The short story of non-fiction, Tony Simpson

When Famous People Come to Town
Damien Wilkins

On Kissing
Kate Camp

On Longing
Vincent O’Sullivan
Four Winds Press, $14.95 each,
ISBN 0958237506; 0958237514; 0958237530

Shortly after these little books, none much longer than 50 pages, were published in September (the first in a planned series of a dozen over the next two years), I heard Damien Wilkins being interviewed about them by Kim Hill. What is it, she asked, that defines an essay? What is it that makes them different from, say, a magazine article? Wilkins had obviously been asked this before, because he had his reply ready. They go far beyond straight information, he said; they encompass a perspective or philosophy, and they get to their point by what are often discursive means and from an eccentric direction. They’re the short story, he neatly added, of non-fiction. In all of which I concur. The essay is a unique form with a notable pedigree and some excellent modern practitioners, as anyone who reads the London Review of Books, or the New Yorker, for instance, is bound to agree. But why an essay series here, and what, if anything, will it add to our literary culture?

The idea is that of Lloyd Jones, who has set up the Four Winds Press in association with Montana Estates specifically for the task. He’ll choose the author and subject, going for the sorts of things he thinks he himself might like to read about. He has chosen well for his first three, because each is a little gem in its own way, and each, in its very different approach, reflects the style and perspective of its writer. But even more to the point, each also, in its own unique discursive way, tells us something about ourselves.

2

Wilkins is the sharpest of the three. In a series of acid instances, he builds up a picture of New Zealanders that isn’t very lovely. His procession of visitors to our land includes a wartime Eleanor Roosevelt, exasperated by the boastful claim that everything we have is somewhat better than it would be in the United States (a characteristic also noted by Anthony Trollope in 1875); Noel Coward, who was told by a mayoress, in tones that brooked no contradiction, that he was never to sing “The Stately Homes of England” again, as it was “an insult to the homeland”; and Yehudi Menuhin, who, when resting during a concert interval in 1951, was interrupted by an intruding reporter and subjected to an interview of mind-numbing banality. Menuhin was remarkably polite under the circumstances; his plaintive plea for some of our renowned Bluff oysters apparently went unnoticed notwithstanding.

But it is visits by royalty, says Wilkins – taking deadly accurate aim at one of the vital parts of our national psyche – which bring out the best foolishness in us. “A royal event in New Zealand is really an exercise in anomaly,” he writes. “Everyone knows this. Not because of republican fervour but because of circumstance and resources and temperament and geography and architecture and custom. We attempt pomp at our peril.” Who can argue with him when he cites a visit by the Duke of York in 1927 when the royal person was greeted in Ashburton by a triumphal arch decorated by, among other objects, some cheeses, butter, and two Canterbury lamb carcasses? Wilkins’ ultimate point, well made, is that we have an instinct for what he calls “pathetic gratitude”.

There’s no hint of this in Kate Camp. Hers is the plainest of the three essays. That’s not meant as a criticism, but rather as a perspective on Camp as a writer. And like Wilkins, her route is a wandering one via Judas, the longest-ever kiss in a commercial feature film (three minutes and five seconds, between Regis Toomey and Jane Wyman in the 1941 comedy You’re in the Army Now, in case you were wondering), Geoffrey Chaucer, and the famous pic by Magnum photographer Robert Doisneau of two young lovers kissing in a 1940s Parisian street. This last occasioned a bitter controversy in 1988 over who the principals were, which ended nastily in court.

Discursive, as the genre requires, Camp also ropes in the first-ever film kiss, which, I was rather surprised to learn, is attributed to Thomas Edison in his 1896 film called, rather unenterprisingly, The Kiss, and the first movie to be shown in Canada.  Naturally, given the era, this caused a rumpus, particularly from the clergy. In Japan they sent for the police. Horatio Nelson also gets a look in, as he was bound to, given his famous last words. Camp has some interesting comments on why Nelson might have asked Captain Hardy to kiss him. An attempt to relocate the body as a site of pleasure? A secular absolution? Or simply a gesture of humanity in an inhuman situation? Only the last seems valid to me. She notes and rejects the notion that it was Victorian squeamishness that converted the request to “kismet Hardy” because of the suggestion of something improper in the original version. She also quite rightly rejects, as schoolboy sniggering, the flipside notion that it was a last bit of “hello sailor” between sea dogs.

And out of all this Camp draws the obligatory conclusion in an apt quotation from Doisneau: “Life is short. Forgive quickly. Kiss slowly.” Very apt.

O’Sullivan’s essay, as you might expect – again, given the public character of the writer as expressed in his work – is personal and dense with meanings that need several readings to download. Of the three, it fits the discursiveness test most fully, taking us by a circuitous route through some splendidly sly ironies. For instance, there is the thought that even a good footnote might be longing in small type because longing might be as good a word as any to file history under: the desire beyond mere curiosity to know what was known by those who were there. Or that inside every madeleine there’s a lamington waiting to get out.

And all of this to reach the beginning, which is simply that:

in the earliest times when myth was not bothered by too much realism, there were two children born together. One child was called Longing and the other was called Confusion. The first was quite beautiful, and the second so ugly – on its shoulders, in fact, was the head of an animal. Not surprisingly, they differed even as toddlers, and quarrelled as boys. When they were old enough to do the normal adult things, like betray and sleep around and murder and so on, Longing was still as good and attractive as anyone could hope for, and Confusion had grown pretty much as you would expect. What else could they do but come to blows? And as Confusion inevitably had the strength of two rather than one, he ripped off his own head, as well as his brother’s, and changed them round. So that ever after – myth has to say it like that – ever after, the body of Longing has spoken through the head of Confusion. And the reverse is also true.

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Jones was interviewed in the New Zealand Listener about his essay series, and he made the crucial point about these books in reference to Elliot Weinberger’s recently published Karmic Traces: “The real thing on show is the quality of the writer’s mind. That’s the thing that needs to be developed here. That thinking aloud quality.” He went on to say that the essay hadn’t flourished here, and that his aim is to give it a home so that it can.

Interestingly, and I presume quite independently of Jones, I recall Wilkins saying something similar during the same interview that I cited at the outset. That the essay isn’t a genre that New Zealanders do much. I don’t think that’s entirely right, and anyone who’s familiar with the 50 years of Landfall – beginning with Bill Pearson’s “Fretful Sleepers” – has to agree. And in the writing of history in this country there are some very fine essays as well, some of John Pocock’s work, for instance. But Wilkins’ claim is right to a certain degree.

None of the examples I have given quite fits the bill as he prescribes it. They don’t get to the point by a sufficiently discursive route, and they rarely come from an interesting direction. In a sense, we don’t do essays for the same reasons that we don’t do pomp, or that all of our television plays seem to collapse into melodrama, or that we interrupt Yehudi Menuhin when we shouldn’t. We’re too straightforward. There’s been something about most of us in the past that defies the subtlety a successful essay demands. Some absence of irony in our national character that encourages us to conquer mountains, or fight wars, but has largely and so far prevented us from enjoying an amused distance of the mind. Perhaps as this series unfolds, it will become apparent that this is no longer the case and that we are now grown-ups. The signs are good if these three books are anything to go by.

But I don’t know how well they’ll sell, however reasonably priced. At the Wellington launch, Jones spoke about being a publisher and being on the giving rather than the receiving end of cheques, which was a new experience for him. There might not be a terribly large market for irony here yet and he may have to go on being on the giving end for a while yet. Still, I’m not going to complain if he isn’t – and if he’s prepared to continue giving the essay a home, then I applaud his initiative in doing so.

 

Tony Simpson is a Wellington historian and writer.

 

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Posted in Essays, Non-fiction and Review
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