Beginning with myths

The novelist Hamish Clayton rereads Lloyd Jones’s The Book of Fame

I first read Lloyd Jones’s The Book of Fame soon after it had won the Deutz Medal for fiction, at the then-Montana New Zealand Book Awards in 2001. It had been published the year before, not surprisingly, to critical acclaim. I barely remember reading any reviews at all when it first appeared, but I do remember the talk around the novel, the excited edge of the chatter about this book that felt different to almost anything else going around in local fiction at the time. As the judges of the Montana put it: “On any scale of originality this novel is in a class of its own.” It’s not hard to see why.

The novel reads virtually as a prose poem, compressed, fragmentary and lyrical, but, like the best prose poems, it also makes up its own rules as it goes along. That’s apposite, and not only for the sake of literary form; Jones’s subject matter is the 1905 All Blacks touring side, the so-called Originals, who famously swept aside virtually all before them in 35 games played over five months, and did so by playing the game emphatically on their own terms. To the apparently hapless British teams who came up against them, it was as though the game itself had been reinvented, was now to be played by new rules.

As indeed, in many ways, it was. The New Zealanders arrived both like a bolt out of the blue into the northern game and fully-formed as well; they brought with them the innovation of the wing-forward position, new playing formations across the field, superior discipline and fitness, and above all, a philosophy of play dedicated not to the acquisition of territory through kicking as per the British game, but to cutting through defensive lines by passing the ball through the hands. Jones imagines how the tactical discussions might have transpired among the players, gathered on the deck during the long months at sea from New Zealand to Britain:

we met on the upper deck to debate football matters. The angle of the scrum. The formation of the backs. Billy Stead and Fred Roberts arranged the pumpkins on the deck and we stood over them with our pipes, debating possible lines of attack. Billy convinced us to embrace the idea that everything we did on the field must have as its end design “the creation of space”. Time and again we re-arranged the pumpkins and determined to find new ways through. The ways were seemingly endless.

Later, Jones’s nameless narrator reflects more deeply on the applications of their new style of game, gently exploring its ramifications as a metaphor for cultural difference itself:

“Like” was the hinge
on which unknowingness swung into light
we could say “like”
when we meant “imagine this”
For example, Billy Stead describing our “pleasure principle” to a newspaperman ‒
to glide outside a man is
pushing on a door
and coming through
to a larger world
a glorious feeling
Space was our medium
our play stuff
we championed the long view
the vista
the English settled for the courtyard
The English saw a thing
we saw the space inbetween
The English saw a tackler
we saw space either side
The English saw an obstacle
we saw an opportunity

The novel continually veers towards pure poetry, as here, from passages of pure prose, but it encompasses an array of other subtle registers in between. The book opens with a team sheet of the touring party; it includes snatches of diaries and match reports; lists of all kinds appear, predominating throughout (dance cards, menus, match programmes, ubiquitous news reports). The aesthetic is striking and expertly controlled. It’s hard to tell sometimes where a factual source ends and authorial, poetic licence begins. But, while the novel feels like a tour diary or a travel journal, as Jones writes in the acknowledgements:

The myth of the 1905 Originals precedes this novel, as do various match reports on the games played. Actual events outside of the matches, however, have been harder to come by and where obtainable not that interesting or even illuminating. This is where imagination slips easily into the gaps.

And this is where Jones is in his element.

It’s not only that Jones turns a line as well as anyone else writing in this novel’s vein of restrained, faintly exotic lyricism. Though he does do that. But, where Jones the novelist needs imagination to colour in the outlines of history, he does so without smudging them too much in favour of heightened historical fiction. Jones knows that his subject here is history as contemporary myth. The story has already been laid down by history and handed down through generations of sports writers and historians. Those of us who grew up with rugby in the DNA will know already the kinds of glorious, dramatic details which crop up in Jones’s book. In the first match of the tour, for instance, the New Zealanders beat Devon 55-4. The result was duly telegraphed to London, where it was assumed to be a mistake, “corrected” by the newspapers the following day to read in favour of the English County champions. The exploits of the touring New Zealanders spread like proverbial fire and the side were treated like heroes wherever they went. Most dramatic of all, and feeding the engines of rugby folklore ever since, was the solitary loss on the tour, 0-3 against Wales, albeit in controversial circumstances, with Bob Deans denied a try despite having grounded the ball over the line. (He claimed.) By then, the All Blacks were thought virtually invincible and the result reverberated through a somewhat stunned British press. And, one assumes, through the New Zealand players themselves. It was a loss of mythic proportions, as history has since tried to tell.

It is that quality which Jones looks to build from most in his treatment of the 1905 Originals. Whereas many contemporary novelists looking to engage in historical fare will mine what they perceive (what they imagine) to be the very depths of the individuals who shaped that history, Jones’s concern lies in a different direction. Characters do emerge, but the ensemble cast are arguably more recognisable as local types thrown into relief against the unfamiliarity of their Old World backdrop. Reading the novel again, years later – recently republished by Penguin as part of a cohort of local award-winning “classics” – it strikes me that the rewards of Jones’s approach are far richer than they might have been had he taken the path more usually travelled in what constitutes the genre generally labelled “historical fiction”.

That term – historical fiction – has itself often given me cause for disquiet. For, no matter if a novelist chooses to engage in ostensibly historical subject matter, doesn’t the fabric of the fiction itself always speak to its own times as well? When we take a “historical” approach to, say, New Zealand fiction – or, for that matter, the art produced in any given time and place – we tend to consider how those products can be taken to reflect in some way the concerns – artistic or aesthetic, philosophical or political – of artists engaging in, because contributing to, the cultural landscape of their own time and place. The history of New Zealand art and literature has overwhelmingly been read as the history of an artistic culture in search of itself, trying to find itself on its own terms, without recourse to imported overseas models of expression. The idea was to find what was, in Allen Curnow’s phrase, “local and special” and transmute that into art. Given how important sport – and rugby in particular – has been to the cultural identity of New Zealand for well over 100 years, its absence from the literary record becomes a shade conspicuous. After all, when Don DeLillo wrote Underworld, perhaps his boldest stab at the Great American Novel, he chose to write about baseball. True, Greg McGee’s Foreskin’s Lament is also about rugby and has also attained classic status, but that was a play bristling with social comment, pointedly lit up against the politically-heated domestic backdrop of the 1981 Springbok Tour. In comparison, Jones’s novel reads like an elegiac homage to the game and its place in local identity.

But McGee’s play provides a useful comparison, because it shows, I think, a tendency – expressed as an assumption in some quarters and a willingness in others – to have partitioned culture, at least high culture, from sport in this country. When I went to university – a few years after reading The Book of Fame, incidentally – to study English literature and art history, I routinely encountered a recurrent attitude among many humanities students who felt that the popularity of sport in this country had somehow been at the expense of the arts. Perhaps they were right in some ways. Take the matter of public funding, for instance.

But perhaps there has been a kind of cultural ringfencing at play as well. John Key was rightly derided for the patronising pontification that “while our literary heroes may never challenge the glory and respect given to our All Blacks, we still need role models to inspire us.” Regardless of Key’s typically short-sighted kack-handedness as far as culture goes, he probably played into the hands of some of his detractors who would themselves, I suspect, also prefer to keep culture separate from sport. If rugby had to come up in a work of fiction, the implicit attitude seemed to be, then it had better take the form of stinging social commentary, as in McGee’s play.

When I started recommending The Book of Fame to others, one common response was to protest that, because whoever I was talking to didn’t like rugby, they couldn’t possibly like the book. I am not particularly enamoured of boxing as a sport, but When We Were Kings is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen, mainly because it’s about so much more than the famous fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman that forms its centrepiece. Similarly, if the book’s any good, there’s a difference between what happens in a book and what that book is about.

To come back to historical fiction, if we are only reading it to find out what happened some time ago, in another time and another place, surely we are better-served reading historians rather than novelists. In that case, I would – that is, I frequently do – argue that the term itself is redundant, or at least misleading. So, let’s leave that category aside for a second. What struck me most about The Book of Fame when I first encountered it, was how it seemed somehow (strangely) more international, its vision more vibrant and its register more expertly refined, than a lot of the other local fiction I’d read – and, for that matter, which I’ve read since. To me, Jones’s cadence and his nuanced formal innovations had much more in common with Michael Ondaatje, another hero from that time, than with any local novelists I could think of. I was duly thrilled when I read Ondaatje’s name in the acknowledgements, Jones crediting his line from Handwriting, “We began with myths and later included actual events”, as if an invocation of the galvanising force present within The Book of Fame as well. What happens in the book, then, is that a team of rugby players travels to Britain and becomes the All Blacks. But the book is about the mythologising that has come with it. Hence the richness of the language, the poetic fabric of the narration laid over the bare bones of history, and how they come into their own to make their quietly emphatic point.

Whenever we begin reading a novel, the first question we encounter is simple: who is speaking? Who is telling me this story and why? But the answer can be complex. Jones’s narrator never comes into view, nor does he (for it must be a he?) ever speak in anything other than the collective pronoun: We. It is, then, the voice of a team spirit, perhaps. But that collective spirit is not just a matter for sports teams to bear in mind in pursuit of international success. The story that voice narrates is the story of a conscience which routinely guides us for better or worse in this country, whether we’re rugby followers or art aficionados, or if our interests lie elsewhere, say in politics or business. Wherever we hear it, though, it’s the voice which both expresses and elides an anxiety that we might count for something overseas – and perhaps that’s the real national pastime after all.

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