Unquiet World: The Life of Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk
Stephanie de Montalk
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
I completely misunderstood this book. I did what I usually do to begin reviewing a book. I checked for a subtitle, usually a more direct hint at a book’s contents than the title. “The Life of Count Geoffrey Potocki de Montalk” it said, and then, oddly in the same size font, the author’s name. I turned to the Table of Contents. I found what one might expect in a biography: chapter headings like “Return to New Zealand” and “The Later London Years”. I turned to the Index. Over seven columns of listings for “Potocki de Montalk, Geoffrey Wladislas Vaile”, the subject of the biography. Quite thorough, I thought. The publishers should be congratulated. But then I noticed nearly a column of references for the author herself, including her own “personal life”. Was the Count’s biographer as egotistical as her subject?
After reading a detailed account of the author’s eye surgery in the Introduction, I began to think she was even more self-centred than her subject. I really didn’t want to know about curettes, bacteria, gauze and swollen tissue between her mouth and brain, and what on earth did this have to do with the Count? Having worked with de Montalk at the Video Recordings Authority and on the Film and Literature Board of Review, I was beginning to wonder how I could possibly keep our friendship and write an honest review. But, to her credit, de Montalk plays her cards honestly and reveals that what was intended to be biography shifted into novel and then epic poem before finally crystallising into memoir. This book is not a biography. De Montalk is not egotistical (at least not in a way that is undeserved). Indeed, the book is not so much a memoir of the Count as it is a partial autobiography of Stephanie de Montalk herself.
We get the Count’s life as mediated by de Montalk. Her writing is conceptually in the style of a policy analyst, but stylistically much more entertaining. Whenever she gets close to venturing beyond mediation into the dull land of apology, she makes a good fist of putting on the brakes. For example, she offers up several explanations for the Count’s anti-semitism, but frankly admits that none of them really explain why his conviction was so strong. On the other hand, her assessment of his talent as a poet is as far from being apologetic as it is possible to be:
It is my view that, with the leaving of New Zealand, the lifting of restraints and the freeing of his latent eccentricity in London, this facility – this talent, perhaps – eventually became trapped inside the folds of his cloak. The poet as a writer was overtaken by the poet as a person.
Some of the poems are indeed dire; others almost whimsical, like this from Our Eight Siamese (1973):
live in flats
and the back yard
is hard –
but for ours, space abounds:
they have ample grounds …
Similarly, de Montalk’s explanation of the Count’s obscenity trial and subsequent appeal is masterful in the thoroughness and precision of her analysis. It should be used as a model of how extra-legal factors affect legal outcomes in every law school’s “Law in Society” course.
The Count was charged in 1932 with publishing an obscene libel. This was only four years after The Well of Loneliness was found to be obscene by a magistrate who did not seek any literary expert opinion. To succeed, the Crown had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that five poems which were the subject of the charges had a tendency to deprave and corrupt those whose minds were open to such influences and into whose hands the publication might fall. (The “deprave and corrupt” test dated from the 1860s, and survived in New Zealand law until 1993. It was often used by Women Against Pornography when they made submissions to the Indecent Publications Tribunal.)
One poem was a translation of Rabelais’ “Chanson de la Braguette”, freely available everywhere in French. Another was a parody of Verlaine’s “Idylle High-Life”, and heaven knows Verlaine needed parodying. The other three could really only be said to be interesting ditties. One of them, “Here Lies John Penis”, was written on account of Rex Fairburn’s awkwardness with women. It spoofed “He Shall Not Rise”:
Here lies John Penis
buried in the Mount of Venus.
He died in tranquil faith
that having vanquished death
HE SHALL RISE up again
and in Joy’s Kingdom reign.
Here lies a poet
who never had a fuck:
let’s hope in heaven
he’ll have much better luck!
.B. – He has since – Ed.
The Crown also had to prove that the poems were indeed published. All the Count did was take them to a potential printer to find out whether he could print them. The Count was tried by judge and jury, convicted and sentenced to six months’ imprisonment.
There are no good legal explanations for the decision to charge the Count, his conviction or the dismissal of his appeal. He was a victim of circumstance and character. He had lousy barristers, paid for and instructed by others willing to sacrifice the defendant. He had a biased, intervening trial judge and a weak, incompetent appeal bench. It was a case of bad facts making worse law. It was also a case of revisiting the starvation and humiliation of his childhood, this time in Wormwood Scrubs. Indeed, the arrival of the stepmother who starved Geoffrey and his brother Cedric (his sister rarely rates a mention) after their idyllic first few years of life could be compared with Cain and Abel losing the Garden of Eden through no fault of their own. Except in Geoffrey’s case, it happened twice. De Montalk draws no such comparison, but it is no great leap to speculate that it might well have occurred to someone as erudite and egotistical as the Count.
There is perhaps too much emphasis on psychoanalytical explanation for the Count’s behaviour and self-sabotage, and de Montalk quotes often from David Weeks’s study entitled Eccentricity. Her subject was an irritating, intelligent and entertaining man. Geoffrey’s inability to recover from the death of his mother, an evil stepmother, and a financially troubled father suggests a certain delicacy of spirit, an inability to overcome. This delicacy, combined with a gentle humour particularly evident in his cat poems, balances his transformation into a cantankerous and self-centred old ranter (even when he was relatively young) whenever anyone touched on his forbidden topics which at various times included: the English, the Woolfs, New Zealand, Christians, other poets, Jews, people who didn’t appreciate his own beauty, title or claim to the Polish throne, his father, many other individuals for individual reasons, and the political Left.
One reason why de Montalk need not have relied so heavily on Weeks and other psychological experts is that she is a dab hand at it herself. Any person who raises four children in a stable marriage must have an innate knowledge of human psychology. She offers up many personal insights on child development, including the effects of the death of a parent, and on how to influence young persons’ behaviour, particularly from her experience as Warden of Weir House. The best examples of her applied psychological skills are evident in the way her children interacted with the Count: Jonathan, aged 14, asking the Count to dress as a “mere mortal” when his friends came around; Dylan, aged 5, calling out “Geoffrey!” all the time and then forgetting what he wanted to say; Melissa, asking him point blank, “When are you leaving? I want my room back.” This was probably the most functional family Geoffrey ever knew.
I have two minor quibbles. I cannot remember how many times I wanted to refer to an extended fold-out family tree, naming not only births, deaths and marriages, but lovers, children born out of wedlock, adopted children, birth parents and alleged ancestors of the lot. And why is Geoffrey referred to by the name almost everyone in the book shares, Potocki, when his first name (I daren’t say Christian name for fear of Bad Luck befalling me) would have distinguished him easily?
The literature of the pamphlet is not something most countries recognise as significant, nor do we acknowledge our great translators to any extent. Geoffrey was certainly not a great poet (the author’s own Animals Indoors is more consistent and better) but he may well have been a great polemicist, pamphleteer and translator. Are we capable of looking past the personality of the author to assess in a critical light the quality of this particular, and perhaps narrow, written legacy? De Montalk does not ask this; she instead plays safe and merely offers up her impression of the Count as an eccentric who expressed himself through pamphlets, poems and argument. Everyone loves an eccentric, especially a dead one, but I was left with a desire to be better equipped to decide whether his pamphlet and translation legacy deserves greater respect. Perhaps a memoir is not the right place for this.
The book ends with the funeral of an unnamed stranger in France, coincidentally taking place near Geoffrey’s grave. The stranger’s family will never know that they close one of New Zealand’s best memoirs. How appropriate.
Bill Hastings is Chief Censor.