Monday, July 27, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“LYDIA BRADEY: GOING UP IS EASY” with Laurence Fearnley ($38, Penguin-Random House); “RED NOTICE” by Bill Browder (Bantam Press, $37:99)
This week, for a change of pace, I look at two recent works of non-fiction, one New Zealand and one American. The New Zealand one first.
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I admire physical adventurers, risk-takers, people who accomplish extraordinary physical feats. But I know I am not one of them. So I admire them from a distance. All the time I was reading New Zealand mountaineer Lydia Bradey’s memoir Going Up is Easy, I was looking for insights into what makes such adventurers tick, and I think I found quite a few.
To orient you – Going Up Is Easy is Lydia Bradey’s first-person account of her climbing career. It was put together in a long series of conversations with her friend, and sometime flatmate, the novelist Laurence Fearnley. Fearnley recorded and edited Bradey’s words, and at the end of some chapters Fearnley provides commentary (printed in italics), adding details and making observations about Bradey that Bradey has not made herself.
Bradey’s main claim to fame, and the one that is emphasised in the blurb, is that she was the first woman to climb Mount Everest without using oxygen. She achieved this feat in 1988, when she was 27. Laurence Fearnley speaks about sharing a house with Lydia Bradey in 1989, and of the climber’s troubles at that time:
“Lydia was troubled about what was going on around her, the direction her life was taking and her future. She was awaiting word from Nepal concerning her penalty for climbing Everest illegally, without a permit. On a more personal level, she was pretty lonely. She was still processing the grief surrounding the deaths of four of her closest climbing companions on Everest and she was separated from the man with whom she had formed a relationship overseas. On top of that, her New Zealand boyfriend, Leo, was killed in a paragliding accident only a few months into their relationship.” (pp.9-10)
Like a true epic, Going Up Is Easy begins in medias res with an account of theEverest climb. Admitting that she got on better with the Czech members than the New Zealand members of the (otherwise all-male) Czech-New Zealand climbing team of which she was a part, Bradey confesses how inexperienced she was about some things on that climb. Nevertheless, she managed to reach the summit on her own. Unfortunately, her frozen camera denied her the ability to give physical proof of her achievement. To her distress, the New Zealand members of the team, under Rob Hall, had packed up and left base camp before she descended; and on returning to New Zealand, Rob Hall disputed Bradey’s claim that she had ever reached the summit….
At which point, with the matter unresolved, Going Up Is Easy proceeds to a more chronological account of Bradey’s life in ten or so brisk chapters. Bought up by a strictly logical but emotionally-distant single mother, Bradey took to climbing early, made her first big climb on Mount Aspiring and reached the summit of Aoraki /Mt Cook when she was 18. But when, at the age of 19, she failed to reach the summit of Denali / Mt McKinley, the highest peak in North America, Bradey decided she needed to learn more of the technical skills of climbing. She managed to talk her way into doing three seasons of vertical rock-climbing in Yosemite national park in the USA, and then moved on to high altitude work in the Himalayas, climbing (but not summiting) Cho Oyu on the border of Tibet and Nepal, and then conquering one hitherto unclimbed peak. In 1987-88 she was with Rob Hall and a New Zealand team on the notorious K2. Here (in what reads as her best story) she was almost dragged into a crevasse and killed when another climber fell and was dangling on the rope she had to secure. Bradey admits that there were strong tensions between herself and Rob Hall on that expedition as he (and other male members of the New Zealand team) accused her of fraternising too much with members of a rival American team.
And so (in Chapter 12), Going Up Is Easy gets back to the matter of her Everest climb in October 1988. In more detail we are told of her summiting alone on Everest, of the controversy when Rob Hall denied her achievement and when she was not supported in her claim by the New Zealand Alpine Club, and then of her vindication by other climbers who were on Everest at the time. Bradey strongly suggests (without stating in so many words) that Rob Hall was suffering from sour grapes in that his team was the only one of many teams that failed to summit on Everest in that climbing season.
So, having given you my dry outline of this book’s contents, I revert to the question suggested by the opening paragraph of this review.
What makes mountaineers and other such adventurers tick?
Nearly everything in Lydia Bradey’s narrative suggests that her success is underpinned by a single-minded, tightly-focused determination bordering on obsession. There are light-hearted and funny anecdotes in this book. (The most delightfully silly is the one about a team Bradey was in having only Lord of the Rings as reading matter on one climbing expedition – and so ripping up the bulky book and sharing it out for the separate parts to be read in rotation by the individual climbers.) There are accounts of many affairs with male colleagues and companions over the years, but none seems to supplant Bradey’s first priority, which is climbing itself. In one of Laurence Fearnley’s asides (in Chapter 7), we are told that when Bradey once fell pregnant she immediately had an abortion and then had herself sterilised, family and children not being on her radar. One goad to her determination was the feminism of a woman who sometimes found climbing culture dominated by men who tended to regard women as auxiliaries only to “real” climbers.
If this sounds rather severe, though, there is another side to Bradey’s obsession. It is expressed most eloquently when she gives her account of vertical rock-climbing in Yosemite park:
“Spending several days on walls is very much like encapsulating a short part of your life in a vertical world of total commitment, concentration – and fun. I can think of no other pursuit that is so otherworldly, in that you’re still in contact with a solid, hard surface – unlike flying or swimming for example – but the ‘ground’ is no longer beneath your feet so much as in front of your nose. The overall sensation is of being in the landscape, becoming part of it, because everything is so close, and detailed – almost as if you are looking at the earth through a magnifying glass. Every feature is condensed into its smallest elements and this makes the transitions from one rockscape to another remarkable because you’re aware of every fine line, crack, fissure, bump or texture in the rock. Climbing is completely absorbing. That’s what it’s like – being absorbed in the landscape while, behind you, at your back, is unlimited open sky and space.” (pp.71-73)
The obsession is not cold-blooded. It has this aesthetic side to it, this fascination with the physical world and the obstacles it presents.
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I’m a bit tardy in reviewing Bill Browder’s Red Notice, which was released internationally earlier this year, and I have to begin by stating the obvious. If I were to review Red Notice as a piece of literary prose, I would award it a very low grade. It is written with the tricks – and often the verbal clichés – of average journalism. Further, if I were to consider the author as a human being, I might have some negative things to say about him. And yet I still think this is an important book, for all its shortcomings. It tells a wrenching and horrible story of how oligarchical terror now controls post-Soviet Russia – Vladimir Putin’s Russia – and how human rights are routinely violated there with the full approval of the highest authorities.
Let’s consider these statements in more detail, starting with the author.
One has to accept that Bill Browder himself is something of a buccaneer and not guiltless of the faults of which all determined investment capitalists can be accused. By his own account he, the scion of a left-wing American family (his grandfather Earl Browder was the secretary of the American Communist Party), deliberately immersed himself as deeply as possible in capitalism as a form of rebellion from his background. He had a shaky start, first being sent (after time at a business school) to just-post-Communist Poland (described miserably) to advise on privatising a run-down bus company. This wasn’t much of a success. He got a job at Robert Maxwell’s firm, just before it went bottom-up with Maxwell’s suicide and the exposure of multi-million-pound fraud. Unable to get a job anywhere else, he was then taken on by Salomon Brothers, the dodgiest finance company on Wall Street, already crippled by repeated investigations into its practices. They had a policy with newcomers. In your first year, you make five-times the worth of your salary for the company or you get fired.
For a tiny retainer, Browder was sent to former Soviet Union to advise on the privatisation of a fishing fleet. But it was here he got his brainwave. He seems to have been the first Western venture capitalist to realize how huge bucks could be made trading in Russian stocks before the emerging oligarchs got the hang of capitalism. Not to put it too crudely, then, Browder himself, in the prologue to how he clashed with Putin, is revealed as an enterprising exploiter.
But (and this is the crucial point in understanding what follows), however dodgy Browder’s business practices might appear to you and me, he always played within the law.
Browder notes some crucial things about Putin’s domain, such as:
“Instead of 150 million Russians sharing the spoils of mass privatisation, Russia wound up with 22 oligarchs owning 39 per cent of the economy and everybody else living in poverty. To make ends meet, professors had to become taxi drivers, nurses became prostitutes and art museums sold paintings right off their walls.” (Chapter 9)
He finds it hard at first to recruit efficient Russian staff:
“Once I had the office, I needed people to help me run it. While tens of millions of Russians were desperate to make a living, hiring a good English-speaking employee in Moscow was almost impossible. Seventy years of communism had destroyed the work ethic of an entire nation. Millions of Russians had been sent to the gulags for showing the slightest hint of personal initiative. The Soviets severely penalised independent thinkers, so the natural self-preservation was to do as little as possible and hope nobody would notice you. This had been fed into the psyches of ordinary Russians from the moment they were on their mother’s breast. To run a Western-style business, therefore, you had to either completely brainwash a fresh young Russian about the virtues of efficiency and clear thinking or find some miraculous person whose natural psychology had somehow defied the pressures of communism.” (Chapter 10)
He also notes how much the country is now controlled by the super-rich:
“I had stumbled upon one of the most important cultural phenomena of post-Soviet Russia – the exploding wealth gap. In Soviet times, the richest person in Russia was about six times richer than the poorest. Members of the Politburo might have had a bigger apartment, a car and a nice dacha, but not much more than that. However, by the year 2000 the richest person had become 250,000 times richer than the poorest person. This wealth disparity was created in such a short period of time that it poisoned the psychology of the nation.” (Chapter 17)
Becoming CEO of the Hermitage Fund, he made a huge fortune for himself and his backers by buying shares in Russian companies for the knockdown prices that were offered only to the privileged. In the process, he managed to face down some of the oligarchs controlling such companies when they resorted to “diluting” the value of shares by artificially increasing the number of shares available for sale after shares had already been purchased (i.e. you buy, say, 20% of shares available, the shares are “diluted”, and you find you now own only 5% of shares, rendering your investment comparatively worthless.) As Browder explains in Chapter 16, “asset stripping, dilutions, transfer pricing and embezzlement”, as well as the use of security forces and police for thuggery, and a suborned and bribed judiciary, are the preferred methods of Russian oligarchs when they wish to control, take over, or destroy companies which others have made profitable.
In his Russian dealings, the crisis came for Browder when he publicly exposed a massive fraud involving the huge Gazprom company, where powerful Russian insiders were stealing profits with the full knowledge of Putin and of the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Bureau, which acts much like the old KGB and has much the same staff). Browder had his visa revoked for exposing this fraud.
When he publicly reapplied for his visa, the FSB and its oligarch controllers, got really rough. They proceeded to raid, smash up the offices of, steal all the available assets of, and terrorise the staffs of, all companies in which Browder was involved and all that had had dealings with him. Says Browder:
“We had become victims of something called a ‘Russian raider attack’. These typically involved corrupt police officers fabricating criminal cases, corrupt judges approving the seizure of assets, and organized criminals hurting anyone who stood in the way. The practice was so common that ‘Vedomosti’, the independent Russian newspaper, had even published a menu of ‘Raider’ services with prices: freezing assets - $50,000; opening a criminal case - $50,000; securing a court order - $300,000; etc.” (Chapter 24)
Having shown that oligarch-controlled companies were committing massive tax fraud, Browder was, in retaliation, himself accused (on fabricated evidence) of tax fraud. To defend himself, he hired a number of Russian lawyers. The lawyers were threatened by the FSB and its operatives. Browder too was threatened. Three of his lawyers managed to get out of the country while they still had passports. Browder did the same. But one of the lawyers stayed behind. This was the 35-year-old attorney Sergei Magnitsky, who was arrested and imprisoned simply because he had agreed to act for Browder. Magnitsky was beaten, starved and tortured over a long period as attempts were made to get him to agree to testify against Browder. Magnitsky refused to give false testimony. He was beaten and tortured some more, and eventually was killed.
From England and America, Browder made sure that he kept the case in the public eye. In a long process, in conjunction first with human rights campaigners and then with American legislators, he managed to have framed what became known as the Magnitsky Act.
“The language of the act was simple and direct – anyone involved in the false arrest, torture or death of Sergei Magnitsky, or the crimes he uncovered, would be publicly named, banned from entering the United States and have any of their US assets frozen.” (Chapter 37)
It took some persuading to get this act passed by the US Congress and signed by President Obama, but finally it was passed, with its terms expanded to include others who had been so mistreated.
The story Browder tells has by now been verified in many reliable sources. It is commonplace for apologists for Putin to claim that he has won popularity by reining in the oligarchs. This is complete nonsense. The only oligarchs with whom Putin has clashed have been those who refused to give him a substantial part of their take. His reaction to the passage of the Magnitsky Act was rage and predictably retaliatory acts.
This book is not gracefully written. But it is a good chronicle of dealings in a country that lurched from communism to kleptocracy.
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.
“A MOVEABLE FEAST” by Ernest Hemingway (first published posthumously in 1964; so-called “restored” text published in 2009)
Here’s a tangled tale of publication, which might be a warning to authors against marrying too often.
After rediscovering a trunk full of diaries and letters he had written as a young man in the 1920s, Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) tinkered with the writing of A Moveable Feast between 1957 and his suicide in 1961. It was edited by his fourth (and last) wife Mary before it was published in 1964 and became a bestseller. Later, Mary Hemingway was accused of having edited the (uncompleted) text unfairly and with the malicious intent of cutting out some of the book’s favourable references to Hemingway’s first wife Hadley Richardson. Later still, in 2009, Sean Hemingway, Hemingway’s grandson by yet another wife, Pauline Pfeiffer, produced what he claimed was a “restored edition”, undoing the damage Mary was supposed to have done. He did put in one or two interesting stories that were not in the first edition. Unfortunately, critics said that Sean Hemingway’s version trimmed the first edition’s last chapter, which made unflattering references to his grandmother Pauline Pfeiffer (even if she was not specifically named). Most people believe the original 1964 publication is still the one closest to Hemingway’s intentions.
So, having given you this background, I admit that it is the first edition that I stick to in this notice.
Now why did I drag this slim volume (150 pages in the Penguin edition I read) off the shelf recently and re-read it?
Some months back, I was about to take another trip to Paris and before doing so I had watched, on-line, various documentaries and tourist-guides to the city. One consisted of an enthusiastic young American woman talking about the inner Paris area I’m most familiar with, Saint Germain des Pres. She insisted on linking it with the expatriate American writers who hung out there in the 1920s. At a couple of points she brandished a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast saying it was her “Bible” when it came to finding interesting places in Paris.
“Is it really good enough to be anybody’s ‘Bible’ as a guide to the city?” I thought, as I dimly remembered reading it in my former life as a high school English teacher. That was when I guided different classes of schoolkids through A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls and that favourite of teachers of junior forms The Old Man and the Sea. (A favourite like Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for the simple reason that it is so short kids don’t whine too much at having to read it.)
So off the shelf A Moveable Feast came and here I am writing about it. It is a memoir of Hemingway’s life in Paris between 1921 and 1926, when he was a stringer for a Toronto newspaper and getting the hang of writing short stories and then writing the first draft of his first novel The Sun Also Rises.
Let me say at once that, in small doses, Hemingway’s prose style is still invigorating. Those short sentences. That simplified vocabulary. Over the long stretch, though, it does become a bloody irritating mannerism, and I will never forgive the man (not only in this book, but in others) for so often and so lazily using the word “fine” when he wants to express approval of something. It was a “fine” book, a “fine” racetrack, a “fine” painting etc. etc. etc. I do note in A Moveable Feast that his first wife Hadley is referred to as “my wife” for much of the text, and is first referred to by name only about halfway through. Whether this was because of the way the text was edited, I do not know.
There are indeed some passages in this short book that evoke clearly a city that no longer exists. This is a city in which a woman still leads a goat through the streets, selling its milk to regular customers. The main noise in the streets is from the horses. The opening chapter has Hemingway writing a short story in “a good café on the Place St Michel” and it gets appropriately atmospheric about Paris reaching winter and the rain falling. There are mentions (Chapter 6) of Michaud’s restaurant where James Joyce dined and frequent references to going to Les Deux Magots for coffee. Some of these places are, naturally, now largely tourist attractions patronised by nostalgic Americans. In Chapter Five there’s an account of the booksellers on the left bank of the Seine, especially on the Quai Voltaire. Yes, the booksellers, with their lockable boxes of wares, are still there and I have dawdled along searching through their stuff. But I assume that it would mainly be tourists like me who are now their customers, and not the Sorbonne students who provided their main income in Hemingway’s time.
Hemingway’s famous passage about his writing methods is still regarded by writers as a piece of sound advice:
“It was in that room too that I learned not to think about anything that I was writing from the time I stopped writing until I started again next day. That way my subconscious would be working on it and at the same time I would be listening to other people and noticing everything….” (Chapter 2)
He is amusing when he speaks of being pestered by a talentless young man in a café, whom he advises to be a critic (Chapter 10). There is some giddy and youthfully silly stuff, like (Chapter 7) his and Hadley’s attraction to horse-racing. “It was not really racing”, says Hemingway, “it was gambling on horses. But we called it racing”. He realizes that he can make money on the horses, but finds it takes so much of his time that he has no time to write. So he switches his interest to watching cycle races.
Sometimes he can speak fondly of people. He does note the kindness and financial support of Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Co. He is generally positive about Ezra Pound (who died in 1972, and so was still alive when Hemingway wrote this book). Hemingway is mildly amused by Pound’s scheme to “rescue” T.S.Eliot from drudgery in a bank; but he can’t refrain from noting that Pound “liked the work of friends, which is beautiful as loyalty but can be disastrous as judgment.” (Chapter 12)
So far, so harmlessly engaging as a memoir.
But at a certain point, you can’t help noticing how negatively, indeed how downright maliciously, Hemingway speaks of nearly every other author he meets. And one notes that all of the people he thus bad-mouths were conveniently dead by the time he was writing, and therefore in no position to answer back.
To be crudely brutal, I suppose it doesn’t matter all that much when he is mocking minor figures like the forgotten poet Ernest Walsh, “marked for death” (Chapter 14), or the poet Evan Shipman (Chapter 15), though there does seem to be some mythologising when he tells a tale of preventing the poet Ralph Cheever Dunning from committing suicide, coaxing him off a roof by offering him opium supplied by Ezra Pound (Chapter 16).
Hemingway tells us that Wyndham Lewis was a second-rate writer and a bad artist who came to Paris to see what better artists were doing and then went back to London to make inferior imitations of their work. Possibly some would agree with this verdict, but Hemingway is clearly going over the top when he writes: “I do not think I have ever seen a nastier-looking man… Under the black hat, when I had first seen them, the eyes had been those of an unsuccessful rapist.” (Chapter 12) Apart from wondering what is distinct about the eyes of an unsuccessful rapist, one can’t help noticing that Wyndham Lewis died in 1957, before Hemingway wrote this stuff.
Gertrude Stein (who died in 1948) gets a waspish going-over when Hemingway visits her at 27 Rue de Fleurus. In Hemingway’s version, Stein was always expecting to be admired and got her “companion” [the unnamed Alice B. Toklas] to occupy Hemingway’s wife when the Hemingways visited. Hemingway’s evident implication is that Gertrude Stein did not expect heterosexual women to have anything worth saying. But Stein and Toklas “ forgave us for being in love and married”. With some justice, Hemingway objects to Stein’s coining the phrase “une generation perdue” (“a lost generation”) for Hemingway’s contemporaries, remarking that he doesn’t feel lost. But we are obviously meant to snicker when Hemingway claims to have overheard Stein childishly begging her lesbian lover not to leave her (Chapter 13).
Of Blaise Cendrars (who died in 1961, the same year as Hemingway), there is the offhanded comment that “he was a good companion until he drank too much.” (Chapter 9)
Ford Madox Ford (who died in 1939) is depicted as a preening fool who bullies waiters and claims to know more about Paris than he really does. In Hemingway’s account, Ford gives Hemingway a fatuous lecture on what a cad is. Hemingway attached Ford Madox Ford to a story – frequently quoted, but probably fictitious – of Ford’s elaborately “cutting” a man passing in the street whom he took to be Hilaire Belloc but who turned out to be Aleister Crowley. As many have already remarked, this really was Hemingway biting the hand that had fed him. Ford was the man who accepted all of Hemingway’s first short stories for publication and who later wrote a glowing introduction to A Farewell to Arms. At the time of which the older Hemingway claimed to be writing, Ford was one of his chief supporters in getting him noticed by the literati.
New Zealanders might also be interested in Hemingway’s slap-down of somebody he never met:
“In Toronto, before we had ever come to Paris, I had been told Katherine Mansfield was a good short-story writer, even a great short-story writer, but trying to read her after Chekhov was like hearing the carefully artificial tales of a young old-maid compared to those of an articulate and knowing physician who was a good and simple writer. Mansfield was like near-beer. It was better to drink water.” (Chapter 15)
It is, however, Chapters 17, 18 and 19, with their calculatedly demeaning view of F.Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, that are the acme of Hemingway’s malice. Scott, in Hemingway’s account, is a money-obsessed, self-pitying hypochondriac, with whom, says Hemingway, he ill-advisedly went on a trip to Lyon. Fitzgerald is a man who easily got drunk and passed out. “I had no more loyal friend than Scott when he was sober”, claims Hemingway (Chapter 18), in the type of back-hander designed to suggest his fairness. He goes on to present Zelda as a neurotic and jealous bitch who deliberately encouraged Scott’s drinking to prevent him from writing. Most notoriously there is the anecdote in Chapter 19, (for which Hemingway is the only source, of course), about Scott confiding that he couldn’t satisfy Zelda sexually and worrying about the size of his penis. So Ernest and Scott repair to the lavatory where Scott shows Ernest his penis and Ernest assures Scott that it is perfectly adequate, going on to tell Scott that Zelda is just trying to destroy his confidence.
Gosh! What a helpful friend!
Needless to add, Scott and Zelda had both died in the 1940s, a decade before A Moveable Feast began to be concocted.
Now I fully appreciate that many things could, validly and verifiably, be said against the Fitzgeralds and how they lived. I am aware that, on the evidence of one mediocre novel she wrote, some feminists have attempted to build Zelda up as a creative talent and attribute her mental breakdown and years of psychiatric care to the evil patriarchy thwarting her talent (her husband and his male friends etc.). This was the line taken in Therese Anne Fowler’s busy novel Z –A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which I enjoyed for its “gossipy verve” when I reviewed it in the Sunday Star-Times back in 2013; but its strained and improbable attempt to reinvent Zelda I did not accept.
Allowing for all this, however, Hemingway’s approach still bears the signs of immense envy. Even if he was beginning on the downward slide to alcoholism, Scott Fitzgerald was, in the mid-1920s, still the applauded and well-known novelist at a time when Hemingway was the mere beginner, known to only a few. The older Hemingway’s treatment of Fitzgerald reads as an exercise in punishing Fitzgerald by cutting him down to size.
Apart from all the spite posing as manly candour, there are a couple of other things that bug me in this memoir. Hemingway likes to present himself as the poor young bohemian in passages such as:
“By any standards we were still very poor and I still made such small economies as saying that I had been asked out for lunch and then spending two hours walking in the Luxembourg Gardens and coming back to describe the marvellous lunch to my wife. When you are twenty-five and are a natural heavyweight, missing a meal makes you very hungry. But it also sharpens all your perceptions….” (Chapter 11)
In the very last sentence of the book, he declares “But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” (Chapter 20)
This is consistent with Hemingway’s life-long pose as the rugged man of action, the loner who made his own luck. The reality is that Hemingway came from a comfortable middle-class family upon whose resources he could always call, even when he was playing poor in Paris.
I also note Hemingway’s complete dishonesty in the last chapter, where he gives an elaborate rhetorical justification for cheating on his wife (Hadley) with the woman (Pauline Pfeiffer) who became his second wife. Apparently it was everybody else who was to blame for introducing him to Pauline and it was Pauline’s fault for seducing him. Although Pauline is not named, this was the chapter that Sean Hemingway tampered with to tone down the comments on his grandmother.
Oh dear. I fear at this point I am slipping into my standard diatribe against Hemingway, the mummy’s boy who spent his life in over-compensation, selling himself as the great macho loner. I know it is immensely cruel. I know that, when he pointed the gun at himself and pulled the trigger, Hemingway had been suffering from depression, the effects of a lifetime’s abuse of alcohol, the after-effects of injuries and the memory of his father’s suicide. But I still see a lot of truth in David Levine’s New Yorker cartoon, which showed the self-killed Hemingway as the posing big-game hunter who has bagged himself as a trophy. Hemingway’s artificial persona is what killed him. You can see this throughout A Moveable Feast where he sets out to destroy the memory of others in order to enhance his own self-created legend.
I’ve strayed an awfully long way from my stated intention of seeing how good a guide A Moveable Feast is to Paris, haven’t I?
Long story short – it’s not much of a guide, unless you want to follow a very limited Parisian itinerary.
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.
LOST GENERATION’S PARIS IS NOT MY PARIS
I forget which wit it was who said, many decades ago, that the city of London did not really exist. It had been created in Hollywood. He was referring ironically to the way so many people’s conceptions of London took at face value what they saw in antique American movies. The London of friendly bobbies, foggy lamp-lit streets, a homely and welcoming pub on every corner, everybody eating fish-and-chips and apparently every vista opening on either Tower Bridge or the Houses of Parliament. The cliché London of the collective semi-conscious, and certainly not the real thing.
Even if the clichés have changed across the decades, the same could be said of every major world city. Try yourself on Rome, Berlin, Shanghai and Rio de Janeiro, for example, and (assuming you haven’t been to all these places) see what mental images come to you. They will doubtless be as unreal and unrepresentative as old Hollywood’s London was.
There are standard phrases and standard images that the name of a well-known city always evokes. And – grumpy and egocentric person that I am – it always annoys me if the popular image of a place I know has only a tenuous connection with the reality and variety of that place.
Which brings me to Paris.
I have just been considering Ernest Hemingway’s spiteful memoir of Paris in the 1920s, A Moveable Feast, and I have noted that there are still Americans who use it as a tourist “guide” to what they think are the most interesting cultural and literary sites in the city. And I say “Bah, humbug!” Paris is much greater and much more interesting than attempting to sniff out the haunts of a small band of non-French authors in the 1920s.
So, buoyed by a couple of years worth of holiday snaps (but with one or two stock shots thrown in), here are the literary and cultural associations that Paris brings out in me.
Any visit to Notre Dame (or any other medieval Parisian church) will immediately spark off fragments of Francois Villon and “tout aux tavernes et aux filles” and “Ou sont les neiges d’antan?” The mad raillery of the great medieval poet – as well as his pious hymns to the Virgin.
I look out my left-bank hotel window on the Quai de Voltaire, and see the booksellers with the Louvre across the river in the background. Yes, of course the bookstalls are aimed mainly at tourists nowadays. (Note the percentage of posters they now sell, as opposed to books.) Even so, they still conjure up the Paris of Gautier and Verlaine wandering along buying cheap editions of the classics when inspiration ran out.
I saunter along the left bank, and discover the French are capable of naming a place after talented, but highly contentious, modernist novelists like Henry de Montherlant.
I cross the bridge to the Louvre. The vainglorious equestrian statue of Louis XIV in the grand courtyard sets up in me echoes of France’s golden theatrical age – Corneille, Racine, Moliere – the comedies and tragedies in rhyming couplets, dutifully studied back in student days, and the banter I had to memorise when cast (as a pedant, of course) in a student production of La Critique de l’Ecole des Femmes. Rene Descartes’ tomb in the eglise de Saint Germain des Pres is also a loud echo of seventeenth century greatness.
Go into the Louvre, and the nineteenth century arises in the halls devoted to French classical and romantic painting. All those Davids, Ingres, Delacroix, Gros and Gericaults. That bare-breasted woman in David’s Intervention of the Sabine Women an ideal image of protective motherhood, and the one that somehow stays with me most even after The Raft of the Medusa and The Oath of the Horatii in the same gallery.
Indeed, in Paris, it is the nineteenth century that dominates my schedule of cultural and literary shrines to visit. I climb up to Montmartre cemetery to pay obeisance to the grave of France’s greatest composer, Hector Berlioz.
I walk all the way to Passy and spend a morning at the home of France’s greatest nineteenth century novelist, Honore de Balzac, greeting his bust like a friend, waving my hand over the desk where he wrote La Rabouilleuse and La Cousine Bette, and buying a copy of Le Cousin Pons to remember this morning better.
And (on a later visit to Paris) I step out to memorials of France’s greatest nineteenth century poet, Charles Baudelaire. There is the font in Saint Sulpice where he was baptised. There is his grave in the Montparnasse cemetery. How very appropriate that he was buried on Mount Parnassus. How much of a reminder that he was “incorrigiblement catholique” (as he says in his Examen de Minuit), to visit the places where religious ceremony welcomed him to life and farewelled him from it. Overuse of Les Fleurs du Mal means my copy is almost falling apart. The smoky mid-nineteenth century Paris of Baudelaire’s Spleen poems – that, for me, is the ideal Paris in my mind.
So what is the point of this disjointed travelogue, and of my showing-off of holiday snaps?
Simply to assert that literary Paris, the Paris that can really be relished by tourists and visitors, is not confined to the “lost generation” and to sites where Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald may or may not have had a hissy fit. Paris has much greater talents to remember.
Monday, June 15, 2015
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“SPORT 43” Edited by Fergus Barrowman, Kirsten McDougall and Ashleigh Young (VUP, $30); “SONG OF THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE” by Roger Horrocks (Victoria University Press, $NZ25)
We’ve heard much talk recently about the contraction of New Zealand’s book culture. There will be no book awards this year because nobody will sponsor them. There’s been the matter of whether Te Papa will or will not retain a publishing arm. A famous bookstore closes on Auckland’s Queen Street, leaving the central city with only the University Book Shop and one other far off the main drag. Some of Wellington’s second-hand bookstores go out of business.
All very perturbing, leading (at least among the literati) to apocalyptic images of a post-literate New Zealand, where highbrow literature in particular will be strangled or unable to find a publisher.
With these gloomy thoughts in mind, I decided to consider this week those publications that still carry the banners of poetry and essays as well as fiction. There’s been a certain contraction going on here, too. Dunedin’s Landfall, the most venerable New Zealand literary magazine, still manages to appear twice a year. Auckland’s Poetry New Zealand, however, has abandoned the smaller twice-yearly format and is now a substantial annual, reverting to being the Poetry Yearbook that it was originally, many decades ago. Wellington’s JAAM is also an annual. Sport, out of Victoria University Press, Wellington, spent the first fifteen years of its life coming out twice-yearly, but it has been an annual for the last twelve years.
When I receive a literary magazine through the post, I tend to turn it into a bedside book, picking at it over a number of weeks, a poem or a story at the time. When the most recent Sport came by way, however, I decided to read it from cover to cover, in large gulps, in the course of one week.
Sport 43 displays on its cover Antonio del Pollaiolo’s Renaissance painting of Daphne turning into a bay laurel, to escape the lustful Apollo. The legend is referenced on the first page of an essay by Damien Wilkins, which I assume accounts for the cover.
Sport 43 features the work of 32 poets, five writers of fiction and seven essayists.
I have to at once state something very embarrassing and prejudicial. I found it hard to engage with much of the poetry. The selection includes names who have established themselves in local reviews and anthologies, and have won praise with their own volumes (Nick Ascroft, Helen Heath, Anna Jackson, Chris Tse, Tim Upperton et al.). Maybe it is a generational thing. Most of the poets represented are considerably younger than me, and I find their mannerisms and style alienating. This is not a considered reaction to their poetry – more a subjective feeling, and therefore to be disregarded by you. But I still have to state it. Not all the poetry comes from a younger generation. There are three poems by Vincent O’Sullivan in which I at first thought he was having a go at Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore; but a second reading assured me that I had missed the irony the first time. I also admit to enjoying Rachel Bush’s Long and Short, with its deft slipping between past and present. But that is all I wish to say about the poetry.
With regard to the essays and the fiction, what interested me most was how porous the definition of these two genres now is. Some of the essays could just as validly be billed as fiction and vice versa.
The volume’s opening contribution, John Summers’ Real Life, which I read with great enjoyment, is presumably a slice of autobiography, about having an impossible flatmate in student days, in a mouldy flat in Christchurch. It is buoyed by its very specific physical detail but, at least as I understand the term, it is more narrative than essay. The same is really true of Kirsten McDougall’s What have I lost here? Again, it reads as narrative autobiography, being her wistful account of meeting and briefly knowing a young man in her student years, and then her realisation that her younger self is not her present self. To complicate matters, Ashleigh Young’s She cannot work is billed as fiction. It is an account of trying to work and being put off by having to share space with somebody else. Fiction? Possibly, though Ashleigh Young’s way with imagery makes it more like a prose poem.
It was only when I got to Damien Wilkins’ substantial (20-page) No hugging, some learning: writing and the personal that I felt I was meeting an essay as I understand that term, even though it bears the signs of having first been delivered as a lecture. Referencing at length Dennis McEldowney’s memoir The World Regained, Wilkins’ main point appears to be that that the notion of characters “changing” in fiction is an overrated concept; and that supposedly transformative tales really mask neat lessons where we are meant to “learn” from change. It is a very ingenious essay, also giving generous reference to Joseph Roth’s The Radetsky March and concluding that narratives should change us, the readers, and not their fictitious characters.
The only other piece in the volume that is so like a traditional essay is Giovanni Tiso’s The story of S, or the problem of forgetting, which takes the case of Solomon Shereshevsky to argue that “forgetting” is essential to psychological growth, and that such forgetting is impeded by the perfect mechanical memory of the internet.
Anna Taylor’s long short story Still Here reads like a dialectic between the partners of an unhappy marriage. Sarah Jane Barnett’s Addis Ababa, billed as poetry, is a long mixed prose-and-poetry presentation of an Ethiopian refugee adjusting, or not adjusting, to Wellington. I am not sure what category Ingrid Horrocks’ A small town event occupies. It is a compound of literary critique and travel article. Possibly the most provocative piece in the volume is Maria McMillan’s It’s complicated, a reflection on how simple slogans (in this case “Her Body, Her Choice”) never cover the complexity of a woman’s condition, especially in an age where “choices” are coerced by pornography and pay-for sex.
I am tempted to say that the very best writing in this issue of Sport is the 22-page extract from David Coventry’s excellent debut novel The Invisible Mile, but as I’ve already had the pleasure of reviewing the whole novel in the Listener, I will refrain from further comment.
I hope my dull, mechanical listing of the contents of Sport 43 has persuaded you that it has much good reading.
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It is rare to find a volume of poetry that comes complete with fully nine pages of bibliography, but such is the case with Roger Horrocks’ Song of the Ghost in the Machine. This is very much a series of philosophical reflexions in poetic form. Each of its eleven sections is prefaced with a generous set of quotations from various illustrious and/or canonical writers, so the volume is also something of a commonplace book (whence the bibliography). The title derives from the famous jeer of the English materialist philosopher Gilbert Ryle, when he referred to Cartesian mind/body dualism as “the dogma of the ghost in the machine”. The phrase was also taken up as the title of one of Arthur Koestler’s books, which my generation read when we were students. Ryle’s philosophy was, and is, at best reductionist, but I have to remind myself that I am reviewing Horrocks’ poetry, not the philosophy that underlies part of it.
How does Song of the Ghost in the Machine read as poetry?
First let me state the obvious. Despite the very big issues with which it deals, there is nothing obscure about it. In stately and measured lines, Horrocks mulls over huge questions in accessible language. Often it is what was once called “the poetry of statement”. I found myself reminded irresistibly of such 18th century efforts as the prose perambulations of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Les Reveries du Promeneur Solitaire, where walking was the lubrication of reflexion. Or for that matter William Cowper’s Winter Walk at Noon, especially when the last section of Horrocks’ book includes the lines “The season is winter, the sky an unpredictable mix / Of light and dark with clouds tussling for dominance. / Bare tree branches tremble in the wind.”
There may be a reason for this echo of the Age of Enlightenment.
In his Author’s Note, Horrocks makes a bid for the type of High Seriousness that was once expected of poetry, but is now cast aside. “Contemporary writers and artists have tended to avoid getting ‘too serious’ since the postmodern mood of irony descended over the arts”, he asserts, noting “Cynicism is a totally understandable response to today’s social world, but in terms of tone this has created too large a no-go area.” Personally, I have sat through one-too-many poetry fest at which some jaded academic, making a bid for popularity, has urged that poetry should always be “fun”. I therefore can only endorse and applaud Horrocks’ words. Horrocks also encourages “form”, saying “I am tired of the loose free verse found in so much contemporary poetry, semi-colloquial speech that reverts to iambic when it wants to pump up the lyricism. Instead I have used two main rules: using a line with five main stresses, and keeping the rhythm changing in order to avoid the cliché of iambic or any other smooth metrical pattern.”
So he’s on the side of seriousness and of form in poetry, which prejudices me in his favour at once.
The eleven sections of Song of the Ghost in the Machine run thus:
“Walking” confronts the sense of ageing as the poet’s body begins to strain at his everyday stroll. (“My body is dated equipment / and I ride it as though I’ve borrowed it.”) With ageing, the earth tends to become less, rather than more, familiar (“There are times when I feel I’m exploring an unfamiliar / planet, treading gingerly, sniffing the atmosphere, / unable to name the flora or construe the signs, / nerves and senses on edge”)
“Consciousness” proclaims the volume’s essential theme, in a loose series of definitions of what consciousness is. In “Body”, the most Gilbert Ryle-ish section, the apparent dualism of mind/body tends to the conclusion that mind and body suffer or exult together and are therefore a unity. Monism is embraced. Yet this damned body does think, and often thinks in words, so “Language” probes the ambivalence of language, its imprecision, its inability to connect exactly with the thing spoken of. (“All thinking is wishful, all questions are rhetorical / with implied quote marks. There’s no escape / from double talk. But talk is cheap and so we try / again, wired with the need to name, to relate / our lives….”) But there is danger in this view of language, and Horrocks takes the occasion to slap, as he does in his Author’s Note, the postmodern tendency to turn language into a game and banish attempts at seriousness or sincerity. He says that “connoisseurs of cool irony, the artists of our sceptical / age distance themselves from beauty and directness.”
“Melancholia” is cast as a third-person narrative (possibly autobiographical) of the growth of a young boy’s mind. It touches on the concepts that to be reflective is to be sad, and that consciousness may be a burden. Following this, and at the other end of human life, “Self” is possibly the most depressing section, canvassing (via images of an old man in a nursing home) the idea of the fragility of the self and its disintegration as dementia takes hold.
Stepping into more speculative territory, “Micro/Macro” is about adjusting to the fact of an unstable, transient universe made of endless molecular change, and confounding our “common sense” notions of solidity and certainty. In other words, it is more on the rationalist than the empiricist end of the epistemological spectrum. “Sleeping and Waking” concerns the slippery nature of differences between these two states of consciousness.
And so to the Ultimate Truth, or Last Things if you prefer.
“Death” offers a full acceptance of our mortality with no suggestion of anything after, except for the ironical invocation of a well-lit tomb crammed with books where literati may think forever. This is an oddly jocular section, with its Mexican Day-of-the-Dead references. “Evolution” shows a wistful desire for the idea of purpose in evolution (Horrocks suggests such a desire is a “ghost in the machine”). To scientists, evolution is now seen largely as a random and purposeless process, rather than a matter of purposeful progression. In this section, Horrocks’ lines on his relationship with his pet cat are among the most attractive in the poem – a bonding of mammals separated by only about 60 million years of evolution; but his conclusion is that human beings may be a dead end before the age of AI overwhelms us. Finally “Gods”, with much confessional autobiography, rejects the idea of God, but hints at an ache for some such “solution” to the nature of our being. Indeed it is a good example (not that Horrocks ever says this) of “the God-sized hole” in human consciousness. I salute the bravery of Horrocks’ final assertion of selfhood (basically, to have lived and been here is to have experienced and known), though maybe the final “Kilroy was Here” image is a little bathetic.
That, crudely and in a reductionist mode every bit as reprehensible as Gilbert Ryle’s, is my summary of what Song of the Ghost in the Machine says. I’m bemused to find nowhere here the terms Free Will or Determinism, but then maybe the philosophical conversation has moved on since I last gave these things serious thought. Besides, as Horrocks correctly says, this is a poem and not a textbook of philosophy.
But having summarised, I haven’t conveyed to you what the experience of reading this book-poem is like.
Horrocks has the courage, in broaching these big questions, to risk sounding “earnest and adolescent” as he fears he might in his Author’s Note. Sometimes he does indeed fall into this trap – the takes on philosophical questions can be obvious and predictable ones, even if proposed as idiosyncratic solutions. The real skill is in the way the poet’s own personality, tastes and preferences manage to hold it all together. To put it another way, Song of the Ghost in the Machine is best when Horrocks is being himself, being confessional, daring to be child, adolescent, adult, old man as he is in different sections of this book. As in those “philosophical” Enlightenment poems, it is the imagery and personality that stay longest in the mind (or body. if dualism is not true).
I really enjoyed reading this poem, as much for the way it tilts at current poetic fashion as for the personality revealed.