Life invisible, Louise Wareham Leonard

The Pale North
Hamish Clayton
Penguin, $30.00
ISBN 9780143569268

The Pale North, written by 1977 Hawke’s Bay-born Hamish Clayton, is an experiment, a metafiction, a deconstruction, a love letter and an investigation heir to certain writers – the late German writer W G Sebald being the most obvious one as well as, perhaps, the likes of Paul Auster. Its strengths are in its sure prose, its rich depiction of the atmosphere and landscape of Wellington, its experimentation and range of ideas. Clayton, in this, his second novel, plays with form and theme in a way that puts him at the forefront of certain metafictional and innovative contemporary writers.

Simply put, the book consists of Part 1, The City of Lost Things, a novella ostensibly written by Gabriel North – also, like Clayton, born in 1977 Hawke’s Bay and also, like Clayton, a fellow at the Welkturen Museum in Frankfurt in autumn 2012. North writes the story of Ash, a New Zealander who returns to Wellington from London after a violent earthquake. This part of the story coheres to tradition, both in its elegant prose and its elegiac tone. Ash walks the streets of Wellington in ruins, remembering the dark lush city he once lived in, feeling like a ghost.

In Part 2, The City of Lost Things is discovered by a third narrator – a scholar named Simon Petherick – also staying in the Welkturen Museum, an ethnological museum containing 67,000 artefacts.

This is where the novel becomes a deconstruction of Part 1, and an exploration of its themes. Petherick calls North a detective (as Petherick himself is). The City of Lost Things, Petherick writes, “reads mostly as a young man’s love song to Wellington.” In this  he is correct. Clayton brings the streets and hills of Wellington alive in an emotive redolent way, specifically naming streets Wellingtonians know well: Willis Street, Courtenay Place, Te Aro.

Perhaps you’ve walked the paths of the Botanic Gardens during the twilight hours… you might remember, for yourself, the thick scent of rain on concrete paths. The way the trees had moved in the sky around the house on dark, wet afternoons.

… the rim of the land rose all around me: in the east Mount Victoria’s dark wooded arm rested against the horizon, and to the north, beyond the wide mouth of the harbor, the ranges sat familiar and purple with distance..

Petherick also claims that “Disappearance is his enduring theme … . the angel of death … . It was the trope of disappearance that matters.” This “disappearance” – a somewhat obscure theme – seems to translate into transience and our condition of being alive in a world imbued with echoes/ghosts/glimmers of the past, and the knowledge that we, too, shall soon be in the past.

Our narrators – all three – are troubled by impermanence. Ash describes Wellington in ruins, a church in Northland in ruins, a marble angel in ruins. His relationship with the past – his home near the gardens, his lover Charlotte – is also in ruins. Ash feels himself to exist in a long line of ghosts: “we’re all ghosts, waiting to happen.”

Wellington and, indeed, Germany, from which Part 2 is written, all hold echoes of past lives, the “ruins” of other cultures. We are surrounded – both ravaged Wellington and the Welkturen Museum – by relics and “all these smashed shards of empire”. Such a relic, obviously, is the manuscript, The City of Lost Things.

Clayton’s debt to Sebald, which the book acknowledges, is great. Like Sebald, Clayton has a dispassionate earnest chronicler. He shares Sebald’s dedication to place, experiment, obscurity, and the glimpse of the supernatural. For the most part, he follows Sebald cleverly and beautifully.

In one way, however, he does not. Within The Pale North is the complaint that contemporary fiction is vapid, that “I lived in a time when people had forgotten how to read – much less write – stories whose edges were sharp enough to cut into the flesh of history.” Sebald was born and grew up in a land recently plagued by the Holocaust and atrocity: all his works are haunted by this knowledge. Clayton, however, does not delve into or bring forth the secrets of Wellington’s history.

While haunted by what was, he does not investigate what was. Whereas Sebald walked on the blood-soaked grounds of Europe, in a landscape where – as in Walter Abish – concentration camps lie beneath the soil, Clayton presents a Wellington without its history of, say, Māori and Pākehā conflict – and even his Europe glosses over the specifics of long story with major references to: an incongruent David Bowie; a kindred writer, Christopher Isherwood, who wrote of Berlin on the verge of war; and a more fleeting tribute to the history of the Tiergarten as a place that once contained the “hunting grounds of princes”, the graveyards of “executed communists”, the whispers of women.

Writes Clayton: “As I read my way into Berlin, everywhere I found the resonance of lost cities, fabricated cities, cities that once had been but were no more.” But where are those cities? To add that layer would be to create another book and, without it, Clayton sometimes strives to “earn” the gravitas of his voice. As in Wings of Desire, the 1987 Wim Wenders film, Clayton is a detached wanderer with a feeling for the past rather than a profound knowledge of it. He even writes that “like an angel I passed”.

At the same time, the atmosphere Clayton conjures is moving and powerful. He creates mood and depth through the accretion of words. His use of language is delicious, each page a mouthful of cool milk lapped up by a cat: “After we’d eaten, he stood… and we went outside, back into the bright cold sunlight just beginning to warm.” Or “I knew the places underneath the canopies where the sun barely reached.”

Tales with ghosts in them, like Clayton’s, often rely on vocabulary that builds by repetition and variance. Look to Edgar Allan Poe or Bram Stoker’s Dracula or The Turn of the Screw (a book mentioned in the text). As in these works, Clayton repeats words on a theme so frequently they become the heart of the text: lost, abandoned, ruin, ghost, absence, disappearance, erasure, echo, shadow, abandoned, broken, decay. He builds what the great Japanese text, In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, calls the language of gloom.

As a piece about New Zealand, The Pale North is a gem, celebrating not only its dark lushness but the artists who embody it: specifically Laurence Aberhart and Colin McCahon. It also provides a feel for the alienation of New Zealand in one hemisphere and Europe on the other. The title of the book comes from a reflection on perception and dislocation:

I realised only then how the sun had seemed out of position all day, how it had occupied the wrong zone of sky for the autumn light it made. In New Zealand that particular sunshine fell from the pale north, here from the south.

Ultimately, Clayton breaks down each of his themes until he is left with the writing itself. His thought is that the gifts of writing come from the power of memory and from anticipation both – a heady description of the action of human creation.

As a work of meta-fiction, in which the author is alluded to or appears in the book, in which fiction and reality converge, Clayton writes himself into a contemporary international group of metafiction writers: Americans Rachel Cusk and Jenny Offill, French artist Sophie Calle and writer Gregoire Boulliere, American Ben Lerner – most particularly in Leaving Atocha Station, where both the narrator and Lerner are celebrated young American poets on a fellowship in Madrid.

Petherick writes of North: “Everywhere in his writing can be found the traces of a soul dying to disappear”, which accounts for the layers of the self, and the strange confusion of past and present. Yet while the ghosts and the disappearance of life, cities, civilizations, relationships and even the self, are his stated theme, Clayton’s work, it seems to me, lies more in the few lines that he repeats, in a cluster, throughout the book.

Something happens in a forgotten corner of the world and then, years later in another corner, something else which seems random and unconnected. And yet a chain is made between them by chance; a pattern emerges and meaning is inferred.

It is this that Clayton really investigates, his place in a world where he has found himself free – free to make of the world and of himself what he wishes, free to claim or to reject, to be in one hemisphere or another, to exist in the in-between that is life or hanker for the unknown, for life invisible.

Louise Wareham Leonard is a New York-based writer whose new book, 52 Men, is published by Red Hen Press.

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