To hell and gone, down there, Jane Westaway

Zone of the Marvellous: In Search of the Antipodes
Martin Edmond
Auckland University Press, $34.99,
ISBN 9781869404475

Anna Kavan’s New Zealand: A Pacific Interlude in a Turbulent Life
Jennifer Sturm (ed)
Vintage, $36.99,
ISBN 9781869791339

Passageways: The Story of a New Zealand Family
Ann Thwaite
Otago University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781877372674

Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: An Unlikely Love Story
Christina Thompson
Bloomsbury, $47.99,
ISBN 9780747598152

For some time now, Earth has been orbiting the star at the centre of our solar system, which happens to be one of uncountable others comprising what we fondly call the known universe. (Never mind the unknown universe – let’s not go there.) There’s a lot we still don’t know, but one thing we can be pretty sure of: that in the incomprehensibly limitless space through which we are hurtling, there is no “right way up”.

The first time I saw one of those maps of the world that enthrones the Antipodes at the top and Europe at the bottom, I laughed out loud. The joke is that it breaks a rule, one running so deeply through our culture and personal mindset that we don’t realise it exists until we spot New Zealand slap-bang where Great Britain “should” sit. The experience is as mind-broadening as foreign travel is supposed to be.

The four books under review all spring, in various ways, from this long and dearly held convention that the north belongs on top and the south down under. Three come from writers who are more or less extra-Antipodeans; the fourth, by Martin Edmond – a native by birth and upbringing – serves as a prism through which to view the others, relocating author and reader in a less earth-bound – maybe that should be less hide-bound – sphere.

Zone of the Marvellous comprises an introduction and eight essays tracing the endurance down the ages of northern dreams of the south. Edmond’s starting point, deriving from Foucault, is the concept of heterotopia: a site of illusion and compensation, like sacred ground or a honeymoon suite – an archetypal other place. In contrast to utopias, which are ideal and unreal.

The first essay, “Ancient Voices”, unpacks and explores the myth of Gilgamesh; the last, “After Erewhon”, examines heterotopias of the southern imagination through the art of Colin McCahon and Sidney Nolan. Together, his essays build a strong case for the proposition that, if the south didn’t exist, the north would – and, before it was “discovered”, indeed did – invent it. But this book does much more than just build a case: it is an entertainment of the best kind.

Much of it will appeal to those who enjoy well-written – albeit unconventional – accounts of explorers and their travels: Hippalus, Marco Polo, Ferdinand Magellan and, of course, James Cook. But what intrigues equally if not more is the consciousness informing it. As Edmond notes in his introduction, imagination has contributed as much to “what we call history as … the biological facts that Darwin spent his life assembling. It was an imaginary Japan that led Columbus to America; and for years we called the people he found there Indians.”

Edmond’s cerebral reach might sometimes be too big a stretch. His research might occasionally strike you as relentless. You might sometimes be moved to mutter, “Give me a break,” as he piles odd anecdote on top of obscure name on top of unlocatable location (I would have loved a few maps), then takes you off down a side path that will almost certainly lead to side paths of its own. But his treasure trove of detail is strung on the unique thread of his vision, and the journey it takes you on is a trip. You close Zone of the Marvellous feeling you have been somewhere extraordinary, seen great things and had new light thrown on the ordinary.

Anna Kavan fetched up in New Zealand, rather than coming in search of a heterotopia or utopia. Editor Jennifer Sturm’s excellent 64-page biographical introduction to Anna Kavan’s New Zealand, and Kavan’s stories themselves, leave the strong impression of a woman whose nightmares were too dark and daunting to make space for dreams of that kind. She was at home nowhere, and therefore anywhere. The outside world – New York or New Zealand – seemed to come at her obliquely, triggering expeditions into her own interior wilderness, without map or compass.

Kavan was born in the south of France in 1901 to wealthy, cold, neglectful parents. They moved to America when she was four, leaving her with relatives, then, when she followed a year later, sent her straight to boarding school. Her father killed himself when she was 10. She married twice – the first time at 19; divorced twice. Her only son was killed in WWII, and a daughter died soon after birth. She made several suicide attempts, and suffered lifelong bouts of depression and mental illness. For most of her adult life, Kavan was addicted to heroin, and this contributed to, if it didn’t directly cause, her death in London in 1968.

Perhaps the drug was her heterotopia. Possibly, too, for a while the promise of the new name she adopted shortly before arriving here in February 1941, the one she is known by. She took it from a character in one of her earlier published novels: no mere professional decision, Sturm points out, but a determination to re-invent herself. Not an uncommon urge in those embarking on a change of hemisphere.

At first Kavan lived in a cottage on Takapuna Beach, not far from the home of Frank Sargeson, who, Sturm says, grudgingly admired her. Later she lived at Torbay. She left the country in November 1942 soon after her partner Ian Hamilton was arrested as a conscientious objector.

Kavan’s cult status derives in good part from these non-literary aspects of her tragic life. But not all of it – the stories reproduced here are original and sharply written enough to arouse curiosity about her longer work. “Story”, though, is a misleading descriptor. These pieces disdain traditional aspects of short story writing; and that, and the constant, strong authorial presence, work against a sense of fiction. They feel timeless and haunted, as if a shadowy Kavan is still out in their hinterland, wandering about.

The book includes a terrific non-fiction piece published in Cyril Connolly’s Horizon in 1943, after Kavan returned to England. Entitled “New Zealand: Answer to an Inquiry”, it characterises this country as “to hell and gone, down there”. The scenery is splendid, alienating, resistant to man; the city “indeterminate. It isn’t England and it isn’t anywhere else. It’s null, it’s dull, it’s tepid, it’s mediocre: the downunder of the spirit.” She ends by saying:

At least, that’s how [New Zealand] looks to me in my picture. And how should I presume to criticise the people who venture to trust themselves to those weird, unearthly, resplendent islands, lost, lonely, islands, implacably blockaded by empty Antarctic seas? In my picture these people look mad and heroic because they have courage to go on living at all in the face of that alien terror and loveliness, nothing between them and the South Pole.

 

Something of a reversion to the traditional northern view of the Antipodes as “other”, the piece also says a good deal about its “lost, lonely … implacably blockaded” author. To take offence – as apparently many New Zealanders did – would be pointless. Wherever she went, Kavan was an outsider.

The piece was written in response to a request for information about this country, prompting Kavan to say: “The transmission of information is not my department. The only job for which I am qualified as an individualist and a subjective writer is the recording of my personal reactions.” By contrast, Ann Thwaite excels in transmitting information. Or perhaps that should be “compiling” it. For whether information is finally transmitted depends a great deal on how ready the reader is to receive it. For a good number – family, friends and acquaintances in this country and elsewhere – the answer in this case will be, yes, please.  The rest of us may not be quite so eager.

Thwaite is the acclaimed biographer of Edmund Gosse, Philip Gosse, Emily Tennyson, Winnie-the-Pooh, A A Milne and Frances Hodgson Burnett, and her latest book, Passageways, is subtitled The Story of a New Zealand Family. My difficulty with it is – and given the vast amount of dedicated research it clearly entailed, I feel churlish in saying so – it’s not really a story. Stories don’t result from the amassing of facts. Stories require a thread – something that works on the reader like a ball of twine the Famous Five would unwind to get them into and back out of a cave system.

Kavan’s stories work because the twine is her brilliant, wayward consciousness; Edmond’s twine is the force of his scholarly yet imaginative overview, which allows a reader to trust she is on her way somewhere. The twine running through Thwaite’s 300-plus pages is family blood – these accumulated names, dates of birth, arrivals and departures fascinate her because they relate to her forebears. The pace picks up a little when she relates her school-girl years at Wellington’s Samuel Marsden Collegiate School for Girls, but the book remains a record rather than attaining something more significant.

Thwaite was born in London in 1932. Her parents met as youngsters in Hokitika and, many years later, married in London – their heterotopia. “I think that our father always knew he had to get away from Hokitika,” she writes, “if he were to make anything of his life.” Angus Harrop went on to publish eight or so books, most notably a biography of Edward Gibbon Wakefield. He and his wife Hilda also established and ran the long-lived, much depended-on, London-published New Zealand News.

With the outbreak of war, New Zealand promised – as it often has – a safe haven, so eight-year-old Ann Barbara, her brother David and their mother sailed south through potentially dangerous waters. The children were settled in boarding schools, their mother went back to London, and it was five years before Ann Barbara and David saw their parents again.

For many children, this separation would have proved utter misery. Thwaite gives the impression of breezing through it, of someone Famous Fiveish herself: sturdy and commonsensical, with no time for wobbly upper lips. Not a bad companion on a long journey, but I did yearn for more intimacy, a little less sense and a little more sensibility.

Christina Thompson’s Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: An Unlikely Love Story errs in another direction. It weaves a competently compressed history of first contact between Aotearoa’s indigenous people and its European visitors around a personal memoir of meeting, falling in love with and marrying one of the former – an encounter she depicts as a parallel first contact. This conceit dominates – and from the point of view of this reviewer – dooms the book. As an exasperated Paula Morris wrote in the New Zealand Listener (August 23 2008): “The idea of describing a marriage in the 1980s between an American and a Maori as a ‘contact encounter’ feels not only dated but absurd.”

The unexamined agenda driving the book is revealed in Thompson’s depiction of New Zealand as “far-flung”, which, as Morris says, “implies the world has a centre from which the flinging takes place.”

Only up north can one get away with this kind of lazy thinking, let alone Thompson’s relentless pluralisation of Maori as Maoris, and the somewhat distasteful portrait of the husband as noble savage – a construct that, as Edmond points, out, has always gone hand in hand with heterotopian dreams.

The author told Morris she didn’t write the book for New Zealanders, lamenting that “When foreigners write about you, people feel there is a kind of trespass going on.” She has a point, but from down this end of the world, it doesn’t look like one that should excuse her.

Those growing up in the so-called Antipodes never suffer from the happy illusion that this is the point on the globe from which all others are more or less flung. Here in the 21st century we are still “anti”, down under, at the end of the world. This might account for a slight but enduring antipodean insecurity, variously expressing itself as reticence and bluster, but, speaking as someone who’s lived for long stretches on both sides of the equator, that symptom isn’t nearly as hard to bear as the entrenched northern perception expressed either by the outright contempt Edmond experienced as a “colonial” in London or my own mother’s amused condescension.

When she and her husband brought their three children here in 1964, the gleam in their eye spoke volumes, even to their appalled daughter. We were coming to a land flowing with milk and honey, a better life and the promise of Christmas on the beach. Over their nearly four years here, that gleam faded. The place my father said he might get to every time he dug a hole in our Hertfordshire garden failed to keep its promise, so they went Home. Conversely, our young people still flock every year, as Edmond and Angus Harrop did, to the northern hemisphere, particularly London. That is our antipodean Anti-podes, the sacred other place that makes pilgrims of us, and where unimaginable wonders lie.

 

Jane Westaway is co-editor of New Zealand Books

 

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Posted in History, Non-fiction and Review
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