Monday, August 30, 2021

Something New

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


“THE COMMERCIAL HOTEL” by John Summers (Victoria University Press, $NZ30); “THE PIANO GIRLS” by Elizabeth Smither (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $NZ35)


There are only five million of us in New Zealand but we’re a very varied bunch (God, how I hate that propaganda term “Team of 5 million”!). And one part of New Zealand can be quite alien to the inhabitants of another part. I’m an Aucklander who is well travelled in many parts of the country, but I’ve visited the Wairarapa only three times in my life, and then only briefly. Interesting place it seems to be, too, but it’s not my New Zealand.

I’m saying all this because The Commercial Hotel is the work of a man who was settled in the Wairarapa for many years and, apparently, has moved to Wellington only recently – even if in those Wairarapa years he did commute regularly to the capital. Much of the world he reveals is rooted in the Wairarapa and therefore is a new discovery for me. His essay “What You Get, What’ve We Got” deals deliberately and informatively with small-town New Zealand, or at least small-town Wairarapa, and much of his imagery elsewhere comes from the same region. When he contemplates rubbish dumps, in “At the Dump”, he’s at the dump near Martinborough. When he reflects on the death of a young soldier in the Vietnam War (“A Light Left Burning”) he’s at Eketahuna, just outside the Wairarapa. When he writes playfully of the pleasures of sleeping on trains, which he has experienced in a number of countries (“Hard Sleep”), his starting point is trying to have a snooze on the train between the Wairarapa and Wellington.

The Commercial Hotel collects 21 essays by John Summers, a number of which have previously appeared in magazines or on-line. Some of them are short enough to be called vignettes, such as “Eeling” (a brief account of what eels are, with reminisicences of childhood eel-catching expeditions) or “Notes on Macrocarpa” (title self-explanatory) or “Boatermaster’ (a sketch about swimming). Some are slightly longer, like “Grassroots Elvis” (about New Zealand Elvis impersonators and what their cult means) and “Smoke and Glass” ( concerning the significance to New Zealand of Arcoroc smoked-glass coffee mugs) and “Sex Elevator” (an ironical account of being a teenager and craving a Commodore computer.) Teasingly, the title offering “The Commercial Hotel: A Discussion” is one of the shorter selections – basically Summers’ memory of reading James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man when he was a student doing a holiday job, and how the book has become an essential part of his memories ever since.

What strikes me most about this thoughtful collection is how much Summers dwells on, and sometimes seems to pine for, the past – a past before his or my time. Many of his essays are retrospective, not exactly nostalgic but recalling a New Zealand that no longer is, sometimes lamenting it, sometimes criticising it, often very ambiguous about it. Part of this rests on the great respect he has for his (paternal) grandparents, a respect which he expresses in a number of essays. He also grapples with the concept of ghosts – not literal ghosts, but an unnerving sense of how the past leaves some sort of living imprint on the present.

To deal with the ghosts first – look at the essay “Missing”, about the unnerving experience of seeing in a crowd a dead-ringer for somebody you know to be dead. Or “The Clearing”, which reconstructs a murder which took place in the nineteenth century. Or his haunting and closing essay “Three Ghosts”, where he diagnoses Pakeha ghost stories as an undercurrent consciousness of the fact that an earlier people – the Maori people – preceded them and left their imprint.

The New Zealand past, as Summers sees it, had its brutal side. In an outstanding essay “The Dehydrated Giant”, where he examines the now-almost-dead  phenomenon of freezing works, he gives us what is at once an elegy and a condemnation. The elegy is for the lost skills that freezing works passed on to his forebears, and the communities that the works built. The condemnation is for the old macho ethos where tough men held in their feelings and probably took their anger and violence home to their wives. Says Summers: “I’ve always been drawn to the past, never been able to think clearly about the future. My neck is cricked, looking back. Almost twenty years into a new century, and here I am still wondering about that old New Zealand of ‘full employment’ and six o’clock swills. It was a place that was busily being dismantled in the years I learnt to read. Unknowable for me, except as the setting for my grandfather’s stories.” (pp.32-33)

The past hangs over the present in “The House That Norm Built”, which uses Norm Kirk’s self-built house to remember a time when prime ministers could have working class backgrounds and remember the needs of ordinary people. How homes were then built and acquired contrasts with the present, when it is almost impossible for younger people to acquire a home.

Dwelling on the past can become a very silly enterprise, which is more-or-less implied in the essay “The Adventures of Bernard Shapiro” about fantasists who dress up in period costume and pretend they’re re-fighting battles or going on perilous explorations. But the past can be very close to home. The longest essay in the book is “Temperament”, a workmanlike account of Summers’ grandparents, with their very different temperaments. Grandmother had her crotchety and judgemental side, but Summers admires her as a stout pacifist and the only woman in New Zealand to be given a [short] jail sentence for trying to make a pacifist speech at the beginning of the Second World War. Summers does spend some time on the changing attitudes of New Zealanders towards war, and the dethroning of old-style militarism, but the focus is still on his grandparents.

Two essays I found particularly relatable.

“Living Springs” is Summers’ memory of what it was like to go through an ordinary New Zealand primary and intermediate school, from “primers” to Form 2. This is not a condemnatory account of misuse and abuse. The school was a perfectly average school. There were no scandals. But what Summers re-creates is how daunting young children find school to be. What a child experiences as big crises are things that, in later life, are recalled as harmless or silly anecdotes. Summer’s skill is to relive such events and make us remember the experience itself. Details here and there tell me that Summers went through primary school a couple of decades after I did, but I can’t help identifying with somebody who was a daydreamer and not good at maths. Me too.

And speaking of “me too”, I also can’t help identifiying with “Amateurs”, Summers’ memories of being an amateur tramper, enjoying the outdoors but not overdoing it. Which is how I remember my own experiences of tramping. And how right he is to note that memories of tramping deceive us by allowing us to recall only the pleasant bits of looking at landscape. We cancel out the pain and discomfort of slogging along a track or up a mountain.

As a journey through odd by-ways of New Zealand life, this is a great collection from a writer who can see the importance of things we might otherwise cast aside.

               *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *.  *


            To read The Piano Girls, Elizabeth Smither’s latest short-story collection, is to encounter some of the best writing currently being produced in New Zealand. Throwing away my punchline at the beginning, apart from Owen Marshall and Vincent O’Sullivan, few New Zealand short-story-tellers can match Smither’s mature and considered observation of the way people behave: observations often laced with a sharp wit and a honed understanding of social mores. Her densely-detailed prose often requires some concentration. These are not stories for the casual reader. But the reward is stories that are as weighty as a good novel.

All of the 20 stories that make up The Piano Girls show Smither’s commitment to detail. To give examples from two of her more offbeat stories – “Min: A Cat’s Story” is literally about a stray, undomesticated cat with her four kittens, being cared for and domesticated by some helpful human beings. Every phrase of “Min” rings true for anyone who knows about the habits of cats, their wildness and their contrary-ness. Similarly the story “Fire Lady”, set largely in a restaurant, shows an understanding of techniques used in flambe-production and of behaviour in a restaurant kitchen, as does the more light-hearted “sentimental story” (the author’s designation) “At the Compassionate Restaurant”. Perhaps some conscious research was undertaken for these two stories, but more likely it is simply the fruit of the author’s close observation.

A review is not the place to assume biographical details about the author, but it is hard not to see some stories as echoing things Smither has experienced in her literary life. This is especially true of “Phrases”, the story of a one-poem poet who cannot match younger poets whom he once patronised. Though its outcome is more desperate than most readers would expect, this type of character is well known in the real world of poetry readings and seminars. As for “The Shrine of St. Anne”, at least part of it concerns the awkwardness of literary readings before an unfamiliar audience, whereupon the story turns on what might be (or might not be) a miracle.

The great majority of characters Smither creates are comfortably middle-class and naturally most of them are women. You can tell a lot about their social status – or social ambitions – by the names they’re given. Penelope, Eloise, Vanessa, Antonia, Melissa, Cecilia, Magdalena, Evelyn, Jacqueline, Alicia, Susannah, Hilary, Justine and Julianne appear in various stories. I’m not making light of any of these names (for the record, the names of one of my daughters and one of my nieces feature in the above list). But they do show that Smither’s world is not a world of Karens, Joans, Shirleys, Sharleens or (God forbid!) Kellys. Very few stories reach into less middle-class milieux – one such being the delightful “Scottie”, almost bohemian in its account of an old woman in a shabby old house who feeds the unruly young students who live next door – and even she is somebody who has fallen from higher estate.

What do these middle- and upper-middle-class women concern themselves with? They are interested in classical music in “The Ten Conductors”, where a woman says farewell to her music practice; and in the title story “The Piano Girls”, where three sisters gather each year to give a private recital in honour of their deceased mother. They might be interested in ballet, or at least remember learning it when they were young girls and discovering how harsh and competitive ballet performance can be (“Tummy In, Tails Tucked Under”). Often they have awkward relationships with their mothers or mothers-in-law (the story “Toothpaste”).  Certainly they have health concerns, as in the hospital-set “The House of Skin” – unusual for a Smither story in that it is written in the first person. They also probably went to tone-ier girls’ school, or at least the top streams of girls’ schools. There are excellent evocations of such schools in the 1950s in “The Soul of Kate” and in “The Tree”. But “The Tree” also links to another preoccupation as its characters take their leisure by speculating on who will marry and who is already sexually active. This is the matter of sex. Interestingly, “The Tree” is placed in this collection between “The Hotel”, about a miserable affair that leads nowhere, and “Anniversary”, wherein a 50th wedding anniversary is being celebrated but half the people attending are “divorced or in the process of divorcing” and an unhappy deserted woman is up on a drink-driving charge. On the whole, marriage is looked at critically.

Not than one becomes too doleful in reading Smither’s stories. She is skilled in mixing the comic with the serious, even the tragic – probably proving the old thesis that the very best comedy is essentially serious. The farcical situation of “Gravy” (wife has to hide from husband her lack of a vital cooking skill) says a lot about how a marriage might or might not work. The woman in “Breasts” is funny in her attempts to enlarge her breasts (about as desperate as the man who obsesses about the size of his penis), but it is less funny when we understand the sexual stereotypes she is attempting to match. “Money” turns on the common, awkward situation of having to work out who pays for what when a bill is split by friends for a restaurant meal. If this is amusing, it develops into a reflection on how people use money and manipulate others.   In this serious-funny vein,  the most skilful story is “Baking Night” where a woman spends an evening baking and baking as an excuse to ward off a would-be seducer. The payoff is oddly moving after the joke has run its course.

As always, to name-check all these stories does not necessarily convey the writer’s style and achievement. The Piano Girls is a work for grown-ups, sophisticated, insightful, witty and detailed. Its mixture of moods – the comic and the serious – simply shows how complex life is, regardless of social class. A treasure.

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 book published four or more years ago.

“ANN VERONICA” by H.G.Wells (first published 1909)


It’s nine years since, back in 2013,  I commented on a book by H.G.Wells. The book was Tono-Bungay which, as I explained, has sometimes been promoted as Wells’ best “literary” novel by academics who want Wells to be taught in Eng. Lit. departments. Recently, serendipity has brought me back to re-considering Wells. In my recent survey of all the novels of David Lodge, I re-read Lodge’s A Man of Parts  (see All You Need to Know About the Novels of David Lodge, Part Three) which is basically an exhaustive (and exhausting) account of H.G.Wells’s very active sex life. In turn, this led me to re-read, after many years, Wells’s Ann Veronica, the novel that is most directly connected to one of Wells’s longer affairs.

To explain why the novel was written and its original reception, some context has to be given. Beginning in 1907, H.G.Wells (1866-1946), in his early 40s, began an affair with New Zealand-born Amber Reeves (1887- 1981), who was just 20 and studying Philosophy at Cambridge. Wells had a companionate marriage. His wife Jane condoned all his affairs and was willing to serve without complaint as housekeeper and mother of his two sons. But Amber’s parents, Maud and William Pember Reeves, were appalled by the affair. They were respectable, liberal members of the Fabian Society. William Pember Reeves had served as cabinet minister in Richard Seddon’s government in New Zealand, and he was now in London as High Commissioner for New Zealand. The Reeveses complained about the way this caddish, adulterous author had seduced their young daughter, and fellow Fabians like George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb agreed with their complaints. Amber became pregnant and bore a daughter to Wells, but the strains of the affair became too much for them. So Wells arranged for Amber to marry another man – a man who had wooed her for some time – so that she could have respectability. Amber Reeves and H.G.Wells remained “friends” for many years, and Wells soon moved on to his next conquest, having a turbulent affair with the young Rebecca West. He really was a serial shagger.

However, while still emotionally attached to Amber Reeves, Wells wrote Ann Veronica, a thinly disguised version of their affair. It is a novel about the New Woman and Free Love, and as such it was considered a scandalous piece of work. Wells was already an established author with a large readership, but his usual publishers were so worried about the novel’s content that they turned it down before it was accepted by a different publishing house. Its condoning of extramarital sex was loudly denounced by a number of reviewers and some of the clergy, which naturally boosted the novel’s sales.

Now it is so easy to pick out the flaws of Ann Veronica, and the novel is dated in so many ways, that I’ll begin by saying what is right about it.

Ann Veronica Stanley is the 21-year-old daughter of a reasonably affluent stockbroker, living in suburban comfort, but her papa is a bit of a tyrant and strict in upholding the laws of conventional morality. Ann Veronica’s mother is dead, and her unmarried aunt, known as Miss Stanley, shares their household and backs up all Mr Stanley’s views. Of course it is expected that Ann Veronica will marry and settle down as a housewife. Already a student of biology at London University, Ann Veronica longs for more personal freedom. As she complains early in the novel “Apparently I’m not to exist yet. I’m not to study, I’m not to grow. I’ve got to stay at home and remain in a state of suspended animation.” (Chapter 2).

A big argument comes over a relatively trivial matter. Mr Stanley will not let Ann Veronica go to a fancy-dress dance as he believes the hosts are raffish people with all the wrong too-modern ideas. Ann Veronica is humiliated that she cannot mix freely with people of her own age who are not under the same restraints as she is. After much agonising, she decides the only thing she can do is to run away from home, and make her own life as an independent woman in London. This she attempts, but she discovers it’s impossible for a single young woman to find a job that will pay a reasonable wage. So she borrows 40 pounds from Mr Ramage, a man in his fifties and with an invalid wife, who seems to be liberal-minded and a supporter of women’s emancipation.

Naturally Ann Veronica’s father and her severe aunt and her brother Roddy find out where she is lodging in London and come along to expostulate with her and make her see reason by coming home and being a good girl. There is also a Mr Manning, of roughly her own age, who attempts to woo her with marriage in mind. Hubert Manning is an aesthete of some sort and a would-be poet, clearly depicted as a shallow fool, not up to Ann Veronica’s own intellectual level, and with a sentimental and totally unrealistic view of the relationship of the sexes. When he speaks in too flowery a way, Ann Veronica ripostes “You men have, I know, meant to make us queens and goddesses, but in practice, well look for example, at the stream of girls one meets going to work of a morning, round-shouldered, cheap and underfed! They aren’t queens, and no one is treating them as queens. And look, again, at the women one finds letting lodgings… I was looking for rooms last week. It got on my nerves – the women I saw. Worse than any men. Everywhere I went and rapped at a door I found behind it another dreadful dingy woman – another fallen queen, I suppose – dingier than the last, dirty, you know, in grain. Their poor hands!  (Chapter 6)

So far, even if the terms of reference belong to an earlier age, the novel is convincing enough. Remember, Ann Veronica was written before women in Britain had the vote – or women in most countries outside New Zealand and some Australian and American states; when there were few opportunities for women to earn a decent wage; and when there were still restrictions on women owning property or filling public offices. The quarrels between Ann Veronica and her familiy are plausible as are Ann Veronica’s aspirations. The tendency for men to idealise women, but still to dominate them, is well depicted. Also, Wells does not overdo Ann Veronica’s mental resilience or confidence in herself. Some of his best writing is in Chapter 4, where Ann Veronica is for the first time alone in London and unsupported by her family. She experiences real fear as she walks the city streets, with Wells discreetly suggesting that men follow after her, assuming that a young woman unaccompanied must be a prostitute or at least available for sexual encounters.

But before half-way, something goes wrong with this novel. It is connected to the difficulty of a male writer writing sympathetically about a young woman’s experience, but in the process making many male assumptions and – knowingly or otherwise – turning the young woman into a sort of fantasy figure of male desire.

The problem begins with a Miss Miniver, who introduces Ann Veronica to the suffragette movement, but who is depicted as an hysterical crank. After Ann Veronica (a student biologist, remember) says that bodies are beautiful things, the suffragette Miss Miniver says “No, you are wrong! … Bodies! Bodies! Horrible things! We are souls. Love lives on a higher plane. We are not animals. If ever I did meet a man I could love, I should love him… Platonically… Absolutely Platonically. Soul to soul.” (Chapter 8) This is another unrealistic view of the relationship of the sexes. As Wells goes on to characterise them, the sufragettes have a laudable cause, but are single-minded extremists… and only sexual awakening will cure them.

As it happens, the 50-year-old Mr Ramage proves to be a fraud who gives only lip service to women’s emancipation and who was really looking to seduce Ann Veronica. He even suggests that his loan of 40 pounds was a down-payment on her body. Ann Veronica has to ward off rape with a smart ju-jitsu smack on his jaw. (Note – the real Amber Reeves had learnt ju-jitsu.) Ann Veronica is thus so disillusioned with men that for a while she follows Miss Miniver’s lead and becomes an ardent suffragette. She even joins a group who rush into the House of Commons and shout “Votes for Women”. She is arrested and spends some time in jail.

The way Wells reports this whole sequence of events is extemely ambiguous. On the one hand, his account of the raid on parliament is very vivid, as is his description of degrading prison conditions. At his best, he was a good storyteller. On the other hand, he has Ann Veronica coming to the conclusion that suffragettes, with all their bold rhetoric, are deluded as they appear to think that gaining the vote will at once create a new world and completely change conditions for women. One might see this as a reasonable refutation of Utopianism (mind you, H.G.Wells himself wrote a number of daffy Utopias in his time). There’s even an outside possibility that Wells was reflecting a real tension in the ranks of the suffragettes between heterosexual women who wanted the vote but still wanted to marry and have children; and – possibly lesbian – women who didn’t want a bar of men or wanted only “platonic” relations with them.

 But in the end, Wells seems to be steering Ann Veronica towards his idea of Free Love. Women will be truly emancipated not by gaining political power, but by becoming sexually enlightened. And in Wells’ view of things, sexual enlightenment for women means surrendering themselves to experienced older men who can initiate them into the wonders of sexual intercourse. In fact what young women really need is an informed and wise older man to direct them in their sexual blossoming. Someone like – um – H.G.Wells.

Most implausibly, after her connection with the suffragettes, Wells has Ann Veronica running back to suburban respectability and accepting the inane Hubert Manning’s offer of marriage. But before they wed, she finally drops Manning resolving thus “… she realized she was in fact just a  mannequin for her lover’s imagination, and that he cared no more for the realities of her being, for the things she felt and desired, for the passions and dreams that might move her, than a child cares for the sawdust in its doll. She was the actress his whim had chosen to play a passive part.” (Chapter 13)

Yet what does Ann Veronica become in this novel if not a passive puppet? For Wells has introduced a character called Capes (Gosh! That name does sound similar to Wells!) who lectures in biology and is one of Ann Veronica’s teachers. He is, supposedly, her intellectual equal and worthy of her intellectual love. But he is older and more experienced than she. He has a frigid wife who refuses to give him a divorce. Capes is in his early thirties. Yes, in his thirties. Note how unlike that lecherous old beast Ramage he is. Ramage, who desired sexual intercourse with Ann Veronica, was in his fifties. Capes, who desires sexual intercourse with Ann Veronica, is only in his thirties, so that makes it more seemly. And note how, in his fictionalised version of himself, Wells neatly gets over the fact that he was older than that – in his early forties – when he took up with young Amber Reeves.

But I am wandering out of the novel. “I feel a mixture of beast and uncle” says Capes truthfully (in Chapter 14) as he begins to woo Ann Veronica in earnest. But his words win her, forced and theatrical though they seem to this reader. Who knows? Perhaps Wells wooed Amber with such words, in which case life does not measure up to art. They plan to abscond, unmarried to Switzerland for their “honeymoon”. As Ann Veronica prepares to flee from her family home for the second time, Wells remarks “She was at the end of girlhood and on the eve of a woman’s crowning experience.” (Chapter 15) That experience is, presumably, conjugation with a man. Switzerland is presented as a perfect wonderland in which Ann Veronica and Capes climb beautiful mountains, see beautiful vistas and make love frequently, this being Ann Veronica’s fulfilment.

And what does Capes do in these chapters? He lectures her and lectures her and lectures her on the nature of Free Love and sexuality and their emotional fulfilment. And she nods in agreement and says how she longs to have many children. Marriage can be a fine thing, but there is no real sense that this is the meeting of equals. Haven’t we, dear reader, really seen a young woman falling into the thrall of an older man as opposed to a young woman finding her freedom, which is what Ann Veronica was seeking at the opening of this novel? A work that began by claiming to represent a young woman’s sensibility ends up as a man’s-eye-view.

To add insult to injury, Wells tacks on a final “happy ending” chapter where it is four years later, Capes and Ann Veronica are respectably married, Veronica delights in her bonny baby and she is reconciled to her father and her aunt. Ah, domestic bliss! Ah, sweet conventionality!

Some years ago, the Guardian used to have a column called “Digested Classics” wherein well-known novels were summarised in satirical terms. In the Guardian issue of 26 March 2010 appeared John Crace’s parody of Ann Veronica.

After her connection with suffragettes, Crace has Ann Veronica running back to Capes saying “I have become the right kind of feminist. The kind acceptable to a man.” And in the closing scene of domestic bliss, Capes says to Ann Veronica “Now be a good girl and make us a cuppa.” To me this seems a fair summary of how the novel develops and where it goes wrong.


Pedantic Footnote: Just for bibilographic interest, please note that in Ann Veronica, H.G.Wells uses one trope that was already well-worn before he got to it. The older married man Ramage at one point takes Ann Veronica to a performance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde,  about adulterous love, in the hope of seducing her. On this blog alone, you will find comments on three earlier books by other authors which use this device of events on stage being connected with impulses in the lives of the novel’s main characters. In Zola’s La Curee , incestuous lovers see Racine’s Phedre about the incestuous desire of a stepmother for her step-son. In Eca de Queiroz’s Cousin Bazilio, there is a visit to the theatre where events in a melodrama echo the turbulent passions of characters in the audience. And in de Maupassant’s Fort Comme La Mort, an older man goes to Gounod’s opera Faust, sees in the audience the younger woman for whom he longs, and shares Faust’s desire to be young again. I am sure that some Ph.D. student somewhere has found many more examples of this narrative device.

Eccentric Footnote: Ann Veronica has been dramatised a number of times on stage and on BBC television and was turned into a not-very-successful musical in 1969. Wikipedia tells me that the Disney Corporation have plans to make it into a movie, to be written and directed by the Coen Brothers. Goodness knows where that combination will lead, but I don’t for one moment think it will actually follow the very compromised nature of Wells’s 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.

                                                    MISERY LIT AND VICTIM STATUS

I’ll begin this week’s sermon with a story that some of you probably already know.

In 1997 there was published a memoir by a Jewish Holocaust survivor called Misha Defonseca. On first publication it was called  Misha – A Memoire of the Holocaust Years, but it was later republished as Surviving With Wolves. Misha Defonseca had a dreadful childhood. Her parents were deported from Nazi-occupied Belgium in 1941 and she was put in the care of a Gentile family. But at the age of seven, she ran away, and between the ages of seven and eleven she walked over 3000 kilometres across occupied Europe in search of her parents. She was for a time incarcerated in the Warsaw ghetto but was able to escape. She survived in her long journey by eating roots and things from rubbish dumps. Once, at the age of eight, she beat a sleeping man whom she had seen committing rape. Most extraordinary of all, she was welcomed into a family of wolves which protected and nurtured her and took her in as part of their family.

It was a wonderful memoir. It was translated into many languages. And the author earned not millions, but tens of millions of dollars both from the book and from television appearances and speaking tours. Misha – A Memoire of the Holocaust Years was loudly praised by the Education Director of the North American Wolf Foundation for presenting such a sympathetic and realistic version of the lives of wolves.

There was just one tiny problem.

The book was complete fiction and “Misha Defonseca” was a fraud.

It took ten years for this to be established definitively. “Misha Defonseca” was a Gentile Belgian, Monique De Wael, who had no Jewish ancestry or connections whatsoever. There was one tiny grain of truth to her fabrication. Her Catholic parents were deported to a death camp by the Nazis, because they had been part of a resistance movement. But, staying with grandparents, Monique De Wael survived the war unmolested, went to school with others, undertook no epic journey and definitely had no family relationship with wolves. When her fraudulence was exposed, she lost most of the millions she had made in court cases brought by her publishers and others. At one point she attempted to defend herself by saying of her book “It is not the true reality but is my reality”, the last two words of which statement are now a virtual mantra for those who deny that there is such a thing as objective truth.

In retrospect, we have to ask ourselves why people were taken in by such an unlikely story.

I think there is a simple answer to this. Being humane readers, we will of course, and quite rightly, sympathise with people who have had dreadful lives, whether they are people of a persecuted race, refugees in hostile countries, or victims of sexual or other physical abuse, especially in childhood. So if we read a book that purportedly tells us a true story about such things, part of our critical faculties immediately switches off. We would feel heartless and callous if we weren’t on the side of a little girl who bravely weathered the Holocaust. So we will swallow even tales of mothering wolves and an eight-year-old bashing a rapist. We don’t want to be sceptical of such moving testimony.

The fraudster Monique De Wael is, of course, not the only writer to perpetrate a literary hoax of this sort, and she is not the only one to pretend to have been part of another ethnicity than her own in order to win sympathy and applause. Australia has had two well known literary hoaxes of this sort. (Not to be confused with Australia’s most famous literary hoax, the “Ern Mally” affair of 1944, which had the honest aim of flushing out poseurs, in the field of poetry, who would praise even literary nonsense. Its perpetrators made no money from their hoax and happily revealed who they were as soon as they’d hit their pretentious target.)

The two Aussie literary hoaxes I refer to are Helen Darville’s fake “Ukrainian memoir” The Hand That Signed the Paper, published in 1993 under the fictitious name “Demidenko”; and the long career of Colin Johnson, who wrote for decades as Mudrooroo, writing about Aboriginal characters and claiming Aboriginal ancestry. He was eventually rumbled by real Aborigines who proved that he had no Aboriginal ancestry at all. So why would two white Aussies claim ethnicities that they weren’t? And for that matter why would Monique De Wael claim to be Jewish? Simple. Assuming such identities immediately gave them what is now a much-prized commodity – victim status.

In case you haven’t heard of it, there is a literary genre now sometimes rudely called “misery lit”. Essentially it means autobiographical works written by people who have suffered much – and currently the “misery lit” books most often published have to do with child abuse and sexual violation. I am not belittling the immense suffering such things engender in real life, but often such books come across as an excuse for us to wallow in misery. Hence “misery lit.”

Unfortunately, there is a very dark underside to such literature - it is easy to fake. Writing a “misery Lit” memoir, you don’t have to bother about such things as characterisation and structure – the type of things that bother real novelists. Instead, you can sail along by piling atrocity and abuse upon atrocity and abuse. And if what you write is taken to be true, you get your desired victim status. You will be praised for your courage and candour.

            Many “misery lit.” books have, over the years, been exposed as fabrications. Sadly, the very existence of these fakes has the effect of making discerning readers more sceptical when they read authentic stories of abuse and deprivation.

NECESSARY FOOTNOTE: Only after I had written the above think-piece did I discover on Netflix a documentary called "Misha and the Wolves" which told the whole story of the "Misha Defonseca" fraud, much as I have explained it above. Most of the people involved in it were interviewed (publisher, lawyers, genuine Holocaust survivors etc.) except for Monique De Wael herself, who declined to be interviewed and who was therefore played by an actress, apart from documentary footage of De Wael telling her lies to schoolchildren and enraptured audiences. One thing was news to me - apparently before her first publisher put De Wael's fraudulent memoir into print, she submitted it to an historian who advised her not to publish it as it was filled with completely unbelievable stories and things that were historically false. But the publisher went ahead and published. Apparently her desire for a profit overrode her scruples.




Monday, August 16, 2021

Something New

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

“CRAZY LOVE” by Rosetta Allan (Penguin, $NZ36); “STRONG WORDS #2 – The best of the Landfall Essay Competition” Selected by Emma Neale (Otago University Press, $NZ35); “BEACHCOMBING – A guide to seashores of the Southern Hemisphere” by Ceridwen Fraser (Otago University Press, $NZ30)

Here’s a problem for me as a reviewer. How do I categorise Rosetta Allan’s third novel Crazy Love? At the very least I can say it’s very different from her first two novels (both reviewed on this blog) Purgatory and The Unreliable People . They were both carefully-researched and scrupulously-plotted novels with historical settings, one in nineteenth-century New Zealand and the other in Russia both during and after it was the Soviet Union.

But Crazy Love?

It is written confessionally in the first person. The back-cover blurb tells me it is “based on the author’s own experiences”. At the end of the text, there’s a photo of Rosetta Allan and her husband James shortly after they were married in 1984. In her acknowledgements Rosetta Allan thanks, inter alia, “Billy-bold - my James”. “Billy” is the husband of the first-person narrator “Vicki” in Crazy Love, and most other characters are simply given generic names such as “sick dolly-bird” or “highwayman” or “divorced of Mt Eden.” The fact is, Crazy Love does not read like a novel, but like a memoir. In some respects it resembles recent confessional memoirs by other New Zealand women such as Caroline Barron’s Ripiro Beach (medical and physical trauma) and Charlotte Grimshaw’s The Mirror Book (personal and family trauma). I’ll respect the author’s choice and refer to Crazy Love as a novel. Perhaps Allan has added a few fictitious moments to the record, softened things here,  excluded things there. So just for this review a novel it is, and Vicki and Billy are its people.

What trauma is recorded here?

The first part of Crazy Love is called “Before”. This is Vicki in 1983-84, in the years of Robert Muldoon to whom she writes some angry letters. She is eighteen-going-on-nineteen. She regards the town she lives in – Napier – as a joyless, provincial dead-end. She cohabits with a guy she calls only “loser-boyfriend”. Together they just scrape up enough money to live in a seedy boarding house she calls Dire Straits. They have plenty of sex. She has an abortion. The effect of this messes things up for her when she’s trying to find a job. “Loser-boyfriend” can be violent, takes plenty of drugs, hangs out with thuggish hoons, gets involved in pub brawls, burglary and other petty crime. There’s much sordid grot in this life. Vicki does drugs too. Once she goes into a psychedelic frenzy on cactus juice and smashes things up.

Vicki comes across as a young woman who is intelligent enough to know that her life is going nowhere, but doesn’t yet know how to make it go somewhere.

Enter Billy. He has a room in Dire Straits. He’s a punk who can lose it, rage, and do brawls when provoked. He takes part in burglaries, forges cheques, steals. He has false teeth because his teeth were all rotted out by the drugs he took. But he’s a stylish punk. A cool punk with drainpipe black jeans and blonde hair standing up with gel. And he is clearly going somewhere. He’s halfway to being an artist and he has a foot in the door in either advertising or marketing. And (with “loser-boyfriend” raging and wanting to get her back), Vicki moves in with Billy.

In all this, note that Vicki does most of the active wooing. In fact, this part of Crazy Love is one of the most delicately expressed as she becomes more and more interested in Billy. The tone can only be called Romantic, with a formal proposal, moonlight on the sea and all. And there’s this major turning point in young Vicki’s life when Billy says “You’ll be our next Katherine Mansfield.” Vicki comments: “I had no idea who Katherine Mansfield was any more than Tennyson, so I had no gauge of this vast and ridiculous compliment. But it felt so lovely having someone beside me, believing in me like that. I’d heard big talk before to get me in the sack. You and me, we’ll do this and this. I’ll take you there and there. It was always the benchmark to know when to get the hell away from a guy. Only, I didn’t want to get away from this Billy and all his promises. Something in his words wrung [sic] true – not the Katherine Mansfield part, but the writer part. And I liked the idea of that.” (p.99)

They marry soon after, when their first child is on the way.

And at this point you are raging at me, aren’t you dear reader? All I’m doing is giving you a synopsis when we both know that mere synopsis is the enemy of real critique. Fear not. I’ve walked you through only the first third of Crazy Love. The set-up. For the deeper trauma comes only in the second section, “During” which takes up the bulk of the novel.

I won’t labour over this. It is 2012. Vicki and Billy have been married for nearly 28 years. They’re middle-aged and their two adult kids are gone. They’ve had their ups and downs, had a lot of money, lost a lot of money, had flash cars, lost flash cars, had an art collection, had to downsize houses, sometimes lived a life of Auckland bourgeois success with him heading for an arts degree and doing corporate advertising and marketing work and her getting on with her serious writing and helping out with his firm.

Sometimes she suffers severe depression, but that’s not the trauma. The trauma is Billy’s “mood swings of undiagnosed mental illness” (p.152). Billy is severely, severely, severely manic-depressive. This is the real crazy love. Love is a crazy, irrational thing and Vicki loves Billy; but Billy is mentally sick and literally crazy. He sells off some of their assets for no rational purpose. He threatens to commit suicide and makes plans to do so. He contemplates running off with another woman then weeps about it. He may not have been “physically unfaithful” but he has been “spiritually, emotionally and cognitively unfaithful.” (p.242) He carries out silly pranks like stealing road signs. He hides under the house. He shouts. He has huge, unrealisable, irrational plans. Violence is always potential. When Vicki manages to get him into psychiatric care, a nurse says Billy has “bipolar mania delusion.” (p.293)

Yet Vicki remains devoted to Billy for all the hurt. When a woman (called only “no-longer friend”) mocks her for being financially dependent on Billy, Vicki reflects “Billy changed me for the better right from the start. I am not made weaker because of our relationship. I am made more substantial.” (p.189) Billy gives her life meaning and she sticks with him, trying to weather out his mental storms and doing her best to help him overcome his sickness. Vicki loves him.

Okay, okay cynics. I know what you’re thinking. Expressed as I have expressed it, this sounds dangerously like one of those uplifting, soapy disease-of-the-week shows they used to have on Sunday evening television. Love conquers all. Plucky, devoted wife brings troubled husband back from the brink. Roll credits. But Crazy Love is not like that. Vicki’s version of love is hard and realistic. So is the author’s terse style. “Love is endurance” says Vicki (p.166), which in a way means love is commitment, even through the craziness and verbal abuse. And the book’s coda, called “After”, bringing the story up to date in 2020, does not suggest a happy-ever-after. Even the best marriages are constantly negotiated and re-negotiated. Does anybody now remember a piece of horse manure from the 1960s called Love Story? It was marketed with the slogan “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” Bollocks! Love means having to say you’re sorry ten thousand times and then another ten thousand times. Love endures but marital peace is always provisional.

So Crazy Love is candid and uncompromising as it charts both a wild, self-destructive youth and a marriage made difficult by mental health issues. But it nowhere falls into self-pity. Rosetta Allan’s optimism, practicality and commitment are infectious. So’s her style. It’s compulsive reading.

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Strong Words #2 is the second collection of long-listed essays from the Landfall Essay Competition, once again selected  and introduced by Emma Neale.

It follows on from the first Strong Words collection reviewed on this blog in 2019. In her introduction to the earlier collection, Emma Neale emphasised that essays come in many different forms. There is no set template for the essay. Her introduction to Strong Words #2 begins with her referencing an angry letter she received from an unnamed reader, who said that too many Landfall essays were solipsistic, by which the reader presumably meant that too many essays were self-obsessed, personal and confessional. Emma Neale does not dismiss the reader’s complaint out of hand, but does argue that many good essays may begin with the very personal, but then work their way to connecting the personal with the public. Major human issues emerge from very personal observations.

I can certainly see how this works in many essays but perhaps not in all. In these very varied 25 essays (18 by women, 7 by men – about the same gender balance as in the earlier collection), there are at least a few that really are solipsistic in the pejorative sense. But I won’t dwell on them. Nor will I attempt to synopsise or comment upon every essay. Two of the best essays appear elsewhere in print – Siobhan Harvey’s wrenching account of an abusive childhood “Living in the Haunted House of the Past”, which also appears in her poetry collection Ghosts (reviewed on this blog ); and Gilian Sullivan’s “The Art and Adventures of Subsistence”, about trying to survive on very little income, which appears in her essay collection Map of the Heart (also reviewed on this blog). Two essays are, in effect, very engaging book reviews, both of them referencing in some form climate change. In “The Certainty of Others”, John Horrocks looks at recent New Zealand novels that posit apocalyptic outcomes from climate change. In “Water Says Things So Clearly”, Wendy Parkins gives the best analysis I’ve yet read of Robin Hyde’s novel Wednesday’s Children, which was written way back in the 1930s, and pairs it with Pip Adam’s recent novel The New Animals. Both novels immerse themselves in the sea and suggest a different way of looking at it. (Wendy Parkins’ memoir of depression, Every morning, so far, I’m alive, is reviewed elsewhere on this blog .)

If I were to nominate the quirkiest essay in this collection, it would have to be Matt Vance’s “Lines of Desire” with his mapping of human behaviour by noticing the directions in which people walk. Ultimately the cheerfulest essay must be Emily Duncan’s “Character-Building”, an account of not making it in a New York drama school. We at first expect a tale of failure and woe, but it moves towards a resilient shrug of the shoulders. And the essay that provoked the most thought for me was  Tan Tuck Ming’s somewhat postmodernist “My Grandmother Gliches the Machine”, a complex and intellectually satisfying essay sounding out the rationalist idea that apparent reality is simply a structure created by language. You don’t have to agree with this concept to enjoy that subtleties of Tan’s argument.

At this point, I could list the essays that didn’t appeal to me – the one that tried too hard to be funny; the one that overdid the punnery and cheap shots in denouncing colonialism; the one that pleaded for public expression of emotions while telling us about the author’s love-life etc. etc. not to mention the ones that really were solipsistic. But then I realise other readers might find these very essays the cream of Strong Words #2.

To be thoroughly solipsistic, I learnt some things about myself in reading all these essays. One discovery was that I really like essays that make a case, or express a preference, clearly and without too many digressions. So to conclude this review, here is my personal selection of the most outstanding essays, all of them marked by their uncompromising clarity of expression.

·      Ingrid Horrocks’ “Ordinary Animals”  (a modified section of her book Where We Swim). Her narrative of a family’s experiences really does move coherently into a general address on climate change and rising sea levels.

·      Tim Grgec’s “Drinking More Fruit Juice Won’t Help”, a stately elegy for his late mother, taking in the experience of living with cancer.

·      Sarah Jane Barnett’s “Unladylike”, part polemic, part memoir, arguing that femininity (and masculinity) are just performative. Not a wholly convincing asrgument – it runs into the wild territory of assuming that gender and sex are not the same – but clearly stated.

·      Anna Knox’s “Ziusudra & the Black Holes” – quite daring of her to submit an essay on such an esoteric topic, but a really engaging piece querying whether the first authentic writer of essays, thousands of years ago, might have been a woman.

·      Himali McInnes’s socially engaged “This Place”, at once celebrating the South Auckland community where she is a GP, but also examining and criticising the reasons for the area’s poverty.

·      And finally my choice for the best of the best, Shelley Burne-Field’s “If the words ‘white’ and ‘sausage’ in the same sentence make you uncomfortable, please read on”, based on personal experience and a blistering attack on casual racism. It’s not only the subject matter that buoys it, but the no-nonsense way in which it is expressed.

Very well. Other readers will judge differently, but all criticism is subjective. Please remember that.

Pedantic and Nitpicking Footnote: I do not wish to denigrate John Horrocks’ enlightening essay, but I was taken aback by the fact that the same central character in a novel he analyses is called, on different pages, Zac Hobson, Zac Hudson and Zac Hodson. Were the typesetters fiddling around or am I missing something?

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I’m not an expert on marine biology or on littoral life-forms and therefore I can’t make a scientific judgment on Ceridwen Fraser’s Beachcombing – A guide to seashores of the Southern Hemisphere. But I do know that this slim (114 pages) book gave me great pleasure and will continue to do so for a long time. Ceridwen Fraser is an associate professor of Marine Science at the University of Otago. I’m one of those useless humanities people who took degrees in literature, languages, philosophy and history. But I’m now also a volunteer guide at Tiritiri Matangi, one of New Zealand’s open-bird-sanctuary islands, and I’m rapidly beefing up my knowledge of native birds and plants.

In my guiding, what I’ve aways lacked is an account of what lands on, or is left on, the shore. Now I’ve got it.

In Beachcombing – A guide to seashores of the Southern Hemisphere, Fraser takes us systematically through the dynamics of currents and waves; the things that are left on the shore (including – alas – much plastic); the life forms that exist or survive on southern shores; things that rise to the surface from the depths of the sea; seabirds; large sea-creatures (like squid); and the way seeds and plants migrate from shore to shore. And it is all written in non-specialist language for non-scientists like me. Beachcombing is designed for the general reader with all unfamiliar names of plants and creatures duly explained. Because this text deals not only with New Zealand shores, but with the whole Southern Hemisphere, there is also a glossary page giving Australian Aboriginal, Maori and Chilean equivalents of sea-releated terms.

One of its chiefs assets is, of course, its many illustrations – everything from a big, fat sea elephant resting on kelp to the tiny structure of grains of sand, some of which have biogenic material; from sea tulips to shark-egg capsules; from seahorses to ambergris.

            This isn’t the type of book I’d give away after reading.