The universe and everything, Philip Temple

Waimarino County and Other Excursions
Martin Edmond
Auckland University Press, $35.00, 
ISBN 9781869403911

Phone Home Berlin – Collected Non-fiction
Nigel Cox
Victoria University Press, $35.00, 
ISBN 9780864735676  

The revival of the essay in book form continues compensating, to our applause, for its absence in the serial print media, excepting Landfall. This is confining but at least has the value of some permanence. “Essay” may cover  a multitude of sins or songs but is almost as useless a term as “non-fiction”. The publishers of these two books believe they are both, but “miscellanea” works better for them in content, if not in marketing, and it is up to the reader to decide how far each piece veers towards “fiction” and the “non”. Both books are of identical dimensions and length (even the paper is the same), and both are uneven, but Martin Edmond’s collection weighs in more heavily on the literary scales.

Waimarino County is made up of more than 40 pieces written since 1991, varying in length from barely a page to nearly 20. Most of the shorter inclusions have not appeared in print before but have been broadcast in online blogs. Martin Edmond writes, “Any order they may have is inadvertent.” But someone decided to arrange the material into “Autobiographies”, “Meditations”, “Illusions” and “Voices”, and  some order is useful when Edmond describes the collection as:

a product of my obsessions or predilections: self and other; psychedelics and the nature of perception; landscape, with its intimations of paradise lost or found; the City; the far reaches of spacetime and the means used to probe it; love and longing; above all, the workings of memory and what it can tell us of time, mind and world.

 

In other words, the universe and everything.

Edmond says that “theory interests me less than practice”, yet some of the work drifts into the kind of intellectual prevarication that obscures rather than clarifies. The long analysis of Alan Brunton’s Moonshine,  for example – “Lighting Out for the Territory” – seems an example of the opaque discussing the arcane. A few other pieces present the same way, and the longer “On Film” is disappointingly scrappy and digressive. But, these reservations out of the way, the remainder of the collection is variously stimulating, challenging and, well, plain brilliant.

The trick is to draw out consistent threads of concern and preoccupation from so many pieces that vary in length, subject and focus. In the “Autobiographies”, which also include at least some of the “Meditations”, there is nostalgia in its purest and most powerful form: a calling-up of ghosts from the landscape and old houses – as in the eponymous opening essay and “The Abandoned House as  Refuge for the Imagination” (co-winner of the 2004 Landfall essay competition) – that brings draughts into the most well-insulated emotional rooms. This is where Edmond best demonstrates his belief that:

It’s more important to get something said and understood than to make it an aesthetic object. Take it as a given that the other voices coming through are always more compelling than your own; increasingly mine or yours is made up of others anyway.

 

One of Edmond’s sisters returned an early version of “Waimarino County” saying it “was just too sad”. Yet the melancholy in this writing does not repel when one knows it is Edmond’s “true”; although a better word might be “authentic”.  Edmond achieves this with a fine distillation of memory, the recollection of place and people that is breathtaking in its power to provoke recognition and resonance.

In this area his chief referent seems to be W G Sebald, whose metaphysical journeys take us where “Memory is constructed out of fragments of past events, past people. However crucial it is for identity, it is still a made up record, not a true and verifiable one.” An example of this from Edmond is:

Through a broken window, dark green foliage of the macrocarpa looked like hectic paint strokes. On a wall next to the fireplace, someone had scratched the word HELP in high quavery letters. And again by the doorway leading into the hall. Across the floor, a scatter of barbed wire, broken glass, rotted wood. In the tiny kitchen, as if built for dwarfs, the red rust and debris of the shattered coal range. And on the bedroom wall, torn from newspapers and pasted up, image after image of brides and grooms on their wedding days, the men’s dark suits greying, the brides’ white dresses gone brown with the years.

 

Whether this is “a palimpsest, the memory of a memory”, is immaterial; it is “true”.

Perhaps Edmond’s chief preoccupation is with the puzzles of the temporal: the sliding instant of the present, the accretion of the past, the white glare of the future. Or, where Edmond refers to Bernardo Soares’ Fictions of the Interlude, the interlude that is the “time between birth and death, as if consciousness itself were only a brief flare between two darknesses, and made up entirely of inventions of various kinds.”  Consequently, much of Edmond’s tone is of doubt and uncertainty, writing within the context of the moment, shining moments of observation conveyed in prose-poetry. There is far too much to discuss in this brief space. Dive into the collection yourself and see if you, too, can reach for “the consolations of eternity/infinity”.

At the beginning of the extended interview that makes up a fifth of the late Nigel Cox’s Phone Home Berlin, Damien Wilkins states, “Nigel has been my friend for almost twenty years. He is also married to my favourite cousin.” Later, he asks Cox, “Are you aware of being a saint?” Cox sensibly replies no, but anyone approaching Cox’s work is aware that friends and family have circled the wagons. Although Cox planned the contents of this book, there is a sense of posthumous tribute. Yet it is also a kind of autobiographical Festschrift,  and the final “What I Would Have Written”, a farewell letter to the reader composed only a couple of months before he died, is both cheerfully elegiac and deeply affecting to anyone who mourns the too-early death of a good writer.

The core of the book, grounded in Berlin and overseas, is bookended at the front by stories of childhood and of becoming a writer.  The source of Cox’s enthusiasm for American pop music and culture is shown to have been reinforced by his year at school in California. “Its effects never left me” and went on to influence all of his fiction. The closing bookend is largely the Wilkins interview and the stimulating address Cox gave at the Going West Festival 2005, “Before I Went Blind”. This unblinkered view of New Zealand, as he found it after five years away, reflects all expatriates’ experience on returning home. Few have written it  down so well, although to this New Zealander it seemed to be more about Auckland than points further south (and there is no word about race).

Cox went to Berlin in 2000 and, with Ken Gorbey, oversaw the creation of all the exhibition displays  for the Jewish Museum Berlin within 18 months, a monumental achievement. “Phone Home Berlin” is a diary of that time and the years following when he stayed on as Head of Exhibitions and Education.  His observations are often acute and entertaining but a question arises early: why did Cox not learn German – a writer who could have discovered so much in the language that is the foundation of our own?

He ascribes this to his “pathetic inability” to do so and finds in it the advantage of always remaining the laidback antipodean outsider who cannot engage with in-house museum conflicts; the self-effacing and detached Kiwi who can be trusted to resolve disputes. It also means that Cox remained ignorant of the subtleties of language and life in Berlin; unaware that the comments in English by his German colleagues may often have been calculated and filled with the irony of which Berliners are past masters. It was an ignorance that tended to reinforce stereotypical views of Germany and the Germans that set one’s teeth on edge. Cox says that he really “went in” to German society but most of the time he commuted between the bubble of his young family, living in the affluent  suburb so well rendered in his novel Responsibility, and the unusual bubble of the Jewish Museum.

Cox admits that he found it more comfortable to experience life once removed, through books and songs and, in Berlin, through the constant waterfall of uncomprehended language. His writing is engaging and absorbing and the portrait of the author that emerges is of a charming and lovable, always-young man, pursuing a knowing dream of becoming a rich and famous writer. The loss is that his best writing was not of life once removed, but was derived from his own intimate experience, and we will not see the further development and fruition of that particular talent.

 

Philip Temple is a Dunedin writer and reviewer. 

 

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