Thursday, October 17, 2013

Drinking ta'e for Eleanor Catton

I spent last night at a Nuku'alofa kava house known popularly as 'the Toilet Club', where patrons drink from a plastic bucket fitted with a toilet lid, and announce their readiness for another round by ringing a bell and shouting 'Pass the ta'e!' or 'Let there be ta'e!' (ta'e is the Tongan word for shit). Rammstein blasts from the speakers of the Toilet Club, and a Tongan flag adorned with a satirical swastika flutters in the breeze that blows in from Fanga'uta lagoon, a body of water which doubles as the Toilet Club's toilet.

The Toilet Club is the hangout for some of Nuku'alofa's most innovative young artists, who often doodle and scribble and splash paint until five in the morning, and so it seemed an appropriate place for me to toast Eleanor Catton, the young New Zealand literary innovator who has just won the Man Booker Prize for an eight hundred page novel composed according to rigorous and esoteric formal principles.

Catton's win is good news for every writer, in New Zealand and elsewhere, who has been browbeaten by the sort of philistine reviewers and editors who believe that a linear narrative, an unpretentious vocabulary, and a realistic view of the world are essential for literary success, and who think of readers as simple-minded creatures who will abandon a novel or poem or essay if it strays into thickets of linguistics and intellectual difficulty. Toilers like Bill Direen, who was scolded for not being friendly enough to readers by a particularly philistine reviewer, and Richard Taylor, who once got a letter of rejection from an editor who urged him to 'Write the way everyday people speak', ought to be chuffed at the success of Catton's big and difficult book.

The Toilet Club is located in Havelu, a poor suburb which seems to have become the locus for much of Nuku'alofa's creative energy. A couple of weeks ago I posted about the visit that Richard Von Sturmer and I made to the home-cum-studio of Visesio Siasau, the visionary Tongan artist who was preparing a series of massive and provocative tapa cloths for an exhibition in China. Visesio flew to Beijing on Monday, but before he left he was forced to show his wares to a panel made up of three members of Tonga's cabinet, which is dominated by nobles more interested in feasting and making real estate deals than in avant-garde art. I bought Visesio some drinks to help him recover from that ordeal. Let's be thankful that Eleanor Catton's novel didn't have to pass under the eyes of John Key before it went abroad!

Footnote: I have no idea why the formatting of this blog has changed, so that many headings are suddenly rendered in an ugly shade of blue, and the titles of posts are dwarfed by the dates on which the posts were made, and comments are, for some readers at least, impossible to make. Blogging is hard enough in Tonga without vandalism from I'll sort all these technical problems out when I come back to New Zealand in December, and in the meantime will try to limp on.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

Hi Maps. I had read about her in the Listener but I hadn't heard of Catton. I don't know what kind of work she has done. The Booker Prize winners are, as a rule, good writers (I just read 'Elizabeth Costello' by Coetzee which is brilliant), and someone like her who works for about 8 years on a book about the West Coast etc gets my thumbs up, I am too lazy for that. The reason I steal other peoples ideas is that I rarely have any of my own! But yes, I think we have to be wary of other people's ideas of what constitutes "good writing". Some of the criticism I got was useful. I pays to read what people say about what one writes. I recently sent a poem to Landfall and it was rejected. I sent it before I thought it was quite finished as I wanted it but I sent it as the theme was 'Hell' and the poem was indirectly re that. So I thought that, really, it wasn't good enough in any case. AUP rejected a manuscript I sent and I respected the reason. The stuff I sent was disorganized and too chaotic.

The "way everyone (or everyday conversational) speak(s)" wasn't the reason for a rejection but once I had a rejection from the Listener that simply said: "Not for us."

Sarah Broom I realised today was the writer who reviewed 'Conversation with a Stone' and overall that was, while not glowing, at least intelligent (she was very astute, and discerning, and very well educated also) and gave a bit of a thumbs up. While it critcised me (and she was honest and had a lot of good points to make) I am amazed now at how well she wrote that review, how closely she looked at my book also...

I didn't know her at the time but I have been reading her book about British and Irish Contemporary poets, and it is quite mind-opening and very well written. Many poets there I hadn't heard of - I actually got quite interested in Carol Ann Duffy's poetry and took the trouble to buy a book of hers. But she talks of many others including Muldoon (who I hadn't really looked at before), Reading who we know as well as Raworth, Denise Riley - but other poets such as Heaney, Longely, and Dabydeen who is also a novelist.

It is tragic she died so young she (was the same age as my son).

But I am glad for Catton and NZ literature. I will make a point of reading her book: we need an epic although Keri Hulme's 'The Bone People', which I read twice, will be hard to "go around"...

9:53 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

The Oulippo writers that Tony Folari (an I also) as well as Richard von Sturmer find quite fascinating for their use of these complex formal structures (although I work in a more intuitive way): Tony was struggling toward some essentialist thing via sound and word structure following Perec's "Avoid" but he alerted me to these writers and Ted and I are keen on Robbe-Grillet as well as Calvino (a friend of Perec's), in my case Moravia, and others of that kind. Ted particularly likes Claude Simon who writes huge and mysterious sentences...longer than Faulkner's even.

I hope she is able to write more books as we need her to win again! Carey of Aussie won a few times. That Toibin is a great writer also.

Perhaps next it will be a Tongan writer? Or one day?

The Toilet Club sounds like a great club for boozing or kavaaing and creative day dreaming!

10:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


3:02 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Golden Rule came from Jesus(one who claimed to be I AM, before the existence of Abraham) who stated,”I came not to destroy the law but to fulfill it”. Since the Mosaic Law came out of a people who had committed supposedly immoral acts, I ask you again from hence do you derive your own sense of morality and Ethics? It’s a rhetorical question really, one that each person has to try to answer for him or her self.

God’s work with Humans is progressive, and individualistic... thru history in the macro sense and via the Spirit in the personal sense. The Bible says the nations are nothing, it’s individual people that God looks to save.

4:23 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I got into a discussion re Catton on FB and at first I misread a comment she made about reviewers but Ross Brighton is writing something about reviewers in NZ and it transpires that her objection was to this really (near insane) review of Michale Morrisey's whose writing is good etc and in fact on my other Blog I just reviewed his latest poetry book which is good but this is a really stupid review by Michael. he is clearly a bitter, failed old man:

7:06 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Morrissey rhymes with jealousy.

7:27 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Be good if you could follow that thread:

maybe you can:

7:44 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Not sure if that (jealousy) is the whole story. But he is a talented writer in his own way. I am perhaps a bit heavy saying he is bitter and "failed" but he may see himself perhaps in that way.

The point is that a review should be truthful, not ad hominem as such, and sometimes useful as reviews or sometimes rejections I have got.

Also there is definitely a place for good reviews. The person being reviewed can take stock and even improve but M's review doesn't really engage with the book by Catton so it is not really very useful or good. It has some interest, and is even amusing at times but I can see how otherwise it may well have been quite unnecessarally hurtful.

7:51 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

12:34 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

MM hate reads

2:04 pm  

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