Monday, April 16, 2018
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE NEW SHIPS” by Kate Duignan (Victoria University Press, $NZ30); “FEVERISH – A MEMOIR” by Gigi Fenster (Victoria University Press, $NZ30).
Is it a sign of the Zeitgeist or is it pure coincidence that for the second time in a fortnight I find myself reviewing a novel whose plot turns, in part, on an anxious parent seeking an adult child, who has apparently gone missing in Europe?
Charlotte Grimshaw’s Mazarine [reviewed on my last post] had a mother looking for a daughter, and was set just after the Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015 when the world was a-jitter about terrorism. Kate Duignan’s complex and intriguing novel The New Ships has a father seeking a son, from whom he last parted company on bad terms. It is set in 2001, when the world had similar jitters after the destruction of the Twin Towers. Both novels are narrated in the first person by the questing parent. Here, however, it would be prudent to end these odious comparisons. Grimshaw’s novel sends many overt signals that her narrator misconceives and misreports things, and it becomes in part an essay on the whole concept of the “unreliable narrator”. More subtly, Duignan’s novel allows us to see all the flaws of her narrator, but does not so blatantly question his veracity. He is telling the truth as best he can, but there are gaps in what he knows. Being stuck in his head for the length of the novel, however, we can question his values and ask how honest he is being with himself.
The narrator is the affluent, middle-aged, Wellington lawyer Peter Collie. His wife Moira has just died of cancer and he is deep in grief. But there is tension between him and his 25-year-old son, the aspiring actor Aaron. We know very early in the piece that Aaron is not his biological son. Aaron knows this too. Peter married Moira when she was pregnant by another man, whose identity she never fully disclosed to him. Not knowing who the biological father was clearly distresses Peter and he is still anxious to know. And then his son goes missing.
Grieving for his wife and then looking for his son, Peter is forced into settling accounts and taking stock of his life. As a lawyer, wishing all things were based on evidence, Peter sees himself as setting out to discover forensically the truth about his late wife, his son’s biological father and his son’s whereabouts. In the process he has to ask questions about his own identity as a husband and father and what he has achieved in life. This might seem a [relatively] straightforward and even honourable agenda, a sort of rational “accounting”. But, as we again learn very early in the novel, there is a complicating factor.
Years previously, when he was a hippie-ish young man in Amsterdam in the early 1970s, Peter impregnated a young Frenchwoman, Genevieve, who gave birth to a daughter, Abigail. Genevieve left him and later told him that Abigail had died in infancy. But, at the same time he is grieving for his wife’s death, Peter gets a message from Rob, an old pal now settled in Europe, who says he has seen a young woman the spitting image of Genevieve and who wonders if she could in fact be the young adult Abigail. So in some sense Peter is involved in seeking both a son and a daughter.
For aught I know, at this point some cheap wit might be waiting to quote [a modified version of] Lady Bracknell’s jibe: “To lose one [child], Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” Let me make it clear then, that I find this scenario both plausible and persuasive as Kate Duignan presents it. But it also adds nuance to Peter Collie’s exploration of himself. After all, in questing after his lost daughter Abigail, he is in a way in search of his lost youth, a psychological compulsion common enough in middle-aged and elderly men. And seeking one’s lost youth often involves a degree of self-mythologisation.
In a complex, but always comprehensible, narrative The New Ships interweaves events from Amsterdam in 1970s with events in the “present”.
Speaking as a late middle-aged male, I’m impressed by how convincing Kate Duignan has made the male voice that tells this story. Peter Collie’s perspective, his priorities and his values are male ones, and they are also indicative of his flaws. He is painfully aware of social class and he sees himself as deserving praise for coming up the hard way. He began as a boy from Wanganui whose father earned a living fixing washing machines. Even if he is apparently well-read in the classics and has become an upper-middle-class professional, is there the hint of a chip on his shoulder? His haughty and snobbish mother-in-law Laura often implies that he is not from the top drawer.
Looking back on his own youth, Peter is aware that many of the extreme radicals of his youth were well-off kids merely sojourning in radicalism. His mate Rob’s wife Clare used to advocate for the Angry Brigade when she was a student in the ‘70s, but Peter notes that she comes from a family of “liberal intellectuals, deeply enmeshed with the ruling class of England” and despite having married colonial Rob she now lives in a mansion. (p.114) When he considers his partners in his Wellington law practice, Peter remarks: “I don’t forget, ever, unlike some of my colleagues who were born into the professional class, that much of what has made my life sound and comfortable is the effect of a good career: on the psyche, on the body, how it holds you together, and income, the way the money keeps coming in, ending the late-night anxiety attacks, the humiliation of pretending you have in reach many things you do not have in reach, the constant figuring and figuring…” (p.96)
And on the same page, this idea spills over into his annoyance that his late wife – an amateur painter - and son have taken for granted the life that his hard-earned income has given them: “for every day of joy her painting gave her, the doubt [about how much he worked] made her miserable for three. I often thought she just didn’t have enough to do. And she, of course, ate well while she painted, our house was warm while she painted, our son wanted for nothing while she painted.” (p.96)
A similar sentiment surfaces when he recalls taking Aaron on holiday to Venice when Aaron was a teenager and complained about having to see “the whole art and famous oldy things crap”. Peter immediately thinks “Our horribly spoiled boy. The arithmetic was on me before I could stop it: the two-thousand dollar airfare, the train tickets, the upgrade to two-bedroom hotel rooms so he could have his privacy and we ours.” (p.153)
Many fathers literally count the cost this way, although most learn not to say so out loud.
But how much self-deception is there in Peter Collie? How often does his narrative make excuses for past bad behaviour, or simply slide over such behaviour? He conceives of himself as an honest, hard-working husband and father, but when we learn that the boy Aaron twice got lost when the family were holidaying, we wonder how solicitous he really was. Apart from Moira and Genevieve, he mentions in passing some other women he slept with when he was young, but dismisses them as unimportant and irrelevant to his life. Reading between the lines and decoding his own partial interpretation, it is clear that they were not unimportant to Genevieve. Some of the dodgy things he did in Amsterdam come into the criminal category. As a lawyer, he sees himself as the wise mentor of younger colleagues, but his mentoring of the trainee Dylan shows a haughty dismissiveness and the same attitude comes into view when he does some pro bono work for a young man who has got into trouble in a political protest.
I do not wish to give the impression that this novel is only about its flawed narrator, and the arc of Kate Duignan’s narrative really shows Peter learning things and in a way becoming wiser – redeemed, if you like. We are certainly not invited to look down on him. But there are insistent strains of symbolism in The New Ships which underline Peter Collie’s mental state. He often refers to Orpheus, who grieved for the woman he loved but who was also killed by women – as Peter is sometimes tempted to see himself being destroyed. Peter repeatedly thinks of Mozart’s Requiem, which is appropriate to funereal thoughts about his wife, but which also includes the Miserere asking for forgiveness and the Dies Irae warning of judgment. Peter is aware of mortality, craves some sort of moral forgiveness and knows moral judgment might find him out.
Then there is the way he often thinks of the legend of Daphnis and Chloe, an image of untrammelled, youthful sensual love and sex, without adult consciousness or any sense of adult responsibility. When he meets with Genevieve in 1989, years after the birth and [apparent]] death of their daughter, he says “I kissed her, lips, mouth, tongue, I put my hand beneath her skirt, across the skin of her thigh, skimmimg over her, I wanted everything back, I wanted to be innocent, I wanted to be inside her for the first time, I wanted to be Daphnis with Chloe. I wanted to fuck her in her own place, in her own bed, I wanted to feel her skin.” (p.172) This really is, with a vengeance, the illusion of being able to find “lost youth”.
I should also note that there is a subplot of Peter, after Moira’s death, attempting to sell the bach he owns at Castlepoint. This takes on a sort of symbolic value, pointing to the more pleasurable parts of life he has now lost. That Moira once painted an unglamourised, nude portrait of her husband might also indicate her desire to denude Peter of his conceits about himself. “O wad some Power the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us! ” as Burns said. She is the Power. As for the novel's title, reflected in the cover design of a yacht's unfurled sails, as well as deriving from a canonical poem, "the new ships" refers literally to Peter's desire to buy a sailing boat and symbolically to his setting out in a new direction in life.
And now I face a familiar problem in reviewing a new novel. With tiresome frequency on this blog, I have proclaimed my own virtue by telling you how I do not provide “spoilers” when I review new novels, because I believe it is unmannerly to reveal elements of the narrative that the author intends to come as a surprise to readers. This is especially true of The New Ships. Part Two of The New Ships (about the last third of the novel) suddenly gives us new information which completely alters both our and Peter Collie’s view of his late wife and of his relationship with his son. In doing so this elaborates many themes about race, about culture and about the nature of family that have been implicit earlier in the novel, but have not been fully articulated.
In passing I can note, however, that Peter Collie at one point expresses the pragmatic desire not to know about Moira’s family background and his own. What do details of family add up to, after all? “Data, anecdotes, false nostalgia. Mostly, in these parts, we forget about the past and get on with it here and now. Which seems sensible and for this I am basically grateful.” (pp.125-126). But the arc of the narrative, including the parts I have scrupulously not revealed here, shows a man reconciling with the truth and the past, for all his flaws and blindnesses. In this matter at least, The New Ships has something thematic in common with Vincent O’Sullivan’s novel All This By Chance. Ignoring or suppressing the past is no way to arrive at the truth about oneself.
I am in admiration of Kate Duignan’s ability to tell such a complex tale, with a large cast of characters and shifting time-frames, but without ever making her narrative opaque or hard to follow. This is a considerable and very readable novel, a great analysis of a complex character and an arresting commentary on both parenthood and the nature of family. And – not the least of its virtues – it does not cheat readers by leaving its initial elements of mystery unexplained.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Six years ago (15 April 2012, to be precise) I had the great pleasure of reviewing Gigi Fenster’s debut novel The Intentions Book for the Sunday Star-Times. In the copy of that review, which I have pasted into one of my books of press clippings, I see that I called The Intentions Book “incredibly well written and an altogether stunning debut” in its tale of a father waiting anxiously for news of his adult daughter, who has gone missing on a tramping trip in the New Zealand bush. Every so often in the last six years, I have wondered when I was going to see another book by the same author. Was she suffering some form of writer’s block?
Feverish, her second book, at last gives me my answer. Feverish is a personal memoir, and not a novel, in which Gigi Fenster does indeed say that her writing impulse seemed to have dried up and that she was looking for some way of reviving her creative powers. I have to be very careful about what I say here, as I do not wish to misrepresent her intentions. Before I read Feverish, I had already heard on Radio New Zealand the half-hour interview Kim Hill had with the author, and the impression that interview gave me was that the book focused entirely on the issue of fever itself. Gigi Fenster explained – as she does in the book – that after reading much (especially nineteenth-century) fiction, and being aware of much of the psychiatric literature, she understood that fever – in the true medical sense – could be associated with creativity and hence could impel her once more to write, after too long a hiatus. So she set out (a.) to understand more fully what fever was; and (b.) to induce a real fever in herself and hence to get back on track as an author.
These matters are indeed a major part of Feverish. Fenster discusses whether or not “fever” was simply a convenient plot device in 19th century novels; how much “brain fever” or GPI (“general paresis of the insane”) were more primitve designations for ailments that would now be diagnosed differently; and whether ancient attempts to induce fever actually worked. She remarks: “I learned about First World War soldiers chewing cordite and school children putting onions under their armpits. I read about long steam baths and ancient Egyptian healers covering their patients in hot sand. I thought those techniques for inducing fever didn’t sound too bad.” (p.104) She also seeks to find out what modern drugs could induce a real fever, and what medically-credible “cures” have been devised.
How her quest resolves itself, and whether she does actually undergo a genuine, creativity-inducing fever, are matters that I should not reveal. But I can say that Feverish ends with a really enlightening discussion between Fenster and her (psychiatrist) father on the nature of both “fever” and its care as depicted in the novel Wuthering Heights. Part of the reason I cheer this discussion is Fenster’s argument that the real hero of that passionate novel – the only genuinely empathetic character – is the much-ridiculed Edgar Linton. Dare I say that that has long been my own opinion?
But (one of my favourite words as a reviewer, remember) I have said all this only by way of pointing out that, despite its importance, fever itself is not really the only concern of this memoir, and may not really be the most important concern. Feverish is as much about family, about guilt, about the nature of empathy and about curious happenstances in life. Indeed to some extent the subject of fever could be called a hook on which to hang the exposition of a life and a reflection on how human beings best relate to one another.
Let’s give some context here. Gigi Fenster, her husband and her two young adult daughters have lived in New Zealand for quite a number of years, but the author was born and raised in South Africa and did not leave that country until she was a young adult. Furthermore, Fenster and her family are Jewish – apparently secular and not relgiously-observant, but fully aware of their family’s ancestry in the shtetls of Eastern Europe. So there is in this memoir much remembrance of other societies, their traditions and their constraints.
Some of Fenster’s memories of South Africa are almost idyllic, as in pages about holidays in Swaziland and family and adolescent activities. But this is the South Africa of apartheid, so there is an undertone of guilt about being privileged white people, albeit ones of liberal attitudes. In fact the opening chapters have some white South African students in the 1980s refusing to do national service, while others dislike the system, don’t really do anything about it, but feel good that “their hearts are in the right place”. Later, there is agonising about what should be done after the police murder Steve Biko.
Does Feverish incite us to despise those whose “hearts [only] are in the right place”? No – for much of Fenster’s purpose is to encourage the virtue of empathy; that is, of trying to understand other people’s motives and why they act as they do. Isn’t it too easy to imagine that we would all be heroes in a morally-fraught situation? In similar vein, Fenster’s daughters are rather too ready to see their Eastern European Jewish forebears as being too craven, too ready to submit to authority, and they criticise their mother for not proclaiming her own Jewishness enough. This matter is related thematically to a story Fenster tells of a Dutch woman who, discovering that Fenster’s family were Jewish, was a little over-eager to tell her that her own family had sheltered a Jewish girl and saved her life in the Second World War. Her residual guilt about Gentiles who didn’t do enough to prevent the Shoah mirrors the guilt of white liberals in apartheid South Africa. Fully understanding what is going on in the Dutchwoman’s mind, Fenster nevertheless understands the woman’s situation and falls in with her version of events.
More than anything, though, this matter of empathy is played out in Fenster’s memories of a boy she knew when she was an adolescent. Simon was an eccentric loner who became fully schizophrenic, but who was capable of long, lucid conversations. In one long conversation with Fenster’s psychiatrist father, Simon suggests that psychiatry (medicated and perhaps compromised by its association with pharmaceuticals) is too clinical and impersonal, and lacks the empathy and personal relationships encouraged by psychoanalysis. Again, Fenster does not encourage us to endorse this view uncritically – she has too much respect for her father’s profession. But her survey of the (in retrospect) horrendous career of the “alienist” Julius Wagner-Jauregg does suggest how psychiatry, divorced from personal concern for the patient, could become a form of torture.
If fever is the frame, then empathy is the heart of Feverish.
It would be foolish not to note, too, that in the midst of these weighty matters, much of Feverish is dead funny, even if in a macabre sort of way. Consider some of Fenster’s family anecdotes. There’s the excruciatingly painful account of the family going on a shared holiday with the family of a couple who were clearly deep into the process of their marriage breaking up, and all the tensions and whispers and suppressed aggressions that that entailed. There’s the horrific tale of one of her baby daughters nearly being grabbed by a marauding bunch of baboons. And most pervasively, there is the helter-skelter of Gigi’s four siblings sometimes squabbling, sometimes verbally jousting, always communicating in family codes and in-jokes, getting in one another’s way and anticipating the punch-lines of their formidably intelligent parents’ best anecdotes and jokes. In fact behaving like any other kids in a decent family.
Having dealt with this memoir in such a po-faced fashion, however, I’m almost in danger of not conveying its real flavour. The prose of Feverish is itself feverish, being jittery, jumping from staccato sentence to staccato sentence and from idea to idea in a manner similar to the random associations encouraged on a psychoanalyst’s couch. It is the very eccentricity of this book and its odd structure and its apparent digressions that make it what it is. Yet it is not a random collection of anecdotes, memories and research. Its ideas unify it and the author’s vision is a sane one. A memorable memoir of a sort I have rarely encountered.
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.
“LOVE’S LABOUR’S LOST” by William Shakespeare (probably first written c.1595-96; first surviving publication a quarto of 1598, but possibly also published earlier in a quarto now lost)
Thank you for sending me the fair copy of your manuscript for my comments and criticism. I think you should stop doing this. When you first arrived in London, it was reasonable for you to seek my opinions on how well you had patched up old plays by others or done similar hack-work. But surely by now you are reasonably well-launched in your career as playwright. You do not really need my approval any longer, do you? I do not say this in any spirit of rancour. I am always happy to read what you have yourself written (though I am glad you have never inflicted another Titus Andronicus upon me); and I am of course happy to receive your manuscript of Love’s Labour’s Lost before you hand it over to the printers. Let me say at once that in reading it, I have found it a pleasant comedy and I enjoyed at least some of the conceits of your language. Perhaps you could advise the printers to put some version of this praise on the title page when they get around to printing it.
But we must take the rough with the smooth, mustn’t we? So I am afraid that in what follows, I am going to have to say some negative things as well as some positive. I hope they are of some help to you in your further endeavours.
First, the positives. I was delighted that this time you thought up your own plot rather than running to Holinshed or North’s translation of Plutarch or an Italian novel or some such, and it is a very clever idea for a plot. The King of Navarre and three studious young men of his royal court decide they will hide away for three years and engage in nothing but study to make themselves wiser. To this end, they forswear the company of women and the distractions of love. But when the Princess of France arrives on an embassy with three ladies of her royal court, the young men are at once distracted out of their study, Love triumphs over Scholarship and by ingenious (dare I say “conceited”?) argument, Love is shown to teach more than Study does.
In a play, I do like a concept as simple and straightforward as this. Of course I thought it very convenient that the King of Navarre falls in love with the Princess of France; Berowne falls in love with Rosaline; Longaville falls in love with Maria; and Dumain falls in love with Katharine. What a bother it would have been if, say, two of the young men had fallen in love with the same woman! But I accept that you are writing a light comedy and the probabilities of real life can be ignored in this context. Besides, your concept would have been ruined if we had been distracted by rivalries between two of the male characters.
I really enjoyed the way you gave carping, witty Berowne a fitting female counterpart in witty Rosaline. Some of what they speak is much ado about nothing, but I feel this idea of a war of wits between lovers is something you could develop in some future play. How fitting that Rosaline should say of Berowne “a merrier man, / Within the limit of becoming mirth, / I never spent an hour’s talk withal”.
I congratulate you, sir, on Berowne’s excellent soliloquy at the end of Act 3, where he has to admit reluctantly to himself that he is in love, and speaks of Cupid as
“This wimpled, whining, purblind wayward Boy
This senior-junior giant dwarf, Don Cupid,
Regent of love-rhymes, Lord of folded arms,
The anointed sovereign of sighs and groans:
Liege of all loiterers and malcontents:
Dread Prince of Plackets, King of codpieces,
Sole Imperator and great general
Of trotting paritors (O my little heart)
And I to be a Corporal in his field,
And wear his colours like a tumbler’s hoop…”
Yes indeed – it is a great example of a man trying to talk himself out of something to which he is really inclined.
I delight also in your ironical conclusion, where news of the death of the French king comes, the Princess of France must break off her embassy, and the four young men must go into a year of seemly mourning – without the company of women – before they may resume their suit to the women they profess to love. This could have appeared too abrupt and unlikely an ending, but I congratulate you on giving to the Princess the speech beginning “A time, methinks, too short / To make a world-without-end bargain in…” This allows for a plausible transition from the joyful to the solemn. And might I add that for the first time, I understood the full import of your new play’s title. As for the Spring and Winter song with which you conclude the play, I believe this is the best thing you have so far done in the art of song.
As always with your work, my friend, there were many individual lines that stuck in my mind and rang true to life. I am sure many a sorry student would agree with Berowne’s complaint “Small have continual plodders ever won / Save base authority from others’ books.” When the King describes the Braggart Armado as “One, who the music of his own vain tongue, / Doth ravish like enchanting harmony”, I thought of many such a one of my own ken. And indeed one can only admit the truth of Maria’s observation that “Folly in Fools bears not so strong a note, / As fool’ry in the wise, when Wit doth dote.” While you put the words into the mouth of the Pedant Holofernes, I nevertheless recognise the wit of the line “He draweth out the thread of his verbosity, finer than the staple of his argument.”
But now, alas, let me speak of some infelicities in your design and execution. Is it not a little foolish to have Boyet – essentially the older chaperone of the French ladies – explaining, in a long speech to the ladies and to us in Act Two, how the King of Navarre has spoken, when we have ourselves just heard the reported speeches? The speech of nearly 80 lines which you give to Berowne at the end of Act Four is, in and of itself, a masterpiece of complex and conceited wit – I love your lengthy comparisons of the luminosity of women’s eyes with the illumination of true scholarship; and I love your witty paradoxes arguing that, to follow nature and foreswear an oath is not to be forsworn. Indeed I read and re-read this speech with much pleasure. But is it not a self-contained sermon rather than a dramatic speech, more suited to a chapbook than a playscript? Its lesson is already implicit in what we have seen acted out, and here the wit of Berowne becomes an oration and, for all its flashing wit, perhaps in part a display of pedantry which would fly over the heads of your impatient audience.
Speaking of pedants…
When we already have in the play a pompous pedant in the person of the Braggart Armado, is it not over-egging the pudding to introduce exactly the same sort of verbose quibbler in the form of the Pedant Holofernes? Indeed, when Holofernes converses with the foolish curate Nathaniel, we have three characters with convoluted verbal diahorrea. I understand this sort of thing keeps the lads at the Inns of Court smirking with superior laughter – especially when one of the pedants misuses Latin tags and the like – but it does try one’s patience. In small doses, misusages are funny, but give us excess of them and surfeiting the appetite is sickened, and so dies. (I do appreciate, however, your clever conceit of having the Boy Moth, and even the Clown Costard, sometimes defeating the pedants at their own verbal games.)
There is another thing that worries me about your Braggart Armado. You at first present him as a model of hypocrisy. Armado seeks to punish the Clown Costard for canoodling with the wench Jaquenetta, when the King’s edict has forbidden such behaviour. But then Armado himself hopes to seduce the same wench. Much more, I think, could have been made of this situation than the lame matter of the two letters being delivered to the wrong recipients. Armado’s moral downfall could have been much funnier. In fact, in my mind I put together this situation with another moment in your play where the humour is forced and underdeveloped. Of course it is funny to have Berowne, himself false to his vow not to be distracted by women, hiding behind bushes to overhear the King do the same forswearing. But goodness! When both the King and Berowne hide behind bushes to hear Longaville similarly forsworn; and then when Berowne, the King and Longaville are all hidden behind bushes to hear Dumain forsworn – we feel that we have heard the same joke three times over. Might I make a suggestion? The next time you wish to expose, in comedy, a pedantic hypocrite, might I suggest you involve him in a more complex plot? Imagine what fun it would be to have a whole group of plotters hiding behind bushes to see a pompous and self-righteous fool reveal what he really was. You might build even more fun into the joke if you were to have the fool dress in something outrageous to further deflate his assumed dignity – yellow cross-garters or some such. This is just a suggestion.
In terms of structure, my main objection to your play is implicit in what I have already said. Too often the comic situations are static set-pieces overlaid with verbal banter or high poetic rhetoric, rather than comedy developing out of plot and character. I am sure that the skill of your company of players will draw laughter from the scene in which the four young men disguise themselves as Muscovites, and disport themselves before the knowing young ladies. Perhaps such skill will also make enjoyable the more ridiculous characters’ attempted pageant of the world’s great Worthies. But this is the stuff of masque – probably more diverting on the boards than it is on the page. I have said I admire the general concept of your play, but it has little forward momentum.
As for style and text, there are two main problems. Please realise the disadvantages of rhyme, even in comedy. Of course we esteem the wit of a man who, extempore, can spin witty rhymes. But speech after speech of rhyme is somewhat numbing. In your play, even the banter of Berowne and Rosaline droops from too much rhyme. Dear William, be more sparing in your future use of rhyme when it comes to playwriting.
Finally, there is that awful matter of the topicality of so many of the jests in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and the narrow audience at which so many of those jests seem pitched. We both know how unlikely it is that this merry, frivolous little farce will hold the stage for long, but if it does, its many in-jokes will rapidly become incomprehensible. They might raise knowing chuckles from courtiers and university men, who recognise your sly allusions to illustrious names from our recent French wars, and your hits at rival intellectuals. But frankly, even now, most of the wider audience will simply fail to undertand much of what is intended to raise the laugh. This is true, too, of the puns, the wordplay, the misused Latin tags.
I had a strange dream last night after I read your play. I dreamed that, by some miracle, your plays were still remembered in four hundred years’ time. I saw audiences moved or amused by the plays you have yet to write. But for this play, I saw only armies of pedantic scholars drawing up long notes and explanations of jokes that no longer made any sense. It was quite dead to new sensibilities.
I say none of this to discourage your future work, which I am sure will improve as greatly as this play is an improvement on Titus Andronicus.
As always, yours in confidence and under the seal,
21st Century Footnote: After the ghost of Henry Garnet dictated the above letter to me, I chanced to take off my shelf Harold Bloom’s 750-page blockbuster Shakespeare – The Invention of the Human (1998), clearly the American critic’s attempt to say the last word sbout Shakespeare. I turned to the verbose chap’s 27-page chapter on Love’s Labour’s Lost, and found Bloom declaring that “I take more unmixed pleasure from Love’s Labour’s Lost than from any other Shakespearean play” and praising its “linguistic exuberance” and “vocal magnificence”. Like so much Shakespearean criticism, most of Bloom’s chapter consists of a synopsis raisonee, with commentary upon long quotations from the play (it fills up the pages, folks). His chief assertions appear to be (a.) that the play shows Shakespeare as a virtuoso of various styles; and (b.) that it presents a very sophisticated philosophical argument on the debate between study (Art) and love (Nature), a matter which concerned various sages and intellectuals of Shakespeare’s own time. Doubtless this is true, but the approach is all too familiar to me from much academic criticism. The idea of the play is what beguiles and enchants the critic, rather than its real dramatic impact. It is, for the critic, an intriguing intellectual artefact, and therefore worthy of inflated praise. There is also the critic’s delight in being able to tell us of obscure intellectual quarrels from Shakespeare’s time. Let us then praise Love’s Labour’s Lost, because it allows us to show our superiority to the undiscerning hoi-polloi who have not mastered such scholarship! To each his own opinion, I suppose. But I turn with relief from Harold Bloom to William Hazlitt’s Characters of Shakespear’s [sic] Plays, and find Hazlitt declaring rubustly “If we were to part with any of the author’s comedies, it should be this”. Being the fair-minded man he was, Hazlitt proceeds to praise some good things in Love’s Labour’s Lost, but he does note that the play “savours more of the pedantic spirit of Shakespear’s time than of his own genius”. This is my own chief objection to Love’s Labour’s Lost. In many respects, Bloom’s critique, with its overblown claims for the play, gave me more laughs than the play itself did.
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.
GRUMPY OLD MAN MODE…
I feel I have the right to talk sometimes in Grumpy Old Man mode. I say this ironically, of course, because any attempt to talk about language and its current misusage is often greeted with the sneer that only Grumpy Old Men worry about such things and that therefore I must belong to that tribe.
So let me clear away the rubbish first before I get on with my peeves. I am fully aware that language changes, that neologisms are coined in every age, that the meanings of words mutate, that acceptable usage is not static and that – perhaps most important – it is everyday usage that brings about change in ideas of what is acceptable in language, not scholarship and not academe. Language cannot be frozen and language tends to change “bottom up”, not “top down”. It was, after all, a bunch of slobs a few centuries ago who began to ignore the second-person singular pronoun and use only the second-person plural, so that “thou”, “thee” and “thine” dropped out of the language.
In this process, many words acquire meanings quite different from those they used to have. A pedant once told me that properly speaking “sophisticated” meant something like “corrupted” or “decadent”. But my rebuff was that, properly speaking, the word has come to mean something like “worldly wise”, “well-informed”, “knowledgeable” or “fashionable”, and it is now fruitless to attempt to revive its former meaning, regardless of what older dictionaries may prescribe. On the other hand (and doubtless showing how inconsistent I am), I am sorry that the verb “anticipate” seems to have lost its earlier, and very useful, meaning. Once “anticipate” meant “to act before others act” as in “The enemy were going to attack but we anticipated them”. Now it appears to have become a weak synonym for “expect” as in “I anticipate he will arrive next week.” Personally I would call it a misusage, but I am waging a losing battle on that one. I do hope, however, that the useful word “decimate” does not get sophisticated (old sense), but I anticipate (new sense) that it will. Increasingly I hear news commentators – among the influential semi-literates of our age – using “decimate” as if it were a synonym for “annihilate, expunge, wipe out”. To be “decimated” means to have lost one tenth of one’s strength or power. An army that is decimated has suffered serious losses, but is still at nine-tenths its strength, and probably therefore capable (after a little re-grouping) of offering battle. This is not what “our reporter on the spot” means when she tells us that most civilians in a Syrian suburb have been “decimated” by government bombing.
In saying all this, I understand that some usages are purely a matter of preference. I believe it is sheer illiteracy to use “less” when you mean “fewer”, and I would cross the road to avoid those who do not understand that “uninterested” is not the same as “disinterested”. On the other hand, some whom I would regard as allies in the wars of linguistic propriety still insist that one must write “all right” and shun “alright” as a mere corruption of “all right”. My own view is that “alright” (= “adequate”) has now taken on a meaning quite different from “all right” (= “completely correct”) and should be accepted as the separate entity it now is.
With regret, I have to accept that some semi-literate usages have their value. Something that bursts easily into flames, or is easily inflamed, is “inflammable”; but for a number of decades now trucks carrying oil, petroleum etc. also bear a warning that their cargo is “flammable” because of the strong possibility that many people will read the prefix “in-“ as a negation. I suppose, for the sake of people not being blown up by mishandling such cargo, this misusage is a matter of public safety.
The pronunciation of words is a different matter from the misuse of words, but it will always cause disputes, especially in countries where a world language (like English) is spoken. In my own country of New Zealand, there is a large cohort of (especially young) people who no longer know how to alter the pronunciation of the definite article when it is followed by a word beginning with a vowel. When one says “the dog”, “the” rhymes with “duh”. When one says “the apple”, “the” rhymes with “tree”. Increasingly we are getting “duh apple”. Likewise, in pronunciation, the plural of “woman” appears to be disappearing. “Women” in spoken language is often indistinguishable from “woman”, which might cause some annoyance to those second-wave feminists who for a brief period insisted on spelling it “wimmin”.
Conversely, in written language in my country, younger people appear to have forgotten how to spell the ejaculation “eh”, possibly because they don’t read much and have not seen it in print. Some months ago, to be provocative, I put the following post in Facebook:
“Dear Millennials, This is the last day of 2017, so I wish to advise you of an area of written expression in which you fall down woefully. Too many of you seem not to know how to spell "Eh". I have seen semi-literates among you write "Aye" or "Ay" when what you clearly mean is "Eh". Thus I have seen such lamentable locutions as "It's a nice day, ay?" or "Lorde's latest album was pretty crap, aye?". Allow me to advise you that "Ay" and "Aye" rhyme with "sky" "pie" and "many millennials deserve a poke in the eye". When one obeys a captain's order to swab the deck, one says "Aye-aye captain!" When one is greeted by a Scotsman, he says with his habitual courtesy and good manners "Aye, I come from Glas-gee, but I'm nae clatty or blooty, ye Sassenach f*cker". "Eh", on the other hand, rhymes with "hay", "day" and "semi-literate millennials should stay away". In the 1960s, there was a popular English play by Henry Livings called "Eh?", which exclamation is always an interrogative or an expression of bemusment or an invitation to agreement. Please drop this foolish orthographical imposture. Hope you agree with me, eh?”
Of course this received some flak along the “you’re-just-a-grumpy-old-man” lines, but that was to be expected.
Interestingly, many of those who are now most prescriptive about language regard themselves, not as conservative or traditional, but as progressive. We have the growing category of language police, evidenced in a supremely silly article in an international magazine which said that people should stop using “whom” as it was now redundant and pretentious. I appreciate (new sense) that 99 people out of 100 will now say “Who are you addressing it to?” rather than “To whom are you addressing it?”. Even so, “whom” still has its uses and I can’t help wondering whom the article was attempting to influence. More annoying are those who now insist that “their” should be used as a singular pronoun, a neo-usage in which I refuse to participate. This began as an attempt to be gender-neutral in cases where a single subject was used but both sexes were implied. “Everyone took his suitcase and left” was regarded as sexist and was now rendered as “Everyone [singular] took their [plural] suitcase and left.” In the badlands of North American academe, this foolish usage has now become part of the language wars fought by those people of indeterminate gender who want to be addressed in the singular as “they” rather than “he” or “she”.
Let me conclude with some valid quibbles on the growing number of back-formations one now sees in the guise of abstract nouns.
From the verb “abolish” comes the abstract noun “abolition”. I have seen the awful back-formation “abolishment” in print more than once, a certain sign of limited literacy. Similarly, the adjective “anxious” designates how one feels if one is suffering from “anxiety”. The illiteracy “anxiousness” is now appearing in print. In a way, I sympathise with those who try to make an abstract noun out of the adjective “sordid”, because no such abstract noun is in common use. Thus I have seen the awful “sordidness” in print. But there is such an abstract noun, even if it has not been used widely for many a long year. The word is “sordor”, and I would be a happy man if it were duly revived.
Cannibalising myself, I end with an anecdote I used on another posting on this blog. After everything I have said here, I know it is possible to be too much the pedant in matters of language, and therefore it is possible to be hoist on one’s own petard. I once read a column by a notoriously bullying columnist who was berating common illiteracy as I have been doing here. En route he remarked that he was aware of the “evolvement” of language. Clearly he had never heard of evolution.
Monday, April 2, 2018
REMINDER - "REID"S READER" NOW APPEARS FORTNIGHTLY RATHER THAN WEEKLY.
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“MAZARINE” by Charlotte Grimshaw (Vintage, $NZ38); “A SISTER IN MY HOUSE” by Linda Olsson (Penguin / Random House, $NZ22)
As she has been at pains to point out, Charlotte Grimshaw has never set out to write a novel that is only a thriller or a mystery story. Sheer genre writing is not for her, and she is more interested in analysing characters, commenting (sometimes – but not always – satirically) on society at large and reflecting on the art of narration itself. And yet there is an element of mystery in some of her novels and short stories, in the sense that they often involve the process of trying to find out what has really happened, as opposed to what characters in the novel think has happened. Mysteries are presented and (sometimes) resolved. In her latest novel, Mazarine, there is even what could loosely be called a thriller element.
This novel is in a limited sense a break from Grimshaw’s earlier work. Her two collections of linked short stories Opportunity (2007) and Singularity (2009), and the novels The Night Book (2010), Soon (2012) and Starlight Peninsula (2015) - the latter two reviewed on this blog – all somehow connected the same large cast of recurring characters, especially a Dr Simon Lampton. Mazarine has an (almost) completely different cast, although one minor character, Nick Oppenheimer, did appear in Starlight Peninsula.
If it were summarised as a thriller, Mazarine would go thus: First widowed, and then having broken up acrimoniously with her boyfriend Nick Oppenheimer, the aspiring novelist Frances Sinclair is deeply upset that her young adult daughter Maya has apparently gone missing in Europe. She has received an odd text message purporting to be from her daughter, but which simply does not sound at all like the way Maya would put things. And there are no further messages. Europe is at this stage still reacting to the Charlie Hebdo attack, talk of radical Islam and terrorism is in the air, and a little research tells Frances that her daughter’s boyfriend Joe Libard comes from a Muslim family and has a brother who is a devout Muslim. Could Maya have been caught up in some Islamic terrorist activity? Frances joins force with Joe’s lesbian mother Mazarine Libard to find Maya and Joe. Using the excuse that she is researching a novel, she travels to London, trying to track her daughter down through Maya’s friends and associates. In the process, she bonds with Mazarine, who in some sense becomes her mentor but in another sense is a mysterious character in her own right. Imagery of Ariadne’s thread relates to the various clues Mazarine and Frances follow to find Maya, and it is significant that the name “Mazarine” itself refers to an elusive blue butterfly. The action continues through Paris and Buenos Aires and, for those seeking a neat resolution, it comes to a perfectly plausible conclusion about what has become of Maya. (My not-being-a-swine rule means I do not provide spoilers about this).
Apparently Frances Sinclair’s inherited world is one of bourgeois culture. Her (adoptive) father is a judge; her (erratic) brother is an associate professor of law. Her late husband worked on the Guardian in England. As a writer, she herself is part of the literati and her daughter has connections with publishing. So there are occasional literary references, with mentions of Alice Munro and Christina Stead and E.M.Forster’s quotation about “only connecting” and somebody reading Henry James’ The Golden Bowl, not to mention Frances’ childhood memory of visiting Menton (hello Katherine Mansfield). There is also the fact that Frances is a little out of her comfort zone when it comes to the use of modern communications technology, i-phones and the like. Thinking of the people she doesn’t know about, but whom her daughter might know, she reflects her age when she says: “It made such a difference, the kids’ ability to interact with the whole world from their bedrooms.” (p.84)
So, misleadingly synopsised thus as a thriller, Mazarine is about a middle-class, middle-aged woman out of her depth as she searches for a missing daughter who might be in great danger.
All of which is a complete misrepresentation of this novel.
The fact is, Mazarine is more about the WHO than about the WHAT, and it pivots on the concept of the unreliable narrator.
The novel is narrated in the first-person by Frances Sinclair herself and she is clearly a very troubled person. While her two siblings are her parents’ biological children, she herself was adopted. Not only does she have a running psychological battle with her abrasive adoptive mother Inez, but she does not know who her biological parents were and this has a big impact on her construction of her own identity. (Charlotte Grimshaw has dealt before in her fiction with a fraught situation involving an adopted child – notably in the novel The Night Book). Frances fears getting migraines (p.42). She has had extensive psychiatric consultations with a therapist called Werner Bismarck (! – Grimshaw had a psychotherapist called Dvorak in Starlight Peninsula. Perhaps she likes giving psychotherapists famous names). Bismarck suggests that Frances has suffered an early lack of “attachment” to her prime caregiver. Frances has uncomfortable gaps in her memory. She claims she has difficulty with face recognition. She sometimes questions her own sanity. (Eloise Hay, Grimshaw’s protagonist in Starlight Peninsula, suffered from some of the same symptoms.) En route with Mazarine, she realises how little she really knows her daughter or anyone else and she frequently questions her own judgement.
With such a person as narrator, there is always a tension between what she states as fact and how reliable we think she is. Is her daughter really in danger, or are her fears possibly paranoid fantasies?
As Frances herself considers this, and especially under Mazarine’s influence, she advances one of the novel’s main ideas – that the way we perceive others is a form of fiction. In effect we “make up” other people from our limited observations of them, which we then weave into a narrative. And in the same way we “make up” our own identity.
Take, for example, the following passage where Frances reflects on her estranged partner:
“I’d never admitted to her that I’d split up with Nick because he’d started making me uneasy when he revealed, just a couple of times, that he wasn’t the man I’d thought he was. Now I took hold of Maya’s thesis, examined it. I’d ‘invented’ Nick Oppenheimer, created a character for him, that of the safe, knowable, wholesome guy, cheerfully masculine, tough, but with a heart of gold. The invention was made possible by the fact that he was enigmatic. He was a blank space into which I poured my hopes. And, because his true nature was hidden, the disparity between the real and the invented was only gradually and subtly revealed…. I’d made him into rather a cliché, I suppose, because ambiguity and complexity would have been less reassuring.. So, to give Maya’s theory full expression: Nick Oppenheimer was the creative product of my yearning and my loneliness. And then I found out he had a real self.” (pp.44-45)
Or again, when Frances is unable to interpret the message ostensibly from her daughter, she remarks:
“I couldn’t understand it, and worse, I didn’t entirely trust my own judgement. It was my old problem, being unable to read people, never having an overall certainty about a relationship, but always scanning for evidence with each new communication…” (p.58)
Considering how her daughter Maya might not be the person she thought she was, Frances asks:
“How had I failed her? Could it be that as well as ‘inventing’ Nick Oppenheimer, I’d invented my notion of myself? I’d thought I was a good parent, that we got on brilliantly, that our relationship, Maya’s and mine, was solid, successful, normal – admittedly it was a single triumph on my interpersonal record of fuck-ups, misunderstandings and solitude, but that was why I valued it so!” (p.111)
Given that Frances is so uncertain of herself, has such an unreliable memory and so often misjudges things, I am unsure whether Charlotte Grimshaw intends us to take it at face value when Frances, about two-thirds of the way through the novel, makes a complete reassessment of herself and embarks on a new beginning in her emotional life. (Again, I carefully provide no spoilers about this.) Is this meant to be seen as some sort of epiphany? Or, given her track record, could it be seen as one more of Frances’ delusions?
If the narrator of this novel is unreliable, it could be that no fiction can be trusted as a worthwhile reflection of the world anyway. Remember, Frances is not only a worried mother. She is herself a writer. To produce novels or short stories means always making use of other people as material. Even when she is setting out in panic to find her missing daughter, Frances is thinking what novelistic use she can make of the situation:
“When my girl and I were reunited I would revert to my officially stated aim, and carry out research for the idea I’d always had: a novel set in London and Paris, my own Tale of Two Cities. I had a name for it: Self State.” (p.84)
Later, she wonders how much her fiction-writing ambition compromises her role as loving mother:
“Who was the I who yearned to hold my daughter? Did that I cohabit with a different self, the writer, who watched and waited in order to requisition everything, every secret and injury and loss for one purpose: the first novel? A self so single-minded it would turn even the rawest, most private pain into fodder…” (p.137)
It would be incredibly offensive to suggest that Charlotte Grimshaw is drawing a self-portrait here, but she does drop hints that she, as novelist, shares at least some experience with her very flawed narrator. Like Grimshaw, the fictitous Frances has written fiction set on a west Auckland peninsula. One of Frances’ memories is of a dangerous childhood expedition in the Waitakeres, similar to a semi-autobiographical story Grimshaw once wrote. Perhaps this is only to say that a real novelist writing about a fictitious novelist will inevitably do some self-reflection.
Despite its mystery story structure, Mazarine is more a character study, a commentary on the way identity is constructed and a critique of the art of writing fiction itself. It is, however, the thread of the mystery story that will probably keep most readers turning the pages.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
I am reviewing Linda Olsson’s A Sister in My House in the same posting as Charlotte Grimshaw’s Mazarine out of sheer chance. I happen to have both novels before me to review in the same week and (apart from the fact that they are both written by women resident in New Zealand) the two novels have little in common. Chalk and cheese. True – both deal in part with fraught family relationships and both have a first-person narrator. But, despite a few little hints that her narrator may occasionally be in error, Linda Olsson’s first-person narrator does not confront us with all those complex and weighty issues of narrator (un-)reliablility that Charlotte Grimshaw’s narrator presents. Instead we have the more naïve phenomenon of a narrator whose words we are implicitly meant to trust throughout.
A Sister in My House is narrated by Maria, a Swede living in a desirable sea-front residence in Catalonia. In her late forties, childless and apparently single, Maria has been estranged from her younger sister Emma for a number of years. Emma is married with children. When they meet again at their mother’s funeral in Sweden, Maria impulsively invites Emma to come and stay with her for a few days. As the time comes for Emma’s sojourn, Maria has misgivings. She does not get on with her little sister and, as soon as Emma arrives, Maria feels “that creeping shameful irritation at my sister invading my private territory.” (p.40)
What has caused the bad blood between these sisters? That is the question that A Sister in My House unravels across the six days that Maria and Emma are together.
Apparently Linda Olsson has written four previous novels, but this is the first of her works that I have read. A Swede who has become a New Zealander, Olsson seems to write her novels first in Swedish and then to translate them into English. A Sister in My House was first published in Swedish in Stockholm in 2016, and nobody is credited as translator - so presumably the author translated it herself. Maybe because of this Swedish connection, a reviewer of an earlier Olsson novel compared it with an Ingmar Bergman movie. I can see why. In its set-up, A Sister in My House is like one of those “chamber” movies Bergman often made, where a few characters (usually women; always middle class) tore at the psychological truth of one another in a few limited settings. Cries and Whispers (sisters slug it out), Autumn Sonata (mother and daughter slug it out) and their ilk, many of which I watched patiently in my years as a film reviewer.
But if it is Bergmanesque, it is only superficially so.
The hard fact is that this novel does not really develop its characters. True, as long conversations between Emma and Maria go on, and as we hear the narrator Maria’s commentary on them, we bit by bit learn more about the family background of these two women and the events that separated them – sibling rivalries; how they vied for the attention of their sister Amanda; the defects of their mother and father as parents; how they were both attached to the same guy at different times; the lesbian affair one of them had (how chic; how daring written in a novel now…); an unexpected death; and a horrible accident that left one of them feeling guilty and the other resentful. But this is simply to drip-feed us events rather than real insights. I feel that too often these events (about which, as is my wont, I scrupulously do not provide spoilers) have been with-held from us at the beginning simply to create a spurious sense of gradual discovery.
More difficult, however, is the stilted nature of the dialogue, which is often self-expository to a painful degree. Here is a specimen of such dialogue as Maria enlightens Emma about her past:
“Then I got pregnant. And my whole world fell apart. Olof was my only confidant. But this I could never share with him. Not with anybody. I knew I would never be able to make Olof understand. I had reached a point where I had to leave. So I had an abortion. And then I went to London. But you know that.” (p.100)
This is not credible dialogue – it is exposition. And when I reach the line “But you know that”, I feel like saying “So why the hell are you telling her?”
On the same level of obviousness, when past events are revealed to us, Maria makes comments upon them which are, I suppose, meant to sound like profound reflections on her life, but which are more akin to self-help manual platitudes. Thus:
“I know it wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t mine either. But as with much of what we experience in life, we are not just shaped by the incidents themselves. How we react to them is at least as important. How we deal with them afterwards. There was nothing either of us could have done about the accident. But afterwards, there were choices. And there have been choices ever since….” (pp.167-168)
I am a little intimidated in reviewing this book, because its end-pages include not only a six-page (anonymous) interview with the author, in which she explains her inspiration and motives; but also fully eight pages of extracts from laudatory reviews of Olsson’s earlier novels, written by reviewers both estimable and not-so-estimable. We are also reminded that Olsson’s novels have been big best-sellers and some of them have been translated into nearly 20 foreign languages. So who am I to disagree with all this?
But with the deepest regret, I closed A Sister in My House with the distinct impression that I had been reading soap-opera striving to be psychological revelation.
FOOTNOTE: Subsequent to this review's appearing, the author contacted me and said the novel was written simultaneously in Swedish and English, so neither version is a translation.
FOOTNOTE: Subsequent to this review's appearing, the author contacted me and said the novel was written simultaneously in Swedish and English, so neither version is a translation.