Never mind the quality, Heather Murray

The Journal Box 
Elizabeth Smither
Auckland University Press, $34.95
ISBN 1869401425

Long an admirer of Elizabeth Smither’s poetry and encouraged by a dustjacket claim that The Journal Box contains “marvellous pieces of writing … comparable in quality to the autobiographical writings of Janet Frame or Katherine Mansfield”, I opened this book with high expectations, which alas, have not been fulfilled. Other reviewers and readers have found much in it to enjoy and there are pleasant and striking things to find in browsing — perhaps the book works best as a dipping-in book at bedtime? — but to read it entire is to find much loose or experimental writing which could have tolerated a firmer editorial hand than Smither’s own.

The journal or diary form is an attractive one, since it allows the reader closer access to the writer-as-person than is permitted when a writer shelters behind the authorial mask to write a novel or a poem. Chief practitioner of the form has been, unwittingly, Katherine Mansfield. In a small field her work is supreme among those who have edited their own diary writings such as Dennis McEldowney, a stringent and no-nonsense editor when wearing his other hat, and Cilla McQueen (Berlin Diary).

It is hardly a large enough field for the reviewer to postulate a theory, but one is shaping up nevertheless: writers are too close to their diary writings to be the best judges of quality. Into these fervent pages, they pour their thoughts and fears; they try out new ideas, new modes; they ape their betters. Such writing may be an emotional outlet or a jotting book of ideas, not all of which will be much good. Somehow the story has got around that a writer learns by writing and that every day, no matter what the weather or mood, the apprentice must write and never mind the quality. The Murray theory, entirely unproven in any worthwhile way, is that much of this diary stuff is best left where it is, or that it should be turned over to a third party for arbitration. Both McQueen and Smither would have done better to have called in an editor with a scalpel.

That we have a journal from Mansfield today is thanks to her husband, John Middleton Murry, who selected and ordered a book from disparate pieces of writing in dozens of notebooks left by the writer at her death. Whether he should have done so in the face of Mansfield’s wishes to the contrary and the method he used to shape a cohesive book out of scraps have been topics of controversy ever since. We may be sure that if the writer herself had prepared a collection, we would have a very different book, perhaps more honest in part, less honest in others. It might have been more even, with highs and lows of mood reduced in intensity to offer the protection of a mask which she felt no person should be without. Whatever Murry’s deficiencies as husband and literary executor, he was an excellent editor and judge of merit. If he leaves Mansfield standing a little naked to the world, we as readers are blessed with a selection of writing as riveting and moving as any in the literature: it demands our involvement.

Smither has left herself plenty of protective wrappings. A well-bred and ladylike distance is maintained from the reader and things we would like to know she does not tell us. Who is “M”? Her husband, surely, but why does he disappear, never to reappear? How may a husband be lost so easily? Who was the father whose death she mourns? Was he a shearer, a waterside worker (there are hints)? No. Who’s Who in New Zealand reveals he was an Anglican clergyman. But isn’t Smither a devout Catholic? By what means the daughter of a vicar is converted to Rome we do not know. None of our business perhaps? But the autobiography and the diary are literary forms which encourage a reader to hope for the personal insight, the shared deep experience: we hope that the writer’s business will be our business too. In Mansfield (and Frame) it is. We are drawn into her life via the printed page; the gulf is bridged. It is all there — life, death, hate, love, bitter disappointment. Everything matters with such intensity.

Too often with Smither there is a feeling that she is practising a fine style, perfecting aphorisms, being clever, always likening something to something else via the simile (although the one in which she likens Proust’s lungs to overworked bloomer elastic holds up well). Ironically, Smither is aware of her weaknesses, but seems unable to cure them. She knows that she darts mercurially from topic to topic (“my brain doesn’t seem to work in straight lines”), to write a series of paragraphs not in any particular order, hoping to see later how they might be joined:

Surely, because they are all from the same hand, they will join up? The order is the last thing that is apparent to me. The strips of paper lie spread out on the carpet and I walk about among them like a leaf-collector with a pointed stick. I don’t know what I think about anything until I begin to write. (p114)

I longed for Smither to hold a long serious argument but too often she throws away a useful line, such as the thought induced by reading an advertisement for a public lecture from a visiting professor on the use of the glottal stop in Tahitian French: she wonders if “most of us are just fiddling while Rome burns”. Having often wondered this myself, I would have liked a serious disquisition. As a writing fellow at Auckland University, she encounters the workings of the rational academic mind, which “seem[s] to emphasise my carelessness which I suppose, if I am honest, I defended thinking it had something spirited in it”. Her predicament is clear: the rational mind shows up the lack of virtue in her own tendency to jump wilfully “from one inaccurate conclusion to another”, yet she still has faith in bold leaps into the unknown. How to blend them is the problem.

I hope she solves it. Mansfield here may provide a lead: avoid being “pretty-pretty”, look at everything through a gimlet eye, watch out for the “fine writing”.

Heather Murray is a Dunedin scholar and writer. 

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