Monday, May 24, 2021

Something New

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


“GHOSTS” by Siobhan Harvey (Otago University Press, $NZ27:50); “THE WILDER YEARS – Selected Poems” by David Eggleton (Otago University Press, $NZ40); “BURST KISSES ON THE ACTUAL WINDS” by Courtney Sina Meredith (Beatnik Publishing, $NZ30)


            I rarely comment on the covers of books; but the cover photograph (by Liz March) of Siobhan Harvey’s Ghosts is so striking, and so faithfully conveys the mood and feeling of the text(-s), that it deserves a mention.

            In subdued lighting and black-and-white, it shows a fireplace and a large mirror, both of a design from many decades ago, probably mid- or early-20th century. And to one side of this composition, head bowed, eyes down, is the poet. But she is dressed like a child in a very short shift and carrying a very small case. A double exposure makes her transparent and insubstantial. Is she a ghost? Is she, with regret, leaving behind the solid house of her childhood? Has she been cast out of it? Or is the ghostly image suggesting the persistence of childhood in the adult?

            From this image, we could make up many scenarios, but a mood is conveyed. Sorrow. The weight of the past. The things that stick in our memory and shape us, whether we like them or not… My literary mind immediately summons up Henrik Ibsen’s Ghosts, with its depiction of an unhappy family inheriting the weight of sins bequeathed them by their elders. These are the ghosts that really haunt us, and these are the stuff of this collection.

            Ghosts is a symphony in four movements, with prologue and epilogue bracketing four distinct sections.

            Harvey’s Prologue, “Night, a Place of Regeneration”, might at first lull readers into thinking it is an idyll of night and nature… but it segues seamlessly into comment on what is lost as generations come and go, what homely and familial values disappear, and how. When houses cease to exist, communities cease to exist. This is a major theme in what follows.

            The First section, All the Buildings that Never Were begins, in the poem “Ghostsby defining what “ghosts” means in this text: “still our ghosts / exist for what is and what remains, their disembodied / faces watching over us from pictures of prize-giving, / childhoods gone and funerals as we drift through / our thin lives, as if they’re illusory, as if they’re real.” Ghosts are both what we remember and what we misremember. Is this collection therefore going to move into studied wistfulness? No. Bit by bit poems in this first section become laments for loss of family homes in New Zealand. Of course there is a protest element in this, including verbal castigation of the prime minister who started selling off state houses, but the protest is in elegies for houses that have been demolished, tenants who have been uprooted, and property developers giving priority to profit rather than community. This is not sloganeering, which is never Harvey’s style, but analysis worked through piquant imagery.

            The Second section, Ghost Stories, takes a more cosmopolitan view. In “The Evicted”, Maori and Pasifika communities are moved on in the different dwellings they have had, uprooted from traditional lives but also, the poem suggests, uprooted from suburbs that have gentrified. (At least this is what I infer, but I may be wrong. I think of Ponsonby.) Other poems in this section reflect on Manus Island refugees, on thousands of graves in Singapore that have been removed for development, on closed railway stations in old East Berlin, gradually suggesting a universal malaise – the burial of the past. Then, shockingly, the poem “My Ghosts Rise Up in Lockdown” puts us in the present, “ghosts” becoming memories we have to conjure up of other places when we are forced to stay in one place.

            The Third section, My Invisible Remains, brings us into very confessional poetry, mainly in the first person and in many ways revisiting more forcefully the themes Harvey raised in her 2011 collection Lost Relatives. It begins with a six-part sequence “Building Memories”, which replays the poet’s sad – sometimes traumatic  - memories of family relationships in her English childhood, physical abuse and her rejection by her parents, all of which left lasting images. This sequence most closely relates to the collection’s cover image. A separate poem, “My Mother is a Ghost Living in My Mind” speaks of “her silence and haunting / judgement born by me as eternal cut.” Here, as in other sections of this collection, there are suggestions that memories of the past can be more worrying when one is (as Harvey is) an immigrant from far away. “Ulysses Syndrome” suggests that the “ghost” lives of immigrants and refugees are really symptoms of dislocation; and in  “Someone Other Than Myself” the poet suggests that she had another self in another country. It’s also fair to note some poems in this section hint that sometimes a past is well lost.

            Yet there is some resolution in the Fourth and final section Safe Places for Ghosts. Poems here suggest in a more antiseptic, machine-controlled future, where the familiarities of older homes are no longer present. Only memories, dreams and “ghosts” will be what keep human beings truly human. Memory and “ghosts” are both a blessing and a curse; doing something to cement the continuity of human being; in a way, a sort of dark nostalgia. And perhaps in all this there is a desire for things to have been other than they were.

            The Epilogue “Poem, a Place Where Regeneration is Complete” echoes and answers the Prologue with the suggestion that we resolve our past in art.

            Appended to all the poetry, however, is an Afterword, the essay Living in the Haunted House of the Past in which Siobhan Harvey contrasts and compares the process of her house in New Zealand being renovated and made brighter with the grim English house she lived in as a child, where she was physically abused and rejected by very unhappy parents – a situation addressed less directly in the sequence “Building Memories”.

            I have, in this review, fallen into my tiresome habit of giving you a bibliographic survey of the collection without analysing in detail any of the poems, and I have said woefully little about the poet’s style. I apologise. This is one of the most fully-felt and carefully-structured collections of poetry I have read this year. Its subject may be regretful, even melancholy, but it is good at both direct address and sustained imagery which implies much. It is also accessible, and sometimes even funny in its satire. It gave me the uplift of real poetry.

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            There’s a problem which has vexed me more than once on this blog. It is how extremely difficult it is to survey the whole career of a distinguished and very capable poet in one brief review. I struck this problem when, for example, reviewing Fleur Adcock Collected Poems , Peter Bland’s Collected Poems 1956-2011  and even when reviewing the selected poems misleadingly called Collected Poems of Alistair TeAriki Campbell . I shipwreck on the same rock as I set about assessing David Eggleton’s The Wilder Years – Selected Poems. And I fully understand Eggleton’s satiric ire at the glibness of book reviewers, vented in his poem “The Book Reviewer” (p.158).

            The Wilder Years is a handsome be-ribboned hardback, admirably presented with wide and generous margins. It gathers together the poet’s own selection of his work from the nine collections he has had published between 1986  and  2018, with eight new poems added at the end. The title The Wilder Years at once suggests an older man (Eggleton is now in his 69th year) looking back from the vantage point of more-settled, less-wild years. “The Wilder Years” is also the title of a poem (found on p.269) from Eggleton’s 2018 collection Edgeland; a poem which is deeply satiric about (Pakeha) New Zealanders’ shaky sense of identity.

            While volumes like this are produced only when a poet is both well-known and well-established, it is to Eggleton’s great credit that he has not used the occasion to write some sort of explanatory Foreword or Afterword, as other poets have been tempted to do in similar selections. The poems can (as they should) speak for themselves. I must admit that as a reader, I was late in discovering Eggleton’s poetry. Indeed, he was well into his prolific career before I read and reviewed any of his work, but I have had the pleasure of reviewing The Conch Trumpet (2015) and Edgeland (2018) on this blog.

            It is important that the Auckland-born, now Dunedin-resident, poet is of mixed Tongan, Fijian and Pakeha heritage. A concern with the viewpoints of different cultures and ethnicities in New Zealand has consstently been one of his main themes.

            And now, after all this throat-clearing, here are my brief and inadequate comments on what is selected from each of his collections, as read by me over a week.

            In his first collection South Pacific Sunrise (1986), nearly all the poems are Auckland-based and and present themselves as celebrations of different ethnicities. “Wings Over Ponsonby” depicts a suburb in early stages of gentrification (would that he could see it now!). “Painting Mount Taranaki” is this first collection’s “epic” poem, long and and rattling with a profusion of diverse imagery.

            In People of the Land (1988) satire is more to the fore, but there is also more formal structure and deployment of rhyme. The “Meditation on Colin McCahon” is a solemn, rhymed elegy, published the year after the painter’s death and one of Eggleton’s poems of undiluted seriousness.

            Empty Orchestra (1995) yields, among much else, one of the best pieces of practical criticism in the form of a poem, “Death of the Author”, a cutting statement on literature as social game and on literary pretensions.  As an Aucklander, this reviewer declares confidently that Eggleton’s “I Imagine Wellington as a Delicatessen” is very much the Aucklander’s view of Wellington – the capital city is a mixture of the chic and the quaint with a faintly musty odour. Moving further from Eggleton’s home base is “Waipounamu: The Lakes District” in which, judging only from these selected poems, Eggleton for the first time takes, without irony or condescension, a Pakeha view of history and culture.

            It is notable that the selections from these first three collections are relatively few, whereas selections from the following collections are very generous, sometimes reproducing over half of the original volumes.

            The poems of Rhyming Planet (2001) again show respect for traditional stanzaic forms, though free verse also persists. Given that Dunedin has becomes the poet’s chosen home, it is ironic that “If Buccleugh Street Could Talk” takes a chilly and somewhat negative view of the city. There is much disquiet in this collection. The form and vocabulary may be far from it, but the dyspeptic tone of “Poem for the Unknown Tourist” is like Baudelaire in his “Spleen” moods. It is in this collection that Eggleton becomes more international, with poems (usually rather scathing) based on visits to Australia, iconoclastic about Anzac Day etc. Yet “Republic of Fiji” is one of his best poems for conjuring up a particular milieu while giving it an historical and political context.

            In Fast Talker (2006), one sometimes feels that Eggleton’s love of the land and of landscape strives to be purely celebratory, but he is pulled towards some strand of satire to balance his view and ward off the conventions of traditional pastoral poetry. This is certainly true of poems in this collection related to Auckland and its environs. The free-form poem “The Bush Paddock”  has a go at Pakeha rural traditions, with each line ending “down the back of the bush paddock”. It is one of the many of Eggleton’s poems that would probably work best in live performance. In fact, to state the very obvious, the great majority of Eggleton's poetry is designed for the ear rather than the eye, bouncing along with enough alliteration and assonance to make Dylan Thomas envious. “Golden Boomerang” is condemnatory satire on Aussie habits and manners and “In the Godzone” has a similar tone as it launches into New Zealand politics and mores.

            Time of the Icebergs (2010) has much more Dunedin and Otago imagery. “The Harbour” is almost pure celebration, and “Dada Dunedin” appears to shadow Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno with its anti-strophes. “Ode to the Beer Crate” is pure nostalgia for a time of practical carpentry and blokey blokes knocking it back, and “Spent Tube”  (on smoking cigarettes) has a similar nostalgic tone – perhaps symptoms of an older man looking back

            Quoting my own earlier review of The Conch Trumpet (2015) I noted that Eggleton is working from the primeval, the landscape at first untouched, though seen in terms of Maori mythology, then touched by the colonial experience, then developing some sort of Pakeha culture and finally in collision and collusion with the greater world of modern global politics and media.” Much of this schema survives in the generous selection of 36 poems given in The Wilder Years. As for the selection from Edgeland (2018), it includes 41 of the original 61 poems found in that collection. Again, I lazily, I refer you to my review of Edgeland.

            Finally, there are the the eight New Poems (2020), which are inevitably more topical. “Two Mosques, Christchurch” is a stately elegy, condemning the terrorist but giving the foreground to the dead and in the end sounding like liturgy. The tone of “The Burning Cathedral”, about the burning of Notre Dame, is hard to determine. Is it written in mockery or regret? “President Fillgrave” is direct satire on Donald Trump. And appropriately, The Wilder Years ends with the purely playful “The Letter Zed”.

            In this ramble I have name-checked a small fraction of all the poems selected in The Wilder Years, and have doubtless distorted the main course of Eggleton’s poems over more than three decades. Sometimes I have been caught up in his wonderful profusion of imagery, scattering like spring rain. And sometimes I have thought this profusion shows a loss of control. In the blurb of The Wilder Years, Nick Ascroft is quoting as calling Eggleton’s poems “word-blasts”. This is both Eggleton’s glory and occasionally his weakness. I read his poetry out loud and then wish I could hear many of them performed live by the poet himself.  That way, I think I would like them even more than I already do.

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            And here is a study in contrast. Courtney Sina Meredith works in the form of concision rather than profusion. Her poems are short, lean and cut to the bone. Burst Kisses on the Actual Wind is not a “selection” of her published work, but it is clearly the work of a number of years. (It re-prints a few poems which appeared when she was “featured poet” in the March 2013 number of Poetry New Zealand, which I guest-edited.)

            Burst Kisses on the Actual Wind begins with an introduction by the poet’s mother Kim Meredith, expressing first her bemusement then her pride in her poet daughter. As she is of Samoan, Mangaian (Cook Islands) and Irish descent, Courtney Sina Meredith has a strong interest in Pacific ethnicities and how they fare in New Zealand. In her poem “How about being a woman?”, she describes herself “a young brown queer single educated professional creative woman”, and that identity is essential to her work, although the “single” part might be redundant as she now has a partner and children. The title poem “Burnt-kisses-on-the-actual-wind” appears to express the need for caution she sometimes felt about openly expressing her sexual orientation; and “Aroha Mai” appears to be addressed to her partner.

            The poet likes shape poems (“How about being a woman?” ), list poems (“Honolulu”), poems set out like official directions (“Magellanic Clouds”) and poems fragmented into short phrases (“Shower head / Drip drip drip”).

            But more than these she likes confessional poems in the first person (“I”), or direct address in the second person (“you”). However, sometimes the “you” is a reference to herself, as if she is addressing part of herself to jog her memory. Thus it is in the poem “Remember when you were with a woman?”

            Many things pass through these terse texts. Love and broken relationships are presented in the form of a cowboy movie (“Cowboy”). More poignantly, in “Love is a resurrection”, she visits Ponsonby and declares “my blood is in the soil / my elders have a pact with this land” as this was where her family and parents lived. There is a strong contrarian streak in “The internet told me to go for a run”, an assertion of self and of confidence, but then “November in New York” and “I was having a conversation with you” suggest unease with foreign cities. That everything cannot be resolved in words is confirmed by this collection’s longest poem “STOP SENDING POEMS”, which ends abruptly or rather which does not end at all.

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.  

“TOILERS OF THE SEA” by Victor Hugo (Les Travailleurs de la Mer first published in 1866; many English translations)


            Eight years ago on this blog, I reviewed L’Homme Qui Rit (The Laughing Man) by Victor–Marie Hugo (1802-1885). In passing I noted that 50-plus years ago, as a schoolboy, I found in my school’s library an old copy of an English translation of Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea / Les Travailleurs de la Mer. I remember consuming some afternoons reading it and enjoying it before returning it to the school library. About four years ago, holidaying in Raglan, I found in a little second-hand bookshop an old Everyman’s Library copy of Toilers of the Sea and I snapped it up. I noted that it was printed in 1928, but it came complete with one of those original old Everymen’s Library orange-coloured wrappers. Indeed so well-preserved was this copy that I couldn’t help wondering if it had ever been read in the 90-plus years since it was printed. 


            Recently I got around to reading it, partly to recapture my schoolboy appreciation of it, but also to test how I would now react to Hugo’s prose.

            Consider, if you will, this paradox. If we are to judge by the number of films and TV adaptations made of his work, Victor Hugo is still the most popular French novelist of the 19th century, rivalled only by Dumas. Les Miserables had, literally, been filmed more often than any other novel of any language before anyone decided to turn it into a musical. Notre-Dame de Paris / The Hunchback of Notre Dame has also been filmed and re-filmed in both Hollywood and Europe, including the crass Disney feature-length cartoon version. Even L’Homme Qui Rit / The Laughing Man has been filmed a couple of times. But how much is Hugo’s work popular more for the stripped-back versions of his melodramatic plots as depicted in the movies, rather than for the texts he actually wrote? In other words, how many people who have seen all the movie versions have ever read the novels themselves?

            The fact is, even in France, Hugo is now rarely seen as a great novelist by most literary critics. Of course he is still a figure of great historical interest, and left-wing commentators quote him with approval for his progressive beliefs – opposing the death penalty and the slave trade, promoting republicanism and universal suffrage as well as attacking the church. He is applauded for his poetry. He is honoured as the man who – after Chateaubriand – introduced Romanticism to France, especially in the plays he wrote early in his career (well do I remember having to study Hernani and Ruy Blas when doing an undergradute degree in French.) But he is not regarded as a serious novelist is the same way as Stendahl, Balzac, Flaubert, Zola or even de Maupassant and Huysmans are. His novels, modern criticism says, are entertaining melodramas with an overload of preaching and orating and nothing resembling real human beings as their main characters.

            How fair is this verdict?

While enjoying the yarn as a yarn, I used my recent re-reading of Toilers of the Sea to make my own judgment.


Victor Hugo wrote Toilers of the Sea during the fifteen years (1855-70) that he lived on the Channel Islands, in exile from France after he had criticised the dictatorial Napoleon III.  (It was also there that, three years later, he wrote The Laughing Man.) The main thread of plot is simplicity itself. Gilliatt is a social outcast – a fisherman who lives alone, keeps to himself and is regarded with suspicion by the rest of the people of Guernsey, where the tale is largely set. Gilliatt falls in love  - at first sight – with the beautiful Deruchette, though he never speaks to her. Deruchette is the niece of the wealthy Mess Lethierry. The time is the 1820s, when steamships are still a rare and wondrous novelty. Lethierry prospers because he owns the steamship “La Durande”, which is able to ply between Guernsey and St Malo, the major port of Brittany, much faster than any sailing ships can. Lethierry can therefore deliver cargoes of fish and other produce to this important market more quickly than any rival can. But disaster strikes. In a thick fog and on stormy seas, “La Durande” is shpwrecked. All hands get away safely in a lifeboat, but the captain, apparently, stays nobly on the ship and perishes as it goes down. (Actually, we know that Captain Clubin is a treacherous criminal who has deliberately engineered the shipwreck in the belief that he will be able to abscond with his employer Lethierry’s wealth.) Yet, while the storm has smashed up most of the ship’s wooden superstructure, it has left jammed between two towering rocks out in the ocean, the mechanical heart of the ship – its iron engines, paddles and funnel. Lethierry is financially ruined. As people gather to commiserate with him, the beautiful Deruchette declares that she will marry any man who is able to salvage her uncle’s engine. Fired by his unspoken love for her, Gilliatt alone takes up the challenge. The second half of the novel is Gilliatt’s heroic, titanic, single-handed salvage mission as he battles tiredness, hunger, storms, huge waves and an octopus, rescuing what remains of the ship’s engine. In effect, everything that precedes Gilliatt’s lonely heroic endeavour is Victor Hugo’s build-up to this image of the solitary hero at his heroic work.

Of course it doesn’t end well. (Please remember, I am allowed to give “spoilers” while discussing a novel this old.) Gilliatt, after all the dangers he has overcome, makes it back to Guernsey with the engine he has rescued. But he discovers that in his absence Deruchette has fallen in love with another man, a handsome young clergyman called Ebenezer Caudrey. Nobly and heroicially, Gilliatt foreswears his love, steps aside and even arranges for Deruchette and Caudrey to marry. Then, as the happy couple sail off together, he climbs up an offshore rock and waits for the tide to rise and drown him. Just as Victor Hugo had a penchant for grotesque, outcast characters (the dwarf court jester Triboulet in his play Le Roi S’Amuse; the hunchback Quasimodo in Notre-Dame de Paris; the mutilated Gwynplain in L’Homme Qui Rit), so did he have a penchant for suicide as an appropriately tragic ending to a novel (Gwynplain drowns himself rather than living without Dea; Quasimodo – apparently – dies of starvation as he clings to the corpse of Esmeralda).

In one sentence then, Toilers of the Sea is about a man who performs an heroic feat but whose reward is thwarted by Fate. In making this synopsis I have deliberately elided some side issues, such as the criminal dealings of the treacherous Captain Clubin with smugglers and with the embezzler and thief Rantaine.


Reported as I have synopsised it, Toilers of the Sea sounds like a novel of action and event, and at his best Victor Hugo can deal with action vividly. The episode of “La Durande’s” shipwreck is masterly, with the drunken helmsman losing control and the panic of the passengers, lost in the fog and fearful of the sea. Hugo’s descriptions of early steamships, and the almost magical effect they had on their beholders, are both credible and informative. We might not quite believe in Gilliatt never talking to Deruchette but nevertheless faithfully standing by her garden wall and frequently playing Bonnie Dundee on his bagpipes because he has heard her playing it on the piano. Indeed, to some modern sensibilities, this may sound suspiciously like “stalking”. Even so, it makes for a memorable sentimental tableau. Hugo was also adept at the cliffhanger though (unlike routine-cliffhanger-deviser Charles Dickens) he was not writing for serial publication. The biggest cliffhanger in Toilers of the Sea, and the one that holds us in suspense for the longest, concerns the disappearance of the criminal Captain Clubin. In the fog, he steps off the foundering “La Durande”, imagining that he will be able to swim safely to shore. Instead, we are told that his leg was grabbed by something… and we hear nothing further of his fate until near the novel’s denouement, a couple of hundred pages later, when Gilliatt confronts the “Devil Fish”, finds Clubin’s skeleton in an undersea cavern, and realises that the “Devil-Fish” killed him. Incidentally, Gilliatt’s fight with the “Devil-Fish” (clearly described as an octopus, though some mistaken postings refer to it as a giant squid) is brief, brutal and credible – a masterly example of narrative compression.


I could add to this list of good, vivid things that I found in Toilers of the Sea as I re-read it, firing the same sort of pleasure I had in it as a teenager.

But, to an adult reader, the negatives really do pile up. There is an odd naivete about Hugo’s Romantic-era writing (already falling out of favour when this novel was being written). Characters are presented in broad, unsubtle strokes, with Hugo all the while trying to nudge us into believing that they are of epic proportions. Their conversations tend to become long, windy orations. As I remarked in reviewing The Laughing Man, they resemble operatic arias waiting for somebody to compose the score.

Captain Clubin cannot be simply a cheat and a liar. He has to be a monster of titanic wickedness. Thus Hugo launches into a page dissecting his diabolical impulses: “ His conscience rejoiced in the sight of its own monstrous nakedness, as it stepped forth to take its hideous bath of wickedness. The long restraint of men’s respect seemed to have given him a peculiar relish for infamy. He experienced a certain lascivious enjoyment of wickedness. In those frightful moral abysses so rarely sounded, such natures find atrocious delights…” and so on and so on through a tiresomely long paragraph. (Part One, Book 6)

Gilliatt himself, chained to a rock and toiling away heroically, is frequently compared with Prometheus in his defiance of Nature, or Job in his suffering. Even before his long ordeal begins, we are told how wonderfully gifted he is in so many crafts – fisherman, carpenter, worker in iron, wheelwright, boat caulker, engineer – a paragon of practicality. So when he is alone on the barren outcrop of rock, surrounded by the sea and with few tools to hand “He put the forge in operation at once. Tools were wanting; he set to work and made them. For fuel he had the wreck; for motive force the water; for his bellows the wind; for his anvil a stone; for art his instinct; for power, his will.”  (Part Two, Book 2)

Verily, he is a superman. Indeed Hugo turns him into a force of nature -  The very ocean seemed astonished. He passed to and fro across the tottering wreck, making the deck tremble under his steps, striking, cutting, hacking with the hatchet in his hand, pallid in the gleam of the lightning, his long hair streaming, his feet naked, in rags, his face covered with the foam of the sea, but grand still amid that maelstrom of the thunderstorm.” (Part 2, Book 4)

His endurance is extraordinary – almost beyond belief: “There was no form of distress with which he had not become familiar. He had been compelled to execute great works without tools, to move vast burdens without aid, without science to solve problems, without provisions to find food, without bed or roof to cover it, to find shelter and sleep.” (Part 2, Book 4)

What drives Gilliatt on? Apparently it is the triumph of the will, upon which subject Hugo’s rhetoric takes on a Nietzschean tone: “Exhaustion of the bodily strength does not necessarily exhaust the will. Faith is only a secondary power; the will is the first. The mountains, which faith is proverbially said to move, are nothing beside that which the will can accomplish. All that Gilliatt lost in vigour, he gained in tenacity. The destruction of the physical man under the oppressive influence of that wild surrounding sea, and rock, and sky, seemed only to reinvigorate his moral nature.” (Part Two, Book 2)

Unless such oratorical pronouncements put you under some sort of rhythmic spell, your rational mind will soon note the implausibility of many of the things Gilliatt is said to be able to do single-handedly.

At the other end of the unreality spectrum, Deruchette and Ebenezer Caudrey are so thinly characterised that they are little more than picturesque paper cut-outs. The novel’s ending, with Gilliatt giving Deruchette away in marriage, is both illogical and ridiculous. Isn’t Gilliatt the man whose titanic, solitary endeavours were inspired by his burning desire for Deruchette? Wasn’t she his motive for all that superhuman work devising tools, hauling loads, fighting storms, killing the octopus etc. etc? So are we meant to believe that this titan among men would so meekly surrender his desire in the face of a pale and timid rival?.... Ah, but then if the tale were to end with him marrying and settling into domesticity, wouldn’t that mess up Hugo’s Romantic and very theatrical image of the solitary, brooding Byronic (or Nietzschean) superman spurning society? Best allow him his solitary suicide by drowning which, to my adult reader’s eyes, now sounds awfully like an expression of teenage self-pity.

Now I grant you that Hugo could sometimes produce quite good splenetic satire, even if it is rather broad. Consider this portrait of a minor character, a sea captain: “He had enriched himself by serving all causes. No man in this world could have been more Bourbonist, more Bonapartist, more absolutist, more liberal, more atheistical, or more devoutly Catholic. He belonged to that great and renowned party which may be called the Lucrative Party.” (Part One, Book 5) Too often, however, Hugo’s satire is predictble and repetitive, especially when he launches into one of his anti-clerical rants. He is an equal-opportunity anti-clerical, taking pokes at both Catholics and Calvinists. But in his zeal to mock he sometimes reveals his limited understanding of such matters. For example, Ebenezer Caudrey is introduced into the novel in company with a clergyman whom Hugo calls a Puseyite, that is, one of those 19th century Anglicans who wanted to insert Catholic liturgical practices into Anglican worship. Having established this, Hugo then has the clergyman talking like a hard-core Calvinist, lauding the work ethic and material profit and not for one moment raising the key concerns of Pusey’s followers. (Incidentally, this character is also anachronistic, given that the novel is set in the 1820s when the young Pusey had barely begun on his theological career and was little known in the Anglican church.)

This raises another negative matter in Hugo’s work. Regularly he veers away from his narrative to lecture us on sundry matters – about the superstitions of the Channel Islanders; about meteorology and the nature of winds; about engineering; about commerce; about heroes of the past. Apart from so often appearing “mugged up”, these interludes also often come across as bogus. Hugo is attempting to impress us with his erudition often on subjects about which he clearly knows little. Worst of all, however, are the long, long, long descriptions inserted into the text. Hugo cannot note the existence of a house without describing it in detail that flows over many pages, whether or not it is important to his story. When it comes to the wind and weather and seas that Gilliatt faces, the descriptions reach a baroque complexity, so long, so filled with vague evocations and blur words, that after a few pages one realises that he is talking about nothing at all. The appropriate word is bombast. I suspect that many readers simply skip these passages, which are in such profusion that they smother the story.

If I were to sum up the effect Toilers of the Sea now has on me, I would say that it tells a good melodramatic story, sturdy enough to hold the reader’s attention even if its characters are puppets; but that in the end its prose style is overblown, bombastic and unconvincing – and certainly not conveying any high philosophy about humanity, such as Victor Hugo imagines he is giving to us. Good reading for a literate teenager, perhaps.

All this may simply mean that I am out of sympathy with some of the conventions of Romantic-era novels, which were already passe when Hugo wrote Toilers of the Sea. While I stand apart from the addled camp aesthetic of Jean Cocteau, I can’t help citing his much-quoted witticism: “Victor Hugo was a madman who thought he was Victor Hugo”. I get the point. Victor Hugo was always trying to live up to the image he had created for himself as the great oracle who confronts the mighty universe. What it leads to is verbal fudge.


For the Record: Unlike Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Toilers of the Sea has hardly ever been filmed, and never with any success. There were a couple of  film adaptations in the 1920s, when films were still silent; and a cheaply-made British film in the 1930s, where all the characters were given English names. Wikipedia tells me that in 1953 there was a Hollywood “adaptation” of the novel called Sea Devils, but a glance at a synopsis of its swashbucking plot and you find it has nothing to do with Hugo’s novel. Bizarrely, though, the characters are given the names from the novel.


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.


            The whole thing was devised and put together by two French art directors, Annabelle Mauger and Julien Baron. It finally came to Auckland’s Spark Arena having been seen in many other countries. It was an “immersive” experience. Over 200 paintings by Vincent Van Gogh were projected on huge screens by a system called “Total Image”. As the moods of the paintings changed, these gargantuan images were accompanied by [what the French duo thought of as] appropriate mood music. Beethoven for vigour, Satie for pensiveness – that sort of thing. The paintings were presented more-or-less chronologically from the artist’s first dark Dutch canvases through his Parisian and Provencal periods to his final mental disintegration. They were also interspersed with [English translations of] various wise things that Van Gogh had written.  

            The images were not projected onto just one screen, but simultaneously on all the walls of the venue. And the images never stopped moving, being shown in full-form or as enlarged details at the same time, or sharing the many walls with projections of other paintings. Sometimes – but only occasionally – animation was added to Van Gogh’s images. On a couple of occasions, where he had painted birds flying overhead, the birds flapped their wings and flew. According to one puff, the whole experience added “emotional depth” to each image and allowed us “to live and feel the creative energy” of the artist.

            Of course we went along to the Spark Arena show. We enjoyed the ante-chamber in which we could wander at leisure past framed reproductions of Van Gogh’s works, with detailed placards attached, explaining the when and where painted etc.etc. We chuckled at the silly bits, like the alcove painted up like one of Van Gogh’s depictions of his bedroom, with chairs added so that tourists could be photographed as if in the bedroon. Or like the “immersive” mirrored room filled with sunflowers that we could wander through. Or, outside the display itself, the car painted up with Van Gogh-ish stars.

            But the main attraction was the big son-et-lumiere show itself, projected and heard in a large darkened display hall.

            It was fun up to a point – a quick run through some of the best-known of Van Gogh’s work, with the enlarged paintings beautiful in themselves. For us it was also very nostalgic. As I noted in an earlier posting SomeProblems with Cultural Sensitivity , we have three times visited Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum which has, I believe, a larger collection of Van Goghs than any other gallery or museum in the world. (Not that all Van Gogh’s works hang there – the famous “Starry Night” is in MOMA in New York and the “Café Terrace at Night” in a different Dutch museum.) Thrice we have walked slowly and with close attention through the Van Gogh Museum, taking the time to appreciate each canvas, being able to exchange our views on them or just quietly enjoy them.

            And this is exactly what the less-than-one-hour-long magnified light-show does not allow you to do. Approximately 200 paintings gallop before you in less than one hour, which works out as approximately thirty seconds per painting. As a primer on, or introduction to, Van Gogh’s work it’s effective enough. But it is a little like Van Gogh served as fast food. And it’s ironical that one of the wise words of Van Gogh on display says “It is looking at things for a long time that ripens you and gives you a deeper meaning.”

            Just as troubling is the giganticism of it. Van Gogh’s crows in a cornfield are simply not meant to be seen as a series of huge panels with every brushstroke magnified to the size of a garden rake. Ditto Van Gogh’s delicate petals on trees in early bloom. The real ability to appreciate the work is destroyed.


            Of course everything I’m complaining of here takes me back to arguments in Walter Benjamin’s influential essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), only I think the case is more extreme now than it was in Benjamin’s time. To reproduce is to distort and deprive the work of art of its uniqueness.

            Yet there is another line of thought that gives me pause.

            When this blog was young, I wrote a review of Marybeth Hamilton’s In Search of the Blues, her account of how white enthusiasts interpreted, and often misinterpreted, the nature of a black musical genre. In it, she told the tale of such enthusiasts, in the 1940s and 1950s, eagerly hunting in junkshops for old, scratched recordings made by bluesman in the 1920s. These fans, as I put it, felt “the thrill of the hunt for them, the sense of having found undiscovered treasure, and especially the sense that – even though one was only collecting records – one was actually a lonesome rebel against the commercial mainstream.” But then there was a mass revival of interest in such music “the old recordings began to be re-pressed and mass-circulated in LPs (the vinyl equivalent of a CD collection). And suddenly [the enthusiasts] lost interest in them. If they had become the property of a mass audience, then they were no longer an elite, rebel taste. They too were now ‘commercial’ and no longer ‘authentic’.”

            Now, as I search my conscience scrupulously, I wonder if I’m not like those fans. Is part of me miffed that a mass audience, who can’t see the original paintings, is now able to taste these masterpieces, albeit in a different form? In short, am I being a snob?

            I hope not. I think the show is a good primer and could be an incitement to find out more about the artist’s work. But that fast food aspect really does trouble me.

Monday, May 10, 2021

Something New

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

“WHAT YOU MADE OF IT – A Memoir 1987-2020” by C.K. Stead (Auckland University Press, $NZ49:99)

            I really do play the game of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds as I review the third volume of C.K.Stead’s autobiography. But it’s hard for me not to do so. When I reviewed on this blog the second volume You Have a Lot to Lose, I found myself methodically drawing up a list of things I admired and things I found a little repellent – or, as I put it, things where C.K.Stead’s opinions and prejudices coincided with mine, and things where they didn’t. You Have a Lot to Lose covered the thirty years from 1956 to 1986 when Stead had a career as an academic. What You Made of It covers the 34 or so years after he decided to leave academe and be a full-time writer. And again I weigh up the pros and cons.

            There are many things in this book to enjoy and savour. There are Stead’s various encomia on France (Chapter 2 and elsewhere); and his vivid account of the impact movies had on him as a youngster and his desciptions of California while discussing the genesis of his novel Sister Hollywood (Chapter 4). His version of his long-lasting friendship with Allen Curnow (Chapter 10) is fair, balanced and affectionate, though he doesn’t fail to note the cantankerous and crotchety side of the man, which was probably downplayed by Terry Sturm in his Curnow biography Simply By Sailing in a New Direction. His account of visits to South America are vivid and exemplary in evoking the heat, culture and alienness of the place. His recall of physical trials after having a stroke, and his awareness of ageing, are convincing insights into what it is to be a near-nonagenarian.

            Then there are the arguments Stead proposes which seem to me sane and well-considered.

            I find it hard not to agree with his robust argument that the worth of a poet should be judged by the quality of the poetry and not by the political or social beliefs of the poet – as in his discussion of anti-semitic Ezra Pound and sort-of anti-semitic T.S.Eliot (Chapter 3 pp.52 ff. ). In chapter 6 there’s more detail on Pound in relation to Stead’s book Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement.  The issue is raised again in a disagreement he had with his friend Craig Raine (in Chapter 14). On a related topic, broadly speaking I agree with Stead that criticism of the actions of the state of Israel is not the same as being anti-semitic. This is sounded in Chapter 12, where Stead has a disagreement with his long-time friend the photographer Marti Friedlander.

             When he writes of the importance of our inherited European culture  - though he is mainly at this point talking of France  - he argues that being in Europe gives “locations and states of being that make one reflect on the human spirit, and what it is enriched by, and how places have grown in value by human occupation – how history and culture and nature have developed in unison there, and how we New Zealanders are inextricably linked to, and enriched by, our European past, and foolish if we try to sever inherited connections.” (p.49) Quite so.

            As a one-time high-school teacher I endorse most of this statement, relating to the 1970s and 1980s: “I was resistant to ideas strongly prevalent at the time that it was wrong to correct the written language of the schoolyard because that undermined the confidence of vulnerable youngsters who needed self-belief. I favoured an education system that exposed young people to the best in literature, and the streaming of classes according to ability, so that those with real talent would not be held back by those who lacked it.” (p.55) My quibble here would be that some schools streamed too rigorously and in effect created a rigid caste system.

            I sympathise with his views on the flawed nature of the Treaty of Waitangi and its subsequent fetishisation (see p.64 and also p.201). Related to this I agree, a propos controversies surrounding his novel The Singing Whakapapa, that to present a Pakeha viewpoint was not the same as being anti-Maori, though he was aware that some of the things he wrote “put me sometimes in unwholesome company and in places I would prefer not to be” (p.189) Elsewhere he refers to presenting the argument that welfare should be distributed on the basis of need rather than of race, he knowing that the need was greatest in Maori communites and that therefore Maori would benefit most. But his argument was taken up by those (like the politician Don Brash) who wished to promote the fiction that Maori were being unfairly favoured in terms of welfare. This is not, and was not, Stead’s view at any time.

            When he comes to Witi Ihimaera, he notes that his earlier work was “simple, direct, authentic… before he developed a tendency to overwriting and the grandiose” (p.211). Again, I endorse this critique. But I do note that, waspishly, (on p.210), Stead has to tell us that Ihimaera, as a student, wasn’t able to cope with the Maori language and managed to get a degree by avoiding it; and Stead clearly resents the fact that both Ihimaera and Albert Wendt were able to be given high academic positions when they quite simply didn’t have the qualifications for them (pp.211-212).

            And, of course, I can’t deny the argument that the literary world can be a fractious, bitchy, competitive place. Stead endorses an essay by Karl Miller. Speaking of spite, he says “the literary world was full of it, and it was important that it should be recognised and ignored, walked around rather than confronted” (p.179).

            I could add much more in the same vein. There is much admire in Stead as poet, novelist, essayist and controversialist, and I hope that what I am writing here is not seen as part of a calculated mission to denigrate him. 

            But having run with the hares I now have to hunt with the hounds. There is a downside to much of What You Made of It.

            It is only fair that Stead discusses his own books in some detail. After all, he did say at the beginning of You Have a Lot to Lose that he was intent on writing about books and the making of books. But he has the awkward habit of not only telling us about the real characters and events that fed into his novels. He tends also to synopsise his own novels in laborious detail, as with Talking About O’Dwyer in Chapter One (where he insists the novel is clearly not [only] about a version of Dan Davin);  or Villa Vittoria in Chapter 7; or The Secret History of Modernism in Chapter 12. In each case, it is as if he is offering us a primer to pre-empt other possible interpretations and readings of his work. I turn rebellious. Ultimately the biographical and autobiographical detail he attaches to each of his novels is a distraction from the novels themselves which (like all books) should be judged by “the words on the page”.

            There are moments when he shows a certain blindness to the reason for social movements in his time. There were controversies related to his novel The Death of the Body. Stead asserts that the novel was not “anti-women” and goes on to say that “the radical feminists of the time were less liberators of oppressed women and more accurately seen as manifestations of sexual puritanism.” (p.61) But where did this “sexual puritanism” come from? Wasn’t it in great part an inevitable reaction against the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s when it was men who mainly benefitted from the notion that casual affairs were there for the taking and  bliss was it in that dawn to be alive”?

            Much heavier to bear is, alas, Stead’s propensity for self praise. Of his own essays on social and cultural issues in New Zealand he writes “how refreshing those essays now look, how clear-eyed and sharp and truthful. I was one voice and a good one” (p.56). On a short story he wrote, which caused some controversy, he says “it still strikes me as full of charm and cleverness and humour” (p.269). Once again I have to say that judgments like these might reasonably be made by other people who read his work, but it’s embarrassing to see them made by the author himself. “I have been chastised for quoting favourable reviews” Stead notes (p.299) before quoting some favourable reviews. He rarely quotes unfavourable ones, and then only to dismiss them.

            Then there is Stead’s desire to prove that he was right in every debate in which he has been involved. His intent here appears to be to nail down definitively what he sees as the facts. And often this involves calling out, as dishonest or conspiratorial, anyone who has criticised him.  In Chapter 3 he claims that he was subject to attack by interested parties in the media and that he was right in the biffo about having a flat in London as a retreat for New Zealand writers. He attempts a veritable hatchet-job on Vincent O’Sullivan (pp.74-77) describing him as the cunning eminence grise of New Zealand literature always plotting to undermine him. (I’m tempted to comment “Look who’s talking, mate!”)  Later, after presenting a reasonable case for his view of Maori matters, he blots it (central paragraph p.189) by descending to virtual conspiracy theory as he berates those who criticised him on these matters. And when he does more-or-less apologise for something,  he does so in a very roundabout, ambiguous way. I refer to his take (Chapter 7) on his part in the sending of a foolish letter to a national magazine when he was a young man.

            Stead, according to this memoir, was right about everything, and apparently more perceptive then anyone else. He quotes A.S.Byatt telling him “You see very clearly, Karl, but sometimes there are things you don’t see.” Stead replies “What I don’t see is usually the Emperor’s clothes.” (p.103)

            Oddly enough, the self-righteousness and the self-praise come with a large sense of grievance.

            While Stead has sometimes reasonably noted the commercial nonsense involved with book awards, there’s a strong smell of sour grapes when he fails to win at the New Zealand Book Awards: “I didn’t win either category, and tried to suppress the feeling that the whole distracting and disappointing business was a commercial matter we (or I) might be better without.” (p.346) Later (p.380) he consoles his son for not winning an award by saying “The Montanas are like that - homely and idiotic.” He is upset that one of his novels, Villa Vittoria, was well reviewed in New Zealand but ignored in the UK (Chapter 7).  He notes that “In the years around 2007 honours seemed to pour upon me and it felt (however it appeared from the outside) that the more I was rewarded in New Zealand the more I was punished.” (p.365) He continues to be angry that his novels Mansfield and My Name was Judas didn’t win Montana Awards and “I swore that that was the last time I would attend one of those ghastly events, which were more about commerce and hype than literary quality.” (p.366 ) I sympathise with some of his views on book awards – they are never definitive guides to the worth of any book – but these really are the grumbles of somebody who wanted more applause. And he wanted more applause for a few friends. He notes that there was the (distant) possibility that Janet Frame could win the Nobel Prize for Literature. But J.M.Coetzee won that year. Stead of course tells us that Coetzee was a writer “whose work I disliked and thought hugely overrated” (p.337). So that puts him in his place.

            Pace Janet Frame, Allen Curnow and perhaps a few selected others, there is the pervasive sense that Stead sees most New Zealand literati as a poor lot in comparison with those illustrious people he has befriended and socialised with in England, America and Europe, and of whom he tells many (generally not particularly enlightening) anecdotes. In his introduction Stead describes What You Made of It as “the report of one who consistently reflects, looking out rather than in and reporting what he sees.” (pg. x) Perhaps he should have done a little more “looking in” – a little more self-questioning. Then he might have reflected that self-praise tends to alienate readers and make him look like the smartest kid in the class who keeps telling us dullards how smart he is.

            Yet here’s the Stead paradox. In many respects he IS the smartest kid in the room, through his commentary, poetry and novels. Perhaps he should have left these real achievements to speak for themselves without puffing them.

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

Here endeth my review, except for…

A Necessary Footnote: I apologise for stating the bleeding obvious, but the hard fact is that C.K.Stead’s autobiographies (or “memoirs” if he prefers)  will now be read in the light of his novelist daughter Charlotte Grimshaw’s very different memoir The Mirror Book, which deals with many things Karl Stead has not mentioned. The Mirror Book has been noted and dissected on many platforms over the last couple of months. It was the (long) cover story of one issue of the Listener (issue of 3 April, 2021), and drew letters to the editor (some applauding the memoir, some reproving) over the following two weeks. A couple of on-line reviews by women uncritically applauded The Mirror Book as evidence of a woman bravely telling the truth. One “reviewer” seemed to spend his column proving to us how well he knew the Stead family. Another condemned Stead both pere et fille for (in his interpretation) living privileged lives. Then, some weeks after the original feature article in the Listener, which reproduced Charlotte Grimshaw's view of things, there was another, shorter, feature in the Listener (issue of 8 May 2021) giving the view of Grimshaw's younger sister Margaret. Her account of her parents was far more benign than Charlotte's, though she did not address any of the specific issues Charlotte had raised. I come from a larger familiy than the Stead family, and I'm pretty sure that if any of my siblings were to write an account of the familiy it would be very different from what I would write. Even people who grow up in the same house can have very different perspectives. Be that as it may, Margaret Stead's article couldn't help looking like an exercise in damage control.

            In his introduction to What You Made of It, Karl Stead explains “my family are mostly background to a literary life – but to treat them otherwise always threatened to expand the memoir beyond reasonable limits” (p. xi) On page 277 he says of his children “there have been only glimpses of them, and they will have their own stories to tell.” You betcha, as The Mirror Book focuses on the dynamics of the Stead family and says some harsh things about Karl and Kay Stead.

            In at least one post-publication interview (with Catherine Ryan on Radio New Zealand  National, Thursday 8 April), Charlotte Grimshaw made many positive remarks about her parents, saying her memoir presented “no blame, only explanation” and that it could be read as a tribute to her mother. But her tone was more combative in a Newsroom post headed “My literary family were too busy deciding whether to sue” (posted 14 April 2021). Here she said her parents tried to dissuade her from having The Mirror Book published at this time.  Kay pointed out to me and others… Karl was about to publish his third autobiography, in which he drove a nail into the arguments of X, and put readers straight on the issue of Y, and made sure the question of Z was put to rest, and now I’d got in the way of this with my appalling self-indulgence…” The phrasing of this suggests an awareness of Karl Stead’s strong desire to have the last word on every controversy in which he has been involved. Meanwhile I’m left wondering if the Croatian woman Stead discusses in Chapter 11 of What You Made of It is the same person to whom Charlotte Grimshaw refers in The Mirror Book on p.149. I think many people will be playing similar intertextual games with these two very different memoirs.