To be a pilgrim, Susan Paris

As Fair as New Zealand to Me: New Zealand Writers in Katherine Mansfield’s Menton
Victoria University Press, $24.95,
ISBN 0864733984

The French Riviera … not the most obvious place to spend time concentrating on your writing. But because of Mansfield’s brief time there between 1920–21, thirty-two of New Zealand’s literary luminaries have lived in Menton as Mansfield fellows, writing in a room in the grounds of her beloved Villa Isola Bella, where life, Mansfield proclaimed, was “Heaven from dawn to dawn”.

Despite being one of New Zealand’s most prestigious literary awards, in 1999 the fellowship’s future looked uncertain, and an event was held in Wellington to both celebrate it and rally support. At the event, 23 past fellows read replies to a long-lost postcard they had miraculously received from Mansfield, in which she enthuses about the delights of Menton. As Fair As New Zealand to Me brings together those replies.

Although the set-up sounds like an exercise from a Manhire writing course, the respondents are no recent graduates. Each piece is as diverse in content and tone as the experiences of Menton they describe. And although unique, each reveals that a fellowship to Menton involves a complex journey. Indeed, many recall their time in Menton with the reverence of a pilgrimage.

The writers are at their most interesting when they reflect on dislocation and how it affected their writing. Many responded gallantly to their isolation in Menton, taking comfort in the belief that it is a writer’s duty to displace his or her self from the familiar – to be forced instead to look for Michael Gifkins’ “geography of the mind” or to navigate Fiona Farrell’s “twisting maze which leads to the inner cell of the self”.

That dislocation is a powerful tool, allowing the writer to explore and [re]create both the familiar and unfamiliar, is frequently testified to. Spiro Zavos remarks that writers see with their sensibilities and memories, and consequently, his time in Menton gave him both sight and insight. Elizabeth Knox also acknowledges the gift of isolation and the freedom of insignificance: “Novelty makes you more sensitive to the familiar, primes the pump of your imagination, fosters an awareness of contexts by reminding you that you can’t know, there’s so much to know, you’re just passing
through”.

Terra incognita”, as Gifkins calls it, is a less comfortable place for those whose creativity is more compromised by isolation. Lisa Greenwood’s piece is pervaded by a tone of frailty and unease as she reflects on an experience that must be “palpated with care”. Plunged into a “fumbling wordlessness”, she inhabits a terrain that is unfamiliar and unsettling. For Greenwood, the wonder and unhappiness in Menton are intimately bound together.

Greenwood’s piece sits comfortably beside Louis Johnson’s poem “Trimming the Wick”, which explores the challenge of life in a new place and the burden to write of it:

trying to take it all
in with only six practical senses and a pen:
you know you are not equipped: you do
what you can with your slender means.

Johnson’s poem acknowledges the enormity of capturing what lies before you, both in Menton and elsewhere, a concern that hovers in many of the pieces.

The issues that Johnson voices are echoed, and answered, throughout the book: What happens when you view New Zealand from Europe? What does it mean to explore the roots of a heritage that you consider in part your own? And, most significantly, what happens when the writer is alone at their desk? – a situation that is complicated when they are funded by someone else’s money.

But it’s not all anxious pilgrims. While many of the pieces are absorbed by inner landscapes, they also record the wonder of Europe. Recollections of the Mediterranean, the exotic flora, and the mountains behind Menton evoke the pleasure and inspiration as do the memories of encounters with other writers. Michael King’s entanglements with Patrick White make for amusing reading as does Michael Gifkins’ self-confessed stalking of international literati, which he retells with the glee of a kid raiding the biscuit sampler on Boxing Day.

The writers’ memories of Menton and the way they write of them are engaging and utterly articulate. Their observations have that unique slant that only a writer can bring – poetic, perceptive, and always with half an eye out for the dramatic and entertaining. Whether their pilgrimage is necessary is a question that doesn’t really need to be asked.

 

Susan Paris is a Wellington reviewer.

 

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Posted in Essays, Literature, Non-fiction and Review
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