4 October 2012

Maurice Gee: The Scornful Moon: A Moralist's Tale (2003)

At the end of The Scornful Moon the journalist narrator Sam Holloway announces that the moon has come up, and says that there are thousands of ways to describe the moon, such as Shelley's 'crystal paramour' or Milton's 'spotty globe', but doesn't mention 'the scornful moon', a title adapted from Robin Hyde's 'the scornful crystal moons' in Journalese (1934). In the same chapter, Hyde mentions D'Arcy Cresswell, who is also relevant to The Scornful Moon. Gee based some of the story of the novel on a 1920 court case in which the mayor of Wanganui in New Zealand, Charles E. Mackay, was imprisoned for 15 years for the attempted murder of D'Arcy Cresswell, a writer of poems of questionable merit who, by entrapment, had attempted to force Mackay to resign because he claimed he had 'discovered a certain digusting feature in [his] character', part of which involved Mackay showing him photos of naked women, followed by photos of naked men. In The Scornful Moon Gee changes the time to 1935, and the mayoral resignation to resignation from candidature for the general election.
This is Wellington in 1935, before the Labour Party had a huge victory over the coalition of the United Party and the Reform Party. Sam is a journalist, James Tinling a solicitor, and Eric Clifton a lunar scientist, and they are married to the sisters Rose, Vivian and May. James is also a former conservative cabinet minister who wants to get back into politics, but things are changing in New Zealand society and the Labour Party is set to gain power for the first time: James represents a dying order, and is known by many as 'Tinkling' (with money).
Within the novel there is an unnamed novel in progress – which is a kind of MacGuffin – that the narrator is writing with eleven other people, although after the young poet Owen Moody (the D'Arcy Cresswell figure) begins monopolizing the writing the group loses impetus, to disappear into nothing after Moody is shot by James's same-party rival Oliver Joll (the Mackay figure).
Throughout, Sam reminds us that he is writing the novel proper, which is full of his doubts about this process: 'These paragraphs are like a stone lobbed into a pool' and 'I must stop this [...] I had meant to start with Eric', 'I'm mixing my metaphors', etc. There are many literary references: the narrator speaks of his sister-in-law Vi as the Lady of Shalott, May can be 'Tolstoyan', Eric like Captain Ahab, etc. and the characters quote too: Eric quotes Shelley, Sam quotes Leigh Hunt and Charles Kingsley, etc.
At the beginning the characters seem easily hurt and reticent about speaking directly. They, along with Sam, talk a great deal in metaphors and similes. And the narrative is circumlocutory, searching for psychological significance behind a person's actions. I had the impression of a form of interstitial literature where the gaps are what matter, where the unsaid takes on a huge significance. Towards the end the narrator expresses a moral malaise:
'It's strange – it's more, it's frightening – how the mind works things out while keeping them unknown. What goes on in that territory? There's a moral failing somewhere.'
C. K. Stead's essay 'Maurice Gee, Moralist' in Kin of Place: Essays on 20 New Zealand Writers (Auckland University Press, 2002) is a re-publication from the journal Landfall 202, November 2001, and is a review of Gee's previous novel Ellie and the Shadow Man. The essay title seems to underline the subtitle of the later novel.

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