Sheering off, Michael Hulse

The Love School: Personal Essays
Elizabeth Knox
Victoria University Press, $33.00, 
ISBN 9780864735928

Paremata, the childhood novella which followed her debut novel After Z-Hour, was my own first encounter with Elizabeth Knox’s writing. The copy she gave me is inscribed 10 September 1991, and I remember being impressed, when I read it soon after, by the poetic care she took with simple visual descriptions: “Steph and Lex walked on the shore, over rocks with a papier-mâché finish of dried sea-cabbage, rousing the herons who balanced in the shallows, beaks in the water, playing pick-up-sticks with their own reflections.” Another writer might have been tempted to strike this out, as “fine” writing; but what a pity that would have been -– and how apt the pick-up-sticks image is to a childhood moment! There wasn’t too much self-conscious delicacy in the prose; rather, it was driven by a fully recognisable re-creation of childhood’s instinctive submission to the world of the senses, and also by a superb ear for family dialogues. A comic ear, too: Hester tells Frank, in a moment of marital malapropism, “Well Boss, we can’t all be abattoirs of good taste.”

Reading the autobiographical re-creations of early life in The Love School, it’s hard not to reflect that the distance between Knox’s understanding of how childhood is related to adulthood and, say, Thomas Mann’s in his novella Tonio Kröger, can be measured in terms of naivety. That looks like a carping or pejorative word, but I mean it as a commendation; I mean that Knox’s fictional perspective succeeds in remaining enclosed within childhood, and its limited understanding, and admits only the interpretative tools and potential of childhood – and to have established naivety of this kind in a text is no mean feat. The experience of Tonio Kröger the boy is outdistanced in Mann’s great narrative by the experience of Kröger the adult, debating aesthetics or ironically confronting provincial officials. Even in the opening pages, the experience of the boy is shaded with authorial foreknowledge. Knox doesn’t do this. She does something quite different. The collapsed tunnel at the close of Pomare could have been milked for all it was worth for premature burial angst and resurrection; but Knox’s Lex wipes off her face, washes in the river, and, back home, brushes the earth out of her hair. It’s not only a more prosaic world than Mann’s, it’s also – for all its suggestiveness – a more straightforward one. Both worlds compel, in their own ways, but, goodness, there’s no mistaking the one for the other.

In The Love School, Knox has opportunities to comment on the implications of her approach, but you couldn’t say she was entirely satisfying. A piece dated 2001, titled “The High Jump: Privacy, Veracity and Autobiographical Fiction”, quotes the passage early in Pomare where Frank, out climbing, realises an electrical storm is upon him and flings his ice-axe away: “It sailed out over the glacier and was struck by lightning. Only a thin capillary of electricity, but around the two men the air was instantly solid, deafening, and as brassy as small change.” (Knox’s belief in “the conductivity of words” is gloriously apt to that excellent sentence.) Knox reports that her father, the original of Frank, objected that a climber would drag his axe after him on a string in these circumstances. She offsets this with her sister’s recollection that the story used to be told in the version set down in Pomare. And Knox caps this by adding: “Dad was a storyteller too and must have recognised that the flung axe was more striking than the dragged one.” And that’s that. At the very moment when the argument promises to sound interesting depths – confronting the intractable issue of truth versus effect, with all its minor tributary issues such as the chiming clock in Julius Caesar, say, or whether Allen Curnow did or didn’t see geraniums growing wild in New Zealand – Knox sheers off in another direction, raising the question of who owns experience, undoubtedly an interesting matter but not one that’s directly implied in the first. So does that mean she believes that to be “striking” is the important thing?

Thinking about this – and about the subtitle of the book, Personal Essays, which foregrounds the subjectivity of these pieces and preemptively suggests that this may not be the place to look for a thought-through position on fiction – I wondered where Knox really stands on angels. From the late 1980s on, after the Wim Wenders film Wings of Desire swept the world, it seemed there were angels everywhere, in writing, cinema, even TV ads, more of them than could ever have populated heaven. In 1998 The Vintner’s Luck placed Knox’s name before an international readership – it was “picked up” by the Americans, as she disarmingly describes in one essay – and it’s fair to say that, outside New Zealand, her reputation still rests on that acclaimed novel. There is something extremely disquieting about a novel which has an angel, Xas, as one of its central characters. This recalls not so much magical realism, or even the Tolkien tradition of fantasy to which Knox refers more than once in this book, as, far more, that curious obsession that the Romantic era had with the devil, from Goethe to James Hogg, at the very time when the Enlightenment had driven the first stake through the heart of religion. Did Goethe, the atheist, “believe” in his Mephistopheles? Does Knox, after the modern triumph of agnosticism, “believe” in Xas? In each case the answer to the question must be no. But does that mean no more than that what is “striking” has been preferred to what is true?

What a reader might hope to discover from The Love School, despite the disclaimer of the book’s subtitle, is Knox’s compelling reason for writing. A writer I can admire only in patches, D H Lawrence, expressed his reason like this:

I, who am man alive, am greater than my soul, or spirit, or body, or mind, or consciousness, or anything else that is merely a part of me. I am a man, and alive. I am man alive, and as long as I can, I intend to go on being man alive. For this reason I am a novelist.


No one can misunderstand any of that. A more impassioned statement of its kind was never made. Nothing of comparable force or conviction is set down in Knox’s pages. In place of that passion, there is a habit of response that is everywhere apparent, and that is the habit of converting intellectual energy into the currency of everyday life. In “My History with Wings”, an idiosyncratic listing of those angels from out of the ages-old iconography that have made a strong impression on Knox, one passage describing a painting in a Norwegian church tellingly sheers off, once again, into this: “When I was a kid – about five or six – I used to jump off the roof of the shed in our backyard at Pomare.”

The truth is that Knox’s touchstone is the little world of her youth, and throughout this book that world occupies the place in her mind that Paris, say, occupied in Balzac’s. There is nothing wrong with that. In fact it’s what leaves the childhood novellas feeling fresher and truer on the palate than the somewhat creaking book with the angel. The age has a sweet tooth and loves its midnight feasts of fantasies; but it’s that little world that has brought out the best in Knox in the past, and does so again in these essays.


Michael Hulse’s translation of Rilke’s novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge will be published by Penguin Classics in July.


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