Neither here nor there, Jane Westaway

Here Comes Another Vital Moment
Diane Brown
Godwit, $25.00,
ISBN 1869621190

News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore     
Gregory O’Brien
Victoria University Press, $30.00,
ISBN 0864735324

Luca Antara: Passages in Search of Australia
Martin Edmond
Addenda, $44.95,
ISBN 1921037083

According to Martin Edmond’s publisher, his Luca Antara is “a memoir, history and travel book”. Godwit describes Diane Brown’s Here Comes Another Vital Moment as intertwining memoir, poetry and travel; Victoria University Press claims News of the Swimmer Reaches Shore as “a travel book, an autobiographical novel and a free-floating meditation”. Travel, then, is the common label. But not a particularly useful one, in an era of thoroughly busted genres, when Condé Nast Traveler lists W G Sebald alongside Redmond O’Hanlon, Peter Fleming and Bill Bryson in its 86 greatest travel books of all time. Whatever one’s literary opinion of The Rings of Saturn, we can probably all agree that it doesn’t do much to enhance one’s knowledge of Suffolk.

Vital Moment is illustrated, Sebald-style, with black and white photographs of what Brown saw (or possibly didn’t see) in Berlin; News includes photographs and artwork on many subjects from many sources, including the author; Luca Antara relies entirely on words. None are travel in the classic sense, which depended a good deal on trains and camels: a more intense focus on the outer world than the inner. Edmond seems to come closest to this, as he describes his difficult early days in Sydney and his travels in Asia, investigating the history of his adopted country. But watch out for that seems, more of which later.

As Scots reviewer Brian Morton has written, “There is no fiction or non-fiction; there is only the written and the unwritten, and anything that is written is in some sense fiction.” No point, then, scurrying about like harried booksellers, trying to shelve such volumes in their “proper” spot.

Travel jolts us out of the visual/cultural rut, according to Edmund White – we see so much more vividly that it’s like taking LSD (although, in Luca Antara, Edmond’s first-person singular goes in for both, just to make sure). And when it comes to encouraging New Zealand writers to see – and, therefore, write – more vividly, Creative New Zealand and others have been happy to help (though don’t mention the early 90s Bloomsbury debacle). Two of these three books were a direct (although perhaps unlooked for) result of such largesse: Gregory O’Brien’s stay in Menton, France, occasioned by his wife, poet Jenny Bornholdt’s Katherine Mansfield
fellowship; Diane Brown’s German sojourn by partner Philip Temple’s Berlin fellowship.

Is New Zealand spawning its own unique sub-genre of modern travel – the sponsored literary OE?

After English writer Jenny Diski visited this country a few years ago, she went home and wrote about it (On Trying to Keep Still, 2006) – or rather, us. And, if one can put aside the irritating reminder that we tend to be of literary interest only when seen by foreigners, she has some perceptive things to say:

Everyone explained, almost by way of saying hello, how far away they are.

‘We’re so far away,’ they kept telling me apologetically.

‘Far away from what?’ I’d ask, surprised, because they and I were both here, so far as it was ever possible to tell.

‘Everything.’

 

Tricky Diski’s disingenuous question is instantly belied, though, by her own response: “In fact, of course, everything is far away from New Zealand when that is where you are.” She also notes that:

 

As soon as they’ve met you and ascertained that you are from [other] parts, most New Zealanders tell you about their European trip, their year or five spent where far away isn’t, as if on day release from a penal colony.

 

It’s a fair cop. No denying how urgently we need to feel connected, to have visitors know this is not all we know; how painful our awareness that we cling to a geopolitical comma dropped into a sentence that has never been and never will be about us. So off we go: when young, for extended periods of exploration and working holiday; when older, for shorter (and more expensive) tastes of the bliss of away.

But “Everywhere you go, you take the weather with you”, sing Crowded House, and sure enough each of these books is not so much by a New Zealander about a foreign place, as about a New Zealander who finds themselves somewhere else. And each somewhere else is less a destination than a launch pad for an interior journey – or, more accurately in the case of Brown and O’Brien, a flurry of short breaks. What’s crucial to the reader embarking on this sort of travel is the quality of the mind you’re being invited to tour: will you find the pensées prompted by the author’s travels as fascinating as they do?

We have, as Diski has said elsewhere, narrative-hungry brains. We crave story. And by delivering on a promise made at the outset, story – no matter its incidentals, digressions and embroideries – supplies meaning. This longing for meaning accounts, I think, for the compelling readability of journals, biographies and memoirs, and – Helen Garner’s Monkey Grip and William Boyd’s Any Human Heart come to mind – of fictions presented as any of these. Most of us over the age of 10 know real life tends to be pretty bloody shapeless (at the individual level, anyway), yet we devour ostensible non-fictions in a state of suspended disbelief, greedy for the meaning we’re unlikely to discover beyond their covers.

This factor undoubtedly contributes to the readability of Vital Moment. As well, Brown is mistress of the admirably plain sentence and witty turn of phrase. Day-to-day responses to her immediate situation are broken up with natty headings and italicised broken lines, many of the latter not complete poems but the germs of them, or little asides.

A good deal of the weather that goes with Brown to Berlin is generated by her intimate relationship with her fellowship-winning partner: she mentions him frequently, alluding to his work (on a book about a former lover, still alive and well, and meet-able for lunch), their contest for literary territory, her dissatisfactions and insecurities. And this highlights another – more questionable – aspect of the book’s readability.

Brown doesn’t seem at all interested in encouraging readers to distinguish between the author identified on the cover of her book and the first-person singular musing on its pages. References to her famous-in-New-Zealand companion might add a frisson to some readers’ experience, but left this one squeamish. I didn’t know what to do with these glimpses into their kitchen and bedroom life. I felt like a peeping tom. More to the point, I wasn’t sure what their author intended me to do with them. It’s hard to put aside the uncomfortable “real-life” implications of, say, the tiff about the borrowed apartment (an acquaintance offers it for daytime writing, but Temple, according to Brown, makes it clear the offer applies only to him) and simply enjoy the style of its telling.

O’Brien’s insights are less intimate. And he distances himself further from his companion and their children by exploring mainly the intellectual diversions that occur to him as he wallows daily in the warm Med: the Rainbow Warrior bombings, Jacques Cousteau, Henri Matisse, Le Corbusier and a lot more besides. If Brown travels – I’m tempted to say, like a woman – heart on her sleeve, or at the end of her pen, O’Brien bounds about, eyes wide open, brain engaged. Like a bloke, albeit a highly cultured one.

I enjoyed his prefatory remarks about writing in the present tense because, during their six months in Menton, the family were in love with the present and wanted to stay in it, and his prose is often charmingly enthusiastic. Unlike Brown, who signals poetry by typography, O’Brien’s infuses his prose, and not for nothing does the publisher identify this work as a “free-floating” meditation. Sometimes, though, I felt in danger of drowning in watery imagery.

Brown’s and O’Brien’s physical and mental excursions provide entertaining short breaks, but it’s Edmond’s that add up to a fully realised journey. He is the most elegant and authoritative writer of the three, and – an element never entirely separable from writing skill – the one with the mind most worth touring. From time to time I feared I might be barred from some of his intellectual roadside attractions by my inability to stump up the entry fee – as cerebral a take on the world as their proprietor – but no, I was always invited back.

That Luca Antara was entered in the history category of this year’s Montana New Zealand Book Awards – at, I like to think, the prompting of the author – looks like a final piece of mischief for a book that deals in mischief, in its best sense, from beginning to end. May it be earnestly cited in undergraduate history essays for years to come!

Edmond puts the reader on shaky ground right from his introductory note, quoting Mark Twain that Australian history reads like “beautiful lies”. Whether, as Twain went on to claim, these lies “are all true, they all happened”, Edmond says he leaves readers to decide for themselves. He supplies an epigraph from fictitious Australian poet Ern Malley, and, later, Edmond relates the Malley literary fraud, reminding us that the invented poet achieved something of a “real” literary career (I’m unable to review this book without liberal use of such quotation marks).

He writes, too, of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who invented a myriad of literary voices with other names. He tells of forging an academic essay that earned an A for the person who paid him. Obsessed with early European knowledge of Australia, “Edmond” tracks down the key figure of da Nova, a Portuguese explorer who may have arrived in the 17th century. He considers writing a novel about da Nova. Then, fearing his writing isn’t up to it – a splendid piece of faux modesty! – he decides to write instead about his own investigations in Australia and Malaysia into the elusive explorer.

“Edmond” gets his hands on the outline of a book about da Nova, written by an Indonesian historian with whom he briefly makes email contact. Unable to contact the man again, “Edmond” decides to publish the manuscript within his own book, preceding it with the assurance that, should the true author ever make himself known, “Edmond” will be sure to pay him royalities.

Such a cursory and partial glance risks reducing Luca Antara to a literary joke. It’s much more than that. What stays with the reader isn’t, unsurprisingly, taxi-driving, second-hand bookshops, drugs and loneliness, or even da Nova or Malaysia; it’s the experience of having shared an imaginative obsession. Of feeling, rather than just knowing, the grip of the past – not just our own but the more remote shared past – out of which we construct our selves. It’s Edmond’s book – no quote marks now – that, modern tricksiness notwithstanding, feels most convincingly like … well, a book, rather than a workbook or notebook. And it reinforces the suspicion that, in the hands – and minds – of lesser writers, fashionably blurred genre can easily slide over into narcissism, and lack intellectual commitment on the part of the writer. Both Brown and O’Brien, by and large, do better than this, but, of the three, it’s Luca Antara that most significantly adds up. Its “meaning” lingered long after I put it aside, although I’d be hard-pressed to say what that meaning is.

 

Jane Westaway is co-editor of New Zealand Books.

 

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Posted in Fiction, Literature, Memoir, Non-fiction, Poetry and Review
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