Writers and Readers Week: Part wish-list, part pragmatics, Jane Stafford

Inhabitants of Wellington are in danger of terminal smugness. A recent North and South article has extolled the capital as a place of culture, excitement, physical beauty and energy. Though the accolade the Melbourne of the South Pacific may seem to some a little ambiguous in its implications and a little limited in its praise, generally the city’s virtues listed in the article are undeniable. Central to the energy of the city at present is the upcoming International Festival of the Arts which coincides this year with the opening of Te Papa: the Museum of New Zealand. This architectural monolith now visually dominates the city, and is already a not uncontentious part of its cultural life. It is fitting that it is to be the venue of that particular part of the International Festival most overtly concerned with the intellectual, with the mapping of a culture, with the interplay between the national and the international: New Zealand Post Writers and Readers Week (10-15 March 1998).

Heterogeneity is always the intention of those responsible for the WRW programme, with a blend oi the familiar and the unknown. While no overt thematic emphasis is intended – availability and a handy link-in with the Adelaide Festival are constraints – one of the interesting processes to watch over the Weeks events is the emergence of threads of common concern and dialogue. The programme suggests a number of starts, particularly in the grouping of panel discussions. James Belich, Ranginui Walker, Judith Binney, Anne Salmond and Jock Phillips have obvious areas of common concern and expertise, as the title of their session, “The Past is a Foreign Country”, suggests. Another session groups British Writers Julian Barnes and A L Kennedy with NZ short story whizzes Owen Marshall and Elizabeth Smither and chair C K Stead to ponder the subject “Small But Perfectly Formed” – one hopes on the subject of literary form. Travel writer Pico Iyer and Japanese author Yuko Tsushima are grouped with Irish writer Sinéad Morrissey and chair Louise Wrightson in a reading titled “Japanese Mirrors, and Louis de Bernières, Miroslav Holub, Anne Michaels and Elizabeth Knox discuss war and the literature of War. Cultural diversity is covered by Iyer, Sia Figel, Alex Miller and chair Lydia Wevers.

Individual sessions are less predictable, and one of the delights of past WRWs has been the discovery of a previously unknown writer. Stars are all very well, but the wise WRW attender will be adventurous and eclectic in their choices. The undoubted star of this year is the Czech poet Miroslav Holub (assessed by Tony Beyer in this issue). Problems of language and translation mean that Holub is possibly not as well known to NZ readers as he should be. And we have a tendency, I feel, to use these factors as an excuse to ignore the European intellectual and literary tradition, finding Britain, the Commonwealth and North America more congenial because familiar. One of the memorable experiences of the last WRW was Hans Magnus Enzensberger who combined social and political polemic with an intensely poetic vision. Holub promises similar rewards.

Born in 1923 and educated in microbiology and immunology, Holub brings to his work the objectivity of the scientist. A deliberately anti-Romantic stance pervades what he writes and how he writes: “I resent the poetic longing for rural life and so-called nature poetry”. Poetry, he says, is “more the motorway than the mire, more the city lights than the farmyard manure, and more the swish of the transmission wheel than the rustle of graveyard blooms, even though one has a much greater tradition than the other”. From 1971 to 1982 Holub was a “non-person” and his work was available only in foreign translations. Paradoxically, he says, such a situation enhanced the force and effect of poetry. “The big official lie stripped everyone of their own voice so that poetry stood for the missing life of opinion, insight and exchange: “Poetry in the last forty or fifty years replaced other kinds of human communication, replaced free journalism, for example. It had a deep reassuring meaning. It trespassed across the borderline of the typical poetry public to reach normal people.” Holub’s poem “The Door” underlines his desire to eschew pretension, ending:

Go and open the door
even if there’s only
the darkness ticking,
even if there’s only
the hollow wind,
even if
nothing
is there

go and open the door.

At least
there’ll be
a draught.

Holub’s reputation is established and monumental. WRW organisers have also taken a punt on new reputations, this year with spectacular success by inviting Arundhati Roy before her novel The God of Small Things won the 1997 Booker Prize. An experienced screenwriter, she wrote the novel slowly. “Arranging the bones of the story took time,” she says, “but was never painful. Everything I have – my intellect, my experience, my feelings – have been used. But on the other hand, she expresses an absolute confidence in the final shape: I don’t re-write. My thought and my writing are one thing. It’s like breathing. I don’t re-breathe a breath.”

In a story reminiscent of Victorian publisher George Smith and his discovery of Jane Eyre, and dramatising perhaps the fantasy of all new writers, the manuscript found its way to the desk of David Godwin, a London literary agent, who read it and took the next flight to India. A Harper Collins advance of one million US dollars followed. Roy’s success has not been without controversy. Her book is seen in some quarters as shockingly frank in its treatment of sexuality, the caste system, and the more conventional aspects of Indian society. “There is a great suspicion (in India) of success,” she says. “Some people think you must be pandering to Western tastes.” The God of Small Things deals with a Syrian Christian family in Ayemeenem, in the southern state of Kerala, where Roy grew up. There are autobiographical parallels, although as Roy warns, “all fiction springs from your expression, but it is also the melding of the imagination and your experience.” Critics point to the “overpowering feeling of foreboding in the novel, of the child’s vulnerability in a capricious worlds”. As the child Estha realises when he is molested at a performance of My Fair Lady, “Anything could happen to anyone”. Roy concurs: “The whole book is about that. You either have a closed family – mother, father, baby, and everyone having picnics – or a family so broken up that the world comes in, there are so many holes in the armour.”

Anne Michaels’ novel, Fugitive Pieces (assessed by Alexander Hart in this issue), is, similarly, a first novel, although the Canadian writer has already an established reputation as a poet, winning the 1986 Commonwealth Prize for the Americas with her collection The Weight of Oranges, which has been described as “always beautiful and melodic, yet full of pain and anguish”. She characterises her poetry as concerned with “History, Memory. Ways of looking at history. The ways a person influences his or her time – and is influenced by time.” These concerns are central to her novel, written over a number of years, and dealing with the linguistically intractable topic of the Holocaust. Michaels’ father was a Polish Jew whose family emigrated to Canada in the early thirties. Despite this, she is tentative and respectful about taking on such a topic: “One doesn’t take these things on lightly. I think you have to burrow very deeply to find your own relation to things, real or imagined, and that relationship takes an incredible amount of time if it’s to be truthful and organic and earned.”

Critics dwell on the power of the language of Fugitive Pieces. It is in the best sense a poet’s novel. Michaels speaks of “the challenge of language and the challenge of making an intellectual idea, an image, carry emotional weight”. But this does not mean that the materiality of the novel form is ignored. A critic writes that the book is “studded with geology, Greek cuisine, poetry, puns, directions for playing passages from Brahms, salutes to lost Toronto landmarks, accounts of Nazi obliteration of the archaeological record, and the obliteration of people.” Objective reality and subjective truth are commingled, as she suggests in her poem “Above Lake Superior” which ends:

When you truly see a place
it is the place seeing you.
Nothing glints like brokenness.
At last I could paint myself
out of the picture. Because
standing on the ridge, among the scoured columns –
to anyone looking up from the lake –
I was invisible. Because
what are we? Bones and light.

A L Kennedy (assessed by Alan Riach in this issue) is similarly a young writer with a growing reputation. One of 1993’s Twenty Best Young British Novelists mainly on the basis of her short story collection Night Geometry and the Garscadden Train, she has subsequently written five other books – novels, novellas and collections of short stories – including the highly recommended So I am Glad (1995), characterised by a style which is both bleak and beautiful. A sample:

Months and years buried away without changing what I came to see more and more clearly as an invincible lack of involvement on my part. Like manholes and poison bottles I was made to be self-locking.

Trainspotting it isn’t, though Kennedy is often bracketed with the tough, uncompromising school of young Scottish writers. A critic describes her work as involving “a layered series of dilemmas circumscribing contemporary life (including love versus sin, human versus animal instincts, modernism versus postmodernism, egoism versus altruism, sadism versus masochism, and faith versus godlessness)”.

The British novelist Julian Barnes is also often connected with the more outré reaches of the human psyche, and has driven critics to similarly flex their paradoxes: “the battle between our rational and irrational selves, the perennial and unfathomable failure to reconcile our instincts and our intellect”. With the innovation and energy of such novels as Before She Met Me, FIaubert’s Parrot, Staring at the Sun (in which the heroine comes to the memorable conclusion, “Women were brought up to think that men were the answer. They weren’t. They weren’t even one of the questions.”), and The History of the World in 10½ Chapters, Barnes is busy countering the claim of South American Carlos Fuentes that the English novel is “a large pot of tea stewing comfortably under a tea-cosy”.

Barnes has other hats which he may or may not be wearing at WRW. He worked for a while as a lexicographer in the “sports and dirty words department”, and as a journalist, writing for a number of years a regular column for the New Yorker on things English (collected in a volume, Letters from London). And, slightly more unusually, he writes detective stories under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh. Kavanagh’s biographical notes vary from book to book, but have most recently included mention of time as the assistant marshall at Romford Greyhound Racing Stadium, and the review Barnes is most proud of is one in Police World. Barnes comments, “I suppose some people think it’s a bit frivolous of me to write thrillers, but I always like to do lots of different sorts of writing. Novelists spend far too much time thinking about how they are perceived. It seems to me in the long run we’re all dead, and in the long run our reputation will be as good as our best book. If you start thinking about controlling the way you’re seen, you’ll just go mad.” It may be connected with this desire to let the work speak for itself, that Barnes is not a confiding or confessional interviewee. He has said, “Giving public details about oneself is a bourgeois temptation that I have always resisted.”

Louis de Bernières may be slightly more forthcoming. Despite the name, he is not French but English, coming from a military background that he was also expected to enter. Born in 1954, he remembers standing in line as an army cadet in the sixties – at the time that Donovan was singing “Do you know what would happen if there were no soldiers?” – with a sergeant shouting, “You’re a c–t, sir, what are you?” The contrast was too great, he left the army, and in his words, “devoted ten years to avoiding a career because one day I was going to be a writer.” The writer he finally became is an unusual hybrid of South American magic realism and English satire, described by one critic as “gleeful comedy and true terror” in a direct line from Dickens and Evelyn Waugh. The term “mythic populist” has been applied to his writing. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is his most notable success, an intensely lyrical, tragic, hilarious account of a small Greek island during the Second World War. De Bernières has said, “I like to read and write books on a grand scale. I am interested in situations where ordinary people are caught up in abuses of power or historical crises or events.”

Pico Iyer is a writer with a similar establishment English background, whose writing, similarly, goes beyond the bounds of conformity. His background – he was born in England of Indian academic parents who subsequently moved to the US – gives his writing a facility that is not quite international, rather that of the eternal outsider, the observer without cultural bias or generic constraint. Video Night in Kathmandu and other reports from the not-so-far-east conveys in its title his eye for the incongruous, while The Lady and the Monk blends a traveller’s account of Japan with a more personal record of a relationship with a married Japanese woman. Iyer explains this hybridity by saying, “Writing should ideally be as spontaneous and urgent as a letter to a lover, or a message to a friend who has just lost a parent. And because of the ways in which a writer is obliged to tap in private the selves that even those closest to him never see, writing is, in the end, that oddest of anomalies, an intimate letter to a stranger.” There is an obvious link here between fact and fiction. Iyer says, “Fiction is like travel. You leave your usual self behind”. And in his latest book he has been forced to use this conflation of form. Research that he had done for a travel book about Cuba was destroyed in a fire and he was forced to recast it as a novel, Cuba and the Night.

Japan may develop into a thematic thread of this year’s WRW, with in addition to Iyer’s interest, the presence of the eminent Japanese novelist, Yuko Tsushima (assessed by Geraldine Harcourt in this issue). Described as “one of the most significant feminist writers of contemporary Japan”, Tsushima has described the women she writes about as “yet to become a part of mainstream Japanese literature, which has traditionally depicted women as angels ministering to men.” Instead, she claims, Japanese writers have been inward-looking and self-engrossed, avoiding social and political criticism and concentrating on “personal emotions and Japan’s past”. Tsushima’s novel The Child of Fortune tells the story of a single mother on the fringes of society, while her collection of short stories, The Shooting Gallery, is referred to by Iyer in his The Lady and the Monk as “sad and suffocating tales of single mothers dreaming of flight, waiting for the men who invariably walk out on them”. “I felt”, says Iyer, “as if I was seeing modern Japan for the first time.”

Two Australians are attending WRW, and one hopes they don’t take exception to Pico Iyer’s judgement that Australia “is less a culture than an aggregation of subcultures, a society of fringes – of surfers, cowboys, boozers and hippies”. Alex Miller’s novel The Ancestor Game was the winner of the 1993 Commonwealth Prize, and his work in progress, The Conditions of Faith, has connections and parallels with the life of Katherine Mansfield. He has described writing as “a dialogue with your culture”, which, in his novels, is also a dialogue with that culture’s history. Miller has had a substantial involvement in Australian theatre, being a co-founder of the Anthill Theatre and a founding member of the Melbourne Writers’ Theatre. WRW’s second Australian guest, David Williamson, is a veteran, with such plays as The Removalists, Don’s Party, Travelling North and The Emerald City to his credit. A recent play, The Heretic, is based on the controversy surrounding anthropologist Margaret Mead’s research in Samoa.

Jimmy McGovern is also more visual than literary in his focus. Viewers here will still remember the trauma of his drama-documentary on the Hillsborough disaster, while the sardonic and portly charm of Robbie Coltrane’s Cracker is also his invention. Writing for film will be the focus of a panel with McGovern, Gaylene Preston, Niki Caro and A L Kennedy who scripted the film Stella Does Tricks, which it is hoped will be screened (to the upbeat and unsqueamish) during WRW.

Putting together the programme of WRW is of course part wish-list, part pragmatics. The Caribbean writer Jamaica Kincaid had to pull out of the originally planned programme, and this enabled the organisers to rectify a slight imbalance in regard to poets – always good performers. The US poet August Kleinzahler has visited here before, after appearing at an Adelaide Festival, and was warmly received for both the force and warmth of his performances as well as the power of his poetry. Thom Gunn has described him as combining two opposed poetic modes: “The first is the jokey improvised speech we associate with O’Hara; the second the condensed, considered ‘lapidary’ style of let us say Bunting. When Kleinzahler reconciles them, he creates something all his own, and does so with an energy I find unequalled by other living poets.” Allen Ginsberg’s view was more succinct. He described Kleinzahler as “a loner, a genius from New Jersey”.

Jane Stafford teaches in the Department of English at Victoria University of Wellington.

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