Monday, November 21, 2022

Something New


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

“RODERICK FINLAYSON – a Man from Another World” by Roger Hickin (Cold Hub Press, $NZ43); “TINY UNCERTAIN MIRACLES” by Michelle Johnston (Harper-Collins, $NZ38)

            Whenever I think of Roderick Finlayson (1904 -1992) , I think of that cynical aphorism “No good deed goes unpunished.” As I noted when reviewing Roger Hickin’s selection of Finlayson’s writings A Roderick Finlayson Reader, from the 1930s to the 1950s, Finlayson was virtually the only Pakeha who wrote sympathetically about Maori, shared the Maori way of life, did not caricature Maori, and protested regularly about the expropriation of Maori land. But as the years passed, and as Maori writers emerged, Finlayson began to be condemned as a Pakeha who shouldn’t write about Maori matters and who reported Maori speech inaccurately.

In his preface to this biography Roderick Finlayson – a Man from Another World, Roger Hickin addresses these matters directly: “While nowadays some may look upon Finlayson’s Maori stories as a form of cultural appropriation – a Pakeha presuming to write about colonised Maori as simply another manifestation of colonialism – the fact remains that most were written out of his own experience of rural Maori life several decades before Maori took up fiction-writing, and without them we (Maori included) would have a less complete and less vivid picture of Maoridom between the two world wars..” He continues: “As this is not a critical biography, still less a post-colonial assessment, I leave it to others to judge him according to post-colonial prescription. My aim has been to present Finlayson ‘in his time’.

            Roderick Finlayson – a Man from Another World draws very heavily on Finlayson’s own unpublished autobiographies and letters from friends and fellow writers such as Frank Sargeson, D’Arcy Cresswell, O. E. Middleton, R. A. K. Mason and others -  though as often has not Finlayson’s half of each correspondence was lost or destroyed by the recipient. Roger Hickin also quotes generously from Finlayson’s essays and fictions.

            Young Finlayson was raised in (then) working-class Ponsonby in a house of women – his mother, his grandmother and an aunt. When Roderick was a tot, his father had scarpered off to America and never returned. His mother got a divorce. The boy went first to a bad elementary school, then to Seddon Tech where, surprisingly, he liked military drill but mentally sided with the Irish in their wars of independence against England. This was at a time when virtually no Maori lived in cities. But when Finlayson was a teenager, his uncle and aunt introduced him to the Bay of Plenty, and very soon he was informally “adopted” into the family of Honi Ngawhika, of the Arawa people, and lived at Pukehina. His visits were frequent and often long. Honi Ngawhika told him “Roddy, I don’t know how it is, but I know you are not a Pakeha, Roddy. You are a Maori.” (p.29) The Depression fortified Finlayson’s respect for Maori ways of life. He began to write newspaper articles on Maori life, and in an unpublished thesis wrote “I saw a generation of the Pakeha devoured by the monster of his own making. In country and in cities hundreds, thousands, suffered defeat, ruin, abject poverty in ‘the great slump’. The Maori people, already used to poverty, lived off their communal lands and the coastal seas as they always had. Their world proved to be more enduring. As the Pakeha’s superiority waned the vitality of the Maori began to spring.” (p.31)

Was this a simplistic view? Hickin doesn’t argue the case, but it is clear that Finlayson’s long sojourns with Maori shaped his writing for the rest of his life. It is also possible that, in his twenties, Finlayson fell in love with a young Maori woman and probably hoped to marry her; but such a marriage never happened, either because the woman in question was promised elsewhere or because Finlayson’s mother would have disapproved of a “mixed” marriage. He seems to have suffered from regret over this for years.

After dropping his plans to become an architect, and after visiting Rarotonga a couple of times, Finlayson married Ruth Taylor in 1936. They were to stay married until Finlayson’s death in 1992, and were to have six children, but not without some ruptures in their relationship. And in 1937, they moved to a humble house in Weymouth, on the north side of Manukau Harbour, and lived a semi-rural life, often (at least in their early years) feeding themselves on fish and shellfish gathered from the as-yet-unpolluted harbour. And Finlayson set about writing in earnest. He also connected more frequently with Auckland’s small literary fraternity, particularly taking advice from Sargeson and Cresswell, whose criticism he took seriously as he was weened away from writing in the abstract and pointed in the direction of material reality in his stories.

Roger Hickin accounts for all Finlayson’s work, charting the genesis of each of his short-story collections and his novels (which were mainly loose and episodic in structure and could easily be read as short-stories connected). These included his first two short-story collections Brown Man’s Burden (1938), Sweet Beulah Land (1942) and the “novel” The Schooner Came to Atia (1952) – all published by Ron and Kay Holloway’s Griffin Press -  as well as the “novel” Tidal Creek, published in Australia in 1948. Finlayson was aware that some of his writing might have had succes d’estime with discerning critics, but it was not widely known. “At times Rod felt his isolation at Weymouth aggravated his lack of readership”. (p.108). He had had a nervous breakdown in 1946 when his mother died and by the mid-1950s he had a full family to provide for. For some years he made a modest income writing for the school bulletins and by the later 1950s, to make ends meet, he took a job at a municipal government printing press in central Auckland. Later he made a modest amount by writing a commissioned book about D’Arcy Cresswell for the Twayne author series.

One of the most puzzling chapters in this biography is Chapter 8, which gives an account of Finlayson’s conversion to Catholicism. The family into which he was born was (more-or-less) Presbyterian, as befits one whose ancestors were mostly Scots. The person he most consulted about taking this step was the more performative, and less modest, convert James K. Baxter, 22 years Finlayson’s junior. The puzzle is that Baxter eventually disposed of the letters Finlayson had written to him, so we have only the letters that Baxter wrote back, filled with angels and visions. Finlayson’s own thoughts about converting remain obscure. This reader also wonders how much Finlayson might have been encouraged by Ron and Kay Holloway, so often his publishers, who were also converts to Catholicism. There is another matter that Hickin broaches. He says that Finlayson, like Baxter, had “some difficulty separating agape and eros when binding the wounds of young female travellers” (p.144). Baxter’s sexual affairs are now well known. There is no evidence that Finlayson ever transgressed his marriage vows, but he appears to have been strongly attracted to one younger woman to the point of enraging his wife Ruth. She remained upset about this for many years. Connected with all this, as Roger Hickin points out, is the fact that in some of his later writings – and especially in his short-story collection Other Lovers (1976) – Finlayson dwelt on the erotic attraction of men to women.

Finlayson continued to the last to be an advocate for Maori. He supported the protests against the New Zealand Rugby Union for inviting an apartheid South African team to New Zealand in 1982. Frequently, and especially in the Catholic press, he chastised priests who did not embrace fully the papal encyclicals that advocated social justice. He and his wife did also often take in waifs and stays who seem to have lost their way or were in straitened circumstances.  But criticism of his work grew. In the late 1950s, the critic E. H. McCormack suggested that Finlayson’s accounts of Maori life “at times betrayed the author into a condescending attitude that was far removed from his intentions” (p.190). By the 1970s, Maori writers like Patricia Grace were levelling the same sort of criticism, focussing especially on what they saw as a distorted version of rural Maori speech as reported in Finlayson’ stories.

Yet, to the end, nobody criticised Finlayson as a man. His sincerity, dedication to his vision and charity were well-known. [Not referenced by Roger Hickin, it’s interesting to note that Kevin Ireland, in his 2022 poetry collection Just Like That, has a poem about attending Finlayson’s funeral in 1992 and declaring that nobody deserved more to be in heaven than Roderick.]

If I had one small criticism, it would be that this biography is very sparing in talking about Finlayson’s family. (For the record, only one of his six children followed him into Catholicism.) Any negative feelings I have about Finlayson have to do with Finlayson himself, and not with this book. Like many charitable and idealistic people, he could be naïve – as when he refused to believe that his good friend Frank Sargeson was also a procurer of [then illegal] abortions. While D’Arcy Cresswell helped him to get going as a writer, many of Cresswell’s ideas and theories were so poorly conceived that it is odd Finlayson took them so seriously. And, when it came to his own polemics, Finlayson could too easily preach a vague and untenable Utopianism. This is especially true of his 1940 pamphlet Our Life in This Land. But all this is just me nit-picking at Finlayson’s weaknesses.

Hickin has produced an admirable biography that brings us to the heart of what Finlayson was about. Well-illustrated and well-proportioned, it does the man proud. An essential New Zealand text.

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

In essence, the Australian author Michelle Johnston’s novel Tiny Uncertain Miracles is a book about hope in the face of despair.

Marick is divorced from his wife Diane and separated from his daughter Claudia as his ex-wife has custody of the girl. When his marriage broke up, he had a sort of crisis of faith. He left his job to take a degree in theology, desperately trying to find meaning in his life. But he remains a broken man, still uncertain of his faith and doubting God. “When he attempted prayer in the inked hours, his words were little more than argument.” (p.15) Worse, he is depressed and lonely. “His phone book was empty. His meals were eaten alone. It had taken the divorce to admit he had no friends of his own.” (p.22) Largely because nobody else will take the job, Marick accepts the post of chaplain in a large hospital. His job is to comfort the sick, the dying and the bereaved, even though his heart is not fully in the job. Officially Anglican, yet really half-way towards being agnostic, Marick is not ordained, but patients still assume he is a priest and routinely call him “Father”.

All this may seem bleak, yet Michelle Johnston injects a certain buoyancy in her prose. Despite everything, Marick is a perceptive man and the balance of faith and scepticism makes him very observant as he questions everything. His humour may be sour, but it is humour nevertheless. And there is much for him to question – for down in the basement of the hospital works Hugo, a microbiologist who is secretly conducting experiments on bacteria. He believes the bacteria he is treating are generating gold. Pure metallic gold. When he invites Marick to look through his microscope, Marick is sure he sees gold too. So do some eminent academics in the institution where Hugo once worked. Is this charlatanry and bogus alchemy? Or is this a miracle?

Like me, you might at once think that this conjuration of gold is one of the “tiny uncertain miracles” of the title, and certainly Marick’s involvement with Hugo’s experiment is one of the main threads of plot. But Michelle Johnston is much more subtle than that. We may eventually get an explanation of Hugo’s work (I don’t give any spoilers here), but as the story progresses, we understand that the real “tiny uncertain miracles” are Marick’s interactions with other people that bring him back to life. Friendship, understanding , the need he has for others and the need others have for him bring him bit my bit back to a qualified happiness. It might be his casual joking relationship with the hospital’s cheery front-of-house woman Dolly. It may be his insight into other people’s flawed marriage when he befriends and dines with Hugo and his wife Vivian – and sees the strife that often occurs between them. It may be his search for renewed love. It may even be his awareness that, despite his doubts, his prayers with the sick, dying and bereaved are actually doing them some good. His life is neither useless nor pointless.

Does this sound simplistic and Pollyanna-ish? I hope not. It takes a long time for Marick to reach his reawakening. Michelle Johnston structures her novel in alternating chapters, where we get Marick’s “present” life in one chapter and flashbacks to Marick’s disintegrating marriage in the next. Marick’s problems with his wife Diane are both credible and wrenching and the novel’s final optimism is earned only after much real strife. While the novel’s denouement is positive, it is hard-won.

The blurb tells me that Michelle Johnston, as well as being a novelist, is an emergency physician and a Staff Specialist at the Royal Perth Hospital Emergency Department. Her vivid account of how a hospital works, the daily crises the emergency staff have to face, the trauma that has to be dealt with, the unexpected and extreme cases, the black humour doctors sometimes adopt to buoy themselves up - all this can only have been gleaned from the author’s own experience. It’s very believable.

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.     

“THE LEOPARD” by Giuseppe di Lampedusa (Il Gattopardo first published in 1958; Archibald Colquhoun’s English translation first published in 1960; translation revised in 1961) 

Some authors are known for a single renowned book and the renown comes only after the author is dead. Think Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes. Think John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacyof Dunces. (Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights are also one-hit wonders, but both those two authors produced much more than a single novel.) One of the most extraordinary examples of the single novel that makes the author posthumously famous is Il GattopardoThe Leopard. Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) was a minor Sicilian aristocrat, officially Prince of Lampedusa, who turned out to be the last of his line as he had no heirs. He had a very eventful life, but he was always influenced by tales of his family’s ancestral past. He was aware that his ancestors once had power and high status, but he was also aware that the family had, over the generations, lost much of that power and status as regional aristocracy became less important in a unified (and ultimately republican) Italy. Prince Fabrizio Corbera, the main character of The Leopard, is clearly based on di Lampedusa’s great-grandfather. Di Lampedusa spent many years conceiving and planning this novel before he wrote it. Only after his death was it accepted by a publisher. 

Is the novel written as an elegy for a lost way of life? Or is it proving that change is inevitable? Readers have to make up their own minds as it can be interpreted either way. However it is read, The Leopard is definitely neither sentimental not nostalgic. The period it covers is presented with minutely observed realism.

The Leopard is structured in eight long chapters. The bulk of the narrative takes place in the years from 1860 to 1862. The Risorgimento is in progress - the unification of Italy as the Savoy House in Piedmont (officially the “Kingdom of Sardinia” ) and its king Victor Emmanuel proceed to take over other kingdoms and duchies by force. This means war on the Bourbon kings who rule Naples and Sicily (officially the “Kingdom of the Two Sicilies”). But the Risorgimento also involves Garibaldi, who ultimately wants Italy to be a republic but, for the time being, is willing to support unification under a Piedmontese monarchy.

Prince Fabrizio Corbera owns a large estate in Sicily, with many towns and many tenants under his control. Early in the novel, his character is set out clearly. He has “an authoritarian temperament, a certain rigidity of morals, and a propensity for abstract ideas; these, in the relaxing atmosphere of Palermo society, had changed respectively into capricious arrogance, recurring moral scruples and contempt for his own relatives and friends, all of whom seemed to him mere driftwood in the languid meandering stream of Sicilian pragmatism.”… “poor Prince Fabrizio lived in perpetual discontent under his Jove-like frown, watching the ruin of his own class and his own inheritance without ever making, still less wanting to make, any move towards saving it.”  (Chapter 1)

Essentially he is a paternal landlord, looking after his tenants in the traditional way, but often escaping from work by dabbling in astronomy, which takes him far from the madding crowd and also gives him a sense of eternity and the rightful order of things. Of course he observes diligently Catholic rites, leading the family in the Rosary every day, regularly attending mass and keeping a Jesuit priest, Father Perrone, as the family’s chaplain. Not that this stops him from visiting the local brothel, which he does in the opening chapter to the wails of his wife Stella. He remembers fondly many affairs, but, now in his mid-fifties, he’s getting a bit too old for dalliances… and anyway, he knows Father Perrone will give him absolution for his sins. If this leads readers to think that Prince Fabrizio’s religious beliefs are a charade, they would be wrong. His religion is an essential part of who he is. It’s also worth understanding that while the priest Father Perrone is a sort of domestic servant, he is no fool and is capable of making pungent comments on the way Sicily is changing.

As well as having three young and almost marriageable daughters, the eldest being Concetta, Prince Fabrizio also has a son and presumptive heir, Francesco Paolo. But the Prince regards his son as a ninny and a booby, neither tactful nor capable of running an estate. He much prefers his swashbuckling, lively and witty nephew Tancredi. Tancredi joins the Garibaldini, even wearing their red shirt and proclaiming republican views. But once the fighting is over, and once the Bourbons have been driven from Sicily, Tancredi deftly changes colours, joins the Piedmontese army, and advises Prince Fabrizio on how the aristocracy will be able to hang on to their privileges under a new regime. His pragmatic advice to the Prince is “Unless we ourselves take a hand now, they’ll foist a republic on us. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” (Chapter 1) [The latter sentence is apparently the most widely-quoted phrase from the novel).

But how can things change?

Tancredi knows, and Prince Fabrizio knows, that to survive with some status they will have to collaborate with the bourgeoisie. The aristocracy may own much land, but they are not making as much money as the more successful middle-classes. How can Fabrizio repair his fortune? The answer is – get a member of the family to marry the daughter and heir of a wealthy middle-class entrepreneur. At first Tancredi appears to be in love with Fabrizio’s daughter Concetta. But his roving eye soon settles on the wondrously beautiful Angelina, daughter of the plutocrat Don Calogero. Tancredi, like most aristocrats, has no money. Angelina’s father is rolling in money. It’s a match made in heaven… so the central “plot” of The Leopard concerns the manoeuvres of the decaying aristocrat to get a relative married into immense wealth.

Thus it is settled even if, in his pride, Fabrizio still resents having to collaborate with a lower class. As he seals the deal with Don Calogero, and it is arranged that Angelina will enrich Tancredi with a huge dowry, Prince Fabrizio has to shake Don Calogero’s hand. We are told how he really thinks about it: “Don Fabrizio was overcome with sincere emotion; the toad had been swallowed; the chewed head and gizzards were going down his throat; he still had to crunch up the claws, but that was nothing compared to the rest; the worst was over.” (Chapter 3) It is only much later in the novel (Chapter Six) that Fabrizio becomes fully reconciled to the deal when an elaborate ball is staged to honour Tancredi and Angelina and, for the first time, Fabrizio begins to reflect that he is ageing, his time is passing, and the world has moved on… even if he is still capable of dancing gracefully with Angelina to the admiration of a watching crowd.

This deal, this melding of the social classes in the new order of things, may be the core of the novel, but The Leopard has many other things to say. Regarding the Risorgimento, Giuseppe di Lampedusa is well enough versed in history to know how contradictory the process of unification was. The promise of liberty and democracy came with conditions. It is clear that the plebiscite, in which Sicilians were asked if they accepted the new (Piedmontese) monarchy, was a rigged plebiscite. There is a scene (Chapter Three) where Don Fabrizio goes on a hunting ramble with the church organist Don Ciccio, who is angry that his “No” vote hasn’t even been recorded. The local polling stations have declared that the “Yes” vote was unanimous. Later (Chapter Six) Fabrizio converses with an army officer who joined the new Piedmontese forces, and fought against Garibaldi in his ill-timed attempt to invade the Papal States. The officer admires Garibaldi, but sees Garibaldi’s followers as a fanatical rabble. So much for the universal brotherly love that supposedly inspired the Risorgimento in the first place. There are clearly contending factions.

Under-riding Fabrizio’s thought is an awareness that, though it may now be part of a united Italy, Sicily has a unique culture and history. He often thinks of the many civilizations (Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Normans etc.) that have at different times ruled Sicily. He also thinks of the island’s unique climate. In reading the novel, we are always aware of both the squalor and the heat of Sicily. This is sounded very early and emphasised often. Consider the sheer heat of Sicily, as in “The sun, still far from the blazing zenith on that morning… was showing itself the true ruler of Sicily; the crude, brash sun, the drugging sun, which annulled every will, kept all things in servile immobility, cradled in violence and arbitrary dreams.” (Chapter One)

It is Father Pirrone who expresses the view that history simply repeats itself, a bit like the ancient invasions that the Prince considers. When speaking to the poor peasant herbalist Don Pietrino, Father Pirrone remarks shrewdly on the existing ruling class, and notes “…if, as has often happened before, this class were to vanish, an equivalent one would be formed straight away with the same qualities and the same defects; it might not be based on blood [ i.e. inherited privilege] any more, but possibly on, say, length of time in a place, or pretended knowledge of some text presumed sacred.” (Chapter Five) These are the words of a priest who knows something about human nature and behaviour.

As for Prince Fabrizio’s own status, he knows that, even if he has sworn loyalty to the new regime, he is not wholeheartedly part of it. When rejecting an offer to become a senator in the new parliament of the united Italy, held far away in northern Turin, the Prince says “I cannot accept. I am a member of the old ruling class, inevitably compromised with the Bourbon regime, and bound to it by chains of decency if not of affection. I belong to an unlucky generation, swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both. And what is more, as you must have realised by now, I am without illusions; what would the Senate do with me, an inexperienced legislator who lacks the faculty of self-deception, essential requisite for anyone wanting to guide others? We of our generation must draw aside and watch the capers and somersaults of the young around this ornate catafalque.”   (Chapter Four)

It is in the last two chapters that the novel leaps forward from the 1860s and the era of Risorgimento. In Chapter Seven, set in 1883, the Prince dies at the age of 73, knowing that the world has changed, a little regretful but aware that, where the welfare of his family was concerned, he did the best he could. To emphasise how the aristocracy has fallen on harder times, Chapter Eight, set in 1910, is appropriately called “Relics”. Prince Fabrizio’s three daughters, now in their sixties, are all still unmarried. The eldest of the three, Concetta, still, after all these years, holds a grudge because Tancredi passed her over for Angelica… and yet Concetta welcomes into her home the aged Angelica, now hobbling with varicose veins. The three sisters are devout and have a chapel in their home, filled with relics. But even the church has moved on and is now more wary of the manufacture of fake relics. A church archivist comes to inspect the sisters’ relics, and quickly concludes they are mostly fakes. The fake relics are thrown out with the rubbish… perhaps like the old aristocracy. And the novel ends.

So does history move on? (More-or-less Fabrizio’s eventual – if guarded - view.) Or is history un eternal retour? (More-or-less Father Pirrone’s view.) You can take it either way. My battered old Fontana paperback of the novel carries as blurb the declarations of a number of British writers that The Leopard is a masterpiece – E. M.  Forster, L.P. Hartley, Evelyn Waugh, William Golding. Surprisingly, too, the French Marxist Louis Aragon calls The Leopard one of the greatest novels of all time”. Could it be that the Marxist saw di Lampedusa’s novel solely in terms of class struggle as the bourgeoisie usurps the role of the aristocracy? If so, then Monsieur Aragon missed much of what the novel is about. The Leopard is just as much concerned with the sensuality of people and things. There are so many memorable vignettes – Prince Fabrizio’s remembered visit to the shabby and decaying court of the Bourbon king in Naples (Chapter One); the long rambles that the betrothed Tancredi and Angelina take in the decaying and abandoned rooms of one of Prince Fabrizio’s mansions, as if the lovers are seeking in their discoveries their own bodies (Chapter Four); the elaborate description of the ball that is staged for Tancredi and Angelina (Chapter Six); the feel of the run-down town which the Prince visits so often. We absorb a whole culture, and di Lampedusa’s detailed descriptions are never padding.

Di Lampedusa also shows an awareness that he is addressing a modern (mid-20th century) readership. He frequently inserts “flash-forwards”. Halfway through novel he forewarns us that the marriage of Tancredi and Angelica will not always be calm: “Those days were the preparation for a marriage which even erotically, was no success; a preparation, however, in the way sufficient to itself, exquisite and brief; like those overtures which outlive the forgotten operas they belong to and hint in delicate and veiled gaiety at all the arias which later in the opera are to be developed undeftly, and fail.” (Chapter 4) He nudges the modern reader, at one point describing a neat social manoeuvre of Angelina’s as “a highly successful line, comparable in its perfect timing to Eisenstein’s business with the pram” (Chapter 4). In describing a chamber of a stately home he writes, “From the ceiling the gods, reclining on gilded couches, gazed down smiling and inexorable as the summer day. They thought themselves eternal; but a bomb manufactured in Pittsburgh, Penn., was to prove the contrary in 1943.” (Chapter Six) The horrors of history.

One crowning achievement. Giuseppe di Lampedusa writes what amounts to a family saga, but, elaborate descriptions and all, he is not tempted to produce a fat, multi-page doorstopper, as other chroniclers of family fortunes have done. The Leopard says so much, but clocks in at a modest 220 pages. Bravissimo.

Pedantic footnote: In case you were wondering, the novel’s title Il GattopardoThe Leopard -  refers to the crest of Don Fabrizio’s family. However all sources point out that the Italian word gattopardo does not really mean leopard. It refers to a much smaller African wild cat, the serval, which is something like a lynx.

Damned Silly Footnote: I first read The Leopard when I was a teenager, clearly missing much of what the book was about. For some reason, years later (and before I recently re-read the novel) all I remembered was a scene in which the Prince receives a letter from young Tancredi. The Prince admires the cunning way Tancredi presents it in such a form that one upsetting part can be witheld from the rest of the Prince’s family. The upsetting part of the letter “was written out exactly on one sheet of paper so that if he [the Prince] wanted he could let others read the letter while subtracting this revolutionary chapter” (Chapter 3). Now why on Earth should this little detail have stuck in my mind? Funny what one does or does not remember from a book years later.

Inevitable Film Footnote: Yes, Luchino Visconti (the same director who made Death in Venice) did make a stately and beautiful film version of The Leopard in 1963. Visconti was himself of aristocratic stock and he was aware of the declining status of aristocracy. For this reason, as he once explained, he preferred to make films about things that were coming to an end. Thus his The Leopard (decline of aristocracy), The Damned (destruction of German industrialist family as Nazis take over), Death in Venice (bye-bye Aschenbach) and Ludwig (decline of obsessed and somewhat mad Bavarian king). Wisely, the film had only a few Risorgimento battle scenes (they are, after all, mainly “noises off” in the novel) but it also missed out the coda of the family in later years. The film ends with the Prince walking away wistfully from the ball that is honouring young Tancredi and Angelica. There is no death scene. 

The film was very long (over three-and-a-half hours) and was originally released in English-speaking countries in a dubbed and severely cut-down version, which rendered much of it incomprehensible. Mercifully, a restored version of the whole film, with original soundtrack, was released in the 1980s, where at last I got to see it in a film festival. I balked somewhat at having Burt Lancaster cast as the Prince (dubbed into Italian) and I thought French heart-throb Alain Delon wasn’t really my idea of resourceful Italian Tancredi. But of course I was completely smitten by the film’s Angelina because she was played by Claudia Cardinale, for whom I have had a severe crush since I was a teenager. (She’s the epitome of Italian beauty, dammit.)

One trivial anecdote. I took to the screening of the restored film an elderly woman who was a devoted Italophile. At one point in the film, the audience (including me) burst out laughing in a serious scene. “Why?”, the elderly woman asked me. I had to explain, after the show, that the audience were laughing at the sudden appearance, in a bit part, of the blue-eyed, curly-fair-headed Italian actor Mario Girotti, who was better known under the adopted name “Terence Hill” and who appeared in a series of knockabout farcical westerns along with his buddy Carlo Pedesole, who called himself “Bud Spencer”. When I was a film reviewer in the 1970s and 1980s, a “Terence Hill” movie would turn up on the film circuit just about every school holidays. It was just the complete incongruity of his popping up in a film like The Leopard that set the audience off.


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.  

                          A COLLECTION OF DEEPLY WISE WORDS

Given that this is the last posting of Reid’s Reader for the year, and given that I now take a summer break for a couple of months, I thought I would give you a Christmas and New Year gift by drawing your attention to some of the wise words that have been uttered over the years in this “Something Thoughtful” section.

I give you the date when each posting was made.

Happy reading.

Let’s begin with something relatively non-controversial – our human tendency to interpret things in such a way that we are in fact seeing what isn’t really there. Thus in the posting SeeingWhat We Choose to See [posted 1 February 2016].

Dealing with history is slightly controversial, but only slightly so. This is the well-founded assertion that we should never assume we can be certain about what the future will bring. Therefore we should act in as principled a way as we can, even if the long-term outcome proves not to be what we hoped. This I argued in Strangest Consequence [posted 31 August 2015]. Plagiarising myself, I made a similar argument challenging the modish and foolish phrase The Right Side of History [posted 26 August 2019]. Then there was that time hen I admitted to feeling a little smug at the way things didn’t happen in a – still controversial – posting called My Reprehensible Schadenfreude [posted 1 October 2018].

I’ve twice had a go at the extreme language that is found on Facebook and other so-called “social media”, first in Facebook Hysteria [posted 11 November 2013] and then in ElectronicLynch Mob [posted 16 May 2016]. As for the so-called “legacy media” I also had a satirical shot in a posting called Here Is the News [posted 14 February 2016]. My target here was the absolute trivia that often dominates out evening television news bulletins, at the expense of real and detailed serious news. Be it noted that this was written when TVNZ had the habit of having two chatty news presenters at the desk instead of one. This practice has now gone. Be it further noted that in referring to “Larde” and “Mike Jigger” I was not ridiculing Lorde and Mick Jagger, but I was ridiculing the inane quality of showbiz reporting.

Connected to mental damage wrought by media tropes, look up The Disneyfication of Nature [posted 29 July 2019].

The wildest and most barbaric forms of human behaviour are of course related to the arts. But often people who see themselves as part of the arts community are simply hangers-on. I made this point in Bohemia Itself is not Poetry [posted 26 September 2016]. There are also hysterical people who would “cancel” artists, poets, painters, novelists, sculptors and other creative people for reasons unrelated to their art. Look up Let’s Empty Out the Galleries [posted 9 March 2015].

Then there is the issue that really sets some people’s teeth on edge – I mean the matter of language and acceptable usage. I posted something close to this matter in Awareness of Language and How to Diminish It [posted 24 November 2014].

There now. I’ve suggested eleven postings that might be enlightening or of interest to you. You are free to disagree and express your own opinions. But please don’t get violent about it.

Happy Christmas and New Year.

See you in 2023.

Monday, November 7, 2022

Something New

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

“THE DARK CRACKS OF KEMANG – The Bajaj Boys in Indonesia” by Jeremy Roberts (Interactive Press, Brisbane, $NZ33 ; $NZ16 e-book); “CULT TRIP – Inside the world of coercion and control” by Anke Richter (HarperCollins, $NZ37:99)

            In 2013, Jeremy Roberts, teacher, poet and traveller, was for various reasons a little low in spirit. He wanted a different sort of life after some things had gone wrong for him. So, aged 53, he sold his house and signed a contract to teach English in Indonesia. For over a year he taught, together with other New Zealand, Aussie and British expats, in a school in the Kemang area of Jakarta. As he explains (on pp.170-171), the book’s title The Dark Cracks of Kemang is also the title of a poem he wrote about the poverty he observed. Roberts quotes the poem in full, as he does with many of his poems.

There was a lot of adjustment to make. Bear in mind that the great island of Java has a population of nearly 275 millions. Bear in mind that Jakarta alone has between 20 and 30 millions. It is very different from New Zealand’s comparatively dwarf cities. Also the population of Java is almost exclusively Muslim. Yet Roberts notes of visitors such as he: “The new arrivals gradually catch on to the basics. It’s a surprise to realise that we don’t appear to be restricted by Islamic culture at all. You intuit straight away that locals are remarkably tolerant. The consistently friendly vibes can make you feel giddy…   Gradually, you form a generalisation about Indonesia. It is a combination of poverty, extreme wealth, and police/military muscle – with nationalism and religion holding the whole thing together.” (p.33)

There are everyday things to be aware of. In an extremely busy city, choking with cars and fumes, there are no marked road-crossings. You have to find a way of virtually dancing across busy thoroughfares. Then there is the oppressive tropical heat, the sweat, the stench of rubbish, the attacks of mosquitoes, and interaction with the police, especially when passport and visas have to be checked. On top of which, right next to the Kemang area, there is a notoriously noisy and criminal-filled red-light quarter.

Yet for all the negatives, Jeremy Roberts comes to love the place. He loves the teaching he has to do, especially as the kids are extraordinarily well-behaved in comparison with New Zealand school kids – helped by the fact that classes are very small. The kids are imaginative, enjoy verbal games their teacher plays, and take part in fun activities as well as diligently learning English. He is also aware that while expat teachers such as he are paid what might be regarded as a modest salary in New Zealand, it is a fortune on Indonesia. Late in the book, he expresses what could be called at least a twinge of shame when he recalls an Asian woman in Auckland telling him off when he said he was going to work in Indonesia because, she said, he would be just another privileged white person in a country where so many poor people would not have the privileges he would have. Roberts comments “many expats on contracts in Southeast Asia are not white Westerners at all. They are Asian professionals out to make a buck like everyone else. As long as professional jobs keep being advertised, people will leave their home countries and take up the contracts. Naturally, many working expats decide to keep it going definitely.    In our own little Jakarta bubble, we know we are privileged compared to the average ‘poor’ Indonesian. (But definitely not ‘rich’ compared to monied Indonesian families.) It can be argued that there is a power imbalance, but we [teachers] are working professionals. You can give back something if you want. It might be helping somebody to get a good doctor after a motorcycle accident. It might be helping a poor family out with overdue school fees. It might be paying a little more than the going rate to your maid. It’s up to you.” (p. 140)

The other thing that grabs him is of course the opportunity to write more poetry and perform it in front of an audience. Now that he’s in Java, his mind buzzes with images of Arthur Rimbaud who was, for a short time, in the Dutch army that once, in colonial days, patrolled the “Dutch East Indies”. But more often, he’s likely to reference the American “Beats” ; lyricists of rock songs, American, British or New Zealand; and Jim Morrison. Of course he also admires Charles Bukowski, doyen of American hobo and bum-life writing. [Okay – not this reviewer’s taste in poetry but de gustibus non disputandum est.] And he does take a few justifiable swipes at constipated academic poetry. Might I add that he also gives an hilariously accurate account of pub poets at Auckland’s Karangahape Road Thirsty Dog poetry readings (pp.34-35). [I know Roberts' account is accurate because I heard a lot of poetry-reading there in the days when Jeremy Roberts was the convenor.]

He teams up with an English chap, Derek, who plays guitar while he himself recites poetry. They call themselves The Bajaj Boys. As he explains, while telling us how perilous it is to cross busy roads in Jakarta: “A bajaj is a local variant on the three-wheel motorised rickshaw found in most Southeast Asian countries, imported from India.” (p.12) So the boys perform in smoke-filled pubs, cafés and other locations. He writes a lot, performs a lot, but has time to scrutinise the audiences who are sometimes uninterested or bemused and sometimes grateful. In the end, he is slightly rueful about their impact as poets: “We may have tired of being dubious and confusing ‘entertainment’ in a series of dying cafés or bars frequented by old white guys… We would have played anywhere, for anyone. We didn’t manage to hook up with any Indonesian poets, but we did stretch ourselves beyond seeing out our teaching contracts, and spending the surplus coin on endless, luxurious holidays.” (p.302)

He himself enjoys such holidays from work – some trips to Singapore and return visits to NZ. Once he brings back his teenaged daughter Eden and together they visit Bali. It’s  very different from Muslim Java with its Hindu and Buddhist legacy; but in the era of mass tourism in Bali, Roberts also notes Bali’s very seedy and sordid side.

Speaking of which, there is the seedy side of Jakarta and Kemang as well. Among the expats (including some of the teachers) there is a wild yahoo-ish life with eating competitions and Beer Pong competitions and sometimes drunken brawls and of course almost endless talk about  sex and the (apparently) ready availability of it. Prostitutes or otherwise, young Indonesian women, sexily dressed, hang around on the streets and in the bars and clubs, often giving the big eye to foreigners. Roberts reports verbatim many bar-room conversations thanks to recording them with his “Dictaphone”; and so often such talk consists of young, horny jocks boasting about their sexual exploits (see especially  pp. 56-58; and pp. 162-164). Doubtless much of this is bravado and bullshit (young jocks are not known for publicly reporting their sexual failures), but their interests are obvious. However, Roberts also refers to Indonesian women who are really looking for marriage and permanent expat spouses, but who first have to hawk themselves around. He gives some cautionary tales (especially on pp.262-263) of Westerners who have misjudged the nature of their female Indonesian partners and then find too late that their relationship was supposed to be permanent. Getting into more sleazy territory, there is also the phenomenon of “ladyboys” – young male transvestites who often take in less observant men.

Under-riding much of the sexual activity, there is booze. As lads are on the make looking for available young Indonesian women, the bar-keeper scrutinises eagerly who is paying money to drink their fill and who isn’t. It is of course ironical how freely booze is available in a Muslim country and how huge the rate of consumption is –  although (as Roberts reports on p.210) the trade is shut down during the festival of Ramadan. As a poet, Roberts raises the question - does booze inspire creativity? Despite his admiration for Charles Bukowski, he gives a guarded response “… writers are not infrequently associated with alcohol abuse. Alcohol is almost a working tool for some… Many famous books have been written by pissheads. I met a poet once who said that there was a poem inside every bottle of wine. Is that cheating a creativity? That truth is probably balanced by the fact that much of what is written while intoxicated is often crap.” (pp.165-166)

I have told you in an orderly way what this book is about, but I’ve missed something important, to wit, the style. Roberts writes exuberantly, engagingly, with a spring in his step, and always focused on the poetic nature of things. Much of what he writes seems to have been built upon either diary entries or regular jotting down of events and observations. Often it builds up to a sort of urban lyricism. Take, for example, this description of a street in Kemang. Its profusion of detail reminds me of the likes of Emile Zola describing (in Le Ventre de Paris) Les Halles, the huge market in old Paris: “Daily, we watch Kemang in action: people eating strange, spicy food from street stalls – food we were initially advised to stay away from (and with good reason, if what happened to Tyrone is anything to go by); curious looks from non-hijab-wearing women (hijab-wearing women remind us that we are indeed walking in a different universe – the hijab, we learn, is to hide the hair from non-familial people, and it is striking how different women look with their hair hidden); small children playing barefoot in the dusty streets, often wearing English Premier League shirts; the incredible sight of a shirtless ‘rubbish-picker’ hauling his wooden cart loaded with several hundred kilos of trash, barefoot in driving rain – with lightning overhead – straining uphill into oncoming rush-hour traffic; young homeless women zooming up and down Kemang Raya on their motorbikes with parted thighs and black hair flowing behind them; an ‘ice-man’ using a pick-axe to break up an enormous block of ice in the shade of a bush beside his delivery bike; lazy, ostentatious demonstrations of wealth – one of the contradictions you tick off….” And many more details, this being only part of Jeremy Roberts’ precise observation. (p.59)

I enjoyed this book immensely, for all its exuberance, for all Jeremy Roberts’ willingness to report things candidly, for all his enthusiasm for poetry and the common world, no matter how flawed it can be.

Personal note to Jeremy Roberts: Dear Jeremy – much as I enjoyed your book, I have to take you up on one matter. On p.186, you dare to say that rock music is a better form of music than jazz. This is of course blasphemy. Jazz is the greatest form of music that the USA ever devised, compared with which rock is monotonous. Fie upon you sir!!! Next time I see you, it will be pistols at dawn.

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

            German born-and-raised journalist Anke Richter is now a New Zealander. For the last ten years, she has been investigating cults and how they work. Her interest began when she took part in a “new age” festival in Australia and found others who, seeking some form of enlightenment, had been damaged when they joined coercive cults. So she set about investigating such cults. In her introduction to Cult Trip she is very careful to note that not all communes,  intentional communities or dedicated small settlements are cults. Many are open, allow members to come and go, freely engage with the wider world, and are models of openness.  But regrettably others really are cults, forcing followers into a very restrictive code and often physically or sexually abusing them while practicing a form of brain-washing.

            Richter was originally going to focus this book only on the malign “therapist” Bert Potter’s Centrepoint; but her focus expanded and (after writing many articles on the matter for various journals and magazines) she decided to examine three separate types of cult – Centrepoint, the Asian “neo-tantra” phenomenon, and Gloriavale.

Richter spends 116 pages on Centrepoint. I am sure that her research is accurate and she has read relevant documents and interviewed many survivors as well as perpetrators. Indeed her narrative takes the form of her interaction with [especially] survivors. Survivors are either enduringly angry or still traumatised, recalling the warped childhood or adolescence that was imposed upon them. Those perpetrators who agreed to be interviewed are occasionally regretful, but more often are cagey and have conveniently “forgotten” the abuse of children. Some even try to present Centrepoint as a haven of true worth and enlightened therapy. Of course the investigated story is horrific. There was much child abuse – literal rape and other forms of degradation and physical constraints visited upon young teenagers, pre-pubescent children and in some cases babies. The guiding pretence was that there was no difference between children and adults and therefore - especially in sexual interaction – children could be treated as adults. This of course meant coercion of children by adults, all in the name of sensuality and sexual enlightenment. “They all thought they were overcoming hang-ups from Christian conservatism and were at the forefront of the sexual revolution, that it was just a matter of time before everybody else caught up.” (p.123) Many of those who bought into Centrepoint were affluent middle-class people who should have known better and who foolishly thought that a self-proclaimed, unlicenced therapist like Bert Potter actually had all the answers. As in so many cults, the guru was an autocrat, his decisions being unchallengeable. Centrepoint was organised as a sort of prison. Adults joining had to hand over all their assets and money to a Trust; and if they chose to leave, they were given back $100 dollars and nothing more.

The next 100 pages Richter designates “Toxic Tantra”. At heart, the phenomena she examines were very similar to Centrepoint, in this case appealing mainly to gullible Westerners who thought they were getting a “religious” experience and the authentic wisdom from the East. As often as not, what they were really getting was newly-devised cults having only a passing connection with genuine traditional Asian teachings. Richter traces the progress of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh who re-branded himself as Osho . For some reason, his cult attracted a disproportionate number of Germans. As with Centrepoint, many who signed on were affluent middle-class people. “Two thirds had college degrees, good incomes and highbrow careers; more than half of them were women.” (p.133) “Osho” ran an ashram in Pune (formerly known as Poona) in India. He claimed to be giving “tantric” healing and encouraging “spirituality” through sexual experience. But stories leaked out of the sexual exploitation of women under the guise of healing their inhibitions. “Osho” and his supporters formed a closed, coercive hierarchy, with strict rules, but scandal gradually became publicly known. The fake “Osho” himself died in 1990. Law suits whittled away the massive fortune he had amassed. At one point in her narrative, Anke Richter visits what is left of his corporation in India and finds it is now more strictly controlled and has retreated from manipulative sex, but is still a cult and is heavily monetised. She sees much of it as pure brain-washing. She then turns her attention to the Agama yoga cult based on the island of Koh Phangan in Thailand. Again it attracts Westerners who think they are getting authentic yoga when in fact they are getting a bastardised version of yoga focused on sex, and its chief guru is a European. The Agama cult is not tantra but “neo-tantra”, meaning newly-devised. It is very anti-feminist, teaching women to be submissive and again claiming to “heal” women by sexual experience. In practice this means male “therapists” sexually-exploiting women.  Says Richter: “The #MeToo movement also kicks off a golden era of cult revelations. Like the film industry before it, the wellness and woo world finally came under scrutiny. With celebrities and powerful moguls like Harvey Weinstein called out over their sexual assaults, #MeToo finally catches up with spiritual leaders.” (p.154) She also makes a general comment on what happened to “alternative” cultures over time: “a few years on, more came off than just masks. The shiny new world of love, liberation and learning that enticed me and also improved my relationship revealed its first cracks. There was a covert harem culture that felt predatory. Male pioneers of the movement surrounded themselves with young female lovers, often from their trainings, who were then accelerated to apprentices and facilitators…” (pp.162-163) Once again, all this led to scandals, protests and law suits. Many things of both the Osho cult and the Agama cult resemble Centrepoint – not least the charismatic leader who controls an inner-circle as his enforcers.

So Richter comes to Gloriavale, the closed and coercive fundamentalist Christian foundation near the West Coast of the South Island. It was founded by Neville Cooper who rebranded himself as “Hopeful Christian”. Before he set up Gloriavale, Cooper had already indulged in coercive sex with adolescent girls in his first attempt at a Christian commune called Springbank. He was later to serve jail time for his sex crimes. What he taught, in his large and well-funded new foundation, was that women’s first duty was to serve men and bear children. His teachings were reinforced by an exclusively male inner circle known as Servants and Shepherds – which Anke Richter handily refers to as the SS. Women in the community were encouraged to have as many children as possible and did not need higher education. Cooper is now dead, but other men have taken over his role. Despite its ostensibly Christian philosophy, Gloriavale has been rife with child abuse, sexual mistreatment, forced labour in the guise of young people “volunteering” to work twelve-hour days, and a process of shunning and shaming any member of the community who dared to question the regime. Those who choose to leave are regarded as heretics and in many cases are not allowed to visit or see such members of their family who have stayed behind. At time of writing this review, a detailed legal investigation of Gloriavale is underway. Once again, as with her investigation of Centrepoint, Anke Richter has interviewed many escapees and some perpetrators, although the latter hardly admit to any misdemeanours. In this case, however, she shows great sensitivity, being aware that many of those who have left Gloriavale have immense difficulty in adjusting to the world outside the cult; and many who have rejected Gloriavale’s teaching are still searching for a more enlightened form of Christianity.

One interesting contrast between Centrepoint and Gloriavale – Bert Potter’s son still writes apologia for his father and promotes his father’s teachings and practices; Neville Cooper’s son publicly rejects and denounces his father’s teachings and practices.

I have confidence in Anke Richter’s reportage, though maybe I would challenge some of the few comments about sexuality which she makes en passant.

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.

“DEATH IN VENICE” by Thomas Mann (Der Tod in Venedig written in 1911 and first published in 1912; Helen Tracey Lowe-Porter’s English translation first published in 1928) 

I admit that I am no expert on the works of Thomas Mann (1875-1955), winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1929 and often regarded as Germany’s pre-eminent literary figure in the first half of the 20th century. Years ago (before I started keeping notebooks on all the books I read), I read his novel Doctor Faustus and was impressed by his thesis that Germans are often influenced by music more than by rational thought. I read one or two of his novella, such as The Black Swan (Die Betrogene). But when I tried to read his The Magic Mountain (Der Zauberberg), apparently his most admired novel, I got bogged down about halfway through [it’s a very long novel] and never finished it. And that was all I knew directly of his works.

So recently, atoning for my ignorance, I decided to ease myself into Mann-land again by reading what is now, for various reasons, his best-known novella Death in Venice (Der Tod in Venedig ) which Mann wrote when he was 36. I have at best a smattering of tourist-phrase-book German, so of course I read the novella in Helen Tracey Lowe-Porter’s English-language translation. I’ll do the crass and obvious thing first by producing a grossly simplified and reductive synopsis to give you your bearings before I launch into a critique.

Gustave von Aschenbach is a novelist and an elderly widower living in Munich. He has one daughter whom he rarely sees. He is dissatisfied with the book he is currently writing and decides to go somewhere far away to clear his head. First he goes to Pola, on the Adriatic coast, but he is dissatisfied there too, so he takes the ferry to Venice, on the other side of the Adriatic. Mann goes out of his way to describe this journey in sordid terms. The cabins are dirty. So are the sailors. Silly young clerks on holiday run around making raucous noise. He is disgusted by an old man wearing a wig and make-up to make himself look younger. And when he gets to Venice, the gondolier he engages, to take him to his hotel, cheats him out of money by taking him to the wrong place. All this upsets an aesthete of delicate sensibility.

But once he is settled in his hotel, and once he takes to a deckchair on the beach, he sees a beautiful 14-year old Polish boy, whom he later learns is called Tadzio. Aschenbach is at once smitten with Tadzio. He does not speak with the boy, but only looks at him from afar while watching him playing with his friends on the beach, watching him and his family in the dining room or passing him in the passageways. All sordid things now pass out of his mind. Tadzio he sees as the epitome of beauty, a Greek god no less, something to worship. And the rest of the novella – that is, the bulk of Death in Venice - is taken up with Aschenbach’s obsession. Tadzio is his private cult. Although the novella is written in the third person, it is Aschenbach’s thoughts alone that we share.

At one point, Aschenbach decides to break off his obsession and leave Venice, but a series of mishaps draw him back. (And one can’t help feeling that the mishaps occurred accidentally-on-purpose.) His watching of the adored Tadzio continues. He idolises the boy. He idealises the boy. In his mind he turns over aesthetic theories on what beauty is. Finally, when the boy happens to smile at him, he says (to himself) “I love you”.

And almost at once, rumours of plague are shared through the city. The number of visitors and tourists reduces dramatically. Finally it is confirmed that Venice is in the grip of cholera. But Aschenbach stays there. His moral compass is twirling in all directions. He knows he is old. He knows he is beginning to be infirm. But he now gets painted with cosmetics and has his hair dyed to be more handsome and acceptable to the child he worships. [In effect, he himself has become the disgusting old man he saw on the ferry from Pola.] And he begins to actively stalk the boy. Here he is thwarted, for in his last attempt to follow in the footsteps of Tadzio and his family, he loses sight of them.

Now he begins to decay physically in sweat and fever. Through his head rushes a Platonic dialogue warning of the perils of worshipping beauty. Severely ill, he has one last sighting of the boy, posed and apparently, wordlessly, calling to him. Then he dies.

I warned you that this synopsis is reductive, especially as Death in Venice is so full of symbolic mannerisms that it is hard to account for all of them. To do so would take many pages of de-coding. Parts of the novella read like a psychotherapeutic confession. However, my first criticism of the novella would be its prose. Thomas Mann (and I am trusting an English-language translation here) shared the later Henry James’ habit of writing in convoluted sentences with very many subordinate clauses and hesitations. This is very much the prose of obfuscation, of somebody circling around what he means to say without getting to the point, all of which sounds like a denial of something important that is left unsaid. Sorry to note this one so early in my critique, but in both James and Mann there was the strain of having to disguise the author’s essentially homosexual impulses. Of Aschenbach early in Death of Venice, Mann writes, in his complex way: “In his youth, indeed, the nature and inmost essence of the literary gift had been, to him, this very scrupulosity; for it he had bridled and tempered his sensibilities, knowing full well that feeling is prone to be content with easy gains and half-perfection. So now, perhaps, feeling, thus tyrannized, avenged itself by leaving him, refusing now to carry on and wing his art and taking away with it all the ecstasy he had known in form and expression…” [etc etc.] Yes indeed, he is bridling and tempering his sensibilities by not admitting to himself what sort of man he really is, and thus his inspiration is dying.

We are also given early in the novel Aschenbach’s fetishisation of masculine beauty, in effect the aestheticization of homosexuality: “The new type of hero favoured by Aschenbach, and recurring many times in his works, had early been analysed by a shrewd critic: ‘The conception of an intellectual and virginal manliness, which clenches its teeth and stands in modest defiance of the swords and spears that pierce its side’. That was beautiful, it was spiritual, it was exact, despite the suggestion of too great passivity it held. Forbearance in the face of fate, beauty constant under torture, was not merely passive. They are a positive achievement, an explicit triumph; and the figure of Sebastian is the most beautiful symbol, if not of art as a whole, yet certainly of the art we speak of here.” Here his stoicism, his forbearance and passivity (not to mention the dying martyr Sebastian) suggest a longing for male dominance over himself.

From the very first moment Aschenbach sees Tadzio, he ignores the boy’s carefree boyishness and places him on a pedestal: “Round a wicker table next to him was gathered a group of young folk in the charge of a governess or companion – three young girls, perhaps fifteen to seventeen years old, and a long-haired boy of about fourteen. Aschenbach noticed with astonishment the lad’s perfect beauty. His face recalled the noblest moment of Greek sculpture – pale, with a sweet reserve, with clustering honey-coloured ringlets, the brow and nose descending in one line, the winning mouth, the expression of pure and godlike serenity...”

Such observations continue as he takes to habitually watching the boy: “He [Tadzio] turned and ran back against the water, churning the waves to a foam, his head hung high. The sight of this living figure, virginally pure and austere, with dripping locks, beautiful as a tender young god, emerging from the  depths of sea and sky, outrunning the elements – it conjured up mythologies, it was like a primeval legend, handed down from the beginning of time, of the birth of form, of the origin of the gods…”

Later, after many times gazing at the boy playing harmlessly on the beach, he reaches a complete idealisation of the boy: “Mirror and image! His eyes took in the proud bearing of that figure there at the blue waters edge; with an outburst of rapture he told himself that what he saw was beauty’s very essence; form as divine thought, the single and pure perfection that resides in the mind, of which an image and likeness, rare and holy, was here raised up for adoration. This was very frenzy and without a scruple, nay, eagerly, the ageing artist bade it come.” At which point he persuades himself that he is considering an abstract ideal where “only through the medium of some corporeal being” can he be raised to “contemplation of higher things”. And, lo, in a trice he is contemplating “Greek love” – essentially aestheticized pederasty where “Socrates held forth to youthful Phaedrus upon the nature of virtue and desire, wooing him with insinuating wit and charming turns of phrase…” By this stage, is Aschenbach seeing a real boy at all? He is overlaying the boy with his own ideas of what is beautiful and is ignoring the living child who does not deserve such scrutiny.

Thomas Mann is himself aware of the danger of Aschenbach’s obsession, which borders on the perverse. When Aschenbach first arrives in Venice, and before he sights Tadzio, Thomas Mann notes of him: “A solitary, unused to speaking of what he sees and feels, has mental experiences which are at once more intense and less articulate than those of a gregarious man. They are sluggish, yet more wayward, and never without a melancholy tinge. Sights and impressions which others brush aside with a glance, a light comment, a smile, occupy him more than their due; they sink silently in, they take on meaning, they become experience, emotion, adventure. Solitude gives birth to the original in us, to beauty unfamiliar and perilous – to poetry. But also, it gives birth to the opposite: to the perverse, the illicit, the absurd” There is a clear warning that Aschenbach could be heading for “the perverse, the illicit, the absurd.”

There is an undertone of guilt when Aschenbach sets himself up on the beach to watch Tadzio: “When Aschenbach put aside his work and left the beach he felt exhausted, he felt broken – conscience reproached him, as it were after a debauch.” Considering that Aschenbach does not really know the boy he idealises, Thomas Mann throws in a reminder of reality when he says: “For one human being instinctively feels respect and love for another human being so long as he does not know him well enough to judge him; and that he does not, the craving he feels is evidence.” That is the situation that Aschenbach is in.

Then there is that crucial moment when the boy happens to smile at the elderly man. Here we can’t help noticing Aschenbach’s underlying guilt. This is a man desperately sublimating what he really knows – that he should not be thinking about a juvenile in the way he does.  Aschenbach received that smile and turned away with it as though entrusted with a fatal gift. So shaken was he that he had to flee from the lighted terrace and front gardens and seek out with hurried steps the darkness of the park at the rear. Reproaches strangely mixed of tenderness and remonstrance burst from him: ‘How dare you smile like that! No one is allowed to smile like that!’ He flung himself on a bench, his composure gone to the winds, and breathed in the nocturnal fragrance of the garden. He leaned back, with hanging arms, quivering from head to foot, and quite unmanned he whispered the hackneyed phrase of love and longing – impossible in these circumstances, absurd, abject, ridiculous enough, yet sacred too, and not unworthy of honour even here: ‘I love you!’ ” Remember, it is almost immediately after Aschenbach thinks these words “I love you” that Mann throws in the first intimations of the plague striking, as if he is enlisting nature to chastise Aschenbach. And when Aschenbach starts wilfully stalking the boy we are told “Mind and heart were drunk with passion, his footsteps guided by the daemonic power whose pastime is to trample on human reason and dignity.”

            Also “That night he had a fearful dream – if dream is the right word for a mental and physical experience which did indeed befall him in deep sleep, as a thing quite apart and real to his senses, yet without seeing himself as present in it. Rather its theatre seemed to be his own soul, and the events burst in from outside, violently overcoming the profound resistance of his spirit; passed him through and left him, left the whole cultural structure of a life-time trampled on, ravaged, and destroyed.” The morality he has hitherto stood by has fallen apart. Just before Aschenbach dies, there is an oration based on a Platonic text which warns that aestheticism is destructive. It includes the lines “preoccupation with form lead[s] to intoxication and desire [and] may lead the noblest among us to frightful emotional excesses” and this could “lead to the bottomless pit” and “us who are poets… by our natures are prone not to excellence but to excess.” This is a judgement upon Aschenbach the novelist himself, a “poet” who runs to unreasonable excess in his feeling for the boy. His last dreams include an orgiastic Bacchanal, suggesting that Aschenbach’s unconscious is telling him that it is not disinterested beauty that he his seeking in the boy, but sex. [And if you think this is a strained Freudian interpretation, please bear in mind that Mann had been studying Freud’s work before he wrote this novella.] 


What, then, is Thomas Mann giving us in Death in Venice? The story of a man who has the privilege of seeing pure beauty before he dies? Or the story of a man dangerously deluded and seeking an ideal in the wrong place? Clearly the novella could be read either way… or both ways. Ambiguity and irony are (so I have been told, not being a Thomas Mann expert) the habitual tools of Mann’s work.  But, at the risk of seeming  an uncouth philistine, I find it hard to read this novella without seeing it as the story of an old pederast fixated on a young boy, and saved from being a full paedophile only by the fact that he never interferes with the boy physically. How crass I am! How unfeeling about the deep and heartfelt ideas of beauty that the novella expresses! How un-aesthetic! But often the finest and most philosophic words cannot disguise hard and unpleasant realities. You can celebrate beauty. You might even, as an adult, find real beauty in young boys (and girls) and you may be legitimately nostalgic for your own childhood and adolescence. But if you become fixated on the beauty of children, you are taking a very perverse path – as Aschenbach does. Leave the kid alone, mister.

Footnote: There have been three other English language translations of Death in Venice since Porter-Lowe’s translation, and it has been suggested that later translations have been more explicit in their sexual references and homoeroticism… but I think I have picked up enough of such references from Porter-Lowe’s version to fully understand this tale..

Further Footnote: It is well documented that Thomas Mann wrote this novella after having holidayed (with his wife) in Venice, and that he based Tadzio on the real Polish boy Wladyslaw Moes, who was in fact only eleven years old when Mann saw him. Moes, an aristocrat, went on to be an officer in the Polish army, married happily and readily recognised himself as the source of Mann’s novel, noting that Mann had described Tadzio wearing exactly the same clothes as Moes had worn. But the erotic suggestions of Mann’s novella were of no interest to him. It is hard not to see Mann himself as Aschenbach, even if he was only in his thirties when he wrote Death in Venice. He was married and eventually had six children (the eldest, Erika, who was lesbian, had a “lavender marriage” with W. H. Auden so that she could get a British passport and flee from Nazi Germany). But Mann’s diaries – which became unsealed for public scrutiny in 1975, 20 years after his death -  and the memoirs of family and friends, show that he was homosexual by inclination and often longed for a male partner. Do note that Aschenbach in Death in Venice is freed of women, his wife being dead and his daughter distant. [Talk about wish fulfilment.]


[Photograph of the real "Tadzio", eleven-year old Wladysaw Moes, centre left, with his sisters and a friend, taken in Venice in 1911]


Mildly Depressing Footnote: I am not perpetuating the old slur that homosexuals are also paedophiles, but it is true that Death in Venice has been very interesting to many creative homosexuals. Benjamin Britten made an opera out of it. Luchino Visconti made a film out of it and Dirk Bogarde played Aschenbach (who was presented in the film as a composer, not a novelist, so that the film could use the music of Mahler). It was this film which made Death in Venice the best-known of Mann’s novella. I remember seeing the film when it first came out in 1971 and finding it draggy and ponderous, though gorgeous to look at. The fact is that the novella is virtually unfilmable. So much of it consists of Aschenbach’s internalised aesthetic and philosophical theorising which cannot be reproduced on screen. In retrospect, I find it very funny that I heard two pundits lamenting the fact that Dirk Bogarde had been given the starring role, because the actor was well known to be homosexual and, said the pundits, this would give the impression that Aschenbach was something other than a disinterested searcher for beauty. Oh, dear innocent days! Anyway, the film won many prizes and in more recent years it has often been cited as one of the best Queer films of all time. 


But here’s the depressing part. In the film, the role of beautiful young Tadzio was played by beautiful 16-year-old Scandinavian boy Bjorn Andresen. As told in the book The Most Beautiful Boy in the World, Andresen was and is heterosexual. Aged sixteen, he was angered when Visconti made him come to a gay bar where he was pawed by predatory men and pederasts. Over the years he repeatedly had to ward off such unwelcome advances, especially when members of the film community tried to hawk him around as a sexual object for men. He resisted their plans and he hated the image of himself that the film had created. He retired from virtually all acting, preferring to be a musician and have the quiet life with his wife.