Monday, August 12, 2019
We feature each fortnight Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“PEAT” by Lynn Jenner (Otago University Press, $NZ35); “EVERY MORNING, SO FAR, I’M ALIVE – a Memoir” by Wendy Parkins (Otago University Press, $NZ35)
When I say that I have never read a book quite like Lynn Jenner’s Peat, I am neither praising nor denigrating it. I am simply stating an objective fact. Like her earlier book, Lost and Gone Away (2015), Peat is something of a mosaic. But while Lost and Gone Away used different styles to weave together different stories, Peat uses completely different genres. Reportage, memoir, criticism and biography. Is it sui generis? Perhaps somebody better read than I could tell me.
And this strange and compelling book tells what at first glance seem to be two quite separate stories.
One is the author’s reaction to the building of the Kapiti Expressway, the 18 kilometres of roading, constructed between 2013 and 2018, which zips up the Kapiti Coast and was designed to bypass an inadequate and clogged section of State Highway 1. The other is the author’s engagement with the work of Charles Brasch.
Lynn Jenner lives not far from the Kapiti Expressway. She explains in a sort of preface: “As the Expressway showed itself, arriving like an army in each location along the route, I knew I needed the close company of a writer as a bulwark against all the enacted power and concrete. I needed to gather up pages and pages of words and take them inside with me, to a place where machines could not follow. I needed to make a word-nest, to read beauty as a form of psychic acceleration.” (p.9) The “word-nest” was the work of Brasch, which Jenner diligently researched over five years (as she tells us on p.251) in Brasch’s published writings, in visits to what was once his home in Dunedin, and in the holdings of both the Hocken Library and the Otago University Library.
In my fussy, pedantic, bibliographical way, I point out that Peat consists of about 140 pages of text followed by 115 pages of what are called “Glossaries” – long and explanatory paragraphs, all an essential part of reading Peat.
The text moves between Jenner’s engagement with the expressway and her engagement with Brasch. In the building of the expressway, she tells us (in her Glossaries, pp.215-216), there was “lots to be impressed by… the volume of sand and peat moved, the number of workers, the 18 bridges, the Brutalist-style concrete pillars that hold up the bridges, the height of the diggers, the size of their buckets, the massive capacity of the trucks, the size of the cut, the $630 million it was estimated to cost.” Jenner is a fair and reasonable person and lets the voices of the road-builders and the archaeologists hired by the New Zealand Transport Agency be heard. She chats with some of the workers and listens patiently to the local body politicians. She attends consultative community meetings about the project. She understands the difficulties of transport in New Zealand and (given that she is fully conversant with NZTA leaflets and publicity and explanations of the project) she knows why the expressway is being built and how.
But she is mainly concerned with the ecological impact – how the expressway traverses (and in part destroys) wetlands; how ancient sites important to ancestral Maori have been disturbed; how the local community is affected; how business is down since people no longer travel through the centre of the town as they used to do when they went by State Highway 1 – and worst of all, how, now that the expressway is in full operation, the community is plagued with noise, noise, noise and sleeplessness. Of course property values have decreased. As for the birds, the trees, the local flora and fauna – as Jenner relates it, they have been been badly affected by the expressway, and the general area has been degraded.
Most humiliating of all, the NZTA’s general consultation with the community seems to have been more a PR exercise than real consultation, often with a contemptuous undertone. She cites a memo in which it is suggested that unhappy locals will be allowed to “vent” at public meetings. (p.88)
The ecological aspect is central to the book, and is carried in part by the imagery of peat itself. Peat is presented here as the topmost layer of earth scraped away by the diggers (the three other levels are Holocene dune sand, Pleistocene sand and a bedrock of Rakaia Terrane greywacke). Peat is like a palimpsest in which traces of the past are preserved – and it is the past that the expressway wipes out.
And why is it Charles Brasch who bears the burden of the rest of the text?
Could it be, as her preface says, that engaging with his work and memory was a relief from the noise and public arguments of building the Expressway – a retreat into converse with a calm and civilised voice? But Jenner begins on Brasch in earnest by quoting his letters to the Otago Daily Times, letters advocating for more trees, for a better Dunedin art gallery, for the Careys’ play productions at Dunedin’s Globe, for better architecture in the parts of the university that were being rebuilt; and opposing New Zealand participation in the Vietnam War, the destruction of historical buildings, and the construction of the Aramoana smelter. In other words, the letters that show Brasch as an activist concerned with civic issues and their impact on his community. This chimes with Jenner’s own activism in calling into question the Expressway and its impact.
There are also ways in which Brasch shares some of the author’s own identity. Dunedin was her former home. She describes herself as “a Pakeha woman of Jewish and Celtic origin” (p.19). In the Glossaries, she spends some time teasing out matters of Charles Brasch’s Jewishness and of what it means to be a Jew in New Zealand (pp.187-191) She also mentions a couple of times that she worked as a psychologist. Brasch gives her ample opportunity to psychoanalyse his somewhat cryptic poems such as “The Clear”, which she sees as giving spiritual value to what is local ; and “Lady Engine”, which digs deep into the formation of Brasch’s psyche when he was a child. She thanks Brasch for attempting to create a literary culture in New Zealand. She gives her account of Brasch’s memoir Indirections which she says most people don’t read because it requires patience. This signals the sort of thoughtfulness and self-analysis that Jenner admires. She says she likes Indirections “more than most of his poems” (p.96).
Yet the main point is Brasch’s connection with nature, trees, streams, clouds – and, in both his poetry and his prose, his construction of a personal spirituality about these things. This most clearly chimes with Jenner’s own ecological perspective.
There are, however, some ironies here, as Jenner knows. The grandfather whom Brasch loved, Willi Fels, was a rich man who made collections of many things – including priceless antique treasures. Though it helped create the sort of civilised environment in which Brasch throve, it often involved practices that would now be frowned upon (basically looting what came from other cultures). The same goes for the account Jenner gives of early archaeological digs around Dunedin, disclosing ancient human bones that would now be seen more respectfully as Maori taonga. Our Pakeha past is relentless. In an age when we (Pakeha) are respectful enough of Maori culture not to scoff at belief in taniwha when we build bridges, we must also accept that Brasch and his beloved relatives lived in an age with different values.
What Jenner has to say is clear and in beautiful prose, direct and informative when she is reporting, lyrical when she wishes it, analytical when she expresses ideas. But there is another more difficult aspect to the book. It concerns those 115 pages of “Glossaries” that follow her main text. They are in effect lengthy and informative notes on Charles Brasch and on the Expressway. Embedded in them is much interesting information, some of which is essential to the vision Jenner articulates. (My vagrant mind conjured up an image of the Encyclopedia of Denis Diderot, which buried essential - and contentious - information in places where censors wouldn’t look. But that’s just me…) Given that the Glossaries are referred to frequently in the text, I began by consulting them each time they were mentioned – but I found this to-and-fro-ing between text and glossaries very distracting. It detracted from Jenner’s narratives. So I ended up reading the text straight through, and then the glossaries straight through, which was a more satisfactory arrangement.
The Glossary that deals with Charles Brasch (all 72 pages of it) examines scrupulously many things - the physical state of Brasch’s surviving manuscripts or the fact (a surprise to me) that “aunt” was old slang for “lavatory” or many other oddities. I was interested by Jenner’s verdict on Brasch’s memoir Indirections – that it was as an “aesthetic project, for which he was the primary reader.” (p.186) Jenner’s admiration for Brasch is clear throughout. But, read closely, you discover that Jenner does not endorse uncritically all of Brasch’s world-view. She does point out the sometimes condescending tone he could have. (On this I agree. See on this blog postings on Charles Brasch Selected Poems, Charles Brasch Journals 1938-57, and Charles Brasch Journals 1958-1973) She also sees him as not fully engaging with what others were saying and as perhaps being too blind to trends in world affairs. In these matter she sometimes casts Brasch in opposition to George Orwell (see the notes on “Orwell, George” “politics”, and “prose”). In the note “Reasons for writing” she strikes a kind of balance between Brasch’s aestheticised views and Orwell’s politicised ones.
As for the 43 pages of Glossary that deals with the Kapiti Expressway, while giving much information on the project, they can sometimes be mildly satirical – for example one reads the note on the word “Sorry” and finds it defined thus: “Meme: frequent in utterances by local body politicians concerning Expressway noise problems for residents” (p.250)
I hope I have conveyed the variety of this book and the uniqueness of its structure. Though its discourse takes many unexpected turns, it is engaging, readable and is a great model for literary activism in public affairs.
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Generous publishers send me many books to review on this blog, and I sometimes have to be apologetic to them. I cannot review everything I am sent and therefore I overlook some books. But in the case of Wendy Parkins’ intelligent and often moving memoir, I have a different apology to make. Given that Every morning, so far, I’m alive was first published four months ago, I am sorry that I am only now getting around to reviewing it.
Australian born-and-raised, New Zealander by choice, sometimes resident in England and formerly Professor of English Literature, Wendy Parkins has written the most perilous form of memoir. Every morning, so far, I’m alive is a memoir of self-analysis and an account of the author’s painful history of phobias, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and frequent deep depression. Why is such a memoir perilous? Because, as a sort of psychological confession, it could easily become self-indulgent, or degenerate into a cautionary tale and “self-help” book telling us how we should navigate psychological difficulties. A great strength of this book is that it falls into neither of these traps. Parkins is matter-of-fact about her mental difficulties, aware that other people are affected by them (there are, necessarily discreet, references to her husband and two children), lyrical when she describes things that had a positive impact on her, and never self-pitying.
We are early made aware of her family’s history of depression, her childhood phobias and panic attacks, and a fear of the world that made her obsessively clean her hands and clean everything about her, in any new environment, to avoid contagion. She had two episodes of what would once have been called “nervous breakdowns” and as a younger adult she says she “self-medicated” with Chardonnay. The big crack-up or crisis came when, pursuing her academic career, she moved to England, felt a huge homesickness for the New Zealand in which she had comfortably settled, and fell into very deep depression. It was enervating, disabling her, making everyday activities a battle and turning her academic work into a long, lonely struggle.
Charting her life, both in England and in New Zealand, Parkins sometimes cites literature – perhaps inevitably in view of her profession – and gives the example of Virginia Woolf, who believed that writing was living more consciously; or of Mary Ursula Bethell, in her vivid responses to the New Zealand scene. She occasionally makes passing references to canonical works (Middlemarch, Bleak House etc.). But these citations do not overwhelm her personal story.
Parkins also chroncles some of the things that lifted her spirits, or at least drew her back from the deepest of depression and made for a sort of provisional “cure”. A sense of “mindfulness” (though she is hesitant in using a term that has now become hackneyed). Simple physical activities like knitting. Taking delight in New Zealand birds. The therapeutic quality of looking after goats. Things that allow space for self-forgiveness and reflection. Yoga seems to have been of some help, although Parkins gives examples both of healing and of unsatisfactory experiences with yoga. She also gives a detailed account of trying to find her way out of depression at a retreat centre, which proved to be no help at all. And I hope I am not wrong in interpreting her eventual visit to Virgina Woolf’s home as a kind of “exorcism” of that depressive writer’s influence.
As Parkins knows, depression is a complex phenomenon. It cannot be pinned down to one specific cause. It is polymorphous (or polyphonic if you want to get metaphorical). There are, however, strong hints about things that might have, early in her life, exacerbated Parkins’ phobias and depression. She speaks of her parents as being too strictly religious: “To my Evangelical parents the world was full of dangers and temptations” (p.32) “Growing up, everything I read, watched or listened to was closely scrutinised by my fundamentalist parents and my choices often earned their disappoval in ways that confused me.” (p.69) She also suggests that, as a child, she sensed her mother (who had a number of miscarriages) at some stage withdrew her love from her, especially when her younger sister was born. The importance of her mother is clear when she devotes three chapters to the death of her mother. Somehow, she feels, something went wrong early in her life. Not that, as an adult, she denigrates her parents, who may perhaps have been less strict than she recalls their being in her childhood (she mentions in passing her mother’s favourite movies and her liking the Beatles).
At this point I must do the forbidden thing and put in a personal note. Knowing from experience, at various points in my life, what clinical depression is, I found myself nodding with recognition at the way Parkins describes the beast. I recognised the sleeplessness, the inability to concentrate on, or follow, texts; the sense of separation from the “real” world or the physical world that surrounds us. In England, Parkins expresses the true Romantic Agony (as Mario Praz called it), when she sees beauty in nature, knows it is beautiful, but doesn’t feel it as such: “I didn’t feel it in the same way as I responded to the antipodean bush or the beach” (p.27) She understands that depression is not just intense sadness, but is a disintegration of meaning. “After a year on medication I no longer felt weighed down by a depressive sense of meaninglessness…” (p.102) She knows that, irrationally or otherwise, depression raises a sense of guilt , and sets the mind turning over and over again the same destructive thoughts: “The guilt associated with depression taints every negative feeling. One is never simply sad or disappointed or hurt or angry; negative feeling amplify in the echo chamber of depression.” (p.103) In the depressive state, one also positions oneself as a sort of zombie, going through the motions of relating to others while being emotionally dead to them. At the time of her mother’s dying, she reflects “All the time I was thinking, What am I feeling? What should I be feeling?” (p.189)
To her accurate descriptions of the depressive experience, she adds one major merit to this memoir. She never reaches an epiphany - the “Eureka!” or “Aha!” moment (found in many “inspirational" works) where all her problems are solved and where depression is definitively conquered. The memoir’s very conclusion suggests that she has reached a workable truce with life, a means of functioning in a fairly happy way, but with the awareness that the beast could come back to trouble her. So “Every morning, so far, I’m alive”, as the title says.
Minor criticism: Parkins notes that, when she was in the hospice where she later died, her mother had specifically requested she not be put on a respirator and that she wanted to be sedated. Parkins asks “how a lifelong, devout Evangelical Christian had come to express what sounded to me like her right to die? And why my equally devout father had not challenged this? I knew they both opposed euthanasia on principle but we had apparently all entered a twilight zone where the usual rules no longer applied, where Dad wept freely and Mum asserted herself.” (p.182) To take her mother’s request as an endorsement of euthanasia is misleading. All major church groups agree that to withdraw treatment when it will provide no medical benefit, and when it will simply prolong the process of dying, is quite legitimate. The plug can be pulled. But euthanasia is not pulling the plug. It is the deliberate act of killing by intervening with a lethal injection or some such. Her parents’ attitude would not have in any way contradicted their beliefs.