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.


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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.

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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.

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