How does poet Jan Kemp always see the best in things, even in her first husband's lechery? A revealing new memoir excavates her life to date. Elsewhere, discover a book that traverses the successes and the great tragedies of the Romanov family, or revisit a classic for a whale of a time. Happy reading.
BOOKS IN REVIEW
Raiment by Jan Kemp (Massey University Press, $35). Reviewed by Stephanie Johnson. A longer version of this review will appear on anzliterature.com.
Prominent New Zealand women writers of very different hues have recently published memoirs, including the luminary Patricia Grace. Wendyl Nissen's clear-eyed and supremely forgiving account of her troubled, unkind mother stands in stark contrast with Charlotte Grimshaw's alarming account of growing up as C.K. Stead's daughter. Now, as a kind of pastel middle ground, we have poet Jan Kemp's Raiment.
Kemp was born in 1949. Her two brothers were kindly and chivalrous, as was her much older father, Morice. Her mother Joan was "both my friend and my mother". When Kemp was only a few months old, she flew with Joan to Christchurch to have her harelip repaired, a challenge mentioned only once more in the text. Kemp is refreshingly resilient.
The early part of the book drags a little with too much detail about school subjects and teachers. The voice, which matures in the later parts, can sometimes sweeten too much, becoming cloying and cutesy-pie. However, this is ameliorated by Kemp's admirable memory. At 9 years of age, she wins the Miss Morrinsville Junior Personality Competition, first prize of which is a bike. Her detailed account of this — from the dress she wore to the smell and weight of her father's jacket when he puts it round her after the procession — return the reader vividly to small-town mid-century New Zealand. This is the poet's gift: the stringing together of images to create an imagined or recalled world.
Pace and interest pick up when young Jan moves from the outskirts of Auckland into Grafton, to attend university. This is also a vanished world — many of the rambling old houses inhabited by students and staff are long demolished for the motorway. It is also a roll call of many of the most well-known poets, artists and scholars of that generation, including Riemke Ensing, Tim Shadbolt, Keith Sinclair and Kendrick Smithyman. Kemp recalls an exchange with Karl Stead:
"Karl said to me, And when are we going to have an affair, Jan? I knew he was just being clever, so I managed to be just as clever and answered him, When you take the same emotional risk I would, I will Karl, which shut him up ... I learned lots from Karl, though — once I told him I couldn't possibly attain, sustain and retain the amount of knowledge I really should. Very wisely he said, The things you need to know will come to you and stay with you. The rest, you just let fall away. Those words have come back to me so often – just do your own thing. The rest will take care of itself."
Here again is Kemp seeing the best in things, even Stead's lechery. It is an appealing quality, as is her honesty. She doesn't shy away from intimate details. Her first marriage, at the tender age of 20, was to an older man who was keen on self-pleasure. Kemp recalls that she asked him to "save some of it for me. He laughed and kept on, his face showing all the exhilaration he was feeling. I hated it, but what could I do?"
During the ill-fated marriage, Kemp trained as a primary school teacher, not that she practised the profession for long. In the early 70s she travelled to Wellington as one of a group of young New Zealand poets to perform in a late show at Downstage. Wellington poets Ian Wedde and Bill Manhire shared the stage, and Kemp's devotion to writing and performing poetry was set forever.
The last part of the book is slightly rushed, particularly after the detail afforded the early chapters. It finishes in 1974 with Kemp setting sail from Vanuatu (then still called the New Hebrides) for Fiji. So abrupt is the end, furnished by a poem Quiet in the eye, which is about the eight-day voyage, that readers will be left wondering if there is another volume to come that covers her later years. I hope there is.
After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris Between the Wars by Helen Rappaport (Scribe, $32). Reviewed by David Herkt.
There was a period in Parisian history when it was said that every restaurant had a uniformed doorman who had been a wealthy Russian grand duke now down on his luck. The 1918 Bolshevik Revolution had overturned the Tsar in favour of a Communist regime and more than a million Russians had fled the country, never to return.
Some had foresight, taking money, gold, or jewellery with them. The Romanov nobility lost their huge estates and fortunes. Most emigres, however, were ordinary families who had only what they could carry. They faced uncertain futures as chefs, taxi drivers, language teachers, journalists, and sometimes paid mistresses or sex-workers in a foreign land.
Helen Rappaport's After the Romanovs: Russian Exiles in Paris Between the Wars is a fascinating overview of the period. Well-known for books focused on the fall of the Romanovs, Rappaport uses her considerable knowledge to write a compulsively readable account filled with larger-than-life personalities.
The immensely wealthy Grand Duke Paul married a lower-ranked countess, Olga, much to the displeasure of his nephew, Tsar Nicholas. He was stripped of his important court and military roles. Exiled to Paris, the couple created a glittering salon on the Bois de Boulogne, but as Russia began to crumble, he was offered a deal whereby his wife was recognised and he resumed his imperial role. The pair packed up paintings and objets d'art and returned to Russia. It was a fatal decision, and it would end on a chilly morning in 1919 when Paul stood in front of a Bolshevik firing squad who didn't hesitate to steal his boots.
The Romanov royal family itself would be shot in Siberia. Many of the Tsar's relatives met similar fates. Others fled westward via the Crimea or Finland. Rappaport picks out emblematic stories of this emigration and tells them with verve.
The Ballet Russe, for instance, had been travelling to Europe since 1909. The company's spectacular sets and costuming changed the course of European culture and fashion. Colours from peacock blue to emerald green were everywhere. Le Sacre du Printemps (Rite of Spring) and Parade with its sets by Picasso changed ballet history, though their costs were astronomical. The company survived the revolution but would collapse at the end of the 1920s.
The Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna was another example. Reduced to penury in Paris, she rented herself a Singer sewing machine, embroidering for Chanel before establishing her own clothing line. By the 1930s there would be more than 20 Russian fashion houses in Paris. The city was also filled with Russian restaurants, churches and newspapers — even Russian taxi drivers had their own publication. Groups of emigre painters like Marc Chagall and the always-destitute Soutine lived together in the cheapest accommodation.
There were successes but there were also great tragedies. Rappaport details them all. Marina Tsvetaeva is now regarded as one of the finest Russian poets but could not find ease in France, returning to Russia where she would commit suicide in 1941.
Rappaport's stories beg to be shared. Her reader comes out wiser. In an era where the people of Ukraine are flooding across Europe it is a reminder of an event that the present world erroneously thought would never recur.
A collection of early NZ photos puts dogs in the frame
"From the mid-19th century, a string of photographic studios operated throughout New Zealand, offering portraits with subjects seated against backdrops that ranged from rustic to exotic," writes Mike White. "Exactly why a few in these early New Zealand portraits chose to include dogs can only be surmised." Here, read the full story on a special collection of early New Zealand canine photos..
TRY THIS CLASSIC: MOBY DICK
Moby Dick by Herman Melville (Pan Macmillan, $15). Reviewed by Eleanor Black.
If it hadn't been for the university class I am taking, I probably never would have got around to reading Moby Dick, which would be a terrible shame because I loved every weird bit of it.
My hesitation had always been due to the whale-hunting, of which there is a bloody, thrashing, horrifying lot. The body count in this book is high and the process for producing spermaceti, or oil from sperm whales, is tragic and monstrous and described in such detail that you emerge from its pages disoriented and sad.
It's hard going, but among the gore there is great beauty. You learn about varieties of whales, their anatomy and habits, how they care for their babies, hunt in packs and move through the ocean. The whales are the undisputed heroes in this story, magnificent creatures that awe even the jaded sailors who hunt them.
The narrator – you know, "Call me Ishmael" – is an odd bod who joins a whaling expedition not from financial necessity but to avoid "a damp, drizzly November in my soul". From this privileged vantage point, as someone learning the whaling business on the fly, he recounts Captain Ahab's obsessive quest to hunt and kill the titular white whale, Moby Dick, that on a previous voyage ate Ahab's leg.
Ishmael forms a strong bond with the enigmatic Queequeg, who some scholars believe is based on a real-life Māori sailor. He is a solid and comforting presence, highly skilled, unbothered by interpersonal drama on the ship – exactly the kind of person you would want by your side as you head into the unknown. Unfortunately, Queequeg barely figures in the second half of the book, which is consumed by Ahab and his quest.
Moby Dick is said to be among the least-read of the "great classics", possibly due to its length and meanderings into topics not intimately related to the plot. The reader doesn't need to know quite so much about blubber or ship's rope or ocean currents or the way harpooned whales used to be carved up shipside. But all of this exacting detail is fascinating, and gives the reader an insight into a world that no longer exists. Some of it is gobsmackingly beautiful. I defy anyone to read the description of the "whale nursery" and not tear up a little.
"He was a little frisky; though as yet his body seemed scarce yet recovered from that irksome position it had so lately occupied in the maternal reticule; where, tail to head, and all ready for the final spring, the unborn whale lies bent like a Tartar's bow. The delicate side-fins, and the palms of his flukes, still freshly retained the plaited crumpled appearance of a baby's ears newly arrived from foreign parts."