Better at a distance, Gerry Webb

My History, I think
Stevan Eldred‑Grigg
Penguin Books, $29.95

“Neither autobiography nor yet fiction, this fascinating document traces the workings inside the mind of a leading writer”, says the blurb. The sad fact is that the workings of this writer’s mind are often extremely tedious. When Eldred‑Grigg concentrates on bringing to life things outside himself, both people and places, the writing can be firm and lively. But his ruminations on himself and his commentaries are often slackly written, repetitious, preposterous, vain, snobbish, self‑consciously mannered, irritatingly evasive, world weary ‑ dreary:

I am a nice person, a harmless person. My underclothes are from Saks. I am a man. I am slim, and tallish ‑ the sort of man that some people call a six footer. I am rather handsome, I think. I am … (p178)

Admittedly these lines are part of a determinedly artful structure, in that they lead into a picture of the author as a timid, unhappy boy and they are also repeated 10 pages later. But they are no less silly and mannered for all that and in fact the calculated quality is part of the problem with the book. The chief structural device is repetition, a persistent picking up of phrases, sentences, passages, even entire incidents, which have gone before. By the end most of these have been done to death. I would estimate that his birth in the back of a taxi in Westland is referred to at least 20 times. An unconscionable proportion of the book consists of this recycling of motifs. Even the reference to his expensive undies is made at least three times, as in this passage which reflects condescendingly on a fellow historian:

I saw in her all the dowdiness, the frowst of history. She caused me to recall numerous dreary conclaves in staff clubs, common rooms, seminar rooms, the slush of tea bags dunked then dangled by the pallid fingers of nondescript women and men. Me, not nondescript. Me, not in that script. Me, in my simple, carefully selected, understated, deeply expensive clothing which the rest of them failed to recognise for what it was, quality. My shoes, made in Italy. My Country Road shirts. My Ralph Lauren shirts. My silk undershorts, bought from Saks Fifth Avenue ‑ though admittedly the historians could hardly see those. (p98)

The joke in the last line is feeble and the rest is ludicrous. It is characteristic of a general lack of control, an inability to hear himself.

One has to ask whether the speaker here is a fictional character distinct from Eldred‑Grigg but my reading of the book is that they are one and the same. The paraded sophistication does not extend to any sign of detachment, irony or humour. Much of the text looks as though it comes off the top of the head, with the author simply following the associations of words and images. There is an extraordinary faux pas where Ashburton is linked with Auschwitz and this fatuous comment is then made: “The words, the world, inside the chambers of a house in Cologne will always be cosier for me than the agonies of those trapped inside a chamber which fills with gas.” (p173)

Eldred‑Grigg asks himself whether his disdain for frowsty historians reveals “a perverse wish to return to my natural level of aristocrat? Not the dear old aristocracy, naturally, of tweed and merino. No, not that. The aristocracy of letters is the place to which I aspire.” (p98) He feels inordinate pride in being a writer, “the art in which I too am an initiate”, and there are coy references throughout to himself as novelist and historian, to “my stories”, “my characters”. This for instance comes on p2, following an equally inconsequential reference on p1: “I wrote a novel, once, in which a red light repeatedly flashes. A pilot light I called it. The light, I mean, not the novel.” That is all we are given. The self‑consciousness is painful, all the more so because an attempt to say something genuinely informative about his work would be appreciated. There is some discussion of approaches to historical writing but the best we get on his fiction is self‑advertisement, a kind of preening.

The book is a grab‑bag of diverse elements. We are told repeatedly that this is not the story of his life. “The story of my own life is not a story, there is no story in it.” Nevertheless, his formative years are covered in the early chapters, up to and including three years as a PhD student at university in Canberra. A self‑portrait emerges as the author gives us the contents of his mind over the course of one day as he works at his computer or takes breaks around the house. There are memories of people and friendships and also writers, particularly Evelyn Waugh and James Courage. There are various pieces of fiction: a vignette about the young James Courage, a story about a faculty party apparently written by his friend Frank. There are also accounts of travel in New Caledonia, a flight stopover in Patagonia and three months residence at the University of Iowa. Two extracts from an unfinished historical article are also included. A unifying device is the author’s malfunctioning answerphone which records voices from his past. But unity comes chiefly from Eldred‑Grigg’s reflective commentary; and herein lies the problem, because it is so unrelenting, morose and self‑indulgent. It is extraordinary what bad company he is. Eldred‑Grigg’s talent is not for personal reflection and this book should have remained unpublished or been drastically rewritten.

“Nothing has ever happened to me. Nothing.” Denial is not a propitious basis for talking about one’s life. Nor is the attitude, asserted repeatedly, that at 40 his life is over:

Yet my life, my history, is complete. A calm advance from the home of my childhood to the home of my children’s childhood. Letters after my name, words in my head, lines and lines of words on the printed pages of my published works. Works readers want to read… A life of peace. A file without incident. (p94)

The result of this strangely willed complacency is a lack of interest in anything which isn’t Canterbury. Northland, where he lived for a year, is pleasant but “meaningless”: a surprising attitude for a historian. Kanak culture is “nothing to do with me, not my cup of tea”. Yvonne du Fresne’s affection for the littoral of the Manawatu is considered a joke. The Manawatu is “nothing” and du Fresne, writing of her sense of place, is seen as letting “her little legs jump her up onto a heap of her own flimsy fabrication”. (pp90‑91)

The parading of the expensive trappings of his life seems to be compulsive, a kind of nervous tic. We hear continuously about his expensive clothes and the “costly surfaces” of his long white house, with the two upstairs and one downstairs bathrooms, several sitting rooms, the white and glass kitchen with a microwave and two convection ovens, the pink courtyard with “the expensive cypresses, the expensive cordylines” in their terracotta pots “expensively imported from Italy”. Again, the writer seems not to be able to hear himself. Or is it more of that disdain for nondescript people that we saw earlier? Whatever the reason, he doesn’t seem able simply to enjoy his possessions: there is an unfortunate need to underline the expense and exclusiveness of it all.

Wealth and class have always been Eldred‑Grigg’s subject, driven by his dual personal heritage of a working class and a landed Canterbury family. He quotes two six‑page extracts from an unfinished historical article. The subject is the enormous wealth of the largest landowners of the late colonial period: they were wealthier than the merchants and financiers of Auckland, “rich beyond the riches of any twentieth-century millionaire” (a tall claim).

The activities and clothes of the Canterbury gentry are evoked with the usual detail and lyricism which Eldred‑Grigg brings to one of his favourite subjects, but there is nothing here which he hasn’t already done in A Southern Gentry, his first history book, and ad nauseam in The Siren Celia, a diffuse novel of Canterbury landed society in the 1860s. That lightly satirical novel, based on three different colonial narratives, demonstrated a certain flair for pastiche (the narrative voice is in a nineteenth‑century idiom reminiscent of Dickens at his most facetious) but it is a meandering, rather vapid tale. The Southern Gentry, however, is a vigorous and entertaining contribution to our historical knowledge and along with The Pleasures of the Flesh remains his best historical work.

When Eldred‑Grigg is content in My History to observe people and places and check his bent for posturing and rumination, the rewards are higher. A visit to New Caledonia with a young son has some passages of reportage where the ruminating voice does not intrude. An account of friendships between a group of postgraduate students at the Australian National University slips into a mode of detailed presentation of character, event and dialogue which could be from a story or novel. The focus is on Frank, a postdoctoral fellow in philosophy, “an uptight young man” whom the writer first meets at a party and doesn’t much like. Gradually they become friends and Frank later visits the author in Northland where they become “a true twosome”.

Certain overtones in the account of the Northland visit suggest that we are not being told the full significance of this relationship and this impression strengthens when we learn much later that Frank has “wasted away” and died in a Sydney hospital. It sounds like Aids, or cancer, but clarification is withheld. At the outset Eldred‑Grigg acknowledges that he likes to hide and that concealment is not “inappropriate to my present purpose”. The obvious lack of candour at various points, the pregnant hints, tend to backfire.

The relationship with Frank is perhaps illuminated by the vignette in the chapter called “The Old Country” about the young James Courage, the novelist who was the son of a landed Canterbury family and a homosexual. His titles includes The Young Have Secrets, which Eldred‑Grigg uses as a motif, and A Way of Love, which is a candid account of a homosexual relationship between the narrator and a younger man. Eldred‑Grigg presents young James, sensitive and fearful, sitting at a mahogany table in the Courage mansion on the North Canterbury downs. He is writing a story about two boys who run away from a giant and live happily together in a house in a forest. His father, a brutal red-faced squatter “wearing a Norfolk shooting jacket of the very best tweed”, has an explosive temper and becomes irritated with his son when the latter attempts to talk to him. The father downs a stiff whisky and then orders James to get the riding crop from the gunroom and wait outside his office. He is going to get a beating because he is effeminate, “not a proper boy”, as James puts it. The scene is presented in some detail, including the beautifully dressed, feckless mother and the self‑effacing, frightened maid who are powerless to protect the boy. The narrative slips into the first person for a time and the “I” is James, but it is closely allied with the “I” of the narrating author.

The link between the author and the “boy who knows he is bad, he is a very bad boy” is given more substance in the climactic episode (the penultimate chapter) of the book when Eldred‑Grigg depicts what he calls “the shame of my childhood”. The text closely parallels the Courage episode but this time it is the author who is the pale, effeminate boy with secrets, while it is the mother who has the red face and the temper and the father who is ineffectual and powerless. She hits her son who is at work on a drawing and yells: “Git out of the house, you bloody little pansy.”

The suggestion of homosexuality in the word pansy and in the author’s close association of himself with Courage remains a subtext but it is clearly part of “the shame”. The shame centres around the parents and their modest suburban home. Instead of the Courages’ mahogany table there is the formica table in “the dinette” which is described with disgust as “mottled in its manufacture to resemble some sort of marmalade, some mad, murderous marble seen nowhere in the world far from factory floor or dinette interior”. (p179)

The father wears a “cardigan of orange acrylic” and is quite withdrawn. He is “almost as thin as nothing”. (He is a shadowy figure in the book, described as a democratic socialistic who has little to say for himself.) The mother is “bulging in slacks of bri‑nylon”, and she is seen “pushing her chins at me, biting her lower lip with long and strong yellow teeth”. She is a harassed, overworked, suburban mum: “None of her bloody useless bloody lumps of kids will ever bloody help her.” These not especially harrowing family circumstances are offered as “the face of the past” which looks back at the author with “the grin of nightmare ‑ baleful, banal”. It seems like an over‑reaction to me, which is tied up with snobbery, as if his immediate family did indeed contrast traumatically for the author with his upper-crust grandparents and uncles.

The mother is an important figure in the book who is presented sympathetically, even here where revulsion is registered. She is a source of knowledge, as when she is reported as telling the author he doesn’t know he is alive (p2). She bears an obvious resemblance to Fag, the mother of Ashley in The Shining City. In fact the account of Eldred-Grigg’s early life in My History leads one to infer that Ashley and his family are closely based on the author’s life. The Shining City, which deals with homosexuality in some detail, is a disappointing sequel to Oracles &Miracles, it is glib and simplistic, whereas the earlier novel gave a yeasty, convincing picture of a working class Sydenham family. Oracles & Miracles remains Eldred‑Grigg’s best novel.

Gardens of Fire, a novel about the Ballantyne’s fire which appeared last year, is an impressive achievement also. Despite the difficulty of compressing the experience of a large cast of characters into a focal time‑frame of less than an hour Eldred‑Grigg succeeds in shaping a gripping narrative with the threat of horrific doom always present. The characterisation of the working girls is tender and the fire is conveyed in language of striking invention. The problem is that the novel covers too much, the historian is allowed to dominate. There are too many walk‑on parts. Nevertheless the culpability of the Ballantynes themselves for the 41 deaths is an eye opener: they had dismantled the alarm system installed as required by war regulations, they gave no evacuation order and required staff to remain on duty amidst the thickening smoke and fumes. The novel is written in an unpretentious realist mode which gives the main characters a convincing if fleeting life. In it we see a talent for rendering the characters’ internal life, an empathy with the lives of the poor and a spirit to uncover injustice. They are much to be preferred to the unhappy vanities of the gauchely titled My History, I Think.

Gerry Webb is an English tutor, writer and critic.

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Posted in Autobiography, Non-fiction and Review
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