Putting yourself on the line, Christine Johnson

The Commonplace Book: A Writer’s Journey Through Quotations
Elizabeth Smither
Auckland University Press, $34.99,
ISBN 9781869404765

How the Land Lies: Of Longing and Belonging
Pat White
Victoria University Press, $35.00,
ISBN 9780864736383

“[A] memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history,” wrote Gore Vidal. Two university presses bring us books that can be described as memoir, a term that tells us remarkably little. What are we to expect from a book called a memoir, or from one that studiously avoids the word and calls itself a “journey”? Publicity material from Auckland University Press describes The Commonplace Book as “autobiography/journal”, while the New Zealand Book Council website refers to How the Land Lies as a “collection of memoir essays”. Even if the umbrella term, with its connotations of wistful reminiscing, is unhelpful, it is (like the term “non-fiction”) the one we are stuck with.

Vidal’s definition allows the memoirist considerable freedom to indulge himself or herself, to digress, to be one-eyed, to harangue us or to bore us rigid. However, the reader (this reader, at any rate) looks for structure and direction when chronology and narrative are largely absent. Both these books have much to offer but lose momentum at times. While not exactly unstructured, they are insufficiently structured, and struggle to support the weight of recollection, reflection and whimsy.

Elizabeth Smither, a prolific and celebrated poet and fiction writer, expresses herself with confidence and flair. Pat White with his less effervescent writing style is more intent on telling the story of his life. His book is perhaps more correctly “a journey”, though he abandons chronology quite early in the piece. In the absence of narrative what is there to guide the reader through the pages?

In The Commonplace Book Smither uses the framework of three notebooks (commonplace books) that she fills with quotations, gleaned from various sources, and adds commentaries and reflections, leavening the mix with anecdotes from her everyday life, told “diary-style”:

Last night at a flamenco performance. The young woman, in two flamenco dresses, pink shoes and then black, was magnificent. So fluid in her upper body, carrying the movement from her toes to the tips of her outflung fingers.


Woke this morning thinking of Jane Austen …. Wondering if the pauses, the quietuses she allows her characters when, almost overcome by a situation that strains every nerve, every fibre – the quarter-hours, the half-hours – were also pauses, quietus for herself.

Many aspects of the human condition interest Smither: for example, kindness, friendship and prayer, but she is principally concerned with the writing life. Reflections spring from the quotations, frequently by writers on writing, but also from memories of conversations with other writers, or experiences at writers’ festivals. (There is a certain amount of literary name-dropping.) Smither takes the reader into her world, telling us her dreams, reading us her mail, pointing out “a lovely sentence”. There is erudition, intimacy, humour and wisdom. She makes the penning of personal reflections look deceptively easy.

Some passages confirm her as a sharp and compassionate observer and a lucid prose writer:

it might be something like the two birds I noticed crying shrilly as they flew overhead. Their spread wings were a curious and beautiful colour between pink and red. Small birds, not much larger than sparrows, making a beautiful line as they cut through the air. The amazing bravery of them: wings beating, hearts pumping, crying to one another to keep on, to be of good heart, in all those acres of sky.

Others, however, sink under the weight of imagery:

Flying home I looked out along the silver wing of the Boeing 777 and imagined it was sand and the sky sea. A flap on the wing opened like a mouth, like someone terminally ill.

Smither is aware that the writer’s imagination can be skittish and requires, if not curbing, then at least some disciplining, some structuring:

It’s easy for writers to forget their odd species of imagination is not a commonality and can be annoying …. [T]he writer’s imagination leaps absurdly from subject to subject as if following the theory of relationships that in six steps will connect you to the Pope.

Why in the end did I feel a little undernourished by The Commonplace Book? Too much of a good thing, perhaps. Too much wisdom piled up like exquisitely fashioned profiteroles.

White begins his memoir: “Our place is being battered by wind this morning. Severe nor’west gales shake the house on its foundations. Trees we have planted bend and dance then stand straight and tremble in aftershock between each gust.” Gales in the Wairarapa lead us to the Cliffs of Moher and other wind-swept locations where White’s ancestors lived before emigrating. He goes on in the chapters that follow to evoke his earliest memories of life in 1950s railway towns, especially Ross on the West Coast, where he lived in a three-bedroomed railway cottage packed with parents and siblings. (There were seven children, though not all were living at home in this period.) White’s parents did not exhibit all the prejudices and limitations of working-class New Zealanders of this era – they were avid readers – but were not averse to dishing out a good thrashing. White paints a memorably grim picture of his childhood years, the harsh day-to-day realities of living in cramped conditions with an undemonstrative mother and a father deeply wounded by childhood events. White’s grandfather’s suicide cast a long shadow over his father, who was 10 years old at the time.

Railway families moved often in those days, but so did teachers, postmasters and other public servants who wanted promotion. White seems resentful of these shifts. Were they due to his father’s restless nature and did he inherit this failing? Generally he lacks sympathy for his parents, especially his mother. Readers are not in a position to judge whether this is justified, but White risks losing their sympathy.

We learn later that his mother, who brought seven children into the world, lost a newborn baby two years before White was born. Does this explain why she turned away from baby Pat, as hypnotherapy apparently revealed? We are wading into murky waters here. The author calls hypnotherapy “a false start” in his recovery but includes this scene of maternal rejection.

White abandons chronology on page 31 where we find him returning to Ross in 2008 to discover: “My childhood, the railway settlement at Ross, were gone.” Subsequent chapters move back and forth in time, focusing on subjects as diverse as his and his father’s reading matter, musical favourites, his family’s experience of earthquakes and his own developing respect for the land and its needs. Some chapters deal with discrete stories or themes. White tells the tale of his great-uncle Jack Dunn, about whom he created a series of paintings before allergies prevented him from continuing to work with oils. Dunn was court-martialled at Gallipoli. His death sentence was remitted, but he died in battle three days later along with 700 of his regiment.

How the Land Lies is an ambitious, even courageous, undertaking. White had some very hard times, but moved on to find his turangawaewae with his partner, Catherine, and a life in the arts, as a painter and poet. Waitoheariki, “the place of many underground streams”, is the Maori name given to the area of the Wairarapa where White has settled and where he has found redemption, harvesting olives, observing birds and planting native trees.

I enjoyed his observations of seasonal changes on his property:

Winter closes down our paddocks, turning grass brown with frost burn, soil soggy and cold with rain. Dark shadows from the low-angled sun lie along the fencelines, if the sun should choose to shine at all. The hare will still run, as if there are no seasons. He can be seen from time to time, probably hungry and possibly cold, but from where I watch he is free to do what he does best – run. A hare runs in straight lines, chews back trees or branches of trees growing into his flight path. He prefers clear sight lines ….

In spite of pleasing passages, there is a plodding, amateurish quality to much of the writing and a lack of cohesion in the content.

Memoirists put themselves on the line, even if they do not tell absolutely all their secrets. They forgo the masks that novelists wear and say this is how it was; this is how it is for me. It is personal, and, to contradict Vidal, it is also history, as subjective, selective and partisan as history tries not to be, but inevitably is.


Christine Johnson is a Dunedin writer and reviewer.


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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction, Review
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