Monday, August 29, 2022

Something New

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

“UNDER A BIG SKY” by Tim Saunders (Allen & Unwin, $NZ34:99) ; “THIEF, CONVICT, PIRATE, WIFE” by Jennifer Ashton (Auckland University Press, $NZ35)

            Read the opening words of Tim Saunders’ Under a Big Sky and you find the sort of prose that begs to be poetry: “The hawk scoops broad arcs in the air, churning and turning over patchwork paddocks. Yellow eyes scythe the earth in search of the small and the dead as his shadow flicks over sheep and cattle. The Oroua River cuts a meandering line through open plains, clouds crumple against distant ranges. Buoyant air lifts the hawk in ever-widening circles, and I wonder if it is him that is turning or the earth itself.” (p.10) The hawk in question is known to Saunders’ family as Kahu, and Kahu becomes an emblem, opening every one of the five sections into which Under a Big Sky is divided – “The Elements”, “Fire”, “Air”, “Water” and “Earth” – as the seasons are tracked.

This book is written with a poet’s sensibility, and we frequently encounter scenes such as “The sun sent speculative fingers through the clouds, spotlighting random trees and clusters of corrugated sheds. Padlocks, dappled with light, lay in a tartan mishmash as far as I could see. Cattle grazed aimlessly, a bark murmuration of silent foraging.” (p.103) You will also encounter scenes where Tim Saunders looks closely at the smaller creatures in a way that would have done Thoreau credit. Take the description of naughty piwakawaka tormenting a house cat that is safely on the other side of a window and cannot retaliate. Or the sequence where the author looks closely at insects, thus- “I pulled my raincoat from the hook by the back door, yanked my waterproof over-trousers from the string stretched out in the carport. They crackled in my hands, stiff and dry after so many months of no rain. I went to put my arm through the sleeve, but something made me pause. I slipped the jacket off again, turned it inside out. A plethora of insects and spiders fell to the ground, as if every bug ever conceived had built empires in the folds and stitches. Some had constructed whole townships, and the next generation was already planning families of their own. None of them had been concerned with social distancing, bubbles or lockdowns.”  (pp.216-217)

But do not assume that poetic description and close observation of critters are all Tim Saunders has to offer. In many respects, Under a Big Sky is a very down-to-earth account of the strenuous labour that goes into farming.

Under a Big Sky is subtitled “Facing the Elements on a New Zealand Farm”. Saunders is part of the fifth generation of a family that has been running a farm in the Manawatu, between the Tararua Ranges and the sea, since the late nineteenth century. The farm is 290 hectares, near the Oroua River and quite some drive away from Palmerston North and Feilding. Tim Saunders’ father, now in his 80s, still works on the farm, as does Tim himself, his German partner Kathrin, and his brother Mark. They run sheep and beef, as well as cultivating maize and other crops.

Throughout the book Saunders gives respect to his father, his more traditional ways, his knowledge, his physical resilience and his ability to do strenuous things even at his advanced age. His father still chips in with the heavy work, or at least he does until his health  declines. But Saunders Senior  remains such a tough old rooster that he goes through a major operation without general anaesthetic. His son is still in awe of the way his father can read the weather. His parents tell him much about older times with some hilarious anecdotes, such as the chaos that ensued when his great-grandfather, in about 1903, drove a flock of sheep through central Wellington. (Only years later was it made illegal to drive livestock through a town or city.) There is also awareness of all the traditional recipes that have been passed on by generations of farm women. Sometimes there creeps in a note of nostalgia for simpler times – the passage about the orchard with its ancient walnut trees and the smell of venerable trees growing in the shade. But all this is in tension with awareness of how farming has changed and has had to change. As a little boy, Tim Saunders sees his father fix a combine harvester; as an adult he sees the combine harvester dead and falling apart as more sophisticated machines do the reaping. There is a long description of how new shearing equipment had to replace the older rig that had become useless and description in detail of a new cultivator machine.

Another major theme is simply what ruddy hard work farming is. Digging holes for fence posts. Treating ewes whose hooves are blighted with maggots [involving wresting a ewe to the ground to make her more cooperative]. Calling in the vet to medicate a steer which has “wood tongue”. Facing the disgusting job of having to fix a sewer pipe when it has cracked, the septic tank is no longer functioning, and ordure is spread over the fields. Corralling and having to bring back a large flock of shorn sheep which were running wild on the road after having escaped through a hole in the fence. And all this on top of the daily work of ploughing, sowing, reaping, keeping the fences in order etc.

Added to this there are new economic constraints upon farmers. Says Saunders  Dad still remembered when the bank manager was a farmer’s friend, budgets were calculated in his head, and deals were sealed with a handshake. A recent visit from our rural loans supervisor had changed all that. He demanded we make a better profit, the land was there for income and nothing else.” (p.38) Together with this, there is the gradual loss of a way of life as “new houses dotted the roadsides, productive farmland subdivided into sections. The roads we had biked to school were now much busier, especially around 5 p.m. as people returned home from work in town to their little slices of paradise. More people meant more regulations for land use, and we weren’t even allowed to drove cattle along the road between farms anymore without proper permission. Words such as development, growth, housing shortage were used. What would happen when there was no farmland left, where would food come from?” (pp.240-241)

And then there is the impact of the pandemic. Suddenly there are statements about farmers being essential services, after their having so often been vilified as anti-conservationists and polluters of the land. There is also the awkward social distancing when drivers come to harvest the corn (=maize) and stay in their cabs rather than meeting and having a chat as they usually did. Before you take the wrong message from this however, bear in mind that Tim Saunders is very concerned with conservation and the literal health of the land. He questions the nature of farming itself while at the same time lamenting the loss of farming land as life-style blocks eat up much ground that is arable. He is critical of  exotic pine trees taking over much nearby land which had been bought by speculators. He is very aware that in former times, pollution was not regarded as a problem, and he knows that over-grazing has, in many cases, damaged the land irreparably : “The rotational grazing of our cattle would eventually return some of the nutrients from the hay back to the soil. Most grasses had evolved to make use of the nomadic herbivores that grazed them, encouraging growth and flowering, and manure naturally fertilised the pastures. Intensive overgrazing was where the problem lay. Grass needed to be rested, given time to recover and absorb the nutrients nature supplied. It was a system most farmers recognised and made use of right up to the 1980s, when markets had forced them to put income ahead of nature. Rising populations meant more productivity was needed from a land area that never changed.” (p.92) In a mood of despondency, he also notes: “There were times when I wondered if I should be farming at all. Every morning the internet was full of articles and comments about the damage farming was causing the environment. Perhaps all of the internet experts were right, and everything that was wrong with the planet was our fault. Climate change. Dirty rivers. Air pollution. The only people to blame were the farmers. Stop all farming and we could live in utopia.” (p.259)

But there are a number of dilemmas, such as the hard reality about the price of organic food : “I actually wasn’t a fan of any spray, but they were sometimes a necessity. Pests and diseases could decimate a crop, and more demand for food meant crops had to yield as much as possible. Demand for perfect, pest-free food is higher than ever, and supermarket shelves are filled with flawless produce. Most consumers don’t want caterpillars or bugs in their apples and potatoes, and will always choose the plumpest, most juicy tomatoes. The greenest Broccoli. Not something small and hard that has been choked by weeds. More shoppers are turning to organic produce, which is fantastic. I prefer organic and am grateful we can grow many of our own veggies in the garden. But the population is growing too quickly to supply everyone with organic crops, and some find the higher prices prohibitive.” (p.127)

For a townie like me, there are many enlightening things in the book, including the understanding that farming life is often very, very different from suburban life. Take, for example, this brief comment about some farmers’ ways during the pandemic: “Many of our friends on remote farms hadn’t bothered to go to town during lockdowns. They lived on meat hunted from the hills, veggies from their gardens and foraged in the wild.” (p.230) Yes indeed – a very different life from the one most readers of this review will know.

No beating about the bush, I found Under a Big Sky to be an excellent read, honest in its intent, vivid in its presentation and closely observed. One of the best. You can see I like it because I quote so much of it.

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Back in 2015, Jennifer Ashton produced a very interesting book called At the Margin ofEmpire (reviewed on this blog ) which examined the life of one man as a way of understanding the assumptions and norms of a certain sort of 19th century Pakeha settler. Her new book Thief, Convict, Pirate, Wife – The Many Histories of Charlotte Badger is a very different book, but it has something in common with At the Margin of Empire. It too looks at one person as a key to understanding an historical era. The difference is that in this case, the woman she is examining has left little trace and few records behind her (she was illiterate) and has very often been depicted in purely fictitious form.

All real historians are in some sense spoil-sports. It is their duty to sort verifiable fact from fiction and to debunk the fictions, no matter how popular they may be. By scrupulous detective work in archives that others hadn’t accessed, Ashton systematically kicks away the fictions that have been woven around the life of Charlotte Badger. But at the same time she admits that primary sources are sparse, and so she spends much time critiquing the fictions and explaining why and how they became part of the historical record. As she says in her introduction “In the telling and retelling of Badger’s story, fiction has become history and history has become fiction, and the result has been the creation of a number of different histories of the same person.” (p.5) In the course of her book, she notes that even illustrious New Zealand historians such as James Belich, Barbara Brookes, Vincent O’Malley, Anne Salmond and the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography have made statements (usually just passing comments) about Charlotte Badger that prove to be complete fiction. Maybe this is the problem of having to rely on secondary sources when there are very few primary ones.

To  get to the story, Charlotte Badger, born in 1778 in England, in a small town near Manchester, was much later celebrated as “one of the first Pakeha women to have resided in New Zealand”. As a young woman, she was convicted of housebreaking and stealing goods, she spent four years in prison and then was sentenced to transportation to New South Wales. These are things that the archives show, but Jennifer Ashton provides general context by discussing the nature of poverty in the Industrial Revolution, the lowly status of working-class women, the very few options they had in life and the nature of England’s penal system in the early nineteenth century. Similarly, she discusses how convicts were taken to Australia, how there were nearly three times as many male convicts as there were female convicts both on the transportation ships and in early Sydney, and how men would come aboard the docked ships to pick out women as potential partners or brides. But of Badger’s arrival in Australia in 1801, Ashton says “We do not know what happened to her when the men came on board the [ship] Earl Cornwallis to make their selections. In fact, we know next to nothing about what happened to Badger in the five years after she arrived in Sydney. We do not know if she found herself  in the house of a marine officer or some other colonial official, making his meals and warming his bed. We do not know if she struggled by on government stores hoping for a more stable life But we do know that on the day she arrived she met the criteria of being a typical female convict. Like most of the women transported to New South Wales, she was young and unmarried. She was also a first offender rather than a career felon…” (p.54) We know nothing of her personal life except that an 1806 census said she had a young child.

And now we come to the period in her life that became most fictionalised. In 1806 (presumably for some criminal offence, but we do not know what) records show Charlotte Badger was on a ship called the Venus, bound for a penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). But in mid-voyage, the ship was taken over by mutineers, and the course was now set for the Bay of islands in New Zealand. However, the mutineers split into factions. Only Charlotte Badger and five others went ashore in the Bay of Islands and stayed there, while the rest of the Venus’s complement sailed away (and despite tons of speculation, nobody knows what ultimately became of the Venus). Clearly the few who had gone ashore would have had to “cross the beach” and interact with Maori iwi, being dependent on Maori hospitality (or tolerance); but there is no reliable record showing what specifically happened.

Legends grew, all totally unverifiable. In Sydney, the first reports and articles about the mutiny made it clear that the mutiny was carried out by men; and if Badger and a few others went along with it, it was only because they were fearful and had no option other than to comply. But gradually writers sexed it up, to give Badger and another woman a more prominent role in the mutiny, and finally – years after the event - Charlotte Badger was fictionalised as a “pirate queen” and the leader of the mutiny. Then other fictions were concocted. Badger either married or cohabited with a rangatira (there is no evidence for this). Badger escaped and went to Tonga (no evidence for this). Badger became a skipper, sailed across the wide Pacific and went to either America or Chile (complete fantasy).

Alas, by looking at surviving Australian government records, Jennifer Ashton shows that Charlotte Badger was picked up by a government ship in 1807 and taken first to the penal colony on Norfolk Island and then, months later, taken back to Sydney. She had been in New Zealand for at most six months. As Ashton remarks “Charlotte Badger was on a boat back to New South Wales to meet whichever destiny awaited her at the penal colony she had escaped only a year before.” (p.113) The fact that she faced no prosecution in relation to the mutiny (in those days often a hanging offence) shows that she was not a mutineer and certainly not the leader of the mutiny. She was allowed to “merge back into Sydney society and resume her life”. Goodbye fantasies about pirate queens. Her “destiny” (proven by records) was to marry in 1810 the soldier Thomas Humphries. She was nearly 33, he was considerably older. As both were illiterate, they both signed the wedding register with an X. Nobody knows what happened to Badger’s first child, who may have died in New Zealand. Badger had two children by Thomas Humphries, one of whom died at an early age.

Ashton again gives much general context as she discusses the widening frontier of British settlers which pushed more and more into Aboriginal land, leading Aborigines to retaliate in wars and raids. It could be a violent frontier. Charlotte Badger and her husband saw or experienced some of this. Ashton remarks “We cannot know how her six-month residence in New Zealand shaped her views of Maori and whether that experience informed the way she judged Aboriginal people. There is evidence to suggest that some colonial women were willing to challenge aspects of the prevailing negative wisdom about Aboriginal cultural practices because of their close proximity to Aboriginal women and children. But we do not know whether Badger came into contact with Aboriginal people often enough or at close enough quarters to likewise question conventional European wisdom.” (p.125) What we do know is that Thomas Humphries was not very successful as a settler and might have encouraged Charlotte to go back into crime. At any rate, in 1843, when she was 65, there is evidence that she was charged with larceny – but in this case she was acquitted. And then she disappears from verifiable history.

In a final chapter called “The Histories of Charlotte Badger” Jennifer Ashton examines why exactly the many fictions about her were devised. Essentially, she argues that it has to do with how women have been regarded and depicted in different ways as times changed. If early male writers wanted to see her as an exotic adventurous person for the sake of a good yarn, later writers (many women now among them) wanted to frame her as either a victim of circumstance or a pioneer bravely opening up knowledge of a new country. After examining the reasons for the fiction, Ashton generously remarks “Just as writers such as [the 19th century fabulist] Louis Becke took [Badger’s] life and used it to tell fictionalised stories that reflected the time in which they lived, so we continue to interpret her life in ways that help explain our own lived experiences, both local and global.” (p.156)

Perhaps – just perhaps – some modern historians, no matter how well academically- trained, are still sneaking in their own fantasies about a real woman.

Regardless of what I have said about Jennifer Ashton’s rigour as an historian, this is still a lively, readable and very engaging book.

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.

“LOST ILLUSIONS” by Honore de Balzac (Illusions Perdues first published in three separate parts in 1837, 1839 and 1843. Many English translations, one of the best being by Kathleen Raine)

About two months ago I wrote a piece on Honore de Balzac’s Cesar Birotteau, which I personally regard as Balzac’s most boring and unreadable novel. I did this to show that even writers of genius can have their off-days; but also to show that this can be said by somebody who is a great fan of Balzac. To prove the point, I listed seven very good novels and stories by Balzac which I had previously discussed on this blog. And there I was going to leave it, because I suspected some readers might be getting all Balzac-ed out. But then something came up which made me plunge back into Balzacville. So here I am writing about Lost Illusions - not, I think, one of Balzac’s best novels but certainly much better than his worst. It is also one of his longest, running to over 700 tightly-printed pages in the edition I have. But there is a reason for this. It was first presented to the French reading public as three separate novels, published respectively in 1837, 1839 and 1843. The three parts are connected, involving the same main character, but the third part focuses as much on another character. Like so many of Balzac’s novels, it was written in the 1830s and 1840s when the bourgeois liberal King Louis-Philippe was on the throne; but it is set in the 1820s – specifically from 1821 to 1823 – when the very reactionary Bourbons had been restored to the throne after the fall and exile of Napoleon.

All Balzac’s longer novels involve a plethora of characters and it would be difficult to deal with them all; so I will synopsise Lost Illusions in a brutally simplified way.

Part One Les Deux Poetes (The Two Poets) is concerned with the discontents of a young man, Lucien Chardon, who comes from a lower-middle-class family in a small provincial town. Lucien’s mother originally came from a minor aristocratic family and had the aristocratic name de Rubempre before she was married. To boost his status, young Lucien Chardon takes to calling himself Lucien de Rubempre and tries to insinuate himself into such aristocratic circles as there are in an out-of-the-way place. Aged 20, he fancies himself as a poet after he has written some sonnets. He cultivates the aristocratic Madame Louise de Bargeton, who sees herself as the hostess of a literary salon. She is considerably older that he (36 to be precise) and he imagines he is in love with her. He hopes that her connections will help to get published both his poetry and a novel he has written. There is much rivalry in the small, catty, provincial aristocratic society, and much detail about familial feuds; and in one case, a duel. Louise de Bargeton is flattered by the thought that Lucien will be “her” poet. So they set off together to Paris, he hoping to conquer the literary world and she wanting to win fame as his mentor. [And if you’re wondering why this first novel is called The Two Poets, it’s because there is a parallel plot I’ve left out. A young man called David Sechard is also a poet and he woos and marries Lucien’s sister Eve. Lucien’s self-interest is signalled by the fact that, in departing for Paris, he misses his sister’s wedding…. And if I examined every sub-plot in Balzac’s novel, this synopsis would run to many pages.]

Part Two Un Grand Homme de Province a Paris (A Provincial Celebrity in Paris) almost a once begins the process of Lucien de Rubempre’s disillusionment. Madame de Bargeton quickly understands that there are far more interesting young men in Paris than Lucien and promptly dumps him. Lucien now sees her as a faded provincial rose and anyway he felt very out of his depth in the aristocratic Restoration high society of Saint-Germain. Short on funds, he now begins to socialise with the more raffish people on the Left Bank. He tries to sell his novel and his book of sonnets to publishers, but he soon discovers that he is a small fish in a big pond and publishers strike very hard bargains with young, unknown authors. But now, for the first time, he comes under the wing of genuine, earnest Latin Quarter intellectuals who, headed by a man called Daniel d’Arthez, eschew flashy, journalistic success, and teach him that a real artist requires patience and a life of frugal dedication. Daniel d’Arthez even helps Lucien to recast and improve his novel. But Lucien is impatient. He wants success and applause NOW. He is launched into journalism by Etienne Lousteaux, who tells him he too was once a hopeful provincial with a tragedy in his pocket. So into journalism Lucien plunges, making his mark in a Liberal, anti-Bourbon newspaper by writing trenchant theatre reviews. He learns the trade of tearing apart worthy books, while puffing unworthy ones for a price. He learns the power of the press in opening doors and intimidating publishers; he learns of the jack-ups between publishers and journalists; and he learns the true explanation of many biased news stories that blandly present themselves as disinterested. For a short period he earns enough to become a dandy-about-town, joins in the all-night parties (or orgies) of theatre people, and sets up a menage with a young actress Coralie, with whom he makes passionate love. And his debts mount up. Other journalists begin to envy him, and would be happy to see him cancelled. In the Liberal press, Lucien and others write thinly-disguised lampoons of members of aristocratic high society, including the likes of Louise de Bargeton. But Saint-Germain aristos counter-attack, for there are Royalist newspapers, equally grubby as the Liberal ones. Madame de Bargeton comes back into Lucien’s life and plays on his vanity by saying that she and her friends can arrange for a patent of nobility to be granted to him – in other words, he can officially be made an aristocrat. The catch is that he now has to work for the Royalist press, which he does. At once he has the humiliation of seeing his (still unpublished) sonnets parodied and ridiculed by Liberal journalists to whom he had shown them. And at once the Royalist press get him to throw away any personal integrity by writing articles mocking the same Daniel d’Arthez who had offered him help and good advice. Royalist publishers are just as unimpressed by his novel as Liberal publishers were. In the end he is discredited by both political camps; his debts fall due; he tries to cover them by hopeless gambling; he takes to forging cheques using the name of his brother-in-law David Sechard ; the actress Coralie falls sick and dies after the claque have hissed her off the stage. Impoverished, universally detested, he walks home to his provincial town with just a few francs in his pocket. Complete defeat.

And there, I believe, Balzac should have left it, for Part Three Les Souffrances de l’Inventeur (The Sufferings of an Inventor) is in great part not about Lucien de Rubempre. Balzac begins Les Souffrances de l’Inventeur with an account of Lucien’s return home. But much of the third part of Lost Illusions is about the heroic attempts of Lucien’s sister Eve and her husband David Sechard to keep a press going. David is single-mindedly experimenting with ways of producing a cheaper brand of quality paper – but he is thwarted by rivals, by creditors, by unscrupulous lawyers and also by dud cheques that have been forged in his name by Lucien. David has more personal probity than Lucien has, but is generally even more naïve than Lucien. His story is another version of a man who sets out with high hopes and gets crushed. David has to go into hiding over debts that have been run up in his name. Only after all this has been told in great detail does Lucien return to centre stage. Put briefly, Lucien submits to flattery and is invited to a banquet supposedly to honour him as a local celebrity returned from Paris. But it is a trap, for when he is drunk he lets slip the whereabouts on his brother-in-law. David is promptly arrested and imprisoned and Lucien realizes that he has ruined the lives of his sister and brother-in-law. At the very end of this novel Balzac, rather weakly, creates more-or-less happy endings for some of the main characters, but the true ending of Lost Illusions comes when Lucien de Rubempre is on the verge of committing suicide as he realizes what harm he has done to so many people  (David, Eve, Daniel d’Arthez, Coralie etc.) all in the interests of his egotistical wish for fame and applause. His illusions are all gone. But now, heavy-handedly, comes the moral. In his suicidal mood, Lucien meets the “Abbe Carlos Herrera”, apparently a Spanish priest diplomat, who ridicules him out of his self-indulgent feelings and, like Mephistopheles, promises to show him the road to power and fame in Paris by exercise of the will. For many, many pages he preaches to Lucien such gems as “Never regard men, still less women, otherwise than as instruments”. Lucien accepts to become the priest’s “companion” in conquering society. There is a soupcon of a homosexual relationship here. And in case you are thinking it’s a strange sermon for a priest to preach it is because, as all Balzacians know, the “priest” is really the master criminal Vautrin in disguise – one of those characters who appear repeatedly in many of Balzac’s novels.

So much for a necessarily long synopsis.

What, in the end, have we  (and Lucien) learnt in the novel? Class differences, of course, but they are very much to the fore in all of Balzac’s novels. Then the nature of both journalistic and literary circles. There may be some writers of integrity, but the world of journalism is pitiless and the world of literature and literary criticism is often corrupt, with much rivalry, back-biting, dishonesty, puffery, adherence to current fashions and monetary influences. Honesty doesn’t get you far and neither do idealistic thoughts of literature as a brotherhood. Better, then, in a dog-eat-dog world, to run with the dogs that have the sharpest teeth. Many of these ideas came out of Balzac’s own life. Remember he was a provincial who came to Paris, and he began his career as a hack who wrote, pseudonymously, trashy sensationalist pot-boilers. Scholars still haven’t decided how many he wrote under assumed names before he produced his first real, and signed, novel Les Chouans. He knew thoroughly France’s equivalent of Grub Street.

But, for this reader at any rate, there are many problems with Lost Illusions. Chief defects are the character of Lucien de Rubempre himself and the composite novel’s general formlessness. Lucien is often naïve and gullible to a degree that defies credibility. Further, it is hard to believe Balzac likes Lucien and it is hard for us to like him either. Not only is Lucien naïve, but he has all the weaknessess of Balzac’s “bad” characters without any of their strengths. Lucien is ambitious and uses other people as conveniences, but he lacks the single-minded will to succeed and easily falls prey to what we know to be second-rate minds. Despite his periodical repentances (over the death of Coralie, over the ruination of David and Eve, over the ridiculing of Daniel d’Arthez) he does not learn from his experience, and it is significant that Balzac has to introduce, near the end of the novel, a character (Vautrin the “priest”) to preach his cynical message of ruthlessness. Towards the end of an earlier and much better novel, Le Pere Goriot (published 1835), Balzac also had Vautrin preaching this message to his main character Rastignac; but Rastignac was a more mature man who had already, bit by bit, learnt the nasty way the world worked by observing the self-interest of a family that destroyed itself. He did not really have to be schooled, by somebody else, in the ways of the world.

The complete naivete of David Sechard, too trusting by half, parallels Lucien’s. It is David’s wife Eve who knows what practicality is and who has some backbone – a dominant female figure who is both strong and virtuous. But David himself, for all his hard work, comes across as gullible. Did Balzac really believe that all talented and inventive people were as weak as this? As I said at the top of this review, I do not believe Lost Illusions is one of Balzac’s best novels, but it is filled with interesting detail and action.

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And now I will explain how “something came up which made me plunge back into Balzacville” as I promised at the top of this review.

At the recent International Film Festival, I saw the two-and-a-half-hour-long French film Illusions Perdues, based on Balzac’s composite novel, released in France in 2021. Made on a huge budget, lavish in its presentation of 1820s Paris in all its sordor and splendour, it was a huge hit in France and scored many major awards at the French Cesars [the French equivalent of the Oscars or BAFTAs]. If I gave a thumb-nail review of it, I would say it reflects accurately Balzac’s vision of a pitiless society and a corrupt literary and journalistic culture in which even talented people quickly learn to “sell out”. It gives us the heart of the novel with great skill and manages to move at a cracking pace. A stylistic fault is that the film depends very much on an ongoing voice-over commentary to explain things, but I cannot be too critical of this as most of the commentary is lifted straight out of Balzac’s text. Of course even 2-and-a-half hours of film cannot convey everything that is found in 700 pages of novel. Compression is necessary in all film adaptations of long novels.

So here are some of the major differences between film and novel. Quite wisely, I think, screenplay writer and director Xavier Giannoli ditches all of the last third of Balzac’s trilogy. The film ends with Lucien (played by Benjamin Voisin) returning home defeated, and then having an epiphany where he understands that he can live more honestly now that he has lost his illusions. There is no Vautrin giving him a long, corrupting sermon. And of course, equally wisely, the film dumps the whole parallel story of Eve and David Sechard. Similarly, the film ignores most of the petty intrigues and squabblings of provincial aristocrats in the first third of Balzac’s trilogy. In effect, 90% of the film consists of the second part of Balzac’s composite novel.

So far so good, making for an intensely-focused story. But some of the characterisation is surprising. In the novel Madame Louise de Bargeton has no more interest in Lucien once she gets to Paris, and returns into his life only in order to trap him by dangling before him the prospect of having aristocratic status bestowed on him. She is as cold-hearted as the rest of the noblesse. In the film Louise de Bargeton (played sensitively by Cecile de France) truly loves Lucien, regrets that she ever broke with him and has some sentimental scenes with him. Speaking of love, the film of course has many bum-shaking, boobs-flapping explicit sex scenes, which are not exactly in Balzac’s work, but which are certainly alluded to by Balzac. He wrote freely of prostitutes, mistresses, liaisons etc in a way that was not possible for contemporaneous novelists in Victorian England. The film has much excellent casting. Vincent Lacoste plays Etienne Lousteau, the opportunist journalist who introduces Lucien to the world of journalism. With his cockiness and cynical wit, he almost steals the film from Benjamin Voisin’s Lucien. A minor character in Balzac’s novel – the czar of hacks who organizes how books will be reviewed - is expanded into a major role played by Gerard Depardieu. What I most regret in the film is the absence of Daniel d’Arthez, the one character in the novel who shows real literary integrity and allows Balzac to suggest that it is not all of the literary tribe who are corrupt.

Some French critics praised the film for making the story relevant to today, with its awareness of what would now be called “fake news” and with journalism corporatized and built on monetary interests. Others said that the film tried too hard to suggest such parallels. Then there were a few who called out the film for a few anachronisms – some waltz tunes on the soundtrack belong to a much later era than the 1820s. Likewise some of the theatres mentioned in the film didn’t exist in the 1820s and there was a mention of Parisian boulevards which weren’t constructed until the reign of Napoleon III. But these all seem matters of little moment. The film Illusions Perdues enlivens Balzac’s novel and understands what the author was condemning. Worth seeing if you can stand the massive cynicism of its characters. 

 [Lucien (left) embraces the journalist Etienne Lousteau (right)]

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.  

                        CUDDLY FALSE COMFORTS

            It was one of those nights when we couldn’t be bothered watching free-to-air television with its frequent commercial breaks and generally inane programming and we had seen whatever was worthwhile on that rapidly diminishing platform Netflix. We do not subscribe to Sky and its affiliates, so we turned to Youtube and looked up whatever complete films it had to offer.

We hit on The Franchise Affair, a British film made in 1951 which I vaguely remembered seeing on television, when I was a teenager, in the late 1960s. Plot (based on a novel by Josephine Tey) concerned a teenaged girl who accused two women, who lived in an isolated mansion, of having kidnapped her and making her a domestic slave for some weeks before she was able to make her escape. Much evidence pointed to the women’s guilt as the teenager was able to describe in detail the interior of the mansion which, according to the accused women, the girl had never entered. So, as counsel for the defence, a local lawyer got to work examining the story, and lo!, he was able to prove conclusively that the teenager was lying. The little wretch had made up the story, with the help of a confederate who once worked in the mansion, to cover up her disappearance for a couple of weeks while engaging in – um - immoral sexual activities [the film, made in 1951, doesn’t spell it out, but it implies that she had a brief affair with a married man]. Happy ending for the accused women.

Watching this old film, we were aware of how very polite and middle class it all was. The two accused women were not just women, they were refined gentlewomen. Their lawyer was clearly a gentleman; while the accusing teenager was obviously of the lower classes and a specimen of unruly, disorderly behaviour, clearly the result of bad upbringing. To make matters even comfier, the lawyer was played by Michael Denison, who always played decent middle-class chaps, and the more articulate of the two gentlewomen was played by his real-life wife Dulcie Grey. How sweet.

So please do not laugh when I say that we enjoyed this film, for all its assumed smugness and its presumption that people should know their place in society and stay there. After all, it presented a world in which there are clearly defined and separate good and evil, in which the good prevails, and in which a story has a neat beginning, middle and ending – a linear presentation where all is solved.

A night or two later, we hit upon another film on Youtube that had a similar effect on us. This was the 1962 British “police procedural” detective story Jigsaw. In sleazy old Brighton, the corpse of a woman is discovered, hacked up into small pieces by some sadistic murderer. Of course, made 60 years ago, the film doesn’t give us close-ups of the gore, as would be the case if the film were made now, but keeps it off screen. Inspector Jack Warner (he of Dixon of Dock Green fame) methodically investigates and methodically cracks the case. Not quite as class-based as The Franchise Affair. Some intelligent and leading sympathetic characters had proletarian voices and Jack Warner himself had a matter-of-fact voice that spoke of his profession, not of his upbringing. Even so, here was a rational world in which evil is neatly exposed, the culprit gets nailed and justice prevails. No ambiguity.

In our final foray into looking at old movies on Youtube, we saw the 1946 American blockbuster The Best Years of Our Lives – all 2-and-a-half hours of it. It was a huge hit in its day and was regarded as an “adult” film concerning, as it did, a very topical issue - the difficult readjustment to civilian life of recently de-mobbed servicemen. I won’t go into details about this one, as it is so well known. Enough to note that it now seems very simplistic, with neat and happy outcomes for all its stressed ex-servicemen, with women who are incredibly understanding and forgiving of their husbands’ failures, and largely set in a neat and tidy picket-fenced world. (Okay, there is one woman who is, in the parlance of the day,  a “tramp” but she gets her comeuppance and goodness prevails.)

I think one thing that made these films comforting was the mere fact that they were all filmed in what cineastes call monochrome (i.e. what us peasants call black-and-white). Somehow, monochrome film immediately has an effect of nostalgia, of conjuring up a simpler and easily understood time (unless you’re watching brutal newsreels of course). Goodness prevails, problems are overcome, the bad are defeated, there are always happy endings and the story-lines move methodically from A to B to C to Z, speaking of logical rationality. No ambiguity, no agonising over what is right or wrong.

In short, such films now take us into a sort of fantasy-land, far removed from everyday reality. That is why they are so comforting.

Having watched these three films, we reverted to reality and returned to messy, contemporary planet Earth.

Monday, August 15, 2022

Something New

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

“THE TIP SHOP” by James Brown (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $NZ24:99) ; “EARTH & ELSEWHERE” by Ian Rockel (Steele Roberts, $NZ30) ; “OUT OF THE WAY WORLD, HERE COMES HUMANITY!” by Keith Hill (Disjunct Books, $NZ25)

            James Brown, teacher of creative writing at Vic, has previously produced six collections of poetry and a “Selected Poems”. I confess that I have read only one if his collections hitherto, Floods Another Chamber (2017 – reviewed on this blog) and my response to it was lukewarm. At least as I interpreted it then, I saw too much of Brown’s work as academic exercises, mildly ironic but often reading like a technician demonstrating that he could write poetry in many and various forms.

To give you a brief verdict first, I’m of the same mind only with regard to a few of Brown’s latest poems in The Tip Shop. So let’s look first at the many good and readable poems there are in this new collection.

The great majority of Brown’s poems are written emphatically in the first person. This can lead to a fruitful examination of self and does help create some of Brown’s best work. Consider “Mr Spencer”, a childhood memory telling us forcefully about growing up a bit and seeing things in a new perspective. Or the very discursive “Resilience on Checkout 7”, the almost steam-of-consciousness monologue of a supermarket employee, catching the employee's personality in actions and attitudes. “Lesson” at first appears to be an academic exercise, being a clear and methodical account of cutting up an apple; but it is redeemed and invigorated by a punchline acknowledging “the sharp fresh taste”. All that labour does lead to something fruitful (bad pun intended). “Insulation” relates to quotidian reality by commenting on the unaffordability of houses in New Zealand. “Cruelty to Animals” has a sharp and appealing wit. It is apparently a monologue spoken to a cat by a man whose wife has walked out on him. The man finally compares himself with the redundant cat, which lazes around all day and achieves little. This has the ring of truth. Even if it fades off a little in the last stanzas, “Space and Time” is nevertheless a convincing re-imagining of a chill night and a lonely universe. Likewise “The Crystal Halo”  has a soupcon of self-pity, but does create a compelling account of a walk in the cold night and the difficulty of connecting with other people or understanding what they are about.

These seven poems are the best things in The Tip Shop, but there are other poems that have a certain appeal  even if their humour is often a little sardonic. I would place them in the “kind of funny” category. Thus “Schrodinger’s Wife”, which at least has a semi-coherent narrative even if the humour is sour. Thus “War and Design” which has an amusing take on the long-ago Profumo affair [to be enlightened about this ancient “scandal”, look up my review on this blog of Richard Davenport-Hines’ An English Affair). “James Brown is LARGE” plays with the fact that the poet has the same name as the deceased American soul singer, hollerer and profuse sweater. “Alleged Female Orgasm” appears [at least as I read it] to be mimicking and mocking the Kinsey school of sexualised theory. “Dog Owners”, though compiled out of standard things said by dog owners, manages to be genuinely satirical at the same time. A similar and effective collection of clichés is found in “An Explosion of Tears and Snot”.

There is also a clutch of effective longer poems. “The Great Employee” is really a prose narrative told by a supermarket employee who eventually gets fired for various reasons, with a side-swipe at a harsh boss. Detailed and almost like a genuine self-revelation it is decidedly readable and convincing, even if it is of the “chopped prose” school of verse. In the same genre is “Oral History”, a student‘s account of hitch-hiking, and travelling on train, getting back from Auckland to Palmerston North, its humour being its deadpan style. “Trigger Warning”, like so many of this poet’s works, is written in a first-person confessional style. An ordinary request immediately conjures up the memory of a traumatic event from earlier years, in which the narrator was summoned by a desperate kid to resuscitate his collapsed mother. There is some trickiness but again a coherent and understandable narrative.

There now. As is too often my wont when I am reviewing poetry, I have bombarded you with a profusion of titles of poems and brief synopses thereof. This has all been in the interest of showing you that I have found much to admire and chew upon in Brown’s work.

Whereupon I have to note that there is still the too-easily-cynical side of Brown’s work. Thus the opening poem “A Calm Day with Undulations” about disappointment (you see, you can’t ride a bicycle in the sea). “Flensing”  may be intended as a protest poem, but is a little too cryptic.  “Collecting” is the epitome of hipster weariness, a dispirited poem about hunting for second-hand stuff, ending  By the time / you see one, you’re after something else” [Incidentally, this is the poem that uses the eponymous words “the tip shop”.]. “Pure Human Endeavour” tells us that sports are drawn-out and boring. “Their Feeling” basically preaches us that other peoples’ feelings are shallow or performative (unlike our own feelings, of course).

These are very dispiriting pieces. in spite of which The Tip Shop is a varied and interesting collection, well worth reading.

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Ian Rockel’s poetry in Earth & Elsewhere is a very different proposition and with a very different presentation. It begins with an Introduction by the actor Ian Mune, who tells us that Ian Rockel has sent him poetry to read for about 60 years. Obviously the poet is a gentleman of advanced age, and this is his fourth collection of poetry. Mune also outlines the organisation of Earth & Elsewhere, quoting profusely from the text, and contributes four of his own art works, illustrating the moods that Rockel creates.

Earth & Elsewhere is arranged into three distinct sections, and as each section has a different focus I will describe each in turn.

First Section: “Scenes from a world going past”. This section begins with a poem asserting “This verdant world / lost to fire, water, wars / and the manoeuvrings of wealth / to gulp resources / while outside walls / the starved bloat”. It continues that things are “replacing our blue planet”. It sounds very like  a familiar climate-change apocalyptic scenario. But this first section moves on to poems of long-ago times – the Trojan War, medieval Saxons and others, as if implying that human beings have always had a destructive bent. Many poems seem daunted by the state of the universe itself and even speak of the Sun dying or the Earth being destroyed, yet they are set in old times with the first-person voice speaking not only of clinging intimately to love; but also setting itself in a rustic, pre-industrial world in its imagery. Take, for example, the poem “Fissured Ears” which begins “It was out in the fields / and the corn one day / I heard a man, / blind man, / playing a deaf tune / and peasants crowded around.”… whereupon the poem turns to the wickedness of King John. In this first section, there are many, many references to the first-person voice’s attempts to connect satisfactorily with women, erotic yearnings and a frequent line of imagery about women’s breasts as a place of shelter or refuge. Then the historical setting moves on – for this is indeed Scenes from a world going past as the title of this section says. “Glass distances” concerns exploration and colonisation after the medieval era. “Midwinter” reaches up to our own era by its references to receding ice-caps. “Ocean enterprise” tells us of rising seas and polluted waterways. “Gone Boy” suggests that in the present age, a better and simpler world has been lost: “Where shall I find him, / that who was me / a thousand years ago?... Constant gardening / through the ages / has separated us / from our past…” In all this, it has to be noted that as often as a changing or degrading world concerns Ian Rockel, so often does he focus on his unique and personal fate. Old age and approaching death concern him - the destruction of the self as much as the global destruction.

All in all, then, the first section of this collection concerns both the individual observer and the march of history up to the present day.

Second Section “Going” is centred on the present moment. Poems tell us that salmon fisheries are becoming impossible in Canada and locusts plague Africa. This becomes apocalyptic in the poem “A Dark Script” where “A satellite views our neighbours as a furnace, / night skies in Sydney crackle with flames, / so many aircraft turn into fire or water, / over the harbour and going south. / so frequently people turn to dust…”. There is much about impending global catastrophe and, presumably, the end to culture as we know it. Interestingly, however, what Rickel paints is more a natural disaster than anthropogenic climate change. As his imagery often suggests, the great extinction apocalypse is not the fault of human beings, but a vast natural process. The poem “Sucked Dry” says “This sun’s reversed pattern / has taken us with it, / emptying seas and drying ice…/… This planet is plagued / with stench - / a dying animal / or soul perhaps.” Yet there are in the poem “And the Water Laps Over Us…” lines such as “None of us in a state / we were yesterday / when a raised arm / drew birds away / with the scream of gulls -  / tired of plastics, / throats in grotesque shapes / from objects tossed aside…”. It is interesting once again that his presentation here is ambiguous – is he speaking of a real, physical collapse of the Earth; or of a collapse in received culture? Much of it seems a lament for the house and flowers views and the books he likes to read.

Third section “Elsewhere” largely disengages from hard physical reality and becomes fantastical or Utopian. Its “elsewhere” is an unfocused vision of an alternative to Earth, with a number of references to Heaven and to reaching the edge of a new universe. The poem “Elsewhere” reads in full: “Where among atoms / am I now? / In silence I see / the universe about me / world gone / from touch / held to me only / from sense of memory / and belief that others. Like me, / float through space, / glide towards another world, / Elsewhere.” You can’t get more detached from Earth than that, can you? Much of this section reads like reported out-of-body experiences, the ego separated from the Earth and looking down on it, a little wistful, a little detached. And yet there is the possibility that “it was all a dream” and no more than a wishful image of some impossible Eden. The very last poem in this collection, “Of Those in Limbo”, include the statement “In so many of these dreams / I pass people I used to know / but seal lips, in case they are dead.” Having traced a long history of a degrading Earth in the first section; having more-or-less dwelt on the present age in the second section; the third and final section largely detaches itself from the Earth and walks into hopeful dreams.

That, I think, is a fair summary of what this collection is “about”. But it says little on the style and quality of the poetry. Rockel’s vocabulary is sometimes olde worlde, as if he is longing for a past age. He has a predilection for lean poems, with very short lines making each poem stand like a column on the page.  There is much genuine lyricism here, but his terms of reference are often so vague and abstract that it is like reading something out of focus. What exactly is he saying? Some lines are impenetrable. This is an old man’s dream, but a palatable one.

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Keith Hill’s Out of the Way World, Here Comes Humanity begins with an opening shot called “A Word to the Young” which basically preaches that young people cannot trust older people because they are treacherous, government research is deceptive and designed to mislead you, and watch out or you too will become the dull conformist people your elders are. At once we know where we stand. Keith Hill is a strong, angry, dyspeptic satirist very much in the tradition of Juvenal, the greatest of true satirists, who flung his angry barbs in all directions and didn’t care where they hit. Thus too Keith Hill.

Walking in my pedestrian way through the text, I note how this lively collection is divvied up.

First section is called “Meet the Neighbours”. It proceeds to be a collection of 14-line stereotypes of people whom Keith Hill either despises or pities – thus “The politician”, “The Millennial”, “The Voter, “The Patriot” etc. . Most are condemned for their rapacity or their gullibility. Some (such as “The Patriot”) reference the USA, but most have  New Zealand foundations.

Next section is “This is the News” which happens to be one single work, viz. the 20-page long “Supercut: A season of Covid -19”. It has been compiled out of real news reports, research papers, editorials etc. whereby it traces the progress of the pandemic and how it affected and still affects us… ending with over 7 pages acknowledging all the sources that are quoted or reproduced. My first thought on reading it was – this is fascinating, it’s enlightening, it’s very readable, it’s the sort of thing you want to share with other people. My second thought was – “But is this collage really poetry?”   At which point I remember that Keith Hill gives a subtitle to his collection. It is “Poems / Antipoems” and this could be one of the antipoems. It says something very arresting, even if it is mainly prose.

Let it be noted that most of Keith Hill’s poems are very long, very discursive, and running to many pages. But I dare to repeat that this is very much in the mode of Juvenal too. After all, a satirist taking on big and complex matters has to be precise and detailed about his targets.

Third section “Boogying with the virus” gets more and more deeply ironic. Most of these satirical poems begin with something reported by the media  “A modest proposal” obviously takes its name from Swift (a disciple of Juvenal, folks). “A modest proposal” has its germ in the true story of a German zoo which, during the Covid lockdown, when the zoo was shut and no money was coming in, was seriously considering feeding some of the animals to others. Keith Hill turns this into a riotous, anarchic consideration of which animals we could eliminate. “We Need to Stop Dithering” has similar raw irony – a proposition to put animals out of their misery as their habitats degrade by killing and eating them and storing examples of their DNA for future use. “Hooray for the workers” says you’re all being screwed by super-rich capitalists and corporations and you’ve really been turned into complacent serfs. “Psalm for the End Times” suggests, tongue deeply stuck in cheek, you can hope in God if you wish but actually we’re going to deal with this climate-change disaster ourselves. “Let’s Give it Another Go” is ironic (well let’s be straight about this one – it’s really sarcastic) basically mocking what stands for democracy but offering no solutions apart from ridicule

So,  our souls battered and our consciences pricked, to the last section “The world needs therapy”. Here be a long lament called “The individual’s soliloquy” which sounds like self-pity on steroids, the unhappy first-person account of a man whose life is so conformist that it goes nowhere. Thereafter “America” (which is “after Allen Ginsberg”) - a veritable and probably justifiable diatribe about how a country we admired so much and in so many ways, and how it has lately turned its back on the world or been dismissive of other nations. “Looky Yonder” is a direct denunciation of Donald Trump, set to early jazz music. “How to found a nation” yields a nine-page historical summary of the colonisation of New Zealand presented as European fraud, theft and dishonesty. And at last the final poem “Request” being a list of things Keith Hill sees as desirable, but which are in fact unattainable s. (Satirists will always be dissatisfied, but then they bloody well should be or they wouldn’t be satirists.)

            What did I eventually feel after reading this melange of anger, irony, accusation and  Juvenalian satire? Frankly elated. Keith Hill says what he says forcefully. No, I don’t agree with everything he says, but this man is looking clearly at the world and writing clearly. Reading Out of the Way World, Here Comes Humanity is like sucking in pure fresh air after choking on the obscurity of too much academic poetry. Keep punching mate!

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.      

“A HISTORY OF CHRISTIANITY IN AFRICA” by Elizabeth Isichei (First published 1995) 

Over 27 years ago, I wrote for the now-defunct New Zealand Books a review of Professor Isichei’s A History of Christianity in Africa. The review appeared in the June 1995 issue, and it was printed under the slightly misleading heading “Enlightening Africans”. I was very taken by this book’s comprehensive quality, its authority and its readability. For this reason, even though some of this book’s data may now be a little dated, I am happy to re-produce here the review as I wrote it.

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When I told friends I was reading a history of Christianity in Africa, I could immediately hear the stereotypes clicking into place. For most, the very conjunction of the two words “Christianity” and “Africa” still conjured up images of pith-helmeted European missionaries imposing the gospel on trusting tribespeople. Knowing comments on colonialism or imperialism rapidly followed. Yet in truth, as Elizabeth Isichei (Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Otago) makes abundantly clear, the history of Christianity in Africa is longer, more varied, more complex – indeed, altogether a vaster subject – than, say, the history of capitalism in Europe or the history of socialism anywhere.

Three hundred and fifty large, closely printed pages (followed by 60 pages of references and end-notes) can be at best a general survey and a digest. It has to be selective and so, despite the book’s subtitle, From Antiquity to the Present, this history is essentially the history of African Christianity in the last 200 years.

Take the (approximately) five centuries of North African Christianity that preceded the Muslim conquest. With brisk efficiency Elizabeth Isichei gallops through them in 30-odd pages. If one reads this as continuous narrative, it becomes a dizzying profusion of illustrious names and momentous movements: Arius, Athanasius, Tertullian, Cyprian, Pelagius; Gnostics, Monophysites, Donatists, Nestorians. In a single page Saint Augustine is crunched over, but the amiably limpid style is delightfully unambiguous. I particularly relished the description of Origen as “a teenage genius” and “the tragic star of the early church”. In another 30 pages Isichei sprints through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance – the spectacular failure of Christian Europe to “convert” Muslims; the survival of Coptic and Ethiopian Christianity; the two or three centuries in which a handful of Portuguese priests were the only Christian presence in sub-Saharan Africa.

So, less than a quarter of the way through the text we arrive at the eighteenth century. What follows is organised geographically (separate chapters on west Africa, east and east‑central Africa, etc). This is not merely filing-cabinet convenience. Elizabeth Isichei knows Africa well. She spent 16 years teaching in African universities and has published general histories of west Africa, Nigeria and the Igbo people. Her organisation here is a tacit acknowledgment of the variety of African cultures and the very diverse ways in which they have responded to Christianity. The Zulu experience, for example, has only some elements in common with the Igbo experience and they simply cannot be discussed in the same terms. Africa is the name of a continent, not the name of a single culture.

Given this book’s focus on colonial and post‑colonial Christianity, some familiar historical questions have to be addressed. How valid for example, is the Marxist and materialist depiction of nineteenth-century Christian missionaries as standard‑bearers for commerce and empire? And of the Christianity they planted as a mere catalyst for Westernisation?

As Elizabeth Isichei records it, there is much to support this negative critique. Pre-nineteenth century missionary endeavour was compromised by its association with the slave trade (it is sobering to discover that the first-ever Anglican missionary in Africa, the Rev Thomas Thompson, penned a defence of slavery in 1752). By the early nineteenth century missionaries were notable for their humanitarian endeavours, anti-slavery campaigns and protests at the worst European abuses.

But at the height of empires (circa 1880 to 1920) most missionaries identified first with the white settler communities and only second with their African co-religionists. Elizabeth Isichei catches David Livingstone declaring “I go back to Africa to make an open path for commerce and Christianity” and she tartly comments: “The unconscious ordering of his words is interesting.” (Later she is equally ironical about the head‑patting paternalism of Albert Schweitzer.)

She notes that fiercely anti-clerical governments in France, Belgium and Portugal battled the Catholic Church at home, but were quite happy to support Catholic missionary enterprise in Africa as an agent of their imperial power. Apparently, in at least one African language the words for “Catholic” and “Protestant” are still, respectively, the same as the words for “French” and “English”. Then there is the fact that for generations of those African intellectuals designated “improvers” accepting Christianity was part of a package deal in modernising and accepting “progress”. The first large-scale modern-era churches to be run by Africans themselves, the so-called “Ethiopian” churches of South Africa, were theologically indistinguishable from what the missionaries taught. They were simply examples of blacks protesting against a white monopoly in church leadership and co-opting themselves to “white” roles.

And yet if Christianity in Africa were a mere appendage to colonial power, we could scarcely explain the explosion in African Christianity over the last 30 years. True, some local churches closely identified with white colonials have collapsed since national independence (thus in Algeria, thus in Angola and Mozambique). But there are now many times more Catholics in Zaire than there were when it was a Belgian colony – a fact recognised by the Vatican in 1983 when a separate Zairois Catholic rite was approved for liturgical celebrations. Christianity, mainly preached by Africans, is spreading faster since it was detached from what Marxists used to see as its trump-card ‑ its association with the prestige and authority of European powers. As epigraph to her introduction, Elizabeth Isichei prints a quotation from J O Mills: “While every day in the west roughly 7500 people in effect stop being Christian, every day in Africa roughly double that number become Christians.”

No doubt some Africans are still attracted by the promise of material betterment and westernisation. The “gospel of prosperity” promoted by fundamentalist American tele-evangelists appeals to those Africans who may be the equivalent of the old “improvers”. But motives for becoming Christian cannot be so neatly stereotyped. They are the outcome of millions of individual decisions made by millions of adults in thousands of separate social and cultural situations.

This in fact is one of the great implicit themes of Elizabeth Isichei’s history. When western anthropologists and sociologists (even sympathetic and enlightened ones) set about producing papers on African Christianity they often assume that they are dealing with naive or gullible people, incapable of sophisticated theological thought. The reality is quite different. From the times of their first contacts with European Christians, many Africans have been perfectly capable of distinguishing the essence of the Christian message from its European cultural packaging. This made them particularly acute critics of the shortcomings of European Christians and their failure to live up to the precepts they taught.

There are few nobler indictments of European cultural imperialism than that penned by Charles Domingo, an African Baptist pastor, in 1911. After telling European missionaries that they confounded “Europeandom” with “Christendom”, Domingo characterised their condescension towards African Christians as “too cheaty, too thefty, too mockery”. In an odd sort of way, much of this indictment (especially the “too mockery” part) could still apply to post-Christian academic commentators on Africa.

This general history contains many incidental ironies and paradoxes. How right Elizabeth Isichei is when she notes that contextual theology, the culturally sensitive movement that seeks to “inculturate” Christianity in an African setting, is often “yesterday’s battle”. It assumes a tribal and traditional world that has long been abandoned by millions of urban Africans. How ironical that liberation theology (essentially a Latin American phenomenon) has made so little headway, even among politically aware African Christians. And how irritating that western scholars “have tended to focus on new religious movements, to the neglect of the older churches”. Many times more academic papers have been written about African syncretism, messianism, “cargo cults”, Gnosticism and occultism than have been written about the mainstream Christian churches. It is a good example of westerners unwittingly creating an image of Africans as the exotic “other” – for the fact is that the overwhelming majority of African Christians still belong to the mainstream churches.

Such insights are, however, the incidental pleasures of this history. Its chief strengths are its broad scope and the space it gives to African voices. One cannot read of the career of a Simon Kimbangu or a William Wade Harris without being aware that one is encountering strong, original theologians with a profound faith and a nuanced awareness of the limits of culture.

Some minor quibbles – Elizabeth Isichei sometimes assumes that all her readers will be scripturally literate (when she reports that F W de Klerk chose Romans 13 as his text for a sermon to an African church, she does not bother to explain that this is the classic locus for Saint Paul’s doctrine of submission to civil authorities). Perhaps by the very perspective she has chosen, she has underplayed the equally spectacular resurgence of Islam in Africa. And she may be a shade too tactful about the bitter rivalries between Catholic and Protestant missionaries in the nineteenth century.

But these are strictly quibbles. Any page of this history yields something enlightening or informative – whether a tale of heroism or of heroic failure; of saintliness or of exploitation; of humbling empathy with another culture or of monstrous misunderstanding. Given the vastness of the subject, it is as much as could reasonably be expected between two covers.