He spoke very nearly of New Zillun.
More than a century's worth of modernist fiction has taught readers to pay careful attention to the double plotting at work in the most rewarding texts. Story one, the action foregrounded by the narrative discourse, captures at first our attention; it can also distract us from story two, the more important series of events occurring encoded 'in the interstices of Story One.' 'A visible story hides a secret tale, narrated in an elliptical and fragmentary manner.' (1) The visible tale in Charles Brasch's Journals, a text certain now, thanks to the superb editorial work of Peter Simpson, to be seen as his lasting contribution to our literature, is something akin to a Kiinstlerroman, narrating Brasch's emergence as a poet. 'The only thing I really want,' he wrote in his thirtieth year, 'is for my inner world to be consistently more important to me than the outer world, which it now both is & is not, so that I am in constant uncertainty, betrayed on both sides' (22/10/38,1: 41). (2) The 'inner world' is poetry, betrayed in volume one by other people, in volume two by God, or by His frustrating silences, and in volume three by wider society. Through it all Brasch insists that he can be 'an author in my own right with standing as an editor based half on that' (22/4/54, II: 431), and the poetry sought to find ways to make that right secure, the product of 'a European' with his 'feet planted firmly in NZ' (1/5/41, I: 268-9). Working out how to 'belong to a country, though not absolutely, not exclusively' without belonging 'to any society' (5/2/42, I: 317) is the great theme of his verse:
And the newcomer heart, Needing slow-paced generations, the shock Of recognition after long heedlessness, Routine and ripening memory, To make of new air, new earth, part Of its own rhythm and impetus, Moves gauchely still, half alien. ('The Land and the People (III)') (3)
This Brasch of Story One, an anxious, rather unhappy and relentlessly uncertain character through the journals, is familiar enough from the poetry, and familiar too from how he used productively to be read. Vincent O'Sullivan put it as well as anyone fifty years ago:
When one of my generation began reading New Zealand poetry, the chances were that a school-teacher pointed to Charles Brasch as a 'forerunner', one of the first poets to handle without fuss the physical realities of these islands, and to set them against a scattering of men ill at ease with the present, ignorant of the past, unsolicitous for the future. (4)
The secret tale developing in the interstices of the poet's development narrative of Story One, and making itself fully visible in the journals' third volume, turns out to be as affecting and, in its own terms, tragic, as the more personal record on which it depends. This narrative is, by way of Landfall s foundation and development, the story of New Zealand literature's arrival and implosion. 'There is no New Zealand literature yet', Brasch told a Dunedin University audience in 1950; the last twenty-five years of his life tell the story of that literature's arrival and departure. (5)
Landfall s foundation and establishment has its adventurous side, and the story is no less engaging for being well known:
Yesterday we discussed the possibility of a review--quarterly or thereabouts--in NZ, aiming at the standards of the Dublin Review & the Criterion. Denis [Glover] is favourable. He said that all the small periodicals he had run or supported, such as Tomorrow, Book, & the rest, he had looked on as keeping the pot boiling for something better--a mature & professional preferably Phoenix. I outlined my ideas that it should be carried on by a small group, preferably close friends, & certainly having similar interests & outlook; that it should pay for contributions, which is the only way of getting a high standard, since it gives the right to reject what is not good enough; that it must be distinctly of NZ without being parochial. It must also, in my view, take its stand as definitely theist, at the least, & definitely radical; though of course it would not exclude good work by those who were neither. (3/5/43, I: 384-5)
These 'plans for the revived Phoenix' (10/4/44, 1: 474) become Landfall, and we can see that journal now as itself a long work of Brasch's in the moment of settler-colonial modernism. Like the Meanjin Papers or Canadian Forum, Landfall combined a putative cultural nationalism with a distaste for most of went on in the culture of the nation. Brasch loathed the 'spiritual barrenness' (9/8/43, 1:403) of New Zealand much as Irving Layton found Canadians 'A dull people/ enamoured of childish games' and Clem Christesen opened Meanjin Papers against an 'age governed by the stomach-and-pocket view of life'. (6) Against this the critical journal would consider 'questions about society itself and what it exists for, and, eventually, about the nature of man', Landfall announced. (7) Criticism was, in this project, cast as an heroic activity, a moral crusade of Kulturkritik working against 'the hardness & emptiness of NZ' (10/2/45, II: 94) and the 'raw ugly work of people who do not know beauty from ugliness' (12/2/45, II: 95). Its serio-comic excesses may seem absurd now--Brasch wrote in the early 1960s that he could not 'help regarding any NZ artist who prefers to live in another country as a traitor' (2526/2/61, III: 111)--but this is only because we, die Nachgeborenen, inhabit a literary world partly of their making. (8)
All this is familiar enough to JNZL readers, certainly; what the journals bring, in their twinning of the story of Brasch's own formation with this hidden story of New Zealand literature's arrival, is a chance to assess the project from another distance and perspective. Landfall s establishment, decline, and re-emergence is a story that has been told often enough, certainly; the journals, with their looser, half-formed and provisional formulations, allow us to see Brasch's thought-world in formation, and throw up ideological signs like flares against an evening sky, illuminating the structure of feeling organising Landfall in the plains below.
Brasch's contribution to New Zealand literature and art as a patron and collector are now well known, and the journals give depth and detail to this history of a kind that could be put to good use as part of the institutional or publication-focussed turn going on in modernist studies more widely. (9) What Brasch facilitated, however, was not, in an historical irony, what he hoped to see grow, and the journals are full of revealing misreading and mishearing. 'New Zealand Literature' as a 'national literature' ends at the moment 'when it arrived because that was its job--to arrive.' New Zealand literature is 'now just the sum of its parts, a useful abstraction' rather than a national project: what invigorated it, from the 1960s onwards, were the cross-currents of local speech patterns, anti-colonial assertion in the Pacific and elsewhere, American poetic innovations and social disruptions, and the lived complexity of multiculture. (10) Brasch worked hard for New Zealand literature to arrive but could not spot notices of it all around him. He was repelled (a common word in the journals) by New Zealand accents. Frank Sargeson's is 'another unpleasing NZ voice--& he spoke very nearly of New Zillun' (23/9/48, II: 189). '[B]road ugly NZ speech' (6/3/68, III: 462) and 'rough slangly speech' (28/3/65: III, 371) is everywhere, from Ruth Dallas's 'very ugly pronunciation' (15/9/62, III: 291) and 'strangely countrified uneducated speech' (24/8/62, III: 257) to the 'ugly common way of speaking' (6/5/56, II: 495) of relatives. Brasch dismisses 'the mystique of Colin [McCahon's] that virtue lies in what is of the Pacific & that we must turn away from the baleful influence of Europe' (3/6/61, III: 228), but his own fantasy Europe is a silly-billy's dream, 'the patient, lovingly-fashioned civilization of the English landscape, tender in its half-human half-natural grace, full of a silent compassion for man' (10/2/45, II: 94). This is not, one presumes, Bradford's slums.
Landfall was part of the modern discursive formation Francis Mulhern labels 'metaculture', a writing which 'speaks of its own generality and historical conditions of existence' in order to 'mobilize "culture" as a principle against the prevailing generality of "politics" in the disputed plane of social authority.' (11) We have critical histories attuned to the gendered and racialized assumptions in this move already, but what the Journals bring properly into view is the complex set of class assumptions determining Brasch's project. Aesthetics, politics, and ethics all merge in a series of repeated keywords: coarse, formless, repellent. Curnow is 'coarse' (28/2/46, II: 99), as is Fairburn (23/9/48, II: 189); Rita Angus has a 'pale long deeply lined haggard fanatic face' (18/3/47,11: 154). C. K. Stead has 'that rather ugly projecting chin & jaw which is becoming a recognisably NZ trait' (9/6/54, III: 433); J. C. Sturm is an 'exceedingly plain frizzy-haired dark part-Maori girl' (11/11/48, II: 193); all are, in their different ways, painful reminders of 'the hideous ugliness of NZ life' (31/3/63, III: 303), a country populated by people who 'look as if they were roughly made, thrown together anyhow without thought of form or proportion, coarse limbs, coarse features' (7/9/57, II: 572). The Journals use the term 'coarse' to squeeze together disparate elements from what Raymond Williams called the 'real social history and a very difficult and confused phase of social and cultural development' in the term culture. This produces a powerful local articulation of the metacultural tradition of Leavis, Eliot, and other romantic (and reactionary) anti-capitalist cultural critics. (12) Brasch's complaint that 'NZers lack any sense of form' (13/4/62, III: 255) is, in the best metacultural traditions, simultaneously aesthetic and political, a hope for literary distinction carrying with it a longing for social forms of 'distinction' based on class differentiation and the expulsion of the 'common & ugly' (6/5/56, II: 495) from deliberative social life. It can be no accident that this aesthetic-political view developed in the years when the Welfare State was most secure, and when that state and the trade union movement allowed more working-class people access to both education, culture (however widely considered) and political power than at any previous stage in our history. Landfalls project of aesthetic education, seen from this angle, is, whatever the liberality of its manifest content, driven by a reactionary cultural logic:
Here, people treat each other rather like features of the landscape; they are still so few that friendship seems a low-grade familiarity which has hardly reached the distinctively human level; it does not appear to have depth or form or to be discriminate at all. But friendship is not a fact of nature, & it has nothing to do with democracy; it is an art of the soul, it requires cultivation, it is defined by (& also contains) silences which express its human finiteness & are at the same time an acknowledgement of the more than human. (9/3/46, II: 99)
The poetic ambition to 'speak in your own words in your own voice' on Home Ground is, then, also and always a political position, an unconscious hope that the gains of Social Democracy will be wound back. (13) Brasch doubts 'whether the present  system of universal education is good', justified as it is by 'mistaken notions of equality' (8/1/56, II: 478). Education, spiritual and aesthetic education for this people of 'shapeless clothes, formless speech, unselfconscious gait & movements, & heads & features that seem hastily & carelessly formed' (12/4/47, II: 158), is both essential and impossible. Essential, as training in 'true distinction of mind & spirit' (3/8/58, III: 111) is the ideological glue binding Landfalls metacultural pages, and yet impossible because 'distinction' must distinguish, aesthetic education needing a 'mass' against which to set itself. Even a figure as important as Sargeson comes off badly from this encounter, 'his pronunciation very ugly & his phrasing of the most unskilled & awkward, almost that of a half educated bumpkin' (29/11/70, III: 522). The liberality of Landfalls public positions--courageous on homosexual law reform when the issue was still marginal; outspoken on racism in sport, properly intolerant of racialized bigotry--deserve the credit they have received. But the more complex accounting the Journals demands tells us something about the context for this wider story:
Relevance of all this to N.Z. Is N.Z. an anti-civilization? Hatred of the ordinary NZer for all discrimination--of speech, carriage, dress, behaviour, mind; for refinement in general, for the arts, in a word for civilization itself. Then, beside that, the element of revolt against civilization by its very creators (28/1/62, III: 250)
I dissent from this vision in part because I know its historical untruth. My grandmother worked at the University of Otago when Brasch was writing these lines, at one time cleaning offices in the evenings, including those of the English Department, for another as a cook at the Student Union canteen. She knew much of Burns by heart, had read MacDiarmid, and wrote occasional verse of her own. All this without formal higher education, certainly, or 'true distinction' (3/8/58, III: 111) perhaps, but it is a lie to call it a life 'lived wholly on the surface' (8/1/45, II: 88). In this she was not uncommon. I have known people married at the chapel Brasch derides as a 'shocking undignified gabble' (26/7/70, III: 519); my grandfather was buried following the 'seemingly entirely mechanical' rites of the 'NZ Catholicism' that so 'disgusts' (26/7/70, III: 519) Brasch. In this world circulated Hopkins and C. Day-Lewis's translation of the Aeneid amongst a postwar generation of schoolchildren brought up to expect education, expansion, and democracy.
That generation, of course, itself was then able to inherit what Landfall had left on arrival. Christine Johnston's Blessed Art Thou Amongst Women (1991) did that for Dunedin, and a host of other New Zealand accents appeared to make use of the institutions Brasch had so carefully constructed. That failure of distinction turned out to be his, and our, success. The Journals leave me wondering if there might be another success in failure here too. Brasch dreams in 1950 of how
Ever since I came back four years ago I have wanted someone to try growing olives in Central [Otago], which I feel sure is good country for them, & I foresee them transforming these stony wastes--& the economy of the district; & in time perhaps even the tastes & character of the people. (23/9/50, II: 285)
There are olives in Central Otago now, certainly, and wine, too, grown from 'these stony wastes' and exported internationally. Tastes have changed beyond all recognition, if not characters. But what of the wider transformation? Queenstown, the inspiration for some of the loveliest prose in the Journals, is now an extreme-sports dystopia, unaffordable to its residents and a playpen for the global elite. 'Distance looks our way' and 'the sea is waiting' now, to be sure, but, in the age of cheap air travel and neoliberal community disconnection, the wealthy prefer to holiday overseas. (14) Their children are more likely to know the Gold Coast than Gisborne, Disneyland before Dargaville. Brasch's journals are dotted with some beautifully-rendered observations of individual cities and tracks, and he is alive to the bewildering difference and fascination of the geography of these islands; he found 'more than enough to enjoy for a life time, large enough for a people and a civilization' (30/12/57, II: 578). None of that is likely to resonate with those who prefer to take their skiing holidays overseas. A whole new globalised provinciality reigns now, the product of class distinctions fostered in the Rogernomic and Ruthenasian counter-revolutions Brasch would doubtless have deplored but for which his own political unconscious fostered uncanny affinities. (15) It is hard to imagine, in an era such as ours, after the sunny, ruthless philistinism of John Key and the defection of great swathes of the middle class from the Social Democratic contract, a wealthy young man following the difficult, contrary cultural path Brasch set up for himself. The final irony suggested by Peter Simpson's carefully edited, helpfully annotated and lovingly arranged volumes is, perhaps, that cultural nationalism, at the very moment all pronounce it dead, may be the argument we need once again.
(1) Ricardo Piglia, 'Theses on the Short Story', New heft Renew II: 70 (2011), 63.
(2) All references to the journals are given in the body of the text. For ease of reference I cite the date of the entry followed by the volume and page number.
(3) Charles Brasch, Collected Poems, edited by Alan Roddick (Auckland: Oxford University Press, 1983), 7.
(4) Vincent O'Sullivan, '"Brief Permitted Morning"--Notes on the Poetry of Charles Brasch', Landfall 23:4 (1969), 338.
(5) Charles Brasch, 'Conditions for Literature' in The Universal Dance, edited by John Watson (Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1981), 145.
(6) C.B.C. 'foreword', Meanjin Papers, 1:1 (1940), np.
(7) 'Notes', Landfall 1:1 (1947), 3.
(8) Regular entries on Canadian poets such as E. J. Pratt and to Australian periodicals Overland and Meanjin, especially in volume three, show Brasch as part of an Anglophone or Commonwealth literary world unlikely to be recognised today.
(9) See Donald Kerr, ed., Enduring Legacy: Charles Brasch, Patron, Poet and Collector (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2003), Lawrence Rainey, Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites & Public Culture (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998), Kevin Dettmar and Stephen Watt (eds.) Marketing Modernism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996); Allison Pease, Modernism, Mass Culture, and the Aesthetics of Obscenity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); John Ziros Cooper, Modernism and Culture of Market Society (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004);John Xiros Copper, Modernism on Fleet Street (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006).
(10) I have borrowed these terms from Nick Mount, Arrival: the Story of CanLit (Toronto: Anansi, 2017), 294.
(11) Francis Mulhern, 'Beyond Metaculture', New Left Review II: 16 (2002), 86. See also Mulhern, Culturel Metaculture (London: Routledge, 2000).
(12) Raymond Williams, Keynotes, second edition (London: Fontana, 1983), 92.
(13) 'Shoriken', Collected Poems, 172.
(14) 'The Islands', Collected Poems, 17.
(15) An unevenness not confined to these islands. See Marco D'Eramo, 'Geographies of Ignorance', New Left Review II (108), 2017.
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|Publication:||JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2018|
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