Four Winds Press, $14.95,
How to Live Elsewhere
Four Winds Press, $14.95,
Four Winds Press, $14.95,
For years I’ve been confused over the definition of “essay”. In my schooldays it was a word that conjured up pleasure: the rare opportunity of doing something that might be well received. A story – real, invented or somewhere in between – that was an essay. Eventually I came to understand that those things I’d produced with such pride in standard, or even form, five could not have been essays. Essays had little to do with pleasure; they were intellectual, non-fictional, intimidating. They could be hard to distinguish from journalistic “articles” in magazines of quality, but the title of “essay” placed them a few notches higher in the literary sphere.
I assumed that my teachers had got things wrong. And now – only now – I consult a dictionary to verify their ignorance. I learn that an essay can be either a “short literary composition on a single subject” or “a piece of writing on a subject done as an exercise by a student”.
I’m sure you all knew that already. You’ll also have observed that the literary essay has other defining characteristics. The author is usually (always?) a writer with established literary credentials, and it is almost obligatory for that author to refer to, and quote, writers and thinkers of even greater significance than themselves. “Essay” can also, of course, mean “an attempt” – leaving the window wide open for reviewer sarcasm. But if the essay as a literary form has connotations that get up the nose of journalists and ex-journalists, these three small volumes prove how much it can offer, how captivating it can and should be.
This is the last batch of the 12-book Montana Estates Essay Series initiated and edited by Lloyd Jones who, in 2002, set up Four Winds Press in order to publish these pocket-sized and deliciously designed volumes. While I had read of and heard of the series (and enjoyed John Saker’s Tracing the Arc on National Radio) I hadn’t seen or handled the books until these three arrived. So my initial pleasure lay in the look and feel of them. The size, the matt paper, the simplicity and elegance of the front covers, Bruce Foster’s compelling close-up photographs on the back, the clear typeface, the bonus epilogue of poems or snapshots, and above all the absence of hype.
Remember understatement? Back when it was still an attractive national characteristic? Before it proclaimed lack of acumen? Well, here it is in the Montana essay series, as appealing as ever and now subversive.
Given that appeal it was like choosing chocolates. Three authors with established literary profiles, each of them writing on a subject most readers will already know is close to that writer’s heart. A peek under the foil showed that each had followed the accepted essay formula of intermingling autobiography with personal and borrowed insights. But such different consistency and flavours. Which one first?
Lydia Wevers’ On Reading – a subject so lacking in boundaries it could surely not be adequately contained within 50 small pages. But Wevers’ skill here is such that, by the end, it seems she has explored every facet of her subject: reading as an addiction, the physical action (“saccade”), the history of, reading as therapy, the “class system” of books, books as agents for change. She covers all this (and more) in a seamless blend of personal experience and knowledge acquired – of course – through prodigious reading.
On Reading is the most erudite of the three essays. Intelligent, lucid, personal; it delivers on all counts – though there were times when I wished it was a little less comprehensive, times when I felt like a child on a shopping expedition, wanting to dawdle and gawp but being tugged excitedly on to the next shop and the next.
As a chocolate, On Reading is firm-centred with a restrained but lingering hint of liqueur. While Harry Ricketts’ How to Live Elsewhere is sweetly soft-centred and (I can’t explain why) strawberry-flavoured. Ricketts’ essay is at once more personal and less cohesive than Wevers’. The title is not – as you may fear, or possibly hope – an invitation to be advised; it’s simply the conundrum around which the text centres.
From the boarding establishment of an English prep school (definitely an elsewhere), Ricketts takes us to Hong Kong (he’d holidayed there as a schoolboy but “never did get the hang of ” living there as an adult) and, in 1981, by then with a wife and family, to New Zealand. The writing style is anecdotal, jumping off into triggered memories, thoughts or descriptions. The author reflects on – among other things – class systems, language and accents, being a writer, sport (I admit to having tuned out in the cricket section), and the need to retain a “personal myth”: “Self-belief alone is seldom enough; some kind of external corroboration is also required.”
How to Live Elsewhere is like the best of dinner companions: convivial, well-read, politically aware, entertaining – and just a little unsettling. For there is, in the writing, an unguarded quality, as if the author reveals rather more of himself than wisdom or fashion allow, inviting the (unknown and possibly unsafe ) reader beneath the skin. This is endearing but also a bit disconcerting; truth, in the hands of writers, tends to be reshaped into something tidier and less convincing.
Also endearing, of course, is the fact that Ricketts liked New Zealand enough to stay here:
Now, all these years later, Wellington feels as close to home as I expect to find. I’m used to the wind; the shapes of the hills don’t look odd; and the seasons no longer seem upside-down. I’ve come to appreciate every year that it is the immigrant plants which most visibly signal spring … .”
Jumping ship is also a way of plunging into elsewhere. But for Glenn Colquhoun the jump was more a conversion than a transition, and his essay has all the wonder and lyricism of an extended love poem. Colquhoun’s transformation into a “Pakeha Maori” is territory that has been much covered in mainstream interviews and feature articles, but of course no-one can tell it quite as well as the poet himself – and not on off-the-cuff radio, but in words and phrases he has carefully selected and placed on paper.
So here is personal truth as reshaped by the writer, but that shaping is done with such artistry – such humour and deft precision – that veracity becomes irrelevant. Colquhoun’s prose (its warmth and simplicity) reminds me of Richard Brautigan or William Saroyan, writers whose work I adored, and thought of as spontaneous and thus, somehow “authentic”. Which of course it isn’t. Charm is not an accidental quality; it takes guile to appear guileless, skill to disarm. And both judgement and nerve to get away with such over-the-top similes as this from Colquhoun: “The land wears the expression of the butler bound and gagged in the cupboard when the hero arrives for dinner.”
Jumping Ship is in part a loving and moving tribute to Colquhoun’s friend and former neighbour Rongo Subritzky, “Aunty Rongo”: “It would be wrong to say she was my doorway into her particular world. She was its soft, wide-open arms.” The author also takes a whimsical look at intimate Maori and Pakeha relationships in Northland in the 19th century, and goes on a search for other members – dead or alive – of his Pakeha Maori “tribe”. He has insightful things to say about race relations. Consider “The most difficult thing about majorities is not that they cannot see minorities but that they cannot see themselves.” Or “Maori want Pakeha to see them the way a woman wants a man to see her when she bangs down the dinner in front of him. She wants him to see her more than she wants him to eat everything on the plate.” Jumping Ship is the chocolate you save to share with someone you love. Or just save. For it is, quite simply, a treasure: taonga.
In her wonderful final sentence of On Reading Lydia Wevers writes:
When I am reading something that fully engages me, makes me think and feel and hear and see, when the sound of the sentence and its beautiful placement on the page and the complex rivers of what it is saying come to one place in my brain, I experience a feeling of completion, as if the book has expressed me, as if reading has achieved, for a potent instant, what I am meant to be.
For me each of these three small books, in its own way, did just that.
Sue McCauley is an ex-journalist who now writes fiction and other things.