R.H.I.: Two Novellas
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
In 1987, the South African novelist J M Coetzee spoke at the Weekly Mail Book Week in Cape Town, offering a few observations on the relation of novels and novel-writing to the times which produce them. Coetzee’s subject was, effectively, the nature of fiction’s relationship to history, a subject peculiarly charged by the time and locale into which his talk – later transcribed as the essay, “The Novel Today” – was delivered. The problem for the novelist, as Coetzee sees it, is that in times of intense ideological pressure (like the apartheid era in South Africa) the gap between fiction and history is squeezed to almost nothing, forcing the novelist to either supplement or rival the power of history itself. Coetzee is mainly concerned with the ethical dimensions of fiction’s resistance to history and, over a lifetime, has produced one of the most remarkable bodies of work of any era, pondering this question among others through fiction and essays.
But what about the writer for whom the forces of history are altogether more muted or who writes in times or climates of less immediate or intense ideological pressure? Without the galvanising impetus of a call-to-arms against history and its terms, where is literary seriousness to be found? Coetzee himself describes: “a powerful tendency, perhaps even dominant tendency, to subsume the novel under history, to read novels as what I will loosely call imaginative investigations of real historical forces and real historical circumstances; and conversely, to treat novels that do not perform this investigation of what are deemed to be real historical forces and circumstances as lacking in seriousness.”
One of the answers might be that if the novel which doesn’t engage with history seems shorn of seriousness, it is still allowed a more fundamental engagement with the seriousness of literary form. The workings of narrative itself become subject matter and are thus made to seem representative of a radical human value. We are, as they say, storytelling animals. On the other hand, once history has been used as a marker of literary seriousness, then simply turning away from it altogether seems at best frivolous and at worst compliant. For a New Zealand novelist, the question quickly becomes how to situate the work somehow adjacent to history; how might a novel remain both mindful of history but at the same time make literary claims all of its own in the world. Tim Corballis’s and Ian Wedde’s recently released novels both register the remove of the local writer from pressure points in historical terms, yet whose artistic claims are made without entirely detaching from historical circumstance.
For two novels so different in mood, they occupy markedly similar territory and invoke not dissimilar storytelling structures. Wedde’s Trifecta is told in three parts, each narrated by a different grown-up sibling, while Corballis’s R.H.I. does something comparable – each of the book’s three titular letters refers to one of the three main organising presences of the narrative: R stands for Joan Riviere, an English psychoanalyst of the early 20th century; H for Hermann Henselmann, a German architect who designed many of the German Democratic Republic’s post-war buildings; and I for the presence of the author-figure himself who actively identifies as both writer and reader of the book we hold in our hands.
While R.H.I. is a pair of novellas, it is the consistently – though sparingly – wrought figure of the “I” figure who most holds them together. The researcher who sits in the archives reading the diaries of Riviere and fleshes out his imagining in a narrative of his own invention could be, for all intents and purposes, the same writer who, in the second novella, drifts through the streets of Berlin “attempt[ing] to understand, through its forms, the character or person of H”.
Thus, through the imaginative engagement of this central narrative presence, the two novellas are made, and with admirable expertise and dexterity. Like Wedde, Corballis is a connoisseur of language in its poetic and theoretical dimensions. The set- pieces in which his fictional researcher and writer imagine their various subjects are finely wrought with a Woolfian psychological acuity, and there are moments, snatches, of genuinely potent poetic force – “the motorcycle’s noise is his voice, and it chafes at the hills’ contours as if polishing them”, imagines the writer of the first novella; “They too imagined a war fought against the sky,” reflects the writer of the second.
The novellas maintain, too, with clinical intelligence, a steadfast refusal to coalesce too easily into conventional narratives. The book is a resolutely broken whole, reminding us that any narratives designed to sketch history are themselves gestures which also erase history. Telling a story might feel like a constructive act, but it always comes at an ironic expense: the story which seems to represent the thing itself is only ever another layer of mediation between perception and reality. As a result, the writer figure is almost relentlessly, determinedly wraithlike, always on the point of dissolution into the background. This is no doubt purposive: the second narrating I, when at last he steps into Berlin, looks around him and realises that he has “No way of understanding and no right to try.”
And yet, because the “I” of both novellas feels like the same person, there is a kind of solidity here: a fixed point in time and space, a firm vantage point both shared and particular. For that reason, to claim, as the blurb does, that R.H.I. “forms an incomplete history of Europe’s 20th century” is far too grandiose: what is the absence marked out, what is the incompleteness gestured towards? The real ghost here is the presence adrift of the “I” figure himself, far more than it is the whole of the European century.
Wedde’s novel Trifecta is more conventional than R.H.I., perhaps less searching, but no less intelligent. Trifecta tells the story of a family, or at least its dispersed fragments, through the various perspectives of three siblings, Mick, Veronica, and Sandy. Their father, the famous Bauhaus architect, Martin Klepka, fled Nazi persecution and wound up in New Zealand, in Wellington. Mick, the youngest of the three, is living in the Modernist masterpiece known as the Red Cube, the house of Klepka’s making which stands in Mount Victoria. Mick spends most of his time and money on gambling, cigarettes and sex. Veronica is a middle-class alcoholic, married to another middle-class alcoholic with whom she owns a struggling tour company in Napier. Sandy is the older brother, the Auckland academic whose career and marriage both hit the skids some years before. Martin and his wife Agnes died years ago, but the figure of Martin, in particular, looms Lear-like over his grown-up children: all are struggling with his legacy – European, Modernist, and familiar but archly unknowable – in various dysfunctional but connected ways.
Somewhat like R.H.I., Trifecta seems driven by the contingencies of narrative, though mostly at the level of familial relations. The tripartite structure layers the siblings’ differing views on themselves and each other, making for compelling character portraits. When Sandy reflects on his “blunt sister, whose speech always sounds like an abbreviation of some more comprehensive thought”, we can remember Veronica wondering to herself, “Can the sea have a different sound in winter?” It’s just the kind of thought which Sandy would like to know is there, but that he never gets to see or hear.
Occasionally the dialogue feels dialled-up, but at its best the language scrupulously evokes (and with both tenderness and humour) the inadequacy of language itself to meet reality or experience. The payback is the kind of wisdom that sees things moving “out of range of answers”, but towards the only truth really accessible in the end: towards those moments of the cruellest self-reflection, as when Sandy, in disgrace, reflects on his life, on the collapse of his own dignity, and realises “the truth of its condition will be naked”.
The design of the whole, however, perhaps trumps too conveniently those moments of hard-won, authentic revelation. The plagiarised Modernist architectural masterpiece at the heart of the novel may represent an irresolvable tension between narrative order and human disorder, but as a narrative in itself the novel is designed to come together in only one way: I won’t tell where Chekhov’s gun is hiding in the first half, but it will be as plain as day for many readers. Despite what the blurb reckons about a novel that “looks at the odds” in the lives of its characters – or how narrative unreliability is toyed with between their accounts – the plot dice are loaded, leaving nothing to chance, just as history often tries to tell.
Hamish Clayton’s second novel, The Pale North, is reviewed on p15.