Book Review: Athens to Aotearoa, edited by Tatum Jeff

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_athens_to_aotearoa.jpgHow does New Zealand art engage with its classical inheritance? Not the second-nature parts we’re barely conscious of, but the vestigial, alien stuff – gods and gorgons and all that? Critics and artists offer their takes in the essays collected in Athens to Aotearoa.

It’s another cross-marketing success from VUP – craftily, the blurb leads with the glamour of “New Zealand’s most important artistic voices” and backends poor old dowdy criticism. It’s very accessible for an academic text; I pieced together my knowledge of the ancient world mostly from films starring pro wrestlers but I could understand most of it. The only exception was Tom Stevenson’s essay on Xena: Warrior Princess, which clearly wasn’t written for readers who were five when the show went off the air – was this show really so central to national identity? And how’s Xena pashing Hercules one episode and Julius Caesar the next? Baffling.

The artists’ essays are mostly theory-conscious enough to blur with the more academic stuff, but Witi Ihimaera’s collection-opener, “What If Cyclops Was Alive and Well and Living in a Cave in Invercargill?”, is breezy and wonderful. Other highlights are essays by Sharon Matthews and Geoffrey Miles on James K. Baxter, obviously an especially rich subject here, and Peter Whiteford’s incisive essay on Anna Seward’s Homer-invoking Elegy on Captain Cook. Quality’s high throughout. There are no bad essays here, although the final piece, Arlene Holmes-Henderson’s comparative study of Classics as a school subject in NZ and the UK, is the kind of graphs-and-stats thing a casual reader’s apt to flick through at speed.

As you’d expect from a collection originating in a conference theme, there’s no overall thesis advanced in these essays, and their eclecticism and often minute focus sometimes makes the classical world feel like a strangely niche subject for study, like “The Car in New Zealand Pop Music” or “Wigs in Poetry”. Where it did reach for a deeper point, I wasn’t always convinced. When classicist Simon Perris, in his engaging piece on Maui and Orpheus, writes of “Māori-classical-Pakeha Triculturalism”, it felt a bit like a mycologist arguing for the cultural centrality of the mushroom.

I also would’ve been keen to see something more evaluative. The really interesting questions Athens to Aotearoa raises, about the use of an imagined Greece to mediate Māori-Pakeha cultural dialogue, are just suggested instead of being really dug into and interrogated. There’s definitely room to argue that the implications are more ambiguous than the fairly rosy bicultural picture we get here; when we compare Maui to Orpheus, do we make the myth resonate deeper or culturally streamroll it, strip it of its weird particularity?

But it’s far from the worst thing for an academic text to suggest there’s a lot more to be written about the subject, even/especially one so seemingly niche. Athens to Aotearoa is a bit of a miscellany, but an intriguing, consistently engaging miscellany. It’s an obvious must-read for anyone interested in classics and New Zealand art, and the response essays probably will be too.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Athens to Aotearoa
edited by Tatum Jeff
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561766

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Book Review: Quarrels with himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as prose writer, edited by Geoffrey Miles and Peter Whiteford

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cv_quarrels_with_himselfWe’ll mythologise anyone in this country, rate anything a holy relic – how many thousands of words spent on Sargeson’s house? How many of Mansfield’s receipts, hair tufts, gnawed pencils have been ziplocked, catalogued, glossily photographed? The lit scenesters of 2067 will probably be reading paeans to Hera Lindsay-Bird’s Hyundai, crowding around tables at the archives for a look at Witi Ihimaera’s toenail clippers. If some notable tried to sate us with taxidermy, we’d bemoan the lost chance to inspect the artist’s guts and then prop the mummy up in the birthplace, pensive-posed if they were sensitive, wrestling a stag if they were Crumpishly butch.

Unusually, we collect James K. Baxter’s words and not his skin flakes, but we often treat them about the same – Baxter’s actual work becomes another artefact, interesting just for its relationship to his life and image. Quarrels with Himself is the first major study of Baxter’s prose, which prior to the landmark release of his Complete Prose in 2015 had been generally dismissed even by Baxter himself as far lesser stuff than his poetry, placing it in an interesting position of establishing a new critical precedent for the author; is Baxter’s prose of interest outside of how it illuminates and complicates the Baxter myth? Are these notable works in themselves?

Quarrels answers with a resounding ‘vaguely’. As editor Geoffrey Miles puts it, Baxter ‘is not only one of New Zealand’s great poets, but also a prose writer of some distinction’, which isn’t as faint a piece of praise as it sounds. We’d still talk about Baxter if all we had to judge him on were works like his idiosyncratic essays on New Zealand poetry and the cosily derivative lyrical novella Horse. However, most of the essays here are focused less on close analysis of Baxter’s prose works in isolation than in how they ‘uncover how much more complicated Baxter is than his popular stereotype’ – that is, what they tell us about Baxter the poet.

As an academic text, Quarrels is obviously essential for Baxter scholarship. If, as a pioneering critical work, it doesn’t demonstrate that its subject calls for much future study, that’s mostly because it feels pretty comprehensive, even definitive. It’s not likely to be superseded as the book about Baxter’s prose for decades, if ever. But there’s a conspicuous absence, as Miles acknowledges, of an essay on Baxter’s complicated relationship with Māori culture, especially disappointing given the missed opportunity to engage with Baxter a little less reverently. The collection steers clear of hagiography, but could steer clearer; contributors often allude to the flaws in Baxter’s work (and personality) but don’t really dig into them, generally assuming the reader’s already hip to Baxter’s warts.

More interesting is the question of Quarrels’ crossover potential, since Baxter’s an ideal subject to appeal to both an academic and popular audience. Robert Christgau called Dylanology ‘the thinking man’s philately’, a quip that applies just as well to fellow rebel-cum-institution Baxter, who rewards obsessives the same way. Brilliant epigrams and pieces of imagery are buried in obscure speeches and essays, and instead of having a consensus major period, the phases of his career lend themselves to ranking in a way both non-linear and subjective – half the fun of reading him is getting to debate the relative merit of Baxter the aesthete, Baxter the Catholic, Baxter the satirist, Baxter in Dunedin, Baxter in Jerusalem.

Fortunately for the amateur Baxterologist, Quarrels isn’t a pedantic academic text but a pretty good read. Most of these essays are in an enjoyable, accessible, relatively jargon-free style, and they cover an interesting range of topics. Highlights include Peter Whiteford’s piece on Baxter’s social voice and Janet Wilson’s study of Baxter’s autobiographical writing, which has some of the best in-depth commentary on Baxter’s prose. John Davidson’s essay on Baxter and academia is a delight and my definite favourite; his style is clear and charming, and he doesn’t try to resolve Baxter’s academic ambivalence into some phony synthesis, opting instead for sly complicity with Baxter’s contradictory dependence on and healthy contempt for the academy.

Some of the essays are a bit stiff, though. Sharon Baxter’s essay ‘Women are All Mothers to Him’ contains the best analysis of Baxter’s fiction in the book, but it has some undergraduate-y connective tissue (‘in what follows, I focus on’, ‘James K. Baxter’s short fiction – by which I mean…’) that an edit could’ve fixed. There’s a couple outright drags. Kristine Moffat’s essay on Baxter and Puritanism is probably insightful but it’s pretty dry stuff. Nicholas Wright’s essay ‘The Incarnational Formalist’ makes a few decent points, but it’s written in ultra-turgid lit-theory style, simultaneously impenetrable and trite– who would read an essay that starts with ‘What does it mean to know how or why one writes and reads as one does?’ unless they had to review it? Check it out:

‘As I’ve suggested, pursued to the ends of its paradoxical or unmethodical method, formalism must surrender itself once again in that ritual of self-refusal or disavowal, which, for the formalist, becomes evidence they have discovered the vessel of the ineffable – that source of reverence to which the critical clerisy were devoted.’

Baxter would spin if he knew this stuff was being written about him, not to mention Denis Dutton. Still, it’s the exception in a generally highly readable collection.

Quarrels with Himself would be a pretty weird buy for someone who isn’t already a Baxter enthusiast, but it’ll satisfy anyone who’d want to read it. This study of Baxter’s second-tier work might not uncover hidden depths so much as elaborate on the tensions and contradictions in the myth we already knew, but it does it very well, and besides, it’s just fun to talk about him. This is more or less a compulsory companion for those who’ve committed to Baxter’s Complete Prose, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone Baxter-mad enough to have even considered it.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Quarrels with himself: Essays on James K. Baxter as prose writer
edited by Geoffrey Miles and Peter Whiteford
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561711

Book Review: Salt Picnic, by Patrick Evans

cv_salt_picnicAvailable in bookshops nationwide.

Patrick Evans’ Salt Picnic is set in Ibiza in 1956, where young writer Iola has just arrived expecting Roman Holiday-esque adventure, naïve to the political realities of Francoist Spain. The novel’s divided into four parts: Iola arrives in Ibiza and makes observations, Iola meets an excitable American photographer, Iola meets a prim English doctor, and Iola goes with the doctor to a nearby salt island for the titular picnic. Spare-plotted and with few English speaking characters, it’s a difficult book to classify; we could maybe think of it as an experiment in writing an international political thriller with the strictly personal stakes of the bildungsroman and the densely descriptive, self-consciously sensual prose of the contemporary literary novel.

Your enjoyment of Salt Picnic will depend on whether you prefer loveliness to energy. The novel’s unmistakably the work of a long-term industry insider, with the associated upsides and downsides; the prose is uniformly handsome at the expense of vitality, and its exotic setting shows warning signs of an author settling into that frustrating things-I-saw-on-holiday genre favoured by writers who reckon they no long have to prove anything. Evans has been an outspoken critic of the IIML-to-VUP literary machine, but his own writing has developed the same safe, workshopped quality, playing defence rather than offence – there’s no mistakes. For a fan of the clumsy energy of literary overreachers, it’s as dull as a Mayweather fight.

It’s a shame to see such stateliness from an author like Evans. In his nonfiction work, he’s one of the country’s most charming writers in a discipline not always renowned for charm – you’re unlikely to find another Postcolonial Literature primer that could plausibly be described as Shavian. Look up any article he’s written or any interview and his wit strikes you right away, but while his instinctive feel for the sentence carries over to the novel, the cutting insight doesn’t. Evans’ Gifted, though frustrating for similar reasons, at least found in Frank Sargeson a protagonist allowed to be as clever as his author, while Salt Picnic’s Iola is too naïve and ever-more-bewildered to think anything remotely pointed. Consequently, this is a pretty humourless book; the American’s a little goofy and the Englishman’s bad at crosswords, but otherwise the tone is so sober you’d never guess that a few decades ago Evans was writing comic novels about the bawdy misadventures of a hapless and horny underpants salesman.

Evans has said Salt Picnic is the third in a trilogy of novels inspired by Janet Frame, drawing on her 1956 trip to Ibiza, but that Iola is not intended to resemble Frame. This might be a bluff to avoid once again incurring the wrath of the notoriously combative Frame estate, but Iola is so indistinct a character that it’s difficult to say. There’s been some controversy over whether Evans considers Frame to have had a genuine psychological condition; I wondered if Iola’s extreme passiveness and naiveté is meant to suggest this before considering that it isn’t ideal if you can’t tell whether a writer’s depicting a radically alien schizoid or autistic perspective or if the character’s just boring.

Assuming neurotypicality, Iola’s naiveté about personal, political and sexual matters stretches credibility even for a young woman in the 1950s. She’s written like a sheltered fifteen-year-old despite presumably being an adult – her age is unclear, though she’s been travelling Europe alone for some time before coming to Ibiza. Passive point-of-view characters are a literary standby, but we’re presumably meant to heavily invest in her character given the intimate scale of the story and if we don’t, the story’s revelations fall flat, because they’re meaningful revelations to her and not to us. Plus she’s alone for huge chunks of the book – picture The Great Gatsby with another 30,000 words of Nick Carraway pottering about West Egg looking at old buildings and spying on his neighbours.

I struggled with the novel’s elliptical style, often having no idea what a scene was about thematically and sometimes literally. Evans likes having bashful-monologued Iola refer modestly to ‘that’ without telling us what it is, and I often didn’t know. There are key plot points I’m still unclear on – halfway through the novel Iola seems to be pregnant, but I don’t remember this being mentioned again after a scene where her lover insists she can’t be pregnant. Was he right? Surely Evans would’ve resolved this somehow, but I didn’t pick up on it, don’t remember it, and can’t find it scanning through the book. C.K. Stead confessed to not understanding a number of crucial plot points in his review of Evans’ previous book, The Back of His Head, so I’m not alone here. It’s possible this is an immensely rewarding book if you really put the time in, but I felt no organic impulse to; by the time the novel ended with Iola telling the Englishman she had something to confess, I no longer cared that I didn’t know what that was.

This ambiguity gives the book a lot of thematic leeway. You can’t be sure if a point’s banal or if you’re unperceptive. If the blurb didn’t tell me Salt Picnic was “about mistranslation, fantasy and the historical echoes of ideology”, I would assume I’d missed the thrust of the novel completely. I still don’t think I really get it – Iola meets a fascist, and he’s a right bastard, and she finds out about what happened during the Spanish Civil War. Is this it? I have no idea. If the point of the book is a naïve character’s introduction to the realities of the war – and in a closing note Evans references the lack of real popular awareness about wartime atrocities prior to the 1960s, so this might be it – it doesn’t land, since we already know about these things. Presumably there’s more to it than I picked up on, but the style reflects a reader-adversarial understanding of subtext: if you have to work harder to understand something, you’ll consider it more valuable and profound.

Salt Picnic is a fantastic objet d’art – it’s got a great cover and a great title and if you open it to a random page you’ll be impressed. It’s handsome, admirable, and static. There’s definitely an audience for this book, but it’ll likely leave readers who can’t supply their own engine of interest cold. I’d recommend Salt Picnic for New Zealand fiction completionists, prose aficionados, and those who find their chief literary pleasure in the detective-work of meaning; late Henry James fans might love it.

Reviewed by Joseph Barbon

Salt Picnic
by Patrick Evans
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561698