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“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.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *

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.

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