Constant uncertainty, Dougal McNeill

Journals 1938-1945
Charles Brasch
Margaret Scott (transcriber), Andrew Parsloe (annotator)
Otago University Press, $60.00,
ISBN 9781877372841

Enduring Legacy, the Hocken Library’s 2003 exhibition marking the release of Charles Brasch’s papers from their embargo, was subtitled “patron, poet and collector”. Brasch would have re-ordered these, no doubt, poetry being at the heart of his personal identity, but it is in the full significance of that first term that Brasch’s importance grounds itself.

It’s a work of imagination, now, to realise the full difficulty and improbability of the work of sustaining Landfall and, around it, the infrastructure needed for a real literary culture, given how familiar the journal has become. “What counts is not a country’s material resources, but the use to which they are put,” Brasch announces, with a typically high-minded sternness, in the first issue’s “Notes”. In reality, as too many more cash-strapped editors have discovered down the years, the two go together. A literary journal tests existing material conditions as much as it develops intellectual ones; the venture is always in some sense premature, announcing the existence of an audience the journal will then need to work into existence.

Brasch’s determination and his patience, both connected, but not of course reducible to, his private wealth and position as a disaffected son of an important high bourgeois family line, allowed Landfall both to reflect and to shape. It followed on from the small publications, Tomorrow, Phoenix and so on, viewed by Denis Glover as “keeping the pot boiling for something better” (a line Brasch recorded in his journal in May 1943, and enjoyed enough to reuse in Indirections). It shaped and constructed its audience, too, with the journal acting as important long enough for the act to become true. Brasch’s cultural politics set up a productive tension when interacting with Curnow, Sargeson and others; confidence that “the European tradition can take root here and grow, if we wish it to do so” gives the first Landfall a different outlook to A Book of New Zealand Verse. (Curnow and New Zealand writing culture in the 1940s, Brasch recorded in his journal in 1943, are “of a spiritual barrenness which terrifies me”; spiritual preciousness is an irritating constant throughout his diaries.)

The poetry makes a variation on this argument, in a narrower range, “The Estate” celebrating those

Who are planting
Deep in desert Otago Athenian olive,
Virgilian vine, pledges perhaps of a future
Milder and sweeter to mellow blunt hard natures
Of farmer and rabbiter ….
The wealthy now have their Wanaka and their Queenstown, and there are plenty of vineyards across Central Otago; whether crass holiday homes funded by slumlording student flats or foodies’ conspicuous consumption are a sign our present is “milder and sweeter” is another matter, to say nothing of the poem’s too simple sense of the possibilities of European cultural transplantation. Others things come, as Janet Frame taught us, living in the Maniototo.

The embargo’s end brought attention to Brasch’s private life, but those hoping for revelation in the diaries had missed that Brasch’s personal life was already on record. I grew up on Heriot Row, not far from Brasch’s own house; a walk from there to school at Logan Park involved going past institutions – Otago Museum, the University Library, the Hocken archives – that had benefited from Brasch’s generosity and liberalising ambitions. This was a personal life in itself, a record of how he had tried to fashion the kind of culture and society he thought might be sustained in New Zealand. That contribution is of ongoing significance, and a study of the daily work of sustaining this – the letters to writers, records from Landfall and journal notes – would reveal much about the history of the creation of what we now call New Zealand literature.

If Brasch made Landfall possible, however, the journal in turn created him, giving his unusual personal formation – the inheritance of European high culture through a Jewish tradition of learning, combined with personal independence – a focus and direction missing in his life until that point. These Journals are a record of frustration, loss and confusion ‒ some personal (the death of a sister), much professional: “I must start,” Brasch records in 1944, “I have delayed dangerously long.” The sense of self presented in the intimacy of these journals is unhappy, at times tortured, by the sense that “we are born for loss & suffering” (1938), and struggles to reconcile commitment to the world, to acknowledge that “this world is our world” (1941) with more introspective desires:

the only thing I really want is for my inner world to be consistently more important to me than the outer world, which now it both is & is not, so that I am in constant uncertainty, betrayed on each side (1938).


The Brasch of the Journals is not yet the Brasch of Landfall; this publication, at its most interesting, records the response of an uncertain and morally serious man to the trauma of life in England during war. He is politically naïve. Churchill, one 1940 entry records, is “a large-minded generous-spirited man, by whom it seems an honour & an inspiration to be led”, an astonishing assessment by any measure, and particularly shocking from one who will later take such an interest in Indian culture. But he is always thoughtful. Brasch’s journey from an under-thought pacifism to activity in the war, while still trying to keep a moral independence from war’s destructiveness and waste, must have been common in his generation. Its difficulties, and his frank assessments of his own physical fears, offer unsettling moments for readerly self-reflection.

The figure these journals present is, however, often unpleasant. The public Brasch’s austerity was allied to some purpose. Here, it seems more like a fussiness, a personal coldness, the mannerisms of a rich man unable imaginatively to consider lives not free from having to think about cash. Indirections notes John Lehmann’s “touch of [the] superficial, businessman’s attitude”, in him “not altogether distasteful”; the journals take this tone, unattractive enough in the published work, further still. “Grub first, then ethics”: whatever the limits of Brecht’s levelling, materialist stance, this line came back to me reading my way through this collection. Brasch’s spiritual, artistic and intellectual life, about which he is so serious and about which he takes himself so seriously, is everywhere preferred to the vulgarity of the mass around him. This is an easier line to take, no doubt, with a family in business than it is on a cleaner’s wage. A friend is blamed for how “she can be stupid, she can nag, & seems to me to lack the finer feelings.” Chores do get in the way. Another is guilty of not fussing over her children, leaving them “untidy & dirty & rude or at least abrupt”, resulting (horrors again!) in “roughness”: “I hate the ugliness of disorder and of dirty and broken and torn things – toys or whatever else.” Landfall and Brasch’s learning were components of a national culture, to be sure; so, too, was the welfare state and female paid employment outside the house. Broken toys and a spot of nagging have their place.

Literary and intellectual material, for all that Brasch parades them as the core of his life, make up little of these journal entries. The best parts, often line for line, and the best stories (those around the zany inventor Alfredo Cianchi and his schemes, for instance) were re-used in Indirections: what’s left, some remarks on James Courage and homosexuality, and on Virginia Woolf aside, is often rather dull. An edited selection would have served readers better.

Brasch disparages in one note the type of “descriptive, non-committal, cowardly review” that appears in “the spineless TLS”. What of his own Journals? This is an odd publication, and seems uncertain of its audience. Researchers will be bound to make use of it, yet there is no index. It is too dull and too formless to be of much use on a general bookshelf; I cannot imagine taking this book down again for pleasure. The explanatory notes often serve little purpose (Virginia Woolf is introduced as “a British author who made an original contribution to the form of the novel”), while Brasch’s social circles in Britain, for the most part, are not of enough interest to make the biographical notes, in their fullness, rewarding. The presence of Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary in the “Select Bibliography” is alarming. Otago University Press, the transcriber and the annotator have all carried out some kind of major task in publishing this book. What that task is, however, remains unclear. This is still disputed ground.


Dougal McNeill teaches in the English Programme at Victoria University of Wellington.


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Posted in Essays, Non-fiction, Poetry, Review
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