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Sport 43: 2015

Damien Wilkins — No Hugging, Some Learning: writing and personal change

page 57

Damien Wilkins

No Hugging, Some Learning: writing and personal change

It’s a default setting for a great deal of commentary on fiction, and on theatre, film and television too, that dramatic narrative is dramatic because we watch people change. Indeed, the charge against a version of literariness—that it sanctifies the static—is, I think, largely a complaint about the absence of such a crucible. ‘Nothing happens in literary fiction,’ Eleanor Catton recently said, ascribing a current bias against genre fiction in which plenty, suspiciously, does.

But if the moral eventfulness of change is an article of faith with origins in antiquity—think Ovid’s Metamorphoses—and the painting on the cover of this issue of Sport takes its subject from one of Ovid’s tales—Daphne escapes the lusting Apollo by turning into a bay laurel—or consider what Aristotle said—‘Change in all things is sweet’—and certainly pages and pages of endorsements from philosophers and politicians and celebs agree with him—despite all that loading, it’s also a faith with influential doubters way beyond the ranks of literary snobs.

Seinfeld, the TV show famously self-described as being ‘about nothing’, had the rule ‘no hugging, no learning’. To escape an earnest, improving agenda helped the jokes; there was also an appeal for accuracy: isn’t life less purposeful than we routinely hope? Isn’t there something cheesy and automatic about change as the goal, as story generator? Does existence render down so readily into lessons? Do we all really long to change and continue changing? Are our lives as quickly swapped for fresh as pairs of socks, new as washed shirts.

Aren’t there other ways of talking about experience than with the worn and suspect vocabulary of relentless growth? Kim Hill,page 58 a few years ago, not so jokingly banned the word ‘journey’ from her radio show. Whenever an innocent guest uses that word metaphorically, a well-trained Kim-listener suffers a sharp intake of breath. We need quote marks to get away with it. At the same time, as Bill Manhire has pointed out, you could argue Kim Hill’s brilliance as a broadcaster lies in the often startlingly open way she shows us someone learning something—she’s the student of her experience, only asking questions to which she doesn’t know the answer. Her pursuit of science topics over the past few years, for instance, is a remarkable extension of her interests and her audience’s—sort of, well, a ‘journey’.

What I’m saying is that the notion of personal change—change which is improving—is both disreputable and unmoveable, tarnished and resolute, art’s cheapest trick and its most generous gift. How then to save such a precious notion—this idea of transforming ourselves and the world—how on one side to save it from expediency, kitsch and other abuses, and on the other side, how to shore up its vital promise against cynicism and world-weariness or even simply the accusation that it falsifies our experience of life.

I’m not unaware that this evening’s institutional setting itself gives up a ready analogy for this double bind—‘change process’ within a university is always and simultaneously a moment of excitement and profound scepticism.

Change, of course, can bring us painfully close to what is arbitrary and capricious about the universe, revelatory, too, of the power structures that underpin our lives. In Joseph Roth’s 1932 masterpiece The Radetzky March, a book I’ll come back to, there’s a tiny scene of great emblematic force in which Emperor Franz Joseph is having his hair cut by the new imperial barber, a terrified corporal. The barber snips at the Emperor’s hair and nervously jumps away before approaching again with the scissors. The Emperor, a failing old man, seeking internal proof of his own power, instantly promotes the jumpy barber with a word—‘You’re a sergeant now,’ he says—and goes off satisfied that he has ‘made someone happy’. But in a flash we’ve been inside the barber’s headpage 59 and learned that he’s already feigned arthritis a couple of times to try for an early discharge from service—he wants to rejoin his wife and child and the ‘nice little business’ he has. The Emperor’s generosity is a private disaster. The scene is a marvellously funny inversion of good fortune—a sly critique of the notion of a personal journey motored by individual resources—and these frequent plays of misunderstanding in the novel add up to a kind of cosmic failure of imagination shared by the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire, which is about to be swept away by the approaching war.

What prevents Joseph Roth’s vision from becoming overwhelmingly bleak is that such scenes are themselves instances of the author’s own imaginative reach and sympathy, surely one of the saving paradoxes of art. Any insight into human circumstance might not do the characters any good but its residue for us readers is, at the very least, affective. This is what the American writer Richard Ford has called ‘the consolation of form’. In another context but with sharp relevance, performance artist Linda Montano, commenting on the difficulty of documentation when it comes to ephemeral art practices, said in an interview, ‘It seems the primary document is the change inside the performer and audience.’ The change inside us—well, this is not a document we can easily reach out for, though I’d like it to hover over this lecture. If we think of reading itself as a kind of performance, the books I’m going to talk about have clearly changed me, at least as I appear to myself. And most of these books have been novels. So what does the novel promise us about change.

Lennard J. Davis in his book Resisting Novels suggests the novel, addicted to the concept of self-understanding, is ‘psychotic’, in that it ‘sees thoughts as so powerful that simply thinking something is enough to cause them to happen’. Based on confidently established psychological portraits of characters, the classic realist novel, Davis argues, tells a story of self-reliance, middle-class industry and personal growth and thereby confirms its innate conservatism. Localising change to individual success stories, the novel reinscribes reactionary politics. With self-understanding as the key to change,page 60 ideological underpinnings are rendered mute, Davis suggests, and ‘the chaos’ of living comes to an end in these fictions simply by a change of thought and heart.

While I’m not convinced the mechanism in the novels we come back to again and again is as efficient as that, it does make me think that Creative Writing ‘How To’ books tend to push the same mute button, pull the same industrious lever. And while such books might suggest standards of believability and process around character change—What does your character want? What obstacles stand in the way? What are the setbacks suffered along the redemptive path?—it’s very hard to shift the basic requirement that writing is fundamentally about observable transformation located in someone we care about. Most of these Creative Writing manuals could be subtitled ‘Hugging and Learning’.

To anyone familiar with the novel’s ancient progenitors, this change-mania can look odd. Mikhail Bakhtin argues that in Classical Greek romances we simply observe people to whom things happen—as in folktales. ‘Fate’ runs the game and the character’s role is to endure with ‘his identity absolutely unchanged’. In these prototype novels, Bakhtin says, ‘. . . people and things have gone through something . . . that did not change them but that did . . . affirm what they, and precisely they, were as individuals . . . The hammer of events shatters nothing and forges nothing—it merely tries the durability of an already tested product..

Thomas G. Pavel in his recent study The Lives of the Novel usefully augments Bakhtin’s reading of these Greek novels when he suggests that the tracing of characters’ moment-by-moment inner feelings would have to wait until Samuel Richardson in the 18th century but that the Greek writers still signalled the existence of an ‘inner, inviolate space’ as readers register the protagonists’ fortitude against the random events of the world. Pavel writes that Greek novels ‘try to show how human beings experience the present independently of previous or subsequent events—in short how they are surprised by life.’

Of course, to be surprised can figure as an indictment—‘haven’tpage 61 you learnt anything?’ we tell ourselves and others; it can be an admission of ignorance, innocence, embarrassing—but I think it’s a beautiful phrase: surprised by life. A kind of creed for me, too, as a novelist, since it doesn’t do away with human agency but places it in the field of influences and events and sets personal change at an operable scale, cognisant of contingency but also alert to openings, rather than imaging it either as repressive aesthetic norm—this is how stories should be—or as psychosis: novels are mad.

Now it’s not my focus to think about the history of the idea of personal change but it’s good to remember the idea has a history.

One of the more extraordinary books to have come out of the IIML’s MA programme in recent times is Aorewa McLeod’s autobiographical fiction Who Was That Woman, Anyway?: Snapshots of a Lesbian Life, published in 2012. I remember the shock in the workshop room as we discussed Aorewa’s writing which she cheerfully told us was all true, except people’s real names had been altered and some chronology rearranged. Impossible to shake the disturbing descriptions of her time as a student nurse-aide in the late 1950s in a children’s ward—McLeod identifies most of these children as suffering severe birth defects. Her job was to feed these distressed children who usually had decaying teeth or bare upper gums, while being assured by the nurses that ‘You must remember, they don’t feel pain the way we do’; or her description of attending a public meeting in the 1980s where a senior National party MP guest speaker suggested that all AIDS sufferers should be put on an island in the Hauraki Gulf, and I don’t think he was talking about Waiheke. Telling such stories has many purposes but one of them is that it’s a good way of measuring change. It’s worth noting too that in measuring we weren’t awarding ourselves a medal for progress, nor was the author—the best writing doesn’t console exactly in this way.

What I felt reading Aorewa McLeod was how close we are to back then, how recently we were wrong. How easily we might return there too. Because it wasn’t smugness we felt but a chastening sense of fright that collectively we’d forgotten significant parts ofpage 62 our history; that is, if we knew them in the first place. And this kind of prodding has a progressive agenda, since to consider our gains vulnerable and contingent might be one way of continuing to work for their security.

The other shocking, invigorating aspect of McLeod’s book, pace Lennard J. Davis and his resistance to the false consolations of self-understanding in the novel as a form, is that the central character in Who Was That Woman, Anyway?, the author’s stand-in, processes very little of her experience on our behalf. She records—and often records her inexperience and surprise—and she is present in the writing, but there’s a striking lack of reflection beyond this type of admission of naiveté and jolt. Personally I find this convincing, exciting even—such a detailed and illuminating range of experiences but so little direct commentary; other readers might react more coolly. The question in the book’s title—Who Was That Woman, Anyway?—for these readers, imports an interrogative mode which isn’t delivered on. We never find out who ‘she’ was because she never tells us. But what if she, the author, doesn’t know who she, her fictional stand-in, is or was.

The personality as mystery, the life-path as forked and puzzling, feels unpromising, even off-putting, a bit perverse. The injunction to know thyself can be a totalising one and challenges to it look anti-social. Yet McLeod’s book, in canvassing a near lifetime’s worth of experiences from outside the mainstream culture, is all about the social. One steady pulse in the story told across the decades is that of the group—how groups of gay women found each other, how they behaved. The nurses in those 1950s wards, trained in, adepts at, or simply survivors of a dissociative environment, are also women who dance to ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, own exotic underwear, play drinking games and have sex with each other. Ngaio, the central character, is thrilled by all of this and up for it; but she also often assumes a background role, even in the major events of her life. Far from being an artistic failure—‘we need more of you in here please,’ an editor might say—the self-portrait that emerges communicates that part of experience which does feelpage 63 beyond our powers of analysis, the hard-to-narrate headlongness of many of our key moments, the times that feel less real once we surrender their aliveness to reliable hindsight.

Now another word for this quality is ‘passivity’ and passivity in characters is still a negative touchstone for reviewers and readers, and also for teachers of creative writing who tend to internalise this so completely as to elide it with that other easy-to-spot fault: the passive sentence construction. The premium on being active and writing active can often seem as reflexive as the PE teacher asking for ten more push-ups from unresponsive kids. It’s as if we are telling writers and their characters to ‘keep busy’, much as we exhort our slightly depressed friend or our grieving self. The alternative to not keeping busy doesn’t bear thinking about. Though maybe it does.

I want to add I’m not unaware that passivity’s link to subjugation, victimisation and invisibility, especially in the depiction of women’s lives, is culturally momentous. Yet I’m always on the hunt for successful literary portraits of this quality. For while studies in passivity are hardly aspirational in any straightforward sense—we do not often long to be that figure who fails to act—they yet belong in the full accounting of human behaviour. Besides, bullying as well as resistance can take many forms and passivity’s recalcitrance—its ‘I’d prefer not to’—may yield surprising resourcefulness and, indeed, story, once the PE teacher in all of us calms down and the Bartleby in all of us gains a voice.

This talk, then, is sketching an attempt to hold two ideas together that seem contradictory. The first is that I’ve always tended to believe, along with my mother who assures her middle-aged children that we are all exactly the same in our deepest selves as we were when were babies, that people don’t change. Not really. And—this is part of the same belief though not necessarily shared by my mother—that writing which is fuelled by an automatic association of potency and personal transformation isn’t the only story worth telling. After all, even Vladimir and Estragon, in the play famously where nothing happens twice, have, like those oldpage 64 Greeks, gone through something.

The second idea is that change is everywhere and that progressive thought, indeed our basic well-being, let alone art, relies on some underlying optimism about reinvention, recasting, redistribution. Work that sees disillusion as the only honest endpoint can feel as formulaic as its cheery opposite. ‘Nothing to be done,’ says Estragon to open Waiting for Godot and then Beckett quietly goes about revolutionising the theatre. ‘The essential doesn’t change,’ says Vladimir later, and suddenly Pozzo and Lucky burst onto stage. Here, to call literary form a ‘consolation’ feels way too mild; more like a detonation.

As a fiction writer, that’s the double knot across my shoulders, which of course is the part of the body where writing comes from. So let me hunch for a short time over one small book in particular to see how far I can get with this problem.

The World Regained by Dennis McEldowney is a memoir which appeared in 1957 and was republished most recently in 2001 by Auckland University Press. AUP was where McEldowney worked for twenty years as editor, retiring in 1986. My sense is that he’s best known as a publisher, though he wrote other autobiographical books and a couple of biographical works. The World Regained was his first—a book commissioned by a publisher to expand an original series of radio broadcasts McEldowney made concerning his astonishing story as one of the so-called ‘blue babies’. He was diagnosed with Fallot’s tetralogy, a congenital heart condition for which there was no effective treatment and from adolescence to the age of 24 he existed in his bedroom—‘this little boxed-up universe’ he calls it— until he underwent what was for the time radical heart surgery. On its surface the book is calm, polite, transparent and helpful. Witty too, a great entertainment with its parade of blink-and-you-miss-them character studies.

Here’s Dennis in hospital for X-rays (this is in the early 1950s): ‘I stood behind the screen and was fed with spoonfuls of barium while the radiologist watched my insides moving before him. When I grew tired—I couldn’t stand for more than a minute or two at apage 65 time—I sat to recover my breath in the wheelchair while he talked to me of television, which, no doubt because he was in the same line of business, he evidently thought would be a good thing.’ The dry deployment of that ‘evidently’ makes the prose crackle. Or how about the indelible image of the physiotherapist who visits the men’s ward where patients incapacitated by rheumatic fever watch as she does handsprings on the end of one of the beds—‘a display of surplus energy,’ McEldowney writes, ‘I thought a little callous..

I said helpful and calm, but it is also an odd piece of work, gently polemical and increasingly digressive: a medical memoir which dispenses with that material after a while and looks elsewhere. I’ll come to that elsewhere soon.

I’d like to show you one of my favourite New Zealand author photos. This is from 1935, a newspaper picture of school kids at Sumner Beach, Christchurch, and no prizes for finding the author—there he is, looking the wrong way, thoroughly wrapped up and almost apoplectic with joy.

Christchurch Star Sun. 18.12.35

Their Daily Splash

page 66

I love the way the boy’s hands are splayed in the fashion that can only be produced by utter delight or terror or some mix of the two, as if an electric current is passing through the body. The fact that he’s turned away from the photographer also speaks not of shyness but of self-transport—the boy is so overcome he doesn’t know where to turn. He’s rigid and, I would guess from the face, screaming. The other thing to love, of course, is the jersey he wears, while all the other kids of 1935 are in their togs. This was probably what I always wanted to wear when I was learning to swim in the unheated pool of Waiwhetu Primary School in Lower Hutt.

This beautiful, gently comic image appears in that reprint of The World Regained.

In teaching Creative Writing it took me a while—longer than it should have—to understand that the question of technique—‘How do I make this book?’—is also a question of value: ‘What do I believe about the world?’ Another way of saying this is that in writing a sentence you’re also making a self and putting into circulation a set of images of the place you move around in, or would like to move around in. To think of literature as a kind of moral provocation brings another question into view: ‘Who owns the images with which mine is in disagreement?’ This question fuels The World Regained, which begins as the story of one life and grows into wider and thrilling commentary: there’s a fundamental sense in McEldowney that present descriptions don’t ring true and that we require new ways of talking about and dramatising where we find ourselves.

In the Introduction he wrote to the 2001 reprint, McEldowney alerts us to the fact that this personal story qualifies him to make broader statements. He bemoans the bad press the 1950s receives, especially from New Zealand writers: ‘I had special reasons for finding the decade so exciting, but I never got over the suspicion that it would also have been exciting to anyone of a mind to be excited.’ Are we back then in the world of those PE teachers barking their orders? ‘Be excited!’ Not really.

Certainly his story is about an appetite for experience denied,page 67 and the recognition that things won’t come easily: ‘I began to learn to live in the world,’ McEldowney writes in the immediate aftermath of a successful operation, ‘and I quickly found the world did not lie open to me. It had to be conquered.’ That the conquering involves having a bath for the first time as an adult (he buys a yellow rubber duck), or making a pot of tea (‘The number of things there were to remember!’), or going for a walk, all lovingly detailed, suggests something of the scale here. Courage is measured in tiny, involving moments of dailyness. Change can be terrorising too, as he discovers having existed for so long under ceilings: the feel of the sky above his head is too overpowering and it takes McEldowney 18 months to shake off its phobic intensity. Terror but also delight, which again works through a marvellous minor: ‘It seemed incredible when I found the first. A hole in my sock! I said to myself, not believing it, a hole in my sock! a hole in my sock!’ But McEldowney’s book is also concerned to a remarkable degree with a kind of debateability. First of all, the realist’s question: What sort of world is it that I’m in? Secondly, the idealist’s: What’s the best response to this world? I mean the memoir doesn’t just suggest implicitly we reconsider some routine notions we have; it doesn’t simply prompt in the way any act of thinking prompts us; it makes its very scenes the site of an ongoing interrogation of assumptions. Action is frequently made up of this kind of questioning.

Describing the invalid’s shut-in life in an upstairs bedroom, McEldowney opposes the untested observations of well-meaning visitors: ‘People who visited admired my view, but supposed I must get tired of looking at the same scene day after day. I didn’t know what they meant; the scene gave me no chance to get tired of it, it never remained precisely the same an hour at a time, certainly not for a day or a month or a year.’ In a beguiling act of revenge on them and us, he makes himself the centre of what’s real, while anyone from outside is vaporous and fabular: ‘Visitors arrived through the door to my room, appeared like a genie from a bottle, and removed themselves back into the bottle when they left.’ It’s a very different approach from, say, Aorewa McLeod’s hide-and-page 68seek narrative. ‘There are more remarkable discoveries to be made in a modern matter-of-fact New Zealand city,’ he reproaches, ‘than will ever be known by citizens who can never make the discoveries because they knew them all along.’ McEldowney’s form of explicit argumentativeness—felt even more keenly perhaps because it’s cased in prose with impeccable manners—makes us feel there’s other labour to be done, apart from telling us about the time when he moved from his bedroom out into the world. But what labour?

I hesitate to use the word biculturalism up front but not because it wasn’t available when this book was written. The World Regained includes the fullish appearance of a single Maori, a sixteen-year-old fellow patient from the East Coast, ‘immensely curious about everything around him, firing off rapid questions in an English very different from the accent used by more sophisticated Maoris who lived nearer the city . . .’ ‘The other patients,’ McEldwoney writes, ‘had him teach them rude words in Maori. He was most of the time the most cheerful character in the ward.’ This is New Zealand at a time when a nurse asks her patient: ‘Are you English . . . or just Christchurch?’ Still, reading is itself part of the bicultural project and registering absences is part of the story. Indeed, lying in a hospital bed, McEldowney does precisely this sort of national accounting, finding in the ward a Scotsman, a Samoan, an Indian, an Irishman, a Jugoslav, an Australian and a South African; and, having set us up for the punchline, ‘even a few New Zealanders..

The following sentence reveals the tender spot of the born-in-New Zealand Pakeha: ‘There was a petty officer from the navy who said he was a New Zealander but spoke like a Yorkshireman..

It’s not just this sort of sensitivity which pushes my reading here. To approach biculturalism via a side-door we could say that The World Regained is in many ways about architecture, built spaces. A young man looks down on a world he can’t reach. At first windows are everything, then doors. Beds too, despite the absence of an erotic axis. (This memoir, through propriety, stares down sexual desire as narrative hook. In the reprint’s Introduction, McEldowney mentions ‘adolescent agonies’.) It’s a book aboutpage 69 optimum structures for living. It’s about—key word, I think—accommodation, in the sense of finding somewhere to live but also in the sense of making a space for something or someone else. Being accommodating. It doesn’t seem like a particularly robust virtue—to be accommodating carries little of the whole-heartedness of ‘to be welcoming’—yet moving in the realm of grown-up literature perhaps we shouldn’t expect such singularity—the generosity of good writing lies in its limitless qualifying of what we sometimes as citizens want stated and solved once and for all.

Anyway, let the word ‘biculturalism’ sit somewhere in the back of our minds as we go along with our theme of change for perhaps this preliminary reason: the demand for a dramatic narrative in which we watch people change squeezes the bicultural story at two points: first we register the ‘at last’ and also the ‘what now’ of Maori for whom the long wait has the dimensions of disaster and for whom this phase of Treaty settlement or post-settlement—elastic, disputatious, hopeful—has the quality of an open question—‘finally Pakeha are recognising hurt, wrong and grievance and this moment can’t be hurried so let’s see what can be achieved’; secondly and dispiritingly we feel and hear the ‘when will it end’ of Pakeha for whom the story isn’t dramatic enough. Ongoingness seems like so much hard work and the long-view hostile to our oddly self-cancelling desire for the change-of-all-changes, the one that brings an end to change. ‘Haven’t we heard enough from them?’ Who gets to decide when we’ve had enough change is of course a matter of the highest importance.

One of The World Regained’s lessons is ongoingness; firstly because the author wasn’t supposed to have any—McEldowney hadn’t been expected to live much beyond his childhood years. As it turned out, he lived until his late 70s and died in 2003. But secondly because having re-entered the world, he found he had an argument with that world. I think this makes the book a classic in our literature, by which I simply mean it’s eternally ripe for reprint—actually I was interested to read Peter Wells’s 2001 review which called it a ‘strange, individual, almost classic of a book’. I’mpage 70 unequivocally removing the ‘almost’.

But as well as championing the book, I’m also using this work of non-fiction to think, paradoxically perhaps, about fiction and especially its burden or task, its dreary unreal requirement or its invigorating glory or some mix of the two—depending on where you sit—of showing the shifting of personality.

McEldowney’s book is a true account of the years and events it traverses, so you could say its author is free of one constraint—the pressure to make stuff up, to make a pattern—and saddled with another: the pattern or lack of pattern which real life makes. He’s stuck with his story, which happens to be his life. Crucially, he’s in a position—and this is something he takes advantage of—to think about what art expects of life; to measure actual feelings against preferred expressive modes. As part of his ongoing argument with the dominant 50s discourse of disillusion he observes at one point that ‘it never occurred to me to question why it should happen to me, the question which fiction-writers suppose to preoccupy such as I was.’ So he’s warning me that as a novelist I would get this same material wrong. He goes on, ‘when I was enabled to change my state in life, I changed it, and was content.’ A little later he clarifies and qualifies: moving from his bedroom to the world is gain and loss but gain is ascendant; there’s more of and in the new life: ‘I had to learn to make my view of life from a synthesis of many happenings rather than an analysis of a few.’ ‘And if I retained certain habits from my earlier days, among them a liking for doses of solitude, that merely showed I was one continuing person. I couldn’t claim to have been made into someone else by my experiences; the heart operation wrought no fundamental change of heart; there was no point in time to which I could look back and discern a change from someone who was not I to someone who was. I remained I, all along the way..

Probably in the end this is what draws me back to the book again and again—its surprising forays into a kind of domestic theorising about writing and especially this issue of change; its corrective to sentimental formularised readings of experience while keeping inpage 71 place a vivid hopefulness—that combination is winning not only because it communicates a vision of activism but because it’s so hard-won.

The World Regained is also a wayward sort of writing manual. It doesn’t shirk from the appeal of its life-and-death event—McEldowney’s heart condition—indeed it has a built-in change focus, but its gathering force is oddly dispersed as the author ‘gets better’; the dispersal might be its most compelling message. He devotes a chapter to attending the 1951 Writers Conference in his hometown Christchurch where he hears James K. Baxter’s address and indulges in what he calls ‘lion-hunting’. The young McEldowney is completely star-struck and reports that it’s one of his happiest days to be in the company of New Zealand literati and the attendant critics and academics. He says this and means it but he also tells us they’re wrong. ‘I admire these writers and I know they write the truth. Yet heresy keeps breaking through . . . I cannot find life miserable . . .’

Here I’d like to switch hemispheres and decades again and go back to Joseph Roth for one of my favourite ‘writer moments’ in all fiction. As I said, The Radetzky March is set around a time of momentous change: the coming of World War One and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. There’s a minor character, one Dr Demant, who is the medical officer in Lieutenant Trotta’s regiment. Demant wears spectacles that are so thick that at one point Roth writes, ‘he had no eyes anymore only glasses’. Dr Demant gets involved in a duel with Count Tattenbach, the regimental cad, over Demant’s wife. The pair face off in a clearing. I’m quoting from Michael Hofmann’s translation.

It was already morning, but the sun had not yet risen. The fir trees stood slender, upright and quite still, bearing the snow on their boughs with pride. In the distance cocks crowed back and forth. Tattenbach was talking to his seconds at the top of his voice. The consultant, Dr Mangel, walked back and forth between the two parties. ‘Gentlemen!’ said a voice. At that moment, Dr Demant took off his spectacles, a little awkwardly as he always did, and laid them carefully on a broadpage 72 tree-stump. Strange to relate, he could still see the way quite clearly, the place where he was made to stand, the distance between that and the Count, and Tattenbach himself. He waited. Up until the very last moment he was waiting for the fog. But everything remained clear, as if the regimental doctor had never been short-sighted. A voice counted: ‘One!’ The regimental doctor raised his pistol. He felt brave and free, yes, for the first time in his life, even a little exuberant. He aimed as he had done once as a one-year volunteer at target practice (even then he’d been a wretched shot). I’m not short-sighted at all, he thought, I’ll never need my glasses again. In medical terms it was a mystery. The regimental doctor promised to look into ophthalmology. At the very moment in which the name of a famous specialist swam into his mind, the voice counted ‘Two!’ The doctor could still see clearly. An anxious bird of a type he could not identify began to twitter, and from faraway he heard the sound of a trumpet. It was just then that the dragoons reached the exercise grounds.

And then we swing away from the duel to be with Lieutenant Trotta for several paragraphs—he’s been worried about this duel and he’s now convinced that everything is all right, not having heard any shots from the woods, good, he thinks, they’ve not gone through with it, and he rides along thinking positive thoughts. Positive thoughts in Joseph Roth are almost always the prequel to negative outcomes. Simply by thinking things, those things are ruled out. A few paragraphs later we learn that both Tattenbach and Dr Demant have died in the duel.

The business with Demant’s glasses is strikingly odd. Why does he take them off in the first place—as if he’s going to be involved in some close combat rather than a duel at twenty paces, or as if he’s going to sleep? I think he takes off his glasses off to save them! Such a brilliant insight of Roth’s into the doomed man’s state of mind; it reminds me of the great moment in Orwell’s essay ‘A Hanging’ when the writer notices the condemned prisoner step aside to avoid a puddle on his way to the scaffold, not wanting to get his feet wet: for Orwell this is when he understands it’s a human being about to die. ‘I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide.’ I feel the same shiver for Drpage 73 Demant. But Roth takes it one step further . . . the doctor believes he can, or he can actually, see better without his glasses.

Why do I think the doctor is a writer figure? Joseph Roth suffered terrible eye problems. In one of his final letters, he writes, ‘my eyes are full of blood’. An eye inflammation stops him from writing and he interprets it like this: ‘Eye is just expression of spiritual depression.’ For Roth, eyes aren’t windows, they’re mirrors, harshly symptomatic. Writing of a later problem, he states—‘Like my eye inflammation back then, it’s just another physical expression of the catastrophic situation . . .’ His eyes prevent him working: ‘Unfortunately I wear glasses now. . . . Apparently I have an astigmatism. Because of my eyes I won’t be able to get going on the novel for another 2–3 weeks.’ The biographical data is irresistible with regard to Dr Demant. Eyes matter in Roth, as is the recognition that he travels from actual to symbolic without pause. I’m not pausing much either. Demant’s vivid, painfully brief moment of hubris is hardly the thing that kills him, though the language of self-understanding (‘He felt brave and free, yes, for the first time in his life’), typically for Joseph Roth, can only be deployed ironically. One more thing. I see Demant as a writer because, despite his foolishness, he actually successfully fires the weapon. That’s Roth’s sly, unaccountable gift to Demant, and to himself—that he gets his man. This is not ‘change or die’ but change and die—done of course in deathless prose. Not the consolation but the gunshot of literary form.

Not quite half way through the novel, Lieutenant Trotta (the last in that line) is told by his commanding officer that the Fatherland ‘no longer exists’—‘The fact is,’ he says, ‘we’re all dead!’ For Trotta, who doesn’t quite believe nor understand how this could be true, the verdict nevertheless has what I’ll call a novelising effect: ‘All the processes of nature,’ he feels, ‘and all the events of ordinary daily life were touched by a menacing and unfathomable significance.’ One becomes a writer at the unpredictable moment when everything seems alive with import. And there’s nothing like reduced options to sharpen one’s sense of urgency and 74 The best writers I’ve seen come through the IIML’s workshops are all suffering from this problem: the gift of too much significance.

This point about a nonexistent world is vital as we rejoin McEldowney. The World Regained has an almost sci-fi relationship to its contemporary setting. ‘Neighbours’ houses,’ the regained and regaining person writes in earnest appreciation of the discovery once he gets to leave his bedroom observatory, ‘did have backs to them. They didn’t end in a jagged edge of lath-and-plaster like a cinema mock-up.’ McEldowney, released into our upright, inhabited streets after years of enforced isolation, is an alien. He stares and makes notes. ‘I used my eyes shamelessly,’ he writes.

In a crucial scene, he attends the orchestra, and studies the audience, first observing their separateness: ‘The young man in the seat next to mine who read the murders in Truth between items’; ‘the office girls who sneaked sandwiches from boxes on their knees while they listened.’ But then he’s struck by something: he starts to feel their collective force as measured against his former solitary bedroom radio listening: ‘the audience, every one of whose enjoyment of the music added to everyone else’s, increasing it collectively.’ Through this form of astonished accounting something strange happens: the concept of ‘New Zealand’ becomes testable, provisional, curious—an ‘outside’ that feels invented, and as such, available for change. Instability can be a synonym for suffering but also a boon for characters and readers alike as fixed coordinates morph into speculative placeholders.

In the book’s most extraordinary chapter, McEldowney walks us around Christchurch streets, alternating between aversion to the busyness of those streets, their shrieking and their eating (he seems to have a thing about workers lunching on fried sole and mashed potatoes and a slice of lemon ‘every noon for years on end’)—‘I could not wonder the mental hospitals were full’; moving from this sort of rejection to different notes of humility and wonder in the face of the uncategorisable and complex and various ways of living which are only defeating in the sense that they defeat McEldowney’s proud sense that he should know what is going onpage 75 inside other people. The idea that he might never know is, finally, savoured not for its sourness but for its plenty. Listening, actively eavesdropping on passers-by, he sometimes, fortuitously, receives ‘an unrehearsed revelation of what people were like.’ He hears a girl saying to another girl, ‘And all this happened because of a mistake in a telegram.’ Yet these hints can’t substitute for the strangeness he feels looking at others and the growing imperative to move beyond observation. ‘It was not the looking and the listening, it was the amount I now began to be involved with people, that measured my entry into the world.’

From being the person others could not guess right about, he is now the one who gets others wrong. This sort of error measures the depth of our involvement. Getting others wrong turns out to be our necessary task, an index of humiliation most likely, but also a sign of health and, dare I say it, progress.

The World Regained re-purposes the automatic narration of personal transformation in fruitful ways. It feels epic in the sense that its relationship to change is mediated through interpreting a wider world which we see as it is getting made and coming into being rather than as a given. The Radetzky March is similarly scaled, though its dynamism, created in the early 30s in a Europe that Joseph Roth had already diagnosed as sick beyond help, is heading in the opposite direction—its soldiers are already ghosts of the longed-for battle that will eradicate the lingering present. The Austro-Hungarian given is already gone. In one of Roth’s most crushing sentences, Lieutenant Trotta is ‘like a man who had lost not only his home but his nostalgia for his home, his homesickness’. In a sense, ‘New Zealand’—in its 1950s incarnation—is an idea ripe or rotten for revision. The implication, as well as the affective power, of McEldowney’s confessions, arguments and dramatisations, is that any status quo—naturally our present one included—requires continual scrutiny and vigilance. How strange and fitting that the revisionary hero turns out to be a bookish man with a congenitally defective heart, a person initially disqualified from our lives of engagement; a sickly tourist who examines ourpage 76 habits and asks annoying questions. This figure sees disillusion as a deficient response to a difficult and frequently defeating world—a world that regains him as much as is regained by him. Because here’s the thing: this book is not really about watching people change; hugging and learning; this book, like all the best books, is in itself a world of change.

There are many beguiling entry-points to this shifting world, but consider, finally, the funny and strange uplift we get from the moment in The World Regained when the 24-year-old author is admitted into Greenlane Hospital for his life-saving operation and is met by the nurses from Ward 3 who stare at their new patient. There seems to be a problem—but what is it? Then it makes sense. Of course they’d been expecting a blue baby, the ward had been prepared for an infant—they don’t know what to do with this oversized sufferer. All their routines account for children, not this full-grown specimen. The physiotherapist, in particular, has a new challenge since she uses a toy cat to aid rehabilitation and usually instructs her patients, ‘push pussy in, push pussy out..

The delicious comedy of the scene is also hopefully robust enough to bear my last attempt at establishing the metaphorical purchase of this enchanting, urgent work. The nurses’ incomprehension, followed by their adjustment, perfectly images how as readers, and by extension, as citizens, we must always be ready to move, be ready to accommodate each other, be ready collectively, in the collaborative way any audience is ready, to increase our enjoyment—joy carrying a powerful and explicit value in Dennis McEldowney’s worldview—be ready, here it comes, to change. It also vividly enacts yet another moment in which we are surprised not only by literature but also by life.