The dark night of the decent bloke, Peter Wells

The Scornful Moon
Maurice Gee
Penguin, $34.95,
ISBN 0143018752

Anyone who has heard Maurice Gee read can summon up his tone of voice: discerning, patient and artful. He is a shrewd observer of the human condition with, at times, an almost Jamesian understanding of the complexity of the human beast. He is probably best at sifting through the stratagems by which we make messes of our lives. He is full of stoic understanding. His use of language is admirably chaste. A book by Gee is always something to look forward to and, with Janet Frame regretfully no longer with us, there is probably nobody more suitable to be elevated to the very top niche of the literary pantheon.

I am only too aware, as a mid-career writer, of the dangers of appearing to be “a smart alec”. So in saying I would like to critique The Scornful Moon, I would like it to be understood that we are fortunate to have such an adept practitioner amongst us. It also does not help that he is, himself, an entirely decent bloke.

Decent blokes, or variations thereon, have been the subject of much of Gee’s oeuvre. Or rather it is the undoing, the corrugation of the soul, the dark nights of doubt that make Gee’s decent blokes so fascinating on the page. He captures their talk but he also captures some of the hidden psychology of what might almost be called a Muldoonian male: one who has survived the Depression and experienced war, before falling into that lagoon of moral uncertainties – the post war years. Yet always they are fighting for what might be called “decency”.

Gee has taken with The Scornful Moon a daring step (parallel in its airy daring to Live Bodies, in which he imagined the travails of foreign migrants): he takes the Muldoonian male into the complex moral territory of homosexuality. Of course the Muldoonian male himself is not homosexual. Rather we have Sam, “a moralist”, telling us the tale at a healthy and safe distance.

The heart of the novel alludes to an actual incident. In May 1920 the poet D’Arcy Cresswell was shot by the Mayor of Wanganui, Charles Mackay. Both men, it turned out, were homosexual. It was not a lover’s tiff. Cresswell was blackmailing Mackay. Why would one homosexual man blackmail another? This is a key question. Attached to this historical incident is another: in 1921 the talented modernist painter Edith Collier returned to New Zealand. She began to look after her aged parents. On her father’s command, many of her paintings of female nudes were burnt. Gradually she stopped painting.

Gee has always been adept at summoning up the pinched nerve of the wowser universe. Interestingly it is a world that is nearly always eaten out from within. It is through aiming too high that moral judgements become cruel and violent. Plumb will always be one of the great New Zealand novels because it is both beautifully written and the most compelling exposition of Gee’s moral thesis. If The Scornful Moon is a book in a more minor key it is perhaps because Gee seems to sense that he is on more uncertain ground.

We have to go to the heart of the matter here: the contradiction between the narrator and the voice in which the novel is told. All the clues we are given about Sam, the narrator, are signposted. Indeed the novel itself is somewhat anxiously subtitled “a moralist’s tale”. Sam is a newspaper man, an amateur writer, an admirer of Georgette Heyer. We easily place him on the moral spectrum from his own self-confessed remarks. He is a prude; he dislikes what he sees as emotional squalor. Instinctively he does not “want to know”.

Yet Sam is also something else from the reader’s point of view: his language provides essential clues to the person he is. It is at this point I found myself in some difficulty. As a fellow writer (to both Gee and Sam, our narrator) I could not help but feel both admiration and envy for Sam’s gifted use of language. Time and again Sam expresses himself with the admirable economy, grace, precision … of a Maurice Gee. Mrs Maxey, brothel keeper, is introduced, “her clothes moon-silvered on one side, gilded on the other by light flooding from the door”. This is only one of the many, many felicities of language and tone which Sam, the newspaper man, manages. What newspaper did he write for in the 1920s? I long to be acquainted with such a sophisticated hack.

This goes to the core of my complaint. A sense of disbelief kept creeping over me about the way people talked and saw the world in The Scornful Moon. Admittedly they are all Wellingtonians of an educated sort, but the way they conceive of the world and themselves, their language, their high emotional and intellectual tenor, seems to be contemporary in a way which traduces the real constipation, the horrible narrowness and chauvinism, the damages and pain of our actual past. It also, I feel, risks distancing and hence minimalising the terrible cost of the journey of people like Robin Hyde (whose words Gee uses as a title), Frank Sargeson, and even the rather disagreeable D’Arcy Cresswell.

To kick against the traces in interwar New Zealand had huge psychic costs. One only has to think of what Sargeson experienced when he had to turn against the man with whom he was arrested having sex in 1928. Only by becoming the “victim” and the other man the perpetrator could Sargeson escape prison. The ramifications and dishonesty of this one act echoed throughout Sargeon’s life. Both Hyde and Cresswell ended up suicides. (Sargeson’s early novel, unpublished, was called Journal of a Suicide.) The New Zealand past was not a benevolent universe for intellectual or moral adventurers. All too often it enacted a terrible revenge.

It is my complaint that the terribleness of this revenge is by and large absent from Gee’s  in many ways admirably balanced piece of work. The big moral drama happens off-stage. It involves emotional destruction, of a kind. Unlike the real mayor of Wanganui who exited from our fetid little country to the magic universe of 1930s Berlin (only to die from a policeman’s bullet), Gee’s equivalent is left in prison, noble and silenced. The Cresswell-like character continues his career of moral contagion, untouched and insouciant. Their motives and emotions – their innerness – remain inscrutable and largely unexplored. In an almost traditional manner, the homosexual remains the unknown – the “other”. In this sense The Scornful Moon itself could have been written in the 1930s. Why is it, I ask myself, everyone else in this book has a consciousness which seems more directly contemporary yet the central actors in the destructive drama are set in period amber?

I am perhaps the person most likely to make this complaint: the usual suspect, one almost might say. But I think my source of unease goes further than that. The back cover says The Scornful Moon shows “a master writer’s exquisite story telling”. This may seem an irony but if The Scornful Moon were written less beautifully, it might have been truer. Never once does any character use the ordinary terms of homophobic abuse of the period. This is a world in which “shit stabbers” are absent. Yet is there any quicker way into the mindset of prejudice than such “unbeautiful” language? Are we to think that the main characters of the fiction never thought such unbeautiful thoughts? It seems a little unreal to me, when the author is delving into an ugly incident, one that reeks of the angst and pain of the closet, with its internalised homophobia.

Why would one homosexual man blackmail another? There are many theories as to D’Arcy Cresswell’s actions. Some think he himself was blackmailed: he was caught in a compromising sexual act, and forced into his unbeautiful action. Certainly his act is that of a tormented being, an unhappy soul, a man ill at ease with himself. Moody in Gee’s novel is curiously calm, collected. All he lacks is the silk dressing gown and the Sobranie cigarette.

This seems a brutal statement but in writing about any kind of sexuality you have to imaginatively go there. It is my feeling that in Gee’s last few novels the excellence of his writing has operated as a kind of distancing device, siphoning off the ruder, cruder aspects which yet are necessary for “truth”. The admirable qualities of this latest Gee novel are considerable. I think of beautiful words chiselled expertly in a fine white marble. I think of chaste language and refined perspective. The final rush into melodrama is enjoyable, so I won’t quibble with that. But, for me, The Scornful Moon is both a courageous attempt and a mixed delight. As a writer I couldn’t help but admire Gee’s skills. But as a human alive in 2004 I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed that the “decent bloke” neared the moral puzzle at the heart of this novel – homosexuality – but in the end skirted round it, leaving it aside as something he could not countenance. Whether or not this is a legitimate complaint, I leave to the reader.

 

Peter Wells is a writer and film-maker currently writing a feature film based on the life of a woman of scandal, Freda Stark. His novel Iridescence is reviewed on p16.

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