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Seriously cultured.

Review of journals 1938-1945 by Charles Brasch (Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2013).

When I was a small boy learning to play rugby we were told that you had to be able to 'throw a blanket' over the forward pack. That's how closely we were meant to work together: a single, incipiently (and in my case rather unconvincingly) blokish unit. Later, when I was an undergraduate learning about literary nationalism, I came to think of the Caxton generation the same way: a band of brothers shoulder to shoulder in their pioneering cultural mission. A little later again, in the name of postcolonial scepticism, I learned to see them as united in their shared ideological vices--their misogyny, their whiteness, their unreflexive realism--but in this sense, too, as a cultural monolith. You could still throw a blanket over them.

And it's true: the nationalists did hunt as a pack. And together they were remarkably effective in re-shaping local literature in their own preferred image. But if we want to understand why the intervention was so powerful, and how the nationalist programme achieved such an imposing degree of cultural dominance, then it's important to pay attention to the movement's internal differences. On one hand, discriminations need to be made between the nationalism of the Thirties and the War years, and the more diverse and sometimes recondite activities of the Fifties and Sixties. But even before this, it's worth looking closely at the mix of abilities and temperaments among the key players, and specifically the movement's tight five: Curnow, Glover, Fairburn, Sargeson and Brasch.

It won't be disputed, I think, that Curnow is not just the premier poet, but the best critic, the most effective controversialist, and indeed the most acute intellect. His historical cunning, and more specifically his grasp of how the critical temper of Modernism could be welded to the romantic aspirations of cultural nationalism, even today remain extraordinarily impressive. Curnow gave the moment its intellectual backbone. But nationalism is a demotic impulse, and New Zealand's literary version grew out of the left-leaning Thirties. In other words, it called for a kind of inclusiveness, a horizontal quality that Curnow could never extend to. But others could. To supply that common touch, the movement had Fairburn, Glover, and, in a more ambiguous way, Sargeson. We're not talking populism in a strict sense; it was always a matter of homely inflections intended for what was still a literary audience. But at this gestural level, the down-at-heel masculinism (and even anti-intellectualism) that this trio variously embodied was as vital to the rhetoric of literary nationalism as was Curnow's acuity and intellectual severity.

And then there was Charles Brasch. Of all them, Brasch's reputation as a writer in his own account is now the least secure. There's not been a volume of Brasch's verse since the Collected Poems appeared in 1984--no 'Selected' for a new generation of readers--and it's probably fair to say that his habitual solemnity makes a poor fit with the tastes of the present moment. Among his earliest poems are some of the most iconic iterations of the so-called 'South Island myth'. But Brasch's significance seems increasingly to rest on his roles as editor, taste-maker and patron. As Rachel Barrowman justly points out in her introductory essay to the work under review, it's not a situation we can imagine him relishing--what poet ever did? And yet, in this role as cultural entrepreneur, Brasch's importance in the shaping of nationalist literature exceeds that of anyone but Curnow and Sargeson.

This first volume of Brasch's journals covers the years that anticipate his main contribution. When it opens in 1938 he has just returned to England where has spent the majority of the previous twelve years. It ends in 1945, with the author on a vessel returning to New Zealand, about to go to work on the long-held dream of establishing 'a successor to Phoenix'. Landfall will duly appear in 1947, and Brasch himself will edit it until 1966. It's an institution that will come to embody the values of the culminating chapter of literary' nationalism. And it's a vehicle that, in this classic phase, will be stamped indelibly with the high-minded sensibility' of its editor. In the ongoing absence of a Brasch biography (as best I can gather, there's an incomplete one somewhere in the works but no prospect of its appearing any time soon), there are several things that might draw a reader to these journals. They tell us something (though not a huge amount) about the poems he was writing; they tell us a small amount (mostly by omission) about his reticent sexuality'. On life during the Blitz, on the other hand, they're informative. And they reveal quite a lot about the writer's social environment (he bemoans his own shyness, yet spends a lot of time in company). But for anyone whose interest is in the development of New Zealander literature, it's the insight into the mind of the future editor that commands most attention. Nothing that we learn is entirely unexpected. But the portrait that emerges serves to underline and clarify Brasch's centrality'.

'I know [...] that I am a European, but with my feet firmly planted in New Zealand' (p. 268). It is something, perhaps, that any of his nationalist colleagues might have claimed, but no other player is so eminently at home in European (not to mention Jewish) thought and culture. Indeed Brasch as he appears here is almost the perfect anti-type of the New Zealand writer as modelled by the likes of Fairburn and Glover. The differences are manifest even in the practice of introspection itself. Diary keeping: can this be a manly activity'? It's hard to imagine Glover or Fairburn wasting precious drinking time on it. Robin Hyde, and of course Mansfield, were both journal writers. And it might have been okay for Curnow's first wife. But navel-gazing, as it would have been labelled, was never part of the no-nonsense masculine habitus. Brasch, on the other hand, is quite explicit: 'The only thing I really want is for my inner world to be consistently more important to me than the outer world [...]' (p. 41). His friend James Courage describes Brasch's mind as 'abstract' where Courage's own thought is 'concrete'. In the rhetoric of Curnow and Fairburn there is never any doubt as to which of these two terms ought to be privileged. And yet Brasch remains doggedly attuned to the large imponderables: pacifism, community, aesthetics and (even) spirituality. It comes as some surprise that he intends the projected journal to 'take its stand as definitely theist, at the least' (p. 385).

It's small wonder, then, that the prospect of returning to New Zealand to live and work fills Brasch with anxiety'. (By the end of the War he will have spent the best part of eighteen years, and virtually his entire adult life, in Europe.) And it's equally unsurprising that his misgivings about New Zealand should focus on the writer he was seeing most of in London, and who in founding the new journal would be his key collaborator, Denis Glover:
   It struck me today that Denis, in common with many
   NZers, sets more store by kindness or common
   humanity than by the qualities of a person's beliefs or
   intellect, while the opposite is true in general of
   intellectuals here [...]. A country' of course needs both of
   these; either alone is fatal. Denis appears to have no
   sense of truth as something to be pursued & gradually to
   be revealed, no sense of ends and of purpose in life. Or
   do I wrong him? Is there an eagerness I am not aware of
   under his comfortable exterior, the solid figure
   beginning to round out, the enormously strong thrusting
   jaw & his one cauliflower ear, and the aggressively
   matter-of-fact tone of his talk with its no-nonsense good
   humour & impatience and touch of whimsicality? Could
   I work with him without all this--there is something
   provincial about it--jarring on me? (p. 326).

Fortunately, the answer was 'yes'--or at least whatever 'jarring' took place was something that Brasch and the journal survived. And how vital it was that Brasch came back, and that what would emerge as Landfall would reflect those high-minded European values. We only need to listen to the chafing of Glover and Fairburn against what they saw as the journal's dullness and worthiness ('fine reading for a retired canon,' said Glover of the first issue) to appreciate how different things might have been if the anti-intellectualism of these bluff Kiwi blokes had not met its match in Brasch's willingness to be serious. Perhaps Landfall was sometimes solemn and monochrome. But it kept a space open for depth and complexity, which in turn allowed both newer and older writers of the 1950s to extend a nascent New Zealand literature in more sophisticated directions.

By this stage, I trust it goes without saying what a welcome publication this is. At just shy of six hundred and fifty pages it's a lavish volume, and a huge amount of work has gone into it. Margaret Scott did the original transcription, and Andrew Parsloe has supplied the annotations as well as a sixty-five-page schedule of 'dramatis personae'. The latter, which furnishes salient details about no fewer than two hundred and eighty-nine people to whom Brasch makes reference, in itself represents a painstaking work of scholarship and provides such a serviceable navigation tool that in the end it's probably a fair trade for the lack of a subject index.

I have stronger reservations about the decision to present the journals apparently unabridged. There's just so much of it, and Brasch is the kind of diarist who at times seems to be using the occasion simply for exercise--to be writing something. I wonder if the book might not have worked better if pruned of some of the innumerable descriptions of weather and the passage of the English seasons, and also perhaps of some of the social minutiae. The volume's apparatus is light when it comes to editorial procedures and detail about the original documents. Rachel Barrowman's introductory essay is efficiently executed, but I'm not convinced she was given the most helpful brief. Rather than a broad biographical outline (which in some ways duplicates the accompanying chronology) I would rather read more about Brasch's habits as a diarist, about the relationship between the current text and his prior account of the same period in Indirections (1980), and about what (if any) tidying up has been involved in the passage from manuscript to print. In particular, I'm sure I won't be alone in wanting to know more about the lacuna that occurs in 1939, where the journal suddenly dries up for ten months--a period which, frustratingly, encompasses Brasch's difficult friendship with Robin Hyde.

So I think there are questions here for Otago University' Press to think about when it comes to those future instalments (from the Landfall era, and beyond) which I understand to be in the planning stage. In the meantime, however, this is definitely an occasion for gratitude rather than equivocation. For those of us who value the history of our own literature these journals are a massive resource and we're extremely lucky to have them.
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Author:Newton, John
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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