Branching out, Gregory O’Brien

A Dissolving Ghost: Talks and Essays
Margaret Mahy
Victoria University Press, $29.95,
ISBN 0 86473 347 X

Some years back, photographer Robert Cross and I corralled together 21 contemporary New Zealand writers for a book aimed at interested or perplexed grown-ups and intelligent children. First up in Moments of Invention, which appeared in 1988, was Margaret Mahy; the book concluded with Janet Frame. At the time I imagined these two figures as being like bookends – pillars of both the craft and the imagination, fitting and substantial enough presences to hold in place the 19 writers who filled the space between them.

Robert and I travelled around the country. We visited Frame at the Sargeson residence in Auckland, then some months later Mahy at her Church Bay home. As well as being comparably substantial artists, these two bipolar (in our book-plan) figures struck me as being, at once, remarkably different writers and also, in ways that became increasingly apparent, interestingly similar.

If Mahy was the writer of light, of buoyancy and liberation, Frame struck a darker, more restrained note. Perhaps, if Mahy wrote for the child in all of us, then Frame wrote for the adult that exists inside every child. Or so it might appear at first, but – of course – once you dug a little deeper, vistas of redemptive space opened up in Frame. And something darker and more foreboding emerged in the most clearly, brightly voiced of Mahy’s tales. In both of them a constant interplay of gravity and grace, light and shade, brilliance and something which is at times heartbreakingly ordinary. This paradoxical quality, I suspect, is at the heart of creative genius.

If Frame tends to present life as a juggernaut we must handle with stealth in order to survive, Mahy sees the world more as a great machine that we can and should tamper with. And while the results might occasionally be disastrous for the individual, such an approach contains the possibility of success and elation. For Frame, language is healing; for Mahy it is more a preventative medicine or, more exactly, a vitamin supplement ensuring, at least, the possibility of health.

While Frame is commonly thought of as a doyen of the inner life; Margaret Mahy is the public speaker, a performer in person as well as on the page. During the 1980s she was often photographed – and existed in the public imagination – wearing a multi-coloured wig which she would don, to the delight of all assembled, at readings in libraries and elsewhere (you could almost think of this get-up as a fluorescent revision of the Frame hair-do). This “persona” drew attention to some of the qualities you find in Mahy’s writing: the sense of adventure and risk, and the need for unabashed brilliance up-front, a dash of imaginative magic to jump-start commonplace reality.

My favourite photograph of Mahy, however, runs counter to this public version. It was taken during Robert’s and my afternoon at Church Bay, and has the writer standing in her garden. It is a conventional double portrait, sort of: Mahy is on the left while, to the right, there is a tree in which a cat is perched. Her hand is scratching the preferred zone behind the feline’s ear. It is, at once, a photograph of two “human” presences and also of two arboreal forms. Just as the cat and tree are a figural presence, Mahy’s body becomes a tree trunk – a branch extends diagonally from her side. Behind and above the two figures, blossoms explode in the brilliant black-and-white of Robert’s photograph.

And so we arrive at A Dissolving Ghost, a book in which Mahy’s intelligence explodes in the brilliant black-and-white of her prose. It is a book full of wisdom, as just about any paragraph taken at random would prove:

We build ourselves as we grow. Our physical structure is the basis around which we extend a mental and spiritual structure, of which imagination is a vital part. Structure is the key word here, for suppose that imagination, so far from being the shapeless, vague and dreamy cloud we often feel it to be, has a potentially beautiful, intricate and possibly unknowable structure of its own.

While Mahy goes on to imagine the imagination as a crystal, I also found myself imagining it as a woman-tree, its arm-branch extending out to stroke a cat-tree, against a backdrop of chaotic blooms. A Dissolving Ghost hints at art’s paradoxical nature as something inherently structural yet also, by necessity, shapeless and free-form.

Mahy’s tone and manner in the book are, generally, speculative. Most of the pieces began as public lectures so they have the quality of – to use the author’s description – “a set of opinions and speculations launched from lip to ear through the unreliable air … I always think of them as sets of possibilities and guesses which other people can test and then accept or reject according to their own knowledge and convictions.”

Needless to say, Margaret Mahy is frequently, brilliantly funny, and has an ever-vigilant eye and ear for the right word or image which, just once in a while, can open elusive areas of experience like a magic key. She can be magnificently incisive and impassioned at the same time. In “Touchstones” she parallels the writing of Lewis Carroll and physics, then goes on to explore the imagination as “a synthesising agent”. The brilliance of the analogies she draws, here and elsewhere, is grounded by an absolute and fundamental common sense. She tackles with humility and aplomb such big themes as faith, loss, memory and truth. (“Pursuing truth in literature,” she writes, instructively, “is like pursuing a chimera, a dissolving ghost …”) Unfailingly, she avoids the essayist’s trap of staring admiringly into their own mirror and the pitfall essay-writing novelists often fall into of sounding like they are grooming themselves for their imminent Booker Prize acceptance speech.

A Dissolving Ghost is a rich, varied book – but not, I feel, quite the full story. I was left wondering why Mahy’s essay on magical realism, “A Fantastic Tale” (from Opening The Book, edited by Mark Williams and Michele Leggott, 1995) wasn’t included. It would have sat well beside the sole piece of fiction in the present book, a surreal excursion entitled “The Illustrated Traveller’s Tale”. A 1991 lecture, which was published in booklet-form as Surprising Moments, is similarly left out of this collection – perhaps, you can only assume, because its concerns overlap with some of the included pieces. Mahy’s book reviews from the last ten years, published in Landfall and elsewhere, would have been worth reprinting. And perhaps a recent interview could have been commissioned to complement Murray Edmond’s invaluable one from way back in 1987.

In short, I wanted the book to be bigger. As it is, it certainly doesn’t feel like it has exhausted or defined the outer boundaries of Mahy’s creative territory – in fact, it sticks pretty much to Mainstream Mahy: her characteristically and unfailingly wise utterances about story, character, language and the imaginative life. The points she makes are crucial – but now that she has made them, she should be encouraged to range more freely in whatever direction she feels inclined. That said, there is plenty of roaming within the confines of the essays gathered here.

Mahy is certainly scholarly in the thoroughness of her attentions, but mercifully she doesn’t conform to Anne Carson’s definition of a scholar as “someone who takes a position …who knows how to limit himself to the matter at hand”. Mahy is a thinker of the perambulatory, discursive kind. With the intelligence (as well as the personable nature and poise) of a cat in a tree, she leaps from branch to branch.

At the conclusion of A Dissolving Ghost, I found myself making a list of essay topics I would like Mahy to get on with: pirates; the regional landscape; the body in children’s literature; the use of trees; the art of librarianship; snow; Christchurch; the South Island; the mass media.

In fact, all of the above topics do surface in the assembled essays. But maybe if the audience wasn’t sitting so expectantly in front of her – as they were on the occasion of so many of the pieces in this book – then we would see Mahy stretching out more.

“We build ourselves as we grow”: Margaret Mahy as a writer is still, happily, in a state of construction, building and growing a body of work of paramount importance to both children and adults. In the final analysis, any criticisms I have voiced here can be ignored so long as we see another essay collection from her in, say, five or ten years. She is one of a line of New Zealand geniuses that also includes Janet Frame, Rita Angus, Katherine Mansfield and Frances Hodgkins. She is a makar, in the truest sense. A person of vision. A gem.

Gregory O’Brien is a Wellington poet, writer and art critic. His most recent collection of poems, Winter I Was, was reviewed in our June issue.

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