Monday, June 19, 2017

Something New

NOTICE TO READERS: For six years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“NIGHT HORSE” by Elizabeth Smither (Auckland University Press, $NZ24:99)

            I almost breathe a sigh of relief as I pick up, and at first flick idly through, Elizabeth Smither’s latest (eighteenth) collection of poetry Night Horse, before I get down to the serious business of reading my way through it. Across 70 pages, here are 60 individual poems, most occupying a single page only. Individual poems – not cycles of poems and not poems organised around some stated theme. Such “thematic” collections (“concept albums” I often call them) seem to be the only arrangement that many publishers of poetry now expect. But here we have the naked, raw individual poem to encounter, and that is the way I like it. In fact, that was the way I liked it when I reviewed Smither’s last collection The Blue Coat.

Of course I’ve been to Smither Country before. I know that she likes the moment of epiphany: the encounter, often with small and everyday things, in which a larger mindscape can be found – that element of transformation where the familiar becomes unfamiliar. Of course I know that in this volume you can you read the poet’s preoccupations and indeed you will encounter strings of poems on approximately the same theme. But they are not cycles. They are not intended to be read as a sequence. And the poet’s dry, ironical wit would undercut the implied solemnity of a poetic sequence anyway.

When I have in front of me a collection such as this, I always query why a particular poem has been chosen to give the collection its title. So to the poem “Night Horse” (p.20), which I here quote in full:

In the field by the driveway

as I turn the car a horse

is stepping in the moonlight.

Its canvas coat shines, incandescent.

Around its eyes a mask

a Sienese horse might wear.

No banners stir the air, but mystery

in the way it is stepping

as if no human should see

the night horse going about its business.

The soft grass bowing to the silent hooves

the head alert, tending where

the moonlight glows and communes

in descending swoops that fall

through the air like ribbons

as the horse moves in a trance

so compelling, so other-worldly

it doesn’t see the car lights.

In its six stanzas, note first the simplicity and directness of the language, and how it begins as a documentary depiction of a real thing in a real world. This is a night horse, not a nightmare – something seen in the physical world, a horse caught in a car’s headlights, wearing its canvas covering. The poet can see something heraldic about it – like one of those horses that run the medieval palio in Siena. There is something magical about it. The grass “bows” to it as if it were mejestic; the moonlight “communes” with the horse and falls “like ribbons”, and the horse is “other-worldly” and in a “trance”. When we go “incandescent”, we are on the edge of the transcendent. AND YET at the heart of the poem there is the unmagical and commonsensical line “the horse goes about its business” and at the end “it doesn’t see the car lights”. The point is this – the magic is in the beholder’s eyes, not in the physical scene. The horse is not relating to the human being. The horse is acting in a way that is specifically its own and unconcerned about human perceptions. It is an everyday (everynight?) creature transformed into something else by the poet. In a way, this is a poem about otherness. The horse is magical only because its world, its mindset, is really unknowable to us.

It is foolish to extrapolate from this one poem a prolific poet’s whole technique, but I can say that this controlled piece of observation does indicate much that is in this collection. There are other poems here that present an imaginative idea very similar to “Night Horse”, such as “Morning blackbird on the lawn” (p.25) where a [detached-from-us] bird is “levering up a worm, is concentrating / as if there’s something deeper even than music / deeper even than the beauty that covers everything”. Or like “The mountain” (p.45) where a snow-capped mountain seen at night is “solid” but transformed to the status of a ghost by the viewer’s mind

Smither often observes small and momentary things that are worked upon by the imagination. Take the opening poem “My mother’s house”(p.1) where a whole life is read in a woman’s domestic routine in one night; and note some persistence of night imagery in “Cat night” (p.18) where the ever-mysterious feline world awakes.

There is the domestic and family scene, as there usually is in Smither’s work, and there is much imagery in these poems of shoes, of dressing gowns, of ironed shirts – often seen without people in them, and therefore more urgent as mementoes of people. Stroking and playing with hair plays its part. Family means memory – of childhood in “Swimming with our fathers” (p.3) ; of parents in “Daybreak in dressing gowns” conundrum; and of somebody now lost in the elegaic “Eyebrows, toenails”.

I have said that there are “strings”of poems in this collection rather than sequences. There is, for example, a string of poems about animals: “Cat night (p.18); “The wedding party of animals “ (p.19); “Night horse’ (p.20) and “Blaming the horse” (p.21). There is a string of poems about the unselfconsciousness of a very young child [and her eating habits]  “An apple tree for Ruby”, “Ruby and fruit”, “The body of a little girl” –and later “Ruby and the Labradors” (p.24), one of Smither’s most exquisite inventions, where two dogs “taller than her chaff-blonde hair” (p.24) most intrigue the little girl, dwarf her, and yet become a sign of her protection. The poems “Consolation”, “Putting a line through addresses” and “Tonia’s cemetery” (pp.36-39) are all somehow entangled in death and finality. Later there are poems about a dying girl and about an open casket And come to think of it, even a longish whimsical poem like “Oysters” (pp.56-57) is about finality – or at least the disappointment that can come after a build-up and much anticipation.

As for the sophisticated, worldly side of life, there are poems about driving, overseas travel (Canberra, Spain) and dining and clothes. Unsurprisingly, high culture is here with references in poems to Mozart, Picasso, a Winged Victory in the Louvre, ballet and Jane Austen.

It is the poet’s good humour and wit, however, that prevents any of this volume from from becoming solemn or self-laudatory. The world is full of familiar things, but they can be made wonderful by a good poet.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, we recommend "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something Old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published four or more years ago.   

“UNDER WESTERN EYES” by Joseph Conrad (first published in 1911)

I have noted before on this blog how, as an Honours student in English at the University of Auckland over 40 years ago, the novelist who most gripped and held me was Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). (See posts on Victory and The Secret Agent). I read with enthusiasm all the Conrad books that were on the curriculum – Heart of Darkness, Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ and (the only one that didn’t click with me) Victory. But I went beyond the set texts and also made my way through Almayer’s Folly, Youth, Chance, The Mirror of the Sea, The Rover and a few others. Certainly the exoticism was an attraction – the African, Malayan and sea-borne settings – but so was the stern and ultimately moral tone of a man who clearly believed that something had to be clutched at, to hold mankind together in a world that might otherwise be meaningless. Conrad’s formula of “fidelity” – solidarity with other human beings in a cohesive society – was an attractive form of existentialism, while his intelligent psychoanalyses of characters also lived in the context of what amounted to suspense thrillers. No wonder Graham Greene was so besotted with him when he was a young author (see the posting on The Man Within).

Although in an earlier post I dismissed it as “pretty good”, I’d have to say that of all the extra-curricular Conrad novels I devoured, the most intriguing was Under Western Eyes. Like my favourite Conrad The Secret Agent, it has nothing to do with the sea and much to do with politics. Specifically, Under Western Eyes is the Pole Conrad’s dissection of the Russian soul as seen both in its (tsarist) autocracy and in its revolutionaries. As it was first published in 1911, its first readers would have received it in the context of the failed Russian Revolution of 1905, which left Russia still an imperial autocracy but with the beginnings of (very limited) parliamentary representation.

This is the story of Kyrilo Sidorovitch Razumov but – given that Conrad was a pioneer of the “unreliable narrator” technique – it is Razumov’s story told at one remove. The first person narrator is a Professor of Languages (at one stage described by another character as an “old Englishman”) who has acquired Razumov’s diaries and who pieces together Razumov’s story, only part of which he himself has witnessed.

In St Petersburg, a brutal police commissioner is assassinated. The Pan-Slavic student Victor Haldin was one of the assassins. On the run from the police, he begs the ambitious student Razumov to hide him in his apartment and arrange for him to escape. Razumov agrees to find for Victor the coach and coachman whom Victor had arranged to hire. But when Razumov finds the peasant coachman Ziemianitch in a drunken stupor he has a manic fit and beats him mercilessly. Having no means now of getting rid of Victor quickly, Razumov is filled with terror at the thought of the punishment he would receive for sheltering a revolutionary assassin. But then he is overwhelmed by the soulful Russian mysticism that says Russia depends on an autocrat and its only real future is not revolution but benign autocracy. As Conrad’s narrator remarks with deep irony:

In Russia, the land of spectral ideas and disembodied aspirations, many brave souls have turned away at last from the vain and endless conflict to the one great historical fact of the land. They turned to autocracy for the peace of their patriotic conscience as a weary unbeliever, touched by grace, turns to the faith of his fathers for the blessing of spiritual rest. Like other Russians before him, Razumov, in conflict with himself, felt the touch of grace upon his forehead.” (Part One, Chapter 2)  

The result of this “conversion” is brutally simple. Razumov dobs Haldin in to the police and sends him off to a police trap while absolving himself of all radical connections. Haldin is later tortured and executed. The representatives of autocratic government to whom he betrays Victor Haldin, Prince K- and General T-,  say that Razumov is a young man who “inspires confidence”. He could be of use to them.

Back in his apartment, with Victor Haldin now gone, Razumov writes the five anti-revolutionary theses of his reaffirmed belief in autocracy: “History not Theory. Patriotism not Internationalism. Evolution not Revolution. Direction not Destruction. Unity not Dusruption.” His landlady warns him not to get mixed up in what she calls Nihilists. Razumov discovers that his room has been searched and ransacked. Are the secret police now watching him? He is summoned to see the high official Councillor Mikulin, who confirms that he is indeed of interest to the police and they have searched his room, but that they know now he is a trustworthy young man. When the official asks Razumov what he will now do, Razumov says he will retire. Councillor Mikulin asks “Where to?” and the question is left hanging, for Conrad now abruptly moves the action from St Petersburg to Switzerland..

What we discover only much later in the novel is that Razumov has been recruited by the tsarist police to infiltrate the circle of Russian émigré revolutionaries in Geneva and spy on them.

After some initial hesitation, Razumov is accepted as Victor Haldin’s friend and part of the revolutionary brotherhood. He gets to know Victor Haldin’s mother and his sister Nathalie (“Natalka”). Indeed, he gets to know a large number of exiled revolutionaries, whom Conrad differentiates as ideological types. Of the idealistic Nathalie herself, Conrad’s narrator remarks:

That propensity of lifting every problem from the plane of the understandable by means of some sort of mystical expression, is very Russian. I knew her well enough to have discovered her scorn for all the practical forms of political liberty known to the western world. I suppose one must be a Russian to understand Russian simplicity, a terrible corroding simplicity in which mystic phrases clothe a naïve and hopeless cynicism…” (Part Two, Chapter 1)

Nathalie has not been impressed by the domineering radical Peter Ivanovitch, but through him she meets Razumov when he is newly arrived from St Petersburg. He breaks to her the painful news that Victor has been executed.  Razumov creates a favourable impression on Nathalie by his very taciturnity, which seems modesty and profundity, but to the narrator he seems impatient and contemptuous of the West. Peter Ivanovitch accepts Razumov enthusiastically as a revolutionary – but Razumov is mentally disgusted by the “revolutionary” Mme. De S- who lives in comfort with a maid and talks of “spiritualising” the revolutionary movement and fomenting revolution in the Balkans. It is this wealthy woman who funds Peter Ivanovitch.

            Viewing the group of émigrés, many of whom live in comfort, disgusts Razumov even more than do Western individualistic ways, especially when he speaks to the old revolutionary woman Sophia Antonovna, whom he fears because of her sharp insight into how revolutionary groups work, how (in the West) they are often funded by well-meaning wealthy idiots, and how they can be riddled with spies. More than anyone, this perceptive woman could have the insight to unmask him.

Razumov is given a fright when somebody reports that the coachman Ziemianitch hanged himself in remorse, after babbling about being beaten up by a police spy. As well as the domineering Peter Ivanovitch, the Haldins and the wealthy revolutionary imbeciles, Razumov also gets to know the brutal side of revolutionism in the form of Nikita (“Necator”), a thug and assassin who makes it his business to hunt down and kill police informers.

At quite an advanced point in the novel, Razumov writes his secret reports to his tsarist contacts, and it is only as he does so that he recalls (and we are for the first time privy to) his conversation with Councillor Mikulin, and how he now feels about the councillor as if he were some sort of substitute father.

Where does this all go? Razumov is still honoured as a true revolutionary; but as half-true rumours of  how Victor Haldin was betrayed begin to filter in, Razumov feels more and more the compulsion to confess – to throw himself at the mercy of some power greater than himself. Indeed he feels a lively remorse as Victor’s spirit hovers over him, especially as he is by now half in love with Nathalie. It is exactly the same impulse he felt in betraying Victor Haldin. He wants to cleanse his soul before something more powerful than himself. He wants to abase himself. He half-confesses his guilt to Nathalie and her mother, leaving them both frantic, and especially destroying Nathalie’s illusions by showing that the real revolutionary “idea” of Peter Iavanovitch is to simply set up a state with himself as autocratic head. In the same conversation he undermines Nathalie’s sentimental view of the virtuous Russian peasantry by describing accurately the brutal and drunken peasant coachman Ziemianitch.

Razumov writes a truthful report of what he did and posts it to Nathalie before going to a meeting a revolutionaries headed by the anarchist Julius Lespara. Here he cleanses himself by confessing all. In retribution, Nikita and three fanatics smash his eardrums and render him deaf. Rainsoaked in the grey morning, Razumov stumbles into the streets, falls in front of a tramcar whose approach he cannot hear, has his ribs crushed, and is rendered an invalid for life.

There is a bitter and ironic coda. Years later, Razumov is living in Russia, cared for by the humble servant Tekla, and often visited by revolutionists who see him as some sort of sage now that he has “redeemed” himself. Nathalie herself has returned to Russia, now performing simple acts of charity and still confident that one day an era of benevolence will dawn. Peter Ivanovitch got nothing from Mme. De S’s will, which was the main thing this ardent revolutionist sought in Geneva, and he is back in Russia living with a peasant girl in the Tolstoiean manner. As for the brute Nikita, he turned out to have been a police spy himself, who had killed for both sides and whose career stopped only when Councillor Mikulin informed on him to the revolutionaries, because he was beginning to be something of a nuisance.

Neither Razumov nor the revolutionaries have changed anything substantial. Russia remains an autocracy and the revolutionaries are just alternative autocrats in waiting. Conrad the Pole was quite obviously demolishing Russian tendencies which he thought were destructive, perhaps with many memories of how his Polish nationalist father and other forebears had suffered under Russian rule.

How is the novel “under Western eyes”? Because the Polish author on this outing identifies himself with the Western parliamentary tradition, the liberal tradition, the type of civil society that rejects autocracy. Through his (English) narrator, he tells us that autocracy infects all strains of thought in Russian society, so that even the revolutionaries are profoundly anti-democratic. This is the judgement of “Western eyes”. Even the soft and soulful Nathalie, when speaking with the Professor of Languages, expresses her preference for monolithic Russian institutions over Western ones, after the narrator has given his cautious and desultory asessment of the (1905) revolution and its outcome. There is also in the novel the strong implication that centuries of autocracy have infantilised the Russian people. Razumov is their archetype – a man without a firm identity of his own and therefore waiting to be mastered. The Professor of Languages Describes Razumov thus: 

Officially and in fact without a family…, no home influences had shaped his opinions or his feelings. He was as lonely in the world as a man swimming in the deep sea. The word Razumov was the mere label of a solitary individuality. There were no Razumovs belonging to him anywhere. His closest parentage was defined in the statement that he was a Russian. Whatever good he expected in life would be given to or withheld from his hopes by the connexion alone. This immense parentage suffered from the throes of internal dissensions, and he shrank mentally from the fray as a good-natured man may shrink from taking definite sides in a violent family quarrel.” (Part One, Chapter 1)

There are many elements of style in this novel that mark it as Conradian. There is the indirect narration through the medium of a fictional character (the Professor of Languages is like Marlowe in Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, or Captain Davidson in Victory). There is the non-linear narration, which twists back upon itself. In The Secret Agent, we are many chapters beyond the explosion at Greenwich before we learn the details of how young Stevie died. In Under Western Eyes, we break off at the end of Part One midway through Razumov’s conversation with Councillor Mikulin. We circle back to the rest of this conversation at the beginning of Part Four. Conrad, as always, goes for flashback and the insertion of anterior information late in novel.

There is also that matter of symbolism, which I found so strained in Victory, but which is not too intrusive in Under Western Eyes. Razumov’s watch stops at the moment Haldin leaves him and walks into a police trap. Razumov’s mental and ideological development stops at this point too. A tramcar at one point seems to Razumov a symbol of freedom and escape – but it runs on predetermined rails, just as the mastered Razumov does, and in the end it helps to destroy him. In Part Three, Chapter Four, Razumov finds that the perfect place to write his reports undisturbed is under a statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau where “the exiled effigy of the author of The Social Contract sat enthroned above the bowed head of Razumov in the sombre immobility of bronze.” So much for Enlightenment notions of rational shared freedom, such as Rousseau’s.

More than one commentator has noted that Under Western Eyes is a very Russian novel, not just in its subject but in its style. It is often said that Conrad would never have created Razumov if he had not known Rashkolnikov in Dostoievsky’s Crime and Punishment. There, too, there is the pattern of crime, remorse, submission and confession. But as a Russophobe, Conrad rejected this suggestion. There is, however, a very interesting biographical detail about the composition of Under Western Eyes. Conrad took about three years to write it and in the midst of so doing had a nervous breakdown in which his wife said he raved and talked to his (dead) parents in his native Polish. It was, some infer, as if Conrad were reconnecting with his Polish roots and with the anti-Russian revolutionism of his forebears.

Nine years after Under Western Eyes was published, Conrad added an “Author’s Note” to the novel. This was in 1920. By then the Russian Revolution had happened and Conrad noted that “by the mere force of circumstances Under Western Eyes has become already a sort of historical novel dealing with the past.” He added that “when I began to write I had a distinct impression of the first part only, with the three figures of Haldin, Razumov and Councillor Mikulin defined exactly in my mind.” In other words, his first conceptionm of the novel was as a long short story comparing the revolutionary, the uncommitted student and the upholder of autocracy. Most important of all, however, Conrad’s 1920 note described the Russian political situation thus: “The ferocity and imbecility of an autocratic rule rejecting all legality and in fact basing itself upon complete moral anarchism provokes the no less imbecile and atrocious answer of a purely Utopian revolutionism encompassing destruction by the first means at hand, in the strange conviction that a fundmental change of heart must follow the downfall of any given human institution.”

These are prophetic words indeed. In both the novel itself and in this note, Conrad correctly foresees the following century of Russian history. The autocracy of Tsarism was followed by the even more intrusive autocracy of Communism, with Lenin following the Tsar, Stalin following Lenin, grey Politburo figues following Stalin and eventually, after a brief burst of what seemed like democracy, the postmodern dictator Putin controlling a state which only pretends to be pluralistic. Russia still has not developed the traditions of a civil society; populations still bend to “strong men” and see them as saviours; and revolution has merely perpetuated the national temper. And of course the first post-tsarist autocrat came from exile in Switzerland.

Cinematic Footnote: I had believed that Under Western Eyes had never been filmed for the cinema apart from a very simplified BBC TV version which I saw some years back, made in 1975 by the director Stuart Burge. But I discovered that the French made a film version, Razumov - Sous les Yeux d’Occident, in 1936 and to my surprise I was able to find and watch it on Youtube. As it has no subtitles, I limped along following the high-speed French dialogue, but I got enough of the gist of it to realise how it had altered the story. The film was apparently a Grade A production of its day, featuring talent that were among the most familiar names in French cinema of the time. It was directed by Marc Allegret and had a soundtrack score by France’s most prolific film composer Georges Auric. Pierre Fresnay played Razumov (looking much older than the student he is supposed to be), with Jean-Louis Barrault as the betrayed Haldin, Michel Simon as the leader of the émigré revolutionary group in Geneva and a little-known actress Daniele Parola as Nathalie. But the story was so simplified as to remove most of Conrad’s political discourse. Razumov betrays Haldin. Razumov gets sent to Geneva to infiltrate the Russian émigré group. Razumov falls in love with Nathalie, feels remorse, admits his betrayal and retribution follows. The complex political reasoning and analysis of Russian authoritarianism weren’t there. And it was disconcerting that while the film’s (studio-bound) version of late Tsarist Russian looked reasonably accurate for the period it was supposed to be depicting, the scenes set in the West (only the last third of the film) made no pretence at period detail and looked like the (1930s) present. I suppose in the end it was a fairly average cinematic scramble through a complex novel that perhaps couldn’t really be turned into film in the first place. The only actor who emerged with credit was Jean-Louis Barrault, then aged 22 and near the beginning of his film career, who was appropriately frantic as the trapped Victor Haldin in the film’s earlier sequences.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


Here is Eve. She is a real woman. She is as complex and contradictory as any man, because she is a fully-formed human being. She has her own moods and cycles, which are a mystery to boys and uninitiated men, but which are understood and accommodated by mature men. She can conceptualise, idealise, theorise, dispute, debate, think profoundly, think shallowly, have whims or have a fixed purpose as men can. But she is different – physically different and because of this mentally different. No – I did not say inferior or subordinate, and I did not say ruled by her feelings. I said different. She menstruates. She can carry a child in her womb for nine months and give birth. She lactates and can feed a child from her body. And even if she remains a virgin or is never pregnant, please do not say these are trivial things. From puberty to menopause, she receives a monthly reminder of her physical being. Often this renders her more realistic than men about both the potential and the limitations of the physical world.
And here is Lilith. Or at least here isn’t Lilith, because she doesn’t really exist. Lilith is not a real woman but women as imagined by men when they are idealising and fantasising. Lilith is women as seen by men’s sexual desire. Lilith makes men put women on pedestals, paint or sculpt them as goddesses, pose them in pornography. Lilith is always beautiful, always sexually available. Lilith is present when a schoolboy wanks to on-line porn or when Delacroix paints bare-breasted Liberty leading the people. She can inspire both the crass and the sublime. But she is not a real woman. She is the (heterosexual) male conception of a woman.
Why am I stating the obvious like this now?
Because recently I was reading the journals of Charles Brasch, and I came across this spectacularly silly statement by Brasch (entry of 13 October 1952):
I have long thought that the male body is a far more beautiful and subtle creation than the female, & even penis and balls in their nest of hair less obvious than female breasts – penis a fickle leaping lightning conductor & somehow less merely physical than the too often merely gross breasts.”
As a homosexual, Brasch is entitled to find men’s bodies more sexually arousing than women’s bodies, and that is all that really stimulates him to write this. But it is foolish to leap from this to the denigration of women’s bodies and to phrases such as women’s breasts being “merely physical” and “merely gross”. I am greatly attached to my penis, enjoy all its functions, and would say that it defines me as much (and as little) as a woman’s reproductive system defines her. But if one is going to compare “penis and balls” with anything female, surely the appropriate comparison would be the mons veneris (or mons pubis), nested modestly in its hair, which some of us find pefectly delightful and a source of wonder – if such language doesn’t sound as if it is wandering into Lilith territory. As for women’s breasts, they have been a source of male sexual arousal since time immemorial. My own idealised artistic image of woman’s beauty would be the ample-breasted woman protecting children in David’s “Intervention of the Sabine Women”.
And what of these concepts of grossness and all this stuff about the male body being “more beautiful and subtle”? Surely this is idealisation and its opposite. Real men’s bodies are as often smelly, gross, obese and ill-formed as women’s bodies are. In writing such things, Brasch is really thinking of whatever is the male equivalent of Lilith – a non-existent idealised form – perhaps Michaelangelo’s David or some classic statue of a Greek athlete, but not many real men.
Art is often idealisation and this is not a puritanical sermon against it. But too much idealisation and physical reality is belittled. Lactating breasts, swelling wombs, menstruation, birth – I might have found these things mysterious and foreign when I was a kid, but I’m now happy with them as good and necessary parts of life. To see any of them as “gross” is a sign of immaturity. The female form does not repel me and is in no sense less “subtle” than the male form. And let Lilith and her male equivalent still inspire artistic endeavour, but not cloud our rational minds.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Something New

 NOTICE TO READERS: For six years, Reid's Reader has been presenting an entirely free service to readers with commentary on books new and old. Reid's Reader receives no grants or subsidies and is produced each week in many hours of unpaid work. If you wish to contribute, on an entirely voluntary basis, to the upkeep of this blog, we would be very grateful if you made a donation via the PayPal "DONATE" button that now appears at the top of the index at right. Thank you.]
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“CHARLES BRASCH JOURNALS 1938-1945” transcribed by Margaret Scott, annotated by Andrew Parsloe, introduced by Rachel Barrowman (Otago University Press, 2013, $NZ60) ; “CHARLES BRASCH JOURNALS 1945-1957”, selected with introduction and notes by Peter Simpson (Otago University Press, 2017, $NZ59:95)

It is time for me to make a big a remorseful confession. Three-and-a-half years ago, the generous people of Otago University Press sent me for review a copy of Charles Brasch’s journals 1938-45 – a big hardback book, nearly 650 pages long, elegantly presented with a ribbon bookmark. I dawdled through it in the only way I know how to read journals – using it as a bedside book and eating it up a few pages at a time over a number of months. But by the time I got to the end – and in spite of making copious notes on it - I decided not to review it. I thought that the passing months had made it too untopical for review.

Then, about five weeks ago, the Otago UP sent me the companion volume of Charles Brasch’s journals 1945-57, this time selected and edited by Peter Simpson, in the same hardback and beribboned format as the earlier volume, and this time running to nearly 700 pages. I felt this time I couldn’t ignore it, so I spent a brisk couple of weeks ploughing through it. And that is why I am now reviewing the two volumes together. (I understand there will eventually be a third volume.)

Forgive me if I tell you what you might already know. Charles Orwell Brasch (1909-73), heir to the large family fortune of the Hallensteins company, was a Dunedinite who, as Margaret Scott says in her Acknowledgements to the first volume “was financially independent all his life and therefore free to choose what to do.” (p.9) In her Introduction a few pages later, Rachel Barrowman remarks “With a private income (his family wealth) he did not need to earn his living, but he would need something – more than reading and writing – to do.” (p.32) Charles Brasch aspired to be, and indeed was, a poet, but as I have already opined on this blog (see the review of CharlesBrasch Selected Poems, edited by his literary executor Alan Roddick), despite some felicitous moments, much of Brasch’s poetic output now seems timid, pallid and dated. (You are free to disagree angrily with this verdict if you will.)

After wartime years spent in England (the 1938-45 volume), Brasch returned to New Zealand (the 1945-57 volume), founded Landfall and was its editor for most of its first twenty years (1947-66), as well as funding the Burns Fellowship for writers. Rachel Barrowman remarks “It may not have pleased Brasch to know that Landfall, still, and not his poetry would be seen as his greater contribution to the literary culture he had come home to be part of, although he was self-aware enough probably to have known it.” (p.32)

In person, Brasch was apparently hesitant  and retiring. According to Margaret Scott “As communication was not easy for him, his intimate conversation was with his diary.” (p.9) He wrote copiously. Upon his death he left 25 metres of papers to Dunedin’s Hocken Library. His diaries, however, were embargoed for 30 years after his death, which is part of the reason these journals are appearing in print only now. Generally this was a matter of courtesy – Brasch not wanting to make public those private comments he had made to himself about people who were still living. But there is also the question of his sexuality. Brasch was apparently very sensitive about the occasional comments that appear in his diaries relating to his loves and his homosexual desires. I’m not sure whether to be amused or annoyed at the publisher’s flyer that came with the first volume promising “the private world of Charles Brasch revealed for the first time”. Hmmm.

And so to the two volumes.

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The man, in his early-to-mid thirties, revealed in the first volume is calm, temperate, thoughtful and reserved. He reacts much to the English landscape – like one who has come “Home”, although he never uses that term. He is wondering, wondering, wondering what he should do with his life, but mainly favours the inward intellectual life. He can write (22 October 1938) “The only thing I really want is for my inner world to be consistently more important to me than the outer world”.

His journals devote much space to the books he is reading and the plays (and – more rarely – films) he has seen and occasionally the concerts he has attended. He likes associating with literary and artistic people, and is often consulted by the aspiring expatriate New Zealand novelist James Courage, who shares his sexual orientation and wonders how frankly he should write about it. Most amusing is the way he, as an outsider, reacts to the busy and disorderly married life of friends John and Anne Crockett and their children.

The younger Charles Brasch has much time for pacifists and socialises with many, especially members of a dramatic society who put on plays promoting their message. However, in the shadow of Hitler he cannot divorce himself from public events. As the war gets going he decides that he is not after all a pacifist. As he writes on 19 May 1940, there is “the terrible humiliation of realising that though one may repudiate war, one is dependent on the issue of it, utterly dependent – at least as a Jew, I am.” Brasch is turned down on health grounds from active military service, but is willing to be in the Home Guard (on and off) and gets a position as a translator at Bletchley Park, the code-breaking centre. So he does do a form of war service.

Also, as his journals from 1940 to 1945 show, he follows war news closely, every reverse and set-back in the first two years, and then the Allies’ gradual comeback from 1943 to 1945. It is interesting that, when he listens to BBC broadcasts, he usually rates J.B.Priestley’s evening talks higher than Churchill’s speeches, which seem to him forced and too rhetorical. But he does concede (9 February 1940) that “[Churchill] surely represents the country – the country at war – as no one has represented it in all the 20 years truce.”

Brasch of course reacts to any literary news, such as the death of Virginia Woolf (4 April 1940) and is host to many New Zealand visitors. In the entry for 28 March 1942, he gives a very ambiguous reaction to a visit from Denis Glover, then in the British Navy, whom he sees as genuine but too hearty and maybe shallow in his ideals.The diarist spends quite a lot of time quizzing God and is clearly warily respectful of religion. By 1943 he is reading closely and worrying over the Book of Job and meditating on God’s role in war. A rare occasion on which he loses his temper (in 1943) is at the crass reaction of some GI’s stationed in England to an arty play he was attending.

As the war nears its end, there is much agonising over where his future lies – England or New Zealand – leading at last to his decision to return to New Zealand. Of course he is still wondering about the right literary form for his own work, agreeing (30 October 1944) with Stephen Spender that “all that matters is to write about what is real to oneself with such concentration and truth that it becomes real to others.” Even as he is nearer to returning, however, there is still the odd negative comment about New Zealand, as in the entry of 29 January 1945 where he declares “The wedding was at 2 in an ugly, shabby little church that might have been in NZ”.

But back he comes anyway.

Is the foregoing an adequate summary of 600 closely printed pages of journal? Of course not. And I have not even mentioned one of its best features – the 60-odd pages of “dramatis personae” compiled by Andrew Parsloe, making it easier for us to identify all the people about whom Brasch variously gossips or reports.

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So to the second and newly-published volume (1945-57), which begins at exactly the point the first volume breaks off, in December 1945 with Charles Brasch en route to New Zealand from Britain. Edited and introduced by Peter Simpson, this second volume is in the same format as the first and also has a very helpful “dramatis personae” at the end to acquaint us with all the people whom Brasch’s diaries mention. One new feature is the sixteen-page photographic section showing many of the people in New Zealand with whom Brasch was either familiar or intimate.

Peter Simpson provides an excellent 35-page Introduction, which I will now proceed to synopsise.

According to Simpson, a complete and unedited version of Brasch’s journals from 1945 to 1957 would run to 350,000 words. This would make for an impossibly long volume. Therefore Simpson has selected for publication a little over half of the journals from these years – about 180,000 words.

Simpson tells us in great detail about Brasch’s emotional and private life. Brasch wrote much about his father Harry (Hyam) Brasch, with whom he did not get on, and his grandfather Willi Fels, with whom he got on very well. Both men died in the period these journals cover.

Simpson also notes that, before turning his journals over to the Hocken Library, Charles Brasch used a razor to cut out some passages. Of these excisions, Simpson says “the surrounding context suggests that many (though not all) concerned his intense friendship with Harry Scott, including episodes that he evidently felt uncomfortable with preserving for posterity.” (p.42) As he was returning from England, Brasch began a serious relationship with the widow Rose Archdall. As late as 1952 he was still considering marrying her; but the relationship died, with Brasch’s journals suggesting that Rose may have intuited that his sexual inclinations lay elsewhere. Even more intense were his relationships with the theatrical man Rodney Kennedy, who boarded with him for some years, and especially with Harry Scott. However Harry Scott married Margaret Bennett and proceeded to have a family. Surprisingly, Brasch enjoyed the company of Margaret Scott, who ended up as the curator and transciber of his journals. This, says Peter Simpson (p.55) is surprising, as Brasch often expressed irritation with the wives of his male friends (James Bertram, Basil Dowling etc.)

Simpson’s Introduction of course tells the story of the setting-up of Landfall in 1947 and therefore Brasch’s fraught relationship with Denis Glover, who remained a friend, but whose addiction to booze and erratic working habits (as printer) almost scuttled the publication in its first years. Simpson notes that Brasch was keen to befriend many of the younger New Zealand authors who were emerging in the 1950s, partly in search of good material for Landfall. What is interesting here, however, is how ill-at-ease Brasch often was with the younger writers (Keith Sinclair, Kendrick Smithyman, C.K.Stead, Alistair Campbell, Ruth Dallas, Janet Frame etc.). This timidity, or perhaps deep lack of confidence in social situations, says much about the man. In these years Brasch did manage to return to writing poetry. Simpson concludes his Introduction by noting how, in spite of a brief return trip to England, Brasch’s immersion in a new New Zealand literature, and his habit of escaping into the South Island countryside, meant that he finally and definitively decided New Zealand was his home.

Peter Simpson’s Introduction is so well illustrated with apt quotations from Brasch’s diaries that it orients us accurately to both the tone and the contents of this second volume.

Of the 1945-57 journals themselves, therefore, I will confine myself to a few simple remarks.

First, there is inevitably much material on Brasch’s failed attempts at satisfactory intimacy with others. This can lead him into pits of depression, as in the entry for 4 November 1949 where he reacts to Harry Scott’s now pairing off with Margaret Bennett: “This morning despair swelled  within me like a wave or an inward growth, a cancer that threatened to usurp my life and overwhelm me.” While sympathising with the man’s thwarted love life, it also has to be noted that Brasch’s sexuality can lead him to fatuities, such as the entry for 13 October 1952 where, after reading Andre Gide, he declares “I have long thought that the male body is a far more beautiful and subtle creation than the female, & even penis and balls in their nest of hair less obvious than female breasts – penis a fickle leaping lightning conductor & somehow less merely physical than the too often merely gross breasts.”

Then there are the surprises. There is a long entry for 28 August 1954 in which Brasch gives a detailed account of what he witnessed as a spectator in the courtroom at the Parker-Hulme trial. He is scathing about the crudity of the prosecution. As a long-time film reviewer, I laughed out loud at Brasch’s dyspeptic (and inaccurate) review of the film Julius Caesar (20 February 1954). Apart from describing the two English actresses Deborah Kerr and Greer Garson as “two commonplace American lovelies”, Brasch refers to Marlon Brando as “a youthful baseball tough with a certain coarse animal attractiveness.”

More seriously, there is Brasch’s growing sense of really being a New Zealander. He writes on 3 March 1948 “I no longer have any wish to get my poems published in England & the only audience I look to now is a New Zealand one.” Being in a small literary community, however, means having to be tactful (in public). On 11 March 1952, Brasch turns down the opportunity to edit a new Oxford University Press anthology of New Zealand poetry, declaring “I haven’t the patience to read all I’d have to read, nor a sufficiently detached judgment – how could I decide about Denis [Glover]’s work, or [R.A.K.] Mason’s (which has always seemed to me pastiche rather than original poetry) or [Louis] Johnson’s…”

The difficulties of editing Landfall are chronicled, as are Brasch’s meetings with younger talents. His accounts of these are not always flattering. On 13 June 1946, in his first meeting with the 20-year-old James K. Baxter, he is impressed, describes the young poet’s physical awkwardness and is amazed at Baxter’s poetic facility. But he contrasts “he with his clear-eyed simplicity, & I with the complicated messh of my guilt,” implying that there wasn’t exactly a meeting of minds. On 9 June 1954., he gives a very unflattering description of the young (22-year-old) C.K.Stead.

One also inevitably encounters moments of artistic bitchery, feuds and disagreements. Douglas Lilburn gets all huffy when he takes Brasch to view paintings by Rita Angus and Brasch refuses to admire them [18 March 1947].  Brasch gives a long report on a meeting with Frank Sargeson, who proceeded to give his opinions on nearly every New Zealand writer then working, with special reference to his belief that Allen Curnow had surrendered to being an “intellectual”, which was apparently a very bad thing to be [25 May 1951]. Sometimes, despite his declared New Zealand-ness, Brasch’s own conservative and Anglophile impulses are on display. On 4 February 1951 he is visited by Alistair Campbell, who said “he has come to find Wordsworth more satisfying than any other poet; he is finding Arnold too very sympathetic.” Brasch adds “I was surprised by his consonance with my own tastes.”

Brasch’s literary confessions occasionally aroused a sour Schadefreude in me. I am amused that, in his forties (in 1955), he is only beginning to acquaint himself with the novels of Henry James, first reading those books that would be on any Eng. Lit. undergraduate course. On 15 June 1956, he gives a negative review of the novels Dan Davin had written so far, saying “Davin is living in the past, but a past that can’t nourish him any longer…. [his characters] “are Nzers who can’t live in NZ & yet in England have only a ghostly existence.” This verdict still seems a sound one. I smirked at his entry on 3 February 1957, where he is unimpressed by Patrick White’s novel The Tree of Man and declares “I struggled through the first hundred pages, which is only a quarter of it, & then gave up… a commonplace book about great commonplaces; the style indirect, blurred, lazy; good material for a Hollywood film…”

Despite his appreciation of Italian Renaissance art and his frequent interest in the religious impulse, Brasch does have his blind spots and snobberies. On 24 December 1947, with James K. Baxter and Rodney Kennedy, he goes to midnight mass at Dunedin’s Catholic cathedral and makes sniffy comments thereupon: “J.B. seemed nearly asleep for most of the time, his head sunk and nodding as he kneeled: he is apparently much drawn to Catholicism at present, which with beer & sex constitutes his chief interest.” Nine years later (28 June to 6 July 1956) he is in the (Catholic) Mater hospital for an operation. He is maddened by the lack of privacy he suffers, and refers to hearty rugby-talking young priests who visit another patient as “clerical thugs, good Catholics, but Christians?” On 4 July 1957 he writes “I don’t believe that Catholicism or any other orthodox religion is the way for me, although I think a religious attitude to life is necessary & that only a person with such an attitude will be of any use to me…” He is therefore somwhat abashed and annoyed a few months later (22 October 1957) when Bill Oliver tells him that he might become a Catholic and that James K. Baxter is going the same way.

In conclusion, I can say all the things that you will probably read in every other review of these volumes. They are beautifully presented and annotated (they are). They will obviously be plundered in future by anyone writing New Zealand’s literary history or planning biographies of New Zealand’s mid-century writers (they will). They tell us much we couldn’t have known previously about Brasch and his circle (they do). BUT there does hang over them the patrician hauteur of Brasch, often very condescending to the general populace (how he loves that word “commonplace”), to people who do not have his refined tastes, perhaps to people who do not have his wealth and hence the leisure to finger his delicate feelings. One sympathises with his inability to make a lasting relationship, but he is often alone and palely loitering, making indecisive remarks about things that do not require such extensive ratiocination.

In spite of which misgivings, I will still look forward to the third volume.