Report on Experience: John Mulgan
Peter Whiteford (ed)
Victoria University Press, $40.00,
In Keats’s last letter, sent from Rome to his friend Charles Brown in England three months before he died, he writes of his “habitual feeling of my real life having passed, and that I am leading a posthumous existence”. That sentence, and in particular the eerie contradiction conjured by the phrase “posthumous existence”, reverberated in my mind as I began to read this handsome re-publication, in a fine hardback edition, of John Mulgan’s Report on Experience – which was itself written “late at night in the darkened city of Athens” and begins with the words: “It seems a long time ago now since I was young in New Zealand.”
That country is the subject of the first chapter of what is essentially a memoir of one man’s war; but it is a country seen through the wrong end of the telescope: tiny, far away, but somehow also preternaturally distinct, with clear if simple outlines. It is not, however, a nostalgic view, or not primarily, because from the outset Mulgan insists he is writing for the future – of his home, of what is called the West, perhaps of the world. This twin focus, upon the personal past and the impersonal future, with a kind of willed abnegation of the present, gives the book its eerie tone – as if a man might prognosticate through an examination of his own entrails.
I had read the book before, when I cannot recall, except that it was a long time after I had read, and re-read, Mulgan’s other book, Man Alone (1939). And yet re-encountering the tone of the opening passages of Report on Experience sent me straight back to Man Alone, there to confirm the insight that the voice of the novel is that of the memoir; for Man Alone also bears witness to a kind of posthumous existence, albeit of a fictional character, who comes as it were from nowhere and goes back there after the book is finished. And the fact of these two books seems to confirm what Mulgan said to his wife when he sent her the manuscript of the second: “I think every man writes in the end just as much as he has in him to say.”
Mulgan died from an overdose of morphine in his hotel room in Cairo on the night of 25th April 1945, not so very long after he had sent the manuscript, with its covering letter (reproduced here), to New Zealand; and this sequence of events, whatever the author’s intention might have been, has made it difficult not to read the book as an extended suicide note. Various interested parties, including those who provided for this edition a preface (his son Richard), a foreword (the British war historian M R D Foot) and an introduction (editor Peter Whiteford), suggest this is unfair to the author and thus also to his book; but nothing I read on my latest go-through persuaded me otherwise.
Mulgan’s tone, which is stoic, not disenchanted but not enchanted either, takes the long view and remains resolutely impersonal even when relating personal anecdotes, implies the ultimate renunciation in almost every paragraph; both his advice to, and predictions of, the future, read as if given by one who knows that he will not be there to see it. Furthermore, though contradictorily, this aspect of the book would have remained paramount even if its author had lived. Report on Experience attempts to say the final word on its subject, in this case Mulgan’s war experience; and his subsequent death seems like the inevitable postscript.
To make the point another way we might recall two antipodean poets, each of whom outlived the exhaustion of his talent: Australian Kenneth Slessor, whose last poem, Beach Burial (1945), about the dead from the battle of El Alamein (where Mulgan fought), preceded his own death by a quarter of a century; and R A K Mason, the New Zealander whose solemn tone Mulgan sometimes echoes, and whose poetic work concluded more than a decade before his death with another war poem, “Sonnet to MacArthur’s Eyes” (1950). And so we may wonder, as we also do in the case of Wilfred Owen, whether Mulgan’s commitment to, and near perfect realisation of, his particular subject matter, might also have put a term to his writing life.
Mulgan’s voice is unmistakable and his use of language is, like those of all three poets in their final poems, perfectly judged. His is a prose style formed through wide reading of classic and modern authors, from Homer to Gibbon to George Orwell, and especially of poets; but it is also, and principally, indebted to actual experience of life in the world: so much so as to cause the reader to feel that the author is as incapable of falsehood as he is disinclined towards the elaboration of the decorative. There is no sentence here, as one of the commentators remarks, that cannot be understood in plain sight at first reading; and each leads inevitably on to the next until the tale is done.
Concomitantly this means that there is a great deal of complexity, particularly psychological complexity, that lies outside the book’s scope and yet persists beyond its clear outlines like the blackest of shadows on a sunny day. Of course this augments both the appeal and the enigma of Report on Experience, which must be read, as it was written, with a double focus: on the one hand, for its excellent account of the 1930s in Europe, the early stages of the war in England, the campaign in North Africa and, finally, the partisan struggle in Greece; and on the other, for the personal and the autobiographical clues that the author so resolutely refuses to disclose.
Report on Experience was first published in 1947 by Oxford University Press, where Mulgan worked as an editor before the war; the same text was re-published twice more, in 1967 and 1984, in New Zealand. This edition, a co-production between Victoria University Press and Pen and Sword Books in the UK, is meticulously edited to conform to the author’s original draft and thereby restores material excised from all three previous editions. The most contentious passages, some of which are substantial, were originally taken out because of fears of legal action; they concern two men, both lieutenant-colonels, both in their different ways incompetent, both still alive and identifiable in 1947, under whom Mulgan served during the war. Each is named in Vincent O’Sullivan’s 2003 biography Long Journey to the Border and again in footnotes here.
These character sketches show Mulgan at his best: he is judicious, sympathetic, with a complete absence of malice or any implication of personal animus; and so we see these foolish men with a clarity that does not lead us to condemn them so much as lament the authority they were given. Mulgan’s ability to capture in words the quality of men he does admire, particularly those met during the partisan war in Greece, is as acute. He is even able to empathise with the communists whose work, he intuits, will be profoundly destructive of what he most values in Greek society: “Personally, I got on well with the comrades,” he writes, “but then have always felt it a weakness in myself to like and be attracted by too many different kinds of men.”
Why he should think it a weakness to be so attracted is another conundrum, one of many hidden in the text. The greatest of unanswerable questions is this: how was it that a man so clear-headed, decent, sane, modest and sensitive to the needs of others could not see a way to live in the peace that he knew was coming? Especially one with a wife and young child waiting for him at home? Or was it those very qualities, aligned with his prescience, that made post-war life impossible? A different kind of exhaustion is implied, one that we might call emotional, imaginative or even spiritual.
“All a poet can do today is warn,” wrote Wilfred Owen. And a warning of that kind is one of the purposes of Mulgan’s Report, which is addressed to a peace-time audience and includes a deal of sensible advice as well as much that is clairvoyant of times to come. Nowadays, more than half a century later, we might read it more for what it tells us of the past; but, leaving aside both future and past, it can also be read for something probably unanticipated by its author: as a prose poem of remarkable grace and beauty; as a classic meditation upon war and peace; and as an elegy to a way of life that may have existed in the once and future country of New Zealand.
Martin Edmond is a Sydney writer and reviewer.