professor Gerald Middleton has suspected this for years yet has not had the moral courage to research and expose the truth.

But this unifying thread is really just the shell for what takes up most of the novel. Anglo-Saxon Attitudes deals mainly with the quarrels and tensions within Professor Middleton’s own family. He himself long kept a mistress, even after he was married, and this has had an effect on his fluttery, neurotic wife, who was probably responsible for blighting the life of his daughter Kay. His elder son Robin, a businessman of hardy capitalist views, also keeps a mistress. His younger son John, a populist left-wing journalst who builds a career on claiming to be the champion of the common man, is covertly homosexual, “protecting” a rent-boy who is also a petty-criminal. (Once again, despite his own homosexuality, Wilson does not sentimentalise the gay demi-monde of his own day.) After all the family angst that runs through the novel, the climax is a riotous gathering at Christmas where members of the family verbally tear one another apart.

Hoax or not, the priapic figure hidden in a dark grave is the novel’s dominant symbol.  The hidden secrets (mistresses, rent-boys) point to upper-middle-class English hypocrisy, where illicit sex may be practised so long as there are public nods to received morality. These are the “Anglo-Saxon attitudes” of Wilson’s own day – the priapic paganism hidden under a veneer of respectability. This is a novel about “concealment like the worm i’ th’ bud”, regardless of what the attitudes were of the original Anglo-Saxons 1500 years ago.

Regrettably, Anglo-Saxon Atttitudes is as much a chore to read as the last fifty pages of The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot. Wilson often goes for bravura effects, such as the chapter dealing with a gathering in which Gerald Middleton dozes and we cut between present conversation and his reveries of earlier days. This is very much the modernist technique of wrenching time-scales out of linearity (see Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse) but it makes for confusion in narrative clarity.

Worse, the novel is dated in other ways. Aiming to be a satirist, Angus Wilson is himself embedded in, and very comfortable with, the society that he is ostensibly satirising. He explores fine grades of social, academic and intellectual snobbery in his own class, condemning some of his fellow intellectuals while endorsing others. But his own prejudices and snobberies glare through whenever he deals with (crass, ill-spoken) working-class characters or (excitable, emotional) French people or a (coldly methodical) German academic or a (blarney-filled, treacherous, dishonest) young Irish man.

Perhaps, in 1956, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes seemed a witty take-down of academe and upper-middle-class hypocrites. But in doing so, it only cements in place that sense of superiority which knows what is best for the lower orders. So Bloomsbury, my dears.

Wilson’s next novel was The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot (already reviewed on this blog), published in 1958. It was followed in 1961 by The Old Men at the Zoo.

Of all the five novels by Angus Wilson that I have read, The Old Men at the Zoo is the most muddled, the most ill-conceived in its intentions, and in the end the most hysterical. I cannot be swayed from this view, even with the knowledge that the late Anthony Burgess listed this novel in his idiosyncratic guide Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939. One gains the impression that Wilson intended some grand satire on the state of England, but it is not clearly articulated.

The novel is set in the years from 1970 to 1973, that is, the near future for readers in 1961.  For the first time in his novels, Angus Wilson uses the first-person voice. Simon Carter, secretary of London Zoo, narrates. He is caught between two men who have strong ideas about how the zoo should be managed. The zoo’s general director, Dr Leacock, wishes to abolish the traditional zoo with cages, and has a vision of a “National Zoological Reserve” – a wildlife park in which animals can roam freely. A multi-millionaire, Lord Godmanchester, supports this scheme and supplies a huge estate in Wales as the site of the reserve. In contrast the zoo’s curator of mammals, Sir Robert Falcon, wants to preserve the traditional Victorian-style zoo with cages; the type of zoo that can continue to be accessed easily by London holidaymakers. Other members of the board take sides and much of the novel is like a re-play of the bickering and self-promotion of academics in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes. It also, presumably, is meant to symbolise the bickering of rival political parties in parliament, with England itself as the zoo. Especially when told in the fussy, self-justifying voice of Simon Carter, this makes for repetitive and tiresome reading. Some grotesque details are thrown in – the zoo setting gives us such things as a man being kicked to death by a giraffe.

Overlaid with this, and justifying the mildly futuristic setting, is the threat of nuclear war. In a most unlikely scenario (even for 1961) Wilson has the USA and (Soviet) Russia signing an agreement that they will both bomb Europe if European states are stupid enough to go to war with one another. But to war they go – Britain fighting against what were then called the “Common Market” countries. There is chaos and the last quarter of the novel has England massively bombed, the population starving, wild animals running free and mauling people, mobs ruling the streets and then a fascistic, dictatorial government taking over and gladiatorial shows being revived with political prisoners thrown to the wild beasts. This is where the hysteria comes in, not to mention Wilson’s penchant for the sadistic – first noted in his short story “Raspberry Jam”. The new government is sponsored by the “Uni-European” movement, set on blotting out local culture and uniting Europe as a single entity. Wilson’s apparent horror at this concept (even if filtered through the voice of his narrator) suggests that if he had been around a generation or two later, he would have been an ardent Brexiteer. At the very least, he asserts his own, rather tattered, version of “humanism”.

For those who wish to emphasise Wilson’s sexuality, be it noted that the narrator is a dedicated and rather randy heterosexual married to an American wife (so that Wilson can include some remarks on Anglo-American relations). Both of the more-or-less explicit sex scenes concern Simon Carter and his wife, and Simon Carter and a minor character, a neurotic nymphomaniac, who tries to seduce him. The novel’s only obviously “camp” character – the zoo’s curator of birds – is basically a figure of ridicule.

What is the purpose of this turgid tome? There is fear of all-out nuclear war, of course. Possibly caged animals and free animals have symbolic value with regard to human freedom and constraints on human freedom in Wilson’s imagined England. Lord Godmanchester is a newspaper magnate and there are a few satirical swings at the sensationalism of the press, slick advertising campaigns and alarmism. Despite his clear anti-Europeanism, Wilson also takes swings at nostalgic jingoism in passages where Sir Robert Falcon, champion of traditional caged zoos, attempts to re-design London zoo as a sort of Victorian fairground. Perhaps, too, the easily-changed loyalties of the narrator are meant to suggest how easily some people in the body politic can be bribed and swayed, even if they think they are above such things. Liberals who stand in the middle of the road tend to get run over.

But this is all a meagre harvest for a novel which is now horribly dated and lies dead on the page. And, as always, the lower orders are not to Angus Wilson’s taste.

When I turned to Wilson’s next novel, Late Call (published in 1964) I felt that I was returning to reality. Although it is not Wilson’s most esteemed novel (Wilson fans tend to point to Hemlock and After, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes or The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot as his best) I personally find it his most humane, for all its faults. For the first time, Wilson makes a lower-middle-class person his main character and does not ridicule her, even if her tastes are simple ones that would not have appealed to the fastidious author himself. Interestingly, too, Late Call begins with a 26-page prologue (counting the pages of my Penguin reprint), set in 1911, half a century before the early 1960s setting of the novel. It stands up very well as a short story in its own right. It is only late in the novel that we see how this story is related to the rest of the plot.

Sylvia Calvert, now in her sixties, has worked for years managing a private hotel (that very British institution of hotels with permanent residents); but she has to leave the work that she enjoys and retire. Partly this is the result of her declining health, but just as importantly it is the result of her feckless, gambling, drinking, garrulous saloon-bar jester of a husband Arthur, who has been annoying the guests. Sylvia and Arthur are taken in by their son Harold, the headmaster of a school in a “New Town”. This was the term popular in England in the 1950s and 1960s, designating new satellite suburbs beyond a larger city’s “green belt”. Harold has recently become a widower. He means well, but he is a very arrogant and very controlling man, both to his parents and to his three teenage children. He certainly regards himself as his parents’ intellectual superior.

 The main tension in the story is between mother and son, as Harold patronises both Sylvia and Arthur, and Sylvia tries to get used to an unfamiliar environment and overcome her wrenching nostalgia for the world she has had to leave. It doesn’t help that her husband is so unsupportive. A major satirical theme here is the nature of air-conditioned, all-mod-cons new housing, apparently seen by Wilson as a prime example of creeping Americanism in Britain. Oddly, the type of satire he produces in this area is very much like the satire of their Levittowns that Americans were already writing.

There are many familiar Wilsonian tropes in this novel. As in nearly all his other novels, there is a major public debate, in this case between property developers and people who wish to preserve a meadow on the edge of the New Town. There is the deflation of intellectual pretensions. Harold makes a public ass of himself when he argues about the planned destruction of the open meadow and when he sponsors and directs a production of the (then “daring”) play Look Back in Anger. Harold also can’t see what is going on under his nose, being the last to realise that one of his sons is homosexual. When he does find this out, he believes he can “cure” his son, despite his loudly-proclaimed progressivism. Wilson appears to be saying that liberal-minded people can also be self-deceiving twerps, especially ones who have grand plans to reconstruct the world. This is consonant with Wilson’s distaste for Marxism and its organised collectivism, although the arrogant Harold is no Marxist.

The novel moves towards the point where Sylvia adjusts to the unfamiliar New Town, gets to be taken seriously, heals at least some of the wounds in Harold’s family, and is able to make a new life without Harold’s support. How this happens requires something very like a deus ex machina, with the introduction of new and sympathetic characters about three-quarters of the way through the novel. Nevertheless, the portrait of the bewildered and relocated Sylvia is sustained very well, her tastes and her feelings are not patronised and this is the first time Wilson has not belittled the lower classes by caricature or condescension.


*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Now I’m aware that Angus Wilson produced three more novels after Late Call, to wit No Laughing Matter (1967), As If by Magic (1973) and Setting the World on Fire (1980)   But even his admirers regard these as lesser works, showing a decline in quality. For myself,  having read all of his short stories and five of his novels (these being the best-known ones), I feel I’m able to make a fair judgement on Wilson’s work. Put brutally, his time is well past, and when I read him I feel very much as I did when I read all the novels of George Meredith  [look him up on the index at right], especially Diana of the Crossways. There are some very good things in his work. I can read Wilson’s prose with pleasure and admire the specificity of detail when he describes a setting (particularly a domestic one – and always indicating the class status of his characters). A few of his satirical barbs still mean something. But on the whole, like Meredith, he deals with intellectual issues that might have seemed urgent at time of writing, but which now mean very little to us. You do not read his novels to be enlightened about the human condition, for all the windy talk about a vaguely-defined “humanism”. You read them to discover what a very small, and somewhat arch, corner of the English intelligensia thought in the 1950s… and then you conclude that, on the whole, the issues that interested them were fairly trivial ones. I am tempted to the view that part of their appeal at the time was the entrée they gave many readers to the worlds of academe and the more privileged upper classes, no matter how much Wilson satirised these people. Also, they probably appeared daring and frank in their open references to homosexuality – but even these references seem guarded and timid now.

I hate to parrot somebody else’s views, but I draw your attention to D. J. Taylor’s negative view of Wilson that appeared in the Guardian in August 2013 (you can easily find it on the internet, as I did). Playing games with the title of one of Wilson’s short-story collections, the article was titled “Angus Wilson: from darling to dodo”. It chronicled Wilson’s own sad end - after traipsing out of England, complaining that he was under-valued and unloved, Wilson settled in France where he declined into dementia and died at the age of 77. But the movement “from darling to dodo” was really an acknowledgement of how Wilson, in the 1960s, had already lost contact with what England had become and continued to write as if it were still the early 1950s. Fewer people read him, and when enthusiasts promoted a collected edition of his works after he died in 1991, it sold so poorly that most of it ended up being remaindered. True, there were television adaptations of three of his novels in the 1980s and 1990s, but this was really his last hurrah. To emphasise how unreadable much of Wilson’s output now is, D.J.Taylor notes “the sheer efflorescence of their social detail, a determination to pin the characters down by way of supporting illustration that sometimes renders them stone dead” – this being the profusion of references to (unexplained) current events, public figures and movements that no longer mean anything to us. Taylor declareshis early work now looks to be of more interest to a social historian than a novel-reader”.

Having already reached this conclusion myself, I can only say I agree.

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 had an epiphany and understood a great truth that I had never fully understood before

While history as recorded and read is orderly, history as it is actually lived is chaotic.

My epiphany came thus: As I have sometimes remarked on this blog, I tend to have very irregular sleeping patterns. Whether I go to bed early or late, I nearly always wake in the small hours. This usually means that at 3 or 4 in the morning, I am staring in the direction of the ceiling, wishing I could go back to sleep. And at 4 or 5 in the morning I am wearily giving up on sleep, and am getting up, pulling on my day-clothes and taking a brisk half-hour walk, in the darkness, around familiar streets of the suburb.

With ear-buds in ears and cell-phone in shirt pocket, I listen as I walk. It was mainly jazz music that accompanied my night prowls until a few months ago. Then I discovered an American series of podcasts called Revolutions, and began to listen to them as a curiosity. Soon I got hooked.

Every episode (each half-an-hour or so) is read by the same American chap, Mike Duncan, who also writes the scripts. He can be slangy. He can sometimes drop in lame wisecracks. But he is fastidiously thorough and accurate in what he chronicles. So far I have heard him talk his way through the “English Revolution” (i.e. the civil wars of the 17th century) in 16 half-hour episodes; through the “American Revolution” (what we used to call the American War of Independence) in 15 episodes; and through the French Revolution in a whopping 55 episodes. Given that each episode is about 30 minutes long, that means that I have listened so far to about 43 hours of Mike Duncan’s lectures. Wikipedia tells me Mike Duncan began the series in 2013 with the English Revolution and is currently (in 2020-2021) finishing the whole series with the Russian Revolution. So I have yet to hear his takes on the Haitian Revolution, Simon Bolivar and South American revolutions, the revolutions of 1848 and the Mexican Revolution before I even get to the Russians.

I may or may not make the distance.

By being fastidiously accurate, however, Mike Duncan shows us how chaotic history really is – how one event happens after another; how people do not see where exactly events are leading them; how crowds (especially in revolutions) can be led enthusiastically towards goals which are completely unattainable – or can be stirred up to violence for political ends; how small and unnoticed contingencies can be the deciding factor in great struggles; how widely-held fears and widely-held hopes prove to be illusory; how political and social certainties can be cancelled in a matter of weeks or even days; how grand plans for new constitutions come to nothing; how commanding figures who seem to have solved all a nation’s problems can be expelled (or killed) in favour of another commanding figure who seems a better bet.

This I learnt as Mike Duncan worked his way from the first rumblings in the English parliament in the 1620s to the restoration of Charles II in 1660; from the early discontenet of Anglo-American colonists to the surrender of Cornwallis; from Calonne’s desperate atttempts to restore French finances in the early 1780s to Napoleon making himself emperor in 1804. And in between, all the big names, all the political and social movements, and all the great upheavals that History chewed up and spat out.

It is not as if I did not know previously of the things Mike Duncan wrote and said. I had already studied in detail, and taught classes on, the English civil wars and the French Revolution (but not the American War of Independence, which I know only in a fragmentary way). To hear of these things as one event after the other, however, was a new experience.

Maybe it is this profusion of events in history that makes most people settle for myths rather than history, even if they do not acknowledge them as myths – that is, neat simplifications and generalisations that “explain” history. Maybe this endless flux is what forces even real historians into neat “periodisations” of history. So here is Absolute Monarchy, and then comes the National Assembly and the Jacobins and they split and the Girondin ones are purged and then there’s the Reign of Terror and then the Thermidorean Reaction and the Directory and then - oh look! – it’s Napoleon Buonaparte. Nice and neat and simplified and managing to reduce history to order and obvious sequence.

But history isn’t order. For those who are living through it, it is this unknown and uncertainty following that unknown and uncertainty.

God forbid that I should fall into the postmodernist fallacy of seeing history as mere “narrative” or fiction as woven by individuals (“My narrative is as good as yours!”). Real, objectively demonstable things happened to real people in real circumstances in real history. We may be talking about a variety of interpretations of these realities. But we are not talking about fiction.

Still it remains true that, as lived, history is not orderly, but is chaotic. This week’s urgent headline, or leading item on the news, will be next week’s stale memory as a new crisis or contingency robs people of their peace.

            History is chaos, and Clio, muse of history, is a tricky and frightening being.


Monday, October 12, 2020

Something New

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

“A RODERICK FINLAYSON READER” edited by Roger Hickin (Cold Hub Press,  $NZ42:50); “BUG WEEK and other stories” by Airini Beautrais (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ35); “THIS IS NOT A PIPE” by Tara Black (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ28)

            It is a great pleasure to read A Roderick Finlayson Reader, Roger Hickin’s intelligently-curated selection of the work of Roderick David Finlayson (1904-1992). Even though he was generally esteemed as one of New Zealand’s best prose writers (especially of short stories) from the 1930s to the 1950s, Finlayson has been neglected, sidelined and rarely re-published in recent years. As O.E. Middleton noted, Finlayson’s death in 1992 was passed over in almost complete silence by the press and other media. In 2012, Auckland University Press’s doorstopper Anthology of New Zealand Literature, which purported to be representative of N Z lit. (though obviously deficient in many ways), managed to exclude Finlayson completely.

            Why this neglect? Some would sheet it home to Finlayson’s chosen subject matter, and some to his style. Born in the inner Auckland suburb of Ponsonby (then a working-class suburb – only much later gentrified), Finlayson was of Scottish descent and worked as an architect’s assistant. But in his thirties he found his real metier as a writer of short stories. He had a mission. In the 1930s and 1940s, he was virtually the only Pakeha writer of fiction who took an interest in Maori and wrote positively about them. At that time, the great majority of Maori were rural, the big move to the cities had not yet happened, and so inevitably Finlayson wrote about Maori in small country settings, living lives that to Finlayson seemed simpler and more authentic than the lives led by Pakeha in cities.

And this is where Finlayson gets criticsed for his subject matter, now that Maori have found their own literary voices.

Despite his constant protests against the theft of Maori land; despite his positive depiction of Maori characters; despite his awareness that New Zealand would never be healthy until Pakeha accepted and respected the Maori view of the world; Finlayson is now criticsed for what are seen as caricatures and idealisation of Maori life, especially as the urban lives most Maori now lead have increasingly less in common with the rural lives of their grandparents and great-grandparents. Was his vision of Maori a naïve one? More than one Maori writer has criticised him for what they see as unreal and patronising. They also object to the type of simplified speech Maori characters utter in his stories. Others have attested that Finlayson caught accurately patterns of rural Maori speech as spoken in the 1930s, as he chose to live much of his life among Maori.

As for Finlayson’s style, even his admirers have to admit that he can very easily become didactic.

But taking all the criiticisms on board, it is still invigorating to make your way through the stories Roger Hickin has selected here from Finlayson’s early collections Brown Man’s Burden (1938), Sweet Beulah Land (1941) and the episodic novel Tidal Creek (1948). Certainly you can find Finlayson occasionally using now-forbidden terms such as “half-caste”. Certainly there are preachy moments. But a story like “Sweet Beulah Land” itself, even if the characterisation is elementary, is still a withering satire on the way the Crown can easily buy up “communal [Maori] land” for its own purposes. “The Wedding Gift” and “”Tiki-Tiki” are a touch melodramatic, but “The Totara Tree” (probably Finlayson’s best-known story because it was anthologised by Dan Davin) is still both funny and a real protest. Be it noted, too, that Finlayson does not confine to Maori his vision of salvation coming from an affinity with the land and the ways of nature. One of the selections given here from Tidal Creek, “The Chattanooga and the Dead Sheep”, has a Pakeha kid staying on a farm with an old relative in a story which becomes a lesson on the superiority of traditional farming ways over new-fangled, industrialised farming.

Many of the stories selected from later in Finlayson’s career concern the Celtic (Irish and Scots) people he knew in the Ponsonby of his youth, where tribal tensions among Pakeha are observed, often with affectionate wit.

Published late in Finlayson’s career (in 1976) and included in this selection is the novella – nearly 60 pages long -  Frankie and Lena. It was much admired by Frank Sargeson and is in some respects the acid test of how positively you respond to Finlayson’s fiction. In the rural New Zealand of what appears to be the 1930s, Lena, a young pubescent girl, latches on to the peripatetic old casual farm worker and tramp Frankie. Frankie doesn’t want her to tag along with him. He knows the country people will think he is a sexual deviant who has taken her to sexually abuse her. He is especially worried as he has a police record related to sexual activity. Still the girl tags along with him, and they get to like each other, even if Frankie is terrified of what the consequences may be for him. As it happens, an angry posse is indeed in pursuit of them through bush and farmland. It has a tragic ending.

The story of their flight and the posse’s pursuit is convincing and suspenseful, with Finlayson making it credible by his close observation of rural Kiwi habits. The (understated) sexual tension in the story is also convincing. Clearly Finlayson aims to make a statement about intolerance and the way small-minded communities cannot deal with people who are “different”. There is, however, a little heavy didacticism in the (often stilted) conversations where Frankie lectures Lena on how people often turn to hating, how they often lack mental freedom, and how Maori land has been stolen. So it is an excellent story with some stylistic flaws.

After the stories and the novella, this selection gives us a manifesto Finlayson wrote, and then his sketches of people he knew and his correspondence with the press.

The manifesto is Our Life in This Land, published in 1940 to coincide with the centenary of the Treaty of Waitangi. With the deepest of respect for Finlayson’s good intentions, I found it hard to interpret Our Life in This Land as anything other than a utopian diatribe, wherein Finlayson damns the increasing industrialisation of New Zealand and urges us to go back to the land. But his tone is messianic, his terms are vague, and his endorsement of war to purge us from “decadence” is just a little scary.

The sketches of people he knew on the literary scene (Walter D’Arcy Cresswell, Frank Sargeson, R.A.K.Mason, O.E.Middleton et al.) are delightful, and made me feel compusively nostalgic for an Auckland that was already vanishing before I was born  - I mean Auckland when the North Shore was still largely farmland and it was an adventure to take the ferry up to Castor Bay.

As for his letters to the press, Finlayson is always on the side of the angels, condemning the government’s heavy-handed approach to the Bastion Point occupation; ticking off the government and NZRU for endorsing a rugby tour to apartheid South Africa, and always reminding fellow Pakeha of their ignorance of Maori culture. As for his letters to the Catholic church press (Finlayson converted to Catholicism in middle age), Finlayson ticks off his co-religionists for failing to take seriously enough encyclicals that called for social justice.

I hope that, for any flaws there may be in Finlayson’s writing, I have made it clear that A Roderick Finlayson Reader is a very welcome book and a very good representation of the man’s work.

Personal footnote: I met a very old Roderick Finlayson once only. As I have mentioned a number of times before on this blog, for the first 22 years of my life, I was a next-door neighbour of the craft printer Ronald Holloway, whose Griffin Press published most of Finlayson’s early work. That is why I have on my shelves first editions of Brown Man’s Burden, Sweet Beulah Land, the novel The Schooner Came to Atia and others of Finlayson’s work, some of them signed by the author. In 1988, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of Brown Man’s Burden, Ron and Kay Holloway published hitherto uncollected stories by Finlayson under the title In Georgina’s Shady Garden. They threw a launch party, to which I was invited, at their home on a beautful Sunday afternoon – a very chummy family affair . When he spoke, thanking the publishers, I remember Roderick Finlayson as a stately old gentleman with no pretensions and a shy, reserved way of speaking. Later, in August 1992, I remember driving Ron Holloway to and from the Requiem Mass he had arranged for Finlayson in the University of Auckland’s Maclaurin Chapel. That is all the contact I had with the man. I am bound to add that my late mother, who was of the same generation as Finlayson (eight years younger, to be precise) read In Georgina’s Shady Garden and deemed the stories to be “rather old-fashioned”. This was a common judgement on Finlayson’s stories at that time.


*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

Now for a completely different short-story writer from a very different generation of New Zealanders.

I already knew Airini Beautrais as a very accomplished poet, especially with her outstanding collection Flow  published in 2017. Bug Week and other stories is her first collection of short stories, and it is a very impressive piece of work. I will not say that all thirteen stories are of the same quality. There are a few moments that do not quite work. But the sum effect of reading Bug Week is still exhilarating, chastening and shocking by turns.

To get quickly past the ones I think don’t quite work: The story “The turtle”, concerning tensions between two teenage girls, deflates before reaching a real point. “The baddest Toroa in town” might have worked better as a poetic concept, with its talking albatross lecturing a pub audience on how they are degrading the sea by over-fishing. And the final shock in “A pair of hands” is a little incongruous, although it may theoretically suggest that the under-experienced couple who are the protagonists are at last forced to understand that siinster things can happen in their boring small town. In an otherwise good story [see below] there is also a moment where I think that the author goes OTT and lays it on too thick.

But that is the sum of my complaints.

I come a little late to reviewing this collection, and I have already read what some other pundits have had to say. Most emphasise that the author is a feminist and some imply that what she is setting out here is a critique of male “entitlement” and the threatening and bullying nature of males. But this grossly simplifies what Beautrais is up to. She is certainly writing from a woman’s perspective (of course), but her take on the interaction of men and women is more nuanced than sheer diatribe and she is far more skilful than a mere fictionalising polemicist.

To make some obvious points, “Living the Dream” has a male narrator and  essentially conveys his complete disillusion with the “alternative” lifestyle he has been living. In “The girl who shaved the moose”, the main male character, a schoolteacher dealing with the misbehaviour of some of his pupils, is presented in a positive light as a sympathetic person. As for “Sin City”, told in the first person by a man, the morality is more ambiguous. The narrator is clearly disgusted with the decadent lives of Auckland professionals having orgiastic wife-swapping parties etc. but his own sexual impulses are confused and tend to nihilism and the inability to engage with others. This is not so much a condemnation of maleness as an analysis of a state of mind.

There are also stories in which men behave badly, but Beautrais makes it clear that the women in their lives have faults of their own. The main male character in “Billy the Poet Pirate” is a serial seducer of younger and perhaps more gullible women who are taken in by his hip-bohemian ways. He is a poseur and a creep. But then the woman who narrates the story is clearly a very unreliable narrator. She claims to be more sophisticated than her girlfriend, who has fallen for the poseur. But she herself falls for the poseur’s come-on lines and ends up in his bed. Is she self-deluded? Only years later do the narrator and her friend get the episode into perspective. Self-delusion also seems to be part of “Psycho Ex”. A man has acted callously. He has ditched a woman after a five-year relationship and married somebody else. But once again, this tale is told by the woman who has turned into an obsessive stalker of her former partner. Her inability to let go is not presented as a virtue. I should also note that the woman who narrates the title story “Bug Week” has an affair with a man while her husband is away with the kids, but then settles for domestic security when it doesn’t work out. She may be bored, but she is not presented as a victim of male dupicity.

In fact, it is only in the last three stories in this collection (perhaps Beautrais was saving them up for us?) that men really do get the sharp end of the stick. “Trashing the Flowers” is set in a Women’s Refuge and focuses on a woman who has been subjected to sexual and other physical abuse by her husband. “The Teashop” concerns a tired and ageing dominatrix who wants to marry a reliable, if boring, man and get away from prostitution. Her back-story tells us that she was sexually abused by an academic when she was a student and has been mistreated regularly by men ever since. And it is at one point in this story that the author goes OTT, with an episode where a man who has saved the ill-treated woman from drowning then asks her for a crass sexual favour. Men are pigs in all situations, this seems to suggest.  Most crushing of all is “Quiet Death” where a dead woman has an out-of-body experience and watches a male doctor sexually violate her cancer-ridden corpse. This is described in explicit biological detail. The story then morphs into a condemnation of traditional male art, so often depicting the violation of women.

So the critique of male “entitlement” really is here, but it does not take up the whole of Bug Week and other stories and other perspectives are presented.

Which brings me to what I think is this collection’s crowning jewel – and I am a little abashed to make this choice as I see that in an earlier review than this one, Owen Marshall has already declared it to be Beautrais’ best. This is the story “A summer of scents” – a complete surprise both because it is not set in New Zealand and it is not primarily about tensions between the sexes. The story is set in post-Communist East Berlin with a cast of German characters. It is a “slow-burn” story, carefully setting up its large cast of characters and their confined lives in ageing apartment block, before it hits a strong narrative nerve. In a way I would call it a distant descendant of something like Katherine Mansfield’s “At the Bay”, where a society is depicted by a series of vignettes of individual characters. Not that Beautrais doesn’t point us in a clear direction and to a clear conclusion. The character studies are the foundations of a stunning, but logical, outcome.

I find it interesting that only six of these thirteen stories are told in first person. Beautrais avoids breathless confessionalism and when she wishes to stand back (writing in the third person) and make a cool assessment of a situation, she can do so. Men will sometimes feel chastened and there is sometimes what an eminent New Zealand literary figure once designated as a “yuk factor” in some of the stories of Bug Week and other stories, but this is still an impressive collection.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   


Beth has a pole through her arms. This is not a metaphor” it says on the back-cover blurb of Tara Black’s debut graphic novel This is Not a Pipe. And the statement is repeated on the opening page.

Beth, a graphic artist,  has a pole through her two arms which holds those two arms stiffly apart. This limits Beth’s dexterity and manual manipulation. Beth works in a telecommunications company where she can at least punch keys and has a good pal who supports her. But more important, Beth lives with (or is married to?) Kenneth, who stays at home writing (while she is out earning) and creating a new religion based on the idea of narrative as the creative force of the universe. Beth tells her story through images. Kenneth tells his story through text, coming up with more and more ideas on what narrative is and raising philosophical concepts. Beth creates by experience. Kenneth creates by rationcination. Empricism and feeling here; rationalism and calculation there? Maybe I’m simplifying. Anyway, Beth also helps Kenneth out by drawing panels of little googly characters, with bulbous noses, who discuss Kenneth’s concepts.

Did I mention that Kenneth is just a teensy bit domineering and (bespectacled, bearded, bald) looks just like your concept of a self-important male intellectual? Did I mention that Beth gets upset when her cat disappears? Did I mention that little creatures come of our Beth’s pierced arms and create little balloons? No, I didn’t mention these things because I am controlling the narrative you are reading and This is Not a Pipe is really about the nature of narrative and how it is created. And how writers and artists can add or withold things as they please.

Please, please, please remember that This is Not a Pipe is a graphic novel and so much of its flavour and impact come from Tara Black’s simple, but often surreal, images in which Beth is so clearly the main character even if Kenneth thinks he is.

But let’s back up a bit and dissect that title - This is Not a Pipe. Okay, we all know it’s the surrealist Rene Magritte’s famous caption to his painting of a pipe, clearly asserting that a painting is a painting, and not the thing it symbolically represents. A painting is paint, canvas and brush-strokes, it is not a pipe or any other three-dimensional object. So what is Tara Black doing with this for a title? Is she asserting that her graphic novel is only representation, not physical reality? Is she declaring an affinity for surrealism? Is she distancing herself from any identification with her created characters? Maybe all of these things and maybe none.

And what about that opening statement concerning the pole through Beth’s arms – “This is not a metaphor”? Really? I find it very hard to read This is Not a Pipe without seeing metaphor all over the place. The pole through Beth’s arms is a metaphor for the restrictions and limitations on Beth’s life, especially when she, a graphic artist, has to go out to earn while her man is at home doodling with ideas. The commitment of Beth and Kenneth to each other is clear, but the barriers put up by the pole also work as metaphor for the tensions and strains in their relationship, especially when Kenneth assumes a sort of superiority. Those little balloon things that come out of Beth’s arms, are they not the creative ideas that keep flying away from her in her constrained situation?

You see, I can tag everything here as metaphor or symbolism… or I can draw back and say it’s simply about a woman who literally has a pole separating her arms… And Metamorphosis is simply about a man literally turned into an insect… And surrealist paintings are literally about steam engines coming through fireplaces and elephants with legs like stilts…

The fact is I and you (hypocrite lecteuse, ma semblable, ma soeur) always somehow interpret what we see and read. Part of the creative process is making such interpretations. So please feel free to interpret as you will, metaphorically or otherwise.

This is Not a Pipe is a very interesting text and display. Perhaps the ambiguities in what it all means are part of its power.