Braided narratives, Stephen Harris

Different Kinds of Pleasure
Elizabeth Smither
Penguin, $28.00,
ISBN 014302065X

My Name Was Judas
C K Stead
Harvill Secker, $28.00,
ISBN 9781846550126

Elizabeth Smither is adept at sounding the depths of the seemingly incidental moment or quotidian encounter. Laura Bening, one of an ensemble of characters in her new novel, Different Kinds of Pleasure, is contentedly (though not smugly) married, provincially middle-class, thoughtful, dutiful and reserved. While her curiosity in life is sated through one of the pleasures of the title – reading, she finds herself unexpectedly on the threshold of a nascent friendship with her daughter’s dance teacher, Romy Lambard, a woman who, with studied theatricality, cultivates her own enigma as “foreign” artist and self-reliant solitary woman.

There are no epiphanic awakenings for these characters, though the changes that shape and guide their interlocking lives are no less significant for that. Rather, Smither commands her fictional world through a curious impersonality and sparseness of tone. Indeed, it is through her nuanced detachment that Smither will give pleasure to those readers who take delight in subtlety and literary restraint over florid dramatics.

Best known as an accomplished poet (with 15 books of poetry to her credit), Smither has also published three previous novels and several collections of short stories. Different Kinds of Pleasure combines elements of each of these genres. Most obviously a novel in its range and scope, its four sections (“Dance”, “Latin”, “Cricket” and “Reading”) display the tight focus and constrained dramatic sense of the short story, while the cross-hatching of imagery and metaphor shows the poet’s sensitivity to the suggestive weighting of language. That her fiction is “poetic” would in fact be the obvious laudatory adjective to use. And the observation finds its complement in the perceptions of Polly, Laura Bening’s daughter, who, teaching Latin to schoolgirls, admires the language for its “concision” and “masterfully compressed” phraseology.

Smither’s own polished concision corresponds to the measured detachment she exercises over her characters. This proves to be less a matter of studied or condescending omniscience than a means of dispassionately tracing the choreography of relationships in all their often-faltering movements and permutations. The metaphor is announced by the first section: dance is the guiding conceit in this narrative, although as the novel unfolds, dance conflates with “drama” and in turn is fused with the orchestrations of the “game” (hence the “Cricket” section). Ultimately, Smither is “playing out” the ancient classical notion of theatrum mundi – the idea that we are all actors on the stages of our lives.

Early on in the story, we encounter Polly Bening and Daniel Mapplethorpe as leading students at the Romy Lambard School of Music. The two are the link connecting two families whose generational progress forms the narrative basis of the novel. Lambard’s ballet studio is the literal and metaphorical stage on which the adolescents enact the struggles and flexings of their emerging selves as they contend with the rigorous formalities and exertions of dance as an art form. The communal hub for the small group of mothers in the unnamed provincial town, the studio also becomes the scene of the tensions and entanglements that occur in any human community. The lives of the Benings and Mapplethorpes play out across the globe. Polly struggles with a series of frustrating love affairs and, ultimately, an unsatisfactory marriage in Melbourne. Daniel ascends to the heights of balletic stardom yet is weighted with both his father’s rejection and (perhaps consequently) his inability to immerse himself fully in a relationship (gay or straight). Parents become grandparents. Life inevitably gives way to death just as love fades and blooms unpredictably.

Smither’s literary province is the quiet yet consistent pulse and flow of human experience: the perpetual tensions between modest needs for intimacy, comfort and acceptance, and the contradictory yearnings for novelty and enlivening mystery. The “pleasures” of the title are, then, neither exotic or outré, nor are they pure or abstract; they are instead the complex movements entailed in everyday life, the surrenders and retreats, blunders and small private triumphs characterising everyday life.

For some readers, Smither’s stylistic restraint may be alienating or a dramatised endorsement of a stoical (or distinctly New Zealand) attitude to life. Certainly, the characters never appear to be overwhelmed by their experiences, however painful and disruptive. Yet, equally, such dispassionate remove allows Smither to play out the Chekhovian theme announced by Laura the avid reader: that “human beings are essentially alone but that bonds and affection are the centre of a family”. The allusion points to Smither’s own rewarding achievement, for she shows that, with grace and composure, less is very often more.

C K Stead situates his latest novel, My Name Was Judas, in a lineage of modern political and “counter-versions” of the Jesus narrative. Such sceptical renditions of the story – for instance, Nico Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, Mihail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Robert Callois’ Pontius Pilate, Jose Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ and Norman Mailer’s The Gospel According to the Son – reflect the fact that the story is interpretively unstable, particularly as concerns Judas’ character, his putative motives and the exact nature of his relationship with Jesus. It remains to be seen how controversial (and aesthetically convincing) British novelist Jeffrey Archer’s The Gospel According to Judas proves to be. And it remains to be seen what scholars deduce from the recently recovered Gospel of Judas (c300 AD), which purportedly casts new light on the pivotal question of Judas’ motives and alleged guilt.

David Lyle Jeffrey’s A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature provides a comprehensive list of literary and dramatic treatments of Judas – from medieval stereotypes to more sympathetic 19th and 20th century versions – although oddly there is no mention of Sholom Asch’s long and sophisticated The Nazarene (1954), in which Judas’ “lost” (and incomplete) gospel is unveiled and in which he emerges as a confrontingly complex “modern” character, a tormented seeker afflicted with withering doubt – “hung between heaven and hell”, as Asch’s narrator describes him.

Yet for all the sceptical and critical retellings, the essential story retains its moral meaning and dubious influence. If the Synoptic Gospels are sometimes inconsistent, the depiction of Judas’ “selling out” Jesus is nonetheless cemented as the pivotal dramatic element in the Passion of Christ. Few fail to learn that the name Judas is synonymous with the heinous acts of betrayal and avarice. (In Dante’s Inferno, Judas is “the soul that suffers most”.) Given this background, questions arise. Is Stead simply telling another story or issuing a challenge to the injustice of historical stereotyping? Does he wish to foment further theological debate around the question of Judas’ guilt and free will? Is he aiming, however indirectly, to confront the presumed moral authority of Judeo-Christian Western values?

Since Stead characterises Judas as a sceptic, a self-proclaimed “rational man”, one clear implication of this novel is to champion the Enlightenment spirit of discovery over servile subordination to religious dogma. A Hellenised septuagenarian living in Lebanon, Judas (now Idas of Sidon) has long put the old world of his former self – his life with Jesus and his Jewish culture – behind him. He is carefully positioned as autobiographical narrator of his own history. First seen gazing out to the western horizon – the very edges of the known world – he is on the threshold of beholding the “new world”, under the tutelage of his brother-in-law, the ardent empiricist Theseus. If less than certain of Theseus’ proto-scientific explanation of the physics of the earth’s form, Judas, true to his scepticism, is open-minded. His narrative, it is implied, is to be an illuminatingly “true” account of the “greatest story” – the life and death of Jesus Christ – a subversive revision that throws the Judeo-Christian world off its axis and potentially reorders the mythological cosmos.

An only child from a higher class, Judas is always the outsider. Jesus, we quickly learn, is resolutely more human than divine, at least during the long lead-up to the final days. Quick-witted and given to bouts of fury in his younger days, he is also depicted as a natural actor and charismatic orator with a gift for animated improvisation. Other leading “characters” in the Jesus narrative are similarly humanised, most notably Mother Mary, who is variously “spooky”, “weird” and “strange”, and a “prig”. Jesus’ family life is portrayed “realistically”. Equally, the dynamics of his other “family” – the disciples – are described frankly, with Jesus himself depicted as manipulative and controlling. Judas presents Jesus as a self-serving mythmaker: the nativity story is another “tale” whose credibility Judas equates with the stories of his own alleged treachery.

Stead can introduce complexity while avoiding tricksy metafictive ploys simply through foregrounding the fact that the telling and age-old retelling of stories form the historical ground of what we think we know about the ancient and the sacred – whether these stories are called histories, myths or biblical parables. As Judas tells his version, it becomes clear that stories beget stories, a fact complemented by Stead’s incorporation of a range of other voices in the narrative – from the use of Judas’ own poetry at the close of each chapter (creating a chorus-like effect) to the ventriloquistic inclusion of accounts of events by others (such as his son, Antigonus, who at one point brings news of the siege of Jerusalem under Titus).

Storytelling itself becomes the main act, so to speak, a point constantly underlined by our awareness that this is Judas’ story. And one of Stead’s achievements is to have his narrator speak with a lean, modern yet demotic eloquence. In this way, Stead meets one of the challenges facing the historical novelist: how to negotiate the perilous terrain between anachronism and affectation in the attempt to achieve authenticity and verisimilitude. For we are willing to listen to this Judas; in having him speak with a considered tone, dignified cadence, and measured rhythm, Stead creates a character whose narration draws the reader along effortlessly. And if this Judas (inevitably) lacks the corroborative weight of historical fact, nevertheless, as the memoirist, we listen to him because he is speaking to us. We are, then, readily drawn into a story that, in challenging accepted versions of the Jesus narrative, throws up questions concerning the nature and meaning of betrayal, loyalty, faith, belief and the very concept of truth.

Of course, for all the telling of tales, Stead’s cleverly braided narrative moves inexorably towards the climax of the Crucifixion, and, inseparably, the explanation of Judas’ own part in the passion play.  Readers will have to assess the credibility of Judas’ version of events for themselves, and certainly Stead’s novel is worth reading for those interested in alternative ways of reading such sacred stories. However, my final impression is that Stead’s success in My Name Was Judas is a mixed one. The idea of a sceptical re-viewing of sacred narratives is undoubtedly appealing – especially at a time of renewed and worrying fundamentalism – yet Stead’s Judas is a character overly constrained in his even-tempered intellectual disposition, advancing age and world-weariness. Had Stead brought out more of the “devil” in Judas – the very word used in relation to him towards the end of the story – the novel might have attained its full promise.

 

Stephen Harris teaches in the School of English, Communication and Theatre, University of New England (NSW); his Gore Vidal’s Historical Novels and the Shaping of the American Political Consciousness appeared in 2006.

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