Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants by Mathias Enard

Fitzcarraldo Editions, Mathias Enard, Tell Them of Battles, Kings and Elephants, Charlotte Mandell

What if cultures were not as hermetic as we sometimes imagine them to be? What if the modern foundations of “Western culture” were based, in fact, on influences from the “East”—and vice versa? What if, let us imagine, someone as renowned as Michelangelo had travelled to somewhere like Constantinople—had built there a bridge, both literal and metaphorical, had seen the Hagia Sophia, had read at Ottoman Sultan Bayezid’s library—and had come back to Rome filled with the grandeur of all he had seen? That is precisely Mathias Enard’s premise with this novella, first published in French in 2010 by Actes Sud and in English in 2018 by Fitzcarraldo Editions.

The young Michelangelo in 1506 is invited by the Sultan to design a bridge over the Golden Horn. This there is historical evidence for. Giorgio Vasari mentions it, Michelangelo’s friend Ascanio Condivi recounts it, and, even more compellingly, Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for exactly such a bridge (never built) still survive at the Museum of Science in Milan. A sketch for a bridge in the Ottoman archives was recently attributed to Michelangelo, but is not definite. The facts Enard truly has, and which he seems to structure the story around, are letters from Michelangelo to his brother Buonarroto, as well as sketches and plans of the Hagia Sophia sent to Rome. These are quoted intermittently in the story, but seem to be where Enard’s imagination leaped off from.

I first heard of Mathias Enard with his novel Zone, famously written in a single sentence. I haven’t read it, and perhaps Tell Them of Battles was meant for me, an easier read as a way in to Enard’s imagination and his reverse-Orientalism. The novella is easy to read, enticing, and I spent perhaps as much time researching Michelangelo and Constantinople after finishing the book as I did reading it (not copious amounts of time, as I read the book in two sittings).

Fitzcarraldo Editions is publishing what I believe is some of the best contemporary fiction and non-fiction, but something I’ve noticed is at times a strange ordering to the texts—almost over-vigorous editing. Here, Tell Them of Battles begins with a sub-plot, a non-consummated affair Michelangelo has with an androgynous dancer. The text is here the most overtly “literary” in the novel (“Night does not communicate with the day. It burns up in it. Night is carried to the stake at dawn,” the book begins), but it takes time for this storyline to develop, with it interspersed almost evenly throughout the text. It seemed to me that it had been written in a different order and edited later, feeling by the end slightly stilted. And this is the same feeling I had with the concurrent storylines in Dan Fox’s Limbo and Joshua Cohen’s Attention, both also published by Fitzcarraldo in late 2018. A minor gripe, but the publishing house’s style and its founder Jacques Testard’s preferences seem maybe a little too visible through these different books.

Enard does what fiction does best, imagining alternative histories and lives. That he does so with an implicit project as his aim—a kind of counter-Orientalism—seemed strange to me at first but, having read this book, makes more sense. It is not a totalising vision of world cultures, collapsing one into another in order that we can see a single “world culture”. I think it’s far more subtle than that, showing how individual lives and even individual encounters subtly and softly nudge what cultures are and what they mean. This I find appealing—but it is secondary, because Tell Them of Battles is simply imaginative and enjoyable to read.

Tutira: Herbert Guthrie-Smith and the Story of a Now-Toxic Lake

Tutira, Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station by William Herbert Guthrie SmithBrowsing grandparents’ bookshelves is always an experience of rediscovery. Books often seem to skip a generation, and then come back to teach the next. Finding William Herbert Guthrie-Smith’s book Tutira in my grandparents’ bookshelves left me embarrassed that I had not heard of it before—wondering, even, why I’d not been taught about it at school.

Tutira is, according to its subtitle, “The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station”. Its author came out to New Zealand as a young man of just 21, and set about finding a farm of his own. He first tried Canterbury, where he learned his skills, but soon moved to the norther climate of Hawkes Bay, finding the area north of Napier around Lake Tūtira to suit his purposes well. The book—large, heavy, and filled with maps and photos taken by Guthrie-Smith himself—is a record of 40 years spent farming the land, and was published in 1921, almost 100 years ago.

Lake Tutira photograph William Guthrie Herbert-Smith

No detail about the process of farming or the changes of the seasons and animals is too small for Guthrie-Smith. It’s a stunning work of patience and observation. We learn of the arrival of the willow tree in New Zealand direct from the seeds of the trees that planted Napoleon’s tomb on Saint Helena; we read descriptions of the floor of the lake as Guthrie-Smith plumbed it like Thoreau plumbed Walden pond. Spending a spring weekend reading Tutira is itself an exercise in patience; page after page of minute detail does not make for easy reading, but the whole picture built up is one of sensitivity and care for a natural environment that is changing beyond anyone’s understanding.

And that was Guthrie-Smith’s motivation for writing the book—to note what nature in early New Zealand was like, for those who may someday never see it. With great foresight Guthrie-Smith explains in his preface:

“So vast and rapid have been the alterations which have occurred in New Zealand during the past forty years, that even those who, like myself, have noted them day by day, find it difficult to connect past and present—the pleasant past so completely obliterated, the changeful present so full of possibility. These alterations are not traceable merely in the fauna, avifauna, and flora of the Dominion, nor are they only to be noted on the physical surface of the countryside: more profound, they permeate the whole outlook in regard to agriculture, stock-raising, and land tenure.

The story of Tutira is the record of such change noted on one sheep-station in one province. Should its pages be found to contain matter of any permanent interest, it will be owing to the fact that the life portrayed has for ever finished, the conditions sketched passed away beyond recall. A virgin countryside cannot be restocked; the vicissitudes of its pioneers cannot be re-enacted; its invasion by alien plants, animals, and birds cannot be repeated; its ancient vegetation cannot be resuscitated,—the words “terra incognito” have been expunged from the map of little New Zealand.”

And then I remembered, after reading about half the book, when I had last read the name Tutira—earlier this year, in a New Zealand Herald article titled simply, “Lake Tutira Turns Toxic.”

“Lake Tutira has an algal bloom likely to be toxic to people and animals… Warning signs were permanently in place at Lake Tutira but people were urged to avoid contact with the lake water and to keep animals away while the cyanobacteria were present.”

It seems too great an irony—too painful a one—that it is Guthrie-Smith’s lake (he gifted the land to the Crown after his death and it is now managed by the Department of Conservation) to be now a feature example of the state of New Zealand’s natural environment. Cleaning up rivers to make them once again swimmable was one of the few points of agreements by virtually all parties in New Zealand’s recent general election, which is at once a promising sign, but also a depressing one for how it came to needing to clean them up in the first place.

And though the decrepit state of Lake Tutira is recent, one of Guthrie-Smith’s central messages is that the environment is changing all the time—species of trees were dying in his day, rare birds disappearing frequently. Environmental change is itself perhaps the only constant in Tutira. Later in his life, while preparing the third edition of his book, Guthrie-Smith began to repent for so many of the changes he himself had caused on the land; Tutira Station itself had once been native bushed, burned down to make way for his farm. Though Guthrie-Smith seems resistant to any grand narratives or messages, one can sense a message of encouraging people to have care and compassion for the land and its species—to understand the necessity of change, but to be thoughtful and caring in it.

If New Zealand had a Henry David Thoreau, Herbert Guthrie-Smith would seem to be it—minus a political message but with a whole lot more conviction and example.


My family’s copy of the book belonged to my great-grandfather, Charles William Corner, who spent his life tending Napier’s parks and gardens. I don’t know if he ever met Guthrie-Smith, but in the small world of Hawkes Bay at that point—and the smaller world of naturalists and gardeners—I think it quite likely.

Note: After writing this I came across an article reviving Guthrie-Smith in the context of Hawkes Bay today. It’s a great read, with more detail than I’ve given here.

Herbert Guthrie Smith, Tutira 1926 William Blackwood

Design and Living: Architect Ernst Plischke’s Manifesto for Housing in New Zealand

Unnoticed by most New Zealanders in May 1939 was the arrival in Wellington of an architect of international stature. Racism, xenophobia and war were driving some of the best minds of Europe to (very) distant shores, and one can only imagine the reaction Ernst Anton Plischke had when he arrived in Wellington with his wife and children. A highly sophisticated and well-educated Austrian, Plischke grew up in Vienna and moved in prominent circles with names across the arts. After graduating from his studies he was immediately recruited by Peter Behrens (who had earlier recruited others central to the Modernist movement like Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier); Plischke later joined Josef Frank’s studio, then moved to New York to work for Ely Jacques Kahn (architect of many of the city’s skyscrapers). While in New York he met Frank Lloyd Wright. This is the man—urbane, sophisticated, with a prominent career looking increasingly assured—who, as a Jew aligned to the socialists, fled to Wellington, New Zealand, following the reunification of Austria and Germany.

We do know that life in New Zealand wasn’t the easiest for Plischke. For instance, while working for the Department for Housing Construction—a quickly conceived government plan to cope with looming housing shortages following the anticipated end of the war—Plischke designed the Dixon Street Flats in Wellington. A few years later, his boss Gordon Wilson won the New Zealand Institute of Architects Gold Award for precisely those buildings. It seems that many who he worked with were envious of his talent and whenever possible appropriated aspects of his designs; and as a final insult, his Austrian qualifications were deemed insufficient for him to join the New Zealand Institute of Architects. So, when Plischke finally left his government job, he went into private partnership with a fully qualified New Zealander, Cedric Firth.

Ernst Plischke architect New Zealand Design and Living book During his time in New Zealand (he left twenty four years after arriving to return to Vienna) Plischke designed numerous public buildings, social houses and private dwellings. These certainly set an example. But Plischke also wanted other architects and the public to understand the philosophy behind his buildings—to see Modernism as not just sleek lines and lots of glass, but as a philosophy of living. To this end, in 1947 he published a pamphlet book called Design and Living. It is a remarkable publication, filled with drawings, acting as an architectural primer, a philosophy of modern design, and a portfolio of key Plischke works. For a country facing once again a housing crisis—just as we were when Plischke wrote the book—it presents lessons we appear still to need to digest.

A house is a framework for living

Plischke's Corner Flat in Wellington, completed 1959/60
Plischke’s Corner Flat in Wellington, completed 1959/60

In New Zealand architectural history Plischke is usually presented as one of a band of International Style-ists opposed to any attempt to find a ‘vernacular’—i.e., a ’New Zealand style’—of architecture. Plischke’s kind of modernism has been criticised for being wilfully ignorant of local conditions or culture, for enforcing a supposed rational uniformity on all inhabitants of a building no matter where in a country or even where in the world they reside. This is the same criticism of Le Corbusier’s dictum that “a building is a machine for living in”. People are organic beings, not machines, is the protest.

But in reading Plischke’s own Design and Living one is struck by how far he himself seemed to have moved beyond this kind of international-vernacular debate entirely. In one important section he nods to all the different philosophies of housing, from an ascetic/simple living view, to the Corbusian ‘machine’ philosophy, and even a kind of post-modern ‘home as self-expression’ view. And he then moves beyond them:

“There is the person who says that a house should be essentially a shelter against wind and rain and cold; that any structure which effectively keeps out those elements is a good house. There is the person who wants, besides shelter, something he describes as a snug, cosy home. The man who imagines himself up to the moment will probably oppose that idea and demand that a house should function like a motor-car, or, rather, like an ocean liner: a machine that makes life as efficiently comfortable as possible. Then, we know the person who wants to impress his friends with his success and his worth as a citizen. And we know what his house usually looks like. But there are people who dislike the idea of display, who think that a house should be something more than a shelter or a snuggery or a machine. They realise that a house is a framework in which our lives are lived, and that life does not entirely consist of working, eating, and sleeping. They want a richer and fuller life, and they know that the house they live in can play an active part in attaining it.”

Plischke’s philosophy is far more complex than those other views, but also, in a way, far more simple. Here’s where I think his own origins play a role in having shaped his philosophy. Having grown up in a cultural centre, somewhere where art and culture being discussed at the coffee house was a central part of existence, Plischke sees the buildings in which we live and converse as existing to help bring out those heights of human achievement and accomplishment. Elsewhere he expands on this view:

“Earlier I said that houses make a framework for richer and fuller living: this goes far beyond the materialistic idea that a house should be merely a shelter. A rich and full life can be called a civilised life. And we who belong to a young country just beginning to build should remind ourselves that history does not judge a civilisation by its material and economic organisation alone, but rather by the thoughts and arts that it inspired.”

This is no architect concerned with building monuments to a nation or monuments to himself. It’s almost a modest view—that the best an architect can do is get out of the way and let artists, scientists and workers get on with their lives.

New Zealand housing in crisis

Plischke wrote his book as New Zealand was still in the midst, though emerging gradually, from a housing crisis. The cost of housing was rising; there weren’t enough houses to go around; and government housing programmes weren’t being built fast enough. He had for years been working on social housing developments, and was very sensitive to the charge that as a modernist architect he was elitist, and his homes unaffordable. At various points in Design and Living Plischke responds to that criticism, providing costings for his houses and showing that they fit below the government grant provided for affordable housing.

Though he didn’t put it as simply as this, Plischke seems almost to have a three-point plan for solving New Zealand’s housing woes:

  1. Adjust expectations
  2. Build smaller, but more efficiently
  3. Think at the family, town and city level, not in terms of number of houses built

Way back in 1947 Plischke seemed to take for granted that the way we were building wasn’t sustainable, and that at a certain point we would have to change our expectations about a quarter-acre patch. As he wrote simply,

“The first and most important step towards getting good design and good value would be that we ourselves should revise our taste and our ideas about what we think is good building and good furniture.”

Note that it wasn’t “change the dream of home ownership”, but just that in owning our homes we might need to change our views about the kind of homes we would be living in. This then led on to his view that multi-units were the way to go, and had been unfairly tarnished in the public eye by early failed projects:

“No doubt dissatisfaction can be and has been caused by multi-units when, because of the house shortage, families have had to put up with houses not designed for their needs; but this is rather like having to wear shoes that don’t fit you. The multi-unit proposal is one well worth discussion.”

Plischke thought we could build smaller houses, but not have the impression that we were living in smaller houses. Everywhere in Design and Living he makes suggestions for how to make a small home seem more spacious: use beds that fold-up into a cavity in the wall so that during the day the space can double as a living room; build-in all storage and furniture; put mirrors on the inside of wardrobes so that they don’t need to stand alone, for instance.

And, last, Plischke was adamant that government was using the wrong metrics to talk about housing:

“To many people a housing programme simply means a certain number of houses to be built on a certain area. But a housing programme can also mean the settlement of a certain number of families. You will notice the change of emphasis. The distinction becomes clearer if we think in terms of new suburbs or even of new townships…”

At a time when parties still propose building x or y number of houses, his change of emphasis to the family unit and to suburbs and towns is a good reminder about what is eventually at stake in the building of houses.

— — — —

It is ironic that Plischke’s legacy is still larger in Austria than in New Zealand despite the fact that he spent his most productive years here. Everywhere in Wellington you can see his buildings, from sleek residential buildings popping up over hillsides in suburbs, to his large tower on Lambton Quay. Plischke’s status in the public mind was solidified with a 2004 exhibition at the City Gallery in Wellington put on by the NZ Institute of Architects (the brochure of which I’ve included below).

Plischke’s book Design and Living still seems fresh with ideas, and it’s also fascinating to see how so many aspects of house design that we now take for granted were at one point controversial and revolutionary. It is disappointing that the book is so hard to find—the copy I read was practically falling apart in my hands. Now seems a good time for a re-print, if a local publisher could manage it.

Plischke Architect Wellington City Gallery Brochure 2004Plischke Architect Wellington City Gallery Brochure 2004

Montaigne Says We Should Be Better Learned, Not More Learned

Montaigne reminds us in his essay Of Pedantry of the difference between wisdom and knowledge, and laments the fact that we naturally favour the former:

“In truth, the care and expense of our fathers aims only at furnishing our heads with knowledge; of judgement and virtue, little news. Exclaim to our people about a passer-by “Oh, what a learned man!” and about another “Oh, what a good man!” They will not fail to turn their eyes and their respect towards the first. There should be a third exclamation: “Oh, what blockheads!” We are eager to inquire: “Does he know Greek or Latin? Does he write in verse or in prose?” But whether he has become better or wiser, which would be the main thing, that is left out. We should have asked who is better learned, not who is more learned.”

To be better learned is to have learned also to apply one’s knowledge to one’s life; to be more learned is to be a walking encyclopaedia. The latter, however, is more easily measured and more easily observed, for we can always recite facts. Wisdom must be demonstrated over time, and often requires certain circumstances to be seen.