Title: The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

Author: Joan Stevens

Publication details: Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 1966

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Sylvia Johnston

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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The New Zealand Novel 1860-1965

Woolf, Woolf!

Woolf, Woolf! Incense to Idols employs the same first-person narration as Spinster, and its substance pours out from the consciousness of a woman not unlike Anna Vorontosov. This repetition is in itself cause for disquiet; as one English reviewer remarked, "Has the author, perhaps, cried 'Woolf, Woolf too often?"

Germaine de Beauvais, a pianist of note, has improbably left Paris to come to a small New Zealand city—it could be Hastings—in search of her old French maestro. There she exists between cocktails and music in a whirl of sexual obsession. Five men come into the story, four of them destroyed in various ways by their relationship with her. The fifth, the Reverend Guymer, who unpredictably attracts Germaine the most, is relatively untouched, for he has his own obsessions and offers incense to his own idols. He is an eloquent preacher, page 107 in the fulminating prophetic tradition, in love with his God and angry with God's City. Germaine goes to church to hear the music of his voice, reflecting that "there will be no embarrassment of God in a church; not in this century ... for look how full the pulpit is of Man. . . . where is he . . . who can transmit any spirit of God or Baal without transmitting himself more. . . . Even the best of pianists leave something of themselves in the music".

Thus a "genuine sinner" like this woman can go to church "with little moral risk at all" of being converted. In this spirit Germaine attends the services, sinking into "the minor paradise of sound" which Guymer's rhetoric provides. The author draws together these two threads in the pattern of Germaine's story, her passion for him, his passion for God. When Guymer thunders out his attack on the idolaters of the City who burn incense to idols, Germaine reflects, "I'm your City ... I, who squander an inheritance in fashion, wallow in wine, risk life in speed ..."

'Thus saith the Church:
"For three transgressions of New Zealand, and for four,
God may not turn away the punishment hereof.
for we smack each other up every night when the pubs have closed at six,
and in broad daylight we speed head-on upon each other;
we spend multimillions over the years on horses, pubs and possessions, ..." '

Incense to Idols is a novel with serious pretensions. But its style is exasperating beyond even the point at which Germaine's undisciplined flood of sensations is intended to irritate. It is too long, too repetitive, and in places (as in the episode of the baby in the wineglass) incredibly and unnecessarily unpleasant. Though Germaine is clearly meant to be out of emotional control, there is surely hysteria in the writing in excess of what is required to exhibit her neurosis.