Monday, November 30, 2015

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE STORIES OF BILL MANHIRE” (Victoria University Press, $NZ40)

When I was a young lad, a kindly Latin teacher taught me a tag which I have never forgotten and which I haul out whenever, as reviewer or critic, I am in dire straits. The tag is De gustibus non disputandum est (part of it is also the name of a pretty good poem by Robert Browning).
Where taste is concerned there can be no argument.  
I can tell you all the reasons why I admire or appreciate a piece of writing. I can analyse it for you and explicate the author’s skill. But no matter what I do, I cannot make you like it any more than you, by rational argument, can make me like whatever is your fancy. “Liking” is quite different from understanding or appreciation (in the critical sense). One trouble, though, is that if you do not like something, it may be assumed, falsely, that you do not understand it, or perhaps that you are too stupid to understand it.
I say all this because, having read Bill Manhire’s collected short stories, I can say that I see the skill of them, get the ironies and the game-playing and the cultural and literary references, sometimes laugh along with them and even dig some of their postmodernism. But they are still not my chalice of poison.
I appreciate them, but I don’t like them.
To explain why may take some space, so first let me turn to another matter. The Stories of Bill Manhire is a fine piece of book production. A sturdy hardback volume with a tasteful and calming dust-jacket drawing (by Peter Campbell) of a sleeping baby. Pure innocence dreaming dreams of the sort from which fantastical stories are born. Its endpapers reproduce a photograph taken in Dunedin in the 1880s, which is referenced in the story “The Days of Sail”. Nearly everything in the book has been published before, from The New Land (1990) to Under the Influence (2003), although some pieces have not been collected in book form. The only never-before-published pieces are “The Death of Robert Louis Stevenson” and “The Ghost Who Talks”. The title is a teensy bit daunting. Note it is simply The Stories of Bill Manhire, and not The Collected Stories of… or The Selected Stories of… but just The Stories, which at once suggests something canonical, as if we should know who this chap is and respect him as an important literary figure. And – okay – we genuflect as we know he’s the feller who got this whole creative writing thing going at Vic, so therefore he has to be listened to seriously as a practitioner of prose.
Right. Enough of my cape twirling before I enter the bullring.
The point really is that, save in the last section of straight autobiography, wherever I look in the stories of Bill Manhire, I can see the seams and joins. Yes, dear, I know I am meant to see the seams and joins because this is postmodernism and it is self-referential and part of its art is to show its art and draw attention to its art and pun and play. But read them all together, and my brain begins to protest “Oh yes, here we are with another of these little games.” So the author doesn’t want us to engage with his characters as human beings, but wants us to see them as artificial constructs (“Well they ARE artificial constructs, aren’t they?”) and enter into the thing as a sort of play. And my brain says “How clever”. And my brain says “Don’t wanna play.”
Let me frog-march through the nine stories presented under the heading The New Land.
The story “Highlights” is on the surface a deadpan third-person narrative of an unhappy divorced man taking his old mum for a drab holiday in Rotorua. But an image at the end turns the meaning around. Old mum used to artificially colour drab black-and-white photographs. This is like the drab reality under artificial tourist “highlights” and points to the selectivity of memory. And shows how the author can enclose the mimetic in a meta-narrative. The story’s technique is the juxtaposition of brief and dissonant episodes. The stories “Ponies” and “Siena” do similar things in the juxtaposition field – one in the Antarctic reveries of a guy delivering leaflets for a charlatan; another in the context of a sort of surreal-hipster holiday with a bizarre ending.
There is game-playing in these stories. Colouring photographs. Jigsaws. A single photograph. Representations of reality at one remove. Constant reminders that even to tell a story is to place the reader at many removes from lived experience.
The story “The Days of Sail” begins as a reflection on an old photograph of Dunedin, moves from discrete image to discrete image and episode to episode, some plausible, some fantastical, concerning Dunedin at various stages of its history. And then (here comes the self-referentialism, folks) moves into a discussion about it all in a creative writing class. Fourth wall broken. Reader reminded all stories are planned, designed, fabricated, artificial.  Reader told stories are for conscious analysis. Reader nods knowing that author conducts creative writing classes. Reader feels the same about the story “Nonchalance”, part of which gives (cod) instructions to writers on what to write.
Why at this point do I think of Fellini’s 8-and-a-half, the film presenting the reveries of a filmmaker who can’t figure out what film to make? En route I am amused by these stories, intrigued with them as puzzles, delighted at some of the jokes. I’m not saying their not good company. But…. Oh blah!
So on to more “stories” that show their arteries and viscera. “Some Questions I Am Frequently Asked” is a parody (oops – sorry! – subversion) of a standard and fairly dumb author interview, with unexpected and sometimes Dada-ish answers being given to spectacularly inane questions such as “Would you like to be a Maori?”, “Do you think of yourself as a New Zealand writer?” or “Did you always want to be a writer?” I don’t know from experience, but I have to assume that many authors find interviews tiresome, and this is the author’s revenge. “South Pacific” once again goes for the mosaic effect, juxtaposing this and this and this. And again (like the earlier stories’ references to jigsaws and colouring photographs) is preoccupied with game-playing, cutting between London and images of New Zealand transit as a man tries to market the idea for a board game about travelling in the Pacific. The man is a bit of a wanker (in the literal sense). There are references to Janet Frame. This is highbrow. You see, it is ironical comment on the solitariness of creative endeavour, oh long-legged fly. It is commentary on the colonial or postcolonial condition in its plethora of cliché ideas about the Pacific, which it dismisses ironically, just as the later story “Cannibals” does. It’s a literary box in a box in a box, like the cover of the Oor Wullie comic album, which Bill Manhire recalls from his childhood in his memoir “Under the Influence”.
But for boxes in boxes, you can’t beat the next story “Ventriloquial”. It is partly about literal ventriloquism. But it’s also about a medium at a séance, claiming to channel the voices of the deceased. And it’s about a New Zealand magazine editor trying to mimic the styles of overseas magazines – so at some level it’s about New Zealand’s cultural cringe and attempts to adopt voices that are not really our’s. And – well of course! – it’s also about the author adopting and channelling all these voices.
I pause for breath after all this and (methodically reading this book from cover to cover) take some time before I come back to the long choose-your-own-adventure game The Brain of Katherine Mansfield (with decorations by Gregory O’Brien). Yes, there are sly literary allusions therein, but to me it reads like an ordinary choose-your-own-adventure game. Which it is. Which is its problem.
So we cross over into the stories that come under the heading Songs of My Life. This being the literary life. A deadpan, ironical story about a poet breaking up with one wife and shacking up with another (“The Poet’s Wife”). Another ironical story, seen from a secretary’s point of view, of a rather futile summer school for poets (“The Moon at the End of the Century”). A fantastication about a man whose life is accompanied by a singer, celebrating in various styles how he lives (“Songs of My Life”). A collation of documentary snaps of Robert Louis Stevenson mixed with intimations of the fantastic (“The Death of Robert Louis Stevenson”). Writers being conjurors and performers, there’s a parody list of advice to magicians (“Performance Tips”). I feel a creaking as of George Meredith’s Hippogriff when we encounter a doodle about the spirit who inhabits all the bit parts and excisions from canonical fiction – and yes, best beloved, I am ageing hipster enough to understand that the title “The Ghost Who Talks” is a riff on the old comic strip The Phantom, alias “the ghost who walks", wherewith Senor Manhire amused himself as a kid. In the midst of these inventions, there is one story with a relatively traditional style, “Flights of Angels”, in which a mother (narrator) watches her ten-year-old son play Hamlet, though even this has a stylistic sting-in-the-tail and turnaround tango. The final story is “Kuki the Krazy Kea”, being the notes and advice of a cynical writer of children’s books. It ends with the immortal words “I mean, why don’t you all fuck off.”
Which is an interesting way for a real-life dispenser of writing advice to end his final story. Which we are MEANT TO SEE is an interesting way for a real-life dispenser of writing advice to end his final story. Which makes us wonder if this is what the real-life dispenser of writing advice really thinks. Which is MEANT TO MAKE US wonder if this is what the real-life dispenser of writing advice really thinks. Which…. Oh phooey! There are too many mirrors in this room, in this book – the author having constructed a microcosm that looks back and inward upon its hesitant self while the wind is blowing outside its enclosed boxes in boxes in boxes.
These stories are the footnotes, bons mots and literary experiments of a well-read man who has been around the traps. Should this book really be called The Notebook of Bill Manhire or (let’s get arty) The Carnet…? He’s jolly good company for a superior giggle and a sniff at genres that are too threadbare. He’s allusion adept, punning fun, reference replete. But STORIES? I mean…. REALLY? They are poetry-prose, let’s say prosetry, from a man who has been more prolific in verse. Or is the problem at my end? Should I have read them one at a time, rather than devouring the whole book over a couple of days? Each might have read better as a one-off found in a magazine.
And after this, like being splashed awake with a bucket of cold, clean water, I read the closing piece – the thirty-page childhood and young-manhood memoir Under the Influence. Affectionate, nostalgic, admonitory, funny, rather sad too – actually engaging the reader’s heart, in other words. Manhire recalls his parents and especially his dad, a Southland publican, and the whole booze culture of the Deep South.
Is the writer’s heart on his sleeve here? Of course not. All writers are conscious of their skills. All writers organise, deceive, dramatise and construct. But then I would rather be shown this affectingly in Under the Influence than archly and clinically in most of the rest of the volume. My kind of writing.
See what I mean about the difference between “like” and “appreciate”?
Oh yes, and De Gustibus Non Disputandum Est.

Something Old

 Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.

 “A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA” by Richard Hughes (first published, under the title “THE INNOCENT VOYAGE”, in 1929)
I am sure this is an experience everybody has had at some time. For years you hear a book praised to the skies, but for whatever reason you never get around to reading it. Finally, you settle down and read it. And you are severely disappointed. It has simply failed to live up to all the praise you had heard heaped upon it. With a sigh, you reflect that you might have enjoyed it more if you had never heard it so often praised.
I feared that this would happen to me with regard to Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica. I had heard of it and I had a vague idea of what it was about. As a teenager I saw what turned out to be a rather unsatisfactory movie based upon it. But I had never read it. So, only very recently, I sat down and read it. And – miraculo! – it proved to be every bit as good as people had said it would be. It is a rich, mysterious, wonderful, troubling and exquisitely written novel. I closed it with the distinct impression that it was a masterpiece. The jinx was broken. Prior praise had not damaged my appreciation of a great novel.
Some background, as is my wont. Richard Hughes (1900-1976), English-born but Welsh by adoption, was one of those novelists who produce very little but who are greatly appreciated by connoisseurs. In half a century of work, he wrote just four novels. One of them, A High Wind in Jamaica, written when he was 27, is considered his greatest work. Another, The Fox in the Attic, written over thirty years later, was also highly praised. I read The Fox in the Attic many years back  - it was intended as the first part of an historical trilogy, which Hughes never finished. It is set in interwar Germany, and it contains the best fictional portrait of Hitler (as a young fanatic) that I have yet met – certainly better than A.N. Wilson’s footling attempt to fictionalise Hitler in his Winnie and Wolf. Hughes’ other two novels, which I haven’t read, are admired but don’t have such a high reputation.
A High Wind in Jamaica was first published in England in 1929 as The Innocent Voyage, and retained that title in a number of American re-printings. For its second English edition, Hughes changed the title to the current one, without any other alteration of the text.
On the surface, and as any brief summary may suggest, A High Wind in Jamaica sounds like a traditional children’s adventure story. In the mid-nineteenth century, after an earthquake and a great hurricane have shaken Jamaica, Mr and Mrs Bas-Thornton decide to send their five children back to England for further upbringing. The children range in age from John (aged about 12) and Emily down through the “littlies”(or “Liddlies” as they are called) Rachel, Edward and Laura (who is 3). They embark on the good ship “Clorinda” under Captain Marpole. With them are two Creole children, Margaret and Henry Fernandez. Margaret is aged 13, which is important in some of what follows.
The “Clorinda” is attacked by pirates, who are under the command of the Danish Captain Jonsen and his Viennese mate Otto.  All seven children are captured, and proceed to spend the rest of the novel travelling with the pirates, until the last chapter, which is set in England.
If you were a literate child reading this book, you could conceivably see it as a straight adventure story. It swarms with exotic animals – screeching parrots, wildcats, an octopus, a monkey which has lost its tail and is chased around and persecuted by the sailors, a baby crocodile which is cuddled by one of the little girls. It has vivid descriptions, bordering on the Conradian, of the sweltering Jamaican heat and the ferocity of earthquake and hurricane and the leaden sea. It has boisterous action as the children toboggan back and forth across the deck of a storm-tossed schooner and as young Edward plays at being a pirate captain.
Yet if you are not a child, you will at once be aware of the distinct mode of narration. A High Wind in Jamaica is narrated in the third-person, but with occasional direct first-person asides by the author which, as it were, break the fourth wall and remind us that this is a twentieth century novel. Thus, remarks the omniscient voice at one point, when analysing a child’s mind: “How then can one begin to describe the inside of Laura, where the child-mind lived in the midst of the familiar baby-mind, like a Fascist in Rome.” (Chapter 7). Thus, with a reference to the silent slapstick cinema that was current when the novel was written, the voice reports a piece of improbable action: “ Jose gave a cry of alarm, sprang onto the cow’s back, and was instantly lowered away – just as if the cinema had already been invented.” (Chapter 4).  This narrative voice delivers much black humour of the sort children would probably fail to understand, like the old lady trying to calm herself in a hurricane by reciting the poetry of Walter Scott. It is also at pains to remind us that, in reality, there is nothing glamorous in the piracy that is depicted. Captain Jonsen and Otto are clumsy, slovenly, half-comic characters. Their trade is sordid, unheroic and dying in the age of steamships, for the period is most definitely mid-nineteenth century, after slavery has been abolished in Jamaica and the pretensions of old English plantation-owners are becoming rather pathetic:
            Piracy had long since ceased to pay, and should have been scrapped years ago: but a vocational tradition will last on a long time after it has ceased to be economic, in a decadent form. Now Santa Lucia - and piracy – continued to exist because they always had: but for no other reason. Such a haul as the Clorinda did not come once in a blue moon. Every year the amount of land under cultivation dwindled, and the pirate schooners were abandoned to rot against the wharves or ignominiously sold as traders. The young men left for Havana or the United States. The maidens yawned. The local grandees increased in dignity as their numbers and property dwindled: an idyllic, simple-minded country community, oblivious of the outer world and of its own approaching oblivion.”  (Chapter 4)
Historical commentary and black humour aside, the most noticeable thing about the narrative voice is its selectivity. The third-person voice scarcely ever lets us see what is going on inside the minds of the adult characters, but it tells us in detail what (a selection of) the children think. And here, in the steady drumbeat of subtext, is what the novel is really getting at. The children may in some sense be innocent – they do not notice things which are apparent to adult readers – but they are not innocent, pure and moral. They are innocent, self-centred and completely amoral; and as such they are very dangerous creatures. Sometimes they yelp with laughter at things which are frankly sadistic or dangerous to others, simply because they seem part of a show put on for their amusement.
The narrative imitates their developing thought processes, when they anthropomorphise the world about them. Thus: “It was evening, the sun about to do his rapid tropical setting” and later “The next day the sun rose as he had set: large, round and red.” (Chapter 1) And from this anthropomorphism comes a sort of primitive animism, where animals and natural things are seen as having conscious minds, or at least being as mentally developed as human beings are. Take this description of a pet cat, being chased by wildcats:
Tabby, his fur on end, pranced up and down the room, his eyes blazing, talking and sometimes exclaiming in a tone of voice the children had never heard him use before and which made their blood run cold. He seemed like one inspired in the presence of Death, he had gone utterly Delphic: and out in the passage Hell’s pandemonium reigned terrifically.” (Chapter 1)
Children are so absorbed in the immediate circumstances of their lives, and their immediate needs, that they cannot see the huge importance of things with which adults have to cope. Here is how Hughes introduces the Bas-Thornton children’s reaction to the hurricane, which has completely destroyed their parents’ homestead, but which has allowed them to ‘camp out’ safely in a surviving brick stable:
It is a fact that it takes experience before one can realise what is a catastrophe and what is not. Children have little faculty of distinguishing between disaster and the ordinary course of their lives.” (Chapter 2)
In analysing the mind of Emily, who becomes the novel’s central character, Hughes notes both how unfathomable children can be to adults, and how un-self-consciously children can lie while believing they are telling the truth. [This has a great bearing on the novel’s outcome.]:
Grown-ups embark on a life of deception with considerable misgiving, and generally fail. But not so children. A child can hide the most appalling secret without the least effort, and is practically secure against detection. Parents, finding that they see through their child in so many places the child does not know of, seldom realise that, if there is some point the child really gives his mind to hiding, their chances are nil.” (Chapter 6)
As for little Laura, Hughes goes so far as to suggest (in an ironic-but-earnest tone of voice) that very young children have no real human sensibility at all:
The inside of Laura was different indeed: something vast, complicated, and nebulous that can hardly be put into language. To take a metaphor from tadpoles, though legs were growing her gills had not yet dropped off. Being nearly four years old, she was certainly a child: and children are human (if one allows the term “human” a wide sense): but she had not altogether ceased to be a baby: and babies of course are not human – they are animals, and have a very ancient and ramified culture, as cats have, and fishes, and even snakes: the same kind as these, but much more complicated and vivid, since babies are, after all, one of the most developed species of the lower vertebrates.”  (Chapter 7)
All this has much bearing on the way the story develops, which I will refrain from relating in detail. Suffice it to say that it involves a brutal murder, in which a child is involved, and a denouement back in England where moral responsibility for a great injustice sways between a knowing adult and a child who knows more than adults suspect.
A High Wind in Jamaica has often been compared with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which was published 25 years later in 1954. I can see that they have some things in common. Both take traditional boys’ adventure-story situations (captured by pirates here; stranded on desert island there) and turn them upside down. Both show children behaving in ways that completely contradict notions of innate childhood innocence and gentleness. However, while I would not presume to judge one of these obviously great novels as being “better” than the other, I would say that Golding’s novel is more consciously a poised and patterned allegory, with each of his characters representing an aspect of (male) human nature threatening a reversion to barbarism - domineering Jack, sadistic Roger, rational Piggy, saintly, visionary Simon and average, questing Ralph. A High Wind in Jamaica has no such neat scheme.
Further, while Golding is clearly concerned with the provenance of Evil – or Original Sin – Hughes is not seeing children as evil so much as callous, indifferent, not caring, and not having yet learnt civilised values. The two most shocking things in A High Wind in Jamaica are not things the children do, but things the children simply do not notice.
            One of the children (I won’t spoil the plot by saying which) dies. So absorbed are they in their own games and adventuring and feeding that the other children don’t even notice the child’s disappearance until much, much later, and then they have to be told by an adult. (In the edition I read there are eighty pages between the child’s death and the next mention of the child). Similarly, the perceptual innocence of children means they misread the world and miss things. The narration gives us many hints that there is a looming threat of the pirates sexually abusing their young captives. It is partly signalled by the strange scene in which pirates dress in drag to capture a merchant ship. (Now what do those pirates usually do with those women’s clothing?) The children know none of this and therefore never understand why pubescent 13-year-old Margaret Fernandez disappears among the pirates for long stretches and returns dazed, confused and incapable of saying what has happened to her.
Note here, by the way, that A High Wind in Jamaica does not perform any such foolish manoeuvre as assuming that if children are blameworthy, then adults must be blameless. It is just that the blame adhering to children is of a different sort.
I could say many more things about this great novel’s wider philosophical resonance. Of course it is (as Lord of the Flies is) a rebuke to the sort of Lockean empiricism which says a child’s mind is a mere tabula rasa waiting for the writing of experience.  A child’s mind is a very complex thing, and carries much into the world before outer, worldly experience begins. I could note when the novel was written – after the First World War, and therefore after a major puncturing of the notion of rational moral “progress”; so Victorianism was being rebelled against. In the 1920s, Victorianism could be rejected in the sneering (and extremely snobbish) Bloomsbury terms of Lytton Strachey, where Victorians were seen as simply jumped-up inferior people; or it could be rejected as Richard Hughes rejects it, by showing how Victorian narratives often disguised radical flaws of the human soul.
Indeed I could say many other equally clever things about the novel’s ideas.
But I end where I began – this is a great novel and it is a great novel for the same reason that all great novels are great – because it is so well written.

Footnote about that “rather unsatisfactory movie” I mentioned earlier: In 1965, A High Wind in Jamaica was turned into a Hollywood film directed by the American-born Scottish director Alexander Mackendrick. Mackendrick was the very talented director of some of the best of the Ealing comedies – Whisky Galore, The Man in the White Suit, The Maggie and The Ladykillers. He went to America and directed his film masterpiece, a scathing satire of the public relations industry The Sweet Smell of Success, in which Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis give their best-ever performances. Mackendrick had long wanted to film A High Wind in Jamaica. By a coincidence, he knew the novelist Richard Hughes, who had worked as a scriptwriter for Ealing studios (but apparently not for any of the films Mackendrick directed). But things went badly wrong with the film. To begin with, it was clear that the Hollywood studio expected exactly the sort of family adventure film that the novel was definitely not. To go on with, for American box-office appeal, Mackendrick was given Anthony Quinn and James Coburn to play the pirate captain and his mate. Both of them were very good movie actors (I’m not knocking them) but their screen personae were far from the rumpty incompetent pirate captain Jonsen and his dodgy mate Otto in the novel. In fact, they were both more like traditional Hollywood yo-he-ho swashbuckling pirates. So in the film Quinn’s captain was renamed Chavez and Coburn’s first-mate was renamed Zac.
Apparently Quinn, who had clout with the studio and so was listened to, was intelligent enough to agree with Mackendrick that the story had to be made much darker and much closer to novel. The script was duly rewritten, re-instating much of the material that had been kept out of the earlier Disney-fied script. Even so, the film version of A High Wind in Jamaica was much softer and less savage than the novel. It virtually became the story of a gentle pirate captain and Emily, a nice little girl (played by Deborah Baxter) who happens to make one crucial mistake. The film fades out on an appallingly sentimental ballad and is at best the ghost of whatever the novel had to offer.
This was what I saw when I was a teenager, making a re-acquaintance with it recently via the clips that are available on Youtube. For purely gossipy reasons, you might be interested to know that the novelist Kingsley Amis’s son, the then-15-year-old future novelist Martin Amis, had a bit part in the film as the eldest of the Bas-Thornton children. He mentions this in his autobiography Experience.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


Dear reader, I wish you to consider a topic which I rarely address on this blog.
It is the matter of books as physical objects.
I am not a hunter of precious first editions, and I am not rich enough to have such a hobby anyway.
I am happy to read good books in cheap and serviceable editions, so long as they have been proof-read properly and are not littered with literals. More than anything, I am interested in the text of the book itself, and not in the finer points of its physical production – although I do appreciate well-manufactured books when I see them.
And yet I am fully aware that the physical object with words printed in it does influence the way one responds to the text.
I have just been considering Richard Hughes’ masterpiece A High Wind in Jamaica, and as usual, I have illustrated my notice with images of well-preserved dust-jackets from first editions of the novel.
But I did not read the novel in these fine editions.
First I went to the shelf where my battered, ancient and hitherto unread-by-me ex-library copy of the novel sat between an ex-library copy of some of Walter de la Mare’s short stories and a very, very battered old Penguin copy of Christopher Isherwood’s Mr Norris Changes Trains.
I was consciously resurrecting something from the dead of unread books.

I lay the book on a dusty desk, and photographed its battered, paint-splashed, dust-jacket-less ex-library cover. How many decades was it since somebody with a paint-stained thumb took if off a shelf?

I opened the book, and found inside the front cover the place where an old Auckland Public Libraries pocket (the type that held one of those cards that used to get stamped when books were borrowed) had been ripped out. I was going to read something that had once been read by many borrowers.

I went to the title page and noted that this was an English re-print dating from 1947, eighteen years after the novel was first published. That’s 67 years ago. It would, I guess, have been withdrawn from the shelves after about ten years hard use, so this copy went out of circulation over half a century ago.

Then I went to some of the inside pages, foxed and the worse for wear, with one of them bearing what looked like the stain of a long-ago spilt drink. Was some reader in, say, 1957, so excited by the novel that she spilt a drink over the page? Or did the cup fall from her hand as she nodded off to sleep?

And you see, all these thoughts buzzed through my head before I settled down and started reading.
The physical object in my hands reminded me that this novel was something old and much-read, in a way that a re-print from last year would not have done.
I felt a kinship with earlier readers of the book.
I felt also an odd sense of virtue in reading the novel in this particular copy. I was putting something old to good use. I was not discarding it because it was old. I reflected that many forests would be saved, and many re-prints rendered unnecessary, if existing old editions of novels were actually used rather than being tossed away or burnt.
I thought how much the feel and look of books do influence our appreciation of them. Most people understand this instinctively. A few years back, wiseacres were saying that Kindle and other such apps would render the printed book obsolete. The attraction of holding a whole library in something little bigger than a modest magazine was a very powerful one. And yet, within the last few years we have heard of a reaction against Kindle and its ilk. “Peak penetration” seemed to have been reached, and readers are going back to books in printed form.
Back, in other words, to real books with their feel and weight and texture and – if they are old – evidences of previous use.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Something New

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

“THE PENGUIN BOOK OF NEW ZEALAND WAR WRITING” Edited by Harry Ricketts and Gavin McLean (Penguin-Random House, $NZ65)

            “Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea,” Samuel Johnson remarked famously about 250 years ago.
            The remark has been rebutted or deplored numerous times by those who wish to emphasise the ways of peace, and those who regard dreams of soldiership as a sign of barbarism. Nevertheless, I think Dr Johnson was onto something. There is, somewhere in the psyche of most males, a respect for warriors and a vague dream of being a soldier, even if it goes no deeper than memories of childhood games about leading the charge or capturing the pillbox single-handedly.
And New Zealand, for all its social liberalism, is one of the countries where the dream most persists, especially as for New Zealanders, wars are adventures that take place overseas. In New Zealand itself there has been no war, in any real sense of the word, for about 150 years. Given that Anzac Day is our most respected holiday, given that the All Blacks are national heroes for playing a game that is ritualised warfare, given that memorials to war-dead appear prominently in every New Zealand town and city, it is harder to get away from martial imagery in New Zealand than it is to get away from the sea.
I’m reviewing a very good anthology, The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing, and I have taken over a month picking my way through it and considering it. That’s because all the time I’m measuring it against my own knowledge of wars in which New Zealanders have been involved, and of people I know who have been to war or have at least been in the forces. I am a most unwarlike person – bespectacled, over-weight, addicted to sedentary pleasures and to reading far too many books. Not soldier material and over-age anyway. The family I come from is not notably martial either. But my father was in uniform in the Second World War, like thousands of other New Zealand conscripts; one of my elder brothers did a 20-year hitch in the RNZAF, and another was a career soldier who became part of the top brass [see the posting Goodbye Soldier]. As I said, it’s hard to get away from this military stuff in New Zealand, even if the only shot I ever fired was when I was a teenager and my soldier brother took it into his head, one afternoon, to teach me to shoot. One fierce recoil of his rifle, bruising my shoulder, was enough to persuade him of my incompetence and to abandon his lesson.
Like most New Zealand males, then, I am no soldier, but I am still very interested in the stuff soldiers do.
The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing was edited by Gavin McLean, senior historian at the Ministry of Culture and Heritage, and Harry Ricketts, Professor of English, poet and editor (whose father was, I believe, a career soldier). In his introduction, Harry Ricketts quite rightly points out the persistence of the myth of the New Zealand soldier as a laconic, modest, resourceful, practical joker. Ricketts notes that, before the great OE became possible for most people, being a New Zealand soldier, engaged in foreign wars, always had an element of tourism attached to it. He is sceptical of the “chauvinistic” (p.10) glorification of Kiwi nationalism expressed in Maurice Shadbolt’s play Once on Chunuk Bair. But he does endorse the more temperate version of Kiwi nationalism, which Ormond Burton attached to Gallipoli. In short, Ricketts establishes quickly both his respect for soldiers and his distaste for exaggerated versions of their exploits. Regarding the editorial process, Rickett’s introduction tells us “ ‘Material of sufficient quality’ has throughout been the guiding principle for our selection (though personal taste and ignorance inevitably play their part.” This, he declares, means the book is an anthology of “ ‘war writing’ and the emphasis is quite as much on ‘writing’ as on ‘war’ ”. (p.13) In prose, poetry, playscript and news story, as much space is given to the home-front reflections of non-combatants and to general reactions to war as to combat zone reportage and fictions.
Sensibly, the anthology runs chronologically, not according to when things were written but according to which wars and conflicts the writing references. Contemporary reports rub shoulders with much later fictional or historical accounts of the same events. Doubtless there were many armed conflicts in New Zealand before Pakeha touched the country, but there was nobody to write anything down about them. Therefore, stretching the meaning of “war” somewhat, the first selections in The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing are three separate versions of Abel Tasman’s lethal encounter with Maori in 1642 and James Cook’s ditto in 1769. Nearly 500 big pages later, and before a closing section of general “Reflections” on war, the last conflicts referenced are in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a selection from Marianne Elliott’s Zen Under Fire [see posting thereupon]. Between lie sections on nineteenth century wars between Maori and Pakeha; “imperial” wars, meaning the Boer War and the First World War (subdivided into Home Front, Gallipoli and Western Front); the Second World War (subdivided many ways); and “The Cold War and After” – meaning Korea, Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan.
Some of the selections are familiar acquaintances – they are the type of thing that could not decently be left out of an anthology like this. Thus, from the First World War, Archibald Baxter’s wrenching account of “Field Punishment Number One” from his pacifist classic We Will Not Cease, and a generous selection from Robyn Hyde’s first “Starkie” book Passport to Hell and that delightful passage about rats gnawing corpses from John A. Lee’s Civilian Into Soldier. Or from the Second World War, Jim Henderson’s account, from Gunner Inglorious, of being treated surprisingly well by German doctors and medics after he was shot up; and a selection from Dan Davin’s rather chaotic novel For the Rest of Our Lives; and John Mulgan describing German reprisals against Greek partisans in Report on Experience. A generous slice of Vincent O’Sullivan’s Shuriken is reproduced, as well as Rowley Habib’s tough, coarse and effective poem on the Maori Battalion “The Raw Men”, and (pre-Second World War) dispatches from Robin Hyde in war-torn China and Geoffrey Cox at the siege of Madrid in the Spanish Civil War.
There are some selections that might be said to reinforce the received view of the New Zealand soldier, such a Jock Phillips’ account, from A Man’s Country, of Kiwi soldiers in the Boer War building their own legend of hardiness and refusing to be subservient to those snooty Pommy officers. There are others which are purely heroic in tone. In the whole anthology, the selection which reports heroics most admiringly and uncritically must be Alan Mitchell’s (1945) account of 23-year-old James Ward winning his VC by crawling out on the wing of a bomber in flight to put out a dangerous fire.
If there are many things that are familiar here, there are also more obscure things that the anthologists have done well to resurrect – among the best, Donald Lea’s First World War squib “Gold Stripe”, which as poetry might be dated barrack-room stuff, but which is much more honest about the nagging pettiness of a soldier’s life than later and more stridently “anti-war” poetry ever was. Another “find” is Alice Webb’s short-story “The Patriot” (written in 1925), with its vivid account of a young man setting off for war with naïve enthusiasm.
As a general comment, it has to be said that the selected writers’ attitudes towards war become darker and more critical the nearer the anthology approaches our own times. The selections referencing the Korean War, for example, begin with three anti-war poems: Hone Tuwhare’s “No Ordinary Sun” and Keith Sinclair’s “The Bomb is Made”, both protesting against nuclear weapons, and James K. Baxter’s rude (but bloody funny) “Harry Fat and Uncle Sam”, protesting New Zealand’s being embraced by the United States. Nobody is gung-ho writing about the Vietnam War, and many of the passages about the Home Front in the Second World War are dispiriting and drab – Frank Sargeson’s typically misogynistic story “The Hole That Jack Dug”, Greville Texidor’s sad tale “Anyone Home?” about the impossibility of a returned serviceman easily resuming domestic life, and the memories of a conscientious objector Walter Lawry.  (On the other hand, Kevin Ireland’s Home Front piece is a boisterous and comic childhood memory of adult lunacy in Devonport.)
The best feature of the anthology’s arrangement is the way it lets us compare different versions of the same events, by looking at passages that sit side by side. This often leads to side-thoughts on the way history judges events that once seemed above reproach. For example, I find James Cowan’s (1911) account of the death of Von Tempsky in the New Zealand Wars to be a far from vivid piece of writing than Maurice Shadbolt’s fictionalised version of the same event written nearly eighty years later. And, coming back to what is referenced pointedly in the Introduction, Shadbolt’s romanticised version of Gallipoli in Once on Chunuk Bair sits beside Ormond Burton’s sober account of the campaign in The Silent Division. The anthologists say that Shadbolt “perfectly met the nation-building needs of the 1980s [but his] mythologising patently required a considerable amount of historical distortion, omission, and plain wish fulfilment…[which]… has recently started to come under sharper scrutiny.” (p.147)
By contrast, Ormond’s account gives us [in Ormond’s words] “Scorching heat, swarms of venomous flies, hosts of never-ending lice, thirst, the pervading stench of the unburied dead, and then a new experience – the frightful monotony of war. A dangerous life is not necessarily an exciting one.” An unheroic, matter-of-fact endurance rather than a nationalistic hurrah.
I assume this is enough to convince you that this is a capacious and worthwhile anthology.
Now for a few niggles – and they are only niggles. Why is R. A. K. Mason’s “Sonnet to MacArthur’s Eyes” slotted into the Second World War Home Front section? I can only assume that this was some sort of mistake, as the poem is a protest poem about the Korean War. I am further surprised that the “musket wars” of the 1810s and 1820s are hardly represented. Granted that there may not be much contemporaneous writing about them, they have nevertheless been raked over by many historians and I believe they produced at least some quotable passages. I am aware that Guthrie Wilson is no longer highly regarded, but I still find it odd that his Second World War novel Brave Company (concerning New Zealanders fighting in Italy) goes unrepresented. In its day (the early 1950s) it was very highly regarded – I pull my battered old Corgi paperback copy off the shelf and find the blurb has novelist Eric Linklater declaring it  superior to All Quiet on the Western Front, forsooth. I am pleased to see the selection from Jack Elworthy’s book Greece Crete Stalag Dachau [see post thereupon], but think it a pity that it is not one of his very unheroic passages about the retreat through Greece. Finally, I believe M.K.Joseph’s I’ll Soldier No More [unrepresented] says more about military life than his admittedly intriguing A Soldier’s Tale, and I wonder if the latter was chosen to justify reproducing “Dichtung und Wahrheit”, Allen Curnow’s petulant and vindictive poem about it. [My own view on this matter – if Curnow didn’t like Joseph’s novel, he could have trotted the few paces down to his colleague’s office and had a friendly chat about it, rather than spilling his guts in print – Mike Joseph wasn’t the sort of guy who would have belted him one.]
But you see what I am doing, don’t you? I’m now telling what I would have chosen if I had been the anthologist. Not a very nice game. A few years back, when a large but very imperfect anthology of New Zealand writing was produced, many reviewers chipped in to point out all the writers who should have been included. One of the anthologists retorted that they were producing an anthology, not a telephone directory. A fair enough retort I suppose, even if defensive. So I will desist with my niggles at this point and reaffirm that The Penguin Book of New Zealand War Writing delivers the promised goods.