Saturday, December 19, 2009

Crazy Like a Fox

[Nicholas A. Basbanes: A Gentle Madness (1995)]

-----Original Message-----

David Howard
Sent: Wednesday, 16 December 2009 8:32 p.m.
To: Jack Ross
Subject: booked

Dear Jack,

I have just visited your library catalogue. Of course, I love you - and part of what I love in you is your precision. But you are certifiable.

Please offer my sympathies to Bronwyn.


It's hard to deny the logic of David's remarks. The whole thing seems pretty crazy to me, too, some - even most - of the time. Hence ( I suppose) my choice of title for this bibliography blog: A Gentle Madness.

Interestingly, in the 1999 paperback reissue of his fascinating account of "Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books," Nicholas Basbanes mentions that at least one of his featured collectors, a retired psychoanalyst, had expressed a certain disquiet over his choice of title: "We take madness very seriously in my line of work." [xxv].

Is it mad to collect books; and then, once you have them neatly ranged in bookcases, to catalogue them by location and category? Surely not. Professional librarians would be in a lot of trouble if one were to resort to such facile diagnoses. Like most manias, it's clearly a matter of proportion.


  • When you find yourself going in to debt to buy new books, even though you don't have enough space to display the existing ones, I think you could be said to have edged over from Bibliophilia to Bibliomania. It is, I have to say, a terrifyingly easy step to take.

  • When you no longer read the books you buy, for fear of damaging them, or because their contents no longer interest you as much as their bindings, fonts, paperstock and other physical traits, you've ceased to be a book-lover and have become a mere collector.

  • When you're forced to buy multiple copies of the same book, or even of the different impressions of a particular edition of a book, you've become a bibliographer, not a reader.

I'd like to believe that I'm still a bibliophile rather than a bibliomaniac, a reader rather than a collector, and that I acquire them for use rather than for show. You may think otherwise when you check out the online catalogue, though.

I hasten to say that it's very much a work in progress. In the geographical section, mapping the locations of the various books, 7 out of 26 bookcases, containing an estimated 6,000-odd books, remain to be catalogued - which might be seen as overshadowing the 8,562 already listed.

The 30-odd classificatory categories, too, are by no means complete. I haven't yet had time to reconcile them all with one another, and the larger pages are already starting to groan at the seams.

Why am I even bothering? Well, first of all, it's nice to take out every book and take a good look at it (discovering little treasures which one had forgotten ever getting is a lot of fun, too). Secondly, it's useful and (ultimately, I hope) timesaving to know where everything is. Thirdly, it saves one the trouble of rewriting out the bibliographical details of a book more than once, when it's being repeated in a number of different contexts.

That last one sounds a little unconvincing, I suppose, but when your book collection shadows your professional interests as closely as mine does, it really does make sense to have a complete catalogue.

Strangely enough, even though my reasons for putting this slowly-evolving print catalogue up online were purely practical - it enables me to access it wherever I happen to be working - I've found that it seems to be attracting a certain amount of interest. The blog has no fewer than five followers already, though I can't think what satisfaction they obtain from watching it slowly grow.

Maybe they just like to look at the pictures. I have to say that finding appropriate images to attach to the various entries is the only really fun part of the whole monstrous drudgery. When it's all finished, though, how I shall gloat and preen myself! Perhaps I really will run mad ...

[Charles Wysocki: Max in the Stacks]

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Carver by Name ...

[6 - Raymond Carver: Collected Stories (2009)]

The question is, can you over-edit? The exhibit, Beginners, the first draft of the book eventually published as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), by Raymond Carver.

It was a largely academic question until the inclusion of both collections in Carver's Collected Stories in the magisterial Library of America series earlier this year. Most readers had never had the chance to compare the two before, and the discrepancy turns out to be pretty remarkable.

Carver's close friend and editor, Gordon Lish (who liked to refer to himself modestly as "Mr. Fiction"), cut the text of his draft by an estimated 55%. Most of the stories lost substantial amounts of text, some lost over half of it. In one case in particular, "A Small, Good Thing," over 75% of Carver's words hit the cutting-room floor.

And this was no subtle Ezra-Pound-carving-a-new-poem-out-of-Eliot's-Waste-Land-drafts business, either. This was Carver's second major book of stories, not his first - and a good many of the stories in it had already appeared, or were slated to appear, in major periodicals.

Nor was Carver exactly overjoyed when he finally got around to examining Lish's revisions in detail. He wrote him a letter - reprinted in full by the Library of America editors [pp. 992-96] - which is among the most anguished literary cris-de-coeur I've ever come across. He said:

I’ll tell you the truth, my very sanity is on the line here. I don't want to sound melodramatic here, but I've come back from the grave here to start writing stories once more ... Now, I'm afraid, mortally afraid, I feel it, that if the book were to be published as it is in its present edited form, I may never write another story, that's how closely, God Forbid, some of those stories are to my sense of regaining my health and mental well-being.
I'm confused, tired, paranoid, and afraid, yes, of the consequences for me if the collection came out in its present form. So help me, please, yet again. Don't please, make this too hard for me, for I'm just likely to start coming unraveled knowing how I've displeased and disappointed you. God Almighty, Gordon. ...

But then he also said:

I see what it is that you’ve done, what you’ve pulled out of it, and I’m awed and astonished, startled even, with your insights.

In any case, Lish paid little attention. "My sense of it was that there was a letter and that I just went ahead," he said in an interview long afterwards. He knew he was right (as Anthony Trollope might have put it). So the book appeared as he wanted it to, not as Carver did. And the rest is history. It's worth noting that Carver never allowed Lish to do much more than correct accidentals in his subsequent books, though. Also that he insisted on reprinting something closer to the original text of "A Small, Good Thing" in his next collection, Cathedral (1983).

The hero-editor is, of course, a familiar figure in American letters. Carver even refers to the most famous example, Maxwell Perkins, editor to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Thomas Wolfe, in his letter to Lish ("You are a wonder, a genius ... better than any of two of Max Perkins, etc. etc."). Hero-publishers certainly exist in the rest of the English-speaking world (Allen Lane, Victor Gollancz, Peter Owen), even hero publisher's readers (Edward Garnett, T. S. Eliot), but not so much editors. I think perhaps that the rest of us assume that writers can, by and large, write. They may need some guidance in the timing and direction of their work, and certainly in matters of marketing, but for the rest I think we like to feel that (with a few exceptions) they have at least some overall sense of what they're doing.

And that, by and large, seems to be the way the story is being written in the various reviews of Collected Stories (and its UK counterpart, Beginners, an edition of the first-draft stories on their own, with an introduction by Carver's wife and literary executor Tess Gallagher). "When Good Editors Go Bad" is the title of one of the most forthright of these pieces, but by extension it could cover most of the rest - poor simple alcoholic Ray was deceived by a wily New York editor into putting his name to a book he never wrote.

I have a rather higher opinion of Carver than that. In fact, I suppose my interest in this issue follows on naturally from my fascination with him. I wouldn't call myself an obsessive collector of his work, but purely for practical reasons I've been forced to acquire quite a number of books simply in order to read him in full. For so short-lived and late-blossoming a writer, he does seem to have left behind an unusually tangled literary legacy.

Here's a (partial) list of the books I've had to gather to date in order to make some sense of it all:

[2 - The Stories of Raymond Carver (1985)]

  1. Carver, Raymond. Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories. 1985. Harvill. London: HarperCollins, 1994.

  2. Carver, Raymond. The Stories of Raymond Carver: Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?; What We Talk About When We Talk About Love; Cathedral. 1976, 1981 & 1983. London: Picador, 1985.

  3. Carver, Raymond. Where I’m Calling From: The Selected Stories. 1988. London: The Harvill Press, 1993.

  4. Carver, Raymond. All of Us: The Collected Poems. 1996. London: The Harvill Press, 1997.

  5. Carver, Raymond. Call If You Need Me: The Uncollected Fiction and Prose. Ed. William L. Stull. Foreword by Tess Gallagher. 1996. London: The Harvill Press, 1997.

  6. Carver, Raymond. Collected Stories. Ed. William L. Stull & Maureen P. Carroll. The Library of America, 195. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 2009.

[3 - Raymond Carver: Where I'm Calling From (1988)]

The crucial exhibit here is no. 2: The Stories of Raymond Carver, a never-reprinted and now virtually-unobtainable British reprint of the full text of his first three major books of stories (with the exception of the small-press Furious Seasons). Since 1988, when Carver's selected stories (no. 3) appeared, most people have been reading that text instead, supplemented by the extra material included in no. 5, thus obscuring the nature and integrity of the actual collections which appeared during his lifetime.

William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll, the editors of Carver's Collected Poems (no. 4), his Uncollected Fiction and Prose (no. 5), and now his Collected Stories (no. 6), have made the interesting decision not to repeat the small revisions (largely, they say, of accidentals and nomenclature) included in the 1988 Selected Stories. Instead, they reprint (for the most part) the major collections, though sometimes (especially in the case of Furious Seasons) with excisions to avoid repeating material included in the three main books.

So what? you say. Who is Raymond Carver that we should pay so much attention to the dates and circumstances of his work's appearance? Well, it does make a difference, I'm afraid. The evolution from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please (1976), also edited by Gordon Lish, to What We Talk About When We Talk About Love [WWTAWWTAL, for short] is very marked, but it's largely obscured by the complete rearrangement of the material in Where I'm Calling From. I don't think it's too much of an exaggeration to say that it was the 1981 book that made him a star- not that the lustre didn't reflect backwards and forwards onto the rest of his work - and that it was the brutal, uncompromising terseness of the stories included in WWTAWWTAL that had the greatest effect on his contemporaries.

[Robert Altman, dir.: Short Cuts (1993)]

Take the 1993 Carver-based movie Short Cuts, for instance. The very title gives us a clue as to how Robert Altman, at least, interpreted Carver's stories. And his opinion was an influential one, given the subsequent appearance of a book reprinting the stories on which the film was based, together with an introduction by the director. Would that movie ever have been made if Carver had had his wish and published, instead of WWTAWWTAL, some lightly-edited version of the book Beginners? Permit me to doubt it.

That's not to say that Lish was justified in performing such radical surgery on Carver's book without the author's permission, but it is important to note just how desperately obscure, depressed and terminally alcoholic Carver looked at that moment. To put it mildly, he didn't seem in the best state to make meaningful decisions about his future. That's how Lish saw it, at any rate, and - until now - posterity has largely confirmed his judgement. The fact remains that the book did make a sensation, and that sensation was at least to some extent due to the stories' refusal to resolve and flesh themselves out in a conventional way.

Carver, to be sure, went on developing as a writer. He gave full rein to the more sympathetic, Chekhovian side of his art in Cathedral (1983), probably his best book, and the one which represents him most fully. But by then he'd cleaned up his act, was in a new relationship, a successful, internationally-feted author.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that Lish's editing processes shouldn't be scrutinised carefully. Nor am I sorry that Stull and Carroll's meticulous new edition has given us the tools to do so. I just feel that this controversy should not be over-simplified. Beginners, I feel - and it can only be an opinion - would not have seized the attention of critics (and other writers) the way WWTAWWTAL did. It would not have given rise to "dirty realism" or "minimalism" or whatever you want to call the literary movement which Carver's work was said to have inspired.

This is, I believe, a debate which could (and perhaps should) run and run. How much cutting and editing is too much? How long is a piece of string? No single, universally-applicable answer is possible, hence the usefulness of test cases such as this. I'd hate to have Gordon Lish on my team, to tell the truth, but having your collected stories officially declared "classics", part of the permanent record of your national literature, within a scant twenty years of your death is no mean feat. Denying Lish his part in that triumph would be churlish - worse, it would involve falsifying the true nature of Carver's legacy.

The poet in Raymond Carver will continue to be read and loved, I'm sure - but the landscape of his stories remains as stark as the surface of the moon. They'll always be a hard pill to swallow. Lish was, I feel, correct in seeing a "peculiar bleakness" in them. His gift to posterity lies in helping us to see there was something there we needed - something, finally, we just couldn't do without.

[5 - Raymond Carver: Call if You Need Me (1997)]

Friday, November 27, 2009

Flying Blind next Thursday

A panel presentation on the cultural and artistic impact of new media technologies.

- Writer Jack Ross will draw on his web-based projects including the REM trilogy.
- Filmmaker Gabriel White will discuss the question of a "minor" cinema.
- Filmmaker David Blyth will discuss the internet and desire though his recent film Transfigured Nights.
- Film Archive curator Amelia Harris will examine the similar presence of amateurism in early cinema and contemporary media.

When: Thursday Dec 3
7.30 pm

Where: Auckland Film Archive
Level 1, 300 K Rd
Koha entry
complimentary beer!


[postscript: 4/12/09]

Well, the event went off very well, I thought.

You can read more about the details of my presentation here, and no doubt there'll be further follow-ups on the Floating Cinemas website and blog.

[Photograph by Mary Paul (4/9/09)]

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tactical Voting in Australian Masterchef

[Aussie Masterchef Finalists Poh, Chris & Julie]

Forget the Witi Ihimaera and Hone Harawira scandals, I have a far more weighty accusation to share with the New Zealand public. Yes, patient readers, I believe that our favourite reality show of the moment, Australian Masterchef, is rigged!

I first became aware of the gravity of the situation after almost coming to blows with a Julie-partisan (my mother) over dinner at my parent's house last night. I, a Chris true-believer, have elected to boycott the grand finale tomorrow in protest at the blatantly unfair judging that saw him packed off into beery oblivion ... Snout to Tail, Stout to Ale indeed!

Storm in a teacup (or a crockpot) you say? Too trivial for a weighty intellectual blogsite such as this? I don't think so.

What do we expect of a good reality show? Well, logical, consistent rules, for a start. Australian Masterchef got off to a shaky start by importing a system of voting-off-the-island from Survivor which seems to me completely unsuited to a skills-based programme such as this. Who cares who the other contestants want to get rid of? The point is who has the ability to go further. For the judges to step back from elimination decisions such as this as about as fatuous an arrangement as I can well imagine.

But, then, is it a skills-based programme? The first few "master-classes", where head judges Gary and George stroked their own egos by giving lessons in how to butter bread or how to boil water, left even the contestants baffled and unsure how to react. Was this some colossal piss-take? One could see them alternately scratching their heads and yawning until they learnt the correct response: fawning adulation. Julie was an early winner in this regard, along with the egregious, Uriah-Heep-like Sam.

[A Rogues Gallery: Masterchef judges
Gary Mehigan, Sarah Wilson, George Calombaris & Matt Preston]

As the seemingly interminable months of the competition wound on, chef after chef came up for elimination opposite the talentless Sam and self-doubting Julie only to receive their marching orders. It couldn't be ... that they were simply better TV than their opponents, could it? That would be a bit harsh. Let's just attribute it to their being more adroit and abject flatterers.

By the time of the Hong Kong challenge, even the judges seem to have woken up to the fact that they were looking at a final with all the good cooks (except Chris) already sent home. So what was their solution? Reverse the last set of eliminations and bring three failed contestants back. Brilliant! It meant that the entire Hong Kong excursion was a complete waste of time which accounted for no contestants, despite a whole week of stuffing around there. Fun and games, yes, but one could see that for Chris at least this was the final straw.

He'd put up with the transparently self-serving, insultingly elementary "master-classes;" had attempted to endure the transparent politicking of the so-called "kiddie mafia" (Sam, Josh & Kate); but he seems somehow to have retained a simple faith in the basic concept of a reality show, which is that you can actually send people home and hope they'll stay there.

By now the rules were so complex, so contradictory, so obviously invented on the fly, that the whole contest had come down to one question. Who's the most obvious candidate for "little Aussie battler" among those still left standing? The talented (though already-eliminated) Poh was just a bit too swollen-headed for the role. And just imagine the fuss from heartland Australia if an Asian won their inaugural "Masterchef" award! Chris might have seemed a good fit if it weren't for his refusal to blub and emote and self-destruct all over the screen. Who was left? Julie.

Last night Julie served up a leg of lamb, a piece of stuffed chicken and a dry piece of chocolate cake. She failed to garnish them with any of the sauce or vegetables she'd prepared to go with them through sheer incompetence and flap. Our guest judge, cook-book guru (and disastrous fashion-victim) Donna Hay, helpfully explained that this "didn't matter with rustic cooking." By this stage it was clear that three courses of vegemite sandwiches "cooked with love" (Julie's big theme) would have got her through with flying colours. 'Nuff said, as Stan Lee used to say.

I don't need to watch any further. I know Julie is going to win the competition overall. I don't believe she deserves to. She's about as much of a master-chef as my arse. For the love of Mike, didn't you guys want to find out who was the best cook among them? No you didn't is the brutal answer. You wanted to elicit a lot of sentimental tear-jerking slop from the contestants in order to build up your ratings. J'accuse. That's all I can say at this point: J'accuse.

You've robbed me of my simple faith in reality TV. No longer will I be able to sit glued night after night to the cook-offs and taste-tests. I mean, I expect this sort of thing of Americans: Las Vegas bookies conspiring in smoke-filled rooms, Martha Stewart and her pet brokers trading in dodgy stocks, but I wouldn't have believed it of our bluff, hearty neighbours to the North. You're your own worst enemies, that's the truth of it. You'll end up killing the goose that lays the golden eggs (or perhaps, in this case, the goose that fricassees them in boarfat) ... Shakespeare, as usual, said it best:

O now, for ever
Farewell the tranquil mind! farewell content!
Farewell the plumed troops and the big wars
That makes ambition virtue! O farewell!
Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th' ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!
And O you mortal engines, whose rude throats
Th' immortal Jove's dread clamors counterfeit,
Farewell! Othello's occupation's gone

(Othello 3.3.347-357).

Never mind, Chris, we still believe in you (though you won't catch me eating any pig's heads or pig's trotters outside a nightmare ...)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Before the Storm

[Vor dem Sturm (1878)]

Vor dem Sturm
by Theodor Fontane
“The German War and Peace"
I picked it up in Edinburgh
& was immediately

the heroine seemed real
Renate von Vitzewitz
stagey action
like real life
her tragic early death
a psychic blow

[Theodor Fontane (1819-1898)]

The Pioneers
by James Fenimore Cooper
I had a plan to read them all
The Leatherstocking Novels
dutifully ploughed through
the first few
but this one

[The Pioneers (1823)]

The drifting snow
of its opening pages
the meeting on the road
the little town
in the Big Woods
It all seemed true
or if not true

[James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851)]

infinitely desirable
but why?
Then John Meade Falkner,
The Nebuly Coat
not one of his
most celebrated works

The Lost Stradivarius
but this one had
the atmosphere
of strange but vital friendships
formed in musty towns
deep conversations
a world one longed to enter

Three times it's happened
– 3 obscure books –
I've never dared reread them
Would it happen again?
Do I want it to?
I wonder
It was comforting, entrancing, mystical

like waking on your own
in the blue room

[John Meade Falkner (1858-1932)]

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Hooked on Classics

Recently I was invited to a poetry gathering up north where I read out some of my versions from Sappho. Afterwards a rather indignant-looking elderly lady came up to me, introducing herself as a former Latin teacher:

“What you read – that was all right, that wasn’t too bad … but some of those poets are just filthy, complete degenerates. Catullus, for instance. In one of his poems he actually encourages another man to go to bed with his girlfriend! Three of them, all together! It’s depraved …”

I agreed that he was a bit of a one (actually I was secretly relieved that she wasn’t intent on criticising some of my more daring translation choices), whilst congratulating myself inwardly that I hadn’t chosen anything raunchy from Ovid or Anakreon or any of the less respectable Greek or Latin poets.

Eventually I managed to escape without committing myself to any too quotable opinions about the morals of the ancient world.

It got me thinking, though. What is it with the Classics? "Reams of ancient filth," as my father used to put it (apparently the editions of Latin authors they used at school had all the "adult" bits taken out and printed at the back in an appendix for scholarly reference; I think you can guess which parts of the book were most thumbed and dog-eared ...)

Anyway, the latest issue of Ka Mate Ka Ora includes some more of my reflections on the subject in the form of a review-essay of Ted Jenner's recent Titus Books collection Writers in Residence ...

Ted Jenner is perhaps unusual among modern writers in being a Greek scholar as well as a poet. Most other venturers into the field of classical translation nowadays (myself included) seem content with a Loeb dual-text and a lot of - possibly unmerited - self-confidence.

You don't really learn anything new that way, though. What's fascinating about Ted's work is the precision and finesse with which he reconstructs these fragments of the past, some of them literally combed out of the rubbish-dumps of Egypt (it's amazing how long papyrus can survive in a really dry climate).

Obviously I have a good deal more to say about that in my piece over at the nzepc. For the moment, however, here's a brief listing of Ted's publications to date (I've also included a few illustrations so you can appreciate what beautiful pieces of bookmaking many of them are):

  • A Memorial Brass. Eastbourne, Wellington: Hawk Press, 1980.
  • Dedications. Auckland: Omphalos Press, 1991.
  • The Love-Songs of Ibykos: 22 Fragments. Auckland: Holloway Press, 1997.
  • Sappho Triptych. Auckland: Puriri Press, 2007.
  • Writers in Residence and Other Captive Fauna. Auckland: Titus Books, 2009.

You can hear more of Ted's own views in the online interview with Brett Cross and Scott Hamilton available here.

And if your curiosity extends even beyond that, why not have a look at the pages on Anne Carson and Michael Harlow which I'm gradually building up for our new Massey MA course Contemporary New Zealand Writers in an International Context?

Carson is herself a very considerable scholar (witness her fascinating 1999 book Economy of the Unlost, which daringly juxtaposes the poetry of Paul Celan with the surviving lyric fragments of Simonides of Ceos) ...

But that's more than enough self-advertising from me for the moment. Do check out the new (James K. Baxter-themed) issue of Ka Mate Ka Ora if you have a moment, though.

Saturday, October 24, 2009


The epic battle against recidivism at the Dargaville Museum outlined in a series of recent posts on Reading the Maps (and rather amusingly replied to on Art, Life, TV, etc.) has got me to thinking about the whole subject of fakes and fakery in general.

Why is it I'm so instinctively drawn to books of pseudo-history and ridiculously unlikely theories propounded by ignoramuses?

Did you know, for instance, that the "appearance of mu" in the word "Pounamu" defines it "as a religious relic from Lemurian times"? I bet you didn't. And yet it must be so, because I read it in a book, a most entertaining and interesting volume entitled The Atlantis Encyclopedia, by Joseph Frank (Franklin Lakes, NJ: New Page Books, 2005), pp.228-29. Frank's book contains a foreword by Brad Steiger, a veteran in the field, and author of the celebrated Atlantis Rising (1973), among many other volumes. Atlantis Rising has a most intriguing passage in it which he considers the possibility that Atlantis may be all around us even as we speak!

As far-fetched as it may seem, for one moment consider that the incredible technology of Atlantis was able to step up the individual frequency of every man, woman, and child, every rock, flower, tree, and the very earth of their island continent and translate them into the fourth dimension.

Atlantis did not sink below the earth in a single day of an antediluvian cataclysm: Atlantis trembled for twenty-four hours as incredible machines raised its vibratory rate until it could materialise in another spectrum of tangibility and establish itself in another space-time continuum.

Atlantis may be all around us and may be entered through certain window areas of dimensional interpenetration.

Don’t be in a hurry to find such an ultra dimensional door, however; a single day in Atlantis may be equal to a month, a year, a decade in our own space-time continuum

[Brad Steiger, Atlantis Rising. 1973 (London: Sphere Books, 1977): 136-37]

Rather a lot of "mays" and "mights" and other uses of the conditional tense in that extract, don't you think? Why might a day in Atlantis be equal to a month, a year or a decade in our own "space-time continuum"? Because that's what happens in the Narnia books? Or just because it's kind of fun to imagine it? (You never know, maybe future film-rights might be based on the idea ...)

Steiger has his tongue firmly in his cheek, I suspect, unlike his acolyte Joseph Frank, whose solemn, po-faced entries on such subjects as "Wai-ta-hanui" ["New Zealand's oldest known tribe, said to have arrived more than 2,000 years ago ... The Waitahanui were supposed to have been prodigious mariners who navigated the world in ocean-going sailing ships, and raised colossal stone structures, of which the Kaimanawa wall is the last surviving example." (p.287)] or "Mu" ["Atlantis and Mu engaged in some cultural interchange, but the peaceful Lemurians mostly regarded imperialist Atlanteans with a veiled mixture of dread and contempt." (p.188)] would be guaranteed to raise the hackles of Maps and all his PC archaeological buddies.

Why the hell do people write this kind of drivel?, I ask myself as I leaf through my little library of Atlantiana & Lemuriosity. I know why they publish it - because it sells. Which must mean that people enjoy reading it. Do they believe it? Not all of them can be postmodernist game-players addicted to the spurious and kitschy (which I suppose is my melancholy motivation for collecting it), but I doubt they're all credulous Trekkies and star-children, either. it's a kind of region of speculative semi-fiction, I suppose. Nice to read about and indulge in as a kind of "what-if."

Fundamentally, though, I think its appeal is based on mistrust. We don't really feel we can rely on "experts" any more. Too many cases of intellectual fraud and self-interest in the academic and scientific establishment have left them (or us) with about as much street-cred as so many used-car salesmen (or politicians, to take it down a couple of rungs). "Who pays your salary?" is - unfortunately - the only relevant question to ask of most "authorities": in court, in the lecture room, in print, or anywhere else for that matter.

At least cranks' motivations tend to be fairly easily discoverable - when they're not already firmly emblazoned on their sleeves. Don't get me wrong. I don't mean that I take a sympathetic interest in the views of neo-Nazis or Holocaust-deniers (or neo-Colonialists, for that matter) - but that's not because they're ill-informed idiots, it's because of the sheer horror of the crimes they're attempting to palliate. I'd say the same for apologists for Stalin or Mao, for that matter. Or any other gloomy old tyrant or mass-murderer. Sorry Mr Dolan, but I'm not too impressed by the morals of Genghis Khan, either ...

People who read books about Atlantis and the Martian pyramid and NASA's great Moon-landing hoax are not necessarily idiots (or if they are, then I'm one too - which might not be too much of a stretch for regular readers of this blog). They read them because they're halfway convinced already that everything told them by officialdom is a lie if not the result of a conspiracy. What else are they to think when big US companies have started paying their executives billion-dollar bonuses again before the ink is even dry on the blank cheques paid over to them by Congress? That we can trust our Lords and masters? That they have our best interests at heart?

Anybody who'd like to investigate further the relationship between literary fakes and the standard tropes of postmodernism could do worse than read Ken Ruthven's fascinating and provocative Faking Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001), where he goes through all the various scandals where allegedly "indigenous" writers ('B. Wongar', Helen 'Demidenko' [Darville]) have been praised to the skies for their sensitive and nunanced portrayals of alternate world-views, then "caught out" and denounced for their clumsy impostures a few months later.

The books hadn't changed. They still had the same fixed arrangements of white space and black letters as before. The only thing that had changed was the shitheads composing the reviews. So much did they hate being exposed as credulous dupes and tone-deaf critics, that they had to react with swift disproportionate rage to avoid exposing the whole nonsensical ramp of "established artistic reputations" altogether.

Funnily enough, I found Ruthven's book, virtually brand-new, on the chuck-out pile at Auckland Central Library, priced at one dollar, so maybe somebody inside that august institution felt a little queasy about its implications. Call me paranoid, but ...

No, seriously, the subject is clearly a complex one. But you can't go on teaching people to distrust fixed ideas and commonplaces, to test out ideas for themselves, and then expect them to except all the ideas you're trying to peddle to them. You know you're right - that your ideas are sound, well-researched, academically respectable. But why should they accept it on your say-so? It may be worrying to watch people reading books about Celtic NZ and the Chinese influence on the Italian Renaissance instead of "sound" historical research - I find it extremely irritating seeing people reading Jeffery Archer instead of trying to penetrate my own portentous and labyrinthine tomes - but you can't really blame them sometimes.

Why are they doing it? What do they find in these books? Those, I think, are the questions we should be asking instead.

[K. K. Ruthven: Faking Literature (2001)]

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Unplanned Masterpiece

[Gabriel White, dir.: The Unplanned Masterpiece.
Produced by Amelia Harris.
Graphics by Marcus Hofko.
Music by James McCarthy
(Auckland: Film Archive / ACC, 2009)]

So I went to see a preview of Gabriel White's new film about Auckland, The Unplanned Masterpiece, last Saturday.

I suppose you could say I'm prejudiced. After all, I am in the film - albeit very briefly, as one of the more than thirty talking heads delivering views on various aspects of the city's history, life and culture - and of course Gabriel and I are old friends and collaborators. But you know, even despite all that, I was worried that he wouldn't be able to pull it off - that the film would come across as quirky or incoherent, or just insufficiently representative.

But it didn't (or didn't in my view, at any rate). I found the film continuously fascinating throughout. I'd actually thought I knew something about Auckland before watching it, but I have to say that there was a great deal there which was news to me. I find it hard to imagine the person who could say that they were already au fait with all the vital, strange pieces of information Gabriel's interlocutors unearth. Their very shrugs and gestures become laden with implication at times as they stare down helplessly at Spaghetti Junction, the Harbour Bridge, or the Ports of Auckland wasteland.

Gabriel allows his thirty-odd speakers to speak for themselves. At times one will supplement or contradict the one directly before them - it's not that the editing isn't artful; just that it doesn't seem intrusive. From the opening description of Auckland as a endlessly fought-over, contended-for space (Tamaki-desired-by-many) to the closing description of its curiously temporary (time-bound - literally) architectural spaces, what comes across most strongly is passion: love for a city which at times can seem anything but loveable.

Balzac's famous story Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu, the unknown masterpiece, tells of a painter who so elaborated his work that it finally dissolved into incoherence, an immense blur with nothing discernible in it but a single foot. Gabriel's title subtly puns on that. If Auckland is a masterpiece, it must be because there was something at work there beyond the makers' intentions (as in the final passages of Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, where Charles Ryder concludes that the "fierce little human drama" he had participated in might have been justified simply by the fact that it left behind a consecrated chapel for his soldiers to use ...).

Like any city, it is - or should be - the sum of the aspirations of its inhabitants. That's an easy thing to say, but until you hear Gabriel's chosen speakers talk, it's easy to forget or overlook the richness and strange beauty of our own "wasp-waisted isthmus."

Gabriel comments in his work journal that "it was a little deflating to hear the film described by one member of the audience as 'left wing'", going on to say that "one political agenda of the film is to render such Jurassic categories obsolete." It's a punchy film, certainly - one designed (as he himself said at the launch) to get people talking and disputing - but I also think he's right that it eschews any particular rigid reading of the city's history in favour of a kaleidoscopic (but never incoherent) vision of promises broken and betrayed which ended up (perhaps), somehow, with some of them being kept after all.

So, in any case, the main purpose of this post is to advertise the fact that:

Free Screenings
of Gabriel White's new film about Auckland

The Unplanned Masterpiece

are on in Auckland Art Gallery's Art Lounge
(on the corner of Lorne St & Wellesley St)
on Sunday 4th October
at 11 am & 2 pm.

It really is worth a look if you have the slightest curiosity about this city.

And if you haven't, and you live here, you should be ashamed of yourself.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

2 Events in 1 Night

[Bronwyn Lloyd: Tui (after Anne McCahon) (2009)]

Hi everyone,

I just wanted to let you know that three of my
School Journal birds (images attached) will be on display in a group textile exhibition curated by Judy Rae that opens at Waiheke Art Gallery next Friday, 25 Sept. at 6pm.

The birds will be accompanied by many beautiful textile pieces ranging from soft furnishings, jewellery, articles of attire and sculptural works, created by a range of contemporary textile artists including Rosemary McLeod, Rona Ngahuia Osborne, Merrilyn George, Miranda Brown, Paula Coulthard, and Margaret Chapman.

All of the works in the exhibition are available for sale.

I hope you can make it along to the show.

All the very best,

Bronwyn Lloyd

Hi Everyone,

As an attachment is your invitation to the launching of
On the Eve of Never Departing, a collection of prose works by Richard von Sturmer.

The launch will be at Fordes Bar, 122 Anzac Avenue, Auckland City, at 6:30 pm on Friday, September 25th. Also launched will be
Free Fall, by Rogelio Guedea, a Mexican writer. Both books are being published by Titus Books. Live music will be provided by Otis Mace.

Best wishes,

Richard von Sturmer

I hope you can sympathise with my dilemma. On the one hand, here's a book launch by the sublime Richard von Sturmer, whose work continues to be an inspiration to all us alternative types up here in Auckland.

On the other hand, here's the opening of Bronwyn's textile exhibition on Waiheke: 2 events in 1 night (to paraphrase the title of Janet Charman's first solo book of poems).

Go to both! you say. After all, they're bound to be boozing till pretty late on at Forde's Bar ... You can check out the exhibition, then hurry back to Parnell.

Well, you know, I would - but Waiheke? I just don't feel the logistics are on my side . So (of course) the choice is clear. I've just got to see those birds in situ, having watched them gradually come to squawking life around the house over the past couple of months.

I'm definitely going to be picking up a copy of Richard's book from Brett Cross at Titus Books asap after Friday night, though - and Rogelio's, too, for that matter.

So, for the record:

[Richard von Sturmer: On the Eve of Never Departing (2009)]

The booklaunch is on:

from 6.30 pm

at Forde's Bar
122 Anzac Avenue
Auckland City

And here are the two culprits in question, decked out in their best plumage:

[Bronwyn Lloyd: Red Bird (after Jill McDonald) (2009)]

The exhibition:

(25 September - 19 October 2009}

opens on
from 6.O0 pm

at Waiheke Art Gallery
2 Korora Road
Waiheke Island

For sales enquiries or further information,
please contact Linda Chalmers
Waiheke Art Gallery

I should just remark parenthetically that Bronwyn's recent honours include being selected for:

Best philosophical stand-off in a public space:
Wystan Curnow and Bronwyn Lloyd at the Rita Angus symposium

by Courtney Johnston on her blog best-of-3.

If you'd like to know more about that epoch-making stoush, check out the post here.

In the meantime, here's looking forward to fewer fisticuffs and more celebrations on Friday night!

And if you're curious to see the inspiration for Bronwyn's own nest of singing birds, check out the following images by (respectively) Jill McDonald and Anne McCahon:

[Gregory O'Brien: A Nest of Singing Birds (2007)]

[Anne McCahon: School Journal cover design (1954)]

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

I love chapbooks

The Return of the Vanishing New Zealander.
Dunedin: Kilmog Press, 2009. 20 pp.

There's something distinctly satisfying about a chapbook. They're so bite-sized, so approachable. I think a lot of people who feel daunted by a full-length, buttoned-up slim volume of verse (let along a Collected - or even Selected - Poems) feel somehow reassured by the lack of fanfare accompanying a self-confessed poetry pamphlet.

Design, too. There's more of a sense of genuine collaboration about chapbooks - book-designers choosing a text more for their own purposes than to serve some author's plan for world domination.

Dean Havard at Kilmog Press has been making a name for himself for his robust sense of design and unflagging industry. I'm not sure just how many books he's brought out to date, but it must be quite a few. He's published poetry books by Jeanne Bernhardt, Peter Olds, Bob Orr, Mark Pirie, Michael Steven - in some cases more than one by the same author - but his list also includes art catalogues and even an edition of the (so-called) Lost Journal of Edward Jerningham Wakefield!

A website is coming soon, apparently, so we'll soon be able to see a list of all his publications to date (though I gather that many of them have sold out already, so you'll have to be in fast). In the meantime, there's also a blog that you can visit.

In the meantime, the books are available from Parsons in Wellesley Street, or directly from the publisher (Kilmog Press, PO Box 1562, Dunedin). They retail for $35.

Here's the sample poem from my own book which Dean put up on Facebook (which enables me to claim a lack of egotism in reproducing it). It comes from the poem "Journey to the West":

III – Countdown

Is it high?
It touches heaven.
It reaches hell.

White clouds surround the mountain
black mists swim
red-blushing plums / jade bamboo
dark-green cypresses / blue pines

Ten-mile pavilion: no travellers leave
nine-faced heaven: stars have set
on eight harbours: boats are docked
in seven thousand cities: gates shut
six palaces: officials gone
five departments: ledgers closed
four seas: fishing lines sink
three rivers: waves subside
two towers: bells resound
one moon lights earth and sky

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why John Masefield?

It's always been a bit difficult to explain (let alone justify) my choice of topics for a Masters thesis. "The Early Novels of John Masefield, 1908-1911" -- it sounds like one of those candidates for world's dullest books (Worms and Their Ways, by a "grub"; or Lesser-Known Aspects of Pre-Kantian Metaphysics, by J. M. Snotwood, MA, D Phil, &c. &c.) ...

I remember running into Terry Sturm in the corridors of the Auckland English Department shortly after I'd received permission to undertake this daring piece of original research - "So you're the Masefield man!" he boomed. When I admitted to Sebastian Black that I owned copies (mostly first editions - not that many of them actually went into second editions) of all 23 of Masefield's novels, he remarked that not many people could make that boast ("Perhaps nobody in the world," he added, with a sepulchral chuckle).

So why John Masefield? I guess the real reason is that I grew up on him. The first of his books I really read was The Midnight Folk (1927), a madly-eccentric children's book about pirates, hidden treasure, country houses, talking animals, fox-hunting - oh, and witches. Its hero, Kay Harker, went on to star in a later book for slightly older children, The Box of Delights (1935), which added the delights of time travel and Ramon Lull's philosophy to the heady mixture. There's a particularly good scene where Kay joins a circle of stone-age Britons keeping off wolves with their spears. Wolves are indeed one of the dominant motifs in the book - it's actually subtitled "When the Wolves were Running". What is it really about? I'm still not sure, but it had the effect of waking me up to the heady attractions of folklore, mythology and the past.

As time went by I started to read his poetry (he was, after all, the British Poet Laureate from 1930 to 1967, so that was really his speciality). Old-fashioned, yes, but dedicated to story-telling above all. Before the First World War he was considered one of England's most controversial and hard-hitting poets, mostly because of the runaway success of his 1911 poem The Everlasting Mercy, which first introduced the poetry-reading public to the delights of truly extravagant bad language:

[John Masefield: The English Review (1911)

You closhy put!
You bloody liar! etc. etc.

"His sins were scarlet, but his books were read" (Hilaire Belloc).

As time went by, I started to accumulate more and more books by Masefield, and became more and more attuned to the paradox of an author whom so many people had vaguely heard of, so celebrated and widely-read in his day (judging by the relative ease with which one could collect his work from second-hand bookshops), and yet whom nobody now seemed to rate or even feel curious about.

And yet he was good! Or so he seemed to me. Perhaps not good in a conventional, card-carrying sense (by now I'd picked up all the standard Modernist shibboleths about the sinfulness of adjectives and the intrinsic unreliability of narrators), but so intensely idiosyncratic and strange that his work really couldn't be said to to resemble anything else I'd ever read or even heard about.

I was looking through an anthology on the writing of the sea one day when I stumbled on an extraordinary passage from one of Masefield's novels (Sard Harker (1924))which described the hero first fighting his way through an almost animate swamp, then reaching the beach only to promptly stand on a stingray's tail. It was nearly ten pages long, and so bizarrely circumstantial that I almost felt my own foot curl up in sympathy. Pain, frustration, futility - these were Masefield's principal novelistic stock-in-trade. He would devote fifty pages of a book to the attempt to find someone's address at the drop of a hat. It seemed to be axiomatic with him that committees were set up to frustrate enquiry, that all officials were stupidly obstructive, if not actively malevolent, and that if anything could go wrong, it would - only far worse than you'd anticipated.

Actually his world sounded rather like a heightened version of the tormented wasteland that I myself inhabited (at the time), so you needn't think I took to him because I like sweeping descriptions of ships at sea ...

[John Masefield: Sea-fever: Selected Poems. ed. Phlip W. Errington (2005)]

Masefield hated the sea. That's one point that's pretty much beyond dispute. It's true he wrote "Sea-fever" (the one Masefield poem everyone can quote from):

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky
And all I ask is a tall ship, and a star to steer her by ...

He was compulsorily apprenticed in the Merchant Navy as a very young boy after the death of both his parents, and his painful experiences on the training ship Conway (as recorded in his 1944 autobiographical volume New Chum) were only surpassed by the sheer horror of going round Cape Horn as a sailor before the mast (as recounted in the 1913 narrative poem Dauber).

He fell ill in Chile (luckily for him) - it was probably a nervous breakdown - and was invalided home. Although he didn't officially leave the Merchant Navy until after he'd travelled to New York to join the next ship he'd been assigned to, the attractions of the city were far too much for him, and he never made another voyage except as a passenger. Masefield, then, was no Joseph Conrad - his first book might have been called Salt-Water Ballads (1902), and he might have continued to mine his early life on the bounding wave as material for the rest of his life (in classic novels such as The Bird of Dawning (1933) or Victorious Troy (1935)), but that's all it was to him - material. He was actualy far happier writing about the English countryside or the wilds of South America (the latter particularly - that time in the hosital in Valparaiso clearly left its mark).

Masefield's first book came out in 1902, and his last, In Glad Thanksgiving in 1967. Over that immensely-long career he published poems, plays, novels, war reportage, and literary criticism with pretty consistent success. When one genre ran dry, he shifted his energies to another. His first two plays The Campden Wonder and The Tragedy of Nan enjoyed immense acclaim when Granville-Barker put them on in 1908. Subsequent dramas failed to repeat the precedent, however, so he shifted his energies to fiction: first grown-up "problem novels" in the style of the day, then (somewhat more successfully, as they were more congenial to him) boys' books. The unheard-of acclaim garnered by the first publication of The Everlasting Mercy in The English Review in 1911 diverted him into writing narrative poems. The War, when it came, saw him working as an ambulance orderly in France, then a writer of patriotic "histories" (including the still-celebrated Gallipoli (1916)).

And so it went on. He came back to novels in the 1920s, when the public's interest in long narrative poems was starting to flag. The last novel he published came out in 1947, after which he stopped writing much except poetry (and letters - the five or six volumes of these which have appeared since his death contain some of his liveliest and most engaging writing).

It's easy to patronise Masefield for his lack of self-conscious intellectualism. He's no no proto-Modernist, no unsung precursor of Joyce or Pound. And yet he was taken pretty seriously by his contemporaries: Hardy, Conrad and Yeats. They read him and saw him as one of themselves. At the very least his career seems to offer an interesting parable in the pitfalls of literary celebrity.

I set out to write about all of his novels, but found the task too vast for a standard-length thesis. By the time one had summarised their plots, there would have hardly have been room for any analysis. Instead my supervisor, Prof D. I. B. Smith agreed to my proposal simply to look at his pre-war career, by turning it into a kind of case-study of a young writer on the make in the Edwardian era. So that's the thesis I wrote. It's awfully long. Two or three times the length one would get away with today, I suspect. But things weren't so strict in 1985.

I suppose then (to paraphrase my friend Scott Hamilton) that Masefield offered me a kind of keyhole on the literary conditions of the early to mid-twentieth century which I could hardly have got by looking at a more conventionally celebrated writer.

I still like his work, though I haven't read any for quite some time. The Box of Delights is well worth a look, though - unless it's one of those books that you have to have read when you were a kid for it still to exert any charm later on.

[John Masefield: Selected Poems. Ed. John Betjeman (1978)]

Thursday, August 13, 2009


Es gab den Dolch in deine Hand
Ein böser Dämon in der bösen Stunde –
Ich weiß nicht, wie der Dämon hieß –
Ich weiß nur, daß vergiftet war die Wunde.

There was a dagger in your hand
a demon in an idle hour
I never knew the demon’s name
I only felt his stabbing power

In stillen Nächten denk ich oft,
Du solltest mal dem Schattenreich entsteigen
Und lösen alle Rätsel mir
Und mich von deiner Unschuld überzeugen.

On quiet nights I lie & think
you should come up from where you are
& answer all these doubts for me
confirm to me you were a whore

Ich harre dein – o komme bald!
Und kommst du nicht, so steig ich selbst zur Hölle,
Daß ich alldort vor Satanas
Und allen Teufeln dich zur Rede stelle.

I’m waiting now
You’d better show
If you won’t come I’ll track you down
& there in front of everyone
conduct my cross-examination

Ich komme, und wie Orpheus einst
Trotz ich der Unterwelt mit ihren Schrecken –
Ich finde dich, und wolltest du
Im tiefsten Höllenpfuhle dich verstecken.

gliding like some bright Orpheus
across an underworld of fears
I’ll find you in the deepest ditch
dug out by centuries of tears

Hinunter jetzt ins Land der Qual,
Wo Händeringen nur und Zähneklappen –
Ich reiße dir die Larve ab,
Der angeprahlten Großmut Purpurlappen –

& in that land of tortured dreams
where sinners pay for what they did
I’ll cut off the last shreds of skin
the trappings of your girlish pride

Jetzt weiß ich, was ich wissen wollt,
Und gern, mein Mörder, will ich dir verzeihen;
Doch hindern kann ich nicht, daß jetzt
Schmachvoll die Teufel dir ins Antlitz speien.

& when I’ve found out what I need
I’d like to pardon you, you know
but how can I stop TV scum
from vomiting all over you?

[Sophie Elliott]

R. I. P.