We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
Monday, December 5, 2016
REID'S READER IS ABOUT TO TAKE A LONG SUMMER BREAK. THIS IS THE LAST POSTING FOR 2016. THE NEXT POSTING WILL NOT APPEAR UNTIL MONDAY 6 FEBRUARY 2017.
NOTICE TO READERS: For five years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE SPY” by Paulo Coelho [translated from the Portuguese by Zoe Perry] (Penguin / Hamish Hamilton, $37)
According to both the blurb of this book and every website I have looked up, the Brazilian novelist Paulo Coelho is an international sensation. Apparently he is the biggest-selling Portuguese-language author of all time; his books have been translated into 81 languages and have sold tens of millions of copies; and he runs a website with a huge international readership.
This can mean only one of two things. Either (a.) he is some sort of genius and as good as the hype says; or (b.) he is a popular writer, who has found a way of tapping into a huge, but undiscerning, readership.
I had read nothing of Coelho’s before I picked up The Spy and I am therefore judging him by this one book alone. Perhaps his other work is much better, but what The Spy tells me is that option (b.) is the more likely option. This is a simplistic novel whose attempts at profundity or commentary on the human condition are at best clichés and whose depiction of history is of the school textbook sort that explains obvious things to readers who are expected not to know much. It has, however, the advantage of being short – 190 small pages with widely spaced lines, allowing it to be read easily in two or three hours. Maybe this is part of the secret of Coelho’s success. Keep it brief, stupid.
I am irresistibly reminded of the classic scene in Black Books where Dylan Moran hustles a customer out of his second-hand bookshop by urging him to buy a book, with the immortal line “Take it! Take it! It’s dreadful but it’s short!” There are readers who like the satisfaction of having read a book without having to read too much. Actually, there must be millions of such readers.
Anyway, enough of my crude Billingsgate, or I’ll have another blogger calling me “ultra-toxic” again. Let’s get down to what The Spy is about.
The Spy is the latest of what must by now be dozens of attempts to fictionalise the life of Margaretha Gertruda Zelle, the Dutchwoman better know by her stage name “Mata Hari”, who was tried and executed by the French for spying in 1917, when the First World War had reached a crisis point for the Allies. Mata Hari was an “exotic dancer” (i.e. high-class striptease artist) and a “courtesan” (i.e. high-class prostitute). Despite the publicity she concocted, she had no oriental or Javanese ancestry. Her “Eastern” dances were largely self-devised, given that her knowledge of Balinese dance came from a few performances, put on for Dutch tourists, which she attended while married to a Dutch officer in what were then called the Dutch East Indies. Her appeal was largely her willingness to shed clothes en dansant, and to pose for what were basically the soft porn or cheesecake photographs of their age.
Paul Coelho begins by reproducing a journalist’s contemporary account of Mata Hari bravely facing the firing squad, refusing a blindfold and greeting her executioners courteously. This is probably the iconic scene upon which much of the woman’s legend rests, especially as the idea of a firing squad killing a woman is one that still makes most people cringe. In ancient fiction films about Mata Hari I have seen both Greta Garbo – in soft focus - and Jeanne Moreau play this scene for maximum sentimental effect. Whatever else she may have been, Mata Hari was apparently brave in the face of death, reminding me of Malcolm’s line about the thane of Cawdor: “Nothing in [her] life became [her] like the leaving it.”
After this prologue, the first two-thirds of the novel are the [fictitious] first-person memoirs of Mata Hari, presented in the form of letters written to Edouard Clunet, the lawyer who defended her in her trial for espionage. As she writes, Mata Hari sits in St-Lazare prison, hoping that she will receive a presidential pardon and reprieve. The last third of the novel is a reply from her lawyer, after she has been condemned to death.
Almost at once, the novel howls its main theme at us, as Mata Hari declares: “The crimes I did commit, I escaped, the greatest of which was being an emancipated and independent woman in a world ruled by men.” (p.12) And: “I am a woman who was born at the wrong time and nothing can be done to fix this. I don’t know if the future will remember me, but if it does, may it never see me as a victim, but as someone who moved forward with courage, fearlessly paying the price she had to pay.” (p.15) Thus Coelho rams the point home, with Mata Hari later declaring: “I realized that I had always been a warrior, facing my battles without any bitterness; they were part of my life.”
So this is the tragedy of a strong, independent woman who is being condemned by the evil patriarchy for living a varied and independent sex life. Ah! If only she had lived in 2016 when we are so much more enlightened!
In her [fictitious] memoirs, Margaretha Zelle is raped by her school principal when she is 16, and marries the Dutch army officer Rudolf McLeod at 17 simply to escape the stifling boredom of provincial Holland. In Indonesia she gives birth to a daughter, but her husband is a sadistic brute who frequently beats her and treats her like a whore. She leaves husband and small daughter, returns to Holland, then flees to Paris where she remakes herself as Mata Hari the exotic dancer. She exchanges sex for the money of a series of wealthy sugar daddies (briefly sketched in) until she realizes, in her mid-30s, this won’t last as younger dancers are now exposing their wares and stealing her éclat. She suggests to her manager that she find something else.
Enter a German entrepreneur, waiting to make her the sensation of Berlin.
She arrives in Berlin just as the First World War is beginning and is offered job as a spy, which, at first, she nobly turns down. But later she accepts the commission from a German consul in the neutral Netherlands, she being paid a handsome sum of money. Returning, by a roundabout route, to Paris, she at once advises the French of her role and hopes they will accept her as a double agent. But they are suspicious of her and gradually come to see her as a German spy plain and simple.
There is nothing new in the “defence” case that Paulo Coelho makes for Mata Hari with regard to her espionage. It is now well known – and has been discussed in many books – that in the war Mata Hari passed no information of any real value over to the Germans; that everything she disclosed was in the nature of worthless society gossip; that no really incriminating evidence was ever found or produced by the French tribunal that put her on trial; and that she was probably “stitched up” by German intelligence once they understood that she was trying to work as a double agent from the French. It appears that the Germans deliberately sent a “secret” message in a code which they knew the French had already broken, and which they knew the French would intercept, in order to incriminate her and get rid of her. As a “spy”, Mata Hari was a hopeless amateur and it was probably an injustice that she was executed.
Even so, she did take money from the Germans to spy (not even the most sympathetic accounts of her have ever denied this); and her trial took place at a time when the Allies were hard-pressed, seemed on the verge of defeat, and all sorts of rumours about subversive “enemies within” were creating a mood of hysteria. This was not unique to France, of course. In New Zealand in the later years of the First World War, the demagogue Howard Elliot and his Protestant Political Association were building up sectarian fever by telling audiences that Catholics were responsible for the war and were conspiring for the defeat of the British Empire. In England, the MP Noel Pemberton-Billing gained a large following by claiming to have uncovered a vast, German-financed, conspiracy to sap the war effort by corrupting the sexual morals of the British. His efforts centred on shows put on by the American lesbian “exotic dancer” Maud Allen, who was in some ways the British equivalent of Mata Hari, although she had nothing to do with spying. (See my post on James Hayward’s Myths and Legends of the First World War. The case of Maud Allen was also fictionalised in Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy.) Add this mood to the fact that Mata Hari really had taken pay from the Germans to spy, and the French prosecution of her was not all that unreasonable, even if the case they made against her was a feeble one. Perhaps they should have stopped at simply imprisoning her.
But Coelho underplays (or is not sufficiently aware of) this historical context, so intent is he in presenting Mata Hari as a proto-feminist martyr being punished for her sexual independence. En passant, her long (pre-war) Paris sojourn allows Coelho to drop in comments on historical artistic figures, which will probably seem very revealing to less sophisticated readers. Of Picasso, the novel’s Mata Hari remarks: “I was extremely embarrassed by that ugly, wide-eyed impolite man who fancied himself the greatest of the greats. His friends were much more interesting, including an Italian man, Amedeo Modigliani, who seemed more noble, more elegant, and who at no point tried to force any conversation.” (pp.69-70) Of the premiere of The Rite of Spring she says “that idiot Nijinsky… imitated the masturbation scene from my first performance in Paris.” (p.77) And so on.
Making matters even more irritating is the very high proportion of self-expository dialogue. The first man Mata Hari meets in Paris gives her a handy précis of the Paris Exposition and the Dreyfus Affair in case you’ve never heard of them. Later Mata Hari herself makes naïve comments about the outbreak of the world war in case you don’t know about that either. As for the German who recruits her in the Hague, his incredibly stilted lines would shame the clumsiest of old-school Hollywood scriptwriters. “Even with England on their side, and even though our stupid allies – the Austrians – have their hands full trying to halt the Russian advance, we will win in the end…” (p.128) “As you might imagine, it is impossible to cross a border during a war. So the only alternative is to travel first to London and, from there, to the city where, soon, we shall march under the imposing – but foolishly named – Arc de Triomphe.” (p.130) Note those improbable bits in parentheses, folks.
I do not know whether to blame Paulo Coelho or his translator for the clunky organization of so many sentences. Stop for a moment and consider the word order of this shocker, wherein Mata Hari again bangs away at the novel’s major theme: “I suffered before the judges of the Third War Council, as if the Germans and the French, who are killing each other, couldn’t leave alone a woman whose greatest sin was having a free mind in a world where people are becoming increasingly closed-off well enough alone…” (p.137) How many times did you read it before the last three words made any sense?
At which point, I am sure, some fan of Coelho will tell me that I am missing a major point. After all, this novel is supposed to be Mata Hari’s testimony written under the stress of being in jail. And in her many self-contradictions, Mata Hari is supposed to be (ta-da!!!) an unreliable narrator. Thus when she declares of her disrobing stage performances: “Contrary to what the critics who never understood me said, when I was onstage I simply forgot about the woman I was and offered everything to God. That was why I was able to undress so easily. At that moment I was nothing, not even my body. I was just movements communing with the universe.” (p.57). Then, a page or two later, she completely contradicts herself by saying how she calculatedly performed a striptease to gain fame and applause. Thus when she tells us that the wife of the first man she slept with in Paris told her to beware of falling in love and she – as an independent woman making her own destiny – took this advice. And then, late in the day, there is the sudden introduction of “my one true love” and their reciting Song of Songs as they make love (p.136).
Clearly, then, silly old foolish me, I have not understood the incredibly sophisticated concept of the unreliable narrator. This is especially true in that – in the novel’s last third – the lawyer Edouard Clunet takes over the narration and repeatedly tells Mata Hari (and us) that she has not helped her case in court by so often lying and presenting her fabricated past history as if it is fact. Yet Monsieur Clunet is himself in love with the exotic dancer, and he too gives us the theory that she is being punished for being so independent. So on come précis of Oscar Wilde’s story of the nightingale and the rose and of the legend of Psyche and Eros to tell us that Mata Hari was not only a strong and independent woman punished by the patriarchy, but that she was a martyr of true love.
At which point I say “Merdre!” and “Fiddle-dee-dee!”
As far as this novel’s historicity is concerned, I will say one positive thing. Paulo Coelho makes it clear that (as her final prison mug-shots show) by the time Mata Hari, aged 40, was executed, she was already puffing up into middle-age. Her years as the glamorous performer were far behind her, and she was not the young woman presented so romantically in movies.
Otherwise, I find The Spy synthetic tosh. Paulo Coelho wins his huge audience by telling them what they want to hear – in this case that a minor spy with a dodgy past was somehow a martyr for independent womanhood. This novel leaves me feeling as I did when I reviewed Richard Davenport-Hines’ An English Affair on this blog. Examining the Profumo Affair, Davenport-Hines argued truthfully enough that the affair was blown out of all proportion by a sensation-mongering press and a conservative judiciary. But in the process, he presenting as innocent victims people who, for all the sensationalism, were a genuinely sleazy bunch. Likewise Coelho tells us truthfully enough – and as many other have already done – that Mata Hari’s trial was rigged and the case against her feeble. But for all his special pleading, this minor and incompetent spy was no martyr for the freedom of women.
Querulous footnote: By coincidence, the American pop novelist Michelle Moran has also produced a novel about Mata Hari this year, Mata Hari’s Last Dance and it is also presented as a first-person confession. I’m not suggesting that it’s plagiarism or that one author has copied the other. I’m just noting that, with 2017 about to be centenary of the woman’s death, it’s such a freaking obvious idea.
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 SPIRAL ASCENT” by Edward Upward (a trilogy of novels published as one volume in 1977 - In the Thirties first published in 1962; The Rotten Elements first published in 1969; No Home But the Struggle first published in the omnibus volume in 1977)
There are writers who are mentioned in nearly all the literary histories of their age, without themselves ever becoming widely read. There are usually good reasons for this. Case in point – Edward Upward (1903-2009), who died at the age of 105, long after the era with which he was obsessed. I know he had an odd name and I recall one of my tutors at university, 40 years ago, saying that he at first assumed it was a pseudonym until he discovered it really was the author’s name.
Edward Upward is one of those minor writers who seem doomed to be remembered only as footnotes in the biographies of more illustrious literary associates. In the 1930s, he was a close friend and advisor to his schoolmate Christopher Isherwood, and later to W.H.Auden, even though he himself was not homosexual as they both were. Isherwood and (at least at first) Auden saw him as their literary master, took ideas from him, and submitted work to him for his approval. Upward appears as “Allen Chalmers” in Isherwood’s memoir Lions and Shadows and Upward allowed some of his short stories to be published under that fictitious name. He had a certain success with some poems and with a surrealistic novel.
Then he published nothing for about 25 years. He married, had a son and a daughter, and taught at a minor public school for thirty years, where he kept his political views to himself although he remained very much of the Hard Left in his activism.
His trilogy of autobiographical novels The Spiral Ascent is his attempt to say the “last word” about his twin obsessions – poetry and politics – and helps explain his long silence. It took him over fifteen years to write. The first two novels, In the Thirties and The Rotten Elements, were originally published – years apart – in the 1960s, but they are so much of a piece that it is hard to see how they could ever have been read separately. Heinemann publishers accepted these first two novels, but they both received almost universal raspberries from critics for their bland and dull style. Heinemann therefore rejected the third novel. They were induced to publish a one-volume omnibus edition, under the title The Spiral Ascent and including the third novel No Home But the Struggle, only when they received an Arts Council grant to do so.
In the Thirties introduces Alan Sebrill – transparently Upward himself – disillusioned with his futile, lazy, middle-class life, frustrated that his attempts to write poetry have led nowhere, and on the brink of suicide. He finds a purpose and a sense of solidarity only when he joins the British Communist Party. By novel’s end he is married to Elsie (a fellow Communist), rearing for the fight against Fascism, Imperialism and Capitalism and convinced that his new sense of meaning will enable him to write good and meaningful poetry. Some critics have noted that this is one of the few novels originating in the 1930s (albeit written thirty years later), which depicts homegrown British Fascism as a real threat.
But The Rotten Elements is a rather more depressing work. After the Second World War, Alan and Elsie have to leave the Communist Party (as Edward Upward and his wife Hilda did in 1948) – not because they have lost faith in Communism, but because they believe the British Party has deviated too far from basic Marxist principles. Yet the alert reader will note that in fact Alan is more of a Stalinist hard-liner than his fellow-Communist antagonists are. The novel is shot through with an element of distrust almost amounting to paranoia. There are suggestions of police spies, party factionalism, infighting and complete intellectual dishonesty in the leadership. As he is fictionalising straight autobiography, Upward seems to be settling some old scores in the characterization of some of his fellow Communists – literary portraits of obscure CP members, which will mean nothing to most readers.
Throughout The Rotten Elements, Alan’s mind swings, like a too-mechanical metronome, between devotion to poetry and devotion to the continuing class struggle.
By cataloguing facts about the physical world and social tensions, the first two novels have some documentary value. But Upward’s secondary characters are unconvincing stereotypes – they have that awful Shavian tendency to be mouthpieces for ideological viewpoints, or social “types”. There is a stilted, self-expository quality to much of the dialogue, although it can be an advantage, where clarity is concerned, in scenes of polemical debate.
Alan Sebrill is supposedly intensely concerned with world affairs and literature. Yet he is insensitive to many of the important events of his age. Not once do we hear of him reading a contemporary novel, poem or play. He constantly worries about the effects on him of “the habits of a middle-class upbringing”, and yet we are told nothing about his background. It is as if the author has put himself in a straightjacket by concentrating so exclusively on political matters that he takes his main character’s bourgeois background as read.
Only in the third novel, No Home But the Struggle, which was first published as part of the single-volume trilogy in 1977, does Upward really let it all hang out. Now living through the 1960s, Alan Sebrill confines his political activities to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and believes he has at last achieved a balance between poetry and politics. The bulk of the novel is taken up with all those things he suppressed in the first two volumes of the trilogy – memories of childhood and family friends; schooling; adolescent love-affairs; student days at Cambridge; friendship with Richard Marple (i.e. Christopher Isherwood) and the first stirrings of poetic inspiration. Upward drops his earlier subterfuge and writes directly in the first person.
In its richer variety of events, and the greater honesty of its style, No Home But the Struggle is certainly the most readable of the three novels. But again alert readers will note what Upward misses out many of the things that would have been essential to the life like Upward and his fictitious alter ego. The 1950s, the matter of Hungary, and a new wave of disillusionment sweeping Western Communists, simply aren’t here.
After the nearly 800 pages of the whole of The Spiral Ascent, what is the world-shattering conclusion Alan Sebrill reaches? Only that a poet cannot be free if he subjects himself to the rigid dogma of any political party. This conclusion was no doubt a major turning point in Edward Upward’s life. But I suspect most readers will have reached it about 700 pages before his hero does. And he when he does reach it, one still detects a wide streak of sentimental Stalinist nostalgia in Upward’s other self.
Confessional Footnote One: I first read The Spiral Ascent when I was in my twenties, and reviewed it for the now-defunct Auckland Star (4 February 1978 to be precise, if you have a way of checking). I have cannibalised that review here, after reacquainting myself with Upward’s trilogy.
Confessional Footnote Two: I have not read a newly-published biography of Edward Upward, Peter Stansky’s Edward Upward: Art and Life. I have only read reviews of it in some English publications. Apparently Stansky argues that, as a literary figure, Upward was really killed by his adoption of Stalinist “social realism”. Stansky also remarks wittily that Upward “became very well known for being forgotten.” Quite.
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.
ON ADAM CURTIS
I try hard not to turn these “Something Thoughtful” spots into advertisements, but there are times when something seems important enough to bring to your attention.
If you have not already done so, could I suggest you find the time to search Youtube, access the documentaries of Adam Curtis, and watch them?
I have so far watched three of Curtis’s series viz. The Century of the Self, The Trap and his most recent HyperNormalisation. I am aware that no one commentator is right about everything, and there are some things in Curtis’s programmes that I find contestable. I am aware that there are moments in Curtis’s series where things are oversimplified or generalisations are made. Even so, I find Curtis’s series to be the most persuasive things the mass media have given us on the current state of what is loosely called “Western” civilisation and its culture and economics.
To summarise briefly what I have seen:
Made and first broadcast by the BBC in 2002, The Century of the Self is regrettably presented on Youtube in a very “low resolution” download. If you are watching it on Youtube (I understand it is also available on DVD), it is therefore advisable to choose a small-screen format. Basically Curtis argues that personal freedom is held up as the highest value of Western democracy, but in the process, personal freedom is manipulated by both corporations and governments, producing a society of individualist consumers who feel no solidarity with their fellow human beings.
As Curtis tells it, Freudian psychoanalysis was originally touted as a means of freeing the individual. But in no time Freudian techniques were used, first by advertising agencies, and then by politicians, to create a consumer society based on desires rather than needs. The herd was being controlled. In the 1960s radical (and often quite flaky) “alternatives” to Freudianism emerged – EST, the “Human Potential” movement etc., again claiming that they would produce greater individual freedom. But making the individual the centre of our concerns leads to an atomised society - hence in the 1970s and 1980s the rise of neo-liberalism, the deconstruction of the welfare state, and Margaret Thatcher’s fatuous dogma “There is no such thing as society – there are only individuals making choices.” Freedom means the freedom to shop, to make consumer choices, and to create our own exclusive bubbles. Lack of solidarity with society at large also means that individuals are more easily manipulated.
I suppose we are most persuaded by what we half believe in anyway, so I admit that my favourable response to Curtis’ The Century of the Self has much to do with Curtis’s confirming that I already thought. I have long believed that the hippie slogan “Do your own thing in your own time” had as its corollary “…and other people can get stuffed”. It became respectable to be selfish (“Greed is Good!”) on the assumption that other people are just as self-absorbed as we are, and besides, they have no right to call on the rest of society if they are in need, because there is no such thing as society…
These ideas are explored from another perspective in Adam Curtis’s The Trap, three 60-minute-long episodes first broadcast by the BBC in 2007. Curtis begins by considering “game theory”, the system devised by strategists during the Cold War when they hypothesised on how the enemy might behave in a future nuclear war. The essence of “game theory” was the assumption that everybody acts first of all in his/her own self-interest. Those who act on humanitarian principles, or out of a sense of solidarity with their fellow human beings, are “suckers” who are likely to lose a nuclear exchange.
There is the remote possibility that this theory might have had some validity in the area of military strategy. But essentially game theory was applied to the economic organisation of society by the “Chicago school” and others. People are self-interested. Therefore people’s self-interest, rather than their altruism, should be appealed to. It amused me enormously to see how the once-fashionable RD Laing was shown by Curtis to be part of this slide, with his (now disproven) theories that families cause schizophrenia and that only the individual matters. Ditto the inane reductionism of Richard Dawkins, seeing human beings merely as machine-like packages to carry genes – his “selfish gene” ideology. Both were/are part of the matrix that fed into – or fed upon - neo-liberal economics, where everybody is seen to be selfish and making “rational” decisions based on that selfishness. Again, goodbye welfare state. Curtis showed President Bill Clinton’s Democrat government and Tony Blair’s “New” Labour succumbing to this ideology at about the same time, cutting welfare programmes on the pretext of efficiency and to catch the votes of a middle-class who had been taught to resent having their taxes supporting people less prosperous than themselves. After all, the poor are only poor because they have made “bad choices”, right?
The third Curtis series of my ken is HyperNormalisation, broadcast by the BBC in October 2016, and therefore able to discuss the Donald Trump phenomenon, among other things. The slide from solidarity to (illusory and manipulated) individual freedom was again charted. But this time Curtis’s focus was the techniques of encouraging conformity in the era of the computer and internet. In what is often called the “information age”, where all knowledge is supposedly at our fingertips at the press of a PC key, our distance from our fellow human beings is actually heightened. The corporations running the internet constantly re-write algorithms to ensure that we are fed material, which our previous surfing of the ‘net has suggested we most want to see. In effect, we get to live in “bubbles”, seeing only that which will reinforce what we already think. The massive circulation of misinformation, and the collapse of older styles of journalism, are also parts of the problem. In this case, Curtis shows what impact this has had in the conduct of an aggressive (American and British) foreign policy in the Middle East, which in turn aroused a furious Islamicist backlash.
It is possible that in reading this, you may have formed the impression that Adam Curtis is some sort of conspiracy theorist. I do not think so. I believe his series are well-researched and well-reasoned. And while I am duly wary of any commentator making a political or sociological point, I would observe that real conspiracy theories flourish most on Facebook, Youtube [yes – I see the irony of encouraging you to watch things on Youtube], Twitter, and other social media. For what it’s worth, all Curtis’s series were the product of the BBC which, for all its recently tarnished reputation, is not conspiracy-theory feed.
Monday, November 28, 2016
[NOTICE TO READERS: For five years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE WISH CHILD” by Catherine Chidgey (Victoria University Press, $45)
A couple of years back I watched on Youtube Claude Chabrol’s 1993 documentary film L’Oeil de Vichy (The Eye of Vichy). With minimal explanatory commentary, it consists (almost) entirely of selections from newsreels and propaganda films made by France’s collaborationist Vichy regime between 1940 and 1944. If one were to believe this footage, one would believe that France was prospering under Marshal Petain, that there was no unemployment, that Nazi Germany was a benign ally, that the Allied cause was defeated and that resistance to the Vichy regime consisted only of a handful of criminals in foreign pay.
Chabrol was criticised severely in some quarters for not constantly showing and telling viewers that this was all propagandist fantasy, having no credible connection with what was really happening in France in those years. But Chabrol was a more cunning film-maker than his critics realised. What he was doing was showing the mentality of those who ran the collaborationist regime, and the influence they had. And he was banking on the sophistication of his viewers to realise that these old actuality films were untruthful. In the last ten minutes of his film he lifted the veil which the ancient propaganda had woven, and showed raw and undoctored footage of the retribution that came in 1944 as armed partisans turned on those who had collaborated, and the Vichy regime crumbled in shame and recrimination.
It took just those last minutes to expose how mendacious was everything that had gone before – but in the preceding hour-and-a-half, we had been able to share the delusions of an authoritarian regime.
This is a lengthy but, I hope, not irrelevant introduction to what I think Catherine Chidgey is doing in her novel The Wish Child. I will reverse my usual procedure and cut to a verdict at once. This is an extraordinary novel, written not only with a real and close understanding of the history which it fictionalises, but written in a way that enables us to get under the skin of people who thought and felt very differently from the way we think or feel. Like the very best of recent New Zealand historical novels (Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, Paula Morris’s Rangatira, Charlotte Randall’s Hokitika Town and The Bright Side of My Condition and a few others), Catherine Chidgey avoids stereotypes. How did young Germans under the Nazi regime think? What did they dream of? What did they hope for or fear? Because dreams and fears come into it, there are moments of what amounts to surrealism and (as the author explains in her end-note) there are deliberate departures from the literal historical record. This novel is not a chronicle. As in Chabrol’s film, there is no overt preaching. Like Chabrol, Chidgey banks on her audience being informed enough to realise that how her main characters see the world often bears little resemblance to any objective historical reality.
With bookends of later history, the main narrative runs from 1939 to 1945. A young girl, Sieglinde Heilmann, lives with her middle-class family in Berlin, where her father is a respectable functionary. A young boy, Erich Kroning, lives with his farming family somewhere near Leipzig, part of the peasant class that Hitler’s Blut und Boden ideology so favoured. It is the experience of these two children that the novel follows, through chapters often titled with Nazi slogans or phrases - “Strength Through Joy”, “Fuhrer Weather”, “You Too Belong to the Fuhrer” (the last being the slogan on a propaganda poster encouraging parents to enrol very young children in Nazi organisations). Inevitably, the main story runs from the first dizzy year of German victory, when Hitler was still extremely popular, to the final catastrophic disillusion as the Red Army pours through the bombed-out rubble of Berlin.
It is important that Sieglinde and Erich are children – vulnerable and “innocent” and therefore, more than their elders are, blank slates upon which regime propaganda may be written. Sieglinde is often puzzled or confused about what is happening around her. Erich is the innocent true believer in the Fuhrer. But there is a controlling irony to this novel in the disjunction between the perception of these children and what we (should) know. We (should) know that a monstrous regime is being depicted, but for the novel’s German middle-class and farming families, it is everyday normality. And for the children who are the novel’s most consistent witnesses to events, there are gaps which we, as readers, have to fill.
What is not known by the novel’s characters cannot intrude upon their thoughts. In one of the novel’s more Kafkaesque touches Sieglinde’s father Gottlieb Heilmann is employed excising inconvenient words from printed texts – words like “love”, “mercy”, “defeat”, “sorrow”, “promise” or “surrender”. He is the bureaucrat in a totalitarian regime whose function is to wash away possible subversive modes of thought. He is like the purveyors of “Newspeak” in 1984. Each chapter in The Wish Child is preceded with a text out of which key words have been chopped, rendering the texts either nonsensical or highly cryptic.
Chidgey represents common, uninformed (and rumour-filled) opinion with recurring dialogues between a Frau Miller and a Frau Muller, a perverse Greek Chorus of gossip. They talk about Hitler’s speeches or working in a factory where busts of Hitler are made or children denouncing their parents or how hard it is to have rationed soap, always expressing both self-interest and the common prejudices of their time and place. They are the social milieu in which young Sieglinde lives. The propaganda that bears upon her directly is heard in another recurring device – the commentary of a schoolteacher who gives a Nazi spin to the guided tours of young schoolchildren through factories processing food, making radios or making toys.
Chidgey, well-versed in German literature and history, trusts her readers to pick up allusions which are not explained. Take the following example. Young Sieglinde is reflecting on a poem she has learnt at school:
“At night her mask waits at the foot of her bed, and she listens to the siren and thinks of a golden comb slipping through lengths of golden hair. The poem comes to her as she lies listening – but it is not a poem, Fraulein Althaus has told them, it is a folk song, a traditional old German song written by nobody. Still, the children do not sing it, this old siren song, but recite the lines in unison, and at night they come to Sieglinde as she waits for the bombs to flash above her, jewels glimpsed from a little boat at the river’s deadly bend. O dark water.” (p.46)
If you are in the know, you will understand that the poem Sieglinde is thinking about is Heinrich Heine’s Die Lorelei. It was possibly the best-known poem in the German language and certainly the one that German schoolchildren learnt the way English schoolchildren learnt Wordworth’s Daffodils or French schoolchildren learnt Verlaine’s Chanson d’Automne. For the Nazis, the embarrassment was that Heinrich Heine, the great German lyric poet of the nineteenth century, was Jewish. Therefore in the Nazi years, this unignorable poem was palmed off as a “traditional” folk poem. (For a comment on what happened to Heine’s statue in Hamburg, see my post Unlaid Ghosts from July 2014).
Another allusion is the very title of the novel. The Wish Child was the title of a novel by Ina Seidel, very popular in Germany in 1930s, set in the Napoleonic wars and embracing a very Blut und Boden outlook. Catherine Chidgey turns this outlook upside down.
There are much more sinister unexplained allusions than this. In one sequence, the woman guiding children through a factory (pp. 140-141) warns them of the danger of poisonous mushrooms. This takes point if you already know that a widely-distributed Nazi book for children compared Jews to poison mushrooms. It is never explained (and never enquired into by adult characters) why there should be, in Berlin, so many auctions of household effects in houses of people who have been moved out. (“Which people?” we should ask alertly.) Whose clothes are being unpicked to find jewels sown in them? (p.148) From whom did the hair come which is being stuffed into mattresses and providing hair for toy dolls? (p.159) If, by this stage, you cannot hear echoes of cattle-trucks carting people off to death camps, then you have not got the measure of this book. Be it noted that Jews are scarcely mentioned, although in one nightmare image a Berliner Jewish couple complain that their apartment is getting smaller and smaller while their German neighbours’ apartment is getting larger.
I have said that Catherine Chidgey’s style is sometimes surreal. But paradoxically, some of the most surreal material is straight reportage. Think, for example, of a scene where a Nazi “wedding” is performed for a young woman whose betrothed is already dead. But then he died a German hero on the field of battle and she is of the right Aryan blood and so she has the right to a “wedding”. What could be more surreal than people getting used to the bodies being piled up in the streets after air-raids? Added to the foreboding in the later passages are rumours (half-understood by the children) of a “shadow man” and revived nightmares of a Nachzehrer (vampire from dark German folktales). In the following passage, Chidgey is describing quite literally the making of cast heads of Hitler, that members of the Volk were encouraged to display in their homes. But the literal description has a clearly symbolic undertone:
“The heads are lighter than they appear, cast in base metal and finished to look like solid bronze. They warm beneath the women’s hands, coming to life, but if you turn them upside down you will find they are hollow; you will see the backwards mouth, the backwards eyes, the dark dome of the skull. The women touch the flow lines and the voids, the linden-leaf blemishes, deciding what they can correct with their brushes and cloths and what cannot be fixed. There might be a hole in the temple, the suggestion of a wound, a congenital fault: such examples are returned to the furnace and melted back down. I have witnessed this process, the malformed faces distending and collapsing, unmaking themselves.” (p.86)
Much of The Wish Child consists of interior monologue of the city girl Sieglinde or of the farm-boy Erich (who is puzzled by unanswered questions about his background.) But I have not mentioned something that gives this novel its particular flavour. On the opening page we are introduced to a disembodied and unidentified narrator, who speaks thus:
“Let me say that I was not in the world long enough to understand it well, so can give you only impressions, like the shapes left in rock by long-decayed leaves, or the pencil rubbings of doves and skulls that are but flimsy memories of stone. Just these little smudges, these traces of light and shadow, these breaths in and out. They feel like mine” (p.13)
Who or what is this narrator, who looks on events and comments on characters in a curiously detached way? As always, it is not my purpose to spike the surprises of a newly published novel. But I can say that this voice is connected to the Nazi embrace of eugenics in a way that makes the “wish” of the novel’s title profoundly disturbing. In a scene set in a medal factory, the schoolchildren’s guide expresses propaganda for motherhood, but in a way that is eugenicist and racially-based. She tells the children: “It’s not sufficient, though, simply to produce these children – anyone can do that; look at the gypsies. No, girls, you must be judged worthy of the [motherhood] medal – your conduct as well as your blood – and not only the number but also the quality of the children is considered….” (p.132)
This sort of biological racism comes to dominate the novel’s nightmare and is the novel’s key indictment of the regime. It is underscored when the image of the fossilised Kayhausen Boy is used to teach a eugenics lesson about how the weak do not deserve to survive; or another in which Erich is measured with callipers to show he is a true Aryan. The front-flap blurb of The Wish Child describes the novel as “a profound meditation on the wreckage caused by a corrupt ideology, on the resilience of the human spirit, and on crimes that cannot be undone”. Well, maybe, though this formula makes it sound a little more pat than it really is. I see its relevance to our own age as much in its exposure of a eugenics mentality, which judges people in purely materialistic terms of their utility – meaning that the chronically sick, the deformed or the mentally ill are not wanted, and should be eliminated. Though the term eugenics has long since been abandoned, this mentality is still very much with us.
I am resistant to those who judge the value of literature by how much it emotionally moved them (“Oh it was so MOVING!” somebody may witter of a sentimental film). But I do have to record my reaction to the final meeting of Sieglinde and Erich in shattered Berlin and the way their story works out. It is wrenching, shattering, indeed one of the few times that reading a novel has almost driven me to tears.
Was it an artistic mistake of the author not to end the story in the rubble of Berlin, 1945? I’ll let others judge that one. But by carrying it on to East and West Berlin in the 1950s and 1960s, and the way the Communist Stasi spied and censored the way the Gestapo had, Chidgey does make a major point about the durability of humanity’s dark side.
This is a brilliant novel, with a cohesive and persuasive vision of human beings under stress, a subtle prose-style and a major grasp of things that really matter.
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 MARBLE FAUN” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (first published in 1860)
The mid-19th century New England author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64) wrote in quick succession two novels that have continued to attract a large readership, are often made set texts in high schools and universities, and have often been dramatized or filmed, The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851). He smartly followed them with a novel, based on personal experience, about a failed experiment in communal living, The Blithedale Romance (1852), which has never been a popular favourite, but which is treasured by academics and cultural historians interested in trends in American civilisation.
I have dealt with each on these in earlier blog postings, but I have held back from commenting on Hawthorne’s fourth, and last, novel The Marble Faun, which was written seven years after the creative three-year burst that produced his better-known works. There is a reason for this. In my view at least, The Marble Faun is the feeblest of Hawthorne’s productions, though Hawthorne himself thought it his best work, it sold well on its first publication (partly because the author’s reputation was then so high) and it has continued to be appreciated by a handful of connoisseurs. A quick check of Wikipedia shows me that it has yielded a huge harvest of theses and articles in academic journals – but then that is to be expected even of minor works by a major writer.
Briefly, The Marble Faun, subtitled The Romance of Monte Beni, and for some reason first published in England under the title Transformation, was the result of Hawthorne’s first real contact with Europe. After producing his better-known novels, he spent four years as an American consul in England, and then spent 18 months as a tourist with his family in Italy. For the first time he was directly exposed to the art of both the Italian Renaissance and classical antiquity, and it was from this that the novel grew.
In his preface to the novel, Hawthorne famously declares:
“No author, without a trial, can conceive of the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land. It will be a very long time, I trust, before romance-writers may find congenial and easily handled themes, either in the annals of our stalwart republic, or in any characteristic and probable event of our individual lives. Romance and poetry, ivy, lichens and wall-flowers need ruins to make them grow.”
Many would now contest his view that America did not already have a history out of which “romances” (Hawthorne’s preferred term for novels) could be woven. Nevertheless his drift here is clear. In his view he, as an American, has to turn to Europe to get a sense of the deep past and its art, and to find the materials for a romantic and mysterious tale.
The plot of The Marble Faun, inasmuch as I can make something coherent out of such a fragile and notional thing, goes like this:
Three American artists are sojourning in Rome, the sculptor Kenyon and two students of painting, Hilda and Miriam. They come to know Donatello, the young Count of Monte Beni. At first their companionship is idyllic and carefree, but then a crime is committed. Miriam is being stalked and annoyed by a mysterious stranger (a Capuchin monk). She appeals to Donatello to help her get rid of this intrusive pest. Donatello obliges and, on an evocatively moonlit night, he kills the stranger by throwing him over a cliff – the Tarpeian Rock on the Capitoline Hill, no less. Hilda witnesses this event, so three of the major characters are either implicated in, or have witnessed, a crime. This changes their dispositions and the colour of their experience as carefree days depart and guilt now hangs over them. Donatello retires to his country villa in a melancholy fit. For a while, Hilda mysteriously disappears. This is all much to the distress of the puritan New England sculptor Kenyon, who is in love with Hilda (and who also seems to be very much the author’s alter ego and mouthpiece).
Because it is laid on with a trowel, one notices at once the heavy symbolism associated with each character. The American characters often compare Donatello with Praxiteles’ marble statue of a faun (or resting satyr), which is encountered and described early in the novel – hence the novel’s title. Indeed, they seem to half believe that the young Italian count is a descendant of Praxiteles’ model. So Donatello represents the amorality of pagan antiquity. But having the same name as a famous Renaissance sculptor, he also represents Italian art in general, so far removed from modern American sensibilities. Fair-headed Hilda is virginal and pure. She is frequently (and cloyingly) associated with images of the Blessed Virgin Mary or with a Vestal Virgin. She is a copyist, specialising in imitating scrupulously other people’s work rather than generating original art of her own. Mysterious, dark-haired Miriam Schaefer specialises in passionate paintings of violence. Imagery compares her with sinful or homicidal women such as Eve, Judith, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth and Beatrice Cenci (look up my review of ATale for Midnight to find out more about the last named).
So there is Hawthorne doing what he did in The Blithedale Romance – creating polarities of the pure and desirable non-intellectual woman, and the passionate and possibly destructive intellectual woman. The implications of this might rest uneasily with us now. Good and desirable women reproduce (i.e. have children). Passionate intellectual women produce disturbing art – and encourage murder.
Of course this is a gross simplification of what Hawthorne is up to in this novel. Indeed, in making my brief synopsis I have forced the issue by stating as plot-points things that are left very vague and cloudy in the novel itself. This tale ends both happily and extremely vaguely, with Hawthorne cheerfully telling us he can’t be bothered filling in the details of how his plot concludes. As he puts it (at the beginning of the last chapter, Chapter 50):
“The gentle reader, we trust, would not thank us for one of those minute elucidations which are so tedious and, after all, so unsatisfactory in clearing up the romantic mysteries of a story. He is too wise to insist upon looking closely at the wrong side of the tapestry, after the right one has been sufficiently displayed to him, woven with the best of the artist’s skill, and cunningly arranged with a vie to the harmonious exhibition of the colours.”
[Translation: I’m not going to bother sorting the story out or revealing to you how I’ve been manipulating you through this allusive narrative.]
Hawthorne’s first readers weren’t happy with this, and wrote to him insisting that he explain some of the tale’s mysteries and its apparently supernatural elements. In reply, Hawthorne added a four-page “Conclusion” which has been printed as part of the novel ever since. In it, he basically argues that this is a symbolic and magical tale, and as such, its loose ends cannot be tied up without breaking the spell and subjecting it to rational analysis.
So, after all this mystification, what is The Marble Faun all about? Decoding the novel’s symbolism, the best I can suggest is that it has something to do with the morality of art. Art as simple aesthetic experience and the appreciation of beauty (the “pagan” motifs associated with the Italian count early in the novel) cannot truthfully reflect a world in which there are moral dilemmas (the murder) and our moral natures are aroused. Real art should have some degree of moral gravitas.
But in reading the novel one finds that this simple scheme is often a mere thread for ideas and incidents – a pretext for a series of descriptions of Rome, of works of art, of a country villa, of a carnival etc. At their best these, descriptions and self-contained essays have a strong pictorial sense. At their worst they are like an American tourist’s guidebook. Quite correctly, some early reviewers saw Hawthorne as having padded out a simple tale with descriptive local colour, and it seems that in the late 19th century, it was indeed the vogue among American tourists to use The Marble Faun as a guidebook when they were in Rome. (As, over a century later, some less-informed Americans began to use Hemingway’s spiteful A MoveableFeast as a guide to Paris.)
In one respect the novel succeeds. The plot is so sketchy and the descriptions are so dominant that it takes on a vague, dreamlike quality, perhaps appropriate for a work, which strives to impress us with the faun-like nature of Donatello and the vestal virgin purity of Hilda, garnished with numerous self-conscious classical allusions. And of course there is the Puritan New Englander’s love-hate relationship with Catholicism and Catholic art. Kenyon (i.e. Hawthorne) frankly enjoys and revels in the art he sees in Roman churches, but then often he has to “correct himself” by adding some qualifying phrase. It is not unexpected that Hawthorne should depict terror as a stalking Capuchin monk. And naturally Hawthorne’s/Kenyon’s attitude is one of shock and horror when Hilda chooses to go to confession in St Peter’s and almost converts to Catholicism. Perhaps it was this that set the Puritan off thinking about the dark side of great art – the fact that so much of it was associated with and commissioned by the Catholic Church.
All manner of rude thoughts arose in my mind after I first read this book – that it is the literary equivalent of the music of Respighi, The Pines of Rome or some such - skilful, pretty and intellectually respectable, but having no real force or genius behind it and little real connection with life. But the crude fact is that I enjoy listening to the music of Respighi, and I would be very ungrateful if I did not admit to enjoying reading this flawed, padded and sometimes outrageously silly novel. Freed from the burden of plot, I wallowed in Hawthorne’s set pieces, no matter how clumsily they were introduced, without having to worry about where the plot was going. It was very much like enjoying those free-standing moments of reflection, like essays, which I enjoy in the novels of George Eliot, but which drive some readers to despair.
One interesting coda – apparently The Marble Faun was the first American novel to contrast innocent, idealistic Americans with the sophisticated and possibly corrupt Europeans whom they encounter in Europe. Henry James was later to make this one of his major themes in novel after novel. (See posts on Roderick Hudson and The Portrait of a Lady.) I don’t think the perceived polarity of American innocence and European moral corruption would now stand much objective scrutiny. But then it probably never did.