Monday, April 12, 2021

Something New

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

“THINGS OKAY WITH YOU?” by Vincent O’Sullivan (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ25); “THE MERMAID’S PURSE” by Fleur Adcock (Victoria University of Wellington Press, $NZ25); “LETTERS TO YOUNG PEOPLE” by Glenn Colquhoun (OldKing Press, $NZ35)

            I am going to avoid a cliché as I consider Vincent O’Sullivan’s latest collection of poetry Things OK with you? I am NOT going to say that this is an “old man’s poetry”. True, O’Sullivan is now in his 84th year, but unlike some other poets of his vintage, he does not focus on old age, infirmity and impending death to the exclusion of other things. The volume’s title comes from the last line of the last poem in the book – a defiant decision not to dwell on these things. Naturally, among the 75 poems presented here, there are a few that touch on old age, such as “How to shame a family properly…” and “End Game”, which presents an almost cosy image of a contented old woman, undercut with wry wit. When O’Sullivan deals with graves and worms and epitaphs, he does so with detached irony, as in “Poem with five plots” about imagined visits to the tombs of Proust, William Faulkner, Yeats and Harry Lime.

            In Things OK with you? O’Sullivan is still exploring new concepts. This is his first collection since Being Here (in 2015) and And So It Is (2016) [both reviewed on this blog] and he has clearly thought through a number of philosophical ideas which he has not approached so insistently in earlier works.

            Satire there is. The opening poem “After Lucy Tinakori’s famous party” takes a slap at what might be called “coddle culture” where every kiddie at a party is given a prize regardless of merit or lack of it. “Southern pastoral” scorns the pretentious rich, who imagine they are living the simple country life when they move into mansions some way out of town. And “Lines from way back” must surely be about the unnamed Donald Trump when “Pussy and circuses stake out their claim” and “Maggots exult that nature bred them white”. As satire, “Well so I’ve heard” and “Late Night News” could easily be taken the wrong way by those who read things literally… though the latter could be an admission of fierce forbidden feelings.

            O’Sullivan also has some literary amusement commenting on the illustrious. “Late note to Iris Murdoch” suggests elegantly that philosophy is only one mode of thinking and it is devised in the context of other events and contingencies. “For the Time, Being” deals with paradoxes in the life of the philosopher Martin Heidegger (incidentally, this is the only poem in Things OK with you? which is accompanied by an explanatory note – O’Sullivan usually assumes that his readership will understand his allusions without explanations). “Ms Dickinson, Mr Whitman” deals with fastidious Emily and booming Walt in terms of the convergence of two such different people.

            But after the satire and the literary figures, what are these philosophical ideas that I found in this collection?

            More than in earlier collections, O’Sullivan is interested in the whole field of epistemology – how we know (or think we know), understand (or think we understand), perceive and communicate (or try to). In “What to look sets off”, a simple sensual experience (watching fireflies) triggers a whole train of thoughts about perception. “Thinking the shark tank” depicts the human desire to be free of words. “I gotta use words when I talk to you”? Often we wish it wasn’t so.  In “The Scar” we are reminded that one childhood incident can affect the whole way we interpret the world thereafter. For the record, O’Sullivan is honest and unsentimental when he reconstructs childhood – there is no babbling of green fields. ”A story from the Forties” would in no way induce soft nostalgia, but it isn’t dismissive of earlier generations either.

            Some poems are very direct in addressing the problem of how we understand and perceive. In “Epistemology, Standard Five”, the problem of the nature of Being is resolved by experience of the present moment. “Class outing, even now” suggests that certain individual words bend the way we understand the world. “Signify” is certainly a poem about epistemology, asking how “real” the physical world is and banging rationalism against empiricism. It is interesting that some of O’Sullivan’s trains of imagery are at the service of this philosophical exploration. There is the image of the changing and on-flowing river in the Joyceian titled “Riverrun”, and in “Soon enough, then” and “What river means”, in each of which the mutability of a river challenges our understanding of what a river essentially is. Then there are poems when the sensual experience and mentality of dogs lead us to question our human sensual experience and mentality – poems like “If you don’t have a dog yourself well you’d hardly know”, “At the city pound” and “Dogspeed”. As to whether our perception is based on fear or delusion, consider those poems that deal with nightmare (and old age!) “Late shift” and “The story of Born Again Brightly” .

            As I too often do in reviewing collections of poetry, I have here been your friendly neighbourhood bibliographer, tiresomely listing for you some of the contents of the book rather than assessing the quality of the verse. (Jaysus! I’m getting to be Joyce’s Shaun the Postman!). So what can I say about O’Sullivan’s poetry, which is at once sensual and cerebral? I could note that O’Sullivan often makes the title of a poem the poem’s first line, as he has done frequently in the past. I could note that there are outstanding poems that do not conform to the neat thematic lines I have suggested above – such as  “Depression Villa”, which comes very close to being about haunting. I could say that that the imagery is vivd, as with the image of a dying fish “like threshing diamonds” in the poem “Once”. And I could say that the rawest, most desolate and most sad poem in Things OK with you? is “Festival highlight” – the commonplace agony of those who feel but cannot express.

            But there, you see – all I am doing is listing more poems, trying to convince you that Things OK with you? is essential reading.

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            Here’s an interesting point for you to ponder. When publishers’ publicists write blurbs for collections of poetry, they give a general (and of course very positive) account of what the poet is up to – usually in terms of his or her main thematic interests. But for the back-cover blurb of Fleur Adcock’s latest colllection The Mermaid’s Purse, all the Victoria (of Wellington) University Press publicist can do is to list a whole series of diverse things that Adcock deals with, rather than noting anything dominant. In her 87th year, Fleur Adcock here gathers up and presents new poems on so many different things that it is not easy to categorise her interests and inspirations. In her long and much-applauded career as a poet (look up Fleur Adcock Collected Poems on this blog for a brief account of her writing career) she has written about so many things. And she still does.

            Dutifully, however, I’ll do my boring bibiographical thing and try to corral her poems into thematic types.

            First, though, let me note that it is the first 39 poems in The Mermaid’s Purse that deal with many and varied things. The last 12 poems are designated “Poems for Roy”, and are dedicated to Fleur Adcock’s late friend, the English poet Roy Fisher (1930-2017). These are very personal poems joking with, celebrating with, recalling mutual experiences with the deceased, and I have no intention of intruding on something so personal. So I will pass them by with no further comment.

            Despite the sexy 19th century painting of a mermaid on the cover, the opening and title poem “The Mermaid’s Purse” reminds us that a real “mermaid’s purse” (actually the protective cover of a tiny baby shark) is no magical thing, and the sea is deep, daunting, dark and dangerous. As opening poem, this seems fair warning that Fleur Adcock is not going to dwell on the fanciful and the pretty. She expands the image of the sea in one of the most skilful poems in this collection, “The Teacher’s Wife”, a kind of bricolage combining couplets with triplets. It draws on a story she pieced together at second hand, but related to a traumatic event in her childhood. It involves attempted suicide by drowning. Of such suicides she notes “Have you noticed they’re all women? / I would cite some men if necessary, / but we are the sea for men to drown in, / the ravening tide. No wonder we scare them.” The deep, daunting, dark and dangerous sea is women, penetrated by, but never fully understood by, men. Thus says a very knowing woman.

            This collection has some expected concerns. There are poems recalling childhood, but not many of them and never maudlin (“Island Bay”; “In the Cupboard”). There is a fond poem addressed to her son (“A Bunch of Names”) and two poems about pet cats (“The Fur Line”, “A Feline Forage in Auckland”), although Adcock sees them for the destructive little beasts they can be. Memories of exotic travel are reconstructed (“Giza” “Siena”) with, apparently at least, memories of a casual affair in one case. Literary figures make their appearance, “Peter’s Hat” (about Peter Bland), “A Small Correction” (about Mike Doyle) and  “Kathi Bowden in Bavaria” (an imagined version of the young Katherine Mansfield in Germany).  But a hard reality is her approach to the literary world. One of her best poems, “The Annual Party”, gives a true, but satirical and very negative, view of the writing life – or at least of the way ageing writers are regarded and treated. Dare I say it is almost as devastating as Vincent O’Sullivan’s poem “Festival highlight” in his most recent collection?  Both are the product of poets who have seen literary gatherings too often to be starry-eyed about them.

            As an expatriate New Zealander who has lived most of her life in England, Fleur Adcock inevitably writes much that has an explicitly British setting. This is particularly true when she deals with birds, animals and nature itself. Thus “Berries”; “This Fountain”, “Magnolia Seed Pods”, “Bats” (about her personal engagement with bats in her English back yard), “Novice Flyer” (concerning a dead robin), “Wood Mice”, “Sparrowhawk” and “The Old Road”. As always with this poet, nothing is approached with a Romantic eye – she sympathises with non-human animals but does not sentimentalise. Her encounters with birds and beasts are matter-of-fact ones.

            Having glibly ranged Adcock’s poems into categories, I admit that in The Mermaid’s Purse there are also poems that are unexpected. Consider the three epigrams “In the Cloud”, “Election 1945” and “To Stephenie at 11 PM”. Enjoy the  bemused and ironical account of a London location “Amazing Grace” or the eccentric poem “Divining” about water-divining (and, I suspect, intentionally ironical). Then there are unexpected excursions like “The Little Theatre Club”, expressing a sort of nostalgia for cheesy English pantomime in the 1940s; or  “The other Christmas Party” about adults stripping off and boogying when the kids are asleep or the poem “Victoria Road”, referring to “Alex and Meg” and working as an elegy for them.

            Of course I have listed for you what is in this volume. In doing so  I have to admit that I found some few poems cryptic and perhaps assuming an intimate knowledge of the poet’s life which most of us do not have  – thus “Berries” and “In the Cloud.” But to conclude, I can only repeat what I said in reviewing Adcock’s Collected Poems. It is a pleasure to read somebody who writes so forthrightly, who has a sense of appropriate form for each poem, who lays her heart on her sleeve without forgetting her functioning, rational brain – in short, somebody who writes like a modernist rather than a post-modernist. Floreat Adcock.

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            A handsome hardback of some 175 pages, Glenn Colquhoun’s Letters to Young People is a book with a mission. Colquhoun is a doctor of medicine by profession.  He currently works as a GP in Levin (Horowhenua). But he is also a poet, with five collections so far to his credit. Two of them – The art of walking upright and Playing God – won prestigious literary prizes. In his introduction to Letters to Young People, Colquhoun explains that all the poems in this collection arise from his work in the Horowhenua Youth Health Service. Most are addressed to young people he has counselled or otherwise helped. As many as possible of the poems have been checked and approved by the indivduals to whom they are addressed.

            But what is the mission of this book? Colquhoun says he wants to celebrate the honesty of young people and their uninhibited colloquial expression, but also to show their strengths and vulnerabilities and their need for help. Addressed directly to a particular young person, each poem offers advice, but usually in an oblique way, in the form of a story or of a detailed metaphor.  Each poem is, in effect, a part of the healing process.

            So to the text itself.

            With few exceptions, all the poems in Letters to Young People are lean, with short lines sitting like columns on the page. (Written in unabashed prose, the poem  “To a young person finding the journey difficult” is one of the few exceptions.) Erudite language is avoided and Colquhoun sometimes employs forms that will appeal most to a younger readership. Comic book heroes are invoked in “Mud Cake” basically to tell young men to curb their tempers. Comic book heroes mingle with other heroes in a number of poems. One item is written in the form of a text (“IOW”) and another as rap (“Eruptions”). Sometimes (as in a sonnet which is also presented in English) the Maori language is used. If Colquhoun’s preferred vocabulary is usually simple and direct, the trains of imagery are often quite complex. Sometimes they imply details about the addressee to which we readers will not be privy.

            What sorts of advice does Colquhoun offer? To Anna he gives, in a non-coercive way “An attempt to prevent the suicide of a young woman”. In  “Heart murmurs” he lightens  Zoe’s mood by saying her heart “is telling you / there is no one else / exactly like you. ” Addressing Ethan in “Supernova”, he suggests the beauties of a vast universe are like the powerful possibilities that the young man has in him. Kristian is advised that even though his kidneys are not functioning properly, he will find a way to live with this defect. “The far paddock” tells Bree to face the day boldly. Bree (presumably the same person) is also addressed in the 13-part sequence “Via Dolorosa” which presents the travails and wonders of life in terms of a journey – especially mountain climbing. “A song sung sweet to greet the dead” is written as solace for young people grieving the death of their grandmother; and “Madonna and child” basically says fathers can be loving and caring parents too. In all these cases there is an attempt to restore a sense of self-worth and responsibility without guilt.

            Colquhoun is a great believer in the idea that people (his patients) will learn most and heal most if they are presented with stories rather than abstract concepts. He also takes it as an axiom that most of us construct stories about ourselves to explain who we are. The long 12-part sequence “Once upon a time” begins “Sometimes getting / better is about / finding out what’s / wrong with a story”. The sequence proceeds to tell stories from literature and comes up with “You probably think / when I listen / to your chest / with my stethoscope / I am listening / to your heart. / But I’m not. / I am listening / to your stories.” This idea of healing narrative is also in the poem “The three sisters”, where Colquhoun imagines Chekhov (who was doctor as well as playwright) healing people by telling a story. Only a handful of poems are a little difficult to interpret. “To men who steal the bodies of women” is ambiguous. Is it counselling young men not to harrass women? Or is it reminding young men that they owe a debt to women as we all began by living in a woman for nine months?

            Quite distinct from the others, and scattered through the text, are eight poems framed as “Letters to a young nurse”, all addressed to “Jess”. I will brutally summarise what these eight poems are saying thus: (1.) Respect the human body and how it has evolved. (2.) Advice is given mainly in the form of an examination of conscience – the nurse is asked to consider all her faults and then to realise that she, like everybody else, is a flawed human being who can do good to others of her kind. (3.) The Earth itself is the greatest healer and in the right circumstances natural processes heal us. (4.) The quest for medical knowledge is historical and we should respect those who came before us. (5.) You have to respect the stories your patients tell you. (6.) You need to see the world – indeed the cosmos – through more than the lens of your own particular metier. (7.) When things go wrong, accept that your imperfections are shared by all human beings. (8) “This last thing I have to say to you. / At the end of the day the most / powerful medicine I know is love.” Even if you don’t recognize this when you encounter negative things in life, love is still there and is the force that drives the world.

            In dealing fairly with Letters to Young People, I do not want to be accused of being a cynic. I am aware that Colquhoun’s intentions are good. I understand that part of the royalties from sale of this book will go to the Horowhenua Youth Health Service. The poet is obviously on the side of the angels and there is doubtless  therapeutic value in these poems for the people addressed (although I do wonder how helpful the poem “To a young woman raped by a friend” would be.)

            But there are many imperatives, many exhortations and much didacticism in this collection. Though dressed as “stories”, these poems do preach to us. It may be wise not to read Letters to Young People in one long sitting, as a sense of sameness takes over. And though Colquhoun is insistent on the place of nature in our formation, it is odd that his descriptions of nature tend to be generic textbook representations rather than things felt or observed in detail.

            To conclude on two personal observations: (A. ) “Things remembered and dreamed”  - one of Colquhoun’s longest and most discursive poems  - seems to me to come closest to being sheer autobiography. (B.) The one poem I found most impressive is “One that got away” – a sustained image of a tortured deep-sea fish presented as metaphor for the human will to be free. This poem sustains its imagery without being as discursive, and wandering away into other topics, as so many of Colquhoun’s poems do.

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.  

“RED PLENTY” by Francis Spufford (first published in 2010)

            Two years ago, on this blog, I reviewed Francis Spufford’s 18th century romp Golden Hill. It was published in 2016, and I described it as Spufford’s first work of fiction. Spufford (born in 1964), son of two professors and himself educated at Cambridge, began his writing career with a series of well-received works of non-fiction. All the sources I looked up listed Golden Hill as his first novel. But now that I’ve read his earlier Red Plenty (first published in 2010), I’m not so sure.

            Consider first the format of this fascinating book. The text is preceded by a list of dramatis personae, with asterisks (many of them) against the names of characters who were real historical people. Elsewhere, the author explains that most of his fictional characters are amalgams of real people, representing different classes or professions in the society he is depicting. The text is followed by 53 pages of end-notes (which I found myself reading in tandem with the text – a rather discombobulating experience). They explain, and source, the factual events upon which the book is founded. After them come 14 closely-printed pages of bibliography, authenticating sources. So how much is Red Plenty fact and how much is it fiction? How much is it a novel and how much a documentary? I also have to note that it is very episodic – indeed separate chapters could almost be called self-contained short stories, although there are some characters who recur in a number of chapters. This rara avis is not exactly a novel but then it’s not exactly non–fiction either. It is sui generis. I would call it dramatised history. 


            So, at last, what’s it all about?

            Most of dismal 20th century history has rolled over Soviet Russia. The Revolution. The long civil war. The disaster of collectivisation, killing millions of people. The megalomaniacal dictatorship of Stalin and the years of terror, purges and engineered famine to wipe out the peasant classes, with even more millions of deaths. Then the Second World War once Stalin’s co-operative arrangement with Hitler broke down. More millions of deaths. And the “frozen” post-war years as paranoia gripped Stalin and he set about his anti-semitic campaign with the fabricated “doctors’ plot”. But at last, in 1953, Stalin died and his successors appropriately set about trying to reform things, beginning by killing Stalin’s hangman Beria.

            And this is a time upon which Red Plenty focuses. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, mainly in the years when Nikita Krushchev was Party boss, there was at least the possibility that the Soviet Union would be able to create the land of plenty it had so long claimed to be constructing. Soviet GDP grew faster in the late 1950s than the GDP of most Western countries, including the USA. Soviet economists even dreamed of outstripping the capitalists and producing more quality goods and consumer items for their deprived masses than the USA could, as well as at last feeding their whole population. The opening chapters have Krushchev on his much-publicised visit to the USA in 1959 and his certainty that the USSR will soon be the master of world technology and will create, on Communist terms, a stable consumer society. Sputnik has already astounded the world. Soon Yuri Gagarin will further astound the world. Red Plenty is about to flow.

Except that it doesn’t.

            What went wrong with the Soviet dream?

            A whole raft of things. There were a couple of years with disastrous harvests, forcing the USSR into the humiliating position of having to import food to feed its people. The dream of self-sufficiency faded. Oil was struck in Siberia and again there was the mirage of endless prosperity on the back of petro-chemicals. But oil profits were frittered away on both heavy military spending and industrial enterprises conceived on 1930s priorities. More than anything, however, the Soviet system was based on the idea of a planned economy, which in effect meant a command economy. Soviet economists really believed that application of a rational plan would bring perpetual prosperity. By the early 1960s, this delusion was enhanced by the advent of computers. Now the younger, reformist Soviet economists believed that the appropriate manipulation of numbers via computers would create the perfect plan. But a plan, rigidly adhered to, never takes account of contingencies, unforseen events and real human needs. After the brief Spring of promise, the Soviet economy began to unravel. Things were already on the downward slide when Krushchev was unseated by a bloodless coup in the Central Committee in 1964, and Kosygin and Brezhnev took over. There would be no Red Plenty – just the dour continuity of rationing, scarcity, and planning further and further detached from reality.

Francis Spufford does not follow this history through to the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989-90. He signs off in 1969-70, when Brezhnev demoted and dismissed Kosygin and took over as sole boss. We know all that remains ahead are 20-odd years of censorship, repression, conformity, and growing dissidence that will eventually help push the whole system over.

Thus I have gracelessly charted the general direction of Red Plenty. But I have not noted the spirit of the book. Please understand that Spufford does not write in a spirit of triumphalism (“The Soviets were wrong. Capitalism Won! Yippee!” etc. etc.). Most of his Soviet characters are presented sympathetically and the younger Soviet economists are depicted as idealists who really believed they could create a better world.

But reality blocks them.

In the opening chapter set in 1938 (Part One, Chapter One) a young idealist thinks “The economy was a clean sheet of paper on which reason was writing”. Sheer reason, and planning, will solve everything. By 1962 (Part Three, Chapter One) a daring young economist, discussing how quality goods are being neither produced nor distrbuted properly, remarks “The point being that it was incredibly hard for the stores to send the bad stuff back to the knitting mills, because it all counted towards their output targets. What we need is a planning system that counts the value of production rather than the quantity. But that, in turn, requires prices which express the value of what is produced.” Knowingly or otherwise, the young Soviet man is promoting some of the virtues of an open market economy… but alas, this never was, and never could be, compatible with a command economy. Permit competition, appropriate pricing, and value as opposed to output targets, and you contradict the whole system.

How dry all this must sound, as if Red Plenty is a treatise on economy without a human focus. Not so. Chapter by chapter – or rather short-story by short-story – Spufford brings alive the realities of Soviet life in the lives of individuals.

Consider how he illustrates idealism in the form of the (historical figure) economist Leonid Vitalevich, trying (Part Two, Chapters I and 2) to coax the ideal economic plan out of mathematical calculations fed through a primitive computer system. Mere numbers, he thinks, will rationalise the distribution of potatoes. Consider the younger economic boffins who, sequestered in an isolated seminar-school for economists, slowly realise what privileged lives they are leading when they are given comforts that are not available to the general public. They are even allowed to speak their minds with relative freedom, including mild denunciations of the nonsense science that was imposed by Stalin’s favourite charlatan Lysenko. (Part 3, Chapter 1). So much for the Soviet State’s pretensions to social equality.  

The command economy means that factories have to keep up with set quotas. But in turn this means, when raw materials are delivered only intermittently, that there have to be, every month, bouts of “storming”, when factories work through the night, pushing workers to the limits of endurance, to produce what is demanded. Alternatively, some factory managers engage is deliberate sabotage of machinery in order to get “emergency help” with replacements and also providing a plausible excuse for not keeping up with the quota (Part 4, Chapter 2). The industrial situation also throws up individuals like Chekushin (depicted in Part 4, Chapter 3), a “tolkach” or “fixer” who operates like a salesman with promises and bribes and a web of “connections”, not to sell things but to buy things necessary to keep the system moving. He has to face extortion from street gangsters, and being beaten up by corrupt policemen who want favours, on his quest to get necessary machinery for a factory to fulfil its quota.

Spufford also notes the failures of Soviet science and medicine. Part 5, Chapter 3, titled “Psychoprophylaxis” gives the experience of a mother about to give birth. She has been told, as all Soviet women were, that her birth should be “natural” without the use of any painkillers, and that she should be able to master any possible pain by mind control. In the event – and showing how Party members had special privileges – she screams bloody murder as her contractions get stronger, says she has influence with the local party boss, and therefore gets given a painkiller. Why did most Soviet women have to go through this “natural”, un-anaesthetised process? Simply because the USSR did not have adequated supplies of epidurals etc. They made a virtue out of necessity by pretending their “natural” childbirth system was superior.

Similarly (Part 6, Chapter 1) the USSR lagged behind in the treatment of cancer, another legacy of taking charlatan biology as law. As for cybernetics and computing, the USSR ran far behind the West, and found that the only way they could produce credible machines was to reverse-engineer American IBM machines. And even then, they produced machines that were out-of-date in comparison with newer American models. These things multiply when there is a suppression of entrepreneurship.

On much darker ground, Spufford dramatises the nature of a society where there are mass censorship and severe penalties for reporting, or even talking about, the system’s failures. In a sequence set in 1953 (Part 1, Chapter 4), the economist Emil Shaidullin for the first time visits a desolate rural area and has a vague sense that some catastrophe has struck there but does not know what it could possibly have been. Spufford has to explain that even sophisticated city-dwellers had virtually no knowledge of the famines that swept Russia in the 1930s as such things were simply not reported. Spufford goes on to note that even a moderately-informed Westerner would have known more about such events than Russians were ever allowed to know. There were some tentative dissidents who tried to present a moderate and cautious form of protest. Spufford introduces (Part 2, Chapter 3) the (historical) character Sacha Galich, scriptwriter, songwriter, troubadour and Jewish (hence sometimes running up against ingrained Russian anti-semitism). He has managed to survive by writing acceptable sentimental and patriotic ballads. He is not exactly writing in bad faith – his priority is surviving, after all. But he understands the horrors of the regime that he is not allowed to mention, and very late in Red Plenty (Part 6, Chapter 2) he actually dares to sing a protest song. The interesting point is the fear some of his audience experience, with their knowledge that even listening to such things can mean punishment.

Of course all this points to the sheer brutality of a totalitarian regime. It is dramatised most fully by Spufford (Part 3, Chapter 2) in his account of a protest which took place in the town of Novocherkassk in 1962. The price of basic necessities (bread, meat, milk) had risen so much that local factory workers simply could not afford to feed their families. A large, peaceful protest occurred. The official response was to call in the secret police and the army. The protesters were told to disperse, or else. The protesters refused to disperse. In the massacre that followed, 28 people were killed. Protests weren’t allowed in the USSR. Naturally the event was not reported, but little by little rumours and samizdat managed to make the story known, and post-Soviet research has verified what happened.

This is the brutal sub-text of Red Plenty. No matter how idealistic some Soviet economists may have been; no matter how well-intentioned some plans were; no matter how sophisticated some Soviet intellectualls were; the system was not only built on an unworkable economic idea, but it was also in the service of a profoundly anti-democratic state – in effect, a terror state, even if the terror had modified and mutated somewhat since the days of Stalin.

I understand that Red Plenty has been translated into nine languages. I am pleased that one of them is Russian.


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.  


While having my frugal breakfast of one boiled egg and a milkless cup of tea, I heard it on National Radio near 6 a.m. just before Morning Report begins.

I checked the calendar to see if it wasn’t already April Fools’ Day. It wasn’t. It was still Wednesday 31 March.

Banksie’s “Keep It Real”, an inconsequential, small, stenciled graffiti-like piece, done years ago, had just been sold for 1.45 million dollars at an auction in Auckland. That’s the price of a house in Auckland nowadays, if you’re lucky.

The radio host chattered about it with the man who ran the auction house.

Did they talk about the artistic qualities of the work? Did they analyse its style? Did they compare it with others of the artist’s oeuvre? Did they discuss its meaning or possible impact upon the beholders? No. They talked about MONEY, with the radio host quickly seguing into gosh-gee tone at all the dosh that had been handed over for it.

Why do Banksie’s works sell for so much? the radio host asked.

The auction man said it was because Banksie was a mystery. Nobody knew who he was, so that made him more attractive to buyers.

The auction man also said that Banksie was ‘the’ artist of the 21st century, “just as Andy Warhol was ‘the’ artist of the 20th century and van Gogh was ‘the’ artist of the 19th century”. Well that does for Picasso and Matisse and a few others, thought I, not to mention quite a few 19th century artists. (Turner, anyone? Delacroix? Cezanne?). And besides, how can you crown anyone ‘the’ artist of the 21st century when the 21st century is still only 21 years old?

But I digress.

Banksie’s anonymity can only be called an elaborate publicity stunt to stoke interest and bump up sales for those of his works that are not in public spaces. Indeed I sometimes wonder if “Banksie” is really a consortium, so formulaic are the images that are produced. They are neither better nor worse than other planned graffiti. Okay, they’re a big cut above “I WAS HERE” graffiti, and I’d give him (or them) points for some few flashes of wit. But they’re no better than what many other anonymous wall-daubers are producing.

So, apart from the money factor, and apart from the pubicity-stunt anonymity, what’s their appeal? On the same day as the inane conversation on radio, the NZ Herald  had article which told us that Banksie is “deeply concerned with social justice and inequities.” And here we hit another bump in the road. Once and for all, let’s make it clear that that the good intentions of an artist, the worthy causes that an artist supports, have very little to do with the quality or aesthetic worth of the works an artist produces. In the main Banksie’s works have all the subtlety and style of product advertising. (Insert here postmodernist twerp who will tell us advertising is the great art-form of our time and blah, blah, blah.)

There there’s this MONEY thing. I don’t have to be told that money has always been a factor in the art world (works produced for wealthy Renaissance patrons etc.) But remember, Banksie’s money-spinners are bought by extemely wealthy people (the technical term is “rich white wankers”). You don’t think that the proletariat can cough up that much money, do you? They are bought as investments to hang in boardrooms and private homes.

To deploy another technical term, they are billionaires’ bullshit.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Something New

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


“THE MIRROR BOOK” by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage imprint / Penguin-Random House $NZ38)


            It’s a quiet night in your home, but next door the neighbours are quarrelling. Voices are raised. There is some shouting. It sounds as if something has just fallen over. Will you wait for the noise of breaking glass before you call the police? Or will you wait until you hear a gunshot? But then is it any of your business anyway? Why should you get mixed up in it? You can’t do anything to help. The main thing you feel is helplessness and a kind of irrational embarrassment.

            This is a very crude conceit, but it more-or-less conveys how I feel after reading Charlotte Grimshaw’s confessional memoir The Mirror Book. This is a book about another family’s quarrels and differences, sometimes quite intense. Do we learn from it? Do we learn something important about human nature? Or are we just onlookers to somebody else’s crises?

            Charlotte Grimshaw is the daughter of novelist, poet, critic and former academic C.K. (Karl) Stead and his wife Kay Stead. Given that she is an accomplished and well-known novelist and commentator in her own right, I’m sure she would hate being identified this way, but her daughter-ship is essential to this memoir.

            At a crisis point in her life, Grimshaw felt the need to examine her upbringing and to reassess how she had become the person she was. Her husband Paul Grimshaw was having an affair and had walked out on her and their three children. She hoped the break wasn’t permanent and their marriage could be saved. In her unhappiness she started thinking about how it was that, as a considerate mother and wife, she found herself relating better to men than to women. Why did she always feel that things had not been explained truthfully to her when she was younger? What was it that made it difficult for her to relate to women and why did she have so few women friends? She first, and significantly, sought the help of a male psychotherapist, but he directed her on to a woman psychotherapist who, after some initial hesitation, helped her to sort out what was making her feel so lost.

            Almost inevitably, it involved her parents. “I got preoccupied with the idea of a family living according to a repressive narrative that denies individuals their own truth”, she says (p.21) The “repressive narrative” was imposed by her parents. She tells us a number of times that when interviewers asked her what her childhood was like, she would say “Wonderful childhood – a house full of books”. But this wasn’t true. As Grimshaw presents it in The Mirror Book, both Karl and Kay never fully faced up to the truth of their relationship and the impact it had upon their children, especially Charlotte and her elder brother Oliver. (Her younger sister Margaret plays little part in this memoir.)

            When they were younger, she says, their parents failed to give them the type of oversight that parents should give. They were fed and housed and educated well. There was no real physical mistreatement. Like other fathers of his vintage, Karl did smack his children when they misbehaved and he was also capable of  explosive rage” (see pp.110-112). But the real problems were an emotional distance and a failure to understand how the children felt about things. In detail Charlotte cites a memory – already recalled in two of her fictions – of the young, unsupervised, Stead children negotiating a dangerous track in the Waitakeres, where they came close to either falling over a cliff or drowning. Their parents weren’t with them and hadn’t noticed where they’d gone. She gives other examples of their negligence, including the way she was shuffled off to unpleasant holidays with a hippie-ish aunt whose daughter took her on potentially dangerous rambles.

            For a variety of reasons, things got worse when she was a young teenager. Young Charlotte bonded more with Karl than with Kay, because father and daughter were both story-tellers who shared jokes. Karl had many affairs with other women (p.112). Already galled by this, Kay began to see Charlotte as another barrier between herself and her husband. “All the language and behaviour changed; they stopped behaving like parents. He liked the idea I could write, and she, already stung, hurt and excluded by the disloyalty of his infidelities, grew so hostile towards me that daily life turned toxic.” (p.119) Kay gave Charlotte long periods of the “silent treatment”, refusing to speak to her and causing her to find it dificult to speak herself. When she was 13, she was sexually assaulted, but her mother apparently treated the matter as a joke.

            Her parents didn’t mind in the least if Charlotte stayed out far into the night and roamed freely around central Auckland. This meant a young girl “hanging out with drag queens, bouncers, DJs, street kids and prostitutes… many of whom were dully engaged in the business of self-destruction” (p.163) It also meant being involved in juvenile delinquency such as “petty crime, vandalism, setting fires and underage drinking” which led to numerous court appearances (p.162) As an adult, she wonders why her parents didn’t set stricter boundaries. They might have seen themselves as liberal, broad-minded people who weren’t going to restrain or inhibit their growing children; but to (wife and mother) Charlotte, this now appears to be a failure to observe a duty of care.

            As for her mother Kay, Charlotte basically sees her as the cause of her inability to relate to women. Kay (and please remember in all this that I am reporting Charlotte’s account) seemed to have a big chip on her shoulder. She was a librarian who was never  promoted to higher positions she could have filled, because she didn’t have a university degree. (Her daughter sometimes told her she should get one.) Ironically for a very literate woman and the wife of a professor, Kay often ridiculed higher education. She encouraged her daughter to see all her schoolteachers as oppressive, conformist fools against whom she should rebel… which, in an attempt to please her mother, the schoolgirl Charlotte did loudly and incorrigibly, risking expulsion.

            Even worse, she accuses her mother of not being true to herself and always playing a part for public consumption. At dinner parties and social gatherings Kay was a charming and witty woman, completely supportive of her husband and totally unfazed by his many affairs. But privately, says Charlotte, Kay raged and wept every time she learnt of another of Karl’s infidelities. She says that on one occasion, Kay phoned her to report that “she’d just spent three hours breaking into the padlocked trunk in Karl’s office. When she’d finally smashed the lock open with a hammer, she’d found letters that were evidence of love affairs she hadn’t known about.” (p.150)

            But Kay lied systematically both to herself and to her daughter. When Charlotte was upset about her own husband’s infidelity, Kay brushed it off as a triviality and “her new line was that she’d been cool with Karl’s infidelity all along… She was scornful of my ‘sensitivities’ about being cheated on (and temporarily left). She had ‘never’ suffered trauma and depression, been overwhelmed by Karl’s disengaged behaviour while she was struggling with young children, never been distraught over his continued lying…. She and I had not discussed the problem at length, over years. None of my memories were valid. Our shared experience, my memory of it was not real.” (pp.150-151) It is on this matter that Charlotte gets into talking about “gaslighting’ and being told to believe things she knew were not true. Her memories of her parents’ loud quarrels and her mother’s tears and anguish were dismissed as fantasies or works of fiction.

            It is interesting that Karl and Kay were both scornful of second-wave feminism and the “Me Too” movement (pp.120-121), both of which challenged the idea that men had a right to chase and seduce women as they pleased. They were also scathing about the psychiatry to which Charlotte had turned, which might lead people to make unnecessary discoveries about themselves. Better to keep things under wraps.

            A number of times (see pp.33 and 83), Charlotte quotes her father’s words in his second volume of autobiography You Have a Lot to Lose, where he asserted “One wanted to control the world and make it more orderly and beautiful than it could ever be, so one created a world of one’s own, and controlled that.” While this might be a natural impulse for a novelist, whose business is, after all, to create things and people that do not exist, Charlotte suggests that it really shows the mindset of somebody who did not wish to face up to realities, especially domestic ones. She accuses him of idealising (again in You Have a Lot to Lose) what the Stead siblings experienced (pp196-197) noting “With autobiography, there must be a temptation to airbrush, to smooth over rough edges, to make yourself the good guy and right in every argument. The less able you were to tolerate the idea you’ve been a jerk, made mistakes, fucked up or failed, the less honest your account will be.” (p.198)

            Yet along with all the things that I have reported accurately, Charlotte does have many mitigating things to say about her parents. The book opens with a statement of her continuing love for her parents, her closeness to them, and the fact that all families have their quarrels. She spends most of a page (p.304) remembering all the good things about her father – his humour, the memories he shared of his own childhood and the many happy times the family had together. She also cites many of his novels and stories, often to criticise his assumptions, but also showing real admiration for his work. She thinks fondly of her parents as they now are, an old (in their late 80s) and mutually supportive couple. Perhaps most important, she is also aware of the unpleasant childhood her mother had, warping her formation. (“Man hands on misery to man. / It widens like the coastal shelf ” etc.). In a long passage (pp.259-267) she compares both herself and her mother to Sylvia Plath, who was belittled by an unloving mother and who loved her father but found him an overwhelming presence to the point of killing him symbolically in poetry (“Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” etc.).

            This exploration of a family is the heart of The Mirror Book, but it is not all the memoir records. Charlotte  - always referencing the ongoing influence of her parents – discusses her life as a young adult, after she’d left home but before she met her husband. There was the trauma of witnessing, at close quarters, the death of a male friend (wilfully killed by drivers of a car who drove off at speed and were never tracked down). There were some years of living with an abusive partner who was considerably older than she was. She lived for a while in the unnerving environment of an apartment at the top of an abandoned high-rise building in central Auckland.

Fearful of making this review even longer and more laborious than it already is, I have not examined the way Charlotte Grimshaw connects the relevant parts of her life to the novels she was writing, especially Mazarine, which reflected mother-daughter relationships and allowed a woman to come to terms with herself and find healing in the company of other women. I hate to use a cliché, but this memoir is in large part a journey towards the healing of the author’s emotional trauma, built on the idea that life improves if you are allowed tell the truth about yourself and others, and if you allow space for feelings as well as ratiocination.

As a reader, however, I do come back to that feeling of helplessness and a kind of irrational embarrassment which I mentioned in the opening paragraph of this review. I do not for one moment question Charlotte Grimshaw’s truthfulness. (After all, on what grounds could  I, or any other readers, challenge her on what she says about her private life?) But we, as readers, are essentially being pushed into an intimate family argument. In this book Charlotte Grimshaw shakes off the carapace of irony that is found in so many of her fictions. Here her language is passionate, engaged, daring to use verbal clichés, be heart-on-sleeve and (it must be added) sometimes repetitive. She often makes the valid point that women who express strong feelings are accused by men of being “hysterical”. I would not make that accusation, but I do note that this is a wrenching and rather exhausting book to read.

Was it written in haste? The Mirror Book appears only nine months after the release of her father’s second volume of autobiography, with which she sometimes takes issue, and even fewer months since a radio interview she cites, when Kim Hill quizzed Karl Stead. Is it deliberate riposte, written in the spirit of hitting back at what she sees as a false narrative? Do we have in The Mirror Book just a game of “he-said / she-said” to the tune of Larkin’s “they fuck you up, your mum and dad”? I think not, but quite apart from Karl Stead already having had his say, I do wonder how Charlotte’s two siblings might have interpreted some of the family things she remembers.

At this point I could consider the hell of living your life with the aim of turning it into fiction. Do all your experiences, all your relationships with other people, become potential “copy”, so that you do not really interact with others? You may be always watching to see how you can put other people into words. Your relationships become a form of exploitation. Is this something that afflicts all novelists? I don't know.

I hope that Charlotte Grimshaw has found the writing of The Mirror Book to be cathartic and that her life is now less troubled by untruths. But even in saying this, I am butting in on somebody else’s life.


For Your Information: Elsewhere on this blog, you will find a review of Karl Stead’s You Have a Lot to Lose. You will also find reviews of Charlotte Grimshaw’s Soon, Starlight Peninsula and Mazarine. I know she took exception to my review of Soon, which I found to be condescending in parts, but I don’t think she could object to the reviews of the other two novels, which I found more humane and forgiving.


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.

“BLEAK HOUSE” by Charles Dickens (first published in serial form between March 1852 and September 1853. First published in book form in 1853)   

I feel compelled to write this “Something Old” to complete my comments on what are generally regarded as Charles Dickens’ three most daunting novels, as well as being among his longest. They are Little Dorrit, Our Mutual Friend (both reviewed on this blog) and Bleak House. In these novels you will find much scathing satire and some incidental humour, but little of the rumbustious action, broad comedy and frank melodrama that continue to make his earlier novels more popular with readers. In short, these three novels are largely serious and heavy affairs. Reviewing Little Dorrit, I called Bleak House Dickens’ second greatest novel after Great Expectations. I hold to this view. But by every rational examination I’m blowed if I know why I do.

So what you are about to read is an exercise in ambiguity.

I will forego giving you a detailed plot summary, as I too often do, and boil the tale down to its essence. 

The Chancery suit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce has dragged on uselessly for many years. Three wards-in-Chancery are nurtured and kept by their guardian John Jarndyce.  They are Esther Summerson, Ada Clare and Richard Carstone. Corrupted by his expectations in the suit, Richard Carstone dabbles in medicine, the law and the army, but fails to make a career anywhere. Though he falls in love with, and marries, Ada Clare, he dies a disappointed man, the promise of his youth blighted.  It is to this character we must look if we are to interpret the novel as a solemn satire on the law’s delay and the inefficiency of the legal system. Justice delayed is justice denied etc.

The second, but connected, strand of plot concerns the Tory squire Sir Leicester Dedlock, who is in his 60s, and his younger wife Lady Honoria Dedlock, who is in her 40s. As we long suspect, but find out definitively about halfway through the novel, Esther Summerson is in fact Lady Dedlock’s illegitimate daughter, about whose existence Sir Leicester Dedlock knows nothing. Lady Dedlock is on the point of being blackmailed about this scandal (notably by the lawyer Tulkinghorn, who is found murdered). Fleeing for her husband’s palatial country seat Chesney Wold, she dies at the gates of the pauper graveyard where her lover is buried.

These two threads of narrative (the nurturing and crushed hopes of the wards-in-Chancery and Lady Dedlock’s scandal) are central to the novel’s plot, everything else being what I would call “detachable” – strands of plot that could almost exist on their own.

I have some theoretical objections to much of this.

There are, of course, the frequent coincidences, contrived to bring characters together – John Jarndyce is a good friend of Lawrence Boythorn whose property just happens to abut the Dedlocks’ property etc.etc. There is the plot device of many people noting how like Lady Dedlock young Esther is, but few of them making the obvious connection. My own view is that, unless mother and daughter really looked so alike that the connection was unmistakable, nobody would have noticed a likeness. Of course there are Victorian evasions. Has Sir Leicester Dedlock never had sexual intercourse with his wife? Has he not noticed that she is not a virgin and has stretch marks from her pregnancy? (These are 21st century speculations on my part, but I can’t help making them.) And where evasion is concerned, there is no confrontation of Sir Leicester with his Lady once he knows her past history, even if he “forgives” her. Surely this should have been a major scene in the novel, but was Dickens avoiding having to devise the plain speaking Sir Leicester might have had to use? I also wonder why Dickens has to ritually kill Lady Dedlock for her sins when she has, after all, produced somebody as wonderful as Esther Summerson, whose very name (“summer sun”) so clearly signals what a bringer of joy she is. And isn’t it a pity that Esther is finally paired with such an underdeveloped and uninteresting character as Allan Woodcourt?  Without miring myself in further plot details, I also find the solution to Tulkinghorn’s murder implausible.

But as I said, these are entirely theoretical objections to the novel, of the sort that students produce in undergraduate essays. The fact is, I was quite willing to accept the things I have listed as acceptable conventions for the era in which the novel was written. What makes much of the novel difficult to read, however, is what I would call its “clogged” nature.

As I said when reviewing Little Dorrit on this blog, I think Dickens sustains very well the idea of a prison as a dominating symbol  – of the constraints of social custom - in that novel. But in Our Mutual Friend, what could have been the dominating symbol of the river – as the uncertainty of life - is not sustained after the novel’s opening. Likewise, despite its famous opening, Bleak House does not sustain the image of fog as a symbol of the law’s impenetrability, delay and confusion. There is much dark imagery in the novel, of course, sometimes suggesting the dominance of the past (like the unending case in Chancery) – the “sick humour” of the slums; Krooks’ cat “Lady Jane” threatening to eat a corpse; the “Ghosts’ Walk”, with overt reminders of the past, at Chesney Wold; and the dark wood in which Esther and Lady Dedlock first fully acknowledge each other. But it is not the fog, or any other single symbol, that sustains the idea of confusion and delay.

  How Dickens does display complexity and confusion is by the plethora of characters he introduces. This is what I mean by the novel’s “clogged” nature. There are simply too many replicated characters. We have a delightful parody of misdirected charity in Mrs Jellyby, so why do we need the same point made by the (walk-on) character of Mrs Pardiggle? This “clogging” effect is especially true of the slum characters who jostle around “Nemo” (the pseudonym of Captain Hawdon, Lady Dedlock’s long-ago lover and the father of Esther Summerson). These slum characters are trying to find either material for blackmail or papers relating to the case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Frankly, I became lost in the dealings of Krook, Snagsby, Guppy, Smallweed, Jobling (also called “Weevil”) and the rest of the gang. Indeed, I groaned when the avaricious Smallweed was introduced about halfway through the novel. In his grasping corruption, does he really add anything thematically to the novel which Krook hasn’t already displayed? Or did Dickens create him as a back-up, knowing that he was going to destroy Krook by spontaneous combustion? This is on top of the fact that (rather more relevant to his plot of the law’s delay) the novel has a profusion of lawyers -  more, I believe, than appear in any other novel by Dickens. “Conversation” Kenge of the firm of Kenge and Carboy; Snagsby; Tulkinghorn; Vholes etc. And did Dickens write another novel with so many (described or reported) death scenes? Tom Jarndyce commits suicide before the novel begins; “Nemo” dies of an overdose of opium; Krook by spontaneous combustion; Neckett (“Coavinses”) and Gridley of poverty; Richard Carstone of defeated hope; Tulkinghorn is murdered; Lady Dedlock of shame, exhaustion and – apparently – infection; and, of course, the heart-tugging death of young Jo the crossing-sweeper, who dies of smallpox.

Frankly, in reading this novel I was often confused by the dealings of so many characters and the introduction of so many subplots. (Do we really need bluff trooper Mr George turning out to be the son of the Dedlocks’ housekeeper???). Or is this simply another way of saying that I found the serial nature of the novel wearing, and missed that sense of “wholeness” that one finds in more tightly-constructed novels?

And yet (here comes a paradox) it is a curious fact that those parts of Bleak House I most relished were those that involved characters NOT essential to the plot as I have outlined it.

Thus Jo the crossing sweeper, with his “He was very good to me, he was.” And “I don’t know nothink about nothink.” Take or leave his rhetorical death saying the Lord’s Prayer, and sneer if you are of an Oscar Wilde disposition at his sentimental function in the novel, but it is still refreshing to hear his straightforward voice after all the obfuscations of other characters. The scene in which he leads Lady Dedlock through the slums is one of the novel’s highlights. Then there is Harold Skimpole, one of Dickens’ best satirical creations. I have met this sort of man – claiming to be a complete naïf while artfully sponging off other people and then taking no responsibility for the consequences. Scholars say he is based on the elderly Leigh Hunt (just as Boythorn is modelled on Walter Savage Landor) – but what is important is that he lives as hypocrisy incarnate, as convincing as Tartuffe. And I was engaged by Mr Bucket “of the Detective” – the bluff but devious police officer whose leading questions prise information out of dubious characters with the skill of a Maigret so that he ends up solving the problem of the murder of Tulkinghorn. For me, a favourite scene in the novel is the melodramatic one when Bucket scatters, with righteousness on his side, the opportunists who have come to sell information to Sir Leicester Dedlock. To this band of memorables, I am tempted to add Caddy Jellyby and her sulks as she resents fiercely her mother’s shows of charity which actually serve to neglect her family. Alas, Caddy Jellyby is a good and convincing portrait to begin with, but Dickens has to turn her into a more conventional figure of sentiment when she marries young Turveydrop – so I refuse to let her into my Pantheon of memorable characters in Bleak House. 

While I am eviscerating the novel in this fashion, let me comment on how unsettling I find Dickens’ mode of narration. Let nobody be so stupid as to imagine that Dickens was unaware of how innovative his style could be, and how consciously he experimented with different modes of narration. Most of Bleak House is narrated by an ominscient third-person who speaks in the present tense. So far, so (almost) conventional. But there are chapters in which Esther Summerson (addressing herself to whom?) writes in the first-person and in the past tense. There is a certain awkwardness here, as we are frequently told how wonderful and how morally blameless Esther is in her own artless words. I understand that we are meant to be charmed by her disclaimers and self-deprecation, but the effect is still jarring and artificial. For the life of me, I cannot see this as anything more than as an awkward precursor to the much better Great Expectations, all of which is (like David Copperfield) narrated in the first-person to great ironical effect. In Great Expectations, the theme of the oneness of society is better expressed in the tale of a gentleman dependent on a criminal than the tale of a haughty lady who happens to come into contact with a diseased slum-dweller while working out the consequence of her “sin”.

If you have read carefully, dear readers, you will have noticed that I have just systematically condemned Bleak House on many levels. But – here comes the paradox – I still think it is one of Dickens’ greatest achievements. Could it be that the confusions and the multiplicity of characters and the mixed modes of narration and all the things that my rational mind critcises are in fact all the things that make Dickens’ panorama of a whole society so convincing? A whole world is encompassed. Indeed, could all this muddle be the true continuation of the opening image of fog - the portrait of a confused and rudderless society? An immovable image of the tragic and complex nature of life lingers with me from this novel. It annoys me so much that I cannot get it out of me head. Is this what works of genius do?

 Could somebody please sort this paradox out for me?


Note on cinema: Like all but one of Dickens’ novels (Barnaby Rudge), Bleak House has a number of times been made into a TV serial but has never been produced as a film for the cinema, if we except a few primitive versions way back in the silent era. I have seen two of the BBC television serials of Bleak House – and given that Dickens wrote his work as serial parts, this was probably the right format for dramatisation of the novel. I was impressed by the 1985 8-part version, and especially by Diana Rigg’s performance as Lady Dedlock, although Denholm Elliott was a little too haughty for the humane John Jarndyce. The 2005 version of Bleak House, chopped into 15 episodes, was not quite up to the same standard. Gillian Anderson was a less impressive Lady Dedlock although Carey Mulligan was perfectly cast as Ada Clare. The main trouble with the 2005 version was that it was consciously aimed at the soap-opera audience. The many episodes were aired in the early-evening, with the aim of catching those who most often watch East Enders or Neighbours. Continuity suffered with all the necessary cliff-hangers at the end of each episode.