Monday, September 15, 2014

Something New

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

“RICHARD SEDDON, KING OF GOD’S OWN” by Tom Brooking (Penguin, $NZ65)

            It’s quite easy to summarise the legend of Richard John Seddon and the Liberal Party, which used to be standard issue in school textbooks and popular histories. It said that after a sort of ill-defined thing called the “continuous ministry”, the Liberals were New Zealand’s first properly organised political party and achieved power with a clearly-defined platform; and that after the brief premiership of John Ballance, the party hit its stride with “King Dick” Seddon, New Zealand’s longest-serving prime minister (1893-1906). So roll on votes for women, old age pensions, harmonious industrial relations thanks to the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act and a wise policy of busting up big estates and opening up the land to hundreds of cockies. This was the standard legend of “King Dick” – the bluff, plain-spoken forward-thinking man who laid the foundations for a more egalitarian New Zealand and presided over the “social laboratory” as it pioneered the welfare state.
But alas! It is in the nature of History to be always re-written and revised. Revisionists came along to tarnish this received image of Seddon. It was argued that Seddon was only a reluctant supporter of women’s suffrage, might have been in the pockets of the booze interests in opposing Temperance, was certainly racist in his attitudes towards Chinese, did not necessarily help Maori interests in the land policies he endorsed, and was an imperialist in calling enthusiastically for New Zealand’s participation in the Boer War. In other words, said the revisionists, he was more a man of his own age than the harbinger of anything better.
Further to this I must note that, when I once taught at Otago a summer school paper on the Liberals, the book I most frequently cribbed was David Hamer’s The New Zealand Liberals – The Years of Power 1891-1912 (published 1988) – still an indispensible book, by the way – which argued that the Liberals were a very diverse bunch, far from the cohesive force of schoolbook legend, and that the diverse social interests the party attempted to represent inevitably dragged the party apart.
In writing his authoritative and capacious biography Richard Seddon, King of God’s Own, Professor Tom Brooking makes it plain that he has to contend both with the legend and with a revisionism that has sometimes got out of hand.
Let it be clear that we are dealing here with very serious scholarship. Following its 427 large and closely-printed pages of text, Richard Seddon, King of God’s Own has nearly 150 pages of apparatus criticus, comprising 102 pages of end notes, a whacking 36 pages of Bibliography, and nearly 20 pages of Index, all tightly printed. This book is the product of years of research by a scholar who has long immersed himself in 19th century New Zealand history and who is already the author of the definitive biography of one of Seddon’s lieutenants, the Scots Minister of Lands, John McKenzie.
Brooking’s preface reminds us that it is over half a century since there was a full-length biography of Seddon, and that was R.M.Burdon’s book which Brooking calls “so infused with purple prose and quaint archaisms as to be almost incomprehensible to a modern reader” (p.8). Brooking wishes, as he puts it, to “rebunk” Seddon after the revisionist versions of King Dick that have presented him as “a demagogue, a racist, a cunning misogynist, a bully and a jingoist”. He declares his purpose to see Seddon’s relationship with Maori with greater nuance than the revisionists have allowed; and to accommodate the various legends that have accrued about the man as part of understanding his broad appeal.
I’ll cut to the chase with this one. Richard Seddon, King of God’s Own is a magnificent piece of work, both scholarly and readable, and certainly meeting Brooking’s aim of answering the revisionists without succumbing to hagiography. Seddon is seen warts and all, but we are still allowed to understand why he should be remembered – indeed why it’s valid to see him as great. And it is a great pleasure to see Brooking, gently but persuasively, engaging with and correcting historians who have chosen to see Seddon more harshly. (This is where the expansive end-notes are a particular boon.)
I can see no clearer way of dealing with this book than by considering, issue by issue, how it deals with those things that have been cause for comment by revisionists.
Take first the issue of Seddon’s relationship with women’s suffrage. Brooking is able to point out (p.71) that early in his career as Member of the House of Representatives (MHR), Seddon already supported a Married Women’s Property Act, which gave women a measure of economic independence. In Chapter 6, when he deals directly with women’s suffrage, he refutes the view that Seddon, as prime minister, delayed the measure, by examining the records of voting and the position of the upper house with which Seddon had to contend. Brooking’s verdict is that Seddon fully supported women’s suffrage once he was assured that it was a popular move, and this was in line with his lifelong habit of not legislating in ways that went beyond popular opinion.
On the related matter of Seddon’s connections with the “liquor interest” (the push for women’s suffrage was largely sponsored by the Women’s Christian Temperance Union), Brooking argues that Seddon has often been misrepresented as in the pay of the beer barons and was thus caricatured by Conrad Bollinger and others when they came to write their populist histories of liquor licensing in New Zealand. But Brooking presents an alternative view of Temperance people as in fact not promoting “temperance” at all, but pushing for the same sort of prohibition that later proved such a failure in the USA. Thus in Brooking’s view, Seddon’s “ wisdom, moderation and statesmanship saved the colony from extremist solutions to the liquor trade.” (p.120-121)
Necessarily the most nuanced chapters in this book are those relating to Maori. At the time of the Liberal government, the attitudes of Pakeha towards Maori were very much intertwined with the issue of land ownership, and the matter of wresting land from Maori for use and ownership by Pakeha farmers. The Liberal party has sometimes been misrepresented as a predominantly urban, or even “working men’s” party, but it was as much involved in the interests of the small farmer. I am pleased to see that, with regard to the “opening up” of land by the Liberals, Brooking chooses to quote W.H.Oliver’s witticism “if men of money… heard a tramp of boots it was not the hobnails of a proletariat in the way to a socialist utopia, but the gumboots of cow-cockies entering a capitalist society.” (p.146)
Chapter 9, carefully called “Paternalist: Seddon and Maori”, balances Seddon’s desire to open Maori land for Pakeha small-farmer settlement with Seddon’s genuine understanding of the past injustices that had been done to Maori. There is no whitewash here but (in the complexities of negotiations and land laws that Brooking reports) a balance presented between the reformer who could relate to and speak with Maori, and the man who made a particularly inept appearance at Parihaka when he met Te Whiti. Brooking gives the same sort of mixed report in the longer Chapter 10 where he considers the much-resented Dog Tax and the attempts to establish Maori Councils. One thing he makes very plain, however – Seddon had a major asset in his relationship with Maori with his loyal Maori lieutenant, the sophisticated Sir James Carroll, who fully understood the duality of Seddon’s attitudes to his race. True to his determination not to write a hagiography, Brooking ends his consideration of Seddon’s attitudes to Maori thus:
Overall, a careful consideration of Seddon’s relations with Maori suggests that his record was at worst mixed. The representation of Seddon given by some historians as a rapacious, land-grabbing racist, and conniving colonialist, is little more than caricature….. Just as Anne Salmond has shown that Maori and Polynesians changed Captain Cook, so did Maori change Seddon. He spent so much time with Carroll meeting Maori deputations in Wellington, and on marae throughout the colony, that he developed an empathy far beyond that of contemporary Pakeha who mostly lived quite separate from Maori.” (p.256)
In the matter of industrial relations (largely covered in Chapter 11), over Brooking’s assessment of Seddon’s record as Minister of Labour hangs on the reality – diagnosed in detail in David Hamer’s classic history of the Liberal Party – that the Liberals were a broad-based party representative of cockies and small shopkeepers as much as of the urban proletariat. There is also the reality of the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act coming under attack from the “left” of the working class, while at the same time lower-middle-class shopkeepers resented legislation relating to conditions of employment and hours of trade. In the latter part of Seddon’s premiership, the ”Lib-Lab” alliance, and attempts to keep the party’s real radicals in check, worked effectively. Brooking’s conclusion on this issue is that later revisionist historians exaggerated Seddon’s inability to hold on to the party’s labour wing. Brooking makes it clear that the real fissure with labour didn’t really develop until after Seddon’s death. He also notes that in after years, when it had got to the point of appealing to the electorate at large rather than pushing more doctrinaire Marxism, the young Labour Party would frequently look back to Seddon as the wise sympathiser with labour.
On women’s suffrage, liquor, land ownership, Maori and labour relations, then, Brooking’s documented account presents Seddon more favourably than debunkers have allowed.
Other elements of Seddon’s worldview and modus operandi are, however, impossible to justify to a modern reader and Brooking naturally doesn’t try. The intense anti-Asian and anti-Chinese racism cannot be wished away. As Brooking notes of Seddon’s performance as a young MHR: “His relentless irrational attacks upon the Chinese in late 1887 and throughout the 1888 session added further to his kudos with the mining community, even is they appear embarrassingly racist to the modern reader. After condemning statistics which showed a decrease in Chinese numbers as ‘fallacious and unreliable’ ” Seddon moved unsuccessfully for the quota of Chinese immigrants to be decreased even further from the small fraction that it already was. (p.76). More examples of Seddon’s extreme measures against Chinese are given at pp.163-164. We could note that Seddon’s rhetoric never became as shrill on the issue as that of the respected Fabian socialist minister William Pember Reeves, but even so, it is an element of a defunct world view which we can now only regard with distaste.
Seddon’s intense jingoism, his desire for an enlarged role for New Zealand in the British Empire, and his vision of New Zealand dominance in the south-west Pacific also have to be taken on board. Chapter 12 deals largely with Seddon the imperialist – much of this about his glad-handing while on a tour of England – and Chapter 13 with a carefully stage-managed royal tour of New Zealand and with the jingoism of the Boer War. Says Brooking:
Involvement in the Boer War brought out the worst and the best in Seddon. The Premier interfered rather too much in strictly military and diplomatic matters, and, at times, appeared to promote personal agendas ahead of the colony’s interests, or colonial interests ahead of the broader imperial good. He also dealt harshly with opponents of the war, seemed rather intolerant of free speech, and gloried in exaggerated and jingoistic reporting of New Zealand’s achievements at the front… On the other hand, his genuine personal interest in the soldiers, preparedness to champion them against the British authorities, and willingness to criticise the bungling of British health services provided support at the highest level in a more direct manner than ever occurred during the First World War.” (pp.324-325)
Because he is neither mythmaker nor hagiographer, Brooking is careful to note that the Liberals (under John Ballance) did not originally come to power with high expectations from the whole community. Among the colony’s opinion-makers, there was a general lack of awareness that major changes were afoot when the Liberals were elected: “Most papers seemed unaware of the deeper changes unleashed by the introduction of universal manhood suffrage and labour’s increased organisation. Indeed [Premier] Atkinson and the conservative press thought until late January 1891 that he had the numbers to form a new government. All the major metropolitan papers appeared uninterested until they became alarmed at the prospect of Ballance unleashing radical reforms.” (p.86)
He also (in Chapter 5) frankly acknowledges that as a minister in the first three years of Ballance’s Liberal government, Seddon was no great shakes. In terms of legislative initiative John McKenzie, William Pember Reeves and even Joseph Ward made more impact than Seddon did. So why was it Seddon who became acting PM when Ballance was sick? Brooking answers this one by referring Seddon’s powerful and effective speaking style in the House (p.100).
            All of which brings us to the question of Seddon’s greatness. If he was not the great innovator and if he shared many of the common prejudices of Pakeha of his day, then how can he be called a great prime minister? Implicitly, Brooking’s biography tells us that it had to do with class and with Seddon’s ability to communicate the aspirations of most of the population.
            On the matter of social class, the opening chapters (on Seddon’s mixed Lancashire-Scots background; on his days in Australia and as a West Coast miner etc.) also deal with the matter of the snobbery that sometimes greeted him in political circles. Brooking (Chapter 3) rejects the revisionist notion that there was an “oligarchy” running New Zealand, but he does note the class feeling in government and the class prejudice expressed against Seddon who, in his early days in parliament, was often ridiculed for his want of education and his coarse accent. Yet this very “coarseness” bonded Seddon with much of the voting populace.
            It is interesting to see two people in particular emerging as ideological foes against Seddon among the Liberals themselves.
One was the mercurial and faddish Sir Robert Stout who, as presented by Brooking, never got over his pique at not having succeeded Ballance as Liberal leader and who (as a secularist freethinker and Temperance man) had little either temperamentally or ideologically in common with (Anglican, alcohol-drinking) Seddon. There is a clear element of snobbery in Stout’s reactions to Seddon, as presented by Brooking.
            The other was William Pember Reeves (a rather uncritical biography of whom was one of the early works of Keith Sinclair). Reeves did not scorn Seddon in the way Stout did. But the Fabian was more the “gentleman” than either Seddon or John McKenzie, both of whom he would sometimes belittle for their lack of class refinement. When he deals with Reeves’ resignation from the cabinet in 1896, Brooking asks “Did Reeves fall or was he pushed? The correct answer, of course, is both. Seddon, with his uncanny antennae for public opinion, increasingly found Reeves’s determination to push reform ahead of what the electorate wanted to be a political liability, so he allowed his party and public opinion to manoeuvre overseas a politician seemingly set upon revolutionary rather than gradualist change.” (p.160)
This does not mean, however, that Seddon was unappreciative of Reeves’ hard work. Later in his narrative, Brooking shows Seddon visiting London and seeing just exactly what Reeves had to do as New Zealand’s high commissioner there: “Seddon soon came to realise just what a difficult and demanding job confronted Reeves…. Persuading Colonial Office officials, bankers, shippers, the press, and the magnates of Smithfield Market and Tooley Street who controlled the destinies of the frozen meat and dairy industries to give more consideration to the trading needs of a small and distant colony involved continual struggle and constant advocacy..” (p.300)
Seddon’s relationship with Reeves points up one of Brooking’s most consistent themes - Seddon was a man who knew the “art of the possible” by never pushing legislation ahead of what the electorate wanted. This is the second basis of his greatness.
On more incidental matters, Brooking  (Chapter 8) refutes the revisionist view that Seddon’s Old Age Pension Scheme was parsimonious and miserly. He also notes Seddon’s political shrewdness in introducing this measure after divisions in his party over alcohol and women’s suffrage. Even more essentially, the introduction of pensions smoothed over the incipient divisions between rural and urban tendencies within the Liberal Party. Old Age Pensions seem one reason Seddon’s party won a complete landslide in 1899 and Seddon really did become known popularly as “King Dick”. It is also part of Brooking’s agenda to show (Chapters 14 and 15) that after his electoral victory in 1902, Seddon did not step back from reformist policies in order to placate the increasingly vocal “country” element in the Liberal Party. Instead, he points to the greater access to secondary education that Seddon promoted in 1902-03 and the setting up of a state fire insurance office and the beginnings of state housing and childcare.
From this biography, then, Seddon emerges as a man with many of the prejudices of his age but also as a man who genuinely did represent the electorate, who was genuinely forward-thinking, and who genuinely set in place things that bettered New Zealand and that later governments knew not to reverse.
Naturally a book as long and well-documented as this one has many anecdotes among its analysis. I haven’t given myself the space to note them all, but there are three that particularly appealed.
One is Brooking’s version (p.103) of the story about Seddon giving a dressing-down to a haughty aristocratic official who ridiculed his horsemanship once when Seddon fell off his horse in difficult terrain. Seddon’s response to the aristocrat was the type of thing that could only enhance his popularity with the democratic electorate.
The others, showing what a shrewd chap Seddon could be when it came to courting votes, concern his opportunistic courting of old Sir George Grey (Chapter 6) when he badly needed the Auckland vote, and later (Chapter 12) Seddon’s self-conscious burnishing of his own image when he made a carefully-planned and publicised visit to the ancient Grey to suggest he was the heir to anything “liberal” that the doddery old governor had done.
Seddon was a politician, after all.

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. 

“SON EXCELLENCE EUGENE ROUGON” by Emile Zola (first published in 1876; sometimes translated into English as “HIS EXCELLENCY”)

            My long-laid plan to read all of Emile Zola’s 20-volume series of novels, the Rougon-Macquart, is still far from complete. I have managed to read about half of them in the original French, and then a couple of the more famous ones (Germinal, La Bete Humaine) in English translations. It is, believe me, quite a haul to read in their original language 20 novels each of which, in the Livre de Poche paperback editions that sit on my shelves, runs to about 500 pages. That totals, in case your Maths is almost as feeble as mine, about 10,000 pages. I will get there one day. Promise. But I’m afraid other reading will distract me until I am able to take a very, very long holiday.
            Anyway, I often wonder what the attraction of Emile Zola (1840-1902) is to me when
I find his determinist conception of human nature and his reductionist representation of human institutions almost totally repugnant. Partly it comes from my being a Balzacian, interested in that dogged French attempt, begun by Honore de Balzac in La Comedie Humaine, to summarise the whole range of a given society in one big roman fleuve. Even in his lifetime, Zola was seen by French critics as somebody who was trying to outdo Balzac [see accompanying cartoon]. Partly my interest comes from the sheer melodrama into which Zola nearly always descends – the man who documented scrupulously the external and material details of life was definitely not capable of subtle psychology, and there usually comes a point in his novels where, to round things off and bring his tale to a neat conclusion, he suddenly jerks his characters into the most improbable of events so that he can reach an explosive finale. And partly my interest comes from the way Zola reflects a certain period in history. Maybe this last attraction is, to the historian in me, the strongest. Zola’s very imperfect novels are ersatz historical documents.
            This is certainly the case with one of the most obscure and least-read of the series, Son Excellence Eugene Rougon. Zola, writing in the 1870s after the Third Republic had been established, dissected in his whole roman fleuve the Second Empire of Napoleon III. In this particular novel, he focuses on the upper reaches of the regime’s political system. Son Excellence Eugene Rougon is the story of a high official in Napoleon III’s government and his many flaws. The story specifically unfolds between 1856 and 1861. The clearest aim of the novel is to expose the undemocratic nature of the Second Empire and the sham of “democracy” when the regime claimed to be “liberalising” in the 1860s. Zola is attacking the special interest groups that had the ear of the non-democratic government (especially provincial bourgeois entrepreneurs – all of whom seek to be honoured with imperial titles). As usual, he is likewise attacking the church, which sought to bring Napoleon III’s regime into the defence of the Papal States in Italy. At the same time, Zola wishes to expose patterns of patronage when there is no real popular voice. Very incidentally, he also enjoys depicting the sheer tackiness of imperial ceremonial, as if Napoleon III’s court and its hangers-on are at best play-acting at being the masters of the nation and do not have the real sense of style of the first Napoleon or even of the old royal courts.
            His protagonist, Eugene Rougon, comes from a humble background and has made his way into high office by sheer cheek and graft. He hails from Plassans, the fictional town which Zola based on his hometown of Aix-en-Provence and often used to represent provincial France. Eugene is regularly besieged by people from Plassans who ask him for special favours. Near the beginning of the novel’s fourteen long chapters, Eugene has just lost his position as president of the Conseil d‘Etat, Napoleon III’s inner circle of ministers. Much of the action that follows concerns his attempts to regain a position as a member of the emperor’s cabinet and to outmanoeuvre a powerful political rival, the Comte de Marsy.
Eugene falls in with the intrigues of an influential Italian woman, Clorinde Balbi, whom he hopes to make his mistress. She marries another politician, Delestang, and Eugene Rougon himself makes an advantageous marriage with one Veronique Beulin d’Orchere, whom he treats mainly as a domestic convenience to help him host his political soirees. Eugene continues to think of power without actually finding a way to exercise it. He dabbles in political science by planning to write a study comparing the English and French constitutions, but he never gets on with it. He thinks of abandoning national politics for schemes of public works in the provinces. He is a dilettante and a schemer rather than a real thinker. He still hopes that Clorinde Balbi, who has been the mistress of many influential men, will help him attain greater power.
After an assassination attempt on the emperor, Eugene Rougon does indeed gain great power, becoming Minister of the Interior responsible for the political repression which sees hundreds of the emperor’s political opponents either imprisoned or exiled. But his grasp on power is fatally damaged when he makes the mistake of being patron to a family who hope to get control of property taken from them by the church. To further this client family’s interests Eugene, as Minister of the Interior, offends the church, and hence much of France’s political elite, by having a convent searched. Regarding Eugene’s political prospects after this mistake, one minor character crudely remarks (in Chapter 12) “Il a touché au bon Dieu. Il est foutu” (“He’s messed with God. He’s stuffed.”)
Eugene believes the machination of Clorinde Balbi will help him to regain his position. The arc of the novel has him gradually coming to understand that her main purpose is not to help him, but to advance her rather gormless husband. Clorinde ends up with so much influence because she becomes the mistress of the emperor himself. Her husband ends up as Minister of the Interior.
So, by the novel’s second-to-last chapter, we seem set up for Eugene’s final defeat. Having lost power and influence, no longer courted by his former clients, he disconsolately wanders the muddy streets of Paris, seeing people more powerful and influential than he riding past in carriages.
But there is an ironic conclusion, for three years later there is a scene in the Legislative Assembly where de Marsy now presides and Delestang is an important minister. The empire has been partially “liberalised”, so that opposition members are able to make speeches and there are an increased number of ministers without portfolio, of whom Rougon is one. An opposition member makes a speech protesting against the restrictions on freedom and especially freedom of expression. In reply, Rougon rises and, as de Marsy and Clorinde and others look on, gives a long speech on the glories of the empire as the inspiration and envy of all Europe and as a system that grants enough freedom to allow the country to prosper without falling into licence. This draws a standing ovation and the clamour that Eugene Rougon is still a great man. The novel ends with Clorinde saying to him “Vous etes tout de meme d’une jolie force, vous!” (“After all, you are still a force to be reckoned with!”).
The implication is that what Eugene cannot achieve by intrigue, he might achieve by hypocritical oratory. And indeed we know that his oratory is hypocritical, for by this stage he is fully aware of how corrupt Napoleon III’s ramshackle state his. His hope now is simply to use that corruption to his own advantage.
There is one thing to be said in favour of this lesser instalment of the Rougon-Macquart series. It is one of Zola’s novels which (untypically) does not descend into melodrama. The final irony might be crude, but it is in character and consistent with what has gone before.
There is here the usual Zolaesque love of set pieces. I think of the opening scene in parliament (Chapter 1), where he shows that the chief business of the day is simply rubber-stamping money orders requested by the emperor. The practical impotence of the parliament is thus dramatized. In Chapter 4 there is the set piece of the vast procession for the baptism of the Prince Imperial, which gives Zola the opportunity to use all the details he mugged up from the Moniteur describing the event. In the crowd, some people still shout “Vive la Republique!” showing how shaky Napoleon III”s hold on power still is. In Chapter 7, a detailed account of an imperial reception at the palace at Compiegne includes Rougon seeing the silhouette of the emperor conferring with one of his secret policemen, and thinking “Sa bande l’a fait, lui.” (“His gang have made him what he is.”). An attempted assassination of the emperor (based on a real one) is recounted in Chapter 8 and there are details of the ensuing repression in Chapter 9. In Chapter 10 there is Rougon presiding at the beginning of work on a new railway tunnel in a provincial town. Zola is able to satirise the interests of competing capitalists who are attempting to get contracts for this public work.
As well as these set pieces, there is also the intertwining of sexual opportunism with public corruption, a common trope chez Zola. When (in Chapter 11) Clorinde playfully suggests to Rougon that she has slept with a lot of influential men in order to advance Rougon’s career, he brutally asks her “Why not with me then?” and attempts, without success, to jump on her. By Chapter 13, Clorinde is presiding over a salon in alluring garb, selling drinks and selling a kiss to a millionaire for a huge sum. Around her neck she wears an expensive collar proclaiming herself somebody’s pet dog. It is now well known that she is Napoleon III’s mistress – people talk of the way she has methodically slept her way to power. And yet nobles and their wives court her and flatter her.
It has to be said that (even more than with Zola’s other novels), one would have to know the specific details of French history to really get the force of this political novel. It contains things that would doubtless have been still topical when it was first published and would therefore have resonated, for its first French readers, with nuances that are now hard for us to detect. The action very specifically takes place over five or six years and refers to well-known public events – the baptism of the Prince Imperial in 1856; the attempted assassination of Napoleon III by Orsini in 1858; the ensuing repression; the assistance given by France to Piedmont in Italian unification; and then the concessions made to the clerical party when it seemed likely that the pope would be threatened; and the “liberalisation” of the empire in the early 1860s. Further to the specific historical events, there is the fact that some leading characters are obviously based on real people. Eugene Rougon himself is apparently – in the public things that are ascribed to him – a combination of a number of real politicians and ministers. Clorinde Balbi is very specifically based on the emperor’s Italian mistress the Countess of Castiglione. De Marsy is based on the Duc de Morny and so on. It would appear to be Zola’s intention to show the petty politicking between self-interested rivals at court and in the ministries, and the sham nature of the empire’s “liberalisation”. Zola may think he is showing us something shocking in the way personal antagonisms and power-plays are acted out in the imperial government; but a study of history suggests that Napoleon III’s government, tacky and ostentatious though aspects of it were, was no worse in this respect than other nineteenth century European governments.
            But what does the novel mean to us, apart from being a series of historical footnotes? Eugene Rougon himself is almost as uninteresting a character as Balzac’s Cesar Birotteau – essentially an unimaginative country politician who thinks mainly in terms of serving his clients, particularly in his provincial power base. The thinness of Rougon as a character is revealed, for example, in how we scarcely learn anything about his wife or his reaction to her after she is introduced and then ignored as a character. Does Eugene Rougon think no more of her?
This may, of course, be the novel’s point – Eugene Rougon is a mediocrity with power. Son Excellence Eugene Rougon may be a time-specific work, but mediocrities with power we will always have with us.

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.


So what is the genesis of poetry?
Does the poet have an idea or story which he/she wishes to versify?
Is the poet concerned with images which he/she wishes to convey?
Or is there something in the sound and weight of words themselves which sets the poet off?
All of these at different times, I suppose. But here is the personal and egotistical story of the genesis of one poem.
I am reading Emile Zola’s political novel Son Excellence Eugene Rougon when, in Chapter 7, I come across a scene set in a garden at night and the author describes the night as “…sans une etoile, sans un souffle, noire et morte”, meaning literally “without a star, without a breath [of wind], black and dead”. I think about it for a moment and realize it would be better rendered into English as starless, windless, dark and dead”. And then it occurs to me that this is a perfect description of those horrible summer nights I have sometimes experienced in both Auckland and the Waikato, where it is muggy because of the solid bank of cloud that is both blocking out the starlight and holding the heat in. Those are nights when it’s hard to sleep, when I find myself kicking off the few sheets and blanket, trying unsuccessfully to get comfortable, and when I realize that I’d never survive in a truly tropical climate.
And as I am thinking this, the line “starless, windless, dark and dead” is being kicked around by my errant brain. It has a perfect rhythm. Da-Dum Da-Dum Da Da Da. Automatically my brain, now thinking of muggy New Zealand nights, is adding lines to it on the same theme. It’s half written before I am even conscious of it. So then I start to consciously shape it and make sure the order of lines in the last stanza exactly reverses the order of lines in the first.
And, arising initially out of the sound of words alone, here is what it ends up looking like:

 (“…sans une etoile, sans un souffle, noire et morte”, Emile Zola Son Excellence Eugene Rougon)

Starless, windless, dark and dead
the summer night is dense with clouds
that keep the heat of day locked in,
a casserole for dormant life.

In small hours while the country sleeps,
the starless, windless, deadly clouds
keep in the muggy heat of day
to bake life groaning comatose.

Life doesn’t speak in country dreams
in beds beneath the windless clouds
in bedrooms blanketless but hot
in small hours dark with muffled sound.

The summer country nights are dead
when clouds are low and dense and dark
and days run on in humid heat
in bedrooms blanketless and hot.

The birds and cows are drugged with heat
and single bleats from dozing ewes
in summer when the wind is dead
and heat’s locked in by static cloud.

A casserole for dormant life
that keeps the heat of day locked in,
the summer night is dense with cloud
starless, windless, dark and dead.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books
“THE UNBEARABLE DREAMWORLD OF CHAMPA THE DRIVER” by Chan Koonchung - translated from the Chinese by Nicky Harman (Doubleday; distributed by  Random House, $NZ36:99)

Now where on Earth do I place this novel The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver? With Candide? With The Good Soldier Schweik? With Silone’s Fontamara? Or just with plain old Socratic irony? I’m not saying it is necessarily as deft and enduring as any of the works I’ve just mentioned, but its satire is very much in the same general vein. An innocent and apparently rather gormless person tells a story in the first person, and in doing so exposes all manner of social ills and evils in the land he inhabits.
Let’s be specific.
In Lhasa, in Tibet, the Tibetan driver Champa acts as chauffeur for the Han Chinese woman Plum. He is, however, more than just her chauffeur. He is her toyboy, her lover, her “sex fiend” and so there are many scenes of explicit swyving. Plum, in early middle age and a bit on the fleshy side, is of Hong Kong origin and is very much in tune with China’s new culture of opportunistic entrepreneurship. We are told of her business interests:
Plum had lots to do. She was a good businesswoman, everyone said so, good at making money and a good provider too. She had fingers in every pie. Besides her Beijing business interests, she’d spent ten years trading in Tibet in Buddhist statuettes and ritual objects, antiques and dzi heads, caterpillar fungus and saffron, and then she’d expanded into Hong Kong as well. She wanted to diversify into tourism, organizing tour groups in jeeps, and investing in high quality boutique hotels. Then it was mining.” (p.21)
This passage alone tells us that, even if the narrator Champa himself can’t at once see it, Plum is in effect representative of China’s looting and exploitation of Tibetan culture. Champa the narrator does not make a great fuss about this, because he is mainly preoccupied with earning a living and enjoying his sex-life. But strategically-placed background details tell us that Chinese riot police stand ready when Tibet’s New Year is about to be celebrated; aged Tibetans who go to a religious festival in Nepal are forcibly “re-educated” when they return; the borders of Tibet are closed by the Chinese overlords when the anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s departure is about to be recalled and there is a sinister official phrase about “Stability Preservation”, meaning the suppression of all possible dissent. Tibet is a colonised land with its indigenous people forced into serving their imperial masters and adopting the culture of their imperial masters except when they are put on display for tourists.
Anyway, Champa begins to have a crisis in his life. He finds he cannot service Plum satisfactorily unless he is thinking about other women. This leads him to seek out other women before rushing back to Plum’s bed. But then this stratagem itself begins to lose its power until, miraculously, Champa encounters the face of a goddess in one of the Tibetan-style statuettes Plum has had manufactured for trade. As he narrates it:
A few weeks had passed but one thing hadn’t changed: when I f***ed Plum, all I could think of was the Tara statuette. Before that, all my fantasies had been about women you had sex with once and then forgot, a different one every time, but now it was the Tara or nothing. I couldn’t get it up for Plum any more, only for the Bodhisattva. I had to imagine I was having sex with a goddess just so I could make Plum believe it was all for her.” (p.54)
At this point I found myself saying “Spot the symbol!” even in the midst of the novel’s farcical comic tone. Tibetan man switches lusty sexual urges from Chinese woman to image (albeit debased) of Tibetan religion. Translation (I thought): novel is telling us that Tibetan man’s deepest impulses are still rooted in his indigenous religious culture, and not in the flashy materialism that China has imposed upon him.
But a few pages later I had to concede that I might have been indulging in premature interpretation, for it turns out that the goddess face on the statuette is modelled on the face of Plum’s Beijing-based daughter Shell. So off Champa goes on the lengthy journey from Lhasa to Beijing in search of Shell. The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver becomes a more straightforwardly satirical road trip, with the evils of the author’s homeland overtly ridiculed via Champa’s artless observations.
What does he meet on his journey? A sort-of sage called Nyima who speaks frankly of the evils of Tibet’s old priest-run feudal past (torture and theocracy – it wasn’t all gentle Buddhist monks) but who also discourses on the barbarities practised by the People’s Liberation Army during its “liberation” of Tibet, and on the number of Chinese reduced to cannibalism during the Great Famine of 1958-62 (the worst in human history), engineered by Mao’s government, and on officially-sanctioned genocide.
Near Beijing, Champa encounters the bizarre scene of a truck, stuffed with stolen pets animals, being waylaid by animal rights’ activists. Apparently there are many such trucks in China now as the population at large still has an appetite for meals of dog or cat and yet the number of dog or cat farms is diminishing – therefore stealing pets for the dinner table has become big business.
In Beijing itself, Champa does find Shell and there is the glimmer of an idea about a Chinese with pure intentions. Even so, the Big Smoke is largely presented in terms of the nasty underworld into which Champa is swept in the only job he can get - as a “security guard” (i.e. enforcer) for a big boss. How stray Tibetans are treated in Beijing is also suggested, with stories of corrupt police who pin any unsolved crimes on artless Tibetan yokels, so that their crime-clearance statistics will look good.
I would not say that any of this is particularly subtle and I did become fatigued by all the galumphing sex scenes – there are far too many of the damned things and the way Champa reports them confirms him as Mr Majorly Insensitive. On the other hand, it does have considerable crude gusto and is an easy-enough read.
This is the second novel by the Chinese Chan Koonchung, a man whose background is in Shanghai and Hong Kong, but who now chooses to live and work in Beijing. Like his first novel The Fat Years (look it up on the index at right), The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver is banned in China itself for its subversive and anti-government content. The Fat Years skewered the way Chinese media and officialdom attempt to pretend that much of China’s turbulent dissident past (especially pro-democracy riots) has never happened. The Unbearable Dreamworld of Champa the Driver is more concerned with Chinese imperialism, police corruption and exploitation of ethnic minorities. I think what Chan Koonchung is getting at is plain as a pikestaff and I won’t be churlish enough to suggest that he should try for a more delicate style. I am interested that with all his subversive views he continues to live unmolested in Beijing – at least this is an improvement on the way dissident writers were once treated in the People’s Republic – but maybe that simply says the authorities don’t bother with somebody who will only be read by foreigners.
This is a fine, rude nose-thumb of a novel if you don’t mind all the dumb sex.

Extremely Silly Footnote: I note that the city is now spelt “Beijing”, but whenever a certain dish is mentioned it is spelt “Peking Duck”. Apparently culinary orthography is different from geographical orthography – at least for Western readers.

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.  
“ROMOLA” by ‘George Eliot’ (first published in serial parts 1862-63; first published in book form 1863)
If you have been aware of this blog for a while, you will probably know my track record when I deal with one of the great masters of English literature in this “Something Old” section. I tend not to deal with the works for which that particular author is best known, but with the ones that are either disregarded or seen as lesser fare. Partly this is because I do not wish to bore you by telling you what you already know. Partly it is because, after all, I have not read all the language’s masterpieces. And partly, because the more obscure books seem the ones most worth bringing to light. So when I broach Joseph Conrad, I deal not with the undoubtedly great stuff like Lord Jim, The Secret Agent or Heart of Darkness, but with Victory (look it up on the index at right), which I personally regard as a failure. Likewise, in dealing with Thackeray I don’t deal with Vanity Fair, but with the much under-rated The Newcomes (look it up ditto). As for Henry Fielding, I’ve so far had a whack on this blog at his Joseph Andrews, Amelia, Tom Thumb and Journal of a Voyage to Lisbon (index ditto for all of them), but have left Tom Jones out of play. Of Dickens, I’ve commented only on his Christmas Books and The Old Curiosity Shop (index ditto) even though I’ve read nearly all his corpus and know he wrote greater things than these. This doesn’t mean that at some future date I won’t deal with the acknowledged masterworks (especially if I am beginning to run out of material to cannibalise from my reading diaries!). It just means that for the moment I have more fun dealing with the various authors’ less celebrated stuff.
Which, after all this hemming and hawing, brings me to Mary Anne (‘Marian’) Evans dit ‘George Eliot’ (1819-1880). Of course I acknowledge that Middlemarch is her greatest novel, often called the greatest in the English language. Of course I enjoyed reading Adam Bede, with its affectionate portrait of an eponymous character based on Eliot’s father, even if the rest of the plot of that novel is rather shaky. I know that Silas Marner was once hammered to death as a safe text for schoolchildren, but I still enjoyed it, melodrama and all. (Oh the too-neat punishment of the thief! Oh, the too-patterned redemption of the miser!) I once made the mistake of reading The Mill on the Floss in its unedited entirety out loud to my older children, and managed to bore them rigid, although they and I still found the bond between Maggie and Tom Tulliver affecting and not to be sneered at. At this point, for completion’s sake, I have to admit that I’ve never read Eliot’s Felix Holt or her philo-semitic novel Daniel Deronda, although (ahem!) I have seen and enjoyed with my family a very good BBC television series adaptation of the latter. These two last-named novels nevertheless sit on my shelves shaming me for not having read them.
But, unlike most readers of Eliot, I have actually read George Eliot’s only bona fide historical novel, Romola. And thereby hang a number of tales. I was first attracted to this Victorian novel because I was studying church history at the time and I wanted to know more about Girolamo Savonarola. I read a number of biographies and histories of the man (Michael de la Bedoyere’s The Meddlesome Friar is still a good starting point, even if it was published way back in 1957) and I noted that a number of them mentioned Eliot’s novel as an interesting Victorian perspective, even if not to be trusted too much as history. So I read it, in the closely-printed 600-odd pages of the old Nelson and Sons hardback that still sits on my shelf. I quite enjoyed it, too.
I already knew the general reputation of this novel. It was seen as an aberration into historical romance from an author who was better suited to stories of contemporary society (a bit like the reputation of Flaubert’s historical novel Salammbo after his masterpiece Madame Bovary). It was also seen as a novel with such an impossibly high-minded heroine that she was seen as somewhat incredible – the type of paragon put forward to inspire well-behaved Victorian girls by their right-thinking parents. Two or three times I had the pleasure of teaching George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara to senior high-school classes. It is a play which also has a high-minded heroine, but Shaw includes in it a joke at the expense of Eliot’s novel. There’s a scruffy, rumpled and dishonest Cockney woman who goes by the name of ‘Rummy’ Mitchens and who seeks help in a Salvation Army shelter. When another Cockney character asks her about that name ‘Rummy’, she says it is really ‘Romola’, and “It was out of a new book. Somebody me mother wanted me to grow up like.” In 1905, when Shaw’s play was first produced, sophisticates would have snickered at that one as Romola was already over forty years old and already seen as a piece of outdated and righteous moralising which only the lower classes would still see as acceptably highbrow.
Poor Romola.
The novel is actually better than that, but its reputation is understandable.
It is set in late 15th century Florence, at the time of the decline of the Medici and rebellions against them, the wars with French kings like Charles VIII and, more centrally, the influence and reforming zeal of Savonarola. Eliot apparently spent some years researching assiduously the novel’s setting in time and place – including making a number of trips to Florence. This shows in the long and detailed descriptions of buildings and art-works that pepper the text, which are not always an asset in a novel. Quite a number of historical figures feature as characters – not only Savonarola and Charles VIII (displayed in one chapter passing through Florence with much pomp and splendour when the Medici are expelled); but also Niccolo Machiavelli, depicted as a witty and cynical young man who has not yet been soured by events; and the painter Piero di Cosimi, who becomes the novel’s representative of Renaissance art in his torment over whether he should stick to religious art or deal with secular subjects and commissioned portraits.
The central characters are, however, Eliot’s fictions. Romola is the virtuous and dutiful daughter of the blind Renaissance humanist scholar Bardo de’ Bardi, whose lifelong ambition is to keep together his library. At one point in the novel, Piero di Cosimi paints the daughter as Ariadne and the father as Tiresias. Old Bardo dies about halfway through the novel. Romola’s brother Dino is a friar, Fra Luca, who has deserted humanist scholarship to live the life of a penitent. Fra Luca dies about a quarter of the way through the novel, but not before having a prophetic vision which indicates disaster for Romola. The disaster turns out to be Romola’s marriage to Tito Melema, a facetious and successful young Greek scholar who gains public position in Florence on the expulsion of the Medici. Step by step, the superficially attractive character of Tito proves to be very flawed. Not only has he forsaken and left in slavery his loving adoptive father (who – neatly – ends up as his nemesis); not only is he involved in the sleaziest sort of politics simply through his lust for power; but he consistently cheats on Romola. He has made a second “marriage” with the pretty, innocent, empty-headed young peasant girl Tessa and is in effect keeping her as his second wife.
As it is structured, the novel is an intellectual “quest” story. Its implicit central question seems to be “What is a worthy and rightful object for a woman’s sense of duty?”, a question which exercised George Eliot more than once. In its three broad sections, Romola’s story represents the progressive stripping away of unworthy (or incomplete) objects for duty.
First there is her sense of filial piety in being a dutiful daughter to Bardo. But this is undercut by the half-humorous depiction of Bardo (much of whose scholarship is fatuous), as well as by Bardo’s death. (The relationship of daughter and pedantic father sometimes resembles the relationship of Dorothea Brooke and the pedantic “scholar” Casaubon in Middlemarch.)
Then there is her wifely sense and fidelity to her husband. But she discovers first that Tito has not kept faith with her father’s express wish (to keep his library together) and then that her marriage to Tito is a sham anyway.
Finally, there is Romola’s adherence to Savonarola’s reforming zeal. This is the most satisfying and attractive of Romola’s “temptations”, but again it is found to have its limitations. Savonarola’s wish to reform a corrupt state and a corrupt church is shot through with fanaticism. Romola also discovers that Savonarola’s idealism is mingled with personal pride and compromised by power politics in the city-state. (Eliot’s ambiguous judgment of Savonarola is best expressed at the end of Chapter 25, where she discusses the mixed effects of his preaching.) Savonarola is on one level an enemy of vice (in which particular both George Eliot and Romola agree with him). But as he attacks and makes a bonfire of “vanities” he is also the enemy of humanist scholarship and art.
When Savonarola allows Romola’s godfather, the scholar Bernardo del Nero, to be sacrificed for the sake of political stability, Romola loses all faith in him, succumbs to despair and attempts suicide. She hops into a boat which she hopes will carry her down the Arno to the sea, where she can drown. (In doing this, she is copying the actions of a character in Boccaccio’s Decameron.) Instead, the boat strands her in a village stricken with plague. Here live Tessa (the faithless Tito’s other “wife”) and her family. Romola at once realizes what her duty is. It is to relieve the suffering of her fellow human beings. So she settles into a life of looking after Tessa, whom she sees not as a rival but as another innocent woman who has been exploited. Although it may sometimes be painful, selfless altruism is the final rightful object of one’s duty.
I’ve sometimes noted that some 19th century works of literature anticipate what we think of as 20th century perceptions. (Robert Browning’s Childe Roland To the Dark Tower Came, with its desolate landscape, has always seemed to me a foretaste of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land). I’m therefore not squeamish about saying that Romola reminds me of an existentialist fable. Only when the void is faced, when reliance on the moral compass of others proves inadequate, can one find a true object for faith and a life’s work. Romola has to be brought to a position of despair, of seeing everything as pointless and valueless, before she can discover true value. Unlike the mid-20th century existentialists, however (Camus, Sartre and company), George Eliot sees us as having an innate sense of duty (conscience?), this being perhaps a survival of the evangelical Christian faith she had abandoned.
The novel’s secondary matter is its depiction of the Renaissance, and about this George Eliot is curiously ambivalent. Renewed scholarship is seen as virtuous and positive in comparison with medieval scholasticism, but (and you can read this in Chapter 7) Eliot is aware of how petty and self-serving scholarship can become. Savonarola’s urge to reform is approved, but Savonarola is both marred by fanaticism and too good for his followers who miss the point of his mission and expect him to perform miracles. Textbook fashion (all those descriptions cluttering the book!), Eliot acknowledges the achievements of Renaissance art, but clearly sees Renaissance revelry as unpleasant licence (see the opening of Chapter 20 for her disapproving description of a carnival). It is at this juncture that I hear most clearly the voice of a moral Victorian lady as she wags an admonishing finger. One wholly commendable matter, however, is the author’s frank acknowledgement that not everybody is made for a life of stern moral purpose. This is seen in the novel’s sympathetic portrayal of Romola’s likeable, empty-headed middle-aged aunt Monna Brigida, whose sole concern is the fashions of the day. As a side issue, I note that Romola’s care for Tessa and Monna Brigida and for other women less intellectually endowed than she, often comes close to what I see as a subsumed yearning for motherhood on the part of the author.
There are, however, many weaknesses in the structure of this story. Even more than in the average novel, coincidence plays a huge part. Tito’s abandoned stepfather just happens to arrive in Florence at the very time that it is right for Tito to be pursued and have revenge wrought on him. Later Tito just happens to be swept down the river to land exactly where nemesis is waiting for him. At one point in the novel, Savonarola just happens to meet Romola, when she is running away in disguise, and recalls her to her duty. Most egregiously Romola, attempting to float into oblivion, just happens to land at the village which needs her altruism. Perhaps the idea of a fate or “higher purpose” shaping our destinies is thematically important; but these are still jarring incidents in a naturalistic sense.
In terms of narrative, the best element of the novel is the progressive revelation of Tito’s flawed character. His descent into moral torpor is so finely contrived that it is hard to tell at exactly what point we cease to sympathise with him. Indeed, to the very end, he still has attractive “public” qualities.
And yet there is still that huge stumbling block of Romola herself. She is too perfect. Eliot never exactly makes Romola her mouthpiece. Most of Romola’s moral hesitations are reported rather than given as soliloquies, but even so, Romola is so prescient about the historical period in which she is living, is able to see “contemporary” events with such detachment and from such a rational perspective, that she becomes an idealised version of George Eliot’s favourite qualities. She is an Italian Renaissance woman wearing a crinoline. An intelligent, intellectual Victorian woman in the wrong century. This impression is reinforced by the clearly agnostic humanism in which Romola has been reared.
I don’t want to be unfair to this very flawed and long novel. George Eliot imposes Victorian values and attitudes on Renaissance Italy much less than most current historical novelists impose current attitudes on the past. Even so, this is a very righteous and stately novel, out of tune with our age and unlikely to enjoy a revival any time soon.

Fatuous footnote: As you may have noticed, I am very aware of the way established and “classic” novels are treated by film and television adaptations. Most of George Eliot’s novels have at some stage become intelligent BBC television series (Middlemarch, Daniel Deronda) or one-offs (Adam Bede, Silas Marner, The Mill on the Floss). Apart from a creaky 1930s British filming of The Mill on the Floss, however, none of them became movies for the cinema – unlike works by other Victorians like the Brontes or Dickens or Thackeray, all of which were much loved by Old Hollywood because of their broad popular appeal. George Eliot was clearly too intellectual, and therefore best left to the BBC. Oddly, the one exception is Romola. To the best of my knowledge, this has never been filmed for television. Not only is it somewhat obscure, but it would presumably also be cripplingly expensive to try to recreate the Italian Renaissance settings on film, even with the help of computer graphics. However, 90 years ago, Romola was Old Hollywood’s one stab at George Eliot. In 1924, a 2-hour-long silent version was made, directed by Henry King and starring Lillian Gish as Romola and her sister Dorothy Gish as Tessa (odd casting given the relationship of the two women in the novel). I have never seen this film, which seems to exist now only in a few archived copies, but stills suggest the approach which was taken. After all, Lillian Gish’s whole appeal was as the ethereal pure suffering virgin. So this was the 1920s idea of an “improving” and respectable classic. I would guess that the film would now seem even more dated than the source novel does.