The Life of De’Ath by Majella Cullinane (Steele Roberts Aotearoa, 2018), 242pp., $34.99
If Mephistopheles has been making a comeback, it’s in new guises appropriate for societies that don’t believe in hell: in London’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse production of Doctor Faustus, she was a mischievously jolly best friend rather than the embodiment of evil. In Majella Cullinane’s multi-layered debut novel, he’s an amiable and reliable narrator, and somewhat dissatisfied with his other-worldly status: there’s a clever twist at the end to explain his real identity and motivation.
The life Mephistopheles narrates is that of Theodore De’Ath who lived from 1888 to 1918. On his father’s side he is the grandson of a whaler and of ‘what was defined at the time as a fallen woman’, and on his mother’s of Germans, Opa and Oma Seewald. Opa is a professor at the university’s Modern Languages Department, and one of the most appealing characters in the novel. After a family tragedy – Theodore’s father had been abused as a child, and tried and failed to escape from ‘the cruel memory of neglect … the unpredictable anger of adults’ – Theodore goes to live with Opa and Oma in Otago. Professor Seewald knows a lot about representations of hell and the devil, knowledge conveyed to Theodore (and readers) in digestible doses. It is not all Dante’s Inferno and Blake’s Ciampolo the Barrator Tormented by the Devils: to cure the traumatised child, Opa quietly prescribes ‘a combination of reading, journal writing, and fresh air’. Theodore gets plenty of the last, and there are moments of exhilaration, like freewheeling on his bike downhill towards the sea, to balance his serious learning. Opa also tells his grandson not to worry about hell and damnation: they are concepts, he explains, that need to be understood in the context of the medieval mindset, and do not apply to Theodore.
Mephistopheles approves: ‘why fill such young minds with devils and punishment, rather than patience and reason?’ Theodore’s education proceeds, shared with like-minded friends who are as immersed as he is in European literature – Michael Kelly at school, and later, the love of his life Elizabeth Paterson. When war breaks out in 1914 he is estranged from anti-German fervour and the rush to enlist, but when conscription comes in 1916 he has no choice. Then comes the crux of the story: for all he knew about hell, nothing prepares him for the man-made hell-on-earth he encounters on the Western Front.
The Life of De’Ath is thoroughly immersed in a Western, as opposed to an Anglocentric, cultural tradition. Mephistopheles is a Goethe figure rather than a Marlowe one, believing that life isn’t long enough for the insatiably curious: ‘better to have one life and live it, really live it, than be cursed with everlasting existence in the hereafter’.
Theodore is insatiably curious, and references to Western culture abound: on page 128 within five lines introducing Theodore’s love, Elizabeth, (already compared to Dante’s Beatrice) we have mention of Nietzsche, Socrates, Sappho, Semele and Zeus. Is this showing off? When Thomas Hardy was accused of a gratuitous display of learning it was mainly on the snobbish grounds that, being self-educated, he wasn’t wearing his knowledge lightly enough. Is Majella Cullinane wearing her knowledge lightly? I think she is. Some of us may have been all too eager as ardent post-colonialists to reject the hegemonic influence of Western culture without knowing a great deal about what it was. We have some catching up to do. In Landfall 236 in a review of Athens to Aotearoa: Greece and Rome in New Zealand literature and society, Michael Harlow quotes with approval from Perris’s introduction: ‘beyond doubt classical antiquity still offers an avenue for local writers and other writers to think seriously about identity and selfhood in an increasingly connected global society … More importantly it also speaks to biculturalism and to the need for a more capacious, more nuanced view of what it means to be in and of Aotearoa New Zealand and to live under the sign of Te Tiriti o Waitangi’ (190).
The Life of De’Ath contributes to this more nuanced view. So much has been written about the Western Front as hell-on-earth that it’s hard to think there’s any more to be said, yet this novel gives new emphasis to some less discussed aspects of New Zealand at war: the appalling treatment of aliens and pacifists, the sad predicament of defaulters and deserters, the stridency of some warlike women, and the harshness of military tribunals.
The formidably learned is not the only register: there are passages of tender simplicity, especially about small children, whose delighted wonder at the world as they first experience it is movingly conveyed. The description of the bedroom Theodore shares with his twin is lovingly done, as is his not-quite-two-year-old amazement at his sister’s boldness in climbing out of her cot. He’s a little older when, on a rare outing with his father, he revels in the wild life to be marvelled at and longs to hold onto the sensation of the moment forever.
This longing is called ‘the crushing magnificence of nostalgia’, and in time Theodore can grasp and be sustained by it. It is a mantra that can be traced in varying forms – through Goethe’s Mephistopheles, whose challenge is to provide Faustus with moments so wonderful he wants them to last for eternity, to a twenty-first-century focus on the benefits of mindfulness as a way of achieving serenity and overcoming stress. (‘Find eternity in every moment’, writes our own contemporary Deborah Alma in her poem ‘Fridge Magnets’.)
Lifestyle advice for the twenty-first century might be added to the novel’s many layers.
Yet another commendable aspect contributing to readerly enjoyment is the shrewd and witty observation of character. In chapter 8, in three pages about going to church, we meet (among others) the Reverend John Aitkens who suffers the dark night of the soul and avoids his parishioners; the organist Mrs Marjorie Howell, whose large heaving bosom obscures her hands; and Beth-Ann Morrison, whom everyone adores until she reaches adolescence, when she is bedevilled with pimples and seeks solace in liquorice and bulls-eyes. We also learn that Oma doesn’t really believe in God, and that Mephistopheles hates the hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ for its ingratiating melody and the deranged cheeriness of its refrain.
But pleasure in such pithy observation is moderated by a wish to know more. There are too many people. Such succinct and incisive observation is too much to condense into 242 pages, in a work that is also a novel of ideas, a historical novel, and a bold experiment in narrative method. There’s enough here for four novels – or one long one: perhaps the ‘crushing magnificence of nostalgia’ can be experienced through immersion in a good long book, just as well as in a passing serendipitous moment.
Precepts about living life to the full and cherishing the moment may seem to be unexceptionable: but there is a problem. It’s all a question of context, as Opa explains to Theodore when telling him not to worry about hell and damnation because they are concepts of the medieval mind. We are produced as twenty-first-century readers when Mephistopheles invites us to choose our beverage (an espresso or mochaccino), to choose a comfortable spot in which to read, and to be alert meanwhile to ‘flame-shadows dancing on the wall’, or ‘the low persistent hum of insects’. Later we’re invited to choose between chardonnay or pinot noir. The problem is that our choices as consumers and our responsiveness to the beauty and wonder of the world cannot be quarantined from wider issues around climate change and the finite resources of our planet. We might be destroying it.
Can this be what our apparently amiable Mephistopheles has in mind – can he be subtly encouraging us to hasten the end of the Anthropocene by pretending to urge us to live, really live? I don’t think so. But it might be a topic for discussion in book groups. There are limitless possibilities within this novel which takes on so much so boldly. Majella Cullinane is a novelist prepared to take risks and to live dangerously. After all, ‘not to strive, not to act, not to live at all, is the most grievous sin’.
RUTH BROWN, born in New Zealand, now works in England as an academic and editor. In the 1990s and early 2000s she ran the interdisciplinary New Zealand Studies Group in London, a support network for postgraduate students, visiting writers and academics working on New Zealand-related topics.