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.
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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.
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.