Monday, April 26, 2021

Something New

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

“TOMORROW THE WORLD” by M.K.Joseph (Atuanui Press, $NZ35); “TRANQUILLITY AND RUIN” by Danyl McLauchlan (Victoria of Wellington University Press, $NZ30); “THE DISINVENT MOVEMENT” by Susanna Gendall (Victoria of Wellington University Press, $NZ30)

            When M.K. (Michael Kennedy) Joseph (1914-1981) died, five of his novels had been published, but he left in his archive a number of completed, unpublished, typescripts. One of them, the medieval adventure Kaspar’s Journey, was published in 1988, seven years after his death. And only in October 2020 did Atuanui Press publish his alternative-history thriller Tomorrow the World.

            The year is 1960. Germany won the Second World War when Britain caved in, in 1941. The Nazi Reich embraces all of Europe and most of the Eastern Hemisphere. But Hitler is now in his seventies, old, getting feeble and living in a delusional mental dreamland. Who will succeed him? Surviving Nazi bosses seem to be lining up to become the new Fuhrer – Heydrich, Himmler, Goebbels, Goering, Bormann and the rest of the gang. There are rivalries and tensions at the top.

            In England, Jeff Amherst is a conforming bureaucrat, happy enough with the Nazi regime that has dominated the country for nearly two decades. He works for the German I.G.Farben corporation. With a wife and son and home in a better part of London, he is content to be one of the thousands of Londoners to join in the official celebration of the Fuhrer’s birthday; and he enjoys seeing the Nazi-sponsored revival of English volkisch traditions such as morris dancing. If there are disturbing rumours about the way Jews are disappearing and being “resettled” in the Reich territory of Australia, Jeff can still shrug them off.

            For all his conformity, a Resistance group finds a way to blackmail Jeff into working for their cause, and Tomorrow the World becomes the story of how he is forced to act as a courier, taking a mysterious package across the Greater Reich to Munich.

This is the thriller element of the story, and it works well. The ending might be a little abrupt, but it is plausible, and en route Joseph creates a number of details that other writers have ignored, such as the use of England’s ancient and under-used canalways as a means of escape. Accompanying Jeff is an interesting woman called “Charlie” (Charlotte) Peace and some sexual moments of a rough, comradely sort. There are traitors and informers to dodge, and glimpses of other Resistants in Europe.

Joseph does not subscribe to English exceptionalism. The English population acts very much as populations in other (historically) occupied countries did – most people keep their heads down and try to keep out of trouble. Only a small proportion actively resist. Jeff is not exactly an heroic figure. There is also an awareness that (as in historically occupied France) there are rival factions in the Resistance, often at odds with one another.

But all this is only the novel’s thriller element, as Joseph has much to say about the Nazi phenomenon. Joseph was in England when war broke out, and joined the Royal Artillery. He was in the D-Day landings in 1944 and went through campaigns in France and Belgium, ending his war in occupied Germany. He knew war well at close quarters – unlike at least one of his poetic critics. In some respects Tomorrow the World, despite being counter-factual, continues the exploration of war and Nazism that were part of two of his published novels, I’ll Soldier No More (1958), a realistic, and very autobiographical, account of an artillery unit at war; and A Soldier’s Tale (1976), which explored some of the ambiguities of collaboration and resistance.

In Chapter Two, a Cockney Jew gives Jeff Amherst some distressing news about what is really happening in England. This sounds very much like exposition for the reader. Similarly, Chapter 10 is an almost stand-alone chapter in which we are invited into old Hitler’s mind to see his accumulated madness. But, artificial though this chapter might be, it gives us Joseph’s very convincing diagnosis of Nazism as  Wagner-inspired megalomania built on a mixture of distorted Nordic pagan mythology, racial hatred and personal insecurity. As convincing are Joseph’s accounts of the grandiose and oppressive architecture that a triumphant Nazism might have built in a reconstructed Berlin. There is also his awareness that there was a true resistance movement among Germans, even if it was held in check for years by Hitler’s apparent victories.

There are now many counter-factual fictions about a victorious Nazi Germany, some of them written before, and some after, Joseph was writing. But Tomorrow the World is written from Joseph’s own perspective and says things unique to his own world view.

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Some time back, I reviewed on this blog, with pleasure, the two novels so far written by Danyl McLauchlan, Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley and Mysterious Mysteries of the Aro Valley . Both are lively Gothic fantasies filled with chases and pratfalls, with a post-modernist sensibility and much satire on the bohemian lives of Wellington students, stragglers and wannabes.

Nothing in these books prepared me for McLauchlan’s third book, totally different in kind. Tranquillity and Ruin is a sequence of four long essays, written in 2018 and 2019, with lengthy Foreword and Afterword. They plumb serious questions of consciousness and belief, and chronicle a search for the healing of a troubled mind.

McLauchlan is a committed atheist. I’m not. But I found myself fully in sync with what he was saying as soon as I read the opening essay “Arise and Pass Away”. Here McLauchlan says he has suffered chronic insomnia, has been prone to taking walks in the middle of the night, and has a history of taking anti-depressants. To all of which I can only say “me too”,  although I appear never to have been as fully depressed as McLauchlan has been (“mild bipolar disorder” was the diagnosis I was once given). McLauchlan, in his 40s, attempted to heal his troubled mind with meditation via a form of secular Buddhism – he was wary of the religious element. He found it really did help his mind to focus more, to calm him down and to make him less depressed. But he continued to be afraid that the meditation process might take him down mystic paths which he didn’t want to tread. So, as he fell once more into depression, he looked for enlightenment elsewhere.

The next three essays follow his attempts.

First, in the essay “The Valley and the Stream”, he recalls going on a retreat to the Wangpeka Study and Retreat Centre in the foothills of the Southern Alps. Because he is reflecting on states of mind, he considers how philosophers and psychologists have attempted to struggle with the problem of what Consciousness is and what Being itself is. Do we delude ourselves when we think we are autonomous beings with free will? Seeking inner peace, one of McLauchlan’s main theses here is that the mind is always cluttered with “noise” and the chatter of many “sub-minds” within the mind, overstimulated by too much information. Such an overload is the condition that causes insomnia and depression when the mind succumbs to “obsessional looping” as the sub-minds play again and again the same (depressing) thoughts. Meditation can be a means of cleaning out much of this “noise”. But McLauchlan admits that he did not really discover a way to meditate fruitfully, often finding the process boring and slipping into irrelevant and unhelpful thoughts.

In “The Child and the Open Sea”, he attends a camp in the bush organised by the small group of people who call themselves Effective Altruists. These are people who want to do good in the world, but who know that many well-intentioned schemes to better the lot of humanity collapse, because they are based on insufficient research and vague wishful thinking. (Examples of such failures are given). The philosophy of the Effective Altruists appears to be hard, materialist untilitarianism, with much resort to statistics and much discussion of moral dilemmas that might block effective altruism. McLauchlan tends to call them “rationalists” – people with immense trust in science – but he also notes some eccentrics and dogmatists in their fold. As he tells it, there is much reliance on the philosophy of Derek Parfit. To this reader at any rate, Parfit’s argument that there is no such thing as an individual – and that therefore we should act altruistically as we are acting for ourselves – seems a very contorted way of saying we belong to the same species. Page by page, this long essay raises many cogent matters, but perhaps in the end it fails to produce a focus as it comes up with no central line of argument.

It does, however, give its due to a strictly non-religious, scientific, rationalist view of the world.

In “The Hunger and the Rain”, McLauchlan goes to Bodhinyanarama, a Buddhist monastery in the Stokes Valley. The framework of this essay is McLauchlan’s diary of attempting a retreat there. He ponders on the new regime of unfamiliar food he eats there and on his own looming obesity. He does get used to the new meditation cycle the Buddhists approve. Being an atheist, he sees it primarily as a means of cleansing and renewing the mind, but he still reacts negatively to some of the spcifically religious elements of the retreat. Nevertheless, he listens with tolerance, especially in a conversation with the (Australian) head monk. At a certain point, this essay considers the rather intolerant atheist Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene. Mclauchlin approves of much that Dawkins preaches, but finds his argument to be self-contradictory and somewhat dehumanising. In turn, this becomes a dialogue between Dawkins and Martin Heidegger, wherein science is pitted against metaphysics. There is a curious outcome from this combat. It is McLauchlin’s conclusion that some sort of religious assumptions are necessary for a community like a monastery or a meditation centre to be stable and survive. He remains an atheist, but can appreciate how valid religious ceremonies and forms can be to so many people.

To squeeze these essays crudely into a nutshell, McLauchlan is saying that science and religion should respect each other because they have much to learn from each other. The metaphysical cannot be discarded, even by the materialist and atheist.

This rough outline of Tranquillity and Ruin misses out something very important. McLauchlan does not indulge in academic-speak even as he investigates major philosophical concepts. This text is peppered with very relatable descriptions of his own periods of discomfort, with amusing side-notes and with other signals that this is a very personal process. A genuinely enlightening book and a very good read. 

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Some years ago I saw a very good horror film. It involved ghosts. But what made it effective was the fact that ghosts were never seen and hardly referred to. They were implied only, which made them scary as they became the unseen presence, the insubstantial elephant in the room, all the more daunting for never being delineated clearly. What we only half-know can be terrifying. This is the effect of ellipsis.

Of all the words used in the back-cover blurb of Susanna Gendall’s debut novel The Disinvent Movement, the most important is “elliptical”. Told in the first-person in bite-sized chapters, The Disinvent Movement is written in a very elliptical style. There are gaps where things are not told to us. We have to infer, from very brief phrases here and there, what the narrator’s concerns really are.

We infer she is in her thirties. We know she has children. We understand the action takes place in France and Switzerland with memories of New Zealand. We realise early in the piece that she feels alienated from the society she is in, and detached from the domestic life she is expected to live. She says: “There was a time when I looked around and noticed that everyone had crossed over to the other side. I had no idea where they were or how they had got there – all I knew is the I was not with them.” (p.13) Frequently there are signs of detachment, not from reality necessarily, but from accepted systems of signification, as when she consults a dictionary: “How could so many words exist? Why choose one over another? Faced with this vast ecosystem that lived, supposedly, in my own head, words great and small crawling around, dozing, incubating, I had to take another sip of coffee.” (p.69) This indicates some sort of trauma in process.

But these alone are not the unseen presence, the daunting elephant in the room. Buried deeply in the text is the story of an abusive husband and the narrator’s desire to flee from their marriage. The husband is first introduced thus: “I met my husband at the airport. I recognised him for what he was: my absolute negative.” (p.27) There is evidence husband and wife have given up on each other, as when we are told they avoid confronting the real issues by burying themselves in media: “This was the way we talked to each other now – through the voices of journalists we’d never met before, through movie reviews and recipe instructions and letters that told us the amount we owed for the temporary use of electricity.” (pp.48-49) There is no depicted violence, there are no passages of direct abuse, but almost as a throwaway, there’s a comment about bruises on the narrator’s arm. And there is a throwaway line (here underlined by me) telling us there was violence in the narrator’s childhood too: “I was born in a bland house by the sea. My mother didn’t like it there. There were squashed mosquitoes on the ceiling and the linen was the wrong colour. And my father kept knocking her unconscious. I had always admired her for getting out.” (p.71)

The narrator wishes to abscond, but talks about it in an almost jocular way, as if she is avoiding the issue: “I had heard it takes at least seven attempts to get out. Seven just happened to be my favourite number.” (p.38) There are formidable barriers in her way, things that hold her back: “Each morning I knew I was closer to leaving. This was not so much about walking out the door as it was dismantling a whole system of belief.” (p.58) Perhaps it’s the children, but they are treated in an elliptical way too, as in: “The children went away for a while and were replaced by a thirty-something unshaven man.” (p.75)

I am labouring the point here, but all the ellipses and all the gaps are telling us of a frightened or bullied mind who can’t bring herself to face some things. In fact, she can’t even name some things. A lover is referred to only as “Maurice’s friend”. If her husband has a name, I missed it in my reading.

And there is a dose of escapism. The eponymous “disinvent movement” refers to the narrator’s plans to drive some things out of existence. She teams up with a man who wants to drive cars of out existence by vandalising them. Or does she? There is a strong suggestion that this movement is a figment of her imagination – another case of eliding reality and avoiding the harder facts of her life under the impress of long-term trauma.

If you skip through the novel too quickly, you might think it is a collection of unrelated anecdotes, told in a wry, deadpan voice as in “I met this guy who spent half his life wearing a suit in America and the other half a mundu in Kerala. He was trying to work out what to do next. In the meantime he wore shirts and pants” (p.24). Or as in witticisms such as the narrator’s reaction to visiting a spartan hotel: “Instead of a bathroom there was a velvet curtain, hung somewhere between poverty and decadence.” (p.66) But these are not loose anecdotes. They are building blocks leading up to a diagnosis.

It’s a very interesting exercise in style.



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. 


“DOMINION” by C.J.Sansom (first published 2013) and comments on sundry other counter-factual novels

            I’ve just been writing comments on M.K. Joseph’s posthumously published novel, Tomorrow the World, an “alternative history” novel set in the 1960s after Nazi Germany has won the Second World War.

            Reading it set me thinking of all the other counter-factual novels that have begun with the same premise. By a quick look at a Wikipedia posting headed “Hypothetical Axis Victory in World War II”, I discover that, quite apart from comic books and computer games, there have so far been at least 34 full-length novels that depict Hitler’s victorious Reich, not to mention a number of television series and numerous one-off episodes of time-travel sci-fi series.

            I am not addicted to novels on this topic, but quite a few years’ worth of reading have made me cross paths with at least some of them. Here are the few that I have read.

            First, as a teenager, I read The Sound of His Horn written by “Sarban”, which proved to be the pseudonym of an English civil servant called John William Wall. It was first published in 1952, not long after the Second World War, and may well have been the first novel to use this particular premise; but it is as much pure fantasy as hard counter-factual. It is set centuries after the Nazi victory. On huge, forested estates, Nazi overlords hunt “inferior” human beings for sport, the ultimate outcome of their racist ideology. A time-travel fantasy element draws the protagonist into this world and ultimately a time-travel fantasy element gets him out of it. I remember enjoying this (short) book, but not finding anything particularly persuasive about what a long-term Nazi regime would be like.

Far better-known, and probably the best-known American version of “Hitler-wins-the war”, is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, first published in 1961. Inevitably its perspective is very American. Hitler and Japan have won the war and by mutual negotiation have divided the United States between them. Dick rewrites many historical events to lead plausibly up to this situation. Carefully plotted, the novel introduces a novel-wthin-the-novel of a forbidden book which tells how the Allies either did win, or could have won, the war. Dick’s theme is the matter of probability and chance in history and The Man in the High Castle is one of the most thoughtful of counter-factuals.

Probably the most eccentric novel I read on the Nazi vctory was the English hack Frederic Mullally’s Hitler Has Won, first published in 1972. It is also the silliest. America doesn’t enter the war. Germany crushes Russia and Hitler dominates all of Eurasia. But he wants more absolute power, perhaps even supernatural power. So he is persuaded to take out the Vatican, overthrow the pope, and become Pope Adolf the First. But this causes a huge revolt and… aw shucks, how it goes on is too silly to synopsise.

And then there was Robert Harris’s Fatherland, first published in 1992. Unlike other counter-factuals, it takes the form of a detective story and limits most of its action to Germany itself. The “hero” is attempting to hunt down one of the architects of the Holocaust, as Nazi Germany in the 1960s is trying to polish up its image for American consumption; and such people have to be written out. But as the hunted man is a high official in the regime, the detective ends up being hunted himself. For some reason (and I admit to being a little baffled), Fatherland became a huge bestseller internationally, probably the most widely-known “Hitler-wins-the-war” counter-factual after The Man in the High Castle. Both these novels were turned into populat TV series.

As I’ve already noted, these are just a handful of the many novels starting with the same premise. But only once have I ever written, for publication, a review of an alternative history novel about a Nazi victory. This was C.J.Sansom’s Dominion, first published in 2013. Unaltered from its appearance in the Listener (19 January 2013), I reprint the review below.

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            The shelves now groan with counter-factual novels offering alternative outcomes to every major “what if?” in history. Two “what ifs?” still dominate the field. The South wins the American Civil War. Hitler wins the Second World War. C.J.Sansom’s Dominion offers a variation on the latter.

            In 1940, after Dunkirk, Neville Chamberlain resigns as PM. But instead of selecting Winston Churchill as his replacement, cabinet chooses the appeasing Lord Halifax, who at once capitulates to Hitler. Nazis don’t invade Britain. Instead, they give Britain self-governing “dominion” status under German supervision. Think a bigger version of Vichy France.

            Flash forward to 1952. The impenetrable smog that palls London symbolizes confusion and fear. The natives are getting restless, as Germany’s draining war with Russia has continued for over a decade. Out in the countryside there’s a growing Resistance movement under the octogenarian Churchill. Sansom has great fun telling us who make up Britain’s collaborationist government. Prime Minister is that opportunistic swine Lord Beaverbrook. His deputy is the Fascist Oswald Mosley. Minister of Education is Arthur Bryant (historians will chortle knowingly at this one).*

            To his credit, Sansom avoids the idea of British exceptionalism. In this alternative Britain, there are as many collaborators and thugs coming out of the woodwork as there were in any country that was, in historical fact, occupied by the Nazis. Main plot has a German Gestapo agent hunting down some British Resisters with the aid of a collaborating British cop. The Gestapo man is depicted as principled and intelligent, even if serving a monstrous cause. The British cop is a sadistic yob.

            The set-up is good and the concept intriguing. But alas, Dominion is 569 pages long and, as a thriller, pedestrian. It winds up with a formulaic situation. Can the Resistance get a Man Who Knows Too Much to a rescuing American submarine before the Gestapo catches up? A final scene of piling-up corpses becomes unintentionally farcical. I kept remembering that my favourite South-wins-the-Civil-War book (Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee) comes in at fewer than 200 pages.

            Sansom commits a major blunder by adding a 15-page essay on his sources and inspiration. It ends up as a rant against the Scottish Nationalist Party, whom he sees as Fascists in the making.

            He does, however, have a positive opinion of New Zealand.

            Whenever New Zealand is mentioned, it is as the one country in the British Empire that vigorously resists Fascism and stands up for independent trade unions. My own view is that New Zealand should live up to this good opinion by rejecting its degrading “dominion” status and getting its own head of state. Maybe this could be the subject for another counter-factual novel.

* Additional comment: Arthur Bryant made his career as a popular historian, lauding the triumphant glories of English history in a Whiggish way. But before the [real] Second World War he was a great admirer of Hitler and had to be given a stern talking-to by Churchill to change his tune.


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.



            This is the sight that greets me when I wake up in the morning and when I am about to turn out the light at night.  A wallful of books, seen beyond the end of our bed. They are about one eighth of the books shelved in our house, as this is only the bedroom. There are far more books in my study, on the bookcases at the top of the stairs, in the living-room downstairs and in the spare room at the back of the house.

            Obviously I’m a bibliophile. If you’ve been reading this blog for the decade or so since it started, you will already know that.

            I’ve never counted the number of books I have, but it must be many hundreds, probably more than a thousand. Where did they all come from? I think about a third of them I inherited from my father. The rest were either bought by me over the years, mainly from second-hand bookshops, or sent to me by publishers for review – though I pass on to friends and family those books I have reviewed and know I will never read again. If I’d kept every book I’ve read and reviewed, I’d need a larger house.

            None of this is said as a boast. I know literate readers who house far more books than I do. I know literate readers who probably curate their books better than I do too.  But I do make good use of my books. As I remarked in an earlier post, one of the main reasons I set up a “Something Old” section on this blog was to force myself to read books that had sat unread on my shelves for years; books that I had long meant to “get around to”. That is why you have seen on this blog reviews of the likes of Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed, Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour (or “Crouchback”) trilogy,  Jose Eustasio Rivera’s The Vortex and other works. Not that all my “Something Old” comments have the same genesis. Some of them are old favourites I’ve read more than once. Some of them are re-written from the reading diaries I have kept over the years.

            Often I look at the books on my shelves and wonder what I should read next. I feel guilty that I have not yet read The Brothers Karamazov, Moby Dick, Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, The Forsyte Saga, the half of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series I haven’t yet conquered, and other such bulky tomes, all of which I house. For the record I am currently nibbling my way though another great as-yet-unread, Wordsworth’s The Prelude, which I never did read before, even in student days.

            And often I look at the books on my shelves and wonder if I ever will read some of them. Or ever want to.

            Which brings me to my current dilemma.

            I am now of an age when I know I will never read everything I house, and when I am getting tired of laying books sideways over other books because there is no other place to put them. The untidiness irks me.

            So, for the first time, I am undertaking a systematic cull.

            I am not exhausting myself with this in one great dust-inhaling, arm-aching effort. What I am doing will take a long time. Each week or so I pick a shelf and ask myself “Do I really need this book? Will I ever read this book? Or will I ever re-read this book?

            This is where the dilemma comes in.

            Some books are easy to throw away, leaving me to wonder why I had them in the first place. Then there are the books that I read and liked, but doubt I will read a second time, like the works of Bernard Malamud or Robert Pen Warren’s All the King’s Men or even (hard though this is to admit) some of the Balzacs. Others I know I will keep without question.

            I have worked at this diligently and have so far been able to sell a few culled books to second-hand bookshops, but have donated far more to op. shops.

            What has been the fruit of my labour so far?

            Approximately one half of a shelf looks cleared. The reason is simple. Once about two shelves worth have gone, there are all those sideways books to stand upright and fill the gaps.

            I still have many far-separated afternoons to get on with the culling. I doubt if I’ll be finished soon.




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.