Book Review: Hard Frost: Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908-1945, by John Newton

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_hard_frostThis is the first instalment of a projected three-part series on New Zealand literature. It’s a rather curious project, if John Newton’s preface is to be accepted. He claims that New Zealand literature, as he knew it, is complete and increasingly remote, or a “finite chapter.” Really? New Zealand literature no longer exists, apparently. What an odd premise. His justification for this is similar to that which is given for the apparent demise of the music industry: the young people don’t accept the old format.

In fact, this book is caught within a crisis in the academy. The heyday of New Zealand literature courses is over, and the demand is not there. Newton seems to feel this acutely, having written about the key ‘nationalist’ authors for some time, but without being able to interest his students. Giving up a teaching role, it is a rather odd enterprise to write three long books all about the crumbling edifice. And why should it be the academics who define what New Zealand literature is anyway? This is a bit like the American academic who decided the fall of communism signalled the ‘end of history’, except that was a piece of triumphalism rather than an acknowledgement of defeat.

This first book is not so much about the historical context becoming irrelevant. That is still to come, presumably. Hard Frost is actually based on the premise that New Zealand literature did not begin until Allen Curnow and the Caxton Press created it in the 1930s. The ‘hard frost’ comes from a Charles Brasch quote, in reference to a Curnow edited anthology, claiming that the chosen writers had “killed off weeds, and promoted sound growth,” at least in the South Island. This mythology is analogous to making the inhospitable mountainous country possible to inhabit: some sturdy blokes conquer the mountains and then see the promised land. The mountaineering was both figurative and literal, and it was also largely a masculine activity, as the later literary critics have pointed out.

A lot of the book is about this gender issue. Some great female writers were marginalised along the way; and a number of the blokes are limited by their own masculinity, and implicit homophobia. It has to be said that the issues of gender and sexual identity may be topical, but are not necessarily of great moment. Newton notes that the new interpretations involve a re-reading of Frank Sargeson, and the intervention of theoretical positions adopted from the international literature. Of course, Newton does this too, but also reverts to his own student background in choosing to resurrect an obscure part of Raymond Williams’ canon, the Welsh doyen of cultural studies. This is where he gets the phrase ‘structure of feeling’ from, but it’s more of an organising concept than academic theory.

The theme of the book, if one can abstract from all the derivative quoting from the literature, can be observed in the front cover. This involves a rather curious photo of three men trying to hold up some fossilised bones in a paddock, in North Canterbury, circa 1949. The caption on the back cover indicates that the men are archaeologists, including Jim Eyles and Roger Duff, who wrote a 1952 book on the discovery of Moa bones in Pyramid Valley. Newton does not mention the photo in the text, but does quote from Curnow’s famous poem ‘The Skeleton of the Great Moa in the Canterbury Museum, Christchurch’. The poem refers to the moa egg that was reconstructed, and the much repeated phrase about a child, born in a ‘marvellous year’, that “will learn the trick of standing upright here.” Newton has spent much of his academic career trying to explain to his students how this phrase launched the new, nuanced, form of nationalist writing by Curnow. But he now makes the point that Jim Eyles had made a more important discovery as a 13 year old at the Wairau Bar.

Newton now admits that the ‘nationalist position’ of Curnow was not really teachable anyway; and that he had already read it from a ‘post-colonial’ frame, in effect. That is fine as an admission of a literary critic, but Newton has an enhanced idea of his project as literary history. This goes beyond the role of writing a history of the key texts, to that of the inverse, i.e. writing history by way of the local literature and related texts. This is quite perplexing, apart from the contextual evidence he introduced about the archaeologists, and some of the photographic research. The key ones are in the chapter about gender and mountaineering, including the photo of Blanche Baughan trying to climb an ice face in 1916. She appears to be wearing completely impractical clothing, but the reproduction is poor, it has to be said, as are the other photos in the chapter, which seem too small.

The only other contextual material of historical significance involves the two key blokish poets in the nationalist frame, A.R.D. Fairburn and Denis Glover, as representative of settler manliness. Thus, Fairburn and Glover are both subjected to literary criticism and as blokes, being too partial to boozing and bravado, and not accepting their role as literary poets. However, there is a very interesting discussion of Glover, on a very personal reading, in which Newton makes a comparison between him and his own father. Despite this personal insight it just makes Glover more of a romantically tinged nationalist. But still a nationalist, just not on the same level as Allen Curnow.

As I write this review the 375th anniversary of the ‘discovery’ of New Zealand by Abel Tasman is being celebrated in Golden Bay. Gifts are being exchanged between Maori and Dutch dignitaries, rather than there being a clash of boats in the bay, as in 1642. Allen Curnow commemorated this in his ‘Landfall in Unknown Seas’, in true modernist style, which remains relevant. A combined and inter-weaved post-colonial history goes on, but is there now really no one to tell our islands’ story?

Reviewed by Simon Boyce

Structures of Feeling in New Zealand Literature, 1908-1945
by John Newton
Published by Victoria University Press
ISBN 9781776561629

Book Review: Shelf Life, by C. K. Stead

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_shelf_lifeI looked forward to reading this book by our former poet laureate and well known man of letters. It transpired, though, to be less of a read and more of a dip in and out. Stead is a thoughtful man with strong opinions which are based on a long experience of the literary world in New Zealand and the people that world has contained over the years. An argument well presented is always interesting, even if only as a comparison to one’s own opinion or beliefs, and I found myself reading an essay or interview then spending time reflecting on Stead’s words.

His writings on Mansfield and the criticisms leveled at her by those who came after her, present a microcosm of the Colonial’s dilemma – how to wrench oneself free of the home country’s influence while attempting to rise above the cultural cringe engendered by comparisons with literary giants from the past.

The book is a delight of words, valuable for that alone, when language is no longer valued for the most part. But to read the thoughts of an erudite man, familiar, as Stead is, with his subject, is to enjoy the company of those of whom he writes, whether still alive or long dead.

His reviews of others’ work are thoughtful and concise with many examples added, which enables the reader to build his own understanding and knowledge of a poet or author. The index at the back of the book gives an indication of how wide Stead’s range of interests are, and offers the reader a regular smorgasbord of subjects for contemplation and consideration.

As Stead says of Patrick Evans novel Gifted, this is “literature for the literate and the literary,” and it is certainly a treat for those such inclined. But even a mild interest in the thoughts of a man with a wide experience of New Zealand writing would be rewarded by a dip into its pages.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

Shelf Life: Reviews, Replies and Reminiscences
by C. K. Stead
Published by Auckland University Press
ISBN 9781869408497

Book Review: Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight nights, by Salman Rushdie

Available in bookshops nationwide.
cv_two_years_eight_months_and_twenty-eight_nights
The title of Rushdie’s most recent book is a play on 1001 nights – you only need to do the maths to work that out. Not having finished a Rushdie novel before, nor having deep knowledge of the stories that make up 1001 nights, I felt a bit on the back foot from the get-go, so I brushed up my understanding but really, I don’t think it was necessary!

Rushdie has created a wildly imaginative work of intertwined stories, plots and characters from this world and another one. The book is set in New York in a post-catastrophe future; there has been a crack in the fabric of the world so that the jinns can get in. They do, of course, and create havoc and mischief as they interfere in the lives of the main characters – many of whom are part-jinn without being aware.

There is a vast field of characters – the earth-bound include Mr Geronimo, a gardener who wakes up one morning to find that his feet no longer touch the ground, rather disconcertingly. He carries on his life regardless. There’s also an orphaned baby who is adopted by the Mayor of New York after she realises that the baby has the ability to spot corruption in anyone who comes near her. Usefully, those who are corrupt or have evil intent spontaneously develop boils or other skin infections, so the Mayor’s life is made easier. And that’s just two of the characters in a cast of what seems like hundreds.

The Jinn – although fewer in number – are equally complex and brilliant. Unless Jinn are engaged in making love, however, their proclivities become violence and evildoing. Take away their playtime, and all hell breaks loose, literally.

The war which ensues covers 1001 nights: it’s an epic battle between the forces of good and evil, and it’s not hard to see recent world events and developments playing out there.

It’s a mad book – in a good sense. It romps along and even though it’s hard to keep up with the chain of events and characters, you’re drawn in to the whole dark side and keen to see how it all plays out.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Sue Esterman

Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-eight Nights
by Salman Rushdie
Published by Jonathan Cape Ltd
ISBN 9781910702048

The Summer Reading Catalogue: Fiction

Our Summer Reading Catalogue is hot off the press. The guide arrived in fourteen great Indie bookstores a couple of days ago. But I know not all of our readers will see a physical copy of this lovely catalogue, so I am going to give a summary of what we are recommending for readers this Christmas. It might help you solve a few gift ideas!

Poppies NZ Summer Cat 13_FictionFiction features include Longbourn by Jo Baker, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, Barracuda by Christos Tsolkias and The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. Each of these titles are either proven sellers or by very popular authors who we expect to carry on selling through the holiday period. We have reviewed Longbourn and The Goldfinch, keep posted for our review of Barracuda, and if you haven’t yet read a review of The Luminaries, The Guardian is a good place to start. (If you haven’t got a copy, or you know somebody who doesn’t, do get a copy – it is the most wonderful and readable literary masterpiece I have encountered all year). P.S. It won the Booker Prize.

If you are after a bit of history, whether pleasant or unpleasant, you could do worse than trying out 1920’s Australia with Bittersweet by Colleen McCullough,war-torn 1940’s France with The Paris Architect by Charles Belfoure, 1950’s Afghanistan with And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini, or 1960’s Vietnam The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri (also nominated for the Man Booker shortlist this year). We have a lot more strong historical fiction on this list, click on the image to look closer at the first page.Poppies NZ Summer Cat 13_titlesforsummer

For fans of the Oprah Book List (that was), there are several  books that will get you lining up: Domestic tragedy with We are Water by Wally Lamb, right and wrong with Eyrie by Tim Winton, 20th century saga with The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, and emigration drama Girl of Shadows by Deborah Challinor.

There have been some fantastic New Zealand fiction works published this year, not least New Zealand Post Book of the Year The Big Music by Kirsty Gunn. Others by some of our great include The Infinite Air, in which Fiona Kidman tells the story of Jean Batten; The Mannequin Makers, in which Craig Cliff examines past tragedies; The Virgin and the Whale: A Love Story, a story about stories by Carl Nixon; and Wakein which Elizabeth Knox lets her horror-writing shine. Top-selling debut novel The Keeper of Secrets, by Julie Thomas is also a key feature and spent months on the Indie Top 20 chart in 2013.

We also have some fantastic gift ideas featured (not that they aren’t all great gift ideas) – including the gorgeous Everything I need to Know I learned from a Little Golden Book, by Diane Muldrow; and the fascinating and beautiful From Earth’s End: The Best of New Zealand Comics, by Adrian Kinnaird.

To those who say don’t buy books for Christmas – we say pah! There is never a bad time for a book, be it Christmas or just for your own summer reading pleasure. Read and enjoy.

by Sarah Forster