Journal: July-August

29 July

We saw A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe on the South Bank and I reacted to it in a way not dissimilar to the reaction I described in an earlier blog to Twelfth Night at Auckland’s pop-up Globe. Once again there was too much directorial input, at the expense of Shakespeare – a big disappointment because the Globe (the London one) productions, when they were under the direction of Mark Rylance, had been first rate and had made me feel nearer than ever before to the reality of the work as it must have appeared to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. One thing that I found particularly irritating was that Helena had become Helenus, and since Demetrius falls in Love with Helena this became gay love – very fashionable but not what Shakespeare wrote. And ‘Bottom the weaver’ had become ‘Bottom the Health and Safety Officer’.

After the show I received this message:

We'd love you to tell us what you thought of your visit to see A Midsummer Night's Dream, discuss it with us or other audience members.

I replied:

It was the first Globe production I haven’t enjoyed. The Helena/Helenus alteration to the text was pointless tinkering. The costumes were ugly. The delicacy and subtlety of the play as Shakespeare wrote it – the sylvan magic that’s there in the language – was completely lost. The continuous Indian-style music was too loud and caused the actors to shout above it, to the detriment of clarity. The final rhymes substituted to suit gay rather than straight love – (from memory)

Jill shall have Jill
And Jack shall have Jack
And no one will need
An aphrodisiac

only pointed up how crude and un-Shakespearean the mind who did this was. Let’s have Shakespeare’s vulgarity when he’s vulgar, and Shakespeare’s lyricism when he’s lyrical, but not some amateur’s ham-fisted attempts to improve him or bring him up to date or whatever it was he/she/they thought was being done.

No, truly it was awful – such a disappointment after the great things one has seen done at the Globe.

I received this reply:

Thank you for your comments regarding A Midsummer Night’s Dream. We are sorry to hear you did not enjoy the production. It is always disappointing to hear when an audience member has not enjoyed our shows, as we do our best to create engaging performances.

The Globe’s mission has always been to ground itself in research, exploration, experimentation and to push the boundaries of our artistic endeavours. We value your feedback.

I replied (even though I knew I was only talking to a computer):

Yes all that sounds fine but you should not ‘push the boundaries’ at the expense of the text. The text, if you give it a fair chance and full expression, does so much of the work for you, and too much interference by the director is a minus, not a plus. It was the whole wrench of tone away from what is RIGHT THERE in Shakespeare’s language – the sylvan quality, comic but delicate – that destroyed the play as written.

No please – treat the text, not with reverence, but with respect. Don’t try to do better than Shakespeare – you can’t.

My daughter Charlotte (Grimshaw) had been in London earlier and had seen the same production, with similar disappointment: ‘...weirdly boring, like a cross between a really unsubtle bling bling West End musical and a children's pantomime. Even the usual beauty and joy - the exhilaration - of the dance at the end was ruined by the preceding barrage.’

3 August

On the other hand the last night of The Barry Humphries Weimar Cabaret at the Cadogan Theatre near Sloane Square, with Humphries himself, the singer Meow Meow, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, was a musical and theatrical event of the highest quality. The extraordinary Barry, best known in his roles as Dame Edna Everidge, Sandy Stone and Sir Les Patterson, has always been (unknown to the world at large) an intellectual, expert in Pre-Raphaelite art and the literature of late 19th century Decadence. He loves to cruise second-hand bookshops (when he’s in Auckland he always has to be taken to the Hard to Find Bookshop in Onehunga) and it was in Melbourne as very young man that he came upon, and bought, a Gladstone bag containing a collection of German sheet music made by Richard Edmund Beyer. The show was based on that collection, and dedicated to Beyer’s memory. Humphries, who has such ease and natural command of an audience, was narrator, and at times singer and dancer. A lot of the music was by Jews whose work had been condemned by the Nazis as ‘decadent’. Some had escaped to Hollywood to write music for films, some to London, New York, Melbourne, while others had not escaped and had died in the camps. The programme included work by Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, and others less famous, including Mischa Spoliansky, who became Barry’s friend in Melbourne. This was music mainly in the style of the movie Cabaret, rich, lively, and especially moving because of the historical context and the sense of a rescue of reputations and music that might otherwise have been forgotten.

I am still in the process of filling that gap in my knowledge of contemporary fiction, J.M. Coetzee. Disgrace was one of his two Booker Prize-winning novels, and I have to acknowledge that it doesn’t have the terrible deficiency of his The Childhood of Jesus, the thinness, the lack of detail and substance. Disgrace springs from Coetzee’s knowledge of the academic scene in South Africa, where his principal character, David Lurie, is a teacher; also of the outback where David goes briefly to live with his daughter. And he has a precise sense of the social changes that have occurred since Apartheid ended.

This is a novel that deserves respect; but I can’t say I warm to it. The best one can say is that the prose is workmanlike and the narrative well-managed, moral questions are asked, and it has force as a grim image of modern South Africa.

David Lurie seems a Coetzee-like character, whose attitude to sexual experience is at once joyless and unloving (or at best tepid) – and curiously arrogant. But the account of his affair with the student Melanie, and of the trouble it lands him, is entirely believable, both from the point of view of the feelings of the young woman and the older man, and from that of the authorities who have to deal with it.

The central event of the novel, however, is the assault and robbery of David and the rape of his daughter Lucy, after he has been sacked by the university and gone to visit her in the remote countryside. They are clearly father and daughter and of one temperament: he will not argue his case (such as it might have been) when accused of wrong-doing with his student. He says he found the experience ‘enriching’ but will not explain or make excuses for himself. And now Lucy will not lay a complaint with the police in which the crime of rape is even mentioned. In the novel’s symbolism it seems she has to be burdened with the guilt of the nation. Without any public or formal acknowledgment of the wrong done to her, she accepts not only the rape and its consequences, but the sheer hatred with which it was inflicted.

Nor can Lucy be persuaded to leave the small farm where it becomes clear she will only be protected from further attacks if she accepts the role of third wife or concubine to Petrus, her African neighbour, who will thus acquire her land. She is pregnant as a consequence of the rape, and determined to have the child and ‘to be a good mother’; but her behaviour as Coetzee describes it is so dreary and self-defeating it is hard to imagine any good coming of this resolution.

Finally, there is the writing itself; and though it lacks the fault of thinness, almost abstraction, of The Childhood of Jesus, it is neither elegant nor richly textured, and often clunky and awkward. Explaining himself to Melanie’s father David says, ‘I lack the lyrical... Even when I burn I don’t sing.’ This is surely Coetzee talking through his character about himself, acknowledging limitation. Honest, yes – but also true: his prose doesn’t sing. This is a joyless novel, both in theme and in the writing – depressive, depleted, flat.

But a Booker prize winner. South Africa is one of the world’s ‘trouble spots’ and here, in Coetzee, is a man who speaks for it, and from it, holds unquestionably the right opinions about it, and hangs his head in shame for it. He doesn’t write especially well, but never mind – he must have the prize.

14 August

Yesterday there was a party at Craig and Li Raine’s house in Oxford to celebrate the 50th issue of their literary magazine, Areté. Craig is editor and Li his Deputy, both retired Oxford dons (he, New College; she, St Anne’s). They have four children making an extraordinary family. Craig is poet, playwright and critic, and more recently novelist too, who when I first knew him was poetry editor at Faber (T.S. Eliot’s old post). Li, who writes as Ann Pasternak Slater, has edited the poems of George Herbert, is known as a translator from Russian, and has just produced a critical biography of Evelyn Waugh. Two of their four children, Nina and Moses, have had success as playwrights (Nina successful also as a theatre director); and one, Isaac, is a dress designer who seems to move between New York and Paris. The family home is in North Oxford, and they have an apartment in Venice.

It all sounds frightfully posh-and-literary-fashionable but that is not at all what they are like, individually or collectively. Craig’s background, as he has described it in his collection Rich and elsewhere, is working class, his father a professional boxer and faith-healer, and the household he grew up in ‘bookless’. Exceptional intelligence took him by scholarships to public school and then Oxford.

Li’s background was strongly affected by her Russian mother, sister of the novelist and poet Boris Pasternak, and daughter of the Impressionist painter Leonid Pasternak whose works (including portraits of Tolstoy and Einstein) line the Raines’ walls. There is about the whole family an unusual directness and immediacy, and a great capacity for affection and loyalty. Their Englishness, which might be the first thing to strike a New Zealander, seems, at a second reading, real but skin-deep. Raine-hood, or Raine-ness, is like a nationality of its own. Walking into a party at their house, especially in summer with doors open to the garden at the back, feels a bit like walking on to the set of a play by Chekhov.

I took the Oxford Tube, the bus that runs day and night, a roughly two-hour journey, from Victoria, and got off at Oxford in ‘the High’ – and I will describe my walk for old Oxfordians of whom I know there are a few among my readers: along Catte Street, past the Radcliffe Camera and the Bodleian, catching a glimpse of Blackwell’s on the Broad but (thinking of luggage limits and the weight of books) forcing myself on up Parks Road past Trinity and the back wall of St Johns (I once had a key to its gate), then the Pitt Rivers Museum, Parks Road, and up Banbury Road to Park Town where the party was happening. On the return walk when the party was over, I went down Banbury, through North Parade and Church Walk into Woodstock Road, past the house on the corner of Woodstock and Plantation Roads which Kay and I occupied twenty years ago when I was Senior Visiting Fellow at St Johns; then through Plantation Road past the Gardener’s Arms (for a time Dan and Winnie Davin’s regular pub), through Walton Road past the absurd pillars of Oxford University Press (Davin’s employer for most of his life) and to Gloucester Green and the bus terminal.

There was a crowd at the party, both indoors and out in the garden, not many I knew though a number of ‘names’ (in the Strindberg sense – Christopher Hampton, David Lodge for example) I knew by sight. Nina was pregnant, and Vaska, the Raines’ youngest, had already produced their first grandchild. There were two medium-to-large very affable and eager dogs, belonging one to Moses, the other to Vaska. Prosecco (bubbly) was offered and prosciutto (fine-cut ham) followed by a beautiful bean soup and then an indescribably rich and wonderful chocolate dessert/pudding (depending on where you come from), a mousse perhaps, with (I think it was) whipped cream – all of this in the hand and on the hoof, a challenge but worth rising to.

I found myself talking to a woman about the dogs. She lives in Kensington and each morning before work, walks her dog in Kensington Gardens. She described to me rather lyrically the sun rising through the mist on a winter morning, and how her spirit lifts with it.

A young man told me his name was Mark and that he had drawn the feather which decorates every Areté cover. I told him, I had always admired it.

A man half my age came up with outstretched hand, and said something I didn’t catch which I took to be his name. ‘It’s been a long time,’ he said.

I didn’t think I’d ever met him, and wondered whether he thought I was Michael Frayn. (In London I am frequently mistaken for Frayn.) ‘You’re looking good,’ I said.

I sat with Li on a sofa (or couch, depending where you come from) and we talked about being ‘no good at parties’, a distinction we both claimed. Where was Kay? I explained she was in London, and why. Li told me I must read her just-published book on Waugh; and before I left she’d given me a copy inscribed with love to Karl and Kay.

She asked me about New Zealand’s remoteness at this time of turmoil in the world: did we feel protected by distance? I could remember a time when distance seemed deprivation rather than protection, but I didn’t say so. I thought of Allen Curnow’s lines, ‘Always to islanders danger / Is what comes over the sea’ but didn’t quote them. I think I said it depends where you imagine the trouble might come from.

Later Craig and I shared another sofa, under the Tolstoy portrait. We compared ailments – his gout (which I remember afflicted Ken Smithyman in his later years), mine polymyalgia rheumatica.

‘Rheumatism’, he said.

‘If you like,’ I replied thinking it was not really so simple – but perhaps he was right and it is.

He said the painfulness of gout came from crystals of uric acid in the bloodstream, and he could feel the crystals in his ears. I told him about the American comic-strip of my childhood, Jiggs and Maggie, in which Jiggs often had one foot huge with bandages because he suffered from gout. People were always tripping on the foot and causing him to howl in pain.

Craig is now 72 and has been retired from teaching seven years. He’s glad not to have to teach but said the idea that one should stop working at 65 or 70 made no sense in the world as it is now.

He’d been taking tango lessons and told me about difficulties. He enjoyed the lessons and learning the steps, but when it came to the practice he ran into trouble. Whether this was because it was too demanding, or too demeaning, wasn’t clear to me. Going out looking for tango-partners on a dance floor might be challenging at 72.

Craig asked about my Paris novel (we’d had a lunch and a dinner together in Paris almost two years back when I was writing it) and I told him I’d abandoned it, but that recently there had been stirrings of renewed interest.

‘You must write it,’ he said. ‘You’ve reached an age when anything you write will be good.’

I took this to mean that it won’t be bad – that it will probably be OK, serviceable, workmanlike, publishable. I said I hoped so but thought I’d reached an age when I might expect to falter.

Kay and I are staying at daughter Margaret’s house in Queen’s Park, and Margaret is Craig’s publisher at Atlantic Books. I told him granddaughter Madeleine (Grimshaw) was across the Park working as P.A. to the actor Jason Isaacs. Craig said Isaacs had played the part of Vittorio Mussolini in the Almeida production of his play, 1953. This was a 20th century updating of Racine’s Andromaque, a ‘counter-factual’ (if that is the word) in which the Axis powers have won World War 2. The fact of this play fascinates me because when I was very young my only attempt at a verse play was also a modernising of the Racine tragedy – a play that impressed me because of its wonderful structure, but which I found defeated me because I couldn’t make its despairing love-motivations credible in a modern (20th century) setting.

So we talked about actors and acting, and I told him about Ralph Fiennes’s brilliantly comic ‘as ‘twere’ scene in the Cohen Brothers’ Hail Caesar; and about his part in the movie A bigger splash where he appears with Tilda Swinton – Swinton as a David Bowie-style rock star, and Fiennes as her former lover, invading her holiday on a Greek Island. There’s a scene in which he performs an astonishing, frenetic Greek dance; and later we see him capering naked around the rock star’s swimming pool, initiating a fight with her current boyfriend, and (not very convincingly) killed by him.

Craig told me about an occasion when Fiennes was acting in Chekhov’s Ivanov (also at the Almeida). Craig thought he waved his arms about too much, and possibly said so to Patrick Marber with whom he was staying at the time. Soon afterwards he was embarrassed to find himself at a large dinner party with Fiennes there among the guests. Would anyone have passed on his criticism? Craig positioned himself as far away as possible from the actor and there was no contact until the party was breaking up and suddenly, there was Fiennes looming over Craig’s chair. ‘I think,’ he murmured, ‘that “History” [Craig long poem] is the most beautiful poem I have ever read.’

Craig acted it out: ‘the most b-yew-tiful poo-m...’

‘Since then of course,’ Craig said, ‘I’ve thought he was a great actor.’

I told him about my struggle with Coetzee. He said he was outraged that the recently announced Booker long list included The Schooldays of Jesus (sequel to The Childhood of...) and not his friend Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Nutshell, which I don’t think has yet been released but will be soon and has been entered for the Booker.

Craig had reviewed Disgrace and was not surprised that I didn’t rate Coetzee very highly as a writer – neither does he, and neither (he said) does Martin Amis. I have now checked what he wrote about the novel, found in his collection More Dynamite. Craig describes Disgrace as ‘quite a good novel’. He analyses its moral dilemmas, finds them worthy and interesting, but thinks the novel indifferently written: ‘Coetzee writes the way Fred Astaire sings – carefully competent in a narrow vocal range. (And Coetzee can’t dance.)’

Craig concludes his review, ‘Morally we are stretched if aesthetically we are a little starved.’

All this time the Olympics have been going on and I’ve been struggling to discover what is happening because the reporting here focusses almost exclusively on ‘Team G.B.’ If a Brit comes third you will be told that fact, but not necessarily who came first and second – unless one or both can be dismissed as ‘drug cheats’. I thought this sort of one-eyed sporting nationalism was our Kiwi failing; but the Brits are now worse. It’s something relatively new here, a consequence of the fact that they are now winning a lot of medals, which in turn is a consequence of their spending more money than ever before to promote sport and free their top performers to work exclusively at their event. I would quite like to know how the NZ team has been faring, but have only discovered by going to the NZ Herald website that Valerie Adams was beaten by an American into second in the shot putt, and that Mahe Drysdale won the single sculls. Now and then on TV I’ve caught sight of a New Zealander among the cyclists. But my interest in the Olympic Games, which was intense when I was young and somewhat (modestly) athletic, has diminished in proportion as the number of events has multiplied. In the Guardian Simon Jenkins accuses Britain of ‘doing what we used to ridicule the Soviets for doing – using sport as a proxy for economic success’. The BBC’s coverage he describes as a ‘total collapse of news values, the corporation peddling tabloid chauvinist schlock.’

Maybe the current British obsession with the Olympics (in which they are ‘Team GB’, not England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) is connected to the Brexit. Politically the nation is now quiet, satisfied for the moment with Theresa May as P.M., and waiting to see what is negotiated – whether a deal can be done to exempt them from taking their fair share of migrants while retaining access to the vast European market: i.e. whether they can have their cake and eat it.

But the argument about who should lead the Labour Party continues, and will be determined soon between Jeremy Corbyn and his challenger, Owen Smith.

18 August

Today I met a French PhD student, Christine Gartner, whose thesis subject is Janet Frame. She had just spent some weeks in New Zealand in pursuit of Frame locations, and wanted to talk to me about the biography and my connections with it. She was very pleasant, refreshingly brisk and practical, respectful of her subject without being too reverent. She had taken the Eurostar from Paris to St Pancras and I took her to lunch at Freddie’s Bar in what is now Goodenough College (formerly London House) in Mecklenburgh Square.

Talking about Frame reminded me of something that is also a sort of P.S. about J.M. Coetzee. In October 2003 it was rumoured that in Stockholm Janet Frame was being seriously considered for the Nobel Prize for literature. She was consequently pestered by the Press who did not know she was just at that time being diagnosed with a fatal kind of leukemia. When the Prize was announced it had gone to Coetzee. She e-mailed me saying, ‘Vampire fashion I have to have blood transfusions until “the end”, and the day I was receiving phone calls about the ignoble prize, I was in a hospice learning of my curtailed future.’ She included a photograph of herself, hooked up for the transfusion and reading a recent issue of the Listener (holding it so it could be seen) in which I had reviewed Vince O’Sullivan’s biography of John Mulgan.

Janet Frame.

20 August

I leave tomorrow and fly back direct (no stopover) via Seoul, so I will be back in New Zealand in time for the Christchurch Festival and NZ Poetry Day. I wonder, as I do each time I leave London, whether this will be my last visit. There have been so many since I was first here as a student close-on 60 years ago. There should be quite a bit of late summer left, but the leaves are beginning to fall in Queen’s Park and the squirrels are to be seen eager with acorns.

– C.K. Stead

It's National Poetry Day!

Today we celebrate the poems and poets of New Zealand. We hope you will too.

Poetry in the air

We're presenting readings by five of the best Wellington poets: Anna Jackson, Magnolia Wilson, John Dennison, James Brown, and Ashleigh Young. Bring your lunch and get in early to make sure you get a seat.

For folk further south, there is Word Christchurch where Poet Laureate C.K. Stead will be reading with Bill Manhire, Selina Tusitala Marsh, Fiona Kidman, Chris Tse, and special guest Ali Cobby Eckermann.

There are over 100 other events happening all around the country. See what's happening and get involved.

Poetry on the page

C.K. Stead has also published a response to the First World War centenary, taking the persona of Catullus, unwilling to celebrate death in battle.

Our Reading Room has been filled with publications by New Zealand poets, and we're inviting you to come in a spend some time reading our selections. You'll find it on level one of the Wellington building.

Photo by Alicia Tolley.

And of course, get into your local library and pull a volume down from the shelves.

The travel journal continues

In an earlier blog I had read and had not admired J.M. Coetze’s The Childhood of Jesus, and I see now its sequel, The Boyhood of Jesus, is long-listed for the Booker. I’ve been thinking about how bad the one I read seemed, and decided the problem was that it’s all imagined, doesn’t draw sufficiently direct from particulars of place, time, people and circumstance in Coetze’s life, and so is thinly imagined. I know that feeling when there’s no real life source, no subject there in front of the artist to be represented (or misrepresented/ distorted), and the feeling of inadequacy that can come over the work. This sounds like the realist speaking and no doubt it is, up to a point, though the degree to which the subject is acted upon, processed, changed can be essential, and will qualify the ‘realist’ label. I have always liked Stendhal’s definition of the novel as a mirror walking along a highway; but only so long as it recognizes that each writer’s mirror will show a different highway. The objects will be the same, but the colours, tones, focus, framing – for each writer all will be different, and in effect personal.

I should also say that though there is an absence of representation in The Childhood of Jesus, I suspect that in very broad terms the childhood as he portrays it is, to a significant degree, his own.

I said I must read something else by Coetzee and began with what I could find on the bookshelves of Margaret, my daughter in London – the second volume of his three volume autobiography, the one called Youth, which covers his early years (the early 1960s) in London where he went from South Africa, found work, and began to turn himself into a writer. I’m fascinated by the ways in which our lives, his and mine, and our intellectual circumstances at that time, overlap – first simply that he is South African, with the same reactions to Britain, and from the British; the same sense of trying to prove himself, half believing (and partly resenting) that the U.K. is, or at least will be seen as, the larger and more challenging pond. A lot of this book seems naïve, and I can’t be absolutely sure (especially since it is written as fiction, referring to himself as ‘he’, not as ‘I’) whether one is meant to read it as a sophisticated representation of the naïve fellow he was, or whether it is itself simply naïve. My own feeling is that there are not enough signals to the contrary, and for at least the first half, it must be read as literal and naïve.

I was surprised to find he reads the letters of Ezra Pound, and ‘is engrossed by the Cantos... reads and re-reads them (guiltily skipping the dull sections on Van Buren and the Malatestas), using Hugh Kenner’s book on Pound as a guide. T.S. Eliot’ (he goes on) ‘magnanimously called Pound il miglior fabbro, the better craftsman. Much as he admires Eliot’s own work, he thinks Eliot is right.’ Anyone who has read much of what I have written on this subject will know how closely it accords with my own views.

Other literary judgements are odd, however, and don’t at all accord with my own. He prefers Pope to Shakespeare, and Swift to Pope. He likes Chaucer who ‘keeps a nice ironic distance’, and ‘unlike Shakespeare... does not get in a froth about things and start ranting.’

His dislike of disorder is entirely comprehensible, but it sometimes has an unappealing regimental air. Speaking of himself he says, ‘he will certainly not be a Bohmemian, that is to say, a drunk, a sponger and a layabout.’

It is Pound who directs him to Ford Madox Ford, especially The Good Soldier, and the four novels that make up Parade’s End; and for a time Ford will be the central focus of his academic studies. He is trying to write poetry but without much success. He turns to writing prose and tries to emulate the style of Henry James, whose fiction he admires; but James’s sensibility, he acknowledges, is more delicate, subtler than his own. His overriding ambition is to be ‘an artist’, a role he seems to think is pretty much reserved for males. There are exceptions – Sappho, Emily Bronte – but mainly women ‘do not have the sacred fire’. It’s ‘in quest of the fire they lack’ that women give themselves to artists. In their lovemaking with artists, women experience ‘briefly, tantalizingly, the life of gods’ – and by this their life is ‘transfigured’. I remember hearing ideas like this in the 1950s from Frank Sargeson – though not with such bland confidence, such blindness to their injustice and untruth. Had the members of the Nobel Committee read this before they awarded Coetzee the prize?

Looking at his portrait on the flap I am struck by his resemblance to the movie actor, Clint Eastwood, who might share his views of women and men and how they relate.

And yet in other ways I still find much to identify with. He lives through the Cuban missile crisis fearing that this may be the nuclear end of everything, seeing some justification for Kruschev’s putting missiles into Cuba, admiring Castro, and fearing the Americans. He finds comfort in the BBC Third Programme and begins there his education in the classical repertoire. He hates Apartheid South Africa and wishes the Russians would invade – ‘land paratroops in Pretoria, take Verwoerd and his cronies captive, line them up against a wall, and shoot them.’ He feels South Africa as the albatross around his neck and ‘wants it removed, he does not care how, so he can breathe.’ He reads about it constantly in the Manchester Guardian and it makes ‘the soul cringe within him’. He wonders what it will take to make him ‘English’. He sees the signs, NO COLOURED, in the windows of lodging houses and knows, or feels, that though white, he is not wanted either.

Once again, though there are differences in each case, and their cases are much more extreme than my own, I feel some identity with what Coetzee and V.S. Naipaul have written about their early years in London. One crucial difference is that for me English was the first language. With Coetzee, though he dislikes so much of his Afrikaaner inheritance, Afrikaans and not English came first.

(Footnote: I am often asked why I publish as C.K. Stead – two initials and a surname, with no first name. It must be a sign of those times: my models for this were W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot and W.H. Auden; and these two have always published as J.M. Coetzee and V.S. Naipaul.)

In Naipaul’s case there is also a language before English (Hindi, I assume), though the family began to make English its everyday language while V.S. was still a child.

One passage that particularly affected me in Coetzee’s book was a sort of once-only out-of-body moment. He is lying half asleep in an English field, hearing the faraway sounds of children, birdsong, the whirr of insects, and all this, and the throb of his own pulse, comes together: ‘At last! he thinks. At last it has come, the moment of ecstatic unity with the All.’

(Footnote: Cf. the final lines of my sonnet 3, Collected Poems 1951-2006, p. 92, where the same kind of moment is described.)

It lasts no more than a second, but he describes it as ‘this signal event’.

Yet he also describes himself as ‘at home in misery’, saying of himself, ‘If misery were abolished he would not know what to do.’ Happiness teaches nothing; misery is ‘a school for the soul.’ In that our temperaments, his and mine, are quite different – which may partly explain why my reaction to his novel was so negative.

So for me the mystery of Coetzee and his enormous reputation, which began with my reading of The Childhood of Jesus, remains. I need to read one of those Booker prize-winners – Disgrace for example. But that will have to wait while I come to terms with Michel Houellebecq (pronounced Wellbeck).

After we left Menton we spent three days in Paris and there I recovered interest in a novel set in that city, which, within the last year or two I’d written a draft of and then lost interest – had ‘gone off it’, ‘got sick of it’, abandoned it. I still think it a foolish idea, to be writing fiction about Paris when I’m not living there able daily to absorb atmosphere and check on detail; but it was an idea about characters (including a New Zealander) working as academics at the Sorbonne, so I had at least the academic element to hold on to. And I had a source there, possibly two, who could help me.

Michel Houellebecq’s most recent novel, Soumission (in English, Submission), is also about a character who teaches at the Sorbonne. His first-person narrator, François, is an academic expert on (and obsessed with) the fiction of Joris-Karl Huysmans, famous for end-of-(19th)century decadence. François has turned his back on the literature of 20th century France, the Leftists of the middle century, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, but also the later writers of the Nouvelle Vague (the New Wave) – Claude Simon, Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet. He is some kind of conservative, perhaps reactionary, and the novel is as much political and sociological as literary.

Houellebecq made his mark as a fiction writer famous for illiberal, even reactionary ideas. In his novel Les particules élémentaires (in English Atomised) he deeply offended Muslims by describing theirs as ‘by far the most stupid, false and obscure of all religions’. In Submission however he seems to have altered radically – but this may depend on how you read the novel and what you think its intention is. It posits a France in the year 2022, in which Marine Le Pen (National Front) is favoured by close on one third of the voters. The UMP (conservatives), who have lost supporters to her, are running fourth; so the only way Le Pen can be beaten is for two parties, the Socialists, and the Muslim Brotherhood (a political force Houellebecq has invented) each of which have about 21% support, to combine. They do this, and since the Brotherhood comes out slightly ahead of the Socialists, their leader, Ben Abbes, becomes the new President.

Francois, aged 44, a typical Houellebecq anti-hero with many bodily ailments and a problem with alcohol, says of himself, ‘When you got right down to it, my cock was the one organ that hadn’t presented itself to my consciousness through pain, only through pleasure. Modest but robust, it had always served me faithfully.’ In the new France, however, he will not be allowed to continue teaching unless he becomes a Muslim.

Fearing civil war, he leaves Paris. ‘I had no plan – just a very vague sense that I ought to head south-west. I knew next-to-nothing about the south-west really, only that it was a region where they ate duck confit, and duck confit struck me as incompatible with civil war.’ It’s a joke of course, a good one; only a Frenchman would make such a decision on culinary grounds. But there is very little violence, and France slides almost painlessly into acceptance of the new order. Is there meant to be a glancing parallel with the nation’s almost passive acceptance of the Occupation in WW2? I think that might be part of his intention.

The politics of Left and Right is represented as having run its course. This is the new century, and neither the right-wing nor the old soixante-huitards (the revolutionaries of 1968) can claim authority. What the Muslims fear is not Catholicism, which was long ago put in its place in France, but secularism – the force of ‘atheistic materialism’. Against this force stand the three monotheism, the religions of the Book – Christian, Jewish and Muslim.

Under the new Muslim-dominated regime unemployment falls (because fewer women are working), crime and violence begin to disappear from the banlieues (economic upturn and fear of sharia law), the economy flourishes with the help of petro-dollars from the Sheikdoms, the EU is enlarged to include Turkey, with Tunisia, Morocco, Abyssinia, in prospect...

This novel is not, I think, meant to be read as a prediction, but rather as a ‘what if?’ and ‘where would you stand?’ It might be described as an intellectual jeu d’esprit, but a serious one, and seriously dark. Houellebecq is asking himself these questions. There is a sense in which he is an enfant terrible in a world he represents as rife with pornography and the technology of the instant and the immediate. But he is also, I suspect, deeply conservative, in reaction against this world in which, nonetheless, his own fiction seems to thrive.

Francois’s obsession with Huysmans is probably Houellebecq’s own, as is also his metaphysical angst. In the end he will convert to the Muslim faith, not just so he can retain his teaching post at the Sorbonne and score a couple of teenage wives, but because there is in him a deep horror of the ‘atheistic materialism’ of which Houellebecq has probably been thought to be a modern day evangelist. ‘Since I was 15,’ Francois says, ‘I’ve known that what they now call the return of religion was unavoidable.’ Europe, which achieved the summit of human civilisation, has in just a few decades ‘committed suicide’, yielding to the ‘simpering seductions and lewd enticements of the progressives’. Gay marriage, abortion rights, and women in the workplace represented ‘moral decadence’.

All this comes late in the book, and seems to arrive with the force of real conviction. Probably Houellebecq is divided against himself; but this reactionary disgust must be very close to the centre of his being. It is not attractive.

In England
there’s a lot to be said for
summer rain
in a green, foxy wood
drumming on the roof of leaves.

But there was no rain the day we visited Methwold churchyard somewhere along the remote back-roads of Norfolk, where I found eight or ten gravestones with the surname Flatt. One or two of these must have been my direct forebears, the rest collaterals, before or subsequent to the departure of my great great grandfather, the missionary-catechist John Flatt, for the Bay of Islands in 1834. John Flatt’s early adventures in New Zealand are an important part of my novel The Singing Whakapapa, just re-released by Penguin in a group of ‘Six New Zealand classics’. None of the inscriptions on these headstones was completely readable, but I’ve been told (and have not yet managed to confirm) that one grave was that of John’s father Robert, and that he was an M.P. for the area.

As we returned to our car through the churchyard gate my friend Tony Axelrad said, ‘Well at least you know who you are.’ His forebears were Jewish, he thinks from Russia via Scandinavia to London; and then he grew up in France, which perhaps added to the uncertainty about identity, but gave him two languages to be at home in. Most of his professional life has been as a translator, most recently for the U.N. Court in Den Hague, set up to investigate crimes committed during the war in the former Yugoslavia. It is as a translator that I first met Tony, when he translated one of my novels into French. He’s retired now and living in Norwich, and Kay and I were staying briefly with him and his wife Pat.

Philip Larkin and Anthony Thwaite on the River Tas, photograph by Ann Thwaite. Via

While we were in that part of the world we visited other old friends, Ann and Anthony Thwaite, Anthony a noted British poet, associated in the 1950s and onward as one of what was known as ‘the Movement’, sometime poetry editor for BBC radio, then literary editor of the New Statesman, and later of Encounter; and perhaps best-known now as Philip Larkin’s literary executor and editor of his work. (The photograph, by Ann, is of Anthony punting Philip Larkin on their mill race, Thwaite in polo-neck and wellingtons, with his 1970s hair, and Larkin in typically proper jacket and tie.)

Ann is a noted biographer, having written (separate) lives of Edmond Gosse, Philip Henry Gosse, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Emily Tennyson, and A.A. Milne; and she is currently deeply involved in the making of a movie about the real life Christopher Robin, based on the life of Milne’s son, the model for his famous children’s stories.

The Thwaites live in an ancient mill house on a millrace cut in the local river, the Tas, with woods and a field behind; and as always we were given lunch and then taken up the river on their punt. Ann has interesting New Zealand connections which she has recounted in her book Passageways (University of Otago Press). Her parents were New Zealanders. Ann and her brother David were born in the U.K., and when WW2 broke out, with its threat of bombing and possible invasion, they were taken back to New Zealand by their mother who left them with relatives there for most of the war years. Back with her parents in England after the war, Ann attended Oxford where she and Anthony met. They have been, and continue to be, a formidable literary combination, both Fellows of the Royal Society of Literature, and with many connections in the British book world.

The punting expedition on this occasion had an untimely comic end. The upper reaches of the millrace were beautiful, the banks rich in purple wildflowers and green and gold reeds visited by turquoise damselflies, the water reflecting the woods and the small field where two horses, one chestnut, one white, grazed peacefully. Anthony, who normally plies the pole while Ann sits in the prow, this time stayed indoors for a post-prandial snooze. So Ann was our redoubtable means of propulsion, and all went beautifully until we returned to the landing stage. One end of the punt was tied up, and I climbed out. Kay made moves to follow but while she still had hands and half her weight on the landing, and feet and knees in the punt, the boat swung slowly out from the shore. It was the classic punting disaster, which I have seen before in Oxford. It seems to happen in slow motion, with an accompaniment of shrieks, while the victim’s weight, equally distributed between ship and shore, yields to the laws of Newton, and plunges.

Anthony, wakened from his slumbers by the shouting, emerged from the house to lend a hand, and four literary persons, all in their eighties, struggled to haul one of their number up on to the landing.

– C.K. Stead