Reading Dangerously


David Eggleton on the books he read in 2022



Around the World in 80 Books is the wannabe-enticing title of a new guide from Pelican by Harvard University’s David Damrosch, a series of short chapters on ‘masterpieces of world literature’, but I searched in vain for books from the Pacific region: nothing but a void between Japan and Mexico. How to Be Well Read: A Guide to 500 Great Novels by John Sutherland, first published in 2013 and reprinted in 2022 also came up zilch. Praised as ‘wise’ by the Times Literary Supplement, this ‘how to’ from Penguin failed to include even Janet Frame between Fowles, John; Francis, Dick; and Franzen, Jonathan no Albert Wendt, no Witi Ihimaera, no Patricia Grace, and certainly no C.K.Stead.




This year I got around to reading last year’s What You Made of it: A Memoir 1987–2020, the third volume of C.K. Stead’s autobiography, truffling amongst the inadvertent comedy of so much self-serving reminiscence for the throwaway but incisive remarks of an undeniably perceptive literary critic, particularly on Modernism: ‘For Ezra Pound everything came back to language and language was unstable. It came in through the ear, in different accents and with different emphases and every word or phrase carried with it the shadow of other sounds, other meanings, a different history, another language. Pound’s base was scepticism uncertainty, indeterminacy, and his talent lyrical not epic.’




In his latest book Critical Revolutionaries: Five Critics Who Changed the Way We Read, Terry Eagleton rescues from the dustheap of current neglect a quintet of Modernism’s most original and influential literary critics: T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards, William Empson, F.R. Leavis and Raymond Williams. Eagleton’s witty, fast-moving text reads like pulp fiction with the pips left in and gives spice to the idea that 2022, one hundred years after the publication of ‘The Waste Land’ and Ulysses, could also be a Year of Reading Dangerously, with or without a Kindle:


Empson writes nonchalantly in conversational, even garrulous style, while Eliot occasionally writes as though he is preaching in a particularly resonant cathedral. Richards’s brisk, rather bloodless prose is quite distinct from the speaking voice. Like Empson, Leavis deliberately avoids the formality of academic prose. Leavis writes as though he were speaking, while Raymond Williams spoke ponderously as though he were writing.


Meanwhile, James Courage: Diaries, edited by Chris Brickell and just out from Otago University Press, is about decades of living dangerously as a gay man in twentieth-century London. Courage was the expatriate author of A Way of Love, the first openly LGBTQ novel written by a New Zealander. It was published in Britain in 1959. In 1927 Courage had moved from Christchurch (where he was born in 1903) to London, and writes of his exhilaration in arriving there: ‘Can’t you imagine the London streets in the dusk, full of lights and hurrying people somebody flying past in an opera cloak and just around the corner coming on a beggar, one side of his face a great red scar, drawing with coloured chalks on the pavement the illuminated words “To Live”.’




His Diaries reports on a wide-ranging luncheon conversation with T.S Eliot, when Eliot was a director at Faber & Faber and considering publishing Courage’s work. Later, there are encounters with the eccentric D’Arcy Cresswell, the emollient Charles Brasch and the ‘crapulously obscene’ Denis Glover, as well as vivid reportage of occurrences during the London Blitz blackouts.

In his thorough-going Fear and Loathing in Fitzrovia: the bizarre life of writer, actor, Soho raconteur Julian Maclaren-Ross, which came out in a revised paperback edition in 2013 and which I only caught up with this year, biographer Paul Willetts gives us the extraordinary story of a bohemian man of letters. Julian Maclaren-Ross was the original for louche bookman X. Trapnel in Anthony Powell’s great novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time. One anecdote will have to suffice. Maclaren-Ross was about to start a bar-room brawl in a Soho pub with the Invercargill-born novelist Dan Davin, then serving as a Major in the New Zealand armed forces Davin drew a copy of John Lehmann’s Penguin New Writing out of his greatcoat pocket and held it up like a talisman, explaining they were both in it. ‘Why didn’t you tell us you were a writer?’ Maclaren-Ross exclaimed. ‘We thought you were an army officer. Here have a drink.’




Metaphysical Animals: How Four Women Brought Philosophy Back to Life, by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman, is also centred on the turbulence of World War Two Britain, when all sorts of career possibilities became possible for women on the home front after the men marched off to battle. Iris Murdoch, Philippa Foot, Elizabeth Anscombe and Mary Midgley were four student friends at Oxford University studying philosophy, and caught up in the spell exerted by Ludwig Wittgenstein. But they were also instrumental in bringing metaphysics back into moral philosophy, which had become obsessed with linguistic definitions. Three remained academic philosophers, but this book wonderfully conveys a sense of the life and times of the young Iris Murdoch as a rebel and self-willed amoral personality, before she emerged as an important novelist.




In his new book The Last Days of Roger Federer, Geoff Dyer shuffles aimiably from pop culture reference to pop culture reference while advancing opinions of lateness, ageing and last things. His self-centred, fingernails-buffing style is by turns exasperating and amusing. He has a nice line in snark, sneering at the later works of Martin Amis, and deriding Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time as snore-inducing. Of poetry-readings he says, ‘At any poetry reading however enjoyable, the words we most look forward to hearing are always the same: “I’ll read two more poems.” (The words we truly long for are “I’ll read one more poem”, but two seems to be the conventionally-agreed minimum.)’ Now that growing old disgracefully is out of fashion, the only vice Dyer owns up to is siphoning off all the shampoo and conditioner from the containers in hotel bathrooms to carry away.

The Elizabethan essayist Francis Bacon famously reckoned that: ‘Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed; and some few are to be chewed and digested: that is, read with diligence and attention.’ In Why Read: Selected Writings 2001 -2021, author Will Self asks the question why read at all, with so many other distractions and cultural delivery systems available? He answers: ‘Reading about diverse modes of being and consciousness is the best way we have of entering into them and abiding there is. To enter the flow-state of reading is to swim into other psyches with great ease, whatever their age, sex, sexual orientation, nationality, class or ethnicity.’



Asked why I read, whether 80 books, or, as this year, quite a bit more than that, my answer is that reading is a form of travelling, a way of expanding my horizons and gaining insights while hardly moving, except to put the jug on. At the same time, mindful of Francis Bacon’s admonition, I read as a stereotypical self-aware consumer, one handling and weighing up cultural packages, embellished with endorsements and gaudy covers and genre specifications according to taste. I go in like a prospector, boring core-samples. Some books I fast-read, skimming or stopping to graze; other books demand and often get full immersion; some books are read at glacial speed, meaning I’ve been reading them for years, a few pages at a time. Other books, many books, are on the carousel, ready to be read again and again, as the bookworm turns.

Yet the hospice shops and charity book fairs bulge with the clutter of the cleared-out shelves of the analogue era, when books, and their readers, seemed to positively hum with promise. Recently I was wandering through the Auckland University Library when I was brought up short by the sight of row upon row of empty shelving about to be disassembled to make way for more wi-fi enabled desks. In corridors, on wheeled wire cages, were the ancient tomes on Homer and company, all bound for the knacker’s yard, like battered gladiators of the old Graeco-Roman Empire awaiting the final sword thrust. Nobel Prize novelist Boris Pasternak, trapped in post-Stalinist Russia, wrote: ‘A book is a squarish chunk of hot, smoking conscience and nothing else!’ But perhaps not every book.



I was enlightened by Black Earth: a Journey through Ukraine,  by German journalist Jens Mühling, first published in 2015 and hurriedly reprinted this year. It outlines, through the author talking to a diverse range of inhabitants, something of the push-me pull-you history of a borderland state that goes back a long way. As an antidote to the fatalism and bleakness I also read Kate Quinn’s latest best-seller, The Diamond Eye, a novelised account of the true story of an heroic Ukrainian woman. Lyudmila Pavlichenk was a young historian who became a formidable sniper, one of the most lethal in the Red Army during World War Two, defending her people from the invaders from Nazi Germany. She was wounded numerous times. After the War she returned to her job as an historian and raised a family. Quinn’s novel, though, is also something of a feminist rewrite in that it exposes the pressures on its heroine in a military controlled by men.

Another book for bleak times is This Life, published in 2021, a debut novel by Quntos KunQuest. This is the nom-de-plume of a black American who has been serving a life sentence without parole since 1996 in Angola, the Louisiana State Penitentiary. His protagonist Lil Chris symbolises the fate of many African-Americans in the United States, who make up 12 per cent of the country’s population but who form over a third of its prisoners. Lil Chris finds a kind of escape through rap-poetry as a ‘dope lyricist’ who can ‘spit mad flow’. He also survives by developing a Buddhist mind-set and by disciplined meditation and of course by reading.




So, reading, is it really that powerful? The Subplot: What China is Reading and Why It Matters, by Megan Walsh is a short book published in 2022 by Columbia Global Reports, and offers a glimpse of the status of Chinese literature now. While a plethora of state-approved writing courses push writers in the direction of propaganda narratives beneficial to the state, and mainstream publishers toe the party line with books about communist history, a new generation has been navigating this unpromising terrain by subtly transforming facts inconvenient to the government into metaphorically loaded fiction, often science fiction, and publishing it online where legions of readers await.

With so many young writers embracing internet publication, the literary publishing establishment has been disempowered. But it is a balancing act. ‘Chinese online fiction is the largest publishing platform in the world,’ Walsh tells us. ‘It is also one of the most insecure.’ We learn that government censors police content tirelessly, as energetic freewheeling writers strive to keep ahead of them. Online platforms, on which Chinese women writers can publish anonymously, have also served to create subversive genres that, symbolically, have flipped the authoritarian patriarchal dynamic on its head.



In his 2022 book Imagine a City: A Pilot Sees the World, Mark Vanhoenacker, an international airline pilot constantly girdling the globe, essays a poetic travelogue reflecting on his two decades of repeated short visits to many of the world’s big cities. He muses that:


the suggestion that we all dream of the same city, though it may appear differently to each of us, making its reality sometimes tantalisingly unclear, is the loveliest idea in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Calvino’s cities and words reinforce my faith in the idea that behind all the real cities lies one that is archetypal, though our vision of it may be no less flawed and clouded than we are.


Another book about the traveller’s perspective that grabbed me by the sleeve and held on was Sneaky Little Revolutions: Selected Essays, by Charmian Clift, edited by Nadia Wheatley and republished this year. These essays were first printed in the Sydney Morning Herald in the 1960s, after Clift and family returned from living for years in Greece: ‘Australian suburban architecture is without doubt or question the ugliest in the world. There is nothing to come near it on the civilised globe — or uncivilised either, for that matter: grass huts are beautifully cohesive and harmonious.’




Australian globe-trotter Paul Dalla Rosa also pinned me down with his startling debut collection of ten stories, An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life, in which his cast of disaffected, abject and nihilistic millennials, spitting out a side-of-the-mouth comedy, trail from Melbourne to Tel Aviv to New York to the Gold Coast to Adelaide: ‘We had met in Melbourne at a large outdoor dance party. He was travelling. He stopped me as we danced, his eyes dilated, took my phone from my hand, typed in his Instagram handle and pressed follow.’

Kingsley Amis once asked: ‘Should poets bicycle-pump the human heart or squash it flat?’ James Brown in The Tip Shop, his latest poetry collection, does both. Laconic, wry, sophisticated, this is a book of considerable stylistic virtuosity, written in a confident tone but with a certain cryptic wistfulness. He’s an artist able to rhyme ‘home’ with ‘poem’ and not look back.




Robert Sullivan’s poems in his Tūnui: Comet are charged, mesmeric, trance-like. These poems dance and sing, fall over, get up, raise the roof, point to the stars. They feel animist, alive with small details, with colonial bric-à-brac muttering to itself, and the Māori language chanting its oratory.

Rotuman poet Mere Taito’s chapbook of poems, The Light and the Dark in Our Stuff, published a little while ago, but which I only encountered this year in the course of co-editing a forthcoming new anthology of contemporary Pasifika poetry, weaves garlands of words, acutely aware of the oceanic: ‘the sea/ gate-crashes your lunch/ through an opening/ in the bus shelter wall’. Samoan poet Faumuina Felolini Maria Tafuna’i’s debut collection My Grandfather is a Canoe, which came out in 2021, ranges across the Moana Nui ringing the changes on environmental damage and land loss in inventive ways, as in ‘green climate fund’:


Green dollars rolled thick like leather

Soaked in brine and aged so tight

It has meshed into itself

Unable to unfurl its cash liquidity

To compensate your sinking island


Coco Solid’s novella How to Loiter in a Turf War is both impassioned and confrontational; graphic and idiomatic in the way it explores a neighbourhood subject both to galloping gentrification and the unceremonious ousting of the disenfranchised. Three Pasifika underground besties, Q, Te Hoia and Rosina support one another in a gritty urban environment where it all mostly sucks, thanks to fickle, semi-anonymous corporate raiders. But casual street meetings hold promise: ‘Could this be her equally angry Pacific dreamboy?’




Maria Samuela, in her interconnected assemblage of nine stories in Beats of the Pa’u, too, doesn’t flinch from sharp clear-eyed realisations and measured depictions of complex truths about a particular neighbourhood, using demotic language articulated with an insider’s precision and radar-like ear, though her stories, taking time’s pulse, also have chiaroscuro carefully worked in.

Dominic Hoey’s new novel Poor People with Money has an urgent, staccato, street-wise rhythm to its telling, as well as an underlying sense of melancholy. Straight out of the beating heart of Tāmaki Makaurau, it traverses love, loyalty treachery and regrets, all centred on a young battler, Monday Wooldridge, who is a part-time bar-worker and also a part-time ring-fighter, striving to overcome heavy odds and people betting against her.




Books interleave with books to breed more books. This certainly seems true of a number of recent New Zealand non-fiction books that time-travel back to the 1960s, when there was something heady in the air. In his 2021 compendium Okay Boomer: New Zealand in the Swinging Sixties, musician and music historian Ian Chapman saunters down Memory Lane with a variety of nostalgia buffs who were there in the Sixties, albeit still at school, and can rustle up anecdotes to bear witness.

In his 2021 cultural history Time to Make a Song and Dance: Cultural revolt in Auckland in the 1960sMurray Edmond informatively traces the spirit of the carnivalesque, from its tentative presence in the city’s sly-grog dens and coffee-shops in the early 1960s, to its flower power efflorescence in the late 1960s in the form of gambolling crowds of young people in parks and streets, and notably at the Jumping Sundays in Albert Park. In her 2022 memoir Raiment, poet Jan Kemp, from her perspective as a sometime golden girl of the Sixties — Kemp, like Murray Edmond, participated in those Jumping Sundays — writes about the expectations and pressures placed on her in spaces where woman poets were still a rare sight: ‘But who was I to tell (male poets) how to behave?’




Martin Edmond, in his autobiographical Bus Stops on the Moon: Red Mole Days 1974–1980, published in 2020, provides another connecting thread, with his account of the life and times of Red Mole founder Alan Brunton who, in the late 1960s and after, seemed to be everywhere as an instigator of the carnivalesque,

The best part of music composer Jonathan Besser’s 2022 memoir Around the Corners, Out to the Edges is about growing up in New York and studying music there; and then, immediately, the chance suggestion which led him to the New Zealand immigration office and a one-way air ticket to Auckland in 1972. The Auckland of that time, a sleepy subtropical backwater, as he saw it, is evoked with an outsider’s perspective, though he too flats for a while along Grafton Road, like Jan Kemp and Murray Edmond and Martin Edmond (who are cousins).




And finally there is Jumping Sundays, the book, by Nick Bollinger, memorably illustrated with photographs by Max Oettli and others, which gives us another twist on the whole sweeping panorama of 1960s and its long aftermath. Even though it unearths all sorts of curious incidents and stories and weaves them into an extraordinary almost psychedelic pattern, Bollinger’s cultural history too is not the whole narrative. We are not done with New Zealand in the 1960s, Jumping Sundays, nor the political radicalism winding from then till now.


David Eggleton


'I felt energised by the freedom of 'making things up’' - Maxine Alterio

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