The Autobiography of My Father
Auckland University Press, $29.95
There is an entry in the book of New Zealand literary politics which reads: Edmond, Trevor, schoolteacher, husband of Lauris, poet (late-flowering); father of (inter alia) Martin, scriptwriter, see Edmond, Murray poet and cousin, supporter of Stead, C K, poet (perennial), attacked by Kidman, Fiona, poet (intermittent) and friend of Lauris Edmond (see Bloomsbury); Lauris Edmond author 3 bks inter alia demeaning Trevor, elevating self; Edmond, Martin, author one slim vol in support of father, result – Bloomsbury, etc, truce without honour; Edmond, L v Edmond, Martin: see this review.
Most readers will come to Martin Edmond’s book via a sampling at least of his mother’s three volumes of autobiography. Lauris Edmond’s reading of her own life is a fascinating account of a woman of her generation (she was born in 1924) buckling into the harness of conventional expectations (mother of a large family, helpmeet for her husband) and then kicking over the traces to establish an independence of her own. That this vigorous (and not always consistent) pursuit of her singular write-to-be should alienate her family and possibly help to destroy her husband is both the excitement of her autobiography and its poignancy – a fearful desire to be both alone and sometimes lonely.
Martin Edmond’s beautiful in memoriam is quite the opposite. Of its author we learn little, apart from the fact that he likes to smoke the occasional joint and also has been known to struggle with his writing. This is his father’s story, told in a way that is just as wrenching as Witi Ihimaera’s Tangi and establishing perhaps a benchmark for the expression of grief and aroha from the domain of the Pakeha male.
Trevor Edmond (and we do not need to read between the lines to know it) was the epitome of the good bloke and decent joker, a face familiar from team photos of the 1930s, and later in servicemen returning from the war. Of dark, almost saturnine good looks, he was let loose over the middle decades of this century like an arrow from the bow of societal expectations, until somewhere in its flight he began to waver. The descent from teaching and family life was into depression, alcoholism, personal collapse and illness, and then the merciful release of death.
Although this is a short book it is thoughtfully structured, with all the strength and beauty of the natural world addressed to buoy up a sorrowing son. Martin Edmond is everywhere unstinting with detail: in the latter stages of his father’s decline, Trevor lives alone in Greytown and tends crops which glisten with particularity, then wither on the vine as the old man buys what he needs from the local store. Earlier, and nonchalantly, he had been in the habit of booting people in the bum, surreptitiously and without comment. As complex as the subject is, the book’s strength lies in the simplicity with which the author addresses it, often using his father’s own thoughts transcribed from tape, and elsewhere summoning him forth in the unfamiliar but deeply involving second person, a focus which can slide delicately from Trevor to an exhortation by the author to himself. It is here perhaps that we are drawn most to comparison with the work of Lauris Edmond, whose gaze is unfailingly self-directed.
One of the book’s most telling sections is Trevor’s notes from a period in therapy: the seriousness with which he takes on board Fromm’s gospel about being unloved and unable to be loving would be laughable, pathetic even, were it not for the fatal innocence it suggests. Whether we read Martin Edmond’s book as a further skirmish in the battle of divided family loyalties, as a sociology of male values in crisis, as an indictment of an education system which insists on hierarchical structures, or even as the breaking of the mould which gave us (say) Colin Meads and Edmund Hillary, there can be no doubt that beyond and through the son’s grief we are seduced by his intention that we come to know the father, perhaps even to love him. That this is too late for Trevor Edmond is a lesson in itself.
Michael Gifkins is an Auckland writer who is at present completing a novel.