Over there, Anna Rogers

Foreign City
Charlotte Grimshaw
Vintage, $36.95,
ISBN 1869417275

Responsibility
Nigel Cox
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0864734964

White Shadows: Memories of Marienbad
Philip Temple
Vintage, $27.95,
ISBN 1869416996

I’m old enough to remember the days when a New Zealand novel that wasn’t set firmly in this country would cause prospective publishers to shift uneasily in their seats and utter a regretful “no”. I’m old enough, too, to remember the days when New Zealand fiction was usually published overseas, or sometimes in a British or American co-edition. Even non-fiction titles could produce the plaintive and wary question from sales and marketing staff: “But has it got New Zealand in the title?” Signposts were necessary.

No longer. These three novels – two set entirely, and one substantially, overseas – are completely New Zealand made, produced by two publishers with a well-deserved reputation for fine fiction by fine writers. And this is a generally attractive trio, though it is a shame that design won over legibility when it came to the title type for Foreign City, which can only be made out in certain lights.

But what lies inside those covers? Most overwhelmingly, for all three books, the answer is atmosphere, a compelling sense of place. And all are concerned with the business of making novels, with the lines between fiction and the real world. These novels share, too, a self-referential quality. Cox has a penchant for in-jokes, which can be cosily irritating. Like his author, the protagonist of Responsibility is a New Zealand museum expert working in Germany; his fictional boss shares the same initials as Cox’s real-life Jewish Museum colleague; he longs to run a bookshop as Cox did for many years. Temple’s first-person narrator is a New Zealand writer in Europe who refers to his mountaineering past. In Foreign City the author-character link is less obvious, though the London passages in particular are clearly born of experience.

In the atmosphere stakes, Temple is well to the fore. He brilliantly evokes the empty, fin de siècle quality of the European spa resort of Marienbad: this is Death in Venice with snow. In the eerily unpopulated town a New Zealand journalist and his mysterious lover, F, examine the nature of their love (or is it obsession?). Marienbad has witnessed the failure of some famous relationships – Goethe and the extremely young Ulrike von Levetzow, the epicly unfaithful Edward VII and Mizzi Pistl, Franz Kafka’s neurotic passion for Felice Bauer – and these real-life characters play their part in the novel.

White Shadows begins compellingly and there are many pieces of fine writing: spring water forming a “warm and dark vein through the snow”, marks made by “the feet of shy and feeble birds”, dry snowballs like “puffs of cold flour”. But such moments are counteracted by some awkward outbursts of explanation:

Perhaps this is a consequence of the strength of my visual over my aural memory. But there is no room to draw all those memories on these pages. Certain critics might consider them salacious or pornographic and, while they would demonstrate only the essential power that fused us, I do not want to compromise that.

 

This explicatory quality, and the obvious sense of research about the real historical figures interwoven into the novel, could be regarded as part of the narrator’s journalistic persona and the real life/fiction exploration, but I found them distracting and irritating. And what appear to be personal authorial concerns can intrude: “Prompted by the continual recitations of ancestry by Maori as a way of establishing primacy in New Zealand, I began to examine mine and saw that it was older … .”

And this is fiction with pictures. The idea is not original – Carol Shields did it in The Stone Diaries, for instance – but Temple has placed his photographs throughout the book, often right next to the matching text. Some are teasing little slices of actual photographs of Kafka and co, but some are literal: on p129, for example, the narrator describes the poster advertising a magic lantern theatre show – and there’s the actual poster. Edward VII’s Byzantine private bathing Kabinett is described in detail, and up pops the illustration. Since this slim novel is playing with the differences, echoes and connections between real and unreal, the photographs could be justified as part of the whole experience, but I’m unrepentantly old-fashioned in preferring to let my imagination tell me what my fiction looks like.

The setting and atmosphere of White Shadows remain clear in my mind and are without doubt the novel’s greatest achievement. In the end, though, there’s something missing at the heart of the book; it has a sameness of tone, and readers seeking empathy with the characters may find it hard to circumvent the narrator’s frequent rhetorical self-questioning and F’s unreachability. This is perhaps more intriguing literary experiment than emotionally satisfying fiction.

White Shadows and Responsibility share a European setting, and both authors have lived and worked in Berlin, where Cox sets his novel, but the two books could not be more different. Where Temple is working through the nuances of love and obsession in a mysterious, almost empty landscape, Cox plunges the reader into urban Berlin and the chaos of family life. Martin Rumsfield, 51, harassed but fond husband and father, finds his life suddenly, and madly, transformed by the appearance of an old acquaintance, the deliciously unpleasant Stevens. The latter has an absurd but compelling plan that could make Martin the money he needs to take his family back to New Zealand. More than that, though, Stevens offers the chance for irresponsible adventure, a crazy opportunity to experience the underworld.

Cox is not always a beautiful writer, but he relishes words and isn’t afraid to brandish them with chutzpah and gusto. He has fun with the clichés of detective fiction – “the bridge at twenty-one hundred, bring your brain” – and creates a strong sense of Berlin, particularly at night. But not all is light-hearted. The absurd theatricality of Stevens’ cloak and dagger doings becomes deadly serious, and Martin is forced to face the possibility that he could have lost everything most precious to him. As he says, “What it takes to learn.”

I wished for a little more care in the editing – for full stops rather than breathless strings of comma-separated phrases, for “I’d better go” not “I better go”, for “skull” not “scull” (beware the spellcheck), for “Miss Havisham” not “Miss Haversham”. Although I’m not convinced that Cox, deft as he is, always manages to keep all his linguistic and thematic balls in the air at the same time, Responsibility is never dull and always original. And for all the fun and irony and self-indulgence, this is a striking and thought-provoking novel, with a strong and serious moral message. Noticeable and memorable, too, is the deep tenderness with which Cox writes of Martin’s (his own?) children.

Charlotte Grimshaw is the youngest of the three writers and the most ambitious. Foreign City is a big novel, and it needs to be, for this is in fact three books in one. Like Dickens, Grimshaw makes characters of her cities – London and Auckland. Her evocation of the British capital, especially, is superb. She catches the quality of the light, the weather, the streets and buildings – “The breeze carried a rank smell of cars and smog that stayed on the tongue, a metallic tang, headachy and somehow stirring too: the city’s atmosphere in your throat.”

You need to be on your intellectual toes while reading this novel: it is complex, intricate and demanding. The first part, “The Black Window”, is told by Anna Devine, a young New Zealand artist living in London with her husband Damien and two children, Harry and Lucy. Questioning her view of the city around her, seeking answers to her brother’s death, struggling to be mother, wife and painter, Anna winds herself into a tormented and febrile state, and sleeps with other men.

On specific, telling detail and the creation of an unsettling atmosphere Grimshaw is convincing. The delineation of Anna’s emotions and the mini-treatises on art are less successful, often hitting the page in a curiously flat, bald series of “I” statements (“I was in a strange state”), and in bursts of explanation. The reader is constantly (and for too long) being told what Anna is feeling, but belief and involvement can be hard to summon up. Her infidelity seems unlikely and strangely automatic. Perhaps the distancing of a third-person approach could have allowed for fuller characterisation.

The real complexity begins in part two, “The Box of Light”. The narrator this time is Justine Devantier, whose artist mother Aniela has abandoned her other two children, Harry and Lucy, and returned to New Zealand. In an attempt to discover more about her possible author-father (who is, of course, not Damien) Justine is reading a novel called Foreign City, which concerns a former undercover policeman searching for a woman he once had under surveillance and with whom he had an affair. The account of Justine’s childhood, the portrait of Aniela/Anna and her faithful lover Bob, the shiningly vivid picture of Auckland – these offer some of the best writing in the book. But the device of the novel within the novel is a creative bridge too far. I felt I was being dragged away into the third world of Foreign City and forced to deal with a new set of characters who seemed too much like undeveloped afterthoughts. At a certain point either I or the novel seemed to run out of steam: too much was happening too quickly to people I could not care about.

The extremely talented Grimshaw has aimed high, and should be commended for her daring and intelligence, and for taking on the big subjects – love, identity, the reconciliation of art with ordinary life – but in the end Foreign City does not entirely cohere as a fulfilling fictional experience. It is defeated, finally, by its own structure; it is too clever for its own good.

If I’m old enough to remember those dark ages of fiction publishing in this country, I‘m old enough too, perhaps, to consider how novels themselves have changed. These three books are all memorable. They say a good deal about New Zealanders in the wider world and their imaginative responses to distant places, and to their own origins. They leave lasting images in the reader’s mind. They offer moments of emotional recognition and connection – the final bewildered acceptance by Temple’s journalist that F is lost to him, Martin Rumsfield’s realisation that facing responsibility can bring its own joy. But their first-person delineation of individual angst, their overt concern (particularly Grimshaw’s and Temple’s) with structure and surface and their self-referential quality, mean that, for me at least, they are not entirely generous books; they are, somehow, looking more at themselves than at the reader.

 

Anna Rogers is a Christchurch editor, author and book reviewer.

 

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