Monday, October 24, 2022

Something New

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

“PENINSULA” by Sharron Came (Te Herenga Waka University Press, $30) ; “A RIDERLESS HORSE” by Tim Upperton (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99)

            If I were to devise an alternative title for Peninsula, Sharron Came’s outstanding collection of short stories, I would call it “Paradise Lost”. I live on Auckland’s North Shore in a suburb that blossomed about 60 years ago, in the 1960s, after the harbour bridge was built. Before there was a suburb here, this was farming land. Over the decades, suburbia has spread further and further north, up the Bays, usually contiguous with Auckland’s notorious urban sprawl. But now we have a new phenomenon. Affluent Aucklanders are colonising land in the further reaches of Northland, far from Auckland’s spread, gentrifying old farming towns, bringing in their habits and customs, plonking their lifestyle blocks in the midst of green fields in search of some fantasy version of rural life. (Suckers! Don’t they realise that new suburbs will always start growing where lifestyle blocks are?) The older farming ways are being expunged or belittled by the new arrivals. Forests and tramping tracks are being degraded by too many visitors. What were standard ways of life for many decades are being pushed into the dustbin of history.


            This isn’t the only theme of Peninsula, and Sharron Came is never preachy or didactic. But an awareness of unwanted change certainly looms large in these stories and there is often a tone of regret about this.

Peninsula consists of ten short stories, each complete in itself but intertwined. In one story, one person might be a major character while in another she or he is simply a passing mention. In one way or another, whether they dominate the story or whether they are simply passing mentions, every story somehow refers to the Carlton family - ageing farming father and mother Jim and Di and their adult children, the twins Rachel and Jack and their younger brother Willy. Occasionally a niece or nephew may come into it, as in the closing story “Survivor” which otherwise has no connection with the Carltons. In this process, we get a panorama of different mentalities. How somebody is interpreted by one character may be completely at odds with how that character is interpreted in another story. One tale mentions a schoolgirl called Sophey, who is regarded as an awful swot, friendless and just chasing teachers’ approval. But in “Trailblazer” we get a totally different perspective on Sophey as we read her own story. To anchor the Carlton family in our minds, Sharron Came begins with two stories about the patriarch and matriarch, old Jim and Di, “Peacock” and “Hospital”. Jim’s ideas on treating his farm are at odds with his more helpful son Jack, who wants to modernise, raise different crops, and negate the old man’s habit of planting redundant spuds. Di has heart trouble and has to come down to North Shore hospital for treatment.  The pains of age are clear in both stories and there is mention of suburbia spreading north from Auckland.   

Sharron Came uses many different voices and tenses in her narratives – present tense in both the two opening stories, past tense in other tales, third person a number of times, first person in “Tramp” (told by Jack Carlton) and the very difficult  second person (“you” ) in “Trailblazer”, which has the effect of allowing us to share the experience of its protagonist more than a first person narrative might. The author’s grammatical choices are always a perfect fit for what she is saying. Then there is her skill in creating the appropriate tone of voice for her characters. Take these two examples of masculine voices.

Here are the thoughts of old Jim, as he drives down to Auckland in “Hospital” :“Jim refuses to increase his speed. Radio sport turned up loud. Idiot host banging on about the Blues versus Chiefs match. He’s plain wrong. Has he even watched the game? Selectors are nuts. Don’t rate the Northland players always overlooking them, stick with blokes their side of the bridge. If they’d picked Larkin, the Blues would have won easy. They need Larkin. Same flare and intuition for bail distribution as Sid Going. Coach probably never heard of Sid. …” (pp.30-31)

And here, in the story “Anniversary,” are the thoughts of a young man called Ritchie, who has recently returned to New Zealand after time in foreign parts:  By the time he hits the Helm Valley he’s divorced the radio. Thick smudges of bush grease the roadsides. Wait, there’s a clutch of handmade signs. Ritchie slows the car, dips his headlights for a better read. Placards denouncing plans to build a landfill. Spelling’s a bit off. But too right, cities, eh, like to stick their rubbish out of sight in the sticks. Company will own a network of tips. Probably bought the land a few years back and quietly waited for the right time, after a council election’s a goodie. Secure consents, next play, dial in an outfit like his for the clean-up. Good coin in rubbish, not like recycling.” (pp.74-75)

Note in both cases  the staccato style – parts of thought broken up into particles of sentences. This could signal decisive men quick at making decisions; but it could just as well signal minds that are ready to rush to judgement because these men have long since made up their minds and don’t wish to think any further. This is particularly true of old Jim with his fixation on sport.

Then there is that issue of the social and ecological change overtaking Northland, and not always for the best.

Socially, there is an awareness of the gentrification of sections of Northland – or rather the importation of middle-class urban habits and tastes, as Melissa (in the story “Horizon”) considers the spa where she used to work as a beauty consultant. She notes: “It wasn’t the same. The spa had expanded to cater for the influx of affluent arrivals drawn to the region’s rolling green pasture, pristine beaches and coastal wetlands. Boutique retail experiences, artisan bakeries, wineries, chocolatiers, sculpture parks and tiny potteries doubling as art galleries reeled them in. Horse trekking, bird-watching, guided fishing and yoga retreats. Golf courses with helicopter pads and luxury accommodation.” (p.112) And along with this invasion, there is the growing underworld of illicit drugs. In the same story, 38-year-old Melissa tries to pick up the pieces after her marriage to a drug-dealer and her own use of meth. (Yes, notoriously Northland now is a region which has wide consumption of Class A drugs). Destructive drugs are mentioned in other stories, especially as one of the Carlton siblings is part of that scene.

And apart from social damage, there is ecological damage.

On one level, the title story “Peninsula” is the most lyrical story in the collection, tracking Rachel Carlton’s progress as she negotiates a very difficult coastal track. As she does in a number of stories, Sharron Came is very precise in noting the flora and fauna of the New Zealand bush, but Rachel’s thought wander elsewhere. She considers the myth of New Zealand as Paradise, much promoted in tourist publicity, and she puts her finger on the abiding New Zealand sin – complacency (I would almost say smugness): “She had reached the point in her career where she had to choose. Either base herself in Europe or return here properly. Returning felt like retreating, a short step away from retiring, yet the shuttling between, the hypocrisy of it, shamed her. If she stayed here, there were ties binding her. She was afraid they would slowly choke the life out of her. She would miss the mountains, but the idea that Aotearoa was some kind of nature paradise was, to her, a myth. Plenty of beautiful wild places offshore wherever you chose to look, much of it appreciated far more than here. It sat beside the ugly, yin and yang. Complacency, it’s a transmissible disease in her own country. She found this disturbing, even as she knew she was complicit. This collective refusal to join the dots, to think the islands were immune to overcrowding, pollution, warming, habitat destruction, hard to see it ending well.”  (pp.143-144) Rachel is also central to the story “Road” where she is ambiguous about how her childhood area has changed, mainly for the worse.

As for awareness that little pristine wilderness remains, there is Jack Carlton’s narration of “Tramp”, a story of three blokes hiking through the bush. As they enter a bush track, Jack notices “A potpourri of rubbish and weeds fringe the track, same as too many roadsides. Plastic bottles and soiled plastic bags, the little snap locks and the bigger supermarket ones, a few cans, takeaway coffee cups, tissues and toilet paper lie among the flat green docks, prickly bearded scotch thistles, yellow flowers of the gorse, broom, ragwort, dandelions and buttercups, crumpled blackberry bushes, clumps of twitch grass, sticky paspalum and biddy-bids.”  (p.183)

I found so much skill in the characterisation, so much acute observation of realities, social and ecological, so much attention to detail and such accomplished use of tense and voice that I hesitate to say anything negative about any of these stories. But I will give one little quibble. The closing story “Survivor”, a very good story, concerns a group of Year 10 schoolchildren – that is, 14-year-olds -  facing problems as they go on an orienteering tramp as part of a school camp. It is narrated in the first person by one of the schoolchildren – and frankly, she sounds far more mature than any Year 10 students would probably be. Almost the voice of an adult.

In reviewing a collection of short stories, it is considered bad form to pick out favourites. In this collection they are all mature and well-structured; but I was attracted particularly to “Preschool”, concerning the panic that grips a preschool teacher when she loses one of her charges; and the very thoughtful “Peninsula” and “Trailblazer”. As for the story “Tramp”, it becomes surprisingly suspenseful and menacing after first luring us into the bush. Other New Zealand authors have also  produced short story collections that link tales in this fashion, like a loose novel, but I don’t think it has been done better that Sharron Came has done it. This is her first book and I hope it is the beginning of a fruitful literary career.

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

I think I have identified one of the year’s best poetry collections. Tim Upperton’s A Riderless Horse is a great piece of work, robust, honest in its intentions and telling with raw power some home truths. But if it were read very, very selectively it could be totally misrepresented. So let me begin by giving you a very false impression of what Tim Upperton’s poetry is up to.

Upperton can sound despairing, as in his  poem “Roadside Trees”, especially when its last lines declare : “Tonight you feel lost, as in a dark wood: / here is not what you wanted, or hoped for. / Hard truth is that you never asked for much, / and got less. How far still to go, how far.” A similar negative tone is sounded in “Writ on the eve of my 53rd birthday”. He can sound flippant or surrealist in “Television” or in the longest poem in the collection, “Three Men in a Lift”, a truly bizarre tale whose intent is rather obscure to this reader. And he can certainly sound wary of other human beings. The prose poem “The riderless horses” comes nearest to being the eponymous poem, and it very much expresses the fear brought into a home by the world outside. There is a variation on the same theme in the poem that follows it, “Door”. Beware of the world of human beings.

So are these the poems of a timid misanthrope who hates human company?

Certainly not. 

A hallmark of Upperton’s style is his wariness – which means that he is an acute observer of human behaviour. This does not mean that he is a misanthrope; but it does mean that he is a realist. Enjoy nature, he tells us, but don’t sentimentalise it. Enjoy the company of other human beings, but do be aware of their motives – and regrettably, in the real world we inhabit, some people have questionable motives and a lack of sincerity. Yes, he can be ironic about domesticity with “In Topeka, Kansas” and his poem YRROS (i.e. “Sorry” backwards) is very much about guilt and apologies. But look at the shrewd wit of his opening poem “My Childhood”. If you’re quick enough to recognise them,  it is a melange of literary allusions to Richard III, King Lear, Robinson Crusoe, Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde and a child taking this all in as part of human experience. It is a poem about growing up and the power of growing up.

Consider “Game Show”, a prose poem referencing a familiar TV show played out on an island. It begins “Contestants are awarded points for cooperation and goodwill. Their kindness flows like unstoppable sweet porridge. The conch-blower hands the conch over to a guy who hasn’t blown it in a while, and the top contestant shyly gives her points away to the one coming last. There is no prize except perhaps a word, a nod, a look from the game show host, who is kindest of all.” This sounds like cooperation and the milk of human kindness until we realise that it is bogus. These people are, after all, seeking prizes and wealth. Their performative charity is simply for show. Is this cynical on the poet’s part? No. Upperton, by revealing the wrongness of such competitive shows, is implicitly reminding us that there are such things as real charity and compassion. Like a good satirist, he uses the negative to lead us to the positive. In similar mode “Sizewell A and B” captures correctly that phenomenon where people want to take “nostalgic” photos of quaint places; but the resulting image is always a lie as it edits out nasty modernity. To tell us that something is a lie is to remind us that there is such a thing as the truth.

Something similar happens when Upperton considers smaller creatures in nature. “Mayfly” concerns ephemeral, short-lived creatures. It takes its time to make its point but makes it very well – it is an image of both the brevity of life and the need to live it. Pair this with the poem “Sparrows” and we are reminded that these small creatures have a purposefulness in their lives which is worth our emulating. It is almost like the Biblical injunction “Go to the ant, thou sluggard. Consider her ways and be wise.”

And here we get one key to Upperton’s technique – irony. “The Truth about Palmerston North” begins “People like to mock my town, / they mock it for being too provincial / and too boring, and it’s true / that not much of import happens here / but I like it…” This is a long and dryly funny poem, ostensibly mocking the city for its shortcomings,  which in fact manages to praise the place in a deadpan voice. When Upperton writes a “Love Poem”, it reads in full “My load, my lode / my burden, my treasure, / you are so heavy! / How long / must I carry you? / Forever? / Very well then - / I will carry you / forever.” To a cynic, such a statement could mean merely that love is an unnecessary pain which might be better avoided. So read it again and see the truth it is telling – real love means commitment, which can be difficult and burdensome, can mean having to negotiate things carefully, but is still a “treasure”, a reason for living.

The jewel of this collection is “Bone”. Its first stanza reads “The man is tired of digging. / The shovel is tired of the ground. / The ground resents the shovel, / and is tired of the weight / of the man standing above.” Stark in the simplicity of its vocabulary, this poem strips the flesh back to the bone. It is a secular memento mori which considers death and bodily decay in the grave – topics that on the whole get ignored in the present day. Life has an ending, which makes it even more precious. [Clearly it is this poem that inspired Duncan Munro’s cover illustration for A Riderless Horse.]

A Riderless Horse did not leave me in a melancholy mood. It delighted me by facing up to hard truths, not retreating into fantasy, and reminding us that there are right and wrong ways to live. What else is worth looking for it poetry?


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.    

“OUR FRIEND THE CHARLATAN” by George Gissing (First published in 1901) 

As some of you will be aware, in the 12 years that this blog has existed I have frequently offered you synopses and critiques of the work of George Gissing (1857-1903). Look up George Gissing on the index to the right of this text, and you will find that I have covered his New Grub Street (his best known novel, about hack writers, often regarded as his masterpiece); The Nether World  (which I regard as his second-best novel, concerning extreme poverty); Born in Exile  (about self-pity in the face of thwarted ambition); The Odd Women (an almost proto-feminist story) and Will Warburton (about upper-class snobbery towards “tradespeople” or the middle class). I’ve also examined his The Private Papers of Henry Rycroft, which is essentially a book of essays and observations in which Gissing takes over the role of a literary gentleman living in the country – something Gissing never was; and his rather botched travel book By the Ionian Sea.

George Gissing has never been anyone’s favourite author and he certainly isn’t mine. He is a realist in the sense of dealing with poverty, class issues and often what is sordid and depressing. There is little sparkle to most of his prose, which can be flat and, at his worst, plodding. And yet he is strangely readable, his reportage of social conditions is astute, and he often hits on matters that are still relevant to us, even if he was writing in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras well over a century ago.

Which brings me to one of his last novels. Our Friend the Charlatan raises the issue of the bogus intellectual – the man who wants to be seen as innovative, well-informed and a potential leader, when he is in fact completely lacking in original ideas and simply following and plagiarising another person’s treatise. Such people are still with us.

In his late twenties, Dyce Lashmar is told by his father (a country parson of modest means) that he can no longer be supported by an allowance. At about the same time, Dyce loses his job as a tutor to the sons a fashionable family. But he has a glib and ready tongue, and by a fluke he is introduced to an eccentric, widowed old aristocrat (of working-class origins) Lady Ogram. Dyce dazzles the old lady with his talk of “Bio-Sociology” which he claims to have devised himself. By “Bio-Sociology” he means that some people are born natural leaders while others are born to be governed; and that a true democracy will therefore succeed only if it elects such innate leaders.  (This sounds vaguely like a melange of Nietzsche and social Darwinism – dominance of Supermen and the Fittest – all very mainstream ideas when the novel was written). Lady Ogram happens to hate the local Conservative M.P. She proceeds to use all her influence to get Dyce nominated as the Liberal candidate. (Remember, this novel was written when there were no other MPs in the British Parliament than Conservatives and Liberals.) Dyce cultivates other people, including some other aristocrats, wealthy businessmen and an influential newspaper editor who writes anti-Conservative editorials. Dyce even gets to be called “the coming man” (which is what George Gissing was originally going to call this novel).

But two shadows hang over him. Will he (Oh scandal!) be exposed as a person of modest social origin? And will his plagiarism become known? All Dyce’s “Bio-Sociology” cant has been filched from a single book. [In a prefatory note, Gissing tells us that the book in question was actually inspired by a real book, a French book called La Cite Moderne by Jean Izoulet.]

Dyce’s loss of favour and fortune is played out gradually. A gossip discovers the original “Bio-Sociology” book and makes known whence Dyce has stolen his ideas. Then Dyce tries wooing two different young women who appear to be heirs to fortune – but he loses out in each case. He fails to win the election as a Liberal candidate. It turns out that the crusty old candidate whom Lady Ogram hated has died, and a vigorous and popular younger man has become the Tory candidate. And anyway, the local electorate was a safe Tory seat. [After he loses the election, Dyce says, in Chapter 29, what can only be utter despair: “Do you know, I have thoughts of going to New Zealand.”]

 Finally, Dyce thinks he has found a safe haven when he marries a young woman of comfortable means whom he had known before he became entangled in Lady Ogram’s set… whereupon his wife discovers that she has been swindled out of her money by a devious lawyer. So the charlatan has missed out on all counts – profitable marriage; connections with high society; political career; intellectual respectability. But perhaps there is hope for him in the very last words of the novel when, faced with the reality of an impoverished marriage, he declares “Who knows? It may be the real beginning of my career.” The implication is that he has now completed his apprenticeship in charlatanism and he may have the resources to hoodwink other willing listeners. You can’t keep real shysters down.

There are some weaknesses in this novel. Though politics are ostensibly one of the novel’s focuses, we are never shown the mechanisms of an election. Indeed the election in which Dyce is a candidate is basically “noises off”. We never see Dyce on the hustings or making his case before an audience, so we do not really hear how persuasive a chap as he is supposed to be. There is also the problem of “padding” which appears in many novels by Gissing. A redundant story concerns a lord who was interested in one of the prospective brides Dyce coveted. And in another side issue which I haven’t included in my synopsis, there is a tussle over a contested will, a very creaky story device even in the late Victorian age.

On the positive side, though, there is the (generally) uncluttered prose, the neat, clear sketches that introduce important characters and the well-prepared twists.

There’s also a neat analysis of Dyce Lashmar’s essential mentality when he is just beginning his deceptive ways, laying bare the narcissism of an idle egotist: “Among the many possibilities of life which lie before a young and intelligent man, one never presented itself to Dyce Lashmar’s meditation. The thought of simply earning his living by conscientious and useful work, satisfied with whatever distinction might come to him in the natural order of things, had never entered his mind. Every project he formed took for granted his unlaborious pre-eminence in a toiling world. His natural superiority to mankind at large was, with Dyce, axiomatic. If he used any other tone about himself, he affected it merely to elicit contradiction;  if in a depressed mood he thought otherwise, the reflection was so at conflict with his nature that it served only to strengthen his self-esteem when the shadow has passed.” (Chapter 4)

His callous attitude towards others, born of the filched treatise he has read, is made plain in his conversation with a newspaper editor. Dyce says : “Political education is our pressing need, and political education means teaching the People how to select its Rulers. For my own part, I have rather more hope of a constituency such as Hollingford [his constituency], than one actively democratic. The fatal thing is for an electorate to be bent on choosing the man as near as possible like unto themselves. That is the false idea of representation. Progress does not mean guidance by one of the multitude, but by one of nature’s elect, and the multitude must learn how to recognize such a man.” Obviously the peasants must bow down to their betters.

Flawed though it may be as a novel, Our Friend the Charlatan rings true in its understanding of many a self-promoting arriviste who attempts to step into the arena of politics..

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.   

                                              BOOK AWARDS

Recently I saw a sarcastic but amusing article about the Nobel Prize for Literature. Ahead of this year’s award being announced, the American wit was weighing up the odds concerning who would win this year, and who would definitely not win. It all had to do with public recognition of authors, ethnicity of authors, what causes authors had supported, other political views of authors etc. with literary skill and originality itself somehow lost in the mix. One point this wit emphasised was how often the Nobel Prize for Literature was given to a writer largely unknown by more than a handful of readers. Indeed he suggested ironically that some winners of the prize were so obscure and so little known that they might as well have been fictitious writers made up by the Nobel committee.

As it happened, a week or so after this amusing article was published, this year’s Nobel Prize-winner for Literature was announced. It was Annie Ernaux, French author of heavily-autobiographical novels. Be honest now – have you ever heard of her, let alone read her work? Having (like you) read none of her works, I’m in no position to make comment on her achievement; and doubtless there will now be a run on her books as people try to catch up with her works and then claim to be well-versed in them. [Interesting fact – in the 121 years since the Nobel Prize for Literature was inaugurated, French authors have won the prize more than any other nation: 16 French laureates to be precise. On the other hand, far more laureates have written in the English language because English is the dominant language in so many countries.]

Like many other established awards, the Nobels for Lit. have often courted controversy. In the earliest years of the award, there was a heavy preponderance of Scandinavian winners; in other words, writers little known beyond Stockholm, Oslo or Copenhagen. Again be honest - have you ever heard of, let alone read, Werner von Heldenstam or Henrik Pontoppidan? … Not that I’m ridiculing all Scandinavian winners. Selma Lagerlof (winner 1909) and Sigrid Undset (winner 1928) really were authors with an international following and they both produced enduring work. Of course over the years there have been winners who really were giants of literature (Thomas Mann, Rabindranath Tagore, T. S. Eliot, Francois Mauriac, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gunter Grass, Nadine Gordimer  and many etcetera-s) but there have also been very questionable winners. Pearl Buck? Popular bestseller of books that now seem incredibly naïve. Winston Churchill? Obviously given the gong in the early 1950s for his wartime orations rather than for any real literary achievement. Bob Dylan? You must be freaking joking. Controversy was stirred up when Boris Pasternak won the gong in 1958 and later there were rumours (largely coming from old socialists who were annoyed by Pasternak’s jaded view of the Russian Revolution) that his winning had been jacked up by the CIA; but this overlooked the fact that Doctor Zhivago has continued to be read and appreciated by a very large audience. As well as often choosing questionable winners, over the years the Nobel committee has often overlooked authors who really deserved the award. Joseph Conrad and Thomas Hardy never won the Nobel when in the same era John (yawn) Galsworthy did. Similarly Georges Bernanos and Graham Greene were passed over, even when Greene was clearly the dominant English writer of his age.

Let’s also note another fact. The Nobel Prize for Literature is decided by the Swedish Academy, which has 18 members. The Academy sends out nomination forms to literary critics, professors of literature, former Nobel Prize winners and other worthies in many countries. The nominations come back in their hundreds. The committee of 18 examines them and then decides which five (out of very many more nominations) will be announced as the year’s contenders. And out of these publicised five they decide the winner. What this obviously means is that the committee does not necessarily read or consider all the authors who have been nominated. It would take years to do so. On the whole, they are depending on other people’s opinions (namely those who have nominated most persuasively) even if they do [probably] read some of the works of the five finalists.

Now why am I emphasising this obvious fact? Because the prestige of Nobel Prizes is such that too many people assume Nobel literary awards must be definitive and the last word in criticism. Win the Nobel gong and you must be a very great writer. But such is not always the case in any book awards, be they the Nobel, the Pulitzer, the Prix Goncourt, the Prix Femina, the Booker or for that matter our very own Ockhams and all the book awards that preceded them. Of course the people who award prizes are generally thoughtful people and I am assuming that in most cases they make their judgements in good faith. But look at lists of past winners in any of these book awards, and you quickly discover that many forgotten and/or mediocre books received awards while some outstanding books were never so honoured.

            Awards depend on the current mood and the quality of the judges as much as on the merits of the books being considered. This year, I had the privilege of convening one of the panels for the Ockham Awards, working harmoniously with two other judges. Very rarely did we differ in our opinions and the eventual winner of our category was decided by us unanimously. But we were realistic enough (I’d say modest enough, but that sounds immodest) to understand that our decision was not definitive. Other reasonable people might disagree with our choice. Knowing this, I never get too upset when awards go to books which I do not admire; or when books I regard as excellent are passed over. I certainly don’t make public statements about decisions that I do not agree with, though I might grumble in conversations with friends. There is at least one pundit who tends to throw yearly tantrums when the contenders he favours do not win a prize. This ignores the reality that all literary judges should know – all awards are provisional, they are not infallible guides to what will be seen as meritorious in six months, five years or fifty years.

         Which brings me to a cliché but a very truthful one. The only infallible critic is time. Enduring works of literature declare themselves only many years after they were first published and that is often after the author is dead. Only then do we know that a work is truly enduring. Only then do we know it is not just a “period piece” reflecting the fashions, ideas and ideologies of the time in which it was written. Here, therefore, is my suggestion. The Nobel awards for literature are supposed to be based on an author’s whole life’s work and not on a single work. Therefore, let Nobel prizes for literature be awarded only posthumously after an author’s works really have all been written. As for all the other award-giving organizations, they reward single books. Therefore let the gongs be awarded only to books ten or more years after they are published. That way judges will have gained some perspective on works in consideration, and will not be dazzled by their novelty and their concern with current events and ideas, which are often ephemeral. Of course this will annoy publishers and authors, who expect to make money out of an award-winning book. But it will certainly give judges more perspective.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Something New

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

“THE STORY OF RUSSIA” by Orlando Figes (Bloomsbury / distributed in NZ by Allen and Unwin, $NZ32:99) ; “FUTURE STORIES” by David Christian (Penguin-Random House, $NZ40)


            Some years back, while tutoring university students in Russian history, I read Orlando Figes’ A People’s Tragedy,  all 800-plus enthralling pages of it. I came to the conclusion that it was the best single-volume on the Russian Revolution that has yet appeared. I recommended it enthusiastically to my students. Since then, Figes has produced a number of other books on aspects of Russian culture and history, but with his The Story of Russia he takes a different tack. Now he dares to unravel what might be called the Russians’ “myth” about themselves. The “story” of the title has a double meaning. In one sense, a story is simply a tale – an account of events; and Figes does chronicle the history of Russia over the last thousand-odd years. But in another sense a story is something made up, and such made-up stories can shape the way a nation sees itself. In Russia’s case there are a number of such dominant myths, which Figes examines in detail.


            First there is the myth that Russia has always been Europe’s defender against “oriental barbarians”, with its claims to have defeated (in the 14th century) the Tatars (Mongols). But as Figes points out (Chapter 2) the Tatars occupied much of what is now south-western Russia for about 200 years before they were beaten back, and in those 200 years the Russians not only often intermarried with Tatars, but also adopted from Tatars a legacy of autocracy, serfdom and despotic power. In other words, Russian public norms were in large part shaped by the Tatars. Related to the idea of protecting Western Europe is the Russian conviction that they alone liberated Europe from tyrants. Did not Russia definitively defeat Napoleon? Did not Russia definitively defeat Hitler? (Approved Russian history books now gloss over Russia’s lamentable record in the First World War and the two years, 1939-41, of full collaboration with the Nazis.)

            Then there is the myth that, by some mystic and holy process, Russia is the “protector” of all Slavic peoples, Russian or otherwise. This means a long history of assuming that Belarus (“White Russia”) and Ukraine (“Little Russia”) and various Balkan states should always be controlled by, in the “sphere of influence” of, or directly ruled by, Russia, regardless of these countries’ diverse cultures and languages. Ukraine, for example, was cut off from Rus for a couple of centuries by the Tatar incursion and did not consider itself a part of Russia until Russia used force of arms to annex it. What other Slavic nations think about this is of little concern to Russian leaders.

            There is the problem of the power of the state being entwined with the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox myth says it is the purest and most authentic form of Christianity. The myth says that Rome once was the centre of Christianity, then Byzantium (Constantinople) took its place as the Second Rome and finally Russia’s capital became the Third Rome, after which there would be no other because in Russia was the most authentic Christianity. But in coronation ceremonies, the Orthodox Church anointed the Tsar as the true voice of God, and therefore the leader who had always to be obeyed. Church and state were one. Of course in Western Europe in Catholic and (later) Protestant lands, monarchs were also anointed by the church and in some cases there were “absolute” monarchs; but it was always clear that there was a distance between state (the “secular arm”) and the church. In the West, monarchs might be anointed in the name of God, but they were not the voice of God.

            What was the result of this in Russia? For centuries, serfdom existed under a monarch who was literally the voice of God. Therefore peasants learnt to be subservient to an unchallengeable ruler. There was an interesting sidelight to this. There were often peasant uprisings against harsh conditions, but in such uprisings the peasant leaders would always claim that they were rebelling in the name of the “real” tsar (a pretender), and therefore the ruling tsar must be a usurper and an anti-tsar. As Orlando Figes puts it “The only way Russians could legitimise rebellion was in the name of the true tsar. No other concept of the state – neither the idea of the public good nor the commonwealth – carried any force in the peasant mind. This was the outcome of a patrimonial autocracy in which the state was embodied in the person of the tsar.” (p.81)

            And, developed from the myth of the unchallengeable ruler and the culture of mass subservience in “Holy Russia”, there is the myth of the great leader who is always right and will always save the nation. Having such a leader is better than having such a quarrelsome and fractious thing as democracy. Thus the glowing accounts now given in Russian textbooks to Ivan IV (“the Terrible”), Peter the Great (the moderniser) and Alexander I (who fought Napoleon)… and increasingly to Stalin. As it is now taught in Russian schools, instability after 1917 was only fully corrected by the rule of Stalin and, by implication, instability after the end of the Soviet Union was only corrected with the advent of Vladimir Putin.

            Here, then, is Figes’ thesis about the Russian myth – Russians believe Russia is the historical defender of the West, the protector of all Slavic peoples, the nurturer of the purest form of Christianity, and the country that prospers only when it has a firm and decisive autocratic leader. Forget about the quarrels in Russia between  Slavophiles and Westernisers in the nineteenth century; forget about Marxism and Liberalism. Nationalism is the core of Russian belief and the authoritarian leader is always right, regardless of how many corpses he creates. I must add that Russians are convinced they peacefully “civilised” all the Asiatic peoples whom they colonised as their empire spread east through and beyond Siberia. In fact, such expansion was a brutal and often genocidal process – but of course the same could be said of the European colonisers of North and South America.

            So how relevant is all this to the present day? Very, argues Figes. When discussing the medieval boyars who were reined in by various tsars, Figes remarks that tsars created “a system of dependency upon the ruler that has lasted to this day. Putin’s oligarchs are totally dependent on his will.” (p.54) Be aware that Figes, well immersed in Russian culture, writes respectfully and with admiration of Russian artists, poets, novelists, scientists, engineers and ever soldiers; and he is clear in saying that, with huge sacrifice and immense loss of life, it really was Russia that had the greatest part in defeating Hitler. Russians are right to be offended by American war movies that completely ignore Russia’s role.  Be aware, too, that as well as arguing a case, Figes gives a very detailed history. We go through fine details on primitive, early Rus; the rise of tsars; the house of Romanov; the split between the revised Russian Orthodox Church and the “Old Believers”; the Napoleonic Wars; the Decembrists; Populist and Nihilist groups in the 19th century; the impact of industrialisation; the revolution of 1905; the first Dumas; the Stolypin reforms; the impact of the First World War; the two revolutions of 1917; the civil war; Lenin and his failures; famines; Stalin and his genocide; and the grey men who followed him. Figes is particularly good in charting what happened to the hoped-for democracy after the Soviet Union collapsed and the mistakes made by Yeltsin. The result was Putin.

In Figes’ long last chapter, we see Putin as a Nationalist first and foremost (forget his Communist and KGB past); promoting all the myths about Russia that Figes has examined; authoritarian; suppressing dissenters, opposition parties and a free press; strictly controlling the dominant media; having textbooks re-written to present all of Russian history in positive terms only; creating a virtual Praetorian Guard in the form of oligarchs (many of them former Communist apparatchiks who made themselves unbelievably rich by buying up essential resources when the USSR was collapsing); and clearly planning to reclaim much of what used to be the Russian Empire. And fully supporting this agenda are the patriarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church, who endorse Putin just as they once endorsed the tsars. Truly Putin is the product of a long, long history. But – a big caution here - when Figes finishes with Putin’s current invasion of Ukraine, he rightly condemns Putin’s actions, but he also shows how complex the underlying factors are and what blunders NATO has made in its diplomacy.  

With a good non-fiction work like The Story of Russia, I am often tempted to quote at length the wise things the author has said. But this time I’ll skip that process and rush to a verdict. If A People’s Tragedy is the one essential book you need to understand the Russian Revolution, then The Story of Russia is the one essential book you need to understand the Russian mentality and how it was formed.

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


When I requested from its publisher a review copy of David Christian’s  Future Stories, I knew nothing about the author. I foolishly assumed that Future Stories would be one of those popular books that confidently tells us how human affairs will work out in the next two or three centuries. We’ll all die in a nuclear holocaust. Or we’ll be exterminated by severe climate change. Or advanced technology will overtake the human race and we’ll become the slaves of robots. Or we’ll find ways of colonising other planets when earthly resources have been used up. Or, when land and sea have been worked out, we’ll find artificial ways of producing nutritious substitutes for traditional foods. Or new sources of energy will be developed, cleaner and more efficient that fossil fuels, nuclear plants, solar or wind power. Etc. Etc. Etc. – all the familiar dystopian or utopian scenarios that have so often been presented to us. 


But Future Stories simply is not that sort of book. David Christian is not a pessimistic or idealistic young man. Now in his mid-seventies (he was born in 1946) this Anglo-American, Oxford-trained writer was first an historian, specialising in Russian history. But mid-career he switched to what he coined “Big History”, that is, attempting to explain to the general public the whole course of cosmic, terrestrial and human history – from the Big Bang on. Before he wrote Future Stories, he had already written three books of “Big History”, the best-known being Origin Story.

So what is Future Stories?

It is a book divided into four parts.

First comes his consideration of how philosophers and others deal (or have dealt) with the phenomenon of time itself and how it is related to the future. So he goes systematically through “A-Series” time, which sees time as a flowing river moving forward to a destination; and the concept of “B-Series Time” which sees all time as one co-existent block. What was still exists and what will be already exists. Here, then, we have the “arrow of time” concept [time moving in one direction] pitted against determinism [the atheist version of the religious idea of predestination] which says certain things are inevitable and already there in the future waiting for us to acknowledge them. But there is the matter of causation. David Christian asserts that modern science largely refutes total determinism because, although time seems directional, it still allows consequences to follow willed (human) actions. So in some limited sense, humanity shapes the future even if humanity does not shape the cosmos. “Perspective-ism” says that time and our experience of it always depends on our “frame of reference”. This is related to Einstein’s theory that the speed of light is constant, but our perception of it isn’t. Whether or not the universe has a purpose, says David Christian, all living creatures act as if they have a purpose, even if that purpose is simple survival. And part of survival is attempting to anticipate the future. But how can we anticipate the future? Christian gives four general principles, the first two of which are: “We have no evidence from the future, so we cannot expect detailed knowledge of possible futures except in rare instances such as the prediction of eclipses.” And “It is the paradoxical idea that the only evidence about likely futures lies in the past. ”(p.51) In other words, we have to look at trends in the past (Christian often refers to “trend-hunting”) and we then have to categorise ideas of the future in terms of what is probable or possible or unlikely or preposterous.

So much for general theory.

In the second part Christian then surprises us by looking at how bacteria, plants and animals deal with the future. He sees a single-cell bacterium as “predicting” the future by adjusting and changing itself by “reading” its environment. Ditto larger plants. In dealing with plants, he indulges in much anthropomorphism making such statements as “To survive and reproduce, plants have to seek out information and make probabilistic bets, like all living organisms.” (p.92) Can one really use such terms or should we credit plants with instinctive impulse rather than rational betting? True, Christian does note (p.97) that Charles Darwin was so impressed by the predictive intelligence of plants that he wondered if they had a sort of brain. Christian refutes this idea, but his anthropomorphic language continues. Turning to lower animals (worms, insects etc.) Christian says they have nervous systems, but not brains. However, like bacteria, their behaviour suggests adjustment to future likelihood. When he gets to more advanced animals, his language becomes vivid, almost lyrical, as he considers the brains of larger animals. Take this example: “Big brains are very good at detailed modelling of present realities and possible futures. The squishy ball of neurons between the ears of a thirsty young antelope can turn the millions of signals generated as it walks towards a water hole into a moving, three-dimensional virtual image, complete with swaying, sweet-smelling grasses, buzzing insects, lots of other antelopes, and, yes, the scent and sight of a pride of lions patrolling the water hole. Damn! Not all these computations go on in the brain, of course. Many occur in networks of neurons that extend down the spine and throughout the body, which is why the antelope’s legs are getting ready to run.” (p.103) Neurons give animals the ability to anticipate. As with human beings, there are both short-term and long-term types of memory to draw upon when animals attempt to plot the future. However, it is true that each time we recall past events, we modify what we “remember”. Christian spends some time considering when animal “future thinking” became full consciousness.

And so Christian, in the book’s third part, at last comes to consider how human beings have attempted, or are attempting, to prepare for the future. He notes that human beings have an exceptional number of neurons in their frontal cortex, the region of the brain that specialises in computation and planning. There was an explosion of thought in the initial development of language. This meant a greater awareness of past, present and future; but in many ancient cultures, and especially in the hunter-gatherer phase of human existence, there was a tendency to see the past in terms of a mythical time which set out moral imperatives – something like the Aboriginal “dreamtime”. The past was more important than the future inasmuch as it set up “eternal” codes of behaviour. Comes the agrarian ages, when human beings had learnt to farm, raise crops and breed animals, and the future became more important. Divination began with seers, prophets, tohunga and shamans. Important questions were asked, such as: Will the weather be good for growing crops? Will there be a drought? Will our land be flooded in a deluge? How likely is it that another people will take over our land? And later, when trade between peoples became more established, there were questions such as: Will I get a fair price for my goods? Will my journey be prosperous? Will I return home safely? Of divination in the agrarian ages, Christian says: “In its time and place, popular future thinking offered powerful and credible forms of consolation and some hope of empowerment to the vulnerable, and it still does today for many [who live in a state of anxiety]” (p.174)…” He notes that many cultures, especially the Chinese, relied on astronomy and astrology for divination. And he also notes the tricks of the trade practised by seers. As for “modern” future thinking, Christian notes that everything changed with the rise of science. Now future thinking involved consideration of causation, data collection and some form of computing. In the 16th and 17th centuries, future thinking was based on averages and statistics, often assuming mathematical projects without considering human contingencies, such as in the rational writing of Condorcet. From the 19th to the 21st century, and especially with the advent of modern computers, there has been a huge collection of data for attempts to predict the future. It is noted, however, that weather forecasts are always more reliable than economic forecasting because economics involves the human element. The least likely of predictions have to do with human behaviour. Christian imagines Cicero (who wrote about predictions) transported to the present age and says “he would be impressed by the remarkable successes of future thinking in such fields as medicine and science. But he would also note (perhaps with some glee) that the track record of future thinking in politics is dismal, hardly any better than that of Roman diviners and augurs.” (p.211)

So at last, in the fourth and last part of his treatise, Christian deals with modern prediction, “human, astronomical and cosmological”. For the “near future” in human affairs (that is, the next hundred years) he sees a continuation of globalisation, perhaps (only perhaps) leading to a greater global consensus. He is tentative about this, however, because of that human factor. He quips: “Where people are involved, there are many known unknowns. Sir Isaac Newton, who lost money he had invested during the South Sea Bubble in 1720, ruefully comments, ‘I can calculate the movement of stars, but not the madness of men.’ ” (p.232). Even within the last half-century, assumptions about the future have changed radically. After the Second World War, economic growth was seen as the way to a prosperous and happy future. But from the early 1960s on, there was the realization that there were limits to growth, limited natural resources and a growing population. However, some people concerned with population were completely wrong in their predictions. “[In 1968] two modern Malthusians, Paul and Ann Ehrlich, published a bestseller called The Population Bomb, warning of the immanent global collapse due to overpopulation. Their bad timing should remind all would-be futurists how easy it is to get things spectacularly wrong! Today, most demographers expect human populations to peak later this century, at a number between nine and twelve billion, before starting a long slow decline…” (p.238) What with advances in scientific and medical knowledge, globally more people have been lifted out of poverty than ever, population growth has slowed and age expectancy has been raised. Yet there are still anxious scenarios of the future concerned with anthropogenic climate change, wars, nuclear and other massively-destructive weapons and inequitable distribution of sources. Thus for the near future.

For what Christian calls the “middle future”, he says that in thousands or millions of years, species will evolve, perhaps including human beings. There might be “transhumanism” in the modification of human beings – and perhaps “artificial human beings” (the super-robot scenario). He speaks of nanotechnology (huge power and knowledge in tiny frames), and the greater harvesting of the sun’s energy. These things are at least plausible. Will we terraform other planets? Possibly. But equally plausible is a total collapse of the human species and of other species as we know them.

As for what he calls “remote futures – the rest of time” he remarks “… sometimes you get the spooky feeling that we can see the shape of the remote future more clearly than that of the next few centuries or millennia.” (p.285). With a degree of certainty, he considers the movement of tectonic plates and therefore the realignment of the continents and probably the emergence of totally different continents; the likelihood that in billions of years, the sun will boil away the Earth’s oceans as it turns into a red giant; and, inevitably, the collapse of the universe as we know it. In his very last pages he mentions the modish idea of a “multiverse” – that is, that there are many universes separate from the whole universe as we know it. But he sensibly states that as yet there is absolutely no empirical evidence to support the “multiverse” theory.

Will Future Stories disappoint you? Only if you were expecting something glib or sensational. Christian has avoided wild predictions, expressed caution about even plausible futures and at the same time given us a whole history of prediction and attitudes to time. His tone is very measured and it is wise to accept the paradox that it is more credible to predict the far future of cosmic events than to predict the near future of human affairs.

Christian opens his Introduction with a quotation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where Banquo says to the witches “If you can look into the seeds of time, / And say which grain will grow and which will not, / Speak then to me…” To which I am inclined to quote the song in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “What’s to come is yet unsure.”

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 CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES” by John Kennedy Toole (First published in 1980, but written in the early 1960s) 

            Humour is a very personal thing. What makes one person laugh makes another person sniff with cold disdain. I have a very good friend who once declared that he found nothing funny in The Third Policeman by “Flann O’Brien” (real name Brian O’Nolan.) This is of course blasphemy. The Third Policeman is quite simply a masterpiece of Irish comedy, far funnier than anything Jimmy Joyce ever thought up. Later the same good friend told me that John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces wasn’t funny. I wondered if his verdict was the right one, but I’ve only recently read the book to test his judgement. Whatever fun I found in it, however, the book has a tragic, and by now well-known, backstory. 


John Kennedy Toole (1937-69), who at the age of 16 had written an unpublished novel called The Neon Bible, spent much of the early 1960s writing A Confederacy of Dunces. But when he tried to get it published, publishers repeatedly turned it down, even after he sometimes re-wrote parts of it at their request. Toole gradually suffered from severe depression and other psychiatric problems, brought on in part by his sense of rejection. In 1969, a little before his 32nd birthday, he committed suicide. His bereaved mother was sure her son had written a masterpiece and spent years trying to interest publishers in it. Finally she approached Walker Percy, prolific author best known for his first novel  The Moviegoer (published 1961). Like Toole, he was both a New Orleans Southerner and Catholic. Walker Percy was more than impressed. He managed to get A Confederacy of Dunces published, in a modest print-run by a small university press, in 1980, eleven years after the author’s death. It quickly became a “cult” book, won a Pulitzer Prize and was soon a bestseller. It has continued to be a widely-read favourite. In the wake of its popularity, John Kennedy Toole’s teenaged novel The Neon Bible was also published.

So what is it all about? There’s a cliché that says most novels written in the American South are “Southern Gothic” (See on this blog comments on the work of FlanneryO’Connor  – whom Toole admired – and the later Cormac McCarthy [). But of A Confederacy of Dunces I’d say it’s basically “Southern Anarchic”. And as it has “confederacy” in its title some may think that the novel refers to the old South. Not at all. The novel’s epigraph quotes Jonathan Swift’s declaration “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in a confederacy against him.”

Ignatius Reilly regards himself as a true genius and sees all those who surround him as dunces who need to be taught a lesson. Aged 30, Ignatius Reilly is a fat and unseemly glutton and layabout who farts, belches and (it is discreetly suggested) masturbates frequently and who lives in a slummy quarter of New Orleans. In short, a slob and a sponger. A long-since dropped-out college student, he spends his days, when he can, watching too much television, lying in bed or lolling in the bath, writing grandiose, pompous and unpublishable essays and treatises, and dropping pearls of wisdom such as “Canned food is a perversion…I suspect that it is ultimately damaging to the very soul.” (Book 1). His long-suffering widowed mother Irene is driven to too much drinking by Ignatius’s refusal to find a job and bring some income into her impoverished house. Mechanism of the plot (inasmuch as a somewhat picaresque novel has a plot) is the disaster that follows Ignatius when he does find employment, first in the office of a run-down garment manufactory Levy’s Pants, then pushing a trundler around selling hot-dogs on the street. He gets fired from Levy’s Pants by stirring up a riot with striking factory workers and (later) writing an insulting business letter that puts the company in jeopardy.  As for the hot-dog business, he eats as many as he sells and once again causes riot and confusion. There is much slapstick and knockabout, scrupulously chronicled.

But this is only the skeleton of the tale, for the real attraction of the novel is Ignatius’s dogged war with the twentieth century. As he writes in one of his diaries “Employers sense in me a denial of their values… They fear me. I suspect that they can see that I am forced to function in a century which I loathe.”(Book 2) Refuting Communism in an argument with his mother, he gives his political creed thus: “Do you think I want to live in a communal society with people like [a friend of his mother’s], sweeping streets and breaking up rocks of whatever it is people are always doing in those blighted countries? What I want is a good, strong monarchy with a tasteful and decent king who has some knowledge of theology and geometry and to cultivate a Rich Inner Life.  (Book 9) He repeatedly advises people to read Boethius’s 6th century treatise The Consolations of Philosophy, which encourages us to expect Fortune to be a fickle thing. He is enamoured of the Middle Ages. Giving advice on reading to a character who calls himself “Dorian Greene”, a gay guy whom he mistakes for a fellow connoisseur, Ignatius says  Begin with the late Romans, including Boethius, of course. Then you should dip rather extensively into early Medieval. You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Now that I think of it, you had better skip the Romantics and the Victorians too. For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books.” (Book 10) And of course in his slobbish, gluttonous, layabout, work-shy, Rabelaisian, Falstaffian existence, he regards himself as intellectually superior to all whom he meets. In his confessional diary he writes “speaking of his fellow workers, “I really have little to do with them, for I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.”(Book 5 )


Much of our laughter comes from the delusions he has about himself ; but much also comes from the fact that many things he says do make a crazy sort of sense. After all, who would not be challenged by, or repelled by, the sordid New Orleans that surrounds him - a city of pimps, bums, con-men, strip-clubs, grifters, pedlars of pornography, run-down houses and poverty, with the French Quarter haunted by tourists looking for prostitutes? All of these things feature in A Confederacy of Dunces. Later commentators have noted that John Kennedy Toole has depicted accurately the New Orleans of the early 1960s. But there are many kinds of comedy here. There are Ignatius’s self-contradictions. He denounces movies as blasphemous or pornographic but obsessively watches them anyway.  He is inept in reading character, assuming that “Dorian Greene” is a fellow seeker of a new political party, preparing a speech to make at a political rally, and instead finding himself facing a gay audience in a gay club where he gets beaten up by three brawny lesbians. And more than any other sort of comedy, there is the incongruity of his spoken and written language. While others speak colloquially, his language is always formal, pedantic and self-righteous, as if his every utterance is an academic thesis. This voice alone sabotages many of his pretentions.

Like Dickens at his most comical, John Kennedy Toole creates memorable characters, caricatured or grotesque as they may be. Apart from Ignatius, the most important is Mryna Minkoff from the Bronx. Ignatius converses with her in long letters usually in response to her long letters. Toole has clearly set her up as Ignatius’s antithesis. He’s Southern, she’s Northern. He’s Catholic (sort of); she’s Jewish. He’s (more or less) conservative. She’s (more or less) liberal. He looks to the past. She thinks she’s a revolutionary. She’s a guitar-strumming beatnik (the term “hippie” hadn’t become common currency when Toole was writing) who likes to hang around in coffee bars in Manhattan having earnest discussions with people she thinks are intellectuals. He prefers to be on his own writing long narratives to himself or going to the movies. Oddly though, they are both proselytisers, each trying to convert the other to a different way of thinking. Or so they think. But it is soon clear to the reader that both are really lost souls, living in worlds of their own.

The cast of characters is too rich to describe in detail. Lana Lee, who runs a sleazy and dirty strip club called Night of Joy which may also be a brothel (at least one character habitually calls it a “cathouse”). Darlene, her chief stripper who, in her naivete, is one of the novel’s more sympathetic characters, especially when she is forced to do an “exotic” act with a bird on her shoulder (the act gets chaotically sabotaged). The sad policeman Officer Mancuso, who is always given demeaning assignments by his boss, such as walking around the mean streets in drag in the hope that he will be able to arrest anyone who propositions him; or having to spend all day in a public men’s lavatory in the hope that he can arrest homosexuals. The semi-senile Trixie who works in the office of Levy’s Pants and wishes she could just retire. The proprietor Gus Levy himself, only half-heartedly running the place and with a wife who keep throwing inane dollar-book Freud concepts at him. As for Clyde, the blunt and proud proletarian who hires Ignatius to peddle hot-dogs, his no-nonsense ripostes usually deflate Ignatius’s pompous formality.

One character deserves special mention because, with less discerning readers, he might be seen as a caricature of a black man (at the time the novel was written, blacks were still called Negroes and the term “African American” was rarely heard). Indeed, if the novel were written now there would probably be some to tell us that it was racist. This is Burma Jones, usually just called Jones, who is the janitor and floor-sweeper at the Night of Joy. He speaks colloquially in a dialect that could be mistaken for the type of utterances once made by Stepin Fetchit; but usually Jones is the voice of sanity and emerges as a comic hero in the novel. Jones is never subservient and protests at the less-then-minimum wage he’s getting by offering a threat. “Times changing… You cain scare color peoples no more. I got me some peoples form a human chain in front your door, drive away your business, get you on the TV news. Color peoples take enough horse shit already, an for twenty dollar a week you ain pilin on no more.”(Book 3) He is insistent on his rights: “Listen, you ever try livin on my kinda wage? You think color people get grossries and clothin at a specia price? What you thinkin about half the time you sitting up here playin with your penny? Whoa! Where I live, you know how peoples buy cigarette? Them peoples cain affor a whole pack, they buy them cigarette separate two cent apiece. You thinks a color mother got it easy? Shit. I ain’t foolin. I getting pretty tire of bein vagran or tryina keep my ass alive on this kinda wage.” (Book 7) Perhaps most significantly, Burma Jones sees though Ignatius’s pretentions when he declares, as Ignatius trundles around selling (and eating) hot-dogs: “If I go to college I wouldn be draggin no meat wagon around sellin people a lotta garbage and shit.”  (Book 11) Jones, subversive and very active, is the antidote to Ignatius’s sloth and irresponsibility.

If I were to criticise any aspect of A Confederacy of Dunces it would be the somewhat contrived “happy ending” (I won’t go into the details), but at least it keeps Ignatius in character. And it is notoriously difficult to wrap up a picaresque comic novel, so this is a very small fault. To my (still) very good friend who did not find this novel funny, I say sorry, but I really did enjoy it and laugh along with it. All good comedy has an element of pathos, and it is here in the desperation of Ignatius Reilly and Mryna Minkoff to see themselves as intellectuals. There are such people, you know. In A Confederacy of Dunces there’s also a strong whiff of the type comedy that W.C.Fields and Falstaff embody. Fields was funny because his character was consistently a cheat, mean, drunken, misanthropic, self-centred and a hater of children. Falstaff was funny because he was a liar, a coward, a drunkard and monstrously fat. To be a bit recherche,  I could also note the hilarious sloth of the title character in Goncharov's Oblomov and the equally hilarious sloth of the student anti-hero in Flann O'Brien's At Swim Two Birds. I’m not endorsing sponging lazy slobs like Ignatius Reilly, who in real life would disgust us. But these sorts of characters, with their riotous irresponsibility, appeal to that part of us where we wish we could be totally irresponsible too, and break all the rules of civility.  We are allowed to enter an anarchic cloud-cuckoo land where the rules are violated but in the end nobody gets hurt. It’s not real life, but it’s very funny.