Monday, July 22, 2019

Islomanes (2): Elizabeth Knox's 'Southland'

Elizabeth Knox: Southland (2013)

Southland is a landmass without a native people. so there are not songs or legends for us to consult.
- Dr Michael King, A History of Southland (1904)

Elizabeth Knox's imaginary country of 'Southland', the setting for her two Dreamhunter novels and their sequel Mortal Fire, continues to fascinate me.

On the one hand, it's clearly New Zealand - albeit a New Zealand through the looking-glass, a Mirror City version of the rather less tidy set of islands we actually inhabit.

On the other hand, there are several vital differences in this alternative history version of our country.

The first one is mentioned above. The extracts from Dr King's imaginary history of this 'landmass', quoted from Knox's novel Dreamhunter (2005) - incidentally, note the symmetry between the 1905 the story is set in, and the 2005 of the novel itself - mentions 'the arrival of the first settlers nearly two hundred and fifty years ago."

In other words, the late eighteen, early nineteenth century of the real settlement of New Zealand, has been moved back to 1650 or so - back to the approximate time of Abel Tasman's drive-by in 1642, in fact. What if New Zealand hadn't already been settled by 'a native people' with their own 'songs or legends to consult'? What if Tasman had gone ashore, established 'a fort and a river port'? Perhaps a town called Founderston would have been the result ...

Elizabeth Knox: Dreamhunter (2005)

The second major difference between 'us' and 'them' is described as follows in Dr. King's history:
Excerpts from 'The Invisible Road', a chapter from Dr Michael King's A History of Southland (1904):
It is difficult to convey to anyone beyond our shores the extraordinary influence of dreamhunting on the life and culture of Southland. Since the arrival of the first settlers nearly two hundred and fifty years ago much has been made of the tyranny of distance, the fifteen hundred sea miles between ourselves and our nearest neighbour, and five thousand between us and the great centres of civilisation. Ours is a productive but isolated country. Southland can export wool and leather, but not meat or milk; wine, but not fruit; grain and linen, steel, tools and machinery - but not dreams. Dreams are a highly perishable commodity and are yet to be sent offshore. [73]
The real Michael King had, alas, died in a car crash before these words were published. His immensely successful Penguin History of New Zealand (2003), which clearly inspired this mirror history, is written in much the same bland yet authoritative style.

Interestingly, in this version of history refrigeration appears to have not yet been trialled. In reality, of course, the first cargo of refrigerated meat left New Zealand for Britain in 1882.

Elizabeth Knox: Dreamquake (2007)

So what exactly are these dreams King makes so much of? Their use and abuse is the main subject of Knox's fascinating story. They are found in a part of the country called 'the place', which can only be entered by certain people with a hereditary disposition. Of these, only a few can catch the dreams which are localised in certain parts of the realm. Here's a map of 'the place' from the endpapers of Dreamhunter:

Elizabeth Knox: Dreamhunter (2005)

Note the dots with strange names beside them: these are the resident dreams to be found there by those gifted enough to retain them, and then redream them for the public in specially constructed dream palaces.

And here's the section of the country, in the very North (looking a bit like Farewell Spit in Golden Bay) where the almost illimitable 'place' can be found:

Elizabeth Knox: Dreamquake (2007)

If we try to narrow in on precisely what dreams are - or rather what they are like - the following conversation between Rose Tiebold (one of the two adolescent girl protagonists) and her father Chorley may give us some clues:
'Mother can catch horned whales, a dream of horned whales. Dreams have sound and sensations, colours and tastes. Films don't.'
'So you think films are only a novelty?' Chorley asked his daughter.
'No - but they're for recording facts. They can't do fiction, like dreams can.'
'Has anyone been able to establish that dreams are fiction rather than fact? They may all be true. They might be like a mirage - a strange image of a distant place, some spot in the world very like here. No one knows what they really are.' [71]
Is it too much of a stretch to see this conversation as referring to fiction - and creative writing in general - under the guise of these metaphorical dreams? There's a reference later on, in Dreamquake (2007), the sequel to Dreamcatcher, to certain distinctions between dreamers:
Jerome Tilley, one of the rare Novelists (as those who caught split dreams [dreams from more than one point of view] were called) [379]
As well as this, there are 'Gifters' - those 'who can take [their] own memories of real people's faces and manners, and graft them onto the characters in the dreams [they've caught]' [354]; 'Soporifs', who can 'enhance the effects of anaesthetics' [285]; and the illegal 'Colourists,' who can insert little extra ideas, such as the desirability of retaining certain officials past their allotted term, into the edges of someone else's dream narrative.

Elizabeth Knox: The Dreamhunter Duet (2005-7)

Elizabeth Knox's inaugural Margaret Mahy Lecture in 2014 was entitled "An Unreal House Filled with Real Storms" (presumably a reference to Marianne Moore's famous poem Poetry and its "imaginary gardens with real toads in them'). In both cases the emphasis seems to be both on the close interconnectedness of the 'unreal' worlds of the imagination and the 'real' world of experience.

Or, as W. B. Yeats put it, even more trenchantly: 'In dreams begin responsibilties.' You are responsible for the products of your imagination. 'Did that play of mine send out / certain men the English shot?' as he demanded of himself in one of his very last poems, 'The Man and the Echo' (1938).

In other words, did his early play Cathleen ni Houlihan (1902), with its striking final image of the bent old beggar woman suddenly straightening up into the magnificent young nationalist firebrand Maud Gonne - the very embodiment of Ireland herself - provide an important motive for at least some of those killed in the tragic Easter Rising of 1916? It's a bit of a stretch, perhaps, but not - given the sheer incantatory power of his imagination - an unreasonable one.

Does Elizabeth Knox see herself as a mythmaker on that level? A 'novelist', what's more, a dreamer with the power of capturing more than one point of view - unlike the short story writers and poets who are more common among us?

That may sound a bit conceited, but it really isn't, given the status of her imagination here in New Zealand. If so, what might she be trying to tell us in this parable of hers?

Elizabeth Knox: The Invisible Road (2008)

Why, to begin with, does it have to be 'without a native people,' unlike the actual New Zealand? On the surface, this might seem to have analogies with Austin Wright's choice to make his imaginary 'Islandia' more than a thousand years old - a chronology similar to that of Iceland, in fact.

Given the obvious analogies between Wright's visionary state and the actual South Africa ('Bants' for 'Bantu', German colonies across the border, Arabs up the coast, etc. etc.), this works to substantiate the Afrikaaner myth that their migration into the hinterland took place at the same time (or even before) the Bantu migration south - caused by the devastating mfecane wars in the early nineteenth century.

Wright's idealised Afrikaaners therefore have a superior right to the land they inhabit than the Black races who surround them on all sides (particularly the violent and destructive 'Mountain Bants' immediately across the border). It resembles more than a little the various racist myths of an initial white settlement in America predating the arrival of the 'Indians' themselves.

We have more than our fair share of such self-serving colonialist 'theories' in New Zealand also. Note what Knox herself has to say about the early settlement of her 'Southland,' though:
He [Sandy] had already done the Hames and history. He knew - for instance - that they were one of five families who had come to the country from the island of Elprus after a volcanic eruption. The Elpra who crossed the seas all settled in Founderston - then a jerry-built settlement around a fort and river port. They were welcomed for their highly cultivated skills in silk making - and for the relics, the bones of St Lazarus. ... The islanders stayed together as a people in the streets they built, in what, over the centuries, became Founderston's Old Town. In fact, up until eighty years before Sandy was born, the Old Town was predominantly peopled by the dark-skinned, curly-haired people, and would be still, were it not for a cholera epidemic, and the two contaminated wells in the Old Town which caused more than half the epidemic's deaths. [214]
These violin-playing, textile-savvy, 'dark-skinned, curly-haired people' sound more like Jews or Gypsies than the solid Anglo-Saxons who seem to make up most of the rest of the population.

Southland, after all, has at least seven major towns, most of them named after British and European statesmen, just like so many cities ([George Eden, Lord] Auckland, Governor-General of India, 1836-42 - [Admiral Horatio] Nelson, victor at Trafalgar, 1805 - [Arthur Wellesley, Duke of] Wellington, victor at Waterloo, 1815, British PM, 1828-30 & 1834) in New Zealand itself:

  1. Founderston
  2. Metternich [Austrian Foreign Minister, 1821-48]
  3. Westport
  4. Middleton [a suburb of Christchurch]
  5. Castlereagh [British Foreign Minister, 1812-22]
  6. Canning [British Prime Minister, 1827]
  7. Esperance [French for 'hope' = Akaroa?]

The comments about the 'contaminated wells' are particularly disturbing, given the long history of Christians accusing Jews of poisoning wells to cause epidemics. There's an atmosphere of pogroms and racial prejudice lurking under the surface of the whole novel, in fact, as the ultra-white Secretary of the Interior Cas Doran and the President Garth Wilkinson plot to set up a quasi-fascist state in Southland.

Brian Wood: The Great O8 (2008)

There's another interesting subtext in the novel, though, too: let's call it its Norma Rae moment - union, union, union!
Sandy felt herded and corralled. But he was the son of a shop steward in a factory that made flax matting. He had been raised in a house with strong views on the rights of working people. 'You know what we need?' he whispered to his uncle as they tramped along 'We need a union.' [354]

Could Knox's 'Hames' have been Māori, rather than Greeks refugees? Possibly, but not without great difficulties when it came to introducing the Golems and other dream trappings her novel is constructed around. There would be an immense risk of giving cultural offence if she were to impose an entire mythology on the actual native race of New Zealand (however disguised).

I'm inclined to think that we may have to give her a free pass on this issue of eliminating the Māori from her alternative history version of New Zealand, then. It's not a question of simply scrubbing the question off the landscape, as in Peter Jackson's version of NZ-as-Tolkien's-Middle-earth. She's nothing if not a careful thinker about the consequences of her creative decisions (as you can see in Tara Black's witty cartoon below):

Tara Black: Ode to Ursula [Le Guin] (2018)

This is not the end of the discussion, however (heaven forbid!) For all its beauty and richness, I'm not sure that the Dreamhunter Duet did actually accomplish all that Knox intended to do with Southland, her imaginary kingdom by the sea. So she returned there, a few years later, in another YA fantasy novel called Mortal Fire ...

Elizabeth Knox

Elizabeth Fiona Knox

Select Bibliography:

  1. After Z-Hour. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1987.

  2. Treasure. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1992.

  3. Glamour and the Sea. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1996.

  4. The Vintner’s Luck: A Novel. 1998. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 1999.

  5. The High Jump: A New Zealand Childhood. Pomare; Paremata; Tawa. 1989, 1994, 1998. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2000.

  6. Black Oxen. London: Chatto & Windus, 2001.

  7. Billie’s Kiss. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2002.

  8. Daylight. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2003.

  9. Dreamhunter. Fourth Estate. Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers Pty Limited, 2005.

  10. Dreamquake. Fourth Estate. London: HarperCollins Publishers, 2007.

  11. The Invisible Road. 2005 & 2007. Harper Voyager. Sydney: HarperCollins Publishers Australia Pty Limited, 2008.

  12. The Love School: Personal Essays. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2008.

  13. The Angel's Cut. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2009.

  14. Mortal Fire. Wellington: Gecko Press, 2013.

  15. Wake. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2013.

  16. An Unreal House Filled with Real Storms. The Inaugural Margaret Mahy Lecture, Christchurch 31 August 2014. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2014.

Sunday, July 14, 2019


Quentin Walsh: Travels in Greeneland (1985 / 2010)

Obsessed with “Greeneland,” the seedy, despair-filled imaginary of his novels, his biographers have ignored the world in which Greene immersed himself.
- Maurice Walsh (2017)
Is that really true? Is the 'despair-filled imaginary' of his novels (and films, and essays, and plays, and memoirs, and travel books) really a separable entity from the real world Graham Greene interrogated - and travelled through - so relentlessly?

John Lehman, ed.: Penguin New Writing 30 (1947)

I have an old copy of Penguin New Writing 30 (1947), edited by John Lehman, which includes a piece by Greene called "Across the Border: An Unfinished Novel." So far as I can tell, this wasn't reprinted until 2005, when it was included in his Complete Short Stories under the title "The Other Side of the Border" - mind you, that's just a guess, as I don't have the latter book to hand.

In any case, his 1947 introduction to this abandoned piece is very interesting. After lamenting the fact that "most novelists' careers are littered with abandoned books," he goes on to characterise this particular one as follows:
I could identify the year when I began to write it as probably 1937, after I had returned from a journey in Liberia: at any rate, if it had no other merit, the book seems to me stamped unmistakably with the atmosphere of the middle thirties - Hitler is still quite new, dictatorship is only a tang on the breeze blowing from Europe: in England is depression and a kind of metroland culture.
I guess its the specificity of that evocation of the "atmosphere of the middle thirties" that intrigues me most. It's an atmosphere I can recognise from such novels as Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), as well as - supremely - Greene's own England Made Me (1935). In fact Greene goes on to comment, of the latter novel:
Why did I abandon the book? I think for two main reasons - because another book, Brighton Rock, was more insistent to be written, and because I realised that I had already dealt with the main character in a story called England Made Me. Hands, I realised, had the same origin as Anthony Farrant in that novel.

Graham Greene: England Made Me (1935)

England Made Me has always been one of my especial favourites among Greene's novels (along with The End of the Affair), I think because of that exquisitely precise evocation of atmosphere. It's depressing, yes, but in a very finely calculated way. I can still almost recite that final combination of seemingly irrelevant details, so meaningful in the context of what has gone before in the story:
"So you're going back to England?" Minty said, remembering the fifty-six stairs, the empty flat, the Italian woman on the third floor.
"No," Kate said. "I'm simply moving on. Like Anthony."
the incense cones, the cup (I've forgotten the cup).
"A job in Copenhagen."
the missal in the cupboard, the Madonna, the spider withering under the glass, a home from home.
The real pay-off in this little introduction comes at the end, however:
Another point interested me: since those days I have been back to live and work in the West African port described in Part II and I realise now that this picture of the place, its whole atmsophere, couldn't be more 'wrong.' I spent a week there in 1936 before this novel was begun, but now I know the port from a year's residence. It is every bit as seedy, depressed and drab as I have described it, but in a totally different way [my emphasis]. Denton of Part I on the other hand, which is the town in the Home Counties where I was born and brought up, seems to me right. Between the two lies the whole difference between the passport photograph and the family snapshot. [64-65]

Greene famly portrait:
[l-to-r: Graham, Raymond, Herbert, Hugh, Molly & Elizabeth

"It is every bit as seedy, depressed and drab as I have described it, but in a totally different way." What an extraordinarily revealing thing to say! It's recorded that Greene used to enter routinely the 'write a passage in pastiche Graham Greene style" competitions in the British papers, but he never won. Generally he came second or third = or so we're told.

Perhaps it was the fine precision with which he judged degrees of seediness (as revealed above), the need to get each place's ration of drabness and despair precisely true to his experience of it which tripped him up, again and again.

There is a sense in which every Graham Greene setting and character resembles all the others - and yet the more interesting aspect of his work is the fine details and distinctions between them. The seaside town of Brighton of Brighton Rock is probably just as dangerous - to their respective protagonists, that is - as the garish Haiti of The Comedians, but there's an immense difference in decor and - clearly a crucial term for him - atmosphere.

John Boulting, dir. Brighton Rock (1947)

I once undertook the interesting task of reading all of Graham Greene's novels in chronological order. It must have been in the early 80s, because I recall we'd been set Brighton Rock to read in one of my English papers at Auckland Uni. The first chapter put me off so much, that I found it difficult to continue, so I decided - precocious little budding Don that I must have been - that this would be the best way to achieve some understanding of it.

I don't know if it had the desired effect or not, but it was certainly a fascinating experience. It dispelled for good any idea I might have had that he simply wrote the same book over and over again (though there were still a few to come at that point).

So, yes, Greeneland - it's an excellent pun, and it accounts for a great many contemporary references to certain types of settings and characters which one tended to encounter quite frequently, both in life and literature, such as the following quip from his near-contemporary, W. H. Auden:

Yousuf Karsh: W. H. Auden (1972)

Is this a milieu where I must
How grahamgreeneish! How infra dig!
Snatch from the bottle in my bag
An analeptic swig?
- W. H. Auden: On the Circuit (1965)
In reality, though, I think that Maurice Walsh may have a point. Too much has been made of the features the various provinces of Greeneland have in common with one another, and not enough of the different species of seediness and despair he was so concerned to differentiate.

Much of it is, admittedly, attributable to the films of his work, which have a tendency to be more monochrome than the books they were based on - The Third Man, written originally for the screen, and only turned subsequently into a novella, is a case in point. Carol Reed's movie may be magnificent, but the story itself - judged purely as a piece of prose - is not really one of Greene's strongest.

Graham Greene: The Third Man and the Fallen Idol (1950)

You'll notice some interesting features in the list below of my Greene-iana. It is, of course, incomplete - he was too prolific, too various in his activities to collect in toto.

There's one item there which may surprise you, though. Greene famously repudiated his second and third novels, The Name of Action (1930) and Rumour at Nightfall (1931). They've never been reprinted to this day. I was lucky enough to find a copy of the first in a library booksale, nestled among various other neglected cullings from the stacks.

Kurt Hutton: Graham Greene (1954)

Henry Graham Greene

Graham Greene: The Name of Action (1930)


  1. Greene, Graham. The Man Within. 1929. Uniform Edition. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1952.

  2. Greene, Graham. The Name of Action. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1930.

  3. Greene, Graham. Stamboul Train: An Entertainment. 1932. The Library Edition of the Works of Graham Greene. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1959.

  4. Greene, Graham. It's a Battlefield. 1934. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1953.

  5. Greene, Graham. It's a Battlefield. 1934. Introduction by the Author. The Collected Edition, 2. London: William Heinemann / The Bodley Head, 1970.

  6. Greene, Graham. England Made Me. 1935. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1954.

  7. Greene, Graham. A Gun for Sale. 1936. Introduction by the Author. The Collected Edition, 9. London: William Heinemann / The Bodley Head, 1973.

  8. Greene, Graham. Brighton Rock. 1938. Uniform Edition. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1947.

  9. Greene, Graham. The Confidential Agent: An Entertainment. 1939. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1976.

  10. Greene, Graham. The Power and the Glory. 1940. The Vanguard Library, 3. London: William Heinemann Ltd. / Chatto & Windus Ltd., 1954.

  11. Greene, Graham. The Ministry of Fear: An Entertainment. 1943. Uniform Edition. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1956.

  12. Greene, Graham. The Heart of the Matter. 1948. London: The Reprint Society Ltd. / William Heinemann Ltd., 1950.

  13. Greene, Graham. The Third Man and the Fallen Idol. Prefaces by the Author. 1950. London: Pan Books Ltd., 1955.

  14. Greene, Graham. The Third Man: A Film by Graham Greene and Carol Reed. 1968. Modern Film Scripts. London: Lorrimer Publishing Limited, 1969.

  15. Greene, Graham. The End of the Affair. 1951. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1978.

  16. Greene, Graham. Loser Takes All. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1955.

  17. Greene, Graham. The Quiet American. 1955. World Books. London: The Reprint Society Ltd. / William Heinemann Ltd., 1957.

  18. Greene, Graham. The Quiet American: Text and Criticism. 1955. Ed. John Clark Pratt. The Viking Critical Library. New York: Penguin, 1996.

  19. Greene, Graham. Our Man in Havana: An Entertainment. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1958.

  20. Greene, Graham. A Burnt-Out Case. 1961. London: The Reprint Society Ltd. / William Heinemann Ltd., 1962.

  21. Greene, Graham. The Comedians. 1966. Melbourne: Readers Book Club, 165. / London: William The Companion Book Club, 1967.

  22. Greene, Graham. Travels with My Aunt. 1969. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: The Bodley Head, 1972.

  23. Greene, Graham. The Honorary Consul. 1973. London: Book Club Associates / The Bodley Head, 1974.

  24. Greene, Graham. The Human Factor. 1978. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

  25. Greene, Graham. Doctor Fischer of Geneva, or The Bomb Party. London: The Bodley Head, 1980.

  26. Greene, Graham. Monsignor Quixote. 1982. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984.

  27. Greene, Graham. The Tenth Man. 1985. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1986.

  28. Greene, Graham. The Captain and the Enemy. 1988. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: Reinhardt Books Ltd., 1989.

  29. Graham Greene: The Complete Short Stories (2005)

    Short Stories:

  30. Greene, Graham. Twenty-One Stories. 1947 & 1954. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

  31. Greene, Graham. A Sense of Reality. 1963. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970.

  32. Greene, Graham. May We Borrow Your Husband? And Other Comedies of the Sexual Life. London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1967.

  33. Greene, Graham. The Last Word and Other Stories. 1990. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: Reinhardt Books Ltd., 1991.

  34. Barbara Greene: Too Late to Turn Back (1981)


  35. Greene, Graham. Journey Without Maps: A Travel Book. 1936. Uniform Edition. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1962.

  36. Greene, Graham. The Lawless Roads. 1939. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1971.

  37. Greene, Graham. In Search of a Character: Two African Journals. 1961. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: The Bodley Head, 1977.

  38. Richard Greene, ed.: Graham Greene: A Life in Letters (2008)


  39. Greene, Graham. A Sort of Life. 1971. Harmondsworth: Penguin / London: The Bodley Head, 1974.

  40. Greene, Graham. Ways of Escape. 1980. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.

  41. Greene, Graham. Getting to Know the General: The Story of an Involvement. London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1984.

  42. Greene, Graham. A World of My Own: A Dream Diary. 1992. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993.

  43. Greene, Richard, ed. Graham Greene: A Life in Letters. 2007. New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2008.

  44. Graham Greene: Collected Plays (1985)


  45. Greene, Graham. Three Plays: The Living Room / The Potting Shed / The Complaisant Lover. 1953, 1957 & 1959. Mercury Books, 15. London: The Heinemann Group of Publishers, 1962.

  46. Greene, Graham. The Return of A. J. Raffles: An Edwardian Comedy in Three Acts Based Somewhat Loosely on E. W. Hornung’s Characters in The Amateur Cracksman. 1975. Penguin Plays. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1978.

  47. Greene, Graham. Collected Plays: The Living Room / The Potting Shed / The Complaisant Lover / Carving a Statue / The Return of A. J. Raffles / The Great Jowett / Yes and No / For Whom the Bell Chimes. 1953, 1958, 1959, 1964, 1975, 1981, 1983. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

  48. Graham Greene: Collected Essays (1969)

    Miscellaneous Prose:

  49. Greene, Graham. The Lost Childhood and Other Essays. 1951. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode (Publishers) Ltd., 1954.

  50. Greene, Graham. Collected Essays. London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1969.

  51. Greene, Graham. The Pleasure-Dome: The Collected Film Criticism, 1935-40. Ed. John Russell Taylor. 1972. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.

  52. Greene, Graham. Lord Rochester's Monkey: Being the life of John Wilmot, Second Earl of Rochester. London: The Bodley Head Limited, 1974.

  53. Greene, Graham. J'Accuse: The Dark Side of Nice. London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1982.

  54. Greene, Graham. Yours, etc.: Letters to the Press, 1945-89. Ed. Christopher Hawtree. Viking. London: Reinhardt Books Ltd. / Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1989.

  55. Marie-Françoise Allain: The Other Man (1983)


  56. Allain, Marie-Françoise. The Other Man: Conversations with Graham Greene. 1981. Trans. Guido Waldman. London: The Bodley Head Ltd., 1982.

  57. Sherry, Norman. The Life of Graham Greene. Volume One: 1904-1939. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 1989.

  58. Sherry, Norman. The Life of Graham Greene. Volume Two: 1939-1955. 1994. New York: Viking Penguin, 1995.

  59. Sherry, Norman. The Life of Graham Greene. Volume Three: 1955-1991. London: Jonathan Cape Ltd., 2004.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Islomanes (1): Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia

Alberto Manguel & Gianni Guadalupi: The Dictionary of Imaginary Places (1980)

'Now,' he said as we left the bridge and walked into Anglesey, 'now you are like Robinson Crusoe, you are on your island. How should you like to live in that house all the year round, winter and summer?' he said pointing at a white house on a little rock island in the straits. I said I thought there might be worse places. 'They live like fighting cocks there,' winked the old man with the merry twinkle in his eye and his tall white hat nodding from side to side. 'They have got a weir there and they catch all the fish.'
- Kilvert’s Diary: Selections from the Diary of the Rev. Francis Kilvert, 1 January 1870 - 13 March 1879. 3 vols. Ed. William Plomer. 1938 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1977): I: 360.

Walter de la Mare: Desert Islands and Robinson Crusoe (1930)

The fascination of islands and island living is something a great many people have written about. English poet and whimsical anthologist Walter de la Mare devoted an entire book to the subject, and of course that old reprobate Lawrence Durrell also had a good deal to say on the subject as well:

Lawrence Durrell: Reflections on a Marine Venus (1953)

Somewhere among the notebooks of Gideon I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. These are people, Gideon used to say, by way of explanation, who find islands somehow irresistible. We islomanes, says Gideon, are the direct descendants of the Atlanteans, and it is toward the lost Atlantis that our subconscious is drawn. This means that we find islands irresistible.
― Lawrence Durrell, Reflections on a Marine Venus: A Companion to the Landscape of Rhodes (1953)
He went on to say, in a letter to a friend, that 'Islomania is a rare affliction of spirit. There are people who find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are in a little world surrounded by sea fills them with an indescribable intoxication.'

One of my students, Carlota, comes from the Canary Islands. She tells me that it sometimes seems to her as if the whole of New Zealand were enclosed inside a bubble – 'like a floating island.'
'I know, because I'm from an island too,' she goes on. Hers, though, was first settled by a blue-eyed, fair-haired race ('perhaps Vikings') before the Spanish arrived to wipe them all out.
'Atlanteans?' I ask. She agrees that many people think so. She's a little sceptical, though.
'A floating island.' She describes it like something out of Jules Verne: a huge transparent membrane, sealing us off from the pressures of the world outside. Or perhaps a better comparison might be with José Saramago's 1986 novel The Stone Raft, where the whole Iberian peninsula breaks off from Europe and floats into the Atlantic Ocean, splitting apart, once and for all, the pillars of Hercules.
- Jack Ross, "The Stokes Point Pillars." 11 Views of Auckland. Edited by Jack Ross & Grant Duncan. Social and Cultural Studies, 10 (Auckland: Massey University, 2010): 155.
Carlota's islands, the Canaries, are a small archipelago of seven islands situated 100 kilometres off the coast of Morocco. By contrast, our two main islands, Te Ika a Māui and Te Waipounamu - complemented by 600-odd others - are pretty much on their own: 2,000 km east of Australia and 1,000 km south of New Caledonia. 'Next stop Antarctica,' as they say.

Janet Frame: To the Is-land (1982)

One more quote before we get going properly:
When the New Zealand writer Janet Frame was 7, she found in her school reader an adventure story, 'To the Island,' that she read as 'To the Is-land.' Though corrected by her teacher, she accepted the word thereafter as meaning what it said, the Land of Is, not the Was-Land, not the Future. In this first volume of her autobiography, which she calls 'a selection of views of the Is-Land,' it is the place of her childhood and adolescence.
Helen Bevington, 'The Girl from New Zealand.' New York Times (21 November, 1982)
All of which should serve to prepare us for the actual subject of this post, the strange utopian romance Islandia (1942), by eccentric American lawyer Austin Tappan Wright:

Austin Tappan Wright: Islandia (1942)

Wright had been dead for eleven years when his immense novel finally saw the light of day. Not that the publishers of the day were prepared to contemplate the publication of the whole thing. In her afterword to the 2001 paperback edition, his daughter Sylvia explains that this 1,000-page tome 'represents only a part of the total Islandia papers.'
The original novel, containing close to six hundred thousand words, was so vast as to be virtually unpublishable, particularly during a wartime paper shortage. It was in this form, however, a manuscript contained in seven thick spring binders, too heavy for me to carry by myself, that it was accepted by the publishers.
- Sylvia Wright Mitarachi, 'Afterword.' In Austin Tappan Wright. Islandia. Ed. Mark Saxton, Margaret Garrad Wright & Sylvia Wright. 1942. Introduction by John Silbersack (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2001): 1015.

So what got left out? Sylvia Wright goes on:
With the intelligent and sensitive help of Mark Saxton, then an editor of Farrar & Rhinehart, I cut the [twenty-three hundred pages of the] original novel by about a third. This is its form today. As I indicated in a note in the original edition, my father knew the exact lineaments of every scene John Lang saw, down to its geological causes, and enjoyed describing such things. Much of the cutting was of this sort of leisurely observation. Also, as Mr. Basil Davenport pointed out in his essay on the Islandia papers, published as a companion volume to the novel, my father's writing became more succinctly his own as he went on. The bulk of the cutting, therefore, was in the early part of the book. [1016]

Austin Tappan Wright: Islandia (2006)

It seems rather a pity that the decision was taken to include this essay by Basil Davenport as part of the original publication, rather than more of the ancillary papers associated with the novel itself:
My father knew the country so well because he had considered it and travelled around it in so many guises. In one, he constructed its history, a scholarly work entitled Islandia: History and Description, by M. Jean Perier, whom readers of the novel will recognize as the first French consul to Islandia.
This document, of about 135,000 words, is the major part of the remainder of the unpublished Islandia papers. In addition, there are a large number of appendices to the history, including a glossary of the Islandian language; a bibliography; several tables of population; a gazeteer of the provinces with a history of each; tables of viceroys, judges, premiers, etc.; a complete historical peerage; notes of the calendar and climate; and a few specimens of Islandian literature. There are also nineteen maps, one geological. To use Leonard Bacon's phrase from the introduction he wrote to the first publication, here one discovers, 'the very Devonian outcrop of Never Never country.' [1016]

John K. Wright: Map of Islandia

So what is the book itself like? That phrase 'never never country,' with its echoes of J. M. Barrie's Peter Pan, implies a kind of fantasy world, with fairies and elves and other mythological trappings. Nothing could be further from the truth. Islandia is a fully fleshed-out, realistic fantasy world with politics, history, and - above all - human relationships to the fore.

Ursula K. Le Guin, a big fan of the book, once wrote that she and her family was Islandia-philes in the same way as a later generation would be Tolkien-freaks. They quoted from it, argued over details, and generally lived through its pages.

So, it seems, did the entire Wright family. Austin's brother John, a professional geographer, contributed the splendid topographical map pictured above to the enterprise, and his daughter Sylvia recalls it having been an inextricable part of her childhood:
We always knew about Islandia, although apparently my father did not talk very much about it outside the family. We had ideas of what it looked like, from comments like, 'This view looks like Islandia.' Our boat was called Aspara, the Islandian word for seagull. [1019-20]
It's in this same section of her afterword that she explains how the word should be pronounced: 'Aye-landia' - rather than 'Iz-landia' or 'Ee-landia':
My father originated Islandia as 'my island' when he was a boy. This is why the name is the only exception to the rule that there are no silent letters in the Islandian language.

Interestingly, this genre of imaginary Islandian landscapes appears to be alive and well in the alternate Never-never world of Facebook. There are a number of pages devoted to the subject (though it is quite easy to confuse it with Ísland, Íslendingur - Iceland, Icelandic - especially when Islandia happens to be the word for "Iceland" in Spanish and various other languages).

It's important to emphasise the slightly ponderous - though very serviceable - nature of Wright's plotting and prose generally. Islandia is a perfectly readable novel, though its interests are not quite those of the 1920s, when it was written.

It bears only a slight resemblance to a work such as outsider artist Henry Darger's 15,000 page magnum opus The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Darger's work is unpublished, and will probably remain so, though extracts have appeared in various catalogues as well as in Jessica Yu's wonderful 2004 documentary about his life, also entitled (what else?) In the Realms of the Unreal.

A great deal of Wright's text, by contrast, is devoted to a rather wistful, Edwardian-flavoured exploration of the nature of love, which the Islandians divide into four separate concepts:
  1. alia: love of place and family land and lineage
  2. amia: love of friends
  3. ania: desire for marriage and commitment
  4. apia: sexual attraction
John Lang, the hero, experiences all of these in the course of the narrative, and it is this aspect of the book which is referred to specifically in Ursula Le Guin's almost equally ambitious fantasy work Always Coming Home (1985), devoted to the future anthropology of the Kesh, inhabitants of the land now known as Northern California (and now available in an expanded, 'definitive' edition through the Library of America):

Ursula K. Le Guin: Always Coming Home (1985 / 2019)

Curiously enough, Islandia is not really set on an island - in the strictest sense of the term, at any rate. The country of Islandia is merely the tip of the immense 'semi-continent' of Karain, whose location is as elusive as that of the lost continent of Atlantis.

Johnny Pez: Karain Continent, 1907 (2006)

Sylvia Wright (as usual) sums up the evidence judiciously, if inconclusively:
Elmer Davis, and other writers, decided that Islandia is in the South Pacific. Both Lang and Perier assume that everyone knows where the country is, so neither mentions latitude and longitude. M. Perier does say, however, that the Karain subcontinent is not on the Spanish side of the Pope's line, which I have been told by so eminent an authority as Dr. John K. Wright, former head of the American Geographical Society, means that Islandia cannot be in the Pacific proper. Dr. Wright has studied the situation. He also feels that the Atlantic is too crowded.

For those of you unfamiliar with the expression, the 'Pope's line' refers to an imaginary line drawn by Pope Alessandro Borgia in 1493 (and subsequently shifted slightly in 1494) which divided up the entire world into (respectively) the Spanish and Portuguese spheres of interest.

The idea was to keep the Spanish out of the Portuguese discoveries in the far East, and the Portuguese out of the Spanish discoveries in the Americas. However, as you'll observe, the existence of one Portuguese-speaking country in Latin America - Brazil - is due largely to this shifting of the lines. Moreover, as you'll see from the image below, any line drawn on a sphere such as the earth must come, literally, full circle, so considerable latitude for debate remained even after this apparently 'definitive' decision had been reached.

There's an indescribable atmosphere to the slow unfolding of Wright's long tale which makes it immensely beguiling to read. I'm on my second run-through myself, and am finding it quite as attractive as the first time round. What's more, I'm fascinated to discover that the entire text is finally available online, through the good offices of Harvard University Library.

Here's what you'll see if you click on the link above. You can (if you wish) read the typescript of the entire novel there, without the 1942 cuts, as well as examining in detail the text of M. Jean Perier's comprehensive guidebook Islandia: History and Description.

Like all utopias, however, Wright's has its fly in the ointment. Isolationist Islandia is unquestionably dominated by white people. The 'natives' to the south are regarded by the Islandians with a certain disdain (not unmixed with fear). As described, in fact, the continent of Karain sounds a lot more like South Africa than, say, Australia, with which it would otherwise tempting to identify it.

Is it a racist state? Certainly it betrays many of the characteristics of its era. Wright describes the 'blacks' and 'mulattos' who surround Islandia with the patronising attitudes of his time. He is, moreover, careful to make it clear that the people he is interested in originated somewhere in Northern Europe. They sound quite a bit like Icelanders, in fact - stubbornly independent and proudly different - albeit displaced from the North to the South of the globe.

Hard though he tries to sideline it, this is one of the features of his work which makes it difficult for me to embrace it quite so wholeheartedly as Ursula Le Guin and all of its other fans. It also explains why this constitutes only part one of my consideration of Islomania.

In part two I'd like to look further - at the risk of being accused of reductionism - into this political dimension of such 'pure' creations of the imagination. It is with a certain discomfort that many New Zealanders, myself included, have observed the conscious transformation of our country into an ersatz simulacrum of Tolkien's Middle-earth over the last couple of decades. The fact that so many Māori were cast as Orcs (albeit with a leavening of whining Dickensian cockneys), while the Elvish roles were reserved for willowy Europeans, was, to say the least, a trifle disconcerting.

Let's not romanticise this island-mania too much, then. One of the important points about islands is that they are more easily policed and kept under control than other parts of the earth - witness the infamous rounding-up of the aboriginal population of Tasmania: a pointless enterprise in other parts of that vast, turbulent continent.

The Celtic New Zealand hpothesis does not exist in a vaccuum. Many of us would like to rewrite the history of our world to our own satisfaction, leaving certain key aspects out - islomania, in its more extreme forms, could be seen to lend itself awfully easily to ethnic cleansing ...

For the moment, though, I would like to emphasise the immense charm and complexity of Wright's Islandia. Little could be said to happen in the novel, but then it exists really to provide a setting for his own sense of displacement and Heimweh: that belief we all share that there is a true home for us, somewhere, if only we could find it - if not in the real world, than in memory, or (better) still, the realms of the imagination.

That, it seems to me, is at the heart of this thing called Islomania.

Ursula K. Le Guin: Always Coming Home (1985)