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.


Recently [in December 2021], in a speech that was printed by Newsroom, Charlotte Grimshaw began by remarking on a reviewer, whom she did not name, who reviewed "The Mirror Book" on his blog. She noted that he mentioned feeling "embarassed" in reading about another family's troubles. From this, she said that embarrassment is linked to shame, the implication being that the reviewer was attempting to shame her. There's an outside chance that she was referring to somebody else, but I'm pretty sure she was referring to the review you have just read. If she wishes, she is free to refute this suggestion. Anyway, my mention of embarrassment was in no way intended as an act of shaming and the review was mainly positive about "The Mirror Book". As you have just read the review, you can make up your own mind about this.


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.  


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.



            Recently I reviewed for the New Zealand Listener Viet Thahn Nyuyen’s novel The Committed. In many ways I think it is a very muddled novel, but it isn’t my purpose to write a review of it here. Instead I was fired by some of the things said by his disillusioned, almost nihilistic, narrator, a Vietnamese in Paris who has abandoned Communism and has come to distrust ideologies of any stripe. Two things said by this narrator especially caught my attention. Speaking of his Communist aunt, he says “For her and for most self-proclaimed revolutionaries like me, ‘revolution’ was a magic word, like God, that foreclosed certain avenues of thinking.” (p.53) Later he comments “Those who believe in revolutions are the ones who haven’t lived through one yet.” (p.123)

            These comments set me thinking about the whole concept of revolution, and the very glib way the term is now used by ideologues.

            To brush away the irrelevant things: I’m fully aware that the word “revolution” has multiple meanings. It can, of course, be used in the most literal sense, as in RPM or the revolution of a disc or wheel, meaning one full turn of a disc or wheel through 360 degrees. Indeed, it was from this literal meaning that other metaphorical uses of the term “revolution” developed to mean something like a radical change in society,  as if society was being turned upside-down and then righted again in a new form. Thus “the agricultural revolution”, “the industrial revolution” and claims that new systems or inventions are “revolutionary” as in “a revolution in IT” or even “a revolution in the way you shop”. So loose is the use of the word, and so useful in promoting new gadgets and fads, that a painfully unfunny comedian like Russell Brand can write a book called Revolution about how his “spiritual” insights are going to change the world.

            But, as used in the political sense by ideologues, “revolution” means the overthrow of a regime or government by organised violence, and this is the use of the word that has gathered about it an unearned mystique. Consider, for example, middle-class college students in democracies calling for revolution or waving pictures of Lenin or Trotsky or Che Guevara when they themselves are far from anything even vaguely resembling a revolutionary situation. For naïve young adults, a revolution is conceived as a mass demonstration of force which automatically rights all the wrongs in the world – indeed some seem to think of it as a massive street party. Consider members of the Old Left, still seen in May Day demonstrations in Paris and still carrying icons of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao as if they have learnt nothing from recent history and do not know what genocide is. Consider the students at Berkeley and in other US universities, who wanted, in 2017, to celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution (i.e. Bolshevik coup) of October 1917, and got angry with any students who called them out. As Viet Thahn Nyuyen’s narrator says “Those who believe in revolutions are the ones who haven’t lived through one yet.”

All this is not by way of saying that real revolutions – real organised violence overthrowing regimes – come out of nowhere. There really were things grossly wrong with the Ancien Regime in France, tsarist autocracy in Russia and pre-revolutionary situations on other countries. Among revolutionaries there really were idealists who thought they were changing the world for the better and ushering in a new, more equitable and better way of life. But in no historical case has the outcome of a revolution really led to the promsed land. Indeed, outcomes are always quite different from the intended ones. But this is never considered by those who regard “‘revolution’ as a magic word… that forecloses certain avenues of thinking.

Let me lay out some obvious reasons not to regard revolutions as panaceas.

The most obvious one is, of course, violence itself.

Very, very rarely have there been revolutions carried out with minimal violence. One could cite such things as the bloodless “Carnation” Revolution in Portugal which overthrew an authoritarian regime – but this was in the service of restoring a liberal democracy which had existed prior to the authoritarian regime. In most revolutions, there are many factions – including the many who oppose the revolution – and there is much bloodshed. If theorists regard this as a trivial thing, they have long since lost any credible, humane morality. Indeed most true revolutionaries think that much bloodshed is a cleansing or purging of the old, and therefore both necessary and commendable. It is notable in all the most momentous revolutions, leading revolutionaries soon come to regard their opponents as non-human, disposable and to be despatched by special squads. Hello Reign of Terror. Hello Cheka. Hello Cultural Revolution. If you fetishise revolution, you are consciously choosing a path that will lead to thousands – possibly tens or hundreds of thousands – of deaths.

“But,” an astute listener might ask, “what of the repression and violence that was practised by pre-revolutionary regimes? Surely violence was the only way to remove them.” Possibly so, but in the world’s major revolutions (French, Russian Chinese etc.) the revolutionary regimes that ensued ended up being more violent and coercive than what had preceded them.

Add to this the historical fact of how prolonged revolutions are. One foolish myth about revolution is that it will take one concerted push to overthrow a regime and usher in Utopia. Thus images of the storming of the Bastille and the Tennis Court Oath. Thus the myth of the “storming” of the Winter Pace in 1917 – according to Eisenstein’s heavily fictionalised film October, the Bolsheviks rushed in and took over. Job done and now let’s celebrate. The reality was the ensuing six years of civil war and (again negating the propaganda version) it was not simply a matter of Reds (Bolsheviks) versus Whites (tsarist forces). Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries and the “Green” peasant forces also opposed Bolsheviks. The death toll – including a major famine caused by the disruption of revolution – took away millions of lives, and in the end what was produced was a regime more repressive, and certainly more genocidal, than what had preceded it. As Sheila Fitzpatrick notes in her authoritative book Everyday Stalinism, it was common for working-class Soviet citizens in the 1930s, facing terror, rationing and suppression of all dissent to say “It was better under the tsars” – a statement which could, if reported, have them packed off to the Gulag. Consider the prolonged violence of the French Revolution, escalating between 1789 and 1794 before three successive authoritarian regimes (Directory, Consulate, Napoleon) set up their own forms of violence and repression. I could elaborate on this, but my point is clear – major revolutions involve not only much violence and death, but much violence and death over a long period. This, too, is what you are signing on for if you fetishise revolution. And even after that long period, nothing substantial may have emerged – consider the long and largely fruitless convulsion that was the Mexican Revolution.

As implied in all the above, there is also the fact that revolutions rarely produce the outcomes intended by the revolutionaries. You want an equitable world where people are no longer oppressed, there is plenty for all, class distinctions are either abolished or levelled out, there is true democracy and the gap between very rich and very poor disappears. But to get this, you have a violent revolution which relies on militaristic leaders who act in a regimented way, and tightly organised groups who regard themselves as the real law in the land. The regime that emerges is a tight, authoritarian one, certainly hierarchical and with a closed inner circle in control. Napoleon. Lenin. Stalin. Mao. Castro. And have you not noticed how one dominant revolutionary figure tends to get deified? Is this what the revolutionaries thought they were getting?

Though the term causes Marxists to go apoplectic, there is also that Utopian impulse in revolutions – the unrealistic hope that revolution will create a perfect society. Such perfection always implies massive coercion. Perfect societies have to have perfect citizens, which means enforced conformity by means of mass coercion, censorship, suppression of all dissent and continual surveillance. In short, Utopia always leads to totalitarianism.

One final consideration. In his handbook What Is To be Done?, Lenin set out his plan for revolution – but his plan consisted of little more than criticising his political enemies and then saying that a revolution could only be won by a tightly disciplined and organised corps of committed supporters, meaning Bolshevik cadres. Lenin set out no plan for what would happen after the revolution. The only inference one can take from this is that his Utopianism was such that he thought the revolution itself would solve all problems. Result? After the Bolsheviks seized power, they pushed through such imbecilities as the abolition of money and the seizure of peasant harvests to feed the proletarians, they having no idea how a government could be run, even a revolutionary one.  Even allowing for the ongoing civil war, the economy collapsed, chaos descended and they had to rapidly back-pedal and bring in the so-called “New Economic Policy” which allowed for personal entrepreneurship and an open market in the sale of produce. A form of capitalism had to save the Communist revolution. My point here is that the concept of revolution itself, fetishised, achieves nothing. If your goal is simply to overthrow a governmennt, you have to ask what will follow.

So my case against revolution is the inevitable death toll, always extended through a long period; the (unadmitted) Utopianism of revolutionaries; the fact that few revolutions actually achieve the outcomes fervent revolutionaries intended; and the dismal tendency of revolutionary movements, once they achieve power, to become totalitarian.

But here is a final caution to my polemic. Living comfortably in a liberal democracy, and facing no real material hardships, it is relatively easy for me to dismiss revolutionism. I would probably feel very differently about it if I were a starving beggar or peon in a South American or African country, or an exploited factory worker toiling in a country ruled by a military junta. It is understandable that such people would long for a revolution. My target is the nitwits in democracies, usually the naïve and the gullible, who really believe a revolution would create a better society. I have far more respect for genuine revolutionaries in genuinely oppressed countries than I have for middle-class American college students wearing Che Guevara t-shirts.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Something New

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

“LAND – How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World” by Simon Winchester (William Collins; Harper-Collins, $NZ39:99); “WHAT IF WE STOPPED PRETENDING?” by Jonathan Franzen (4th Estate; Harper-Collins, $NZ14:99)


            In Land, Simon Winchester sets out to explore what exactly the concept of land ownership is, how human beings have divided up the Earth, and what the consequences of this are. Although this 400-plus-pages-long book is subtitled “How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World”, the British-born American–resident journalist and essayist does not consider only the modern world. Much history enters into his account. The personal anecdotes and tales from the past come thick and fast.

Winchester begins in relatively jocular fashion. His “Prologue” explains how he came to own a large parcel of land in the rural north-west of New York state. But this at once leads him to consider all the people who would have owned this same land before him – including indigenous Americans who were driven off as Europeans invaded and took over the continent. Nor does Winchester exempt himself from his subtitle’s “Hunger for Ownership”. Much later in Land (the footnote on Page 207) , Winchester admits that he himself has engaged in land speculation for profit. So in matters of land ownership, this is a book written by a participant, not an onlooker.

The five long sections that make up Land deal with separate concepts of land ownership.

After consideration of the geological and meteorological forces that create land,  Part 1 turns to the millennia-old story of how human beings, ceasing to be hunter-gatherers, began to mark land out as exclusive property when agriculture and cultivation became the norm. From this gradually emerged the desire to know how much land was available for cultivation. Hence there was the gradual quest, over thousands of years, to measure the size of the whole Earth. This leads Winchester to discuss cartography, the art of triangulation and the use of “trigs”. In the 19th century came the discovery that the Earth is not a perfect sphere but is an oblate spheroid. More and more precise measurements were made, including the endeavour, taking over a century, to produce the International Map of the World, which was eventually superseded by aeronautical surveys. We now know that the Earth consists of 37 billion acres of dry land, and 90 billion acres under the sea.

It is only in the 4th chapter of Part 1 that Winchester discusses how borders between nations were devised.  Once upon a time, a range of mountains or a desert or a wide river or sea would separate one people or tribe from another. But in the age of imperialism, lines drawn on maps, designating political borders, were often completely arbitrary and had nothing to do with topographical features. Winchester dwells upon the border between the United States and Canada, an almost straight line unconnected to any salient feature (apart from when it reaches the Great Lakes). In  passing he notes that this is not an “undefended” border as is so often claimed, but is riddled along its whole length with monitoring gadgets to check for anyone crossing the border illegally. In a more tragic vein, he tells the story of the creation of the border between India and the new state of Pakistan, when the British withdrew from India in 1947. The border was drawn hurriedly by a British bureaucrat in London, who had never travelled east of Paris and who was guided only by maps. The result was – and is – a much contested border whose very existence has led to much bloodshed and many thousands of deaths in the last 70 years.

Having established the topic of land and its boundaries, in Part 2 Winchester turns to the matter of how land is either created or acquired. There are, of course, submarine volcanic eruptions that still create new islands. Spectacular examples are given of new islands bursting up off the coast of Icaland within the last 50 years. Still uninhabitable by human beings, these new islands are already being colonised naturally by birds and plants. More intriguing for Winchester, however, is the artificial creation of new land by human beings. He considers how much of what is now Hong Kong was dredged up and barricaded to extend the  busy sea-port’s holdings and accommodate its expanding population. Even more detail is given on the Netherlands and the long project, starting in the 1920s, of damming up and finally obliterating most of the Zuider Zee to create a whole new province. Winchester does not spare us the engineering details involved. Nearly 20% of the Netherlands now consists of land that has been won from the sea by human effort.

But if land is created, without human conflict, there is the more troublesome and millennia-long problem of land being expropriated from one people by another. One of Land’s longest chapters is Chapter 3 of Part 2, titled “Red Territory”, in which Winchester examines how Europeans justified taking land from indigenes as they built their empires. There was, for example, the idea of “Terra Nullius” – meaning land that was owned by nobody and hence able to be claimed by imperial powers. Ignoring the long and ancient occupation by Aborigines, British colonists claimed Australia was “Terra Nullius” and took the continent over as of right. There was also the doctrine that only those who “improved” land – meaning basically only those who farmed land in the European way – should be able to own land. This doctrine was favoured particularly in North America as the United States of America expanded westwards, overwhelming tribes who occupied desired territories, making treaties which had so many conditions attached to them that they were easily broken, stimulated by populists like Andrew Jackson who sped up the process of expropriating land from native Americans, and culminating in such tragedies as the “trail of tears” and the obscenity of the 1889 Oklahoma land grab. In the process of this, many tribes were completely exterminated while others were confined to “reservations” which were often far from their ancestral territories. In the matter of social class as a factor in land ownership, Winchester devotes Chapter 4 of Part Two to the large hereditary holdings of aristocrats in the United Kingdom, a review which recalls the essential feudalism of this system.

But how well do the owners of large estates treat the land they own, and treat the people who live on their land? This matter Winchester tackles in Part 3, which he calls “Stewardship”. He begins with the grim history of the enclosure of common land by ambitious gentry and aristocrats as the Middle Ages ended, then moves on to the equally grim tale of the Highland clearances, where lairds like the Duke of Sutherland decided that grazing sheep was more profitable than having poor tenant farmers. The crofters were bundled off their land and driven into exile with no compensation for their loss. But then, taking a jump into the present age, Winchester looks at the extremely wealthy owners of huge tracts of land in Australia – so-called “stations” – who nowadays are most concerned to earn huge profits by the extraction of coal and other minerals, to the detriment of the world’s climate. There are similarly obscenely wealthy billionaires (like Ted Turner) in the United States, who sometimes cloak their overlordship in a professed concern for the environment. In Chapter 3 of Part 3, Winchester hits on what I thought was going to be the crux of this book – the difference in concepts of land ownership. On the one hand, you have the strict “no trespassing” mentality, enforced by barbed wire and electrified fences, which says that walkers and ramblers may under no circumstances cross land which has a particular owner. On the other hand, you have the concept of “community ownership”, which has been embraced in Scandinavian countries and in post-devolution Scotland. Of course farmers’ growing crops and cultivated fields are not to be walked over, but there is free roaming over open fields and untilled land regardless of who owns them.

Yet, as any well-informed person must be, Winchester is not wholly starry-eyed about the current movement known as “wilding”. This is the conservation movement which says that land would flourish best, and contribute most to a better climate, if it were left untouched by human beings. Let fields grow with wild flowers and weeds as they will, without human intervention, and let birds and animals do what they will. Eden will be recreated. Winchester cites the unintentional “wilding” that has taken place in the wide DMZ (De-Militarised Zone) between South and North Korea, upon which hardly any human feet have walked in over 60 years. It is now filled with wild flowers and birds that are endangered in areas of human habitation. A similar thing has happened on many abandoned farms in the United States and (bizarrely) around the abandoned ex-Soviet city of Chernobyl. Yet some attempts at “wilding” initiated by human beings are compromised. Winchester examines in detail the estate of a wealthy and modish couple in England. They are “wilding” many acres of their estate, to the applause of Green tourists who come to admire their project. But as sceptics have pointed out, their paradise of uncurated British flowers and birds is really artificial. After all, in their “wilding” fields, there are none of the original alpha predators, like wolves, that once roamed the British Isles before human beings hunted them to extinction. Attempts to “wild” land are never natural – they are products of human choice.

Winchester concludes his section on “Stewardship” with historical lessons on how land should and should not be used. Lesson One – an example of good land management ignored. Australian Aborigines for eons knew the art of “stick-fire” or “cold-fire” to limit the growth of dry combustible trees. European settlers dismissed this art as primitive superstition and let combustible trees grow where they will. Result? Australia’s chronic, huge and barely controlled bush fires. Lesson Two – an example of appalling use of land. There are now no easy access roads to some outskirts of the US city of Denver, Colorado. This is because land is still infected with highly toxic plutonium, after years in which a poorly-monitored manufactory of nuclear weapons was functioning there.

In his second-to-last section, Part 4, titled “Battlegrounds”, Winchester turns to examples of land whose ownership is constantly being disputed. I will not dwell on these, as the examples given in detailed chapters are such well-known ones. First the endless conflict between Israel and Palestine, fired in the early 20th century by the expropriation of much Arab land. Less often publicised, the deliberate expropriation of fertile Ukrainian land by Stalin’s Soviet state, including collectivisation and deliberately engineered famines, causing many millions of deaths – a record of genocide rivalling Hitler’s. Finally, the case of Japanese-Americans who were incarcerated in the USA during the Second World War, only to discover, upon their release in 1945, that many of their farms had been stolen by unscrupulous non-Japanese farmers who would not return them. In each of these three case-studies, the issue was land occupied by one group and coveted by another.

The final section of Land, Part 5, has an apparently optimistic title, “Restoration”. Winchester deals with attempts that colonists and settlers have made in some parts of the world to restore land to members of the original occupying people. Winchester leads off with a 20-page chapter called “Maori in Arcady” about New Zealand. As a New Zealander, I find it hard to read this without seeing it as a once-over-lightly, but Winchester deals fairly enough with the taking of Maori land in the 19th century and then the long path to the Treaty of Waitangi being written into law and the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal to return some disputed land to Maori ownership. Following this is a chapter on the very mixed results of “community ownership” on Scotland’s Hebrides Islands (apparently on some islands, it has led to an influx of people who believe living on a remote island entails the privilege of never having to work.) There is, I regret to say, a very superficial chapter called “Bringing Africa Home” which deals first with the, often brutal, colonisation of Africa by imperial European powers; then with post-independence attempts by African countries to redistribute land. Winchester does discuss the disaster of the unhinged Robert Mugabe who turned functioning farms over to cronies unskilled in farming – causing Zimbabwe to become the basket-case of Africa as opposed to the bread-basket of Africa that it once was. But his survey of Africa is too glib to be informative. Running a little bit off topic, Winchester notes how “restoration” of land can sometimes means an attempt to “restore” land to an apparently pristine state, as in such places as national parks. Visitors therein are allowed to believe they are seeing a part of the Earth still as it was before human occupation. Unfortunately, many such attempts at “restoration” involve expropriation. Winchester notes that the US’s Yosemite Park was created by forcing out the native American tribe that had lived there for centuries. Twisting the knife, he also notes that many of the great conservationists of the 19th and early 20th century were also white supremacits – like the founder of the Sierra club – who thought that other inferior races were incapable of appreciating the sublimity of wild landscape.

On a very chastening note, Winchester ends with a warning on the climate crisis, rising sea levels, and the probability that diminishing acres of land will lead to even more tension over who should own what land and why. He concludes by quoting Leo Tolstoy’s famous parable “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, which rebukes a lust for land by suggesting that in the end, all we need is the plot we are buried in.

Now that I have given you my typical summary of contents in lieu of a real review, what are my conclusions about Simon Winchester’s Land?

Chapter by chapter it is a fascinating book. There is much geology, much history, much vivid description, many engaging anecdotes, much protest. Some of the examples Winchester gives will already be familiar to many readers, but others are both less well-known and more enlightening. Winchester’s anger over expropriation – from the Highland Clearances to the Soviet rape of the Ukraine; from the theft of Native American land to the botched attempts at redistribution of land in modern Africa – are fully justified. There is much to learn from this book.

BUT (Oh! the inevitable word!) what I missed most in this informative and engaging book was an overall thesis. What exactly was the argument that Winchester was making? What exactly does Winchester himself think about land ownership? Certainly he has pungent things to say about how land has been acquired, how it has been misused, and how it has been smothered by cities, but does he have some idea on how land ownership in general could become more equitable? Does he have a better system in mind? On top of this, Winchester’s survey is largely focused on the rural. The overwhelming majority of human beings now live in huge cities and large towns. What does he have to say about leaseholders, freeholders and renters in these conditions? Or does the concept of “land” ownership not exist in cities?


I hope the preceding review makes it clear that Land is a book well worth reading. But, lacking a central line of attack, much of it does come across as faits divers.


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In What if We Stopped Pretending? American novelist, author of non-fiction and controversialist Jonathan Franzen presents a brief polemic on the matter of climate change. What if We Stopped Pretending? is 70 small pages of large print, with many blank pages between its chapters. It can be read comfortably in about half-an-hour.

A couple of years back, in the New Yorker and a few other publications, Franzen contributed essays arguing that global warming was now unstoppable and that the best thing human beings could do would be to prepare for the new conditions in which we will attempt to survive. He repeats this argument in What if We Stopped Pretending?, saying “my own hopes lie not in averting climate catastrophe but in our capacity to deal with it reasonably and humanely” (p.14).

For expressing these opinions, Franzen was much criticised as a pessiminst and as somebody who merely impeded attempts to avert a possible existential disaster. But here Franzen defends his corner. Of course he sees climate-change-deniers as being delusional and excoriates the Right. But he sees the Left as being equally delusional by holding out false hope. This is the “pretence” referred to in his title. Franzen points out that weasel words infect many manifestoes and statements made by those who think restriction of carbon emissions will avert climate change. Franzen notes that such statements usually hedge their bets by saying that restriction of carbon emissions may only “theoretically” halt climate change. But this ignores human nature – the fact that the overwhelming majority of people want to persist with their current lifestyles, fuelled by whatever power sources are available. Every “saving” in an adoption of “green energy” is offset by the demand for energy on the wider world stage. In Africa, a new coal-fuelled power station opens each week, China is not giving up on traditional carbon-emitting fuels, and the catastrophe draws nearer. Much of the Green movement is simply shadow-boxing.

Franzen’s suggestions? We should be doing more to protect endangered species, many threatened with extinction. We should stop producing false optimism and start preparing to accommodate the coming tsunami of refugees from lands that will be inundated by rising sea-levels or who will be driven out of lands stricken with chronic drought. We should curtail as severely as we can many of the power-using luxuries that we now take for granted – but this will require a push-back that is probably not possible.

And we should accept that the Earth is soon going to be a hotter and more hostile environment for human beings. Therefore, we should work at the Earth’s problems day by day, doing what is good for humanity here and now and not holding on to false hopes of rescue. As Franzen writes: “Any good thing you do now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really meaningful thing is that it’s good today. As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.” (p.39)

That is the only hope Franzen offers us.

Incidentally, What if We Stopped Pretending?  was itself originally published in the New Yorker as a riposte to some of Franzen’s critics and, of course, has earned Franzen yet more angry criticism.