We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE LAST LETTER OF GODFREY CHEATHEM” by Luke Elworthy (The Wairau Diversion, $NZ35) ; “BY THE GREEN OF THE SPRING” (Quentin Wilson Publishing, $NZ37:99)
Here are two essential things I have to say about Luke Elworthy’s novel The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem. First, I thoroughly enjoyed it, laughed along with it and admired the author’s slow-burn narrative. But second, and just as important, it is a novel for a specialist audience. In spite of its real wit and perception, it is not designed for mass readership. Is this a snobbish verdict on my part? I hope not, and maybe what follows here will support my case.
The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem is what would once have been called a “sport”. It is presented as the edited, scholarly version of the eponymous character’s confessions. Written in academic-speak, there is a cod Foreword by “Professor Brian Bode” of the University of Auckland, expert in the works of Vladimir Nabokov. (Transparently a spoof of Professor Brian Boyd, but don’t worry folks – the Acknowledgements at the end say that the real Brian Boyd was happy to go along with the gag.) This is followed by an equally pompous Introduction by Dr Luke Elworthy. Footnotes abound in the main text, as if this fiction is a work of literary scholarship. They are pedantic, often explaining for non-New Zealanders things that are dead obvious to Kiwis, and often filled with literary quibbles, in-jokes and gibes. The text itself consists largely of letters Godfrey Cheathem writes to his youngest sibling Rosemary (or “Ro” or “Ropu” or a number of other pet names he gives her). He is writing from jail, although we do not know what crime he has committed until near the closing pages of the novel. His letters and narratives are counterpointed by the comments of Rosemary, which are designated “Ruataniwha Notes”. Godfrey Cheathem (yes, his narrative is designed to “cheat them”) is of course an unreliable narrator. In literary novels, isn’t every first-person narrator now unreliable?
Godfrey Cheathem comes from a family tradition of money and snobbery. He is a descendant of one of those Anglo-Victorian Anglican families who, since the 19th century, aspired to be provincial aristocracy, especially in Canterbury. The ancestral Cheathems had an estate and a mansion called Big Bush, which is still treated by the Cheathem clan as their home base when it comes to family reunions. One such reunion becomes the novel’s comic climax.
As he tells it in his letters to Rosemary, Godfrey’s career has been an erratic one. His parents and siblings all aspired to be “artistic” and his mother wanted him to be a maker of pottery, which bored him silly. He was forced into writing advertising for a local small-town newspaper. Bit by bit, he got into the publishing business in Britain. In London he got to be a senior salesman for “Stoughton-Harcourt” publishers and almost succeeded in promoting as the “next big thing” from New Zealand (after the success of the bone people) a populist novelist who turned out to be a proselytiser for neo-liberalism, which completely alienated the literary types who go to book festivals. He was moved into selling technical books in Europe. Finally he found a partner (and wife) in a food guru called Tracy Mellon, who wrote cookery books and then moved into writing food-based novels. Commercial success seemed guaranteed. His downfall (one of the funniest sequences in the book) came when he backed, promoted, and had the publishing company invest huge amounts of money in a book which turned out to be a fraudulent piece of a plagiarism.
In all of this, as he tells to Rosemary, he is (or at least he says he is) intermittently writing a generational family novel. In the footnotes and asides we often hear of this purported novel Chasing the Fading Light, but even to the very end there is ambiguity about whether Godfrey actually wrote it.
Now what is this sad-funny book getting at?
Godfrey Cheathem is the eldest of five siblings, nearly all of whom are achieving great things in the arts (except for Rosemary who becomes a lawyer and later specialises in Tangata Whenua causes). Damon is a composer and musician. Sonja is a successful movie-maker (though her films all sound awfully like the dreariest “worthy” films that are watched dutifully in some film festivals). Madeleine is a painter. But Godfrey is seen by his parents and siblings as the underachiever, the one who is in no way an “artistic” person, the failure (even if, for a time, he has been a big-wig in publishing). Godfrey Cheathem resents all this. At a family gathering in Barcelona, designed to charge the family’s creative juices, Godfrey sabotages it by telling his parents and siblings “Fuck the arts. They’re dead. Fuck you all, my family, and fuck the creative arts.” (p.167)
On one level, the novel is about the pain of being the one non-“artistic” person from an “artistic” family. Yet The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem is also a satire aimed at the pretentions of people (such as Godfrey’s parents) who assume that because they live a certain (generally bohemian and/or affluent) life that they are therefore “artistic”. For the hard fact is that engaging in the arts (music, film-making, painting, novel-writing) is often the way of the well-to-do. Much of the novel is a comic indictment of the bogus nature of much “culture”. Godfrey’s parents fall for modish fads in their social behaviour. Mother joins ClearSight (which appears to be a version of Bert Potter’s notorious Centrepoint). Godfrey remarks tartly “It was difficult to work out exactly what she’d found when she got there, as difficult as it was to work out if the process of becoming found she hadn’t just become a little more lost” (p.108). Mother later goes in for Californian gurus who promise her immortality. Father resides in a “creative” shared flat in Auckland. Yet his creativity is very limited. He makes a fortune publishing, for New Zealanders, books about rugby [clearly coffee-table stuff] and popular manuals on tax avoidance, property investment and other matters that clearly appeal to an affluent readership.
Luke Elworthy also nails passing fads in publishing. In Britain and elsewhere there is interest in “ethnic books” such as South American magical realism. For a very short time New Zealand is embraced by British readers, but then trends turn elsewhere. Then there are the pretentious foodie books of the sort that Godfrey’s wife produces. Says Godfrey “Remember, the food and wine world had moved on, the days long gone when chefs simply cooked. They were drawing audiences that would have pleased rock-concert promoters, and moving people as writers at literary festivals once did. It wasn’t uncommon to hear some of the new provedores speaking at length about their importance: nutritionally, culturally, spiritually.” (p.189)
There is nothing salacious in this novel, but there is much pungent naughtiness. Himself an alumnus of a creative writing course, the author has Godfrey Cheathem say “I was sure my Father shared my suspicion that creative writing courses were ineffective, the very last place one would suspect you of writing creatively, and no use at all if you wanted to write something as important as I knew would come.” (pp.55-56). This is double-edged wit, given that many people have suspected the same thing – but then Godfrey is an unreliable narrator who may be over-estimating his literary talents.
How much does this novel reflect the author’s own life? It would be wrong for me to speculate, but the blurb suggests that he has had at least some experiences similar to the fictitious Godfrey’s – and he does have at least one relative still immersed in the publishing business.
I hope you can now see why I laughed, giggled and sniggered at much of this novel. But given its in-jokes and literary asides, it’s still likely to be caviar to the general, right?
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Five years ago I reviewed on this blog Paddy Richardson’s novel Through the Lonesome Dark which concerned three young people, the children of coalminers, living in the South Island mining town of Blackball in the years just before the First World War. They were Pansy Williams, Clem Bright and the son of German parents Otto Bader. I was impressed by Paddy Richardson’s accurate period detail, but I was nonplussed by the way the novel seemed to be split in two, first focusing on Pansy and then dropping her and focusing on Clem. As I said in concluding the review “I would be completely misrepresenting this novel if I failed to note that it is well-written, that Paddy Richardson has clearly done her research and knows the historical period well, and that the premise is a credible one. A pity about that split.”
The cover calls By the Green of the Spring the sequel to Through the Lonesome Dark, but I would call it a continuation, because in this new novel we now understand why Paddy Richardson has divided her narrative between two main characters. She is setting the scene for two other characters to take over the narrative. They are Otto Bader and Pansy’s young daughter Lena. Pansy has married Clem who, despite being a socialist with internationalist sympathies, has gone away to fight in the war. Pansy is pregnant and gives birth to Lena. As the son of German parents, Otto is classed as an enemy alien soon after war is declared in 1914. He is bundled off to Somes Island in Wellington Harbour, which was used in both world wars as an internment camp (i.e. prison) for enemy aliens. He knows nothing about Pansy’s marriage.
The first third of the novel is Otto Bader’s first-person narrative. On Somes Island the guards are brutal (many of them rejects from the army now seeing their chance to bully people). Conditions are Spartan, food is rationed and the internees are not allowed to get news of the wider world. Letters are censored or not allowed to be sent and attempts at escape are severely punished (a few prisoners attempt to swim or raft their way across to Petone). Given that the inmates are civilians who regard themselves as New Zealand citizens, despite their parentage, anger seethes. Otto’s narrative is often addressed to Pansy Williams whom he regards as his one true love but, to his great sorrow, he learns (less than a third of the way through the novel) that Pansy has married Clem.
The next long section of the novel in told in the third-person, but is nevertheless giving the viewpoint of the little girl Lena in all her naivete. Her father Clem has returned home from the war having lost one leg. At first Lena has to adjust to this strange man but she gets used to her papa, even if she cannot understand why he sometimes screams in the night. Hers is a child’s-eye-view of adult doings and she understands only vaguely the trials of Clem trying to find work and no longer fitting into Blackball. We also get a child’s-eye-view of going to school and being shifted to another school. The style here is designed to indicate to the reader what is really going on in this household.
this is very readable and in terms of the era in which it is set, it is mainly
credible. There are one or two moments when an early 21st century
sensibility seems to intrude. There are brief episodes about a homosexual
prisoner who has to hide his orientation, including one unlikely conversation
about Oscar Wilde. Given the novel’s generally anti-war tone, there’s also a
rather too-neat encounter Otto has with the pacifist Archibald Baxter (on
Baxter look up the review of We Will Not Cease on this
blog). Even so, as in the novel that preceded it, the feel for a given period
is strong and credible. One final detail about family relationships is not as
much of a surprise as the author probably meant it to be, but By the Green
of the Spring shapes up well as a narrative. I may be wrong, but given the
way things turn out, I wonder if Paddy Richardson is planning another account
of Pansy, Lena, Clem and Otto as they negotiate the post-war world. We are, after all, given intimations that Lena will develop into an accomplished artist.
For the record, the title By the Green of the Spring is a quotation from Siegfried Sassoon’s poem Aftermath, written after the First World War and begging people to swear that they will never forget what it was like to live through a war.