30 June (in transit – Seoul)
I read Henry James ‘The Private Life’ which at once made me think of writing a fiction by a Jamesian (i.e. sort of defeated) narrator about a ‘great’ writer, who might be based on Curnow?
Thought of them finding themselves in adjacent business-class seats and not able to avoid talking though both (and especially the great writer) are reluctant. Reflection in the mind of the narrator about modern technology – that the air temp outside would be about minus 50C and the ground speed around 600 MPH and they are sitting in reasonable comfort eating fancy meals and drinking wine. (And the contrast with KM’s travel – not to think of Dickens’.) He probably thinks this but suspects the G.M. would consider it banal.
The James story is about a great painter whose public manner is so wonderful it is like a work of art, but the narrator suspects there is no one behind it – no private personality. And a great writer (based on Browning) whose conversation is so predictable and ordinary the narrator suspects there must be another writerly self who does the wonderful works. He investigates this idea with another member of their group, an actress, and between them they establish the truth of his theory. When the painter is not in company he vanishes – doesn’t exist. And when the writer is being banal and ordinary in company, in his room there is another self that is writing the great work he’s capable of.
We have arrived in London to find the British political scene in melt-down over the Brexit vote. Cameron who wanted ‘Remain’ [i.e. in the EU] to win has resigned as PM. Boris Johnson who led the ‘Leave’ campaign and is credited with its success now says, a day later, that he won’t stand for PM – though he was confidently expected to replace Cameron. It’s said that though he led the Leave campaign he didn’t expect it to win and is now dismayed that it has. Meanwhile the Labour shadow cabinet have been resigning one by one, asking Jeremy Corbyn to resign, so they can have a new leader with a reasonable chance of winning an election. Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, who always appears Hitler-style with three or four henchmen just a step or two in the rear, has made a crowing, insulting speech in the European Parliament – ‘When I came here and said I hoped to lead Britain out of Europe, you laughed at me. You’re not laughing now, are you?’ And worse: ‘I know none of you have ever had a proper job or run a business...’
The Scots voted to Remain and now their first Minister is saying there will have to be another referendum on Scottish Independence. The Northern Irish also voted Remain, wanting to keep their open border with the South – so what does that mean for the future of Ireland? The Union of the flag we voted to keep in New Zealand may be breaking up.
And in the European Cup England was beaten by Iceland, a country of fewer than 1 million people!
And now Farage has resigned as the leader of Ukip. It’s not clear why. Is he, as Johnson seems to be, dismayed by the fact of the Brexit they’ve brought about, and afraid of taking responsibility for the consequences.
The Tory leadership contest has narrowed to two women and one man, May, Leadsom and Gove, with May the likely winner. Labour is still in disarray, with Corbyn refusing to resign because he believes he still has the support of the Party at large who elected him against the wishes of the majority of MPs.
And meanwhile the centennial of the Battle of the Somme has been marked. Twenty thousand British dead on the first day, and a million on both sides before it was over.
Today after seven years the Chilcott enquiry into the British commitment to the Iraq war is released. Tony Blair is blamed for going along with Bush – ‘I am with you, whatever.’ False intelligence about WMDs, lack of proper consultation with Cabinet, misleading Parliament and public, lack of planning for what was to follow, etc. The chaos in Iraq continues – more than 200 killed today in a suicide bombing. Strange that it has taken 7 years and more than 2 million words to reach conclusions which were apparent to the protesters at the time. I’ve bought the text, and am reading now, a play by a Journalist, Sarah Helm, who was married to Tony Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathon Powell. She heard, or overheard, it all at close quarters while it was happening – including embarrassing phone conversations between Bush and Blair, congratulating one another on things like ‘body language’ and ‘courage’. All this makes me conscious what a good and pertinent novel Risk was, combining the lying lead-up to the war, and the banking collapse that followed a few years later.
7 July (at 4am)
My brother is a number
and so is my cousin
and my cousin’s cousin
and so too am I
one of a number
twenty thousand on the first day
on both sides
a million –
We are the dead
whose glory they say
will live in stone
and outlast brass.
Blair is now in full exculpatory mode. Says if he were in the same position now and with the same information he would make the same decision – war side-by-side with Bush. There’s a sense in which that’s true I suppose – and once again he would be doing something wrong – illegal, immoral, irresponsible, egotistical, disastrous in its effects and inexcusable.
So for the moment attention switches to Iraq and the Brexit is set aside. But the Tory leadership battle continues and May looks the likely winner. And then what?
Last night we went to Jenufa by Janacek at the ENO. I loved it – found the music delightfully unfamiliar (very unusual these days when one has heard so much of the standard classical repertoire so often) and powerful. But a jet-lag shut-down intervened and I slept about ten minutes in the middle, recovering for the (musically very grand and beautiful) ending – a happy end as it happens.
London is my other city – my second favourite after Auckland, and it’s lovely to be here in full summer when the trees in the parks are so opulent. Last night we ate at what is now Goodenough College (formally London House) for old time’s sake, not in the Great Hall but Freddie’s Bar which is new to me – a surprisingly tolerable meal. I have many fond memories of Mecklenburgh Square, both of being here with Kay and the kids when they were small, and very often alone when I was on my travels (as in ‘Yes T.S.’ for example). Last night I found a copy of The Death of the Body in the Goodenough Library, signed it and wrote in it ‘This novel was written in London House’ – which is partly true. From the street I can still pick out the second floor room where I wrote it, and the little balcony I used as my refrigerator as the winter came on.
Today we fly to Nice and take the bus along to Menton – another favourite town with many memories, especially of the family and the KM Fellowship year (1972) since when we’ve all visited when possible, alone or together.
A nice meal on the waterfront in conversation with a couple from Michigan (he English, she Californian). One thing I forgot to record re Jenufa at the ENO is that they had a woman at the side of the stage, but conspicuous, signing! Not singing but signing – like not waving but drowning. (A poem there?) How many profoundly deaf people attend opera – and why would they? And if they do, there are surtitles, so no need for signing. At the end the signer takes a bow with the singers – the whole thing is dotty, unnecessary, pointless, distracting – a case of what Barry Humphries calls ‘the tyranny of the disabled’. (I’m reminded of a hideous ramp that has appeared at the Princes Street entrance of Auckland University. I can’t believe there are not better and less aesthetically egregious ways of making access available to wheelchairs.)
We’ve now been in Menton for most of a week, ‘doing usual’ – eating walking reading swimming. It’s of course hot and crowded and for us both, full of moments which are experienced for themselves and for the echo they bring of near or distant pasts. Theresa May is the New British PM; British Labour is in melt-down mode; Brexit seems for the moment confirmed with no easy escape and perhaps not even a hard one. There is much dismay about it as well as much celebration. A message from the new President of St John’s College Oxford is full of dismay and unconvincing reassurances that nothing will change. Andy Murray has won Wimbledon giving Brits something to cheer and celebrate despite the fact that he is such an ill-favoured dour un-charming champion. (It wouldn’t be so bad if he didn’t do those clenched fist triumphal grimaces when he plays a winning shot. They are a cliché in themselves, and singularly ugly.) His declining to dance with Serena Williams (women’s champ) at the Champions’ Ball was inexcusable even if he’s not a dancer – he could have tried for a few steps, surely. We were here in France for the final of the European Cup (‘le foot’) in which Portugal beat France, 1-nil in extra time. The nation was ready to celebrate but the occasion failed it. We’ve been along to the French – Italian border just beyond Garavan where a year ago we saw would-be immigrants camped on the rocks. This time there are none. What has become of them? There are now armed guards, French and Italian, scanning passing cars but no sign of the problems of a year ago when the border crossers were being scooped up by French police and driven back over the border. No news of NZ and no doubt that’s good news. Time for dinner – paella tonight, I think.
Last night at midnight the sky exploded for France’s national day. We had just finished watching Madame Butterfly on TV. Today has been relatively quiet, with just a few army jeeps with military personnel in front and pretty, cheering girls with flags in the back. Very informal compared to the British way of celebrating such nothings. The Daily Telegraph reports Theresa May’s ringing speech from the steps of number 10. Let’s hope she means it and didn’t have her fingers crossed – promising a more humane Toryism that will put the needs of the poor and disadvantaged first. Hard to believe, but one has to hope while Labour continues in unelectable disarray. We took a last walk around Garavan and back by the Raccourci des Colombieres and the upper Boulevard, recalling old times, especially 1972 when we were here with 3 small children. I keep seeing good apartments at prices which are reasonably cheap compared with New Zealand (and especially Auckland) at the moment. It would be great if the Government could be persuaded to buy one now. They would get a bargain. That would put the Menton Fellowship on its feet, because a large part of the cost of living here is the rent. I remember that when Michael Bassett was of a mind to do something for writers, one of the thoughts he had was of buying Isola Bella, which contains the KM Memorial Room. He was put off by a report which suggested the structure was unstable – though it must have been repaired since and looks very safe and secure now. So he settled for the London flat, with the terrible consequences we can all look back on, some with anger and regret, many of the writing community I hope with shame.
Now in Paris after escaping from Nice that had been rocked by an attack by a disaffected local Tunisian who it seems simply used a large truck to drive through crowds of July 14th revellers killing at least 84 (including 10 children) and leaving about 100 more wounded. The town and the whole country are rocked, but Nice seemed to carry on pretty much as normal. What else is there to do? We are now in the region of the Panthéon and the church of St Etienne du Mont – the Quartier Latin. (Silly thought for the day: keep your Panthéon unless you’re a Sans-culottes.)
In Menton, lacking something in English to read, I bought The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee, whose novels have somehow passed me by, and to which I was drawn because I have written my own version of that childhood in the novel My name was Judas. Coetzee is the man who has twice won the Booker, and then the Nobel for literature, and this must be one of the worst, most banal, flat-footed, boring, contrived and unconvincing narratives I’ve ever read. If I had it for review I wouldn’t know what to say about it other than that it’s a bad novel, a rubbish novel, only in print and promoted because, by some magic (or has he suddenly declined from genius?) its author is famous. It’s a sort of parable; and one can watch the author staggering from one ‘say we do this’ to the next, with very little thought of consistency, but with one central idea, and perhaps at the same time, the thought of the current influx of migrants into Europe. So the boy, given on arrival the name David, comes from ‘another life’ which everyone must leave behind, bringing no memories with them, and is looked after by Simon, who is convinced he must find David’s mother. This he thinks he does, recognizing her when he sees her on the tennis court. What follows is a gradual revelation of ‘David’s’ miraculous status as the future Messiah – and what a pain in the neck the child is! One oddity is that it appears the novel must first have been written without giving ‘Simon’ a name, so the guardian figure must have been throughout simply ‘he’ and ‘him’. But there are numbers of male characters and much dialogue, so the further it went on, the more confusing it must have become which character any one ‘he’ or ‘him’ must point to. I imagine copy editors pleading with the great man that this had to change; so he was prevailed upon, but only to the point of indicating when the ‘he’ is Simon and not another. Consequently there are many (innumerable) sentences which begin ‘he, Simon’ did such-and-such.
I must read something else by Coetzee; but if the others are not immeasurably better he might be one of world of literature’s greatest examples ever of the Emperor who has no clothes.
Today we leave Paris. Wanting to read something in English I took a falling-apart copy of Hemingway’s The Sun also Rises (a.k.a. Fiesta) and was surprised (but not really, or not altogether) to discover that despite the ErnHem bullsh, manifest almost from the first page, there is a wonderful freshness about the prose which explains his effect at the time, still persisting in the 1950s when we first read him – though I also remember The old man and the sea, which was said to have won him the Nobel Prize in the 1950s, and what a disappointment that was. But he wrote his best work in this quarter of Paris, and there are references to the streets and squares around Cardinale Lemoine, this hotel’s street, which has a plaque saying he lived and wrote here around 1922-23. So that’s my reading for the moment. It will soon take me off (as I recall from long ago) to Spain, and wineskins, and bullfights and bullshit. It’s an interesting (and surprising) plot device to have a narrator who’s impotent, the consequence of a war wound. It makes it possible to have a lot of protracted frustrated love between Jake and Brett without the reader asking ‘Why don’t they get on with it?’ A novel idea with a Jamesian effect, but modern in that there’s no Jamesian social-and/or-literary reason why sex shouldn’t happen. Surprising because you would think ErnHem would be afraid people would think he must be impotent. How is this resolved? I’ve forgotten and will read on.
– C.K. Stead
Postscript – The Signer
Not singing but signing
with subtle hands and mobile features she makes
something of nothing and a song of silence.