Saturday, February 14, 2015

John Macmillan Brown's return from exile, and other fantasies

[Summer is the time of the year when I invent over-ambitious and sometimes absurd projects, and burden friends, editors, and publishers with my fantasies.

I sent this e mail to Paul Janman recently. I don't think he has time to take on the project, and I don't have the time or the expertise to develop the idea myself. I thought I'd post my e mail to Paul here, though, in case it finds a reader who is equipped with the time, expertise, and enthusiasm to retrieve John Macmillan Brown's vast and strange novels from exile in the library of obscurity...]

Hi Paul,

John Macmillan Brown was educationalist, an explicator of Shakespeare, and a scholar - a sometimes wayward scholar, it must be said - of the Pacific, who is perhaps best remembered today for being the grandfather of James K Baxter. In the first years of the twentieth century Brown published, under the pseudonym of Godfrey Sweven, two massive novels - Riallaro, the archipelago of exiles, and Limanora, the island of progress -  that were intended as satires on religion and superstition and as arguments for atheism, rationalism, and science.

Influenced by Gulliver's Travels and - perhaps - by HG Wells, Brown sends the narrator of his books on a journey to an obscure region of the Pacific, where a series of bizarre societies have evolved on a series of almost perfectly isolated islands. Some of these societies are rustic and fierce; others are highly enlightened, and fitted out with supermodern technology. Readers are invited to draw conclusions about the connection between material progress and rationalism.
Brown's novels are nearly plotless, and consist mostly of extremely detailed descriptions of odd buildings, machines, and ideas. Because of their lack of action and teeming details, they are often dull to read.

But the images which Brown cumbersomely assembles are often original and strange. Arguably, they express subconscious obsessions and urges that are at odds with the author's rather sterile rationalism.

Let me offer an example. In a city that Brown's narrator visits, old-fashioned religion has been replaced by a sort of theatre, in which humans can watch film-like projections that give them the same ecstatic feeling that the worship of gods might once have provided. Brown's strange theater seems to me to express a longing for religious rapture, as much as a freedom from it.

Brown's books can be seen as pioneering works of science fiction, and they also look forward to some of the work of the surrealists. It is extraordinary that a New Zealander could produce such material a century ago. 
I was imagining that you might be able to 'translate' Brown by mapping and visualising his vast and weird fictional world. Using your skills as a film maker and editor, you could shuck off those endless passages of minute description, and instead give us Brown's imaginings in hyperlinks and images. I'm thinking of a very particular, very interactive, and probably very original, type of e book: an island where visitors could lose their way...

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

I like the idea of those books. I think the details need to be left stat. But for a movie, not sure.

Gulliver's Travels is a great book by the way but in contrast it seems Swift is satirising science and human beings.
There is, for me, a realistic understanding of the inherent hopelessness of 'civilising' human beings especially via rationalism or science.

Brown was of a later time I suppose when the Victorians, or many of them (except perhaps Conrad in his darker moments, and a few others) naively subscribed to ideas of progress and moral enlightenment.

The French symbolists and Laforgue etc and perhaps Flaubert were less convinced. And Rimbaud et al.

It sounds as though Brown was torn between realism and a strange kind of superrealism which might have become a new way of writing, like Robbe-Grillet's 'Jealousy' or some of Handke's works...

Well's 'The Time Machine' is wonderfully pessimistic of the human future and restores my great lack of faith in human beings, and belief in creative nut cases masquerading as "progressivists"!

NZ undoubtedly has it's share of eccentrics hiding in history's shadows (don't look at me!)

9:33 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

dig it

8:10 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Richard,

it's fascinating to go through the Ppaers Past archive and read the first reviews of Wels' novels in New Zealand papers. He was clearly being read here very seriously, and very early on. And I think this is an idnication of how modern and how international New Zealand was at the end of the 19th C. As James Belich says at the beginning of his book Paradise Reforged, New Zealand was in some ways a much less independent and self-confident nations in the 1980s than in the 1880s. Though that self-confidence wasn't necessarily a good thing, if you lived in the Ureweras or the Cook Islands...

2:45 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes. Previous to that we had my namesake Richard Taylor and the Williams brothers who were intellectuals who helped Maori (in many ways, they weren't "revolutionaries" but were relatively liberal). The 1880s. The 1980s saw a sharp move to the right.

Wells is interesting, the opposite pole almost to Joyce but he wrote some great Sci Fi and also his novels are very good. His Sci Fi borders on the surreal, maybe prescient of such as Ballard or John Harrison of say Viriconium Nights which I discovered. But Wells is also (sometimes) the optimist, but as WW2 approached he was not so happy, understandably.

Joyce was less the 'public intellectual' he was very centred on himself but he revolutionized literature, so we get 'Mrs. Dalloway', written after Woolf read 'Ulysses', and influenced by it's 'internal dialogues etc: a book showing the terrible effects of WW1, but also (paradoxically) quite upbeat for someone who suffered so much mental affliction.

I wonder if the papers mentioned the relationship between Wells and Rebecca West who wrote that huge book about the Balkans? A favourite book of Geoff Dyer's. I mentioned her name to a local chap who is of Dalmation descent and he supplied the title immediately: 'Black Lamb and Grey Falcon' (this might be wrong but I've gone 'full screen' accidentaly and cant risk hitting random buttons. The joys of blogging...

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