Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Islomanes (3): Elizabeth Knox's Mortal Fire

Elizabeth Knox: Mortal Fire (2013)

People often accuse me of taking a perverse angle on the texts I write about. I recall composing an essay on Angela Carter's wonderful novel The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman which was devoted almost entirely to the question of whether or not the book was set in South America.

This essay (eventually) formed part of my Doctoral thesis, and I recall my supervisor, Colin Manlove, saying two things in response to it:
  1. What a wonderful book!
  2. What a bizarre and reductionist approach to take to it!
In a sense I agreed with him, but given the thesis was about the various imaginative spins European writers had put on their own pet images of an increasingly imaginary continent they called 'South America,' the emphasis did seem an inevitable one. And it did allow me, contextually, to say a lot of other things about the novel as well.

Elizabeth Knox: Black Oxen (2001)

Elizabeth Knox has already written her own Latin American epos, Black Oxen. In this post, though, I'll be continuing my reflections on Southland, her close-cousin-to-New-Zealand, albeit in a parallel time-line, mainly because she wrote another book set there, Mortal Fire, a few years after completing the Dreamhunter Duet.

I began my previous post on the subject with a quote, as follows:
Southland is a landmass without a native people, so there are not songs or legends for us to consult.
This statement is not so much contradicted, as supplemented, towards the end of this new excursion to Southland, Mortal Fire:
'University isn't for us, eh.'
Jonno said ... 'If I get the job I'll be the first person from my family to go north in five hundred years.'
Jonno's 'five hundred years' made Canny forgive his 'not for us' remark. 'I love it that you can say that,' she said.
'You know, we all read your brother's book.'
'Your family?'
'Nope. All of us.'
He meant the Faesu, the people of the archipelago, Southland's first people, who had twice settled, and twice abandoned, the mainland. [412]
The 'book' mentioned here is by Canny's brother Sholto - a restatement of his undergraduate essay about Southland, which I quote from further down. For the moment, though, let's just look at Knox's map of that 'mainland' again:

Elizabeth Knox: Southland (2013)

It seems, then, that Southland did once have an indigenous race, who 'twice settled, and twice abandoned' their lands. Why, one is tempted to ask? To clear them for white settlement?

Quite a few new parts of Southland's history are filled in in this new book, in various not too unsubtle versions of the old 'So tell me Professor, what did happen in the ...?' 'Well, my boy, I'm glad you asked me that. It was in the early -- hundreds that ...' trope so beloved of genre novelists generally.

Here's one example:
Ghislain took a breath and began: 'The Zarenes were one of the five Elprun families who ended their long wandering in Southland. The island of Elprus was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in - do you know this?'
'And the people of Elprus arrived in Southland?'
'1730. I'm good at dates. Sholto is always telling me snootily that history isn't all dates.'
'No, it's currants and raisins too.' [270]
Mortal Fire is yet another of Knox's magical tales, based on yet another of the five Elprun families who caused all the trouble in Dreamhunter. Then it was the Haims; this time it's the Zarenes. The common feature in their magic, though, is the fact that it all stems in one way or another from the powerful supernatural forces unleashed by the raising of Lazarus in the New Testament.

Christ's raising of Lazarus (12th-13th century CE)

I was actually asked to review Knox's book when it first came out, in 2013. It was frustrating to have so little space to discuss it, so I had to content myself with a few generalities on that occasion, but I do hope that I was able to make it clear just how much I admired the skill with which she managed her narrative, as well-populated with ideas as it was with people:
There was a time when I used to wait eagerly for each new Young Adult novel by Margaret Mahy. Starting with The Haunting in 1982, she had an extraordinary run of success in this very exigent genre. Come to think of it, there was a time before that when I used to read Maurice Gee’s Halfmen of O series with something of the same feelings of fascination and awe.

I don’t know what Elizabeth Knox’s future plans include (perhaps she doesn’t either), but I have to say that I would be very sorry indeed if she stopped publishing teenage fantasy novels such as Mortal Fire (and its predecessors, the Dreamhunter Duet, also set in her imaginary republic of Southland). I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that her books are every bit as good as Mahy’s and Gee’s, but with an extra edge and sophistication belonging solely to her.

That’s not to say that Mortal Fire is easy to read. In fact, there were moments in the first couple of chapters where I found it quite hard to assimilate the sheer weight of information she throws at her reader. Once the story really gets going, though, with Canny Mochrie and her step-brother Sholto’s arrival in the Zarene valley, any such obstacles melt away. This is not a book which could ever be exhausted on one run-through, though.

For myself, I like a bit of a tussle with ethical responsibilities in the dreamworlds of fantasy, and Mortal Fire does not disappoint in this respect. It’s hard to imagine any other New Zealand writer so adroitly mixing a plotline based on the Pike River Mine disaster into the rest of her narrative (though I suppose one might have anticipated it from her use of the Cave Creek disaster in her previous adult fantasy novel Daylight).

Southland is a useful palimpsest for Knox: a new land which can be overlaid with just enough of the actual history of New Zealand to make it relevant to the specific aspects of our culture she wants to examine, but which is also “fictional” enough to combine them with the powerful symbolic realms of magic which interest her just as much.

She does, after all, at the end of the day, have the central duty of constructing an interesting story. And this one adds race and class prejudice to the starker issues of crime and punishment from the Dreamhunter Duet. It’s worth emphasising, though, that this novel can be read and enjoyed without any knowledge of the earlier books. It is, after all, set fifty years after the events in those stories, referred to only in passing towards the end of Mortal Fire.
- Jack Ross: "Wearing their ethics on their sleeves." NZ Books: A Quarterly Review vol. 23, no. 3, issue 103 (Spring 2013): 16-17.

NZ Books 103 (Spring 2013)

I'm sorry that it's taken me this long to get round to saying some more about that 'useful palimpsest' - Knox's choice of:
a new land which can be overlaid with just enough of the actual history of New Zealand to make it relevant to the specific aspects of our culture she wants to examine, but which is also 'fictional' enough to combine them with the powerful symbolic realms of magic which interest her just as much.
One advantage of the wait, however, is that she's now made her own statement about the novel, on her author's website, which is also where I borrowed the map of Southland (above) from:

Grant Maiden: Elizabeth Knox

David Larsen, interviewing me for The Listener, wanted to know why I’d set the book in 1959. It’s a big decision with a huge input into the flavour of the book, but it was one I came to kind of expediently – although very happily. I’d decided one of the defining characteristics of my protagonist, Canny, was that she had a mother who was a heroine. And that Sisema was the kind of heroine who becomes more celebrated as time goes on, because her story is one that her Nation’s identity is forming around. I decided that this would work best if Sisema was a war hero. That immediately led me to World War Two and a Pacific island occupied by Japan. I’m not going to tell Sisema’s war story here, but this decision gave me a possible date for Canny’s birth. I wanted to write about a sixteen-year-old, and my addition gave me the year 1959. To my amused exasperation one mostly very positive review on Goodreads worries that Canny sounds “young for her age compared to US teenagers I know”. Perhaps – the reviewer writes – that’s because she comes from this New Zealand-like place and maybe teens grow up slower there. And I’m reading this and going like, “Um – it’s 1959.”

Beekeeping. I wanted to set my story in a pastoral paradise. The Zarene Valley is kind of based on valleys now beneath Lake Dunstan. Those now-drowned valleys circa 1981, when I was down there with my sister and some friends (touring about in a 1957 Plymouth station wagon). Back then there were no vineyards, and more kiwi holidaymakers than tourists. 1981 is pretty much equidistant from 1959 and 2013, but it was more like 1959. Also I felt that I was in some ways writing the book for my editor, Frances Foster. I was thinking of her as a first reader. And I remembered how, when I met Frances at the Disney Convention Centre in 2008, when I was there for the American Library Association Conference, she told me about being a child visiting her grandparents’ farm in Anaheim, back before Disneyland bought up all the land. I remember her description of the pastoral paradise now under the theme park and hotels and highways. So – old Anaheim, and the apricot orchards under Lake Dunstan, are what made the Zarene Valley.
- Elizabeth Knox: "Letting in the Ghosts: Why certain things are in Mortal Fire." Elizabeth Knox: Author's Website (c. June 2013)

Lake Dunstan (2018)

I think that I might have guessed that detail about the lost orchards around Cromwell, along with that still contentious dam on the Clutha river, but for the most part I'm struck by how sedulously she sticks to personal details, and how little she gives away about the larger questions behind the novel ...

Why, for instance, has Southland now been supplied with a native race, and even an island protectorates off in the Pacific?
Cyrus said to Sholto, 'But she's not your sister, is she?'
'She's my stepsister.'
Canny's mother is Sisema Afa,' Susan said. 'The war hero.'
'So she's not a Southlander?'
The young man looked irritated. 'The Shackles are a protectorate of Southland.'
Cyrus thought, 'Any minute now he'll accuse me of bigotry.'
'Shackle islanders have citizenship,' Sholto went on, then added, 'whether you like it or not.'
Cyrus laughed. 'I didn't mean any offense. I was only curious. I hope my amateur curiosity is acceptable to you, as opposed to your professional one.' [213]

Margaret Mahy: Kaitangata Twitch (2005)

It's interesting, too, that Knox should choose to employ a brown-skinned rather than a white-skinned heroine this time - a little like the TV producers of Margaret Mahy's Kaitangata Twist, who changed its originally white heroine for a Māori Meredith instead.

Margaret Mahy: Kaitangata Twitch (2010)

That may sound like mere tokenism, but I have to say that the substitution immediately made better sense of Mahy's story - and it's now hard to imagine the narrative any other way. The TV Meredith's motivation is far easier to understand than that of her novelistic counterpart.

Is the same true of Knox's narrative? It's hard to say. I do feel that she must have feared some co-option of her stories by 'Celtic New Zealand' fanatics if she didn't acknowledge this gap in the first two novels - so seized the opportunity to elaborate creatively on the larger Oceanic context of her imaginary island in this way. After all, any version of New Zealand without Māori is a little difficult to justify ...
'Yes,' Sholto said. He knew that the [Lazuli] dam was first planned in the mid-1920s. If it had been built it would have flooded the Zarene Valley and drowned all the orchards. The plans were shelved after the stock market crash, resurrected in 1938, and shelved again when Southland went to war in 1941. [179]
Why, too, did Southland go to war in 1941 rather than in 1939? The rest of the dates here sound reasonably compatible with those in our own 'real' world. Presumably it must have been because Southland is a republic, not a monarchy, and therefore affiliates more naturally with the United States than the United Kingdom.
Calvary was the only sizable town on the Shackle Island chain ... The Shackle Islands produced sugar and, lately, copper. The islands were peopled by their original inhabitants, the Ma'eu; by the descendants of cane cutters brought to the island by blackbirders in the late eighteenth century; and by the descendants of colonial settlers, most of whom had originally come from Southland. [49]
The Pacific paradise of the Shackle Islands has experienced far less of a 'fatal impact' than the real Polynesian islands on which it's presumably based, but I suppose the essence of a parallel time-stream is that you can alter the dates of events, and thus alter their consequences.

Elizabeth Knox: Dreamhunter (2005)

Perhaps the most vital change is expressed by Canny's would-be-historian brother Sholto, in his own overarching theory of Southland:
'He was a dreamhunter!' said Sholto.
'Ranger,' said the barber. 'He was making photographic landmark maps for the Dream Regulatory Body.'
The silence of loss came into the room.
As an undergraduate Sholto had once tried to write an essay about this. The Professor said that it was very interesting, but was Sholto trying to invent a new kind of history? One without historical references and facts? Sholto's essay argued something like this: Southland was a big country, with a population that was sufficiently large but not too large; with industry and a wealth of minerals, with scientifically developed agriculture, good roads, and rail, three deepwater harbors, some fine universities - so why wasn't it more of a player on the world stage? Sholto's answer to his essay's question was that Southlanders were in a sense a sad and defeated people. They were people who had once lived in a beautiful house, which had burned down ... Southlanders had had something irreplaceable - the Place, a mysterious territory where some could go and catch dreams that they could perform for others - they had that miraculous thing, and they lost it.

Am I wrong to hear in this thesis of Sholto's about the 'silence of loss' in Southland culture a distant echo of such portentous 'whither Aotearoa?' essays as Monte Holcroft's The Waiting Hills (1943) or even, perhaps more plausibly, Bill Pearson's classic 'Fretful Sleepers' (1952)?

Paul Millar: No Fretful Sleeper (2010)

Some sense of isolation is inevitable, some detachment and discrimination, but that is the occupational hazard of every artists and especially of the novelist who must always be, so long as there are conflicts within his society, something of a spy in enemy territory. The thing to avoid is developing one’s isolation because that way lies desiccation, etiolation, clique-writing that will get yellow in manuscript and deserve to. Emigration is no solution, even for the novelist or dramatist to whom ideas are more important than sense-impressions. There is stimulation at first, a sense of expansion – but in England the artist’s loneliness that we have known longer is beginning to be felt, and publishing, because of rearmament and American stockpiling of paper, is getting costly and difficult, and liberties of thought are slipping away too. But after the stimulation you will dry up: you can neither feel completely at home in your adopted country, not enough to write deeply of it, nor can you write of your own country except through a mist of nostalgia and unappeased resentments. We New Zealanders have far less in common with the English middle classes than we may think and at best they will patronize us and emasculate us. We could no more lose our national habits if we were to try, than we could, if we wanted to, disguise our kiwi twang. Our accent stands out a mile and the time will come when so does the accent of our literature, but not before we have a social system that makes possible the meaningful liberation of the talents and energies of the common people. Until then there is hard work to be done, there are quiet mortifications to be suffered, humiliations and misunderstandings to be put up with, and yet one will meet a lot of cheerfulness to ease the effort.

Bill Pearson: Fretful Sleepers and Other Essays (1974)

We're doomed to be Kiwis, in other words - so we'd better get used to it, and try to do a good job.

To conclude, then, what is Elizabeth Knox's 'Southland' trilogy really about? Many things, certainly - state oppression; the responsibilities underlying fantasy, the free flow of the imagination; class; families, magic; bees; ice-cream ... There are lovely evocations of her mirror versions of actual New Zealand cities - Castlereagh / Wellington, for instance:
Castlereagh was all hills, ridges around the harbor, and steep-sided valleys where the desirable houses were built up high to catch either the morning or the afternoon sun. Much of the inner city dated from the time when cars were rare, so roads were narrow and steep and many lacked footpaths. Instead there were dozens of ... official and unofficial shortcuts, steps and paths, some with safety rails, some without. The citizens of Castlereagh had strong hearts and big calf muscles. [34]
Predictably, Founderston / Auckland is rather further from the reality of our own garish Big Smoke.

Unlike Elizabeth Knox, Austin Tappan Wright did not live to write any sequels to his own vision of Islandia in the mid-1900s. This deficiency was partially made up for, however, by the editor of his novel, Mark Saxton:
There are also three sequels/prequels ... Reviewers describe these books as entertaining and self-contained. The prequels concern events that are mentioned briefly in the original novel, and are likely based on Wright's unpublished notes. All three books were published with the permission of Wright's estate. Sylvia Wright, Wright's daughter and the executrix of the estate, died shortly before the third Saxton book was completed, and there have been no additional books since.
  • The Islar, Islandia Today - A Narrative of Lang III. Published in 1969, this book is set in the then-present day. The plot concerns a coup attempt in Islandia that occurs while the national government is debating whether to join the United Nations. The protagonist, as indicated in the title, is John Lang's grandson.
  • The Two Kingdoms, published in 1979, is a prequel set in the 14th century. The plot concerns the events surrounding the reign of the only female ruler in Islandian history, and the dynastic change that ensued from this.
  • Havoc in Islandia, published in 1982, is yet another prequel, set in the 12th century. The Roman Catholic Church attempts to overthrow the government of Islandia, and, having failed, is itself expelled from the country (parallel to the expulsion of Christians from Japan).

Athanasius Kircher: Mundus Subterraneus (1669))

It must be very difficult to leave behind any imaginary kingdom so fully formed as these two are (as Plato must have discovered, when he kept on returning to his original inspiration in the successive, not really fully consistent, dialogues Timaeus, Critias and the unfinished Hermocrates).

J. R. R Tolkien, too, at one point in his unending struggles with the unfinished (unfinishable?) Silmarilion, started to draft a sequel to the Lord of the Rings where the rebellious youth of Gondor had developed a fashion of dressing up as Orcs and fetishising the vanished Dark Lord, rather like the skinheads and Neo-Nazis of his own time.

Elizabeth Knox: The Absolute Book (2019)

I haven't been privileged (this time) to see an advance copy of Knox's new novel, The Absolute Book, due out from VUP in September this year, but judging from the blurb description of it as:
a book of journeys and returns, set in London, Norfolk, and the Wye Valley; in Auckland, New Zealand; in the Island of Apples and Summer Road of the Sidhe; at Hell’s Gate; in the Tacit with its tombs; and in the hospitals and train stations of Purgatory.
it's pretty safe to say that she's managed to break free of her own island paradise - for now, at least - though possibly at the expense of an even more perilous sojourn in the Forbidden Realms of Faerie.

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. Greene, Graham. No Man's Land. Foreword by David Lodge. Ed. James Sexton. Hesperus Modern Voices. Hesperus Classics. London: Hesperus Press Ltd., 2005.

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

    Short Stories:

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

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

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

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

  35. Greene, Graham. The Complete Short Stories. 1954, 1963, 1967, 1990. Introduction by Pico Iyer. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2005.

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


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

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

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

  40. Graham Greene: Getting to Know the General (1984)


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

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

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

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

  45. Graham Greene: Collected Plays (1985)


  46. 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.

  47. 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.

  48. 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.

  49. Graham Greene: Collected Essays (1969)

    Miscellaneous Prose:

  50. Greene, Graham, ed. The Old School: Essays by Divers Hands. 1934. Oxford Paperbacks. London: Oxford University Press, 1984.

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

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

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

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

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

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

  57. Greene, Graham. Reflections. Ed. Judith Adamson. London: Reinhardt Books, 1990.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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