Looking for home, David Cohen

Barefoot Years
Martin Edmond
Bridget Williams Books, $15.00,
ISBN 9781927277676

On Coming Home
Paula Morris
Bridget Williams Books, $15.00,
ISBN 9780908321117

Somewhere in the course of his perceptive career, in what one assumes was a more or less idle moment, George Orwell turned his attention to the question of whether purchasing cigarettes or literature leaves a larger hole in the average reader’s pocket. To this cobweb-hung dilemma, the English essayist devoted all the remorseless attention with which Marx went about weighing the merits of capitalism and socialism; although there the comparison must end, for Orwell surely never strung a gilded sentence together that would cause a reader mental pain on account of its construction. His tentative conclusion: reading is indeed better for one’s financial health. Workers of the world, unlight!

Orwell never lived to see the day excise taxes would cut a far deeper swathe through the guilty pleasures of tobacco consumption but, even so, he might still have partially revised his recommendation when it comes to shelling out for essays here in the South Seas. Legion is the number of journalistic attempts at the form – the average media outlet these days resembles nothing so much as a Greek ruin for all the columns to be espied – but only rarely do they rise to the occasion. Works by halfway decent essayists usually still need to be imported, and they don’t often come cheap.

So you have to hand it to Bridget Williams Books, creator of the BWB Texts. After all, these “short books on big subjects” by noted New Zealand writers are not only pleasingly priced but represent the first sustained local attempt at creating an ongoing series largely in the essay form since Lloyd Jones did something similar with his own small-press back in the early 2000s. These two recent additions to the publisher’s growing catalogue, which is available digitally as well as in selected paperbacks, allow a reviewer more than a satisfied puff on his unlit pipe.

Bouquets of smoke hang heavy in the air of Martin Edmond’s Barefoot Years, a snatch of a longer memoir in which the Ohakune-born author re-inhabits the experience of growing up in rural New Zealand, all pubs and knitted cardigans and rotting verandas. The centrepiece, he writes, is a place so “replete in recall that I do not quite know where to begin to try to describe it; for me it is the original Memory House and the template for all other places I have subsequently known. Let me take you there.” And, boy, the man does.

Edmond’s journey, his publisher announces, is at once evocative and poignant, detailed yet fragmentary, crushed out here as an opening stanza of a full-fledged work also slated for publication this year. The palmy notice seems justified. I adored this little book, whose minimalist telling reminded me favourably of Paul Auster’s Hand to Mouth, the New York novelist’s taut memoir about his early years as a struggling author.

Elsewhere, the Sydney-based Edmond has described himself as a naïve writer not given to philosophical elaborations or aesthetic justifications. Just the facts of reality, as he apprehends them. But the way he lyrically marshals those facts – secreting, as they do, emotion, history, culture, sexuality – gives his readers, who deserve to be many, a lot of room for abstract contemplation. And naïvety, of course, is just the right tone for relating facts from this period in any author’s life.

He innocently recalls, for instance, an imp back in Primer 3 who gets caught snaffling some money from the teacher’s desk, a shilling and sixpence, which the wretch then expends at the tuck shop. Never mind that the lad perpetually goes barefoot, never has anything for lunch. All hell breaks loose. The headmaster, “a mean-faced little man in a grey suit”, bursts into the classroom. The pint-sized culprit is

hauled by the arm to the front of the class and whipped in a kind of frenzy many times around his legs and bottom with a leather strap. The shock is so great he pisses himself, the urine running down his legs and making a yellow pool on the bare wooden boards of the classroom floor. Afterwards he is dragged sobbing from the room and we never see him again. He would, my parents say later, have gone to Welfare.

Indeed. “Going to welfare” was very much the punitive style back then. But Edmond isn’t around to offer an exegesis on an era culturally shadowed by Mazengarb’s report into juvenile delinquency, milk bar cowboys high on hormonal rage, or the nationwide establishment of residential children’s institutions for penny-pinching urchins. The focus is kept tight, even as his imaginative canvas unfurls.

If Edmond serves as a roll-your-own empiricist, Paula Morris subsists as a kind of hyper-mentholated rationalist as she, too, considers the land of her birth from afar in On Coming Home, interrogating her fears about giving up the expatriate’s life, writing from the heart about what it means to assume the mantle of “New Zealand writer”. The classrooms of her mind are rather differently rendered to Edmond’s.

Morris, who turned 50 this year, first quit New Zealand for Britain in 1985 after graduating with an English degree from the University of Auckland. It was a fortuitous move, for it not only secured her some interesting work in the music business, but allowed her to further her academic studies, first at the University of York and then later in America, where she took fiction-writing classes at the West Side Y and at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, as well as doing the creative writing programme at Victoria University. She has since held, as well, related teaching positions in British and American institutions of higher learning, most notably a five-year stint at Tulane University in New Orleans. Now she’s back “home” in Auckland, teaching writing at her alma mater.

All this, necessarily, has involved reading a great many books, 95 of which get a name-check in the essay’s 87 pages. That feels a bit too abundant. It also has the presumably unintentional effect of muffling the author’s own voice, reducing the amount of attention she gives to providing more immediate information and data and, on occasion, leaving the reader to wonder exactly how familiar she is with every last one of the important names she presses into the service of On Coming Home.

In assessing her own place in the international scheme of things, for instance, Morris quotes the bedraggled genius Simone Weil’s argument that “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognised need of the human soul”. It’s a nice line. It flatters the author by association. But it also, in my opinion, rather misses the point. Weil – who was born in France, served in the Spanish civil war, had mystical experiences in Portugal, fell to earth in New York City and starved herself to death in England aged 34 – would not have found Morris’s situation terribly fascinating. Weil’s grand themes were the love of God and the violent mysteries of affliction. She had incredible flashes of insight into what makes people tick. But the middle-class plight of Kiwi creative-writing instructors geographically displaced by their own career choices would have been about as interesting to her as a dinner for two at the Ritz.

Morris’s enthusiasm for freighting in yesterday’s literary eminences to navigate her voyage saps her descriptive strength. Settings that ought to be rich in storytelling potential, such as the academic institution located in the deliriously fascinating culture of the American South, end up sounding a bit dry. We don’t get to hear the voices of many ordinary people, give or take her husband, Tom, who is from St Louis, Missouri – the same hometown, Morris points out, as Tennessee Williams and T S Eliot, who were also, she reveals, “both known to their families as Tom”.

No doubt, there are some fully vivid passages in the last couple of chapters, where she abandons the literary jukebox and simply writes well about what Hurricane Katrina did to the place she called home. The account neatly segues into the closing fact of her mother’s death in 2014. This is the sort of terrific writing that makes people rave about Paula Morris. On this occasion, though, the brilliance contrasts with the dullness of quite a lot of what’s gone before. A George Orwell might have given up altogether by this point, put her latest essay down with a half-sigh and nipped out to the tobacconist for a fresh pouch.

A review of David Cohen’s Greatest Hits: A Quarter Century of Journalistic Encounters and Notes From Lost Cities can be found in the New Zealand Books online archive: nzbooks.org.nz/archive/.

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