Mark Williams’s review of Damien Wilkins’s Chemistry (October 2002 issue) is a convincing defence against Patrick Evans’ claims that Wilkins, and other young New Zealand authors, are courting a lucrative cosmopolitanism while neglecting their duty to the local and its particularities. In support of Williams, it’s worth noting that this controversy is far from new. As far back as 1960, Allen Curnow was using the preface to the Penguin Book of New Zealand Verse to attack the school of Wellington poets for its failure to pay a proper obeisance to cultural nationalism. Today, however, no one thinks of the poetry of James K Baxter, Louis Johnson and Alistair Te Ariki Campbell as lacking any vital New Zealand particularity. National culture is a notoriously slippery concept in any case; behind it usually lurk the subjective, and sometimes even dangerous, ideas of an individual or small group.
Furthermore, perhaps the most consistent feature of New Zealand literature throughout the 20th century was not its nationalism but rather the adversarial attitude to the nation adopted by New Zealand writers. The modernists attacked the nation for being lowbrow; minority-group writers attacked it for being discriminatory; and post-modernists attacked it for being kitsch. Williams seems prescient when he argues that, for a new generation of writers like Wilkins, “New Zealand is presented as if seen from outside, by a consciousness distanced but not alienated, observing it with detached but alert interest and an eye for its cultural oddities.” It may be along such lines that this adversarial stance will continue to develop.
As for Evans’ complaint about the “professionalism of the role of the author and the commodification of the book”, the big words disguise the oldest of controversies. This was not even new when Dr Johnson noted: “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
The Jewish connection
I trust you will allow me to comment on Paul Morris’ review of At the Edge of Memory (October 2002 issue). In thirty years of writing professionally, I have never before been subjected to a review that so misrepresents the contents and emphases of a book.
Morris is so determined to establish that the book is offensive to Jews that he strains to be offended himself by features of it that other readers and reviewers – Jewish and Gentile – found perfectly acceptable.
He writes, for example, that “[King] appears not to be able to see a bearded Jew without suggesting that he looks ‘especially rabbinical’.” That comment in the book is made in the caption of a photograph showing Michael Hirschfeld and myself in academic regalia. On the night the photograph was taken, Hirschfeld told me that I looked especially rabbinical. My riposte was to say that, given our backgrounds, he looked rabbinical; I would settle for “episcopal”.
We had a history of joshing each other about our respective religions. This routine went back to the mid-1960s when Michael was courting my co-religionist Vivienne Flack, whom he subsequently married. Neither of us gave or took offence at such comments.
Morris is also at pains to establish that I acted culturally insensitively in a Brooklyn synagogue. The context of the visit is made clear in the book. I was urged to go there by my New York Jewish cousin, who told me it was the most conservative congregation in New York. He was to accompany me, but at the last moment was called away to a symposium in Moscow. He insisted, nonetheless, that I make the visit on my own.
I took a yarmulke; I asked for and was granted permission at the door of the synagogue to sit and observe. My offence was to pull a pad from my pocket and start taking notes. I did that because that is what I do – I am a writer. I was asked to desist, and I did. I had not known until that point that writing was not permitted on the Sabbath.
Morris also criticises me for “teasing” one of the half-dozen congregation members who engaged me in conversation. I was myself teased in the course of that and other exchanges there. Is Morris seriously suggesting that, in Jewish-Gentile discourse, only Jews have the right to be humorous?
The point which you would never gather from Morris’ review is that I entered the synagogue in a state of ignorance, but in a spirit of considerable respect; and that respect intensified as I saw and listened to what transpired (though Morris, familiar with Jewish ritual, finds in my expression of that respect “a certain kind of clichéd romanticism”).
As the text of At the Edge of Memory makes clear, the book is neither a treatise on Judaism nor a biography of my great-uncle, Maurice Belgrave. It is an essay about what transpires when a Christian/Gentile family discover that they have Jewish connections; and it is an attempt to convey the unfolding and the textures of that discovery in a truthful and highly personalised way.
Selecting the right target
At first I found Brian Turner’s letter (October 2002 issue) regarding my review of some Treaty of Waitangi literature to be (using his own words) “bizarrely unreadable”. Then I cracked the mystery. Turner, I realised, had missed the elementary point that Treaty settlements of historical grievances against the Crown involve a totally different process from that of providing socio-economic justice to citizens.
He compounds the problem of a false premise when he wrongly assumes that supporters of compensation for breaches of the Treaty do not support assisting all “people in need” regardless of ethnicity. Most of the anti-Treaty writers whom Turner demands I name do not make that mistake, the likes of Stuart C Scott lumping both attitudes together and condemning them. If Turner has been reading such books, I suggest he choose more discerningly. The bibliographies of the works I reviewed might be a useful starting point.
I suspect the motivation underpinning his letter is to condemn mindless “political correctness”. If that is the case, my advice is that he select the right targets. I would be happy to join such a crusade, provided it were conducted with fairness, intellectual rigour and logic. I proffer the above advice to Turner because no doubt he means well, but sometimes meaning well is not enough.