Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Sun, the Moon and Eleanor Catton's Luminaries

Eleanor Catton became New Zealand’s darling when she won the Man Booker prize on this day October 15th, last year 2013.

The youngest-ever winner with the longest-ever book, her perceptive and thoughtful insights had us all running to read her book.

At the time, she swept to fame with other young luminaries - musician Lorde and golfing heroine Lydia Ko. 
These three women made Kiwis everywhere proud, as they hit the world with such positive headlines.
A Sleep-In in New York

 Then in February 2014, the news broke that Hollywood is stepping into Hokitika to make a TV mini-series of Catton’s book. Eleanor had insisted the production be filmed on New Zealand’s West Coast where her novel is set. Although all Hokitka’s historic buildings have gone, the beach, the river and the mountains remain and we do have an experienced film industry.
Hokitika township in the 1870's

What a coup for Catton and Aotearoa. I admire this young woman for swinging this deal to tell her story in a different medium. Further, in using her intelligence and power, she provides profit for our local filmmakers. While at the same time she delivers the greater boon of visualising N.Z’s 19th century past into life on the silver screen for us all.

I’m looking forward to hearing Eleanor Catton speak at the beginning of November when she takes part in The Women’s Bookshop’s Litera-Tea – an afternoon of womens’ words, wit and wisdom. Visit www.womensbookshop.co.nz for information.

Read on for a review of The Luminaries - The Golden Heart -  I wrote last year. I write from an astrological perspective to counter-balance the mainstream media reviews. In astrology’s symbolic language the Luminaries are the Sun and the Moon, for these two bodies in our sky are the light-givers for us on planet Earth.

The golden Sun brings daylight and represents consciousness, power, spirit, courage and heart. The illumination of the night is provided by the silver  Moon, which although constant in its cycle, is inconstant in its waxing and waning light. The Moon symbolises our feelings and needs that ebb and flow, emanating from our past and unconsciousness.

In traditional astrology, the Sun was taken by a patriarchal culture to mean the masculine and the Moon feminine. Nowadays - Carl Jung’s interpretations notwithstanding - feminist astrologers aren’t into using stereotypes that masquerade under the guise of archetypes. 

Biology does not create destiny unless you live in a particularly patriarchal culture where ones’ role is dictated by what sex you’re born into. The active Sun and the receptive Moon are freed from their old cultural prison of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. Their symbolic meanings may dance within both genders. 

The astrological Sun symbolises women’s and men’s outgoing sunny, creative selves. Likewise the soulful Moon represents our instinctual habits – where and how we feel most at home.

However, in Catton’s The Luminaries, the astrology is traditional. The two characters that represent the luminaries of Sun and Moon are in the old-fashioned, 19th century sense a man and a woman - and they become the heart of her story.



In which Fern marvels at the literary establishment that ignores - at their peril - astrological arcana; she attempts digging for golden nuggets while unravelling the mysteries of the silver threads at the heart of The Luminaries.

Since reading Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries, I have searched for reviews to supplement my understanding of the book and found that very few mention astrology, and then only fleetingly. As the very architecture of the book, not to mention its content, is informed and infused with astrological wisdom, this seems to show how fundamentally marginalised astrology is from the mainstream gatekeepers of our cultural practices.

One particularly obnoxious, New Zealand reviewer states; ‘a five finger exercise webbed together by the dubious dinosaur cement of astrology’. This quote, despite coming from a nasty, misogynistic review seems to sum up the overall underlying attitude towards astrology - despite its importance to The Luminaries - of the English-speaking world’s top reviewers. (The Guardian, NY Times, Telegraph, The Listener etc). 
(Their reviews of the book itself are much kinder, wiser and more insightful than our sour-grapes, resident Kiwi.)

And of course, the Man Booker judges saw fit to give Catton the prize from a field of first-class world writers. This speaks of the vivid power of her writing, the intricacy of her plot and the marvellous mis-en-scene she creates in the Wild West gold digging town of Hokitika during the mid-1860s.

I found the book hard to put down as it is a lively murder mystery that lured me in with a cliff-hanger at the end of every chapter. Every sentence led me on, or doubled me back to fit a puzzle that was challenging to de-code, but fun to try.
I am not sure if the style of writing that reminds me of Charles Dickens, was meant to be a parody or a tribute to the great 19th century, Victorian novels. The compelling setting, the involved descriptions, the multiple story-lines, the old-time chapter headings, the melodrama, the confessions and revelations from realistic characters – all of these combine into some classic confabulation that turns back into itself, ending at its beginning. Extraordinary!
The modern site of Crosbie Well's cottage
 And then there is the astrology. The first page gives us a Character Chart where the 20 main characters are identified as signs and planets – and places as astrological Houses.

The dead man Crosbie Wells is classified under the Heading of Terra Firma and orbiting around him are 7 characters who represent the Planets.

There are a further 12 men who are grouped as Stellar, and who symbolise the zodiac signs as identified in the astrological charts that Catton provides at the beginning of each Part. 

Each chapter within each Part is set on the day of that chart. Each chapter has a heading that tells of the astrological influences  at work  – e.g. Mercury in Sagittarius
where we are introduced to Walter Moody who in the Character Chart is identified as Mercury and under whose force of Reason he moves. 
Thomas Balfour who also recounts his story in this chapter, carries the sign of Sagittarius.

The book is long but has an unusual structure. The first Part has 360 pages! (there are 360 degrees in a zodiac’s wheel) There are 12 Parts (12 zodiac signs)  with each Part having exactly half the word count of the one that came before it, so the book curls in on itself – a sphere within a sphere. (referencing the Fibonacci sequence and the Nautilus spiral)

This is complex, cunning, mind-bending wit, and yet you don’t have to know astrology to enjoy the experience of reading this intrigue. The astrology enhances the experience, yet not knowing it obviously doesn’t diminish the engrossing tale, as most of the reviewers testify.
I find Catton’s knowledge breath-taking and her structural and writing achievement marvellous.
I quibble over her one of her characters using the tarot cards, as they weren’t part of the English-speaking world’s experience until the very late 19th century. Yet her overall historical reconstruction is absorbing. 

Venus with Crescent Moon
I do find her traditional astrology’s patriarchal bias giving form to a cast of all male characters except for the feminine Moon and Venus, rather disconcerting. Although I grudgingly acknowledge the overwhelming masculine presence in that neck of the woods at that historical time, the lack of women from the ‘12 good men and true’ of the zodiac still jars a feminist perspective.
And indeed Margaret Shepherd - playing Moon to her husband’s tyrannical Saturn - has a significant role in the plot despite her absence from the Character Chart. Perhaps she didn’t quite fit Catton’s schema? (the 13th sign?)

However I love the author’s unique, thoughtful astrological interpretations. And I love the very thought of a major book like this, utilising astrology in such an intellectual, genius way as a poke in the eye to the chattering classes - who in general despise the very notion of astrology.

Having poured over Catton’s natal horoscope (Libra Sun with combust conjunct Mercury and that retrograde Jupiter and Moon in Aquarius are features), I laugh at the reviewers critiquing her ‘cool’ and ‘detached’ style. I guess it takes all that elemental airy elegance combined with the sting in the tail of Saturn in Scorpio, to ruffle the feathers of the establishment.

But it is also a massive shaggy dog story; a great empty bag; an enormous, wicked, gleeful cheat. For nothing in this enormous book, with its exotic and varied cast of characters whose lives all affect each other and whose fates are intricately entwined, amounts to anything like the moral and emotional weight one would expect of it. That's the point, in the end, I think, of The Luminaries. It's not about story at all. It's about what happens to us when we read novels – what we think we want from them – and from novels of this size, in particular. Is it worthwhile to spend so much time with a story that in the end isn't invested in its characters? Or is thinking about why we should care about them in the first place the really interesting thing? Making us consider so carefully whether we want a story with emotion and heart or an intellectual idea about the novel in the disguise of historical fiction… There lies the real triumph of Catton's remarkable book.

I suspect Gunn is right in one way - the book is like a shaggy dog story. The whole shebang revolves around a dead body. Indeed I am still struggling to understand why Catton designated Terra Firma – our planet Earth – as a dead man.

In astrology’s metaphysical wisdom, the cosmos with all its planets are alive and singing. I admit the distillation of astrology’s symbolism into each character and scene creates a strangely detached puzzle that may appear ultimately to be without heart – for indeed lying at the centre is a dead man whose heart does not beat. So on one level the story indeed becomes an enormous wicked gleeful cheat – a great empty bag.

Yet if Terra Firma is symbolised as a dead body, then this idea does carry a moral and emotional weight. Earth the dead centre, is exploited and murdered by Venus and Mars; ignored by Jupiter and Saturn who are engrossed in their own worldly squabbles of ambition and power. 
Maybe the author wants us to resuscitate the dead empty centre  -  rethink our attitudes towards our planet? She revives the Romance of the 19th century in style and substance, she re-animates our history, our quest for gold and greenstone, and reveals Wells’ heart-breaking pleas for his brother to show some love ( humanity). 
She carefully embeds an ancient yet reviled metaphysical knowledge that is at the heart of most Western cultural traditions, into the foundations of her book and demands we read the story through its lens.
Is Catton intimating that perhaps our modern materialist version of Earth is a dead idea and needs to be restored? Reclaim the past to better re-view the future?
I don’t agree with Gunn that the story has no emotion or heart. The love story of the two Luminaries which ends and begins with the Old Moon in the Young Moon’s arms, is a heartfelt, even romantic tale that is both old and new - and so worth reading!

Old Moon in the New Moon's Arms

Eleanor Catton
Victoria University Press 2013 

1 comment:

  1. I was disappointed when I tried to read The Luminaries. I read over a quarter which I thought was fair but I wasn't enjoying it and found it hard work. Having read your thoughts, Fern, maybe I'll give it another try in a few months time. Thanks for the insights. Jeff