Random House, $24.95,
Hazard Press, $19.95,
From the Heart
According to Phillip Lopate, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, the personal essay’s hallmark is its intimacy. The personal essay must confide “everything from gossip to wisdom”. By sharing thoughts, memories, desires, complaints and whimsies, Lopate suggests, essayist and reader forge a dialogue, a friendship. In New Zealand, we have no real tradition of the personal essay; our nearest equivalent is probably the personal opinion columns in local magazines and newspapers.
In the echelons of journalism, writing columns comes near the top. The columnist is freed from the tiresome shackles of constant fact and is allowed the luxury of opinion, even of writing about not very much at all. In the daily or weekly grind that is journalism, the lucky columnist is allowed to metamorphose from a journalist into a writer. For newspaper owners, columns offer a handy way of filling space, requiring no budget-draining newsgathering costs. For the columnist, however, plucked from writing obscurity and having to produce a weekly column, there is the temptation to veer towards rant rather than dialogue. So it may be somewhat harsh to apply the same yardsticks to columnists as to personal essayists. But when a column works well, it does so precisely because it follows many of the precepts of the personal essay.
For instance, Steve Braunias, deputy editor of the New Zealand Listener, can be sublime. In one column collected in Fool’s Paradise, he moves effortlessly from a holiday in Kuala Lumpur to English botanist Alfred Wallace to Darwin and finally to the possessions he took from his mother’s house after her death. He links it all with a souvenir, a mounted butterfly named after the “White Rajah” of Sarawak. The past, as Lopate observes, is an Aladdin’s lamp which the essayist never tires of rubbing.
Joe Bennett, in his latest collection of columns, Sit, captures another quality of the essayist, that of idling. Essayists, Lopate tells us, are frequently “loafers or retirees, inactive and tangential to the marketplace”. It is hard to figure out what, apart from living with his dogs and being an ex-teacher, Bennett ever does. So, in true idler fashion, he spends one engaging column decrying his own addiction to the Olympics. In another, whilst weaving in other pet restaurant likes and dislikes, he spends two and a half pages interrogating waiters as to why restaurants insist on using giant pepper-mills.
Helen Brown’s columns in from the Heart have been collated into a quasi-narrative, each column forming a chapter of the story of her move to Australia and her life there. Brown bemoans becoming “just an anonymous housewife” in Australia, after having enjoyed minor celebrity status here in New Zealand. She uses her new anonymity to poke fun at the other mothers at the private school she has chosen for one of her daughters. However, the result seems somewhat disingenuous, as she never explores her own motivations in her choice of lifestyle. Lopate would certainly not approve, arguing that if a writer stays at the same flat level of self-disclosure throughout, the piece will not awaken in the reader “that shiver of self-recognition”. Get uneven, Helen.
It is when the columnists allow us a glimpse into an intimate moment that they excel. There is nothing quite like traipsing around a mangrove swamp with Braunias. I thrilled to be beside him and the runaway dog Jake as they caught sight of a heron. No eloquence necessary: “I love that stupid bird” does the trick. The day Barbara Cartland (“the Queen Mother in candyfloss”) died, Bennett had to rescue one of his scared dogs from atop a crag. I felt I was there climbing with him. Rescue accomplished, he felt “strong, warmed, sentimental and all things Barbara Cartland”. Brown’s frantic search for her dying mother’s glasses (“So that was it. I’d flown 4800 kilometres to find an old woman’s spectacles.”) allows us to poke with her into the drawers under the divan. In general, Brown traverses such huge emotional landscapes – the death of her mother, the death of one son, another son’s major surgery – that, inevitably perhaps, she seems merely to skate over them. More appealing is a simple column recounting the ordinary difficulties of her Australian life: chewing gum stuck to her pants, a drunk cleaner, and pear-eating rainbow lorikeets. This column brought into sharp focus “another day in genteel Melbourne”.
Of the three, only Braunias makes the reader guffaw. His tale of the Listener’s clear-out of left-over books – “No one wanted A Geologist Remembers” – charms by its attention to the usually overlooked or derided. His extolling of Isolated Lines: A History of Electricity Supply in Poverty Bay challenges us to rethink the customary dismissal of such titles. This gentle ribbing of the reader’s sensibility gives way to just plain rib-tickling in his explanation of how to inflate a Lucky Cat, the Japanese symbol of good fortune and prosperity. Braunias simply takes the instructions of how to inflate the doll, and interleaves them with his own faltering efforts. “Fahgeddit,” he eventually decides. “It sounded like a suicide mission.” Incompetent instruction writers duly demolished.
Each of these collections contains its share of gems; but the whole idea of cobbling together a book from these weekly pieces only affords them an uneasy permanence. Columns are much better sampled in small bites, exactly the way they were originally served up in their respective magazines or newspapers. Why anyone but diehard fans would want to read an entire book of such titbits is puzzling. Perhaps publishers see a stocking-filler market, or perhaps toilet-side reading? However, if a publisher were to entice these writers – and others – to expand on some of their finer efforts and were then prepared to put out the resultant essays, that would be a book worth buying.
Kim Griggs is a Wellington journalist.