A slippery no-man, Owen Marshall

Enduring legacy – Charles Brasch, patron, poet and collector
(ed) Donald Kerr
University of Otago Press in association with University of Otago Library, $39.95,
ISBN 1877276650

Several years ago at a reunion of those who had held Otago University’s Robert Burns Fellowship established by Charles Brasch, a fellow writer said to me fervently after we had toasted our benefactor, “Thank God for someone with money.” Brasch was that rare bird in New Zealand arts: a poet of very considerable means. And he was prepared to spend his money to assist the creation of a transforming culture that he considered his country so badly needed. I imagine that Brasch expected and hoped to be remembered for his poetry, and that may be so; it may also be that his legacy as editor, collector, and patron becomes seen as more important.

This book pays tribute to all these aspects, as is indicated by its division into five sections – “The Legacy”, “The Man and Citizen”, “The Poet”, “The Editor”, and “Recollections”.  Within that framework are 16 pieces by different contributors ranging in topic from Brasch as art collector to his relationship with Dunedin, and in genre from academic essays to anecdotal reminiscence and poetry. At times this gives the reader a sense of unevenness, not of quality so much as of tone, but I came to the conclusion that this lack of integration was in a way in keeping with Brasch’s diverse interests and complex, often ambivalent nature.

One important reason for this book was the May 2003 release of the Brasch papers at the Hocken Library, University of Otago, after a 30-year embargo. The papers occupy some 25 metres of shelving in the Hocken, and there is considerable interest in what they will reveal, despite Brasch’s reputation for reticence and propriety. Sarah Quigley, who is currently working on a biography of Brasch, ponders the significance of opening the archive in her contribution “Towards a Biography”, and also describes her attempts to find Brasch’s shadow in Oxford, where he was an almost invisible student  during his time there in the late 20s. Although by disposition scholarly, Brasch did not shine at school and achieved only a third class degree at St John’s College.

Quigley’s piece is excellent, as is Alan Horsman’s “Charles Brasch and Dunedin” in the same section, which shows not only how much the poet loved his local landscape and cityscape, but that he was prepared to speak up publicly when he thought them threatened. I think it would have assisted the general reader if these two contributions dealing with the man had come before the dense and more specialised treatments of Brasch as man of letters, patron and art collector.

I do not intend to give a summary or evaluation of all 16 contributions, and those I don’t mention are not necessarily of less interest. Some readers will no doubt find the highlight to be Linda Tyler’s essay on Brasch as art collector and benefactor, and the 14 pages of coloured reproductions, including work by Rita Angus, Jeffrey Harris, Doris Lusk, and Colin McCahon; others may be drawn to the appreciations of Brasch’s poetry by Lawrence Jones and Iain Sharp, Alan Roddick’s account of 30 years as Brasch’s literary executor, or the personal recollections of such as O E Middleton, Ruth Dallas and Michael King. Donald Kerr in his introduction mentions some overlap in the pieces, but I agree that in most cases this gives rise to fuller understanding or alternative views, rather than being merely repetitious.

In his contribution Lawrence Jones investigates the theme of land and people in Brasch’s poetry, reminding us of his decision while in England to “go home for good” when the war was over. His poetry then focused on the relationship of New Zealanders to their land, especially the “cool kingdom” of the South Island so dear to Brasch himself. Jones also points out that Brasch’s poetry took a new turn after 1957, becoming significantly more personal. Iain Sharp’s “Keys to the Locked Soul” is the other essay concentrating on the poetry, and it is more concerned with the relationship between Brasch’s nature and his work, showing what a man of yearnings and contrary impulses he was.

Brasch was well aware of the subtleties of his own personality, and that these would be the subject of scrutiny. It cannot have been a comfortable thought for such a man, but he could write wryly in his poem “Man Missing”:

Someone else, I see,
Will be having the last word about me,
Friend, enemy, or lover
Or gimlet-eyed professor.
Each will think he is true
To the man he thinks he knew
Or knows, he thinks, from the book.
Each will say, Look!
Here he is to the life,
On my hook or knife;
And each, no doubt, having caught me
Will deal with me plainly, shortly
And as justly as he can
With such a slippery no-man.


Charles Brasch was not without his faults and detractors. His manner, born of shyness, could be an obstacle in relating to increasingly informal New Zealand writers. Materially secure himself, and with an exalted view of the artistic vocation, he tended sometimes to disdain those writers who put priority on earning a living from their work. And as an editor he could show bias. Unsympathetic reviews of Janet Frame and Raymond Ward were rejected, while negative reviews of R A K Mason and Louis Johnson – writers he did not much like – were accepted. But these things were minor blemishes in a character of great integrity, earnestness, and compassion.

A particular strength of the book is the evaluation of the importance of the literary periodical Landfall, founded by Brasch, and of his editorial vision from 1946 until 1966.  In his memoir, Indirections, now a rather heavy read, stiff with forgotten names, Brasch recalls much thought and discussion about the establishment of a literary journal here, and his decision that “it must be distinctly of New Zealand without being parochial”.  Many contributors have something of value to say concerning the journal, but the core essay is John Geraets’ “Charles Brasch’s Landfall: A second life”, based no doubt on his PhD thesis on the subject. This is one of the longer pieces and is insightful and well argued. Geraets clearly shows the pre-eminence of Landfall within the literary community of the time: its provision of continuity, a platform for writers, firm standards, and high expectations. Brasch had an unshakeable conviction of the necessity of a culture, and Landfall was his demonstration of that. His contribution was not just editorial. His services were unpaid, and as well he often supported the journal financially.

Many writers would consider that Brasch had the dream life – affluence, connections, an Oxford degree, editorial influence, and no immediate family responsibilities. The irony is that he was a painfully sensitive man, full of doubts, yearnings, and contradictions. One of the most difficult of these tensions was that between the remoteness of his personality (to some extent a deliberate protection) and his need, indeed gift, for friendship. “A great one for being by himself,” an English friend said, and yet how close he became to such lifelong friends from Waitaki Boys’ High days as James Bertram and Ian Milner. This tension was heightened by his at least latent homosexuality.

Sometimes as reader and reviewer one comes upon something that causes a special frisson as response. In this book it was for me part of Brasch’s poem “Winter Anemones”, which is mentioned poignantly in the recollections of both Elizabeth Smither and Middleton. The latter tells of the dying Brasch reading the poem to him: “See, they come now/To lamp me through inscrutable dusk/And down the catacombs of death.”

Iain Sharp begins his contribution by mentioning the fuzzy photographs of Brasch in his posthumously published memoir Indirections. Maybe that is appropriate, for there is a shimmer of sensitivity about Brasch’s personality which prevents it being shown in bold, unequivocal outline. Thank God indeed for a man with money – but Charles Brasch was so much more than that.

Owen Marshall is a fiction writer whose last book was a collection of stories, When Gravity Snaps.


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Posted in Biography, Literature, Non-fiction, Review
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