Monday, June 26, 2023

Something New

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

A SMALL TOWN IN UKRAINE” by Bernard Wasserstein (Penguin-Random House, $NZ40); “THE RUSSO-UKRAINIAN WAR” by Serhii Plokhy (Penguin- Random House, $NZ 40); “AFTERMATHS – Colonialism, Violence and Memory in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific” edited by Angela Wanhalla, Lyndall Ryan and Camille Nurka (Otago University Press $NZ50)  

Bernard Wasserstein’s A Small Town in Ukraine is a work of both deep historical research and personal memory as passed down by his father. The small town in question is Krakoviec [he tells us it is pronounced Krah-KOV-yets], now in Ukraine on the border with Poland. But it wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, the population of Krakoviec was dominantly Jewish, a shtetl occupied by Ashkenazi Jews, but as Wasserstein warns us, the shtetl has often been “the object of much mythologising, nostalgia and sentimentality” (p.41) when life there was often stressful. It wasn’t like day-long happy singing and dancing as in the film Fiddler on the Roof.

Wasserstein begins with an account of his grandfather Berl Wasserstein who was happily attuned to the life he was living in the Berlin of Weimar Germany. But by 1938, with the Nazis now tightening laws against Jews and brutally expelling them, Berl returned to his origins in Krakoviec. We know what will come – the Holocaust that spread through Poland, Ukraine and the western reaches of Russia – and this will destroy Berl Wasserstein, though his son (the author’s father) is able to escape.

Here, however, Bernard Wasserstein turns to chapters (taking up about half the book) surveying the whole history of central Eastern Europe. It is a very complex history. Nations are made and destroyed over centuries in wars and invasions by Poles, Germans, Austrians, Tatars, Cossacks and Russians. Names of regions change (Ruthenia? Galicia?). By the 18th century, many Poles have moved into the region and Polish aristocrats are controlling much of what is now called Ukraine. The local Polish lord is relatively benign to the Jewish community in little  Krakoviec, but by the middle of the 19th century the Austro-Hungarian Empire claims much of the Territory. This is basically good news for the Jews of Krakoviec as the Austrian Emperor Franz-Joseph is very protective of the Jews and is admired by the Jewish people. In Krakoviec there is a handsome synagogue, but there are growing numbers of gentiles, and there are also Roman Catholic and Russian Catholic churches. (“Russian Catholic” Christians accept the pope as head of their church, but worship in eastern rights. They are not to be confused with the Russian Orthodox church, and they are sometimes called “Uniates”, a term which they find insulting, though Wasserstein seems unaware of this.) And it is now, in the mid-19th century, that “Ruthenians” discard the term, revert to the ancient name Ukrainian, and begin a long nationalist campaign to expel the Poles. So to much nationalist violence both ways.

In the First World War, Russian and Austrian armies rolled this way and that through the territory, with the Russians often committing pogroms. The Poles were fighting for an autonomous nation (Poland had been carved up between Russia, Germany and Austria). The Ukrainians were fighting for independence – and they often saw Jews as unreliable. It was in this period that Ukrainian and Polish groups turned to terrorism as they fought each other. [It is interesting to note that Wasserstein barely mentions the Holodomir –  the man-made famine ordered by Stalin in the 1930s which caused the death of about four million Ukrainians – but then he is focusing on events around his forebears’ village and its area.]

And so at last we move to Krakoviec as it was when Berl Wasserstein was there again. He and his family spoke the Jewish dialect of German, Yiddish, at that time the language most widely used by Jews. With the threat of Nazism, Jews were now trying to flee far from Europe, especially as Poland was also expelling Jews even before the German invasion of Poland. Then Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia made their pact and jointly invaded Poland. Hitler’s armies set about exterminating Jews. Stalin’s army set about destroying all Polish leadership and culture. The Russians took over the eastern part of Ukraine. In a bogus plebiscite, Russia incorporated Ukraine into the Soviet Union. Soviet atheism meant all synagogues and churches were closed down or turned into factories. Soviet control also included the “resettlement” and killing of Ukrainians in their thousands. It was the commissar Khrushchev who was in charge of this, belying the much-later image he had as a relatively reasonable head of the Soviet Union.   The Nazis pushed on into Ukraine, killing Jews as well as Poles en masse. By now, in their hunger to be rid of Poles, many Ukrainians joined the Nazi SS, rounding up Jews for extermination and ambushing and murdering Poles.

By the time, in the latter stages of the war, that the USSR took over all of Ukraine, there was, as far as Bernard Wasserstein can ascertain, a grand total of one Jew living in Krakoviec. For a while, Berl Wasserstein and his family had been able to hide under the protection of a Ukrainian, but eventually their “protector” betrayed them to the SS and they were sent to a death camp. But one member of the family escaped, Addi Wasserstein, the author’s father. By various – often dangerous – means, Addi was able to escape to Italy and then managed to get all the way to Palestine, where he stayed until the end of the war, and then emigrated to the United States.

Bernard Wasserstein does not end his story with this great escape. He is intensely interested in what became of Krakoviec in later years. Even after the war and under Soviet control, there was still two-way “ethnic cleansing” between Ukrainians and Poles and intermittent terrorism. Eventually the Ukrainians ground down and expelled the Poles. Krakoviec became a Soviet-ruled outpost. Wasserstein remarks “The population dwindled to barely a thousand. The Jews had been murdered, the Poles expelled. What had for several centuries been a multi-ethnic community was now almost entirely Ukrainian.” (p.204)

Wasserstein and his brother visited Krakoviec twice – in 1996 and 2019 after Russia had withdrawn and Ukraine was now fully independent. These were journeys of filial piety as much as of curiosity. Wasserstein was observing a sad and run-down little town, but he was also looking for traces of buildings associated with his forebears. They were hard to trace. They did find a memorial to the Jews who had been transported and murdered – also noticing that somebody had scratched a swastika on it.

Wasserstein was startled to see that the Ukrainian “patriot” Roman Shukhevych was honoured with a huge monument and his image still appears on Ukrainian postage stamps as a founder of the modern state of Ukraine. Wasserstein points out that Roman Shukhevych was an ardent “ethnic-cleanser” who hunted down and killed Jews and Poles under the direction of the SS. As you are probably aware, over 75 years since the end of the Second World War, Vladimir Putin uses such information to suggest the Ukraine is a “fascist” state and he is liberating it. In fact, early in Putin’s attempted invasion of Ukraine, you may have seen images of Russian soldiers “discovering” (i.e. planting) fascist propaganda in Ukrainian bunkers. In spite of all the horror, Wasserstein ends on a positive note. After centuries of Ukrainians and Poles being at logger-heads, Poland is now scrupulously supporting the Ukrainians in their struggle.

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With Serhii Plokhy’s The Russo-Ukrainian War we get a different perspective on Ukraine. This is not a personal memoir, but an astute historian and journalist’s account of a war and its origins. Serhii Plokhy wrote his book between March 2022, when the attempted Russian invasion began, and completed writing it in February 2023. Inasmuch as a book can be up-to-date and topical, The Russo-Ukrainian War is as up to date as it could be, although obviously the most recent events cannot be included. By the time you read this, the situation could have changed radically.

What Plokhy does in his first two lengthy chapters is to examine the whole history of Russia’s relationship with Ukraine. Deeply imbedded in Russian mythology is the notion that “White Russia” (Belarus) and “Little Russia” (Ukraine) are just extensions of Russia and therefore, by right, should be absorbed into Russia itself. Digging back to the Middle Ages, Russian chauvinists claim Ukraine’s capital Kiev (Kyve) was the first centre of Russian culture and identity, and therefore should belong to Russia. Much of this claim is based on the fact that for some centuries Russia ruled Ukraine. But despite Russian claims, and even allowing for the fact that a minority of Ukrainians speak Russian, the great majority of Ukrainians speak their own language and do not regard themselves as Russian. Through centuries, Ukrainians repeatedly rebelled against Russian rule and they are still aware of the Holodomir – Stalinist Russia’s planned famines in the 1930s which killed about 4 million Ukrainians. Ukrainians are a nation apart. For Russia to claim Ukraine again would be like Britain reclaiming India, or France reclaiming Algeria… I mean, they both ruled those countries once, didn’t they?

Plokhy explains how, after the disintegration of the USSR,  Russia’s fragile democracy failed. Boris Yeltsin tried to tidy up Russia’s constitution, but in doing so he paved the way for autocracy. Enter Vladimir Putin, who has in effect made himself permanent autocrat. Putin is angry that in the disintegration of the USSR, Russia lost so much territory when Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic States voted for independence. Even in the Crimea, which had a Russian-speaking majority, the vote was for independence from Russia. When Putin invaded and took over Crimea in 2014, he hastily arranged a rigged referendum to claim the majority of Crimeans wanted to re-join Russia. It is interesting to note, as Plokhy does, that Vladimir Putin, the former KGB man, frequently curses Lenin for having set up a system in which Belarus, Ukraine and the Baltic states could be regarded as fellow Socialist Republics and run their own internal affairs under Soviet surveillance. Says Plokhy, among Putin’s favourite reading are the works of the “White Guard” general Anton Denikin, who fought against the Bolsheviks in the Russian civil war but who advocated for a “unified” Russia (including Ukraine, Belarus etc.) ruled directly from Moscow. What I take from all this is that through the centuries, and up to Putin, the essential ideology of Russia has been autocratic imperialism. Whether Tsarism, Communism or Putin, the autocratic Russian ideal is dominance of adjoining East Central Europe and adjoining Asian states. [BTW, as Plokhy notes, it is a sad fact that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a brave critic of the Soviet regime, cuddled up to Putin in his last years and embraced the expansionist Russian ideology.]

Now all this is the setting for Plokhy’s account of the current war in Ukraine, but I think it is the most crucial part in understanding why the war is taking place. When the Cold War ended, Eastern European countries that had had Communist governments imposed upon them now rushed to join western protection. In 1993 Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and the (adjoining Russia) Baltic states joined NATO. Later Finland (next to Russia) and Sweden (abandoning its neutral status) also joined NATO. This was a nightmare to a Russian autocrat. As Plokhy remarks “Vladimir Putin thought about Russian security in the same way as the tsars and commissars did: to make Russia safe they created and maintained a belt of buffer states. Putin wanted to bring most of the former Soviet republics under the leadership of Moscow…” (p.91) Yet here were neighbouring states that were no longer buffers.

So to Plokhy’s account of the ongoing war. Having invaded Georgia and attached it to Russia, Putin showed that he would use force in rebuilding the Russian empire. Then there was the campaign to corrupt the Ukrainian government by bribery and threat. Putin supported the corrupt Ukrainian premier Yanukovych who toed Putin’s line. Yanukovych fled the country (with a pile of money) when he was overthrown by Ukraine’s popular Orange Revolution and democracy was restored. At which point Putin invaded Crimea. Volodymry Zelensky - a Jew who had grown up speaking Russian but who diligently learnt the Ukrainian language – became president of Ukraine. Zelensky shut down Putin-funded stations which peddled Putin’s propaganda and promoted violence against the Ukrainian government.

In February 2022, Putin unleashed what he called a “special military operation”. He concentrated at first on taking over and “liberating” the Donbas regions, where Russian-speakers were the majority. In this attack, he had some local support. But it was clear that Putin’s real intention was an all-out invasion of Ukraine, which was shown when Russian forces began rocket and drone attacks against Ukraine’s capital Kyve, far from the disputed Donbas. Russian tanks lined up, assuming they would soon be entering the Kyve. But they were repulsed. And this is where we come to the Achilles heel of Putin’s plans. Putin believed his own propaganda, and told his Russian audience that Ukrainians would welcome his forces with open arms as liberators. Quite the opposite was the case. Ukrainians rallied behind Zelensky and the Ukrainian armed forces proved to be more formidable than Putin expected. Please note that, at the time I am writing this review, Putin’s “special military operation” has gone on for fifteen months, with some indications that the Russian army has bogged down. But I am not so naïve as to imagine that this will be the final judgement on Putin’s attempted invasion.

In his later chapters Plokhy diligently chronicles the war and its consequences – the massive movement of refugees; the to-and-fro of Ukrainian and Russian forces taking or being driven out of certain areas; the Ukrainian forces re-capturing areas in the Donbas; the fact that Russian bombing of the Donbas region killed more Russian-speakers than Ukrainians; the Russian failure to capture the port of Odessa and the Ukrainians joy in sinking a Russian warship (embarrassed by the event, Russian media claimed the ship had sunk in a storm) ; the process by which (West) European countries imposed sanctions on Russia – the USA and the UK were the first to send help to Ukraine - France, Italy and Germany finally got on board, but they were a little reluctant as they depended so much on Russian gas. Which relates to the way prices for oil and gas affected the economies of much of the world. Framing Putin’s war as a rogue event, Plokhy sees the “special military operation” as encouraging China to take a more aggressive attitude to Taiwan. In his closing chapter he also opines that, where once Russia was the more dominant force [during the Cold War] totalitarian China has now surpassed it, with a healthier economy, a more advanced infrastructure, more industrial activity and much stronger military forces. In Asia, Russia is now the junior partner.

In writing this review, I am fully aware that The Russo-Ukrainian War was written by a Ukrainian and therefore that it will have some patriotic biases. But I do not believe a minor bias distorts either the author’s historical perspective, or his reportage on the war.

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            One of the most difficult tasks a reviewer faces is giving a balanced account of a collection of essays. There will be so many different perspectives presented that the reviewer has to make broad generalisations, often missing the particular nuance of each contributor’s work. But Aftermaths, subtitled Colonialism, Violence and Memory in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific sets out its agenda very clearly in its Introduction. There, two of the editors, Angela Wanhalla and Lyndall Ryan, tell us that colonialism is an ongoing, living process and not merely an event in the past; that violence and warfare were often the minor part of colonisation, being supplemented by the confiscation of land and suppression of indigenous customs and beliefs; that the descendants of colonisers often suffer from historical amnesia, either not knowing or choosing not to know the violent things their ancestors did in creating their colony; and that attempts at “assimilation” were not always benign. Put simply then, the 21 essays collected here are an indictment of colonialism. Women are dominant in this indictment – to be precise, of the 24 contributors, only three are male. Note also that some Australian contributors are happy to use the term “Aborigine” while others shun it. I am not sure of the current status of this term.

The collection is divided into five sections, which I summarise thus:

Part One: Violence perpetrated by colonialists: Joanna Kidman and Vincent O’Malley use the story of the massacre at Orakau pa in 1864 as an example of history being cleaned up to sooth pakeha sensibilities. Amanda Nettlebeck shows how long it has taken Australians to accept that the indigenous people were defending their lands when colonisers massacred them – and only now are some public memorials acknowledging this fact. Keri Mills calls for many Pakeha to accept that their ancestors benefitted from land confiscated from Maori. A rather strange, and very ambiguous, contribution by Anaru Eketone questions whether a Methodist missionary was a martyr killed by Maori as his co-religionists thought… but in the end she has to admit that, whatever the status of the missionary, real violence was involved.

Part Two: Violence specifically against indigenous women: Victoria Haskins deals with the massacre of the Wilot people in California in 1860, and how a dress, used in coming-of-age ceremonies, was confiscated… only to be returned well over a century later so that it is once again an icon to this people. Kate Stevens discusses how, in colonial Fiji, young indigenous girls were often stigmatised by the law as provocateurs in rape cases. Lyndall Ryan considers the specific case of a “code of silence” among frontier Australians which prevented prosecution of those who murdered a young Aboriginal girl. One anomaly here is Angela Wanhalla’s  beautifully crafted account of a former slave woman, from the West Indies, who married a British soldier, and they apparently lived in harmony… but of course such pairing was extremely rare.

Part Three: Direct physical and sexual abuse of indigenous people: Shino Konishi relates the harsh ways in which the explorer Eyre treated his indigenous “boys” and trackers. Stephanie Gilbert speaks of sexual and other abuses that took place in “homes” for Aboriginal girls (part of the “stolen generation”) – and further discusses how, in recent enquiries, such victims often have to relive trauma repeatedly in giving their testimonies. As told by Erica Newman, orphanages in colonial Fiji were quite different – indigenous Fijians were never separated from their families or placed in residential care; but the children of indentured Indians were, being thus deprived of much of their Indian identity.

Part Four: Early critiques of colonialism: Jane Lydon chronicles early, but feeble, attempts in 1880s Western Australia to rein in pastoralists who exploited Aboriginals almost as if they were slaves. Lachy Paterson discusses a short-lived Maori newspaper in the 1860s which defended the Kingitanga by comparing its assertion of autonomy with the Haiti revolution.

Part Five: Recent artistic responses to colonialism: Rachel Burgess gives an account of the Aboriginal artist Rover Thomas’s non-representational paintings referring to a massacre in 1924. Anna Johnston deals with Judy Watson’s mapping and naming all sites in which Aborigines were killed by pastoralists, making them known to all Australians who had ignored or not known these things. Tony Ballantyne balances the statue of James Cook in Gisborne with the more recent monument to Te Maro, a leader who was killed by Cook’s crew. And Penelope Edmonds records how a statue of John Batman, sometimes called the “founder” of Melbourne, was put on trial recently by Aborigine activists, who pointed out that Batman was one of those who attempted to exterminate all Aborigines in the state.

If you have had the good fortune to have a copy of Aftermaths at hand, you may notice that I have left out four of the essays.

One I regard as exceptional, because it is the only essay to dwell on the impact of colonisation upon indigenous flora. This is Grace Moore’s exceptional account of Louisa Atkinson, an early Australian conservationist who repeatedly warned that chopping down indigenous trees to create farmland would eventually cause ecological disaster. Regrettably, she was right.

The other three I find a little overblown. Patricia O’Brien illustrates the sexual abuse of indigenous women by talking about the Australian film-star Errol Flynn, whose forebears were “blackbirders” (kidnappers of indigenous people to exploit in plantations) and who himself sexually exploited indigenous women in New Guinea before he went off to exploit underage girls in Hollywood. Kirsten Moffat gives a rather laboured account of a satire that was written against those who invaded Parihaka. And, similarly, Caitlin Lynch and Sian Smith pick apart Rudall Hayward’s 1940 film Rewi’s Last Stand, faulting it (easily) as a sugar-coated version of what really happened. I am not implying that these three essays are historically inaccurate, but they do come close to being frivolous in comparison with the more weighty issues dealt with in most of this collection.


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 WHITE GUARD” by Mikhail Bulgakov (Written 1923-24. First partly published in Russia in serial form 1925 before being banned; first published in complete form in Paris in 1927; first published in complete form in Russia only in 1966. There are three English translations by, respectively, Michael  Glenny, Marian Schwartz and Roger Cockerell 

            Many authors have had great difficulties in getting their work published,  but one author who suffered most from the censoring and suppression of his work must have been Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940). Bulgakov was a doctor of medicine who worked for the Russian arm of the Red Cross in the First World War. Later, after the Bolshevik revolution and during the Russian civil war, Bulgakov was an army physician with one of the White armies that were fighting the Reds. When the Whites were finally defeated and the Soviet state was more fully formed, Bulgakov gave up his medical practice and turned to writing. He was a prolific playwright in the 1920s, but many of his plays were banned under the new Soviet regime. Written in 1923-24, his novel The White Guard was partly published in a Russian periodical, but then banned. The novel was for the first time published in full (and in Russian) in Paris in 1927, but was not published in Russia until 1966, long after the days of Stalin and when the USSR was trying to open up a little. Meanwhile other books by Bulgakov remained banned, some not being published until the USSR was nearing disintegration, including the novel that is now regarded as his masterpiece The Master and Margarita. But there is one strange anomaly here. Bulgakov wrote a play called The Days of the Turbins, based on his novel The White Guard, and it was extremely popular in the Soviet Union. Even Stalin loved it and was reputed to have seen it many times. Why should this be so? I’ll suggest why nearer the end of this review.

            The White Guard is set in 1918 and early 1919 in what was then known as Kiev (now, in the sovereign state of Ukraine, it is known as Kyiv). Kiev was the author’s home city. The civil war is raging, but it involves many different forces. The citizens of Kiev don’t mind the incursions of the Imperial German army because the Germans tend to keep to themselves and, as long as they are there, they provide a certain protection for the city. But the Germans withdraw, leaving the remnants of a White army as the main defence of the city. Bear in mind that the Whites are not all necessarily supporters of the Tsar – who has already been killed with his family.  Many of them are defending the pre-Bolshevik Russian republic led by Alexander Kerensky, and they take as the head of local government the Hetman, a Russian appointee. The Bolsheviks are one threat to the city, but they are far away in Moscow ( the Whites regularly curse and spit at the mention of Leon Trotsky). The more immediate threat is the nationalist Ukrainian uprising led by Petlyura, and it is against Petlyura that the Whites defend the city. And yet the “White guard” slowly and relentlessly collapses, especially when the Hetman deserts the city and runs away. Let it be noted, incidentally, that while Petlyura’s movement was a genuinely patriotic one, it was also seething with anti-Semitism. Petlyura’s forces were responsible for some pogroms. Bulgakov’s novel refers to this only obliquely in two episodes when some of Petlyura’s men, once they have broken into the city, chase and kill individual Jewish men.

That is the general situation of the novel, but as much as it can be, The White Guard focuses on the Turbin family, a middle-class Russian family living in an apartment in a respectable part of Kiev. The father died years before. The widowed matriarch dies in the opening chapter, leaving behind her three adult children. Alexei Turbin, unmarried, aged 28, is a doctor of medicine (and is clearly based on the author himself). His younger sister Elena, aged 24, is married to an officer called Sergei Talberg, but early in the novel he deserts her, saying he is going to join another White army led by General Denikin in another part of Russia. Much later in the novel, and to her despair, Elena learns that her husband has formally divorced her, remarried and has left the country. And then there is the youngest of the siblings, 17-year-old Nikolai, most commonly called affectionately as Nikolka, who is still a student. 

How this family fares is what holds the narrative together.  The Turbins try to live a reasonable domestic life in their apartment, but circumstances make for real stress. The city becomes crowded with refugees, some from the countryside, some from Bolshevik Moscow. Accepted morality is thrown aside by many. The streets swarm with prostitutes, bars are open all night, cabarets perform until the small hours and many drug themselves with alcohol or cocaine on the assumption that this will be their last pleasure before the city falls to Petlyura. This is a city filled with panicky rumour – that the Tsar is not really dead; that Denikin’s forces are on their way; that Petlyura does not really exist – in fact any nonsense born of a lack of real information.

Inspired by a lieutenant friend, the artillery instructor Victor Myshlaevsky, Alexei volunteers to join the defending forces as a medical officer. Young Nikolka, like many young cadets, also joins the White forces. But Petlyura’s Ukrainian army is advancing with little check. White outpost after White outpost is overrun and White-controlled areas get smaller and smaller. Defeatist officers tell their soldiers to give up, first doing such things as sabotaging artillery pieces so that Petlyura’s forces cannot take them, and then advising troops to rip off their regimental badges, put on civilian clothes and go home. But there are moments of desperate heroism. Young Nikolka stays till the very last moments at a cross-road under heavy machine-gun fire until his officer, Colonel Nai-Turs, is killed. Only then does the adolescent run for his life. Alexei, in streets that are now overrun by Petlura’s men, tries to carry on as a doctor – but he neglected to remove his White army officer’s badge, and he gets beaten almost to death, only recovering weeks later after a long convalescence and having suffered from hallucinations. There is some compassion in the midst of chaos and horror. Alexei is first cared for by a complete stranger called Julia Reiss before he is able to return home.

And the Turbins’ apartment gets more crowded. It is not only some servants who remain with them, but a quarrelsome man called Vasily Lisovich (nicknamed Vasilisa), who lives in an adjoining department and who takes refuge with the Turbins after thugs have ransacked his apartment.

Bulgakov has some interesting literary quirks. More than once we are given the outcome of an event before we are told about the event itself – in other words, Bulgakov writes against linear sequential time. But what I found most engaging in this novel were its self-contained vignettes. The milk vendor being castigated because, under siege, the price of milk has risen steeply. The mustering of the young cadet volunteers who are completely untrained in soldiering and whose officers know they lack essential materiel. The freezing winter weather which has sentinels dying. The family hastily hiding mementoes of the former regime – such as a framed photo of the murdered Tsarevich – lest they be denounced by Ukrainian nationalists when they come ransacking homes. The crowds witnessing the triumphal march of Petlyura’s forces into the city, the mass celebrated in the cathedral for their victory, and then the crowd’s horror when, amid this apparent triumph, one orator pipes up with a Bolshevik tirade. The strange and upsetting scene where Alexei, back in medical practice, has to deal with a syphilitic man who has also been ruined by excessive use of cocaine. (For the record, Bulgakov began his medical career as a venerologist.) And, most horrific of all, the sequence where young Nikolka visits the family of the slain Colonel Nai-Turs and guides the colonel’s mother to the morgue where the colonel’s body is stored – a filthy, nightmarish journey through pervasive stench, past rotting corpses packed together and indifferent curators. 

Whether or not he was religious, Bulgakov was aware of the importance of religion in the society he was depicting. The great cathedral and the gigantic statue of Saint Vladimir loom over the city and are often referenced. When Elena fears (with reason) that her husband has left her for good, she prays fervently to the Virgin Mary before a candle-lit icon. The syphilitic man whom Alexei examines is filled with remorse and keeps calling upon God to forgive him for his debauched ways. And, in finishing the novel, Bulgakov turns to John’s Apocalypse (“Book of Revelation” if you prefer). The closing words of the novel read thus : “But the sword is not fearful. Everything passes away – suffering, pain, blood, hunger and pestilence. The Sword will pass away too, but the stars will remain when the shadows of our presence and our deeds have vanished from the earth. There is no man who does not know that. Why, then, will we not turn our eyes toward the stars? Why?” This suggests a degree of fatalism but, more importantly, it says that evil can and will pass away.

Which brings me to that anomaly I mentioned in the first paragraph of this review. Why was the play The Days of the Turbins such a success in Soviet Russia and admired by Stalin when the novel it had been based upon, The White Guard, was so vigorously banned? Two reasons. First, it could be presented as the ending of a conservative bourgeois family. Being mainly set in the Turbins’ apartment (the sweeping outdoor events of the novel could not be presented on stage) it could appear as at most a piece of harmless nostalgia showing decadent people who were, as the Soviet regime saw it, "on the wrong side of history" [to use a current cliche]. Second, Petlyura’s forces held Kiev for only 47 days – not even two months -  before the Red Army invaded, crushed Ukrainian nationalism, and re-incorporated Ukraine into Russia. Stage performances of The Days of the Turbins often concluded with the triumphant music the Internationale, signalling that the whole story was just a prelude to Soviet victory, and giving the Bolshevik's tirade which, in the novel, is presented as unpopular with the people of Kiev

Of course this is not the way I read The White Guard. To me, it is elegiac in the same way that Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard is. It is about the ending of a way of life that is about to be expunged. The Turbins may be too optimistic about their possible future, but according to their lights they are decent people and are presented sympathetically. There is no other way to see them.

Footnote: If you have read my account of Serhii Plokhy's book The Russo-Ukrainian War, you will see that I noted the "White" General Anton Denikin, an opponent of the Bolsheviks, who wrote very Russian propaganda for all Russia's vassal states to be incorporated into one authoritarian Russian state. Denikin's work is among Vladimir Putin's favourite reading.  Denikin is briefly referenced in Bulgakov's novel The White Guard. While admiring the Turbin family in the novel, I am aware that they are Russians who, on the whole, regard the Ukrainians as their inferiors, even though Russians were very much the minority in Ukraine. A bit like so-called "Anglo-Irish" landowners looking down on the Irish people.

Second footnote: When the Red Army drove Petyula and the Ukrainan nationalists out of Kiev, they were assisted by Makhno's Anarchist forces. But or course once the city was taken, the Red Army proceeded to eliminate the Anarchists too. Totalitarian utopians always act that way.



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.

                      WHERE HAVE ALL THE HUMANITIES GONE? 

About a month ago, the New Zealand Listener had a cover asking Is the B.A. Dying? which announced an article called Arts and Minds, researched and written by Paul Little. It was a very incisive article, largely investigating why fewer and fewer university students in New Zealand are now opting for humanities courses. So much were the numbers shrinking that there are now fewer full-time academics teaching the humanities. For example, while the English Department at the University of Auckland, once a major department, had 21 full-time professors and lecturers in 2013, it now has a total of 7 even though the university is larger than it ever was. I was aware that this trend was already happening in the early 2000s, when I was working on my doctorate in the university’s History department. Departments teaching foreign languages and literature were disappearing. I remember a professor of Russian language and literature having his department closed from under him for lack of students. He came to the History department hoping he could pick up some work teaching Russian history.

Paul Little’s article gave a number of credible reasons for the decline in humanities in our universities. One was the dreaded hand of neo-liberalism, which fell upon New Zealand about four decades ago and which promotes a very utilitarian view of higher education. Courses should always be “useful” or vocational and steer students into specific jobs or professions. At about the same time (the 1970s and 1980s) the Commerce departments were expanding and becoming dominant. This was also the time when tuition ceased to be subsidised by the government and free for students. Suddenly students had to pay hefty sums for tuition, which usually meant taking on hefty student loans which could take years to pay off. In such an environment, choosing “useful” subjects which would lead to employment became more attractive to students. Why bother with literature, foreign languages or philosophy when you were seeking a livelihood? And while this was going on, the urge to prove how many students had attained a degree meant that universities watered down courses [the rougher but more accurate term is “dumbed down”]. I am confident in my belief that a B.A. degree achieved in 1960 or 1970 required more real study and carried more weight than a B.A. awarded in 2010 or 2020. [By 2020, it was common for students doing other courses to say that B.A. really meant “Bugger All”.]                 

While I think all these factors are contributing to the decline of the humanities, they are only part of the problem. As I see it, the bigger problem is what I would call “presentism”. It used to be taken for granted that the wisdom and literature of the past were things to treasure and an important heritage; and the knowledge they gave made for a more mature perspective on human nature. To understand this was not to wallow in the past – people did and believed very stupid things in past ages just as people do now. But to study humanities meant to learn how civilizations developed and how human beings reacted. Now, however, there is a widespread assumption that the past is irrelevant. Only the age we live in is important. And in an age of multi-media, when people are spoilt for choice with pod casts and TV dramas, why should anyone bother reading hefty 19th century novels, examining in detail the classics of Greece and Rome, or decoding the syntax of a foreign language? Didn’t the whole world now understand English? Wasn’t it easier to watch a TV adaptation of a canonical novel than to read the original text? Besides, the mass media bombarded us with so many stories anyway that we didn’t really need to know about the old stuff, did we? Real literacy – the ability to read in full and digest a canonical work – became rarer in students. In his article, one of Paul Little’s interviewees suggested gloomily that the day would come, not too far away, when nobody could actually read Dickens.

And, heretic that I am, I would say that while the humanities were being eaten away by presentism, those who taught the humanities, and who decided which courses should be available, were doing a very good job of shooting themselves in the foot. For some time, there was, in humanities departments, the plague of post-modernism, in which a language of impenetrable gobbledegook was invented to avoid saying things clearly and therefore to create the illusion that something profound and meaningful was being said. It was particularly true in literary criticism. This deterred many students from engaging in the humanities. Then there was the advent of ideologically-loaded courses – courses which told students what to believe rather than teaching students how to think. You yourself can decide which courses I am alluding to here. But there was something else bubbling up from secondary education – the high schools. Time was, to get into a university course you had to first pass either the University Entrance examination or the more prestigious Bursary or Scholarship examinations. This meant that freshers entering university had to have at least some academic competence. Then along came the very flawed system of NCEA, where so much depended on course-work and where pupils [I refuse to use the term “students” for high-school pupils] could re-sit and get credit for units they had previously failed. To put it simply, the bar for entering university was lowered. This could be [mis]interpreted as democratising universities, but what it really meant was a greater cohort of students who were not really up to academic study… so in universities, and especially in the humanities, courses were simplified – dumbed down… at which point many better students could reasonably say “What’s the point of doing this?”

As a product of the humanities, I admit to having made some big generalisations here, though I think my argument is still sound. Other distractions, and the urge to study something “practical” and earn money, have made many students turn away from the humanities. If I wanted to be really nasty, I could also refer to the many under-prepared and dull lecturers in the humanities, through whose lectures I had to sit while earning my degrees; but that’s not a story for today and probably there were dull lecturers in science and commerce departments too. And let me also admit that, even when the humanities were booming, most graduates in humanities knew that they would probably end up having to teach in high schools. A severe punishment indeed.

Meanwhile I continue to read canonical books as well as new ones, and wave my little banner wistfully hoping for a new boom in the study of real humanities.

FOOTNOTE: Only after writing the above diatribe did I hear news of Victoria University of Wellington (Te Herenga Waka]'s plan to cut courses and dismiss a number of lecturers and academics because of a loss of revenue. I wonder if we will see the humanities axed first.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Something New

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


FACE TO THE SKY” by Michele Leggott (Auckland University Press, $NZ35); “BITER” by Claudia Jardine (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99) ; “POEMS FOR REMEMBERING” by Mike Beveridge (Quentin Wilson publishers, $NZ27:50)


Face to the Sky is the eleventh collection of poetry by Michele Leggott, now a very well-established literary figure and loaded with honours and awards, having also been for a season New Zealand’s Poet Laureate.  When I reviewed on this blog her 2014 collection Heartland  I noticed her emphasis on family lore and ancestry. In her 2020 Mezzaluna– Selected Poems  the nine collections she had then so far produced were represented, so we were able to trace how her style had developed. I noted in my review that she had “moved away from often opaque experimentalism and loose strings of imagery to greater accessibility and greater confessionalism.” The personal experience became dominant.

Leggott’s latest collection Face to the Sky is sometimes haunted by ancestry and sometime produces personal memories of the Taranaki she knew as a young woman, as well as giving poetical accounts of journeys she has taken; but it does have some degree of experimentalism and can indeed become very cryptic for the uninitiated. Sometimes Leggott uses a very recherche vocabulary. Each of the six sections, into which this collection is arranged, is named after standard meteorological statements as heard in weather forecasts, viz “Early Morning Cloud” “Light Winds at First” “Scattered Showers” “Gales in Exposed Places” “Isolated Heavy Falls” and “Changes Across the Region”. This must be a nod to the west winds that blow over Taranaki and its great mountain as well as the winds of history, ever mutable.

“Early Morning Cloud” gives us poems of memory and family. “Konene / Wayfarers”, almost prose, looks at a memorial to Peter Buck (Te Rangi Hiroa) as  Leggott remembered it near where she grew up and went to a nearby school; and she wonders, playfully, how Peter Buck would have behaved as a schoolboy. But memory is yoked to the past. “Speaking Distance” is a poem with an ironic title because it is assembled from the fragmentary and  contradictory voices of 19th century surveyors and soldiers, said during battles in the first Taranaki war. They are literally in speaking distance from the Maori “rebels” they pursue, but what they speak and understand is distant from what their enemy speak and understand – in other words, a distant speaking in lack of real communication. When Leggott was a girl, her family moved to Carrington Street in New Plymouth. “The Wedding Party” has her mind reconstructing a pakeha wedding in the 19th century as it passes through Carrington Street and taking account of the exotic flora that have been introduced by pakeha where endemic plants still flourish. Leggott is not forcing the issue of colonisation and its negative effects, which is now frequently a theme in New Zealand poetry, but she emphasises that two ethnicities are bound forever by history.

 Light winds at first” continues the theme of history. The poem “angelic life dialogue wonder” is an excellent exercise in ambiguity. First there is presented the wonder of indigenous flora. Then there is a sort of account of the searching for plants by Daniel Solander and Joseph Banks in one of James Cook’s voyages. “I take my pencil and try the lineaments / keel wing and standard petals.  A thousand drawings / the one as quick as the rest   capsulae a bright yellow green / no name but the heave of surf in our ears tonight”, writes one of the botanists. But Leggott notes the curious fact that the specimens Cook’s botanists took (and are now preserved in a British museum) were wrapped and preserved in proof sheets of John Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Perhaps (and only perhaps) the corruption of the Earth and the introduction of sin, as seen in Milton’s Garden of Eden, is played out again when there is an alien intervention in a far country. More modest in execution and intent is “I have named her Amelia” based on an historical event, the life-long lament of a woman whose infant daughter died en route to New Zealand as, indeed, many children may have died.

The dominant poem in “Scattered Showers” is a very long and discursive piece concerning travel called “A Vida Portuguesa”. It begins somewhat prose-y and pedestrian, like a simple journal of the journey from Paris to Lisbon, and little more than a journal even when the poet walks about Lisbon. Only towards the last two of its ten pages does it take a more reflective tone, pairing Portuguese early navigators with our own conception of the ocean and our awareness of being so far away on the globe.

Gales in Exposed Places” presents us with another long and discursive poem in  “Walks and Days”. In sections it is gripping and engaging, including such matters as the tragic death of boys, having to put an injured dog down, the reported horror of the Taliban and eventually preparing [I think] for death or at least a nasty time in a hospital. But, episodic as it is,  does it stand up as an integrated, connected poem? “Haemopoiesis” at first might seem incoherent, but read carefully it is deliberately a work of disorientation. As I read it, it is like the random thoughts of somebody undergoing medical and anesthetised treatment – a free floating mind which runs with such lines as “my march of triumph didn’t get as far as a teapot or an old cat / and in the clouds towards the south I lost my soul like an oar dropped in water…” and hugging images of stars and seas. Am I wrong in speculating that these two long poems were inspired by the poet’s own experience in hospital? Much more straightforward is the trim poem “The Patient Navigator” on the arrival and skill of many skippers over many generations, although this may be a metaphor for a patient patient!  Similarly in style, in “Isolated Heavy Falls” the poem “Neinei in blossom at Mokau” is straightforward in its depiction of a 19th century woman artist who painted the rich fauna around the rivers of the Taranaki

Changes Across the Region is both prophetic and once again pairing the present with the past. “The Workbook”, apparently first inspired by a book Leggott kept as a child, is a patchwork suggesting the lurking menace of war or the threat of war like “ancestral voices prophesying war”. “Whakaahurangi” interweaves past and present, crossing between a car with current pop music playing and the travails of the 19th century travel.

Here, then, is a collection of many interests – the wildness and sometimes the beauty of Taranaki; youthful memories; flora; the intimacy of past and present; a soupcon of concern about colonialism; the poet’s states of mind when under stress; and womanhood. The poem “Iridescence” uses quotations from many well-known women poets, presumably suggesting their unique power. I do have difficulty appreciating some of Leggott’s more cryptic pieces, such as “escher x nendo” which may be understood only by those who understand the codes; and “Dark Emily” her most cryptic poem, its meaning revealed only in the last stanza. Embrace the fact, however, that this is a fruitful collection.

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A very different poet is Claudia Jardine. Unlike Michele Leggott, she is a relative newcomer who has previously appeared only in the AUP New Poets 7 anthology. Biter is Jardine’s first full collection and it has quite specific themes. A major one is sex through the ages, but especially sex as revealed now and in the classics of Greece and Rome. Jardine studied (and excelled in) classics at university and, as she says in her preface, she has used the Palatine Anthology – an ancient Greek-language anthology -  and its epigrams to shape many of her own shorter poems. But while interest in sex may be a selling point for Biter (the cover shows the famous statue of Laocoon with his handsome testes dangling down) this collection has many other interests as well.

Jardine’s opening gambit “Ode to Mons Pubis” tells us where we are, being an ode to that “hair-covered fat pad, fine hill for roly-polies / the best views, as we know, should be taken in slowly / but not too slowly.” So we are at once in, or awed by, the pudenda and their erotic use. The poem “Just a thought” has her saying that she has “alternate protein” when “going down on my boyfriend”. (Wonder what the boyfriend thinks of this admission.) “When We Were Courting”, one of her less explicit essays, links the writhing of Canova’s version of Theseus killing the Minotaur – what she calls “the rump of treason topping a zoomorphic calamity” – with desperately wanting her boyfriend to visit her. An ancient legend becomes incitement of a sexual tussle, sweaty and writhing bodies in search of an orgasm. 

Some of her poems relating to sex are rather harsher. “My Iron Cervix” concerns the  difficulty and pain of having an IUD inserted. The title poem “Biter” introduces hard biting as a form of kissing. “Field Notes on Elegy” mixes anticipation of meeting in a karaoke bar with classical tales of lost love, as written by (or for) ancient women poets… and herein she chastises Catullus a little bit. Her “Stay Cruel” is a reasonably close translation of Horace’s Ode 3.7, sometimes known as “Quid fles, Asterie”. I know this because I checked it against my copy of David West’s translation of Horace’s odes and epodes, in the Oxford World’s Classics. Close though it is to old Horace, it does have a rather more assertively feminist tone to it than Horace [or David West] does on the same topic. The forsaken woman is going to “stay cruel” in warding off a notorious seducer who is pestering her.

As for the epigrams that have mainly been culled from the Palatine Anthology, they tell us that “Love… set alight your beacons” or that God alone knows that “I fell in love… I am desired” or that a “slap-assed” woman has “eyelids heavy, breathing heavy,/ parting wet wet leaves heavy” meaning immanent copulation, or that “more than the lyre of Apollo / I wish to hear you whisper in my ear” and the love can be like a rabid dog which can “fix its keen teeth in me /and maraud my soul with mania” and “I am the porch on which love preens” and “love may be labelled a pirate three times”. Collectively, they say that love can be an ecstatic rollercoaster  or a treacherous beast.

And then there are the poems that deal with other things. The very ironical “Rural Activities” seems to be a systematic mockery of some outdoor sports, in the end with sheep trying helplessly to crash a gate just as marksmen, archers, cricketers and others bruise or damage themselves in their over-hearty games. “Tiny Mammal Dream” is inspired by Fleur Adcock’s poem “The Pangolin”, but expanded and turned in a different direction by Jardine. Where Adcock simply wrote of the fragility of small animals, Jardine makes it into a complex dream narrative.

On an even lighter level, “Potholes and k-holes” is about being buzzed out at a festival. “Power Cut at Hotel Coral” is an engaging prose-poem about a complacent dog and a mischievous cat and how they behave in a foreign hotel. “Thoughts Thought After Surveying the Contents of the Fridge” [apparently modelled on a poem by Ogden Nash] is really a youth-versus-age reflection as she wittily discusses how her very educated father is not able to open and reseal a block of cheese without making a mess of it.  “Puttanesca” and “While Cooking Kumara and Onion Fritters” are somewhat more morose in memories of student days, digs, and home-for-the-hols anomie.

Perhaps her most carefully structured, and certainly her wittiest, poem is “Adoration of the Magi, Otakaro” which more-or-less sees the nativity from the surrounding animals’ perspective.

You can see this is a varied collection in terms of subject matter and (dare I say it) in terms of achievement. At worst, there are poems that seem barely coordinated – lines somehow not part of their context. Pairing classical tropes with current modernity does not always work and sometimes seems to belittle the original ancient work. On the positive side there is some real wit here, some acute observation, some real insight into the mechanics of eros. At its very least it is provocative.

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            Mike Beveridge, former rugby player and bookseller, has a mission. He wants to revive poetry that is easily memorable. The blurb for Poems for Remembering says his “poems return us to a time when poems had rhyme and rhythm … while at the same time being wholly modern in their scope and points of reference…”

Now I am more-or-less on board with this aspiration.

From Bill Shakespeare’s sonnets to Baudelaire’s sonnets and spleens; from John Donne and the metaphysicals to Andrew Marvell; from playful to serious Romantics and Victorians, Keats to Tennyson or whoever; from proto-modernists like Apollinaire dancing between rhyme and blank verse in his Zone and Paul Valery strictly staying with rhyme in his Le Cimetiere Marin; and from nostalgic romancers like Yeats to sort-of modernists like Auden using clear rhyme and rhythm when they chose – all these are among my favourite reading, and I know much of my pleasure comes from the rhythm and the rhyme. And – yes indeed – they are memorable, or else fragments of them and full poems would not so often pop into my head. At the same time, my reading experience tells me that much poetry now being published is rather formless, going beyond either blank verse (which of course uses rhythm) and even beyond free verse to a sort of fragmentation, scattered over the page, sometimes hard to decipher and verging (or completely plunged into) incomprehensibility for all but an initiated few. Often general readers, who once read purely for pleasure, are locked out by such productions. The general reader no longer buys collections of poetry, though some might listen to live readings and some poets (like David Eggleton) do still know how to make a poem song-like  … while rhythm-and-rhyme flourish in pop songs, Broadway songs and rap.

So it is understandable that Mike Beveridge wants to revive an older form of poetry. But there is a big problem here. Attempts to revive old time rhythm-and-rhyme often result in doggerel, forced rhymes and an antique vocabulary to suit the rhymes. And (beg pardon Mr Beveridge) I’m afraid that’s what happens in much of  Poems for Remembering.

Poems for Remembering is a capacious collection – 145 large pages of relatively small type, each poem presented in orderly, block-like stanzas as of old. Let me make it clear that Beveridge’s industry is formidable. Every poem sticks to rhymes, rhythm and a clear vocabulary. He is mainly concerned with love, wooing, nature, regret – dare I say, the classic preoccupations. But even if he does crib Larkin’s “This Be the Verse” (in his version beginning “They tuck you up, your dad and mum” – a joke that has been used before), his attempts at the modern scene are a little clumsy. Point in case is his poem “Put Simply”, the first stanza of which reads “Fuck me do. I do love you; / Not much else I’d swear was true. / You’re all woman, I’m all man; / Get us on that master plan.” Gosh, how daring that “fuck” is! Alas, too, there are poems that turn Victorian-esque, with their florid vocabulary. In the poem “Nelson Girl” alone there is “riven”, “ashine”, and “aglow”, not to mention “outstretched arms” and good old “sorrow”. Confession – despite my carping, I did enjoy the old-fashioned rum-te-tum of a number of Beveridge’s works, but I found them more pastiche than poetry. Yet, forsooth, they might attract a large (and maybe nostalgic) readership.

I must add that Beveridge’s publishers generously sent me a CD of 12 of the poems from this collection, as set to music and performed by Jeff Espinoza. In this form they were very palatable, sounding like music I often hear in poetry readings that welcome in musicians. I think audiences to such performances will enjoy them.


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.   

 MARTIN CHUZZLEWIT” by Charles Dickens (first published in serial form 1843-44; published in book form 1844)

In the very early days of his blog, nearly 12 years ago, I wrote articles on earlier works by Charles Dickens – a survey of his five “Christmas Stories”  and his The Old Curiosity Shop. But more recently, whenever I’ve written about Dickens’ work, I’ve concentrated on his more mature, adult and sombre works, with accounts of Our Mutual Friend, Little Dorrit and Bleak House .  So I’ve decided to look again at something not as mature as Dickens’ most adult novels. Martin Chuzzlewit was written after his picaresque Pickwick Papers, his brilliant story of crime and the lower depths Oliver Twist, his melodramatic [and funny] Nicholas Nickleby, his sentimental Old Curiosity Shop and his historical (and least-read) novel Barnaby Rudge. But he had not yet written his partly-autobiographical David Copperfield, and he had certainly not yet written those often more melancholy and more adult novels Bleak House, Little Dorrit, Great Expectations [his masterpiece], Hard Times and - though badly botched in its trick ending - Our Mutual Friend.

I see Martin Chuzzlewit as a kind of hinge to Dickens’ work. Dickens is halfway between the early melodrama and knockabout and the later sober and solemn.

Following my well-worn habit, I give you first a glib brief synopsis and then a more detailed one.

Brief Synopsis: Young Martin Chuzzlewit has a falling-out with his grandfather, Old Martin, over his plans to marry Old Martin’s ward Mary Graham. Young Martin is apprenticed for a while to a hypocritical architect, Mr. Seth Pecksniff, but he is forced to quit.  With Mark Tapley as his servant, young Martin travels to America seeking his fortune, but in vain. When he returns to England, the murderous schemes of his cousin Jonas Chuzzlewit are exposed as is the hypocrisy of Mr Pecksniff… and there is a happy ending in which Martin gets married to Mary Graham and he is reconciled to his grandfather.

Far too simplified a synopsis, isn’t it? Let’s flesh it out with a more Detailed Synopsis. (Far more detailed in fact. You’re going to be snoring before you get to the end of it.)

For the whole Chuzzlewit family, everything hinges of the wealth of Old Martin Chuzzlewit. He is very wealthy but he is apparently very ill. His family gather around him in Salisbury, such as his brother Anthony Chuzzlewit who is the father of Jonas Chuzzlewit; and distant relatives like Mr. Pecksniff, who is the father of two uncharitable and merciless daughters called Mercy and Charity. Also gathering with the clan are the likes of Chevy Slyme (Dickens wasn’t always subtle with the names he devised) and a sponger called Montague Tigg. Having a family gathering around a very sick man, in the hopes of being benefitting from his will, is a situation very like Ben Jonson’s Volpone. Much of the gathering takes place in the Blue Dragon Inn, run by Mrs Lupin, where the melancholy Mark Tapley works as a servant.

But despite expectations, Old Martin does not die. He goes back to London with his young ward Mary Graham. Young Martin Chuzzlewit is very much in love with Mary Graham, but Old Martin – who has legal control over Mary - refuses to let them marry. Young Martin accepts a position as apprentice to the architect Mr Pecksniff. He is befriended by the charitable and naïve Tom Pinch, who believes Pecksniff is a genius, even though we know Pecksniff’s reputation is built on plagiarising the work of his apprentices and trainees. Indeed Pecksniff’s fraudulence was known by a previous apprentice, John Westlock, who left Pecksniff’s business in disgust. But for some cloudy reason, Old Martin befriends the oily Pecksniff and expresses his dislike for young Martin… and Pecksniff devises a way of having young Martin fired. At about the same time, thoughtful, melancholy Mark Tapley, seeking something “jolly”, leaves his employ at the Blue Dragon Inn, and joins young Martin (who is aided by some unknown benefactor) as he sets off to find his fortune in America. Before they go, Martin meets John Westlock, and they express their shared disgust with Pecksniff.

At this point the tone of the novel changes radically, with Martin and Mark Tapley in the alien environment of the United States. The two of them land in New York. They fall in with the likes of Colonel Diver, Jefferson Brick and Major Pawkins, American “boosters” and self-promoters who constantly laud the American concept of Liberty while at the same time taking slaves for granted….

Meanwhile, back in England, Martin’s uncle Anthony Chuzzlewit dies – and Anthony’s son Jonas Chuzzlewit loudly draws everyone’s attention to the fact that there were witnesses to verify that Anthony died of natural causes. Jonas is now the heir to Anthony’s wealth. He pays court to Mr Pecksniff’s two daughters. Dickens inserts much comedy into the fact that these obnoxious creatures, Charity and Mercy, have frequent cat-fights, and while Jonas Chuzzlewit is generally expected to marry Charity, he instead marries Mercy… And it is at this point, well into the novel, that Dickens tries to ramp up the comedy by introducing us to the old drunken nurse Sarah Gamp (and her friend Betsy Prig), not to mention the inhabitants of Mrs. Todgers’ lodging house in London, including  the Puck-ish servant Bailey, and Mr Mould the undertaker (once again, score one for Dickens making up such a subtle name). Dickens now piles on the “low” comedy of these characters, especially Sarah Gump, whose illiterate and often drunken soliloquys were apparently regarded as hilarious when the novel first appeared, with Sarah Gamp making such [repeated] observations as “Don’t try no impogician with the Nuss, for she will not abear it!” (Chapter 40). Somehow I think this no longer raises a laugh. Old Martin at this time seems to suffer some form of stroke. He effects a reconciliation with Mr Pecksniff who, of course, is very solicitous towards him in the hope of inheriting his wealth. So Old Martin and Mary Graham now live in Pecksniff’s home….

Meanwhile in America, young Martin and Mark Tapley have met at least one honest American, Mr Bevan. But despite his honest advice, Martin and Mark purchase from shysters land in “Eden”, which Martin imagines to be a city where he will prosper as an architect. Martin and Mark travel there by riverboat, all the while hearing the boasting of “boosters” like General Choke, General Fladdock and La Fayette Kettle. “Eden” turns out to be a desolate swamp where people die of fever. Only Mark’s acquired cheerfulness and common sense keep Martin going… so Martin and Mark, bereft of funds, decide to return to England…

Meanwhile in England, the widower Mr Pecksniff is making advances to Mary Graham. She repulses him. One evening, in the church where Tom Pinch plays the organ, Mary Graham reveals to Tom the true nature of grasping, lecherous, hypocritical Pecksniff. The scales fall from Tom Pinch’s eyes… but little do Mary and Tom know that Pecksniff is eavesdropping and overhears the whole conversation. Back in his home, Pecksniff confronts Tom Pinch and dismisses him. Tom Pinch goes to work in London where he lives with his sister Ruth Pinch, who works as a governess. John Westlock gravitates towards them. Needing employment, Tom gains a comfortable post, by the agency of Mr Fips, as private librarian to an unknown benefactor. [“OY!  ”, you say at this point. “Isn’t there something suspicious in these ‘unknown benefactors’ conveniently popping up!!??”]

Meanwhile, we have unhappy scenes of the marriage of the villainous Jonas Chuzzlewit and Pecksniff’s daughter Mercy. Jonas becomes involved in a fraudulent insurance company run by the (now prosperous) Montague Tigg, attracting to its board the likes of David Crimple and Dr. John Jobling… Montague Tigg and Jonas Chuzzlewit involve Mr. Pecksniff in their schemes…. But Tigg now begins to blackmail Jonas, having heard nasty rumours about how Jonas’s father Anthony Chuzzlewit really died… So stalking Montague Tigg through the darkness, Jonas murders him.

At which point, inevitable in Dickens’ earlier novels, and in this novel, the happy denouement announces itself. Happy endings are unavoidable. Back from America, Martin and Mark Tapley join forces with Tom and Ruth Pinch and John Westlock. Tom’s unknown benefactor turns out to be (drum-roll please) Old Martin Chuzzlewit. And it was (another drum role) Old Martin who left money for Martin to travel to America… It turns out that Old Martin was simply testing young Martin’s mettle all along and he is much pleased to find the young man morally improved by his experience. In a scene in which all the novel’s sympathetic characters are gathered together, Old Martin confronts Pecksniff, berates him for his hypocrisy, and beats him with his cane. Pecksniff is financially ruined when the fraudulent insurance company crashes. Thanks to detective work by minor characters (oh alright then… Nadgett and Lewsome) the crimes of Jonas Chuzzlewit (murdering his own father and Montague Tigg) are revealed. Jonas escapes hanging by drinking his own poison. This leaves Mercy a widow, but she is received sympathetically by the sympathetic characters even as her sister, poor carping Charity, is being jilted by a bounder called Moddle.

So John Westlock marries Ruth Pinch. Mark Tapley marries widow Mrs. Lupin of the Blue Dragon Inn. And young Martin Chuzzlewit marries Mary Graham at last, while Tom Pinch plays the organ.

I beg you at this point to stop swearing, as all I have done so far is to give you a very detailed synopsis. But I did [WAKE UP!] warn you that by this point you would be snoring. In fact I have been charitable to you. If you think I have introduced in this account more named characters than you can remember, I beg you to understand that there are even more named characters whom I have not mentioned.

Now what do I make of this frankly messy novel?

 Typical of Dickens, there are whole chapters which involve characters who are not essential to the plot, such as it is - like the garrulous Sarah Gamp, the toasts she proposes and her endless gossip about “Mrs. Harris”. There are redundant side-shows such as Bailey, the cheeky Cockney servant from Mrs Todger’s establishment, who seems killed after falling off a coach, but who returns for the happy finale. Then there’s old Anthony Chuzzlewit’s clerk Old Chuffey and… oh, the hell with it. Too many side-shows. Too many redundant characters.

In one of his many books, G. K. Chesterton said that Dickens’ novels were all simply lengths cut out from the same cloth called Dickens. This judgement probably makes fastidious academics hopping mad, but it’s hard not to see some truth in Chesterton’s statement as you plunge back into one of Dickens’ more chaotic novels. Familiar features are a profusion of characters who are not really necessary to the story (Sarah Gamp is as detachable from the plot as Harold Skimpole is from Bleak House). There are those frequent descriptions of food and feasts and that melodramatic use of the weather. There is that messy construction, repetition, and yet great vitality. Something is always going on, even if it is of no real import.

And typically, when it comes to the main characters, nobody really works (one of the great virtues of Great Expectations is that Pip eventually resigns himself to having to work.) Yes, Pecksniff is an architect, but frankly we never see him at work in his profession, apart from learning that he plagiarises other people’s work. (Perhaps Dickens didn’t know all that much about architecture). Young Martin seeks work as an architect in America, but this is simply a plot throwaway as he never attracts any work. Tom Pinch works in a private library. And (apart, of course, from clerks, servants, one governess and comical characters like Sarah Gamp) that is really it for work in this novel. The main characters’ ideal is to live an easy life on unearned income – a legacy or a wealthy marriage. (I steal this view from George Orwell’s essay on Dickens… but Orwell was right.) Likewise, nobody really discusses politics, religion, current affairs etc. But then it may be the absence of these things that prevents the novel from “dating” in the wrong way, as happened with the work of George Meredith whose reputation faded away because he stuck too often to topical problems that now mean nothing to us.

In Martin Chuzzlewit some characters are presented in a barely credible way. A sort of trick is played on the reader with regard to the novel’s villains Mr Pecksniff and Jonas Chuzzlewit.  By his manner, bearing and pompously self-important way of speaking, Mr Pecksniff is made detestable to us before he has actually done anything reprehensible.  (This is very much the same technique used by Dickens in characterising Uriah Heep in his later novel David Copperfield - we are triggered to see a character as negative or malign before we really have the evidence.) Pecksniff’s hypocrisy is largely a matter of tone of voice. And it is disconcerting that the language of grandiloquent speeches, in which Old Martin denounces Pecksniff, are virtually indistinguishable from Pecksniff’s own speeches.

In a (messy) plot-driven novel, there are many psychological inconsistencies. There is the absurd contrivance of Old Martin himself, finally revealing that he has been play-acting. (Dickens ruins Our Mutual Friend by pulling the same stunt.) And one sees no reason for Old Martin to live with the Pecksniffs, except that it suits Dickens’ story. Tom Pinch is presented as totally trusting and admiring Pecksniff, yet his trust is shattered by one conversation with Mary Graham (conveniently overheard by Pecksniff). Tom Pinch, hitherto callow and easily deceived, goes to London and at once has the resilience, savvy and forthrightness to confront his sister Ruth’s employers and denounce the way they patronise her. Most flawed of all as a character is young Martin Chuzzlewit himself. There is a spark of something interesting in his character – young Martin is conceited and proud. Dickens was moving a little way from the flawless protagonist (Nicholas Nickleby) to the flawed and self-examining protagonist (Pip in Great Expectations). But once young Martin arrives in America, his conceit is gone and he simply becomes Dickens’ mouthpiece for what the author thought of America. (Dickens had spent six months on a tour of the United States in 1842, was not very impressed with the country and its mores, and wrote a travel book about it, American Notes). Martin gets to make such observations as “[America] was rather barren of interest, to say the truth; and the greater part of it may be summed up in one word. Dollars. All their cares, hopes, joys, affections, virtues and associations, seemed to be melted down to dollars. Whatever the chance contributions that feel into the slow cauldron of their talk, they made the gruel thick and slab with dollars. Men were weighed by their dollars, measures gauged by their dollars; life was auctioneered, appraised, put up and knocked down for its dollars…” (Chapter 16) One can’t help wondering why, if young Martin is so aware of rampant American materialism and shyster-ism, that he is gullible enough to fall for the shonky “Eden” speculation. Mark Tapley is necessary to extricate young Martin from his mistakes – a ghost of Sam Weller helping Mr Pickwick perhaps? As for young Martin’s attachment to Mary Graham, she is presented in such generic terms that it’s hard to accept her as a real character at all.

Unlike some of Dickens’ other novels, this one does not seem to attack any English social institution (parish relief, Yorkshire schools, debtors prisons, Chancery etc.). Apart from entertaining its readers over 19 serial months, its main point seems to have been the danger of self-love, though this is not very clearly worked out. And what of the “satire” that is in this novel? One critic, referring to the American section, called it “a good satire embedded in an indifferent novel”. Oops! That turns out to be G. K. Chesterton again.

By this stage, you think you have seen me systematically trashing a novel by Dickens. Not quite. It does have its genuinely funny moments. It does treat us to a little bit of the grotesque. It has some real – and savage – satire in the American sections. But it is still one of Dickens’ less illustrious novels and one of the first I would happily kick out of the Dickens’ canon if that were possible.