Monday, December 9, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“STUFF I’VE BEEN READING” by Nick Hornby (Viking / Penguin $NZ37)
Okay, here’s one for the books. You’re reading a blog, which is going to complain about something sounding too much like a blog. Not very cool, eh? But then there are blogs and there are blogs.
I don’t want to get stuck into Nick Hornby too hard, mind, because I know part of the problem is the way I’ve read his latest collection of bits and pieces. In one gulp, as if it was a real book. And I’ve come increasingly to think that that’s not the way you should read collections of bits and pieces which “name” authors (or their agents) decide to bring out between novels and real books, as a way of keeping their names in front of the public. Collections of real essays – or of loose blog-like observations – are better read one item at a time and therefore best kept as long-term bedside books. They’re better not galloped through in a day or two as I have just galloped through Hornby’s lucubrations. Read ‘em all together, instead of in monthly servings, and you end up getting too familiar with the author’s mannerisms and jokey tricks.
Stuff I’ve Been Reading is a selection of the columns which Nick Hornby wrote for Believer magazine between 2006 and 2011. He’s brought out at least one other selection from his Believer columns before. In case you’ve never heard of it, Believer magazine is a publication for ageing American hipsters trying desperately hard to pretend they’re younger than they are. Middle-aged baby-boomers who would still like to be twenty or thirty. Because it’s American, the Englishman Hornby every so often has to explain English references for his readership. Hornby’s particular schtick is pretending to be the ordinary, non-intellectual football (i.e. soccer)-following bloke who doesn’t approve of these arty and intellectual types who take literature too seriously. Remember, this is the guy whose fame rests on High Fidelity (about fanatical fans of rock music), Fever Pitch (about fanatical fans of soccer), About a Boy (about reluctantly accepting parental responsibility) and the movies based upon them. His persona is doggedly, obsessively (and tiresomely) laddish, though as he’s also a dad now, you don’t get much of the sex stuff in his columns. There’s a bit of parental responsibility in the mix.
Am I allowed to call Hornby’s persona a pose? As you read, it’s quite clear that he’s a guy who’s actually read quite a lot of serious stuff, but he can’t let the fans down, so his columns are written in an offhanded way as a kind of diary of what he’s been reading. And this is part of what I find too damned bloggy. He rarely settles down long enough to tell you enough about any individual book. His laddish-ness also has a habit of turning into luvvy-ness as he (casually and offhandedly, of course) boasts about being a member of BAFTA and attending the Academy Awards and swapping ideas with movie directors and lounging about poolside in California and so on.
At which points I feel like screaming “Age is catching up with you, you twerp!” Hornby is now in his late fifties (i.e. he’s six years younger than me). Give him just a few more years and he will be an Old Fart who can’t pretend to be anything else. He will then have to ditch the soccer-and-rock-music-obsessed-kid mask, unless he wants all the world to understand he’s like that guy who buys a Harley-Davidson when he can’t get it up any more.
Alright, enough of my intemperate ad hominem rant, but as Hornby writes in an ab homino style (I just made that phrase up) I think he’s invited it.
How does this laddish luvvy-ness play out in purported columns reviewing books? Here’s a typical Hornby introduction:
“Last month I read nothing much at all, because of the World Cup, and this month I read a ton of stuff. I am usually able to convince myself that televised sport can provide everything literature offers and more, but my faith in my theory has been shaken a little by this control experiment. Who in the World Cup was offering the sophisticated, acutely observed analysis of the parent-child relationship to be found in….” etc. etc. I won’t bother offering more of what Nick Hornby says here (pp.26-27) as it’s an introduction to a notice on a “graphic novel”; and though I do appreciate real artistry in graphic novels, I also see enthusiasm for them (like enthusiasm for YA books, which Hornby touts in another column) as another part of his agenda of pretending he doesn’t read the arty, wordy stuff.
Luvvy-ness, did I say? Its absolutely worst symptom is the way Hornby provides too much bloody puffery for the novels of his brother-in-law Robert Harris, as in “I have been writing this column for so long that I am now forced to consider a novel by my brother-in-law for the third time. Irritatingly, it’s just as good as the other two….” etc. etc. (p.88) One wonders if his wife would be annoyed if he didn’t praise her brother’s novels.
You also too frequently get wilful put-downs of literary classics for the benefit of semi-literates who want to feel good about not having read them. Here is Hornby speaking of The Simpsons Movie: “From what I saw, the movie was as good as, but no better than, three average Simpsons episodes bolted together – an average Simpsons episode being, of course, smarter than an average Flaubert novel.” (p.106)
Yeah, so take that in the eye all you arty blokes who think you’re smart ‘cos you read Flaubert!
Hornby also stoops to a number of patently unfair reviewer’s tricks. When he compares a memoir about the horrors of life in Russia under gangsters with a novel set among the English middle classes, he concludes: “Politkovskaya is writing about the agonies of a nation plagued by corruption, terrorism and despotism: the highly regarded literary figure is writing about some middle class people who are bored of their marriage. My case rests.” (p.46)
Well actually his case doesn’t rest at all. He’s simply put down the novel by “a highly regarded literary figure” by comparing it with a totally different sort of book.
By now (if you have read thus far), you will see that I am not particularly enamoured of Hornby’s style, which is more than a teensy bit smug. But then he is part of the celebrity culture – and of course he (correctly, but very defensively) reminds us that Charles Dickens was in the celebrity culture too, and William Shakespeare wrote for money (both of which factlets I already knew, luvvy). Anyway, this puts him into some silly situations not entirely of his own making. He tells us he’s asked to write an introduction to a new edition of Our Mutual Friend. He reads it. He doesn’t like it. He for the first time reads some criticism on it (you know – the stuff written by those serious critics whom he frequently slags off) and discovers it’s one of Dickens’ less esteemed novels, considered by many to be a dud. “So how am I going to write this introduction, when I’m supposed to be positive about it?” he wails. Now oddly, in this situation I don’t think badly of him. But I do think badly of trendy publishers who get “names” to write introductions to books rather than people who actually know what they’re writing about. Think of it. Nick Hornby writes an intro to Our Mutual Friend not ‘cos he knows anything about it, not ‘cos he’s expressed any enthusiasm for it (he hasn’t yet read it) but because some agent somewhere says it’ll drag in the punters to have Nick Hornby’s name attached to it.
Okay, enough, enough. I can now generously cut to the good stuff and say there are times when Hornby lapses into sense. The mask slips and he shows he can get caught up in the good stuff. He develops a taste for Muriel Spark, reads everything of her’s he can get his hands on, and writes: “But what a writer Spark is – dry, odd, funny, aphoristic, wise, technically brilliant. I can’t remember the last time I read a book by a well-established writer previously unknown to me that resulted in me devouring an entire oeuvre…” (p.147)
It would be rude, ungrateful and unjust of me not to admit that there were other times when I thoroughly endorsed Hornby’s judgements. Take this one on Cormac McCarthy’s unrelievedly bleak and horrible dystopian novel The Road:
“It is important to remember that The Road is a product of one man’s imagination: the literary world has a tendency to believe that the least consoling world view is The Truth. (How many times have you read somebody describe a novel as ‘unflinching’, in approving terms. What’s wrong with a little flinch every once in a while?) McCarthy is true to his own vision, which is what gives his novel its awesome power. But maybe when Judgement Day does come, we’ll surprise each other by sharing our sandwiches and singing ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’, rather than by scooping out our children’s brains with spoons. Yes, it’s the job of artists to force us to stare at the horror until we’re on the verge of passing out. But it’s also the job of artists to offer warmth and hope and maybe even an escape from our lives that occasionally seem unendurably drab. I wouldn’t want to pick one job over the other – they both seem pretty important to me. And it’s quite legitimate, I think, not to want to read The Road. There are some images now embedded in my memory that I don’t especially want there. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have a duty to read it.” (p.63)
Also, bravo for this crusher on a piece of trendiness that was doing the rounds a few seasons back:
“The French book about reading that’s been getting a lot of attention recently is Pierre Bayard’s How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which should surely be retitled You Need Some New Friends Because the Ones You’ve Got Are Jerks: literary editors seem to think it’s zeitgeisty, but out in the world, grown-ups no longer feel the need to bullshit about literature, thank God.” (pp.95-96)
I have to admit that Hornby provided for me at least one moment with real food for thought. He is writing about a non-fiction work by David Knyaston on Austerity Britain, and he remarks:
“If you read and write fiction, you may be gratified to see how Kynaston relies on the contemporary stuff to add colour and authenticity to his portrait of the times. The received wisdom is that novels too much of the moment won’t last; but what else do we have that delves into what we were thinking and feeling at any given period? In fifty or one hundred years’ time, we are, I suspect, unlikely to want to know what someone writing in 2010 had to say about the American Civil War. I don’t want to put you off, if you’re just writing the last page of a 700-page epic novel about Gettysburg - I’m sure you’ll win loads of prizes, and so on. But after that, you’ve had it.” (p.128)
As you may have noticed, I’m an admirer of historical novels that give a real sense of the times in which they are set (very few do). But I think Hornby is right here. In the main, after a few years have gone by, most historical novels tell us more about the age in which they were written than they do about the age in which they are supposedly set.
You see what I’ve done in this notice, don’t you? I’ve just praised Hornby when he says something I agree with, and rudely shoved him away when he says something I find offensive or stupid. Ruddy book reviewers commenting on other book reviewers, eh? Soon you’ll reach the conclusion that criticism is just a matter of taste, and we wouldn’t want you thinking that, would we?
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "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 five or more years ago.
“THE BEGGARS” by Louis-Rene des Forets (“Les Mendiants”, first published in French in 1943; English translation by Helen Beauclerk published 1948)
Here’s a story for connoisseurs and bibliophiles. When I was a small boy, I grew up in a house full of books. I became very familiar with the spines and cover illustrations of many books which I never actually read, as well as a number that I did read. In some cases, I also became familiar with the cover-blurbs of books I didn’t read.
When my mother died, I took, and now have on my own shelves, a considerable number of my father’s books. In some cases, those familiar spines of unread books still look at me. Sometimes, when I don’t have other more pressing reading to do, I take off the shelf a book I have known for years by sight, and actually read it. In some cases, it is exactly the type of book that the blurb lead me to believe it would be. In other cases, it is completely different from what I imagined it would be.
Sometimes, when I have finished reading such a book, the impression of the non-existent-and-unread book is still stronger in me than the impression of the existent-and-read book. In such cases, I have the idea (probably fuelled by too much coffee) that the book has existed to ridicule me. Imagine all those years when I was a small boy, crawling around on the carpet; and there it was on an upper shelf, hiding its unread contents between its covers, looking at me down below and knowing how wrong I was.
Here is a case in point.
Louis-Rene des Forets’ The Beggars sat on an upper shelf in my father’s house for all of my childhood. In my mind’s eye, I can see exactly where it sat back then. It has lived on a lower shelf in my own home for about twenty years. I see it was published in 1948, so that’s three years before I was born. Probably Dad got it as a review copy.
On its (now fly-specked) dust-jacket is a very attractive line illustration of people ona very traditional-looking quay, leaning over and looking at old-fashioned sailing boats. There is a variant of the image across the title pages. Something on the blurb told me that it was a sort of intellectual adventure story, and comparable with Le Grand Meaulnes. I don’t know why, but I have for years imagined it to be a Joseph Conrad-ish affair, or maybe something like Graham Greene’s first novel The Man Within. Intellectual and connected with the sea.
Anyway, I finally got around to reading it, and it’s nothing like that at all. Set in a non-specific, but vaguely-Mediterranean-ish (or maybe South American) country, it takes place in an old-fashioned sea-port and has a number of discrete and inter-locking stories. There’s a teenage gang involved in petty theft. One member of the gang seems the natural “leader”, but other members of the gang are thinking of challenging him. There’s a group of professional adult smugglers. A lot of it takes place on the waterfront with either the boys, or the adult crims, dodging cops. There’s also the story of an actress in the local theatre – incidentally performing in a production of Othello – wanting to do something about the infidelity of her lover. All relationships seem thwarted or strained. None of the teenage boys seem to have two parents. One of the chief narrators spends his time fending off a brutal grandfather.
There are many first-person narrators, switching from voice to voice and with the narrator here being a background character in somebody else’s narration there.
And, frankly, I found it an almost complete bore.
There is no momentum to it. Individual scenes are vivid, but the whole thing simply doesn’t cohere. I found it difficult to distinguish one narrating voice from the other, although they are meant to be as different as teenagers, a murderer escaped from prison, a woman running an inn, the actress etc. They all sounded the same to me, although in fairness this could have at least something to do with the English translation. I was also irritated by its non-specific setting. Noting that it was written in 1942-43 and first published in France in 1943, I kept seeing in my mind’s eye one of those Occupation-era French movies (“L’Assassin Habite au 21”, “L’Eternel Retour” etc.) which are supposedly set in contemporary France but which are really set in a non-specific fantasy-land because there is no way that French film-makers would be allowed to look at current realities at the time of the German occupation.
Not a book for me, then.
But after I’d read it and reached this conclusion, I did some Googling and discovered a few interesting things.
Louis-Rene des Forets (1918-2000) began to write this novel when he was twenty, in 1938, but he set it aside for war service, was a prisoner of war and was later active in the Resistance. He finished it in six months when he was 24. It was very highly regarded by some critics of the day (including Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus), although the perceptive Raymond Queneau said (and I agree with him) that its multiple narrators were hard to distinguish from one another, and it was “too American” in the sense of being too obviously influenced by the multiple-narrator techniques of William Faulkner. (Queneau was a good friend of des Forests, and did not make the criticism lightly.) Three years later (in 1946) des Forets produced a second and very short novel, Le Buvard, a monologue narrated by a drunkard, apparently something like the monologue novels of Samuel Beckett. He seemed set to be a big literary noise.
But it didn’t happen.
In the 50-plus years of his remaining literary life he produced no more novels, but only one collection of short stories, a book of verse, a book of personal aphorisms and a translation of the correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Apparently his reputation in France is that of the sparsely-published novelist, very highly regarded by highbrow critics but hardly known to the public. A bit like a French Richard Hughes, maybe. Or maybe that underrates the profile of Richard Hughes. Should I say Henry Green?
Louis-Rene des Forets also (God help him) has a reputation as a precursor of the “New Novel”. Marguerite Duras and Nathalie Serrault both admired his two novels. I came across some pretentious articles that told me his real theme is “silence” and the inability of real communication between individuals. Hence the multiple narrators.
Personally, I wish The Beggars had been an intellectual adventure story of the Joseph Conrad type rather than the evasive thing it is.
It is now back on my shelf, where it will remain unread unless some crazed admirer of obscure French novels happens to be visiting.
SAYING IT PITHILY
I recently finished the task of guest-editing Poetry New Zealand for the fourth time (the relevant issue, Number 48, will be available in March 2014) and, as it always does, the task forced me to consider how I stand with poetry. I won’t tell you here what conclusions I came to, as it would take too long and I don’t have the energy. But I will tell you one thought that occurred. I wish more poets could write pithily. Could say things meaningfully in fewer words than the rambling rant.
So I decided to devote this week’s “Something Thoughtful” to a few choice pieces of pithiness, not all of them serious. I’ll add minimal comment and just let you enjoy.
First specimen – the 12 lines (less than the length of a sonnet) which Ben Jonson wrote four hundred years ago when his seven-year-old son died. It is a beautiful epitaph. I’ve heard one foolish critic complain that Jonson is an egotistical male chauvinist because he calls his little boy “his best piece of poetry” as if the boy is merely a possession. But – dammit – surely what the professional poet is saying is that the boy outweighs all his work.
Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov'd boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
O, could I lose all father now! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon 'scap'd world's and flesh's rage,
And, if no other misery, yet age?
Rest in soft peace, and, ask'd, say here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake, henceforth, all his vows be such,
As what he loves may never like too much.
Second specimen – also on the death of a child (real or imagined – I don’t remember), William Wordsworth two hundred years ago puts his pantheism into a human frame in the best of the Lucy poems. Eight lines:
“A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal”
A slumber did my spirit seal;
I had no human fears:
She seemed a thing that could not feel
The touch of earthly years.
No motion has she now, no force;
She neither hears nor sees;
Rolled round in earth's diurnal course,
With rocks, and stones, and trees.
Third specimen – a bit of a cheat this one, as Emily Dickinson takes 24 lines, but when she says something pithily she really says it pithily. It’s not just the unexpected anthropomorphism of calling a snake “a narrow fellow in the grass”, but that line “zero at the bone’ which puts terror into four words.
“A Narrow Fellow in the Grass”
A narrow fellow in the grass Occasionally rides; You may have met him,--did you not, His notice sudden is. The grass divides as with a comb, A spotted shaft is seen; And then it closes at your feet And opens further on. He likes a boggy acre, A floor too cool for corn. Yet when a child, and barefoot, I more than once, at morn, Have passed, I thought, a whip-lash Unbraiding in the sun,-- When, stooping to secure it, It wrinkled, and was gone. Several of nature's people I know, and they know me; I feel for them a transport Of cordiality; But never met this fellow, Attended or alone, Without a tighter breathing, And zero at the bone.
Fourth Specimen – also on a wild animal. Andrew Young’s eight paradoxical lines about a mole.
A Dead Mole
That so much lived below the ground,
Dug, fought and loved, hunted and fed,
For you to raise a mound
Was as for us to make a hole;
What wonder now that being dead
Your body lies here stout and square
Buried within the blue vault of the air?
Now after such thoughtful lyrics, it might seem frivolous of me to present you with the
following, but you might as well get the full blast of Dorothy Parker’s sarcastic eight-line
refusal of suicide.
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
And similarly flippant, but just as much fun, W.H.Auden’s rude eight-line assertion of his personal space:
Some thirty inches from my nose
the frontier of my Person goes,
And all the untilled air between
Is private pagus or demesne.
Stranger, unless with bedroom eyes
I beckon you to fraternize,
Beware of rudely crossing it:
I have no gun, but I can spit.
the frontier of my Person goes,
And all the untilled air between
Is private pagus or demesne.
Stranger, unless with bedroom eyes
I beckon you to fraternize,
Beware of rudely crossing it:
I have no gun, but I can spit.
Okay, that’s your lot for this week, but if you’re serious about your poetry, see if you can say something as worthwhile in eight lines or fewer.
Monday, December 2, 2013
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“SHAME AND THE CAPTIVES” by Tom Keneally (Vintage Books / Random House $NZ39:99)
I must be getting old. I can recall when Thomas Keneally novels came out with the name “Thomas” on them. Now, apparently, he has re-branded himself as “Tom”.
I remember the racy fun his earliest novels gave me in the 1970s. Those first ones that reflected, ironically and half-affectionately, his Australian Catholic background and years as a seminarian (The Place at Whitton, Three Cheers for the Paraclete). That weird surrealist fantasy A Dutiful Daughter. Then the ones in which he hit his forte with reconstructions of history from the relatively recent past – The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (mistreatment of Aborigines in 19th century Australia); Gossip from the Forest (skulduggery surrounding the signing of the armistice at the end of the First World War); A Victim of the Aurora (early 20th century polar exploration); Season in Purgatory (Tito’s partisans in Yugoslavia in the Second World War) and later the Booker Prize winner Schindler’s Ark, better known by its American (and film) title as Schindler’s List. But the last Keneally novel I read was The Playmaker, written in the late 1980s in time for the 200th anniversary of the first British settlement of Australia, and a very effective evocation of the early penal colony.
I know the man has been prolific (30 novels and nearly 20 works of non-fiction, according to the list given in his latest novel), but I wondered if his work would still engage me as much as it used to do.
So, for the first time in about twenty years, I picked up a new Keneally novel, Shame and the Captives. It is clearly in line of descent with the old Keneally, being an historical novel of the recent past. But it is somehow more mellow, more reflective, more philosophical and ruminative than the old one-two historical punching you used to get in something as bitterly satirical as Gossip from the Forest.
Shame and the Captives is based on the “Cowra outbreak”. In historical fact, this took place in August 1944, about 18 months after the “Featherston riot” in New Zealand (which Vincent O’Sullivan commemorated in his play Shuriken). It was a mass breakout by Japanese prisoners from a POW camp in rural New South Wales. 545 Japanese servicemen attempted to escape. 231 of them were killed as they rushed the wire and tried to overwhelm the garrison guarding them. Four Australian soldiers were also killed. About 300 Japanese disappeared into the bush, but they all either surrendered or were rounded up within the next couple of weeks, and were returned to captivity. The Australians noted that many Japanese committed suicide at the time of the outbreak, or begged to be killed when they were re-captured. There was no question that the camp had been run humanely and according to the Geneva Convention. The breakout was not provoked by any mistreatment of the prisoners. But even at the time, the Australians understood that the Japanese military code of honour said that it was shameful to be a captive and that death was preferable to imprisonment. Many of the Japanese, realizing that the war had gone against them, were hoping to be shot by their captors rather than be returned to post-war Japan and face scorn for having been captured.
As far as the external events of the outbreak are concerned, Keneally’s novel follows them very closely, right down to the fate of the two squaddies who tried to man the camp’s machine-gun against the rioting Japanese. There is very, very careful scene-setting, with the novel moving at a leisurely pace and divided into two parts, Spring 1943 and Autumn 1944. Yet while the externals of the story are historical, the inner worlds of the characters depend on the novelist’s imagination and intuition. All characters have fictitious names and the small town of Cowra has been retitled Gawell. Keneally is painfully careful in his preface (“Where the Tale Comes From”) to separate his imagined characters from their historical counterparts, especially as the novel implies some serious character defects in senior officers guarding the compound.
The novel is as much concerned with the mentality of Australians as with that of the prisoners. Indeed the title Shame and the Captives has more than one meaning. It is clear that the Australian characters are as imprisoned by their circumstances as the Japanese. In effect, they too are captives and they feel various shames.
Alice, for example, living with her father-in-law (a local farmer), is married to a man who is a POW in Austria. At first she thinks her own kindly behaviour to Axis prisoners in Australia is some sort of guarantee that her husband will be treated well. The same is true of the POW camp’s Major Suttor, whose son has been captured by the Japanese. He is constantly worried that any reported mistreatment of his inmates will be visited upon his son. Shame visits Major Suttor in an odd way. He earns his living writing radio soap operas about an idealised Australian family. He is aware of how different his scripts are from objective reality and of how much he has surrendered to slick commercialism, after having started out as a serious novelist. His superior Colonel Abercare has the shame of an adulterous affair in his past, which has poisoned his relationship with his wife. (The wife’s being a Catholic allows Keneally to revisit some of his Catholic background in scenes with the local priest). And where sexual shame is concerned, there is the major matter of Alice indulging in an affair with the Italian POW Giancarlo who has (like other Italian POWs) been allowed out of the prison to work as a farm labourer. What is interesting here is the way Keneally shows the wife as, in effect, exploiting the Italian who, for all his sexual attractiveness, is not in a position to resist (or complain) about her advances. Sexual hunger - given the absence of Alice’s husband - is part of the situation, but on a more subtle level it is clear that Alice, the “free” woman, has succumbed to the temptation of having power over somebody. It is implied that Giancarlo comes to feel more imprisoned by her attentions than he felt when he was behind the wire.
Keneally’s characters are rounded. They are not caricatures. He does not overdo references to racist attitudes of the times, or to the exaggerated fears that the outbreak generated, although these are referenced.
To dump all my criticisms in one spot, however, I do note the odd lapse into melodrama, and a few moments of somewhat stagey dialogue, as when Colonel Abercare’s aggrieved wife says:
“I should abominate the betrayal, Ewen….And by God I do! But there’s the damage to my vanity too – to my standing. It compounds everything. It shouldn’t, since these are fatuous opinions. But they’ve left their mark. It’s the pressure of them, all around, from every direction.” (p.119)
I could also wag my finger at the rather too-neat way (in terms of articulating the novel’s themes) that Alice is eventually dismissed from the story.
With regard to the novel’s exploration of the Japanese prisoners’ shame, Keneally dramatizes the fanaticism in the Japanese military code in the person of the fighter pilot Tengen, who incites his fellow inmates to strive for honourable death in their attempted “escape”. But Keneally’s interpretation of the outbreak is not monocausal. There are also the frustrations of homo-eroticism in an all-male prison environment, where physical violence between prisoners often masks sexual attraction. Tengen has a “utilitarian affair” (p.146) with a female impersonator. Wrestling contests become the site of dominance displays, with the winner taking as his reward the sexual submission of the defeated. And there is a very strange undertow to Tengen’s desire for mass self-immolation. Deep down, he is aware that the world is changing and the warrior code is already in the process of being rejected by many Japanese. There is at least one Christian among the Japanese prisoners, who rejects suicide on principle. More cuttingly, there is Tengen’s comrade Aoki, who says:
“even I feel the world beyond here is changing, and that under their flesh men’s opinions might be changing too. In this matter, I can speak only for myself. I can address only my own obligation. A coerced sacrifice isn’t worth a lot here. A voluntary one is a different matter.” (p.233)
This may be part of what is really haunting the more fanatical warrior Tengen – the unwilling acknowledgement that, having encountered the non-Japanese world, the warrior code of sacrifice at any cost is becoming faintly ridiculous. When they are rounded up, many escapees feel “stuck unexpectedly again with the chronic disorder of survival”. (p.308) They would rather be dead. Even so, as Shame and the Captives tells it, there is a certain “enforced ceremony” to the outbreak, as if the escapees are trying to convince themselves of values which they are really beginning to question.
This is a well-conducted mainstream novel, with a psychologically-convincing cast of characters and a strong sense of historical reality.
He may be more reflective than of yore, but Keneally stills knows how to tell a story for grown-ups.
“BUSSY D’AMBOIS” by George Chapman (first performed c.1603; first published 1607; revised version published posthumously 1641)
Way back in the early 1970s, when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, I was doing a postgrad degree in English and I took a paper on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama (excluding Shakespeare, of whom we got a fair whack at all levels anyway). I remember enjoying Marlowe’s mighty line and Jonson’s scrupulous plotting; the worm-gnawing horrors of Webster seeing the skull beneath the skin; the lip-smacking decadence of Ford; the forced pathos of Beaumont and Fletcher’s Maid’s Tragedy; the snarling of Tourneur’s revengers and the genuine oddity of Middleton and Rowley’s The Changeling [if indeed Middleton and Rowley wrote it – apparently scholars have recently reassigned the play to other people, just as they have stripped Tourneur of his plays].
We had a lecturer who liked to remind us that bloodstained Jacobean carve-ups resembled Hollywood films noirs of the 1940s, complete with husband-betraying femmes fatales, hitmen, piles of corpses and cheap theatrical tricks to keep the audience buzzing. The Changeling was his piece de resistance with its plot of a hitman getting it on with the murderous woman who has employed him. Think Double Indemnity and you’re in the right ballpark. This play also allowed the lecturer to indulge in some obvious Existentialist comments, Existentialism then still being trendy in Academe. In the play, one character says to another “Thou art the deed’s creature”. The concept of character being formed by action is, apparently, the essence of Existentialism. I would have thought it was also the essence of platitude, but what do I know?
Anyway, in my later memories of this course, there was something that really puzzled me. One of the plays we studied was George Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois. I remember finding Chapman’s language difficult, but oddly memorable in places. So much so, indeed, that, years later, I could still remember almost word-for-word the opening soliloquy of the title character.
Bussy D’Ambois, an impoverished French nobleman, steps forward and gives vent to this speech:
Fortune, not Reason, rules the state of things,
Reward goes backwards, Honour on his head,
Who is not poor is monstrous; only Need
Gives form and worth to every human seed.
As cedars beaten with continual storms,
So great men flourish; and do imitate
Unskilful statuaries, who suppose
(In forming a Colossus) if they make him
Straddle enough, strut, and look big, and gape,
Their work is goodly: so men merely great
In their affected gravity of voice,
Sourness of countenance, manners cruelty,
Authority, wealth, and all the spawn of Fortune,
Think they bear all the Kingdom’s worth before them;
Yet differ not from those colossic statues,
Which, with heroic forms without o're-spread,
Within are nought but mortar, flint and lead.
Man is a torch borne in the wind; a dream
But of a shadow, summ'd with all his substance;
And as great seamen using all their wealth
And skills in Neptune’s deep invisible paths,
In tall ships richly built and ribb’d with brass,
To put a girdle round about the world,
When they have done it (coming near their haven)
Are fain to give a warning piece, and call
A poor staid fisherman, that never past
His country’s sight, to waft and guide them in:
So when we wander furthest through the waves
Of glassy Glory, and the gulfs of State,
Topt with all titles, spreading all our reaches,
As if each private arm would sphere the earth,
We must to virtue for her guide resort,
Or we shall shipwrack in our safest port.
On its own, this speech still strikes me as being almost as good as much that Bill Shakespeare did in the same line, setting up the theme of a man who relies on his personal “virtue” (i.e. will-power and strength) as his only moral compass. But here’s what puzzled me. Why did I hardly remember anything about the rest of the play? (Apart from an angry husband’s accusation to his wife “The chainshot of thy lust is yet aloft,/ and it must murder; ‘tis thine own dear twin”, which our lecturer again insisted on linking to Existentialism.) And why was Chapman, who clearly had great verbal skills, virtually unknown in modern performance? Shakespeare, Marlowe and Jonson are always on the boards. Webster, Tourneur and Middleton and Rowley get a fair number of revivals. (In the last couple of decades, I have seen on stage here in Auckland productions of The Duchess of Malfi, The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Changeling). I believe that even Beaumont and Fletcher are performed every so often. But Chapman? I’d be happy to be corrected by somebody who knows more about these things than I do, but I have never heard of a modern stage performance of Chapman. Why is this?
In an idle time a few months ago, and burning to answer these questions, I sat down and re-read Bussy D’Ambois for the first time in nearly 40 years. And I think I found the answer to my questions.
Let me say a few words about George Chapman (c.1560-1634). He was a good poet and it is not his fault that he wasn’t as good as his contemporaries Shakespeare and Donne (how many poets are?). He has the misfortune to be remembered now only in relation to other people. There used to be the theory that he was the “rival poet” mentioned in Shakespeare’s sonnets, but modern scholarship seems to have debunked this. However, Shakespeare and Chapman did know each other’s plays and there are a few little textual points where the one seems to be imitating the other. In his own day, Chapman was famous for completing Marlowe’s long poem Hero and Leander after Marlowe was murdered. Apart from that, he is mainly remembered now because John Keats wrote a sonnet about him two centuries later, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, praising Chapman’s translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Chapman version of the latter sits, as yet unread, on my shelf. Chapman wrote comedies, but [again in his own day] was better known for a series of four or five “tragedies” drawn from very recent French history. The first and (according to general repute) best of them was Bussy D’Ambois, first performed in 1603 or 1604. The man upon whom it is loosely based, the French aristocrat and brawler at the court of King Henry III of France, Louis de Bussy d’Amboise, was murdered at the age of 30 in 1579, so Chapman was dramatizing events from a mere 25 years previously.
Now let me say a few words about his play and its plot. Bussy D’Ambois is lured to the court of King Henry III by the king’s brother “Monsieur”, who has his eye on the throne. “Monsieur” wants a band of trusties to surround him as he makes his own bid for power, and he knows Bussy’s reputation as a swordsman. But once at court, Bussy proves too choleric for his own good. He takes offence at remarks made by three courtiers and, with two of his mates, challenges them to a duel. Five of the six men wind up dead, Bussy having personally killed all three of the opposing faction after they had first killed his two mates.
More dangerously for himself, however, he has an affair with Tamyra, wife of the Count of Montsurry. By this stage he has alienated his patron “Monsieur”, so “Monsieur” allies with Montsurry and the Duke of Guise to corner and punish Bussy. First “Monsieur” tips off Montsurry about his wife’s adultery. Montsurry has his wife tortured to reveal who her lover is, and then has her write a letter in her own blood luring Bussy to a tryst. Despite being warned (the conjuring-up of soothsaying spirits comes into the play) Bussy walks into the ambush that is prepared for him, because his pride and “virtue” will not let him run away from danger. He is duly murdered. In his dying speech he declares:
Here, like a Roman statue, I will stand
Till death hath made me marble. O my fame
Live in despite of murther!
This is a play that could have been a good study in hubris and vainglory. Like Coriolanus (“Alone I did it!”), Bussy is the model of the ego-driven man of violence whose dignity resides in his complete self-assurance. In some ways splendid (roll on Rostand’s unhistorical version of Cyrano de Bergerac) but in some ways very scary (roll on Nietzsche’s self-ordained supermen), he is big only because he is surrounded by nastier, smaller and more calculating people.
Yet the play never reaches great tragic heights, even though Chapman clearly sees Bussy as a hero. There is one extraordinary feature of the play. The historical events to which it alludes took place right in the middle of France’s Wars of Religion. The historical Bussy was murdered a mere seven years after the St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre, in which Bussy had been one of the Catholic bravos who set upon and murdered Protestant Huguenots. In Protestant England, the French situation was always ripe for pro-Protestant anti-Catholic propaganda, such as Marlowe’s The Massacre at Paris. Yet in Chapman’s Bussy D’Ambois, there is virtually no reference to the religious situation at all. Possibly the friar who conveys Bussy to his adulterous mistress could be seen as a pandar, and later the same friar conjures up spirits – with a pagan prayer – to help Bussy understand what he is walking into. Maybe a Protestant London audience would see this as confirming all their suspicions of devious Catholic clergy; and yet – amazingly – Chapman depicts the friar in a positive light, and the friar dies sympathetically, properly disgusted by Montsurry’s use of torture. Dare I suggest that, by reading recent French history, Chapman was more aware than most of his English contemporaries of how ambiguous the religious situation in France really was – how many policy-plays, betrayals and acts of volence there were on both the Catholic and the Protestant sides. He could not present France in simplistic black-and-white propagandistic terms, so he ignored the religious situation altogether and focused his play solely on the matter of power.
So – at last – why does this play not live as theatre, when it has such a strong story and such tragic potential?
There are some good theatrical moments – coups de theatre, as the French would say. The reported account of Bussy’s heroic duel. The scene where the friar leads Bussy up, through an under-stage trapdoor, to Tamyra’s room. The torture of Tamyra by her husband in which she piteously pleads that her husband could not treat her so, and that some evil spirit must have taken his place (“husband, oh, help me, husband!”). The friar conjuring up the spirits so that he and Bussy can see “Monsieur”, Guise and Montsurry plotting. And, of course, the final cutting-down of Bussy by ambush.
But, dammit, the play just doesn’t work. Coming back to it after all these years, I am more alert to its failure. The failure is in the language. Too often, Chapman stops the action so that characters can deliver themselves of sententious thoughts. I am not talking here of soliloquies, arising from characters’ circumstances, as in Shakespeare, Jonson et al. I am talking of set-piece speeches, which Chapman has forced into characters’ mouths for our edification. Consider this exchange (Act Two, Scene One) between King Henry III and the Duc de Guise, which is really just an excuse for the king’s set-piece speech on envy:
Guise: Neither is worth their envy.
Henry: Less than either
Will make the gall of envy overflow;
She feeds on outcast entrails like a kite:
In which foul heap, if any ill lies hid,
She sticks her beak into it, shakes it up,
And hurls it all abroad, that all may view it.
Corruption is her nutriment; but touch her
With any precious ointment, and you kill her.
Where she finds any filth in men, she feasts,
And with her black throat bruits it through the world
Being sound and healthful; but if she but taste
The slenderest pittance of commended virtue,
She surfeits of it, and is like a fly
That passes all the body’s soundest parts,
And dwells upon the sores; or if her squint eye
Have power to find none there, she forges some:
She makes that crooked ever which is strait;
Calls valour giddiness, justice tyranny:
A wise man may shun her, she not her self;
Whither soever she flies from her harms,
She bears her foe still clasped in her own arms:
And therefore, cousin Guise, let us avoid her.
The length of this speech is totally disproportionate to the dramatic situation that called it forth. Or again, consider the moment (Act Three, Scene One) where Bussy preaches his Machiavellian values when Tamyra has just expressed misgivings about their adulterous sin:
Sin is a coward, madam, and insults
But on our weakness, in his truest valour:
And so our ignorance tames us, that we let
His shadows fright us: and like empty clouds
In which our faulty apprehensions forge
The forms of dragons, lions, elephants,
When they hold no proportion, the sly charmes
Of the witch policy makes him like a monster
Kept only to show men for servile money:
That false hag often paints him in her cloth
Ten times more monstrous than he is in troth.
(Chapman’s reference to cloud-shapes here has led some to suggest he knew the “very like a whale” scene in Hamlet).
In both cases, Chapman can’t refrain from launching into over-long metaphors and similes, developed in more detail than the dramatic situation requires. And, alas, this applies even to what should have been some of the play’s best moments. In Act Four Scene Two, Bussy is quarrelling with “Monsieur”. All the dramatic situation requires him to say is something like “I don’t care what a big shot you become. If you treated me that way I’d still belt you one”. But Chapman being Chapman, he can’t resist getting Bussy to say:
Were your King brother in you; all your powers
(Stretch’d in the arms of great men and their bawds)
Set close down by you; all your stormy laws
Spouted with lawyers’ mouths, and gushing blood,
Like to so many torrents; all your glories
Making you terrible, like enchanted flames,
Fed with bare cockscombs and with crooked hams,
All your prerogatives, your shames, and tortures,
All daring heaven and opening hell about you—
Were I the man ye wrong'd so and provok'd,
(Though ne'er so much beneath you) like a box tree
I would out of the roughness of my root
Ram hardness in my lowness, and, like death
Mounted on earthquakes, I would trot through all
Honours and horrors, through foul and fair,
And from your whole strength toss you into the air.
Shakespeare would have tossed this off as a neat one-liner. (Something like his magnificently scornful “Keep up your bright swords, for the dew will rust them.” in Othello). I’m not saying Chapman was totally incapable of pithy expression. There’s a great line in III i of Bussy D’Ambois where Montsurry describes Bussy as “Fortune’s proud mushroom shot up in a night.” But even so, Chapman suffers badly from that loquacious, pedantic, stiff circumlocution, which I think was called the Euphuistic style.
When I came back to this play after all these years, I looked up John Dryden’s opinion of it [given in an epistle dedicatory which Dryden affixed to one of his own plays in 1681]. Dryden says:
“I have sometimes wondered in the reading what has become of those glaring colours which amazed me in Bussy D’Ambois upon the theatre; but when I had taken up what I supposed a fallen star, I found I had been cozened with a jelly; nothing but a cold dull mass, which glittered no longer than it was shooting; a dwarfish thought, dressed up in gigantic words, repetition in abundance, looseness of expression, and gross hyperboles; the sense of one line expanded prodigiously into ten; and to sum up all, incorrect English, and a hideous mingle of false poetry and true nonsense; or, at best, a scantling of wit, which lay gasping for life, and groaning beneath a heap of rubbish. A famous modern poet used to sacrifice every year a Statius to Virgil’s manes; and I have indignation enough to burn a D’Ambois annually to the memory of Jonson.”
Certainly Dryden goes a little over the top here (and there are always those querulous critics who want to remind us that Dryden’s own plays aren’t so hot in the prolix sententiousness department). But where Bussy D’Ambois is concerned, I can’t help agreeing with him when he speaks of “a dwarfish thought, dressed up in gigantic words” and of “the sense of one line expanded prodigiously into ten ”. Chapman’s play is wordy and ranty and its speeches over-long and sometimes pompous, filled with redundant examples and similitudes.
A poet who is remembered after 400 years deserves some credit, and Chapman really does have his moments. But I think I now know why he no longer holds the stage. Shakespeare, Jonson and Marlowe wrote plays. Regrettably, Chapman wrote long sermons and lectures linked by dramatic situations.