The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem by Luke Elworthy (The Wairau Division, 2022), 327pp, $35
‘All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,’ begins the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It is also an appropriate epigraph for Luke Elworthy’s The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem, a novel that explores a story of ‘families’, both happy and unhappy. The life history of a character in a familial setting has been a mainstay of fiction since the 19th century, and Elworthy is certainly not the first writer to address the primal mystery of parenthood, generational secrets, sibling relationships, and even the incest taboo itself.
Nearly a century after Anna Karenina, the Russian-born writer Vladimir Nabokov mischievously transfigured Tolstoy’s introductory sentence for the beginning of his own 1969 novel, Ada, or Ardor: A Family Chronicle. ‘All happy families’, he began, ‘are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike.’ It may have been a wry joke about translations, artistic mirroring, and literary pyrotechnics, but it was also more than relevant to the subject of his book, which, like The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem, was the account of an extended family through two generations. Nabokov, the author of Lolita, Pale Fire and Ada, also appears as an essential, if somewhat surprising, background character in The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem, as does the loquacious explicator ‘Dr Luke Elworthy’ (henceforth in inverted commas), who has the same name as the book’s author, and whose interventions introduce and interleave the book’s pages. The reader is swiftly caught up in Nabokovian games even before entering the body of the text.
The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem is a metafiction, prefaced with a publisher’s note (from Distinguished Professor of English at the University of Auckland, Dr Brian Bode) and an Introduction by ‘Dr Elworthy’, a former student of Bode, now academic competitor. The novel itself consists of an ostensibly autobiographical text, written in the form of confessional letters, by Godfrey Cheathem in his prison cell, which is interwoven with interventions by ‘Dr Elworthy’, and Godfrey’s sister, Rosemary (or more familiarly, Ro or Ropu), as well as copious footnotes.
From the beginning, not all is clear. Why has Godfrey been imprisoned? What is the precise relationship between Godfrey’s father, Herbert, and Ranolph, the heir to Big Bush, the family’s extensive South Island property and their respective roles viz-a-viz Herbert’s children? How accurate is the family tree thoughtfully reproduced in the beginning pages? And, ultimately, who has really written Godfrey’s global best-selling novel, Chasing the Final Light? Even when revelations are made, inevitably another revelation swiftly follows, portentous and unsettling.
Traces of Nabokov abound. Plot points often seem to have their origin in one or other of the Russian writer’s fictions, especially Pale Fire and Ada. There are footnotes, box-within-box structures, a large idyllic country estate, mysteries of fatherhood, explorations of art versus life, mirrored reflections (often distorted), sexual transgressions, and imprisonment.
The frequent presence throughout the novel of the fictional Professor Brian Bode, the Nabokovian expert and supposed writer of the much-cited but equally-fictional biography, Godfrey Cheathem: One Creative Life, is also clearly modelled on Auckland University’s real-life Professor Brian Boyd. Bode’s many books on Nabokov, as in Boyd’s own bibliography, include a two-volume life. Luke Elworthy’s final acknowledgements even thank Boyd for suggesting the grimly Bodian nom-de-plume for his mirrored representative. The competition between Bode and ‘Dr Elworthy’ is a consistent leitmotif with attendant mysteries.
These, however, are framings. What of the novel itself? Purporting to be a first-person narration coming into the hands of ‘Dr Elworthy’ after the publication of Bode’s biographical magnum opus, it is offered as a ‘truthful account’ of Godfrey Cheathem’s life, arranged as an autobiographical explanation of events, shuffled together with additional commentary by various other voices. Godfrey is the first son of a second son, disinherited from the sprawling and profitable South Island family estate. His father, Herbert, and mother, Diana, are determined instead to parent children whose careers will flourish in the world of arts rather than agriculture or commerce. Careers are allotted in childhood: musician, filmmaker, writer, and even a potter. The novel becomes more bitingly satirical as it proceeds.
Godfrey Cheatham as protagonist is both accident-prone buffoon and melancholy Pierrot. At once resilient and absurd, he’s described as resembling a ‘cabbage-patch doll’. He moves from one publishing career to another, seemingly successful against all the odds, before an equally spectacular fall. He rides every trend through an international catalogue of best-selling genres in pursuit of the Next Big Thing. His father, Herbert, similarly finds his own extremely profitable niche publishing New Zealand sporting books, the stocking stuffers of an Antipodean Christmas. However, the novel is more firmly focused on its family relationships, offering a number of targets for Elworthy’s scathing satire.
Godfrey’s mother, for example, is at the forefront of personal-improvement trends, from the fashionable commune—ClearLite, an obvious substitute for Auckland’s Centrepoint—to later lesbian separatism, and the manufacture and sale of a kiwifruit-based sexual lubricant. But at the book’s foundation is a weave of family mystery, which lies behind many decisions and the Freudian question, ‘But where do I come from?’ Elworthy’s answer is the whole Oedipal drama, played out in the novel’s numerous final death scenes, including a near-sexual ecstatic rapprochement between Godfrey and his mother on her death bed.
Elworthy’s authorial biography on the back flap of this book (‘from a family of publishers and farmers … educated at a Church of England boarding school in Christchurch … spent his school holidays at controversial Auckland cult, Centrepoint … worked in marketing, publicity, and editorial roles with book publishers in New Zealand, Australia, the UK, and the Netherlands’) nearly completely mirrors the plot of The Last Letter. The novelist’s life is certainly used as material, known and at hand, but it is also a springboard to something quite different. It is the basis of an acerbic commentary on New Zealand life and arts which ranges from laugh-out-loud moments to muffled sniggers, with more than a hint of controversy, and often conducted in the footnotes.
‘In 1981’, reads one footnote, ‘GC accompanied his father to New Zealand’s book awards, then sponsored by Watties (the country’s leading tinned food manufacturer, maker of iconic baked beans) presented by respected British novelist, Jeffrey Archer’. This is not fiction. Readers of The Last Letter might recall that the once much-fêted British politician turned best-selling novelist made a star appearance at New Zealand’s national book awards before being imprisoned in Britain for three years for perjury and perverting the course of justice. This is simply one example of hundreds. Then, at times, the flat and possibly unnecessary translation of Māori words used in the text has a sting when it comes to the verities of New Zealand’s contemporary bicultural ethos. From the first, ‘While GC did not use macrons for words in te reo Māori, these have been added’ to the near-final sharp slap commenting on the institution of financial koha, language politics are not neglected. Many New Zealand literary reputations are also the object of pert summary.
It is, however, in the outline of Godfrey’s life and loves, his business, and family relations, that this battle is conducted with force. His progress is a journey through an historic half a century, but the novel’s ending is a feu d’artifice: a bonfire of fireworks exploding during a party held to mark 150 years of the family estate, with all the protagonists, including Bode, in attendance. It leaves few of the book’s major characters standing and most plot strands completed. However, the ‘true’ author of Godfrey Cheathem’s best-selling, Chasing the Final Light, remains a subject for debate.
Elworthy’s Nabokovian confection is essentially a novel of metaphysical games and somehow unfashionable ones. Nabokov seems like a remote, ivory-tower figure to many readers these days, preoccupied as we are with cultural populism, media platforms, and literary activism. How, then, do we value this book?
It is an intelligent novel, but its in-jokes require knowledge to ignite their chuckles. The plot is nearly classical in structure, and enjoyment comes from its dénouement playing out in conventional terms with surprise variations. However, is it human? Does it have a heartbeat? The Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, in a 1972 Playboy interview, complained that he could hear ‘the clatter of surgical tools’ in Nabokov’s prose. This is also true of Elworthy’s writing: it can seem calculated.
The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem has a picaresque narrative, with its hero depicted in a variety of situations amongst a variety of characters, but they are all in the service of ideas rather than flesh and blood individuals. The genre the book belongs to is what used to be called Menippean satire: ‘It deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes’, wrote the mid-twentieth century literary critic, Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism, describing this genre. ‘Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds are handled in terms of their approach to life as distinct from their social behaviour. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.’
This seems like a fair summation of Elworthy’s novel. Like many of Nabokov’s books, it is a confession, as Lolita was from its prison cell or Pale Fire from a motel room with its nearby too-loud funfair noise. Elworthy’s characters are embodiments of trendy attitudes, of stellar careers—in the arts. Godfrey’s mother roves through a complete range of ‘alternative’ lifestyles. One could easily place the characters in a complex Freudian family frame, although the range of quotable Nabokovian scoffing at such an analysis is extensive. At times, Elworthy’s intent can lead to a certain flatness, a certain predictability. Characters are often undeveloped and functional, there to serve a message rather than sympathetic and relatable.
And yet The Last Letter of Godfrey Cheathem is also an ambitious novel in a way seldom associated with contemporary New Zealand writing. It pushes boundaries intelligently. It is vastly funny and quirky. Its plot delivers us a portrait of Godfrey Cheathem at the mercy of all the greater forces of his time, discovering the powers that have fatally moulded him into apparent sterility, then finally using them to create in his own right, surrounded by busy sun-golden beehives. Ultimately, the reader is also forced to face, and experience, the ancient opposition of tears and laughter. It is a tragic and salutary lesson.
DAVID HERKT is an Auckland-based writer and former TV producer. His literary and journalistic work has been widely published. He has been a winner of the Sunday Star-Times Short Story Competition, and his TV productions have gained two Media and Television Awards: Best Documentary Series and Best Children’s Programme.