Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Another year of Wellington

I am fond of this picture of the beach at Oriental Bay I took from the top of the botanical gardens, on the other side of the harbour, on a very hot Boxing Day almost exactly one year ago.

It is an uncharacteristic Wellington, bathed in visible heat. But this is a city that knows how to be pretty. I’ve taken to walking along the South coast.

And loop back around the forest at the back of the zoo.

But always in Wellington we are faced with the awareness of the city’s uncertain, unstable geography. A very large earthquake centred 100 miles away has made this a common sight.

The state of the Reading car park – a building people use to spend the day in the business district – caused the closure of half of Courtenay Place. The feared imminent collapse of a commercial building in Molesworth Street forced the evacuation of the headquarters of the Red Cross. Does any of this qualify as irony? At any rate, the building is being ‘deconstructed’.

There is nothing like an earthquake to make us notice the built features that lean needlessly over our heads. This one was fenced off along the waterfront.

In the most alarming incident, one of the floors of the recently built Statistics House pancaked during the quake, which thankfully happened in the middle of the night. They say the repairs will take a year. On the outside, you can see exactly where the fault line runs. It made the paving stones pop up like corn kernels in a pan.

And if you walk around the building, you can trace the fault line again.

The state-of-the-art BNZ headquarters next door are fenced off, too. I go the library and check the earthquake risk maps. Look at the ground underneath those buildings. Our prime real estate. The darker the colour, the greater the shaking.

Even before the Kaikoura earthquake, the GHQ building was encircled with an armoured sidewalk as a precautionary measure, while the fate of the listed site is decreed.

That is the negotiation that is always going on in Wellington, between safety and heritage value, or between safety and character. Anything that is of a certain age, and ornate, seems especially fragile (whether it is true or not). Like the Toomath’s buildings.

Or the top of ‘The Vic’.

None of this is unusual or new. It was a fairly typical year in Wellington.

In April, we lost Lanky the pelican. So long, old fella.

Some more pictures. The lovely lettering outside the National Library.

A reminder that graffiti are the original social media.

The inside of Thistle Hall back in July, during my son’s art exhibition.

Finally, a view of the Beehive with novelty sea urchins.

This is it for this blog for this year. In my other usual haunt, at Overland, we wrapped up proceedings with a collective post, while the Summer issue has hit the shelves and is graced by the artwork of the remarkable Sam Wallman. You could get that for Christmas. Or Don’t Dream It’s Over. Or the new Tell You What.

I’ll see you in the new year.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The world is a book

It is hard for a literate culture to remember what it was like to be an oral one, just as it’s hard to cast one mind’s back to the time in one’s childhood when words on a page were meaningless ink stains. Learning to read changes everything. Learning to write dispenses with practices for transferring information developed across dozens if not hundreds of generations. Entire architectures of knowledge crumble, or become fixed in time. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, you can still visit them.

I went to a lot of churches, growing up. My parents didn’t care for religion but loved art.

The inside of a Christian temple is one of those architectures (a carved wharenui is another): our universe shrunk to the size of a building and turned inside out. The ceiling is the sky. The walls and the windows are surfaces onto which the landscape is painted, sculpted or carved. These scenes are almost always stories without words, or sometimes there are words but they are part of the picture, magical symbols that are not for reading. Like in the Annunciation by Simone Martini, in which the words of the angel – Ave gratia plena, dominus tecum (‘Hail, woman full of grace, the Lord is with you’) – are painted in gold and visually spoken as if in a comic book.

Viewing these artefacts, we are asked to imagine what it would be like to live in a culture in which literacy was the preserve of the few, or of no-one at all. Nowhere I have been more keenly aware of this temporal displacement than the first time I visited the Scrovegni Chapel painted by Giotto in Padua.

The legend is that Giotto himself was an illiterate shepherd, discovered by Cimabue – one of the foremost painters of the thirteenth century – after he had painted his flock onto a rock. It’s not true, of course, to the best of our knowledge he was born in a reasonably well-to-do blacksmith’s family, and didn’t even do his apprenticeship with Cimabue. But I grew up thinking it was true, which added to the sense that his works might have come from a world of pure image, unencumbered by words.

The chapel itself was erected around the year 1300 by a banker, Enrico Scrovegni, ostensibly in order to earn his late father a discount on the time he was due to spend in Purgatory for the non-mortal sin of usury. A more likely reason is that Enrico needed to erect a civic building worthy of his status, and that would in turn cement his position among the Paduan elite. For this reason he invited the star painter of his time, who was already in town to work on the Basilica of Saint Anthony, to decorate the inside of the chapel. Inside of two years, Giotto produced one of the highest single examples of medieval art, an ark containing the distilled thought and aesthetics of the epoch. In this the chapel resembles Dante’s Divine Comedy, another world-containing work of art produced in those very same years. There is in fact some speculation that Dante visited the chapel, and may have drawn inspiration from its representation of heaven, the judgment and hell.

The world is a book and the church is a book that is the world. Its walls are its pages, to be read not in a fixed order but as if finding one’s way out of a forest, along a winding path that loops onto itself, finally reaching a clearing. There are five recognisable chapters: the story of Joachim and Anne (Mary’s parents); the story of Mary; the life of Christ; the passion, death and resurrection of Christ; and finally, on the wall opposite the entrance of the chapel, the Last Judgment. All of them require of its readers a pre-existing knowledge of the stories. There is no caption to let you know that these are Joachim and Anne meeting at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem.

Nor any extra-textual clues to inform us this panel depicts the birth of Mary.

Conversely, the fact that the stories come from a known, rote repertoire would have enabled the public of the time to appreciate Giotto’s inventions, his departures from the norm. Like when he made the scene of the chasing of the money-lenders from the temple contemporary by setting it in Venice.

There are, besides, internal references, symmetries and inversions between panels on opposite walls that complicate each narrative, making the whole read like a story never heard before.

The Scrovegni Chapel is one of my favourite places on Earth but I visit it like a stranger, unable to grasp but a fraction of the effect it might have had on its contemporaries. Imagine living in a predominantly visual culture and yet having so little access to complex imagery. How much more real and at the same time alien, supernatural would those scenes seem; how much more urgent the great fresco of the final Judgment, a vista into an eternal future not long from now. And then, after that, a new city in a new world, about to revealed as the great canvas of the heavens is pulled back, or perhaps a page is turned.

The book is infinite worlds and the world is infinite books. Always in the folds of the superficially narrow, bleak, oppressive worldview of medieval Christian Europe hides the promise of another world, unknowable, alien, like the sea in which Ulysses and his men venture at the end of the twenty-sixth canto of the Inferno.

The chapel that is a book that is a world can only be viewed by appointment now. It has suffered from the passage of time and of too many people, no longer devout to its teachings but rather – like my parents – wishing to enjoy it as a work of art. Before we left for New Zealand, my mother gave my partner a beautiful monograph of the place: the book of the chapel that was already a book. And so this is how we visit it now, in near-perfect reproductions under ideal lighting conditions, with the ability to pore over details that an ordinary visitor couldn’t hope to make out. In this form, the book fractures in its component phrases. The crowd outside the temple during the bringing of the rods.

The crude, cruel heap of the innocents.

Some of the women who tried to protect them.

Jonah and the whale (a shark, more like).

Judas’ kiss.

Moses receiving ‘a package’ (okay, it’s the stone tablets).

Enrico Scrovegni donating the chapel to Mary, possibly the first example of the portrait of a donor in art history.

The throngs of the saved, looking suspiciously like an army.

Versus these folks, who aren’t doing so well.

Enjoyable, precious as the experience of reading our book is, it is not like being there, nor will it ever be like being then: at the time in which the chapel was built and decorated, when it would have truly appeared to its faithful visitors as a scale model of the finite Ptolemaic universe, with the Earth on which they walked at the centre. Back when the world really was a book.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Her real name: on the unmasking of Elena Ferrante

My new piece this week is a political obituary of John Key for Overland. Below is another piece I wrote this year for the magazine, following the latest attempts to reveal the identity of Elena Ferrante.

The only thing you need to know about Elena Ferrante’s name is that it’s a homage to Elsa Morante, the author of La storia. This is the only literary kinship sought by Ferrante and it should suffice. But of course it never could. Not in a culture obsessed with celebrity, or rather with identity; a culture for which what matters are not the things you say or do but rather who you are.

It is not a great stretch to connect this obsession with the policing of national borders, which is the product of the same ideology, or to the entire apparatus of international surveillance. Even something as apparently innocent as our social networks would like you to use your ‘real name’, if only in order to correctly predict your future consumer decisions. However, when it’s a woman who makes such a decision, the challenge to the cultural order is that much more serious. For a woman who asserts the right to change her identity makes a play for greater autonomy, and female autonomy is always a threat.

There are so many ironies. The hunt for Elena Ferrante, which involved a journalist – Claudio Gatti – supported by four different international outlets, was conducted by ‘following the money’, that is to say tracking down the assets purchased by the suspect after the publication of Ferrante’s various novels, as well as the film adaptation of L’amore molesto. In the very same years, another Neapolitan author who achieved great international notoriety, Roberto Saviano, was using those same methods to track down the activities of the mafia, most famously in his ‘novel’ Gomorrah. As a result of this work, Saviano has had to go into hiding. His real face and name are known, his works have been translated into dozens of languages and adapted for both the small and the big screen, but he lives the life of a criminal.

Equally and painfully ironic is the justification given by editor Roberto Napoletano in publishing Gatti’s investigation for La Domenica, the weekly cultural supplement of the prestigious financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore. (The translation is mine, the somewhat tortured syntax his.)
There is nothing quite like La Domenica – a cultural supplement in the heart of a financial newspaper – in the whole of Italian journalism, and it is not by chance that this investigation has been published here, in this home, where we combine economics with its rules and its culture, that is sustained by literary and scientific passions, the desire to dig, without ever being satisfied with superficial appearances. The decision to ‘follow the money’ is precisely the product of our history and knowledge.
He continues:
What struck me the most about Gatti’s work was his passion for the novels and how he delved into the story and its characters. Thus he discovered that Elena, also known as Lenù, the protagonist of the tetralogy of My Brilliant Friend, was the name of a beloved aunt of Ms Raja, while Nino, the name given to Lenù’s great love, is also how Domenico Starnone, the husband of the translator-author, is known to his family.

Bullshit. All of it. And not only because you could find a beloved aunt Elena in every second Italian family, nor because the thought of Ferrante naming Nino Sarratore after her own husband would strike anyone who has actually read the novels as an alarming choice. All of these pieces of evidence which we are supposed to believe were carefully and almost lovingly deduced from the novels are nothing but a post-facto attempt to aggrandise Mr Gatti’s work. The much more prosaic explanation is that he started his forensic investigation with the person who has been named most often over the years in literary circles as the ‘real Elena Ferrante’ (along with her husband, novelist Domenico Starnone – for the idea that a woman might have written such a successful series of novels sat awkwardly with many; and Gatti himself attributes in passing to Starnone a significant intellectual contribution to the cycle, for reasons that are best known to him).

What’s more, as Ferrante’s publisher pointed out in its response to Gatti’s story, over the last five years the weekly cultural supplement of Il Sole 24 Ore, in all its snowflake-like uniqueness, never bothered to review any of Ferrante’s novels, save for a recent short piece by venerable critic Goffredo Fofi. In other words, if this supposed veneration for Ferrante’s work actually existed, it was hidden rather well. This extends to the entire Italian literary establishment, whose reaction to the international success of the Neapolitan cycle has been tepid at best. We could blame this on the misogyny that Ferrante describes in her works, or point to something more nuanced and complex. I’ll merely note that sometimes the simplest explanations are the best.

I wrote earlier this year about Ferrante and her badly written men, in response to the charge by a Sydney Morning Herald reviewer that the male characters in her novels ‘are all needy losers whose recourse to action is either pleading, infidelity or violence’. I proposed that the lives of many women I have known in my own life and countless others would have been greatly improved if real Italian men with real names had behaved in more satisfyingly nuanced ways, making the work of authors like Ferrante (and Morante) truly seem like lazy social satires. Now, I find myself despairing at the plausibility of Claudio Gatti and Roberto Napoletano, and how well they could fit within Ferrante’s cycle, with their needy, greedy, narrow worldview, and their belief that they are naturally entitled to a woman’s life.

If it’s true that Elena Ferrante is who Napoletano and Gatti say she is – which it may be, in a sense that is all but meaningless to her readers – then it was never much of a secret. She would just be the person most people said she was from the beginning, and all we needed to do was respect her wish and never seek to find out for sure. This desire for definitive knowledge, too, is a form of violence that will be familiar to readers of Ferrante and to people who know women. It’s a final irony I wish we had been spared.