Friday, November 20, 2009

Speaking Frankly

Anna Kavan's New Zealand: A Pacific Interlude in a Turbulent Life edited by Jennifer Sturm (Vintage, Random House 2009)

It was wonderful to see that smile again. It was wonderful to see an American smile going out towards everything, accepting everything in the world, instead of shutting everything out.

('Another ending' ~ Anna Kavan)
Now here is an excellent book, published this year by Random House New Zealand, and I think it has not been reviewed widely enough, considering how much it has to offer.

The NZ Listener did have a review, and the New Zealand Herald too. The reviewer for the Herald was Peter Wells who has also recommended it on his blog, here and here, and I even saw a note for the Kavan book in Metro magazine.

One of the disappointing aspects of the reviews I have seen, has been the repeated predictable inclusion of the label "bottle blonde" for Anna Kavan, and the frequent retelling of Denis Glover's titillating depiction (courtesy of Frank Sargeson) of Kavan as "one of those blondes who get around the world with their knees behind her ears". But I can hardly complain can I, when I too have found it necessary to repeat these distasteful and belittling descriptions? The misogyny Kavan encountered from the likes of Glover and Sargeson is an important part of the story Sturm presents here, and it's still relevant today, especially for those of us who believe that the negative effect of the misogyny of the "Sargeson Mafia" on the reputations and careers of New Zealand women writers, has not yet been fully recognised. Sturm's book goes some way towards redressing this lack, but there's so much more to this work than that.

There are several reasons to read this book - first of all for the interesting essay(s) by Sturm concerning Kavan's life and work and her visit to NZ, and then of course, for the Kavan prose itself, with its quite lovely meditations on life and travel. The book also includes the text of the controversial 'critique' Kavan later published about NZ society. And what a ripping yarn that is!

I particularly enjoyed Sturm's careful unpicking of earlier Kavan 'scholarship': exposing the ridiculous results of sloppy research combined with the far-too prevalent assumption that an author's fiction writing can be used as biographical source material.

I've read parts of this book several times already, and I even made lots of notes hoping to 'review' it for the Tabby, but I have been just too run off my feet to do it justice, real life being a little possessive lately of my time and energies, so here's a simple exhortation: Read this book, especially if you're interested in NZ literary or social history, and doubly so if you're interested in the role of gender politics in NZ literary history.

Or even if you just like to read really good prose.

One of my favourite aspects of the book was that I could revel in Kavan's openness to the New Zealand environment, her acute descriptions of the plants, birds, sea, weather...
"The fact is, that I can't do anything but look at things, which of course is another name for dreaming. It's the looking that matters more than what's looked at."
And she saw the people with an equally observant eye. Anyone who has felt on the outer here in NZ, who has been suffocated by the narrowness and lack of imagination of the provincial mindset, or patronised by the blokiness and conservatism even of our supposedly 'high culture' circles, will enjoy her sideways glances at the self-appointed arbiters of all that is good and true.

This is a peculiar sort of volume that doesn't seem to know whether it's just another dry academic publication (it certainly would hold its own in that company), or whether it should be appealing to the general reader (and I think it should!).

The Kavan pieces can be read as useful social documentary, but also for their literary merit (even though the editing choices sometimes make reading for pleasure a bit of a challenge). At her best, she's scintillating.

My only problem with this edition is that the design is as bitsy and various as the content. It may have seemed like a good idea to have different fonts - one for the Kavan stories, and another (sans serif) font for the accompanying explanatory material and appendices - but I found it quite irritating. Also the decision to use italic font for deleted passages, probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but is I think unkind to the reader. Just my personal taste and opinion of course. But the TINY font size for Kavan's offending Horizon article in the Appendix! Aaaargh! Surely this piece deserved to be treated as more than a footnote, given its notoriety, and its readability. I also noticed a few eyebrow-raising proofreading errors including the misspelling of the name of Random House editor Harriet Allan!

This is a work that would have benefited from a larger format and more generously sized photographs, and a more pleasing design. These are minor quibbles though, in this time of recession and cost-saving. This is a refreshing, fascinating book. The packaging seems to indicate it will have curiosity value only for a niche market, but I feel it deserves a wider audience than that.


Kilmog Press said...

I have written and rewritten 2 comments to this post - both probably not clear enough for my liking.


The Paradoxical Cat said...

Hi Kilmog, I wonder what your comments were along the lines of - maybe the design issues? A very personal subjective thing, and I realise that people will disagree.

Overall I think Random House should be congratulated for producing this book, it shows that the big publishing houses still have some vision and courage!